By Hayden Carpenter
Jimmy Keithley, a climber from Salt Lake City, discovered on Sunday what no climber wants to see: Many of his home bouldering area classics, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah had been vandalized—holds smashed or pried off.
“I went up there to climb on Sunday with my son and we noticed that the starting holds on Twisted [V4] had broken off,” Keithley tells Rock and Ice. “I thought, that was weird, but holds do break sometimes.”
Keithley and his son then discovered that holds were also broken on Copperhead (V10) and Lance’s Dihedral(V6). He and his son searched for more damage, and found numerous boulder problems with what appeared to be holds bashed off by hammer or pry bar—all at eye level or below, all on boulders close to the road, all on classic lines in the canyon.
“This shocked us as an unspeakable strike out against this beautiful bouldering area!” Keithley wrote in a message announcing the vandalism to the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance.
“My son was in tears,” Keithley says. “He had been working Barfly [V8] since he was five or six years old. Now that he’s grown,” he’s 12 now, “he’s finally able to do the moves and was getting really close. The climb will never be the same.
“The whole area is forever changed. It completely ruins it for future generations.”
Four bouldering sectors close to the road were hit—The Gate Boulders, 5 Mile Boulders, Secret Garden and Cabbage Patch—and a dozen or so holds were damaged, affecting around 20 boulder problems, with the all variations that used the holds.
“The problems were some of the main classics in the canyon,” Mike Beck, a local climber and co-author of Bouldering Guide to Utah, says. He has been climbing in the canyon since the late 80s, when the area’s potential for bouldering was just discovered.
The affected boulder problems include: Standard Overhang (V3), Isabelle’s (V5), Superfly (V8), Barfly (V8), Pro Series (V11), Baldy (V5), Smiley Right (V4), Mr. Smiley (V6), Butt Trumpet (V8), Twisted (V4), Copperhead(V10), Lance’s Dihedral (V6), Hug (V8), All Thumbs (V10), and Cronin’s Slab (V2), among others.
“Three or four of them were mine, so of course I feel violated,” Beck says, “but it’s more about the memories of those problems. There’s a legacy and history with those problems” Twisted, on the Copperhead Boulder, was one of Beck’s first boulder problem first ascents and a favorite of his in the canyon. Climbing legends like Boone Speed put up Copperhead (V9), and Jerry Moffat with Pro Series (V11) and Amateur Series. “Standard Overhang [V3] might have been first climbed by George Lowe as early as the 60s,” Beck says.
Beck’s friend, Lance, who established the classic problem Lance’s Dihedral (V6), first showed him the Copperhead Boulder in late 80s, Beck says. “I was 19 or 20, just out of high school and had the world in front of me. That’s when climbing was it.
“To me, that boulder represented a time period of my gang’s golden years of climbing, when we first realized what we had in Little Cottonwood Canyon, when bouldering was just becoming a thing.
“A lot of guys ‘cut their teeth’ on these boulders. Now all those friends have families and kids, and some have moved on from climbing. I turn 47 on Saturday.”
Little Cottonwood Canyon, with its close proximity to Salt Lake City (population 191,180, according to 2013 census data), has a history of vandalism. The multi-use area, on both state forest and private land, sees all walks of life, and litter and graffiti is a constant presence. Keithley, his family and many other climbers have dedicated countless hours to cleaning up the canyon, from picking up litter to trail work to graffiti removal. “The canyon is so close to the city,” he says. “People come up here and do graffiti, party, leave trash—it’s been an on-going battle for us.”
But never has there been purposeful destruction to the quartz monzonite climbs. Climbers were in the area Sunday afternoon, and Keithley discovered the broken holds the next morning, so the vandalism occurred between 3 p.m. on Sunday, October 30 and 11 p.m. Monday, October 31.
“The SLCA is saddened by what has happened, it’s a huge loss to the community,” says Julia Geisler, executive director of the SLCA. “Climbers will just have to go out, re-climb and re-grade the problems. Hopefully they are still possible.”
After Beck heard the news, that’s just what he did. He went up to the canyon with friends to investigate the damage, clean the broken holds and see if the problems were still possible.
After news of the vandalism spread online, climbers took to the forums. “I’ve seen the comments online and there are a lot of misconceptions about chipping,” Beck says. “I want to clarify: This was absolutely not chipping. This was purposely smashing holds with the intention of harm and destruction. This person was not trying to make the climbs easier or harder. It was just absolute, violent, destructive vandalism.”
Who did it, or for what reasons is still unknown.
Erik Murdock, policy director for the Access Fund, was quick to emphasize that, “This does not reflect on the climbing community.”
“The Access Fund and its affiliates work under the assumption that people will act in a rational way,” he says. “This act was not rational. It can be compared to Carderock. Our message of respecting the environment and climbing areas is lost on a person like this. This act doesn’t represent a flaw in the SLCA, AF or climbing community—it was just an insane outburst.”
He continues: “I have two points I want to make. Number one: this is a criminal act. Number two: We don’t know what really happened, who did it or why, and we don’t want to speculate. This was a criminal act and punishment is out of our hands; it’s up to the police.” The SLCA reported the vandalism as soon as it came to their attention.
Back to the boulder problems—do they go?
“Everything still goes,” Beck says, “Some things are actually easier. Pretty much everything got easier rather than harder.”
He explains: “Some holds were small crimps at the top of a flakes before, but when the flakes were broken, it made bigger holds since the flake was thicker lower down.
“It’s sad, they’re different problems now for sure, but at the same time, the problems are all still climbable.”
Geisler encourages climbers to “put their anger to use” by helping out. “Some fear that it will happen again or to other areas,” she says. “It’s up to climbers to protect them. More vigilance in this area, and good stewardship, will help prevent this from happening again.”
Visit saltlakeclimbers.org for a list of local events and way to help out, such as on their upcoming “ Adopt-a-Crag” trail workday. Moreover, if anyone has any tips or information regarding who might have done the vandalism, please contact the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance.
Cover Photo: Jo Savage