The Virgin River Gorge: America’s Best Rock and Worst Crag

 
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Virgin River Gorge ClimbingThe semi’s pounded on Highway 15 below me. The loud diesel engines and the jake brakes shook the bridge. The noise reverberated off the walls of the Gorge. I shook my way up the run out slab section on Bogus Pedophile Charges, a classic 5.12d at the Virgin River Gorge. My belayer couldn’t hear me because of the traffic, I was twenty feet above my last bolt… and it started to rain.

Many climbers argue that the VRG, located a hundred yards off Highway 15, has the best limestone in the United States. The rock is incredibly solid, with everything from large pockets and features to small edges and wrinkles. But, despite the incredible rock, I think the VRG is one of America’s worst crags.

History of Climbing in the Virgin River Gorge

In the early 1990s, Boone Speed, Randy Leavitt and Jeff Perdersen began bolting the roadside crag after they saw it on the drive from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas.

They established routes in the steep sections of the Mentor Cave. Scott Frye, who now works as Touchstone Climbing’s stock boy, bolted some of the first routes at the Blasphemy Wall, including the classics Dude and Don’t Call Me Dude. He also did the first ascents of Bowser and Bowser Wowser in the Mentor Cave. Frye would spend his days bolting the wall and spend his nights at the nearby Beaver Dam Bar. “The whole area is magic,” he said. “In the spring, what seemed like a barren landscape would bloom with sweet flowers.”  The long days of bolting were worth it. The climbers established some of the best sport routes in the country at this roadside crag.

Brittany Griffith, Virgin River Gorge, sport climbing, Fall of Man

Since many of the routes were rappel bolted, the routes put up in the early 1990s have long run outs between protection. The bolts on the vertical technical limestone of the Blasphemy Wall range from ten to fifteen feet apart. This means long falls on sometimes less than vertical terrain where your partner can’t see you. The intimidating style doesn’t stop climbers from trying classic routes including Fall Of Man (5.13b), Dude (5.13c), and the Chris Sharma testpiece Necessary Evil (5.14c).

Lindsay Gasch, Don't Call Me Coach, Virgin River Gorge, Sport Climbing

While there are a few routes in the 5.10 to easy 5.11 range, the noise of the highway and the difficult conditions entice climbers wanting to project harder routes.

Climbers from Salt Lake, four hours to the north, and Vegas residents, two hours to the west, drive every weekend to numb out on their crimpy projects. The climbing season in the VRG goes from October to April with many of the hardcore climbers coming for the ‘sending temps’ in December and January. Which means they have to come prepared with three layers of pants, hand warmers, scarves and hats; and then strip down before each climb.

Alex Honnold, Necessary Evil, Virgin River Gorge, sport climbing

Heartbreak

“This may be the most demoralizing crag in the country,” said Alex Honnold. We had driven from Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve to try our projects, and the conditions at the crag had varied from rain to snow, to blazing hot to horrendously cold. After numbing out while ‘warming up’ we walked to the base of our projects. A Utah climber was hanging on every move of Necessary Evil, Alex’s project. I still couldn’t feel my fingers. The sounds of semi’s pounded along the nearby highway. I wanted to tell Alex that we should bail, but he wouldn’t have heard me over the rumble of the freeway and the howling wind.

After a few more minutes of waffling, we headed to the sunnier side of the Gorge. The majority of climbers hang out on the south side of the gorge in the shade of the Blasphemy Wall or the Mentor Cave but there are a number of great climbs across the highway, accessed via a Tyrolean traverse. The Sun Cave and the climbs around it are significantly warmer but lack the rock quality of the Blasphemy Wall. Routes like the tufa infused Sunburst do provide a great option when you don’t want to wear a scarf, hat, three shirts, long underwear and four pairs of pants to climb on your sport project.

After sending Sunburst, we headed back to Las Vegas for a New Year’s Eve party. At the car, I waited for a semi to pass before I punched my minivan into the rushing 80 mph hour traffic. In the mirror, I saw the Blasphemy Wall. I wanted to come back. I had to send. The van shook as the truck passed. I accelerated away from the crag.

Learning to Love it

Senja Paloen, Virgin River Gorge, Sport climbingFor the next few weeks, I continued to fall on Bogus Pedophile Charges. I couldn’t feel my fingers when I reached the crux. The small holds tore at my skin. Alex bailed on Necessary Evil. He split a tip and found the conditions too hard.

When I asked Scott about the hardest part of climbing at the VRG, he responded, “Getting used to the road noise!” The semis roared past the crag as I hiked up to the Blasphemy Wall again and again and again. The temps warmed up for a minute. I felt my fingers enough to grab the crimps on Bogus Pedophile Charges. I sent the route. A few minutes later, I was onto my next project. The cold temps returned. I couldn’t feel my fingers. The bolts felt even more spaced on Fall of Man. Below me, I heard the bridge shake as a semi rolled across the I-15. I hated the VRG but I couldn’t leave.

By James Lucas