Blowtorches and Boulders Don’t Mix

By January 6, 2014 39 Comments

A little while ago there was a bit of controversy about a video featuring Carlo Traversi bouldering in Vastervik, Sweden. In one scene, he uses a blowtorch to dry the rock. Naturally, the message boards lit up with criticism, and, to his credit, Carlo apologized. Blowtorching is thankfully not too common of a practice, but it still happens and needs to stop.

With bouldering in particular, there is little barrier to entry for new climbers to start climbing outside. Without mentors or instruction, some people will see boulderfields as an extension of the gym, where landings are flat, music is necessary, spinners can be tightened, and a janitorial service cleans up every night. This isn’t the case, and it’s more important than ever to teach the new wave of climbers outdoor ethics.

I made the photo comparison below to show the effects of blowtorching. Deception is an absolute classic. Look at those gorgeous seams, those runnels, how they intersect. It’s just high enough to be spicy, and the movement is awesome. And it used to be really pretty…now it looks like its mascara is running.

Deception comparison

I stole the photo on the left from Bass for your Face. Ed Cheung from San Francisco is on the right.

My guess is that you’re looking at what is essentially charred organic matter. Similar black gunk can be found on Celestial Mechanics, and other climbs at LRC that tend to seep. Please don’t use a blowtorch to dry the rock. It doesn’t matter what kind of rock. Even if it isn’t obvious, the heat will alter the rock.

We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought climbing was a totally Leave No Trace activity. Chalk is a huge visual impact. Erosion. Cigarette butts. Tape. Gas to get to the crag. When it comes to ethics, the consensus of the climbing community governs what is acceptable impact and what is not. We are a self-governing group, and enforcement is often achieved through public shaming. It’s effective, to a point, but also results in anonymous viciousness. What’s missing, I think, is education. I hope this post shows why using a blowtorch is a bad idea.

Updated: Here are a few more pictures

Deception, unobstructed.

Deception, unobstructed.

The Left hand starting hold

The Left hand starting hold

A foot hold, showing some pretty bad discoloration

A foot hold, showing some pretty bad discoloration

The lower hold is the first hold you move to. Note discoloration both above and below the seam.

The lower hold is the first hold you move to. Note discoloration both above and below the seam.

The right hand starting hold. I wonder if the black dot above the horizontal seam is due to a tick mark being burnt?

The right hand starting hold. I wonder if the black dot above the horizontal seam is due to a tick mark being burnt?



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  • Bill says:

    These photos were taken at different times of the day. THIS is why the climb appears different. Nothing else. The first has the look of an overcast day, no shadows cast from the features, flat looking. The 2012 photo has been taken during morning or afternoon direct sun, the darkened features are simply shadows of the edges of cracks. Blow torching holds is bad, but not because it chars the rock. Blow torching holds makes them brittle and prone to cracking, flaking and exfoliating. It’s not an aesthetic issue, just one of climb preservation. Your education is wrong and needs to be rewritten. If you want to explain why it’s wrong, do it right and don’t make shit up. When you rapidly increase the temperature of rock, especially sedimentary rocks like limestone and sandstone, you superheat the moisture inside, causing it to expand. This expansion will follow natural weaknesses and can fracture flakes and edges quite easily. This also happens with granite and other igneous or metamorphic varieties, just look at what happens when a wild fire goes through a climbing area. the rock exfoliates, and you’re left with a brittle layer of crap all over the wall. Your article was well intentioned but wrong.

    • Spenser says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Bill. And you’re absolutely correct: the biggest problem with blowtorching is the potential to fracture the rock itself. Discoloration is, compared to a broken hold, much less significant.

      While you are correct in that the photos were taken at different times under different lighting conditions, it’s still pretty clear, if you look at the seams in the lower left hand quadrant of both photos, that the rock itself is discolored.

      Interestingly, I was in Santa Barbara’s sandstone climbing areas shortly (~2 weeks) after a massive wildfire. Most of the climbs were spared, thankfully, but on the surrounding rock there was clear evidence of both exfoliation AND discoloration. In other words, the fire had turned the rock into blackened choss.

  • Bill says:

    I previously made the comment “your education is wrong and should be rewritten” which should read as “your information is wrong and should be rewritten”. apologies.

