Doug Colwell Interview
City Of Rocks
Sauni Symonds: Who were the first known rock climbers to come to the City of Rocks?
Doug Colwell: As far as actual routes and established routes I know that several members of the Lowe family - Greg Lowe, George Lowe and Jeff Lowe were actually putting up very difficult routes here starting in 1964 and those routes remain at high standards yet today.
If you predate that and go into the Sawtooths there are people like Pete Schoening and Fred Beckey who is a legendary guy, were climbing in the 50s in the Sawtooths, put up routes on the Baron Spire back there, on the Elephant's Perch. The Iowa mountaineers used to send a group out here all the time. John Breitenbach who was killed in the 1963 Agler expedition was on the first American Everest successful expedition and he was an Idaho resident. And they've named Mount Breitenbach in the Lost Rivers in memory of him.
Symonds: Why is City of Rocks so special for climbers?
Colwell: I think there are a lot of different things you could say to that kind of a question. One, it is fantastic climbing. You are on solid granite rock, you have the features on the rock that we refer to as patina that make for really nice big handholds right when you need them type of thing. You also have this type of friction climbing where there's nothing to hold onto and it's a just a matter of keeping the co-existence of yourself in motion and kind of going up as quickly as you can before you slide off. That's a real unique thing here.
Then there are all sorts of intermediate climbs and the beautiful camping area makes it one of the destination climbing areas in the country for families and intermediate climbers.
Symonds: What was it like here when you first started climbing?
Colwell: I didn't start coming here until the early 80s and in the early 80s it wasn't a park or anything like that. You could just camp wherever you wanted. Basically here we were in this climbers' tribe and everybody knew each other and you knew these people and you camped together or whatever and over time it became a national reserve. The popularity of climbing increased at the same time. The type of climbing changed a little bit at the same time and as a result this area grew a great deal but there is a carrying capacity to how many people can really be here at the same time as well. And I think that's part of what the park struggles with - with the number of camp sites, with the trail building, with the number of routes and new routes that they may allow. But now, like anything it has changed a lot and change is our constant.
I think the idea here is that yeah, there have to be rules and regulations for climbers, for other people. It is part of peaceful co-existence among other resource users but at the same time we as climbers like our voice to be heard when there are decisions made that are affecting what we do as our privilege I guess I used to say in the old days - our privilege - but I'm coming around more to thinking I've got as much of a right to be out here climbing on these rocks as anybody else does in the country and so I'm kind of a little bit in between on privilege versus right right now.
As far as the City goes and the change - yeah, it's really nice to come here and not feel like you are creating impact. To see so many different diverse groups of people having fun but at the same time to have been here before and to feel some of the limitations that you can't do which really is more kind of silly than anything. That's really all there is. And yeah, it is hard getting a camp site sometimes because you've got to get it in advance or whatever but hey.
Symonds: Idaho has been discovered.
Colwell: Idaho has been discovered. It's not your own private Idaho anymore. They've pumped a lot of money into the reserve. They acquired the Castle Rock State Park in 2003. It is now operated by the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation under a memo of understanding with the National Park Service for the Reserve. They've pumped two and a half million dollars into the Smokey Mountain Campground down there. They allow people with trailers and a little more moderate, maybe non-climbers a place to go and use.
They've spent an awful lot of money on the roads coming in here from the interstate to get people down here and it is kind of like they've built it and people have come and they are here. I think that is great in one way and in another way it is easy to be a whiner and go why I remember way back when it was this way and now it is terrible but in fact it's not. It is great.
Symonds: Talk about the politics of climbing.
Colwell: Getting climbers into an organization is kind of like herding cats and they just - part of being in the tribe is that there is not a fence around you and it is a big tent. We hear political parties say that. Climbers, I think they say maybe one half percent to one percnet of the population in the country are climbers so you've got a million and a half to 3 million people who are climbing. That crosses all political boundaries. Everything you could imagine is mixed up in there but being part of this tribe we share these commonalities, this kind of set of values of it's okay to come and climb, to leave it as you found it before, to pass it onto others and hope they have as much fun as you did in learning and progressing through the sport.
Symonds: What about the diversity of climbing in Idaho?
Colwell: There are a lot of different games you can play as a climber if you kind of look at it that way. There is bouldering, there is top roping, there is cragging which is kind of what this is right here, there is alpine rock climbing where you are on rock but perhaps you're up in the mountains - longer rock climbs. We don't really have wall climbing like you have or alpine climbing down in Yosemite so we leave that one out but you could do that if you really wanted to in the Sawtooths. We have a little bit of ice climbing, we have a little bit of snow and mixed climbing type of thing but we don't really have expeditions.
