Ten Sleep, Wyoming
Originally published in Sage Magazine.
On a hot day in the summer of 2018, I woke up to red and blue lights saturating the white dolomite walls that loom over the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch, the new rock climber’s campground in the canyon just upstream of the town of Ten Sleep, Wyoming. I had been in the area for a few weeks, but this was the first time I’d seen any signs of law enforcement. The lights shut off as the cruiser rolled to the back of the new campground.
The police report later said that ten shots were fired while the Rock Ranch’s controversial founder, Louie Anderson, was dangling from a rope, bolting yet another route. The rock, Bighorn dolomite, splintered like shrapnel around him. No bullets hit his body, just the skyscraper skeletons of the coral reefs that used to frequent this desert. Perhaps if he listened a little closer as the bullets riddled the limestone around him, he would have heard them whisper, you are not welcome here.
For years now living in Wyoming, I’d meant to see Ten Sleep for myself. However, in recent years, friends in the area have said that it’s swarming with climbers — climbers washing ropes in the public “splash pad”, climbers using the sink in the public library as a shower, and climbers mining all of the WiFi bandwidth in the area. One local barista named Talena told me that the problem for her is mostly the exclusivity. “If you’re not a rock climber then… oh…don’t want to talk to you anymore.” Although testimonies from Ten Sleep residents vary widely, the central point is the same: a sense that they’d lost control of their town. Too much, too fast.
Like many small Western towns, each chapter in Ten Sleep’s history has begun the same way: power and wealth coming from elsewhere with a new way of doing things. After a few weeks in Ten Sleep it became clear that a new chapter was well underway. A recent dramatic Facebook post noted that this current conflict over climbing, “is about a battle for nothing less than the Soul of Ten Sleep.”
“It was not an accident,” a climber at the Rock Ranch told me of the shooting, “and now half of the people in town don’t believe him [Louie Anderson], which is great because now everybody just picks what they believe in the world these days, and the other half of the people don’t know what to think.”
The police have no leads, no suspects.
From Yellowstone National Park, if you point your car east toward the Bighorn Mountains and drive across the moonscape desert of northern Wyoming for two hours, just when you think the road should begin climbing toward the alpine, it abruptly drops into a valley invisible to any distant vantage. As the road descends, the color pallet morphs from black and white to red and green like The Wizard of Oz.
After passing a green sign that reads “Ten Sleep, Pop. 260” you will come to the sort of Wyoming town we’re taught to see in the imagined American West: one general store, two bars, four churches. Most people just pass through on Route 16 on their way to and from Yellowstone. But if in the thirty seconds it takes to drive through Ten Sleep you slow down, pull over, and look closer, you’ll find some things of note.
You might see that the dusty abandoned lot on Main Street is not overflowing with weeds, but kale. You might realize that that homeless-looking man with a long, greying beard plucking the banjo outside his trailer is pretty good. His name is Jalan, and he is a national banjo-picking champion.
Only outsiders think Ten Sleep exists in the clichés of Western mythology. In this population of 260, there are engineers, miners, artists, ranchers, small business owners, and a handful of professional athletes.
If you walk around the corner to 3rd Street, you’ll find a small home with a garage that’s rapidly being reclaimed by vines. The owner is a friend of mine named Mark Carter. Mark and I met a couple of years back in the high-stakes skiing and snowboarding scene of Jackson, Wyoming. Although he spends a good chunk of the year helping maintain his family’s renowned 40,000-acre cattle ranch, Carter Country Meats, the inside of his garage is a museum dedicated to his ongoing career as a professional snowboarder. The walls are lined with more than a hundred snowboards, many that never made it to market. Next year’s YETI and The North Face products are scattered about. An open canister of Daneson toothpicks — his toothpick sponsor — lies on the floor like a beer from last night. The ceiling is one gigantic American flag that casts a red and blue hue onto his face as he works on his mountain bike.
I asked one day what he thought about the vanloads of Patagonia-clad Rock Ranch-staying rock climbers coming to town. He looked me dead in the eye, and after shifting his ever-present toothpick from left to right, murmured, “It’s a goddamn mess.”
Wyoming is preparing for two simultaneous crises: the collapse of coal and the non-viability of small family ranches. The majority of the state’s tax revenue comes from extractive industries. In terms of coal, Wyoming produces more than the next top seven producing states combined. A single mine, called Black Thunder, produces about as much coal each year as the char-famous state of West Virginia. As the demand for coal shrinks, so does the financial viability of mining operations and Wyoming’s tax base. And while coal is the economic powerhouse of the state, cattle ranching is the founding mythology, the cultural glue.