  • Derrick I says:

    it is really hard to tell the difference between these two photos with the drastically different lighting conditions. one is overcast, softly lit, and very clear (left), the other is in bright sunlight off to the side making it impossible for me to distinguish what you are highlighting due to what looks like shadows.

    then again, maybe I just don’t know what to look for.

    i do see a couple things, of course, but the difference is not so easy to tell.

    • Spenser says:

      Hi Derrick,

      True, and I’ll try to go out and grab a couple more photos with this comparison in mind, so that the difference is shown more clearly. What you’re looking for is the black stuff seeping down from the seams. It’s most evident in the bottom left quadrant of the photos.

  • randy says:

    I too do not believe the color of the rock of the seams on Deception is the result of a blowtorch. I think the rock in those places I black due to water seepage. I’ve flailed on that problem many times over the years. The problem has never appeared different.

    • Spenser says:

      Hi Randy,

      I thought about that too, that it might be the natural result of seepage. However, I’ve nullified that hypothesis based on a few things: number one, photographic evidence of a clean boulder from 2008. If it were the result of seepage alone, then the black crud would’ve been there since the boulder came to rest in its current position, thousands of years ago.

      Number two, the blackness is only on the part of the rock people use for hand or foot holds. Other parts of the face seep as well, but are not blackened.

      Do you happen to have any pictures of the climb from previous years? I’d be curious to see what it looked like in, say, 2010.

  • derek says:

    I’m from the area and deception has been darkening slowly for awhile. I see that boulder often and don’t think that it has been torched but I’m not willing to say either way for sure because i don’t know just as you don’t know. I really disagree with posts like this that jump to conclusions. I’m not sure if you think you are being proactive or just trying to get hits on your site but throwing out allegations of bad ethics with no proof or even the slightest idea of what happened is in my opinion bad ethics. I’m going to take a picture of an older post on this site and a picture of this post and put them side by side to show people the ethics of misinformation

    • Spenser says:

      Damn. My plan was to release an article every week with doctored photos and baseless allegations, until we got more popular than Buzzfeed. Then we were going to sell ad space for a bajillion Turkish Lira and buy up all the climbing in the world so we could sell it to oil drilling interests. Almost got away with it too.

      In all seriousness, I can’t prove that it was a blowtorch, but I’ve yet to hear a credible alternative. Until better information comes along, this is my operating hypothesis. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts as to why the rock has been darkening.

      • Brian says:

        I am not sure blow torching is the culprit either. I have noticed that variety of sandstone will sometimes reacts with chalk in the wetter months and most of the time turns a rusty color, i have some times seen it go darkish not that black. I know this due to areas with little traffic. Could be some strange oxidation or chemical reaction? The long drip marks? Why not other popular climbs that are notoriously seepy seeing the same effects? The Law, Midway, etc.

      • Tyler says:

        Well, I too am going to ahve to jump on the “this isn’t blowtorching” bandwagon. Here is a video from some random guy that was posted to Vimeo 3+ years ago:
        In that video, he climbs deception. The black gunk that you say is from blow torching is present, as is the streaking on the rock. It is very clear from this video that Deception has looked the same as it does today at least back to 2011, and maybe back as far as 2010. As such, I feel unlikely that blowtorching is responsible for the “black gunk” and “mascara” you describe.
        Instead, I think one of the following two explanations is most likely; Explanation 1 – The lighting from the 2008 photo you posted is unusual and masks the normal appearance of the rock, including the streaking and black marks of the rock. I feel this is most likely as residue from mosses can often have the effect of streaking rock, as well as leaving “black gunk”.
        Explanation 2 – This is a moderate line, and as you pointed out, a very pretty one. As such, it sees high traffic. high traffic means lots of climbing shoes, and a lot of rubber on the rock. The black gunk could be the residue of the thousands of climbing shoes that have slipped off those problems. I feel this explanation is less likely, because I can’t think of an example of this in my own experience, and I’m also not sure exactly how much traffic this climb has seen.
        While I applaud the stance against blowtorching rocks, as it makes the rock more brittle and more likely to break or flake off, jumping to that conclusion because there was “black gunk” of an unknown origin on a climb, when your only comparison (that you’ve told us about, at least) is a single photograph from 2008 and a single photograph from 2013. You jumped to the worst conclusion possible with very little reason to do so. In the future, you should put more effort into researching your claims. For example, I googled “deception bouldering” and the video I linked was the third link from the top. It was not hard to find evidence from several years ago that this climb has had this appearance for a while, and it is readily apparent that you didn’t even try to. In the future, I recommend providing stronger support for your claims, and if you are unable to do, don’t make the claim.

