ALMO • A rock climber with chalky hands drops off the end of a rope below Homeland (In)Security, a technical face climb in Castle Rocks State Park.
It’s Joe Lavigne of Hailey, who had to leave behind a carabiner the last time he climbed this fixed-anchor route. The carabiner was still there for him to retrieve Friday, the second day of the Idaho Mountain Festival — suggesting no climber made it past that point since Lavigne’s climb eight years ago.
With bandages on one of his chalky fingers, the second man to descend to the pile of gear below Homeland (In)Security is Dave Bingham of Hailey, the climber who made the first ascent on this route.
In fact, Bingham has established 20 or 30 climbing routes in Castle Rocks — where the permitting process is easier than in nearby City of Rocks National Reserve — and boasts a life count of at least 300. His popular routes in Castle Rocks include Twinkie and Ho-Ho in the Hostess Gully area, and Shock and Awe on the west summit of Castle Rock. And he has his eye on a few more candidates here.
“He’s got an eye for finding the nice climbing line,” Lavigne said.
Bingham wrote “Castle Rocks Idaho: A Climber’s Guide,” the 2008 guidebook carried by many climbers at the Idaho Mountain Festival. Two days before it started, the Sept. 17-20 gathering of rock climbers sold out all 350 spots allowed by its permit.
“Castle’s the best climbing area in Idaho for beginners and intermediates,” Bingham said. The park already has many protected, user-friendly routes, and climbers added about 20 this year.
“About 1 percent of the climbing population puts in routes,” he said.
So why does a climber who’s among the local elite, who knows these rocks intimately, need the Idaho Mountain Festival?
“It’s a tribal gathering,” Bingham said.
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Utah organizer Benjamin Eaton and his wife started the Idaho Mountain Festival just four years ago at Castle Rocks, and this was the festival’s third year of selling out before the opening day. Utah and Idaho climbers dominated the 2015 registration list, but Washington, Oregon and Colorado were well represented and a few participants were scattered elsewhere: Texas, California, Europe.
Eaton makes it easy for climbers: One registration fee includes park entry, camping, meals, games, athlete workshops, prizes, speakers, movies and a 10K run.
On Friday morning, vendors showed off shoes, climbing ropes, bouldering crash pads, sleeping pads and protein drink mixes, and some offered demo gear for check-out. Climber Scott Bennett, a sponsored athlete credited with first ascents in three mountain ranges, demonstrated rappel techniques. Dotted with coolers and lawn chairs, a colorful tent city occupied a lawn beside the park’s lodge.
What stories are told around the campfire here? Close calls. Things that went wrong on the rocks.
“Usually involve reckless behavior, bad hygiene,” said Mitch Popp of southern California, a longtime climber on his first visit to Idaho.
Camping in tent city beside his Boise brother, Popp procured a small flag to mark a pile of animal droppings near their tents. It’s a natural response in a community accustomed to looking out for each other.
A few tents away, Micah Ness of Nampa explained the appeal of the Idaho Mountain Festival: a chance to hang out with good climbers and share beta — tips for climbing specific routes. The festival is small enough to make connecting with other climbers easy, said Ness, who’s making an independent film on its participants.
“I just learn a lot from watching really good climbers climb, and watching them make progress on the route,” said Boise 15-year-old Kieran Hadley, returning from a morning of bouldering.
Nearby, City of Rocks enjoys international name recognition among climbers. But many visiting climbers bypass Castle Rocks State Park because it’s smaller and has a $5-per-vehicle day use fee — then wait in long lines for City of Rocks’ popular routes, Eaton said.
His festival, he said, is changing that, bringing raves from climbers who always drove by Castle Rocks before.
Of course, even in the state park climbers might have to wait now and then.
On the southeast face of Castle Rock, Little Time and Big Time are popular routes because they’re long, with multiple pitches, but with easy grades and well protected by bolts. The two routes combine for their last two pitches, and on Friday morning a conga line of climbers waited on the rock face for other groups to proceed.
“We were lucky enough to be the first ones to get on Big Time this morning,” Boise climber Joel Fyan said, gathering up his gear at the rock base with longtime climbing buddy Brian Jaszkowiak.
Last year at the Idaho Mountain Festival, Jaszkowiak said, the two learned a lot about anchor building and lead climbing techniques.
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At the Tiny Town formations that morning, a worn copy of Bingham’s Castle Rocks climbing guide lay among a group’s gear, its spine taped and its pages loose.
There, lead climber Erik Hadley of Boise took a rope up a short, bolted route dubbed Ray of Heaven for three other adults and two preteen boys. His wife belayed, and from the ground other partners coached Hadley on the locations of the next bolts.
“It’s pretty juggy from there on up,” Lynn Catlin of Boise called to him. Jugs are large, easy-to-use holds.
On the way down, the lead climber normally removes the quickdraws he attaches to the bolts on the way up. But this time, Declan Hadley, 9, asked to clean the route himself as practice for lead climbing.
“You’re not helping,” Declan said to his mom and belayer as he struggled with the first quickdraw, a pair of carabiners joined by a sling.
“Well, I’m not supposed to be helping,” Shasta Hadley answered.
Friend Brent Harper of Missoula, Mont., suggested: “You can relax back on the rope, Declan.”
It’s 15-year-old Kieran who turned the Hadley family into rock climbers. He started climbing at the Y at about age 7, then entered competitions. The Hadleys climbed in Belgium, France and Italy this summer, but they still count Castle Rocks a favorite.
“The rock is so great,” Shasta said, “and it’s such a beautiful environment.”