Thursday, August 2, 2012

Fanning a Twister

One of the warmest summers on record had us fleeing from the usually cool climate of Ten Sleep. With the completion of the last route I bolted, a crimpy little gold wall called Milky's Ultimate Steeze (13a), we'd finished up the new routes at Crazy Woman and thought we'd get a bit of climbing in back at the canyon. But even the breeze didn't help much and mostly felt like blowing a hair dryer on your face.

At the same time, Elissa applied for an actuary job in Chattanooga. With the looming hope/fear that she might have to fly out early for an interview we decided to split. As we know, Elissa is the kindest, most selfless/easily manipulated partner one could wish for. Knowing that the project I bolted north of Sheridan at Steamboat Point was the best of the bunch, and the most important to me, we headed back to actually climb on it.

This route is the proudest line I've bolted, and one of the best routes in the country. It is still absolutely unbelievable to me that routes like this still exist in plain view of a major road.

Steamboat Point

Flashback to when we first came up here about two weeks ago. I'd looked through the tiny guidebook "Rock climbs of the Eastern Bighorns" and seen a picture of Steamboat Point. Massive 200' walls of steep, always-climbable Bighorn Dolomite loom over highway 14 that passes through the northern part of the Bighorn Range.

We drove up on a whim to check it out and arrived at the cliff around 5:00. The cliff was blazing in sun but we tromped up the hill to check it out that evening. Walking along the base from right to left started out relatively uninspiring. There are a handful of established routes that generally stick to the tall gray slabs.

The tornado-shaped pillar. For scale, the first small roof on the pillar is at 150 feet.

About mid-way along the cliff is a huge semi-detached pillar of stone that looks like a giant tornado. The current hardest rig at the cliff climbs the left side of the pillar up the face. Todd Skinner bolted the 140-foot pitch in 1991 and cleverly named it Stub Farlow (5.12d). Stub Farlow is a famous cowboy from Todd's hometown of Lander. As legend has it, at some point between 1901 and 1914, Stub rode one of the most famous horses in bucking bronco lore; Steamboat. Steamboat was named for his high-pitched snort that sounded more like a steamboat than a rodeo horse. Inducted into the pro-rodeo hall of fame in 1979, Steamboat will forever be remembered as one of the wildest rides in the rodeo business.

But nothing thrust Steamboat into the limelight more than the silhouetted image shown on the state's license plate. Though there is some dispute over which horse and rider are depicted in the image, it's commonly believed to be Stub and Steamboat.

Stub Farlow, Steamboat the bucking horse, and Devil's Tower; summing up Wyoming on the license plate.

Route name etymology, first ascentionists, and the history of routes fascinate me. I imagined Todd Skinner stomping up to this massive pillar in 1991 and sinking 140 feet of bolts up the blank looking face. I imagined him quickly climbing the route, with it's rad Euro 'rose move' crux, smiling and knowing that Wyoming was the future of American sport climbing. I pictured him standing there at the base and looking out toward's Elephant's Foot, a huge 200-foot tall and 1/2 mile wide wall that looks like a bone white version of Ceuse's Biographie sector. (Sidenote: 2wd roads only get within four miles of the wall  located at the northern tip of Walker Prairie, the highest elevation plain in the Bighorns. From Elephant's Foot, heading south there are 4 more giant reefs of dolomite.)

Todd Skinner and his friends of the time period, were really the first to see the true potential of Wyoming sport climbing. As the story goes, Todd's sister was living up in Wyoming as a rancher. She'd been to the south of France and knew what to look for in climbable rock. One day she rode on horseback along the cliffs of Wild Iris and called Todd to let him know what she'd found. This story is told from memory, which is how legends form, but as I recall he told his wife he was driving up for a day to check it out. She didn't hear from him for a week.

Wyoming legend Todd Skinner at Baldwin Creek near Lander.

It wasn't long after that that bolts were being fired into the short cliffs of Wild Iris. But it was only the beginning and the crags around Lander are the tip of the iceberg. Rumor has it that Todd flew in a plane over the Bighorns and proclaimed that there was more climbable rock here than anywhere else in America.

