Finding Protection In Bears Ears by Josh Ewing

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“Yucca sandals,” I say to myself. “How’d they do this move in yucca sandals?”

The sheer sandstone wall below me plunges five hundred feet to the canyon bottom. To my right, I see a Moki step pecked in the rock eight or nine hundred years before. But the move to get a toe on that foothold is a legitimate boulder problem with no margin for error. And I’m going to add to the difficulty by avoiding the chipped step. I don’t want to break it or alter the site in any way.

“I should have gone climbing,” I joke to myself.

Even on the wild, sandy towers of the area, I would at least have a rope and belayer. Here, such safety precautions are literally illegal, as the regulations prohibit the use of climbing equipment to access archaeological sites. I call it BLM’s “suicide rule.” If you’re willing to risk it all to see an ancient site, it’s totally legal. But if you want to be safe, you’d better be an archaeologist with a special permit.

Story by Josh Ewing, published in Volume 15, now available. Photography by Mikey Schaefer, unless otherwise noted. 

Somehow, I convince myself I can reverse this move safely. When I smear my sticky rubber on a less-vertical portion of the wall, my heart really starts racing as I hear that sickening sound of sand grinding between my shoe and the “real” rock. But I’ve heard that sound before and know what to do. I execute a very awkward mantle and ease myself away from the abyss.

Seconds later, I’m admiring a row of ancient structures arrayed across the ledge in front of me. And the view—those ancient climbers sure picked a picturesque spot, with the junction of three twisting red-rock canyons out their front door.

I whisper a quiet message to the spirits of the place, expressing my intention to visit with respect. As I explore this precariously located sacred site, I’m fascinated by artifacts and pottery fragments positioned across the sandstone porch. There are no footprints. No looter’s pits. No evidence anyone has been here since the builders moved on in the late 1200s.

After thirty minutes of closely examining the ledge, leaving everything in its place, I sit down in front of the largest structure, feeling the warmth of the sun-heated sandstone contrast with the cool November air.

I know some might consider it cheesy or maybe even offensive for me to think I have some real connection with the people who once lived here, the ancient climbers of Bears Ears. I’m a privileged white guy separated by hundreds of years and so many other characteristics from the fearless and talented people who constructed this home in the canyon.

The author climbing an unnamed route in Cottonwood Wash, Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Mikey Schaefer

But I can’t shake the feeling that those ancient climbers are close, really close. I want to learn more about them and fight for them…maybe even continue their legacy in some way.

I came to climbing late by modern standards, having grown up in Nebraska and Honduras—not exactly hotbeds of climbing opportunity. My family owns a cattle ranch in western Nebraska, surrounded by beautiful and soaring bluffs. Alas, they’re made of crumbly mudstone, not conducive for real climbing. When I was in the fourth grade, my parents followed their hearts instead of family expectations, electing to relocate our family to Central America. Teaching at a bilingual Christian school, my mom and dad did humanitarian and missionary work on the weekends and over the summers.

We moved back to Nebraska for high school, but I didn’t tie in for the first time until my junior year of college. My brother-in-law took me climbing at Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins, Colorado, on a short break from classes at the University of Pennsylvania. In one afternoon, I was hooked.

Back in Philadelphia, I tried to teach myself how to climb at Ralph Stover State Park. Most of the other climbers were old-timers who had no interest in a noob from Nebraska, but I didn’t care. I was particularly fascinated with one character—a chain-smoking Asian guy who soloed about everything on the cliff, all while keeping a lit cigarette in his mouth. I only talked to him once, but it was probably Hidetaka Suzuki.

Strangely enough, that was the first of several times I ran into talented free soloists climbing unroped at the crags. Since then, I’ve encountered the late Michael Reardon at the Needles in California, Alex Honnold at Red Rocks, and Renan Ozturk at Indian Creek. I didn’t know who any of them were at the time.

Kirsten, my wife-to-be, and I spent many a weekend toproping that little-known sandbagged cliff. We were in the giddy, romantic stage of our relationship, and I think she put up with my new infatuation with climbing just to escape the city and make out.

After college, we moved west so I could try to find a job somewhere with good climbing. We lived in Denver for a few months, where I bouldered about every day and did a little “scrambling” in the Flat Irons. I was starting to feel strong and cocky when I landed a killer job as the Communications Director for Salt Lake City in the lead up to the 2002 Winter Olympics. I was stoked to move to Utah, check out the amazing climbing, and skip a bunch of rungs on the career ladder. It wasn’t long before I was immersed in the stressful world of Utah politics and escaping to Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, as well as the red-rock country of southeast Utah, as often as work would allow.

