The Humbling Climbing of Off-Width Haven, Vedauwoo, Wyoming

 

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July 24, 2018:

It was a beautiful summer day in July. The air was humid and fragrant, untouched by the weekday hustle and bustle of Denver city life. The sun hadn’t yet risen when my friend and climbing mentor, Milo and I met. It wasn’t unusual for me to get up early for an adventure. I was used to getting up at 3 am to bag fourteen thousand foot mountains.

But this day was different—an epic climbing adventure awaited.

Milo had been mentioning Vedauwoo, Wyoming for a while, though it meant nothing to me. I had never been there and didn’t know exactly what it was other than a “cool place to climb.” Milo’s stories clued me into the fact that there was definitely crack climbing involved—his preferred style of climbing. Every outing with Milo always included creative, unusual climbs that were no less than remarkable, so why wouldn’t I jump at the chance to climb with him in another state? If Milo said it was good, it was good.

As dawn played with rainbows of color on the horizon, Milo and I loaded gear—ropes, harnesses, quickdraws, cams, nuts, slings, helmets, tape, chalk, shoes, knee and elbow pads—filled up the old Honda’s tires and headed north on I-25 toward Wyoming. The sun illuminated fields of corn, oil pump jacks and the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains rising from the west like a jagged knife-edge. We navigated through traffic snacking and sipping coffee, eventually hitting the Colorado/Wyoming border where fireworks advertisements surge. The route bypassed Cheyenne and headed west on I-80 toward Medicine Bow National Forest where piles of rock formations sit seemingly in the middle of nowhere. This is Vedauwoo.

 

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Immediately upon entering the park, I could sense I was in a special place.

A mix of desert, alpine, and prairie blend to create a magical natural playground … and that was just the beginning. Milo and I paid the day pass fee and then meandered along a small paved road that led to a campground and several campsites. As we stopped to make a plan, I took in the enormous rock formations before me.

They were reminiscent of the famous Moab spires yet somehow vastly different. Lines and cracks sectioned out these huge reddish-tan formations like slices of bread. They were round and bulbous, square, flat, slanted, straight—contradicting order at all cost. These granite statues had a presence—they were full of character and dying to be climbed. I knew I was in for a treat.

We decided on The Convict for our first project—a bolted wide chimney rated at 5.9 in The Maze. I was excited about this climb, as it seemed like a fun, unique experience. How hard could shimmy-ing up a chimney be?

We drove into the central area of the park toward The Maze, eventually hitting a dirt road to open Wyoming prairie land. In the distance, a large pile of rocks stood out against the cerulean sky. The Convict was somewhere in that cluster, though it seemed a long ways away from the dirt road we parked along.

After gearing up, Milo and I set out on foot in the wild terrain down an old jeep trail into a field full of cow pies and grasshoppers. White puffy clouds stood out in a perfect blue sky, contrasting with the reddish-grey rock luring us in. The closer we got to the rock, the more I realized just how unique this experience was. It seemed as though we were the first humans to ever stumble into the area as we bushwhacked our way onto lichen-covered boulders the size of automobiles.

 

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I began to feel small and insignificant amongst these granite giants, humbled once again by nature. Navigating over, under, and around boulders became a bit tricky … and then we hit a cave. Our ticket to The Convict was to squeeze through a hole in that cave … an adventure indeed!

Upon seeing The Convict for the first time, I truly thought this climb would be relatively easy. The wide chimney creates a hallway between two rock formations and gently flutes at the top, ever so subtly. The pink-hued rock is covered in lime-green lichen and has a wonderfully grainy texture similar to the sandstone in Garden of the Gods. I watched as Milo readied to lead the 7-bolt route, putting on all of the usual gear including elbow and kneepads.

 

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As usual, he made the climb look easy, though I could tell while belaying that The Convict was no walk in the park. This was going to be a physical challenge …

I sandwiched myself into the chimney, thankful for the long sleeve pants, shirt, and elbow and knee pads. If I’d opted for anything less, blood would have been shed. The texture of the rock is like the roughest sandpaper you can imagine times ten.

I started off with my shins and low back lodged in-between the rock then shimmied my feet out in front of me, wriggling up with all of my weight resting on my legs. This was by far one of the most physically demanding climbs I’d experienced yet.

I was using every cell in my body to defy gravity and pull my weight up that giant crack.

