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Leslie Gulch’s Controversial Route-Building Laboratory

Withholding judgment about this small clan is prudent. Being on the creative cutting edge of a developing sport is a precarious place to be.

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A gas-powered Ryobi drill shattered the desert silence as Tony Yaniro chipped holds out of clean stone. Absorbed in his work, the early 1990s vertical Michelangelo failed to notice the Bureau of Land Management rig beating down the grade, but the BLM agent spotted Yaniro and his fixed lines. Despite the decoy rental car parked at the mouth of the gulch, a simple radio call-in of the license plate identified the rogue developer. The BLM office became irate. Effective immediately, the bureau announced a moratorium on all climbing activities in the area, setting a $30,000 ($52,000 in today’s coin) route decommission budget. Bolts were to be chopped and the holes were to be patched. Still, 25 years later, the routes remain in Leslie Gulch.

In 1987, a young Boise climber named Tedd Thompson saw landscape photos of Leslie Gulch: steep hillsides with jutting towers and desert walls, a volcanic labyrinth ablaze with color. Oregon volcanos had erupted a million years earlier, and combined with gas explosions, ash fall, and gravity, a series of volcanic tuff formations were created. The images mirrored the impressive Smith Rock. Thompson, along with visiting friends Darius Azin from Colorado and Mike Stoeger from Austria, followed a hand-drawn map through miles of cattle land and nameless dirt roads, hoping to find the future of Oregon climbing.

The trio parked below a stunning tower, its 300-foot-tall wall painted orange and tan like the underside of a tiger lily petal. Eager to climb, the young men raced to the closest outcrop, near what would become the Asylum, set up a toprope, and discovered exploding jugs and horribly loose, friable edges with the hardness of dried clay. In every direction, in every side canyon they explored, they discovered more of the same: either holdless sheer walls or tragically chossy features and formations. They lost hope once they understood this rock was unlike the concrete of Smith Rock. The stone was technically welded tuff, but clearly not baked in the same volcanic oven. A few vertical walls seemed the perfect sport climbing medium, but were completely unclimbable. As the men packed to depart, Darius prophetically declared, “If chipping routes ever becomes in vogue, this place holds the future.”

The Place Leslie Gulch hot springs
Nearby red rock spring in the Owyhee mountains. Photo: Andrew Burr

Over the next two years, Tedd and friends climbed extensively at City of Rocks, Idaho. The centralized location, beautiful setting, high-quality rock, and gradual acceptance of rap-bolting and power drills drew climbers from around the world. Tony Yaniro moved to Ketchum, Idaho, in the mid-1980s to escape California’s fierce traditionalist battles. As a climber, Tony possessed world-class talent. In 1979, he bumped global climbing standards a full number grade with his ascent of Grand Illusion (5.13c) at Sugarloaf in California. At the City, Tedd apprenticed under Yaniro. After climbing the traditionally protected lines, the pair began rap-bolting. After they tapped out the climbable faces, they went to work on the “mostly” climbable walls. Tony “enhanced” edges with a drill and chisel to allow passage through blank sections of unclimbable rock. At its best, this technique used artful and strategic enhancements to provide beautiful finished products. At its worst, sections were left botched with scarred faces.

Through his apprenticeship with Yaniro and granite mileage at City of Rocks, Tedd became one of the strongest young climbers in the country and a serious route developer. He wanted to discover steeper cliffs, soaring routes, and even harder climbing. The blank walls of Leslie Gulch still enchanted Tedd’s memories, so he returned, this time with a new eye. Tedd scrambled up the convoluted desert slope on the backside of the Asylum, found the overhanging north face, and rappelled over the streaked wall. The full length of his 60-meter rope spun in the wind, not even close to touching the ground.

Shocked by the vast blankness, Tedd ascended. The climbable features were not there—this 300-foot wall was nearly holdless. Standing on top of the Asylum, he coiled his rope. From this vantage point, he spied a new wall to the southeast. Tedd hiked across Leslie Gulch and up an exposed ledge to the top of this new wall. Dropping his line again, he watched the cord fall plumb down a streaked shield of rock. The line offered an alluring mix of angles and features. An overhanging corner rolled onto a sun-hardened slab and finished just after a roof bulge. More importantly, this line offered a few climbable features—though it would need some enhancements. Tedd set to work drilling, sculpting, cleaning, linking, and creating his new route. Most climbers would describe the style as “chipping” and “manufacturing,” but “route creation” charactarizes it best. Tedd’s premier work produced Stool Sample (5.12b).