While it was climbing that initially motivated my forays to southeast Utah, I quickly developed a keen interest in the cultural history that was clearly evident throughout what is now Bears Ears National Monument. Even more than the area’s famous cliff dwellings, the ancient stories painted in deep, dry alcoves and carved into the cliffs fascinated and intrigued me. These petroglyphs and pictographs tell tales thousands of years old—some with seemingly clear narratives and others that provide endless fodder for speculation and debate.

Majestic bighorn sheep. Perfectly carved spirals. Massive human figures with ducks on their heads. Gruesome scalp masks held triumphantly in a warrior’s hand. Processions of staff-carrying travelers migrating to a new homeland. So many stories left for generations of passersby to ponder.

But one recurring image will always feel the most personal. I still remember the first time I saw it on a black boulder perched atop a thousand-foot-high cliff on the edge of Cedar Mesa.

I walked around the corner and saw an upside down man, perfectly carved to give the feeling of flight or falling. At first, I thought perhaps the image was inverted because the boulder had rolled after the petroglyph had been carved. But then I saw other images, right side up, just a little more faintly carved in the rock. It was clear the artist meant to show this man was falling.

Since that day, I’ve seen nine other petroglyph panels with upside down men—usually in exposed, high places, where a fall could easily be fatal. These ancient climbers of Bears Ears knew the risks. They lost loved ones. But they didn’t let the fear paralyze them. They continued to do what was needed to defend their families and their precious corn crops. They built in ridiculously high and inaccessible places. Climbing was a necessity, not a luxury.

Just five months into my career as spokesman for the mayor of Salt Lake City, one afternoon climbing in Big Cottonwood Canyon would change my life forever. I had just started leading but was still feeling invincible. I jumped on a tricky 5.9 crack called Sockdollager in the Aqueduct Area. Starting 20 feet off the ground on top of a large boulder, I moved up about 9 or 10 feet before placing a #3.5 Friend. Another six or seven feet higher, I placed an alien and pulled up slack to clip.

I have no memory whatsoever of that day. But evidently, I never made that clip. The rock around my first piece shattered, and the Friend pulled. I plummeted headfirst toward the ground thirty-five feet below. Luckily—a strange word choice, I know—my skull struck the boulder I had started from. Though that helmetless impact gave me serious brain damage, it also saved my life by whipping my torso back upright so I could land on my ass.

My eyes rolled back in my head, and I started convulsing. Kirsten screamed for help. Aid came quickly, in the form of a guide who was climbing just around the corner and happened to have Wilderness First Responder training.

I learned all this a few days later after pervasive short-term memory loss finally subsided as the swelling in my cranium went down. I had broken my neck and was lucky not to be paralyzed. I had to have vertebrae fused with metal plates and screws. Several fractured ribs and lower back compression fractures added to the mist of pain.

The brain damage was by far my most challenging injury. Before my fall, I had savant-like verbal skills, having won many debate tournaments in high school and college. Now I struggled to remember basic words and phrases.

But perhaps the most traumatic wound from the accident didn’t happen to me. As my belayer, Kirsten had to witness it all. She’s relived it a thousand times and suffered countless nightmares. Yet through it all, she stood by me and nursed me back to health. She’s continued to support me climbing, even defending me when my grandmother threatened to take me out of her will if I ever climbed again.

As Kirsten continued her role as life belayer, I somehow found motivation for recovery in a strange place: climbing. Many family members, friends, and coworkers struggled to understand why I’d even think about a return to the sport that had almost killed me, but I didn’t remember my fall at all. All I knew was climbing was what motivated me to make my comeback.

After months of wearing a neck brace, dozens of therapy sessions, and countless hours of watching climbing videos, I was finally starting to recover some strength and ability to enjoy the outdoors, although I hadn’t dared to do any climbing yet.

That would change quickly. Kirsten and I moved into a new house right next to Scott Carson and Melissa Quigley, completely by chance. Scott is co-owner of the climbing shop International Mountain Equipment and a guru of hard desert splitters, at least those large enough to fit his Jimmy Dean fingers in. Melissa is an even more talented climber, although she’d chosen other athletic pursuits, such as mountain biking, in her middle-aged years.

Perhaps out of pity for Kirsten, Scott and Melissa took me under their wings, promising my worried wife I’d stay safe and learn to climb with limited risk. Scott introduced me to parallel-sided cracks in the San Rafael Swell and at Indian Creek, helping me progress quickly with a wealth of technique coaching and giving me unlimited “lending privileges” of his enormous rack of cams.