        • Tyler says:

          also, to be clear, I’m not trying to get down on you. I applaud you’re bringing this up, but its important when advocating for anything important, that your evidence be solid.

        • Spenser says:

          Thanks for writing Tyler. I have to discount Explanation 1 based on the photos I updated the post with, which clearly show streaking. Explanation 2 would make sense except for the fact that other popular climbs at LRC, like Ghengis Khan, Sternum, Castaway etc. don’t have any discoloration. Of note, those three climbs I mentioned don’t seep or stay wet after rain.

  • Tommy says:

    one possible reason for darkening could be the patina has been worn (brushes, hands, other things) enough to expose some unseen iron to the amazing Chattanooga air.

    I’m an optimist.

  • Sam says:

    While it’s worth it to encourage LNT ethics (carpooling to the rocks would minimize the use of gas impact), having a hypothesis versus stating this is indeed what happened are too different things. If you’d state that it is a hypothesis from the beginning, then it would evoke different thoughts from others…

    • Spenser says:

      Good point Sam. Next time I’ll choose my words a bit more carefully. And to your point, carpooling is DEFINITELY encouraged, and if anyone needs a ride the RV Project has a big red truck with plenty of space!

  • JHO says:

    Man, Spens. YOU ARE A HORRIBLE PERSON!!!!! damn you for brining up potential access issues for the public to see!!! shame on you. keep the torching (or lack of torching) private! stop brining attention to it!

  • Arieh says:

    It is nice to see that fellow rock climbers, geologists, and neophyte pertrologists alike have taken a moment to chime in with their educated opinions. In a blog that serves its readers by both educating and offering up valid opinions of relevant issues facing the climbing community, this particular blog entry should be viewed as a source for information. Information can only be as credible as the source. Taking into account that the blog source originates from a climber that has spent upwards of 5,000 hours climbing there is a strong foundation for these statements to be of a higher validity than random readers posting comments.

  • JHO says:

    PS. why are people so pissed and defensive about this topic? you would think people would be happy that people out there in the world are spreading the word of POTENTIAL bad ethics in areas. i mean shit, do people have to be caught on tape doing really shitty stuff for the general public to care? maybe cutting down really old juniper trees would be cool too if nobody mentioned it.

    • Spenser says:

      I for one think Joe Kinder is an unfortunate victim of misunderstanding. Nobody cut that tree down. It was just years of seeping and brushing that turned it into a stump.

  • derek says:

    I’ll add this one more point. It’s not that I’m condoning using a blowtorch, it’s incredibly stupid. I also have no problems with bringing access issues to light but it’s lrc so if you want to talk about access issues, the possible use of a blowtorch will not hurt access nearly as much as the issues that are easily proven.
    Over use from the climbing populous is destroying it. Erosion from foot traffic is killing that place. I don’t even like going near ghangis or manute because I don’t want to add to the destruction around that area and the wave is not far behind. I started climbing there 5 years ago and looking at those pictures compared to now is like looking at a completely different place. Any boulder from 2008 at lrc looks incredibly different now. It’s no longer outdoor climbing there, it’s an open air gym and people are treating it that way.
    So, sorry if I came off accusatory but I think picking a hypothetical issue that has proven to get climbers feathers ruffled when there are much bigger issues that are obvious seems odd to me. Now, the climbing world of the southeast is looking here so use it to bring real issues to light and save hypothetical torching as an additional point.

    • Sam says:

      Where to climb when all the easily accessible places are getting overused? Anyone have any ideas?

    • Spenser says:

      Fair enough Derek, and I don’t disagree with you. There are a plentitude of problems with the future of climbing. but we gotta start somewhere. Hopefully folks might read this and extrapolate to other practices, like aggressive brushing, trash, erosion etc.

  • Stephen says:

    Hi Spenser–

    At first I couldn’t spot the effect of what seems to be torching in the pictures, so can I just make a suggestion that will make your evidence a little more clear? It’d be good if you could crop both pictures so they show the same area (i.e., the cut the bottom inch of the one on the right and the top inch of the one on the left), and then just put a red circle around the part where the charring is most evident (where the 3 cracks meet in a peace sign area). I think that would make a clearer comparison for someone who just glances at a photo quickly.

    I can’t say I’m a geologist, but there’s no natural physical process that will create that sort of discoloration that’s so localized and in such a short timescale.

