Smith Rock Resurgence

New crags, new routes and a psyched local cast.

By Todd Yerman and Jason Bagby | May 2nd, 2017

Matt Ferrell enjoys clean columnar basalt in the Lower Gorge at Smith Rock State Park, Oregon. Although Smith is known for its welded-tuff sport routes, the area boasts a variety of rock and even has a large number of traditional climbs. Photo: Tyler Roemer.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 241 (April 2017).

Alan Collins and three friends fill five-gallon buckets with scree and redistribute it to level out new rock terraces below an overhanging wall with a view of the towering golden-red sectors of North America’s first sport-climbing destination. It’s cold in the shade on this November day, with puffy coats mandatory, but the featured wall above lights up in the sun. Fixed ropes announce two new routes, waiting to be cleaned and sent.

Todd Yerman goes Off the Wall (5.11d) at the Marsupials. Smith might once have had a reputation for runouts and hardcore locals, but today’s routes are now more closely bolted, and the community has expanded and diversified. Photo: Jason Bagby.
Todd Yerman goes Off the Wall (5.11d) at the Marsupials. Smith might once have had a reputation for runouts and hardcore locals, but today’s routes are now more closely bolted, and the community has expanded and diversified. Photo: Jason Bagby.

Collins, the son of a longtime Smith Rock local, has been on a development rampage for the last two years. “Smith is always going off,” the 25-year-old says as he stoops and rises to backfill the low side of the new crag. “If it ever wasn’t, I must’ve missed it.”

Smith Rock has long been a destination, but now an underappreciated sector is filling in: the Marsupials, a roughly 100-acre collection of walls and spires an hour’s walk from the main area, with development at a pace that recalls the Smith of a generation ago. Collins has been involved with approximately 30 new routes here, from the two-pitch 5.10 Adventure Dog to a 60-foot 5.12d, Lords of Dogtown. The potential for both low-angle cruisers and big-number desperates is readily apparent.

A crucible for sport climbing since the early 1980s, Smith has long produced cutting-edge sport climbs: Think Just Do It (5.14c) from J.B. Tribout in 1992, The Optimist (5.14b) by Beth Rodden in 2004, and, last year, The Assassin (5.14d) from the young Drew Ruana. The area has been in the climbing press for decades, with some routes, such as Just Do It and Chain Reaction (5.12c), photographed so frequently as to be etched into collective memory. The area has a reputation for big numbers and big runouts, but much is changing.

The Marsupials offer a different experience, with a wide variety of grades, from a three- or six-pitch 5.7 to futuristic projects. Although the outcrops are visible if you look up and right—way right—from the main parking area, their remove means no crowds or lines, yet the rock is solid and richly textured. The bolts are closer together than on the classic Smith sport climbs of the 1980s, representing a change in mindset from the early boom here.

Another possible difference harks back to early lore. The vibe is casual now, but the scene in the 1980s and 1990s was fiercely competitive, with first ascents that steadily pushed the standard of sport climbing higher. Some visitors say they once thought of Smith locals as hardcore, cantankerous and unwelcoming.

“That was probably true when I first started here,” admits Bill Ramsey, a hard Smith climber from the very beginning. “I hope I wasn’t one of them!”

Ramsey at the time had partnered with Alan Watts, who spearheaded development of this high-desert area of highly featured tuff and basalt walls. Still regulars at the park, the two epitomize the psych that catalyzed that “golden age” of development, leading many climbers to relocate to Oregon.

Alan Collins climbs Ryan’s Arete (5.10c), the Marsupials. About an hour’s trek from Smith’s main climbing area, this new sector boasts one- to six-pitch routes that start at 5.7. Photo: Jason Bagby.

Today the local community has grown and diversified while retaining its commitment and strong connection to the crag. The annual Spring Thing, about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, is a trail- and route-maintenance event run in collaboration with climbers and State Park staff. Organized for the past 10 years by Ian Caldwell, author of Little Miss Sunshine (5.14a) and Shotgun Wedding (5.14b), as well as the perennially popular finish to Cool Ranch Flavor (5.12a), the event involves projects such as pounding rebar and sculpting trails to build stairs, and yanking invasive weeds. The park is climber-friendly by design: Projects are identified on an ongoing basis, with a view to keeping the climbing areas safe and inviting, distributing crowds, and minimizing impacts on the landscape.

It’s not a restful rest day, but many springtime visitors have found themselves caught up in the spirit of productivity, and liable to work shoulder to shoulder with Smith legends during the event. Besides, you dirtbag: free burritos.

“I’m not saying to come to Smith on vacation and pick up a shovel,” Caldwell says. “Just get inspired to take care of your own local crag while you’re here!”

Anchor replacement is also in full swing, thanks to climber-activists such as Caldwell, Will Nazarian and Kent Benesch. They have been replacing standard expansion bolts with glue-ins, working on their own time, with support from Metolius Climbing and donations from fellow climbers. They also maintain the steel lowering anchors on popular routes. While bolts in the main area are still considered spaced by the standards at most sport crags, those you get are quality-controlled by climbers with skin in the game (in every sense of the term).

