One foot in the door in the town of Tensleep, Wyoming’s iconic bar, the Tensleep Saloon, reveals a life different from what most people live in the United States. Cowboy’s dressed in full garb sit at the bar top. A “wad” of snuff tucked under their fat lip, a beer or shot of whiskey in hand, and a Marlboro Red in the other, it’s easy to see how things in this part of the country are a bit different. It’s common to see a cowboy sitting at the bar, fresh out of the fields, sometimes with the horse they rode in on tied out front, and a large revolver strapped to their waist. In fact, sometimes, everyone sitting at the bar has a holster and gun strapped to their hip. As a visiting climber trying to grab a quick bite to eat after a full day of cragging, the local scene can sometimes catch you a little off guard. But despite some things being a bit different around this neck of the woods, one things for sure, the climbing here is some of the best in country.
I first went to Tensleep, Wyoming to rock climb one summer maybe three or four years ago and have been hooked ever since. The world-class limestone, length and quality of routes, surreal setting and lack of crowds is what drew me in. It has always boggled my mind that so many Colorado climbers make the trek every single weekend of the summer to Rifle Mountain Park but yet completely ignore Tensleep Canyon. At first it made me angry. To me, Rifle is one big gigantic pile of choss. A typical day at the crag involves waiting in line for your warm up after a night of sleeping in your vehicle because the camping was full. Babies, dogs and crowds of stick clipping aficionado’s walk the crags searching for their next project. In Tensleep, the scene, or lack there of, is quite different. You often have world-class lines all to yourself. You can often go an entire day without seeing anyone else at the crags. With the exception of some cows grazing in a nearby pasture or the occasional moose or elk, for the most part, Tensleep is always empty. And the stone here, some 350 billion year old limestone, is some of the best in the country. I have always dropped a knee and bowed to the rock climbs at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, arguably the single best sport climbing destination in the United States but for what its worth, Tensleep Canyon in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, is quickly catching up. It is that good…
Climbers tend to gravitate towards rock climbs that suit their style. This is natural and hard to avoid. I don’t know that I have a specific style of climb per say, but I do know that the slightly overhanging nature of small but very positive pockets certainly caters to one of my strengths. Over the years, I have had some of my most gratifying ascents on these walls. I have onsighted many classic 12+’s, a feat I always feel very psyched to accomplish. In addition, if I don’t send a route first go, I can often put it down extremely fast, usually in a few tries or so. I have gone around the canyon and ticked a lot of the world-class 5.12’s, creating a Tensleep tick list that most people would be very proud of. In every way, shape and form, I typically crush at Tensleep. This is not to say that I haven’t been met with a fair share of resistance along the way. Several years ago, after casually onsighting Great White Behemoth(5.12b), I thought I would give a whirl to its neighbor Hellion(5.13c). Both Great White Behemoth and Hellion are the most sought after routes of their prospective grades. They both seem to always have someone projecting them and draws are almost always in place, despite not being perma-drawed.
A single burn on Hellion many years ago would ultimately change the direction of my following summers. At first, Hellion seemed very manageable. I did all but the few hardest crux moves almost immediately. I remember, having only been on the climb a couple of times, that I started linking huge sections and it became obvious that I needed to focus my attention on this route. Despite not having pulled the v hard crux move on some very polished and bad feet, I explored the two ways which everyone seemed to do the crux. The first utilized a mono-pocket for your right middle finger, all while your feet were on some of the most polished and slippery feet that the canyon had to offer. Many people couldn’t use the mono and opted for something called a drive by, where your right hand left the last good hold and had to windmill its way past the mono to a hold on the opposite side of your body on the far left. Both ways proved challenging and I constantly went from trying one way and then the other. Two summers ago, I opted for using the mono and decided to force the crux using that beta. It was what seemed best. I had many catches that summer but couldn’t quite piece it together. Last summer, after taking a new job in the wine industry and only four months in, trips to Tensleep became very difficult. Because of my new career, I was really only able to get to Tensleep two more times that summer, and both times I spent more or less the entire trip on Hellion. That summer came and went, and I had no success on completing the route. This summer, my main goal was to go back and send Hellion as quickly as possible. I was hoping to get it on my first trip. That was wishful thinking I guess…
I spent more or less my entire first trip this season, which happened to be in the beginning of June, refining my beta and dialing in the sequences in and out of the crux. Every single trip thereafter, Hellion was my fist stop. I drug countless people up to the crag to belay me and despite having the route super dialed, I just couldn’t seem to put it away. The route starts very difficult, and at bolt 3 you encounter a boulder problem probably in the v6 or v7 arena. To put the icing on the cake, if you actually make it through the crux, was 60 more feet of probably 13a ish climbing. I quickly realized once I was in full redpoint mode that putting the entire route together was quite a challenge. On every single redpoint attempt, a full on beat down ensued. I remember the first time when I actually made it through the crux from the ground and fell literally several moves after the crux because I was flamed out of my mind. I got a good laugh out of that one. The top was nowhere in sight and a very long ways off.
