“Press your left hip to the rock,” my climbing partner Melanie calls again from 10 feet below. I don’t see any point in leaving the safety of my position, clinging with numbing fingers to the frigid right-hand wall of what she has described as “an easy dihedral” at Dierkes Lake, a shallow basalt canyon just east of Twin Falls. It’s 10 degrees above zero, and no handholds are materializing above me. I will be lowered in shame down this 30-foot, 5.7 pitch. While I was initially appalled at the idea of failure, I am starting to find this option appealing.
Melanie Mildrew stands on belay. At 32, she’s a veteran climbing instructor who’s talked many a student up this very pitch. At 5.6 and 5.7, these are the green runs of technical rock climbing. At 5.12s and above, the climber better be dedicated and skilled.
Jody Leidecker ascends 5.12s all over the West. She is one of the area’s most respected climbers, and jokes that “5.12” stands for her age: She is 60. A grandmother who believes that climbing “doesn’t have to be any more dangerous than walking across the street,” she didn’t step into a harness until the age of 47. Her son Eric Leidecker, co-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, got her started.
“I put on his shoes and harness, and that was it,” she recalls, smiling broadly under a short cap of silvering blond hair. “I got my own gear, and people said, ‘that’s silly, you’ll never go out alone.’ But I’ve probably worn out more ropes than either of my sons.”
On her 50th birthday, Jody Leidecker invited a group of women friends down to the City of Rocks, one of the nation’s foremost sport climbing destinations, three hours southeast of Ketchum.
She set up an easy top rope. They all got to the top except one, who made it on her second try.
She loved empowering them in this way.
In spite of her enthusiasm for sharing her passion with others, climbing is primarily a solitary endeavor, and its disciples tend to form small groups rather than a large, cohesive community.
Each has a trusted partner, and personal gear.
“You respect your gear,” admonishes Mildrew, stepping carefully around coils of rope. “It’s your lifeline. You don’t step on the rope. You don’t buy a secondhand carabiner.”
FOCUS OR FALL
Like all the climbers I spent time with, Mildrew values not only the physical solitude but the focus that climbing demands. “I’m not thinking about anything else. And if I am, then I’m not concentrating, and I shouldn’t be climbing.” Smith Kennedy, a Boise climber, elaborates on this riff. What gets him out there is “feeling the weather and the natural space around you.” But what keeps him out there is the challenge of ascent, and the centering he achieves on the rock. “The narrow focus helps you to put aside other aspects of your life for a little while,” he says. “That change in perspective can be very liberating."
Smith Kennedy, 37, and wife Kelli, 32, have frequented the City of Rocks since moving to Boise seven years ago. A New York City native, Kennedy top-roped at boarding school in Connecticut, and was hooked. Kelli Kennedy grew up playing competitive tennis in South Carolina.
Her doubles team went to the state championships, but she’s quick to point out that they didn’t win. I’m finding that such modesty is common among climbers. She didn’t lace on a pair of climbing shoes until moving to Missoula, Montana in 1994, when she joined a group of women who went climbing at a local gym before heading out for drinks. For her, climbing quickly became more addictive than martinis.
A POCKET ISN’T ALWAYS WARM
Fifteen feet. I dangle with hands stuffed into my armpits for warmth, feet lodged in tiny pockets of rock. The word pocket connotes softness, even warmth, but here there is neither. It is my own damned fault I am here, face three inches from the freezing rock, in mid-December. For various reasons, I procrastinated. Among them, I realize, is that climbers intimidate me. They seem a frighteningly self-sufficient lot. These people can do pull-ups.
Against my intuition, I swing my body away from the illusory safety of the right-hand wall. “Now look up,” calls Mildrew. I look. Holds suddenly materialize above me. I stretch my hand toward a shallow knob above my head. Mildrew tightens the rope to make sure I don’t lose any hard-won ground.
My top rope, according to Rob Kiesel, a climbing institution who happens to live in Ketchum, is considered poor form. Kiesel climbed for more than thirty years without placing a bolt, which would be permanently embedded in the rock—although he speaks approvingly of camming devices, a means of temporary protection, wishing that they’d been invented earlier. In 1973, he and Greg Lowe, who later founded Lowe Alpine with brother Jeff, made the first American Grade 6 winter ascent when they climbed Yosemite’s infamous Half Dome. It took seven days. Kiesel owned the first nordic ski and climbing specialty store in Idaho, located on the site of the present-day Elephant’s Perch, and he’s maddeningly modest. It was Bob Rosso (current owner of the Elephant’s Perch) who told me that Kiesel coached the U.S. Nordic team for a decade. And it was Kiesel who told me that Rosso had been with him on the second ascent of Sunrise Book, a popular route up the famous Elephant’s Perch, a 1,500-foot granite slab in the Sawtooths for which Rosso named his shop.
CITY OF ROCKS
In the past two decades, Idaho’s climbing scene has shifted south from the serious mountaineering done in the Sawtooths to the bouldering or sport climbing popular at City of Rocks.
