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Six Classic Crags That Shaped American Rock Climbing

These historic areas are still amazing destinations today.

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This article was originally published in Climbing in 2011 under the title “Where it All Began.” It has been updated where relevant.

Smith Rock, Oregon

Call it the birthplace of American sport climbing, home to the States’ first 5.14, or an international playground—whichever description you choose, you’d be correct. No crag had more influence on U.S. rock climbing in the 1980s than the volcanic (welded tuff) spires of Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon. Climbing at Smith has been recorded as early as the mid-1930s, and the various pinnacles and obvious crack climbs were bagged by Pacific Northwest climbers from the 1940s through the ’70s. “It was a classic local crag. Nobody really came from out of state to visit,” says Alan Watts, the prolific Smith developer and guidebook author. A 1982 Climbing article mentioned Smith’s shift from aid climbing to free climbing, but the most significant changes had just begun. A group of students from the University of Oregon, about two and a half hours away, began frequenting Smith every weekend, Watts says. “We were pushing each other, and once we had done all the existing climbs, we had to find something else to do,” he explains. “There weren’t many cracks left, but there were so many beautiful faces and arêtes.”

The problem was lack of protection, and rather than run it out, Watts began experimenting with rappelling down potential climbs, cleaning loose rock, and hand-drilling a few protection bolts. “It was a big shift, putting up the bolts and making the routes as hard as we possibly could,” says Watts. “We were just trying to raise the standard.” Unlike places like Yosemite Valley and Joshua Tree, where rap bolting had a stigma that led to controversy and even violence, sport climbing was quickly accepted at Smith, mainly because of the area’s isolation. By the mid-1980s, there were dozens of 5.12 and 5.13 routes at Smith, including many that remain popular classics today.

The years 1985 and 1986 brought two breakthroughs: Watts free-climbed the full East Face of Monkey Face at 5.13d, then probably the hardest rock climb in North America, and visiting Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Tribout established To Bolt or Not to Be, America’s first 5.14. “Eventually, people just had to take notice because the climbs were much harder,” says Watts. “It was becoming clear that sport climbing was becoming a whole new branch of the sport. Smith is where sport climbing, in the U.S., really started to thrive.”

By the late 1980s and early ’90s, other major sport climbing areas began to surface, including Rifle in Colorado and American Fork in Utah. “The people that developed Rifle came to Smith Rock, saw what was going on there, and took those tactics back home,” Watts says.

Clay Cahoon gets caught in the Crossfire (5.12a/b R), The Dihedrals. Photo by Andrew Burr

Today, over 2,000 routes line the park’s walls. The majority of visiting climbers gun for the many fun moderate routes, but hardcore climbers still trek to Smith to push themselves on the time-tested classics of To Bolt and Just Do It, the 5.14c Tribout put up in 1992. “There’s something about the park,” says Ian Caldwell, a leading activist. “It’s a very scenic place to be, and there are really beautiful faces. Smith is really friendly to climbers of all abilities.” In fact, the lion’s share of the development over the last 10 to 15 years has been in the 5.8 to 5.11 range. As for those cutting-edge 1980s routes, Watts says, “The climbs have really stood the test of time. Smith Rock will never fade away.”

From the Mag: Climbing 100, February 1987:  The “curious name [To Bolt or Not to Be] is intended as a statement. Tribout feels that without the opportunity rappel-placed bolts offer, his climbing skills would never have developed as they have… Smith Rock is perhaps the only major climbing area in the U.S. where, without exception, all leading locals firmly embrace the tactics of hangdogging and bolting on rappel. With no time wasted on ethical squabbles, the locals are able to devote full attention toward raising the area’s standards.” —Alan Watts

Lev Pinter emerges from the shadows of the Dragon

Hueco Tanks, Texas

Just as Smith Rock fathered American sport climbing, Hueco Tanks gave birth to modern American bouldering. Though climbers had bouldered for years in Colorado, California, and other locales, few boulderers would travel to another state—let alone a remote corner of the Texas desert. And until the late 1980s, the few climbers who made it to Hueco Tanks—about 30 miles east of El Paso—were mostly interested in the long and often sparsely protected trad climbs of the Front Side.

Soon, however, cool-season climbers who had to wait until afternoon for their west-facing roped climbs to warm up realized that many of the nearby boulders faced east, providing sunny climbing on solid edges and round pockets, with perfect temperatures in the winter. “They went down to Hueco to rope climb, but fell in love with bouldering,” says John Sherman, who was one of those climbers originally lured to the area for its roped routes. In October 1987, a brief Basecamp article in Climbing mentioned Hueco Tanks’ bouldering potential, along with a list of then-classic boulders, including Mushroom Boulder and Bucket Roof. (Bucket Roof and the north face of Mushroom Boulder are now closed.) In 1991, Sherman published the first Hueco Tanks guidebook, including both bouldering and roped climbing. Prior to that, “You really had to twist people’s arms to go down there,” Sherman said. “Traveling to go bouldering wasn’t a common thing.”

It was actually the guide’s publisher, Chockstone Press, that sparked the idea for Sherman’s now-widespread bouldering grades. Since his original manuscript had no ratings, Chockstone didn’t think the book would sell. Sherman reluctantly agreed to create the V-scale, labeled for Sherman’s nickname: Vermin, or Verm. To give an idea of this scale’s evolution, the original V1 at Hueco was Center El Murray (now rated V6, and also closed to climbing).

Along with the new grades, crash pads also helped shape Hueco’s popularity. “Before bouldering pads, you got beat up like crazy,” Sherman says. “You wouldn’t try many hard problems, and you wouldn’t try a problem many times. With grades, you had the yardstick [by which to measure your skill], and with pads, all of the sudden you didn’t get hurt as much. Bouldering became more appealing.” (Sherman climbed every problem in his original guidebook, doing most of them sans padded landings.)

Hueco’s low-ceilinged roof boulders provided a fun challenge for starting close to the ground, and thus sit-down-starts were born. Crash pads and SDS problems quickly spread to other bouldering centers areas like Fontainebleau in France. Hueco’s influence also helped motivate climbers to travel to other bouldering areas of the U.S., like Bishop and the Southeast, and led American climbers to seek out international blocs, like Magic Wood in Switzerland. Foreign climbers reciprocated: Hard men like Fred Nicole, a Swiss climber who introduced the world to the elite grades of V13 and up, traveled to Hueco and established problems like Terremer (V15), Esperanza (V14), and Slashface (V13).

John Flores on El Burro on East Mountain. (Photo: Gustavo Moser)

Because of its immense reputation, Hueco is also notorious for its restrictions and climbing reservation system. Over the years, Hueco Tanks State Park has closed several areas to climbing, citing protection of prehistoric and historic rock paintings, archeological deposits, and fragile plant and soil life. Some of the closures affected Hueco’s most-visited areas, like the Mushroom Boulder, Bucket Roof, and the 45-Degree Wall. But with a little effort, most of the park’s problems can still be climbed. Hueco Tanks remains one of the most popular winter destinations in the U.S., and for good reason. The season’s climate is prime for bouldering, the problems are plentiful, and the rock quality is world-class.

From the Mag: Climbing 116, October/November 1989 “The bouldering at Hueco beats the tights off the leading.” —John Sherman

Luke Kretschmar in balance on Sinestra (5.11), Original Meat Wall. Photo by Andrew Burr

Indian Creek, Utah

“Indian Creek is a sandstone utopia renowned for its committing crack climbs. This [is] the ruby-walled heart of the desert, where the racks are big, the cracks are long, and only the bold need apply.” This quote from Climbing 128 three decades ago sums up the Creek pretty well—though modern cams and guidebooks have tamed the level of commitment. A world-class crack climbing destination, Indian Creek was put on the map by photographs of the first ascent of Supercrack in 1976. This long hand and fist crack, first climbed by Earl Wiggins, Ed Webster, and Bryan Becker, captured climbers’ imaginations around the globe. “People heard all the hype and started going there a lot more,” says guidebook author Stewart Green. “It’s an amazingly beautiful splitter crack, with sculptured rock on either side.” Still holding strong at solid 5.10, Supercrack remains one of the area’s most sought-after sends.