  • […] picture over at the RV Project which seems to show damage to one of the more photogenic boulders at Tennessee’s Little Rock City […]

  • David o says:

    Did you notice anything else besides coloration is the black stuff more slick? Water is a major component of combustion and the torch doesn’t effectively dry the holds. I’ve seen people do it when I started climbing a dozen years ago but haven’t seen it or condone it recently. It makes the holds kind of warm and damp feeling. I’ve never seen it turn a hold black though. I dunno would you clean it with rubbing alchohol? What do you do, leave it like that? Maybe it’s shoe rubber. It does look like shit though

  • Beau Kahler says:

    As a professional photographer, the light in the photos is obliviously different and taken at two different times of the day and even weather was obviously different. There is still clearly a miscolored damaged area to a hold that looks to me to be undoubtably due to a blowtorch blasting it. Granite and sandstone are so far apart and what may “work” on granite with a torch, most definitely will not at all on sandstone. The rocks density is completely different, that sandstone will most likely never be what it once was. Also I’ve never used “pof”(spelling?) but would that make the same sort of discoloration? The darkness of the rock to me makes it look torched. But there is definitely without a doubt a difference in the before and after photo of that one hold. Something happened.

  • Evan says:

    I have an alternate hypothesis (seriously), full disclosure though; never been to LRC. I live in Australia and have witnessed similar discolouration on the sandstone in the Grampians and Arapiles where there is no need to blow torch holds (its a dryer climate, when its wet its too wet to blow torch, likely raining, and if its not raining its usually not wet, things don’t tend to remain damp down here). Chalk attracts and holds moisture, that’s why its good for drying out your hands. When applied to rock it does exactly the same thing, attracts and holds moisture. On holds which seep naturally the chalk dissolves and runs down the rock face, holding the moisture against the rock for far longer than is natural. The rainwater leeching through the rock will pick up a large amount of mineral content from within the rock itself, (rainwater has a very low PPM so it is ripe for absorbing minerals), then the chalk helps the mineralised moisture sit against the rock surface long enough for the minerals (including the ones in your dissolved climbing chalk) to calcify on the rock surface, where they oxidise and turn a crappy brown, (or in higher concentrations black) colour.

    I can see dissolved chalk and mineral discolouration clearly in these photos, note that areas with more chalk seem more discoloured, and the effect runs down the walls from those points. Of course this seepage calcification is in part a natural process, but using chalk clearly exacerbates it (the five year gap between your photos illustrates this nicely). Blow torching would also speed this process up, (and MAY have done so here, I don’t know), but I can assure you from having viewed the same effects half way across the world where, (and you will have to trust me here) no blow torching is taking place, that the simple use of chalk is enough to cause this discolouration. More chalk, more ugly. Perhaps a good reminder to clean up the rock after you climb. Anyway that’s my theory.

  • Ron Nance says:

    Thanks for posting this. A Bro and I will clean Deception and Celestial this Saturday. We plan to use Isopropyl and water. Based on some quick research, we don’t think rubbing alcohol will damage sandstone. If anyone knows it will, please reply.
    Btw–Several locals think the staining might be from resin rather than blow torching. Whatever the cause, hopefully it cleans up well and stays clean; the Jigsaw Wall is such an aesthetic gem.

    • Spenser says:

      Awesome Ron! Thanks for helping out. How did the cleaning go?

      I thought about rosin, but the holds don’t feel all glassy like other pof’d holds I’ve grabbed in my day. Then again, I’ve never been to Font. If anyone with extensive experience with pof can weigh in?

  • Ron Nance says:

    Oh yeah–as to the possibility that someone used resin/rosin/pof:
    “Because of its deleterious effects, rosin use has not been accepted at any bouldering area in America. If you see climbers using rosin in the U.S., kindly ask them to refrain. If they refuse, tell them where they can shove their pof ball. Better yet, do your boulders a favor and confiscate it.”
    –John Sherman p. 51 Better Bouldering

  • Chris Brown says:

    I too feel that this is induced by torches. I admit though to never having witnessed it. For sure, the marks are getting worse, and FOR SURE – they are only on the most classic(popular) lines.

    Were you able to clean the marks?
    It would be intersting to do an experiment with chalk and torches on a small chunk of similar sandstone.

  • Johnb841 says:

    I have not checked in here for a while since I thought it was getting boring, but the last few posts are good quality so I guess I’ll add you back to my daily bloglist. You deserve it my friend abdekeafegee

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