Climbers work to replace aging climbing hardware in popular Red River Gorge

New stainless steel bolts next to older, zinc-plated bolts in the Red River Gorge.
New stainless steel bolts next to older, zinc-plated bolts in the Red River Gorge.

An effort to replace aging climbing hardware in the Red River Gorge recently got a financial boost thanks to a grant from a Colorado-based nonprofit that works to protect climbing areas.

The $500 Access Fund grant will be used to replace zinc-plated bolts placed decades ago with stainless steel bolts that are safer and will last longer.

The Red River Gorge has become one of the most popular rock climbing destinations in the East. But it’s showing signs of age. Many of the zinc-plated bolts were placed by climbers in the 1980s and 1990s when climbing took off in the gorge.

“Fast-forward 20 or 30 years, and most of those bolts are now seeing the end of their lifespan,” said Ian Kirk, the director of the Red River Gorge Fixed Gear Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to replacing unsafe bolts in the gorge.

Individual climbers have worked to rebolt the gorge over the past several years. In 2013, the nonprofit Red River Gorge Fixed Gear Initiative was formed to bring in more people and grant money to the effort.

“We’ve already replaced 500 bolts over the past several years,” Kirk said. “It’s an ongoing process that will take years if not decades to complete.”

The group received the grant in November from the Access Fund, a national climbing advocacy group based in Boulder. It is gearing up for more fundraising as it works to buy more stainless steel bolts, which are more expensive then zinc-plated ones. Stainless steel bolts cost about $5.

Kirk, who is from Ohio and has been climbing in the gorge since 1998, said he was not aware of any accidents caused by bolts failing due to corrosion, but bolts have failed in other popular climbing spots across the country.

That’s led to a nationwide push to replace aging bolts and for more training for route developers on how to place and secure those bolts, Kirk said.

There are more than 2,000 sport climbing routes in the Red River Gorge with more routes added regularly. Those routes can contain several bolts. It’s not clear how many bolts will be needed.

A group of about 20 to 25 people regularly replaces bolts based on what climbers report on the website

To date the group has raised $35,000, which will buy about 4,500 bolts. But it will need more to ensure all bolts are replaced, Kirk said. People may donate via the group’s website at or its Facebook page.

“More than anything the Access Fund grant has really brought a lot of awareness to this issue,” Kirk said.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall