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.
Photography: Todd Meier
(page 2 of 3)
A POCKET ISN'T ALWAYS WARM
Fifteen feet. I dangle with hands stuffed into my armpits for warmth, feet lodged in tiny pockets of rock. The word pocket connotes softness, even warmth, but here there is neither. It is my own damned fault I am here, face three inches from the freezing rock, in mid-December. For various reasons, I procrastinated. Among them, I realize, is that climbers intimidate me. They seem a frighteningly self-sufficient lot. These people can do pull-ups.
Against my intuition, I swing my body away from the illusory safety of the right-hand wall. “Now look up,” calls Mildrew. I look. Holds suddenly materialize above me. I stretch my hand toward a shallow knob above my head. Mildrew tightens the rope to make sure I don’t lose any hard-won ground.
My top rope, according to Rob Kiesel, a climbing institution who happens to live in Ketchum, is considered poor form. Kiesel climbed for more than thirty years without placing a bolt, which would be permanently embedded in the rock—although he speaks approvingly of camming devices, a means of temporary protection, wishing that they’d been invented earlier. In 1973, he and Greg Lowe, who later founded Lowe Alpine with brother Jeff, made the first American Grade 6 winter ascent when they climbed Yosemite’s infamous Half Dome. It took seven days. Kiesel owned the first nordic ski and climbing specialty store in Idaho, located on the site of the present-day Elephant’s Perch, and he’s maddeningly modest. It was Bob Rosso (current owner of the Elephant’s Perch) who told me that Kiesel coached the U.S. Nordic team for a decade. And it was Kiesel who told me that Rosso had been with him on the second ascent of Sunrise Book, a popular route up the famous Elephant’s Perch, a 1,500-foot granite slab in the Sawtooths for which Rosso named his shop.
CITY OF ROCKS
In the past two decades, Idaho’s climbing scene has shifted south from the serious mountaineering done in the Sawtooths to the bouldering or sport climbing popular at City of Rocks.
Three hours southeast of Ketchum, a completely different landscape rises out of the southern Albion Range—monolithic granite humps jutting hundreds of feet from the high desert scrub of juniper and sage. The granite at “the City” is in its infancy—only 25 million years old. Wind has carved a home among these hills and water has leached iron oxide from their faces to form patinas riddled with holds.
Although they’ve climbed in Thailand, Tasmania, and Spain, both Kennedys count the City among their favorite climbing destinations; climbers from around the world flock to scale routes like “Bumblie Takes a Tumblie.”
Mildrew calls the City “a magical place,” where the world beyond her body and the next hold vanishes.
Designated a National Historic Landmark and placed under the supervision of the National Park Service in 1988, the City lay along the California Trail Corridor in the late 1800s. Certain areas are now off-limits to climbing. “If you think it’s hard to find a campsite now, you should have been here in 1862!” quips Dave Bingham in his guidebook on the area. Bingham has developed and named dozens of the roughly 250 sport routes here. He has been a driving force in the City’s rise in popularity, which has mirrored the rise in sport climbing experienced during the ‘80s. Bingham implores visitors to tread lightly, a sentiment echoed by park ranger Brad Shilling, who believes in carefully maintaining the City’s sport routes, considering them vertical trails.
I DANGLE LIKE A CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT
Twenty feet. Spreadeagled, and balanced precariously, I lack the strength to push up to the next hold. Climbing really hadn’t looked this hard. Face, chest, forearms, thighs are pressed against the absolutely unyielding roughness of the rock. Climbing is an analytic event, the chess of the sporting world. And I am about to be checkmated, although I have all the advantages the older guys never had: super-sticky shoes, a fixed anchor, and a Starbucks 10 minutes away. >>>