The Wasatch Range is an amazing place for any outdoor enthusiast, thanks to its amazing canyons and endless terrain – all within a close proximity to Salt Lake City. Something locals often take for granted, however, is the astounding diversity of it all. Each canyon contains different types of rock, which create unique textures and character; from a climbing perspective, this is a paradise. From the crisp quartzite edges and cracks of Big Cottonwood, to the white granite friction slaps and incipient cracks of Little Cottonwood, to the steep pocketed limestone found in American Fork, and the even steeper overhanging conglomerate rock of Maple Canyon – each locale is significantly different and all are high-quality climbing areas. With so much variation in geology, it isn’t surprising that each canyon boasts its own unique history. For vertical progression to unfold, the varieties of rock demanded different and new innovations.
The first climbers started to visit Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC ) in the early 1930’s, but the story behind these canyon walls goes back about 15,000 to 20,000 years. Still fairly recent by geological standards, it was when the last ice age was in full swing. A massive glacier rested atop what is currently LCC in the Albion Basin. The glacier’s extreme weight fractured the surrounding cliffs and carried massive boulders down towards the valley, carving the canyon walls into what we know today.
It’s common to hear references to LCC‘s great granite climbing, but it’s actually not true granite. It is quartz monzonite, also referred to as white granite, which is often confused with true granite because of its coloring. The difference being quartz monzonzite contains far less quartz than true granite. This can be felt in the granular nature of the rock in LCC. Especially on lesser-traveled slab climbs, this granular or “roller-ball” exterior creates extremely insecure footing. Some climbers try to brush away the granular crystals in hopes of finding a solid foothold, while others try pressing the crystals into place. Whatever the method, the goal is always upward progress toward the security of the next bolt.
Though climbing in the Wasatch began on Big Cottonwoods quartzite, climbers quickly turned to LCC. Its granite cracks were similar to the ones found in Yosemite, the birthplace of American rock climbing. Many looked to Royal Robbin’s book, Basic Rockcraft, as their gateway into the vertical world. It contained photos and information on climbing in Yosemite that were similar to what you would find in LCC. One of the most classic of these crack systems would have to be the Coffin Crack.
The Coffin Crack is a picturesque Yosemite-style splitter- eighty feet of almost-perfect finger locks on a beautiful, less-than-vertical face. It’s nearly impossible not to smile while ascending this beauty. The Coffin was first free climbed in 1964 by George Lowe and Mark McQuarrie. However, its vicious second pitch, The Coffin Roof, is more of a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it experience. Ten or more feet of overhanging sequential tip and finger locks give way to a much easier top-out. This short but stout pitch has thwarted many climbers throughout the years. It wasn’t until 1980 when Steve Hong free climbed it on his second try, thus establishing the canyons first 5.12. Steve put up many exceptionally hard classic lines in the Wasatch and countless more in the desert of southern Utah, all while attending medical school at the University of Utah. He now resides in Boulder, Colorado as a dermatologist and considers himself a 5.14 weekend warrior.
For a while the cliffs of LCC were only accessible via natural gullies and washes and still required some bushwhacking. As more climbers visited the area, the signs of human impact were increasingly apparent. A group of local climbers took it upon themselves to preserve the place they loved, so future generations could enjoy it too. A trail-building mission was formed to create a more defined trail system to help decrease erosion and increase accessibility.
One such mission established a new approach trail to the Egg, the rock formation next to the Dragon Arch. Soon thereafter, a No Star Tuesday event was held at the Dragon Arch. No Star Tuesday is an event/organization designed to celebrate and explore the lesser-traveled areas of the Wasatch, as well as build friendships and partnerships over spicy grilled jalapeños and assorted meats. It was at this event that Shingo Ohkawa scouted out what appeared to be a system of cracks that lead up the left side of the Dragon Arch. Being amongst other great climbers and first ascent connoisseurs, Shingo felt the pressure to tackle this appealing new line. In November 2009, Shingo and Andy Ross finished what is now Enter The Dragon, a modern-day classic that cannot be found in the Ruckman guide, but is nonetheless one of the best routes the canyon has to offer. Crack, slab, techy face climbing and an amazing exposed position, this 3 pitch, 11- has it all.