Somehow, after finding an awkward and painful rhythm by alternating limbs for leverage, I made it toward the top where the fluting feature didn’t seem so insignificant. Two smooth faces lay ahead—and further apart than I’d anticipated. I managed to get one foot on each face and enjoy the view. This was a happy moment … until I realized I needed to leap over to one side where the anchor hung. My mental crux occurred at this point but once I made the move, it felt natural and satisfying. The Convict had made an impression. It was a climb I would not soon forget.

 

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Milo and I were amped up after The Convict and ready for another challenge. Our second climb of the day was a boulder problem in the Old Easy climbing area called Desiderata – a V5 off-width roof. Admittedly, I wasn’t super stoked on this climb, as I’m not a big boulderer. But Milo had been projecting on Desiderata and assured me that it was a worthwhile problem.

We ate lunch, drove to the Fall Wall parking lot and then headed up into a different set of boulders and towering rock formations. This rock had a pink hue with black striations and consisted of large slabs amongst trees and shrubbery. We hiked toward a massive rock wall, up and over boulders and through various foliage until we reached a rounded slab split by a crack. This was Desiderata! At first glance, the crack looked relatively short and similar to other crack problems I’d encountered. It was a bit anticlimactic. How could this be the epic climb Milo was raving about? And then Desiderata revealed its true colors.

Upon scrambling beneath a small space below the crack, I understood why this problem was worth trying out … The problem begins underneath the slab in a cave-like space where the crack is more like a tunnel—it only appears to be a crack on the outside. The off-width channel is just big enough for a person’s body to fit into. To get into it you’ve got to jam your feet in upside down. And that’s in itself a problem!

Milo and I sat beside Desiderata, taping up our hands and forearms, anticipating the challenge. After once again sliding on the kneepads and elbow pads, I watched Milo curl himself into the shape of a question mark and jam his feet as far into the space as possible. He edged along the shelf of the rock until he reached the outside of the cave where the climb turned direction, heading up along the crack on the face to the top of the rock clusters. There was much more to this problem than expected! Inverted off-width roof shimmying, crack jams, face climbing and then topping out with the help of a couple of decent jugs. The combo was mind-blowing! And then it was my turn …

 

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As a newbie to off-width it admittedly took me a minute or two just to figure out how to get started on Desiderata. Starting a problem inverted and upside down was a new challenge but it completely clicked once I shoved my feet in and felt the move. In one word it was painful!

Your toes and heels hold all of your weight as you slowly shimmy along the edge of the shelf, using your arms for support and your hands to keep you moving.

Breathing becomes crucial as well as efficiency to get yourself out from underneath the rock to the face, which is tricky because you’ve got to figure out how to remove your legs from the crack without breaking your knees.

I practiced the inverted, upside-down shelf shimmying move over and over again until my toes were numb. This problem proved to be another unusually unique physical and mental challenge that pushed my limits of pain threshold. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Desiderata is a rare problem that I will go back to over and over again, that is for sure!

Feeling energized and accomplished, Milo and I scrambled back down to the car and headed toward the west side of the park to Walt’s Wall; one of the most well known and famous climbing areas in Vedauwoo. Our last climb of the day was Edward’s Crack—a two-pitch, 5.8 vertical crack with an overhanging off-width problem at the top.

By this time the white puffy clouds had begun to accumulate, causing spurts of afternoon rain to spit from grey cumulonimbus giants. Luckily, the worst of it had developed several miles south of the park as we listened to thunder boom in the distance. As long as it stayed out of our immediate vicinity we were golden …

We kept a sharp eye on wisps of clouds looming overhead, snacking on what would turn out to be dinner as we watched a set of climbers scale Edward’s Crack. This climb is one of many veins that runs along a massive chunk of orange-hued granite. Several routes are clustered together. Most of the routes are crack seams interspersed with face climbs. Edward’s Crack was appealing, as it seemed straightforward and relatively simple for a two-pitch climb. Plus, it is a four-star classic. How could we go to Vedauwoo without climbing Edward’s?

Milo and I finished snacking and watched the weather clear, then grabbed our gear and headed for the Edward’s approach—yet another trek through piles of automobile sized boulders. By now, I was feeling fatigued from the day and fighting a lull in energy. I had never been climbing for more than a few hours at a time so this was a new experience; one I welcomed with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

We reached the base of Edward’s Crack to see another set of climbers finishing up the first pitch. This was a good opportunity to hang out, enjoy the sun and observe the climb before getting on it. Nerves began to get the best of me. Climbing crack was new and not something I’d done a lot of. In fact, I could barely get in a few jams at the gym without falling. I understood the concept, could place some decent jams and had the toe business down but enduring the pain was rough. I had no choice but to believe in my abilities and go for it on Edward’s. This would be a true test.

