Squaw Struck – A 22 Pitch Sport Climbing Beast! – The History and My 8 Pitches of Climbing

Looming over the city of Provo, Utah is a feature of rock known as Squaw Peak. Anyone that drives through Provo has seen this peak as it makes up the north wall of what is known as Rock Canyon. In the 1990’s when the limestone of American Fork Canyon was being developed/bolted, and was gaining national attention for the steep routes it offered, Rock Canyon was being developed by the same guys. It’s a unique canyon, in that the mouth is all quartzite, and it’s really not the greatest rock either. The ease of access to this rock has made Rock Canyon an incredibly popular location for Brigham Young University students and Utah Valley residents to get evening sessions of climbing in after school and work. Further up the canyon is where the limestone appears. Although not known for the amount of hard routes like American Fork is, Rock Canyon in my opinion is some of the best limestone climbing in Utah.
For years Squaw Peak (a massive chunk of southern exposed limestone) was thought to be something that would never be worth bolting. The rock was always considered junk, and who would spend all the time and effort to put up a route to the top of the peak. Tristan Higbee would be that person to put the route up, with the help of some others. A ton of respect and high fives should go to Tristan for putting so much effort into a route of this nature, in a place that is not known for big wall climbing. Rock Canyon already has several 3-8 pitch sport routes found in the mouth of the canyon. But 22 pitches of limestone sport climbing just seems crazy for everything else that is around the area. I am reminded of the famous quote, “if you build it, he will come.” Only this time, “if you bolt it, they will climb it.”
Squaw Peak as seen from Provo, that also shows the start of the route with the finish the top. (Photo Credit: Tristan H.)
The history of this route is a lot more than you would think. Tristan spent more than 40 days working on this route that spanned over two years of time. The following are excerpts from Tristan’s personal account of the routes history, and have been used with permission from Tristan. http://thealoof.com/squawstruck-beta-topo-first-ascent-rock-canyon/
Darren Knezek, the owner of the climbing store in Provo, had shown me an old, obscure trip report online of some young climbers putting a trad line halfway up the face in the mid 90s, and someone (I think it was Jim Knight?) told me that a climber from the Canadian Rockies climbed somewhere on the face back in the day. My plan was to put a well-protected sport route up the thing. So one day in the spring of 2008, I hauled a drill, rope, bolts, and some trad gear up to the base of the lowest point of the cliff, intending to rope solo the route and drill it ground up. After placing a whopping three bolts, I decided that this was not the way to do it. I could tell that some of the rock above me (namely a small roof 40 feet up) was rotten and some of it would need to be trundled. Rope soloing up through it would be dangerous, so I bailed.
I just can’t imagine what must of been going through Tristan’s head with 3 bolts placed and 1900 feet of climbing towering over him. A little daunting if you ask me. After that experience Tristan spent time with Christian Burrell working on another project in Rock Canyon known as The Wild and The Galaxy Area. 
On August 28, 2008, I followed an arcing gully from the bottom of Rock Canyon up to near the top of the bottom half of the face (to the ledge between what would later be pitches six and seven). I looked down and saw several hundred feet of limestone below me and I realized I didn’t have any more excuses. I started humping loads the next week.It took a good couple hours to hike up there each time with all of the ropes, drills, water, and bolts. The rock was surprisingly good. For years I’d heard rumors of how crappy the rock up there was, but it was actually very solid with only a couple short, chossy sections. I think that people just assumed the rock was terrible because 1) it didn’t look that great from the canyon floor, and 2) if the rock was good there would already be routes up there, right?

My climbing partner in crime, Christian, helped bolt pitch 7 and clean a few others, but I hauled all the gear and cleaned and bolted everything else. He was psyched about putting a route up Squaw Peak, but he had a job with set hours and a family. I had neither of those things. After a couple months of skipping classes to bolt, I’d finished the bottom eight pitches (about 600 feet of climbing). Not wanting to leave the gear up there for the duration of the winter, I hauled out all hundred pounds of it (several ropes, drill batteries, etc.) in a small haulbag. That was another one of the worst experiences of my life.

Christian and I climbed those first 8 pitches in early December 2008. We thought they were pretty stellar, and we were excited for people to get on them and climb them while we worked on the upper pitches. But before anyone else could climb them (though maybe a party or two snuck in?) the winter storms hit and we turned to ice climbing and desert towers.

