Gym Town

Posted Climbing Travel

For a self-proclaimed “climbing hotspot” the Salt Lake area isn’t very climber friendly. Or, isn’t hospitable to traveling climbers, I should say. Camping is expensive, if available at all. Shower options are scarce. And the guidebooks are expensive and not very good. (If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that they’re working on a new guidebook for the such-and-such area, we’d never have to go home.) Even at the crags, you can tell that this isn’t a destination climbing spot. Most places we’ve been to, it’s about a 75/25% split of out-of-towners to locals. We’ve been here almost a week and I haven’t met a single person from out of town.

There was one helpful person, a guy named Shingu who works at IME, the climbing shop in SLC. He was probably the most enthusiastic and eager-to-help local that we’ve met anywhere so far. He spent about 20 minutes with us, talking about the area, climbing options, the weather, etc. He drew us a map to the free camping for a climbing destination in an entirely different state, just because we mentioned that we might go there in the future and it’s a place he really loves. He loaned us a guidebook to use for a few days. He was super apologetic about the lack of camping options, like he was personally taking the blame for the entire population of the greater Salt Lake area. He practically invited us home to stay with him. I got the feeling, though, that he had done that one too many times and his wife had had enough. Very cool guy who was just super stoked on life and wanted everyone around him to have a good time.

One thing is for sure, though. This is most definitely a gym town. There is an often heated debate on whether or not climbing gyms have cost the sport of rock climbing it’s soul. The argument is that gyms have done away with the mentor system by which most people used to learn how to climb, and along with it the passing on of climbing ethics, trad safety basics, and general crag stewardship. Some even go so far as to say that gym climbers aren’t “outdoorsy” enough to appreciate the cliffs and the spaces they occupy. I’m not going to pick sides—I enjoy both outdoor and gym climbing for different reasons—but there’s no denying that there is a difference between people who learn to climb outside and go to gyms for training, and people who learn in the gym and possibly transition outside. Not bad, necessarily. Just a different breed. And this town is full of gym climbers. They bring their gym bags to the crag instead of a climbing pack. They like to yell and holler at the tops of climbs (“Woo Boys”). They blast their radios. And I even overheard one guy say, “That route is really fun. It’s the closest feel to a gym route of anything I’ve climbed outside.” As if the routes set outside were supposed to emulate the ones in the gym and not the other way around. To be fair, though, almost all of the other climbers we encountered outside were college kids, so maybe this isn’t an accurate sample set.

This post is getting pretty judgmental, isn’t it? Let’s get back to the positives. Once you get outside of the city, the landscape is beautiful. Big 10,000ft mountains right outside of town. Another big mountain range just on the other side of the lake. Everywhere you look, it’s high peaks. BYU is the cleanest college campus I have ever seen. And the Provo Parks & Rec are on top of it when it comes to maintaining all of the various parks in the area. It would be really easy to have an active outdoor lifestyle if you lived here.

Oh, and unlike most American climbers, the gym climbers around here have fully embraced the use of belay specs. It’s only ever Europeans who you see wearing them. Most Americans can’t get over the goofy look, but not here. More than half the people belaying at the gym were using them. So Mark and I got on board and bought a pair. I don’t care how goofy I look. For long days of climbing they are really nice to have.

As far as the actual climbing goes, we only got a small taste of what is available here. The road into American Fork Canyon was still closed for the winter season. Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons have a strict “no dogs” policy because they’re a watershed for the city. We spent a few days climbing in Rock Canyon just east of Provo. The routes were kind of strange, like they didn’t follow the natural lines of the rocks. The bizarre bolt placements made it even more confusing. And the quartzite rock was brittle and untrustworthy. On our third day out we found a wall that turned out to be a lot of fun. Though, either the people that established that area were messing with everyone when it came to the grades, or the ground at the base of the routes had eroded away quite a bit since when they were originally set. Every climb on this wall, from 5.7 to 5.11, had what most would consider a 5.10 move right at the start. Another guy who was climbing near us said that he thought the first  ascentionists averaged the difficulty of the climb to determine the grade, rather than following the standard practice of grading the route according to the hardest moves. Oh well. We got a few days of climbing in on a new kind of rock. And we got to check out Utah’s largest climbing gym and see where Alex Puccio trains. The rain is coming again, so rather than spend the next few days huddled up in the Walmart parking lot, we’re moving on to our next destination.