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Fall Season at Smith Rock

November 1st, 2006

SMITH ROCK, OR – In past years it has been a weekend ritual; five o’clock rolls around and you find yourself hoping you made the right choice to take I-5 south to Portland instead of I-90 over the pass and then south on US-97 through Yakima. 97 is longer, but there’s less traffic on the six hour drive to Smith Rock, Oregon. (at right: Marshall falling on Latest Rage, 5.12b)

The rock formations of volcanic tuff at Smith are an internationally re-knowned sport climbing crag. In the dry reaches of eastern Oregon, about 40 min. north of Bend, the park offers a unique climbing experience; pockets from body-sized huecos to single-digit ‘monos’ combine with fingernail to foot-sized sharp edges. At the base of one classic it’s not uncommon to find climbers discussing body position and how to reach the next hold from the cruxy ‘dime-edge.’ Imagine the core strength to stand your tiptoes, paste the fingers of one hand onto a U.S. dime while reaching out with the other, all on a slightly steeper-than-vertical wall with 20m of air beneath you.(at left: crossing the crooked river at sunset)

Smith is not a crack climber’s mecca. Nor is it best suited for beginners, although to judge by their numbers, it is quite popular. Nor is it for the faint of heart; years of erosion by countless feet has worn the earth away, making the first bolt even higher than the route creator envisioned. Sometimes the first place to clip the point of protection is over 30 feet off the deck. And on some routes the bolts are spaced so far that falls are a mandatory 20 or 30 feet.(at right: kasi stemming at nearby Trout Creek)

What Smith is offers is a lot of 5.11, 5.12, a sizeable collection of 5.13, and many 5.14’s. By comparison, the scale (really) starts at about 5.6 and ends at 5.15, with sub-classes of a,b,c,d (ie. 5.12a is harder than 5.10d). It also offers a social scene of die-hard locals, climbing bums on an international circuit, well-intentioned beginners who make me scared (I was once one), all climbing beside some of the sport’s biggest celebrities. The evenings, at one of the dirt-bag camp grounds, are fires, laughter, and copious quantities of beer. Midweek, with fewer campers, the desert quiet fills with coyote howls and the scent of juniper.(at left: Andreas and the Trout Creek views)

This year I only went twice, both for long weekends, one of which was to check out a ‘new’ area of amazing basalt cracks. Trout Creek, north of Smith by about 1.5hrs, has splitters from fingertip width on up to ten-inch monstrosities. I’d have to say my favorite was a crack so uniform in width, and long, that with my desire to make gear placements every body-length (or so) I used three 3″ pieces, nine 2″ pieces, and one 1″ piece. Were I stronger and bolder I suppose I would have ‘run it out.'(at right: mindy’s fingers, the bloody result of poor crack technique)

Sometimes the trips are about focus and ‘projects’; hard climbs you’re trying to complete. Sometimes they are simply about being there in the sun, with the freezing nights, eating while crouching in the dirt, relating stories beside the fire, falling asleep under the stars and waking up to dawn’s first light with frost on your bag. Every weekend, for the full season. Hm…the climbing life.(at left: Trout Creek at sunset)

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