Just five miles outside the town of Helper in Carbon County, a fifty-foot L-shaped band of grey and tan sandstone sticks up between Spring Canyon Road and Sowbelly Gulch Road. Upon closer inspection of the cliff known as the Volkswagen wall, it’s speckled with a few aging bolts, delineating climbing routes established in the mid-90’s. At the base, an indigenous rock art site is pockmarked from a shotgun blast. These are all things the Carbon County Climbers Alliance contends with.
Unlike many local climbing organizations, the Carbon County Climbers Alliance wasn’t created because of an access issue, such as land managers banning or limiting rock climbing.
Fuzzy Nance, a local mountain bike trail builder and bike shop owner, suggested an idea to his friend, Harry Sanchez: To form an organization so that the local climbing community could have a seat at the table as Carbon County sought to ramp up tourism and outdoor recreation.
“We were recognizing that as more and more tourists were traveling through Carbon County to go climbing, that we kind of had a need to have some sort of local representation,” said Sanchez, who founded the Climbers Alliance. “I see it as stewardship because this is our area. It’s where we grew up.”
Carbon County doesn’t have the abundance of rock climbing that nearby Emery or Grand counties do, but it has its own small treasures, like the Volkswagen Wall in Spring Canyon or the bouldering areas in Price Canyon. Currently, the Climbers Alliance is applying for grants to replace the 25-year-old bolts in Spring Canyon.
“We're trying to increase the interest and accessibility of climbing in the area by making this resource a little bit safer for everyone to use,” said Hyland Markle, a Helper resident and the current nominee for president of the Climbers Alliance.
At an open Zoom meeting of the organization on Monday, Markle, Sanchez, and Ryan Bromberek discussed replacing the aging three-eighths inch expansion bolts with modern stainless steel “glue-in” bolts. They also discussed adding more easily accessible anchors on top of the cliff to help institutional groups like college or scout groups to set up ropes safely. They currently plan to partner with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance rebolting team to make sure the new hardware is installed safely.
Although parts of the Volkswagen Wall are on public land owned by the county, the rest of it is on land owned by the Blackhawk Coal Company. The mining company and the recreation groups seem to operate harmoniously via a handshake agreement, a deal that the Carbon County Trails Committee brokered previously. This is quite unusual, as many other climbing areas have been threatened or completely eliminated by mining interests throughout both Utah and elsewhere in the American West. Instead, there’s currently a trailhead with a pit toilet for the climbing area and other public trails that are on the coal company land.
The other popular climbing area in Carbon County is Price Canyon, a broad and forested canyon with sandstone boulders somewhat similar to the nearby Joe’s Valley. The bouldering is within the Price Canyon Recreation Area, and hosts some surprisingly difficult boulders for such an out-of-the-way area. According to Sanchez, the bouldering is getting a lot of traffic for the area.
Sanchez and Markle don’t see Carbon County becoming a climbing destination the way nearby Emery County has, but they are proud of their local areas, and see them as a compliment to the wide range of outdoor activities near the towns of Price and Helper.
“The fact is, is we don't really have the quantity of rock that you get in places like Moab or Maple Canyon, or the Salt Lake area,” said Markle. “In terms of becoming a major climbing destination, there might be some challenges there. But what we do offer is a very wide range of outdoor activities, and a really cool community to move into. So what we're really hoping is that this development, this initiative is going to create more of a culture and community around climbing and offer things for people to come to this area and to experience this wonderful place that we call home.”
The Carbon County Climbers Alliance has also been working in partnership with the Helper Recreation and Trails Committee, the Carbon Corridor (formerly the Carbon County Tourism Department), and the local city councils to increase outdoor opportunities in the area.
“We've received overwhelming support, encouragement and enthusiasm from the local government here,” said Markle. “We just want to give them a huge thanks for partnering with us on these efforts and for believing in Carbon County and the resource and the opportunities that exist here.”