Here too there is a sad decay. Small family ranches are in most cases no longer financially sound operations without government subsidy. Those who continue the work sit in a dissonant suspension between deeply held myths of rugged individualism and full reliance on the government. In Ten Sleep, parents generally discourage their kids from getting into ranching. Mark told me sadly, “We’re a dying breed.” There is a particular Grapes of Wrath-like collapse underway, where many of these small ranches, “will be a part of a great holding next year, for the debt will have choked the owner…Only the great owners can survive, for they own the canneries, too.” As these core Wyoming industries become economically obsolete in our rapidly globalizing world, whole cultures will be eradicated and new ones elevated.
In 2016, then Governor of Wyoming Matt Mead formed the Outdoor Recreation Task Force, “to assess Wyoming’s outdoor recreation economic sector, needs for now and the future, relationships with land access, and the possible creation of an Office of Outdoor Recreation.” In 2017, The Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office and Wyoming State Parks began the Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative, charged with, “exploring ways to promote outdoor recreation, develop new recreation opportunities, and create a plan to enhance the Bighorn Basin’s recreation-based economy and quality of life.” This was the first collaborative of its kind in the state’s history, which means that in the Bighorn Basin, where Ten Sleep lies, the writing is on the walls.
I grew up in Upstate New York near several towns that have never recovered from their early industrial heyday and decline. When Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System made the Erie Canal obsolete, a long list of cities that were once on the main thoroughfare connecting the East to the Midwest and beyond rapidly collapsed.
When I was young, I learned to climb at the Albany Indoor Rock Gym and after college spent four years calling my car and Wyoming home. I am a rock climber. So, when Mark told me that my community was ruining his town, it felt personal. We stayed in touch from across the country while I was in graduate school, and at the end of my first year, I thought the only way to truly understand what was going on was to embed myself in the community. In May, I got in my car in Connecticut and, after picking up Interstate 90 in Massachusetts, drove west — Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Madison, Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Gillette, Exit 58 at Buffalo, up over the Bighorn — to the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch.
The Rock Ranch was the recent brainchild of Valarie and Louie Anderson, a wealthy Orange County, California couple who moved to Ten Sleep in 2016 to fulfill their dream of “living a slower pace and semi-retiring into a lifestyle of camp hosting” and to “begin another chapter in their legacy of climbing and crag development.” For Louie in particular, the potential for nearly unrestricted climbing development was enticing. Sitting with Valarie one day under the pavilion she told me that they almost moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee but at the last minute chose Ten Sleep. It was quieter.
Back in California, Valarie taught yoga and Louie owned a series of rock climbing gyms, which he still manages. They both live publicly healthy lifestyles. Louie’s Instagram is filled with action shots of climbing and healthy meals, and Valarie’s mostly time-lapses of yoga routines. Although well-intended, the style and pace with which they have entered the Ten Sleep community have not gone unnoticed. Nothing goes unnoticed in Ten Sleep when you’re new.
After you drive under the big wooden archway that reads Ten Sleep Rock Ranch, you’ll notice the gravel road splits and links more than a handful of campsites and small cabins. Fruit is often strewn on the ground, and the air smells sweet and sweaty. It used to be an apple and cherry orchard where Ten Sleepers would pick fruits in the late summer and fall. Now there is a bathhouse, public refrigerators full of La Croix, a small rock climbing gym, and a pavilion with WiFi and outlets continuously connected to an assortment of unattended Apple products. If you’re there midday, you’re guaranteed to see at least one athletic 30-something in flip-flops wandering aimlessly and shirtlessly. There are more of them every day.
Most mornings, I would wake up and follow Route 16 from the Rock Ranch down into Ten Sleep. Where mountain meets desert is a hidden topographical paradise similar to the famous sandstone national parks of Southern Utah. Petroglyphs in these red canyonlands go back more than 10,000 years.
Some days I would make the drive to the only general store, Dirty Sally’s, which quickly became my makeshift office. The building’s brown wood siding is growing pale from the sun. Leah and Wes, the new owners, recently repainted the window frames a beautiful white. A large sign that dangles perpendicular to the storefront and flow of traffic reads in plain font, “ICE CREAM,” “COFFEE,” “SOUVENIRS,” and “GROCERIES.” The once-prolific bison on the red, white, and blue state flag dances in the wind like a memory.
