IT BE­GINS AT IM­POS­SI­BLE

Amer­i­can Fork Canyon, Utah, and the birth of Amer­ica’s steep rev­o­lu­tion.

Climbing - - CONTENTS - By Megan Walsh / Pho­tos by John Evans

While smoke wafted out of the cave, the three ded­i­cated climbers es­tab­lished Go­ril­las in the Snow (5.12b), red­point­ing what would be­come a clas­sic, iconic, pumpy line at one of the first lime­stone sport ar­eas in the US. Over­looked by de­vel­op­ers for years due to the sheer vol­ume of choss and “de­mo­li­tion work” (read: rock scal­ing) it would take to de­velop, Amer­i­can Fork (AF) had stayed al­most en­tirely off climbers’ radar.

Deep in the Wasatch Range 33 miles south of Salt Lake City, the Amer­i­can Fork River carves out its name­sake canyon. On the south side of the 20-mile canyon, Mt. Tim­pano­gos (11,752 feet) peeks over the ridge­line. In the 1860s, the United States Army sent troops into the canyons of Utah Val­ley in hopes of find­ing gold, sil­ver, and lead, with the si­mul­ta­ne­ous goal of di­min­ish­ing Mor­mon in­flu­ence. While nei­ther ef­fort panned out, modern-day climbers have had bet­ter luck.

In AF, begin­ning with the first sport climb ( Black Magic, 5.12d) in 1987, climbers have es­tab­lished nearly 500 routes from 5.3 to 5.14c on the 350-mil­lion-year-old Mis­sis­sip­pian lime­stone. The climbs, with few ex­cep­tions, are just min­utes from the gravel pull­outs that line the Alpine Loop Scenic By­way, State Route 92, which heads through the Uinta Na­tional For­est, past the trail­head for Mt. Tim­pano­gos, and out Provo Canyon. The seven-mile, cliff-filled section of for­est ser­vice land that be­gins just a quar­ter-mile be­yond the Tim­pano­gos Cave Na­tional Mon­u­ment vis­i­tor cen­ter pro­vided a blank can­vas in the late 1980s and early ‘ 90s. It was here, to a large ex­tent, that Amer­ica’s steep-rock rev­o­lu­tion and con­cur­rent em­brace of chossy stone be­gan.

Un­til then, al­most uni­ver­sally, the style for sport­climb­ing world­wide had been clean faces that were tech­ni­cal, ver­ti­cal, and crimpy, a tem­plate set by the smooth gray lime­stone walls of France’s Ver­don Gorge. In the 1980s, climb­ing hard meant crimp­ing down. Alan Watts, the vi­sion­ary who brought Euro­pean tech­niques to his home crag, Smith Rock, was work­ing on To Bolt

or Not to Be (5.14a), a 140-foot ver­ti­cal face at the Di­he­drals, even­tu­ally freed in 1986 by the French­man JB Tri­bout. In Amer­ica, rad­i­cally over­hang­ing sport climbs were an anom­aly—you could al­most count them on one hand, from Todd Skin­ner’s 1987 When Leg­ends Die (5.13b) in Hueco Tanks, to late-‘80s ar­eas like the Enchanted Tower near Datil, New Mex­ico, to the oc­ca­sional steep route at Smith Rock like Rude Boys (5.13b/c). Over­hang­ing climb­ing, es­pe­cially on bro­ken rock, was barely a thing. It was all about the slab.

Take Ped­er­son and Speed’s ear­li­est first-as­cent ef­forts, in 1986 in Rock Canyon near Provo: “We were just bend­ing our fin­gers back on small edges. We were lit­er­ally in­vent­ing these contrived routes, usu­ally on toprope, in be­tween nat­u­ral lines,” says Ped­er­sen. “We wanted to climb new stuff, and we wanted it to be hard. But it didn’t ex­ist.”

