ALMO — The simple idea of creating a three-day climbing, bouldering and trail-running festival held in the off-the-beaten-path’s parks of City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park was the brainchild of Sven Taow. The rock climbing and bouldering alone is touted as some of the best in Idaho. The park’s ease of access, serenity and historic geology serve to complement the climbing.
And for the lucky 300 attendees of the seventh annual Idaho Mountain Festival, this year’s mid-August event did not disappoint.
I arrived the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 15 to a duo of gentlemen greeting visitors at Castle Rocks’ parking lot with smiles and handshakes. State Park rangers Stephen King (horror was not his middle name) and Wallace Keck cheerfully assisted festivalgoers in the parking lot as the sun slowly drifted toward the horizon. As travelers, climbers, vendors and volunteers carried their gear to tent city, the smells of barbecue permeated the festival grounds. The full moon would soon rise over the park and the adventures would begin — a moonlight bouldering session opened the festival.
Settled in, fed and anxious, I tried to keep pace with a group of 15 sprite climbers on the one-mile saunter to Backyard Boulders. As the wind died and the twilight spawned pink and peach colors in the clouds, headlamps flickered to light and the initial group grew to nearly 30 as route after route was tried, tested and sent. A touch of danger loomed on one pillar, however, as one younger climber lost his grip, slipped down the rock face and onto his mate’s crash pads below. Unscathed and thankful for saving him, he jumped right back up and tried it again.
“Oh my GOD you guys,” he exclaimed about six times, laughing and hugging his climbing brethren. “Thank you so much. I thought I was a goner.”
As the red moon began to rise, I moved around the boulders watching climbers analyze, share beta about and then help each other send routes, hoping to reach the top. Although most failed to reach the pinnacles, they encouraged one another and spoke of inspiration and the essence of climbing. Some of the veteran climbers, such as Idaho Mountain Festival volunteer Seth Weinert, would say to the more novice ones, “Put your foot here instead,” or “Try this pivot with your left hand on this piece.”
It was camaraderie at its best.
Soon, the moon was high in the sky. The pack of climbers had dwindled to less than 10 — it was time to retire for the night.
The wind did not pick up on Friday until after breakfast, but tent city was vacant by then. At mid-morning, I made my way over to a slacklining clinic held by professional slackliner and highline record holder Ryan Robinson. A small group of enthusiasts talked, learned and harnessed onto the slackline with Robinson’s direction under the large shade trees. Robinson told many tales of climbs, slacklines and his love for climbing while educating his new pupils about the green webbing spanning the two ash trees.
I spoke to Robinson after the clinic about any slack or highlines he might try while at the festival.
His response was simple.
“I’m looking at one later today and if it looks good, probably try it tomorrow,” Robinson said.
Shimmying toward the hazy blue sky
Departing from tent city for the City of Rocks that afternoon, I found myself deep in the heart of southern Idaho’s climbing mecca. Spire after enormous rock spire dotted the landscape and distant specs of climbers and ropes dangled off numerous routes. Stopping at a popular climbers’ favorite — Parking Lot Rock — I hiked out just behind it to Morning Glory Spire and found a tandem setting up their pitch on the infamous Crack of Doom, a 5.11c route roughly in the middle of the spire. Wedged tightly into a long crack and at 80 feet in length, this gem is regarded by numerous climbers as a must-do when at the City.
I found a newly married couple — Trisha and Darren Anderson — tackling the climb when I arrived.
“Belay on, no wait, take, I need to move over,” Trisha Anderson shouted down to her husband, “Ok, I’m good now.”
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Her head bobbled back and forth as she scoured the cracks, smeared her feet and shimmied higher toward the hazy blue sky. Disappearing over the top of the rock, the only sounds heard were of the rope sliding through the quickdraws tinging on the rock wall and birds cawing in the air.
“Darren, I’m to the top,” Trisha Anderson shouted down, breaking the silence. “I’m downclimbing now. Take.”
“Sounds good honey. Belay on,” her husband shouted back.
The City of Rocks has a plethora of routes and boulders, but finding an open route was easy on this day. I took a couple of shorter hikes around Flaming Rock and couldn’t locate many climbers — a rarity for the City.
Returning to the festival grounds late in the afternoon, I saw the competition rock wall towering over the grounds from the parking lot. Young climbers congregated at its base, each facing the 25-foot feature as their parents cheered them. As the evening continued, the aptly named Evening Shenanigans began. One Twin Falls resident, Skylar Wildman, 15, dangled herself nearly 100 seconds on the “100 seconds for 100 dollars” grip bar competition. Trying to hold on as long as possible she grimaced as her fingers slowly slipped off the bar, mere seconds before reaching the mark. Another festivalgoer, Megan Dempsey, competed in the Table-ing completion. Digging her sandal-clad toes into the wooden feature’s corners, she bouldered upside down for a few minutes, eventually problem-solving her way to the top of the table.
