Sabrina invited me to join her, Anne and Rod for a long weekend in City of Rocks. Contrary to what I previously believed, the area got its name from early gold rush settlers on the California Trail who thought the area looked like a city made of rocks. They left their marks on the rocks in axle grease, some of which can still be seen today. City of rocks is also known geologically as having the oldest exposed rock on the continent of North America with rock up to 2.5 billion years old. The area is a national park preserve, which means it is still used for ranching and hunting, as well as preserving the historical features of the area. Unfortunately for climbers, that means not being able to climb on the Twin Sisters formation due to view preservation.
The drive into Southeast Idaho was around twelve hours, a mere three hours from Salt Lake City. We left rainy Seattle and eventually arrived to the clear warm skies of the high (6000') desert. We drove around "The City" before exiting to our campground at Smoky Mountain. Advantages to camping at Smoky Mountain include showers, flush toilets, and readily available water. Disadvantages are that it has no views and is RV friendly. Camping in The City has better views, and closer climbing, but lacks easy access to water, or bathrooms. Either way, make reservations in advance.
We headed to Window Rock to get in some easier leads to get a feel for the place. After some trail wandering, we located the east side of the rock. Sabrina started on the one star Summit Route (5.5) while Rod led up Good Times (5.6**). The climbing proved fairly easy, and soon we were all on top. The summit was wonderful. There were a few pools with brine shrimp in them, and we gawked at the views from up top. Soon we were scrambling back to the top of Summit Route to rap off with a single 60m rope.
We hiked back to the van, and drove to Elephant Rock where there were numerous routes we were looking to get on. I balked at the idea of leading Rye Crisp (5.8****), and decided to lead Wheat Thin (5.7***) instead. This route started easily and didn't really ever get too difficult. The guide warned of protecting the crux, but I'm not entirely sure I know where that was. I had a mental crux a little more than halfway when the climbing was getting steeper, and I had to commit to the section above me. For me, the climb finished with some run out face climbing. While I was bringing Rod up, Anne had led The Pygmies got Stoned (5.10a***) and Sabrina top roped it. Rod and I explored the nice views from the summit, and then got a lift on someone's 70m rope to the ground. I top roped Pygmies (with a fall) to clean the anchor, and we were done with Elephant Rock for the day.
We decided to finish the day with Theatre of Shadows, a 5.7, three star bolted four pitch route. To get there we drove up to the Circle Creek Overlook. There was a well defined trail that within and hour brought us under Steinfell's Dome before reaching Jackson's Thumb, a spire to the left of the dome.
Sabrina and Anne went first, and I was hot on their tales for the first pitch. The climbing was fairly easy and got easier as you got near the top. We climbed fast as we had started the route after 4pm. We all topped out in about an hour and a half. We opted to rappel the route, as we were not sure about the back side descent, and it would give Anne and Sabrina some rappel practice before their Infinite Bliss attempt. After about an hour and a half of rapping, we were all back on the ground hiking out, then driving back to camp to prep and eat dinner.
With little planning at dinner or breakfast, we bounced around in the morning attempting to find a location in the shade with multiple desirable routes. It would be helpful if there was no lines. Since it was after 9am, the shade was cool, and almost cool enough to want sun. After a brief stop to take a look at Scream Cheese and see a line up under it we got back in the car and attempted to find the trail head for Flame Rock. After locating the trail head we had to find some parking and parked about 50m away. The hike in was interesting because it went into the shaded valley forest in the center of rocks much different than the sagebrush outside the rocks. There is a creek there, and it was comfortable hiking in the shade of aspens, pines and junipers. We arrived at Bumblie Rock to see a father/daughter combo finishing up Too Much Fun (5.8***). We got in line. Anne went to quickly check out New York is not the City (5.10a***) which had a longer line.
Rod led up Too Much Fun and I followed tagging a rope to set up a top rope. The route was 18 clips, and probably about 38m to the chains. The crux appeared to be at the beginning, but after hauling that rope up the steep route, it was feeling like I was dragging an anvil up the upper portion. Rod and I set up and anchor, and rapped. Anne belayed Sabrina on top rope while Rod went to hold a place for us at New York...
We had good timing, and Anne set about leading New York is not the City. While Rod belayed her, Sabrina and I checked out some other routes nearby, but were not enthusiastic about them. We came back to find Anne pumped out and lowering off of the cruxy moves about a bolt from the finish. Fortunately Rod was able to get on the sharp end and finish the route off. I got the first top rope, and had to hang in two places feeling pretty pumped from the previous route. I'm sort of bummed about this as I should have just fell instead of failing. Sabrina and Anne made quick work of the top rope, and we packed up to move on.
At this time, it was raining ever so lightly. (Nothing was getting wet.) But clouds were rolling in quickly and the sky was getting darker. We thought there might be some thunderstorms in our future. We took this time to check out historical areas of the park and drove around reading signs on the side of the road before stopping at Register Rock and Camp Rock to look at the gold rush graffiti. Then we drove into town to stock up on firewood and talk to the ranger before returning to the park to climb.
We headed back to Elephant Rock where I still wasn't prepared to lead Rye Crisp. This was fine, because Rod was prepared to lead Columbian Crack (5.7****). After our talk with the ranger, we discovered it was no longer on private land. We scouted out the walk off before preparing to climb the route. The first 15' or more is an unprotectable chimney, and we threw a rope over the block that creates the chimney so the leader could be on top rope. Rod led it facing away from the main wall, and eventually climbed on top of the block so he could step across to the main wall. After that, it was slow going as he had to leap frog gear to keep the run out sensible until rounding a corner where the climbing got easier. He brought me up and I found the chimney to be the most difficult part. Although I climbed it facing the wall and never had to do a step across. We then wandered around the slabs finding the least difficult way off the rock. Fortunately Anne and Sabrina were available to help guide us to the spot we had earlier scouted which involved some minor down climbing. After the "walk off," we were done for the day.