This final bit of bolting and cleaning gave me problems. I’d just bought a brand new 70 m Blue Water static rope to use for drilling and cleaning routes. While cleaning pitch 9, I dislodged a big rock that landed square on my rope about 50 feet below me. It chopped the rope clean in half.

I finished bolting and cleaning the final pitch the last week of August 2010 and actually cried as I stuffed the drill back into my backpack for the last time. If I had known how much time, money, and effort this route would take, I probably never would have started it two and a half years earlier. I spent many, many, many full days (probably 30 or 40?) on the mountain and was just sick of it. I was again back down into the 130s. But finally, the burden of having to finish this one stupid route was gone, replaced with the 85-pound pack of gear that I had to carry down and off the mountain.

 Tristan jugging up the start of pitch 3 (Photo Credit: Tristan Higbee)
 Looking down from pitch 5 to Christian cleaning pitch 3 (Photo Credit: Tristan Higbee)
 Christian taking a breather at the top of pitch 6 with all the gear that was hauled up for bolting the route. (Photo Credit: Tristan Higbee)
Drilling one of the anchor bolts at the top of pitch 6 (Photo Credit: Tristan Higbee)
The history of this route is amazing knowing that it was essentially one person’s dream. I have a lot of respect for Tristan putting so much time, money and effort into the project and making it a reality. 
Christian B. is a good friend of mine and I wanted to hear his take on the history of this route.

After all the work it took to put these new areas (the wild and the galaxy area) on the map, Tristan started to plant the seed of Squaw Peak. He had discovered a ledge we could traverse into to access higher up on the cliff and establish the lower half without too much trouble. He went to work (being a college student without a job, he had the spare time) on his own rapping in putting in belay anchors. The wall luckily had a nice ledge or stance at the end of a reasonable length pitch. I joined him when I could and we quickly had the lower 8 pitches in and set to go. The rock quality was not perfect, but far better than we ever imagined it could be. Pitch 5 in particular was a stunner. It went through a prominent white band that EVERYONE assumed it meant it would be total crap rock. But it ended up being nearly perfect and, the pitch was one of the best overall.

We actually made the FA of the lower pitches on a Saturday in December. The weather turned out perfect and we climbed in short sleeves. BYU had a home game and we could hear the cannon booming every time there was a TD. Clearly the Cougars were playing well.

Then we switched to the very top. We didn’t want to drag all the gear all the way up and around the back of the peak, so we actually drove up the peak road as high as we could and worked out a access trail down through the saddle between the two peaks at above the wall. This got us to the top much faster. The upper wall was mostly more great rock like the lower 8 pitches. We were super psyched to have the route basically 2/3 done. The route was fairly easy to follow and the rock was so good, the bolts were going in fast. But that middle wall was a problem. We built a rap on the edge of the wall to make access up and down easier. We also left a rope fixed here for our return. We walked around at the base of the middle wall and wondered what to do. We had agreed early on to follow Tristan’s desire to keep the route moderate. we had hoped to keep the whole route 5.10 or under (but still challenging and we bypassed easier terrain in favor of more exciting stuff here and there). We had also wanted to find a good solid stance at each belay to make rapping the whole route easy. But the middle wall was tall and steep. It also looked to have rock of less savory character. We worried that this wall would dash our hopes for the route.

Attempt #1 for FA.Tristan had spent time over the course of multiple years and thousands of dollars getting this thing ready. He had hung there for hours and hours in the hot Summer sun. I had helped when I could, but he was always the driving force that kept the project going. The day we went, was nice and cool in the morning. But being August, we knew it was going to get hotter. I carried a camelback filled to the top; and I expected to drink it all. We zipped up the first 8 pitches really fast. We had done them several times and knew them well. Then we headed up into somewhat unknown territory. The next 3 pitches ended up being pretty tough. The sun was up and the heat was starting to affect us. Pitch 10 was really tricky. We got a little pumped getting through. We hiked up to the real middle wall and by now, I really needed a break. I had drunk a good amount of my water trying to avoid getting dehydrated early. But now the sun was roasting me fast. We should have stopped to rest, but as we didn’t have any idea how long the rest of the route would take us, we pushed on. We thought we could rest before the final wall.

