Before the dynamic duo behind the RV Project took to the open road, they were familiar faces around our gyms in the Bay Area. We check in from time to time to see what life is like for this dream team. Last weekend Spencer and Vikki hit up the International Climber’s Festival in Lander, Wyoming and filed this trip report for the Touchstone Blog.
The International Climber’s Festival just went down this past weekend, right in between America’s birthday and Spenser’s birthday. So after we celebrated freedom and before celebrating the birth of the Sexiest Man Alive (SMA), we joined several hundred climbers from around the world to celebrate the act of moving over stone.
The short version of what follows: you oughta open up your calendar app and block out this week next year. (While you’re at it, put “sell everything and buy a van” on your to-do list. Even the kids. Sell ‘em.)
Lander can be fairly compared to the Californian climbing mecca of Bishop: there is one main street, a strong presence of climbers both local and visiting, and, to the west, a stunning range of granite peaks.
In Bishop, one must either pay to camp, or sleep hush-hush-like at the Kmart. In contrast, the good folks of Lander have provided the lovely City Park, with bathrooms and drinking water. It’s almost as though being a “dirtbag” is acceptable (well-nigh normal) here. Perhaps the cowboys were the original dirtbags, eschewing comfort for freedom. Or maybe it has to do with rope tricks and a shared appreciation for strong coffee and whisky.
Wednesday- The “Soft” Opening
The festival started slowly, as participants trickled into town. Most folks were setting up camp at the City Park, which sits along the Popo Agie river a quarter-mile from Main Street. The only event that night was a series of slideshows by local climbers, including an apparently rare public-speaking appearance by BJ Tilden. They mostly spoke of Lander’s climbing history and the current wave of development. The main takeaway is that there is more than a lifetime’s worth of rock here, and that a dedicated crew of locals spend their time and treasure to find new cliffs, bolt new routes, and replace unsafe anchors.
If you haven’t, I highly recommend watching the film Wind and Rattlesnakes. It chronicles the birth of Lander as a climbing town, and includes footage and interviews with the likes of Todd Skinner, Paul Piana, and the current generation of climbers.
A night-bouldering session was scheduled, but an abnormally rainy evening put the kibosh on it.
Thursday- Things Heat Up
The festival really kicked off on Thursday. Trango hosted a trail-building event in the morning at Wild Iris, which saw a good turnout. The afternoon was mostly given to the Art Crawl, an event in which businesses all up and down Main Street opened their doors and served various alcoholic libations, while selling local art. For my part, I enjoyed a top-shelf Scotch tasting at the climber-owned restaurant Middle Fork, followed by several beers from Upslope Brewing next door at the bike shop.
Thursday night was the opening party, hosted by the Gannett Grill (also climber-owned). A pull-up competition and a kick-ass band called Trout Steak Revival provided the entertainment, while La Sportiva provided everyone with a token good for a free drink. We mingled, imbibed, and eventually returned to our trailer at City Park to get ready for a big day on Friday.
Friday- Clinics, Comps, and So Much Swag
Lander is famous for its limestone sport climbing. Wild Iris has over a dozen walls (with more being developed), with hundreds of routes of all grades, generally characterized by gently overhanging rock pocked with pockets. That’s right: you don’t have to fly to Europe to enjoy stellar limestone climbing!
Since we’re sticking around Lander for most of July, I knew we’d be clipping plenty of bolts, so I decided to tag along with Alex Johnson’s bouldering clinic. A caravan of cars cruised up the highway to the Rock Shop, a bouldering zone high above Lander about 40 minutes from town. Featuring bullet-hard, blocky, and pleasantly-textured granite in a stunning alpine setting, the Rock Shop was a pleasant surprise. Even more surprising was that the first boulder problem was established in 2011! A local climber named Kian was our guide for the day, and he promised that a short walk would yield untouched rock aplenty.
