This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 217 (April 2014).
Boulder was flooding. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend and felt wrecked, and I’d been trapped in my apartment with no electricity, listening to automated flood warnings while the streets outside filled with water.
On the third day, I plugged my computer into a small generator and checked e-mail for the hundredth time. A message popped up from Jonathan Siegrist, the
20-something pioneer of world-class, sometimes obscure sport climbing areas like the Fins in southern Idaho, Wizard’s Gate in Estes Park, Colorado, and various hollers in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
“Wanna come up to Wyoming and shoot some stills at this new zone?”
The next day, as the waters receded, I ran into Dave Graham, one of America’s best sport climbers, and mentioned Siegrist’s note.
“Dude, you’re going to Wolf Point?” he asked, surprised and envious. “You’re so lucky!”
Two days later, I’m sipping whiskey with Siegrist and B.J. Tilden, a local climber who lives with his wife, Emily, in a small house on a rectangular lot in downtown Lander, Wyoming.
B.J., 33, is wearing tan work pants, a navy hoodie and a five o’clock shadow that creeps into his short brown hair.
I’ve only met him once, but I know he is an accomplished climber who has skirted the spotlight. In 2012, he sent Moonshine (5.14d) at Wild Iris, a 10-year project that’s now considered Wyoming’s hardest sport route. Before that, Wyoming’s hardest was Double Down (5.14c), in Sinks Canyon, which B.J. bolted. Other proud ascents include a FA in Baldwin Creek called Orange for Anguish (5.14c), Whip and Spur (5.14b), at Wild Iris, and about 30 routes 5.13c and harder in the Lander area. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of him.
We’re sitting at the table, swapping stories under the vacant gaze of several big-game trophies—two white-tailed deer B.J. shot with a bow, a mule deer, and an impala from a recent trip to Africa with his dad.
In the past two years, B.J. and a handful of local climbers who prefer anonymity to fame have concentrated their energies (obsessions) into developing the high, rugged walls at Wolf Point.
Someday, this inaccessible zone may hold the highest concentration of 5.14s of any single crag in the states. There are already 11 and about half of those are still projects.
The more I listen to B.J. and Jonathan, the more I get the feeling Wolf Point might be the best sport-climbing area in the U.S. no one will ever visit.
B.J. leans back in his chair and looks at me with green eyes that reveal an intensity incongruous with his outer cool.
“So, what exactly has J told you about Wolf Point?” he asks.
I realize I’d failed to ask Jonathan a single question in my haste to leave Boulder.
B.J. laughs and Siegrist jumps in. “One night, our friend Zach [a young Lander climber] was camping in his tent, heard a noise in the middle of the night, and saw three huge bears sitting by the campfire, like five feet away.” Siegrist’s eyes are wide and shiny. “That’s why I sleep in my truck.”
“The first day of the season, my friend Eric got bit by a rattlesnake,” B.J. says in a voice as flat as pavement. “It didn’t even rattle. He took three steps with that thing attached to his leg.”
Most people think of Wyoming as the land of Old Faithful, Dick Cheney and domestic oil, but in my experience, Wyoming has always been a sacred place—wild, lonely and free.
I knew nothing about Wolf Point, only that it was an escape. A chance to disconnect from Boulder and remember who I was. Maybe, in the mountains of northwestern Wyoming, I could settle down and reconnect.
The next morning we pack for the crag: shoes, harnesses, headlamp and two handguns. I pick up B.J.’s government-issue Colt 45, a heavy pistol that looks like something Al Capone might have carried during Prohibition.
“All you need to climb at Wolf Point is an 80-meter rope and a handgun,” B.J. says, grinning.
B.J. was born in Cody, Wyoming. When he was 14, his parents divorced and his mom moved from Cody to Lander. At 15, he started climbing. With mentors like Todd Skinner and Andrew Skiba, B.J. grew up in an elite brotherhood who tested themselves in the canyons carved into the high desert between Cody and Lander.
“B.J. is this driving force in climbing development,” says local, Steve Bechtel, 43, who first spotted Wolf Point 20 years ago. “He’s a full-on Wyoming guy. He likes hunting and driving around in the dirt and wearing cowboy boots way too much to go anywhere else.”
