Our accounts of how we ended up first visiting The Channel differ somewhat. Though we had both read about the Channel long before we left for our trip last year, Kyle insists that it was his suggestion that we visit the Channel to check it out on a rest day. In my memory, however, it was my insistence that drove us to visit the Channel. Regardless of which story is true, however, one thing was certain after our two-day exploration of this amazing area. The Channel was a new hope* for western bouldering, and we would be definitely coming back.
The bouldering area dubbed 'The Channel' is a narrow canyon cut by the waters of the Big Wood River into the flood basalt of the Magic Valley of southern Idaho. Ordinarily, the amazingly water-sculpted features of a river canyon wouldn't be climbable (as they would be under water), but the water of the Big Wood River has been diverted for agricultural purposes. For approximately half of the year, water still runs through the Big Wood River, but for the other half of the year (late autumn, winter, and early spring) the water is diverted into canals, revealing some of the most incredible holds sculpted from absolutely bombproof basalt. The Channel is also one of the few places with really abundant bouldering on basalt (many basalt flows form columnar formations, which spawn only relatively small boulders).
This October, Kyle and I headed back to southern Idaho, but this time with a group of southern Alberta boulderers all psyched to boulder at this unique area; Evan (from Calgary), Ryan (from Edmonton), Brian K., Alissa and Justin, and Jonas and Jordana (all from Lethbridge). As Kyle and I drove down through the northern states in his Subaru, I reflected that the 10-hour drive to Idaho was a welcome change from the 18-hour drive to Las Vegas, definitely a plus for those who don't like driving long distances (like myself). We'd decided to avoid camping by renting cabins at the KOA near Twin Falls, which was a reasonably cost-effective way to have beds and hot showers without staying at a hotel. It turned out to be a good place to base our bouldering trip, as the cabins were warm, the showers were great, and it was a little closer to the Channel than staying in Twin Falls.
On our first two-day visit to the Channel last year, Kyle and I had spend all of our time at the north-most part of the Channel (aka Black Magic Canyon, aka the "Fish Channel"). We had heard of another sector (the 'central Channel' where one can find the Cosmic Boulder), but hadn't had time to check it out. On this trip, we got word of yet another sector to the south, which when we visited it turned out to be our favorite (in part because it was cleaner, had just as good problems, but was also free of the piles of dead fish that seemed to especially plague the north Channel this year).
As we moved between different sectors of the Channel climbing each day, we quickly settled into a rhythm. Usually we would pack up lunches and mats, then head somewhere for breakfast (often IHOP) before driving north to the Channel (either the north or south sector). Once there, we'd find a wall with a lot of warm-up climbs (easily done), and then disperse a bit to find and work projects for the day. Inevitably, at some point during the day a group would come upon a particularly spectacular problem or feature, and a handful of people would congregate to work (and hopefully send!) the problem. Not knowing the proper names for any of the galleries or sectors we'd encounter, we came up with titles for the areas we'd visited; "The Fish Channel", "the Red Channel" (one of the sectors had been fire retardant-bombed during the summer fires, staining it red), "The Rhinoceros Sector" (named after a prominent horn), etc. Often the areas of the Channel that were near drop-in trails or the mouths of some of the more canyon-like sectors would provide great warmups, as the walls there tended to be more featured.
Every day we climbed at the Channel, we moved around to check out new sectors. While the sectors varied a bit with respect rock texture, height, angularity of the features, and steepness (some were definitely more overhanging than others), we were never disappointed. It seemed that each new bend of the channel hosted another chamber with a new and exciting profusion of basalt sculptures, and a mind-bending selection of new problems of all angles.
On our first day in the South Channel, we warmed up at a beautiful wall topped by a huge pile of driftwood (testament to the height of the flood waters that must periodically inundate the Big Wood River). Beautifully incut jugs, aretes, and huecos on a slightly overhanging wall were the perfect warmup for a day of pulling on basalt. One especially beautiful line started low, underclinging a feature that looked like a troll's head, then followed an angling crack up to a series of perfect jugs; a typically five-star line at the Channel.
