Long ago, the native nomadic people in Wyoming required a week and a half to travel to the mouth of this canyon. Today, we decided to stop for Thirty Sleeps to fully appreciate the abundance of rock climbing.
The limestone cliffs that line both sides of Ten Sleep Creek (and the parallel highway 16) offer myriad styles of climbs. From short boulder problems to rope stretchers, and even some multi-pitch routes. From low-angle slab to steep overhangs, and even some big roofs. From crimpy edging to jug hauls, and even some hand cracks. Ten Sleep is a sport climber’s paradise, and yet the first route I got on (a 5.10b left of Home Alone) was only half bolted, requiring a couple nuts for the finger crack upper section. The variety is refreshing.
My first goal was to understand the locations of the different crags. The first distinction is between Old Highway and US-16. Driving East from the town of Ten Sleep, there is a fork at the bottom of the canyon. The sign for the fish hatchery marks the old highway, which rejoins 16 about 6 miles later. The next separation is between Lower Canyon and Upper Canyon, with the hairpin turns on 16 as the boundary. All of the parking for these crags are roadside pullouts, and it can help to count them. Then there’s Lake Point which requires parking at Ten Sleep Reservoir (aka Meadowlark Lake).
The next step was to understand the grades. Spoiler alert, they are generally soft, and sometimes inconsistent. If a route is overhanging and rated 5.11 it probably has great holds (e.g. Circus in the Wind). Some 5.10s we climbed would be 5.8 in the Gunks (e.g. Ghost of Richard). Some climbs have just one crux move and others are sustained at the grade (but this is a failing of the Yosemite Decimal System, and not specific to Ten Sleep). After a handful of climbs and top-roping a 5.12a I decided that we should be able to climb every 10 and most 11s without much trouble.
There is controversy at Ten Sleep about route development ethics. I’ve spoken with multiple independent sources, and it seems there is a lot of finger-pointing, but disagreement about the facts.
When establishing a new route, you start by identifying a line. This could be natural features, like a crack, or just a sequence of holds you found on rappel. In traditional climbing, where you place your own gear for protection, you are a bit more limited. In sport climbing, one can drill and place a bolt in the middle of a blank face.
Once you have the line, the route can be cleaned, which often involves removing loose rock. This is a safety issue; if a climber breaks a hold, not only might they fall, but rocks might hit their belayer. I don’t think anyone disagrees with routes being cleaned.
“Comfortizing” seems to be generally accepted in Ten Sleep, but frowned upon elsewhere. Limestone is often quite featured, with pockets and huecos, but the naturally formed holes can have razor sharp edges. Many routes here have had their sharpness dulled. I believe this practice has been justified because of a Catch-22: routes that are frequently climbed will gradually get smoother, and routes that are too sharp won’t be climbed frequently.
Now comes the very controversial topic of hold manufacturing. That is, creating a new pocket or edge where none existed. Most climbers are completely against this, and I think I’m on their side. Part of my enjoyment in rock climbing comes from figuring out how to navigate what mother nature has given us.
The first climbers would hammer pitons into the rock, getting to the top by any means necessary. Successive generations have moved away from these aid approaches in favor of free climbing (where the rope protects a fall, but all progress is made by the climber’s hands and feet on the rock) or clean aid (which does not damage the rock). However, some routes have only “gone free” because the scars left behind by pitons can now accommodate fingers and toes (I’m looking at you Yosemite).
I can understand an argument for taking an unclimbable face and turning it into an outdoor gym. However, who decides what’s unclimbable? The hardest routes of today would have been deemed unclimbable by our grandparents. This issue is further complicated when you consider a short “unclimbable” section of a longer climb. Imagine the mono (one-finger) pocket on Cocaine Rodeo did not exist; this would likely make the route impossible (or much much harder) for anyone who can’t reach the higher holds. Would this justify drilling a hole? Some claim this is what happened.
