It’s not unusual for me to stay in complete ski-mode well into the month of May, but this year was different. By April I was beginning to feel stale on the creative front and the fact that we had such a low snow year in the Wasatch Mountains I was looking for something new to focus on. So when my friend and fellow photographer Dane Cronin invited me down to Moab, Utah for a long weekend to create a batch of new biking imagery I didn’t even have to ask about the details, I was in.
I waved farewell to wintery peaks of granite, limestone and shale and said hello to towers, walls and buttes of sandstone. Gone were the snow-covered slopes and glades of pine. They were replaced by dirt, water, and rock. Instead of sliding over a frozen surface we pedaled our knobby tires over waves of stone, along narrow trails and through rust colored talus cones peppered by twisted junipers and the faded green of sage. All beneath a tumultuous sky.
Halfway though our third day, while waiting out a slight drizzle, I noted the vibrancy of the blooming cacti, penstemons and paintbrush opening their petals to the drops of rain. Spring had brought a new season of growth to the desert and to me as well.
This essay first appeared in the pages of the Utah Adventure Journal.
I was late.
Charlie, Bowe and I had started the day in the half occupied Watchman Campground. After breakfast beneath the yellow cottonwood leaves we obtained a backcountry permit then found our way into Mystery Canyon. Following the government shutdown last September, where visitors were forced to make other autumn travel plans, the park felt vacant. Hours later, after wandering through the solitude of a narrow fold in the desert; following eight rappels, a swim and plenty of wading, one final abseil remained to escape. The clock was ticking. I’d agreed to pick up my wife in the town of Hurricane at five. Perched 130 feet above the Virgin River in the shadows of the November afternoon Charllie threaded the anchor then Bowe tossed the rope. I watched as its coils butterflied open between walls of water-carved sandstone. Wading the final leg of the trek five o’clock came and went. Ignoring the sunset sky, I stepped out of the river, peeled off my wet suit, and began jogging toward the car.
The clock read six as we pulled up to the dark factory. Headlights illuminated the doorway and Jacki’s solemn face appeared. “I’ve decided to work tomorrow,” she announced over dinner. She was not happy. Sometimes this happens. When asked if we could talk about it she simply said, “later.” Our relationship, like climbing, is not always easy.
The day prior to Mystery Canyon, Charlie, Bowe and I had bushwhacked through sage, salt and rabbit brush, eventually finding our way to the base of the Watchman and a route named The Vigil. The initial pitch began as many Zion routes do, moss-covered, sandy, loose and awkward, but somehow it was manageable. The off-angled fist crack of the second pitch looked intimidating, but with a little work it unfolded. During the third pitch, which cast out onto wild features in the Navajo sandstone leaving the crack behind, the sun crested the summit of the Watchman and began warming the rock. Then we hit a snag.
The first of two dead ends had me climbing a flared, lichen-filled crack that I repeatedly greased out of. The second involved traversing over a section of loose blocks to access a fingertip dihedral. 30 feet higher the seam petered out with nothing on the horizon. Slowly and deliberately I made my way back to the belay. After consulting the topo and I discovered an unlikely escape to our right bolt out right. Heads-up, run out climbing on delicate patina edges and shallow cracks put us back on track. Dirt and brush rained down the cliff as I clambered to the shelf above.
From the halfway ledge on the Watchman we sized up the five remaining pitches. In the light of the setting sun the stone appeared immaculate. Below the village of Springdale hummed with traffic, the cottonwoods lining the Virgin River shimmered with golden leaves and the park’s canyon walls held an inviting glow. A late start followed by a longer than expected approach combined with my poor route-finding skills equaled we’d run out of time. Without a word we exchanges a look then descended.
I first met Jacki during a weekend trip to Indian Creek. I recall thrashing my way to each set of anchors only to have her come along and casually float up the cracks. What had taken me half a life to obtain as a full time devotee, Jacki appeared to have been born with. Over the course of the weekend I learned she was a recent divorcee, mother of two and had just begun climbing. She was way out of my league.
