A climbing club’s scrapbook could put Little Cottonwood Canyon on the register of historic places. Will it also put the district out of reach of the gondola?

Routes from 1962-74, credited with putting Utah granite on the climbing map, would be the registry’s first ‘vertical trails.’

Ted Wilson stops at a clearing along a shady path near the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Above him, far over the trees, rise shards of bone white rock. Snaking through some of them are thin cracks, like the ones you dread seeing on your grandmother’s fine china.

Just over 60 years ago, Wilson became the first known person to climb one of the canyon’s glistening granite faces. At the time, the rock in Little Cottonwood Canyon had been considered unapproachable. It was wet and slick and so hard it bent climbers’ pitons, the bolts they put in as safety stopgaps.

But Wilson’s first ascent changed that perception. That one climb in 1961 of a route he and fellow Alpenbock Club member Bob Stout later named Chickenhead Holiday — due to its abundance of rock protrusions dubbed chickenheads — created a climbing revolution in Utah and unveiled what has become one of the United States’ premier climbing destinations.

“For the Alpenbock, the rush was on,” recalled Wilson, 84, who used climbing as an outlet when he served as the mayor of Salt Lake City from 1976-85. “You’d think we found gold. And in a way, we did.”

But can they hold onto their treasure and its equally rich history?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ted Wilson and John Flynn at the Alpenbock Loop in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

Thousands of climbers now test themselves on the canyon’s storied quartzite each year. They take their pick of what “A Granite Guide” by Nikki Smith, Andrew Burr and Tyler Phillips estimates to be more than 1,670 routes. Many of the most popular ones — which were primarily pioneered by Alpenbock Club members — are accessed via the 1.7-mile Alpenbock Loop. The club meticulously documented its members’ expeditions in its annual scrapbooks, and now an effort is underway to add the loop to the National Register of Historic Places. If the nomination is accepted, it would become the first set of climbing routes to receive the honor.

Of more immediate importance to climbers, though, is that the designation could give the area a layer of protection, or at least red tape, when one of the world’s longest gondolas is built within the canyon.

As John Flynn, who has worked on the project for the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, put it: “It would be impossible to talk about this without talking about the gondola.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Granite faces at the Alpenbock Loop in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

The SLCA and the climbing industry, including locally based Black Diamond, Inc., have led the charge against the Utah Department of Transportation’s plan to build the $728 million publicly funded gondola as a tool for mitigating ski traffic congestion on State Route 210. They argue that the installation of the gondola would destroy some of the canyon’s best recreational resources by removing boulders, installing 250-foot-tall towers and obstructing the viewscapes that serve as a climber’s reward for making it to the top.

“If [people] know that this is a historical district, and they know that they can go and hike this one-mile loop and see this landscape the way that Ted saw in the ′60s for the most part, then hopefully that’ll raise awareness for this landscape and maybe lead to its protection,” said Julia Geisler, the executive director of the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance. “People want to preserve this landscape for what it is.”

And what it is, or what it could be, is a step back in time to the days when climbers tied ropes around their waists for belays and wore collared rugby jerseys to protect their necks from the ropes. Just as those first climbers weren’t sure they’d be able to ascend the daunting vertical trails around Alpenbock Loop, though, neither is it certain that designating those routes as historic places will save them. Climbers have applied the same theory top both: If they don’t try, they’ll never know.

First eggs, then cracks

The pages are now yellowed, the black-and-white photos faded. The wooden cover is blighted with nicks and scratches, so much so that the rudimentary mountain goat logo is difficult to make out. Yet the original Alpenbock Club scrapbook, now part of the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, still holds detailed accounts of the early days of climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon and beyond — down to what the climbers had for breakfast or who hosted the rager the night prior to an ascent.

“We had an all night party at a rented house out on 27th south. When everyone was drunk we left for Harman’s Pancake House to sober up. It was around 3 a.m.,” begins one entry dated May 6, 1961, that details an attempt to climb Lone Peak. “After our early breakfast we drove to Tex Parker’s and drove around his gate with the NO TRESSPASSING [sic] sign on it.”

(Ralph Tingey via Marriott Library, University of Utah) The wood cover of the Alpenbock scrapbook in 1961.

The entry goes on to describe the difficulties encountered by the four climbers — Ralph Tingey, Curt Hawkins, Milt Hokanson and Wilson — and the approach they took in making the ascent. It even depicts how they lazed around at the top after summiting. At the end, in the interest of full disclosure, it notes the group ultimately was served a warrant for trespassing.

The Alpenbock Club consisted mostly of Olympus High students and University of Utah underclassmen, but they took their documentation as seriously as their climbing. In hindsight, that may have been their second-biggest contribution to the legacy of climbing in the Cottonwood Canyons. Without it, according to Christopher Merritt, the state historic preservation officer, there might not have been enough data to get the loop within a whiff of the register.

“That’s evidence right there of a route, even if it didn’t physically leave an impression on the rock,” Merritt said of the scrapbook’s pictures and illustrations. “That’s enough for us to work with because the national register is really based on tangibles.”

