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Lander, WY: A Lesson in Climbing

The Picturesque Sinks Canyon

Until this past Fourth of July, I didn’t really consider myself a rock climber. To that point, I submit the following evidence:

  •  I live in Nebraska
  • As if you need a second point after number one, my time is spent mostly in a gym.
  • I’ve never felt like a rock climber.

That last point is ambiguous at best, but that doesn’t take away from its legitimacy. I, in fact, think it’s the strongest of the three. But that raises an important question; when does one feel like a rock climber. Do you need a ground-breaking first ascent? Do you need to climb a certain grade? Is it the number of places you’ve been or the type of climbing you do? Where is that transition from “I rock climb” to “I am a rock climber?” I’ve learned that being a climber has nothing to do with any of those questions. So what does this all have to do with my weekend this past Fourth of July? I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a story about people; the people who taught me that a weekend of climbing is much more than tying into a rope and pulling on stone.  

I was invited to go on a climbing trip to Lander, WY by a person who I’ll call Sean. I like to call him that because that’s his name. I think he likes when I call him that, too. Do you want to know what Sean is like? He’s like that little ball that bounces up and down on the lyrics so kids can sing along during Sesame Street. He has the biggest heart and the smallest hands of any Irishman this side of Fenway Park. Although, he is the most menacingly muscle-bound climber you’re likely to find, the softness in his face is more inviting than anyone you’re likely to find.

So when he invited me on the trip, although I knew none of the eight other climbers, I felt no amount of hesitation. At the very least I knew I had one friend, and I figured if these people are friends with a guy this amiable, and they’re climbers, they can’t be too bad. Plus, I figured Fourth of July in a rodeo-hosting, Budweiser-guzzling, belt buckle-toting town like Lander, Wyoming wouldn’t disappoint.

 Simon on Tour

Simon enjoying an afternoon in the Mediterranean Sea (photo credit - Simon)

I was fortunate enough to share the car ride out with Simon. I had met him previously in the climbing gym. He’s a quiet lad with a hard shell to crack, so I wasn’t able to get to know him too much in that time. It seemed like he was usually on a mission when he was there anyway. I respect that. It shows that he is a person who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to work hard to get it; even if it’s trying to stay in good climbing shape in a region as flat the Midwest.

Until that weekend, Simon and I had that awkward relationship that two sufficiently friendly people share when neither is outgoing enough to strike conversation. The nice thing about road trips is that it forces that awkwardness out of the picture. Or at least the confines of a car make breaking the ice less awkward than stewing in your discomfort. Plus, I had the convenience of probing car-mates to help start the conversation. 

Simon, an exchange student from Austria, was at the time on his second tour of this country. He’s had quite the life. He’s, to say the least, adventurous. He’s brave, handsome, has a great sense of humor, and can play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on a ukulele. So I made up the part of about the uke, but the point is his choice to return to a place as reputedly lackluster as Nebraska is no indication of spirit. During both his tours in America, the last few weeks of his time were spent seeing its greatest parts. Upon return to Austria, he’ll be graduating and spending time touring Europe.

But his travels are only half the story. In our conversation, it was clear that his philosophy on life is minimalist in nature. Favoring experience over possessions, he’s not afraid to buck the norm. He was raised under the wing of his rock climber father, a local Austrian first ascensionist. But these are all manifestations of a core trait that is his adventurous spirit. He floats on the wind in the way that we all wish we could. What I mean is that he, without reserve, savors each of his experiences being  able to curb the insignificant stressors that so many of us allow to consume our time.

 In retrospect, this could not have been a better way to begin the weekend. Not only did it help the time to fly as we plodded across Nebraska, but jostled the adventurer in all of us, stoking our anticipation for the upcoming weekend. When we rolled into Laramie, but minutes from the gates of Sinks Canyon State Park, we stopped for one last good meal before being condemned to canned meats and rehydrated pasta. Already you could see the enthusiasm in everyone’s faces. As we waited for our pizza, we raised our glasses and gave a toast to weekend just within our reach. If I wasn’t sure about joining this crew before, I was definitely convinced now!

