Ethics and rock types in sport climbing
'Traditional climbing' or 'Sport climbing'? The war has raged on long and hard. However, a broad compromise has been reached where everyone can have some fun. To most people, whatever your ethics, one of the most important things is simply being outdoors in beautiful surroundings.

Ethics and rock types in sport climbing

Despite Britain being such a tiny place we have a huge variation of climbing - from short sport routes in the sun, to dangerous ice gullies in a blizzard. Britain also has some of the strongest climbing ethics in the world and, until recently, sport climbing was generally regarded as downright cheating. The dreaded bolt removed much of the danger from traditionally protected climbing and turned it into a gymnastic sport.

until recently, sport climbing was generally regarded as downright cheating in Britain

European influence

Sport climbing began in Europe, largely due to the lack of protection offered by the numerous blank limestone faces. It was simply not possible to protect the climbing in the traditional manner, as practised in America or Britain.

By far the majority of climbing in Europe is bolt-protected, whether it can be traditionally protected or not. Fortunately, our ethics have remained strong and the bolts have only spread to limited areas, maintaining the variation in styles we see today. 

To bolt or not to bolt

The arguments against bolting include: rock damage, destroying futuristic bold lines, overcrowding the crags and damage to our strong tradition. However, many people enjoy the thrill of sport climbing and in many cases, if it were not for bolts, the routes themselves would never have been climbed (yet).

Whether you are 'for bolts' or 'against bolts' it is important to remember that someone else will have a different view and everyone should be catered for. The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has a full policy on bolting procedures but in general terms it has been agreed that:
  • All mountains to remain bolt free.
  • All gritstone / sandstone to remain bolt free.
  • Bolts to be avoided where natural protection exists.
  • Bolts to be avoided at crags where the majority of the climbing is traditionally protected.
In Britain we have a huge variety of rock types including limestone, gritstone, sandstone, granite, slate, shale and 'mountain rock'. Only limestone and slate regularly have unprotectable faces and so bolts are generally limited to these rock types.

Only limestone and slate regularly have unprotectable faces and so bolts are generally limited to these rock types

Home policy

British sport climbing has a strong ethic compared to other countries. Any form of rock alteration at all is strongly discouraged. Chipped holds have absolutely no place - despite what happens abroad. We don't have enough virgin rock to ruin unclimbed lines.


The use of resin is a sore point, as it leaves behind a residue that polishes the rock. There is no excuse to use it. If you can't do the move then you need to work on your strength instead of resorting to artificial assistance.


Use of glue is slightly less defined. It is extensively applied abroad to attach random bits of rock to unclimbable faces, but in Britain we have attempted to limit its use just to reinforcing existing holds. It is a grey area in terms of ethics, but if you must use glue (often called 'sika') where a crucial hold may snap, the natural features of the rock should remain unchanged, and that includes the appearance! (Some routes are an absolute mess of glue patches).

The first bolt
The controversial bolt
BoltMany people have the first bolt pre-clipped on a redpoint or even for an on sight attempt. This inspires confidence and protects you from potential bruised ankles. Though all bolts should really be clipped on lead, it is a generally accepted practice if you can climb up, clip the bolt, and climb back down without weighting the rope. Many people only ever do the 'down climb' once and then have the first quickdraw clipped on for all subsequent redpoints. This is down to your own ethics. Some people don't care at all, but others say the down climb must be done for every attempt, or at least on the day of the ascent.


Lastly, a note on ethics that has nothing to do with the rock. Most people consider climbers to be a bit odd, and that includes the landowners who actually own the lumps of rock we love so much. Hence, when we go climbing we should be nice to everyone we encounter! OK, so you blew the on sight, but that family below won't appreciate you screaming your head off, and nor will other climbers. Be polite, climbing is a privilege, not a right.


Tidy up after yourself - that includes finger tape, spilt chalk, clip sticks and chalk tick marks as well as rubbish. Generally we climb in beautiful places, it's part of the attraction. It's no hardship to stuff someone else's old drinks cans in your bag before leaving the rock. If you need the toilet, go miles away and bury it! All this it obvious stuff really. Respect the country code, and if you don't know this then stay at home!


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