A version of this story was published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Utah Adventure Journal.
“Did you hear that? Sounded like rifle reports. Take!” Looking out across a rusted landscape I squinted my eyes in the November sun. Above, the molted faces of Window Blind Butte, Assembly Hall and Bottleneck Peaks cast long shadows. Below numerous washes peppered by juniper and pinion trees fanned out like fingers. Greasewood traced a trickle of water as it wound its way through the greying land where ancient cottonwoods twisted their misshapen forms from the earth.
Again reports echoed. I saw the sun reflecting from the windshield of a truck parked by the river. “I hope they’re not aiming at us,” I replied only half jokingly. “Okay, let’s try this again… Climbing!”
Drawn to a line that climbed beautiful Wingate sandstone through changing corners, I was trying to ascend a route named Watching the River Flow. Unfortunately, I was struggling with the fifteen feet of smooth rock at its base. Convincing myself that it was better than being shot I committed to the moves and reached for a rounded ledge. There was nothing.
“What am I suppose to do here?”
Mike Friedrichs, one of the nicest climbers you’ll ever meet and the area’s most prolific developer, chimed in. “Jam your right hand in the flare then bring your foot up.” The flare he referred to was no more than an indentation on the stone.
“Yeah, climbing in Vedauwoo you get used to flares.”
Doubtful, I pressed my right hand, thumbs down into the “flare”, lifted my foot to a small hold then pushed onto the ledge. “What do you know?” I then floated up through the changing corners. After more than a decade of climbing along the towers, buttes and crags of the San Rafael Swell I was still getting schooled in one of the most under utilized climbing areas of the West.
Located in the center of Utah the San Rafael Swell, an 80-mile long, 35-mile wide geologic anticline, contains one paved road, Interstate 70, dividing it north and south. It has been referred to as a no-mans land, but human activity has been trace back thousands of years to the Barrier Canyon Culture. During the 19th century outlaws were known to elude the law by hiding in its far corners and by the 20th Century, oil, minerals and uranium brought prospectors. It’s also home to animals like big horn sheep, antelope, pumas, coyotes, birds of prey and small rodents. Presently, the BLM allows some cattle to be run, but the biggest land user is the public. ATV’ers, hikers, boaters and naturalist’s can be found exploring the Swell on any given weekend.
First visiting the Swell in the 1960’s, climber Paul Horton recalled it as being, “a backwater… a few cows, some dirt roads (I-70 had yet to be built), and no people… yet it was pretty close to Salt Lake.” Returning periodically Paul began climbing the formations in the 70’s. Drawn to the peaks near the San Rafael Swinging Bridge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. in the 1930’s, Paul along with Hal Gribble, Renny and Roger Jackson, Guy Toombes and Cindy Wilbur, set off late on Washington’s Birthday, 1977. Initially they thought it would be only to recon a route up Window Blind Peak, but discovering the roped climbing to be shorter than anticipated they completed The North Rib, 5.7 II, and were standing at the highest point in the northern Swell, 7030’, by day’s end.
“At the time we were unaware of Langdon’s climb (Jim Langdon was another early Swell pioneer who had climbed Window Blind in 1973), so far all we knew nobody else had been up the peak. Unclimbed or not, it was pretty cool to find such a doable route on a formation like that.”
The first climbs in the Swell focused on the major formations and by the 1980’s other towers, peaks and buttes had been ticked off. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that a handful of climbers, including James Garrett, Lynn Wheeler and Dave Anderson, began to explore the crags in the Buckhorn Wash, Mexican Mountain and Bridge areas.
Originally from the Laramie area of Wyoming, Mike Friedrichs cut his climbing teeth at Devil’s Tower and nearby Vedauwoo. This may explain why he’s been known to describe some off-width’s to have “aesthetic stacking” and possibly why he thinks you can get a good hand-jam in a non-existent flare. Moving to Salt Lake in 1988 as a statistician, Mike quickly fell in love with the region and immediately became an active member of the climbing community.
After several invitations from Dave Anderson, Mike made it to the Swell in 1990. On this first trip with James Garrett he spied a long, one-inch, lie-backing crack above Buckhorn Wash. Mike recalled the first ascent of Safe Sex, 5.12-, like this, “I was running it out and (actually) pulling it off. I could see that I had about 20 feet to a small ledge at the end of the pitch and a single #1 Friend left.” Already above a piece he went for it. Stopping to plug the cam in ten feet below the ledge he discovered it was too big. The crack had narrowed to ¾ of an inch. He didn’t have anything in that size. “I was frozen with fear and adrenaline… So I just hung out until my arms failed… taking a BIG fall. Then, I pulled up a piece and finished the pitch.” This first ascent was only the beginning. He has authored over 100 routes in the Swell since.
One of the biggest distinctions between the Swell and Indian Creek is its varied climbing. Sure, there are beautiful splitters to be found, but dihedrals tend to be the norm. Along the Wingate and Navajo cliffs, where most development over the past 20 years has taken place, natural features abound. Some of these characteristics appear in the varnish, others in the softer, more weathered areas where edges, pockets and folds can be found. Another distinction is route density. Excluding the crags Land of the Navajo and Dylan Wall, which contain the largest concentration of quality routes in the Swell, nearly all walls have fewer than ten routes and more likely, fewer than five.
These differences didn’t prevent Scott Carson, a well-known desert climber nick-named “Jimmy Dean”, for his sausage-like fingers, from adding a few of his own routes.
