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Get'n Tough at Smith Rock

Submitted by crap on 2002-09-06 | Last Modified on 2010-02-26

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“Nubbin!” I said when my feet hit the ground. “What?”, said Jason Karnezis. “Nubbin!” I said again, untying after being lowered. Jason caught on that I was talking about the tiny pebbles welded into the volcanic tuff unbelievable able to support your entire weight. “I never hear of a nubbin tell I came here, it sounds like a Hobbit word from a Tolkien book” I said. Nubbins are only a small part of what I’ve learned from my Smith Rock road trip. This world class climbing area tucked away in a bend of the Crooked River in central Oregon has a lot of new tricks to teach even the most seasoned climber.

Above me, the route I just finished stands “Manic Nirvana”. One of the scariest 5.10c’s I’ve ever climbed, and by far much harder then any 5.10 back home in Red Rocks. Jason, my Chicago born partner I met for the first time a few hours earlier in the parking lot, agreed and says he’ll only lead it if I leave the draws bolted. I agree sheepishly, like I’m going back up there again any time soon, I though to myself. “All Smith climbs are rated pretty stiff”, Calvin Landrus, my local source, assured me. I knew I had not lost my edge. “Pretty stiff” I learned is another way of saying you better have your act together this is no place to goof around.

I belayed my partner up “Manic Nirvana” and gasped at the tiny nubbins he used. “Was I using those!” I said in shock at how small the holds he used, and I just got done using. Nubbins to my unbelief do hold much like the tiny flaky divots and friction holds on face routes in Joshua Tree, but nubbins have just a little bit less friction. This lesson takes practice to learn, but well worth the work.

Jason completed the route with ease, the sign of better skills than me. “We’re running out of shade here.” I noted. Shade, as I’ve learned, is a valuable commodity here. With summer temperatures in the 90’s shade becomes the deciding point on what routes and at what time of day you climb. It is quit literally a pass or fail variable on most routes with ten to fifteen degrees difference between the two. Morning shade covers all the areas facing west in the park. These areas include: Monkey Face, Mesa Verde Wall, Spiderman Buttress, and the west side of Christian Brother’s Wall. Morning shade also covers the Student Wall, Marsupial Crags, and the north side of both Upper and Lower Gorge areas with shade almost never leaving the Northern Point. The rest get afternoon shade with Phoenix Buttress getting shade shortly after noon. All the other east facing crags become shaded shortly after, but some such as the Wooden Ships may take as long as three o’clock to get shade.

“Ideal conditions are in March and April, when you can expect temperatures in the 50’s” said Calvin. “The rock offers the best grip then, and I do my best climbing.” Calvin should know, with twelve years climbing at Smith Rock he rarely carries Alan Watts’ book Climber’s Guide to Smith Rock because he has most of it memorized. Calvin sends routes that are beyond my abilities, but even he still finds new challenges here. He pointed out “Just Do It” to me, rated at 5.14c. “Its possibly one of the hardest routes on earth”, and far beyond the reach of mere mortals such as us he admitted.

Back at “Manic Nirvana”, Jason and I packed up for shadier routes on the Phoenix Buttress. Monkey Face, the area’s landmark spire, loomed behind us as we made our way to the difficult Asterisk Pass. “I want to climb the Pioneer Route on the Monkey’s Face,” I confided in him. It’s only 5.7 with a short aid section, but no one I met had the aid skills to join me. Jason was no different. I guess I’ll have to do that project solo, and do some serious aid cramming to pass the test.

“Smith is known for sport climbing” Calvin lectured, “but aid and trad climbing are also here.” He pointed out that most sport climbs are in the easier to access east facing areas, such as Red Wall, Picnic Lunch Wall, Wooden Ships, Morning Glory Wall, The Dihedrals, and Christian Brothers. A lot of climbs on the west facing side are trad routes with some sport and aid climbs mixed in. Almost all the routes in the Upper and Lower Gorge are crack routes that require trad gear.

