Reid Dowdle Interview
Sauni Symonds: You have quite a reputation as a climber in the Elephant's Perch area and Idaho in general. Today's climb was probably not your hardest. Tell us how it went today.
Reid Dowdle: I've done this particular climb - I was trying to think today - maybe 15 times in the last 30 years or so. I used to think of it as a warm-up climb but now that I don't climb quite as much anymore it's more of the hard climb of the year.
It was a little harder than I thought it would be today and I was hoping to climb a little better but I did okay. You can't expect to go up on a climb when you are older when you only climb 15 days a year and climb like you did when you were 20 and you were climbing 100 days a year.
Symonds: When did you discover the Elephant's Perch, and what was your first climb like?
Dowdle: It was about 35 years ago. Came up here and tried to do a route. We didn't really realize how big it was and we only got about half way up and then we came down.
The first one we actually got up was a free and aid climb right up the middle. I'm looking at it right now. Up kind of the prow of the Perch. We climbed about 4 or 5 pitches and then a pitch of aid climbing and it was really frightening and we didn't want to repeat it. It was getting late so we ended up spending the night hanging in our harnesses up on the wall. Just a jacket and just hung there all night. It was a very long night. And we completed the climb the following morning and we were really tired and dehydrated when we got back.
Symonds: What does that feel like to just hang up there overnight?
Dowdle: Well, a lot of times on the Perch and other climbs like in El Cap and places like that there are ledges. You can spread out and sometimes they're big enough you can walk around on but other times you have a hammock or porta-ledge. It's a small cot hanging from your gear. You pay attention to everything you do. Misplace one item or you don't clip it in and it can be gone very quickly and you are very aware of every move you make. It's cool. You get all situated and you get in your sleeping bag and as long as the weather isn't moving in it's really cool.
Symonds: Tell me about some of the routes you've developed up here.
Dowdle: I often when I do climbs up here you never know if they've been done before. Sometimes you find gear up on the climb, sometimes you don't. If I do a climb that I really enjoyed and think other people would really enjoy it and I would be willing to do it again I usually draw up a topo or a map of it and then I take it in to the 2 stores that kind of have these collections of topographic maps of the climbs. I've never put my name on any of them, I just, you know, here's my feeling is here's a climb, here's a map if you want to use it you can. Most people like to use maps and so they have a good idea of what kind of climbing they will find.
I like to go out and just pick a line on a cliff and go up it. Sometimes you find out it has been done before. A lot of times you never know and a lot of times they haven't been done.
Symonds: What are some of the names?
Dowdle: Beyond the Zero, Lost Horizon, Chasing the Mojo, The Seagull, Slip Stream, Pandemonium Palace.
Symonds: Why do you climb?
Dowdle: It's a fun mental and physical chess game to me. We're not saving the world, we're not doing anything important at all. In a way it is like somebody else playing golf or bowling or whatever. It's just a hobby. I'm not a guide or professional climber or anything. I have a family at home and a business. It's just - I don't know - I began doing it when I was really young and it just feels like something I will always do. It's enjoyable usually and it's just fun.
Symonds: It's not golf or bowling.
Dowdle: It's a hobby or it's a sport just like golf or bowling might be to other people.
Symonds: I think there is a little more risk in rock climbing.
Dowdle: Okay, it's probably more like white water kayaking or para-gliding or whatever but I don't do it for the adrenalin or anything. If I come back from a climb and I'm all shaken up and got myself into a really bad fix that means I screwed up.
Symonds: When you are up there and feel a little bit of fear creeping in , how do you deal with that?
Dowdle: You just recognize it for what it is and you get very good as a climber assessing whether that fear is real or not. You take any non-climber and you put him on a cliff and they are very afraid. It's natural. As you become more familiar with climbing gear and climbing techniques a lot of that fear - once you learn to trust the equipment and the ropes and everything else a lot of that fear is not rational. The ropes and the gear and all that, you can fall. You can afford to screw up and fall and that gear will protect you.
Symonds: Have you ever had a bad fall?
Dowdle: Oh, I've had many falls, but not many bad falls. I broke a leg a long time ago when I hit the ground from a small climb. Of course - I do go sport climbing believe it or not and I've taken of course many falls then. I think when I was young I took quite a few 20 and 30 footers and that was kind of frightening. And I think the fear comes later on when you think back and you realize that one piece of gear, one little tiny piece of metal or one piece of rope was all that kept you from really getting hurt.