Friday in Zion, after delivering Jacki back to the factory, we pulled the car over near the entrance to the Mt Carmel Tunnel. Bowe wanted to photograph Charlie and Paul climbing so I offered to rig the rope up The Headache, a classic three-pitch route. I reached my hand into the splitter crack and flexed. The sandy grains set into my skin and I stepped up. Shuffling quietly through a wider section, letting my feet do most of the work, I noted the wavy nature of the rock then changed corners and settled into the belay. Bowe followed, occasionally sagging onto the rope to snap frames. Across the way shadows swept their way from left to right along the flanks of East Temple Peak. Below, cars crawled up the road, winding their way through hairpin corners before vanishing into the mountain. I could hear the camera’s shutter open and close.
More than half a year passed before I mustered enough courage to ask Jacki out. One of the first dates was a weekend in the Tetons. The forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms so we settled on an alpine start. Morning light hit the tents in Garnet Canyon as we walked quietly by. Above the Caves, up the talus, we found our way onto the folds of golden quartz and grey gneiss of Irene’s Arête. Swapping leads we made our way quickly and quietly up. Scurrying along the knife-edge ridge as it joined the main body of Disappointment Peak the clouds that had been filing in from Idaho became energized. Carabiners buzzed and hair stood on end. Without a chance to enjoy the top Jacki and I dashed down the decent gully.
The next day in the Tetons the weather had worsened so we hiked. From a perch among ancient spruce trees Jacki and I looked down to Phelps Lake. The sky flashed white followed by a clap of thunder. Turning from me Jacki spoke. “You should move to Jackson.” The wall of mist, obscuring the mouth of Death Canyon, rolled toward us. Cool drops of rain penetrated the thin canopy above. “Someone like you shouldn’t be tied to me and the kids. You should be here, in these mountains…” Water dripped from her chin.
Jacki reluctantly joined our group Saturday for some Zion cragging. Blowing from the west the wind pounded us at the Confluence Crag. As part of a group of five, Jacki and I avoided sharing a rope. After a quick lap on Salty Dog Arête, Gunslinger and Crimson King, Jacki chose to leave when Bowe and Paul announced they’d had enough of the wind. I was not invited. Feeling left behind I continued climbing with Charlie.
The wind tugged at the rope incessantly while we explored the two pitch bolted line named The Tribute. Large elephant ear holds aided in not being blown off as we scrambled to the top of the climb. I threaded the chain then Charlie threw the rope. We watched as the wind bustled it into a twisted mess. Charlie lowered himself down, cleaning the rope from its tangles one foot at a time.
After five years full of wrong turns and plenty of backtracking, but double the amount of happiness, Jacki and the kids allowed me to join their family. Under an autumn sky in Salt Lake we fastened our hands to the kid’s in a union where we promised to listen and understand.
“Are you busy today?” I asked early Sunday morning. “Um, kind of,” Jacki replied her eyes still closed. “I was wondering if we could go climbing together, just the two of us?” “Mmm, maybe… but first I have to share something with you” I listened. “Sometimes I feel like you put my needs behind everyone else’s,” Jacki’s voice was soft, “and I hate the fact that it bothers me.” I apologized again for being late. “Waiting for you the other night I realized that I rely on you and it pisses me off. No matter how much I fight it and hate to admit it… I need you.”
The shuttle bus was nearly empty when we boarded at the visitor center. “I can’t remember the last time we did a route together,” Jacki spoke over the announcements. I couldn’t either. Getting off at the Zion Lodge we found a trail among cactus and beneath limbs of gamble oak. Flaking the rope at the base of “Made to Be Broken”, a five pitch bolted route on the Carbuncle Buttress that requires no gear other than quickdraws, Jacki was skeptical. It had been described as quality face climbing containing run-outs on delicate rock. I saw it as having set anchors that would be easy to bail from. “Let’s find out just how hard it can be,” I suggested. “We’ll just take it one pitch at a time,” she reminded me.