This August, I decided to burn up some vacation time and spend a few weeks in Tensleep. I was ecstatic to be in the canyon for more than just a weekend and finally give Hellion the respect it deserved. I was confident that I could send the route and then move on to either other projects or to practice my onsighting skill, something I love to do and have been fairly successful with throughout the canyon. As my vacation started, I attacked Hellion with everything I had. To my surprise, I just couldn’t seem to put it away. I always ended up falling somewhere on the route and I had fallen so many times at the crux, that somedays I literally would give it 10 redpoint attempts, falling at bolt 3 and immediately lowering, only to get right back on. I started getting extremely frustrated with the route unlike I have experienced in the past.
Burn after burn after burn, I fell at more or less the exact same move. Ironically, I could always get right back on and do the crux moves right away. I always hear of climbers talking about getting too much in their head, and a route they just “could not do”. I guess I never really understood it until Hellion. This rock climb became such a mental fuck for me that I started to become negative toward the route. A few burns ensued where I had total freak outs after falling at the crux. I was just straight up pissed. I had to remind myself over and over and over of why I got into climbing in the first place. It was the challenge that I loved. Some things in climbing, and some routes, don’t come easy. But that is what makes climbing so special and in the end, so gratifying. Despite failing every single time I got on the route, falling in the exact same spot, only to get back on and do the crux and take it all the way the top, I still had a love for the moves. It was the beauty of this climb in particular that drew me to it in the first place. I was not going to let a single emotion get in the way of me enjoying my time on it, whether I sent it or not. From my years of experience projecting routes, I knew that you can NEVER give up. So, I continued to climb it over and over and over, eventually laughing when I fell at the crux. I just could not send this route. On the very last day of the trip, after two weeks of utterly destroying myself on the climb, I decided to give it one more burn. When I warmed up that day, I knew I was setting myself up for disaster. My skin and body were totally wrecked and I knew that I didn’t have enough energy left to send. I gave Hellion one more burn, and, you guessed it, fell at the exact same spot. After falling at the crux, I yarded back up to the third bolt, did the crux move and took it to the top. As I was cleaning the climb since our trip was over, I kind of smiled to myself and thought about letting go of it. I had become Hellions “Bitch”. And then the reality set in, that I could NOT give up, that I NEVER give up. At that moment, I kind of talked myself into patiently continuing on whether it took me one more burn or a hundred.
A couple of weeks went by and I finally had another free weekend to go back. It was to be my final Tensleep trip of the season. Despite feeling the pressure of having only 2 more days to send Hellion, I was extremely relaxed about it. Whether I did the route in a few more tries or it took me an entire following season to do it, I was still psyched to climb on it. For 5.13c, it was probably one of the best of the grade in the country and for that was worth more effort.
The start to my final climbing trip of the year to Tensleep didn’t go so well. I was planning on going to bed and get and amazing night of sleep. Unfortunately, due to some packing and logistical problems, I went to bed at midnight and got up 6 hours later to make the 7 hour drive to Tensleep. By the time I had gotten to the crag parking lot on Friday afternoon, I was utterly exhausted and had eaten very little that day. I was energized off a few hundred calories at most. We hiked up to the crag, I did a 5.10 and 5.12- warmup, then headed straight over to Hellion. I was fortunate enough that there was another climber on the route and quickdraws were already up. As the person was lowering down and brushing holds, I yelled up to him if he minded if I spun a quick lap on it. Burns in the beginning phases of projecting this route seemed to take forever, but at this point, I was so far along, that my burns were fairly quick. I didn’t need to rehearse any beta and I would climb to the top fairly quickly. The guy yelled “Sure” and I knew it was game on. Without expectation, without emotion, I tied in and was excited to climb despite having been on the route so many times in the past. I put on my shoes, chalked my hands and stepped off the ground and onto the rock.
For the next several minutes, much like many of my hardest sends in climbing, magic happened. I can honestly say that for all the beat downs I received from Hellion, I was ready to give some back. I executed every move to perfection and for the first time in my three summers of being on the route, it felt easy. I pulled the crux with very little effort, smiled and climbed to the top like I had done so many times before. Only this time, I was in total control, knowing I wasn’t going to fall on a single move.
On the last day of my last trip to Tensleep, I absolutely destroyed Hellion. As I clipped chains and lowered to the ground after sending, I snickered to myself and thought, “Yeah, who is the bitch now”…