The Sandstone Alps
Two ramps led up into an expanse of sandstone, giving no clue which, if either, was our route. My partners, Kennan Harvey and Tim Gott, were belaying far below. Between us, the rope ran through one cam in a sandy flake.
It was our first day of climbing at the Eastern Reef, in Utah’s San Rafael Swell, and the route was called Way of the Increpids. We weren’t sure what that name meant, nor if the route had ever been repeated. We did know that it topped out on an appealing sandstone fin more than 1,000 feet above the rope-up point. The rock was alternately yellow, tan, red, and white—and very soft. The route was typical of the area: pitch after pitch of runout friction climbing, following vague weaknesses up waves of grainy slickrock.
Slickrock is the word for it. As gently angled as technical rock climbing gets, some of the formations conjured fantasies of skateboard or mountain-bike descents. Except for short crux sections, our route was like extreme hiking. Kennan held the view that if you broke a hold or slipped on these dangerously runout pitches, you could throw yourself flat on the rock and you’d stick, like human Velcro.
I didn’t want to try it. It was true, though, about the friction: Despite the lack of runners, the sheer length of rope dragging across the coarse stone made the end of each pitch a strenuous tug of war.
I pulled up a big loop of rope, chucked the slack onto the slab next to me, and with the yoke momentarily lifted, made a thin move to get started up the left ramp. I climbed the groove above—enjoyable 5.2 stemming, the best part of the pitch—to a small ledge, where shouts from below indicated I had run out of rope.
Now I was sure that we were off route. There were no possible belay anchors. We had a hand drill and a few bolts with us, but they were in Tim’s pack and our double ropes were both clipped through my lone piece of pro, making it very problematic to haul up any gear. If I pulled one rope through and attempted a toss, the coils would land in a pile far from Tim.
Despite this ominous-sounding scenario, it was hard to take the low-angle terrain too seriously. After an inconclusive exchange of yelling, I decided we would simulclimb until the anchor situation improved. If someone slipped, I supposed we’d all just belly-down flat and hope for the best.
Despite its unusual sandstone summits, with long routes at accessible grades, the San Rafael Reef attracts few climbers. This isn’t because the area is terribly remote. An interstate highway runs nearby, and the closest town is only half an hour’s drive away: Green River, Utah, population about 1,000. It’s a run-down, frontage-road sort of town comprised of truck stops, cafés, sketchy-looking seasonal raft-guiding outfits, and roadside stands vacant until the summer watermelon harvest; it’s no Moab. Ghost motels and shells of old-style gas stations dot the strip in Green River, with not a mountain-bike shop in sight. The knick-knack aisle at the truck stop sells mudflap girls instead of Kokopellis.
The climbing area lies about 15 miles west, south of where Interstate 70 cuts dramatically through the uplift of the San Rafael Swell. If the light is good, most climbers gaze curiously at the slabs when driving west through here, but few ever stop. Of the few that do stop and climb, many vow never to return.
Kennan, Tim, and I knew all this, speculating that the Reef might be the least popular climbing area in Utah. But we came anyway, each with a personal agenda. Kennan thought the colorful slabs would make for great photographs, though he was worried about the low-angle climbing. For Tim, on brief leave from family life in North Carolina, this was the only climbing outing of the year. He was free as a bird for a few short days, and the higher and the wilder the climbing got, the more he liked it, as long as he didn’t have to lead and it wasn’t too difficult. As for me, a longtime desert explorer, I was looking for something completely different than familiar towers and splitter cracks. Long, easy, fast-paced climbs to wilderness summits sounded right to all of us. Plus, a few climbers we knew loved the place, and we were determined to find out why.
Fifty feet higher, feeling increpid, I reached a big ledge and followed it back, pulling like a draft horse against the rope drag. I found a pothole, sat down in a braced position, yelled a plea for caution that no one heard, and began to hip belay. Kennan and Tim reached me quickly, following simultaneously on our skinny twin ropes. They climbed some sections no-handed.
