Every year the good people at Mountain Projects (now the Adventure Projects branch of REI) put on an informal meetup for all their Admins. We pick a place, our hosts grab a campsite and bring a cooler of beer and grilling supplies. It is a great opportunity to meet the unpaid volunteers who give their time to moderate, cultivate, develop and further the climbing community inside and outside the digital hub that is Mountain Project in North America. This year’s destination was The City of Rocks, ID which features all the ease of the road side crags of Joshua Tree, the rock-plated jugs of Red Rocks, the solid granite of Yosemite and a bit of the muted popularity and orange-black coloration of Shuteye Ridge.
I started my trip out to the City of Rocks working from Burley, ID where I chatted up with Chesser. A climbing veteran since the 70s who climbed El Cap, when the routes were simply called Route 1 and Route 2 instead of The Nose and Salathe Wall. He shared about thru-hiking the PCT and CDT on horseback. As well as mountaineering in the Himalaya and an ascent of K12 (24,370 ft). Meeting computing legend Grace Hopper in the Marine Core while servicing helicopters and finally ending his climbing career a dozen years ago after barely surviving a 90-ft ground fall. It was a great start of an experience where I was to meet climbers and route developers from around the world with a variety of ages and experiences.
Coming in from the West, however, I only saw rolling warm hills with casual grazing cows. I was starting to get nervous about how much rock was here until I was right up on “The Breadloaves” group campsite and I got a look at the place from my first top out on Morning Star – Skyline (5.8).
This weekend I had the joy of partnering with Mike, a local to the area who has put up hundreds of routes in Idaho (including in the city of rocks) as well as many FAs in The Needles of South Dakota. He was a great ‘guide’ and I felt like I climbed classic after classic with his local knowledge.
The first full day was crack-focused and while The City has some great splitters, mixed sport-trad routes or routes with face and crack climbing is pretty common. The cracks are typically great for hands and fingers but can often be a little tricky with gear due to inconsistently non-parallel sides. I was feeling pretty good after red-pointing Interceptor, my first full value 11a trad lead where my Sasquatch hands were put to good use on a very overhung hands to fist sized crack.
We ended the day topping out several times on some 5.10 trad on the King on the Throne.
Each night we would get back to camp for beer, burgers and circled up chairs. I met admins from Hong Kong, Nova Scotia, three Adventure Project engineers from Boulder and a guy bolting new routes with Titanium bolts in the Cayman Islands. I was re-exposed to the wide variety of conceptual ‘normals’ between grading, rock, style, etc. across the world.
In reflection… In comparison with others, California climbers just accept the stiff Yosemite-style grades where 5.9 trad is an accomplishment and sport routes either mean 40 ft runouts and 10ft to the next bolt is modern bolting. Speaking ill of such norms earns you a newbie badge who has “too shinny” gear and “should go back to the gym”. Whereas it was surprising to see others who would find it sacrilegious with bolts greater than eight feet apart that weren’t perfectly placed for the route flow. Or those who have no problem challenging grades as being not accurate or sandbagged. The term ‘old school’ is thrown around, but I guess for me in California, ‘old school’ stiff grades and minimal bolting is the norm.
The second full day we went out to Castle Rocks to chase the shade sport climbing in the desert 90 degree heat of summer in Idaho. I was pretty tired after my seven 10a+ trad leads the prior day but I still managed to ignore my finger soreness to get another seven routes in. Our warm up was the most approachable multi-pitch experience I’ve ever seen. Zinger, a cruiser 5.8 sport route with bolts every 7 ft, anchors every 30m and solid jugs the whole way up for three pitches.
Two stand out attributes of The City of Rocks are the number of high quality and enjoyable moderate routes in the 5.7-5.9 range for BOTH sport and trade. Typically in this range, you get what you get. The routes can be dirty or not super aesthetic or not super fun. However at the city you can hop on a splitter crack that looks 5.10 but actually is 5.7 with great feet.
This is mainly due to the second great attribute: incredibly solid granite patina. Like armor plating on a dinosaur, this hardened rock layer is formed from the mineral deposits of water erosion. Instead of flat granite holds, nearly every hand placement on face will reveal a positive ridge to wrap finger tips into. There are very few hollow flakes and I was even able to pull outward on a six inch deep flake of patina with my 210 lbs body without a second thought. The solid rock and ample patina means you can top out on a 200 ft high rock with just 5.8 skills. Which is truly a rare thing.
We ended the sport day climbing pumpy overhangs that transition into balancey friction moves before hitting up the famous Rock City pizza and beer paradise for a quick run before returning to camp for another campfire talk. Listening about other’s climbing areas, the current state of bolting ethics and everyone’s day.
Just like last year’s Mountain Project Admin Meetup, I had an amazing time and really enjoyed the community. The connections of people across regions and age who I would otherwise not interact. I found the City of Rocks a pretty great place for moderates, but a little smaller than I expected. It felt easy to chew through the 5.10 classics and I guess that makes sense since Mike said this grade range is a little light in quantity while surrounded with lots of moderates and lots of 5.11+. Definitely a great place to come climb, but not quite as deep as many other places like Red Rocks, Indian Creek, Shuteye Ridge, Sonora Pass, etc.