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The Laura Moore Cunningham

Brad Brooks Interview
Elephants Perch

Brad Brooks

Sauni Symonds: Explain where we are right now.
Brad Brooks:
I'm not exactly sure what the elevation but you are about 8,500 feet, 8,000 feet in elevation. You are right in central Idaho, some of the most beautiful mountains and I would say in the Western United States and this is one of the best rock formations you can climb on if you are a rock climber.

Symonds: Why is it one of the best rocks you can climb on?
There are a lot of things - rock quality is spectacular so if you are a rock climber there are a few things you look for in good routes. Number 1 is good rock quality because that's your life line. You have to have good rock that doesn't have a lot of loose blocks that can be dangerous. In terms of size this is a really tall piece of rocks and so people who are looking for long alpine climbing routes, there isn't anything that is quite as long and big as the Elephant's Perch.

Symonds: You were saying this is some of the best climbing in America.
I think so. That's a personal judgment but I've talked to people around the world who have climbed here and there are a lot of people who say that Elephant's Perch, some of the routes they've done on the Elephant's Perch are some of the best routes they've climbed anywhere in the world.

I've climbed in Europe, I've climbed in Asia and I don't think you can find - in terms of granite rock climbing - anywhere that has better routes than on the Elephant's Perch. There are great routes in a lot of different places around the west. That's my opinion.

Symonds: Is that what makes it unique?
I think one thing that makes it unique is the surroundings and the setting. This is gorgeous. Look around you. You have beautiful lakes, you have jagged peaks all around you and relative to some of the other really great epic climb destinations in the west, they're in California, and there are people everywhere. We think that 10 people is a lot in Idaho. That really isn't very busy.

So you have phenomenal rock climbing, you have a gorgeous setting and you just can't beat it.

We're in the wilderness if you hadn't noticed. Wilderness is a great place to recreate and it's one of the - I love recreating in wilderness. I love to climb in wilderness but it requires a little bit of extra effort. If this were next to the highway it would be a circus but you have to hike a few miles to get back in here and some people aren't willing to put in the effort. And that's what makes it even more special.

Symonds: Describe how to get here.
Coming in here? So to get in here there are a couple of ways. The easiest way is to take the boat across the end of Red Fish Lake and you hike up Red Fish inlet creek and then there is no marked path coming up here. It's a climber and a hiker's trail that you have to find so there's a bit of adventure in just getting up here. And if you've ever climbed up here the Elephant's Perch, it's not an easy hike and it's not for the novice hiker. It is a steep trail that is loose and rocky and requires some effort. So just getting up here alone is somewhat of a reward.

Then you get up here and you are rewarded by some of the most stunning views I think in all of Idaho. This is one of my favorite places in all the Sawtooths. And then you have the Elephant's Perch to top it off. So even if there was no climbing up here this would still be a wonderful place to come to.

Symonds: Talk about climbing access, and how bolting change the way people climb.
There was some controversy before my time about the appropriateness of bolting - permanent bolts being drilled into rock. That was a big issue. I think the Elephant's Perch was actually the epicenter of the bolting issue nationwide. There are some people who feel that in wilderness you shouldn't be allowed to have mechanized equipment to put in bolts or you shouldn't be allowed to leave permanent anchors.

Certainly anytime you are dealing with a manners situation you have to use a serious level of common sense and I think today people still climb at the Perch, they still enjoy it and it is still a great place to climb despite the controversy.

Symonds: What is the issue with bolting rocks like this? Why is it a problem? What is the option?
I suppose whether or not it is a problem depends on who you ask. Climbers are as diverse as any group. There are a lot of different opinions. Some people are really into the traditional style of climbing where they don't believe that bolts - you should climb a route as it was intended to be climbed. You should only use protection that you can take out of the cracks and you shouldn't have to place bolts because it detracts from the aesthetics of an area. And certainly that was how - when rock climbing first started that's how people climbed - they put gear in, sometimes they left some gear but a lot of times they took gear out.

And then you have the newer generation of sport climbers come in and they were drilling bolts in the rock and climbing things that people - that were unclimbable for many, many years.

And so you have these two different sects of climbers coming together and they didn't necessarily agree on what climbing ethics should be. And I think that debate to some degree still goes on today.

There are a lot of other issues - cultural resource issues certainly with native tribes around drilling in rock but the biggest debate so far today has been around a different opinion in what the ethics of climbing should be and what is appropriate.

Symonds: How long have you been climbing at the Elephant's Perch?
I've been climbing Elephant's Perch for 6 years. In fact Reid and I today did the route, the first route I ever did on the Perch. We did the first part of it today. It wasn't planned that way but it was actually the first multi-pitch route I ever did, the route we did today.

