War on the Wall: Climbing Conflict in Ten Sleep, Wyoming 

By Jesse Bryant

August 6, 2019

Jesse Bryant is a current Research Fellow at the American Alpine Club. He is also a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies with a Masters in Environmental Management. His fieldwork is focused on analyzing the cultural conflict in Ten Sleep, Wyoming with the aim of clarifying the source of problems, discovering common interests, and building a more collaborative climbing management strategy in Ten Sleep Canyon.

This is a developing case.

Over the past two years, the once-sleepy climbing destination of Ten Sleep, Wyoming has exploded into what was recently described by Bighorn National Forest District Ranger Traci Weaver as “a war.” Last summer, a Sheriff’s report noted that actual bullets were flying within the climbing community. And despite the conflict, rock climbing usership in Ten Sleep continues to grow exponentially. During the recent Climbers’ Festival, this Northern Wyoming desert town with a population of 260 saw an estimated 400 climbers flood the area. So, what’s going on here? What are the social and environmental impacts of climbing in Ten Sleep? And what is this “war” about?

Photo Credit: Aaron Huey

Photo Credit: Aaron Huey

Rock climbing is not new in Ten Sleep Canyon. In fact, the bolting of sport routes has been continuously underway since the mid-1980s when Stan Price bolted—on lead, solo belaying, with a hand drill—the now-famous climb Home Alone. Throughout the 90s, a “close-knit family” of route developers took up Stan’s cause. Most of these folks saw climbing as a manifestation of their countercultural tendencies. Punk and drug iconography were primary aesthetics of the famous guidebooks penned by route developer Aaron Huey, and the Ten Sleep Climbing Festival that began in 1999 was little more than a PBR and guitar-infused campfire gathering.

From the 1980s through the early 2000s, the ethics of route development remained mostly oriented toward the minimal cleaning and minimal comfortizing of holds. There were notable exceptions to this norm, including routes created and modified by professional rock climbers Alli Rainey and Kevin Wilkinson. However, most developers in that time period report that excessive manufacturing of routes was not widely accepted. In the words of Stan Price, the philosophical doctrine of the Ten Sleep climbing culture from the 1980s through 2015 was driven by “Personal Challenge (I don’t need to compete with someone else, but instead look within); Mystery and Wonder (mostly it's better not to have the beta: explore); and Nature (keep it clean and as natural as practical).” The philosophy around route manufacturing in the canyon began to shift in a significant way with the arrival of Louie Anderson to the area.

In 2016, Louie and Valarie Anderson purchased a property at the bottom of Ten Sleep Canyon and converted it to what is now the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch, a fully equipped climbing-oriented campground. The goal was to create an institution that serves climbers in this area in the same way that the iconic Miguel’s serves climbers in Red River Gorge, Kentucky. However after closing on the campground, Louie’s attention shifted rapidly to what he has now become infamous for — route development. It is here, as Louie began developing routes in Ten Sleep Canyon, that the seeds were sown of today’s “war.” 

The first problem was that Louie was not a part of the “tight-knit” development community, nor did he ever try to be. Neither a sense of trust nor respect was developed between Louie and his development predecessors in the area, and thus longtime Ten Sleep climbers started off with a baseline level of skepticism about this newcomer from Orange County, California. What could he be up to?

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

The second problem was that Louie and a younger group of developers who followed him were up to a lot. Particularly, their work conflicted directly with the original development doctrine of “keep it clean and as natural as practical.” From 2016 to 2018, Louie and those associated with him bolted more than one hundred new routes, many of which had been entirely manufactured. Louie and a handful of the new developers had more lax policies regarding ”drilling”—using a drill bit to further hollow out pockets or even create new pockets in the rock—and “gluing”—using epoxy to reinforce flakes and holds, comfortize pre-existing holds, or even attach unrelated rocks to the wall. Though some of their new routes followed natural lines up the wall, the vast majority were heavily manufactured—that is, having 10-20 holds created by the two techniques described above. The most egregious case of Ten Sleep manufacturing occurred at the now-infamous crag called Funkytown, where one climber reported “Nearly every route is drilled and glued...I’m not quite sure if I’ve seen anything like it in 20 years of climbing.”

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

As the extent of recent manufacturing in Ten Sleep Canyon surfaced, some members of the original development community took action. On February 12, 2019, Aaron Huey, Charlie Kardaleff, and JB Haab posted a petition to the Ten Sleep Canyon Facebook page, claiming that “Ten Sleep Canyon is getting chipped, drilled, and glued to death...It’s not a few routes, or a few holds, it is substantial manufacturing...Reports from locals are of entire crags put up over the past 3 seasons with heavy fabrication.” They demanded “it to stop,” that “the routes...be removed from the walls and guidebooks” and asked anyone who agreed to sign. The petition accumulated hundreds of signatures from climbers throughout the country, including a handful of famous professional climbers, such as Lynn Hill, Matt Segal, and Cedar Wright. Despite creating an enormous amount of visibility in the climbing community, the effects of the petition remained unclear.

