The sport climbing mecca of Smith Rock in USA's Oregon is world-renowned, and one father and son team are doing all they can to keep the new routes coming.
A thunderous crash echoed across the rock walls as a chunk the size of a large serving platter and several inches thick smashed into the ground, exploding on impact.
“How is it looking?” I called out to Alan Collins.
The excitement in his voice was unmistakable.
“This thing is gonna be sick!”
As he shouted, Alan dangled on a rope over an undeveloped wall just outside the boundaries of Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. Wielding a hammer, a crowbar, and a power drill, he swung about trundling loose flakes and installing new anchor bolts in hopes of creating routes for other climbers to enjoy.
For those who have never been to Smith Rock, their first experience often involves a moment of complete awe as they walk up to the rim of the canyon and look down at a constantly evolving process of erosion. Around 30 million years ago, the Crooked River was pushed by a series of volcanic eruptions against the buried towers that now form the park. The river has since carried away vast amounts of sediment and exposed 213m tall monoliths of a volcanic rock or ‘tuff’. The landscape here lends itself perfectly to trail running, mountain biking, hiking, bird watching, rock climbing, and highlining. Visit here, and expect beautiful views of the desert framed by snow-capped mountains on the horizon, multi-colored cliffs, and a beautiful winding river. It’s not really a stretch to describe it as paradise.
BUDS THROUGH BOLTING
The process of bolting climbing routes is nothing new at Smith Rock. With over 1500 routes in the latest guidebook, it has been a world renowned climbing area since the mid 1980s. However, what is new is Alan’s inclusive approach to bolting. Rather than attempt to keep things a secret while he bolts all of the potential new lines, he has instead opened up these areas for others to come and take part in the process. He maintains an open invitation for anyone to use his equipment to bolt new rock climbs.
“It’s created a stoke for people to put up new lines at Smith Rock, a stoke that has been gone for over a decade,” he said.
“Hopefully hundreds of new routes will come of it in the near future”.
It is an approach that has led to a diverse group of developers bolting over 60 new lines in the park. One of these new developers, Chris Hatzai, said his first time bolting with Alan has been “huge for my own route developing.”
“While in the midst of his huge surge in developing, when I had just started feeling comfortable climbing at Smith, Alan offered to show me how to develop climbing routes,” he said.
“The first time he handed me all the gear, and once I was all suited up, I was bugging hardcore about having to climb with so much stuff on my harness ... those were all ingredients for me not wanting to develop at first.”
Chris said it was about a year later that he decided to give developing another try.
“An unnamed wall at the time, The Hank Wall, was a 48.7m blank slab Alan and I had been eyeing for years. We took three days and had an impromptu, learn on the fly, aid lead bolting experience. After the three harsh days of work, we got our first set of anchors up and the rest was history.”
Chris said Alan’s open and collaborative approach is valuable for the climbing community.
“I can say Alan had a huge part in my success. From him showing me the ropes at first, to now going out together and developing on the same walls has not only been paramount, it’s been a lot of fun too.
“Same for his pop, JC has been huge in my climbing success as well. I can’t wait to see what other routes get developed and climbed."
THE NEW GUARD
I recently made the trek out to the area known as The Marsupials. They lay just outside the boundary of the State Park, but in the climbing world, they are considered part of Smith Rock. With Alan, JC, and their two dogs, we got an early start to avoid the midday heat. They took me up to one of their new areas and I was lucky enough to try out a few new routes.
In Alan’s words, “this spot is turning into one of Smith's best crags.”
David Potter, owner of Smith Rock Climbing Guides, agreed, saying the area has, “one of the most outstanding views from a crag.”
The routes were long, with beautiful rock and entertaining movement the whole way. It’s hard to believe the rock up there went undeveloped for so many years. Alan offered me a go on a newly bolted route that hadn’t yet been climbed. Feeling tired, somewhat out of shape, and bashful about potentially getting the first ascent, I declined. JC tied into the rope, assuming the sharp end. He started up into unknown territory, human hands having never touched that particular section of Earth before this day. He gave it his all, but fell at the crux.
Alan asked him if it needed another bolt, and from my position as a fly on the wall, I found this to be endearing. A son asking a father for advice, or, a route developer being vulnerable enough to ask for input. I was aware of how rare that was and it felt good to witness that moment.
Alan’s contributions to Smith Rock have ushered in a new era that will go down in the rich history of this iconic American climbing destination. He works tirelessly, often making the long, steep hike out to his cliffs before or after a full day of guiding clients around the main park.
I think a quote from the Godfather of Smith Rock, Alan Watts, spoken decades in advance of the progress Alan Collins has made, sums up his work perfectly: “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.”
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