Ghost-like white granite domes cast vast shadows. The high beams from our ill-gotten vehicle pierced deep into the autumn night as we sped through the dark. I was behind the wheel with no license. I was 15.
The year was 1990, and it was the Wild West in Idaho.
My carjacking accomplice was my best friend, Jonathan Alford. Our vehicle, a van, belonged to a neighbor in Idaho Falls. Away for the week, he had entrusted a house key to Jonathan, who was doing yard maintenance. The keys to the van hung like a beacon on the refrigerator.
To teenagers obsessed with rock climbing, a weekend joyride to the City of Rocks was a perfect use of an opportunity.
Social Distortion’s punk rock anthems grinding from the speakers muted the washboard gravel-road vibrations. Soon enough, we were parking next to a large dome of rock. Too excited to sleep, I scrambled to the top of a nearby monolith. As if waiting in anticipation, the sun peeked over the horizon behind me, casting my shadow into the depths of the City of Rocks. Hundreds of boulders, blocks and domes blazed with the first rays.
My first City of Rocks experience was one of the great adventures of my life, as it has been for many other people. Jonathan and I cruised around sampling as many classics as our short time would permit. All too soon, we were back in the van heading home to Idaho Falls with sore toes and scraped hands from jamming the rough granite cracks. A few short hours later, the van sat in the driveway and the keys hung lifeless as if they had never been disturbed.
The City of Rocks is Idaho’s greatest claim to rock climbing fame. Pioneers such as Jeff and George Lowe, Tony Yaniro, Dave Bingham and Jeff Rhodes, among others, picked the plums, establishing many of the City’s best and most challenging climbs. For decades from the 1960s to the early 1990s, the abundant and quality granite domes created a frenzy of route development, reaching its peak in the latter 1980s.
However, by 1991, the era of high-quantity route development had screeched to a halt, with new land management policies requiring a long permit process for anyone wanting to place bolts at the City of Rocks.
The Idaho route developers Dave Bingham, Dan Spurlock, Jeff Rhodes, Stan Caldwell and others turned their sights on the other areas in Southern Idaho with abundant volcanic basalt. As a result of their fevered new routing, Dierkes Lake in Twin Falls, Black Rocks outside of Boise, and Massacre Rocks near the City of Rocks became destinations within Idaho’s small climbing community. Meanwhile, Chuck Odette and I kept busy on the eastern side of Idaho establishing several basalt sectors in the Blackfoot River Canyon and other small zones outside of Idaho Falls; while Marc Hanselman and Peter McMeekin picked up where the Massacre Rocks pioneer Chuck Denure had left off, authoring routes at one of Idaho’s best limestone crags, later dubbed the Fins, on the southern end of the Lost River Range. By the year 2000, hundreds of new basalt and limestone routes had been developed.
Within the last decade, entirely new climbing and bouldering sectors continued to emerge. Mike and Tammy Stowe-McClure, Beau Stewart and Mike Bockino, among many throughout the state, lead the charge for Idaho’s bouldering revolution in places like Swan Falls, Reynolds Creek, and the Channel. Matt TeNgiao brought more sport-climbing steam to Eastern Idaho, adding significantly to Blackfoot Canyon, the Fins and the newest limestone zone in Palisades Creek. This past spring, the Lower Teton River Canyon became the hot spot for bouldering.
Southern Idaho is laden with dozens of worthy basalt and limestone crags, some hitherto hidden under a cloak of secrecy or simply lost in obscurity relative to the ever-popular City of Rocks. While the City of Rocks may be the foundation for climbing in Idaho, the future of new routes lies in the vast undeveloped basalt and limestone beyond.
Dean Lords has been developing new routes in Idaho for two decades. He lives with his wife on Butler Island, in the Idaho Falls region, Eastern Idaho.