I think multiple things led to the overall stall of development in Wyoming sport climbing. Firstly, the nature of the climbing plays a role. Climbing on Bighorn Dolomite is my favorite style of climbing but that opinion is not shared by everyone. It's gently overhanging on small tweaky pockets and edges. The climbing is technical, thought-provoking and pumpy.

In the early game of sport climbing, throughout the late 80's and 90's, techy faces were king. Smith Rock, the New River Gorge, Penitente Canyon, and Shelf Road were some of the first in America to see bolts and all define that early style. By the late 90's and early 2000's, steep climbing was in vogue and developers sought out the steepest overhangs and caves like the Red River Gorge's Madness Cave, which saw it's first routes in 1995. Over the past 17 years, I'd say that steep rock has been the focus. In vogue areas include Maple Canyon, Rifle, the steep deep south, and of course, the ever popular Red River Gorge.

Of course, Todd's untimely death in 2006 probably played a large role in halting development as well. In addition, Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, far from any population center. Regardless of the reasons, development in Wyoming has chugged along at a relatively slow pace. Much of the past decade was focused on Ten Sleep which is only now being recognized as a true destination area.

Screen grab, hiking up to the pillar. The steep arete above Elissa's head is the rig. 

I stood there at the bottom of that route at Steamboat and saw what Todd saw in 1991; enormous potential. So much that one person can't ever scratch the surface. It was immediately apparent to me that Todd had put up this route with the intention of coming back. There is no way he could have looked at this wall and not been drawn to the arete.

About 25 feet right of Stub Farlow the wall makes a drastic 90-degree bend forming a perfect overhanging arete. My first impression was that it was completely blank. I stared at it, heart-racing, and just could not believe my eyes. "The perfect line, the perfect route," kept repeating in my mind, sometimes followed by an exclamation point but just as often followed by a question mark. I could see, about 40 feet up, a big pocket right on the corner. It was the only hold I could see from the ground. Knowing that Todd had rappelled over it coming down from Stub, I honestly thought it probably didn't go. He would have bolted it otherwise.

Left hand in the pocket, the only visible hold from the ground.

The next morning, we got a rope up to the anchor of Stub and I fixed it and rapped down over the arete. It went for sure but it wouldn't be easy. By lunchtime, I was geared up and tacking over from the Stub anchor. I sunk my own cold shuts at exactly 34.5 meters so you can get down with a standard 69-meter rope. I cooked like a lobster in direct sun all day but 8 hours later, at sunset, I was brushing the last of the holds and cleaning my gear.

The next day we jetted back to Crazy Woman. Steamboat goes into direct sun at 11:30 and becomes unclimbable so the project was left for cooler temps. But with the prospect of Elissa having to leave, it made sense to come back up here and take care of business. For now, It's 6:00 am wakeups and three burns before the sun hits. I got 'er down to two hangs yesterday and came very close to a one hang.

It's about V7 to get to the second bolt, like Babyface V7 not Tommy's Arete V7.

The question mark has been erased from the "perfect line" that repeats in my head when I'm climbing it. It's perfect...almost. The rock is a little crumbly still, I imagine just like it was at Smith Rock the first time a route went up. But it's already cleaning up really nice and everything else about it is absolutely perfect.

Pinching the arete at the first redpoint crux.

The first 55 feet are the crux. It's super continuous up the steepest part of the route. The arete overhangs about 30 degrees on the left side and about 20 on the right. The climbing stays right on it the whole time; right hand on the right side, left hand on the left side. Slapping, balance, high-stepping, precision...the whole works. It's amazing. At 55 feet is the first real break at a good hold that can be matched. The top kicks back to barely overhanging but has some really big holds. It's still 5.12a or so but if you know what you're doing, it's chill with plenty of rests.

Dynoing for the break. After the sustained opening section of 5 bolts there is a marginal shake. Getting through the next 3 bolt section is the 2nd redpoint crux.

