Not for Masochists Only: Vedauwoo, Wyoming

Toughen up at this long-time capital of offwidth climbing

 

Zac Robinson ignores his colorful surroundings and focuses on MaxiLash (5.11a) on the Nautilus formation in Vedauwoo.

Over my many years climbing wide cracks in Vedauwoo (pronounced “vee-duh-voo”), Wyoming, I have observed phenomena unlike anywhere else. I have wandered into paint-ball battles that could be mistaken for military takeovers, approached routes surrounded by not-so-distant gunfire (we think it was a campground neighbor who brought an AR-15 for “self-defense”), witnessed a tree get hit by lightning and burst into flame while mid-route, and observed an SUV stop on the road for a bull moose, only to have the giant creature give its door a solid kick and walk away. I even climbed (once!) with an offwidth fanatic who carried a gun on his harness while climbing, explaining, “You never know what could happen up there.”

But, thankfully, gunwielding locals and ornery wildlife aren’t the only things you’ll encounter at Vedauwoo. Nestled between Laramie and Cheyenne on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming, Vedauwoo has something no other area in the U.S. has: almost innumerable offwidth routes from 5.5 to 5.13. The long, splitter climbs in the Utah desert favor climbers with patience and endurance, but here, those with bull-headed determination and a high pain tolerance find more success. Most climbers consider widecrack enthusiasts (including myself) masochists, but once you’ve mastered basic techniques and prepared for war with the right clothing, tape, and gear, offwidths can be enjoyable for all climbers. Vedauwoo, the veritable Holy Land for wide cracks, is the place to get your offwidth on.

At over 8,000 feet, the ca. 640-acre Vedauwoo is surrounded by forests of aspen and ponderosa, specked with beaver ponds, and patrolled by red-tailed hawks, deer, elk, moose, and mountain lions. The area’s most distinguishing landmarks, however, are the outcrops of Sherman granite that have been sculpted into rounded, fissured domes by eons of weathering—and are stacked with crack climbs. The 1.4-billion-year-old rock glows with a pinkish hue slashed in spots by brightly colored lichen; the cracks often flare and are lined with fiercely sharp quartz and feldspar crystals. They have a reputation for being some of the most physically demanding offwidths in North America, and they have lured climbers since the 1940s.

After World War II, a handful of ex-soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division registered at the University of Wyoming and helped found the University of Wyoming Outing Club. These Vedauwoo pioneers, trained to fight and survive in rugged terrain and winter conditions, were exceptionally skilled outdoorsmen. The majority of their climbing was fourth-class scrambling, with a goal of summiting formations via their easiest routes. From the start, they employed full-body techniques inside the chimneys and wide slots. In 1949, mathematician and climber Hassler Whitney (also known for the first ascent of the classic Whitney-Gilman Ridge (5.7) on New Hampshire’s Cannon Cliff) led a snow-covered ascent up the north side of a large blocky formation with Walt Sticker. It became known as Hassler’s Hatbox and was one of the first areas to see development.

Zac Robinson gets a faceful of Left Torpedo Tube (5.10+) on the Nautilus.

Technical free climbing started in the next decade with some aid work being done in the late ’50s. The first recorded climb in Vedauwoo dates back to 1953, and soon after, other routes popped up, like Hassler’s Hatbox (5.6), established in 1954 by John Lund and protected by bongs and angles. Two years later, Grove Way, Ted Nast, Dan Doody, and Andy Ryan put up the now-popular Ted’s Trot (5.7) at 5.5 A1, using only small pins. Several years passed, and the goal shifted from merely summiting formations to establishing distinct lines. One of Vedauwoo’s most popular and repeated routes, Edward’s Crack (5.7), went up in 1958 by Jerry Edwards and Ray Jacquot. “We were climbing in mountaineering boots on 120-foot ropes and three-quarter-inchwide pitons, using Bedayn aluminum carabiners,” says Jacquot. Skip Harper, a prolific first ascensionist and co-author of Heel and Toe: The Climbs of Greater Vedauwoo, Wyoming, adds, “It was the old, hardman style of climbing.”

Development sped up in the 1960s, with almost 30 routes established between 1965 and 1966. Rick Horn and Ned Hallein made the first ascent of the offwidth dihedral Mainstreet (5.7 A2) in 1963 using two bolts, knifeblade pitons, and wider pins. At this time, only the upper portion of the routes was done free, but the climbers speculated that eventually the bottom sections would be done without aid techniques. In 1965, John Horn put up the popular Horn’s Mother (now 5.11a) using hompemade oak wedges for pins. Horn made these by hanging out the door of a moving Volkswagen and grinding two-by-fours into wedges on the highway surface.

