Cliff (Crag) Notes on Smith Rock: a Guest Blog Post by “Summit Trail Amy”


September 20, 2019

Amy Sue Matthews, AKA “Summit Trail Amy” as dubbed by SmithRock.com for her great trail conditions reporting on the Summit Trail Loop that started with last winter’s snow dump, is Smith Rock State Park’s biggest fan. Now a volunteer for the park, she attends every learning event she can to expand her knowledge to provide visitors the best experience that she can assist with. Last weekend, during the American Alpine Club’s Smith Rock Craggin’ Classic, she met up with Alan Watts, a name synonymous with the birth of sport climbing in America that started at Smith Rock because of his tireless route building and documentation in the early 1980s that resulted in the definitive climbing guide book for the park, Rock Climbing Smith Rock State Park. Alan was giving his annual Walking Tour of Smith Rock for the Craggin’ Classic.


Cliff (Crag) Notes on Smith Rock
by Amy sue Matthews

Amy Sue Matthews, AKA “Summit Trail Amy”

Amy Sue Matthews, AKA “Summit Trail Amy”

I met Alan for the first time last Saturday morning upon gathering for his walking tour of climbing routes and some history of Smith Rock. As a hiker, not a climber, I wanted to learn as much as possible, but it also made it harder for me to understand completely everything Alan so graciously shared about the various climbing routes, their ratings, etc.  I found Alan to be an enthusiastic, charming, engaging storyteller, along with being extremely modest and self-deprecating, about his accomplishments as well as his 20/20 hindsight.

The morning group consisted of about 20 of us, most being very experienced climbers. One of the first things that Alan shared was about his hip replacement surgery and his comeback; very impressive—hiking 19 mile stretches with elevation in the mountains on a regular basis after surgery done at the end of last year!

Alan then shared a bit about his days growing up in nearby Madras, then led into some of the history of the early days of climbing around Smith Rock, the days before there was even a bridge across the river at the park in the mid ‘70s.

Alan Watts  on  East Face , Monkey Face in the fall of 1984.

Alan Watts on East Face, Monkey Face in the fall of 1984.

Early means in 1974 to get across the Crooked River before the footbridge went in.

Early means in 1974 to get across the Crooked River before the footbridge went in.

In those days climbers would drive along the road next to the canal, camp down in the canyon, and then make their way to the various climbing routes.

It was a group of these early camper/climbers who would make their way up and over to Monkey Face to establish the first route(s) on Monkey Face who originally named Misery Ridge. I found the history behind the naming of that popular trail one of the most fascinating. 

Our first stop across the Bridge was at the boulders along the base of Picnic Lunch Wall, followed by quite a bit of time at the base of the Dihedrals, namely Chain Reaction, followed by one of Alan’s best stories: the naming of Middle Aged Vandal.  Back in 1997 Alan was bolting the route and got a warning for vandalism. Here’s how he tells it:

I was bolting this route at the age of 37, fifteen years after my earliest sport routes. This ranger I’d never seen before marched up to the base of the route, in full uniform, and yelled: “You need to stop drilling and come down right now!” I looked down at the guy and without thinking asked, “Who the ***k are you? He told me I was breaking park rules. I asked which one, and after flipping through his regulation book for a minute he said, “Rule 3.2—you’re vandalizing the rock!” Fortunately some friends talked me into coming down before I let another expletive fly. After a few minutes the guy admitted that he had just started his job a few days ago and he “didn’t fully understand the rules.”

Ranger Dave worked at Smith for more than a decade and we became good friends. He went on to manage Cove Palisades State Park.
— Alan Watts, on the naming of Middle Aged Vandal
Clif Bar’s  Chain Reaction  “inspired” packaging artwork, image courtesy of Amy Sue Matthews

Clif Bar’s Chain Reaction “inspired” packaging artwork, image courtesy of Amy Sue Matthews

Alan Watts on  Chain Reaction  in 1983, as shot by Mike Volk, founder of SmithRock.com.

Alan Watts on Chain Reaction in 1983, as shot by Mike Volk, founder of SmithRock.com.

After a few stories related to visits by Jean Baptiste Tribout, a famous French climber from the early 1980s that heard and wanted to check out the new hard routes that were going in at this new climbing area, that was now getting the attention of the world.

We ventured up Aggro Gully, known for its shaded summer climbing for serious climbers, where the climbing routes are particularly challenging. A few in our group decided to cut out due to the rock scrambling and overgrowth that required bush-whacking for this climber’s trail shortcut up to the top of Misery Ridge Trail. (Absolutely not recommended for hikers—please stick to the designated trail.)

On top of Misery Ridge, Alan related more about the creation of To Bolt or Not to Be on Monkey Face, and then as we made our way back down Misery Ridge, we made one last stop at the Red Wall. Alan was so generous with this time and answering questions, that the expected 2 ½ hour tour was extended to 3.

Alan Watts recounts stories of routes established on Monkey Face, image courtesy of Amy Sue Matthews

Alan Watts recounts stories of routes established on Monkey Face, image courtesy of Amy Sue Matthews

The  Red Wall  climbing area

The Red Wall climbing area

Check out more on the history of climbing at Smith Rock brought to you by Alan Watts and Mike Volk (founder of SmithRock.com and Timberline Mountain Guides) in this short video retrospective edited by Adam Long.

I noticed his afternoon group was only about 6-7 people, but given how hot it was, I think the morning group made the right decision. In hindsight however, I kind of wish I did the tour again, if only to soak up more details to share with others. Next time!