After our initial surprise at the risky tactics required, we settled into an alpine-like routine for a few more pitches— about five total, including the two we climbed before we lost the trail of belay bolts. Finally we reached a broad slickrock ledge, unroped, and scrambled the rest of the way to the top of the fin.
It was a true summit. To the west, the rock dropped vertically into a notch, beyond which lay another tall fin. Steep talus slopes led down on two sides into shadowy slot canyons that emptied toward the washes near our camp.
To the east the view was vast: a sprawling patchwork of squat mesas and desert crust, etched with washes and a few narrow dirt roads. On the far horizon we could see the La Sal Mountains above Moab, and to the southwest, the Abajo peaks above Indian Creek. To the north, distant semis glinted in the sun on I-70.
We were happy and proud, having completed our first route at the Reef—rated 5.6. As with every climb we did on the trip, a modest rating had delivered an immodest amount of satisfaction.
Unlike most parties who climb at the Reef, we had company. Topping out just behind us, by a parallel route, were Ben Folsom and Maura Hahnenberger, dedicated pioneers of the area who had agreed to help us. I enjoyed calling Ben “one of the world’s best Reef climbers,” and he always laughed.
Folsom and Lance Bateman were the Reef’s Salt Lake City A Team, responsible for the area’s hardest routes. These were something to behold. Often diagonaling five pitches or more up vertical, potholed faces, or finding their way onto hanging ramps way up the Reef’s slot canyons, these scarylooking face climbs ascended some of the wildest sandstone terrain I’ve ever seen climbed.
“The lines are unique, and the climbing, especially on the steeper routes, requires a knowledge of how to climb on the soft rock,” Folsom explains to me. “It’s a constant monitoring process of how much weight each point of contact with the rock can hold. I enjoy that type of technical climbing. To me it’s a very delicate balancing act that goes along with the balancing act of dealing with fear of exposure and falling.”
We didn’t partake in much hard climbing on this trip, but even the easy routes were far from what most climbers would consider safe. Huge runouts and soft rock are standard. It’s highly advisable for Reef climbers to carry some sort of emergency bolt kit, because if you stray beyond the welltraveled classics—like 1,000 Feet of Fun, Death by Chocolate, and… well, that’s about it—you eventually will find yourself off-route. Cracks of any sort are rare. Descents that have not been repeated since the Reef’s earliest climbs may feature single-bolt rappels. It is wild, rugged terrain, and even the approaches may require sketchy soloing and canyoneering.
With a bit of trepidation—they’ve had their beloved area dissed by other visitors—Folsom and Bateman agreed to meet us for the weekend. Folsom kept the best records of the area, in a series of remarkably organized notebooks. Bateman was vague in his route descriptions—but that was more just his personality than animosity toward visitors. Once Kennan, Tim, and I failed to bitch about how terrible the rock was, or how dangerous the routes, we were in. Folsom showed us to a sweet group camping spot, and we spent each night around the campfire, telling tall tales of hard climbing on soft rocks.
Rather than ask for tick lists, our basic plan was to climb aesthetic-looking lines to major landmarks and summits. We adopted this mountaineering-style approach from the area’s greatest pioneer, Paul Ross, who calls the Eastern Reef “the Sandstone Alps.”
Ross is a 74-year-old British expat with a first-ascent list that would fill this magazine (over 500 and counting), in Great Britain, New Hampshire (including the famous Prow on Cathedral Ledge and Vertigo on Cannon Cliff), and now the Utah canyonlands. A new-route addict since the 1950s, Ross was once a regular climbing partner of legendary Brits like Joe Brown and Chris Bonington. After retiring to Palisade, in western Colorado, Ross began climbing regularly in the Utah desert. Beginning in 2002, he systematically explored the striking—and previously untouched—slabs of the Eastern Reef, and in the 10 years since has done more than 150 new routes. Ross loved being able to cover so much virgin ground so quickly. The routes here are the longest in southeastern Utah, and as in the high mountains, most of the climbing is under 5.9.
