HMI Gap 2016: Climbing and Conservation in the La Sals, Utah

Coming to the La Sal Mountains overlooking Moab, Utah, we were promised relief from the bitter cold clutches of the Sawatch Range in Leadville. Instead, we went from balmy 37 degree weather to freezing teen-temps, suited for an ice box. An icebox is in fact, an excellent description of the campsites we occupied, which for the majority of the mornings and afternoons was shrouded in shade. We were, however, surrounded in beauty. The aspen patches dotting the mountain slopes had turned brilliant shades of yellow and watching the sunsets over the desert were picture-perfect moments. And we spent our last two weeks dancing across wind-swept sandstone cliffs and listening to Mill Creek, the water source for Moab, rush through the canyon, who’s trails we repaired for the sake of access to a local’s hidden climbing area.

Our troop of 14 was split into two groups. While one group climbed during the day, the other group assisted the Front Range Climbing Stewards (FRCS) “mess things up,” in order to build stairs and restore hillsides in order to prevent further erosion into this sensitive riparian zone. The project is a collaboration between the Forest Service and climbing organizations such as the Friends of Indian Creek, the Access Fund, and the Boulder Climbing Community to engage climbers in helping to steward local climbing resources rather than close them due to overuse. The trail restoration crew had a jolly good time rolling massive boulders down the steep slopes in Mill Creek canyon, smashing rocks to smitherines and digging a monstrous hole into the Earth (aka the “Big Brown Hole”). The trail crew was subdivided into smaller groups of 2-3 individuals, each with a specific task to be conquered. Each pod was led by one of the three inspiring men – Aaron, Benji, or JB, who are full-time employees of the FRCS. All three men modeled a hard work ethic and how to think critically about confusing situations, all while maintaining an upbeat, open-minded outlook on life. Benji, Aaron, and JB have shown us how one can integrate climbing into our lives in a balanced manner, and give back to these treasured places for the enjoyment of future climbers.

On climbing days, we were lucky enough to climb on walls bathed in sunshine. The sun warmed the rocks and made them a pleasure to climb. One of the crags we climbed at was very slabby and required delicate movement and precise footwork. For those of us who have climbed indoors a lot, this was a big change! In addition to working on movement technique, we learned a variety of technical skills like building anchors, rappelling, and even lead climbing on bolted  routes. Going from never having climbed to leading in just a few weeks is a big leap, often literally. And everyone in our group has now progressed to leading at least one climb. Lead climbing involves clipping your rope into pieces of protection as you make upward progress on the wall. When you fall, you fall over two times the distance from the last bolt. For a second, it almost feels like flying. Last Tuesday, one group headed down to the desert to climb on some well-protected sport climbs by the Colorado River. Our practice lead falls solicited first horrified gasps, then applause from folks on the river. We all got to push ourselves and lead climbs a bit outside of our comfort zone, focusing on the mental aspect of climbing and building an awareness of how to fall. Getting on hard climbs and succeeding is one of the best feelings in the world. Sometimes, I lower off a climb and simply can’t stop smiling. But we also fail on hard routes, and sometimes, that feels even better. Watching strong climbers, and even just looking at hard climbs has inspired us to improve. During free time, we often train and “slay the weakness,” a saying that our instructor Chris has introduced to the group. Soon, we’ll all be crushing even harder!

Despite the chill, we’ve all come to love our home base here in the La Sals. The aspen leaves have started to fall and they carpet the ground. The freezing temperatures have disappeared and we can walk around camp in the afternoon in shorts, or bask by the lake in the descending sunlight. As we’ve learned more about climbing, we’ve also worked to preserve climbing areas so we can return and enjoy them. At night, circled around a glowing fire, we share stories and learn more about each other. But even as we sit, cozy and content, there is a bandit raccoon sneaking around our campsites getting into food and causing mischief! Life is certainly never boring here.

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