Pioneers of the Impossible

Bolting steep limestone in American Fork Canyon

By Megan Walsh

Driving through American Fork canyon is nothing short of impressive. As Cattle Creek winds alongside Utah State Highway 92, the limestone cliffs claw their way to the canyon’s rim, where, on a sunny day, visitors can snag a glimpse of the proud Timpanogos summit above the southern canyon walls.

Utahns have traveled along the Alpine Scenic Loop for decades to reach Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Tibble Fork Reservoir or Timpanogos herself. But it wasn’t until the late ’80s that the climbers who frequented the canyon decided to bolt the hardest, steepest limestone routes in America. Their ingenuity and desire/desperation to establish climbing routes continue to draw professionals and enthusiasts from around the globe.

To establish a climbing route requires strength, patience and ingenuity. Route setters haul heavy equipment like power drills and steel bolts up the rock, drilling incremental holes along the way. They then place a bolt and an anchor into the hole which will become the sport climbers main point of protection. For these three experienced climbers, bolting the steep porous “chossy” limestone of American Fork Canyon opened up new challenging routes.

From 1988-91, Boone Speed, Bill Boyle and Jeff Pedersen developed more than 400 routes in American Fork Canyon. This set off a chain reaction for areas like Rifle, Red River Gorge and crags in the Bay Area. The amount each of these men gave of their time, money and energy to develop an area that to this day still sees thousands of climbers is a testament to their vision and dedication.

As Boone Speed and I sip coffee at the Rose Establishment, he relives his American Fork days. Boone attributes much of American Fork’s success to the inclusive vibe found in the community. At 20 years old, he was the youngest of the trio and was instrumental in bringing other up-and-coming climbers to the area. And when a photo of Speed climbing Freying in Hell Cave debuted on the cover of Climbing magazine in 1991, that put American Fork, and Speed, immediately on the map.

For Speed, bolting American Fork wasn’t extraordinary, but necessary. Route prospects were narrow in the 1980s as hard climbing required the ability to navigate harrowing crimps that hardly qualified as holds. Speed attributes his endurance for suffering to the music and mood of his generation, “you know, a bit punk, a bit angry,” he says. “We were channeling a lot of that punk-rock energy, and it felt right.”

Boone Speed

By working behind the scenes, Speed established and navigated routes at a grade that hadn’t been available in Utah. Training on such technical and powerful routes led him to become the first American to cleanly complete a 5.14b in Logan Canyon called Super Tweak. And seven years later, Speed became part of an elite group of worldwide climbers to send the 5.14c grade after completing Ice Cream, a route he bolted years prior in the Hell Cave of American Fork—once again bringing notoriety to the Utah climbing scene.

Jeff Pedersen shared the same desire for hard routes as Speed. We sat in his office in Holladay as he reminisced about climbing heinous, contrived lines created only by refraining from any and all descent holds. His desperation to climb new, hard lines drove him, but routes that combined technical prowess with power didn’t exist.

Pedersen’s roots in the Greater Salt Lake climbing community run deep. After bolting American Fork Canyon with Speed and Boyle, he opened The Quarry Climbing Gym in Provo and then moved on to owning and building bigger gyms like Momentum Indoor Climbing (now with locations in Texas and Washington).

For Pedersen, building new climbing gyms is a lot like developing crags–it takes patience and a true love of the sport to see such a massive project come to fruition.

And that’s exactly what American Fork was–a massive project. In fact, you would hardly recognize the cliffs that Bill, Boone, and Jeff walked up to in the early ’90s—heinous and crumbling. But they were determined without help from modern technology to make the deteriorating walls climbable. The lack of instructions led to true genius as Pedersen and the crew jimmy-rigged runners, draws, and 2x4s to get the job done.

Jeff Pedersen

“There were all these little feats of engineering and rigging and physics and mechanics,” Pedersen says. At one point, he had a long, circular runner around his forehead that also attached to a rope above him so he could place a bolt down and sideways from his position. “We were just doing fun, funny things,” he says.

But according to Pedersen and Speed, American Fork wouldn’t even be a quarter of what it became without Bill Boyle. Pedersen tells me there’s never been anyone like Bill, and Speed agrees. “[Bill] would just hike up these talus slopes by himself at lunch hour,” Speed tells me, “He really had a vision of what was possible. I just sort of helped realize it.”

Boyle learned the basics of bolting less than 10 years into climbing from Chris Barnes and Jeff Rhodes in City of Rocks. Just two years later, he took his skills to American Fork where he bolted the majority of easy-to-moderate routes.

Boyle was efficient. In a day’s time, he could bolt three to four moderate routes, and bolting a harder grade like a 5.12 or 5.13 took more time than he wanted to spend. “I bolted a couple of 5.13s,” he says, “but didn’t enjoy spending three to four days on them.”

Where Pedersen and Speed sought routes that matched their aesthetic or athleticism, Boyle focused on bolting as many quality routes as possible. “As long as there weren’t too many death blocks, I’d go for it,” he says. For Boyle, it was simply about the enjoyment of building and developing new routes. He thought nothing of climbing 1,500 vertical feet to find new areas to clean and bolt. Boyle became the modern-day explorer and pioneer of climbing in American Fork.

When I interviewed him in 2017, Boyle estimated he had 500 first ascents to his name–but he’s not done yet. Boyle still establishes new routes and crags across Utah in areas such as Wendover, Santaquin and Escalante. While all three believe there are plenty of places still prime for development, they recognize the unique magic of American Fork at its height. Boone tells me the excitement they experienced during American Fork still exists, “but it’s a little like catching lightning in a bottle.”

Megan Walsh covered this story for Climbing in November 2018.

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