How climbing routes became ‘cultural artifacts’

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

It was actually Merritt’s office, not the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, that made the initial push to designate the Alpenbock Loop as a historic place.

The State Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO as it is nicknamed, confers with all state and federal agencies when they’re considering making changes in Utah. When UDOT began compiling an Environmental Impact Statement for Little Cottonwood Canyon in 2018, one of Merritt’s employees, who was also a climber, brought the rich history of the area to Merritt’s attention.

Because it wasn’t a historic building or even something as distinct as Desolation Canyon, which is also on the register, Merritt said his office didn’t know how to go about identifying the historical significance of the various climbing areas. After working with UDOT for more than a year, the agencies turned to the SCLA and other climbing groups for help.

“Then,” Merritt said, “the history really just kind of percolated up.”

Enter Flynn, the assistant director of the American West Center. A climber who works in cultural resource management, he had already been combing through the Marriott Library’s climbing archives when the SLCA asked him and preservation specialist Kirk Huffaker to help map out a historic district. The one they selected includes two official trails, nine boulders and six crags. The six crags contain about 17 historic climbing routes established between 1962-74, though many more routes now exist in that area. Among the historic ones are Bong Eater (named for the large pitons that make a bonging sound when hammered into the rock), Sail Face, Valentine Crack and The Coffin.

(Ralph Tingey via Marriott Library, University of Utah) A page showing routes inside the Alpenbock scrapbook.

Flynn said it makes perfect sense to him to think of nature as a cultural artifact. So even though only one mountaineering trail in the entire nation (in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park) and just one climbing site (Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park) have been added to the historic register, he recognized the Alpenbock Loop’s potential.

“This isn’t just an isolated little pocket that has a couple of years of activity and then diminished,” Flynn said. “We’re saying no, it only increased. It brought some national recognition, at least in the climbing community at first, to come climb here and then it just developed.”

Salt Lake now holds a place of honor in the climbing world, he said. Luminaries of the sport like Royal Robbins and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard have climbed in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Plus the state is emerging as a center of climbing industry in the U.S., with both Petzl and Black Diamond headquartered in Utah.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Flynn and Ted Wilson at the Alpenbock Loop in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

The history will live on long past Wilson, who hung up his ropes a few years ago after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. But will the climbing, and more specifically the rugged ambiance of the slabs around the Alpenbock Loop, remain once the gondola arrives, which UDOT estimates to be between 2043 and 2050? No one can say with certainty.

Merritt, whose office administers the historic register within Utah, signed off on the application to add the Alpenbock Loop in May. He then sent the nomination to the Forest Service, which owns the land. If that agency approves the district’s inclusion, it will send the nomination on to the “Keeper” of the National Register of Historic Places. That person then has 45 days to approve or deny adding the Alpenbock Loop to the register.

“I don’t see anything in this process that is going to hang this up,” Merritt said.

Neither outcome will necessarily keep the land pristine, though.

Can a historic marker make up for a boulder’s removal?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A rock climber on a granite face at the Alpenbock Loop in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, July 21, 2023.

David Whittekiend, the USFS’s forest supervisor for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said in an email that the Forest Service takes the same approach to managing both historic properties deemed register-eligible and those that are on the register. That’s both good news and bad news for those seeking to safeguard the Alpenbock Loop.

As Whittekiend explained, “There are no direct protections afforded a historic property.” However, if a proposed change, such as removing a boulder or setting a gondola tower nearby, is determined to have “an adverse effect to a property’s historic character,” then that loss of character will have to be mitigated. That could be as simple as erecting historic markers or interpretive panels, similar to what UDOT has planned to pay tribute to the 1950s-era turkey-grit mill that was located near the climbing loop before it was removed to create a parking lot. In the climbing district’s case UDOT, SHPO and the USFS would have to agree to the mitigation in consultation with the SLCA and other groups looking to give input.

Merritt summed it up like this: “You can list it to the national register. Doesn’t save it.”

Geisler emphasized she believes this is an area worth saving. From the smallest, smoothest boulders to the most jagged granite shards, she said she can’t think of anything matching the loop’s significance in Utah’s climbing history.

“There’s something to preserve there that will forever be altered,” she said. “You can’t replace it with something else.”

Wilson agrees. As he hiked below the imposing white slabs — something he rarely does anymore — he found memories of his adventures and reminders of the power of nature at every clearing, coursing through nearly every delicate crack.

“[Climbing’s] a force in the canyon,” he said. He added, “[It’s] real people doing real things on real days off with their kids, sometimes with their wife, sometimes even with a few girlfriends that have showed up with wrong guys. It’s just humanity doing a nice thing to the world. And that’s the virtue, I think, of that canyon. Not Ted Wilson. I’m the kind of guy that sneaks to the front of the line at the movie theater.”

The granite walls were there long before he got a wild hair to climb one. The history, he hopes, will remain long after.

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