Carol Kotchek Interview
City of Rocks
Sauni Symonds: Tell me when you first discovered the City of Rocks and the type of climbing you started doing here.
Carol Kotchek: I started coming here in about 1978. I had spent one weekend with a friend in Yosemite learning a little bit about how to climb and we really didn't know what we were doing but we came down here. I don't even remember how I heard about it and we just started climbing. Here's some gear, climb, okay. You lead. Alright, I don't really know what I'm doing but I'll get the rope up there.
So we repeated a lot of the same routes over and over because those were the safest routes we could use our gear in them and I'd say for 3 or 4 years that was what I did down here.
Symonds: What kind of gear did you use?
Kotchek: I started with Hexes and stoppers at this time cams hadn't been invented yet but I wasn't using pitons, hammering in pitons. So we stuck to the cracks. I couldn't read a very difficult number grade. We did routes that were 5.7, 5.8. I wasn't brave enough to do harder climbs. Some people were more brave than me.
So that's how I got my start here and back then if you ran into a climber it was kind of a big deal because there just wasn't anyone here except for the southern Idaho groups that would come down here and party and run their ATVs all over the place and whatnot. So there was no designated camping and there were no climbers down here basically.
Symonds: So, it was pretty isolated.
Kotchek: Yeah. There was no climbing scene at that time really. I guess if you were in Yosemite maybe but other than that there was no scene. There just weren't that many climbers period.
Symonds: What got the ball rolling with the scene and people really starting to climb?
Kotchek: Somewhere in probably the early 80s the Europeans started what we call rap bolting which is rappelling down from the top and putting in protection that stays permanently in the rock so you can climb faces that we couldn't protect without gear and that sort of opened up a lot more terrain plus there was a big improvement in the gear. The shoes - they came out with this thing called sticky rubber so the shoes improved a lot and you can climb a lot harder routes. And they had many more different sized cams you could use.
So there was a big improvement in gear, big improvement in the shoes and then they started this rap bolting thing in Europe. And that was not accepted at all actually in the U.S. right away because there was a climbing ethic. When you climb from the bottom up you didn't put your gear in from the top down and then climb. That was considered bad style.
Symonds: Like cheating?
Kotchek: Cheating. Yes. It was definitely considered cheating. But the problem was - I don't know if problem is the word - but the Europeans were surpassing in the difficulties they could climb. They had just jumped way ahead and of course Americans being Americans didn't like that either. In my opinion Smith Rocks in Oregon was the first climbing area to just say okay, we're not going to climb ground up. We've got all these faces with face holds, we can't put gear in it. We're going to put these bolts with bolt hangers in from the top down and we're going to do harder routes. That was really in my opinion the first place where they really started climbing 5.12s. And then that spilled over.
Symonds: That was kind of the beginning of sport climbing?
Kotchek: That was the beginning of sport climbing and that ethic spilled over to here. It's just my opinion - maybe others would not agree - that this was the second place to embrace that style of climbing, that cheating style of putting your gear in from the top down and it stays there permanently and then you climb that. So that was a big explosion.
And I personally - although a lot of people are against it - I personally really liked it because we'd been doing the same old tired climbs over and over and all of a sudden there were all these new climbs to do and everybody's level of climbing shot way up and it was exciting. There were people coming here from Europe, there were people from Salt Lake, Jackson. This was the happening place and there were all these famous climbers coming here. And there was just an energy that made my climbing improve a lot.
Symonds: This was what year?
Kotchek: About the mid-80s. If you look in the guide book a lot of the really 4-star sport climbing routes around here are from about 86 to the early 90s when those routes were put up.
Symonds: And then what happened?
Kotchek: The scene which is the very highest high end climbers did not really have - what would I say - emotional commitment to this place and wherever the next hot climbing area is, that's where they go. So they've done their projects here and they're on to the next place.
As far as the City of Rocks went, there came a point where there were some people who gathered together and they were starting to get concerned that it was going to become over-bolted and there were going to be just bolts everywhere - grid of bolts. So we decided to have this climbers meeting in the Almo School and at the time there was no park services, no one who made us have this meeting. We just decided as climbers to get together in the Almo School.