The next pitch (12) had a really cool cave at the start. Tristan slowed down a little here, but I found the pitch to be quite sustained. Only 5.10, but solid the whole way. Few good rests drained much of my remaining energy. Tristan agreed to take the lead again to let me try to recover. The next pitch wandered around a little, but it included a cruxy series of moves that pushed up into 5.11. I really struggled on this. We had not taken any falls up to now and I tried as hard as I could to pull through. But regrettably, my energy was leaving very fast now. My water was almost gone already.The next pitch (14) skirted a huge roof on the right, but again pushed up into 5.11. This time we had the hardest single move thus far (IMO). Tristan fell here and had to work it a couple times to figure out a sequence that worked. The next pitch looked really sweet, but even steeper. I had to pull on a couple draws to get through the crux. At this point, Tristan looked me over and admitted that I looked bad. I was in the middle of a dehydration attack and was fading. He was pretty tired too. Despite his willingness to push through to the top, he could tell I was done. We rapped off and hiked out.
Tristan was chomping at the bit to get it done, but I wasn’t available for a while. So he enlisted the help of a mutual friend (Thomas) who was in great shape and climbing hard. I had mixed emotions when Tristan gave me a call from the top of the route. They had succeeded. But instead of being excited, Tristan just said, he was “so tired” and just wanted to go home.

Squaw Struck is easily one of the most unique climbing experiences that a person could have climbing in the Wasatch, but how awesome is it to think that there is 22 pitches and 1900 feet of climbing just 45 minutes of hiking from the city.

Ever since I learned about this route and read about the history of it, I have wanted to climb it. I know that I in no way have the fitness to climb all 22 pitches. I had been talking to my friend Christian a lot about the route, and the consensus came down to at least climbing the first 8 pitches of the route. So last week I finally had a day that I could take off of work and do some climbing. I invited my good friend Rich to join me.

Rich and I met up and started hiking at 9:00am. We got up to the base of the wall before 10:30 am, and we were climbing by 10:30am. I was not the biggest fan of the approach. There is no real trail, but it is not hard to find your way up there. It is just simply steep and long.

Rich lead the first pitch and it turned out to be a lot more technical climbing than I expected it to be. But it was a good introduction to the rest of the day of climbing. I lead the second pitch, which is where “the leap of faith” is located. Pitch 1 is kind of a pillar that is slightly disconnected from pitch 2. A simple lead, it climbs into a really neat dihedral with some really great moves. We then made our way to the base of the wall where pitches 3-6 are located. Rich lead pitches 3 and 4 and linked them together. This then lead to what I would say is the best pitch of the first 8 of the route. Pitch 5 is known as the frosted flakes. There are some really cool, huge flakes that help make up this band of white limestone. Makes sense that they would be called frosted. This pitch also created a little freak out moment for me. The climbing wasn’t hard by any means, but I had never experienced that kind of exposure on a wall before. You have to pull over a small roof on this pitch, and it is simply, really great climbing.

We quickly moved through pitch 6 and by then it was 2:00pm. After taking a few minutes to rest, we roped up and I lead the last two pitches. Linking pitches 7 and 8 didn’t require very technical climbing, but it was fun climbing. The top of pitch 8 has a feature that requires you to mantle on top of a pinnacle, then make some fairly difficult moves on a very blank face. Getting to the top of pitch 8 was no incredible feat, but it made me realize how difficult this route can be if you do not plan for it properly. We climbed for just over 5 hours, and still would have had 14 pitches of climbing to do. Starting early, and climbing quickly is only part of getting this route done quickly. But knowing how to manage your rope and transition between pitches is key to getting up a route like this quickly.

This was some of the most enjoyable climbing i’ve done all year. I have developed a love for multi pitch climbing, and to climb a multi pitch route that doesn’t require trad gear is super nice. Tristan did a really great job in putting this route up. Yes, there are places where there are excessive bolts, but can you really complain about a route being “over protected”? The climbing is great, the exposure is awesome, and it is guaranteed to be a great day of climbing regardless of how much of the route you do.

Here are photos from the day of climbing Rich and I had.

 Rich and I at the parking lot of Rock Canyon

 Looking up at Squaw Peak from the parking lot

 Looking back at Rich belaying me on pitch 2 just past the leap of faith

 Looking down from the top of pitch 4

 Rich coiling the rope on the top of pitch 6, to go to the wall for pitches 7 and 8

The furry friend that came to bid us farewell as we were packing up to leave

One thought on “Squaw Struck – A 22 Pitch Sport Climbing Beast! – The History and My 8 Pitches of Climbing

  1. i loved this entire post until the last picture – GROSS. i loved that you included both Tristan and Christian's histories of bolting the route. such a cool history that i wish more people from the area knew about! it really is amazing that squaw peak is bolted, completely, all the way to the top!

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