Inside it’s cold and dark, except where the dusty sun shines through the big front window. Talena is behind the counter in a Star Wars shirt and choker necklace, handing brown caramel ice cream in a fresh waffle cone to an older cowboy. He smiles through his grey mustache and thanks her in the sincerest way. He sneaks a quick lick and takes his cone to the circular wooden table next to mine, where he and his old cowboy friends share ice cream instead of coffee every morning and are a happier bunch than any I’ve known.
After a few weeks, thirty iced coffees, and twenty frozen burritos, I found myself chatting with Talena about the town and climbers. She said she didn’t want to talk at work, but that if I wanted to go on a hike with her and her kids later that day, she’d love to chat.
On top of the canyon rim above the Rock Ranch, we rested in the shade of a huge Ponderosa. We were both sweaty and tired. The boys were not. Talena pulled out a cigarette.
“You want one?”
“Nah. I’m good.”
“That’s smart. Hey boys, go find me some fossils!” The two boys took off, and after a flick of a lighter, a quick puff, she asked, “How many of them have actually hiked this trail? Or to the lookout?”
“I don’t know. Not many.”
Between drags on her cigarette, Talena told me that her dad was from New York and her mom from Iowa. “We came here for some time in ’82 and ’83. My parents fell in love with the area and spent 23 years trying to get back. My sophomore year we moved. It was hard. I was 14 with a tattoo, listened to heavy metal, got four left feet.” She said it took more than ten years before Ten Sleep accepted her family. “But when we left for school and came back, nobody seemed to remember that we ever didn’t live here.”
We sat quietly for a bit and I closed my eyes. There was a light wind that smelled like sage and cigarettes. I could feel some salt in my eyes. It was silent and warm, except the lightly audible echo of the creek deep down in the canyon.
“You know, you don’t see the deer anymore down there. You don’t see the elk. You used to see them in that area below the cliffs where there are so many routes now.”
“Yeah of course! We subsistence hunt and process all our own. I think last year we took six deer and I’ve already run out of meat. I’m counting down the days until my oldest is old enough to get a license.” Talena smiled with sadness, a sort of preemptive nostalgia, as her oldest came tearing around a tree with a gun-shaped stick pretending to battle some imagined enemy. No fossils.
It was clear that it was precisely these sorts of informal economies and cultures that were at stake these days in Ten Sleep. I asked if she’d heard about Louie getting shot at.
“I hadn’t heard of that happening until I overheard you talking about it the other day. Those folks haven’t made any attempts whatsoever to reach out that hand, to say ‘how can we make this impact less tough on you guys’ you know? There’s a reason for the animosity.”
We sat in silence again. After a bit, Talena gestured at the silent space in front of us, and added, “We moved to Ten Sleep for this.”
Down below, the Rock Ranch buzzed from the cars, communal refrigerators, and WIFI routers. Looking back at that hike, neither Talena nor I knew the half of what was going on down there.
The Ten Sleep Climbing Festival is a wholesale celebration of the climbing industry. What used to be an informal party of friends with beer, a bonfire, and a guitar has become a meditation in upper-middle-class consumerism. Hundreds come from Boulder, Salt Lake City, and beyond to participate.
The scene on June 30, 2018 was a carnival of tents covering the lawn outside of the Ten Sleep Brewing Co. A crowd of athletic millennials and their dogs foraged for the best of next year’s gear. The event was primarily planned by Valarie Anderson, the Rock Ranch manager who had recently also joined the board of the Bighorn Climbers’ Coalition.
A few confused locals wandered about, perhaps realizing for the first time that things were different than they used to be. I spent my time asking passersby to fill out my surveys about how they were spending money while in Ten Sleep. It turns out that climbers spend relatively little in Ten Sleep, mostly on campsite costs and gas. Many bring their own food for the entire trip. If new businesses are to spring up in Ten Sleep, climbers are most excited for those to be locally-owned restaurants. After a handful of surveys, boredom drove me to the bar. I was waiting for evening, when The North Face rock climbing athlete Matt Segal was supposed to give a talk.
Matt grew up in Florida and got his start in competition climbing before taking his world-class talents to the planet’s hardest climbs. Segal is a remarkably thoughtful individual, with degrees in Psychology and Religious Studies in Tibetan Buddhism from Naropa University. More than a decade ago he started coming to Ten Sleep seeking out some of the area’s hardest climbs, but what has kept him coming back each summer is his friend, Mark Carter.
