Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Silent City of Rocks (Idaho)

"The Good Rest, The Bad Heat, And The Ugly Bolting"

Since the high country in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area was still snowed in, and we had just spent 4 days backpacking in Glacier's backcountry, we decided to climb for a bit.

We had heard that City of Rocks, in southern Idaho, is a fantastic, amazing, fun place to climb.  Expectations usually set you up for disappointment.  More on that in a minute, but first - let's take a rest day.

Our first day in City of Rocks was a total rest day.  Not like a "we'll do some fun and easy sport climbing and call it a rest day," or a "we'll grocery shop and do laundry and get on the internet and call it a rest day" rest day, but an actual "we are not doing ANYTHING today" rest day.

We arrived at our campsite at midnight, so we slept in.  Then I caught up on my journal and finished reading a book.  Afternoon thunderstorms rolled through, so I took a long nap.  Rest day was a Friday, so we had a little Shabbat celebration for the first time on the trip.

high desert thunderstorms
happy rest day! a very un-kosher shabbat
The rock formations here are bizarre and slightly sinister.  Blobby and angular at the same time, jumbled up like a labyrinth.  I find clean, steep, tall cliff lines to be aesthetically pleasing - these textures reminded me of the weird stuff that ends up under your fridge.  I wanted to wander through the formations, but I didn't feel very inspired to climb them.

the silent city of rocks
Camping is the best part of City of Rocks.  Sites are scattered all around the rocks.  Two steps out of your tent and you're at the base of the climb.

great horned owl, being majestic on the rock next to our site
Since there's very little sport climbing close to our home, we decided to stick to the bolted routes.  In general, I thought that this place has really bad bolting.

On multiple climbs, the majority of the hangers were spinners.   On another route, we found a suspect anchor bolt (!).  We didn't climb that much, so for such a high proportion of the bolting on our sampling to be crap...  yikes.

More often than not, the bolt spacing seemed inadequate to protect the climb.  It's fun to climb a PG-rated sport climb - just a little bit of spice.  I think it's unusual and not enjoyable to find PG-13 to R-rated sport climbs.  Examples:
  • A climb with a 10d crux but 10a-10c climbing off the deck has a first bolt almost too high to stick clip.  Why?
  • A 10b that is sensibly protected... except for an awkward crux with ugly fall potential.  Why?
  • First bolts ~30 feet off the deck.  Why?

The philosophy behind bolting here seems to be "Well, if you can get through a 5.10c/d crux, then you don't need protection on the 5.9+ climbing below it."  I disagree with this philosophy.  Climbing is inherently risky - but if you are equipping a route, climbers will climb it with a reasonable expectation of your bolts providing protection (e.g. "if I fall, I might shatter an ankle... but I'm unlikely to deck.").  Once you mar/  alter (depending on your opinion) the natural form of the rock, you might as well do it adequately.  Accidents happen, even to competent climbers well below their limit.

Beyond the crappy bolting, I didn't like the climbing movement.  I like steep, crimpy routes, or routes with strange body position gymnastics.  Lots of slab here... with inelegant smearing, pushing my butt out to gain friction, open hands slowly slipping.  I felt like an inchworm trying to climb a windowpane.

Finally, the current best guidebook is pretty bad.  Maybe ok for a self-published guide, but pales in comparison to guides for other areas (e.g. the ones published by Wolverine Press).  It has photos of each cliff (good!) and the names of each route (good!), but it doesn't even indicate if the climb is bolted, trad, or mixed.  Get the Mountain Project app instead, it's just as useful.

Ok, let's end this on a happy note!

Since it's so hot, we chilled out (heh) in camp in the middle of the day to avoid the heat.

I climbed "New York Is Not The City," which is the best name ever.

And now I can say that I've been to Idaho!

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