DUST, SWEAT, AND TEARS
A FIRSTHAND LOOK AT THE LITTLEUNDERSTOOD ART OF ESTABLISHING NEW SPORT CLIMBS
A firsthand look at the little- understood art of establishing sport climbs.
Smith, a German pointer, explodes up the hillside toward the Marsupials, a jumble of walls, blocks, and welded-tuff spires north of Smith Rock State Park, Oregon’s, famous Dihedrals. The cold autumn air smells of juniper. Hard behind him is his owner, Alan Collins, who named the dog for his favorite cliff.
The dog has spent much of his life in these hills, and still finds new things to enjoy out here. Like him, I never tire of Smith Rock, even after 20 years. Recently, my friend Jason Bagby, a pro photographer, suggested documenting the area’s new-route activity. Like him and 99.9 percent of climbers, I hadn’t given much thought to how these routes came to be. Sure, I’ve complained about bolt placements, flora that offends by its presence or absence, and holds that are either inadequately or too aggressively cleaned. We all have, often because we understand so little about how new routes go in. But when Jason and I team up with John “JC” Collins and his son, Alan, who have been part of the local push to pioneer new routes in the Marsupials, we see firsthand that bringing a line from imagination to completion requires much more effort than we’d imagined.
Below us, the Crooked River snakes toward some of the most famous sport climbing in America. Above, the Marsupials span state park and BLM land. Only the 45-minute approach and effort necessary to establish routes on Smith’s notoriously soft, scruffy volcanic tuff limit the Marsupials’ tremendous potential. It takes cleaning and traffic to make Smith’s routes climbable. Since the mid-1990s, some have transformed from a Russian roulette of creaky flakes and suspect knobs to manicured classics. Likewise, the most popular lines, such as Magic Light (5.11a; lower pitch) and Phoenix (5.10a), are polished by high traffic.
Alan, a garrulous 26-year-old, has established 70 climbs at Smith Rock over the past four years. About two years into his climbing career, which began in earnest when he was 19, he began developing routes under the tutelage of his father. Alan has ticked off hard area classics like Slit Your Wrists (5.13b) and Vicious Fish (5.13d); he studied outdoor education and today guides for Smith Rock Climbing Guides. Despite his long hair, tattoos, and honed physique, he’s soft-spoken and thoughtful, always ready with a greeting and encouraging word. And he seems to know everyone. “How’s the proj?” he’ll ask a climber working on a 5.11+ we pass that day, a route he could easily warm up on.
In 1988, JC, who resembles a 35-year-old surfer more than his true age of 50, began an open-ended road trip that started in his native San Diego, then led to Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and Smith Rock, where he jumped into route developing. “I didn’t plan to stay here,” JC explains. “The scene was just going off, and the climbing was so great. One thing led to another, I [met] Alan’s mom, and next thing you know, here we are!” JC holds down the bar at Three Creeks Brewing. “My wife’s killing it so I can climb. How awesome is that?” he says.
As we slog up the Burma Road approach, Alan waxes enthusiastic about his new routes. “Not every one is a classic, you know?” he admits. Some are, though. Lords of Dogtown (5.12c) is already attracting suitors who’d never been to the Marsupials before. At the top of the trail, Smith the dog sits in the sun while Alan and JC drop their packs and trade self-deprecatory remarks about the burly approach. Neither looks winded.
The Marsupials’ first routes date back to the early 1960s, with ear- ly forays to the spire summits. Sport routes began popping up here in the mid-1990s, spearheaded by Bill Soule and Ryan Lawson, including
Suck My Kiss (5.10a) and Ryan’s Arête (5.10c). In 2004, Beth Rodden sent The Optimist, a bleak 5.14b layback seam on Brogan Spire. The area boasted around 150 routes before Alan started humping gear up. As of press time, there are around 250 climbs, including other developers’ efforts. As is common throughout Smith, the rock quality varies from brilliant to choss.
