First Ascents | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

First Ascents

Brooke Sandahl and your favorite routes at Smith Rock

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment in our five-part series on the pioneers of Central Oregon's famed outdoor sports scene. In the past 100 years, a handful of people have helped progress the accessibility and notoriety of our adventure sport scene. These icons of the outdoor world, in a pursuit of their own fresh tracks and first ascents, helped define Bend as the outside sports mecca it is today. This is the story of Brooke Sandahl.

If you know anything about rock climbing at Smith Rock, you've heard of the 1980s "birth" of American sport climbing via Alan Watts. Sport climbing, the now mainstream style of rock face ascension, has since inspired a wave of popularity in the sport over the last 30 years.

But Watts didn't establish the whole park alone, even if he did spark a revolution around him. In the early '80s, just as sport climbing was pulling up its landing gear in take off mode, Brooke Sandahl caught a sniff of the kind of awe-inspiring routes being strung up at Smith Rock State Park.

In 1983, with childhood experience in mountaineering and a college career of hitchhiking from Northwest Washington to Yosemite Valley, Sandahl arrived at Smith.

"I came down to Smith and actually walked around to the dihedrals, and I was blown away," Sandahl said. "I had seen most of the hard routes on the West Coast, and nothing looked like Heinous Cling or Darkness at Noon, and I was like, 'Holy shit! I'm moving here.'"

He climbed nearly every day after that, doing temporary construction jobs around Central Oregon or taking the odd day to ski.

"The weather was awesome, and I had a bunch of money saved. I wanted to just climb for a year and see where I could go with that," he said. "That winter I basically climbed five, six days a week with Alan."

After about a year of climbing and inconsistent work, Sandahl got a job with the local climbing shop that had supplied him with his first set of climbing cams—Metolius Climbing. He also started giving the local strong man—Alan Watts—a run for his money.

"I was really intrigued with doing the hardest moves I could. Alan had just done Heinous Cling, Darkness at Noon, Chain [Reaction]; he had done East Face. You've got to get your head prepared for that kind of thing. You have to get your fingers strong, to build endurance. So, it took a while to start dialing it, but then I was kind of right on his heels. Sometimes I would do something before he would."

Sandahl put up first ascents in the Lower Gorge area, and established new routes on the backside. He went on to bolt the first route on the Churning Buttress, now one of the most popular areas in the park. That route was Dakine Corner (5.12d). He also established Kings of Rap (5.12d) on the buttress.

"The park was pretty wide open then. I just saw that buttress and went 'That's choice, I'm gonna start bolting that,' " he said. "It was just kind of game-on in the park."

Overall, Sandahl said he was happy to contribute to such an inclusive community of climbers, and an environment where climbers encouraged each other to grow and do what they loved.

"It was just such a bitchin' scene. It was a really super-supportive crew," he said. "It was like, 'If you're a climber—you're in. You're part of the crew.' "

At a time when climbers from other areas would turn up their noses at newcomers, especially those "bolt clippers" from Smith Rock, Central Oregon's climbers had a refreshingly come one, come all attitude—a sentiment shared by Smith locals today.

As for Sandahl, in 1993 he helped make rock-climbing history.

On a trip to Yosemite Valley he linked up with a lady named Lynn Hill, and the two set off to climb The Nose—arguably the most monumental rock-climbing route of all time.

Earlier that year, Sandahl had managed to get the first ascent of one of the climb's pitches. During this attempt with Hill, she made the first ever free ascent of the entire route—arguably the most iconic ascent in rock-climbing history.

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