This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 190 (December 2010).
On the day of the Summer Solstice, it was windy, dry and cool at Sinks Canyon, just outside Lander, Wyoming. A small band of climbers were enjoying perfect conditions at the area’s choicest wall, the Killer Cave. Suddenly, the blunt sickening noise of a body impacting the earth reverberated through the amphitheater. A girl had just fallen 50 to the ground.
Dan Robertson, a schoolteacher from Colorado on summer vacation, untied his knot and ran down the grassy ridge to where the fallen climber had rolled and come to rest. He found her sitting up, slumped over, and despite a complaint about some hip pain, she appeared, surprisingly, to be OK. Firefighters soon arrived, and helped her out of the canyon.
After the incident, Robertson panted back up the hill, tied in and, with no expectations, redpointed Busload of Faith (5.14a), a route he had previously hung all over. Then his wife, Wendy Williams, sent her project, Nirvana (5.13a), in good style. After a few other climbers there fired their rigs, too, all began wondering if they weren’t experiencing the Low Gravity Day of climbing lore.
After all, what else could explain such rampant redpointing, not to mention a climber coming away from a 50-foot digger more or less intact?
If any cliff in the U.S. could have such a thing as low-gravity days, Sinks Canyon would be it. This jewel situated at 7,400 feet in the crown of the Rocky Mountains has a whopping 320 climbable days per year. In the summer, Sinks gets afternoon shade. In the winter, the lower arc of the sun keeps the Big Horn dolomite toasty all morning and well into the early p.m., while the cliff’s architecture protects much of the climbing from the harsh Wyoming wind. Better still, this comprehensive cliff band is just 12 minutes’ drive from downtown Lander. If the weather turns, you’re never very far from a nice cold (or hot) drink.
Perhaps this sheer number of good climbing days is what inspired some devious local to start the rumor that each spring a rattlesnake migration overruns the canyon and essentially closes it down. It is said that there are so many rattlesnakes you can’t walk without stepping on one. Best to stay away. While Sinks has its fair share of slithering serpents, there is no Biblical influx, yet this classic story lives on. Ask any local, he’ll swear it’s true.
The local community is as strong, passionate and tight-knit as the Italian mafia, and includes climbers from as far away as Cody, Jackson Hole and Colorado. Lander is a small town of students, NOLS teachers and general outdoor enthusiasts, with many young couples settling into their first mortgages and raising families in between climbing trips and alpine expeditions.
Others have been here for decades. Tom Hargis, 62, a part owner of Exum Mountain Guides and an AMGA examiner, now finds himself at Sinks about four days a week. Hargis will hit the crag for only a few hours but has the place so dialed he can pump out a handful of 5.12s before racing down canyon to pick up his kids from soccer. Last winter he pulled his right hamstring doing a heel hook, but was still hiking up to the crag with a huge pack and stick clip, ready to crank.
In recent years, a new generation has added enduro extensions to routes in the Killer Cave, and unearthed V-double-digit sequences on blank-looking stone. In the last five years, about 40 new routes (mostly moderate) have gone up, with most of the work done by Steve Bechtel, BJ Tilden and Vance White (aka Victor Blanco, aka The White Knight).
The White Knight —a fit, striking specimen with pasty-white skin — thrusts himself to center stage, doing things like climbing Killer (5.12c) in a giant black Afro wig. Tilden, on the other hand, a soft-spoken carpenter, has an unassuming demeanor, but within his skinny frame are some of the strongest tendons in climbing. In fact, there are only two ways you’d ever know what a bone-crusher Tilden is: either watch him climb, or flip through his copy of Lander Sport Climbs by Steve Bechtel, in which he has checked almost every single route listed, in addition to the recent FAs he has had to write in himself. In the last two years, Tilden has ticked Wyoming’s two hardest climbs, repeating Jason Campbell’s Genetic Drifter (5.14c) at nearby Wild Iris and doing the first ascent of Orange For Anguish (5.14c) at Baldwin Creek, also near Lander.
