Take Your Climbing to the Next Pitch

Intro to Multi-Pitch Trad Climbing Course at the City of Rocks

Words and photos by Backpacking Guide Amy David

Looking to up your game and take climbing to the next pitch? The Intro to Multi-Pitch Trad Climbing Course at the City of Rocks is the perfect information dense, hands-on, educational experience to get you there. I’m a backpacking guide for Sawtooth Mountain Guides (SMG) and am working towards backcountry ski guide certifications, but I have limited trad climbing experience. Because of my basic climbing knowledge, taking this course in the student role was a perfect opportunity to fuse the gaps on rope management, anchor building, belay station management and gear placement skills. I would recommend this course to sport climbers looking to take on their first trad lead or to experienced leaders seeking valuable knowledge often overlooked by recreational climbers. In this blog, I’ll take you through my experience as a student in the course.

Pulling up to the City of Rocks National Reserve in Southeast Idaho is a jaw-dropping moment. Jutting up from the rolling hills of sagebrush, Juniper and Pinyon Pine is a collection of massive granite boulders, fins, and pinnacles. The majority of the unique granite spires were formed as part of the 28-million-year-old Almo pluton, and many of the other formations are part of the 2.5 billion-year-old Green Creek Complex. Known by the climbing community as “The City,” this place is chock full of world-class climbing routes, both sport and traditional, for all climbing levels on some of the oldest rocks in the Western US.

Right off the bat, we were welcomed by the longtime local, Brad Shilling, who is the former rock ranger at City of Rocks for 20 years. He shared the progression of climbing history from hammering pitons into the rock faces to the movement pushed by climbers themselves to “clean” climbing. This is more commonly referred to as traditional climbing, which ultimately is clean because you aren’t leaving gear behind from bolting the routes.

Taking the lead for instruction at the crag was SMG and AMGA Rock Guide, Matt Scrivner, accompanied by SMG guides Niels Meyer and Brad Shilling. The format of the course was a balance of guide demos and presentations of how the systems work followed by hands-on learning. Huddled at the base of the crag, Matt, Niels and Brad taught the class proper trad gear placement, the variations of anchor building, and multi-pitch belay station management. The best learning happened when each student got their hands on the gear, cramming cams into cracks, clipping carabiners, tying clove hitches, and testing out the foundations to a safe and solid anchor.

Personally, I’m used to fast sports like mountain biking where you can get into terrain over your head and “ride it out” or simply backtrack. Climbing, however, requires very specific safety systems to stay secure. During the course, we had plenty of time to practice getting these systems correct while on the ground mimicking the climb. “Ahh, I’m going to practice this at home!” was one of the most common phrases. Practice is the best way to build muscle memory before getting in a precarious situation high off the ground.

My favorite part of the weekend? The climbing of course! The format is set up to build confidence and progress with direct coaching from the experts. After ground school, the guides were on fixed lines adjacent to the student route which enabled them to climb at the same pace offering coaching and advice along the way. During the first climb, each person was on top rope and placing the trad gear to experiment with cam sizes, placements, and hear immediate feedback. The final climb of the course was the opportunity for each person to lead while placing protection on the sharp end.

The next step for me as an aspiring ski guide is the Alpine Skills Course which uses similar rope systems I learned in this course. For anyone, a great benefit to taking one of these climbing courses, aside from gaining the skills to improve your sport, is meeting new partners and potentially great mentors for the future.

Sawtooth Mountain Guides also offers From Plastic to Granite and Essential Self-Rescue climbing courses at the City of Rocks.