But climbing in the Wasatch, remember, started on quartzite, so we’ll go back one billion years, when the walls of Big Cottonwood Canyon (BCC) were the floor and shoreline of an ancient sea in which sediment was brought in by the tides. Sandstone, quartzite, shale, and limestone created layers that marked the passage of time. These layers were compressed over time and tilted upwards by movement of the Wasatch Fault to give BCC its unique angular look.
Today we can still easily see these ancient tidal layers. One of the oldest and best documented records of ancient tidal rhythms lies in BCC. Depending on the strength of the tide, different sediment was brought in, creating very distinct layers. These layers can be seen and counted today, much like we count rings on trees.
The gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun cause tides, therefore we can look at these layers as a direct representation of an ancient calendar. Using these calculations it has been projected that one billion years ago, the Moon took less time to orbit the Earth, and the Earth spun faster. A day on Earth lasted only 18 hours; there were 13 plus months and about 481 days in a year!
Generally the origins of climbing in BCC started later than LCC; mainly due to the fact that most of the climbing in BCC required drilling bolts for protection. In a time when sport climbing wasn’t even a concept, people were in search of cracks that were protected by natural or “traditional” protection. Hence “trad climbing.” The only other option was to hand drill on lead. Putting in bolts on rappel was, for a long time, considered poor style. But hand drilling a bolt into BCC’s hard quartzite is a strenuous task that could take upwards of an hour.
That’s not to say that BCC lacks any such naturally protected lines, quite the opposite. It’s hard to mention Big Cottonwood’s trad climbs without bringing up Goodro’s Wall. Goodro’s is arguably the first 5.10 in North America, put up by Harold Goodro in 1949 as the hardest ascent of its time. This striking single pitch zig-zagging splitter is practically in a category of its own, and it is a true pleasure to climb.
Thirty years after the first ascent of Goodro’s, there were still not many routes in Big Cottonwood to speak of. At this time the Wasatch Mountain Club held a gathering Thursday evenings and all the regulars would go there. Many would climb in LCC, then head to BCC for a beer and a burger. There was a contingent that would make laps on Goodro’s but only about 30 other routes existed in the BCC Guidebook, a little orange guide written by John Gottman printed by the Wasatch Mountain Club. It wouldn’t be until the mid to late 80s, with the advent of sport climbing, which utilized equipping climbs with numerous bolts on rappel with power drills, that BCC would transform into what we know it as today. One of the more popular sport climbing areas in BCC is the S-Curves. Facing south, this sunny area is a great venue for year-round climbing.
This is not to say that hard trad lines were still not being established at this time. Just right of Goodro’s is Generation Gap, a spicy 12b that is best protected with a small brass offset nut at the crux. It’s a great line that deserves more traffic for anyone up for the challenge.
Although there are some large limestone cliffs found on top of LCC, American Fork Canyon contains the most abundant and classic limestone cliffs in the area. This limestone was deposited 350 millions years ago. Over time, natural faults and erosions exposed the extensive cliffs, full of steep pockets, sharp crimps and vast caves: a perfect venue for climbing. Yet in the 70’s and early 80’s when the “ground up” ethic was the only ethic, tackling these steep, hard-to-protect faces was no easy task. Doug Hansen was one of the most persistent. He sought out rotten and crumbling cracks for protection in between large sections of unprotected faces. The route Free Fall (5.8) stands as a testament to these dangerous old school ascents. It was at this route’s crux when Doug’s partner, Jerry, fell. All of his tenuous protection ripped out and resulted in a nasty ground fall. Jerry was rushed to the hospital and made a full recovery.