Leaving the ground I high stepped my right foot then rocked up committing to a meandering path from bolt to bolt. Smooth, clean features emerged from the lichen-covered stone revealing the way. Jacki, who stands 62 inches tall, struggled to leave the ground. After several attempts to smear her feet high she accepted a boost from the rope then eased her way up. At the end of the first pitch she reluctantly weighted the anchors. “I hate hanging belays,” she shuttered. I wrapped an arm around her. “Should we rap or do you want to see about the second pitch?” I told her it was up to her. She studied my face then after a few deep breaths nodded and we continued.
The sequence above the belay, out right then traversing left, unsettled me. Stepping up then down repeatedly my legs began to quiver. Reverting to a common saying when climbing together, knowing that she would have no problem following, I quipped, “Come on Jack. How hard could it be?” She smiled and I went on. Joining me at the next anchor her worry was gone. From there our conversation tapered being replaced by the movement and exposure. Tension, frustration, and anger were released and floated freely up the rust colored walls. Right foot, left foot, right hand then left. It could have lasted ten minutes or ten hours, but after losing track of time the five pitches were suddenly below us. For a brief moment we were surprised to be standing together on the prow of the Carbuncle Buttress soaking up the autumn sun.
While Jacki and I shared a bench in front of the lodge waiting for the next shuttle to arrive a pair of kit foxes emerged from a stand of oak, their large ears calling our attention. Glancing at us and the other tourists they soon faded back to the brush. I smiled. The two climbers we passed while rapping Carbuncle could be heard yelling to one another in the distance. The colors of the canyon walls shifted in the afternoon light. I cradled Jacki’s hand gently in mine. As a bus pulled in I leaned forward to stand. “Where are you going?” Jacki asked. I told her I didn’t want to be late. Pulling me back to the bench, allowing the shuttle to pass, she smiled. “You already are.”
Friday evening November 8th, 2013 Jewell Lund and Kim Hall were crushed into the backseat of my station wagon while Julia Geisler was snuggled up front. The rest of the car was bursting with boxes, gear and whatever else three ladies and a guy needed for a weekend of climbing and foolery. I’d offered to drive to Castle Valley and assured everyone that all four of us would fit. And we did… just barely.
When the women invited me along to photograph this trip, where they planned to climb desert towers, practice yoga and enjoy cocktails, all on the rocks, I was a bit uncertain what I’d signed up for. They told me it wasn’t going to be a weekend filled with cutting edge ascents or futuristic ratings and that was fine by me. Sure, there’re many people setting themselves apart by pushing the limits of the sport through amazing feats, but really, how does that relate to me or you and the majority of people participating in climbing? So with the car riding low we made our way south, out of Salt Lake, and into the autumn night hoping to find something that we could all share.
Blue skies greeted us Saturday morning in Castle Valley. Camped among the junipers we watched sunlight wash its way down the exposed faces of the sandstone formations of Castleton, the Rectory, Nuns and the Priest. Sometime in the night Julia’s boyfriend, Blake Summers, had arrived. Between sips of coffee and bites of breakfast burrito he and I arranged to climb together with the intent of staying just ahead and out of the way of Jewell, Kim and Julia. For that day the girls chose the fists, hands and fingers of the classic route Fine Jade located on the south end of the Rectory.
With the sun soaring low along the horizon I dangled from a rope fixed at the top of the first pitch and made images of Kim climbing. Shadowboxing her way through the tight hands section of the initial rope length I felt envious; her hands sank into the crack where my large mitts had been denied. Next, with wisps of strawberry-blonde hair escaping from beneath her helmet, Jewell left the belay and moved up the second pitch. Following twin cracks she made her way toward a bulge that was split by a one-inch break. She plugged in a cam then clipped the ropes. Smearing her feet high she swung into a lie-back position then with little sign of struggle she fell. The cam held in the crack and the rope went tight as the harness cradled her at the waist.