Driving into the canyon, you pass bands of red and black sandstone with a few vertical cracks — home to the area’s earliest rock climbs. As you gain elevation, you get to the goods — the Big Horn dolomite limestone — while higher yet, another strata appears, of granite.
The Lycra age of the late 1980s brought the first rap-bolted lines, by Greg Collins, Frank Dusl and Paul Piana, who established routes in the area over the next 15 years. They will tell you there was never a dull moment. When the preternaturally strong Dusl went for a flash of the power-endurance testpiece Mr. Majestic (5.13b), Collins, in a good-natured way, fed him a load of bad beta to see if he could slow him down. To Collins’ awe, Dusl still pulled off the ascent.
Todd Skinner and Steve Bechtel came in the mid 1990s and unearthed a few more gems to add to the area’s growing cache. Bechtel dedicated his guidebook to his late friend.
As Bechtel recalls, Skinner showed him how to be humble in an ego-driven sport and how one can always try and push himself harder. Skinner, who died in 2006 when his belay loop failed on Yosemite’s Leaning Tower, was an icon in the climbing world, but was especially revered by Lander climbers. Tilden remembers that, after his death, It seemed like every single climber in Lander went out the next day and bought a new harness.
In the 1990s, as word about the awesome climbing in Sinks spread, Greg Collins and his wife, Sue Miller, invited some leading climbers to come test their mettle on these new routes. Many of the era’s standouts, like Tiffany Campbell, Kurt Smith and Doug Englekirk, went on flashing sprees, while Collins, Piana, Bechtel and Skinner kept putting up lines. Collins describes Sinks in the 1990s as a decade well spent.
Collins is hard to miss. He’s 6’4″, sports a hippie ponytail and has massive Hulk hands. This all-around unsung badass has established big walls in Yosemite, thin new alpine lines in Alaska, and now routes in the Tetons, outside of his home of Jackson Hole. His latest project is a 5.13b/c crack on Middle Teton with a seven-mile approach and 6,000 feet of elevation gain. Despite a lifetime of accomplishments, Collins has always shied away from the limelight. If there was ever anyone who simply climbs for himself without any fanfare, he is it.
Today there are about 400 sport and trad routes in the canyon, with 250 classics in the quarter-mile (25-minute walk) stretch that is the main limestone wall. Routes range from 5.6 to 5.14, 50 to 110 feet tall, all within close proximity. The walls of Sinks are renowned for a plethora of pockets, which range from sharp, painful monos to wrapper jugs.
The Killer Cave, with its consistent 110-degree angle and beautiful ivory and tangerine hues, is the cream of the crop. Friendly, well-bolted lines like Action Candy (5.9), Firecracker Kid (5.9), Global Warm-up (5.10c) and Second Hand Nova (5.11a) complement main attractions like Bush Doctor (5.12a), Killer (5.12c), Nirvana (5.13a), Samsara (5.13b) and Endeavor to Persevere (5.13c). Roof features, aretes and giant dihedrals extend down the cliff line for over two miles.Scattered around the sweeping hillside above and below are large juniper trees, sagebrush and limestone boulders.Sadly, last year an arsonist set fire to the bluff directly beneath the Killer Cave, where the climbers’ trail is, destroying much of the hedge and undergrowth. Though the perpetrator was never caught or a motive determined, another fire set at one of the sandstone buttresses caused locals to speculate that the fires were directed at climbers.
The geological phenomena of Sinks Canyon extend beyond climbable rock. Sinks gets its name from the spot where the Popo Agie River abruptly vanishes into the cracks and fissures at the back of a large cavern, only to reemerge two hours later in a trout-filled pool called the Rise half a mile down canyon. Rumors abound of cars being driven into the Sinks, or people being tossed in. There is even a story about a cowboy who rode his horse into the hole, only to emerge at the downstream pool a few minutes later, still in the saddle. Cowboy towns have the best tall tales but at Sinks it’s probably better just to credit the ones about climbing.
Becca Roseberry is a part-time Exum Mountain guide and a masseuse in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.