So within those 7, we're not really doing expeditions, we're not really doing wall aid climbing predominantly but we have these other 5 games. They are followed to whatever extreme people want to take. I shouldn't use the word extreme - to whatever degree of motivation that they have.
You have some of the best boulderers in the country that live here in Idaho and some of the hardest boulder problems in the country. Over there at Castle Rock Mike McClure, Mike and Tammy McClure who have been instrumental in developing a lot of the bouldering in Idaho. Dave Bingham who is here with us today is instrumental in bringing the City of Rocks to folks in the form of a guidebook starting back in the mid-80s and a series of articles in the different magazines and journals.
The alpine climbing in the Sawtooths, personally for me, I like that the most where you just grab your rope and your gear and a little shirt and head off and go see where you can get and pray it doesn't rain. For me that's kind of the sum of Idaho and what it has.
Symonds: 98 percent of people who don't climb tend to think of rock climbing as a dangerous, dangerous sport. What does it take to be a rock climber?
Colwell: First, I'm not really an extreme rock climber so let's put things in perspective. I'm kind of like a couch potato and I get up and go climbing and have a great time but I don't climb 5-13 and 5-14.
For me what is involved in me climbing is a balance. I'm a lot of different things which is I'm a father, I'm a husband, I own a couple of businesses, I'm civic minded, I have all these other things going on but this is what helps balance some of that out. It helps relieve stress from that.
A lot of people perceive this to be this totally wild, risky, risky thing and certainly it is very risky and certainly you can die doing it but the perception of the risk is much greater than what it is. And the type of stuff you see us doing here today when we're climbing, yeah, people do have accidents but it is pretty rare and it is pretty unusual that that would culminate in a life threatening or a life ending injury. That doesn't mean you don't need to be careful at all times, you need to check everything at all times. A safe climber is one who lives to be old. They go - you can be a bold climber or you can be an old climber but there are very few old bold people left.
So for me, if I'm going to climb a hard route I've got to train for a while and I don't really like training in the plastic and the gyms and hanging upside down and talking to everybody about how hard a problem they did in the gym. I like to go climbing so I'll come out here and I'll climb for a couple of weeks and I'll be as good as I'm going to get and off I go and have a good time. I consider that to be upper intermediate type of climbing. I might get up on a 5-12a or a 5-12b, if the stars are lined up right and I've eaten enough hummus the night before. But other than that I'm just having a great time doing this at this point.
Symonds: Let's talk about Twin Sisters. What is that all about?
Colwell: When the park was being formed and there were a lot of different interest groups that wanted to see how the park would turn out in the long run, I don't know if it was a compromise or whatever but ultimately climbers were restricted from climbing on the Twin Sisters - which again is kind of silly because I know, I've got books that say the kids of travelers were up there scrambling around but they say they can't because of the visual impact that it might create or - if someone was traveling along the California Trail that they would be able to associate the feeling and atmosphere one would have felt had they been there 150 years ago. I'm okay with that. If somebody wants to feel and be that way, that's up to them to feel that way but to go back and turn the hands of time back and go wait, wait, wait, we've got to make everything appear like it was 150 years ago, we don't do that anywhere else. But all of a sudden we're not allowed to climb.
So we - we being the Access Fund which is a national advocacy group for climbing access rights gets involved with a lawsuit and we lose. And so we keep at it and in 2004 we met and had a whole series of meetings that culminated - well it started because when the new climbing management plan or general management plan for the park was being reassessed they said oh, we're not even going to talk about the Sisters because we don't want to talk about them. It is too contentious of an issue so they just put it off to the side.
When we asked about that and we brought our national delegation into it they also were curious as to why that had occurred and a letter was sent to the head of the national park service. A letter was received back by the delegation that said that at the next opportunity we would be given an opportunity for our voices to be heard. That was in 2004. Since then we haven't heard - been asked to comment on anything. There is a current plan going on right now that is commenting on asking for some comments on alternatives to the management plan here at the City of Rocks and I think it is wonderful that we have an opportunity to comment on it.
I'm kind of wondering why climbers aren't asked any input into the alternatives to begin with. We're a large user group here. I just think it is better to collaborate between all the resource users and ask for their input and to maybe consider that rather than taking those points such as we're going to give you consideration at the Twin Sisters and spending the next 7 years obfuscating and not allowing any voice or anything to be heard.
I also want to pay utmost respect to the people who are involved in this because there are a variety of layers of jurisdiction and regulatory control that are federal and state and have to do with archeological issues and so it is not quite as simple. But the end point is we'd like our voices to be heard, we'd like an opportunity. I'm sure there is a way to compromise where climbers could climb there, the people could look there on different days when we're not climbing.
Symonds: What does it feel like to climb?