From camp, we move down the narrow, loose trail, sneak past a bear-bait site—a pile of rotting meat and junk food stashed by hunters to lure bears—and descend through stands of charred pines and neon-orange aspens. Their leaves, like tiny bright fans, usher us to the river.
Halfway down the trail, we stop and stare across the sunbaked ravine. A pale band of dolomitic limestone crowns the scruffy brown hillside. Wolf Point.
We cross the Little Popo Agie River and scurry up the rattlesnake-infested scree until we stand, chests heaving, below a streaked cave that looms 150 feet overhead. Gray permadraws dangle from 30 new routes, most between 5.13 and 5.14.
“Where are the warm-ups?” I ask, half-joking.
B.J. points to a relatively vertical line of bolts that snakes up the edge of the cave—a 5.11d. The next “easiest” routes are between 5.12c and 5.13b, but the majority of the climbing at Wolf Point is 5.13c and harder.
After warming up, the guys face their recently bolted projects. B.J. is one fall away from completing Reemed Out, a line that follows Remus, 5.13d, then extends to the top of the cave. Siegrist calls it the area’s “flagship” route. An 80-meter rope is barely long enough for the climb. Siegrist is close on Spitting Venom, a hard variant of B.J.’s route Kill Em All (5.14b). Tom Rangitsch, local climber and developer, is here today as well, working one of the steepest lines in the cave, Romulus, which he bolted.
At Wolf Point, there’s enough mutual respect between friends to preclude the need to red tag projects. There’s plenty of rock for everyone to clean, bolt and project. But a winter storm is building in the mountains and the urgency these guys feel to complete their projects is palpable.
Rangitsch deciphers the bottom crux of his route, works the top section and lowers. He’s pumped but close. Rangitsch is an ER doc with a family. In his free time, he cleans and bolts routes at Wolf Point, often alone.
Next, Siegrist jumps on Spitting Venom, a gymnastic, 42-meter test of power endurance on pockets sometimes occupied by wasps.
Siegrist sails through the lower crux (5.14a), at the sixth bolt—a giant dyno off an undercling that sends his feet flying. He regroups, picks a rhythm and cruises through the next section of relentless two-finger pockets. The moves are long—each pocket is four feet from the next. There’s no matching. If I know anything about Siegrist, it’s that he makes hard climbing look easy and today it seems as if he’s being pulled upward by an invisible thread.
The first real rest is 100 feet up. Siegrist shakes and prepares for the next two cruxes, a meager line of pockets and edges that leads to the route’s hardest climbing: a final boulder problem on the headwall.
“Any potential suitor for the route will get through the lower sequence, but it’s taxing,” says Siegrist. “Imagine climbing 100 feet just to get to where you’re gonna fall.”
Transitioning to the headwall, Siegrist crimps up 20 feet of imperceptible gray ripples, and scurries to the anchor. He calls the route 5.14c.
Next, B.J. pulls onto his project, Reemed Out. He climbs the bottom
section like he’s done it a thousand times, reefing through steep underclings. Four bolts from the top, the cliff kicks up to a “slabby” arete. He chicken-wings and pitches, swinging out over the canyon. When the rope finally stretches to the ground, B.J. unties and slumps on a rock, head down.
In 1994, Steve Bechtel and Scott Milton first caught a glimpse of Wolf Point. “For years we called that thing the Mirage,” says Bechtel. “It was this crazy good-looking cliff but impossible to get to.”
In 2005, while he and Todd Skinner were developing a nearby crag called Ghost Town, Bechtel decided he had to see Wolf Point up close. “Suddenly, I just freaking walked over there,” he says. “It was a heinous bushwhack through this terrible talus stuff and it was hot and there were snakes everywhere, and I put in one route, a 5.10 corner I bolted on lead.”
Wyoming has always had more climbing than climbers. Even in the Lander area, development beyond Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris has been lonely and scattered. Though many small crags exist, the area is vast with few climbers.
“Todd was against dividing our efforts,” Bechtel says. “If you get a bunch of guys in there at Wolf Point, like now, you can put in 25 to 30 routes a year. But with one guy at each crag, it’s much slower. Plus, you don’t have the group psych, the friends to hang out with while you’re getting dirty bolting.”