Several crags are named after critters with pouches: Wombat, Possum, Koala. Others, such as The Mudpile and Disappearing Tower, are more descriptive. The 2,000-foot-long, 150-foot-tall Marsupial Wall is the largest feature. The southern aspect of the western (uphill) section is the most densely developed. As the wall undulates downhill, proud, well-chalked lines are clearly visible, including the steep crimps of Off
the Wall (5.11d) and the dihedral-to-roof Lords of Dogtown (5.12c). The history of new-route development at Smith is inextricably linked to the rise of American sport climbing. It was here in 1983, when Alan Watts rappelled down a gorgeous pocketed face in the Dihedrals and placed expansion bolts on Watt’s Totts (5.12b), that sport climbing in America was born. The legendary local crew, including Watts, Kent Benesch, Tedd Thompson, Tom Egan, and Brooke Sandahl, established routes with the understanding that visiting climbers would sample the goods. Sometimes this was an explicit arrangement born of international friendships. On other occasions, routes were poached. Jean-Baptiste Tribout, a leading French climber in the 1980s and ‘90s, bagged three first ascents of routes prepared by Watts: To Bolt or Not to
Be, a crown jewel of Smith and America’s first 5.14a, freed in 1986—and which Watts wrote that he did not expect to send himself. Bad Man (5.14a) in the Aggro Gully, which Watts was actively working. And Just
Do It, Smith’s landmark 5.14c on the Monkey Face (FFA: 1992), a route arguably ganked from Scott Franklin. Thompson weighs in on the distinction between preparing a route and nabbing the FFA: “Engineering a route is putting up the route. Climbing it first doesn’t matter, not to me. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first person to clip the anchors. Let someone else on your project, and your tunnel vision goes away! Let someone like Marc Le Menestrel on your route, and it’s like, ‘OK, grab that jug out there that I didn’t see!’”
majority of whom do not put up routes—are on such matters. “I usually don’t pay too much attention to those posts. But I used to,” says Alan.
Perhaps one reason developers spring to the defense of their creations is the cost involved. The list of necessary equipment is extensive, and none of it is free. At about $6 for a stainless-steel 1/2-inch expansion bolt plus hanger, and $30 or so for anchors, a single route can add up to $100 or more. This is not to mention wear and tear on frequently used gear like harnesses, Grigris, and ropes. So who pays for it? The local climbers’ organization, the Smith Rock Group, focuses primarily on trail maintenance and access improvement. Thus money for bolts comes directly from developers’ pockets. Metolius Climbing, a stalwart in Central Oregon’s climbing community for 30-plus years, has long given discounts on hangers to developers.
Individual climbers also kick down cash and hardware, sharing the love between developers and the dedicated climbers who maintain the park’s anchors. Kent Benesch, Will Nazarian, and Ian Caldwell (among others) have steadily replaced used and abused bolts and anchors, including on routes like Rude Boys (5.13b), where glue-ins replaced expansion bolts and a bolt replaced an old fixed nut on the finishing slab. On an “easy” day falling off projects in the main area, Alan and I run into Caldwell. “I don’t really put up routes,” he says, clearly forgetting his 2009 FA Little Miss Sunshine (5.14a). “I’m mainly just replacing anchors and bolts these days,” he adds. Caldwell has just replaced a suspect bolt on the iconic ar•te Chain Reaction (5.12c), which countless climbers load without a thought. Tonight there will be a Facebook update regarding this bolt, crucial while waiting for glue-ins like the one on Chain to cure. Caldwell never appears to be in a hurry, but manages to keep the community updated on route maintenance while replacing bolts, organizing the annual Spring Thing park maintenance event, orchestrating the Maple Bridge training area, climbing, and working at his day job as a state-park liaison for motorized-vehicle users.
But back to the Marsupials, where Alan begins sussing out bolt placements on his prospective line. When rap-bolting, one sometimes needs directional bolts to keep the rope close enough to the cliff to clean, scope moves and clips, etc. If these bolts are useful on lead, great. If not, they need to be removed and the holes filled in. “I just look for clipping stances,” Alan says. “After a while, you get pretty good at seeing them”—you learn to spot the larger holds or lower-angled sections that allow for clipping.
A related question is, How many bolts should a route have? Early sport lines at Smith Rock had as few as possible, with natural protection to fill in the blanks. Some, like Heinous Cling, the airy 110foot, eight-bolt 5.12c in the Dihedrals, were even bolted on lead. The transition from the trad mentality was slow, and a “ground-up” attitude persisted. Even Ruana’s Forbidden Fruit project still requires a couple of cam placements. At the other extreme, some routes had bolts placed an arbitrary, uniform distance apart, turning clips into cruxes. “The problem with the way things were done at Smith is it sucks, when you think about it now,” says Thompson, who moved to the area in 1982 and witnessed the sport revolution firsthand. “There was this attitude that is has to be runout. Why?! Put the bolts where they need to be.”
In 2010, Thompson and Ian Yurdin re-bolted The
Burl Master (5.13c) in the Aggro Gully. Recalls Thompson, “Why would you stop in the middle of the hardest sequence to clip? So the bolts would be exactly 10 feet apart? That’s just stupid!” Thompson and Yurdin moved four of the six bolts, and the route has since become a sought-after classic.