What if you don’t want to clip bolts? Isn’t Smith all about lycra and fixed draws? Not so. A little-known fact is that about half of the established routes are gear-protected in part or whole. Take these routes in the main area, for example: Lion’s Jaw (5.8), Moonshine Dihedral (5.9), Karate Crack (5.10a), Zion (5.10b) and Wartley’s Revenge (5.11b). Trezlar (5.10a) and The North Face (5.12a) are great offerings at the West Side Crags. The Lower Gorge houses Othello (5.9), Quasar (5.10a), Cruel Sister (5.10b), Last Chance (5.10c) and Ground Zero (5.11a), other gems that make the extra weight in your pack well worth it. Of course, Smith’s hard lines have held their value and intimidation factor, and lately are attracting international visitors in the way of the old days: In October, Nina Caprez, the Swiss alpine phenomenon, breezed through and bagged Spank the Monkey, the full 5.13d R experience. In 2014, Paige Claassen found Just Do It (5.14c) to be worth the trip. The local talent runs deep, with Kristin Yurdin, Ryan Palo, Ian Caldwell and Andrew Huntziger all cranking 5.14 sport routes while holding down real jobs. Drew Ruana, the son of two Smith locals who met at the park, finds time to send open projects in the 5.14s when he’s not in school, establishing The Assassin (5.14d), the area’s hardest route, last February at age 16.

Years pass, trends come and go, but climbing at Smith remains full value. The light is magical. The weather is conducive to year-round climbing. Thanks to restaurants like the Terrebonne Depot and Drake and Spork, and breweries including Wild Ride, Boneyard and Crux, the food and beer have never been better. The Bivouac Site has hot water. As ever, you never know who you’ll meet at the base of your next route. An enthusiastic local with encyclopedic beta. A visiting superstar. The people who make the crag as safe as it can be, and advocate for climbers’ access. The next phenom. Someone experiencing real rock climbing for the first time. A parent and child sharing an experience that will cement their relationship, whether on Bunny Face (5.7) or an open project.

 

LOGISTICS

SEASON

Smith is a year-round destination. Winter and summer mean more limited hours. Spring and fall offer the most predictable temperatures; however, an insulated jacket is a good idea almost all year.

GRADES

5.5 through 5.14d.

NEAREST AIRPORTS

Redmond Roberts Field (RDM): 15 minutes. Portland (PDX): three hours.

DOGS

It’s recommended to leave your hairy buddies at home; Smith is dusty, hot and dry. If this isn’t an option, they must be leashed and directly controlled at all times in the Park.

GEAR

Redpoint Climbing Supply (Terrebonne), Mountain Supply and REI (Bend) have you covered. Redpoint now offers beer, coffee, yoga and wifi. Rockhard, at the park entrance, has basic clothing and gear in addition to ice cream. I dare you to tackle The Monkey (four scoops on one cone).

ACCOMMODATION

The Bivouac Site, adjacent to the main parking area, costs $5 per person per night. Further afield is Skull Hollow, a more primitive campground that charges $5 per vehicle per night. There is no running water. Vacation rentals abound in Bend, Redmond and Terrebonne. Parking is $5 per vehicle per day (included in the Bivouac Site fee).

FOOD

It’s hard to go wrong. We suggest starting at the Terrebonne Depot, minutes from the park. Wild Ride Brewing in Redmond has a rotating selection of food trucks as well as excellent beer. Bend and Redmond have a plethora of great options: Explore.

GUIDEBOOK

Rock Climbing: Smith Rock State Park, by Alan Watts, is the definitive guide. Available at Redpoint or any major climbing shop in North America.

REST DAYS

Hiking, mountain biking, road biking, alpine and nordic skiing, brewery tours, floating the Deschutes River, or chilling in downtown Bend.

RECOMMENDED ROUTES

(MAIN AREA)

  • Lion’s Jaw (5.8)
  • Scary Llamas (5.8)
  • Wherever I May Roam (5.9)
  • Wedding Day (5.9)
  • Walking While Intoxicated (5.10b)
  • Morning Sky (5.10b)
  • Fish ‘N’ Chips (5.10c)
  • Hemp Liberation (5.10d)
  • Bloodshot (5.11b)
  • Big Bone Lick (5.11c)
  • Feet of Clay (5.12c)

(MARSUPIALS)

  • Ryan’s Arete (5.10c)
  • Cool Air (5.11a)
  • Adventure Dog (5.10d)
  • Bucket List (5.11a)
  • Man’s Best Friend (5.11c)
  • Off the Wall (5.11d)
  • Lords of Dogtown (5.12d)

 

Todd Yerman, an intensive-care physician first visited Smith in 1997. Jason Bagby is an adventure photographer based in Bend.

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