Climbing Gets a Foothold in the Bighorns

Sheer granite walls on all sides. Turquoise Alpine lakes. The Sawtooth Canyon in the Cloud Peak Wilderness area is a treasure in our own backyard, according to Bighorn Mountain Guide owner and climbing guide, Nick Flores.

“It’s a really magical experience,” Flores said, “and one of my favorite places in the Bighorns.”

Flores started his guiding company last year, coinciding with the opening of Big Horn Summit, Sheridan’s first-ever rock climbing gym, operated by local fellow climbers, Justin Case and Johnny Crider.

The climbing world out West is a small, tight-knit community, according to Crider, who credits the opening of their gym as a community effort. Climbing shoes were donated by STEEPWORLD Climbing & Fitness, a climbing gym in Billings, and some of the rock fixtures were donated by the 5150′ Rock Gym in Casper. They lease their building in the Sheridan Commercial Park from The Sport Stop and many of their friends volunteer there after work.

“We built this for us,” Crider said. “We wanted it to be affordable and we wanted people to be involved.”

The trio work closely together to grow the sport of climbing in the community, and Flores considers his guide service an outdoor extension of Bighorn Summit.

An elementary school teacher by day, Flores helped to organize the Piney Creek Rock Gathering held in September for the last two years, a unique festival combining climbing in South Piney Creek Canyon during the day with beer and music in the evening. He’s also on the board of the Bighorn Climbers Coalition, a non-profit tied to a larger network of Local Climbing Organizations, which gives them the support of the climbing preservation Access Fund.

I sat down with Flores to find out how all of these new ventures have gone so far.

How was your first season?

I learned a lot. The big thing was how to market yourself. I didn’t know who my audience was. Obviously, it’s anyone looking to get outside, which is great, but it’s not really Sheridan residents. It’s the tourists coming to town.

They’re more likely to spend money on a climbing trip or a hiking trip than locals. You’re not going to pay me to go hike with you up Tongue River Canyon or Steamboat Point. You’re going to go do that on your own. Very few local people are going to do that.

But people who are coming to town — they’re afraid. They don’t want to go up in the mountains by themselves. All they know of the mountains is what the TV tells them: there are grizzly bears, there’s rattlesnakes.

So, I quickly realized my target audience.

How did the Piney Creek Rock Gathering go?

The Rock Gathering is to get the local people out. The majority of people who come there are Wyoming locals but we had people come from South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota and Colorado. It was great taking out the Sheridan Outdoor Club through Sheridan High School too.

It was really great just to get so many people out there and have them all climb for the first time.

What’s happening with the Bighorn Climbers Coalition?

Last year was a really successful year with the coalition on this side of the mountain.  In previous years, we’ve pretty much been focused on Ten Sleep, and I live over here. I love Ten Sleep, I love climbing over there, but my heart’s over here.  I want to protect our side too, and there were a lot of cool projects that I was able to get going last year.  It was kind of my job to take control of eastern side. We had two trash cleanups. We picked up right around 30 bags of garbage right there on tunnel hill, next to the old Tunnel Inn.  It’s just ridiculous how much garbage there is there. I was able to get a doggy waste station right at the trailhead at Piney Creek Canyon. We had a project where we removed some spray paint on some rock.

We also started an anchor replacement last year. We started to replace some anchors right here on the eastern side. A lot of those routes were bolted around 1990. Those anchors aren’t meant to be up there forever. A lot of them are pretty sketchy. Last year we replaced three or four anchors. This year we’re planning to do quite a bit more in Tongue River Canyon. Our ultimate goal is to reuse the holes, so it’s less impact on the rock.

We’re called a local climber’s organization, an LCO. We’re just a small organization. They have them all over the place. Lander has theirs, we have ours, they have them over in Bozeman, the Black Hills. We’re like minded folks getting together to protect an area. The last thing we want is people coming in and destroying an area and getting climbing banned. If someone is coming in and spray painting, the Forest Service might question whether climbers are good for an area and take away climbing. 

Our goal is to educate. Right now, we’re working to get some sort of kiosk at South Piney Creek Canyon to inform people there. There’s nothing up there, no sort of signage or anything, so we want to get something there to talk about where the trails are, where routes are, information on the walls, who the Bighorn Climbers Coalition is and how to help. 

This is my fifth year and I see Sheridan transforming for the better. It’s a really cool community. When a community does a lot of great things it makes the community desirable. 

Anything else you are excited about?

I’ve been here this past five years, and just seen such a transformation. It’s really cool to be a part of that. Starting this guide service, talking to other local business owners, it’s just a really cool time to be here trying these new ideas. Ten or 15 years ago, people might have thought we don’t need a guide service here. We didn’t have enough climbers or there weren’t enough routes. It’s been cool to see a lot of the kids getting out to places like Bighorn Summit. It’s great seeing the community really get behind it and get excited about it.

By: Kevin M. Knapp
Photos: Sheridan Travel & Tourism


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