Ideally, the developer will also anticipate the appropri-
ate type of hardware. Yosemite, Smith Rock, and Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay all exert different environmental stresses on the gear. Out here, the recent trend has been toward glue-in bolts. Less spinning, less risk of shaft damage from changes in hole geometry in the softer rock, and an overall longer lifespan. However, the bolts require 24 hours to cure— versus a mechanical bolt that can be removed if needed. “I know glueins are better,” says Alan. “But my routes are new, and I don’t know if the clips are gonna work for everyone. What if I have to move them?” Caldwell concurs: “You just have to do what’s right for your routes, and go with glue-ins [later] if you need to make changes.” The message is clear: A new route is a work in progress, even after the FA.
All of this assumes that bolting is legal or accepted. Thankfully, the BLM has no regulations on bolting here. Oregon State Parks allow it, as long as there’s no impact with other user groups’ experience. Since only climbers go more than the 10 feet off the deck, and Smith Rock’s claim to fame is climbing, this area has been a haven for sport development. Privately owned areas or areas with cultural significance frequently have tighter regulations or outright bolting bans. According to the Access Fund, limiting bolting is an easy regulatory step to limiting climbing (for example, the hand-drilling mandate at Red Rock, Nevada), but these days drilling itself is almost a secondary concern to climbing’s impact. As long as climbers respect cultural resources and private property, negotiating access is considerably easier, bolting included.
Perhaps the greatest controversy in sport climbing is manufacturing, which runs the gamut from improving or “comfortizing” existing holds with a drill or hammer, to reinforcing holds with glue, to outright sculpting holds where there were none, to bolting on holds (Smith had its own bolt-on training area high in the Aggro Gully in the 1980s), to filling in pockets and prying off edges to ratchet up difficulty. Today, however, most climbers frown on the more industrial tactics. But the line between cleaning and chipping is thin indeed, as any developer can attest. Jokes Alan, “I never chip holds, but sometimes I hope there’ll be something there when I break off loose shit!”
Once the bolts are in, to make a route climbable is a filthy, sweaty, monotonous high-angle landscaping project. Obvious overhead hazards—hanging loose blocks, dead trees, etc.—must be removed. While some “death cookies” yield to body weight or vigorous tugging, others must be brought down with pry bars or beaten into chunks. Trundling huge blocks is a hair-raising undertaking—falling debris can damage the rope or, more insidiously, lower-angle rock below. In November, a developer drew the park’s ire by trundling microwave-sized blocks over the Misery Ridge Trail, the main access to the Red Wall and Monkey Face areas. While some consider cleaning to be an alteration of the route, the truth is that surface choss is like plaque on your teeth. It’s unpleasant when the hygienist scrapes it off, but you’re much better off when it’s gone.
Alan jumars back up, his gear clanking. “I put the anchors in the wrong place,” he admits. “I hoped we could make the line work, but there’s too much junk. Let’s start again over there.” He leads us to an even more precarious perch and starts again. Down on the face, Alan kicks off flakes and scrubs loose scales of tuff from beautiful red and yellow stone, revealing perfect edges. All told, this first pass will take him six hours, including installation of directional anchors. Another full day of work will be required to get the holds cleaned and a bolt line and sequence established.
One week later, it’s another bright late-fall morning in the “Sups.” Tail wagging, Smith takes on a supervisory role as Alan and JC skirt the base of the Opossum (the northernmost feature on the Brogan Spire Complex), tossing rocks the size of beer cases down a horribly unstable pitch of scree to prep a staging area. This landscaping session wasn’t planned—Alan wants to try another project he bolted a few weeks earlier, and JC has expressed concern about taking a header down the slope while belaying. Panting with exertion, the two then roll the rocks into a row and shore up the gaps with smaller shards and handfuls of gravel. They jump on the new terrace to pack it down.
While most of us dreaming of new routes tend to look up, experienced developers look down. If the new route is not at an established, manicured area, the approach trail and the base of the crag often have to be rendered suitable for traffic—to prevent hillsides from collapsing and native plants from becoming collateral damage. In areas with unstable soil and steep grades, terracing is necessary. This is essentially Adventure CrossFit. Hump loads of bolts and batteries up a talus slope. Rap in and swing around on your rope, getting bruised, battered, scared, and dirty. Shovel gravel and fine talus. Carry five-gallon buckets of rocks. Pour and spread the material. Shore up with larger rocks, some so heavy you need a come-along. Rinse and repeat.
