I stare at my new acquaintance, not sure what to say. Behind us, massive walls of terra cotta sandstone capped with black lava crouch beneath an azure sky. Scatterings of volcanic rock dot the hillsides, and to the south are the petrified sand dunes. We’re standing in a dirt parking lot at the Dog House, one of 14 crags at Snow Canyon State Park, outside of St. George, Utah. Here, at the convergence of the Colorado Plateau, the Mojave Desert, and the Great Basin, the atmosphere is high-desert surreal.
“This is for real?” I ask.
“Skinwalkers are a dark part of my heritage,” the old man says, glancing sporadically at his two daughters, who wait in the truck. “Many young people don’t believe the old stories, but my family knows. We’ve had encounters with black magic.”
An alabaster Mormon Temple dominates the skyline of downtown St. George, a peaceful, Leave-It-To-Beaver-esque church- and tourism-based community. Brigham Young brought the Church of Latter Day Saints to St. George in 1861, and today over 75 percent of the population is Mormon. St. George is one of the fastest-growing retirement communities in the country, and is reputed to have the highest
concentration of cops in Utah; crime is virtually non-existent, and people commonly leave cars and homes unlocked at night. The town frowns on all nefarious activities, and the Blarney Stone, St. George’s only bar, caters to a very small clientele of locals and the occasional visiting climber.
Tourists and RV warriors flock here from around the country, and a multitude of signs indicates the remaining miles to Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, and Las Vegas, 120 miles distant. St. George is the LDS equivalent of Daytona Beach, and young Mormons come to party here during their spring breaks or before decamping for their overseas mission, adding to the tourist mayhem. During spring months St. George Boulevard is the place to see and be seen among the LDS “in” crowd.
Among climbers, St. George has been touted as “the land of 10,000 bolts,” a moniker that isn’t far off. Word of newly discovered crags circulates quickly among the closely knit community of roughly a dozen resident climbers, and new walls are developed at a feverish pace. The climate makes St. George an obvious winter cragging destination, but what separates it from other areas is its wealth of moderate, safely bolted routes on three types of stone, sandstone, limestone, and basalt.
So why isn’t St. George better known? The answer lies in geography: the nearest population centers for climbers — Las Vegas; the Wasatch Front, Utah; and Flagstaff, Arizona — each boast several lifetimes’ worth of climbable stone. “I like St. George, but I have to consider how much time I’m gonna spend driving, and how much time I’m gonna spend climbing,” says Jeff Pederson, owner of The Quarry rock gym in Provo, Utah. “Same thing’s true for people on the Vegas side … and the ratings are softer at Red Rocks.”
“The VRG is the whole reason for climbing around here,” says Jorge Visser with a jovial laugh. “The rest is what you do on rest days, or where you take girls.” Visser, a So-Cal native widely recognized as the father of St. George climbing, relocated here in 1991 to escape Los Angeles and be closer to the nearby Virgin River Gorge (VRG), which during the early 1990s was America’s hotspot sport-climbing venue. “I came to be with Jorge,” says Lauren Lee, one of America’s top female competition climbers, “but St. George has its own charm. It opened my eyes to outside climbing.”
Though the initial draw of St. George was the VRG, it wasn’t long before climbers realized the closer-to-home climbing potential, which featured the blessed absence of noisy I-15 and its omnipresent trucks. Visser’s first contribution, a 5.11c bouldering traverse at Pioneer Park, on the northern edge of town, exposed many locals to climbing and turned the park into a local gathering spot for would-be climbers. In 1993 Visser met Todd Perkins, a now 30-year-old guide, and together they developed the Chuckawalla Wall. Perkins, originally from northern Utah, came to St. George to attend Dixie College, but it wasn’t long before Perkins was hanging out with Visser and VRG pioneer Randy Leavitt, down on the weekends from San Diego. Soon Perkins bought a drill and began his mission to develop St. George’s climbing potential.
“Chuckawalla brought climbing to St. George,” says Visser. The 60-foot-high wall is a steep, well-used, west-facing sandstone crag where it’s common to experience sunny, 60-degree temps well into January. A chain of distant mountains rises on the northern horizon, and a series of mesas and caves lie to the east. For a visiting climber from a colder biome, the Chuckawalla Wall is as much a celebration of sunshine as it is of sandstone; the approach is measured in feet, not miles, and the stone is almost always warm to the touch. As the wall is situated just a mile from town, locals ride their bikes to Chuckawalla on lunch breaks or crank out post-work burns.