Scott’s attention to detail, reassuring personality, and undying loyalty put Kirsten at ease. And, his hundreds of desert first ascents inspired me to want to find my own routes to put up. I was particularly impressed by one line Scott pioneered in North Wash, south of Hanksville. Trail of Tears is one of the most iconic and gorgeous splitters in the desert. Its second pitch is an immaculate one-inch finger crack that slightly overhangs, with no features, for 120 feet. Scott made the six-hour drive from Salt Lake dozens of times to make the first ascent, tearing the skin off his fingers many times before eventual success. He rated the line 5.13-.

It wasn’t long till I had found my own new, much easier routes to establish, and Scott belayed me on my inaugural handful of Wingate sandstone first ascents. I’ve been obsessed ever since, although I’ve still not sent my Trail of Tears. (I have found it though, but I’m not telling you where it is.)

It was through the lens of climbing—and with partners like Scott, to whom I entrusted my life—that I started to create my own deeply personal connection with the landscape of what would become my life’s work, protecting a place that would become Bears Ears National Monument.

After twelve years of advancing in the professional communications world and hundreds of twelve-hour round trip drives to Cedar Mesa and Indian Creek, I decided it was time for a change. I couldn’t see myself dedicating another decade of my life at the advertising firm where I worked, the amount of time I guessed would be needed to make partner and be financially set for the rest of my life. I was also tired of burning so much carbon every weekend to drive across the full state of Utah to be where I really wanted to be.

To the surprise of her family, my city-girl wife was up for the change. So we moved our life to the middle of nowhere southeastern Utah, living on the Navajo Nation where Kirsten landed a teaching gig. I had built a good reputation in the public relations world, and I figured I could work anywhere with an internet connection. My goal was to work twenty hours a week, live simply, and adventure full time.

I did just that for about a year, climbing whenever I could find a partner and exploring remote canyons and cliff dwellings the rest of the time. I worked myself into the best shape of my life, sending my first and only 5.13 so far, the famous Tricks Are for Kids at Indian Creek. That was easy, compared to some of the puke-inducing sandstone test pieces I threw myself at, including the horrendous off-width on Texas Tower in Arch Canyon and first ascents on the Comb Ridge.

After a short stint living on “The Big Rez” near Mexican Hat, Kirsten and I moved to Bluff, where we found an eclectic but welcoming community. I quickly joined the volunteer fire department, and Kirsten started working at the iconic Recapture Lodge. I met Mark Meloy, the retired BLM river ranger who had founded Friends of Cedar Mesa. I had spare time and started to volunteer for the upstart conservation group.

After a few months of volunteering, Mark started working on me to take over the Friends group. He really wanted to be retired, and with all the threats to the landscape of southeastern Utah, the group needed a full-time leader. I rebuffed Mark’s entreaties for several months, knowing how much work nonprofits can be. After all, I had moved here to get away from seventy-hour workweeks making six figures. Who’d be crazy enough to work those kinds of hours to barely make a living wage?

Then one day, another injury would change my life again. Our fire department got a page to a trailer fire out on the reservation. There were only three of us in town, and we worked almost six hours to get that fire completely extinguished. At one point, I slipped in the mud and tore my groin. Back at home, I figured it would heal quickly, and I’d be climbing that weekend. That was a pipe dream.

After several months of re-injuring the groin trying to climb, I knew I needed a break from the sport I loved. Just about that time, one of my good friends in Bluff agreed that she’d put up my $30,000 salary for the first year if I’d take over Friends of Cedar Mesa. I needed something to distract me from my injury, and I’d developed a real passion for the landscape living in its midst for the last eighteen months.

“If not me, then who?” I said.

The lifeline connection on opposite ends of a rope—and family members—goes way back in Bears Ears. For decades archaeologists liked to talk about the “mystery” of how the Ancestral Puebloans built their homes in such high and inaccessible places. For nonclimbers, it’s understandable why people might ask the question, “How’d they get up there?”

Many ancient structures were built in ridiculously exposed spots for obviously defensive reasons. Often these cliff dwellings or granaries are located hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. However, they are frequently not that far below the cliff rim or out an exposed ledge.

