December 12, 2012

Local Heroes Ch.3 Brian Smoot

Courtesy Brian Smoot- 1978, 18 year old Brian, 2000' up, Roof- Salathe Wall, Yosemite

November 8, 1997 was a cool morning with the autumn leaves shining in glory. Eric Badger and I were moving up Tingey's Terror in Little Cottonwood, when this guy with thick dark framed glasses came up behind us having placed maybe one piece the entire route below him. While he waited for his companion to join, he introduced himself to Eric and I as Brian Smoot. I immediately said "hey, wow, amazing, aren't you the author of that Wasatch climbing book?" He humbly confirmed.  That day he gave me a copy of the  Wasatch Rock Climbs book written by him and Les Ellison which was published in 1984. A 3-year project, this book was the third comprehensive Wasatch guide book of our time and details hundreds of routes that both you and I regularly enjoy.

Rewind back to 1972 and when it all began for Brian and his twin brother Jonathan at the ripe old age of 12. On a summer day Brian's older brother guided his two younger brothers, led by a trailing rope up Sunrise and then over to Salt Lake Twin Peaks. These two youngsters tasted high mountain travel in a time when there was hardly anyone stirring in the Wasatch Range.

It was this trip that hooked Johnathan and Brian. Brian's life would forever be enhanced. In those days the beta was extremely limited but pioneers like Ted Wilson and George Lowe were quickly putting up new routes throughout the Wasatch. Brian and Steve Aldous climbed the north face of Mount Olympus at 14 years old, by themselves without a rope.  As experience increased, their ever supportive mother would drive Brian and his brother to the Gate Buttress, drop them off and let their climbing imaginations run wild. Here they learned to climb, following a lean but important guide book called Desperate Grace, by Marshall Ralph and Dennis Turville.  Realizing that the potential lines were endless, the boys started working on new routes, putting them up in pure alpine style from the ground up, just like George Lowe.

These days mechanical cams weren't part of a trad rack, leaving their options to only passive protection or bolts.  Their quest for even bolder lines continued, however the fact that they couldn't yet drive limited their possibilities. The day finally came; they got their learners permits and the world expanded before their eyes. They knew their right of passage to climbing had to be big wall climbing.  At the age of 17 they took off and climbed Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park. Moonlight was only a stepping-stone as graduation week from Olympus High School was celebrated in their own way, climbing 6 big walls in Yosemite Valley without incident. They cheered their graduation summiting the North West face of Half Dome at the time of graduation commencement. They finished their trip off by successfully climbing the Salathe Wall of El Capitan with Rick Wyatt. Bare in mind, these are a couple of 18 year old boys, alone, only a rack with stoppers, hexes and tri-cams. This entailed huge runouts, and 5 long scary days. Royal Robbins called the Salathe Wall "The greatest rock climb in the world."

After multiple first ascents in the Wasatch Range,  these brothers set a crown jewel route of the range  in 1978. The Fin monolith on the north side of Little Cottonwood soars over head, showing a smooth and super steep hump almost like a fin jutting out of the back of a fish. When looking at the fin while coming down the canyon it appears like a vast sea of granite with impressive exposure on both sides of it. It is the hallmark image, even keystone of the Canyon. On a summer day Johnathan and Brian completed the first ascent of the Fin Arete and putting the 4-pitch route together. The route is super smooth, scary and a smearer's delight.  If you've ever climbed it you will concur it is bold to say the least. At 5.10b it calls out three stars and is a Wasatch Classic. Brian explains "the Dorsal Fin and Fin Arete routes were climbed more thirty years ago than they are today. The style of run outs and exposed climbing is not as sought out as it once was."

Realizing that many new routes had been established and a sincere desire to share information on the climbing possibilities in the Wasatch, Brian Smoot and Les Ellison went to work as a labor of love on the foundation of Wasatch guidebooks of today. Recording new ascents, information and writing the "Wasatch Rock Climbs" book was a consuming endeavor, to which we all owe a great deal of gratitude.

Between 1972 and today, Brian Smoot has first ascended more than 100 routes all either logged in the guidebooks or Mountain Project ranging from Parley's Canyon to Zions, Utah.  He has climbed over 35 big walls in Zions and Yosemite with some of them being first ascents. At the age of 52 he manages to climb once a week with either his daughter, his son, wife and of course Johnathan.  In fact just this year, Brian, his wife and two of his three children had a family outing climbing Ancient Art Tower in the Fisher Towers.  His life is balanced among owning a company (Signtech), raising his family and being a supportive loving husband. One of his first ascents of which he is most proud is Angel of Fear Santaquin, Utah likely the first grade 6 ice climb in Utah.  Rising 200 feet this pillar of ice offered very little protection at the time both he and Bill Robbins climbed it in 1985.

Brian feels blessed to have climbed with so many wonderful partners sharing the remote alpine rock one with another over nearly 37 years.  Imagine a time when the only routes being climbed in Lone Peak cirque were the Lowe route (one of Brian's all time favorites) and the Open Book. Imagine a time here locally, climbing a long time famous route ground up for the first time. It meant questions like "will this antiquated protection hold or do I have enough pieces of gear or what will the next move be like?" We can imagine as each of us touches the rock with our own hands and senses, feel that burning fear of the unknown, even though the route has been climbed many times. Each moment is ours, but remember those that came before. Those that had the "you know whats" to set the conventional aside, take a rudimentary rope, a few hexes and frail harnesses and embark upon the unknown all for the love of being in the mountains.  Those words of information we read in our guidebooks were written by the hands of those who have experienced what you and I are about to encounter but for the first time. Each letter is filled with the emotion of being there first. Thank you Brian Smoot and the many others that have and continue to share their insights of experience with us all!

By Chad Ambrose
Courtesy Brian Smoot- Crack in the Cosmic Egg- Mt. Moroni Zion National Park
Courtesy Brian Smoot- Father and Daughter in the beloved Wasatch

1 comment:

  1. Likewise, Thank You Brian for inspiring us, and for making a positive contribution to our beautiful mountains. Chad, awesome article and blog! It is refreshing to see your approach with this blog and your desire to open our eyes to some of Utah's greats. It is inspiring to see so many willing to give back to the mountains we all love so much.