By Steve Bechtel
LANDER– When you’re driving down the hill onto Main Street off Highway 287, Lander looks like any other small Wyoming mountain town: one main drag, a few restaurants, and little in the way of “culture.” But today’s rock climbers see something different when they roll in.
Instead of focusing on the long, pickup-lined stretch of Main, their eyes are pulled upward to the massive flanks of the southern Wind River Mountains just west of town. These long, green hills are lined with miles of bone-white Bighorn Dolomite, one of the most challenging and interesting types of stone to ascend. With its overhanging rock and generally small “pocket” holds, Lander’s dolomite offers climbs graded as high as 5.14 difficulty, some of the most challenging rock climbing in America.
For the past twenty or so years, rock climbers have been drawn to this area to train and to test themselves against the climbing routes on these cliffs. Lander boasts more than fifteen separate climbing areas– with names like Wild Iris, Freak Mountain, and Fossil Hill — featuring almost two thousand different “routes,” sections of the cliff where climbers have been able to reach the top. After ascending a new climb, the first one up names the route for ease of reference for other climbers. Routes in this area often reflect Lander’s western flair, with names like “Rodeo Free Europe”, “Wind and Rattlesnakes”, and “The White Buffalo.”
Although Lander’s explosive popularity as a climbing destination is fairly recent, scaling its cliffs and mountains is not. Several recorded ascents of southern Wind River peaks date to the late 1800s, and undoubtedly, Native Americans who lived in the area climbed several of the peaks much earlier. Since 1930, alpinists have been launching trips into the Winds’ Cirque of the Towers, just twenty miles west of Lander. Climbers from the National Outdoor Leadership School have been scaling the cliffs of Sinks Canyon, nine miles southeast of town, since the mid-1960s. Only recently, though, has the sport of rock climbing, as opposed to “peak-bagging” or mountaineering, really taken off.
Originally, alpinists and mountaineers climbed small cliffs and boulders as training for assaults on larger mountains. But beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, people began taking up this practice activity as a sport in and of itself. In rough country across America, from Yosemite Valley, California, to the Shawangunks in New York, rock climbing took hold as an athletic challenge that didn’t require the time commitment necessary for trips to the more remote and difficult-to-access major mountains.
By the late 1970s, rock climbing was well established Europe as well, and soon enough European climbers were setting standards worldwide. The reason was simple: American climbing was primarily done along cracks, and usually on granite, a stone that tends to be no steeper than vertical. In contrast, continental European climbers were surrounded by miles of steeply overhanging limestone. This stone is a medium that builds strong fingers due to the tiny “pockets” that climbers must use as handholds to climb the faces.
Throughout the 1980s, top American climbers traveled to Europe to climb and train on their fantastic cliffs. Among them was Todd Skinner, a native of Pinedale, Wyoming, and one of the brightest of America’s new breed of rock stars. Skinner was a well-known and well-liked climber on the international scene, and was widely considered the best all-around American climber in the late 1980s.
Many adventurous souls have been responsible for finding and establishing climbs in the Lander area. Without a doubt, though, the man who had the most influence on making Lander the rock climber’s town it is today was Skinner. There’s no arguing that Lander was a town rich in climbing history before Todd came to town. The difference was that Skinner and his friends came seeking out the most difficult climbs they could find, where climbers of previous generations simply looked for the easiest way to reach the summit.
To modern rock climbers, simply reaching the top “by any means or route necessary” is no longer good enough. These days, it’s about finding challenging lines and “free climbing,” using hands and feet only for upward progress, and relying on equipment only for safety. By modern standards, anything you do where your legs tire before your arms is not really climbing. It’s this kind of “new generation” climbing that Skinner brought to Lander.
Todd, who died in a 2006 rappelling accident at age 47, moved to Lander in 1990 with his wife Amy and eventually was followed by many of his friends. Todd’s sister, Holly, had been living near South Pass writing and working as a gold prospector. She saw the miles of steep dolomite limestone walls around Lander, and called Todd at his Custer, South Dakota home to tell him they reminded her of the white cliffs of southern France.
Almost immediately, he came out for a visit. Without even returning home to get his things, Todd and a friend rented a house, called Amy and told her about the “new” and wonderful cliffs they’d found, and started climbing. Ironically, Skinner had spent his youth less than a hundred miles from the cliffs he would later declare to be “hands down, the best training cliffs in America” for difficult rock climbing. These cliffs were steep and had the same small “pocket” holds he had trained on in France.
As Amy and Todd’s excitement grew, they invited friends from all over the globe to come and enjoy the climbing. Todd had met a vast network of people during his many travels, and had finally found his home base. It was clear that if climbing were going to take off in Lander, Amy and Todd would need to welcome climbers themselves because of Lander’s “backwater” location.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” says Amy of their years acting as climbing hosts.
