The 2019 Joe’s Valley Bouldering Fest

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By Spenser Tang-Smith.

Spenser Tang-Smith is one half of The RV Project’s dynamic duo. Along with his partner Vikki Glinskii, The RV Project is their adventure across America in search of the country’s best climbing and most interesting people. Now, Spenser’s here to tell you about The Joe’s Valley Bouldering Festival on September 26-29th, a.k.a. where YOU want to be in two short weeks! All photos courtesy of RV Proj.

The last time we checked in, we’d moved into our renovated trailer. Right now, that trailer is parked at the mayor’s house in Castle Dale, Utah, just outside of a little bouldering area called Joe’s Valley.

View from our front door

While I like to think it makes us sound kind of cool, I only mention it because it serves as a perfect metaphor for an improbable partnership between a few “dirtbags” and some passionate citizens in a small town in Emery County, Utah, a land dominated by the red end of the spectrum in both geography and politics. The Joe’s Valley Bouldering Festival, which is ramping up for its 5th year, is the result of that partnership, and we eagerly invite you to come see what the Fest is all about!

I know the Fest in less than two weeks, and I know that Utah is two states away from California, but it’s only 2.5 hours from SLC and you owe it to yourself to climb there. If not this year, put it on your list for next year, yah? And if you can make it, scroll down to the bottom of this post for discounted tickets!

There’s no other way to put it: Joe’s Valley is in coal country. The Hunter Power Plant dominates the landscape, and the remnants of coal mines are easier to see from the road than any of the boulder problems are. The first boulderers to wander the hillsides back in the ’90s, among them Steven Jeffery, had no idea what the locals would think of them, so they mostly tried to stay hidden from view. As a result, the citizens of nearby Castle Dale and its sister town Orangeville remained completely unaware of the fact that people from around the world were traveling to their backyard to clamber on some tiny rocks.

A behind-the-scenes shot from the upcoming Reel Rock film about Joe’s Valley. Members of the newly-formed Emery High Climbing Club doing their new favorite thing, the ubiquitous Hunter Power Plant in the distance.

20 years later, we visited Joe’s for our first time. Locals, upon learning of our California roots, would launch unprovoked into a wholehearted defense of the Hunter plant. The observations about base loads and the purity of Utah’s coal as compared to Appalachia’s were interesting and valid, but they seemed to be a reflexive defense of an industry they not only rely on economically, but were deeply proud of as well. And these were friendly folks. Suffice it to say, going Al Gore on the locals is not going to keep the ice caps from melting.

SLC climber and Joe’s developer Steven Jeffery was given a small grant from the Emery County Travel Bureau and asked if two months was enough time to put together a climbing festival.

In 2015, an assessment of the county’s geographic and economic strengths pointed to the obvious impending collapse of the coal industry, and strongly suggested the county invest in developing its tourism potential. The rocks in Joe’s Valley, in particular, were highlighted as what made the area special. Amanda Leonard, a Castle Dale native, reached out to SLC climber and Joe’s developer Steven Jeffery with a small grant from the Emery County Travel Bureau, and asked if two months was enough time to put together a climbing festival. Steven and his partner Adriana Chimaras reached out to me and Vikki, and though we had no experience as event planners, we somehow avoided a total disaster.

The original Cowboy Games AKA Rodeo-lite at the first Joe’s Valley Bouldering Festival.
Climbing classics during the first Fest. The trouble with the high desert is that weather can be unpredictable. In 2015, a snowstorm had passed through the night before the Fest, so it was a cold one. But we all made the most of it!

The next year was better, with Organic Climbing coming on as our headline sponsor and over 100 tickets sold. In 2017, we sold all of our tickets (~200), and our Touchstone homie Ethan Pringle came out to teach a clinic! Last year, the Joe’s Valley Bouldering Festival won the Economic Impact Award from the Utah Governor’s Office. And this year…well, you’ll just have to find out.

For reasons relating to both the Fest and to our own selfish bouldering objectives, Vikki and I are spending more and more time around Joe’s these days. I love going into JR’s for breakfast, where the servers know that I’ll have a cup of black coffee and water without ice while I decide on my food order. Small town life has its perks.

Spring 2019 in Joe’s Valley. We heard there were boulders somewhere over there.
Spenser on one of his first ascents this past Spring.

Which brings me back to Danny, Mayor Danny Van Wagoner of Castle Dale, Utah (also a full- time employee at the power plant, and the proprietor of the San Rafael Bed and Breakfast). He’s been a staunch supporter of the Fest since the inception, and has been a bull-headed advocate for us behind the scenes at city and county board meetings. Access Fund probably won’t recognize his work, but he’s been invaluable in terms of getting local businesses to buy in to the idea of the Fest, and the idea of a changing economy in general. It’s been magical to see the community start to come around to welcoming a bunch of unwashed city-slicker types. And it’s been even better, selfishly speaking, to have a drinking buddy in such a “dry” climate, if you catch my meaning.

Every year, the highlight of the Fest is the Rodeo Games, in which climbers and locals are in the ring side by side, competing in all manner of farm animal shenanigans.

It has been similarly satisfying to watch the climbing community embrace the cowboy culture. Every year, the highlight of the Fest is the Rodeo Games, in which climbers and locals are in the ring side by side, competing in all manner of farm animal shenanigans. It’s impossible to see each other falling off steers and horse-drawn hides and conclude that falling off of boulders is any more or less idiotic. The only conclusion to draw is that, like the Dems on the debate stage, “much more unites us than divides us.”

Climbers on bulls, locals on rocks. This year, due to demand from previous years, we’re adding rodeo classes to the schedule. Come learn how to ride a bull or lasso from the pros!
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These last two photos summarize the 2018 Joe’s Valley Fest. For the first time, retired coal miners brought chili dogs to the boulders and fed all the climbers—and a couple even got on the rocks! And this last photo is just what it’s all about.

The Joe’s Valley Bouldering Fest is ON September 26-29th. Use the code GYMS15 to get 15% off your ticket!

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