RockAroundTheWorld Retrospective – The 2004-5 Big Trip part 2: The US – from Boulder to Smith

You can find “Previously on The Big Trip” installment 1 here: https://rockaroundtheworld.co.uk/2020/06/22/rockaroundtheworld-retrospective-the-big-trip-part-1-around-the-baltic-in-80-days/ or just launch in and join us as we land in Denver.

After almost three months in our campervan around Eastern Europe and Scandinavia we’re pretty settled into van life, but things take a turn for the better (at least space-wise) when we pick up our home-on-wheels for part 2. Winnie, as she becomes affectionately known, might be “compact” by American standards but this 21ft Winnibago took a bit of getting used to!

After a night at the Nederland campground just outside Boulder we were already becoming fans of the US Forestry Service ethos of self-registration, pit toilets, big spaces, tons of trees and amazing value. Boulder is the de facto capital of climbing in Colorado and The Rockies (and maybe the whole of the US?) and it’s certainly a cool place with a great outdoors vibe and a tonne of climbing on the doorstep. Mike Ryan was over staying with Gary so we had some local knowledge as we explored the cragging options including Boulder Canyon, Dream Canyon…

… and Castle Rock. Of course, the most famous nearby destination is Eldorado Canyon, where Bastille Crack is justifiably perhaps the most popular route in the State:

… and the presence of a swimming pool made it a popular choice with the kids.

Our visit coincided with my 40th Birthday, and Mike offered to accompany me on my pick of any of the local classics to celebrate. There was really only one possible choice: The Naked Edge “is one of the most classic climbs in North America.”

Half a dozen pitches, with three of 11a or b (about E4 6a?), in 600ft of hugely varied climbing up the most prominent natural feature in this climbing Mecca – simply one of the best routes I’ve ever done, anywhere (and a great start to my 5th decade). With great symmetry I spent my 55th Birthday climbing Outer Space on the crag immediately opposite https://rockaroundtheworld.co.uk/2019/09/01/outer-space-eldorado-canyon-and-a-memorable-birthday/

Just as iconic, but somewhat more amenable, The Flatirons are unmistakable features of the Boulder skyline.

… and provided the perfect arena for a memorable multi-pitch family adventure.

It was only a short hop to Rocky Mountain National Park and our first encounter with “America’s Best Idea” – at least according to Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

We were completely blown away by RMNP – not just the gobsmacking scenery (including a first sighting of The Diamond on Longs Peak which prompted a revisit 15 years later https://rockaroundtheworld.co.uk/2019/08/23/the-diamond-longs-peak/)

… but the care with which it is preserved, and the efforts taken to inform and educate the visitor.

We experienced our first Ranger Walk, enjoying the insights of our slightly nervous guide (on what transpired to be his first Ranger Walk!) as we explored Beaver habitat, en route to the kids completing their first Junior Ranger program.

… and had marvellous wildlife encounters with mouse, elk and bears.

We went on to visit almost twenty National Parks and Monuments in our 90 days in the USA, and weren’t disappointed by any of them. At each one we used the Junior Ranger program as a bit of a “to do” list (it was the nearest thing to home schooling that we managed all year, so no surprise that the kids still have a grasp of geology and American wildlife). Other highlights included a snowball fight at 12,000ft on the Continental Divide

… amazing forest trails,

… and the ubiquitous evenings around the campfire.

Heading north into Wyoming, we checked out the crack-climbing paradise of Vedauwoo. It certainly took me down a peg or two – from 5.11 to about 5.8 in the space of a hundred miles! It is an absolutely gorgeous spot though:

Mike set the kids the task of collecting as many fir cones as possible whilst we were climbing, and they really applied themselves, resulting in a stupendous fire that night.

… Fitting, as we packed Mike off on the Greyhound back to Boulder the next day while we headed on to South Dakota, famed for its Badlands National Park

… Bison (a.k.a. Buffaloes),

… and Big Skies:

The other famous rock formation in SD is perhaps more familiar to the average Brit (or indeed American). Mt Rushmore is the USA in microcosm – it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale and ambition, whilst also being a little uncomfortable with the brashness.

Back into Wyoming and another iconic lump of rock – Devil’s Tower is simply stunning in the flesh. From the first glimpse from afar, this improbable formation dominates the scenery for miles around,

… and up close it’s just begging to be climbed.

It didn’t work out logistically on this trip, but we determined to revisit and Helen, Jake and I did the classic Durance Route a few years later.

Of course Wyoming’s Big Attraction is Yellowstone National Park, the first in America (and perhaps the world). It is breathtaking in its scale and diversity, with mountains, waterfalls and canyons

… providing a stunning backdrop to the amazing geothermal activity,

of which Old Faithful is the centrepiece

Our favourite moment wasn’t an erupting geyser, but a wildlife encounter – sighting a female grizzly bear and her three cubs. Beat that, David Attenborough! We did manage to sample a couple of great crags in Wyoming. Sinks Canyon is a pretty cool spot

… but for the sheer beauty of the environment plus the quality of the rock you’d have to say that Wild Iris takes the top spot. Located at Limestone Mountain at an elevation of 9,000 feet, Mountain Project brands it “… one of the most beautiful sport climbing areas in the U.S. It’s hard to beat a warm summer day spent climbing the white dolomite pockets of Wild Iris.

Wyoming is also Cowboy Country, birthplace of W F Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill. Jake bought a lariat (or lasoo) in the eponymous town of Cody, but we found using it pretty baffling. Luckily a few days later we were settling into a diner in Idaho when a couple at the neighbouring table leaned over and asked “Do I detect an accent?” Her husband was kitted out with an impressive ten gallon hat, so we asked “I don’t suppose you know how to handle a lariat do you…?” I don’t know who was more delighted – Jake or the cowboy!

The appropriately named City of the Rocks is the premier climbing destination in Idaho (otherwise most famous for its potatoes), and well worth a visit for its highly featured granite (climbs more like Spanish limestone in places).

Heading westwards out of the Rockies and into Washington and the Pacific North West, our next stop on the National Parks circuit was Mt St Helens in the Cascade Mountains, one of the numerous volcanoes that make up the Pacific Ring of Fire. Mount St. Helens is most notorious for its major eruption on May 18, 1980, the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in US history.

It’s a truly beautiful and literally awe inspiring mountain, but perhaps the most impressive feature of the Park was how much regeneration had taken place in only 24 years between then and our visit.

Heading down the coast to Portland, Oregon, we caught up with Mike Warwick and met Heidi and Tisa for the first time. We’d been in email contact and suggested catching up for beer or climbing, to which Mike famously replied: “This is America; we can do both!”… so we did!

Beacon Rock is nicknamed “the best climbing in Oregon” even though it’s just over the border into Washington. Basalt pillars hint at the ubiquitous volcanic geology in these parts, and the long cracks and corners were a modest compensation for not climbing on Devils TowerPete’s Pile is another local basalt venue, which might not have the scale or majesty of Beacon Rock but was a fun place for the kids to hang out.Of course, the real “Best Climbing in Oregon” is a couple of hours south of Portland at Smith Rock. The impressive rock faces are made up of welded tuff, or compressed volcanic ash, formed 30 million years ago. Originally dismissed as unfit for climbing, the adoption of bolt protection transformed Smith into one of America’s premier sports climbing destinations. It’s also a gorgeous spot.Boulder to Smith – it’s hard to believe that we packed quite so much into just the first 30 days of the USA leg of our Big Trip! Next up, we’ll be hopping on Route 1, the Pacific Coastal Highway – California here we come!

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