Behind the Founding of the Bighorn Climber's Coalition

posted by dpm on 09/16/2013

Something keeps drawing me back to the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. I set a firm goal this past summer, and the summer before, to visit other areas like the crags around Lander. Yet here I am, once again, sitting outside the library in the tiny town (pop. <300) of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. The summer has come and gone and, for the third year in a row, I hunkered down in the Bighorns to climb at the empty crags of Crazy Woman and the more popular Ten Sleep Canyon. It's just such a special place. 

The magical Ten Sleep Canyon, Wyoming. Photo: DPM

Climbing in Ten Sleep has exploded in popularity over the past five years. A decade ago it was completely off the beaten path, but it didn't take long for word to get out about the miles of pocketed dolomite cliff line and cool summer conditions. Now, Ten Sleep is on the summer circuit of American sport climbers and even international visitors. Just in the past few days I've run into climbers from Germany and Spain and last year I even spotted legendary Frenchman Marc LeMenestrel! The climbing is world-class without a doubt and the world has taken notice.

Elissa Williams climbs Kyberspace (5.13a/b) at the Superratic. Photo: DPM

As with any "new" area, the increase in visitation has raised the brows of land managers, in this case the National Forest Service (NFS). The camping is free but there are no facilities which has led to issues with human-waste management. The trails, bolts, and sheer volume of visitors has the NFS scratching their heads and wondering how best to manage their resource. It's a common story with climbing areas, but Ten Sleep is unique in the sense that there are almost no locals to communicate with the NFS and express the viewpoints of climbers. In fact, there are only two climbers that live in the town of Ten Sleep: Alli Rainey and Kevin Wilkinson. Everyone else, including myself, view themselves as 'visitors' and it's easy to see why few have taken ownership in the well-being of the crags and relationships with land managers.

Today marks the official launch of the Bighorn Climber's Coalition (BCC), an Access Fund affiliate and "a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving, protecting and promoting access to climbing resources in the Bighorn Mountains and Bighorn Basin of Wyoming." It's been clear for a number of years that a formal climbing organization was needed, but there's a remarkable story behind what finally spurred the formation of the BCC.

Nearly a year ago I got a message from Eric Johnson, someone I'd met briefly before in Ten Sleep. Some excerpts from his message follow:

"I am 33 and have stage four melanoma. I am not seeking treatment at this moment shy of the four surgeries I have had. The last two being failures. What that means to me is that I will likely die in a year or two.

I have been climbing in Ten Sleep since '96. I have to get a will in order and have to get my daughter sorted out, but I also wanted to set up some sort of hardware fund for the Ten Sleep players. I want to give them some money to offset the expense of development. I doubt it could be more than a couple grand, but hey, every little bit helps. Thoughts? Just want to do some good for my favorite climbing area in the country and my friends that have helped make it what it is..."

Eric Johnson at Ten Sleep. Photo: BCC

Eric and I discussed the bolt fund idea a little bit and agreed that there were more pressing issues like parking and waste-management. We even joked about the establishment of the "Eric Johnson Memorial Shitter." Eric took his ideas to the "Ten Sleep players," most of them his friends and dedicated route developers around the region. Within a year, the BCC was born.

Local Ten Sleep climber, and BCC board member, Alli Rainey was an integral part of the development of the organization and, with the official launch of their website, she's presented an interview with Eric Johnson. She refers to Eric as possessing, "grace, courage and humor" and I couldn't agree more. Within the interview, Eric writes, "My reason for leaving money for the future of Ten Sleep is simple. I want Ten Sleep climbing to have a future, and sometimes funding is a very integral part of that equation. As I have said above, I have seen the canyon change quite a lot since my first visit. And let me say that I love the response and enthusiasm of climbers that are new to the area. But the reality is that more people mean more problems – human waste problems, parking problems, and so on. I have been blessed with the ability to donate some money to the cause, and I just want to give back. I have made so many wonderful friends while climbing in the canyon. I have so many wonderful stories and experiences. I just want other people to be able to experience the wonder of Ten Sleep the same as I have."

BCC prez Mike Snyder and Eric Johnson heading out to put up the routes we enjoy today. Photo: BCC

Read the full interview at the BCC website and consider becoming a member of the organization. Remember, there are no locals in Ten Sleep! The climbers that flock to Ten Sleep during the summer months are visitors from all over the nation and world. If you love the climbing in Ten Sleep and want to ensure a healthy future for this area, please consider becoming a member, no matter where you are from.

Become a member of the BCC here.  


Update: 1/8/14. From the Bighorn Climber's Coalition website.

Our dear friend, Eric “Shaggy” Johnson, the inspiration behind the founding of the Bighorn Climbers’ Coalition, passed away on January 7, 2014. In lieu of flowers, his family invites you to donate to the Bighorn Climbers’ Coalition in Eric’s memory. The BCC could just as accurately be called the Eric “Shaggy” Johnson Memorial Fund, as without Shaggy’s desire to give something back to this area of Wyoming that he so loved, it’s unlikely that a climbers’ coalition would have come together to steward this area for many years. Thank you, Shaggy, our brother and friend, for showing us the way. Goodbye, we love you, and rest in peace.

Click this link to make a donation to Eric's favorite climbing area.