Climbs like Dirtbag (5.10a) and Tombstone Bullets (5.10c/d) feature big moves off comfortable, sinker pockets, but a quick trip left reveals crimpy and intricate routes like Garden of Eden (5.10d) or Three Black Bears (5.13b). Second Coming (5.12a) is the premiere route on the wall, challenging climbers with a slopey, technical opener to a pumpy, overhanging arête. While the climbing is now super fun at Chuckawalla, it’s interesting to note that layers of mud and loose choss had to be excavated before pockets and holds were revealed, and even today, holds continue to “evolve.”
A mile northeast of the Chuckawalla Wall lies the Turtle Wall, an east-facing sandstone crag jutting from the side of a prominent mesa. Secluded from the road, routes on Turtle Wall are more athletic than those at Chuckawalla; massive jugs punctuate blank expanses of sandstone, and while the moves are powerful, even the 5.11s reward you with comfortable rests between moves. Director of Humor Affairs (5.11a) ascends a bulging, sun-soaked wall of buckets before giving way to a vertical face. Banana Dance (5.11d) climbs a prominent, arching arête through some hectic clips, but promises a no-hands stem after battling the overhang. Tortuga (5.12a) features powerful, thuggy moves off big huecos and solid crimps before rearing back to a steep, sandy, footwork-intensive slab. Like most crags in St. George, Chucka-walla and Turtle Wall contain roughly 15 to 20 routes, making for only a day or two worth of climbing. Visitors need to be patient with the geography of St. George. Though the crags are worthy, they’re small and spread out.
The Chuckawalla Wall, Turtle Wall, and Black Rocks — a basalt escarpment with three- to four-bolt sport routes — are collectively known as the Paradise Canyon crags, and, along with Snow Canyon and Pioneer Park are situated inside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. The Reserve is a 62,000-acre refugia that was established as a collaborative effort between Washington County, the BLM, the State of Utah, Utah State Institution Trust Lands Administration, US Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy in 1996 to provide habitat primarily for the desert tortoise, but also for other sensitive species. A wood fence describes the perimeter of Paradise Canyon, and chicken wire anchored at ground level prevents the endangered tortoises from escaping. Climbing here predates the Reserve, and climbers are allowed to use the land on the stipulation that they follow the rules.
Mesas and canyons divide the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and span the full spectrum of colors as the sun follows its daily migration westward. The air is still, at peace with the land and the stone, yet pregnant with an electric charge of possibility. Lowering back to earth after battling a late-afternoon pitch on the Turtle Wall, I let evening’s serenity mesh with post-climbing euphoria. The dry smell of the desert returns. Magentas and golds stain the western horizon, and our brightly colored climbing gear contrasts with the organic tones of our environment. Shadows flicker against the hulking sandstone, and I start at a figure in the periphery of my eyesight. It’s just a coyote, lurking and then vanishing, but I sleep poorly that night, out under the desert stars.
People’ll bolt the shit outta something, but they won’t let you climb it,” says Isaac Caldiero, 21, and a full-time climber, one afternoon at the Utah Hills. No climbing area is without controversy, and St. George is no exception. As soon as new areas are developed, red tags are tied to the first bolt on “project” routes, frustrating climbers on both sides of the ethics fence. “Red-tagging makes sense on sketchy, loose routes that need cleaning; otherwise it’s selfish,” says Visser.
“If I develop a crag, I should have as much time as I need for the FA,” argues Todd Goss, area guidebook author and owner of Paragon guiding service. Goss, a Maine native, moved to St. George in 1992, drawn to the desert and the area’s untapped climbing potential. Goss estimates that he’s bagged nearly 400 FAs around St. George in the past decade — an average of about 50 routes a year — two-thirds of which are sub-5.11. Yet on page 70 of his own guidebook, Goss cites the following proverb, penned by an unknown sage: “There is no limit to the good man can do if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”
Some of climbing’s biggest names have nabbed the FAs of red-tagged routes around St. George, inciting the usual resentment. One example is Breaking the Law, a project that Salt Lake hardman Tim Wagner partially bolted in a ground-up effort, but later abandoned. Jeff Pederson then secured Wagner’s permission to add bolts in 1996. Pedersen spent several days working it over the next several years, but had forsaken the climb, believing it to be just out of his league. On a road trip in autumn 2001, Dave Graham ignored the route’s red-tag and snagged the first ascent. “I’d be surprised if Graham didn’t know it was my project,” Pederson says. “Joe [Kinder] saw me on it the year before and knew it was my route — he was there when Graham sent it.” While Graham rated Breaking the Law 5.14b, Jason Campbell cranked the second ascent in four burns, despite a six-month hiatus from climbing, calling it “easy 5.13d at best.” “In 100 years people’ll remember Fred Beckey — nobody’ll care who Dave Graham was,” Goss concludes.