I just have this suspicion that Mr. Skinner intended to come back for this route and never got around to it before his death. With so many projects on his plate, it would have been easy to forget about. But I also have this feeling that he had a name for it. The other iconic symbol of Wyoming is the University of Wyoming's distinctive logo. Similar to the one on the license plate, the symbol depicts a rider on a bucking bronco. In the early 1920's the University obtained a photo of famous cowboy Guy Holt riding a bucking horse. It became the inspiration for the logo. Of course, that horse was none other than Steamboat, bucking and snorting his characteristic whistle while refusing to be tamed during his 12-year reign as king of the rodeo ring.

Miles of cliff stretch away in every direction. You should hike out there and check them out. 

I added this picture because at the very right edge of the photo, as far back as you can see, is Elephant's Foot. I was eyeballing that thing through binoculars and it might be the real deal. Like Biographie good. But I'm just saying that to get you to hike out there and find out. It's 4 miles from Steamboat and the shortest way might be right across that open meadow.

For a century, Steamboat the bucking horse has symbolized the spirit of the state. Wild and still untamed, it's possible to step off of any road in Wyoming and find yourself in immediate wilderness. The countryside in the Bighorns will never be reigned in. They're too big, too wild, and hold too many secrets.

The spirit and iconography of Steamboat, ridden by Guy Holt, was cast in bronze in 1991 and erected outside of the University of Wyoming stadium. It was that same year that Todd stomped up the hill to Steamboat Point and sunk the bolts on Stub Farlow. I wonder if he looked at that arete, twisting and turning it's way up the outrageous 200-foot tornado tower and thought of Steamboat and the statue that'd just been erected: Fanning a Twister.

The statue named "Fanning a Twister" depicts Guy Holt on Steamboat the bucking horse.

 Yup, that's a moose. I also saw an ermine yesterday which was a first. Never had seen one before. Ermines are also known as 'Stoats.' Stoat was a nickname for bold New River climbing pioneer, Andrew Barry. There is a route at South Nuttall called Stoats aren't Dangerous. With this knowledge on hand, I was unafraid of the 4-pound rodent shaped like a dachsund.


Laurent_L said...

Super inspiring, Mike! Thanks for letting us in on the area's history and showing us the potential in that stretch of the Bighorns... Dude, I live in Ontario and am trying to figure out how to make it out there after reading this!

Lydia said...

Perfect name.
Now I know why we haven't seen you around in Ten Sleep. I guess this is an alright excuse...

Anonymous said...

Great post! But what's with 34.5 meters? Are the tops all victory slabs? Why not take em to the top and put in mid-way anchors for pulling the rope?

Kris Hampton said...

As a self proclaimed amateur historian, Wyoming lover (and future resident?), and friend of the Skinner family, I have to say that you, sir, are the real deal. Psyched for you and for what you're doing out there. Keep at it!

Mike Williams said...

Anonymous, you might be able to get to the top with a single 70m rope. Of course, you'd have nothing left to lower down to a midpoint anchor with and it would end up being a multipitch route. It's a sport route with the hardest climbing in the first 55 feet then some sustained 12a. The anchor is in the perfect spot. You get to a small ledge for the feet and a good hold for the hand. The climbing above looked easier, maybe 5.11 or something so yes, "victory slab" might be appropriate. It's a free country though, if you want to go up and drill the second pitch...

kt said...

Awesome! Can't wait to see what else develops out there in the future.

I have to tell you, though, having just returned from a week in Ten Sleep, the best beta I've had by far is yours about the pool and showers in Buffalo. A rest day over there has puts the 'Sleep over the top for killer climbing destinations.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough! I probably wouldn't bother wasting bolts on rope stretching victory slabs either. Rock on coyboy!

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. I grew up/live over the mountain in Gillette, and it is great to learn about the history of the areas I've been climbing my whole life. Inspires me to explore/get out and start bolting new stuff.

Anonymous said...

I'm Guy Holt's great X5 grandson. I decided to look up my famous releative. I am pleased with this.