A peek into the grit and glory of climbing development at Joe’s Valley

For my entire climbing career, I’ve always walked up to boulders, examined the perfectly chalked holds, and climbed problems confident that the line was solid – and it always was. When presented with a perfectly developed bouldering area, why would one even stop to ponder the process that made these lines so clean, inviting, and often classic?

Niko on the river crossing before Steven built a sweet little bridge.

Niko on the river crossing before Steven built a sweet little bridge.

During my extended stint living in Joe’s Valley, I was blessed with the opportunity to assist in a bit of development of new areas. We met Steven Jeffrey, and his incredible girlfriend Adriana, who are currently knee-deep in the creation of a new (and vastly improved) Joe’s Valley guidebook. They invited us to accompany them while scouting out new boulder problems, and we eagerly obliged – then quickly learned involved a lot of wet river crossings, and hours where the fellas disappear for hours in search of new problems.

As a moderate climber, the first thing I noticed in Joe’s Valley is a distinct lack of super-easy warm-up feel-good problems. I was stoked for the opportunity to help establish some V1-4 problems to help even out the spread. The first thing I “first ascented” was a flakey V1 below Bring the Heatwole. I quickly learned that when you’re bagging the first summit of a boulder, everything is 10x scarier, no matter how easy the grade is. As I pulled up on flaked edges at the top, I kept re-assessing my feet and praying holds didn’t break.

My proud first ascent onsight was a V2-3 I named “Tree People.” It’s tucked around the corner from the entrance to the Eden area, aptly named because of the parted trees you have to climb through to complete the extended slab top-out. I continued my lesson on development during this climb, learning that the holds are sharper, the unknown condition of top-outs is slightly more daunting, and the thrill of being the first person to climb something is addicting.

Me on the first ascent of Tree People.

Me on the first ascent of Tree People at Joe’s Valley.

The majority of our feeble attempts at helping Steven and Adriana develop new boulders in the left fork of Joe’s Valley were spent across the river at Superhero Hill. Niko was particularly enthralled by the prospect of helping to establish new trails, especially after a heinous hike up to my favorite problem in Joe’s, Cobra Con (V4).

Before you can climb a boulder, you have to get there. I will forever appreciate the ease of established approaches after experiencing the before-and-after of a path to a boulder. On the first day, we trudged up a towering choss pile that sent waves of dirt and rocks tumbling down with every step. Adriana slipped into a thorny bush, and I twisted my ankle no less than 5 times. It wasn’t pretty.

A few days later, we hiked up the hill to find Steven and Adriana working on improving the trail. Armed with shovels, Niko and Steven sought up to flatten a landing while us ladies focused on building cairns, packing down the dirt on our new trail, and digging out a dirt mound to save a little tree from being trampled by climbers. It was tiring work, but nothing compared to the weeks Steven and Adriana have spent out here toiling to create accessibility on the steep hillsides surrounding the new areas.

Niko cleaning his new route at Joe’s Valley, GI Jane.

Niko’s effort to establish his new V3-4 , GI Jane, offers the best glimpse into what it takes to create a new boulder problem. He found the line one day while exploring with Steven, and was instantly infatuated with it. He rapelled from the top of the boulder armed with chalk and a brush, then set to work cleaning the holds. Scrubbing sand and broken bits from the pockets, feeling potential new holds, smacking their sides to make sure nothing would break – it was a tedious process.

His dedication to this line paid off when we brought a gaggle of climbers up to the hill to explore some of the new routes in the area. It was blatant that Niko was swelling with a bit of pride as he watched everyone take turns cruising up his new problem.

CP Santos going for the send on Niko's new problem, GI Jane.

CP Santos going for the send on Niko’s new problem, GI Jane.

And to think, we merely dipped our toes into the process. There’s a whole crew of folks who come out here every weekend and slave away at the seemingly endless task of establishing new areas. Holds are broken (sometimes in a violent manner that send the climber crashing to the ground), rocks are scrubbed, trails are plowed, and at the heart of it all, first ascents are proudly conquered.