By the mid 80’s Bill Boyle, Boone Speed, and Jeff Pedersen took interest in the steep limestone walls of American Fork Canyon. The rock was higher quality and had much more potential than originally suspected. Uninhibited by the old ground-up mentality, routes went up quickly. Rapping in from above allowed them to clean, bolt, and protect hard climbs safely at a rapid rate. In one season they established over 100 new routes, pushing the grades as high as 13c.
Although not technically in the Wasatch Range, you can’t talk about sport climbing in Utah and not mention Maple Canyon. Built on the coattails of American Fork, the internationally known Maple Canyon arguably rose to fame more quickly than any other climbing area in the country due its extremely unique and abundant conglomerate rock.
The story of Maple Canyon begins during the Cretaceous period, approximately 70 million years ago when the Sevier Mountain Range covered western Utah. Over millions of years, erosion polished these mountains down and spread their sediment over to the east. This layer of rock and mud was as deep as 15,000 feet in some places. At these great depths, extreme pressure and heat fused the mismatched sediment together into semi-cohesive conglomerate rock. After a few more million years of tectonic activity and erosion, this layer was exposed and carved into the slots, hoodoos, arches and amphitheaters we see today.
Although climbing in Maple had taken place over the years in the form of occasional top roping, ice climbing, and ascending Dizzy Rock, sport climbing in Maple didn’t really start in until the fall of ‘93 with the first ascent of Raindrops on Lichen (5.9). It was bolted by Jason Stevens with the assistance of 600 feet of extension cord, a 40-foot stepladder and a gas powered generator. In the summer of ‘94, climbers from American Fork trickled down to Maple in search of new rock to establish. Bill Boyle, Jeff Pedersen and Darren Knezek were some of the first to do so. Over the next six years, development grew exponentially among the canyon’s myriad of accessible cliffs.
However, just because these routes went up quickly doesn’t mean that new routing in Maple Canyon is an easy task. When you climb a classic route in Maple today, realize that it looked much different on the first ascent. Loose cobbles are constantly falling off and the cobbles that stay are covered in dirt. Due to the steepness of some of these walls, and the difficultly of accessing them from the top, rap bolting became next to impossible. It was possible to bolt ground-up, bolt to bolt, but this required many more bolts and less room for thoughtful bolt placements.
New practices and tools were put into place to help face these new challenges, one of which was the Willy-Stick. Essentially, this primitive tool is just a 2×4 with three bolts in it: one in the middle and two at the top. The bolt in the middle gets clipped to the existing bolt on the wall, and the climber clips into the two bolts at the top. Leaning away from the wall, the climber uses the leverage from the bottom of the board against the wall to keep himself vertical. Climbers were able to space bolts out six or more feet with this method, allowing for the use of fewer bolts and more strategic placements.
This new practice didn’t come without its hazards. One such infamous hazard is called the windshield-wiper effect. This is caused when the climber, atop the Willy-Stick, leans too far into the wall, and thus loses the leverage from the bottom of the stick against the wall. Inevitably, the imbalance results in a spinning, sideways fall, as the top-heavy Willy-Stick flips over. One such incident happened to climber Chris Black when he first tried to use the device; three bolts up, he leaned too far into the rock and went for a wild sideways tumble. He never finished his route or went near the Willy-Stick again. This incident happened at the now popular, and aptly named, Windshield Wiper Wall.
Newcomers to Maple may find the climbing style a bit overwhelming, when everything looks like a hold and the pump clock is ticking. Fear not, although Maple is known for its hard single-pitch sport climbing, it also holds some classic, moderate multi-pitch climbing. So before jumping in line for your next 5.13 project, take a minute to warm up, get off the ground, and enjoy the amazing views.
No matter what style of climbing you prefer, multi or single pitch, sport or trad, slab or crack, it can all be found within a short drive from downtown SLC. The uniqueness of each area creates different styles of climbing that can really work with or against one’s personal strengths and weaknesses. Having this diversity, all concentrated locally, gives climbers the opportunity to improve their weaknesses and become extremely well-rounded. It is truly an amazing playground and training area, allowing climbers to travel anywhere in the world and, yet, still feel at home on the rock.