The Sandstone Alps—with that phrase in mind, the whole Reef climbing experience made sense. Natural, eye-catching lines led up the major faces and ridges. The terrain is vast and undulating, so just as in mountaineering, conventional belaying may alternate with scrambling and simul-climbing, while anchors occasionally consist only of “a firm 1895 stance.” You move up pitch by pitch, or sometimes together, always keeping in mind the old adage, “the leader must not fall.” Often the second, too, must follow this rule.
Camp lay in a dirt crater near the mouth of Three Finger Canyon, the southernmost of the three major canyons that penetrate the Reef. The next big slot north is Uneva Mine Canyon, then Little Spotted Wolf, all with climbing. Between the main canyons are many distinct slabs and buttresses, plus narrower slots that cliff out high in the Reef, exposing big, steep walls. It all adds up to a vast amount of climbing terrain, and an explorer’s paradise.
One landmark near camp captured our attention. On the south wall of Three Finger Canyon, a rhinoceroshorn-looking thing jutted into the void, catching the early morning light when the canyon was in shadow, and showing up as a black silhouette in the afternoon. It looked like a novel “belay station in the sky,” but the approach climbing looked so horrendous that we gave up on the idea. Then, thumbing through Folsom’s loose-leaf notebook one morning, we learned that the horn was in fact a belay stance on a 5.8 route called Knights Errant. Adding to the intrigue, for the first ascent, Paul Ross had recruited his old friend, one of the world’s most famous living mountaineers. Clearly, if Sir Chris Bonington had come all the way from Britain to climb the Three Fingers rhino horn, it was worth an attempt.
The direct approach to the horn was a series of overhanging cracks that look so rotten and dangerous that we doubted even Bonington would attempt them. But out on the slabs to the left, a hanging ledge lay pasted to the steep and blank-looking sandstone. On closer inspection, the slabs were not as steep as they’d looked, and went at 5.6, with some wellprotected 5.8 climbing near the top.
In short order, Tim and I were lounging on our sought-after perch, halfway up the climb. On the summit push, however, conditions deteriorated. A section of slot thrashing on exploding footholds challenged my will to continue, until I recalled Ross’ concept of the area. I imagined Bonington battling upward, like he would on some ice-choked chimney in the Himalaya. Heat and sand replaced the cold and snow.
The trip was half over, so our next mission was to help Kennan do some serious photo shooting. My girlfriend, Jen Perez, was to arrive with two other climbers, Lizzy Scully and Scott Norris, but when I checked in with her by phone, she mentioned that she wasn’t driving her truck as planned. They’d be arriving in Lizzy’s van.
I became immediately apprehensive, as one does when events take a small turn that some part of your subconscious knows will irrevocably tip the scale of things. Scully’s van— “The Hooptie”—was a weak vehicle. She argued that it got great gas mileage and was awesome for camping in, but camp where? It had so little ground clearance that it bottomed out when entering suburban driveways. To allow it to enter into our plan was, in retrospect, not just a reckless oversight, but an actual affront to the area, a gesture of disregard for the good will the Reef had so far shown us.
We resupplied in Green River, rendezvoused with Jen, Scott, and Lizzy for a beer at Ray’s Tavern—so far, so good— then led the posse back toward the Reef. Beyond the highway, we turned onto some mellow dirt roads, taking it slow, but eventually noticed that we hadn’t seen the Hooptie for a while. We found it bogged down two miles back—for the second time, apparently. The road didn’t really get rough until a fork several miles further, but the Hooptie was proving to be even lamer than I’d remembered.
“Is that important?” Lizzy asked at the next major stop in the action. Scott had emerged from under the vehicle holding a large plastic panel that had been dragging from the undercarriage since the last minor wash. By now our distain for the Hooptie had softened into pity. We parked the battered minivan, piled all the gear we could fit into our truck, and in a couple of carries, shuttled the B Team to base camp.