Matt and Mark have been friends and The North Face athletes together for years. A few days before the festival, I got a text from Mark that read, “Matts here. You should come by!”
I walked into Mark’s cool dark house to find the two of them catching up over a La Croix. I listened to them talk about internal The North Face drama for a while and Matt spoke at length about his new instant coffee company, Alpine Start. “It’s super weird to be the owner of a multi-million dollar company now, like overnight. I’m learning a lot.”
Matt asked me what my project was about, and I told him I was looking at how climbing has been changing the area and his ears perked up. “It’s changed a ton in the past few years. Oh my god! I’m super intrigued.”
He asked me what’s up with the new place called the Rock Ranch.
“A couple named Louie and Valarie opened it up in 2016.”
“Oh, Valarie is the one organizing the Festival.”
“Louie Anderson is here in Ten Sleep! Are you serious?”
“Yeah, he owns the Rock Ranch. People say he’s been developing a ton of new routes in the area. Also, a few weeks ago he got shot at up in the canyon while bolting!”
“Oh man, Louie Anderson….”
Louie Anderson had been interested in Ten Sleep climbing development long before he purchased the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch. In an April 2006 RockClimbing.com forum, Louie noted that Ten Sleep was “the best sport climbing I’ve experienced or seen in Wyoming” before adding that there was, “endless new route potential at just about any grade you might be looking to bolt.”
In the same post, he also wrote that Ten Sleep was, “somewhat of a secluded spot, but I predict huge things for the future of the area and its popularity for attracting out of state climbers.” The goal for Louie has always been to attract outsiders to the area. However, the desire to attract climbers and thus be known is not what makes Louie controversial. It’s his ethics regarding two widely detested techniques in rock climbing development: chipping and gluing.
In a November 2003 online post, Louie momentarily pulled back the veil of purity on his climbing development. “Many people at crags all over the world climb on drilled holds without realizing it. Many of the crags around Lander have drilled holds, some done to look more realistic than others.” This process of creating unnatural holds is what people in the rock climbing community called “chipping”, or drilling and chiseling handholds into the rock to make particular sections easier, or even climbable at all. Three years later, Louie publicly offered advice for gluing rocks to a wall when he wrote, “Assuming you do a good job of cleaning the rear of the stones you’re gluing, there will be much greater surface area to attach on an uneven rock surface.” Louie’s words jarred many members of the climbing community, who believe in the purity of the mythologized wilderness.
For generations, mountaineering and rock climbing in the Western world have been a way for members of an upper class of society to project disillusionment with the privileged lifestyle they were born into. In the United States, the climbing community tends to reject modernism by spending a lot of time in remote and sublime spaces. This has turned the rock climbing community into one of the biggest proponents of the mythologized wilderness: a pure, natural place separate from the unhealthy dregs of our modern, globalized rat race. For generations, rock climbers — from writer John Muir, to Sierra Club President David Brower, to Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard — have often found themselves situated as pop culture wilderness defenders.
On one hand, Louie’s tendency toward gluing and chipping is relatively benign in the grand scheme of our public lands, where trees are still felled, and coal is still actively extracted. But on the other hand, his chipping and gluing cut deep into core myths the rock climbing community believes about itself. By the early 2000s, there is evidence to suggest that Louie was aware of what his chipping and gluing represented in the belief system of the climbing community. In 2004, he lamented that recently he’d become, “much quicker to glue when bolting at crags. This is something that I’m aware of and am making a conscious effort to change.” However, by 2016, when Louie settled into his new home in Ten Sleep, seemingly secluded from the ethical scrutiny of California, he slipped back into old patterns and triggered a community reaction with an intensity that neither he nor anyone else in the rock community could have predicted.
On February 12, 2019, a petition began circulating on Facebook that eventually made its way to Rock and Ice Magazine. The authors of the document were a group of older Ten Sleep climbing developers who expressed serious concern with the current state of affairs. After just a few hours of the petition being made public, signatories included hundreds of recreational climbers and a good chunk of professional ones, including Matt Segal.
The petition contends that over the past three years, Louie has put up more than 140 new routes in Ten Sleep Canyon, many of which seem to be heavily chipped and glued. The most egregious case, a climbing area called Funky Town, has been described by some, “as an entire wall of 27 manufactured routes put up by Louie.” One of the petition’s authors told me that the original purpose of the petition was to ask “for the chipping to stop, but more importantly, it was a call to action for the routes to be stripped from the walls and be removed from the guidebooks in order to avoid normalizing chipping.”