So people came from all over - Boise, Salt Lake. The people who really had more of a commitment here than just yeah, this is a scene to climb hard and now we've moved on. At this meeting we had every opinion from we want to chip holds to you need to wear neutral colored clothing. The one humorous thing about this meeting was we knew all the climbers would go on and on and talk too long so we had a little egg timer and you had one minute to talk and as soon as you started talking the one minute egg timer went on. But everyone gave their opinion and out of this meeting came a set of rules for the City of Rocks and those are the rules that are printed in front of Dave Bingham's guide book.
So I think that set the tone for this area. We wanted to have sport climbing but we didn't want every single face to be covered with bolts because aesthetically speaking we didn't think that would be good.
Symonds: Because back then it was BLM land, right?
Kotchek: Right. There was no regulation at all, there was no climbing ranger.
Symonds: So really the climbers helped protect this place?
Kotchek: Right. Yes, they did and really this place is not conducive to the really, really hard climbing of what most people like because it doesn't have a lot of really overhanging rock. So that scene moved on but what happened here is more people - it became an established climbing area.
Dave's guide books of course brought more people here and besides the climbing there were issues with erosion, with the trails and just really no regulation and there were a lot of land management issues. There was private property and I can't remember when it became a national reserve but that's when they started the climbing management plan. And there were climbers on that, there were land owners on that.
Symonds: The park service?
Kotchek: I think it was a bit of a voluntary - the park service pulled it together and the Access Fund had a lot to do with it of let's bring all the stakeholders together and figure out what we're doing here. And I feel that those meetings really have a lot to do with what the park is today. Let's get some good trails in, let's make this into a managed climbing area instead of a free-for-all.
Symonds: And what is the park today?
Kotchek: I have actually moved to Boulder, Colorado and I don't live in Idaho anymore but I've come back here probably every other year. My perspective is that it's a really well managed climbing area. I think it really sets a standard. Everyone I know who comes here - there are a lot of people from the Boulder area who come here and they just love it here. They just consider it to be very climber user friendly. You can be on a trail going to a crag and you know where you're going. You don't feel like you want to go off the trail. The camping is wonderful. You can walk from the camping. I personally like the fact that it's not one big camp ground. It's spread out all over. There's great bathrooms so you don't have people making a mess everywhere.
I like the fact that Almo, the little town down there has started to take advantage of us climbers and you can go down there and get on the internet. I just buy 15 different kinds of beer. I'm glad that they've picked up on that.
Symonds: It has changed a lot.
Kotchek: It has changed and I think it is kind of coming back into favor because a lot of people I know who did a lot of sport climbing at one point are coming back to doing a little bit more traditional climbing. And even though a lot of the climbs here are bolted I feel that they are a little bit old style bolted where the bolts are further apart and you might have to place gear in between the bolts and that's just more of a mental challenge.
I feel that the routes here are very aesthetic, much more so - like I go to Shelf Road and you've got a wall and just bolts, bolts, bolts, bolts and it's really fun. You get a great workout but here you'll have these beautiful rats and corners and just these incredible aesthetic lines that you don't get anywhere else. So if you put that together with the camping and weather and Almo and all that I think the City of Rocks is on the map and I think some people are coming back who climb - maybe not 5.13, 5.14 but the 5.12s - who want to come here and climb 5.11, 5.12. I think that it is here to stay and people are really psyched on it.
Symonds: You were one of the early women climbers.
Kotchek: Right. Yeah, I was thinking back.
Symonds: Talk about that and how women fit into the scene and how women climb differently than men.
Kotchek: If I look back at the late 70s there weren't very many climbers and there were very, very few women climbers and it would be funny because I remember going to Salt Lake once and climbing Little Cottonwood and every single guy there was like "Who are they?" And 2 women together was really unusual. So in that way I guess it was kind of fun.
I've never felt any sexism or anything. It's always been like hey, if you can get the rope up more power to you. I guess I'm the kind of person who just goes climbing and I'm not thinking very much about oh, either women or men or who. I'm more hey I want to do that line.
As far as my style and I think women in general, I know I personally don't have the kind of upper body strength that most women have.
