Sport Climbing at the City of Rocks

This post contains a lot of climbing jargon. I have a few definitions at the end of the post and a link to climbing website that better describes the meaning of the terms.

I could see snow off on the hilltops as we drove in, despite the late spring warm temperatures. It was the magic hour, the time of day when the light is perfect for pictures, and it seemed the landscape was made for this time of day. This kind of landscape inspires awe inside me. The last two days were drives over mostly flat land, so we felt a sense of excitement when we saw the rock formations sitting atop of the ground, breaking up the flat landscape of the last few days.

A view of the road on the way to City of Rocks

A view of the road on the way to City of Rocks, notice the snow in the background

After driving almost twenty miles down a dirt road, not seeing any signs of other people, except for an occasional empty parked car, we had the sense of being alone, in this beautiful place. The sense of solitude was welcoming and comforting. We pulled up to the Bath Rock campground, where we had a choice of any tent site. As we lay down to sleep, we heard a car alarm beep somewhere in the distance, shattering the illusion of solitude.

A close up of the rock formations

Bath Rock

The next morning we went into the local town of Almo, ID, in search of a climbing guidebook and found one at the City of Rocks National Reserve Visitor’s Center. We flipped through the book to look for sport climbs in our skill level. We were a little frustrated to find that the majority of the climbs were trad routes with only a few listed sport and top rope routes, since we don’t have trad gear with us. At the beginning of the trip, KC and I decided to not trad climb on this trip because neither of us are comfortable or, in my case, very experienced with trad leading; although we brought some trad gear with us to construct top rope anchors.

A view of Almo, Idaho

A view of Almo, Idaho

The mid-city of the City of Rocks

The mid-city of the City of Rocks

In addition to route information, the guidebook also contained some rock climbing history of the City of Rocks, including its role in the trad climbing versus sport climbing controversy. To better understand the controversy, I also later researched the history for more details. Like Oregon’s Smith Rocks, the City of Rocks in Idaho has played a big part in the development of rock climbing as a sport and in it’s ethics. Originally made popular for premier trad climbing by Greg Lowe and the Steinfell Club in the 1960s (“Welcome to Paradise City”), it then became famous for sport climbing in the 1980s. Ostracized by climbers in California, Tony Yaniro, a talented free climber, and a couple other lesser-known climbers, started putting up sport routes in the City of Rocks. What he is most known for, however, is his notorious 1989 climbing contest in the Castle Rock area, a valley over from the City of Rocks. There, he put up bolts, chipped holds into the rock, and bolted artificial climbing holds onto the routes. This prompted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to close the Castle Rock area for over a decade after the competition (“The History and Future of Climbing Style and Ethics”). To protect this area from further vandalism, this area eventually became a National Reserve. This unique history placed the City of Rocks at the forefront of the trad versus sport controversy.

We purchased the guidebook and drove back into the National Reserve with a plan to start at Practice Rock, where we can quickly set up top rope for two easy climbs. While KC was setting up a top rope anchor, a truck parked next to our car and out popped a climber. He was thin of build with sick forearm muscles and his back window was covered with climbing stickers. I struck up a conversation with him as I flipped through the guidebook, trying to figure out where we were going to climb next. “Hey, are you a local climber?” I asked. “Well, I live in Colorado, but I climb here often,” he responded. “Why?” he asked. I explained to him that I was looking for sport climbing routes, but most of the routes appeared to be trad. He frowned a bit as he thought. “There might be some good sport climbing routes in the Transformer Corridor,” he said, “but there’s not much. This is mostly a trad climbing area.” He flipped through the book and showed me some of the climbs. I didn’t want to admit it right then, but the climbs he suggested were a bit outside of my lead climbing range. I thanked him and he moved to start bouldering off another side of Practice Rock.

