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Cowboy Poetry: Limestone, Lariats and the New West Wild Iris

Limestone, Lariats and the New West Wild Iris

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Billed as “one of the most beautiful climbing areas in America,” Wild Iris, an uplift of boney dolomitic limestone outside the ranching town of Lander, may surpass the hype. Here, waves of prairie grass deposit you at the foothills of the Winds as they roll into Limestone Mountain and the escarpments that are your raison d’être. You’ll notice that civilized development, and people, are few. The area remains raw, and it is said that from about November until May the snow, rather than melting, just blows around until it wears out.

Hail from the other 49 states and you may find this outpost of Wyoming lonely—the nearest city of any real size, Cheyenne, is four hours away, and the Cowboy State is number 50 in population. Tread the footpaths at dusk and you may meet Wild Iris local “Waffles,” a male grizzly bear.

In 1989 gold prospector Holly Skinner spied a cliffline outside Lander that reminded her of the limestone of Buoux, France. She mailed a letter of the discovery to her brother Todd, who lived in a tipi commune behind Mount Rushmore with Amy Whisler, Heidi Badaracco, Jacob Valdez, and Paul Piana.

“Within the hour” after reading the note, says Piana, “Todd and Amy and Jacob picked up their kit, left for this area Holly had found, and they never came back!”

Todd spent the next years of his life yamming off finger crushers including the first 5.14 established by an American, Throwin’ the Houlihan. Joining him were Whisler, Piana, Badaracco and Pete Delannoy, who remarked that when he discovered the O.K. Corral wall he was a “pig in shit.”

The rush was on. For the coming decade Wild Iris was one of the top places to be. Hungry for European-style limestone, Bosch-wielding climbers transformed Wild Iris into America’s version of the Frankenjura. The routes were short (60 feet is long). Hard. Sharp. Rarely downrated.

Twenty-seven years later Wild Iris shares favor with other calcium- carbonate wonders such as Ten Sleep, two and a half hours north, and Rifle, six hours south in Colorado, but the crag that Todd found is still abuzz. A resurgence in 2013 by the rebolter Sam Lightner, Jr. added new lines, and B.J. Tilden of Lander keeps Wild Iris on the map with bleak lines like Moonshine (5.14d) and Mutation (5.14d). The 2015 guidebook Lander Rock Climbs notes nearly 290 routes, heavy in 5.10 and 5.11, but with enough top-end lines to keep the pros stoked. New lines continue to be added.

Lander proper also continues to pulse with about 30 year-rounders, including Steve Bechtel, who can flog off your winter blubber at the Elemental Gym. The Lander scene, says local Michael Holland, is vibrant but chill.

“What is so amazing,” he says, “is that in our town, the same dude who is setting your boulder problems on the woodie at Elemental Gym is also the guy who just equipped the new route out at your new favorite crag … and he’s also the guy who is pouring your beers from the Lander Bar’s tap. This is, to me, the epitome of Lander: the definition of a small town of obsessed climbers, the true definition of a rural paradise.”

In July 2018 Lander will for the 24th time host the International Climbers’ Festival, and 500-odd climbers will take to the walls of Wild Iris and other crags including Sinks Canyon and Wolf Point. Afterward, back in town, they’ll watch films and raise pints to the native son who made it all happen.