At Phoenix Buttress, Jason and I chilled out while waiting for “Phoenix” a 5.10a classic. A line formed behind us for this and several other “must climb” routes in the area. The climbers in front of us demonstrated the next lesson we would need to learn, the art of stick clipping. The first bolt was over twenty feet above the deck and required a skilled hand and pole to ease a rope threaded quick draw to it. It took the climbers almost ten minutes to get it, and no doubt it would have taken us longer if we owned a stick to do it. “What madmen bolted these routes?” I asked. Everyone shrugged, like dead eyed middle schoolers.

“It’s a Smith tradition,” Calvin later admitted “they used as few bolts as possible and assumed everyone would have a stick clip.” He also admitted that some run outs were made even greater over the years because of erosion. He, of course, never owned a stick clip and would never confess to using one because they were “unmanly” as he put it. Thanks coach, I thought to myself, are you going to rub dirt on my broken ankles to make them better when I fall.

Jason had grown tired of waiting back at Phoenix Buttress. “I’m doing that one,” He pointed to an unused climb near by, “what is it?” “It’s not in the guidebook,” I said searching for an answer, “does it really exist?” In true public school fashion the only book available was out of date by quite a few years. A climber with a florescent orange covered update pamphlet gotten from Redpoint climbing store in Terrebonne answered our question. “It’s ‘JT’s Route’ 5.10b.” Jason jumped on it and made short work of it, then I lazily top roped it and cheated at that by using a draw for a hold. My merciful belayer gave no penalty slack. It was easy to see we were spent and we skipped out early, but our lessons didn’t end there.

Fortunately the next subject was my major at UNLV. I got a Bachelor of Arts in Living Cheap with a minor in Foraging, and they’ve almost paid for themselves twice over. So, I feel more than confident providing some teaching assistance on this subject. Oregon has some big advantages in that it has no sales tax, lots of cheap gear, unguarded condiments, free showers, and the ultimate luxury of not having to pump your own gas.

“There are two things you will never see in Oregon” Calvin ranted, “a sales tax and a law that makes it legal to pump your own gas.” Calvin continued to rant about his state, but I was someplace else. I was stuck on the no sales tax part. He is correct there is no sales tax, I’ve tested this fact fully, and I’ve found him to be completely correct. He is also correct about pumping your own gas. It is against the law here so don’t even try it.

When it comes to gear, the Smith Rock area has some major pluses too. The Metolius factory is twenty miles south on highway 97 in the north part of Bend. I scored a factory second hang board for less than half retail price. Unfortunately cams and high dollar gear is rarely available, and if it is you can count on the two Redpoint stores in Bend and Terrebonne to scoop them up first for resale, which is still a good deal. A North Face Factory Outlet store is on the south end of Bend, but it only seems to offer cloths.

I neglected to mention this before, but for those who are less practiced in the cheap arts there are free phonebooks available at the Bend visitor center. I assumed that your “cheap senses” would tingle and lead you to whatever you needed. If that isn’t your case then the phonebooks contain local area maps and directions for finding everything you need for your multi-month stay at Smith, and the pages can be used to thicken up soups made from restaurant condiment packages. By the way, the Dairy Queen in Redmond has pink french fry dipping sauce that is particularly good for soups.

Finally, the place to stay at Smith is the free BLM campground of Skull Hallow that you find by going to the end of Smith Rock Way, turn left onto Lone Pine Rd and go about five miles past Lone Pine School Road. The campground has a sign and is on the left side of the road. For the cheap impaired there is a bivy area next to the state park’s parking areas. Fees are high for this area and you can expect to pay four dollars a night. Some poor souls may think this is a deal because it includes a shower, but they failed to note that showers are free at the community college in Bend as long as you don’t get caught.


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Skull Hollow is over 5 miles away, and Bend is ~20 miles south. How does one save money by commuting over 10 miles a day, round trip, to climb and an extra 40 miles round trip for a "free" shower? I'll save the gas and wear on my vehicle, and reduce pollution, by paying $4/night to not have to drive 50+ miles to sleep and shower.

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