Warmed up, Brian got psyched to try a perfect compression line across the canyon from the warmup wall. Unlike many of the other lines we would try that week, the compression line had a fall zone comprised entirely of large blocks. Some of the posse were put off by the bad landing, but Brian's excitement was infectious and in a few minutes Evan and I were checking it out as well. Commandeering a handful of mats, we set up a decent landing and set about climbing the surprisingly juggy compression prow. It was so much fun, we actually did it a handful of times before moving on, looking for new projects.
As we moved up-channel, we encountered a section (about 100m long) in which the rock was stained bright red from fire retardant. There was a lot of evidence of fires in the area (much of the desert surrounding the channel was burned), and presumably the red retardant was associated with efforts to fight those fires. Many of the problems in the red-stained section of channel were amazing, including a prow consisting of two consecutive bulges topped by two blunt 'rhino-horn' features (they're more amazing - and more common - at the Channel than you might think). While we wandered about, ogling the amazing features, Alissa pulled on her shoes, arranged some pads, and started working the line, Soon Jordana and Jonas got curious, and started trying the problem as well. Not one to ignore such a cool-looking line (and the already-arranged mats), I pulled on my shoes and tried the problem as well.
The line incorporated an amazing and perfectly-textured sloping shelf, which led to a weird vertical slot-pocket, and from there an apparently huge reach would gain the pair of rhino horns and the weird scoops above. After trying the problem a couple of times, I was stumped; I simply could not get my feet high enough on the bulge to reach the horns above. A more careful look at the problem, however, revealed a perfect slot-undercling hidden in the shadows below the upper bulge. Invigorated, Alissa pulled on to the starting holds, stepped up, pulled into the undercling, and rolled her shoulders far enough to clear the bulge and reach the horns. A few more funky moves up a runnel-fin-horn, and a grinning Alissa was standing on top of the wall. Using essentially the same beta, I followed her up the problem. Over the course of the day, most of the group would work and eventually send the problem; yet another top-drawer problem at the Channel!
One of the amazing things about the Channel is the landings. Coming from Frank Slide (which has the consistently worst landings of any area I've been to on earth), the gravel-and-sand landings of the Channel seemed fantastic. Sometimes, we'd have to prop a mat against a boulder, or use a few to fill in an eroded hole, but generally the landings are good. The landings clearly change from year to year, though; last year, Tonsilitis (V4) had a perfect gravel landing, this year the problem was 3 feet taller and featured a scoured-out, boulder-filled hole for a landing.
In their explorations one afternoon, Evan and Ryan found an singularly amazing feature - a bizarre fin/blade which protruded at a right angle from the canyon wall. At the end of the day, we coalesced around the problem, ready to explore the undoubtedly technical (and weird!) movement the problem would demand. By squeezing, wrist-wrapping, and heel-hooking his way up the problem, Evan managed an impressive end-of-the-day send, while the rest of us were left without enough gas in our tanks to muster the power to climb the line. Ryan and Evan returned to the line our next day in the sector, and Ryan came incredibly close to sending it as well, but was forced to walk away without the send. We found out later that the problem is called Compression Technician; you can check out a video of the problem at 2:43 of this short film about the Channel.