The games commenced through dinner and into twilight before a Tennessee bluegrass band — The Arcadian Wild — took the stage. The Food Truck Blues, a catchy tune about a man who went to Bible college, earned a degree only to start a food-truck business and play music at night for people, was the hit song of the night. Lyrics joking about avocado toast and gluten-free buns had the climbers laughing loudly while sipping wine in their lawn chairs. The melodic sounds from the quartet filled tent city late into the evening and ended with a two-song encore that garnered loud cheers from the festivalgoers.
Hoots, hollers resonated throughout the rocks
Meandering around camp the next morning, the sun pierced through the trees onto a gathering yoga session. A dozen or more yogis were laying mats down in the cool grass while instructor Blake Cason guided them through the hour-long class. I quietly and slowly circled the group as soft-spoken Cason engaged with her students as Downward Dog evolved to Warrior I and II, then to Boat and Figure Four poses. The yogis worked their bodies into stance after stance as more climbers awoke, a few joining the session late.
Robinson’s highline attempt was nearing. Scrambling around tent city to locate him to no avail, I decided to head out toward the “rumored” direction of where the potential highline was to be strung — Bracksieck’s Pillar. As the sun heated the rocks, I searched all morning long. I found a potential spot for his highline, but nobody was in sight. Turning around and regrouping at camp for a quick lunch and water refuel, I overheard a conversation about the highline being set up from festival director Sven Taow, but I could not locate Robinson to confirm.
At high noon, I wandered back out into Castle Rocks. My search spanned three hours with many misdirections, a long talk with ranger King, and at one point I concluded I missed them completely. As I began the long walk back to camp, I was drawn by a subtle flicker of light coming from the rocks in the distance. Six climbers were preparing a line on top of the rocks. Separating the two groups of three, a 10 mm rope spanned the wide gap connecting them. I knew I had found what I was looking for.
Closing on their positions, I walked underneath the rope as Robinson and his team began cabling the slackline webbing across the canyon. Setup on the rumored 400-meter highline — spanning between Bracksiek’s Pillar and an unnamed rock on the edge of the park — took them close to five hours. As the sun sank low in the sky, the slackline’s tension tightened and two of the team members downclimbed from Robinson’s position. The wind wisped the webbing gently in the breeze as Robinson began his journey to the other side.
He appeared slowly from behind Bracksieck’s Pillar. His delicate walk, tested by the whipping wind, became a wavy wobble as he swayed side to side. His strength and experience appeared only to keep him on top of the line in the erratic wind. Several hundred feet off the rock, the wind became too intense, and Robinson was blown off. Dangling in his harness, I kept my focus tight on his movements as he regrouped. The wind blew him off the slackline several more times, but he recovered and pressed on. One last push while the wind finally calmed, Robinson completed the highline and the hoots and hollers resonated throughout the rocks walls from his team.
As I approached the camp, the laughs and cheers became louder and louder. The second night’s shenanigans started where the previous night’s had left off. Participants in the rope-coil rodeo, stick-clip rodeo and second round of the “100 seconds for 100 dollars” were cheered on by fellow climbers waiting in the dinner line. Children rode their bikes and dogs barked in play, while gear for the Table O’ Swag raffle was being set up. Hungry climbers devoured spaghetti and meatballs.
I positioned myself near the swag table as event director Taow took the mic. Announcing the winners from the kids’ climbing-wall competition, young Eva Steadman, 6, ran to event volunteer Seth Weinert and claimed her prize as the crowd cheered her victory. Not to be left out, over 200 other prizes lay on the table as eager climbers lined up. From crash pads to coolers, carabiners to cams, Taow called names of the winners and the prize table quickly dissolved its goods to the hands of their new owners.
Night crept in, and the shouts and cheers from festivalgoers at the raffle dwindled as they migrated over to the stage where a film festival started. As I sat upon one of the many rocks in the small amphitheater, the film premiere of Adventure Dads in Training spooled onto the movie screen. The outdoor-themed parody about dads adventuring with “babies” into the wild had everybody laughing throughout the entirety of the seven-minute film. More films flickered on the screen from a rap video with women mountain-bikers to protecting public lands, the night marched on.
I found Taow the next morning at breakfast as the climbers began carting their gear and tents back to their cars, vans or trucks. Thanking him for the festival he organized, he kindly gestured back a firm handshake and shoulder slap. I asked him about the festival and he kindly commented.
“The festival went over well,” he said. “Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and was enthusiastic about how it all went down.”
Parting ways was bittersweet but next year is only 12 short months away.