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Heavenly Climbing


Whitfield Hartz belays another climber at the Glass Wall in Hells Canyon. Hells Canyon Reservoir is in the background. Belaying is a technique by which one climber holds the rope and protects another climber from a fall. (Mavis Hartz photo)

H ells Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America, is littered with history, vistas and recreation. When winter drags and the need for sunshine, warmth and outdoor exercise beckons, follow the local Native American path and visit the Snake River.

Known for its isolated wild and rocky beauty, the canyon, in one location, drops a record-setting 7,993 feet to the river. The elevation of the Hells Canyon Reservoir, a nice 1,775 feet, allows for temperatures that are much more moderate then the surrounding regions. I recommend visiting the territory enveloping Oxbow, Oregon, for winter hiking, fishing, cycling and rock climbing. The daytime temperatures near Oxbow are rarely below freezing and often flirt with 50 degrees and higher into early December and starting again in March.

Oxbow is approximately 70 miles east of Baker City on Oregon Highway 86. It’s a small, unincorporated town where amenities are few and gas stations are sporadically open Make sure to plan your trip accordingly.

The expanse neighboring Oxbow contain over 50 miles of hiking trails, three dams, a reservoir, Native American cave art, hot springs and the focus of this article — more than 400 bolted rock-climbing routes.

The prevalent rock formations in the area are basalt and limestone. The majority of the climbing is sport on the luminescent, featured and cave-filled limestone. The main climbing base camp is on the Idaho side of the river about 15 miles northeast of Oxbow at Big Bar, next to the Allison Creek Trailhead.

Big Bar is home to a nice little campground placed on a former native wintering encampment and John Eckle’s terraced fruit farm. The natives and Mr. Eckles’ fruit farm are ghosts from the past but the present contains a few pit toilets, no potable water and tons of old fruit trees.

Looking to the east, away from the river, there are numerous limestone protrusions well worth a bit of exploring. For those looking for specific beta I suggest visiting rockclimbing.com as they seem to have the most viable information about the individual crags, though expect to find more routes on each wall than is noted.

For the first-time visitor to Allison Creek, perusing The Glass Wall and the South Face of the Flat Iron are highly recommended. The Glass Wall is the perfect place to climb the day of your arrival. Hells Canyon is great for winter recreation but sunshine is still imperative. The Glass Wall receives afternoon sunlight and is home to at least 13 moderate routes. To find the Glass Wall look for a trail next to Bench 3 of the campground. There, alongside a bright yellow road sign, a rough trail takes a direct 255-foot leap in 11/10ths of a mile route to the closest cliff.

The glory of the Glass Wall is that it is very close to the road and it only requires a 60-meter rope and a handful of quickdraws to enjoy. The routes are short and demonstrative of limestone climbing. Foot friction is key as dishes cup precarious feet and allow the climber to go ever higher.

Handholds are far between but amazing when found. Runnels, under clings, holes and bumps carved out from centuries of erosion are forms of art in themselves as balance and strength rise to the occasion. The classic routes on this wall are farther to the right and feature rough spines like the route Cobalt Blue rated a 5.10c due to sequencing.

The South Face of the Flat Iron is quintessential when visiting Allison Creek in the winter. The Flat Iron is an enormous chunk of ancient sea floor riddled with caves, fossils and multi-pitch routes. The South Face of the Flat Iron is the best place to climb when it is cold because it captures the sun the entire day.

To find the Flat Iron hike up Allison Creek Trail number 514 approximately half a mile. Instead of crossing Allison Creek for a third time, turn sharply west abandoning the main trail on a rough little footpath that travels up. The next half a mile climbs at least 800 feet across rugged terrain that in the summer months hosts a multitude of native species best not to run into.

The South Face of the Flat Iron is beautiful. The cliff is gray blue and light orange towering above on one side. To the northwest, the majestic Hells Canyon Reservoir glistens below and reflects the dramatic landscape of the snow-topped peaks and ridges encasing it. Even if climbing is never going to be your sport the Flat Iron is worth the hike.

The wall is so big that a 70-meter rope is needed for most of the routes and many are multi-pitch. At last count, there was a minimum of 30 routes on this behemoth. The climbs in the middle of the cliff are wonderful mid-grade pitches that circumvent caves and travel over mini-roofs sporting tiny stalactites eager to clutch at your finger pads. Most of the climbs on the South Face of the Flat Iron are sport and require around 20 quickdraws to safely lead.

When winter gets long, hang out in Hells Canyon. Allison Creek is a beautiful area full of caves, trails and rock climbing routes to explore. The recent and past history of the region is fascinating with petroglyphs, groundbreaking legislation, remarkable feats of engineering and gold. The natives of Hells Canyon like it hot and are much more amenable in the winter. Rattlesnakes, poison oak and sumac are mostly dormant in the colder months but are always good to keep in mind. Climbing, like many adventures, can be as dangerous or safe as the adventurer wants it to be. Taking time to learn the sport and respect the equipment and elements before launching into the unknown is always a must.