Great climbing trips create amazing stories and great memories. The Channel, set in the dramatic deserts of Idaho and replete with perfect problems and surrealistic shapes carved in basalt, definitely creates these stories for me. While I don't have the time to share them all, there are definitely some that are especially memorable. Justin, Brian, and I working an amazing sloper problem on a sun-drenched wall of basalt, with one of the craziest highstep-to-a-huge-sloper moves I've done in a long time. Jordana working - and eventually doing - some of the first tall problems she's ever done. Jonas dynoing for huge huecos whenever he could find a problem that demanded it. Evan digging into and sending an angling crack with back-to-back dynos, that ended by wrestling up and into a huge sculpted spire/jug/fin. Kyle and I working an a pocket-to-arete-to-scoop highball with one of the smoothest slopers I've ever touched. Jonas dislocating his pinky toe by tripping over a mat. When you combine all these things with a trip to the weirdest "museum" in the middle of the desert, you've got the makings of a great trip!**
In contrast to many climbers, however, the Channel holds an extra, non-climbing, appeal for me. As a huge fan of sculpture (and a sculptor myself), the endless fantastically-eroded shapes are (almost literally) mindblowing. Everywhere one looks, perfect natural sculptures abound. A bizarre tusk that looks like it was sculpted by Jean Arp, a rock lying in the gravel that looks like a Henry Moore, and a blade of rock jutting from the wall that looks like a piece by Etienne Hajdu. If you love sculpture AND climbing, the Channel is a lifetime must-see destination.
Having injured my left hand fairly badly in early September (on The Evangelist (V7), see an earlier post...), I knew I would be focusing primarily on moderates on this trip. Fortunately, the easy problems in the Channel are just a good as the hard ones! Often problems in the Channel consist of linking discontinuous - but often juggy - features that are separated by smooth featureless basalt. On the easier problems, these features are amazing (and amazingly accessible). A problem might start by underclinging a huge cauliflower-like hold, only to move up to a perfect slot, then onto a giant rhinoceros horn, then up again to a series of scoops and huecos. Though the problems in the Channel are often a bit tall, the topouts usually consist of huge incut pockets and horns, so the risk factor is low. It's great to visit areas where the easy problems are just as good (and use just as amazing holds) as the hard ones!
On one of the rest days we checked out the 'other' big bouldering area in the Magic Valley; the weathered basalt blocks of Dierkes Lake. Although we didn't have time to climb here, I was surprised by the quality of the boulders, which looked fantastic (and a bit like California's Sad Boulders). Dierkes Lake is definitely a sun trap (making it a good cold-weather option) and features sport climbing as well as bouldering, so we'll definitely spend some time climbing there on a return trip. We talked to some of the people bouldering at Dierkes Lake, and were a little surprised that they had never heard of the Channel.
One of the cultural perks of visiting the area (for curious Canadians, anyways) is that the small towns of the Magic Valley are untouched bastions of western Americana. For example, on our commute to the Channel each day, we would drive through the small town of Shoshone, and the red awning of the Manhattan Cafe. Once we indulged our curiosity and visited the Manhattan Cafe for breakfast, we realized how amazing a western breakfast of coffee, eggs, sausage, bacon, and unlimited pancakes can be! If you're ever in the area, stop in for an amazing breakfast, and soak in some western culture!***
On the last day of our trip, we headed out to the Channel with a skeleton crew of just Kyle, Ryan, and myself. Brian, Alissa, and Justin had to head back to Lethbridge a day earlier than us, Jonas and Jordana opted for a scenic drive rather than a day of climbing, and Evan was sick (probably food poisoning; let's just say that it was a 'fluid' situation). With just a few people, we had a fantastic day of circuiting around, climbing dozens of easy problems (including the only roof we climbed on the trip), as well as a few harder ones. Kyle and Ryan ended the day (and the trip) with a session on an incredible "sculpture" problem, while I did a few of the amazing easy highballs nearby. Feeling beat, we headed back to the KOA cabins to get one more night of rest before heading back to Canada.
Even as we drove through endless sagebrush-covered landscapes en route to Canada, I started to look forward to my next trip to the Channel. It's an amazing area to explore, with some of the most incredible rock I've ever climbed on. I'll be back again, Idaho! Until then, take care, and keep the potatoes coming!****
* see what I did there? ;)
** ask Justin and Brian about their "two-meal meals"
*** the Mexican food in Twin Falls is great, as well! You can't go wrong at the La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant!
**** my only Idaho potato joke.