KC looks for a specific route to set up top rope

KC scrambles across Wart Rock

KC and I quickly ran up the climbs he set up and then moved the car back to the Bath Rock Campground. As I flipped through the guidebook, I noticed Wart Rock had two top rope setups and an easy sport route. It was walking distance from the campground, so we grabbed our gear and scrambled to the top of the rock. At the top, we passed the sport route as we were moving to the top rope route and found the anchor bolts had been cut off. “Well great!” KC said, clearly frustrated. I have heard of “elite” trad climbers cutting bolts to deter sport climbers, but had not seen it before. This is an example of one of the many ways climbers have disrespected each other and was proof of the animosity of trad climbers towards sport climbers.

Frustrated, we moved on to the Flaming Rock, a sport climbing area so name for patches of red coloring. We happened upon this area in the guidebook while flipping through pages. “Raindance”, a two-pitch sport 5.7 was closed due to bird nesting season, so we headed over to Tribal Boundaries, a classic sport 5.10a, only to find a pair of climbers setting up to climb it, where both climbers wanted to lead the climb. Seeing that the first climber was taking his time in both setting up and then in climbing and not wanting to wait, we searched the guidebook, looking for the next climb.

KC looks over the mid-city area

KC waits for the climbers on Tribal Boundaries in the shadow

KC found a four-pitch 5.7 sport climb called Theater of Shadows in the Steinfell’s Dome area on a feature called Jackson’s Thumb. The book described the climb as “a climb so easy your grandma can climb it” and added that the bolts were so closely placed together that you if you were running out of quick draws, you could easily unclip a draw at your knees to place at the next bolt near your head. It is ironic that the over-bolted sport climb should be found in an area named after the famous trad-climbing club of the 1960s. Theater of Shadows was the clearest example of a sport climb that trad climbers hate: bolts spaced sometimes less than five feet apart on an easy climb, removing some of the skill and psychological fortitude to climb hard.

The main rock feature in the middle of the photo is Stienfell's Dome

The main rock feature in the middle of the photo is Stienfell’s Dome, the outcropping on its left side if Jackson’s Thumb

Still, the Theater of Shadows was a four-star sport climb, so we decided to climb it. We made our way up the trail to the start of the climb. I led the first pitch and ended up rappelling off the first belay station, since I needed more practice setting up a belay station. That was the third and last climb of the day.

That night, I thought about the rocks around us and how limited we were in climbing by not having the ability to trad climb. I am mostly a sport climber and boulderer because of my lack of desire to learn and practice trad climbing. Many climbing areas in southern California (where we are from) are bolted, making learning how to trad climb low priority. After all, why spend more money on gear and precious weekend time learning how to trad climb when I have so many great sport routes in my local area? However, being in a place like City of Rocks, was a figurative slap in the face. I could see that I was greatly limiting what I could climb when I travel outside of southern California. Traveling to places like Smith Rocks and City of Rocks has inspired in me the desire to learn how to trad climb because I want to be able to climb more in those awesome areas. It has also made me more aware of the history and ethics of rock climbing as well as the impact I have on the environment while climbing.

Still, despite the lack of climbing that day, I could not help but be grateful for natural areas like this and the opportunity to travel and climb. Even limited to sport climbing, we were still in this amazing place and that left me with a sense of joy.



“Welcome to Paradise City” by Dougald Macdonald. Published on

“The History and Future of Climbing Style and Ethics” by Paul Nelson. Published on on November 6, 2014.

Climbing Terms:

Trad Climbing: placing gear on a route to catch you if you fall; some trad routes may have bolts.

Sport Climbing: placing quick draws in preinstalled bolts along a route to catch you if you fall.

Quick Draws: two non-locking caribeaners on either end of a sling; one end clips into a bolt and the other holds the rope

More information:

On climbing terms:

On the history and future of climbing styles and ethics:

On the history of bolting:

On the debate of trad versus sport:

On the rock climbing history of the City of Rocks: Welcome to Paradise

Mountain Project: City of Rocks Climbing Routes

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