I know that I don't have the same upper body strength as men so I can't just muscle my way up things. It's just not going to happen. I think that women generally - we do have a lower center of gravity for the most part so we're more climbing with our feet and balancing on our feet and women do usually tend to be more flexible so I tend to get the high foot and push with my foot. So I think women generally climb more gracefully and less brute strength which is the great strength of women climbers. And I think that's a better way to learn. I think people in general but especially men focus way too much on I have to get stronger, I have to get stronger and it is like well, maybe you just need better technique and a better strategy to climb harder. You're plenty strong. In that way I think women are maybe a little superior.
You still even to this day don't see as many women out on the really scary leads, the mental stuff. That doesn't mean there isn't going to be more.
Symonds: Talk about that. What is the hardest you've ever climbed?
Kotchek: The hardest thing I've done is Power Tools which is on the Morning Glory Spire. I kind of worked that through.
Symonds: What was that rated?
Kotchek: At the time it was 12b, now they've upgraded it to 12bc. Scary is really just - what would I say - relative. Of course if you've never climbed, everything is scary and what is scary to one person is easy to another. I did grow up in an era - we didn't have climbing gyms with bolts. I climbed before there were bolts and I think the first 5.10 I led was on the Elephant's Perch which is like an 8-pitch climb and a 5 mile hike to get in and that was just what you did those days.
So I think that does make you a little mentally tougher than starting in a gym - although I think if gyms had been around my grade would have shot up a lot more quickly. It's really what you seek out in your own climbing but there's a lot more opportunities. When I first started climbing and of course there are people before me. I'm a wimp compared to them but when I first started climbing you had to have a fair amount of bravery to just lead anything because we just had these hexes and stoppers and we didn't even really know what we were doing.
There's a lot more protection now but of course it is completely open to anyone who wants to do whatever. The high end is amazing, like Alex Honnold soloing Half Dome. The scale I think has become a lot larger. You have people at the entry level who start in gyms and if they go outside they want the bolts really close together. And then you have Alex out there soloing Half Dome.
Alex Arnold is almost an anomaly he's so far out there. It's like any generational thing I think. If you take anything - music, science, whatever - you get every next generation has a new vision. Look at Lynn Hill who free climbed the nose. She's not the young generation anymore but that was an incredible vision and at that time it was like - the older generation above her couldn't have imagined that anyone would ever solo the nose. My generation could never imagine that anyone would free solo Half Dome. I think it's like anything. You get the new generations and they have a new vision. And I think it's great because who wants to just listen to a bunch of old farts talking about the day. I'm really glad that there are all these young people who are inspired and doing some really inspiring things.
I actually do work for the American Alpine Club - little plug there - but we have this climbers meet in Yosemite every fall and the youngest we've had is 18 and the oldest we've had is 68 or 69 and everyone has the same passion. It's not like the 18 year olds will get the 69 year old going oh, you has-been, I don't need to talk to you. It's really great. I think that everyone can get together and have that same passion and feel like they're part of the community.
Symonds: Young climbers really seem to respect your generation.
Kotchek: I think that people pave the way. The people before me paved the way for me. I have - and I talked to Jim Donini about that because he's 69, so he's a little bit older than me. He learned in a little bit different era. I was talking to him the other day about how I did a lot of sport climbing and in sport climbing you can just take falls. Not everywhere, but you can take them and it's not a big deal and he started in an era where you did not fall. You were going to die. I feel what he did was passed down to me and then I was able to take a tweak on that which advanced my climbing and I guess it's passed down to people who are coming up now. Some people just mainly climb in a gym and live in an urban area and they get outside here and there and I think that's great. And then I'll go to Yosemite and there are people in their 20s who feel like it's an historic place. There are all these legendary people and we can't just beat our chests. We're just riding on what they did.
But you are right. Jim Donini, George Lowe, these guys give a slide show, John Bragg, he's 65. He gave a slide show in Boulder and 225 people came. And the stuff they were doing back then was unbelievable, so hard with such poor gear and it's not like it's easy now.
So yeah, it's inspiring to see that. Alex Arnold I think is a bit out there, but at least he's taken it to his level. Or the young people I see in Yosemite now who are climbing definitely a lot harder than me but that inspires me too.