The Other Way Around | Along the Rocky Mountains

Part IV - We are Arline and Bertrand, two Swiss climbers who decided to quit our habits and comfort zone to live a big adventure while joining sport climbing crags all over the world by bike. We left Switzerland in April 2021 to travel more ecologically, having all the gear packed on our bikes.

This article is the 4th part of our adventure. If you missed the previous parts, check them here.

From the Rockies through the Prairies

Mid-June it’s time to start our 1’350 km traverse to join Ten Sleep and to say goodbye to our guest family in Canmore. They have hosted us for over a month, and even the sky drops some tears for us as we are heading into the Kananaskis Mountain Range. In just a few minutes we find ourselves on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by bears and grizzlies. People told us multiple times to pay attention because they saw a bear or a grizzly just a few kilometres up the road, but we never saw one. As a bear’s daily routine is more or less like ours (eating, moving around 80 km a day and sleeping), we were surprised not to meet them, but we probably don’t have the same schedule. After cycling along the Smith Dorrian Trail and over Highwood Pass, we follow the Oldman River across a canyon towards the prairies of Alberta. The landscape changed totally within a couple of kilometres: the high, snow-covered mountains are gone, and we find ourselves in an endless green and hilly landscape. On the way to the US-border we stop at the Palmer Ranch and can take a ride on a horseback across the hills and the cattle. It’s Bertrand’s first time on a horseback. After this short adventure, we continue our way, traverse the border, and return into the mountains of Glaciers National Park.

Highwood Pass

The road along the Continental Divide is hilly and multiple times we must fight strong headwinds. At the top of a mountain pass, we find ourselves in front of some construction work and are refused to traverse it. As turning back is no option, a worker loads our bikes and all the luggage on the back of his truck and drives us through, downhill, just to let us off at the foot of the next hill.

By passing the border, we didn’t only change the country, but also the season. While in Canada there was some snow left, even if it was mid-June, summer hits us pretty fast and serious in the US. On the dirt road from a family farm near Great Falls towards White Sulphur Springs the temperatures started to get higher and higher and passed over 35°C (a couple days before we had been cycling in our down jackets). The distances between the villages increase and the landscape starts to be dryer and dryer. The positive point is that, from now on, we will more often have the opportunity to camp for free on public land, but by going south and in some remote places with these temperatures, this also means that we must be very careful about the water. For example, on our way to White Sulphur Springs we stayed for two days in the wilderness with only a small creek in the middle of our journey. Even if we were really exhausted, we had to reach this creek by the end of the first day to be able to drink and cook. It was a perfect intro for some more adventurous rides with multiple days without water. 

The hot springs in White Sulphur Springs and the summer sausage we got offered just before reaching the village, made us forget the effort. On the way to Columbus and Bridger we saw the incredible generosity of the people: we received a bottle of wine and were invited to join a charity lunch and enjoy a warm stay on the Lonesome Spur Ranch. 

The more we are approaching our destination, the more the landscape turns into a yellow colour. Only the bottom of the valley and the irrigated areas stay green. After a break for a canoe trip through the Bighorn Canyon, we entered Wyoming and since then, it was casual to have people showing us their guns. We knew about the fact that here in the states, everybody can have a gun, but seeing them worn visible on someone’s belt is another thing. We spent the afternoon of 4th of July, the American National day, at a small campground. Our neighbours, a young couple, and a retired cowboy, invite us for a beer and dinner and we have a great evening. The couple shows us their sniper and when the cowboy asks Bertrand about what type of gun he is carrying, and learns that we only have bear spray, he declares us as completely crazy. 

After 18 days of cycling, we finally arrived in Ten Sleep, just in time for the climbing festival and happy to finally park our bikes and climb again.

Climbing in Ten Sleep and Wild Iris

Here in the US the crags are even further away from the villages than in Canada and the logistics are getting more challenging. In Ten Sleep the sectors of the Upper Canyon are 25 km and 1’000 vertical metres above the village. We have luck (this time) that there is a river, but we will have to carry the food. With the festival, we could hitchhike with some people to discover the lower sectors, and once the festival is over, we pack all the food we could fit on the bike and start the climb in the early morning, to get as high as possible while the temperatures were cooler. It is a long way up and we spend some extra hours looking for a good campsite with water. We are already exhausted when we discover the perfect campsite: on BLM-Land (Bureau of Land Management = public land) just next to a fresh cold river! As soon as the bikes are parked, Arline jumps into the river, all clothes on. 