Falling was a good sign. Earlier Jewell admitted to not feeling very secure on sandstone. The majority of her climbing so far had taken place in the high country on the more granitic-type rock. Having tested the system she pulled herself back on and continued with more confidence. When she arrived to the end of that pitch she was beaming. As I belayed Blake and she belayed the two girls, we exchanged only a few words. The experience was written all over her face.
Higher up on the pitch she found herself staring at a tipped out camming device with no other options for protection. Too nervous to weight the cam and not willing to climb down she took a breath and chose to go higher hoping that things would work out. By moving up she devoted herself to what lay ahead. Regardless of it being good or bad it was coming and she accepted that. Jewell let her worries go and was able to transform the process of climbing into a meditation on clarity. Totally engrossed and at the same time completely removed she was simply scaling a sandstone mesa in the setting sun with snow capped mountains to the south, water flowing in a river to the west and a waxing moon hanging in the sky above.
As the three ladies gathered at the top of the second pitch the sun winked out beneath the western rim. Thin clouds radiated above as house lights appeared along the distant valley floor. It was Julia’s turn. Her dark eyes read the rock above. She’d hoped to lead the traversing original finish, but rope drag and being out of sight from the belay were drawbacks. The more direct, shorter final pitch variation would fit her tall, dancer’s physique and although technically harder might be faster.
“I’m not known for being bold, but it was my turn. My goal for the trip was to lead one pitch each day. Just step up and lead something and hopefully it would be easy,” Julia explained. Feeding off of Kim and Jewell’s infectious energy, she moved up in the fading light. Following a low angle corner the crack eventually petered out. She stood at the bottom of a bolted face twenty feet below the summit. Looking at tenuous moves with potential for hitting a ledge there were several minutes of up and down before Julia requested Blake lower a rope from the above. Standing on the summit I made out her silver helmet cresting the edge of the mesa followed by her smile. Once we were all on top the double rye was passed around. Between healthy pulls straight from the bottle laughter burst out as stars pierced the evening sky.
During the drive down from Salt Lake Kim explained that she had some unfinished business on Castleton. A few years back, in the valley for a friend’s birthday, Kim volunteered to rope-gun up the four-pitch Kor-Ingalls route. She handled the first two pitches well, but half way up the third pitch her momentum slowed. Despite the crux being bolt protected it still required committing, run-out moves. Seeing no other option but to lay it back, Kim’s confidence evaporated. After falling repeatedly she was spent. Luckily a party climbing the North Chimney, an adjacent route, was able to lower her a rope and help get her past the heady crux.
Saturday night, after making our way down back to camp in the dark, a small fire illuminated the women’s faces. The day was relived with animated gestures, stories and jokes. Each of us agreed that despite having the easier rating, the first pitch of Fine Jade was definitely the crux. Over dinner it was decided that tomorrow we’d climb Kor Ingalls on Castleton and take care of Kim’s unfinished business.
Before dawn coyotes yapped to one another across the valley as I gazed toward the Big Dipper hovering over the black silhouette of the Castleton group. It had been years since my last visit here. Despite the numerous weekends spent here I still felt the allure of this place. I hoped the rest of the group was feeling it too. By six the water on the stove was boiling. With the stars fading and only a hint of light above the La Sal’s I placed mugs of coffee next to Kim and Jewell. They had slept out and the frost that now covered their bags shimmered in the light of the lantern. One knock on Blake’s car and Julia emerged bundled against the chill of the clear, November air.
Continuing with her goal of taking the sharp end at least once a day Julia racked up for the beginning pitch of Kor-Ingalls. If she’d been fazed by the outcome of last night’s final pitch it didn’t show. In the full sun it was now warm enough to be in a t-shirt. Chimneying past stacked blocks, weaving in and out of the huge dihedral, she made quick work of the first pitch. Jewell handled the second. Then came the crux pitch and round two for Kim.