Tomorrow we're going to be climbing the Sunrise Book. It is a gorgeous open book climb, beautiful hand cracks on beautiful orange granite. It's going to be a lot of fun. I can't wait. I haven't been up there in a few years and it's going to be a blast.

Symonds: What makes Sunrise Book unique on the Perch?
Every climb is unique in its own way. Different style of climbing, the movement, the belay stances, you react differently to each route, the exposure, all those factors come into play and certainly the difficulty of the climb. This is probably a classic route on the Perch because it has - if you're a crack climber as Reed and I are we look for those perfect hand cracks and this is about as perfect a hand crack as you can find on the Elephant's Perch. And it has a little bit of hard climbing which some of us like to do occasionally as well.

Symonds: Once you get to the top what do you see?
When you get to the top you get a phenomenal view. You can actually see all the way down to Red Fish Lake, you can see the lodge. You feel like you are on top of the entire Sawtooths. You get a great panoramic view of all the peaks. It's an incredibly barren environment up there. Not much grows up there, it's kind of windy, you have a few wild raspberry bushes but it is also extremely beautiful.

Symonds: Why do you climb?
It's hard to explain why I climb and a lot of my family members ask me the same thing. To a nonclimber it's nearly impossible to help somebody try to understand why you climb. But you learn more about yourself physically and emotionally and how you react to your emotions when you are doing long alpine routes than any other way in life. For me it's that way at least. You learn about how you react to fear and whether or not you can control your own fears in a healthy way. I don't do this for anybody else. I'm certainly not doing it for money. I'm not doing it so I can look cool. It's all about personal growth and I feel like the skills that I learn on the rock are applicable to my personal life, my work life, staying calm in difficult situations.

You have to do it a lot. There are a lot of times when you have to - as Reed and I were talking about yesterday - you have to reach deep down inside you and find that inner peace at the moments when you most want to freak out but you don't have that option and a lot of people don't have that ability. But you learn a lot about yourself.

Symonds: You definitely have to be a risk taker.
The way I look at it is every day you wake up and you make decisions. You access risk in every aspect of your life whether or not it's professional life, your personal life and you make a decision based on the best information you have but we all assess risk all the time and rock climbing is no different. When you are up there and you know what you are capable of, you know what your gear is capable of it's all about assessing the situation, assessing the risk and making a decision. Sometimes the decision is to go back down because it is unsafe and you need to be able to do that.

A good rock climber - you know you have the physical strength, you have to have the physical strength. That's a given but a good rock climber is not just physically strong. You have to be mentally strong as well and you always have that little voice in the back of your head that is telling you that you don't belong here and that you should go back down. And whether or not you listen to it, that's really what makes a good rock climber - someone who understands that voice and knows when they are in an unsafe situation or knows that things are safe, you're just a little scared because you are 1,000 feet off the ground right now and you know that you can keep going. And when you push yourself to those new heights it's the best feeling in the world. There's no greater sense of satisfaction knowing you've conquered your fear like that.

The first time I ever got to the top of Elephant's Perch was like euphoria for me and I've been hooked ever since. I couldn't imagine spending my life doing anything else.

Symonds: What qualities make up a rock climber?
If you are talking about being an alpine rock climber, someone who is going to climb the Perch you have to have some level of physical fitness and physical strength but certainly the best rock climbers I've climbed with weren't the strongest rock climbers. They are the people who have that healthy dose of reality in their head at all times and they know when they are in an unsafe situation. They also can be bold when they need to be under safe circumstances. They have complete trust and faith in their partner so that's a key - you have to trust your partner because they are your lifeline. If you don't trust your partner, and I've been in situations where I've climbed with people once and never talked to them again or climbed with them again. And you need to be able to make that decision of not climbing with somebody. And it's not personal but you just can't trust them.

Symonds: Because it really is team work?
It absolutely is. Your partner keeps you going. A good partner - so you have strength, you have mental capacity to understand your own fears and what that fear is doing to your brain chemistry. You also have somebody that you want to spend time with because you are hanging out with somebody on the rocks so you have to enjoy being with that person as well. Then you have to have complete and utter trust in them - that if you fall and when you fall because you do fall sometimes - that they are going to catch you. If you don't have those things then I won't climb with somebody who doesn't have those 3 characteristics.

Symonds: How does the grading system work and what is Sunrise rated?
The Yosemite decimal system goes back to the days of Yosemite and it starts at - there is gosh, first , second, third, fourth and fifth class climbing. First class would be walking down a paved road all the way up to fifth class which is more or less vertical, right? The easiest way I can describe it and most technical rock climbing starts at about fifth class climbing. That would be where you'd want to put on a harness and rope up for most people, right?