I climbed a couple routes that I believe had mostly manufactured holds, and they were really fun. The real pity is that many of these routes are in the process of being chopped (bolts and anchors removed), or having holds filled in with glue. Considering that the time and expense comes out of the developers pocket, with no direct return on that investment, these routes should have been grandfathered in.
In the end, each local community must decide what is kosher. I’m just happy to benefit from others’ work in making routes safely climbable.
Keep in mind that I visited in the summer, and am a mere mortal. That being said, here are my suggestions for a good time.
The Cobra and Full Charge crags are my overall favorites. The rock quality is excellent, there’s plenty of variety, it’s cool and shady most of the day, the approach is moderate, and you get mobile phone service.
The Waterfall and Powers Walls offer another respite on hot days as they are shady until 3pm. The steep pocket pulling on the Powers Wall will give you quite a workout.
The Circus Wall has excellent routes and is in the shade until the afternoon, and on the way you will pass Wall of Denial and Ice Plant which have some good routes too. Alternatively, if you’re seeking the sun, Hound Dog Crag will fill a day.
World Domination Wall and Slavery Wall in Mondo Beyondo. Munitions, Drug, and Sex Walls in Valhalla. Wait until the early afternoon to get shade.
Home Alone has a one minute approach, different types of movement, and lovely exposure near the top. Labradoodle is a nice bolted crack. Suits and Boots has just enough pockets on beautiful smooth rock.
For cracks: Ice Breaker, I Love the Big Top, and Ice Station Zebra. For slab: Water into Wine. For pockets: Did You Eat Disco Biscuits, and a few routes on the Tilt-A-Wall.
Death Flake From Hell is a long romp up an incredible formation. The holds are excellent the whole way; you just have to manage the pump.
Big Bear Memorial is a picturesque dihedral with stemming almost the whole way. Last of the Pagans is a short climb with big moves to big pockets.
Step Right This Way has a delicate start, an interesting middle (don’t fall if you scare a bird away from its nest as you pass), and a one-of-a-kind finish up a sharp arete that you can lie-back.
School’s Out starts up a polished crack then exits right into steep pocket pulling. The last handful of bolts are equipped with steel perma-draws, and a fall could not be safer, so there’s no excuse to pass this up.
Mini Blonde Bomb has a tough start (stick clip high and have your belayer stand on solid ground) followed by great movement on great holds. Circus in the Wind has big moves on bigger holds until the delicate finish. Oftedal Serenade let’s you get the crux sequence out of the way early so you can enjoy the unique position hugging a flake above.
Great White Buffalo is short (4 bolts) but really fun dancing up big huecos. Jesus Christ Super Jew starts with an actual fist crack, and the second half is an open-book with great stemming. Burning Grandma Bones has a boulder problem start, small pockets up the face, and a strenuous angled roof at the end.
Robin Spits is beautiful pocket pulling on a gently overhanging wall. These holds have been either manufactured or heavily comfortized, but it’s so much fun I don’t care.
Full Charge has a delicate (5.11a) problem to the first bolt, a juggy hand traverse right, a roof pull to a stance, big pockets up the face, an easier crimp sequence to a rest, and finally a crimpy crux on a bulge before the anchor; what a masterpiece.
Cocaine Rodeo has 3 crux sections: the crimpy dance start, a mono to shallow pockets middle, and a high-step/sidepull/gaston/undercling sequence finish. I’m grateful for the mono, even if it was drilled.
Chris and Kristina visited Ten Sleep after a short stay at Wild Iris. They’ve been living in a van for two years, traveling the country (Chris is an architect, and builds beautiful custom vans on the side: https://www.roamiesvans.com). During the July 4th weekend we attended the rodeo together, then split up: Jess and Kristina riding horses, and Chris and me climbing rocks. Now they are heading back to New York, but we were so happy to see them in Wyoming.
That’s all from Ten Sleep, now westward to the Tetons!