“You’ve totally got this! I’m right with you!” Jewell sounded from below. Kim had climbed her way to the crux, but after some hesitation was faltering. From above I watched her blonde ponytail sway back and forth as she scanned the rock for possibilities.
“Actually, I don’t have it,” Kim responded, the stress obvious in her voice. She was on the verge of lowering down. I’d been climbing around Kim long enough to know that this crux definitely fell within her ability. “Why don’t you give it ONE good go and if it doesn’t work I have an idea that might be helpful,” I offered encouragingly.
After resting at the bolt Kim put the uncertainty on mute and committed. Pulling her right side out of the yawning crack she made a lie-back move that led to an arm-bar and pathetic left-hand crimp. Deliberately placing her left toe onto a polished, calcite knob she shifted her weight and stood up, pulling her right arm out of the crack. Rocking her body ever so slightly, once, twice, three times, she willed her left hand to bump. The meat of her fingers bit into the stone and her arm engaged. With the business beneath her she rested for a moment then moved on.
Once she arrived to the belay I admitted to Kim that I really didn’t have any tricks to help with the crux. She laughed. All she really needed was the idea of an out before she was able to cast off. “The head game in climbing is the hardest for me,” Kim shared. “I knew that physically I could climb it, but…” She didn’t need to finish the thought. The head game in climbing is hardest for everyone.
On the summit of Castleton, after leading the final pitch, Julia guided Kim and Jewell through a yoga practice while Blake lunched and I made photos. Hip openers followed sun salutations. Shoulders and backs were loosened then came heart openers. Ultimately the girls found themselves seated, gazing over the valley to the mountains. Beneath a comforting sun, perched on top of a pinnacle in the desert, they slowed down, brought awareness in and found the pulse of their surroundings.
Back at the tower’s base the girls mixed whiskey gingers, Blake coiled the ropes and I scrambled around with the camera pressed firmly to my face. Laughter floated lightly through a golden light. Afterward, as we weaved our way down through layers of sedimentary rock, boulder-strewn draws and smooth washes I listened to the red earth crunch beneath our feet. What was the weekend about? Fear, courage, and beauty shared with people cut from the same cloth. The weekend for me was not action at the forefront of climbing. Instead it was pure enjoyment at its heart.
Getting there – Castle Valley is located about 20 miles Northeast of Moab, Utah. Follow River Road, State Highway 128, north of Moab. Turn right onto Castle Valley Road after passing mile marker 15. Follow road for 4.5 miles. Turn off for parking and camping will be on the left after crossing a cattle guard.
Camping – Camping is allowed at the trailhead where there is also an outhouse. It is a dry camp so be sure to bring water.
Guidebook – Rock Climbing – Desert Rock III, Eric Bjornstad, A Falcon Guide.
I slept in this Sunday morning. By the time I heard Chip roll out of the back of his car everything was illuminated. Unzipping the tent I saw the sky was glowing pink. I dressed quickly then grabbed the camera and tripod. The shutter snapped as Chip walked down toward the San Rafael River and the color in the sky faded.
Window Blind Peak and Assembly Hall held court above the grey and meandering creek bottom. Thin clouds had moved in over night holding on to some of Saturday’s heat. It felt relatively warm for March. Soon water was boiled and coffee was brewed…
Somebody once said that climbers DO get scared because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t continue climbing.
The sun sagged toward a forest of juniper and pinions that surrounded the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was the first week of October and having passed the Fall equinox, daylight had transitioned to the lesser half of 24 hours; this fact had been ignored when Paul and I decided to climb Scenic Cruise, a thirteen-pitch route that slithered up to the north rim. Cams slotted into granite eyelets and small flakes for my over gripping fingers kept my exhausted body from falling 1300 feet to the river below. Pausing beneath a bulge and asking no one in particular, “When will this climb end?” I extended my hand West measuring two fingers between the sun and the horizon. It would be less than 30 minutes before it set.