The most climbs are in the shade after 2 p.m., so we spend the mornings chilling and eating pancakes, before getting up to the different sectors like The Ark, Mondo Beyondo, French Cattle Ranch or Valhalla. The limestone climbing follows a vertical to overhanging system of pockets. The climbing is amazing, but lots of the routes have drilled pockets to make the climbing more accessible. The result is a wide range of routes in the 7 grade and less hard routes. We think that this philosophy is quite bad, as the potential for harder routes would have been amazing and we are against the manufacturing of nature and the rock… But despite this, the climbing is fun, sustained and we also find some totally natural climbs. After 10 days full of climbing, our food stock is used, and we must move on. 

Back down in the valley, we learn it the hard way, what summer in Wyoming means: it’s hot and windy, and if you have headwinds, cycling gets even worse (speed goes easily from 20 km/h to 5 km/h on a flat road). To get to our next destination, Wild Iris, next to Lander, we face temperatures over 40°C in the shade, so we let you imagine how it is in the sun. We also learn that the wind can turn quickly. As a result, we must face headwinds in this temperature and as we are slower than expected, we run out of water. Luckily there was an elder man working in his yard whom we could ask for a refill, and this was for sure the best water we have ever drunk! From now on, we will start cycling even earlier and make sure that we won’t run out of water anymore.

After 3 days of cycling, we arrive in the small town of Lander before noon. To get help with the organisation for the climbing in Wild Iris, we go to the Wild Iris Climbing Shop. The owner, Amy, gives us a lot of advice and offers to bring us some food and water up to the campsite, as there is no water nor food. We could find a small creek 45 minutes hiking down the Valley, but we are happy that we just had to hike down once. After dropping our food and water bag at the climbing store, we start our climb up to Wild Iris, which is at a height of 2’600 m above sea level, a perfect destination for the summer. And as we just trained climbing on pockets in Ten Sleep, we can test our strength on this perfect, undrilled white limestone, with short routes and bouldering moves on pockets and small crimps. The climbing is challenging and fun, and in the evening, we share stories and betas at the campfire with some other climbers. And one of them, Bettina, will join us on our next adventure in the Wind River Range.  

The Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River Range

We leave Wild Iris with the sound of an oncoming thunderstorm, next to the ancient gold mining town Atlantic City and across thousands and thousands of sage brushes. The dirt road takes us over countless hills, while in the mountains the next thunderstorm is growing. On the last 10 kilometres towards the Trailhead of Big Sandy Lake the clouds can’t hold their load anymore and we have just a short moment to get the rain protection on and look for a hide from the hale. Half an hour later and a temperature drop from 32°C to 4°C the sun is out again, and we continue our way up. We arrive at the trailhead in late afternoon and decide to take a part of the trail towards the Cirque before it gets dark. 

From the moment when we packed the backpack to the point it was time to place the tent along the trail for the night, and till we arrived at the Cirque of the Towers the next day at noon, we were always surrounded by mosquitoes, tons of them! But they don’t change anything in the fact that this place is just unique! We camp next to a small river on a meadow surrounded by all these giant granite towers. Tomorrow we will climb the K- Crack on Pingora, together with Bettina. It is an easy climb, but with an incredible view. We approach the multipitch by climbing across a system of large ledges and some slabs to a terrasse. After 4 pitches of trad climbing, with the final length on the “K-Crack” and some easy crumbling, we arrive at the summit and enjoy the stunning view. After a rappel and a beautiful walk across meadows covered with flowers, we return to the tent and the same day we hike out. As soon as the bicycles are loaded again, we hit the road toward Jackson, and along the road cows and sage brushes make our company. 

Jackson, Yellowstone National Park, and the Triathlon of Mt. Moran

In Jackson we are hosted by Brad and Hilary. They not only offer us a place to sleep, but Brad, who works as a wildlife guide, takes us on a tour through Yellowstone National Park and shows us the highlights. He also helps us get some Stand Up Paddle Boards to realise the ascent of Mt. Moran.

After 3 days for a break and organisation, we start our triathlon to Mt. Moran. Early in the morning we leave Jackson with the inflatable paddle boards, the climbing gear and the camping material packed on our bikes. After 35 km of cycling and a short stop at the ranger station of Jenny Lake, we inflate the boards, pack everything on it (both of us had never been on a paddleboard before) and start paddling across String Lake and Leigh Lake. We join an obvious gully which brings us to the CMC-Camp, straight under the summit of Mt. Moran. After a night high above everything we climb to the summit the next morning. The lower part follows a trail across some scrambling, followed by an exposed but easy downclimb before we get to the main wall. We climb the system of ledges straight up to the summit. On our right side is always the huge dike, a memory from early times, when the volcanic systems of Yellowstone were more active. We reach the summit at 10 a.m. and after a break with an amazing view over the Grand Teton, we downclimb the route the same way as we came up, pack our tent, paddle back through the lakes and cycle till Jenny Lake. The next day we pack our climbing gear and start to paddle across Jenny Lake for a trad multi pitch. But during our traverse, we see a bear just next to the water and watch him for 1 hour eating berries and taking some baths in the lake, just in front of us. Finally, it was too late and too hot to go climbing and we just paddle around the lake before heading back to Jackson. And then it’s time to cycle over Teton Pass towards the west and discover the Fins, separated through a sheer endless plain.