Next time you hike up a nicely built trail to your new bouldering project, don’t forget to reflect on all the hard work, dedication, and relentless passion that made your climb possible. I’ll never experience bouldering the same way again. Huge amounts of gratitude, love, and appreciation are due to all those folks who are constantly out developing in Joe’s Valley (and across the country).

New climbing companions, Niko’s first ascent, and deciding to return to Joe’s Valley

Last week, the tribe I had been traveling with for the past few weeks finally disbanded. Our two main companions, Zach and Emily, drove back home to Minnesota, and the rest of the crew headed off to other climbing areas like Bishop and Red Rocks. We had planned to hightail it out to Moab on Friday morning, but ended up forced to stay in town until I sent my nemesis climbing project, Kill By Numbers – and I’m so glad it took me so long to finish that boulder problem.

While moping around the Food Ranch, I happened to meet a charming lady who mentioned working on a blog post. Naturally, I asked what the name of her blog was, and it turned out that she’s half of the two-climber team that runs The RV Project. I told them we were planning to head out of town the next morning after sending Kill By Numbers, but wished them good travels in Joe’s.

The following day, I gave my all on an early attempt of Kill By Numbers, which was a horrible failure with me unable to even lift myself off the first move. Defeated, I retreated to the Food Ranch once again – and opened my e-mails to find one from Spenser, the other half of The RV Project. It basically said, “Love your blog, wish you were still in town so we could invite you to our campfire.”

And I wrote back, “Well, as it happens, we’re still in town.” A few more correspondences were exchanged, and suddenly we found ourselves huddled around a fire with strangers who would become family overnight. We made plans to climb together the next day, and it wasn’t very long before Vikki and Spenser convinced us to just come back to Joe’s Valley after our trip to go climbing in Moab with a few old buddies. We awoke the next day with a reinvigorated passion for the valley, which was amplified by the great vibes we got from climbing with Spenser, Vikki, and their buddy Will.

Spenser climbing Save Yourself (V9) in Joe's Valley.Will works the beta on Eden (V9) in Joe's Valley.

I spent the day working Kelly’s Arete (V5) with Vikki and two other super strong gals while Niko and Spenser hopped around the boulders shooting photos. It was so inspiring to enjoy an all-ladies bouldering session – there’s something special about sharing beta, cheers, and promises of a send train.

One of my newfound lady friends crushes Kelly's Arete (V5) in Joe's Valley.

Finally, the moment came for me to send Kill By Numbers the following morning – and by some miracle of climbing, I crushed it on my first attempt. A celebration of PBR and “oreo dessert” from the Food Ranch quickly followed as I moved on to watch the fellas climb a few projects, including a never-climbed line scoped out by Steven Jeffery, who is working on a new Joe’s Valley guidebook.

Niko works the first moves on his still-unnamed first ascent of a V7.

Niko spent about an hour working out the beta for the first moves, which involves a strong, stretchy crank up to a sloping pocket from an overhanging ledge. He quickly solved the sequence, and eventually found himself on the tall bulge top-out. As he pushed his body upwards, he started uttering one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard him say while climbing:

Niko delicately manuevering the top-out of his V7 first ascent.

 

 

“Please don’t break,
please don’t break,
please don’t break.

 

 

I guess that’s the price you pay for snagging a first ascent. Fortunately, none of the sandy  he was pulling on broke, and Niko proudly claimed the first ascent of the problem, which he gave a V7 grade. He hasn’t given the problem an official name, but we’re toying with the idea of “Oreo Dessert” to pay homage to one of the Food Ranch’s finer delicacies.

After a few more campfires fueled by booze, a bout of nasty weather, and a dip in the local pool, Niko and I finally willed ourselves to leave our little Joe’s Valley home for a few days to go explore in Moab – but one thing is for sure: we’ll be back.