Cavorting with climbing dirt baggers

A woman climbs up a steep, overhung wall at a formation known as Minimum Crag in Maple Canyon near Fountain Green, Utah on Saturday. The unique cobblestone cliffs at Maple Canyon attract rock climbers from around the country. (Photo by Chris Henvits)

My friend Chris Henvit and I drove to Maple Canyon near Fountain Green, Utah, last week and when we stepped out of our car, we walked into a weird subculture of gypsy rock climbers.

Kind of a vibe between modern hippy and homeless athletes.

“Welcome to the Maple Canyon halfway house,” said Tom Smart a climber from Idaho Falls who had been camping out at Maple Canyon for weeks working on his climbing projects. He introduced us to his friends. There was Steve from Twin Falls who was tent camping for more than a week, Clay and his girlfriend from Provo, Utah, who sleep in a mini van with a mattress in the back. Clay had spent most of the past year climbing at Maple, occasionally running back to Provo to fulfill obligations with a part-time school district job (he had knocked off all the hardest routes at Maple). There was Sierra, sleeping in the back of her Subaru Outback with her pit bull named Sargent. She had been on the road for more than two years since her brother introduced her to rock climbing at the New River Gorge in West Virginia as a graduation present. Now she was visiting all the climbing hot spots across the country by herself. All were clearly addicted to rock.

Around the canyon, Chris and I bumped into other road trippers, generally two guys, two women or couples. One typical scenario was the woman from Boston who just finished up college and wanted to visit all the climbing spots across the continent she’d always dreamed of climbing. Her next stops were the City of Rocks National Conservation Area in Idaho and Yosemite National Park in California. A girlfriend joined her along the way.

“Where do all these women come from who are such strong climbers?” Henvit asked. Henvit, who is relatively new to the sport, was impressed by all the female climbers who were making us look like wimps.

“Whenever you go to a major climbing area, you’ll find a lot of serious hot shot climbers,” I told him.

“I guess I’d be a great climber if I were 20 years old and that’s all I did,” he said.

Maple Canyon is a mecca for sport climbers throughout the West. It’s easy to get to. Drive down Interstate 15 to Nephi, Utah (about five hours) and turn left (east) over the mountains south of Mount Nebo. Its high elevation means that summer is prime time for climbing at Maple.

The rock is unique. It consists of a natural cement mixed with cobblestones of all shapes and sizes — from walnut size to suitcase size. When you first grab it you wonder if the stones are going to bust out. But after a few runs up and down the rock, you’re hooked on all the variety the weird rock offers.

Maple’s forte is powerful, overhung cliffs. The area’s signature formation is called the Pipe Dream cave. It’s a huge in-cut in a cliff wall that challenges climbers with a 40-foot horizontal roof. Climbers from around the world test their skills against Pipe Dream’s mega endurance routes, some of the hardest in the world. For a couple of wimps from Idaho Falls, it’s just a thrill to watch others giving it a go.

Fortunately for the wimpy weekend warrior climbers, Maple offers a wide range of difficulties, from super easy to super hard, and there are hundreds of routes for all levels. The canyon also offers sweet hiking trails for off days and those who aren’t interested in hanging by their fingers and toes. The canyon is also packed with vegetation, which is nice on hot, sunny days.

There is a self-serve campground — half the sites can be reserved. Most of the sites tend to be booked in summer. The other sites are generally packed during weekends. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can find some free camping sites up the canyon past the regular campground. One caveat, there is no potable water provided in the canyon — BYOW.

The nearest towns of any size are 15 miles to the south.


For those who are itching to get up into the Tetons, the conditions reports are still snowy. A good place to go to check current conditions is http://tetonclimbing.blogspot
. An example is the popular backcountry campsite at Marion Lake, high above Granite Canyon, was still under 10 feet of snow a week and a half ago. Trails over mountain passes are under snow and hikers would be advised to carry an ice axe.

Crampons and ice axes are advised for people climbing the high peaks such as the Grand Teton, Middle, South Tetons and Mount Moran. Basically, expect to be in snow if you go above 9,500 feet.

My son Sam said he was in plenty of snow while hiking on Table Rock Mountain this past weekend.

Also, remember that the snow intensifies the sun. Take plenty of sun screen.