As though summoned telepathically, Smith scampers up a boulder overlooking Alan’s project above the terrace. The route is 30 meters of varied terrain. “I cleaned the worst of it, past the last bolt,” JC enthuses. “The rock is so solid up to there.” After a V3 boulder problem, technical, vert climbing past four bolts leads to a dramatically steeper final third. A combo of crimps and gastons up a seam leads to a rest jug—then the crux. “Who knows if that’s the best way to do it,” Alan admits. “There’s nobody to share beta with. I worked it out on lead, and kept the original bolt placements.”
An hour earlier, Alan punted below the chains, taking a 30-foot whip. Smith settles in between JC and me as Alan tries again, watching as Alan links the last powerful crimps, fighting the pump to establish The Empire
Strikes Back. “Yeah, bro!” yells JC as he lowers his son. Alan gives shoutouts to everyone within earshot, including his four-legged buddy.
Now comes the hard part—grading the climb. Alan knows the route is hard, but precisely how hard is tough to say—maybe 5.13b? By the time he sends a new route, Alan will know every last hold, sequence, and clip—so, how do you rate a climb you’re so familiar with? Considerations include style, technical demands, overall burliness, boldness, and regional trends (i.e., at Smith Rock or Jailhouse, grades tend to be stiffer than at Red Rock or the Owens River Gorge). “I’d rather people say my routes are hard for the grade than too easy,” says Alan. “You never want your route to be the easy one, but you don’t want to sandbag people, either.” Objectivity can be difficult for a developer, and a consensus can take time to emerge—especially with dirtier rock that needs traffic to get clean for the best sequences to emerge, and with some repeat ascentionists eager to ego-downrate a new FA, skewing the numbers. (As Thompson jokes, speaking of hardman down-raters, “What does a 5.13 climber use for birth control? His personality!”)
As we pack up to leave, Alan indicates a proud swath of solid red rock on the Philosopher’s Stone, a buttress overlooking the hillside approach. It’s a line he bolted, likely 5.12-, and he’s now offering up the FA to his dad. Alan wants other climbers to come up here to try his harder lines, including a slew of steep routes in the 5.12+ to 5.13+ range. This will attract the scrutiny of the region’s hardest climbers, and potentially its toughest critics. “They’re psyched so far,” Alan says, citing local beast Ryan Palo’s exploratory effort on his System of a Down (5.13c). JC is psyched as well, which also helps legitimize the area.
The sun falls quickly, ushering in a kaleidoscope of reds and yellows, shadows and light over the jagged skyline of the park. Smith, the dog, is nowhere to be seen. Exhausted from hiking, jugging, drilling, trundling, and yarding on crimps, Alan slogs up the talus slope toward the parking area. We take the low road along the river, hoping that Smith will answer to his name. Anyone listening must think we’re so psyched to be out here that we’re yelling the park’s name. Or, as JC suggests, that we’re all on acid. Then, five minutes from the lot, Smith emerges from a chimney, all wiggles and kisses, and leads Alan back to his van.
The lot is empty as the Collinses drive off. It’s late, and all the sane climbers—those not hanging in their harnesses all day drilling new climbs—have gone home. This is largely thankless work, and it may seem that developing a new route exposes one to more risk (criticism, injury, scrutiny) than reward. But Alan doesn’t see it that way: “It’s just awesome, giving back to the sport, you know?” he says. “The more time my dog and I spend away from the circus at the main walls, the more developing these new areas seems like a luxury rather than a labor.”*
TODDY ER MAN is a physician in British Columbia, but has considered Smith Rock a spiritual home since the l ate 1990 s. This has not translated into more red points.
JASON BAGBY i s an adventure photographer and filmmaker i n Bend, Oregon. He i s working on a film about big- wall climbing i n British Columbia due summer 2019.
*NOTE: Dogs must be leashed and under their humans’ direct control while on Oregon State Park land. Smith’s views on leashes are his alone and do not reflect those of the author or Climbing Magazine.
1. Alan Collins scales away choss at the top of pitch 3 of the Alex Reed MemorialRoute ( 5.12b), the Colosseum. The climb was named for a fellow route developer who took a fatal fall at Smith Rock in April 2018 while scoping new- route potential above the Misery Ridge Trail.
2. Smith— the dog— happy to be outdoors exploring with his dog dad, Alan Collins, the Marsupials, Smith Rock.
1. JC ( l eft) and Alan Collins, a fatherand- son new- routing team who are part of the FA push at the Marsupials.
2. Alan Collins on his testpiece System of a Down ( 5.13c), Babylon Wall, the Marsupials.
Alan Collins enjoying a tall, cool one after a strenuous day of routesmithing. Here, he’s l ooking up at the then- undeveloped Maiden Oregon Wall, eyeballing potential new l i nes.