Symonds: How does the Elephants' Perch compare to other climbing areas in the country?
Dowdle: This is a specific type of climbing area. It's kind of a back country - not quite a wall but a little bigger than a crag. It's a back country granite wilderness climbing. Most of the climbs up here are 6 to 12 pitches long so they're not something you go up and usually do in an afternoon. It can be but the harder climbs are full day climbs and you come back and you are tired.
Compared to other areas in the country that have pieces of rock like this - the Incredible Hulk in California in the Sierras is one thing I compare it to and it is similar. It is steeper rock maybe but the camping area is a little more barren. It is much more alpine up there. There are very few trees around.
This area in addition to the rock of course is just the real mellow hang here with the water, the fish if you like to fish. This is real pleasant hanging out here. You're not real high elevation. The Sawtooths are a pretty moderate range in elevation so you don't have these arctic weather fronts moving through and it doesn't get freezing cold at night so you can just spend days and weeks up here.
Symonds: How has gear changed since you really got into climbing?
Dowdle: Originally, we climbed up here with chocks, with nuts threaded with rope and you would wedge them in the crack and clip your carabiners to them. When that wouldn't work you would have a piton. You would pound a piton with a hammer into a crack and you would clip your carabiner through that and run your climbing rope through the carabiner. It took a lot more work because you had to kind of stabilize and you often had to have both hands free to do that and it took a while to fiddle around with the chocks or the nuts to wedge them in the crack.
In the late 70s I think they came out with camming devices and a lot of people are familiar with these. They are spring loaded kind of devices that you would tract a cable or a stem on it and put it in the rock and it expands to fill in, to touch the rock and when you pull out it exerts an outward force so it holds really, really well if you put it in the right kind of placement. With those kinds of devices you can kind of stuff them in a crack a lot quicker. You don't have to fiddle - sometimes you do but most of the time you can just kind of stuff them in a crack and you don't have to spend as much time fiddling around with them - and they fit in a lot of cracks that nuts would not fit in. So they would make a lot of the climbing up here that was fairly dangerous and unprotected, they make it now so that it's not as big a deal if you were to fall.
A rack of old climbing gear probably would weigh double what a similar rack would weigh now. Carabiners are a third the weight of the ones that we used to climb with and often we climbed with a piton rack and a piton of course is a big hunk of metal, very heavy metal, and a hammer. We just had all kinds of gear.
Symonds: Compare traditional climbing, the way you like to climb, to sport climbing.
Dowdle: I think it is probably a generational thing. I got into climbing because I just like being in the mountains and spending time in the mountains. Also began as a caver actually. I began actually technical caving when I was about 10 years old and then I got into climbing when I was about 13 - so that's been a while.
I grew up in Georgia and I spent all my winters caving, doing technical caving and I think when you are a young kid and go in caves the whole idea of caving you just go explore. You crawl through a narrow crawlway, you come to a big room and you look around and look up on the wall and see a little hole and you say let's go over there and see where that goes and just kind of explore. I think that's what I have carried into climbing. It just doesn't seem like that many people are into that too much. There are a few people around who like to explore but I think nowadays the younger generation is more - well, this is a generalization but it seems like most of them are into the athletic gymnastic aspect of it, the sport climbing end of things where it's like all the difficulties or the dangers are taken care of for you - the bolts and sometimes a rock that has been scrubbed and cleaned and all that and they can just do nothing but climb as hard as you possibly can.
You don't have to worry about getting caught in the weather, you don't have to worry about your protection pulling out if you fall. You just push your gymnastic abilities as far as you possibly can. That type of climbing receives the most attention. It's in the news. If you are a climber it's in the news. It seems to be an emphasis on that end of climbing more than anything.
Symonds: Have you climbed everything that you wanted to climb?
Dowdle: Well, boy. No, I'm always seeing photos of climbs that look really cool or hearing about climbs that I really want to do. Yeah, I'll always find new things I want to do.
Symonds: What advice would you give a young climber on their first trip to Elephant's Perch?
