Thursday, November 10, 2016

Days of Legend! (Part 3)

Idaho's City of Rocks looms large in America's climbing mythology.  Twenty-something years ago when I started climbing, the City's legendary status was on the wane, but stories of the granite spires rising architecturally from the rolling desert hills of southern Idaho still figured prominently in Climbing Magazine and in the collective consciousness of the climbing community.  Though I was never presented with an opportunity to travel to the City of Rocks, I often wondered about the bouldering potential of the area.  How could an area with so much granite not feature vast numbers of boulders?

During discussions of potential destinations, a visit to the City of Rocks has always been high on my list of priorities.  So when Kyle and I began to plan a trip to the desert, an opportunity finally rose (after decades!) to visit the City of Rocks.

The famous City of Rocks!  At last!  It only took me 20 years to get there...

Driving southeast from The Channel, Kyle and I wound our way up into the hills in the corner of Idaho. After an hour of watching autumnal hills and sagebrush pass by, I was excited when one last bend in the road finally afforded us a view of the granite spires of the City of Rocks.  After a brief stop at the interpretive center (a uniquely American institution, the interpretive centers in parks in the USA often feature a park ranger (or two) and a lot of information), we drove up into the park to find campsite.  We hadn't reserved a campsite, but given the fact that it was midweek and late in the season, we assumed that we'd be able to find a site.  We got lucky, and ended up in site 29, which featured a perfect bouldering wall that stretched for dozens of meters behind our tents, replete with pockets, edges, and huecos.

"Finding Huecos" and "Knob Problem!" were running jokes on our trip.  We finally found them in abundance at the City of Rocks.

For two days, we tramped, scrambled, hiked, and (occasionally) bouldered our way through both the City of Rocks and Castle Rocks State Park (just a few miles away).  The City is an amazing place, with unbelievable scenery and more multipitch climbing than you could do in several years.  However, it soon became apparent why City of Rocks is not a bouldering mecca.  While there are literally hundreds of boulders, most of the rock near the ground is loose and exfoliating.  Where the rock is varnished (desert varnish, not the hardware-store stuff) it can be very solid, but most of the amazing-looking patina plates and huecos are high above the ground.  In short, the higher you go, the better the climbing is, and the first 4 m or so are often rubbish.  On popular problems, the rock can be reasonably solid, but even on the most traveled problems crystals often pop off under your feet.

(top) More wildlife! Its always a treat to see lizards when in the desert. (bottom) The funky V4ish slab we did, despite the heat and exfoliating rock.

On our first day, we had a great time hiking around the City, but didn't really find any lines that looked appealing.  We knew that Castle Rocks had more established bouldering, so we spent our second day there.  Kyle had downloaded a guide to some of the problems at Castle Rocks, and we weren't disappointed.  We found a stack of V0 - V3 highballs to warm up on (some really brilliant and sometimes slightly spooky), including a very funky (but exfoliating) slab with blunt knobs and shallow scoops.  After we had warmed up, we hiked among the clusters of boulders, eventually settling down to climb a very cool compression line (once again, just high enough to be spicy) with great movement and some unnervingly thin patina edges.  After working out a sequence that worked, we both sent the problem.  Moving around to the backside of the boulder, Kyle managed to send a techy V7 dyno (though he didn't do the topout, mostly because of the height), and then we moved on to sample more of the problems in the area.

Kyle getting a little high in the desert as he navigates his way though patina edges in Castle Rocks Park. 

A very cool compression line, again in Castle Rocks Park.  The top was... committing.

There is a lot of bouldering at Castle Rocks, but much of it seemed a little too loose to be really amazing.  We goggled at some HUGE hueco-ridden boulders as we hiked around, but eventually dropped the mats to try a VERY cool 'comp problem'; a scooping slab rose up to a huge knob that was just out of reach.  We could see that if you gained the knob, you could mantle it to reach some better holds high on the face, but as we tried the line it became apparent that 'just out reach' would be a bigger obstacle than we thought.  Eventually we both sent the line, having a memorable (and hilarious!) time working what would prove to be one of the funkiest lines we did on our trip.

Getting funky in the Castle!  (top) Kyle on his way to nailing a V7 dyno (makes it look very easy), and (bottom) Who says all the "comp" problems are in gyms?  We both sent... after a while.

Satisfied  (but not blown away) by our time in the City of Rocks, we spent one more night at our (perfect!) campsite then headed north into Montana.  We were keen to make it to the Butte Bouldering Bash (the BBB, an outdoor 'festival' similar to the Tour de Frank),  and I was excited to climb at yet another new area.  After several hours of driving we finally rolled into Butte, Montana.  After digging up directions to the Trailer Park Boulders (and after realizing that Butte doesn't have a climbing shop), we headed up Homestake Pass to check out the boulders.