Colwell: It's not just the feeling of scaling a rock it's part of the whole escape thing. It's part of the whole stress relief thing and it's part of the whole kind of being part of the tribe thing so it's sitting at your desk in this kind of controlled world then going wow, looking forward to doing this and feeling like you are unhooked from this world of rules and regulations and responsibilities and off you go and then here you are. You are driving to your favorite place, you're relaxing, you get here. When you are climbing it's really one of the only times in our lives that we stop and we're only focused on just what we're doing. And it's a beautiful feeling. It's a freeing feeling. It's like meditation because your mind is free. So for me I like the feeling like I'm still young, I'm going somewhere and I'm going to go climbing and I'm going to try something I haven't done before and I might not think I can do it so I'll have all this stuff going on in my head and then I'll do it and I'll feel better and that will be great and then off we go. Wait until the next time.
Symonds: Talk about how to stay safe while rock climbing.
Colwell: As people are entering the sport and they are in the gym and transitioning to the outdoors is to learn the consistent and systematic application of habits that you go through whether that be on how you tie your harness and you make sure that it is doubled back and you make sure that your tail is in the right place so that you are certain your harness is there. When you start up a climb one of the things I do is if I'm going to start tying into a rope that's what I'm going to do right now. I'm focused completely on that. I'm not going to be talking, nothing else. And I'm going to finish tying my knot before I do anything else. Because there are not accidents because people get distracted and don't finish with their knot.
When you are about to start climbing one of the really helpful things - and a lot of people go oh we don't really need to do this but it really helps - if you and your partner check each other. You look at each other's harness and you make sure it is doubled back. You look at the knot, you make sure that it is a correct knot, it's through the appropriate spots in the harness.
You look at the device that this person is using to belay you and you are comfortable they have the right hand on the belay and the rope is not going to be tangled and so you are confident of that.
When you are at the top and you are coming down there are a variety of other things that you do to maintain safety. Everybody has a couple different things and ways that they do that but in reality it is redundancy. And when you are up on a cliff or on the side, personally I will never be tied into less than two things at one time and that's just how I look at it.
Even when I'm rappelling I have what I call a little Prusik and it's just a rope, it's a knot I put around the rope and I clip it down to my leg over here and I hold it and in the event something happens to my regular belay device which is this which I'd be rappelling with here then I have a separate redundant backup system on everything that I'm doing.
So for me that's the safety factor, the systematic consistent application of your habitual methods of tying in, of putting your harness on, of checking each other, of using verbal commands as you are climbing to maintain this level of safety.
Symonds: What is the most typical accident?
Colwell: A lot of accidents happen because of lack of communication. Somebody lets go of one end of the rope thinking somebody else is going to be rappelling instead of being lowered off. Perhaps somebody ties in incorrectly. There are a variety of different ways but I would say that 99% of them were human error that could have been prevented had you looked at your own equipment or the systems that you are using to reduce the risk.
Symonds: You call rock climbers a tribe. What makes up the tribe?
Colwell: The tribe as we describe it is populated by people from all walks of life, from all political parties, from multiple countries, all different ages and it's kind of fun when you get together and you might not be able to do that in a lot of other situations where you're able to put aside all those other things and because you're involved in this you feel that camaraderie. You feel the comfort and being able to maybe explore some of those boundaries with people you wouldn't do otherwise.
It's just amazing to me the number of people, whether they're physicians, I'm an insurance broker. We have lawyers, we've got accountants and then we have people who work at the ski area all winter and save their money so they can be on the road for 6 months in the summer. We have that whole continuum of people back and forth, of people participating in the sport trying to get better, focusing on their goals.
In Idaho a lot of people are not - nationally Idaho is not known as a very big climbing state. If you say Idaho to people most of them think of the City of Rocks and this is certainly a beautiful asset but we have the Sawtooths, we have all sorts of wilderness areas. We have bouldering, we have ice climbing, we have mountain climbing.
If you really peel it back and go well, what is climbing? What is it that it provides or what does it do? In a way it's a really selfish thing. I'm just making myself happy and satisfying my own desires. There's really no lasting value you are creating for people. I always like to go well, I'm in pursuit of insignificance and I have a great time. I smile along the way and you can't take yourself too seriously. Climbers like to do that on occasion. We like to let our egos get really big and then somebody comes along and pops that for you. It's just perfect. You're grounded.
Symonds: What do all climbers have in common?
Colwell: One thing all climbers have in common is the desire to get outside of society a little bit. It's not like you're breaking the rules but you feel like you're not normal or you're doing something a little different or wow, this is really great and it pumps my adrenalin and it makes me feel better about what I'm doing. It makes me feel better as a person about myself while at the same time you've got to keep all that in control. It really isn't - it's just climbing.