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.

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