Years ago, Kyle had bouldered at Whiskey Gulch, an area at the southern edge of the Boulder Batholith, the huge expanse of granite that stretches between the town of Boulder and the city of Butte.  He hadn't been too impressed, having found that many of the boulders were too small, and the holds generally crimpy.  The Butte Boulder Bash was being held at the Trailer Park Boulders, so we headed up into the Batholith to see what the boulders looked like.  After wandering around in the forest on ATV trails (and dodging people on dirt bikes and quads) for some time, we finally found a a band of boulders that looked as though they had been climbed upon.  With dusk approaching, we hiked among the boulders, feeling holds and discussing the lines we saw.  Not wanting to get lost, we eventually headed back to the parking lot.  We were fortunate enough to meet Tom and Patrick, the two organizers of the BBB, who were kind (and enthusiastic!) enough to fill us in on development in the area. Satisfied with our explorations, we thought briefly about pitching our tents, but then decided to head back into Butte to find a cheap hotel.

Morning at the Butte Bouldering Bash!  Bozeman Climbing Club's van in the background...

The hotel turned out to be a great idea.  The morning of the comp dawned wet and overcast, though not terribly cold.  After breakfast, we headed back up into the Batholith.  We were excited to see that the parking lot was filling up with climbers from across the state (I think we were the only Canadians, though), with 70 - 80 climbers in attendance despite the inclement weather.  I was surprised (amused? impressed?) to see that the Bozeman Climbing Team had a van (a VAN! With a big decal!).  After Tom and Patrick went over the rules of the event with the eager crowd, the horn went off and everyone headed out.

We walked out into the boulders with Tom and Patrick, who toured us around some of the classics in the area. Exploration of the Batholith is ongoing, with new clusters of boulders being developed every year.  The Batholith must be one of the biggest areas of boulders in the United States, with hundreds of square kilometers of boulder-covered hills.  Most of the Batholith isn't terribly accessible (there are few roads that cross the Batholith), but that hasn't stopped development.  So far, well over a thousand problems have been developed, with potential for literally tens of thousands more.

Chasing Windmills (V7), a fantastic line on perfect rock!

After warming up on some very easy (but wet!) slabs, we walked over to sample the problems on the Superbia Boulder, one of the best in the area (perfect landing, perfect height, great rock).  We both did Supreme Perfection (V2 or V3?), and then turned our attention to Chasing Windmills (V7). Chasing Windmills involves climbing a short funky slab up to a crimpy sidepull just below a roof; from here, a tricky and mostly blind dyno to a perfect rail above the roof guards easier moves above to a fun topout.  Kyle is great at dynos, and as such I wasn't too surprised to see him send the line in only a handful of tries.  Everyone watching was psyched, and for the next 45 minutes a half-dozen climbers attempted the line.  The only other successful ascent was by a local who had done the line previously; I came close (by highstepping and reaching through the crux without jumping), but the move was simply too blind and too awkward to do statically.

While I tried Chasing Windmills, Kyle amused himself by trying La Mancha (V8) immediately to the right.  He was making good progress, but then tweaked his neck. (Yes, neck!)  It had started to rain, however, and while we were hopeful it would stop, it didn't.  The rain fell heavier and heavier, and after a half-hour or so it became apparent that the comp was probably over.  We waited out the worst of the rain with Erik Christensen (author of SW MT Blocs, the guidebook for southern Montana), who is a lot of fun and a font of information about bouldering in the state.

Eventually, we headed back to the parking lot, and enjoyed all the food and drinks provided as the scorecards were tallied.  Neither Kyle or I turned in scorecards, but hung out while prizes were doled out, hamburgers were eaten, and beer was drunk. I won a sweet 'Climbing Bozeman' t-shirt!  We had a great time, and were impressed by the organizing job done by Patrick and Tom.  With the skies finally clearing, we packed the car one more time and began the long drive back to Canada.  I'd love to come back to Butte again soon!

Patrick and Erik hanging out after the rain finally quit, as the Butte Bouldering Bash wound down.

Overall, we had a fantastic trip!  Tons of bouldering at new areas, lots of exploration, wandering the desert, great scenery, and a nice taste of American climbing culture!  Idaho and Montana are great destinations for a fall climbing trip, and we look forward to coming back soon!

PS> The Bouldering the Backwaters blog has a great photo series of the comp (you can even see Kyle and I in one photo!); if you're curious you can check it out HERE.

PPS> Mexican food for the win!

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