Smith Rock Renaissance

Words and Photos by Dave Mcrae
“I feared that Smith might soon be climbed out”  -Alan Watts, recalling 1982 in Rock Climbing Smith Rock State Park
In the 1980’s, Smith Rock was the hottest rock climbing destination in the U.S…  European climbers flocked here in droves.   New climbs sprouted up all over the park.  Smith Rock held the title for hardest climb in the U.S. with the successively more difficult ascents of Monkey Face East Face (1985), To Bolt or Not to Be (1986), and Just Do It (1992).
Then, until the very late ‘90s, new route development stalled, with the prevailing attitude that Smith Rock was climbed out.  Around 1999, a few motivated locals like Ryan Lawson, Thomas Emde, and Jim Ablao bucked the trend and established new routes through 2008.  But, the drills mostly stayed quiet from then until late 2013.
Enter a fiery young man named Alan Collins.  In the fall of 2013, he found the Marsupial Wall and went to work.  With his dad, JC Collins, showing Alan the tricks of the trade, they each established a high-quality route of their own at the base of the wall.  JC’s Bucket List (5.11a) and Alan’s Off the Wall (5.11d) are now two of the better routes of their grades at Smith Rock.
“For Smith climbing to rise again, A new generation will need to not merely follow in the footsteps of those who came before- but blaze their own trails up the golden walls of Tuff” -Alan Watts, Rock Climbing Smith Rock State Park
With the baton now firmly in Alan’s grip, he took off running.   Eventually, he talked me into a trip to Marsupial Wall.  He really wanted me to find interest in a 200-foot tall section of red, patina plated rock, on the right side of the wall.  The whole process seemed both laborious, and expensive; discovering the path of least resistance, cleaning off loose rock, scrubbing, and finally drilling and bolting.  My recently purchased power drill had mostly been used to place anchors atop columnar basalt cracks where the process is simple: climb to the top, place two bolts for an anchor, and on to the next.  An anchor atop a crack climb costs $20.  Fully bolted sport climbs run upwards of $100 per pitch (rope length).
In less time than it took me to fret over the logistics, Alan grabbed his pack, called his adventure dog, Hank, and started up the gully to access the top of the cliff.  I lagged behind, cursing the young buck the entire way, especially when confronted with an exposed and scree-covered slab near the top of the gully.  “How the hell did Hank make it up this?”, I asked when I finally caught up to Alan.  “Hank blazed the way! I was scared, but when my dog went first, I didn’t have any choice but to follow”, Alan replied.
After four days of wind, snow, hammer swinging, drilling, and even a little climbing, the three pitch route, Adventure Dog (5.10d), came to life in the spring of 2014.
Marsupial Wall started the ball rolling for the next two years of flurried activity.  The area now sports around thirty pitches of developed climbs, mostly in the 5.11 and 5.12 range.  Alan Collins put his signature on nearly everything, from the climbs to the trails.  No partner?  No problem.  Alan estimates around a month of cumulative work days invested into the rock staircase and impressive terracing at the base of Marsupial Wall.   Somehow, many of the rocks outweigh him!
One frequent partner to the Marsupial Wall, Chris Hatzai, caught the new route bug and wanted to claim some first ascents of his own.  In late summer of 2015, he and Alan Collins scoped out an impressive wall at the base of Smith Rock’s largest tower, the Monument.  A generation ago, Tom Egan investigated this same wall with a heroic solo effort to establish a top rope above the wall.  Eventually, Egan abandoned the project and the wall sat neglected for twenty-five years.
With no idea how to access the top of the wall, Hatzai and Collins partook in a two-day, learn to aid climb on-the-fly, mission to establish a top anchor.  After a few more days of work, they finished the first route on the new wall, Big Tease (5.12b), a classic, 115 ft. endurance test piece.
By the fall of 2015, Alan lured me to the new wall with the promise of low hanging fruit.  We arrived at a crumbling pile of garbage with an anchor above it.  Alan and I traded shifts hammering and prying it into submission, then bolting and eventually leading.  What I first dismissed as a pile of junk, The Good Die Young (5.10d), is now a solid and fun warm up.
Next, we installed a higher fixed rope on a 115 ft. monster pitch of vertical and flawless rock.  Like usual, we climbed until dark and hiked out under the stars.
Adventure dog Hank stayed close on the hike out, but always found his own adventure.  This time, when Hank caught up to us at the bridge, Alan knew something wasn’t right.  Unlike most dogs, Hank was way too smart to stick his face into a porcupine.  Apparently, he tried to capture a porcupine under his body and got hundreds of quills in his torso.
We spent the next hour pulling quills out by headlamp on the side of the trail.  Alan sobbed to see his companion in so much pain, but Hank stayed chill while Alan pulled out endless quills.  A major surgery and several hard-fought days later, a quill worked its’ way to Hank’s heart and ended his life.  The Hank Wall and that 115 ft. monster pitch of vertical and flawless rock,  Hank Collins Memorial Route (5.12d), will always remind people of his adventurous spirit.
In the fall of 2016, Chris Hatzai set up shop at the Hank Wall.  He fixed a line up an impossible looking overhang of dubious rock.  Rain, shine, sun or wind, Chris was there; pry barring, cleaning, bolting, and busting ass to make it happen.  But, transforming a teetering pile into gold was just the first step, now he needed to actually climb it.
He’d wear out one partner after another, taking lobs off his overhanging projects.  One such belay victim, the original explorer of the wall, Tom Egan, seemed post-traumatic after catching Chris’ falls while connected to an anchor. Developed right at his personal limit, Chris surprised everyone but himself when Sweet as Hank (5.12c), and its second pitch, Hank Spire (5.12c), came to fruition.
Another wall in the Monument Area that’s been the sight of recent development is Anglin’s Buttress.  Located a five-minute walk uphill from the Hank Wall, Anglin’s Buttress sports a 370 foot Southwest face of beautiful rock, guarded by a 30-foot band of garbage rock at the base.  With the exception of a single neglected crack route from the ‘70s, the entire face sat unexplored until December 2015, when Alan Collins and I made a recon.
With three days’ work, we tunneled through the garbage and established two serviceable base routes, Anglin & Danglin’ (5.11a) and Optigrab (5.12b), before the seasonal Eagle nesting closure.
For the next seven months, I obsessed over the soaring upper walls of Anglin Buttress.  As soon as the eagles flew the nest, I rappelled the wall and established a fixed line.  Working solo, I’d check in with Chris Hatzai at the Hank Wall on the way in, then enter my very own world on Anglin’s.  Time seemed to stop, my phone got turned off, and everything else melted away as I became engulfed in the exploratory process.
I’d wake up at 4 a.m. in September to work on the wall before the sun hit at noon.  30-degree temps in November?  It didn’t matter as long as work got done.   I don’t feel this level of obsession or work ethic is unique, but rather a prerequisite for route developers.  It’s what Collins, Hatzai, and I all have in common.  We burn out climbing partners, have little social life, and are virtually un-datable.  With all of us quagmired in our respective projects, we couldn’t even climb with each other in fall of 2016.  But, work got done!
After three months and thirty work days on Anglin Buttress, I placed the last bolt, and reluctantly pulled the fixed lines.  Anglin n Danglin’ (5.11b, 5 pitches) and Jim Climbing (5.11b, 4 pitches) were now ready for the public.  I looked forward to the finished product the entire time, but with the hard labor completed, I felt a surprising sadness.  It ended the era of solo, mini-big wall exploration on my own private wall.  For the first time I realized, it’s not the finished product that I love so much, it’s the process.  On to the next…
Check out more climbing routes at Smith Rock:

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