With the 1970s emerged the free climbing revolution, where climbers country-wide made first free ascents of existing aid routes, and Vedauwoo was no different. “[Vedauwoo] was part of the great American explosion of crag climbing. It was the Zeitgeist,” says Robert Kelman, guidebook author and leading first ascensionist, having established nearly 80 routes in the area. In the mid-1970s, both visiting and local climbers sieged many of Vedauwoo’s harder cracks, including the first free ascent of the highly sought-after Mainstreet (5.10a) by Coloradan Mark Hesse. Jim Halfpenny recorded 88 routes in his 1971 A Climber’s Guide to Southeastern Wyoming; 11 years later, that number jumped to 208 in Crack Country Revisited: A Climbing Guide to Vedauwoo, by Layne Kopischka.

Doug Cairns, a Missourian studying mechanical engineering at the University of Wyoming, was “the undisputed local hardman of the 1970s,” says Mike Friedrichs, a protégé of Kopischka who eventually became an accomplished Vedauwoo climber. Some of Cairns’ best achievements include Max Factor (5.11c), when he teamed up with Jay Anderson in 1977, and Nitrogen Narcosis (5.11a), which he put up with pupil (and future legend) Bob Scarpelli in 1978.

Anderson, a young climber from California, moved to Laramie to study geology. He quickly hooked up with Cairns, and they focused their energies on the area’s finger and hand cracks. However, in the fall of 1977, Anderson followed “Hot Henry” Barber, a prominent climber and outspoken advocate of clean climbing, up Mainstreet, and “the switch turned on!” Anderson says. He developed a “gluttonous offwidth jones,” and after working steadily through many of the existing wide cracks, Anderson became enamored with a magnificent, gaping, 40-foot offwidth roof that he dubbed Lucille after the blues master B.B. King’s guitar. This coveted roof on Hassler’s Hatbox would require 10 years of projecting before completion.

Anderson graduated from school in Laramie without ticking Lucille, but he returned every year with Friedrichs. During that time, climbing protection evolved tremendously. Initial attempts on the roof were protected with two large hexes and a precarious six-inch tube chock. Later, Anderson came armed with homemade big cams, and by 1988, he and Friedrichs wrapped up Lucille using modern Big Bros and a Yates Big Dude (large cams that are no longer made). Lucille was not the first offwidth in Vedauwoo, but then rated at 5.13, it was the hardest and most committing. Anderson soon wrote an essay about his 10-year affair, which, coupled with an eight-year gap between its first and second ascents, created an almost cult-like admiration for the route. Lucille was finally repeated in 1996 by the late and legendary offwidth master Craig Luebben, who promptly onsighted the intimidating line—with a hangover—stating in Climbing No. 179, “I’ve done 5.12 offwidths that seemed harder, so you be the judge.” Now, 25 years later, Lucille has seen fewer than 10 repeats and has settled at 5.12d.

One of Anderson’s most significant contributions to offwidth history was coaxing the fierce and intimidating local Bob Scarpelli over to the ways of the wide, and he eventually became the most influential climber in Vedauwoo history. Scarpelli was not initially interested in offwidths. In fact, like Anderson, he hated them. Anderson likens Scarpelli’s wide-crack reluctance to “pulling teeth! He liked fist cracks, but nothing wider. Once, after a week in Yosemite, he looked at me and said, ‘Everything here is smearing or offwidth—I hate this place.’” But Scarpelli was destined to become an offwidth virtuoso: Luebben once described him as “more tenacious than a pit bull, with boxing glove–sized fists, Popeye forearms, puny knees, the flexibility of a ballerina, and the power of an NFL linebacker.” Recently, Scarpelli said, “[Climbing offwidths] is like shooting cocaine. It scares the f*** out of you the first time, but pretty soon, it’s what you live for.”

While Anderson moved on to first ascents of wide cracks throughout the West, Scarpelli, hooked for life, uncovered a ruthless collection of offwidths in southeastern Wyoming, resolutely establishing himself as the “King of Vedauwoo.” He was driven, innovative, and creative. (He is also quite the character, known for intimidating the hell out of Boulder, Coloradans who make the two-hour drive to test their mettle. I met him shortly after climbing Lucille for the eighth ascent. He looked at me with a mischievous expression and devious smile and said, “So you’re the girl who climbed Lucille? Must not be too hard if a girl did it.”) He raised the bar by climbing some of the world’s most grueling vertical testpieces, including the 5.11s Big Pink, Worm Drive, Muscle and Fitness, and Bad Girl’s Dream, and a few wicked (and rarely repeated) 5.12 roofs.

"Am I done yet?" Zac Robinson stuffs himself in Paddle-Wheeler (5.8) on Boat Rock.