Throughout the 1990s, Todd and Amy, along with other local climbers like Frank Dusl, Greg Collins, and Gary Wilmot put Lander on the international climbers’ map. The Skinners started a sporting goods store, Wild Iris Mountain Sports, and helped establish the annual International Climbers’ Festival (beginning in 1994), held here each July. Wild Iris, a full-service outdoor store with a climbing focus, stocks all the gear you’d find at REI (and better), and employs experienced people who use the gear they sell. There’s no better place to start your Lander adventure.
The Climbers’ Festival is now in its 17th year, and draws hundreds of participants each summer. From climbing contests on artificial walls at the city park, to beginner’s clinics, to trail runs, to free pancake breakfasts, this three-day event is a great time, even for someone who’s never touched a cliff. All of the information on this years’ event, including keynote speakers and film festival information, can be found at climbersfestival.org. Climbers who come here any time of year, however, will find Lander very climber-friendly. The city park offers free camping and the city pool and local climbing gym have inexpensive public showers. There are good coffee shops and restaurants, and a top-notch public library in which to spend rest days. As is typical these days, you can pick up free WiFi at most coffee shops and at the library.
Lander’s two grocery stores, both on Main Street, carry a fairly full line of vegetarian foods, organic produce and snacks. NOLS’ “Gulch” a specialty food store located at 5th and Lincoln, offers up bulk foods and snacks that suit the backpacking crowd.
If festivals aren’t on the agenda, one can always hire a local climbing guide for a tour of the rocks. Both Exum Mountain Guides (exumguides.com) and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (jhmg.com) offer licensed guiding and instruction in the Lander area.
Today, Lander probably boasts more resident rock climbers per-capita (likely 200 in a town of 6,000) than any other town in North America. There are several cities that have more rock routes– such as Salt Lake, Boulder, or Las Vegas– but the density of climbers isn’t even close. What Santa Cruz is to surfing, Lander is to climbing. Lander is such a climber’s town that even the public swimming pool has two climbing walls so youngsters can race up and then fall back into the deep end.
Dozens of Lander’s more visible community members can trace their arrival in Lander to a phone call from Todd Skinner inviting them to come out and climb. One such person is Mike Lilygren, part owner of the Lander outdoor gear company, Bridge Outdoors, and a former vice-president of Brunton, a Wyoming-based company best known for its compasses and binoculars.
Mike, who originally came to Lander to prepare with Skinner for a climbing trip to the Karakoram range of Pakistan, stayed on long after the trip ended. He met his wife through Lander’s climbing community and credits his job, his friends, and some of his happiest times to the climbing community of Lander.
“I would say that what I like most about Lander is the feeling of belonging that I have here. It is comfortable,” Lilygren said. “Not easy, still real and challenging, but I feel like I belong here, and it is a wonderful place to raise a family. That, combined with the fabulous access to a variety of recreational activities that I love, will keep me here.”
Although many see climbing as a daredevil sport, the climbing near Lander is much safer than that done in the mountains of the Himalaya or on the thousand foot high cliffs of Yosemite. In fact, on any given weekend at Sinks Canyon, you’ll see climbers of all ages and abilities scaling its steep, fifty-to-100-foot rock walls. Now 47, Amy Skinner still makes time to climb at Sinks a few weekends a year. Though she claims to be out of shape these days, she still has the prowess of her youth and climbs with a confidence and poise that belies her age. She climbs with several friends, and climbs occasionally with her kids, ages nine and 11, and her 70-year-old father.
These days, Mike Lilgyren spends less time climbing the cliffs of the world and more time working from his home office in Lander. An avid cyclist and still an active climber, Mike shares the sport on a recreational level with his 8 year-old daughter Mackenzie. Climbing brought him to Lander, but the town is what keeps him here.
“I’ve built a strong network of friends here as well as the necessary means of making a living,” he said. “I wanted to start a family and build a life and there is nowhere better to do that, in my mind.”
Twenty years ago, most of the climbers worked for NOLS, for the Wild Iris Mountain Sports, or swung a hammer for a living. These days, climbers own businesses, teach in the local schools, run restaurants, and work in banks. The adventurous spirit of these people suits Lander.
For over two decades now, young people have moved here because of the cliffs just outside town. But it’s the town, not the climbing, that keeps them here.
Steve Bechtel is a veteran climber who has established over 250 first ascents on six continents. Bechtel owns Elemental Training Center, a fitness canter and climbing gym in Lander.
Lander – Climbing Capital of the Rockies