I walked along the base of a sandstone wall 30 feet from the chocolate milk–like water of the Colorado River, looking up and hoping to see a decent line that went anywhere above 50 feet. Alas, the Grand Canyon is a tough place for a climber—tons of rock everywhere for almost a vertical mile above the river for 280 straight river miles, and most of it pure choss—which is why most people don’t go there to climb. But I was on a 28-day raft trip, and I’d be damned if I was going to go an entire month without climbing. Before dinner at Parashant Camp, I grabbed my shoes and walked downstream, looking for some decent rock.
I ran my hand along the wall, finding a crack in an open-book corner. Seven feet up was a perfect fingerlock, so I pulled myself up on it, finding two footholds. Another perfect fingerlock above, and then a jug underneath a huge roof. I had found a perfect finger crack that was all of 11 feet tall. I traversed out right and tentatively yanked on a handhold, and it crumbled like a stack of Pringles. Bah. I stepped back into the crack and downclimbed until I could jump off into the sand below.
Walking along the base of yet another wall, I found a hole at head height, a crimp four feet to the right of that, and decent foot smears. I looked right and saw what looked like more holds, if I could stay on and swing my way over. What is this? I started to climb. I put together two moves, then two more, and then jumped off. I found more holds, walked farther, and started to see a 25-foot traverse. In the fading late November daylight, I linked all the moves and figured it was around V2, with a couple of tenuous balance moves. It wasn’t very aesthetic, and it wasn’t a complete line—it just ended where the fun climbing ran out—but I had found a problem, discovered something.
I showed my friend Forest the traverse the next morning, and he climbed it with almost no hesitation and a smile. It wasn’t groundbreaking, and it wouldn’t go on Mountain Project—it was at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, meaning the approach was 199 miles of river running. It was the last of a dozen or so boulder problems we’d “discovered” on our raft trip, with almost zero beta or knowledge of specific routes or grades.
It was the first time I’d approached rock climbing like a kid approaches tree climbing—looking up and wondering if I could climb something. My typical research of a climbing route follows this pattern: Find route online > read beta > read comments > psych self out > sleep fitfully night before climbing > worry on approach > find out route isn’t that bad or alternately, Internet commenters were right about loose block/sandbagged crux/runout > almost shit pants while leading route > maintain bowel control > send.
At the bottom of the canyon, I had no ratings or beta to psych myself out. When I started up something, it could be V1 or V5 or nothing at all, and the only way to find out was to start climbing and either fall off or send. A strange thing happened, acting on that childlike curiosity and exploring—I had fun. I brushed dirt and mouse droppings off jugs, blew sand off ledges, explored dozens of possibilities that went absolutely nowhere, broke off hundreds of handholds and footholds, and found a couple dozen problems that may or may not have ever been climbed before. Not that I sent any V5s. But I played, and I tried hard.
Lots of times, as climbers, we find ourselves chasing a certain grade or a specific climb that we’ve become obsessed with—it’s a classic, or a testpiece, or it marks a certain level of climbing we’ve been working to attain. And sometimes we forget to have fun.
A few months before my Grand Canyon trip, I went climbing with editor-at-large Dougald MacDonald. We spent a morning at Golden Gate Canyon, a fairly under-visited area near Denver with a handful of one- and two-star routes. After climbing a three-pitch 5.9+ on Mt. Thorodin, probably mostly on-route, we sorted gear at the bottom and Dougald scoped an arête a pitch and a half above the base.
“I wonder what that’s like,” he said, scrambling up the low-angled rock at the bottom of the cliff. I didn’t. I had no beta in the app on my phone. Five minutes later, he was leading a wandering pitch underneath the mystery arête, yelling down to me, “There’s a couple bolts up here!” Then he led a 5.10b finger crack to the bolts, and brought me up to a two-bolt anchor.
I marveled at the guy’s curiosity, climbing upward into who knows what, with the enthusiasm of a kid exploring in the woods. He’s been climbing for decades, and he still has this itch for discovery in his backyard. And I wanted that itch myself, the wonder at what’s up there. In the Grand Canyon, I found it. And now, I want to find it again, to walk up to a line of bolts or a dihedral and give it a shot, because who knows?
Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. His first book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, is available at semi-rad.com.