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On the Rocks

Rock climbing in the wood river valley is the introverted twin of the ski industry. She lives side-by-side with her limelight-loving sibling, but goes off to play quietly by herself.

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“Press your left hip to the rock,” my climbing partner Melanie calls again from 10 feet below. I don’t see any point in leaving the safety of my position, clinging with numbing fingers to the frigid right-hand wall of what she has described as “an easy dihedral” at Dierkes Lake, a shallow basalt canyon just east of Twin Falls. It’s 10 degrees above zero, and no handholds are materializing above me. I will be lowered in shame down this 30-foot, 5.7 pitch. While I was initially appalled at the idea of failure, I am starting to find this option appealing.

Melanie Mildrew stands on belay. At 32, she’s a veteran climbing instructor who’s talked many a student up this very pitch. At 5.6 and 5.7, these are the green runs of technical rock climbing. At 5.12s and above, the climber better be dedicated and skilled.

Jody Leidecker ascends 5.12s all over the West. She is one of the area’s most respected climbers, and jokes that “5.12” stands for her age: She is 60. A grandmother who believes that climbing “doesn’t have to be any more dangerous than walking across the street,” she didn’t step into a harness until the age of 47. Her son Eric Leidecker, co-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, got her started.

“I put on his shoes and harness, and that was it,” she recalls, smiling broadly under a short cap of silvering blond hair. “I got my own gear, and people said, ‘that’s silly, you’ll never go out alone.’ But I’ve probably worn out more ropes than either of my sons.”

On her 50th birthday, Jody Leidecker invited a group of women friends down to the City of Rocks, one of the nation’s foremost sport climbing destinations, three hours southeast of Ketchum.

She set up an easy top rope. They all got to the top except one, who made it on her second try.

She loved empowering them in this way.

In spite of her enthusiasm for sharing her passion with others, climbing is primarily a solitary endeavor, and its disciples tend to form small groups rather than a large, cohesive community.

Each has a trusted partner, and personal gear.

“You respect your gear,” admonishes Mildrew, stepping carefully around coils of rope. “It’s your lifeline. You don’t step on the rope. You don’t buy a secondhand carabiner.”


Like all the climbers I spent time with, Mildrew values not only the physical solitude but the focus that climbing demands. “I’m not thinking about anything else. And if I am, then I’m not concentrating, and I shouldn’t be climbing.” Smith Kennedy, a Boise climber, elaborates on this riff. What gets him out there is “feeling the weather and the natural space around you.” But what keeps him out there is the challenge of ascent, and the centering he achieves on the rock. “The narrow focus helps you to put aside other aspects of your life for a little while,” he says. “That change in perspective can be very liberating."

Smith Kennedy, 37, and wife Kelli, 32, have frequented the City of Rocks since moving to Boise seven years ago. A New York City native, Kennedy top-roped at boarding school in Connecticut, and was hooked. Kelli Kennedy grew up playing competitive tennis in South Carolina.

Her doubles team went to the state championships, but she’s quick to point out that they didn’t win. I’m finding that such modesty is common among climbers. She didn’t lace on a pair of climbing shoes until moving to Missoula, Montana in 1994, when she joined a group of women who went climbing at a local gym before heading out for drinks. For her, climbing quickly became more addictive than martinis.


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