The Place Leslie Gulch overlook
No, it’s not Smith Rock. Photo: Andrew Burr

This new crag, the Einstein, held great potential, a flat base, a favorable western aspect, all angles, and it was beautiful. With the first route in, the wall held nearly two dozen more. Next on the docket, Tedd established the utterly classic Stank Finger (5.13a). Located on the steeper right side of the Einstein, Tedd used route creation to link the natural features into a savagely steep, dynamic route with improbable, thoughtful, and body-busting sequences.

The new-routing fever spread when Tedd phoned Tony, who arrived the next day. With only two lines equipped, Yaniro was thrilled. Departing from the tactic of linking climbable features together via enhancements, Tony pursued his new vision of the “blank canvas,” committing to the idea of sculpting, forging, and forming holds into and from the actual rock itself. Describing this approach of route creation as controversial would be a massive understatement, and thankfully, no sane climber today would consider these tactics an option. We can all agree that artificial climbing gyms are the correct venue for such creative endeavors.

Withholding judgment about this small clan is prudent. Being on the creative cutting edge of a developing sport is a precarious place to be. In this place, one can only act upon personal visions and intuitions of how a sport can or might evolve. When drill bits cooled, one of the most impressive and unique crags in existence stood where there had been only desert wilderness before. The Einstein exists today as a unique expression of a “complete crag,” a fully equipped outdoor gym with routes from 5.10d to 5.14c. And although the wall has now almost been forgotten, Leslie Gulch sport climbing did experience its 15 minutes of fame.

When word of the laboratory spread, top sport climbers made the pilgrimage to Leslie Gulch. In a 1993 issue of Sport Climbing magazine, Yaniro wrote “Living the Dream,” detailing how he had sold his house in Ketchum, purchased a motorhome, and moved to the promised land of Leslie Gulch. At the height of the crag’s popularity, he transported a red carpet to the base of the wall that would be rolled out to cover the desert dirt with an air of royal luxury.

“When they rolled up the carpet for storage or transport, countless tiny scorpions would scatter from under their newfound carpet shelter,” Todd recalled.

Leslie Gulch rock climbing girls dont fart
The fun but manufactured pockets of Girls Don’t Fart (5.11c), The Einstein, Leslie Gulch.

One weekend, BLM agents approached climbers at the Einstein. The Vale BLM office oversees more than 5 million acres of Oregon’s public lands, and they had become aware of the crag when they noticed the fixed anchors and hardware on the wall. The agency didn’t know what to make of sport climbing, and were unsure of how to manage it. The BLM asked that no new routes be developed, but said climbing on the existing routes could continue. The agency also said they would consider regulating future climbing development through a then yet-to-be created climbing management plan. The climbers tactfully omitted the specifics of “route creation” and that bigger and badder lines were in progress at the Asylum.

Despite the requests to cease new-routing, the draw of unfinished business on the Asylum tempted Yaniro to return to his canvas. To avoid BLM scrutiny, he drove to the canyon in a rental car. For years after the fallout, Leslie Gulch climbing flatlined. When the coals of dissension snuffed out, the BLM permitted climbing again but with a policy of no new route development and no fixed gear. Today, a large sign outlining the current management policies greets climbers at the trailhead.

In the late ’90s, Stoeger accepted a position as a systems engineer at a manufacturing facility in Boise, just 1.5 hours away from the gulch. He returned to the controversial climbing area to redpoint the remaining projects Tony and crew had abandoned, and he went on to create his own link-ups, including a 36-bolt combination of three pitches into a single mega-pitch. The Asylum king line Strudel Boy clocks in at 5.14c. Going on 20 years later, it still awaits a second ascent with few potential suitors. Through more exploration, Stoeger has found dozens of natural lines that could be developed, “should a climbing management policy ever be adopted by the BLM.” Beyond the sport climbing, there’s potential as a traditional and mixed climbing venue. The Windy Tower (5.11a), a striking right-facing corner, is a solid beacon amidst the choss. However, with a continued moratorium on fixed gear, these limited trad routes are the extent of Leslie Gulch’s rock climbing future.

If climbers work with the land managers, a plan could be designed that would allow controlled route development. Leslie Gulch could again shine as a climbing destination, one that holds a lifetime of adventurous first ascents alongside the historically preserved crags of its infamous past. The solitude, beauty, and allure of this desert is as strong as it has ever been, and the current generation of climbers now carries the torch that will shine on a future of sustainable use and conservation of this desert landscape.