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

On May 3, 2019, the same three authors posted a second letter to Facebook, this time calling Louie Anderson out explicitly. They wrote, “The majority of reports we have received about manufactured routes focused on one individual: Louie Anderson, a climber from California who moved to Ten Sleep three years ago. Reports from those who have climbed his routes have shown great concern over the lack of ethics in this new route development. These individuals have reported that upwards of 140 routes appear to be manufactured in some form.” In this letter, the group articulated their concern that if not dealt with correctly, these sort of development ethics may become normalized not only in Ten Sleep, but throughout the country. This anxiety may seem justified given the recent controversy within the Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition. Despite the outrage on social media, the question nevertheless remains: who is in charge of stepping in?

Most of the climbing in Ten Sleep Canyon is within the jurisdiction of Bighorn National Forest. According to one Forest employee, “Our Forest Plan stated in 2005 that we would complete analysis for a climbing plan within 10 years and here we still are. The Forest is currently looking at downsizing, making it more difficult to plan completion of the project.” Today, in 2019, there still remains no Climbing Management Plan for Bighorn National Forest. Without clear development guidelines and an outline of consequences, ethics remain up to the interpretation of the individual route developer.

Given this policy void, the Bighorn Climbers’ Coalition (BCC) has begun efforts to convene developers and create explicit guidelines. In the Spring of 2019, the BCC began hosting bi-weekly Route Developer Round Table meetings. Despite their efforts, it is not clear that leadership was sufficient to make the meetings fruitful. During these meetings, attendees reported feeling unheard, and their worries not taken seriously. One route developer reported that they were “at the meeting when we sat down and tried to resolve it and the developers didn't take it seriously and continued to do what they had been doing. We tried to handle this between ourselves but it went nowhere.” Another articulated that, “We have discussed the issue personally on multiple occasions and had the group meeting. They all resulted in the developers doing what they please.” In addition, the organization has been viewed by some as compromised, given that Valarie Anderson was on the board of the BCC until April 2019, and that Louie remains a large donor to the Coalition. As a sense of helplessness has crept into the older Ten Sleep climbing community, some have begun to take the issue into their own hands.

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

In early July 2019, the bolts on more than 30 of Louie’s manufactured routes were reported chopped by “18 climbers from 5 different states” with a combined “100 years of climbing in Ten Sleep.” This group reported chopping the bolts specifically on climbs that often had 10-12, and sometimes more than 20 drilled or chiseled holds. Further, rather than chopping the bolts off of the now-infamous Funkytown, they instead elected to add bright red padlocks to the first bolt of every climb at the crag. In a statement, this group reported that their primary motivation was maintaining a healthy relationship with U.S. Forest Service:  “with climbing gaining popularity at such a rapid rate it is important to maintain our relationship with the U.S. Forest Service and... not violate public lands in this way. These are shared resources, they belong to all of us and land managers at all levels have placed their trust in us.” As of now, it is unclear to what extent the drilled, chipped, and glued holds have been removed.

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

Photo Credit: Ten Sleep Canyon Aerospace Society

In recent weeks, rumors have emerged that the Bighorn National Forest will be hiring a Climbing Ranger to be the point person for the conflict and for the development of a Climbing Management Plan. Additionally, it seems that Louie and folks involved with the petitions have begun to come together informally to begin drafting an explicit set of ethics for climbing development in the Canyon. Unfortunately, it seems too that retaliatory bolt chopping of “natural” routes is on the horizon. One local wrote recently that they believe that Ten Sleep Canyon is “too beautiful to handle the traffic...Now that wholesale route removal has been normalized [they] plan to systematically disassemble the entire canyon one crag at a time…[they’ll] begin this fall once the crowds have left.” The war continues.

Despite the high profile of this conflict within the climbing community, the complexities of Louie’s arrival and subsequent route manufacturing are really only one narrative in this broadly interesting case. For instance, local Ten Sleepers remain mostly uninformed about the manufacturing war going on in their backyard. Further, the conflict over route manufacturing does not capture the bigger question of whether climbing is good for Ten Sleep Canyon, and Ten Sleep, Wyoming, to begin with. Local hunters have reported the near-exclusion of elk from the Canyon and a delay in the mule deer migration as a result of the expansion of climbing. At many crags, trash and human feces are scattered about. It is also a cultural norm in the urban sport climbing community to bring a dog to the crag. Is this ok? On a recent summer day, there were more than 50 people and 15 dogs at a crag with about 20 climbs. And so, is climbing good in Ten Sleep, and for whom?