The pre­vail­ing wis­dom then in Utah was that you couldn’t es­tab­lish harder lines due to the choss fac­tor on the state’s rock. In Amer­i­can Fork, a shal­low in­land sea dur­ing the Mis­sis­sip­pian ge­o­logic era, roughly 340 mil­lion years ago, had cre­ated the por­ous lime­stone, leav­ing rock that crum­bled at the touch. Be­yond the con­sid­er­a­tion of rock qual­ity, few climbers had ever bolted rad­i­cally over­hang­ing routes like the po­ten­tial lines on AF’s many tilted walls, scoops, and caves—there was no pro­to­col for in­stalling the hard­ware. “You have to walk up to a cliff that’s re­ally shitty,” says Ped­er­sen, “with no in­struc­tions, no owner’s man­ual, and just stand there, lit­tle you, with your lit­tle drill.” Bolt­ing new lines in

Amer­i­can Fork seemed un­rea­son­able, a Her­culean task.

En­ter Bill Boyle. Born in Ken­tucky, Boyle started climb­ing in the Wasatch in the late 1970s while tak­ing classes at Utah State Uni­ver­sity. A decade later, he joined the City of Rocks, Idaho, bolt­ing crew, putting up early clas­sics there like The Drilling Fields (5.11a) and Tun­nel

Vi­sion (5.12). From 1986 to 1988, Boyle honed his boltcraft, which he then brought to Rock Canyon, where he took Speed and Ped­er­sen un­der his wing. “The en­ergy be­tween the three of us was re­ally good,” says Boyle. The trio shared a pas­sion for de­vel­op­ment. While Ped­er­sen fo­cused on steep, ath­letic lines, Boyle aimed to fer­ret out ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity at a wall. For Speed, the fo­cus was aes­thetic lines that pushed him to his ath­letic limit.

This unique com­bi­na­tion of en­ergy and vi­sion cat­a­pulted the men into un­der­tak­ing those key first steps on the for­bid­ding rock of Amer­i­can Fork. “There are step­ping stones and men­tal and ge­o­graph­i­cal bar­ri­ers that need to be bro­ken down in or­der to make in­cre­men­tal steps,” says Speed. In 1987, Steve Gibb, a lo­cal high school stu­dent, along with a few friends, skipped class and dis­cov­ered the gen­tly over­hang­ing black streak that would be­come Black Magic (5.12d). Af­ter try­ing the climb on toprope, they en­cour­aged Speed, Ped­er­sen, and Boyle to bolt it. At the time, the trio lacked a power drill, and looked to Chris Lay­cock, a lo­cal who’d de­vel­oped Cam­brian Grey (5.10c) and Play­ground (5.5) in Rock Canyon, for his drill and ex­per­tise. To this day, find­ing Black Magic per­haps re­quires more ef­fort than merely bolt­ing it did, what with the river cross­ing, choss scram­bling, and steep, nasty ap­proach trail.

“Black Magic is a no-brainer,” says Ped­er­sen. The 50-foot pocket route is a clean, ob­vi­ous line on climbable rock. “We would never have gone im­me­di­ately to the Mem­brane,” says Ped­er­sen, talk­ing about the now Ÿber-pop­u­lar river­side area that has more bro­ken-look­ing rock, “be­cause it looked hor­ri­ble to us ini­tially.” With the help of Lay­cock, the trio bolted Black Magic, then moved a few hun­dred feet west to Un­known Plea­sures, a mostly shaded, north-fac­ing wall, and then across the road near the Tim­pano­gos Cave Na­tional Mon­u­ment to the dead-ver­ti­cal di­he­dral routes of the Red Cor­ners, “be­cause that was kind of the next step in smooth-look­ing lime­stone,” says Ped­er­sen.

In­stead of wait­ing out the win­ter to con­tinue bolt­ing, the three trav­eled five hours south to Red Rock, Ne­vada, and es­tab­lished new routes. While bolt­ing at the Wall of Con­fu­sion, they un­earthed Fear and Loathing (5.12a), an “ab­so­lute world-class, six-star route,” says Speed. At the time, noth­ing as steep had been at­tempted at Red Rock. “You had to en­gi­neer it,” says Speed. “There were no di­rec­tions or Google search­ing or YouTube—no ‘How to Grid-Bolt.’” So they bolted an­chors, sussed the route on TR, and rap-bolted, down-drilling as they went. The 30-de­gree-over­hang­ing Fear and Loathing re­de­fined what was pos­si­ble for es­tab­lish­ing over­hang­ing routes. If they could bolt this, what else could they un­lock?

