Rock climbers across the globe are trusting their lives to revolutionary, super-tough protection bolts - made in a garage in Sheffield.
Martin Roberts has made “thousands and thousands” of titanium bolts by hand in a little workshop at his Oughtibridge home.
It is perhaps an improbable place from which to lead the world. But his products are saving lives, saving money and saving the rock from damage in 41 countries.
Every year, thousands of climbers flock to Thailand’s stunning cliffs - made famous in James Bond film ‘Man with the Golden Gun’ - clipping their safety ropes into rings drilled into the rock. But there’s trouble in paradise - the warmth, humidity and salty environment is murder on the commonly used stainless steel fixings which can rip out in a fall, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Lasting between three years and just three months, they also force climbers to drill new holes in the precious rock and spend money on new bolts.
Martin was one of those enthusiasts and set out to do something about it. Titanium is the answer, he says, because even though it is 10 times more expensive than stainless it is incredibly corrosion resistant. The products he makes under his Titan Climbing brand should last 30 years, he says.
He added: “I don’t wake up at night worrying about climbers trusting their lives to me because I’m really confident in what I’m doing.
“Working by hand I can feel and quality control the metal in a way a machine couldn’t. Anything suspicious I will reject them, then break them. Even bad ones go at a really high load.
“Although a big company could make them faster, I don’t think they can be done better.
“And I think it’s what you produce rather than where you do it.”
Martin’s garage features a guillotine for cutting long titanium rods, bending machines, a marker so every item is traceable, a grinder (titanium sparks are white), an electric vice, welding equipment, a hydraulic tensile tester - and a big magnifying glass for a final visual inspection.
He says he had just three rejects in his last batch of 3,000. And they broke at more than three tonnes of strain - well over the two-and-a-half tonnes required by international testing bodies.
Martin claims to be the world’s first certified producer of titanium rock bolts and anchors. The business turned over £50,000 last year, although he doesn’t do it full time. Some 95 per cent is export.
He added: “If I was a better businessman this would be huge. It’s a pastime that got out of control.”
Now 43 and married with an eight-year-old son, he reflects on his former life.
“I was obsessed, I would be away for six months of the year, travelling, having adventures and climbing all over. Now I make bolts and they go all over instead.
“I love it, I’ve got a titanium barbecue out the back and the toilet brush handle was showing a bit of corrosion so I did that too.”
For all its reputation, steel can start to sound somewhat soft if you listen to Martin for long.
Not only does it succumb in marine environments but it is even prone to bacterial corrosion, he says. Tiny organisms ‘eating’ steel and excreting extremely strong acid. Terrifying.
“It’s an odd thing corrosion, I could talk about it for days.”
‘I WAS BORN HERE AND WE SHOULD SHOUT ABOUT OUR SKILLS’
Titanium climbing bolts pioneer Martin Roberts happens to live in a house with a view - from the roof at least - of Wharncliffe Crags, which were at the forefront of the birth of the sport in the 1880s. Ironically, there is a strict rule that no bolt must ever be used on gritstone, which forms the cliff.
Martin also has links to the Outdoor City brand promoted by the city council. He was an early supporter and still thinks it’s a great idea.
He also has a Made in Sheffield licence.
He said: “I thought it would add value to what I do. I’m from proud to be from Sheffield, I was born here and we should shout about our skills.”