“The quality in the Swell is not as consistent as the Creek, but there are definite classics,” Scott explained. Cane Wash is home to a route Lynn Wheeler turned him onto and one of his classic contributions, Citizen Cane, 5.11+. Assembly Hall Peak holds one of the hardest single pitches in the Swell and another of Scott’s favorite routes, Quorum of the Twelve (5.12+).
“The routes in the Swell tend to be a bit stiffer too.” Hung-over the morning after his thirtieth birthday Scott drove from Salt Lake to the Dylan Wall and tried to on-sight one of the area’s prettiest pitches and one of Mike’s favorites FA’s, Blood on the Tracks, 5.12-. This chocolate-colored, obtuse, 80-foot dihedral pinches down to less than half an inch for the crux. Scott’s Jimmy Dean fingers found no purchase and he fell onto the rope. “Mike’s a very talented climber.”
Watching Mike bunny-hop-stem his way up the crux of Blood on the Tracks I was convinced the guy has skills on the rock. If you can get him to own up to some of the routes he has sent, which includes hard off-widths, thin cracks and steep tufa’s, you’ll begin to understand.
This past Easter weekend we picked our way above the Swinging Bridge. Arriving at his route, Bad Obsession, Mike noted the swallows were sounding their morning calls. Sporadic clouds hovered beneath a blue sky. I cast my gaze west, up the Little Grand Canyon then my eyes moved passed to the Trojan Man Wall, Halloween Wall, over the peaks and buttes, clear down to Mexican Mountain. Coming back I could see Red Canyon, Stock Exchange Wall, Dylan Wall and the mouth of Buckhorn Wash. Following the green water of the San Rafael River the cottonwoods, which had yet to bloom, stood grey. The only sign of spring was a hint of green on the rabbit brush.
Bad Obsession, 5.11+, begins as a ¼ inch right facing corner that opens to a 1.5”, overhanging splitter 80’ off the deck, then after mounting a shallow ledge, ascends a tight hand crack that eventually traverses left, stopping at a small stance 50 meters above. At 165’, the route feels more like three separate pitches. You have the initial thin crux at the bottom, the finger stacks in the middle and the steep hands to the anchors. It’s full value. Trying to power lie-back the lower crux I fell off immediately. Stuffing in a few TCU’s, I pulled past that section and dogged my way through the stacks above. Back on the ground I watched as Mike stemmed the lower crux. Taking small steps, keeping his feet high and his chest low, he reached the wider fingers in no time. Inspired I gave it another go. I stemmed my feet wide and pressed for all I was worth. Somehow I managed not to fall. With each step I jabbed my feet six inches higher and pressed harder. My hips burned and my heart raced. After an eternity I locked my fingers into the crack, successfully pulling off Mike’s bunny-hop stem. It was another lesson from the Swell and the man himself. Unfortunately, I ran out of gas in the off-fingers section. The stacking class would have to be a different weekend.
“We’re fortunate that the rock in the Swell (especially the Navajo) has a lot of features. Why shouldn’t we climb aesthetic lines where there isn’t natural protection?” This was Mike’s response after being asked about bolting what some think is a soft rock that will only wear with time. “I caught a lot of grief about the first route I bolted…” Changing of the Guard (5.9) at the Dylan Wall, “but I held my ground and still do.” When compared to other places with soft rock like Maple Canyon, American Fork, Red Rocks or Zion, I can see his point. “I’m not disagreeing with those who wouldn’t bolt, but the bottom line is that I love to climb, I love these routes and am excited to have people climb them… but ultimately… what it comes down to… is that I do it for me.”
Easter Sunday Mike led me to a crag near the top of Buckhorn Wash. The Memorial Wall contains routes dedicated to friends who have died; Kopischka, in memory of his swim coach who first introduced him to climbing while attending high school, Bradley Memorial, to Sean Bradley, a Vedauwoo and Wyoming climber and The Moe Route, dedicated to the adventurous brothers Dan and Mike. At 50 meters the Moe Route, 5.11a, is positioned on the prow of a prominent Navajo buttress. Mike flaked the rope as I racked a desert-set of 20 draws on my harness. Following patina edges and elephant ears, some wafer-thin, it required high stepping and rocking up frequently. As I crimped down and reached out to what I hoped would be a positive hold I heard the quote, “Technical, not strenuous,” in my head. Along with “aesthetic stacking” it’s another ambiguous phrase that Mike’s been known to use.
Each hanger I clipped had been painted brown. Mike, along with other Swell developers, have put forth effort in using quality hardware as well as minimizing visual impact. Despite these camouflaged hangers, bullet pockmarks surrounded the first bolt. When asked if climbing and bolting has had any negative impact on the area Mike responded that bolts seemed to have less effect than the ATV’ers, jeepers and cows have had. Still, being a minority user group, he believes climbers should be responsible.
As Easter Weekend neared its end, the most trafficed in the Swell according to the Price BLM Field Office, we had seen hikers, drivers and campers, but had yet to bump into other climbers. It raised the question; why hasn’t it become more popular? Not crowded, containing quality crack and face climbs, a short drive from Salt Lake and with stellar camping, I was a bit perplexed. It could be for the lack of paved roads, long approaches and because the guidebooks are out of date, but who knew?
Pulling up 165 feet of rope to clip the shuts at the end of the Moe Route I smiled. Sure there may be other places to see, but after days filled with climbing shadowed by nights camped above the river in a setting where the silence was so definite you could hear your heart, I wont complain. The question can remain unanswered. I’m going to return to this bulge of land with stone good enough and where the people are few. And I’ll do it for the same reasons I imagine Paul Horton, Scott Carson, Mike Friedrichs do. I will do it for myself.
copyright louis arevalo 2013