The trio re­turned to Amer­i­can Fork Canyon in spring 1988 and con­tin­ued drilling sunny crags like Red Cor­ners, where they bolted the beau­ti­ful cor­ner

Book of Con­do­lences (5.12b), the roof of Xcess (5.12b), and the dif­fi­cult di­he­dral and ar•te of X (5.13a). Speed, who worked as a graphic de­signer at the Bronze Foundry in Lehi, less than 10 miles from the canyon, and Boyle, who worked along­side peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties at the De­vel­op­men­tal Cen­ter, at the mouth of the canyon, started meet­ing dur­ing lunch breaks to bolt. These 30-minute breaks quickly turned into three-hour of­fice hia­tuses, and the quiet walls of Amer­i­can Fork trans­formed into an af­ter­noon con­struc­tion zone as Speed and Boyle cleaned and drilled.

“There’s never been any­one like Bill,” says Ped­er­sen. At any new cliff, Boyle would grab the clas­sics. “If Bill got to [the crag] first, there wouldn’t just be a cou­ple of an­chors; there would be a lot, like seven or eight,” says Ped­er­sen. As long as a line looked

like it could go af­ter mi­nor de­mo­li­tion, he’d reach for the drill. It was thanks to this un­wa­ver­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion that some of the canyon’s longest, pump­i­est, and most clas­sic lines came to be, like If I Only Had a Brain (5.12b) at the Bingo Baby Wall and Divi

sion (5.11d) at the Divi­sion Wall. Be­yond go­ing on to es­tab­lish over a hun­dred routes in AF, Boyle traipsed up and down the talus slopes and gul­lies in search of un­touched lime­stone. His search­ing proved fruit­ful, and in an ode to Boyle’s tire­less search­ing, the canyon’s pre­miere crag, the Bill­board, was named af­ter him. Where oth­ers saw shitty rock, Boyle saw pos­si­bil­ity.

While Boyle fo­cused pri­mar­ily on vol­ume, Speed and Ped­er­sen vied for lines that tested their phys­i­cal fi­nesse. “Boone and Jeff were bolt­ing the hard­est thing they could find,” says Boyle. For Ped­er­sen that meant lines like The Blue Mask (5.13c; FA: 1989), which climbs out the bow­els of the main cave at the Bill­board and in­volves a lunge crux and a man­tel fin­ish. For Speed it looked more like The Shin­ing (5.13c; FA: 1989), pumpy climb­ing out the same cave to a mono-pull boul­der prob­lem.

The pi­o­neer­ing trio pro­gressed through the Mem­brane, Cannabis, and Divi­sion walls be­fore be­ing drawn, in 1988, into the fire-black­ened walls of the Hell Cave. Prior to its de­vel­op­ment, the lo­cals knew this grotto as “Dance Hall Cave”—a pop­u­lar place for high school kids to come on week­ends, start a bon­fire, and dance without parental su­per­vi­sion. When you en­ter from the west, the tem­per­a­ture quickly drops a few de­grees, and when be­lay­ing a part­ner on the clas­sic Burn­ing (5.13b), you need only to look out, and not up, for the roof is merely a few de­grees above your line of sight. With lit­tle nat­u­ral light, it’s easy to lose track of time.

Even­tu­ally, there would be ten 30- to 75-foot routes in the cave proper (part of the 40 to­tal climbs in the over­all Hell area), and noth­ing eas­ier than 5.13a. (The hard­est route, I Scream, is a 50foot 5.14c Speed es­tab­lished in 1997.) But first, it needed to be bolted and cleaned. Armed with ex­ten­sion lad­ders and power drills, the climbers ven­tured onto the wildly steep stone. “It wasn’t like you go from the slabs of Lit­tle Cot­ton­wood straight to the Hell Cave,” says Speed. How­ever, their suc­cess with Fear and Loathing in Red Rock gave them the con­fi­dence they needed. They propped their lad­ders against the rock, switched on their drills, and started bolt­ing.