Three hours southeast of Ketchum, a completely different landscape rises out of the southern Albion Range—monolithic granite humps jutting hundreds of feet from the high desert scrub of juniper and sage. The granite at “the City” is in its infancy—only 25 million years old. Wind has carved a home among these hills and water has leached iron oxide from their faces to form patinas riddled with holds.
Although they’ve climbed in Thailand, Tasmania, and Spain, both Kennedys count the City among their favorite climbing destinations; climbers from around the world flock to scale routes like “Bumblie Takes a Tumblie.”
Mildrew calls the City “a magical place,” where the world beyond her body and the next hold vanishes.
Designated a National Historic Landmark and placed under the supervision of the National Park Service in 1988, the City lay along the California Trail Corridor in the late 1800s. Certain areas are now off-limits to climbing. “If you think it’s hard to find a campsite now, you should have been here in 1862!” quips Dave Bingham in his guidebook on the area. Bingham has developed and named dozens of the roughly 250 sport routes here. He has been a driving force in the City’s rise in popularity, which has mirrored the rise in sport climbing experienced during the ‘80s. Bingham implores visitors to tread lightly, a sentiment echoed by park ranger Brad Shilling, who believes in carefully maintaining the City’s sport routes, considering them vertical trails.
I DANGLE LIKE A CHRISTMAS ORNAMENT
Twenty feet. Spreadeagled, and balanced precariously, I lack the strength to push up to the next hold. Climbing really hadn’t looked this hard. Face, chest, forearms, thighs are pressed against the absolutely unyielding roughness of the rock. Climbing is an analytic event, the chess of the sporting world. And I am about to be checkmated, although I have all the advantages the older guys never had: super-sticky shoes, a fixed anchor, and a Starbucks 10 minutes away. >>>
While I dangle like a Christmas ornament, Mildrew points out short walls to the west, which are popular bouldering sites. Bouldering requires not much more than climbing shoes, chalk for friction, and a crash pad, because a climber “solves boulder problems” close to the ground. “It tends to be maximum-effort climbing, with a route’s-worth of problems and difficulties packed into 10 feet,” says Marc Hanselman.
At 31, Hanselman has gained a reputation for his mountaineering skills and pioneering approach. He leads expeditions all summer for Sawtooth Mountain Guides; in his free time, he scouts new routes. His goal this season is to redpoint—climb without falling—all the routes he set last year.
A Wood River Valley native, Hanselman has climbed all over the West, Australia, Japan, and Thailand, but he always returns to Idaho.
“As a resource,” he tells me, “the area’s still growing. Reid (Dowdl) is still new-routing in the Sawtooths. We’ve been busy new-routing at Castle Rocks and at the Channel. There will continue to be new things to climb, which is why I like it. So much has not yet been discovered.”
In 2003, Castle Rocks near the City was opened to climbers, and more than 25 sport routes have been set in the Lava Tubes, caves hidden in the lava rubble 20 miles south of Hailey. Five years ago, local climbers discovered the nearby Channel, a winding basalt slot canyon carved by the Big Wood River. Eric Leidecker calls the Channel “a world-class bouldering environment that elevates Ketchum as a destination for climbers.”
Eric Leidecker likes bouldering because it’s convenient, and it’s something that can be done alone.
“Or,” points out Hanselman with a sly look, “with kids. Eric takes his kids down there and they hang out while he climbs.” Four-year-old Sasha has already made her debut ascent of the 5.5 Super Slabs behind Redfish Lake. “She’ll climb anything,” her mother Gretchen tells me. “But she’s not very good at ball sports.”
“I sucked at ball sports,” Hanselman offers with a nod of recognition. “Being a skinny kid growing up, climbing was something I could do. I could scale a rock, and the football players couldn’t.”
His comment led me to ask Smith Kennedy the same question, and he used strikingly similar words. “I sucked at most traditional team sports,” he recalls. “Part of what drew me to climbing was the noncompetitive nature of it. It was more about competing with oneself than competing against others.”
To me, this is an epiphany. It had never occurred to me that not being good at football would be a reason for someone to feel inadequate, like an outsider. That it might motivate them to find and nurture other strengths; that it might inspire them to climb mountains. Why had I been scared of climbers?
AT THE TOP, I AM UNEXPECTEDLY PROUD
“Just one more move and you’re there,” calls Mildrew. I slip my foot into a crack, locate a small bump with frozen fingers, and haul myself gracelessly over the lip. I am unexpectedly proud of myself, mostly for not giving up. As the blood painfully reenters my fingertips, I’m reminded of the way Hanselman had kept coming back to a question I’d asked 10 minutes before, and I could see how his method of formulating answers is tied intrinsically to the way he coaxes new routes from a rock face.
“If climbing is your passion,” he mused, “you need to be pretty versatile.”
Writer Betsy Andrews still cannot do a pull-up. But she is taking Natasha Sevilla’s climbing class at Y Rocks in Hailey.