Hard climbing in my opinion - and I come from a little bit different generation, a little bit younger generation - hard climbing starts I think at about 5.10, what we call five point one zero and then it goes 5.10A, B, C, D and then it goes to 5.11 or what we call five eleven and it progresses all the way up to 5.15B or C right now is what the top rock climbers in the world are climbing. But 5.12 is universally regarded as pretty advanced rock climbing and the route we're going to do tomorrow is rated 5.12A or B so if you were to do it completely - what we call free climbing - bottom to top without falling it would be about 5.12A or B.

Symonds: Do people free climb Sunrise?
They do free climb Sunrise. Most people do not. You can also do what we call aid climbing through it. You can clip a piece of gear and pull on the gear through the hard section and then it is only rated about 5.10. The free climbing sections are about 5.10 but people do free climb it. I'm going to give it a go tomorrow so I'll see how it goes.

Symonds: How do you prepare for the climb tomorrow? What time do we start?
I don't wake up in the morning without a good cup of coffee in my hand no matter what I'm doing so that is first thing. We'll get up early, we'll need to be up there right at first light. It is an east facing climb so it gets sun early so it's going to be warm. We don't want to be up there too late in the day so we'll get up, leave camp hopefully around 7 o: clock. It will probably take about an hour to get up there in the morning. We'll be good and warm by the time we get there, maybe stretch out a little bit and then we'll take off on the climb. We'll rack up, get the rope ready, Reed and I will tie into the ends of the rope, check each other's harnesses, check our knots, do all the safety checks, give each other a high five and take off.

Symonds: How long does it take?
Well, a day but I think it will probably take us 4 or 5 hours to climb.

Symonds: Explain the different types of climbing you could do on this rock.
Okay, so there is aid climbing which is more or less you are placing gear in a crack or you are clipping bolts and you have what are essentially these cloth ladders and you are stepping into the ladder, stepping up in it, holding on, placing another piece of gear and then clipping another cloth ladder and stepping up into that one and going up that way so it's a slower process and that was how a lot of these routes were first put up, through aid climbing.

As gear advanced, as we had better and lighter gear and equipment and especially cams it really changed climbing in a lot of ways. Then the next big thing was the free climb routes and essentially free climbing is climbing from the bottom to the top without ever falling. So you are placing gear, you still have a rope, you still have a harness, you are placing gear as you go but if you free climb which is the big prize for climbers, it essentially means you don't fall - which is not to be confused with free soloing which is climbing without a rope.

Symonds: But you are using a lot more strength really.
Free climbing is what I really love to do. I don't do much aid climbing. Maybe later in life I'll do more aid climbing but for me, the thing I love to do the most is free climb because that really pushes my mental and physical limits more than anything else. For me it is the hardest thing I can do safely.

Symonds: Do climbers take care of the environment they use?
Most of the people that I've come across, that I know who climb are people who have some level of consciousness about their impact on the environment. Certainly there are many people who don't necessarily care but I would say the majority of folks I meet who are climbers are people who understand that we have an impact on our environment and it is up to us to be aware of it and do what we can to mitigate that impact.

Symonds: What are some of the ways you do that?
A place like this is tough. I think one of the biggest issues here has to do with the amount of people who come here and use the area. Any time you have people in a very small isolated area you're going to have resource issues, particularly from human waste. The lovely gentleman on our trip is doing - we try and carry out our waste as much as we can. Another thing too is you try to talk to people who are doing things that are having resource impacts whether it is building a fire next to the lake or - there are a variety of things you can do but it is a little bit difficult in an alpine environment. There is going to be an impact when you have people up here. It's just a matter of trying to make it a sustainable use.

Symonds: What is your advice to a new climber coming to the Elephant's Perch for the first time?
If you are new to climbing and you don't have a lot of experience my first bit of advice would be go with somebody who is more experienced than you because while you might be really strong and you might climb really well at your local climbing gym it's a whole different ball game out here.

When you are in the wild there is no one around to help you out if you get in trouble. So you need to be prepared for anything that could happen. The weather can change in an instant here, you could be half way up the Elephant's Perch and a lightning storm could come in. You need to know how to get down safely. You also need to have some basic knowledge of self rescue and knowing how to rescue your partner if they become hurt.

There are some basic climbing skills you need to have that you don't learn from cragging at the City of Rocks or going to your climbing gym that is really best learned from somebody who has more experience than you. So a little dose of humility doesn't hurt.