Pre­par­ing the bro­ken rock of the Hell Cave re­quired de­ter­mi­na­tion and methods some found ques­tion­able. Ped­er­sen ex­plains that their phi­los­o­phy was sim­ple: Use these prac­tices or forgo AF’s po­ten­tial al­to­gether. So, the crew would use crow­bars and ham­mers to scale away the outer layer of choss and reach bet­ter rock be­neath. If a hold, deemed es­sen­tial, broke off dur­ing clean­ing, the bolter might choose to “re­in­stall” it with Sika glue. If another es­sen­tial hold looked like it might break, the bolter might choose to re­in­force it. While hard­lin­ers judged this as cheat­ing, the route­smiths wanted to make the most of what was avail­able. Had it not been for these ex­per­i­men­tal methods, cer­tain climbs at the Divi­sion Wall, Mem­brane, and Hell Cave would not ex­ist.

“It’s not taboo,” Ped­er­sen says. “It was all fun, all part of a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

In March 1988, Boyle put up and sent the first route in the Hell Cave, Wasatch Re­al­ity (5.12a), a wide crack along the back of the cave. Ped­er­sen then bolted the king line of Burn­ing (5.13b), a left-to-right tra­verse on big, blocky, widely spaced holds, later sent by Todd Skin­ner. And Speed set his sights on Wizards (5.13b), a se­ries of pods out the right side of the cave. “I grav­i­tated to­ward Wizards,” says Speed, “be­cause it looks like the coolest route in there.” Later, a more di­rect boul­der prob­lem into the knuckle-bust­ing pods would yield the cave’s first 5.14a (later down­rated to 5.13d), Can­ni­bals.

When the In­ter­na­tional Sport Climb­ing Com­pe­ti­tion made its 1988 Amer­i­can de­but at Snow­bird Re­sort in Lit­tle Cot­ton­wood Canyon, “Ev­ery climber in the mag­a­zines came to Amer­i­can Fork,” Speed says. “Un­til then, we didn’t think we had steep lime­stone in Amer­ica.” Top climbers like Di­dier Raboutou and JB Tri­bout vis­ited the canyon, along with Scott Frye and Dale God­dard.

When the World Cup re­turned to Utah the next year, Amer­i­can Fork had grown ex­po­nen­tially, with over 100 new routes. A sec­ond wave of lo­cal climbers, in­clud­ing Mike Call and Mer­rill Bit­ter, FA’ed routes like Per­fect

Drug (5.13c; Call) at Cannabis Wall and Blue Ty­phoon (5.13a/b; Bit­ter) at the Hide­away, both quin­tes­sen­tial, hard AF climbs. By that time, Boone, Boyle, and Ped­er­sen had de­vel­oped the Red Cor­ners, the Mem­brane,

Cannabis, and the Bill­board. “We had a very in­clu­sive vibe, it was a peace­ful place,” says Speed, “There wasn’t fight­ing. We were all on the same page, just try­ing to ad­vance the sport.”

Climbers con­tin­ued to visit, and won­dered about the sim­i­larly steep or “chossy-look­ing” rock in their own back­yards. Af­ter a trip to AF in 1990, South­ern climber Porter Jar­rard took the process home to Ken­tucky, and bolted 30 new sport routes, many of them rad­i­cally over­hang­ing, at the Red River Gorge. In 1991, the first main wave of sport climbs cropped up in Ri­fle Moun­tain Park, Colorado, an ice-climb­ing area whose rock had been pre­vi­ously dis­missed as “too chossy.” (Though Ri­fle lo­cal Mark Tar­rant in­stalled an­chors for and toproped the canyon’s premier ver­ti­cal line, The Eighth Day, a 160-foot blue streak, in 1985.) And Scott Frye came to AF and pro­gressed to his own steep of­fer­ings at Ri­fle and in the Bay Area. “[The steep rev­o­lu­tion] started at Amer­i­can Fork, and then all of a sud­den, the cat was out of the bag and all these other places got de­vel­oped,” says Speed. “It opened ev­ery­one’s eyes to pos­si­bil­ity.”