I think we made the plan at breakfast to go to Morning Glory Spire to climb Skyline (5.8****). It is usually crowded, and the guide book implies a social affair waiting to get on it. When we showed up, there was no one there and we started gearing up. I got the lead and Rod belayed. There were some interesting moves down low climbing a scalloped hand crack. There was good gear, and some knobs for feet. Once through this section I was on a ledge below a leftward traverse. The guy on the .10b next to us gave me unsolicited advice of placing a .5 Camalot to protect it. But I didn't like to make the move to place the cam as my last piece was out of sight (but probably only three feet below my feet.) I placed a tiny nut to protect placing the cam. Then placed the cam and removed the nut. Then I decided I didn't like the cam too much and fiddled with it a bit. I still didn't like it and took it out and opted to use a gray alien in the same place. Once again I placed the nut to place the cam. I liked the alien placement better, but decided in the end to leave the nut in as well for back up.
Once satisfied with the protection, I stepped up and started the traverse. It is only a few moves of undercling with one of the best holds ever. This is supposed to be the crux of the route, but I found the crux to be ending the traverse and "turning the corner." The moves at the end of the traverse got you to a finger crack, but transitioning from counter pressure to face climbing required a bit of skill. Once I had gained the crack I quickly put in a piece and moved up. The crack was thin and required small gear. I followed it until the end, and then got out on the face for some sparsely protected climbing to the top. It was a lot of fun. I then brought Rod up, and Anne pink pointed on my gear and then Sabrina joined us.
There was still no one waiting to get on the route. We set up a double rope rappel, and rapped to the base, where our knot got stuck when trying to pull the ropes. After a bit of rope swinging Rod and I pulled together and freed the ropes. We then sat on a rock eating lunch while watching a guy climb the classic 5.11c Crack of Doom. After lunch we hiked back to the car.
We drove back out to the overlook to hike out to Lost Arrow Spire. The book states it is a 3/4 mile hike, but it felt a bit longer, perhaps a full mile. It was early afternoon, and the hike is mostly treeless through the sagebrush and was quite hot. Trees started appearing as we got closer to the spire, and by the time we were at the base, it was downright cool with a breeze blowing in the shade.
Once again, Rod and I would climb and Sabrina and Anne would climb. But while Rod was leading the first pitch, Anne's stomach was acting up and she decided to sit this one out. That made me the monkey in the middle and I hauled a rope up so Sabrina could follow. Rod led the first pitch competently but slowly. I followed, but not much faster and then we brought Sabrina up.
I was to lead the second pitch which has a short traverse and then huge run out (25'+) up a slab to the summit. I led out placing a few pieces before arriving at the corner. At the corner I looked up and noticed the lack of protection anywhere and the step around the arete I had to make to complete the pitch. I balked, and then climbed back to the anchor. I took a breather and gave it another try. This time I was able to place a #1 stopper in a small crack above my head, protecting the move out onto the face. But my thoughts were clouded. All I could think of was falling, and the anchor blowing and the three of us plummeting to our deaths while I was screaming "Tell Jennifer I love her!" So I once again climbed back to the anchor and asked if Rod would give it a go.
We switched our ends of the rope and Rod headed out. I gave him the rack and slings, but this was "just in case" there could be pro. There wasn't, but that didn't stop Rod. He climbed up the arete a bit before stepping out onto the face and speeding his way to the top. On top rope, it still felt a bit unnerving, but I got to the corner and up I went. Sabrina soon joined us. After a few summit pictures it was time to rappel off the other side. Since the guide book was really unclear, we did a double rope rappel. It is a sit and spin start that goes to semi-free-hanging most of the way down. Big Rod went first and was quickly down. I had a touch of difficulty getting the spin right, but was soon rapping and on the ground. Sabrina followed. Once back on the ground I kept saying things like "I'm never going up there again." Truth is, I'd probably do it the next time I go back. One of those "type 2" fun situations. Our hike out was our last of the trip and we headed back to camp for our final dinner. We did make an attempt to go to the hot springs, but found out they were not open on Sunday.
Overall, this was a wonderful trip. It was not a place I was looking to go to, but didn't want to skip out on the opportunity. We had a lot of fun and climbed some really nice routes. This is what we learned:
Things to know:
-The guidebook is a bit sparse (beta is not great)
-It can be hot, find shade
-About 90% single pitch climbing/75% trad
-Pitches are long (bring a 70 or 80m rope, or double 60s)
-Pitches are long (bring a double rack to avoid run out or leapfrogging)
-Clouds/wind seem to roll in most afternoons, they may bring precip
-Getting off some rocks requires 5th class walk offs or sketchy exposed trips to the rap anchors that need more than a single 60m rope
-Compared to Leavenworth, routes felt steep for difficulty
-The two 5.10a clip ups we did felt stiff
-Cruxes usually at bottoms of routes
-Some run out common on gear routes
-Plenty of 5.6-5.8 two to four star routes
-Elevation is above 6000' so don't be surprised if you are huffing and puffing on a trivial approach
Rock was amazing and had wild holds on many faces. Didn't feel a need to tape up for cracks, but due to holds on the face, not a huge need to jam cracks either. Rock always felt damp in the morning which may be due to condensation overnight. We had swimsuits for the hot springs, but found out they are only open Wed-Sat, so we were unable to participate in that activity.