The Swell Season

“Did
you hear that? Sounded like rifle reports. Take!” Squinting my eyes in the
November sun a rusted landscape fell south from a soaring buttress of
sandstone. Peppered by juniper and pinion trees its numerous washes and draws
fanned out like fingers. Above, the molted faces of Window Blind Butte,
Assembly Hall and Bottleneck Peaks cast shadows across huge talus cones, which eroded
their way toward a meandering stream. Greasewood traced this trickle of water as
it wound its way through the greying land and ancient cottonwoods, denuded of
their leaves by autumn, twisted their misshapen forms from the earth.

Again the reports echoed.
Scanning left and right the sun caught the windshield of a truck parked among
rabbit brush and sage down by a bend in 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 route by beautiful
Wingate high above, I was trying to ascend a crack named Watching the River Flow. Unfortunately, fifteen feet of degrading
rock at its base guarded the steep, changing corners overhead. Fortunately,
this part was bolt protected. Still, I struggled committing my foot to a
rounded hold that continually shed sand regardless of how much brushing had occurred.
Up, down, take and taken, I finally convinced myself that it was better than
being shot at and reached for the ledge. There was nothing but more sand.

“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 grimy stone.

“Really?!”

“Yeah, climbing in Vedauwoo you
get used to flares.”

Doubtful, I pressed my right
hand, thumbs down into the “flare”, lifted my foot onto a smeary hold then
pushed myself onto the ledge. “What do you know?”  After more than a decade of climbing along
the deserted buttes, towers 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, can
trace human activity 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. Its stark desert ecology manages to support
animals like big horn sheep, antelope, pumas, coyotes, birds of prey and small
rodents. The flora is just as diverse with ponderosas found on its highest
perches and delicate cactus down low. 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. Yet containing
only one paved road, Interstate 70 dividing it north and south, the Swell
remains a no-man’s land.

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 more towers, peaks and buttes had
been ticked off.  It wasn’t until the end
of the decade that a handful of climbers, which included James Garrett, Lynn
Wheeler and Dave Anderson, began to explore and develop crags in the Buckhorn
Wash, Mexican Mountain and Bridge areas of the northern region.

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, 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 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 his last 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.
Browsing an out-of-date guidebook Mike’s name can been seen at almost every
crag throughout the northern Swell.

One of the biggest distinctions
between the Swell and Indian Creek is its varied climbing. There are beautiful
splitters to be found, but dihedrals tend to be the norm.  Along the Wingate and Navajo cliffs, where
most of the 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 away
from the cracks and seams. Other differences are the approaches can be long and
are not well marked and the walls don’t contain as many routes. 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.

“The quality in the Swell is
not as consistent as the Creek, but there are some definite classics,” Scott
explained. He then rattled off a list of what he considered five stars routes.  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 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 single 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 could find no purchase and he fell onto the rope.  “Mike’s a very talented climber.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Watching
Mike bunny-hop stem his way up the crux of Blood
on the Tracks
last November after he coached me through Watching the River Flow, I was convinced
that along with being a great person the guy has some skills on the rock. If
you can get him to own up to some of the routes he has sent you’ll begin to understand
his bigger picture, which includes hard off-widths, thin cracks and steep
tufa’s. Mike’s done a ton of climbing since he was first introduced to the
sport as a senior in high school.

This past Easter weekend we
picked our way above the Swinging Bridge. Arriving at his route, Bad Obsession, Mike noted the swallows,
playfully swooping up and down the cliff, sounding their morning calls. Beneath
the spring sky sporadic clouds hovered low setting the scene. The view was more
than 180 degrees. Starting West, up the Little Grand Canyon our eyes moved
toward the Trojan Man Wall, to The Halloween Wall, passed the peaks and buttes,
clear down to Mexican Mountain. Coming back we 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 and dead-like. Rabbit Brush could be spotted sprouting an occasional hint
of green in an otherwise muted scene.

Bad
Obsession

begins as a ¼ inch right facing corner then opens to a 1.5”, overhanging
splitter 80’ off the deck, then after mounting a shallow ledge you ascend 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. Pasting his left foot he hopped his right up then
didn’t slow down. 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. I jabbed
my feet six inches higher with each step then pushed 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 and
rested on the rope. The finger-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, 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 near the road.  Mike flaked the rope as I racked a desert-set
of 20 draws on my harness. Following patina edges and elephant ears, some
sandy, 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 busiest weekend 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, some loose rock, long approaches, less route density
and because the guidebooks have limited information and are out of date, but
who knows?

Pulling up 165 feet of rope to
clip the shuts at the end of the Moe
Route
I smiled. Sure there may be better places to climb, but after weekends
filled with climbing shadowed by nights camped above the river in a setting
where the silence was so definite you could hear the heart thumping in your
chest, I wont complain. The question can remain unanswered. I’m going to return
to this empty 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
and all of the others do. I will do it for myself.

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