Climbing’s magic moments are always fleeting, and though Jen sided with us, the footloose, go-with-it feeling that Kennan and Tim and I had found at the Reef soon faded. The weather turned: A violent sandstorm hit us the next evening, and then we actually got flash-flooded on our climb of the gully-like 1,000 Feet of Fun. Scully and Norris were good sports, at least in front of the camera, for approximately one and a half days. But it was clear that they just didn’t like the soft rock and runout pitches that are Reef climbing. Hated the whole experience, in fact.
Our campfire reverie gave way to sarcasm and contention. The distinction between sand and sandstone was much discussed. We were accused of a literal kind of sandbagging. The route we thought was a choice romp, they thought was a choss ramp. Some of us found the place totally enchanting, and some… just didn’t. In the end, we agreed on one thing: “The Reef is not for everyone.”
After a few climbs, Scully and Norris decided to leave, several days early, and headed to Castle Valley or Indian Creek. Once they were out of earshot we wished them a fine wilderness climbing experience—socializing on the Castleton traffic jams, or grooving at the drum circle at Bridger Jack. In our heart of hearts, though, we knew that the B Team had a point. There is some splitter sandstone in the Utah desert… but not here.
We waved goodbye to the Hooptie as it high-centered its way toward pavement and crowds and solid rock. Maybe there was something slightly wrong with us, but the softness of the rock actually made the climbing feel gentler. It made us feel at home. We turned our backs on the status quo, squinted up at the Reef, and geared up to climb another big, sandy slab, all by ourselves.
Mountainproject.com describes an extensive selection of routes at the Reef, but they are a bit hard to sort out, and the star ratings are all over the map.
1,000 Feet of Fun (5.6), 5 pitches, Three Finger Canyon; FA: Ben Folsom and Mark Owen, tandem solo up and down, December 2002; accidentally retrobolted (mostly anchors) by Paul Ross and Layne Potter during the second ascent, June 2003 With an easy approach, moderate climbing, and decent rock and protection, this is probably the most user-friendly route in the Reef. Protects with mid-sized cams, including the crux hueco climbing on pitch four. Much of the climbing is 5.0. Rappel the route with two 60m ropes.
Firebird (5.7), 3 pitches plus scrambling, Forgotten Buttress; FA: Ben Folsom & Maura Hahnenberger, November 2008 The Forgotten Buttress—just north of Little Spotted Wolf Canyon—is Ben Folsom’s gift to those who’d appreciate better-protected Reef climbing. There are three other generously equipped lines here (5.6 to 5.8), plus a sportier 5.10.
Runout Ridge (5.7), 5 pitches plus scrambling, Triple Buttress; FA: Paul Ross, Layne Potter, March 2006 This is an excellent introduction to truly R-rated Reef climbing, with mostly good rock and interesting position. There is one bolt about 100 feet up the first pitch, plus a little gear before that. If you find this pitch unpleasant, retreat with the knowledge that most Reef climbing will not be your cup of tea. The crux second pitch poses a comparable psychological challenge, and the rest of the route is easier cruising. The well-named Triple Buttress is the second formation north of Three Finger Canyon; Runout Ridge is the leftmost of three buttresses. Begin among boulders a short way up the slot canyon to the south. Rappel the route, with some downclimbing at the top.
Death By Chocolate (5.8), A0, 9 pitches; FA: Paul Ross, Layne Potter, September 2003 Long, clean, and probably the area’s second most popular route, this climbs the tall, striped slab that’s very conspicuous as you approach the Reef from Green River. Located two canyons south of Little Spotted Wolf, the slab is not so obvious during the approach, so keep your bearings. The A0 is a rappel after pitch three, which ends at an exposed stance below the well-protected crux. Most of the route is sub-5.6 cruising, with one to three bolts per pitch.
Curiosity Killed the Cat (5.9+), 6 pitches, Three Finger Canyon; FA: Steve Rydalch, Paul Ross, June 2009 An introduction to the steeper pothole climbing at the Reef, with a testy first pitch. After the potholes, a long and varied journey up slabs and hanging grooves takes you to the top of 1,000 Feet of Fun, the descent route.