That iconic route got climbers’ attention, but in the early years few made the trek to the Creek. “There weren’t that many climbs that had been done there,” Green says, and since there was no guidebook, climbing info was spread by word of mouth. “[Forty] years ago, the climbing community was a lot smaller,” he says. “Everyone knew the people putting up climbs.” In the late 1970s, however, the first widely available cams—Wild Country Friends—made their debut. Earlier ascents of the Creek’s uniform, parallel-sided cracks had been shakily protected with Hexcentric nuts; cams helped make Indian Creek more appealing to the masses. Plus, anchors soon appeared atop the first pitch of most climbs, making it possible to tick as many routes in a day as your muscles and skin could bear.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as more information was published about plentiful cracks of all sizes and the area’s beautiful scenery and camping, the Creek’s popularity exploded. Today there are well over 1,500 climbs, scattered among dozens of different cliffs. Although most Indian Creek climbs are rated 5.10 or harder, a gang of friends just needs one skilled leader to put up a toprope so everyone can try the route. The crowds of climbers at some crags soon rivaled the most popular sport climbing areas, despite the Creek’s remote desert setting.

Desiree Cole pieces together the Puzzle Factory (5.12) at Cliffs of Insanity. Photo by Andrew Burr

This popularity has come at a price. The canyon’s cliffs and trails have seen major climber impacts over the years, especially at crags with short approaches. Climbers who stray from established trails or don’t use toilet facilities have contributed to the area’s erosion. Green is afraid the impacts will lead to a more heavily regulated climbing area. “Indian Creek is a really beautiful and special place,” he says. “It’s the best pure crack climbing area in the world. We need to think about those issues when we go climbing, so we don’t get more regulations.”

From the Mag: Climbing 128, October/November 1991 “The quantity of rock found at Indian Creek, and extending out in all directions, is phenomenal, and the potential for new routes is truly unlimited.” —Steve Petro

Casey McTaggert high above the talus on the 5.10 direct finish to Yellow Spur. Photo by Jim Thornburg

Eldorado Canyon, Colorado

Eldorado Canyon, just outside Boulder, Colorado, is known today for its adventurous, sometimes-heady trad climbs at all levels, and not for cutting-edge difficulty. Fifty years ago, however, Eldo was a world-renowned hotbed of free climbing. “Boulder was the center of the clean climbing universe,” says Eldo pioneer Roger Briggs. “That’s where the real free climbing revolution happened.”

That revolution began right around 1970. Prior to that, aid climbing governed the canyon’s lichen-streaked sandstone. Climbing in Eldo was regarded as training for the bigger walls in Yosemite and elsewhere. “We were using pitons and RURPs,” Briggs says. “It was such a huge change right around 1970 when we not only started free climbing, but also left the hammer and pitons at home.”

Pat Ament, Larry Dalke, and Layton Kor (who established many of Eldo’s original aid routes) can be credited for the first free ascents in the canyon in the 1960s, but it was Jim Erickson from Wisconsin who “blew it open,” Briggs says. “He just walked into Eldo, started going up all these climbs, and found they’d go free without a hammer and pitons. Nuts had just come out, and that’s all he used. It was a complete revolution in style and attitude.” (Briggs himself did many impressive first free ascents in Eldo, including The Diving Board (5.11b) and what guidebook author Steve Levin calls the “perhaps the best trad 5.12 in Eldo”: Scary Canary (5.12b R).

Briggs penned an article about these developments for Climbing 22 in the winter of 1973. “Few people can know what it means to have done as many first free ascents as Erickson,” he wrote. Erickson held true to a very pure climbing ethic; Levin says in his guidebook that Erickson’s ideal attempt was “naked and onsight. He refrained from using chalk, and if he took even a single fall, he would retreat and never return to the route.”

By 1975, Ament had published Eldo’s first guidebook. Soon came a push for harder free climbing, and some climbers adopted siege tactics and tried routes dozens of times before a free ascent—the opposite of Erickson’s ideal. In 1975, Steve Wunsch freed the Psycho roof, marking the canyon’s first 5.12. Other early 5.12s include Cinch Crack (5.12b) in 1978 and Jim Collins’ Genesis (5.12+) in 1979. In 1984, Eldo’s first 5.13 went free: Rainbow Wall, by local Bob Horan, with bolts providing all the key protection.

