photos by Mikey Schaefer
I slumped in my seat and fixated on the rocks, the projects behind us. Mikey left an enormous first ascent on Yosemite’s Middle Cathedral unfinished. I left behind working on free climbing El Capitan. Mikey and I met in Salt Lake City. We drove seven hours east towards the middle of Wyoming. We drove to sit tall in the saddle.
Sitting at the western base of the Big Horn Mountains, the town of Ten Sleep promises a different sort of excitement than just the buffalo leather moccasins sold at Dirty Sally’s general store. The Great Plains, the grass and uneven cattle country, fills the desititute land to the east but the Bighorn Dolomite, the 450 million year old Ordocian era limestone outside of Ten Sleep, promised a chance to improve our crushed egos. For 21 days, we’d climb, clip bolts, and have fun. I pushed myself further up in the passenger seat of Mikey’s van.
“We’ll climb two different 5.12s every day we climb. Let’s aim for 20. Then we can have a couple extra days if we fail to make the daily quota.” I scowered 8a.nu, Mountain Project, to find the softest rated climbs at the pocketed Wyoming crags.
“Ok Coach,” Mikey parked the sprinter in front of one of Ten Sleep’s three bars. The vacation started.
The early Wyoming trappers called the large Indian camp on the Platter River, the Old Sioux Camp. On the Clark’s Fork River, where Bridger Montana is today, sat another Indian camp. When the Indians traveled between the Old Sioux camp and the Clark’s Fork Camp they rested at a small field below the Big Horns. They measured distances in sleeps, and the grass lands located between the two camps was known as Ten Sleep, a town of three bars, a gas station and 260 people. We camped outside of town on an old forest service road close to the crags. We met with four other climbers from Smith Rocks and Grass Valley-Tara, Sara, Tori, and Daniel.
On the first route of our trip, Mikey stepped carefully on Green Gobs of Greasy Grimey Greenie Guts (5.10a) a no star, offensively sharp route on the right side of the Shinto Wall. The hot limestone baked in the sun. Mikey failed to make our first route in Ten Sleep seem easy. I had a sudden moment of panic. What if the routes in Ten Sleep weren’t soft?
“I’m just gonna toprope the route,” I said, suddenly intimidated.
“Oh really?” Mikey looked at me and then pulled the rope. I groaned and climbed the route, barely making it to the anchors.
The next route felt easier. The route after that was easier still. We climbed a few more 5.10 pitches at the French Cattle Ranch. I onsighted a 5.12b and a 12a, grades I rarely do well on. Mikey just hiked the climbs. Maybe we’d be ok. We needed to climb two 5.12s a day. We just needed to stay on track. It seemed like a modest goal but Ten Sleep is a dangerous place.
On April 2, 1909 Joe Allemand, laid face up with bullet holes in his neck and side, the spots where deadly soft-nosed missiles took his life. In the charred still-smoking embers of the wagons rested heavily two burnt bodies, Allemand’s partner Joseph Emge and one of the other three hired hands Allemand had employed to help heard the sheep along Spring Creek and past Ten Sleep. The occurrences of that evening marked the pinnacle of the Wyoming Sheep Wars, a series of fights between cattlemen and shepherds in which fifty-four men were killed and 75,000 sheep were slaughtered. The cattlemen claimed the sheep men over grazed the land, that the sharp hooves of the sheep cut the grass to a point where it failed to grow back. That spring night, a group of eight-mask cattlemen attacked Allemand his companions for leading nearly 10,000 head of sheep across the Ten Sleep Creek. Allemand crossed the deadline, their flock into cattle land. The cattlemen killed Allemand and two other shepherds, they drenched his wagons in kerosene, and they slaughtered 25 of his sheep. Sheep raiders had never been prosecuted in Wyoming before and many locals believed the murders would escape justice. However, the deputies arrested Charles Farris, Albert Keyes, Herbert Brink, Ed Eaton, George Saban, the owner of the Bay State Cattle Company, known for leading the lunch mob that raided the Big Horn County jail in 1903, where two prisoners and a deputy sheriff were killed, Tommy Dixon, and Milton Alexander for the crimes and five of the men served time in jail. The convictions put an end to the open range killings and marked the arrival of law and order in the Great Plains. Certainly, the law arrived in Ten Sleep. The order part was more questionable.