Scarpelli regularly ventured into the Vedauwoo backcountry in search of new lines. It was there he found Squat, an eight-foot-long by six-inch-wide roof crack, one of his most significant discoveries. After getting to the base of the roof and unsuccessfully attempting a few arm-bars, he surmised that the line might not be climbable. However, on a later trip to Yosemite, Scarpelli witnessed the invert stacking techniques recently invented by Randy Leavitt and Tony Yaniro [see sidebar on p. 23]. He returned to Vedauwoo, and in 1983 solved Squat’s puzzling sequence, giving it 5.12-, the hardest rating in the area to date. This ushered in the new-school, feet-over-your-head climbing in Vedauwoo. Although Lucille is better known—it was climbed in conventional offwidth style utilizing straight-up armbars and heel-toes—Squat was far more groundbreaking.

Scarpelli and others continued to establish hard wide cracks throughout the 1990s, and by this time, he had several protégés—the most successful being Brad Jackson. Jackson was the first to make a repeat of Scarpelli’s 1989 testpiece Trip Master Monkey (5.12b). The pair’s partnership culminated in the completion of Belly Full of Bad Berries in Indian Creek, Utah, which at 5.13a was then the hardest offwidth in the world. In the early 2000s, there were occasional ascents of many of Scarpelli’s most challenging wide cracks by Laramie local Justin Edl and Fort Collins, Colorado, climbers Jeremy Medley and Andy Johnson. Edl developed an extensive circuit of offwidth boulders such as Eight Ounces to Freedom (V9) and Desiderata (V5). Johnson, on only his second attempt, made Lucille’s third ascent in 16 years, in addition to establishing burly routes like Iron Maiden (5.11) and Bloodletting (5.11+), which epitomizes Vedauwoo wide cracks: It’s sustained, overhanging, flared, grainy, and sharp. And, as you might discover on more than one occasion in Vedauwoo, the sketchy 5.8 “walk-off” would be considered a route in most climbing areas.

There are now about 800 routes in Vedauwoo, with numerous bolted slabs, traditional climbs up to three pitches, crimpy faces, and plentiful boulder problems; those who have no interest in wide cracks will still enjoy the climbing here. But eschewing the wide at Vedauwoo is like going to Indian Creek and avoiding the crack climbs. This is not only the offwidth-climbing capital, but it’s also the perfect place to add significant ticks to your own climbing history.

  • Guidebook: Rock Climbing at Vedauwoo, Wyoming, by Robert B. Kelman ($23, rei.com); The Voo: Rock Climbing in Vedauwoo, by Zach Orenczak and Rachel Lynn ($35, extremeanglespublishing.com)
  • Get there: Vedauwoo is 16 miles southeast of Laramie off I-80. Turn off at exit 329/Vedauwoo Road; you can’t miss it.
  • Stay there: Vedauwoo sits in the Medicine Bow National Forest, where there is extensive free camping, unless specifically prohibited. Find more options, including fee sites, at fs.usda.gov.

Get Your Offwidth On

As you grovel through the grades on your Vedauwoo Offwidth Odyssey, keep in mind that the area is renowned for sandbagging. Approach anything that Scarpelli rates as 5.11 with prudence and the willingness to relinquish your ego… unless your fists are the size of No. 4 Camalots.

Edward’s Crack (5.7), Walt’s Wall
This prominent twopitch route runs the length of Walt’s Wall and is an unusually enjoyable introduction to Vedauwoo cracks. Start on perfect jams before you find yourself in the wide crux with solid gear throughout. Don’t be intimidated by the roof on pitch two—there is a “Thank God” hold above the crack.

Mother #1 (5.7+), Nautilus
This is your true initiation to Vedauwoo offwidths. The strenuous route is a sharp, flared, wide grovel that transitions into a steep hand crack. Arm-bars, chicken-wings, and heel-toe cams are required.

Upper Slot Right (5.7+), Nautilus
The Upper Slot is your Offwidths 101 final exam. It’s got a reputation for “regularly shutting down 5.10 climbers from Colorado,” says Jay Anderson. Study up on your heeltoe camming skills.

Fantasia (5.9), Poland Hill
This is a classic and sustained chicken-wing and arm-bar masterpiece. For better or worse, you will experience blue-collar offwidthing at its finest as you thrutch, suffer, and bleed. Jeff Heath and Jerry Sublett established this in 1970, which guidebook author Jim Halfpenny described as “ushering in a new era of super-hard climbing.” Fantasia was the first route in southeastern Wyoming to be rated 5.10, but today it’s settled at 5.9.

Left Torpedo Tube (5.10d), Nautilus
Here’s the next step in your wide-crack-climbing apprenticeship: wildly flared, sharp, and ego-diminishing. It was established in 1973 by Ray Jardine, inventor of the Friend cam. Although predominantly a squeeze chimney, this route still requires wide techniques (squeeze chimneys are generally considered to be a sub-category of offwidths). Figure out how to place a Big Bro before crawling into the Left Torpedo Tube.