Chris and Nicole – Bound for Life

Those crazy kids - Chris you keep an eye on her! (photo credit - Lucas Marshall)

Unless you’re cragging at Rifle, plugging gear in El Cap base routes, or setting a bumper belay on the Bastille, any day of climbing starts with hiking. That’s half the beauty of the experience. Yeah, it gets you closer to nature, allows you to slow down, and all that Zen stuff. But mostly it filters the riff raff. It reserves climbing for the dedicated few willing to part with their automobiles and to meander off the beaten path. And it ensures that once you get there, you’ll be in the company of other like-minded individuals.

I found hiking that weekend an oddly solitary experience. Everything else about the climbing community, including the very symbol of being tied together by a rope, points to unity. Apparently the approach to the crag is the exception to this rule. There was some conversation, but mostly short ones concerning the impending climbs. But knife-point focus kept mouths shut and eyes focused on the trail ahead. More evident, however, was how quickly the group dissolved into individuals on a quest at their own pace. I don’t think it was anything to be taken personally. Some folks are stronger hikers and in the end we’re all headed to the same place and will make it there eventually. At least that’s what I told myself as I arduously attempted to surmount the infinite uphill approach to the crags. Having said this, I was happy to slip into solidarity during the hike.

As cliché as it sounds, it is nice to shutup and enjoy the scenery. Sinks Canyon is moderately remote, featuring scenery straight out of an Ansel Adams photo; picturesque western grass-covered canyons capped with stark white limestone bluffs. Summer days in the canyon are typically clear and hot, precluded by cool mornings that make climbing ideal.

Amid my daydreaming, I did notice an exception to what I was describing above. By themselves, but inseparable were Chris and Nicole making steady progress up the hill. Chris would periodically check to make sure Nicole was comfortable with the pace, offering a hand on high steps and short sections of scrambling, as Nicole’s shorter strides were giving her trouble. They arrived together at the base of the cliff, and the support role reversed.

With Chris overcoming a broken elbow, she steadfastly monitored his condition, exhibiting her care for him. Situations like these continued throughout the weekend. The two of them would naturally slip into symbiotic roles, which is a good sign considering their engagement. In all seriousness though, their dedication to each other is a perfect analogy to dedication all climbers have to their partners. A climber leans on the crutch that is their partner every moment during their time together. Loyalty to and trust for each other are essential components for the relationship one has to the most important piece of gear you’ll ever use.

The Great Nate Harrell

I didn’t get to meet Nate until we arrived Friday night – or was it Saturday morning? Regardless, I liked him right away. Despite our late night arrival, he emerged from his tent, after Chris’s prolonged attempts at trying to park while receiving deserved mockery from Nicole, with a smile, boisterous chuckle, a firm handshake, and a look of vexation that was enveloped in sympathy and elation to be reunited with his friends. His demeanor suggests a strong character that you can’t help but admire, despite the occasional sarcastic quip.

Having the most experience with the area, Nate was the guide for the weekend, and what a great guide he was. Sinks Canyon boasts some of the country’s premier limestone sport climbing. Much of it we simply stood under in amazement. I’d never seen caves of endless pockets like that before, up to ten or twelve sparsely spaced bolts long. Even the climbs in the 5.10 ranges that Nate showed us were worthy lines. Routes such as Sandman featured just enough technical face climbing, mixed with the occasional sinker pocket, and varying angle to give each route a magnificent character of its own.

Heck, Nate even knew the remedy to the punishing July sun; a waterslide, fed by glacier water, and masquerading as a waterfall. The south face of the bright white walls of Sinks Canyon is no place to linger when the temps push 100°F with no sign of clouds. So Nate led us a couple miles down the trail to the neighborhood swimming hole. Actually, there wasn’t much swimming because after the 30’ drop down a water-polished granite wash and a plunge into a pool of glacier melt, the only thing you can think about, aside from the uncontrollably goofy look on your face, is getting the hell out before your body hurts worse than it already does. Sound like torture? Maybe, but we all went back for a seconds!