Developing a sport crag takes hundreds of labor-intensive hours. And it’s not cheap. The hardware alone to develop 30 routes in the cave at Wolf Point costs about $8,500. On average, each route requires 15 permadraws at $10 each and 15 bolts at $8/bolt, totaling some $270. You also need a bolting kit, which consists of several hundred dollars’ worth of gear including a $500 hammer drill, an $80 wall hammer, several drill bits at $25 each, a blow tube, wrench, ascender, Grigri, aider, brushes, protective eyewear and static lines. Work hours, gas money and food not included.
“Wolf Point takes more effort than any other area I’ve developed in my life,” says Siegrist, who has helped put 10 sport crags on the map.
This is partly due to the scale of the cliff. It’s big. It’s steep. It’s difficult and sketchy to access from the top, a pebble-covered slope with no available natural anchors like trees or boulders.
It’s also not the cleanest rock in the world. It’s south-facing and steep enough that it rarely gets a decent soaking. Wyoming is dusty. Every inch of the cave is covered in debris. Every pocket contains silt and mud and potential inhabitants like spiders and wasps.
According to B.J., it takes about 30 hours to clean and bolt a route at Wolf Point. The few who do it are obsessed. Route development is a labor of love.
B.J. looks up at his project with desire and doubt. The air, spiked with the smell of wet sage, grows raw and thick with moisture.
Shivering on a static line 100 feet up, I look across watch the nearby crag Ghost Town, blackened from a fire in the 1990s, disappear into a snowy mist creeping down canyon. B.J. pulls on his shoes. One last try.
He battles through the lower crux and barely hangs on through the middle section. He manages to shake out below the damp headwall. The canyon is growing darker and wetter by the moment. Trembling, B.J. pulls the headwall, bear hugs the arete and powers up to the chains. For a moment, he looks shocked, then ecstatic. Another 5.13c project sent.
I rappel and start shoving camera gear into my pack. Siegrist picks up a flat gray rock and spells out “S-P-I-T-T-I-N-G V-E-N-O-M” in large round letters with a black paint pen. He places the plaque below his route and we descend the slick scree, chased by a wall of sleet.
At the river we turn back to see Wolf Point disappear into the fog that’s swallowing even the brightest aspens. Freezing and slipping up the trail,
we finally make it to the cars, hop in, and crank the heat. The 4×4 road has turned into a greasy conveyor belt that I navigate, mostly sideways, toward the Lander Bar.
Some developers are reluctant to share their crags for fear that the area will get too popular. Siegrist isn’t too worried that will happen at Wolf Point.
“I’ve developed enough areas to know what it takes to make a crag popular, and what it takes to doom a climbing area to obscurity,” Siegrist says. “Wolf Point will be an obscure crag forever.”
Bechtel says that getting people to go to Wolf Point has always been a challenge.
“Wolf Point is a really hard cliff to climb at, and it’s really hard to get to,” he says. “It’s almost like alpine sport climbing. Which helps keep the
riff-raff out. It’s the real deal. Not to mention, you have to drive right by a ton of fantastic, easier climbing on the way.”
Even if no one shows up, Tilden says that developing a crag in your own vision is pretty special, “and it’s pretty rare. Wolf Point is basically a blank canvas.”
The next day I head back to Boulder, a world away from the utopian sport-climbing frontier at Wolf Point. The six-hour drive through the brown plains of Wyoming feels like three.
My house is quiet, empty. Exhausted, I crash for a few hours. At 1 a.m., I wake up, make tea, grab my camera and speed to Leadville for an endurance race. At 3 a.m. I arrive, enveloped by the same storm that chased me from Wolf Point. Standing at the trailhead in the pre-dawn blackness, I squint at the shapes of mountains around me. Four days ago, in the wake of the flood and a broken relationship, I’d thought I’d lost my one shot at happiness. Staring at the dark, blank canvas of the mountains, I sense new possibilities taking shape. I just can’t see them yet.
Caroline Treadway is a free-range journalist. She lives in post-apocolyptic Boulder.