Far from the usual sport-climbing scene, these limestone hills are home to an adventurous cragging escape
You never know where a road trip may lead you. One day you could be sucking back ice-cold Ale-8’s in the Red River Gorge, and the next day find yourself westward-bound on I-40. This happened to me during a recent sopping-wet fall road trip to the Red. One more rest day of staring out the steamy windows of the hippy van would have sent me bonkers. So, I went crag shopping on Weather.com and found the most incredible ten-day forecast imaginable in Mesquite, Nevada. A few hours later, my husband Kyle, and I were driving to the Utah Hills.
A three-day death-drive guarded our arrival to our new desert limestone paradise and I survived the journey by attempting to eat the centres out of pretzels and counting the dead armadillos on the side of the highway. In the end, the mental gymnastics were worth it as we were rewarded with an entire November of sending temps, beautiful limestone and climbing that exceeded our expectations.
I am not alone in my love for the climbing around the Utah/Arizona/Nevada border. Climbers from Salt Lake City, St. George and Las Vegas have always seen the beauty and potential of the area and many have left their mark at this intersection of the Great Basin, the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Plateau. This geological collision has created a landscape of sandstone, limestone and basalt that’s full of new-routing opportunities. The hub of the region, St. George, Utah is also a short distance from Zion’s big walls, Red Rock Canyon and the beautiful Vegas limestone cragging. With such an abundance of climbing, it’s not surprising that a community of dedicated and motivated climbers converged in the Utah hills during the early 90s.
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One of the first discovered areas was the Virgin River Gorge (VRG), which is home to some of the best rock in the desert. Unfortunately, climbing at the VRG requires dealing with the deafening drone of the interstate traffic. Locals swear this noise pollution can eventually be phased-out, but not everyone will enjoy climbing out-of-sound of their belayer. Climbers seeking nature and serenity will likely prefer areas like Welcome Springs, Lime Kiln Canyon, Woodbury Road Crags and all of the crags of the Utah Hills.
The first crag we pulled into during our road trip was the Chuckwalla wall. With its two-second approach, this an obvious choice for straightforward sandstone jug hauling. However, The Welcome Springs (also known as Cathedral and The Wailing Wall) was what we sought. This concentrated sport crag with two types of limestone climbing, sits high on the hillside and deep in the hills. The cave is stunning with its array of hard, steep routes on smooth pocketed limestone. Just around the corner, the Wailing Wall serves up sharp, solid-blue and orange rock that requires a perfect balance of technique, power and finger strength. Throughout the day we would delight in the beauty of the rolling hills, nesting falcons and feeding deer herds, all creating the quintessential desert climbing experience. Climbers can find this scene at many of the other crags in this area, which also offer free BLM camping, beautiful approaches and hard sport climbing in a remote setting.
Although climbing is possible year round, the limestone sending-season is October to June. The general rule is that if it is over 21 C in Mesquite you can climb anywhere, but desert winds and mountain weather systems can always crash your crag party. If the temperature is between 10-21 C in Mesquite, you may be limited to climbing in the Virgin River Gorge, Sun City, Hurricanes (Hurricave) or the lone limestone tower, The Phalanx of Will. Humidity rarely comes into play as Utah is blessed with a perfect dry wind that if bottled could be the best chalk on the market.
The potential for new limestone crags in Southwest Utah is staggering. While hiking through the hills on a rest day, I stumbled across one new hot spot. As I approached the cliff, the local legend, Todd Perkins was happily dangling from a rope, drill in hand, firing up a new 5.11. Another active local, Bill Ohran was lead bolting a new techy 5.12 and a crew of St George climbers were sampling the goods.
It is impossible not to progress in such a motivated climbing community. Locals like Todd Perkins are continuously bolting new crags for everyone to come and tackle. Professional climber, Joe Kinder has also caught the bolting bug, inspired by steep and gymnastic lines; he has already bolted more then 20 routes this year ranging from 5.11a to 5.15. Kinder first started climbing in the area in 1998 with Tim Kemple and hasn’t been able to shake the habit, drawn back by the style, the stone and the multitude of projects. He plans to continue his futuristic development in the Utah hills. “The potential in the general area is insane. We have four walls under development and a little further, there is another huge wall with caves all over it. This might be one of the most impressive spots I have seen yet,” says Kinder.
These desert mountains are a worthy road trip destination that’s attracting a growing number of migrating Canadians. If you want to take improve your sport climbing or bolt your own masterpiece, then come and sample the climbing evolution happening in the Utah Hills. Before you know it, you’ll be complaining that it is 4 degrees warmer than ideal or that there are too many hard routes to choose from. Now that is rough desert living.
Although she’s only been a local of the hills for five years, Misty has quickly become an important component of the climbing community. After falling in love with the endless rock and dazzling desert views, she made Utah her home. When Misty isn’t filming music videos or rocking it with climber/musician, Odub, she is hard at work putting together the first complete, and much needed guidebook for the Utah Hills. Complete with old and new classic crags, Misty says the only crux is “keeping up with all of the new development,” but she predicts that the Utah Hills guidebook will be finished this year. Misty also recently put together a facebook group to help provide local developers with more support. Keep updated on her blog: www.mistymurphy.blogspot.com
Tood Perkins has worked hard through harsh weather and arduous cleaning efforts to put these desert crags on the map. Regularly referred to as The Man, Perkins is the king of these hills. As humble as they come, he has happily logged more days developing new routes then climbing. As a long-term local, he has been the driving force behind the Utah Hills development since the early 90s when he began bolting and climbing with Randy Leavitt. Since then he has been obsessively bolting and climbing new routes, including the committing and unrepeated multi-pitch 5.14, The Power of D (named after their father) on the Beaver Dam Wall. Perkings tackled this line with his brother Chad after the loss of their father. He describes it as a “cathartic endeavour that I plunged myself into. It was a ton of work and a ton of choss, but the adventure aspect was rewarding”. You can still find Perkin deep in the Utah hills, bolting his next masterpiece.
Desert Rat Hit List
Sticky Revelations 5.10c 3 pitches (Prophesy Wall)
Living on the Edge, 5.10c four pitches (Snow Canyon)
Scrum Felching 5.10c (Sun City)
Hop Rising 5.11a (Sunset Alley)
No Ordinary Moment 5.11b (The Grail)
Pocket Line 5.11b, (The Wailing Wall)
Heretic Wisdom 12a (Wailing Wall)
Sandstoner Reverse 5.12a (Green Valley Gap)
Mesquiter 5.12a (The Grail)
Slashface 5.12b (The Grail)
Tangled Up In Blue 12b (Arrow Canyon)
It’s a good Life 5.12b (New Area)
Mantis 12c (The Grail)
Hobytla 5.13a, (The Wailing Wall)
Indulgence 5.13b (The Wailing Wall)
Fossil of Man 5.13c (Phalanx of Will)
Golden 5.14b (Cathedral)
Where to Stay
Snow Canyon and Pine Valley have good campgrounds and Mesquite has a couple of RV parks where climbers can pitch a tent. For a less luxurious option, consider the primitive camping on BLM land – it’s free for up to 14 days.
When she’s not sampling the fine desert limestone of the Utah Hills, Leslie Timms enjoys climbing at her local crags in Southern Ontario.