Ted enjoying the ride (photo credit - Simon)

Having praised Nate for his guiding skills, I think that even without his prior knowledge of the area, he would have inevitably slipped into that role. That’s what I think stuck most with me. Nate is one of those people who is graced with not only plenty of intelligence, but the common sense to effectively apply it and the humility to allow his knowledge and decisions speak for themselves. He reminds me of the characters in war movies that happily spend most of the time in the shadows. But in the critical moments when the assigned, inadequate leadership breaks down, the battalion impulsively gravitates to him.

Any successful climbing expedition, be it a weekend of sport climbing or a week in Patagonia, needs a person like this. Inevitably there will be a moment where the group is faced with a decision that halts momentum. When this happens, you need someone who is able to see through the fog, sort the information at hand, and make a clear decision. This is Nate. And every climber needs this skill. When bad turns to worse this is what keeps you safe, and in the worst situations, alive.

Intrepid Teddy Bartoletti

What a first day! Climbing outside for one of the first times in such a beautiful place, I fear, will be a double edged sword. How will anything measure up to this – oh if I only knew, right? On top of that, we hiked to a waterfall that was as bitterly cold as it was breathtakingly beautiful; truly an Eden hidden in the mountains of Wyoming. I had the pleasure of getting to know some interesting folks. But the evening hadn’t even begun. I learned very quickly that the only true way to wrap up a day of climbing is family-style dinner around the campfire. That night’s was to precede a propagandized American-style fireworks show. But before all that came food, drink, and a little more intimate exchange with my new climbing mates.

Ted toping out in the Alps (photo credit - Ted)

Ted didn’t say much the first day. I suspect now that it was directly related to our topics of conversation, which didn’t seem to interest him as much. That’s not say he was rude or elitist, far from it. As it turns out, Ted has somewhat of an intense personality. He is inspired by few things, one of the highest on the list being climbing. If the topic of conversation does not particularity fancy him, he remains aloof and even reticent. From what I can tell, he is conserving energy, like a hibernating bear. Because every once in a while, something comes along the lights the nuclear reaction in Ted that amazingly remains contained oftentimes. When this happens, sit back, watch the show, and prepare to absorb the energy of one of the most passionate individuals you’ll ever meet.

But, oh, that nuclear reaction was not quite primed, mostly because the attention all too often turned to him, agitating his reticent nature. For someone as quiet as Ted, interrogation, least of all about his love life, from eight people is far too much to handle. So he hibernated just a little longer, sloughing off his cryptic responses as bashfulness. But we knew better.

The weather on our second morning was a little more menacing than we would have cared for, given that we had only prepared ourselves for casual sport climbing. As such, and at the advisement of our aforementioned guide, we decided to forgo the planned pilgrimage to Wild Iris. Rather than shiver in the Wild’s shady canyons, we opted to absorb as the sun’s radiation on the cliffs of Sinks Canyon again. So as we did the first day, we prepared for the long hike to the crags. But before we could all get organized, something caught Ted’s sparked his attention – insert reactor-grade uranium and flip the switch. A VW Vanagon had been parked at the base of the approach all night. You see, one of Ted’s dreams has been to acquire said model of vehicle and employ in gallivanting him around the country. He’s got just a little of Simon’s adventurous spirit.

No sooner did the Vanagon’s inhabitants emerge, when they were greeted by Ted’s inquisitive smile, free from its bashful shackles so evident the night before. “What year is this? You fix it up yourself? Yeah I’ve been looking at getting one of these. You get good gas mileage?” At that point, Sean leaned over to chuckle and whisper, “You remember our shy friend Ted, right?” But as I said this was only the start.