The Fins

Till now, this thin limestone formation of the Fins is one of the most stunning rock formations we have climbed on. High above the plain, it is hard work to get up there: the road from the east side is short (4 km) but steep, and partially in really bad shape. We manage to cycle about half of it, then we push the bikes for another 500 metres before we unload the material and carry it for another kilometre. With every change, we are getting slower and slower. We can already see the cliffs we want to climb on, but the road is too steep, and we are too exhausted to make it up to the campsite at the top of the pass, even if we have just 1.5 km left. When we find a flat place, we decide to camp here and hike up every day. And then, just before we start to pitch the tent, we can hear a car driving up. The guy stops, he is alone, looking for climbing partners, and we are looking for some help to carry our stuff to the top. We can pack all our luggage in his 4WD truck, lock the bikes and drive up the last mile. (We hiked down and took the bikes up a few days later, and even pushing them empty was hard work, as the road was over 26° steep).

Up there, a beautiful free and dispersed campsite waits for us, just 3 minutes away from the crag!  The climbing is on an almost smooth face with just enough holds and pockets to climb on. And with the afternoon shade and the shady campground, it’s the perfect place for hot summer days. Just one thing is missing: water. We can get some water with other climbers, but the water also attracts the bees. They are so thirsty, that they even follow us to the crag. One bee gets lost in Bertrand’s climbing shoe and as he puts his foot in, he is stung. It ended with a 3 days break until the swelling was gone. 

After 10 days in The Fins, we hit the road again, this time westwards, on a much longer, but on a road that is less steep and in much better shape than the one we came up. Down in Arco (not the Italian one with the nice pizza and “gelati”, but the one in the US with atomic burgers and fried pickles) we are happy to get the first shower in the past 2 weeks and wash our cloth. 

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A geological journey: Craters of the Moon and City of Rocks

Just a few hours cycling westwards from Arco are the Craters of the Moon, a national monument of a lava flow that cooled off just a couple thousand years ago. We spend an afternoon walking across this bizarre landscape, full of black stone, with every imaginable shape and we also discover the lava tubes, tunnel leftovers of some underground lava flows. During the day, the wind blew a lot of black lava dust through the tiniest opening into our tent and even some days later on our way to the City of Rocks we still had some souvenirs in our sleeping bags and our clothes.

The cycling towards City of Rocks, in the South of Idaho, offers little interesting things, but we must deal with big headwinds and an oncoming heatwave. And this heatwave hits its top the moment we finally arrive in the City of Rocks. Even if we are at 2’000 metres above sea level, temperatures go up to 35°C and make climbing almost impossible, even in the shade. Over two mornings we try to climb some of the astonishing granite formations, but in the afternoon, it gets too hot to climb, and as the weather forecast doesn’t announce any cooler temperature, we decide to move on. We cycle to Ogden in 2 days, and despite that this means cycling with 40°C, the motivation, that there we could stay at a friend’s house with a bed and a shower, is enormous! James and Emily do everything for our recovery and our stay at John and Jess’ house in Salt Lake City is another great occasion to stay cool and organise the next chapter. After one week off, we leave Salt Lake City with its huge agglomeration behind us, are invited by Bliss and Robert for a last night in a bed and a last shower, before we arrive in Maple Canyon mid-September

Maple Canyon

Maple Canyon is a long and narrow canyon, with an immense choice of routes in mostly overhanging conglomerate rock. The first days it was challenging to make the shift from tiny holds we were used in the Fins to the big cobblestone, popping out of the rock-matrix everywhere for an endurance climbing paradise. The two weeks we climb there are full of many nice routes, lots of onsights (climbing a route first try, without falling and without having any information about the route) and on the rest days we either hike through some narrow side canyons or scramble up on the towers, overlooking the region. Again, as Maple Canyon is about 15 km away from the closest supermarket, we are happy to get help from some local climbers to bring us the food. Thanks to a tiny spring in the middle of the campground, we don’t have to worry about the water.

As the maples and aspen start turning into red and yellow, it is time to leave and head south, towards the deserts of Utah. From now on, we will climb on sandstone, with some bouldering, crack climbing and towers on the program. We are looking forward to telling you about the next chapter of our adventure! 

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