As the sun began its slow descent over the Wyoming skyline, Milo began his ascent up the famous crack. I watched as he carefully placed cams, slings and draws all the while having a mental battle with myself. My hands began to sweat. I watched as Milo pulled up the rope anticipating the climb. Putting my shoes on was a struggle. After a few deep breaths, I called, “That’s me … climbing!” and then surrendered to the rock. It was just Edward’s and me.

 

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I’m not going to lie … I did terribly. I’m not sure if it was fatigue, nerves or both but I couldn’t get on the wall to save my life. At the beginning of the first pitch is a small dihedral which hinders your ability to really get a good grip on the crack so I ended up half face climbing, part monkeying it up to get to the defined crack which made up most of the climb.

Once on the crack, my muscle memory kicked in. Aside from the pain, I felt pretty good about my ability to jam my toes and hands and made it to the belay ledge in decent time, cleaning and all. The view was breathtaking. From the ledge, right smack in the middle of Walt’s Wall, you can see for miles. The sun’s sinking rays cast a golden hue over the untamed Wyoming land. Semi’s and cars on a long stretch of I-80 seemed like toys on a racetrack as they crossed one another in the evening glow. This moment filled my spirit with joy as anxiety fell away.

I belayed Milo as he scaled the second pitch and watched as he fought with the overhanging off-width problem near the top. I was in trouble. If my mentor was struggling it wasn’t looking good for me. Not wanting to acknowledge this reality, I told myself I’d get through it one way or another.

 

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As I waited for Milo to build an anchor and put me on belay, I took one last look at the setting sun and then readied to climb. My first job: cleaning the trad anchor. Ensuring I was taught and on belay, I removed my PAS, then began to disassemble and rack the three cams that made up the anchor. The first two came out without a hitch but the third and lowest one—a blue #3 – wouldn’t budge. I yelled for “slack” but the rope became even more taught, further hindering my ability to reach the cam.

I wriggled, pulled, pushed and fought but the #3 only traveled further into the crack. Remembering I had a nut tool on my harness, I grabbed it and used it to pull on the cam’s gear mechanism. For a second I thought I’d snagged the cam, but it moved away. I attempted at yelling “slack” once again, hoping Milo would comprehend my command. The rope tightened. After a flurry of curses and one last frenzied attempt to pull the cam out, I dropped the nut tool.

Realizing that I wasn’t getting anywhere and that time was not on my side, I sighed and started up the second pitch. I wish I could say that this climb was enjoyable but I was feeling guilty for losing my buddy Milo’s gear. Not one, but two pieces! Like an inchworm, I painfully slinked up the crack until I was hit with the overhanging off-width problem. And a problem it was!

This off-width became my nemesis. Somehow, by awkwardly, desperately jamming my body into the crack, I stemmed, shimmied, pushed and pulled my way up, over and around the bulging rock. I was relieved to find myself at the top but bummed about having to tell Milo about my mistake. “Do you want the bad news or the bad news?” I asked.

Once I explained the lost cam situation, we contemplated lowering down to the ledge to attempt to retrieve it. The last light of day was rapidly fading away. It would have been a risky move—definitely not the safest option.

So we packed up, said goodbye to cam #3 and headed east to what we thought was the walk off-trail over a steep ledge of rock. Instead of taking the questionable route in the dusk, we explored the opposite direction toward trees descending into a valley. As we bushwhacked down, we noticed small orange flags that ended up guiding us back to the valley floor. A well-defined gravel trail welcomed us, leading back to the parking lot. We’d made it to solid ground safe and sound!

As we drove back to Denver in the pale moonlight, it occurred to me that Vedauwoo had thoroughly kicked my ass. It had also taught much more than expected about pain, loss, patience, physical and mental thresholds, ego, joy, surrender, and sacrifice.

The wild, sacred land and it’s towering granite giants force you to be present with them as you attempt to conquer slices of what they have to offer. Each climb peels away expectation and reveals hidden obstacles. One thing is for sure … there is no shortage of adventure in Vedauwoo, Wyoming.


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