When I started rock climbing in 1965 as a 12-year-old kid in North Cheyenne Cañon a mile from my home off Cheyenne Boulevard in Colorado Springs, pitons hammered into cracks in cliffs were what climbers used to protect routes and to create belay and rappel anchors. Pitons were a basic climbing tool, albeit it a Neanderthal tool.
Hammered Pitons Created Solid Anchors
Pitons are simply spikes of metal of various sizes, lengths, and widths that are hammered into cracks with a piton hammer. A carabiner is clipped into the eye of the piton and the rope attached to the carabiner, creating a usually solid anchor placement. The second climber coming up the route, also carrying a piton hammer, bashes the piton out for use higher up the route. This whole process of piton placement, which was an accepted climbing practice before 1970, is extremely destructive to rock.
Piton Placement and Removal Creates Piton Scars
Simply put, the repeated placement and removal of pitons, usually made from hard steel, damages cracks and the surrounding rock surface. The use of pitons, particularly on easier routes that are climbed a lot and in soft rock like sandstone, quickly creates holes in the rock, which are called piton scars. Over time, piton scars widen and the hole becomes unusable without using a big piton, which continues the process of widening the scar.
Nuts Introduced to Save the Rock
By 1970, many American climbing areas like Yosemite Valley had lots of routes that were covered with unsightly piton scars. Something had to be done to save the rock and that something was the introduction of nuts or chocks from Britain, which had a long history of using artificial chockstones to preserve the rock. The United States, which had a long and proud history of piton use, culminating in the ascents of Yosemite Valley’s big walls using lots of pitons in the 1960s, was slow to accept the use of nuts to save the rock from damage.
Royal Robbins Advocated Use of Nuts
The great climber Royal Robbins, one of the most influential American climbers of all time, saw first-hand the damage that pitons caused in his beloved Valley. In his classic instructional book Advanced Rockcraft, Robbins noted that an increase in the number of climbers in the Sixties “…focused attention upon the necessity of employing methods of climbing which are non-destructive. This has meant a general change to use of artificial chockstones instead of pitons, which by their removal and replacement erode the rock.” Robbins wrote an article in 1967 for Summit Magazine on using nuts rather than pitons “but failed to convince many.”
Chouinard Equipment Converts to Nuts in 1972
In the early 1970s, however, the widespread introduction of nuts along with an article extolling “clean climbing” by Doug Robinson in the 1972 Chouinard Equipment catalogue began the conversion from pitons to chocks. This was due to the rock disfigurement caused by repeated piton hammering in great American climbing areas, including Eldorado Canyon, the Shawangunks, and Yosemite Valley. Yvon Chouinard, after reclimbing The Nose of El Capitain with Tom Frost, saw first-hand the damage that pitons made by Chouinard Equipment had on climbing environments. So Chouinard Equipment, the largest manufacturer and supplier of climbing hardware in the United States, refocused and retooled their business to make and sell aluminium chocks that were wedged in cracks rather than pitons.
Colorado Nuts and Hexentric Nuts
Some of the first nuts made in the United States were Colorado Nuts, manufactured by Colorado Nut Company in Boulder, Colorado by Paul Sibley and Bill Roos in 1971. Clog Nuts from Wales were also imported to the US in the early 1970s. But it was the new Hexentric nuts introduced by Chouinard Equipment in 1972 that began the Clean Climbing Revolution.
Doug Robinson’s Clean Climbing Essay
Hexentric nuts, also called simply Hexes, were featured in the 1971 Chouinard catalogue along with a landmark 14-page essay by Sierra climber Doug Robinson on using chocks instead of pitons, how pitons destroyed cliffs and climbing environments, and why the use of artificial chocks saves the rock and, as Royal Robbins wrote, is “part of the evolution toward a finer game.” Robinson’s fine essay changed the face of American rock climbing and elevated our rock consciousness to help preserve routes in a somewhat original state and to minimize our impact on limited rock resources.
The Clean Climbing Revolution
Doug Robinson’s essay set the stage for the transition from pitoncraft to nutcraft: “There is a word for it, and the word is clean. Climbing with only nuts and runners for protection is clean climbing. Clean because the rock is left unaltered by the passing climber. Clean because nothing is hammered into the rock and then hammered back out, leaving the rock scarred and the next climber's experience less natural. Clean because the climber's protection leaves little trace of his ascension. Clean is climbing the rock without changing it; a step closer to organic climbing for the natural man.”