Red Wing: Anchors, Top Ropes, and a Call to Action

by: Sean Foster

Saturday, February 18 was an unsurprisingly busy day at the crag. Like many others, I headed down to Barn Bluff in Red Wing, MN. Temps approached 60 degrees, the sun was out, and so were the guns (biceps, that is).

Even the N. Dakota crew made their way to Red Wing.

I brought a dozen stainless steel anchor biners along with me knowing that some of the communal equipment down there was likely to be in bad shape. For as long as I’ve been climbing at Barn Bluff, the carabiners hanging at the end of each route were just junky old biners that someone before me likely left there in place of even junkier old biners that they weren’t willing to lower on. That’s kind of the ethic down there; see a suspect carabiner at the anchor, replace it with one of your own. And so it goes.

This year, I am hoping to work with other MCA volunteers to raise funds and replace as many anchors at Barn Bluff as I can with new, long lasting, stainless steel, anchor-specific carabiners. Additionally, I have a goal of replacing many spinning and rusting bolts around the crag early in the season. Along with fellow board member, Bob Omann, I have a long term goal of rebolting as many of the 140+ routes at Barn Bluff as we can afford.

Out with the old, in with the new.

noun – moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.

Having been on the MCA board since 2012, I have had many conversations about the role of the Minnesota Climbers Association. We are not rule makers and we do not aim to police Minnesota climbers. Climbers worldwide have a long and proud tradition of doing what they want to do without rules. The majority of climbers understand that every crag they go to operates differently and that it is their responsibility to discover and operate within that crag’s established code of ethics. Ethics grow out of the community and the ethics of climbing at Barn Bluff have existed far longer than the MCA.

Our stated mission is:
The Minnesota Climbers Association is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization made up of members and volunteers dedicated to preserving Minnesota climbing. We advocate access for climbers by encouraging responsible practices, promoting conservation and stewardship of private and publicly held lands, as well as, fostering communication and awareness of the sport to the public.

The oldest bolts at Barn Bluff may well be over 30 years old now. If you reread our mission statement above, you will see that it does not include anything about fixed anchors. While we do strive to raise money to buy replacement gear for the community, we are not responsible for the bolts in Red Wing, or at any other crag for that matter. Those bolts were placed by motivated individuals, not an organization and certainly not by our organization.

Former MCA VP, Jeff Engel, on a rebolting mission in 2015.

We do, however “advocate access for climbers by encouraging responsible practices”. In Red Wing, a responsible practice is to NOT top rope off of the biners that you find at the anchors. When you do so, you are eroding the carabiners and shortening the life span of this community gear. A carabiner worn down from top roping can have sharp edges that can compromise a rope’s integrity or can simply become thin enough to break.

The ethic in Red Wing is to use your own gear, either a pair of quickdraws or another personal anchoring system, to create a safe top rope setup. It is acceptable to lower from the anchor biners after you have led the climb or when you have finished your top rope session on that particular route. Your other option is to rappel from the anchors, which causes the least amount of wear on the biners, but takes more time and can delay other parties on busier days. It should be noted, however, that rappelling is a leading cause of climbing accidents for a variety of reasons outside the scope of this post.

This worn biner had a knife’s edge in the basket.

If you are reading these words and do not understand the language, please do not feel bad or discouraged. Be proactive and ask someone in your personal climbing community for an explanation. Or, email and someone will help you understand. If you do understand the language, but do not know the technical skills to make it happen, seek out instruction from someone you trust or a professional instructor. In 2017 and going forward, the MCA hopes to help facilitate mentoring opportunities for those seeking more knowledge about outdoor climbing.

Every crag in the state, every crag in the world for that matter, has its own ethics. Some ethics are mandated by a state or city park, or by land owners; these are then called rules and must be followed to preserve access. Some ethics, like chalk on the North Shore, are disputed by the very locals who you may think govern them. It is incumbent upon you, the climber, to discover these ethics and decide how to conduct yourself while visiting the crag.

Current anchor biner on A Drilling Experience.

The viewpoint in this post is mine alone. I speak from the perspective of a climber, a local organizer, and a volunteer MCA board member, but the opinion expressed here is my own. I am personally asking you to not top rope off of community gear, to consider swapping your own loose carabiners for ones that you would not lower on, to have polite conversations about local ethics with climbers you see acting outside of what you think they should be doing, to report loose or suspect bolts and hangers, to ask questions, and to keep learning.

In the meantime, the MCA will keep growing and evolving as an organization and volunteers like me, Bob Omann, James Loveridge, Lynn Larson, Lucas Kramer, Eric Barnard, Peter Lenz, Lacy Shelby, Andy Routt, Bryan Karban, and Pi, will keep working to improve conditions and access for us all.

Bolts, glue, hangers, chain, perma-draws, anchor biners, and the equipment we use to install them are not free. Climbers who bolt often dig into their own pockets to fund their work. For rebolting efforts, we also seek donations and grants to help fund the ongoing project. Rebolting is done by experienced individuals who may or may not be MCA board members, but are doing so as individuals. MCA supports rebolting efforts by raising money and purchasing needed equipment.

Please consider donating to the MCA. Visit us here: