In the late 90s, James Garrett visited Santaquin Canyon compelled to check on an old route he had put up some years earlier with close friend Dave Anderson. It was a sunny weekend and teenagers across the Wasatch Front were out enjoying the weather. At the wall, he found a top rope and a group of kids from the town of Santaquin going up and down his route Coming Full Circle, seventy feet of 5.10a with pockets and big holds to a locking carabiner on some slings. He jumped on the route and noticed the locking biner he had left was so worn out, the deep rope groove was becoming dangerously thin. The line of climbers included boys and girls of all shapes and sizes: high school kids who loved football and hotdogs and even the Santaquin High School prom queen. For a man who had never been to the prom, it was an epiphany.
“They were the locals, and they were climbing in their canyon. I realized the sport was expanding. There was no guidebook, and they knew nothing about the climb and did it anyway. The anchor was not safe so I went back and added a bolt and chains. I never expected so many people would be climbing there, it needed to be safe,” he says.
Any climber in Utah who still hasn’t come across the name James Garrett probably will. You see a JG route in every canyon, at so many crags, and in every corner of Utah. From the Southern Desert to the West Desert to your backyard. From the top of Utah’s ski resorts to the rocks just off of I-80, this man loves to find rock, and loves to put in bolts.
James Garrett is the ultimate champion for intermediate climbers, a man who has opened the circle of rock climbing to a much wider audience, giving beginner and intermediate climbers like that Santaquin prom queen, safe and worthwhile climbs. To date, James Garrett has hundreds of multipitch routes in Utah and all around the world. A pioneer in his own right, he has more than 30 tower first ascents and has been around the world several times, adding climbs in places where climbing is still unheard of.
Born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, in the middle of the town’s ski jumping glory days, his father brought him up on ice and ski jumps. Just a wee lad, he made his first turns on a steep hill at the golf course. By ten he was flying down a 30 meter rickety, wooden jump launching himself into a life of adventure. He got a liberal arts degree in Montana and was member of the first ski patrol team at Big Sky Mountain. For over twenty years, he was a professional skier, then a nurse and always a world traveler and mountaineer. Although nobody ever paid him to climb, the “break from the logical side of life”—as he referred to rock climbing—always remained his passion.
His climbing obsession was born in Switzerland. In 1975, he moved to Europe, attracted by the romantic dream of the Alps and all the possibilities for skiing off big peaks. He immersed himself in the culture, tried to become a local, and landed a job as a camp counselor and made mountaineering his purpose. Unable to speak German very well, James worked as a taxi driver in Bern and learned the impossible dialect of Schweizerdeutsch.
During his five years in Switzerland, James ‘went native’ as some say, and that goes for his climbing style as well. In a place where mountaineering already had more than 100 years of history, the Swiss climbers in the Bernese Oberland had their own modus operandi: Plaisir, or the homegrown concept of establishing long, well-protected, moderate routes that embody the art of climbing and beauty of the Alps. Like the Brazilian style of futbol known as jogo bonito, Plaisir climbing is a subjective concept, however it could be described as a place where the aesthetic and mother nature converge with the human spirit.
“At that point, I wanted to be a mountain guide in Switzerland, but back then you had to be a citizen. The Swiss were very protective of their guides.”
He fell in love with more than just the Swiss Alps. Franziska, his Swiss Miss, went on to become his better half as well as his “most trusted and enjoyable climbing partner”. An intercontinental marriage and his life was intrinsically connected to the Alps, precision and dairy cows. In 1980, James swooped up Franziska and moved to the US where she did her residency and was assigned to LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.
The Blank Canvas
That’s how the Garretts came to Utah. The climbing community was still small. There was just one climbing shop, and topos were sketched out in a big loose-leaf notebook, copied and pass around among friends. James set out to initiate himself, first on the granite of Little Cottonwood and eventually in every corner of the Wasatch Front.
“I put up first ascents in Montana and Switzerland, but I knew that there were other people more local than me in Salt Lake, and I allowed myself to slowly become local. If you live in a place, you should do all the classics and spend time getting to know the rock and the first ascensionists before you start putting up lines. It’s wrong to just go up to the Fin and put up a new route while ignoring what’s already there.”
At the time, Merrell Bitter was putting up some of the hardest routes. Sport climbing was going through a complicated birth and sticky rubber was on all the feet. The locals were putting up mainly one-pitch crack climbs. Then one day James ran into Brian Smoot pounding pitons on an A4 aid climb in Little Cottonwood Canyon. As a man who saw himself as a mountaineer, climbing aid and alpine climbs seemed more natural than the still nascent wave of sport climbing. There were not many multipitch climbs at the time, and slowly he began leaving his mark.
“I met Less Ellison at the climbing shop in ‘82. He was in a whirlwind of FA activity, and I asked him where to get bolts. He probably thought ‘if he has to ask, he doesn’t deserve the answer’. Back then, the process was self-learning. I got the stuff together, read everything I could, which wasn’t very much. Nobody taught me directly. I saw the bolt kits in Europe and the way they were doing it. So I assembled my own kit with little quarter-inch buttonheads and Leeper hangers. That gear was not easy to obtain. You had to send off for it. There were no catalogues. Good hand drill bits were few and far between.”
James developed aid climbs on Triangle Wall, a wall at that time which was not close enough to the road for anybody to care about. Then he developed love for places like Bells Canyon and the Lone Peak Cirque, searching high and wide for new lines.
“I wanted to put up moderate, well protected Plaisir routes that gave climbers a longer experience than just a quick crack,” and James stuck with the Plaisir philosophy for the rest of his life. He did not often project personal tests and rarely put up climbs beyond his ability. “It has never been my goal to cover a whole cliff with my bolts. I’m the kind of guy who puts up a route and moves on. There is plenty of rock around for everyone.”
Before 1990, James and Franziska put up the seven pitch Black Streak on the Devil’s Castle in Albion Basin. If somebody had eyed the wall before, they stayed away due to perceived choss and rock fall. James climbed it on gear and used a hand drill for the anchors. The climb went unrepeated for seven years.
Sure of the wall’s potential, he went back in ’93, retrofitted the anchors and placed some bolts over the unprotected moves, on lead. He didn’t necessarily make the climb easier, but he made it safer.
“Then one day, I ran into legendary mountaineer Alan Burgess on the route, and he said to me ‘you know the Black Streak is pretty run out and dangerous. I have to be on my toes when I do it. I might consider guiding it.”
James added a few more bolts, and today there are a dozen climbs on the same wall, most put up twenty years after the original first ascent. The Black Streak became one of his first Plaisir gem. He and Franziska became more and more passionate about long trad-lines and went on to put up renowned, multipitch routes like Till Hell Freezes Over at Hellgate in the same canyon.
“After climbing literally thousands upon thousands of pitches together, I jokingly and endearingly refer to her as ‘The Bivy Queen’. Once while climbing with Fred Beckey years ago, he had mentioned to her his secret to longevity was his distaste for moving in the mountains under darkness. Of course, coming from Fred, she took and clung to those words as gospel. Any ledge is better than rapping a route after nightfall.”
Times had officially changed by the mid-nineties, and his little ditty in Santaquin Canyon was the first time he had rap-bolted a climb. The power drill was the latest piece of equipment. “Even though I had been in Utah for over a decade, I wasn’t trying to sway climbing ethics. I adhered to the local way of doing things while sticking to my ideals. I was also flexible enough to change with the flow to lead bolting. As the style changed, I change with them. Still I clung to certain principles. In Bells Canyon, even as late as 2012, I put up climbs from the ground up, mostly because I get a lot more personally out of the experience.”
In the 90s, James Garrett started visiting The San Rafael Swell, and while his friends focused on one pitch cracks, he saw long lines all over the place. “Think of Indian Creek in the eighties. Guys were walking by lines looking for the best fingers and hands, but I was drawn to the towers and long climbable walls.” James had already climbed a lot of desert towers by then and put up a dozen or so in the Swell. Perhaps his most famous Plaisir route in the Swell, however, is the four-pitch trad line Scenic Byway.
A few years later, the draw of a different desert led him away from the red rock to the lonely canyons and crags of Utah’s West Desert. He had been climbing in the House Range and even made one of the first attempts on Notch Peak in 1984. These trips took him by the rocks of Ibex over and over again.
“I was with Pat Maloney and we thought the wall was sandstone choss. I had bigger and better things to do. But we drove across the hardpan to check anyway. I was as surprised as everyone who visits Ibex. I told some of my buddies who were constantly in the Swell, but they weren’t interested. ”
The two put up the two pitch Severity Disparity and James quickly fell victim the Ibex’s ‘addictive allure’ as he calls it. Over the next decade, a steady stream of routes appeared, and thanks to the area’s distance and anonymity, Ibex maintained balance in potential and solitude. A lot of climbers probably associate Ibex with James Garrett and view it as his project, his place, but it’s not. Literally in the middle of nowhere, nobody is local at Ibex, and nowhere has the democratization of climbing been as easy. Dozens have left their mark on the gritty quartzite, and other West Desert crags like Masada continue today to be domesticated for climbers interested in ‘multipitch, adventure sport climbs’.
In 1999, as a medivac nurse in Papua New Guinea, weeks on end in the tropical heat, he compiled his notes to publish the first Ibex guidebook. He added a much larger area from the Mineral Mountains south to shores of the Great Salt Lake and published Utah’s West Desert guidebook in 2011. That book has sold over 1000 copies and opened the eyes of many climbers to the beauty of Utah’s lesser known climbing venues.
“In the nineties, I really thought Ibex would catch on with more people due to its beauty and the uniqueness of the rock, but it didn’t. People are paranoid that a guidebook will ruin a place with more and more climbers, but attention brings protection.” The West Desert is an open target for mining operations, and to James Garrett—who has tried unsuccessfully to get the Access Fund to build an outhouse at Ibex—the more climbers who take interest, the better survival chances for these isolated rock faces.
Climbing in Abyssinia
After all this and more had happened, I met James Garrett. Back in 2012, I was in the market for a drill and putting together my own bolt kit, so I sought him out to get advice. He took me to by the hand and inculcated his admiration for the Swiss brand Hilti, his obsession with towers, and the art of discovery. I guess he was my Les Ellison, except we hit it off.
We had climbing in common, but we also had something stronger: love for Ethiopia. I was living there, and he had been to the sandstone of Tigray. He too was fascinated with Ethiopia, Africa’s source of infinite mountains. We both went on to summit towers in Tigray, share coffee and leave a mark on the future of climbing.
In 2014, James Garrett was back in Ethiopia as a volunteer for the Himalayan Cataract Project. On a sunny day in Addis Ababa, our friend Niels Tietze and I picked him up at the Hilton and headed to the crag where I had been putting up routes since early 2013. In an unpretentious, James Garrett-fashion, he walked up to the rock and said: “This wall needs more moderate routes if you are going to attract intermediate climbers.” A dose of Plaisir, and he found a moderate line and sunk his quota of bolts.
Later that night, holed up in a traditional dance club, James was immersed in Ethiopian dancing, shaking his shoulders with every habesha in the joint. Drinking Dashen beers and jumping up and down, the energy levels of this 63-year-old climber defied nature. After the cataract project, Garrett flew solo to Namibia, somehow roped a random German guy into helping with belays, made the long trip out to the Spitzkoppe and put up a route. How many sexagenarians are doing this with their time, resources and abilities. Nobody I know is like James Garrett.
“When I talk to my old friends, they tell me they’ve grown out of it. I don’t see a choice, I’m not going to get passionate about golf the way I am about climbing. Sometimes I go back and climb one of my climbs, like Quartermoon Tower at Ibex. And on those really memorable towers, I leave a register, so in ten years when you’re climbing The Needles near Mt. Ogden with your daughter, you’ll get to the top and remember James Garrett.”
Tucked away in his office, the written record of James Garrett’s life is condensed into 44 journals, each scribbled with lists, topos and info about each and every rock climb, face, peak and ski mountaineering route, located all over the world. A significant part of the history of climbing along the Wasatch Front is written in those books.
“Typically, climbers are proud of the lines that nobody repeats. My most proud routes are the ones that get repeated. Yes, the FA is for yourself, but when I look back, the Black Streak in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Quartermoon Tower in Ibex or Bedouin Camel Boys in Jordan are truly classic routes. People are doing them on any given day, and that’s a nice feeling.”
Please leave your favorite memory of James below in the comments section!