His passion for climbing and sincere desire to see his friends succeed, combined with the kick start from the morning’s Vanagon incident, proved too much to hold in any longer. The fire had been lit and there was no turning back. That afternoon, he endowed each of us with some the most “animated” (read: vulgar but genuine) encouragement I’ve ever seen at the crag. I won’t go into the details, after all this is a family show, but if he could harness that energy, clean it up a little, and apply it to anything from climbing to weight-loss, he would make millions. Think Tony Robbins mixed with a little Richard Simmons and a lot of Robin Williams!

Looking back, and even then, I couldn’t help but admire Ted for his courage. He really is a quiet individual. I guess that lends to his career choice as a research student. He also happens to be one of those people who has the vision to see what he makes him happy, but more importantly the guts to chase it. This is what will make Ted a great climber and a successful person. Sure he’s strong as a bear, but that would be all for waste if he allowed his shyness and fears to paralyze him. Ted, don’t ever change!

Sunday evening was the culmination of the weekend. After a few days in the sticks, we decided to roll on into town to celebrate the Fourth with a good ole fashion Wyoming rodeo. It was the perfect end to the weekend. We got lost on the way there, Simon, the foreigner, greeted the locals with an unnatural “howdy” and asked for directions, got lost again, found the rodeo, drank cans of Bud, and watched the most glorious fireworks display I’ve ever seen. From the hill where we stood, we could see the entire Lander skyline and it was filled with explosions of every size and color you could image. I was just like that scene in The Sandlot. And then, all at once they quit, the lights went down at the rodeo, and the finale show began directly above us. For a town of 8,000 or so, the definitely know how to blow some stuff up!


Lander Skyline on the Fourth (photo credit-Simon)

Exit from Eden 

The drive home is always a disenchanting one; painfully long and horribly demoralizing. There’s not much worse than watching the mountains disappear in your rearview mirror, bound for another week of white collars and plastic-pulling. The vibrant spirits present in the ride out have been left at the last climb. But that’s alright because as important as it is to converse with friends and absorb experiences, it’s as important to have time with your thoughts to reflect. You remember how I told you I didn’t feel like a climber until the last few weeks? This is what I reflected on during the eight hour drive.

So what are the qualities of a climber? This is what I came up with. You need Simon’s adventurous spirit. Without it you would be happy to spend the weekends taking naps on the couch or watching reality TV. You need the loyalty to your partner that Chris and Nicole share. No climber is worth his weight in chalk without the support of his partner. You need Ted’s boldness. Its one thing to have an adventurous spirit, but without the courage to see chase those adventures, you’ll end up keeping your buddies company on the couch. Lastly, without Nate’s clear head, you’d and your partner would be lost in the mountains with all courage.

You’ll notice I made no mention of the physical act of climbing. Actually getting on the rock, placing the gear, making the moves, is the shellac on the core characteristics of climbers. It doesn’t matter how hard you climb, where you do it, or what type of climbing you do. I’ve always been a climber, I’ll always be one. I may not have had a pair of rock shoes on during all those times, but I possessed all the requisite characteristics.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not special. Everyone I met on this trip shares these qualities to some degree. It’s just that certain individuals have a different proportion of them; so as to personify the quality that I’ve associated with them. Such is the grab bag of folks that climbing attracts. Come to think of it, it’s funny to think that individuals who are so different can share such a strong bond through a sport as arbitrary climbing, but that’s a whole other story…

Tyler - This is another great reminder of how important the people around us are. I know that when I look back on the climbing I’ve done, I can only remember a very few specific moves or routes, but I always remember the people there with me. Awesome article.September 19, 2010 – 1:06 am

Adam - Great account. I enjoyed how all the personal traits and anecdotes were tied together at the end to define a “climber.”

Chris, did you write this, or was this a guest post?September 19, 2010 – 10:40 am

Chris - Thanks Adam and Tyler. I did write the article, but was trying to tell the story from an outsiders perspective. Looking back I could have made that more clear. At any rate thanks again. And I’ve really enjoyed hearing about your weekend adventures, Adam. Sounds like youre doing a great job at achieving your goals for the year.September 20, 2010 – 9:33 am

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