Posted on: June 1, 2007

Bob Scarpelli, Wyoming's answer to Don Whillans. No climber has had as large an impact on Vedauwoo climbing as Scarpelli has, but nothing rivals the impact Scarpelli has had on himself. [Photo] Greg Epperson

Vedauwoo, Wyoming, Summer 1993

The clean, ever-widening splitter soared above us, arcing uninterrupted through polished red granite, yellow lichen and dark constellations of diorite. Horn's Mother. The line was so striking I was tempted to jump straight on it. How hard could a two-pitch 5.11a be, anyway? After all, I climbed 5.13.

Around us clumpy jumbles of blobs, fins and chock-a-block lumps spread in the brilliant sunshine. Aspens and pines rolled over rambling hills beyond. No one was there. The backwater stillness felt far from the noisy crowds of Yosemite and Rifle. After three seasons of bolt clipping, I had recently redpointed my first 5.13c, and I occasionally flashed 5.12d. Vedauwoo would be a pleasant place to do some easy trad routes with my then-wife.

She wanted to do a warm-up. Fine: a two-pitch 5.8 lay to the left.

At first it was cruiser fun: plugger fingers, then hands, in a low-angle semi-lieback to the belay. Above, the crack opened to fist size, rapidly gaping broader. After I brought her up and re-racked, I started up with confidence, but the edge was too rounded to lieback and my only relatively big piece—a number 3 Camalot—was soon a few bodylengths below. The smears and edges felt insecure, and my pinchy, down-toed slippers—great for overhanging limestone—made my feet hurt so much I couldn't stuff them into the flare.

At last I found some crystals outside the crack for my feet, but the mineral clusters inside tore up my bare hands. I'd always contended, like any good Valley local, that taping was aid; now blood began to lube my naked jams.

A huffing mantra of "It's only 5.8" brought me quaking over the final awkward bulge. Profoundly relieved, I clipped the anchors, my heart racing.

Other climbers were filtering into the area. I did my best to look collected. Oversized, umbrella-like cams and spring-loaded tube chocks the size and shape of bazookas clanked on their racks.

Despite her reasonably good face technique, my wife struggled, and by the time she got to the top, she had that look: I'm accommodating you on something you want to do.

We rapped. At the second rap station stood a short guy with ham-hock forearms and fists taped with the tidy professionalism of a prefight heavyweight. Below, a petite young woman with a dirty-blonde ponytail mimed arcane sequences of finger stacks and fist jams for Fourth of July Crack, an adjacent 5.12.

"Bob does that when he gets there," she said. She was gazing up at the stocky guy next to me with adoration.

"Right there, Bob goes like this."

I felt nauseated.

"Bob" glanced at my fresh gobies and unlaced slippers.

"Enjoying yourself?" he asked, Cheshire-Cat-like.

"Yeah, sure," I replied, the metallic taste of the 5.8 still in my mouth. Your climbing area sucks, I wanted to add.

Fourth of July Crack swept overhead, parallel to Horn's Mother, equally aesthetic. The alcove's symmetry of crack and sculpted stone evoked the architectural ambiance of a cathedral.

"Nice slippers," a man in a rugby shirt and shredded canvas pants said as I reached the ground. He nudged another local, pointing at me.

We drove off in a huff. A few days later I read a Todd Skinner quotation in an old issue of Climbing: Vedauwoo's offwidths "filter out the weak, the soft and the spineless."

I'd been filtered.

The author heading into big problems on Burning Man. Seventy feet long, the route epitomizes Vedauwoo climbing: short, squat and fierce. At the time of his first trip, the author was a 5.13 climber, but quickly found himself bouted by the singular nature of this crag. He would return for the next dozen years seeking to improve, but it wasn't until he hooked up with a tribe of locals, led by Scarpelli, that he learned the secrets of offwidths. [Photo] Greg Epperson

I didn't know it at the time, but I was already beginning to drift from sport climbing into trad and big mountains. Despite my full-body struggle, there had been something oddly compelling to that 5.8. Those gruff humps of Precambrian granite, pocked by quartz and feldspar crystals, blasted by Wyoming's high winds into sharp, grit-pitted stone, were entirely different from the effete ballet of face climbing, flush splitters and smooth limestone to which I'd been accustomed.

During the next few years I managed a few dozen days in Vedauwoo; by the early 2000s I was spending a dozen days there every summer. But the years I'd spent honing my technical prowess elsewhere didn't help. I could never consistently climb the grade I wanted at Vedauwoo. I might easily toprope a 5.12a thin crack, then get bouted leading a 5.10b squeeze. If I wanted to climb well in Vedauwoo, I needed to climb with the locals. When Jeff, a late-thirties graduate student from Laramie, offered to introduce me around, I eagerly took him up on the idea.

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.