Bolts had protected free climbing in Eldo since the days of Layton Kor, but new bolts—especially bolts placed on rappel—were magnets for controversy. Influenced by developments in Europe, Christian Griffith bolted and climbed the blank wall of Paris Girl (5.13a R) in 1985 to create Eldo’s first rap-bolted sport climb. Though it was hardly a modern clip-up, with dangerous 5.11 run-outs, the route went through cycles of bolt chopping and replacing. “Sport climbing had a painful birth in Boulder,” Briggs recalls. “The Europeans were doing it and blowing the top end off standards, and the Americans were getting left behind. I think it was inevitable.”

Fred Knapp works up a superb shallow corner on the first pitch of The Naked Edge (5.11b). Photo by Jim Thornburg

Fearing the canyon might be grid-bolted, Briggs and other influential climbers argued “the place should be preserved as a trad climbing area because it’s so unique in the whole world.” In 1989, Eldorado Canyon State Park imposed a moratorium on new bolts. Three years later, climbers banded together to create the Action Committee for Eldorado (ACE), which raises money for the park and oversees the climber-run Fixed Hardware Review Committee, which gathers community consensus on new-bolt applications. The state park almost always accepts the committee’s recommendations, and a trickle of new bolt-protected routes goes in every year. This model was later adopted in Boulder’s Flatirons, where bolting also had been banned, allowing a number of excellent new sport climbs.

Today, Eldo remains a traditional area with a small percentage of bolted routes. The area has seen a resurgence of hard trad climbing, as a few bold climbers rehearse and then lead poorly protected headpoint routes. But most climbers visit Eldo for the classic moderates—those obvious aid lines first freed by Erickson and others nearly four decades ago.

From the Mag: Climbing 159, May 1996 “Eldorado Canyon set the standards in Colorado during the 1960s and ’70s, but it is no longer a destination for climbers trying to push the limits at the high end. Instead, Eldo is a place for superb climbing at the middle grades, which is OK with me.” —Dougald MacDonald

Stephen Meinhold in control on Apollo Reed (5.13a) at the Colosseum Crag, Summersville Lake. Photo by Jim Thornburg

New River Gorge, West Virginia

In the spring of 1984, the New River Gorge had just 35 documented routes. Three years later, 450 climbs had been established, and todayover 3,000 routes line the sandstone cliffs of the New, including Summersville Lake and the Meadow River Gorge. Bolts helped fuel that boom, but traditionally protected routes kept pace, and at the New—unlike many American climbing areas—trad and sport developed in harmony.

For most of the 1980s, ground-up trad was the style. In the fall of 1987, NRG developer Rick Thompson published the area’s first guide, New River Rock, containing 465 traditionally protected climbs. “The New was virtually untapped,” Thompson says. “All of the cliffs were virgins.” Meanwhile, sport climbing had taken hold at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon and was rapidly spreading. “Everybody would read Climbing magazine and say, ‘Wow, look what they’re doing at Smith Rock, look what Alan Watts is doing, look what the French climbers are doing,’” Thompson says. “The New was an area that was influenced by what was going on in the western U.S.”

Locals like Eric Hörst, Doug Reed, and Thompson began bolting in the gorge in the late ’80s. But the bolt wars occurring in Yosemite and Colorado never engulfed the New. “There was a quiet respect for one another’s styles,” Thompson says. “There was enough rock to go around.” Kenny Parker, co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors in nearby Fayetteville, agrees. “The guys doing sport routes were originally the really good trad climbers,” he says. “They all did really bold trad climbing, so they had this credibility about them. There was a mutual respect. It all stayed pretty friendly.”

And it wasn’t just about hardware—the New River locals also quickly adopted sport climbing tactics. Parker was part of a crew that traveled to Smith Rock, American Fork in Utah, and Shelf Road in Colorado and saw firsthand the potential in the new style. “People saw the ability to climb harder routes, and that bolting was a method to get there,” he explains. “People liked the idea of hangdogging and rehearsing moves.” The New’s first sport lines were bolted ground-up, but most were bolted on rappel, Parker says, explaining that, “The goal was to get the bolts in the right place.” And as long as no one retro-bolted existing gear-protected lines, everyone was content. Over time, this sense of coexistence spread across the U.S., and with notable exceptions like the Gunks in New York, most climbing communities now embrace a New River–style mix of traditional and sport climbing.