The clinic had about 20 participants. One of them had just climbed his first outdoor V6. Another had climbed only once before in her entire life! Alex Johnson gave a short intro to outdoor bouldering, and then it was a frenzy of climbing, spotting, cheering, and even some sending!
Without exception, people had a great time.
Vikki went to the local climbing gym, Element, to learn some strength tips from local Steve Bechtel. He first emphasized the importance of warming up the entire body. The most common mistake people make before a strength session, he said, was to simply do a short cardio warmup. He then taught the importance of proper form, and illustrated it with squats, kettle-bell presses, and hangboarding.
After the clinics, we all headed back to Lander to eat, rest, and enjoy the sponsor party at the park. Throughout the afternoon, people were invited to participate in a variety of non-serious competitions for various prizes, such as crate-stacking, a pinch-board carry, mechanical bull- riding, and the rapid on-off of some mountaineer clothing.
Also, Upslope was handing out free beer. There was a lot of free beer going around all weekend, making the $70 ticket more than worthwhile even for those not interested in climbing at all. Did I mention the top-shelf scotch tasting?
Friday afternoon culminated in the dyno comp. There were men’s, women’s, and kid’s divisions, with numerous dynos of varying difficulties and styles peppering a plywood wall. For the men, I faced off against several festival folk, as well as Carlo Traversi and some guy I’d never heard of named Ethan Pringle, who is apparently some kind of big deal. We took turns launching ourselves up and sideways, and trying to figure out how in the hell to go from the bottom of the wall to the top in one move.
Just gotta brag real quick…I beat Carlo and Ethan. Boom.
Another party was going on that night at the Lander Bar/Gannett Grill, but Vikki and I were pretty beat from a long, full day. We schmoozed a bit and ducked out shortly after midnight, but not before dancing our faces off for about 15 minutes to the soulful grooves of The Peculiar Patriots.
Saturday- More Clinics, Inspiring Presentations
Saturday featured many more clinics in the morning, most of which sounded awesome. You could learn how to fall; how to put in a bolt; how to climb steep terrain; how to climb 5.10/5.11/5.12; you could climb with Sasha DiGiulian/Ethan Pringle/Carlo Traversi; you could even learn how to lead.
Saturday evening was an opportunity for autographs, followed by the keynote speakers. Hans Florine, Alex Johnson, Carlo Traversi, Hayden Kennedy, Elad Omer, and Ethan Pringle all gave slideshows, while a silent auction to benefit local climbing took place. Without exception the speakers were excellent, but the highlight for us was watching Ethan present some never-before-seen footage from our season up at Jumbo Love.
Saturday night closed with a final party at the Lander Bar, but Vikki and I were so damn tired that we stuck around long enough for a beer and a burger, then headed straight to bed. Hans, who apparently doesn’t get tired, had only gotten through half of his slideshow during the allotted time, so he set up his laptop in the courtyard of the bar and finished his talk in front of anyone who would listen. (I think Hans is passionate about El Capitan.)
No events were scheduled for the day except breakfast and coffee by Prana. People were slowly getting up and either heading back home or heading out for one last day of climbing (to practice the skills they learned during their clinics, naturally). Myself, Vikki, Rachel, and Georgie arose leisurely, shook off the cobwebs and the collective 4-day hangovers, and made our way to Wild Iris for some sport-cragging. We yarded on pockets from .10a to .13a, and even took a look at the imposing Moonshine, BJ Tilden’s tough, bouldery 5.14d. We hiked through the picturesque meadow back to the cars underneath a glowing Wyoming sunset (where seldom is heard a discouraging word), and collapsed in happy, exhausted bliss.
If I had to sum up the ICF in a sentence, I would say something like this: The longest-running climbing festival in the US takes place in Lander, Wyoming and includes everything a climber could want from free beer and food and camping and gear giveaways to the opportunities to mingle with, meet, and climb with amateur and professional climbers from around the world, all under the biggest sky in the country.
So forget about Rocklands next summer. Clear your July and start planning, because Lander has it all and more.