On the 4th of July, Ten Sleep closed the main street. Drunken locals changed the sign below the town’s only gas station. The pulled down ORV hamburgers from one side and wrote “Obama Serves hamburgers” on the other side. On the stage in front of Dirty Sally’s emporium, The Whiskey Tabernacle Choir sang, “I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison. And I went to pick her up in the rain.” Mikey stood by the mechanical bull snapping pictures of the contenders. A sea of plaid shirts, boots, and ten gallon hats sang. “But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck/ she got runned over by a damned old train.” With that line, Mikey grabbed the hand of a cute blonde. He slung his camera behind his back. They danced and laughed for an hour and a half.
The next day of climbing someone forgot to fall. After drafting, flashing a few routes that I hung draws on, Mikey sauntered to the base of Crown Prince Abdullah (5.12d). He screamed through the first difficult boulder problem, hung on for the pumpy middle, and high stepped to the anchor with an impressive amount of strength. Mikey lowered from the difficult route, having sent 4 other 5.12 routes that day. Mikey’s confidence sparked and ignited.
“We are checking and make sure you weren’t having a fire,” the National forest land employee said that evening. “This canyon is a chimney and my house sits right on the top. We haven’t had dry weather like this since 1988 when Yellowstone burned up. I don’t want to be sitting in a cloud of smoke.”
On the fifth of July, Aaron Huey, dressed in a sheepskin vest, spoke from the summit of a limestone block in the boulder campground on the Old Road. Huey was Moses on Mount Sinai. “In the beginning there were no bolts and the earth was dark. On the eighth day God created Bighorn Dolomite and expansion bolts, and the heavens rejoiced!” Two dozen climbers cried out at Huey’s declaration “He shaped a hammer drill from clay and said ‘Behold the Bosch. Redeemer of man!’” The climbers raised their red keg cups in cheers, spilling IPA.
The fire ban in Ten Sleep prevented Huey from his normal annual barbeque, where he drenches chicken in his Grandma Bunny’s Solid Gold Secret Sauce. Instead there was a potluck. Climbers brought cherries and beer, rice and beans, empty plates and hungry stomachs. In the laboratory of his sprinter, Mikey filled pot of chicken sausage, vegetables, rice and beans, and than dosed the gumbo with Slap Yo Mama spices. At the party, a group of climbers stood around a pile of Christmas lights in the fire pit, staring at the flickering lights. It was probably the Slap Yo Mama that made a few of climbers jump over the makeshift fire. DANGER. I watched the drunken climbers for a moment before finding other entertainment, my favorite kind- lying to drunken people.
“As soon as my residence is over, I’m taking a charity position with a Cuban hospital. There are thousands of young people who need help from western medicine.” I explained to a drunk Boulder girl. I detailed my break from my neurosurgery rotation at San Francisco State Hospital and my imminent return to a higher calling. “Think of how much good I’ll be doing by performing free lobotomies on teenagers.”
“That’s nice,” the girl said. “You’re doing so much for the world. Where did you do your undergrad?”
“Columbia,” I responded. “Of course.”
I scanned the crowd for Mikey, excited to introduce him as the jockey who won the recent Kentucky Derby. I wanted to hear him talk about being crouched low, how he was winning these days, sending hard, dancing with cute girls, how even as a jockey he sat tall in the saddle.
I saw him off in the corner in a deep conversation with a girl. I wouldn’t need to wingman.
“Liquid Rainbow!” a drunk Boulder girl snapped my attention away from Mikey. Earlier, I’d told Drunk Boulder Girl Number 2 that shiny was my favorite color. She’d shoved me violently at the suggestion. “Shiny is not a color!” she screamed for the fifth time.
Her obstinacy cued my exit. She called too much attention to me. I was sure one of the Colorado sport climbers would find out that I wasn’t Wolfgang Gullich soon. I could be a victim of a lynch mob. I saw Mikey still talking with the girl, smiled to myself, and retreated to camp.
We warmed up at the Slavery Wall a few days later. The steep pockets served as a great place to practice our more gymnastic maneuvers. I red pointed a couple of 5.12s that Mikey hiked a few days prior. Mikey tried EKV, the most popular 5.12c at the Slavery Wall and one of the few Ten Sleep routes that deserved the grade. He fell on the onsight and his next attempt and his next try and the try after that. The girl at the 5th of July party hadn’t been talking with him; she’d been talking at him. He’d hoped that I would come save him but I’d disappeared that night. He’d gone for an epic hike in the mountains hoping to cleanse himself of too much vodka. Mikey failed on EKV. He fell on Screaming Night Hog, a one-move 5.12c. He wobbled. The right words failed to come out of my mouth. I wanted to reassure him, make my friend feel better, and give him some confidence. I hoped consistency would pay. The next day we went climbing, we’d do our two 5.12s. We’d send. I hoped. At the very least, we were having an adventure, especially if we considered the kids camping with us.