Climbers who aren’t concerned with red-tagged 5.14s and just want to enjoy user-friendly moderate routes will be more interested in Crawdad Canyon, a private “climbing park” on the northern side of the Pine Valley Range. Bisected by a naturally heated river and a grove of cottonwood trees, Crawdad Canyon also boasts a swimming pool and greasy-spoon grill that accommodates climbers and non-climbers alike, making for humorous cross-pollination during summer months when multitudes descend on the park to swim and scarf fried food. Crawdad Canyon houses almost 200 routes, half of which are 5.10 or easier, and range in height from 40 to 60 feet. In the interest of pleasing paying clients, many holds have been blatantly chipped or enhanced, but the park is still good fun. For an entry fee of $7.50 ($4.00 during the “off season” summer), climbers can hone their skills on safe trade routes in a dreamy climbing atmosphere. Everyone must sign a liability release form, agree not to trad climb, boulder, or free solo, and agree to watch their language. (The latter rule is often overlooked by sailor-mouthed climbers about to take the whip.)
The most exciting climbs on St. George limestone are the multi-pitch and rope-stretcher routes on walls such as the Beaver Dam and the Phalanx of Will. Perkins, in particular, has invested countless hours and thousands of dollars here, and jokingly admits that his “credit card company owns a lot of these routes.” The Beaver Dam, which he established between 1997 and 1998, is a 400-foot headwall of shale-encrusted Kaibab limestone perched atop an exposed hillside above town, and contains several five-pitch 5.11s and 5.12s. Two unconfirmed 5.14 pitches grace the wall, some of the only multi-pitch 5.14 limestone routes in the United States.
The Phalanx of Will is a freestanding limestone pillar situated 45 minutes south of town on the Arizona Strip. The slopes below the Phalanx are rife with fossils, and people have found round, opaque “Moqui Marbles” here, too. In the Hopi language, “Moqui” means “dearly departed one.” Legend maintains that the deceased ancestors of the Hopi play games with these marbles at night, when their spirits are allowed to visit earth. By sunrise the sprits must return to the afterlife, but the marbles are left behind to assure their relatives that they are well. The Phalanx is also the location cited by my Navajo acquaintance in his Skinwalker story, and scores of other spooky encounters trace back to the Arizona Strip, a place as desolate as the middle of the ocean.
The Phalanx is perched atop a steep escarpment of loose and fiercely sharp limestone scree. The formation begs to be climbed, but its powers of intimidation can run circles with your imagination. A third-class scramble is required to reach the uncomfortable belays, and a constant barrage of loose stones from above makes one wonder if the Phalanx was bolted solely for its location. Closer inspection, however, reveals crimps, pinches, and slopey jugs. For a climber seeking a wilderness sport crag — and a four-wheeling approach adventure — a visit to the Phalanx will prove unforgettable.
Twenty miles south of town our caravan of pick-ups bears left off I-91 onto a rambling dirt track leading to a series of nine limestone crags known as the Utah Hills. The road is bumpy, and around us is the desert, quiet under a January sky. Juniper and sage grow in abundance, and a few scraggly Joshua trees fight to survive in the northernmost tip of their range.
The road rises gently in front of us and an eerie, unsettled atmosphere enshrouds the barren, little-visited landscape. Locals have told me of the “holes in the ground” out here; rumor has it that Vegas hit men sometimes escort their “clients” into the Utah Hills for “nature walks.”
We come to a skating stop and I follow the glance of my friend and climbing partner, Tiago Reis; a half-mile away to our right is a massive shield of limestone rising several hundred feet to a dramatic, triangular summit. My palms involuntarily sweat. A handful of two-pitch projects grace the wall’s left end, and even the Diamond’s right-side concentration of single-pitch, slabby 5.10s and thin, gently overhanging 5.12s is intimidating.