From the first time I saw some of these high places, I just knew those guys had to be using ropes, at least to get started. Several locations I’ve visited would have been literally impossible to approach without ropes the first time. Even with modern sticky rubber, climbing down the sheer sandstone slabs from the top to the approach of a high site would have been attempted only by someone with a death wish. However, once belayed or rappelled to the site, one could carve hand and toeholds into the rock “ground up,” making future ascents and descents much more realistic.

As you read about in Len Necefer’s piece, my good friend and conservation mentor Vaughn Hadenfeldt, once a climber himself, grew tired of archaeologists pooh-poohing the idea of ancient ropes. He wrote a grant to National Geographic and hired a rope expert to weave a ten-millimeter cord out of yucca fiber. And Vaughn was brave enough to rappel off a cliff on Cedar Mesa to prove his point.

He then tracked down an artifact that was taken from Bears Ears National Monument (Comb Ridge to be more precise) back in the 1890s. It was the longest known yucca rope found in the Southwest, which was made by the Ancestral Puebloans. I was fortunate enough to see the incredible hundred-foot-long specimen this year at the American Museum of Natural History. Because Friends of Cedar Mesa supports research of perishable artifacts from Bears Ears, an archaeologist showed me this one-of-a-kind rope in a back room of the museum. I’ll never forget holding that ancient cord and admiring its sturdy construction.

The author with the yucca rope artifact from Comb Ridge, taken in the 1890s.

Back at home in Bluff, Utah, evidence of the technical prowess of Ancestral Puebloan climbers is all around me. Within a half mile of my house are a half-dozen sets of carved hand-and-toehold paths scaling the vertical sandstone cliffs. On Cedar Mesa, I’ve encountered stone-toolmaking sites perched on the most precarious of canyon walls. In the most remote areas of Bears Ears, I’ve found butte-top fortresses that would have been virtually impenetrable once climbed, as they would have been easy to defend by simply hurling rocks on invaders trying to make tricky moves below.

I find it difficult to explain to nonclimbers why this pursuit means so much to me. The intense feelings of accomplishment, enormous trust given to belayers, awe-inspiring vistas, and transcendental experiences are not easily communicated to someone who hasn’t “been there.” Yet those of us who’ve been tested by desert splitters and irrational choss-aneering adventures don’t have to explain ourselves to each other. There’s a common understanding that goes beyond words. Those shared experiences create a connection in our community—a connection I feel crosses the depths of time, going back to those original indigenous climbers who pioneered ascents on such features as the Comb Ridge, Bridger Jack Mesa, and Arch Canyon.

My Pueblo and Hopi friends, who are the descendants of the ancient climbers of this region, believe the spirits of those brave people still inhabit sacred sites scattered all throughout this cultural landscape. We show those spirits and modern indigenous people respect by visiting cultural sites and this entire landscape with a soft spirit, a quiet voice, and leaving everything where we find it.

But visiting with respect is not really enough. We climbers have a responsibility to the land that goes beyond picking up our own trash and building trails no one will use but us. While some savvy marketers would have us believe that buying outdoor gear makes us activists, a good friend of mine, Zak Podmore, recently reminded me that “it’s not an act of conservation to go ‘send the gnar’ at The Creek.”

As I’ve gained gratitude for being able to experience wild places on the sharp end myself, I’ve felt compelled to give back to the land. But because this land isn’t just another wilderness—it’s chock-full of evidence of those who came before us—conservation here can’t be just about activism and policy. There’s a more human element of learning how to stand with and behind the coalition of Native American tribes fighting for Bears Ears. That takes an element of humility I’m still just beginning to learn, knowing that my recreation-based experiences cannot rival the deeply spiritual, traditional, and generational connections of indigenous people.

Nonetheless, the experiences, lessons, and growth this landscape has provided make it well worth me sacrificing time, money, comfort, and professional opportunity to do what I can to fight for this endangered, underfunded, overvisited, and politicized landscape. And, I hope every climber who loves Indian Creek and this broader area will ask themselves what they might be willing to do.

The Bears Ears region stands as a place all Americans can support preserving for future generations. But I believe climbers have a particularly important role to play. Our larger culture increasingly sees climbers as inspiring, giving us an outsized voice compared to our numbers. Without our involvement, we risk losing opportunities for wild, remote climbing adventures unspoiled by pumpjacks, irresponsible ATV drivers, and disrespectful visitors. More important than our selfish motivations, our voices are needed to help preserve a proud climbing heritage started thousands of years ago by America’s first technical climbers and their bold yucca-sandal ascents.

Josh Ewing is executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa. He’s a crack climbing addict, firefighter, and landscape photographer.

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About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published six books: The Desert,  Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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