Around Memorial Day I found myself jamming hands under the lip of a rock slab clinging to the side of Moonstone, a huge dome formation in central Wyoming’s Granite Mountains. The climbing felt solid, but as we saw later from photos, the slab we climbed looked ready to slide off the face. That afternoon was just one moment in a string of climbing adventures I’ve tacked onto to Wyoming excursions over the past few weeks.
Wyoming isn’t as big a climbing destination as Colorado or Utah, but with the long hours of sunlight around the time of the summer solstice, the climber who’s willing to follow some off-the-beaten-track 4×4 road out through the sagebrush will be rewarded with a beautiful and uncrowded rock to play on.
I recently listened to an NPR show about the science of play. The interviewee was describing how the skills kids and young animals need to function in the world come from tussling and devising games, and cautioned against making playgrounds too safe, saying it’s better for kids to get a few broken bones on the monkey bars than to take it easy and lose out on real play. He defined play as something that’s purposeless and done for pleasure.
I think play is good for adults, too, and I can think of no activity more purposeless than rock climbing. The climber struggles and grunts and fiddles with ridiculous gear and gets scrapes and bruises all for nothing, just to come back down to the ground feeling sore. Climbing tires me out and scares me. Still, I’m sure that it teaches me focus and problem solving and teamwork that I use in other parts of my life. And a challenging climb is like a reset button for my brain after a day at the office.
The Moonstone climb kicked off a string of adventures to crags around the state. On a recent Tuesday after work I met my climbing partner, Luke, at his house and we drove to Vedauwoo 20 minutes outside of Laramie. The Forest Service had temporarily closed the road to the trailhead, so we parked along the main road and walked through the woods to the rock formation. We had the whole area to ourselves. Luke led the climb, a perfectly vertical hand crack cutting through a series of water-scooped pods and lichen-encrusted flakes, as mayflies drifted through the slanting afternoon light and a raven glided from the top of a huge pine to the shoulder of the crag.
The following weekend one of my high school classmates got married in Big Horn, so I took advantage of the drive across the state to spend an afternoon climbing in Sinks Canyon outside Lander, and a morning in Tensleep Canyon in the Bighorns. Both places are sport-climbing meccas (meaning rather than placing gear in cracks for protection, climbers clip quick draws into bolts permanently affixed to the rock). I’m a reluctant sport climber, preferring the security of a nice crack to wedge my hands and feet into, but couldn’t pass up a chance to test my muscles and climbing head against some of the best-loved routes in the state.
Besides, the trip included a night sitting by a campfire roasting brautwursts and tipping back beers with my sweetheart, Andy, our muscles sore, our skin sunbaked, as stars twinkled above the towering walls of Tensleep Canyon and trucks downshifted on the highway across the creek.
The next Tuesday, home to Laramie from the wedding, I headed back to Vedauwoo. I lost my nerve trying a lead climb too hard for me and didn’t make it to the top. As Luke made his way up the climb, a rowdy summer thunderstorm barreled over the crest of the rock formation. Flashes of lightning reflected off the rock, and thunder rolled off the granite faces. The clouds held onto their rain and hail, but neither of us finished the route. We ended up scrambling up an alternate way to retrieve our gear in the dark. Back in Laramie that night I was too tired to make dinner and crawled into bed at 11 p.m. with residue from my tape gloves still on my hands. There’s something about the pain and suffering of rock climbing that makes the play extra rich.
There are a dozen more climbing gems around the state I haven’t visited this summer — Fremont Canyon and Wild Iris, Devil’s Tower and Cirque of the Towers — but with a couple months of long summer days ahead there’s still time. Around the time of the summer solstice my conviction that Wyoming really is the last best place swells to bursting. It’s the long evenings on the lung-shaped lobes of rock, the ravens and mayflies, the having the crags to ourselves, the possibility of scooting up a couple of climbs here or there on the way to a wedding, the hot afternoons, the big storms, the cool nights, the quiet mountains.