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Utah Has a Chipping Problem

At crags around the state, classic boulders have been modified to make them easier. Here’s the lowdown.

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On a Saturday in September, Hannah O’Connor and a couple of friends hiked into White Pine in Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) to go bouldering. Their main goal for the session: Project the V9 sit start of Nest Egg, a classic boulder with tension-y moves on a mix of slopers and crimps. “We were just messing around and warming up on the side of the boulder and my friend Weston hopped on Nest Egg,” O’Connor explains. When he made the notoriously hard first move with ease, he called Hannah over. “It feels different,” he told her, “it was chipped.”

Two months prior, Hannah had struggled on the first move. That day, she pulled on and linked the first four moves right away. A quick investigation revealed significant changes to Nest Egg. The first clue: a foothold had been aggressively cleaned. “All the rubber was gone,” Hannah said, “before, you’d put your foot on and it would [grease] right off. Now … it doesn’t move.” A tenuous, open-handed sloper felt different too: “Now, there’s an actual crimp chipped into the top,” says O’Connor, “It makes it almost two grades easier.” Still, they left wondering if it was all in their imagination, so they messaged a few local friends.

In the days that followed, news of altered climbs in Little Cottonwood Canyon and Joe’s Valley flooded social-media feeds. “Over the summer, we noticed a number of boulder problems up in LCC where existing holds had been manufactured to improve them,” said Justin Wood, a long-time Little Cottonwood local. In Joe’s Valley, Steven Jeffery, developer and local climber, found signs of damage, too. Between the two locations, at least seven boulders were hit. In LCC: Nest Egg (V7), The Minch (V7), and Citizen Dildo (V9). In Joe’s: Water Paintings (V7), Golden Plates (V8), Boysize (V7), and Mr. Duck (V7). Someone enhanced crimps to increase their size and carved grooves into slopers to add purchase.

Chipped hold on boulder in Utah
The newly modified right-hand grip on Water Paintings. (Photo: Steven Jeffery)

One of the most well-known victims is Water Paintings, a stiff V7 that will give any climber a run for their money. It’s sustained, with a physical intro to a hard foot cut on two sharp crimps. “I did the FA in the late ‘90s and it remained in pretty much the same condition until one person—25 years later—decides it’s too hard for them,” says Jeffery. “That’s the painful part of the whole thing for everyone; that’s why some old schoolers get so bent out of shape.” 

Julie Janus, a self-proclaimed “resident dirtbag” and member of the Joe’s Valley Coalition, has put in over 25 sessions on this boulder. “I have loved almost every minute of trying Water Paintings because the movement is fun, the surroundings are beautiful, and I’ve met amazing people with great energy. That can’t be taken away with a chipped hold, but let’s keep any more of that from happening.”

It’s hard to prevent this situation without knowing the cause. So the question everybody is asking: why would somebody do it? Is it an indoor climber who’s ignorant to how their actions affect the community? Or is it just some asshole who doesn’t care? “It’s really kind of mindblowing to me,” Wood said. “That’s the whole point of bouldering—finding these difficult challenges and figuring out how to resolve them. So changing the challenge is kind of contrary to the whole idea of projecting and bouldering.”

Most climbers can’t imagine ever taking a rock, chisel, or screwdriver to climbs we love. But if you’ve ever climbed in Little Cottonwood, you may understand the frustration and ego-crush that ensues. “This climbing area is known to be sandbagged,” explained Jeffery. “It put famous climbers in retirement back in the late 90s, 2000s, because they couldn’t do a V4 when they were V10 climbers.” The climbing is incredibly nuanced, explains Wood. “You’re generally working with bad holds, even seemingly no holds. You have to use subtle positions to climb, which is what’s so cool about it. There’s really not a lot to grab onto unlike the straightforward edge kind of crimping style.”

Then consider conditions: on hot summer days, certain boulders feel downright impossible. The prime example is Citizen Dildo. “The angle of the hold and how you have to hold it, it’s 100% weather and condition dependent,” explains Jeffery. “If you go up in bad conditions, you cannot physically pull on it. When conditions are good, it feels the appropriate grade it was given.” Whoever chipped a three-finger and thumb indentation into the shelf must not have known the importance of sending temps. 

Chipped hand hold on boulder in Utah.
Citizen Dildo now features a three-finger and thumb indentation on an otherwise conditions-dependent shelf. (Photo: Justin Wood)

Conditions, crag styles, trying hard: that’s all part of outdoor bouldering. And outdoor climbers like to assume everyone else knows that, too. But the climbing community is growing rapidly. “The person may have been so uneducated in the outdoor realm that they’re like ‘Oh, this is wrong because I climb harder than this in a gym’,” says Jeffery. “And climbing gyms will cater in any way possible to that customer base—massive padding, really close quick draws, and really really incorrect soft grading for the local climbing areas. So you go in there and climb V8, and outside you don’t.” When you can’t climb as hard as you expect to, that can be “frustrating or damaging to your ego,” says Wood. And then maybe you think: who’s going to notice a little chip—and who would care anyway?

Climbers will notice (I promise) and they will get fired up as hell. “Back in the 90s, not much in LCC had really been climbed, and some of the boulders seemed so improbable that people slightly improved certain grips to make them doable at the time,” explained Wood, “But the mindset has changed dramatically since then. Now, any sort of alternation is severely frowned upon.” Once-impossible boulders are now topped out regularly, as evidenced by climbers pushing the grade to V17. And people in the future could be even stronger or proficient enough to climb boulders that seem impossible today. “It’s that preservation mindset that we’ve moved towards in the last few decades: that we want to preserve this climbing resource as well as we can. For now and for future generations.”

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