Jeff Chapman on the classic arête climb Mutiny (5.11+) at Summersville Lake. Photo by Jim Thornburg

Today, while many climbers flock to the New to clip bolts on sharp arêtes, blank faces, and huge roofs, many also come for the steep corners and finger cracks. Plenty enjoy a little trad and sport. “The New is one of those places that draws a lot of people from a lot of places,” Parker says. “In some ways, we call it the Land of Misfit Toys—we’re pretty accepting of oddballs. That’s partly why there was never any controversy here.”

From the Mag: Climbing 102, June 1987 “I’m reminded of the question I’ve asked myself so many times: ‘How could such a major rock mecca go unnoticed by the Eastern climbing community until the 1980s?’ Beats the hell out of me.” —Rick Thompson

Brian Rhodes pulls past the crux of Houses of the Holy (5.13a) at the North End. Photo by Keith Ladzinski

Shelf Road, Colorado

America’s first limestone sport crag was a disappointment to some of its original developers—it never produced the cutting-edge routes they dreamed of. Yet the vertical walls above Shelf Road, north of Cañon City, Colorado, eventually became a paradise for mid-grade climbers, and today Shelf is one of the most popular crags in the state.

When sport climbing originated in the United States in the mid-1980s, the focus was pushing difficulty—there was a sense among some American rock climbers that they were “falling behind” their counterparts in Europe, especially the French. The quantity of U.S. 5.13 and 5.14 climbs rose quickly as sport climbers pushed each other’s limits.

At Shelf, the first climbs ascended the area’s few continuous crack systems with traditional pro, and then a few ground-up bolted routes went in. But it wasn’t long before climbers like Richard Aschert and Darryl Roth began rap-bolting true sport climbs. Before areas like Rifle and American Fork experienced their huge growth spurts in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Shelf had already seen plenty of activity by hard men like Colin Lantz and Dale Goddard. Even French stars like Jean-Baptiste Tribout visited Shelf. A December 1987 article titled “Surreal Estate” described the European influence: “Eurotactics are applied exclusively at Shelf Road; cleaning on rappel, bolting with Bosch power drills, marking key holds with chalk, smoothing down razor edges, and hangdogging are all considered appropriate.”

There was a flurry of development, with a focus on hard 5.11s and 5.12s, but “we couldn’t really find hard routes,” says Shelf developer and guidebook author Rick Thompson. “It’s not the kind of stone that lends itself to difficult climbing. And there was no glory to bolting 5.6 and 5.7 in the early days.” Shelf didn’t get its first 5.14, Apogee Pending, until May 2011. “Shelf was bolted with the vision of becoming a hard area, but it never panned out because the rock’s not steep enough,” Thompson says. As Rifle and other overhanging crags came into the limelight, the best climbers left Shelf to pursue more gymnastic, high-end routes. “In the early to mid-1990s, there was a sense of abandonment,” Thompson says.

Andy Mann warming up on the ultra-classic Crack of Dawn (5.10b) at the Gym. Photo by Keith Ladzinski

But as the’90s rolled on, a funny thing happened: More climbers discovered Shelf’s fun, well-protected routes, and they began to flock to the area for sport climbs they could do without weeks or months of effort. New-route developers began filling in the gaps between the older climbs, finding excellent moderate routes—as well as some new testpieces—on rock that had previously been dismissed as too broken or ledgy. The purchase of Cactus Cliff in 1999 by the Access Fund really cemented the area’s growth— Cactus grew in just two years from around a dozen lines to about 150. In all, Shelf Road now has about 1,000 established routes in six main sectors.

Shelf helped pave the way for other sport crags like the Owens River Gorge in California and Penitente Canyon in Colorado popular for their mid-grade climbs. Such areas prove the point that, while elite climbs grab the headlines, it’s catering to weekend warriors that guarantees an area’s lasting popularity.

From the Mag: Climbing No. 105, December 1987: “Limestone. What’s it all about? Walls are peppered with pockets, but interspersed are edges, sidepulls, and an occasional seam, requiring a full repertoire of technique. To say the least, the climbing is unique.” —Darryl Roth

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