OUTDOORS: A Rock Climbing Primer

Written by Tristan Higbee on . Posted in Sports

You live in one of the best places in the country for rock climbing, and you probably don’t even know it. Sure, you’ve been to The Quarry climbing gym and gone climbing outside in Rock Canyon once or twice. Maybe you even have your own harness and shoes. Bully for you. It’s time to take the next step and realize what huge, untapped recreational resources we have the privilege of being surrounded by.

The Wasatch Range (the mountains that run north to south, along the east side of Provo, Salt Lake, Ogden and Logan) is the western-most edge of the Rocky Mountains. It is also heralded as one of the greatest mountain ranges that is so close to major population centers. Widely lauded for its world-class skiing, the range also harbors world-class rock and ice climbing. Whether you’re into (or want to get into) bouldering (climbing ropeless on large boulders with foam pads for protection), sport climbing (roped climbing where preplaced steel bolts in the rock are used for protection), trad climbing (placing your own specialized protection in cracks in the rock; short for traditional climbing), or even ice climbing (climbing frozen waterfalls with ice axes in your hands and spikes on your feet), the mighty Wasatch’s mountains and valleys have something to tickle your fancy.

Within one hour of Provo are enough canyons with established climbs to keep you busy for several lifetimes. No other place I can think of boasts such a wide variety of climbing in such a concentrated area. There are climbs on no less than five different types of rock (limestone, quartzite, granite, sandstone, and conglomerate), and each type of rock has its own distinct character and requires a different style of climbing. Each is unique and fun in its own way.

Here’s a rundown, with driving times, of some (though not even close to all) of our local areas:

Rock Canyon (5 minutes) — This is our home turf. With a large number of easy, accessible climbs, it also happens to be one of the best areas in the Wasatch for learning the ropes (pun very much intended). The red rock in the lower part of the canyon is quartzite, which lends itself well to low-angled sport and trad climbs. Flat edges and cracks for your hands and feet are plentiful, though the rock can at times feel slippery and polished. The gray limestone rock higher up in the canyon requires a bit more hiking to get to, but is well worth the effort. The climbs there tend to be steeper and harder sport climbs, but there are some beginner areas too. Soon this canyon will also have the longest sport climbs in the country, clocking in at well over two thousand feet! These routes are currently still in development, but should be completed by the end of the year.

Provo Canyon (15 minutes) — Not to be confused with Rock Canyon, this is the canyon that contains Bridalveil Falls and the canyon you take to get to Sundance. There’s not a whole lot in the way of rock climbing, but this is the Wasatch’s premier ice climbing venue and is a world-class destination for many. One of the longest pure ice routes in the lower 48 (the aptly-named “Stairway to Heaven”) ascends more than one thousand vertical feet of frozen, terrifying goodness up the canyon’s walls. If you have high pain and cold tolerances, ice climbing can be an incredibly beautiful and rewarding experience.

American Fork Canyon (30 minutes) — This is one of the areas where the American sport climbing revolution was born. The pocketed limestone cliffs were too broken to accept traditional protection, so the first ascentionists placed bolts instead. The approaches to the cliffs are generally short (you can drive all the way up AF Canyon, which is prohibited in Rock Canyon), and you can always find walls in the shade. There aren’t as many good beginner routes or areas as there are in Rock Canyon, but steep and hard routes abound. There are more than 500 routes in the canyon.

Little Cottonwood Canyon (45 minutes) — LCC is the shining granite jewel in the Wasatch’s climbing crown. With several cliffs over a thousand feet tall, climbers aren’t the only people who have had their eyes on the rock. This is where the LDS Church quarried stone for its Salt Lake City temple and conference center. Containing the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts, along with great mountain bike trails, this canyon is truly a multisport paradise. The climbs here tend to be slabby (less than vertical) and traditional, though there are some bolted sport climbing areas. There are also some limestone and quartzite walls with climbs on them. Close to a thousand climbs and a ton of boulders are housed in this beautiful, glacier-carved canyon.

Big Cottonwood Canyon (1 hour) — North of Little Cottonwood and directly east of Salt Lake, this canyon has a wide variety of climbing. There are hundreds of climbs, ranging from 30-foot sport routes to thousand-plus-foot traditional climbs. The quartzite cliffs suit the beginner and advanced climber alike.

Maple Canyon (1 hour, 15 minutes) — Okay, so this one is a bit more than an hour away but, man oh man, is it worth it. Maple Canyon is unique in the country for its climbing on funky conglomerate stone. Imagine some potato- and melon-sized quartzite cobbles sticking out of the hard standtone, and you’ve just imagined Maple Canyon. It’s like climbing on a bunch of petrified bubbles. The plethora of bolted sport climbs here run the gamut from easy beginner stuff to routes of world-class difficulty.

So, now you’ve been converted. At least, you want to believe. Your eyes have been opened to the wonderful, sublime truths that are rock climbing in the Wasatch. You want to immerse yourself in it and fully partake of the blessings, but you don’t really know what you’re doing and you don’t want to kill yourself on the rocks. Understandable. Here’s what I would suggest: Learn as much as possible about the rope systems involved with climbing. Climbing is a safe activity if you know what you’re doing, but it’s also an easy way to get yourself killed if you’re clueless. Read up about it in books like John Long’s How to Rock Climb! Watch climbing and how-to videos on YouTube. Go to Mountainworks (the great climbing store by Movies 8 that is attached to The Quarry climbing gym) and talk to their friendly and knowledgeable staff. Find someone who is more experienced and start your apprenticeship. Mountainproject.com is essentially an online guidebook for many of the areas in the Wasatch and beyond. Rockclimbing.com has extensive forums where you can ask questions and find answers. Learn as much as you can before you go and you’ll be sure to get the most out of your climbing experience.

I climb because it’s fun. I climb because I enjoy being so close to nature. I climb because I love the rush of dangling off a cliff by my fingers and toes. I climb because it gives me an escape from the headaches of everyday life; the higher I go up, the further away those problems seem to get. But that’s just me. That’s the beauty of climbing — it’s such an intensely individual and personal pursuit. You can get out of it whatever you want. You can climb only once a year or every day. It can be just a fun thing to do every once in a while or it can take over your life. With such beautiful and accessible surroundings, it would be a shame not to try it at least a few times. Give it a shot and, who knows, you might even find yourself joining the ranks of the true believers.

Tristan Higbee is an outdoors correspondent for Rhombus. He is apparently well-versed in rocks.

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