Mainstreet (5.10a), Coke Bottle
Every aspiring offwidth climber should set his or her sights on Mainstreet. Although the crux is short and takes good gear, the long pitch widens to a runout squeeze chimney. Mike Friedrichs notes, “I always felt [Mainstreet] was the gateway drug to the harder offwidths. After you’ve led this one, you’re in the club.”

Worm Drive (5.11b), Worm Drive Wall
Here’s another humbling Bob Scarpelli tour de force. The route is challenging for the grade and my personal favorite to show to cocky offwidth climbers. As you desperately battle the short roof, keep in mind that Scarpelli eventually free soloed this beast. More than one expert wide-crack climber has been shut down on Worm Drive.

Big Pink (5.11b), Plumb Line Crag
Try your hand on Big Pink at the end of your Vedauwoo trip. It’s the ultimate sandbag, and you will remember everything you hate about wide cracks while struggling up this pitch with a combination of heel-toe cams, double fist stacks, and arm-bars. (And by hate, I mean love—remember, being a dedicated offwidth climber is embracing the suffering!)

Lucille (5.12d or 5.13a), Hassler’s Hatbox
You can’t call yourself a wide crack climber without paying your respects to Lucille. The overhanging squeeze chimney will lure you into her realm and attempt to cast you into space, but with a little bit of patience and some chicken-wings, you might be the next one to win her over.

Leavittation: History of offwidth climbing's most groundbreaking moves

 

Randy Leavitt performing his namesake technique on Paisano Overhang (5.12c) in 1985. Photo by Karin Leavitt

In 1977, John Long of the Yosemite Stonemasters made the first ascent of a four- to six-inch-wide, 20-foot-long roof crack called Paisano Overhang on the Sunshine Face at Suicide Rock, California. The route was the area’s first 5.12, but that’s not what made it revolutionary. Long had burled his way through using two pairs of gloves and gobs of tape because the crack was too “off” for typical offwidth strategies. Randy Leavitt and Tony Yaniro, visionaries known for their hard-core training techniques, were mystified by the climb, and began preparing for it by climbing 45-foot-long concrete beams in a California parking garage that resembled real wide cracks. They worked out a unique system of hand/fist stacks and leg/calf locks that they dubbed “Leavittation”; it involved jamming the hands, bringing a knee up to “lock” it into the crack, and then hanging by that knee to shuffle the hands along the crack. They took this new method to Paisano Overhang to make its second and third ascents.

Leavittation is perhaps the single most groundbreaking technique in offwidth history. It presented a practical and even elegant alternative to the normal struggling and thrashing in wide cracks. Without the use of Leavittation, Bob Scarpelli could not have established his Vedauwoo masterpieces Squat or Trip Master Monkey. Leavittation is now a requisite skill for serious offwidth climbers, as well as the foundation for the radical feet-over-your-head inverted climbs like Belly Full of Bad Berries (5.13a), Gabriel (5.13c), and Century Crack (5.14b), all in Utah.

On the Flip Side

After you’ve mastered the vertical cracks, you’re ready to get head-over-heel-toe on the overhanging roof climbs. This list should keep you upside-down for at least a couple of seasons. These routes also provide some serious entertainment, as offwidth experts perform their circus-trick-style antics. And who knows—you just might find some extra inspiration and motivation.

Iron Maiden (5.11): A 10- to 12-foot, right-arching roof crack tests your patience and pain tolerance. Some say this sandbag is harder than Lucille.

Pretzel Logic (5.11c): A Scarpelli masterpiece. Climb a hand crack to a left-facing dihedral and big roof.

The Empty Suit (5.12a) Another hand crack to an offwidth corner. The crux is getting established in the roof.

Squat (5.12b): Short but grueling, this was put up by Scarpelli and unrepeated for 10 years. Test your Leavittation skills in the eight-foot-long roof. Scarpelli originally rated it 5.11b.

New Maps of Hell (5.12b): This climb has multiple cruxes: placing gear behind an expanding flake, the potential of getting cleaved if you fall, and the possibility of getting hantavirus in the rodent nest at the start. Don’t trust the one old bolt.

Trip Master Monkey (5.12b): A finger and hand crack through a roof culminates in a dyno to a swing to get established upside-down. Save some energy for the final moves off a chickenhead into another squeeze.

The Wing (5.12): A steep and severely flared roof with the possibility of hitting your head if you fall out of the inversion.

Spatial Relations (5.13a): Establish yourself in the roof with a head jam, and then drop onto a hand stack and swing your feet over your head. If your right foot feels “solid” after inverting, it may never come back out.

The Forever War (5.13 R): Ninety feet long, steep, and sustained, with 15 to 20 feet of inverted climbing.

 



Comments

Awesome article!

Kari Post - 08/03/2013 5:55:44

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