We slowly motor over the gravel track, passing a small grass clearing and an abandoned campsite, the only sign of human presence aside from the track. Surrounding us are limestone outcroppings that promise future climbs. A melancholy silence enshrouds us as we pause, and we soon continue toward the Soul Asylum.
Twelve routes lead up the Soul Asylum’s steep east face of huecoed limestone. We hike around to the right and enter a tight cul-de-sac that serves as the belay for Orion (5.10b/c) and Petrified (5.10d), two elegant slabs that link the secluded alcove to an exposed headwall. Tiago ties in and gives me the nod, barely containing his excitement. Loading my Grigri, I accidentally brush my hand against the wall and a thin trickle of blood oozes from torn skin. This razor-sharp limestone could easily double as a cheese grater. Reis just smiles and begins stemming up the alcove, pausing briefly at the delicate crux before finding the key undercling, and smoothly transitioning onto a steeper face.
Later we drive back to the Snakepit for a few late-afternoon pitches. My friends rope up, but my torn digits sideline me for the rest of the day. I console myself that by forgoing any more sharp limestone, I’ll have enough skin left to savor a half-day at Turtle Wall and Chuckawalla before commencing the long drive east. To stay warm I scramble up a loose third-class gully in hopes of enjoying a quiet sunset.
I reach the summit as the sun slumps below a thin cloud layer, my vantage point revealing a vast desert of sharply rising hills and watchtowers of exposed limestone. Stuffing my hands in my jacket, I notice a pile of fresh animal scat a few feet away. The droppings belong to a coyote or a feral cat, but there are no discernable tracks in the rocky soil. Besides, why would the animal climb this mountain? There’s nothing up here except the view — a direct line of sight down on the dirt track and our trucks.
Recalling the Navajo man’s Skinwalker story, I shiver in the vacuum-like silence. Imagination begins to fill in the massive void created by the absolute silence. My rationalization that the story is just folklore was more convincing when I was in the parking lot, surrounded by friends.
I try to enjoy the sunset but my imagination soon wins, conjuring disturbing images of something watching us climbing all afternoon. I force a laugh to break the heavy silence, but realize that I’ve already started to retreat. Moving quickly over the loose rock, I head back toward my friends, and concoct a flimsy story about not wanting to get lost in the dark.
St. George sits roughly 200 miles southwest of Salt Lake City and 120 miles northeast of Las Vegas on Interstate 15. There is a small airstrip in town, but most people fly into either Salt Lake or Vegas and rent a car.
St. George is best from late fall to early spring. Summers are hot, with highs pushing 110 degrees during July and August. Luckily, St. George boasts crags at myriad elevations, so it’s possible to climb year round.
Most of the climbing in St. George is located on BLM land, with four notable exceptions: the Paradise Canyon crags, Snow Canyon, and Pioneer Park are situated inside the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve (redcliffsdesertreserve.com), and Crawdad Canyon (crawdadcanyon.com) is operated on private land.
Downtown St. George is centrally located between the various crags and has several burrito joints and coffee shops. Restaurants and hotels can be found on St. George Boulevard, or by contacting the St. George Chamber of Commerce (stgeorgechamber.com). If you need a new pair of shoes or just some friendly Beta, Bo Beck and the crew at the Outdoor Outlet (800-726-8106) can usually provide assistance.
Paragon Climbing Instruction, operated by Todd Goss, is the premiere guiding service in St. George, and offers instruction as well as guided climbing (435-673-1709).
Camping and accommodations
Camping is free on BLM land, and permits can be acquired at Snow Canyon State Park for $14 per night. The nearby Virgin River Casino (virginriver.com) in Mesquite, Nevada, offers rooms for as little as $19 during weeknights ($29 a night for weekends), and boasts a massive buffet and laundry machines. Hotels can be found along St. George Boulevard, or through the Chamber of Commerce.
St. George is a quiet town that falls asleep way early. For folks seeking bright lights, Vegas is less than a two-hour drive. The ghost towns of Silver Reef, Harrisburg, and Grafton are interesting, and nature lovers are encouraged to check out the sandstone wonders of nearby Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.
Todd Goss’s 2000 guidebook, Rock Climbs of Southwest Utah and the Arizona Strip (Sharp End Press, sharpendbooks.com/guidebooks.html) is the best guidebook to St. George, and also contains Beta on the Virgin River Gorge.
David Schmidt is a Contributing Editor at Climbing and a New Hampshire-based climber and freelance writer.