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
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While I dangle like a Christmas ornament, Mildrew points out short walls to the west, which are popular bouldering sites. Bouldering requires not much more than climbing shoes, chalk for friction, and a crash pad, because a climber “solves boulder problems” close to the ground. “It tends to be maximum-effort climbing, with a route’s-worth of problems and difficulties packed into 10 feet,” says Marc Hanselman.
At 31, Hanselman has gained a reputation for his mountaineering skills and pioneering approach. He leads expeditions all summer for Sawtooth Mountain Guides; in his free time, he scouts new routes. His goal this season is to redpoint—climb without falling—all the routes he set last year.
A Wood River Valley native, Hanselman has climbed all over the West, Australia, Japan, and Thailand, but he always returns to Idaho.
“As a resource,” he tells me, “the area’s still growing. Reid (Dowdl) is still new-routing in the Sawtooths. We’ve been busy new-routing at Castle Rocks and at the Channel. There will continue to be new things to climb, which is why I like it. So much has not yet been discovered.”
In 2003, Castle Rocks near the City was opened to climbers, and more than 25 sport routes have been set in the Lava Tubes, caves hidden in the lava rubble 20 miles south of Hailey. Five years ago, local climbers discovered the nearby Channel, a winding basalt slot canyon carved by the Big Wood River. Eric Leidecker calls the Channel “a world-class bouldering environment that elevates Ketchum as a destination for climbers.”
Eric Leidecker likes bouldering because it’s convenient, and it’s something that can be done alone.
“Or,” points out Hanselman with a sly look, “with kids. Eric takes his kids down there and they hang out while he climbs.” Four-year-old Sasha has already made her debut ascent of the 5.5 Super Slabs behind Redfish Lake. “She’ll climb anything,” her mother Gretchen tells me. “But she’s not very good at ball sports.”
“I sucked at ball sports,” Hanselman offers with a nod of recognition. “Being a skinny kid growing up, climbing was something I could do. I could scale a rock, and the football players couldn’t.”
His comment led me to ask Smith Kennedy the same question, and he used strikingly similar words. “I sucked at most traditional team sports,” he recalls. “Part of what drew me to climbing was the noncompetitive nature of it. It was more about competing with oneself than competing against others.”
To me, this is an epiphany. It had never occurred to me that not being good at football would be a reason for someone to feel inadequate, like an outsider. That it might motivate them to find and nurture other strengths; that it might inspire them to climb mountains. Why had I been scared of climbers?
AT THE TOP, I AM UNEXPECTEDLY PROUD
“Just one more move and you’re there,” calls Mildrew. I slip my foot into a crack, locate a small bump with frozen fingers, and haul myself gracelessly over the lip. I am unexpectedly proud of myself, mostly for not giving up. As the blood painfully reenters my fingertips, I’m reminded of the way Hanselman had kept coming back to a question I’d asked 10 minutes before, and I could see how his method of formulating answers is tied intrinsically to the way he coaxes new routes from a rock face.
“If climbing is your passion,” he mused, “you need to be pretty versatile.”
Writer Betsy Andrews still cannot do a pull-up. But she is taking Natasha Sevilla’s climbing class at Y Rocks in Hailey.