“I’m gonna go to the bathroom and see how much of a shower I can take,” Daniel Jordan said as he walked into the coffee shop bathroom. None of us were clean. Dust covers the cowboys when they walk into the Ten Sleep saloon. We walked in with entire clouds of dirt. The bathing options come down to the shallow and cold river, the greasy bottomed Meadow Lark Lake, or the Ten Broek RV Park. The latter offers warm showers and a decent facility but at the excessive price of $8.
Over coffee, Tara read excerpts of the mommy porn book Fifty Shades of Grey. Sara and Tori listened raptly to the BDSM relationship between innocent college student Anastasia Steele and the older darker millionaire Christian Grey. She opened to the well-creased page 137 and read, ““I pull him deeper into my mouth so I can feel him at the back of my throat and then to the front again. My tongue swirls around the end. He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavored Popsicle. I suck harder and harder …… My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”
Mikey, Daniel, and I looked at each other awkwardly. The morning erotica and the strong estrogen presence of the three women overwhelmed us. I missed my lady friend, Kim, back home. She provided stability and the consistency I needed in my life. Daniel put his backpack in front of his lap and walked away. Mikey and I packed our bags to head to the crag that day.
That day, Mikey got back on track. Two 5.12s went down again. I pointed him towards Hellion, a 5.13c route at the Super Erratic. The route begins with a couple of bolts of mellow climbing followed by a difficult boulder problem. From the end of a hard windmill move the climbing stays consistent. Mikey’s power helped him find the correct sequence for the crux, linking the hard moves would be the true difficulty for him though.
We sat down in our makeshift living room that night. Early in the trip, I rolled a few enormous logs from across the road up into camp. The girls had found a few long branches. Sara braided Tara’s core shot rope into the branches. We had a couch. Daniel bought tiki lamps to kill the mosquitos. We sat at dinner. Mikey and I enjoyed our dinner. We ate well on the trip. Where the kids ate Snicker’s ice cream bars for dinner, we had hot roast beef sandwiches on toasted ciabbatta bread with a stout mustard, avocado and a side of corn on the cob. Baller.
“I’m gonna have desert,” Daniel said after polishing off a burrito filled with beans and more beans.
“Does anyone else want a Christian Grey Popsicle?”
The days ticked off and so did the routes. Mikey and I were executing our plan. We both hit 20 5.12s and we had a few more days of climbing to go. We aimed for 25. I wanted to send Kyberspace (5.13a), Burden of Immortality, (5.12d) and Crown Prince Abdullah, (5.12d). Mikey set his sights on Hellion. I fought through Kyberspace, while Mikey worked on Hellion. After we warmed up on Napoleon’s High Chair (5.12a), I dispatched Burden and we went to Hellion.
The send of the trip definitely went to Mikey. After a dry fire on Hellion, Mikey pulled his boots back on. He climbed smoothly to the crux windmill move, stuck it and then started to fight. Screams echoed across the Super erratic cliff when he hit the next sequence. A few climbers walked towards the base. Mikey shook out, stared at the redpoint crux and yelled. Sara, Tara, and Tori cheered him on. He barely latched each hold. He eked through to the “easy” exit climbing. “Come on Mikey!” “Go Mikey!” “You can do it!” The three cheerleaders cried. Mikey fought every move and finally clipped the anchors. The entire crag let out a cheer. I even swooned a little.
We packed the van with a bottle of Smirnoff, some grapefruit juice, a couple of beers, the girls and Mikey and I. It was my last night in Ten Sleep. Tara would leave the next day as well. Daniel had flown home already. Mikey laughed and wiggled his toes, which Sara had painted a deep purple. The walls wobbled from side to side. Mikey said something funny. I laughed. The girls giggled along with us Music drowned the pattering rain. Mikey and I finished the last of the vodka.
“It’s been a good trip,” I said when the girls had left. “You climbed well. We both did.”
Mikey nodded. I slid the door open. The Wyoming stars streaked across the sky. I passed out in my tent, happy to have such a good time in Ten Sleep, and anticipating going home to California, to my girlfriend.
My bags dropped in the parking lot of the Cody Wyoming airport. I hugged Mikey. The trip had been great for me. I’d climbed well, sending 26 different 5.12s and 50 routes all-together. I got some of the fitness I needed to make another effort on El Cap. Mikey sent his hardest sport climb ever during the trip. We executed our goals. Mikey drove away, I saw his figure in the driver’s seat of the Sprinter. Mikey sat tall in the saddle.