The Modernization of the Offwidth

In the summer of 2000 I had finished my first year of college in rather unceremonious fashion, and lacking any direction is life other than climbing and my girlfriend spent the summer living out of my Subaru, half climbing in South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado and half skulking around her house in Iowa while she worked a summer research job.  That summer was the beginning of the end of my career as a rock climber, because even though virtually all my best ascents were ahead of me those months on the road convinced me that the life of a climbing bum was not for me.

Mr. Scarpelli.  See the big version on Alex Elkins’ excellent blog.

Bob Scarpelli played a large role in that.  Bob was a climbing legend then, though not nearly as much as he is now.  American rock climbing in general was just beginning and Sharma and Graham driven resurgence, and trad climbing was still firmly a basement dweller.  I began climbing before the invention of commercial crashpads, in what was both the beginning on the gym revolution and the end of the 80s sport climbing movement.  People took climbing rather seriously, didn’t boulder much, and the fact that my early partner in crime Adam and I were interested in trad and crack climbing was quite aberrant.  Today, bouldering is king, crashpads are expensive (I’ve still got a Cordless I bought for $110), and the number of top climbers who are true all-arounders in a way not seen since the 70s makes me very happy.

I spent a good chunk of time during that summer with Kris Hampton and Ray Ellington, climbing in Vedauwoo.  Kris and Ray were outspoken trad climbers from Cincinnati, at a time when the Red River Gorge was not yet an international destination and whose top levels climbers tended to be a bit one-dimensional (Katie Brown as teenage comp queen rather than the trad and big wall free climber she is today, I met her at Miguel’s while we were both still in high school and my teenage crush would not even let me get near her).  Kris and Ray were pushing hard offwidths in the Red, which was a truly esoteric activity for just about any climbing areas in the US.  They were in Vedauwoo that summer to climb hard cracks, I thought they were fun to climb with, and saw no reason I shouldn’t tag along and get in over my head.

Not the best video, but gives a good idea of the nonsense involved with these things.  Fantastic fun once you get the techniques down.

I had no clue how to climb anything other than a perfect hand crack, and going bouldering with them on my first day out opened doors to new ways of looking at rock, and had me really climbing for the first time.  Unlike face climbing, offwidth climbing and especially offwidth roof climbing gives you no space to fuck around.  You either go full gas committed, or you fall off.  Trying, and eventually climbing, things like Life Without Parole and The Biggest Tits in Country Music put me on the road which would get me up V8 and 5.13 in the next few years: the road of realizing that even if I was not the strongest or most gifted climber, I could still do well by trying really damn hard.  Harder than I thought I could.

Scarpelli on Life Without Parole during our trip in 2000.  Photo by Kris Hampton.  Utterly flumouxed on that occasion, I had to come back on another trip to finish it off.  Yes you have to get back upright in the course of topping out.

As a climber enjoying his retirement from the sport (ha!), I’ve been particularly pleased to see the rise of offwidth climbing in popularity and notoriety.  A decade ago it would have been inconceivable for a pair of foreign talents to spend years obsessing about and training for the best of American offwidths, and then tearing it up on a road trip, repeating virtually everything in a matter of weeks.  But that’s exactly what has happened this fall.  It’s long been true that climbers on vacation tend to exceed the achievements of longtime locals, with the motivation of a deadline providing superior impetus.  Tom and Pete’s trip is a fantastic case study of this, and a performance which won’t be equaled anytime soon.  They even climbed the hardest offwidth in the country, and likely the first legit 5.14 offwidth on the planet.

Century Crack, Canyonlands.  Photo Alex Elkins.

Anyone interested in outstanding human performance and adventure would do well to follow this trip, and keep an eye for the video I’m sure will appear soonish.  And if you want to enjoy some baby versions of Century Crack, check out the Pothole Point trail in the Needles District.  We did some nice first ascents there back in the day.


1 thought on “The Modernization of the Offwidth

  1. A Vedauwoo. When I lived in Laramie in the early 80’s we thought of it as a great place to go drink beer. I was up there at a keg party sometime around ’84 and a friend was taking a climbing class at Univ of Wyo. He said “let’s go climb around a little and have some fun.” I was just buzzed enough to think it was a great idea. Long story short, I got myself into a situation where suddenly my buzz was gone and I was sure I would be dead soon. I was hands and knees on a little ledge and caught sight of the sheer drop below me. It’s a miracle to me now that I was eventually able to escape the state of pure terrified rigor mortis that kept me up there for at least most of an hour.

    No, I’m not a climber.

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