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A Climb Through Time 

Local icon Alan Watts talks Smith Rock sport climbing

Alan Watts bolting Sheer Trickery in 1989. Photos by Mike Volk /

Alan Watts bolting Sheer Trickery in 1989. Photos by Mike Volk /

Reaching Alan Watts on his cellphone last Friday morning found him about to hike Tumalo Mountain, something he has done 53 times this summer.

A native of Madras, Watts is best known for promoting rock climbing at Smith Rock State Park, bringing its almost 1,800 climbing routes to the international stage.

"My entire family, especially my dad, climbed, so I grew up climbing mountains," said Watts, who moved to Bend in 1983. "Living near Smith Rock, I began climbing there at the age of 15 as a way to train for the mountains."

For the next 20 years, Watts engineered climbing routes at the park, specializing in "sport climbing" as a way of minimizing its dangers.

"Climbing used to be, and still is, a very adventurous activity with a fair amount of danger and risk," he explained. "Placing bolts in the rock makes it safer and possible to focus on attempting more difficult routes."

Watts feels that these measures allow climbers to take more chances, noting that falling is always a "good way to get killed."

Watts brings his story to Eagle Crest in Redmond Wednesday night to talk about Smith Rock as a climbing venue and introduce his book Sport Climbing at Smith Rock, which chronicles the history of the sport at the park.

People first began climbing at Smith Rock in the 1930s, he explained, and until the '70s, when Watts first began climbing there, it was a "locals only" destination.

"During the '80s it received a lot of exposure in climbing magazines," he said. "The venue changed really quickly in 1985 into an international climbing destination."

First and foremost, the number of routes at the park is its draw, but the best climbers in the world would only come if the routes presented them a challenge, which according to Watts, they do.

"These are the hardest climbing routes in the United States," he noted. "Once it was discovered, the best climbers wanted to visit."

As the routes became popular, Watts' concern for climber safety led him to introduce sport climbing, and the requisite bolted routes.

"Sport climbing was unusual, got a lot of press, and was quite controversial for awhile between the older, more traditional climbers and the new breed of sport climbers," explained Watts.

Attempting to chronicle the climbing routes at Smith Rock has proven to be a challenge for Watts, who penned his first guide in 1992 when there were about 900 routes.

And the routes just kept coming, growing to over 1,400 when he sat down to revise the book, with another 400 created before he could finish.

"I could never get finished," he said, laughing. "The book itself is a combination of text and a lot of drawings to describe how to climb different sections."

For the beginner, Watts suggested starting at a climbing gym before taking on a venue like Smith Rock.

"Learning at a gym is a good way to try climbing in a safe environment without a large financial commitment," noted Watts, adding that some may not find being off of the ground a positive experience. "Climbers might also hire a guide service to take them to Smith."

As the popularity of climbing at the state park grows, Watts works hard to keep climbing a positive experience.

"It has been great to see so many people enjoy the climbing, but I never had any idea that anyone would come here," he said. "Thirty years later, people are still coming to climb the routes I developed."

As a 55-year old, Watts admitted to not climbing as much as he used to, and said he has begun looking elsewhere in Central Oregon to get his activity fix.

"Every day in summer I go on a hike or a run in the mountains and still consider myself an athlete," he said. "I have my family and trying to stay active and fit takes up all my time."

But climbing will always define him.

"For me, climbing became my life and everything I did in climbing continues to follow me around," he said.

Smith Rock's overwhelming popularity with climbers and people just coming to enjoy a hike brings a sense of satisfaction to Watts.

"It is nice to have done something that will live beyond me long after I am gone," he said. "People enjoy the climbing and it is a beautiful place."

With that comment, Watts' cell signal began to fade as he set out on his 54th ascent of Tumalo Mountain.

Alan Watts

7:30 pm, Wednesday, September 30

The River Run Event Center 1730 Blue Heron Dr.


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