I was nervous about falling from the bulge, but I was more worried about being stuck on the wall after dark. Out of water and food and with only light jackets we’d survive, but it wouldn’t be fun. So with arms cramping I groveled upward. Paul arrived as the sun set, quickly took the rack, and beneath a sky of glowing pink clouds stretched the 70-meter rope to its max. Squinting in the pale light we wandered through cactus-filled ledges, squeaking onto the North Chasm View Trail as the rising moon bathed us in its cool, indifferent light. The moon didn’t care whether we spent the night on the wall or not.
Some climbers say they’ve never been afraid, but I don’t know them.
A few days after escaping the Black Canyon Paul and I joined some friends in Castle Valley, Utah. One pair in front of the other we all climbed a route named Crack Wars on the west side of the Rectory. The first three pitches were quality. Only a little dirty and if you’re into wide hands and fist cracks it could be described as enjoyable. Then above a roof on the fourth pitch the solid sandstone gave way to something closer to the consistency of Graham crackers. After tiptoeing through 50 or so feet of crumbling rock only a short bulging off-width remained. Moving gear, adjusting my knot and thinking of skinny things, I repeatedly tried to squeeze into the slot. It was useless. A bold lieback was the only option I could fathom. Falling from the lieback would be messy. If the cam wedged in soft stone at the base of the bulge actually held then the flake that I was standing on would likely grab a leg and try snapping it. Down-climbing could provide okay rock to build an anchor affording the possibility of a retreat to the ground, but failure would be a disappointment.
Trying one more time to fit inside the slot I recalled a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Damn it! Would Emerson really tell me that if he saw the situation I was in? I took a deep breath, pulled my head out of the slot and told myself not to fall. The slowest moving lieback possible commenced, which if anyone had been watching they would have mistaken me as a statue attached to a cliff, but after what felt like an eternity the lip was reached. Once we were all on the summit plateau I joked about the climbing phenomenon of moving at a snail’s pace when you’re petrified, “I climb that slow so I can savor the moment… To be sure and never forget that six feet of rock.” I am certain within a matter of months that sections will be buried and forgotten by better memories.
The following weekend on Bottleneck Peak in the San Rafael Swell Paul and I received yet another lump from climbing. Torrential rains from September, which flooded the town of Price 30 miles to the north, had left the cracks frosted in layers of sand. Jams that typically felt bomber were now insecure. Leaving our egos at the base we immediately resorted to pulling and tugging on gear to get through the first two pitches. But it was the third and final pitch, which was rated the easiest, that proved most memorable.
Above a fist-jam roof, which I stuffed full of gear leaving little for the remainder of the pitch, one six-inch cam protected twenty feet of climbing above a flake that sounded like a gong when I tapped it. Next was a choss-choked corner. The stacks of rubble that were loosely collected in cracks and on shallow ledges required precise movements and my undivided attention. A tipped out cam was followed ten feet higher by a tcu nested beside a chockstone that appeared to be floating in the crack without a single point of contact. If there was faith in any of the cams to hold body weight I would have bailed immediately. Falling was way too gnarly to think about so instead, while stemming gingerly upward, I began a conversation with Bottleneck.
“I think a break would be healthy. Really… It’s not you, it’s me… It’s over between us.” Passing the hallowed chockstone I placed my foot on it; at first with no weight, but slowly, ounce by ounce, I transferred onto it. To both my disbelief and relief it stayed in place.
From the summit we soaked in the day’s light, which cast a warm glow to the surrounding peaks and walls. Below, in the shadows, was the glimmering water of the San Rafael River reflecting back to us through stands of cottonwoods and tamarisk. Despite the drama of the climb everything in the world around us carried on as if nothing was wrong.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Back at the car, after rappelling the north face of Bottleneck Peak using corroded ¼ inch star-driven nails and homemade hangers from the 1973 first ascent, each station backed up by a single 20+ year-old oxidized 3/8” inch bolt, I asked Paul what he had planned for the next weekend. “Sport climbing!” he replied speaking over the last couple words of the question. I was in complete agreement, but I wonder if Mrs. Roosevelt would approve?
“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.