Dowdle: Be careful. No - #1 is I think people nowadays who climb in very popular areas, they get used to grabbing on the holds and just expecting them to remain there. The Perch isn't known or the Sawtooths aren't generally known for bad rock - bad meaning you reach up and grab a hold, it comes off in your hands - but being an alpine area that has the freeze and thaw going on in the winter there is just a lot of fractured rock and you have to develop a habit of banging on things with your hand and if you grab something and you cut your feet loose or something like that - although that's kind of rare up here - you better make sure it is a good hold.
Anytime you grab a flake or anything, you look around and see if there's a crack going around. You just kind of - I call it backing up and not just concentrating purely on the movement but your area of awareness is a little bigger. You look around you a little more.
Symonds: This is such a special area. How do we take care of it?
Dowdle: All you can do is educate people and get everybody on board. You can pass all the rules and laws you want. It can't be enforced other than by self-compliance so you have to tell people if there are issues in an area. You have to inform people what is going on and that is really the only way. They just take care of it themselves. I think climbers are generally pretty good stewards of the land but like any user group it's just sometimes the numbers of them has an impact on the land. If you are going to have people use a wilderness area certainly having them travel on solid granite has got to be the least amount of impact possible but it is often just the camping and everything else that goes along with it that creates problems.
Symonds: We did a relatively short climb on the Elephant's Perch.
Dowdle: The majority of the climbs are maybe 800 to 1,100 feet tall. This particular climb was only about 450 or 500 feet tall. It doesn't detract anything from it because of the length but the stunning thing about this climb is it follows basically a single crack, a single feature up a really very vertical part of the perch. The rock is absolutely perfect and generally you are just climbing in one crack that goes straight up the wall in a corner in what is called an open book or a dihedral so that you have a crack and then you have 2 walls - one to the right, one to the left that meet at a 90 degree angle most of the time.
The crack you can put your finger - jam your fingers in or jam your hand in and this is what happens if you don't tape up. And there are lots of tricks to jamming. A lot of climbers don't particularly like crack climbing but it is a bunch of learned techniques that make it happen and that way of course when you are climbing a crack you can put in your own protection and as you go up if you lead and the second person removes it as they come up.
Generally when you climb with somebody you swap leads. One person will lead a pitch and then - you don't have to. One person can lead the whole climb. If you are up with a beginner or somebody who is not feeling well you can lead every pitch. Ideally, I guess an ideal partner is somebody you can just switch leads with whenever you want and so you get kind of a break.
When you are leading a pitch, when you go up first the potential for falling and possibly getting hurt is much greater. When you are following, you have a tight rope going from you up above to your belayer it still feels a little scary sometimes but you know that really nothing much can happen as long as the rope is going straight up to your belayer and not off on an angle.
So anyway just take turns basically or like I said if you don't feel like leading a pitch, you're not really up for it, you are feeling a little worked or tired or whatever, you can go well, why don't you lead it? And just work it out.
Symonds: You love this place, you want to protect it and yet here we are doing a story on it that a lot of people are going to see. How does that make you feel?
Dowdle: Elephant's Perch isn't secret. Every climber in the country I think has heard of it. I think the thing that brings a lot of people is if you publish a guide book. If people can walk into a store and plunk down 20 dollars and have a guide book with directions telling them everything, where to go and how to do it - and of course now you have the internet. There is a lot of information out there on the internet. If you go on the internet and read some comments people have made of Idaho and this area in particular, it's still very difficult to find reliable information about most of the climbs.
Some of the climbs are well documented, there are popular ones and on that you can find information about it but the majority of them are not - people have to do a little digging to find out information about it.
Yes, I want to protect it, and I'm sure that is typical of anybody who has a special part of the geographical area that they really like. They want to share it with other people but then you don't want to go overboard. If you are a back country powder skier you have a secret little shot through the trees that you like to do after every storm it wouldn't be a good idea to draw directions and maps and then post them on the internet or in a guidebook if you want to continue enjoying that area. It's not about not wanting to share or not liking people. It's about you value the wilderness experience more so than I guess the recreational part of it possibly? It's hard to describe. I think some people don't understand, they don't appreciate the wilderness experience unless you spend a lot of time in it and sometimes the recreational experience takes precedence over the wilderness experience.