From 1989–1994, climbers flocked to AF to test their power and en­durance on the over­hang­ing lime­stone of Hell Cave and the Bill­board, like Scott Franklin, who FA’ed the über-boul­dery Hell route Dead Souls (5.14a) in 1989. Speed graced the Jan­uary 1991 cover of Climb­ing Magazine, climb­ing Frye­ing (5.13c) in the Hell Cave, a huge loop of slack in his hand ( above, right). The de­vel­op­ment of AF and the con­cur­rent World Cup events helped put Utah on the map. When ath­letes and pro­fes­sion­als found the im­mense re­cre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties along the Wasatch Front, com­pa­nies like Black Di­a­mond, Petzl, and Lib­erty Moun­tain set up shop, giv­ing lo­cal climbers a way to make a liv­ing and draw­ing new climbers to the area.

Af­ter three years of in­ten­sive, fo­cused bolt­ing, and a few spo­radic years there­after, Amer­i­can Fork’s po­ten­tial seemed to be tapped. While Speed thinks there’s al­ways some­thing to fer­ret out, Ped­er­sen be­lieves the low­est-hang­ing fruit has been picked—it is, af­ter all, a lim­ited ge­o­graphic area. Nonethe­less, climbers con­tinue to find gems— like Seren­ity Wall and Eaves­down Docks near Lit­tle Mill Camp­ground, host­ing an ar­ray of routes from 5.8 to 5.11c—but it’s noth­ing like the en­ergy of AF at its height.

Ped­er­sen, Speed, and Boyle even­tu­ally went on, separately, to de­velop other ar­eas, like the Vir­gin River Gorge, Maple Canyon, and San­taquin Canyon. “Prob­a­bly the most nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion of the sport,” says Speed, “is to seek out new ar­eas and de­velop them thought­fully and share them with the world. That’s the pin­na­cle of the sport, right?” Each con­tin­ued to leave his mark, with Speed be­com­ing the first Amer­i­can to es­tab­lish 5.14b with his 1994 as­cent of Su­per Tweek at Lo­gan Canyon’s China Wall, Ped­er­sen open­ing a se­ries of Mo­men­tum climb­ing gyms in Utah and Texas (with Wash­ing­ton on the hori­zon), and Boyle still de­vel­op­ing crags to this day.

To­day, more folks head up the multi-use canyon to re­lax at Tib­ble Fork Reser­voir or catch the sun­rise at Mt. Tim­pano­gos than to climb. The last golden light of the sun over the Wasatch snakes its way through the conif­er­ous for­est, and dur­ing peak runoff the moun­tain-fed river drowns out all sound. Yes, Amer­i­can Fork is not as pop­u­lar as it once was with climbers, but the routes Speed, Ped­er­sen, Boyle, and oth­ers left be­hind speak across the decades. When Boyle was asked if climbers to­day can ex­pe­ri­ence that same pure en­ergy of crag de­vel­op­ment, his re­ply was, “It’s gotta ex­ist. I still do it.”

LIZZY EL­LI­SON TAKES A BEE­LINE ( 5.12B), THE BILL­BOARD, AMER­I­CAN FORK CANYON, UTAH.

Left to right: Amer­i­can Fork pi­o­neers Boone Speed, Bill Boyle, and Jeff Ped­er­sen.

RITA YOUNG SHIN COPS A SHAKE ON LI­CENSETO THRILL ( 5.11C), THE MEM­BRANE.

THE POW­ER­FUL POCK­ETS OF THE BLUE MASK ( 5.13C), THE BILL­BOARD, AS DEMOED BY BUNKER.

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