In response, Louie agreed to stop chipping but refused to remove the routes that had already gone up. Another local developer and signatory to the petition, said that Louie even, “told the President of the Bighorn Climbers’ Coalition that he would re-bolt any routes taken down.” However, as the subsequent Facebook comment section ballooned, another story emerged that was perhaps more damning than the petition itself. This was not Louie’s first rodeo.
One signatory, Devlin Gandy, recounts being high off the ground on a route Louie had bolted called Hijacked in the Santa Monica Mountains when suddenly a hold broke off the wall, sending him careening down. Dangling just a few feet from the ground he looked at the rock that had broken, which he describes not as a rock at all, but “a foot-long piece of epoxy carefully caked in breccia dust and chalk.” Speaking to Louie, he wrote, “Holding the former hueco lip in my hand, I could see the great efforts you took to obscure your handiwork, how you had carefully layered grit and chalk onto the surface of the epoxy with the hold ergonomics in mind.”
The petition and subsequent fallout haven’t affected Louie much, beyond losing his Mad Rock Climbing sponsorship. Today, his 464 page, 1,110 route Ten Sleep Canyon Climbing guidebook is available on Amazon Prime. Despite the guidebook receiving only one-star reviews online, its publication has effectively secured his reign of Ten Sleep dominance. The cover shot of Funky Town is even tilted to make the climbing look steeper than it is. After seeing the cover, one of the petition’s authors said, “It was like spitting in our face.”
When I talked to her in March 2019, Valarie said she is starting to plan for the 2019 Climbing Festival. She also told me that she’d recently joined the board of the Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative. “The folks who started this know that recreation is the future. But capitalizing on tourism, while protecting land and keeping locals happy? That’s tough.” She didn’t seem yet to consider herself a local. Maybe she never will.
Later in the summer of 2018, while I was typing away at my Dirty Sally’s office space, Talena sat down next to me and told me she’d just gotten back from a hike up to the ice caves. In a special part of Ten Sleep Canyon, there is a massive cave about two feet wide and a hundred feet tall. All year, even on the hottest July days, 32-degree air pours out from a mysterious hole somewhere deep in the earth. The depths of the ice caves have yet to be fully charted.
“We hiked up there with the owners of the brewery because they’d forgotten where it was, and I knew.” When they finally reached the cave, Talena says climbers were swarming the walls on either side. She said that when they walked up, it was awkward. “It was that, look straight ahead, don’t look at the locals, don’t say hi to the locals, don’t acknowledge that the locals are here, oh my gosh the locals are here, what are we gonna do, we’ll just keep climbing. I was like, wow guys, I’m just here trying to enjoy my backyard you know?”
In August 2018, I left Ten Sleep and took the long drive back to New Haven, where I watched the conflict evolve from the same vantage point of most of those involved: behind a computer screen.
In the fall of 2018, which is when I’d written the bulk of what became this piece, I was told by the editors at all of the major rock climbing magazines that they wouldn’t publish anything on Ten Sleep because it would jeopardize climbing access. In fact, one said that it wasn’t even their decision, but rather that the President of the Access Fund, rock climbing’s special interest group, had declared the media restriction.
All throughout the spring, tensions kept building. There was the petition which, despite the best efforts of climbing special interest groups, forced the conflict into the rock climbing mainstream. As summer approached, I knew it was going to explode again. Some of my Louie-hating contacts began texting me and talking about the conflict as a “civil war.”
The situation escalated in July of 2019, when an anonymous group of 18 climbers chopped the bolts off of many of Louie’s routes in the middle of the night. They also attached red padlocks to the bolts on a handful of other routes to indicate those that were even more egregiously manufactured. This finally forced the Forest Service into the conversation. On July 19, the Forest Service began “enforcing regulations that prohibit constructing new climbing routes or trails on the Bighorn National Forest.”
Throughout the following months, Climbing Magazine and Rock and Ice finally published pieces on the conflict. And despite the writers’ best efforts at articulating the real issue to their readers, in no article were the actual people of Ten Sleep mentioned. The conflict was pitched over and over again as though the rock climbing community operates in a void; as though not only are humans separate from nature, but that rock climbers are separate from the democratic politics of normal human affairs. The writing paints Ten Sleep Canyon as a gift from god to the climbing community who shall have dominion over the dolomite, roadside pullouts, and every living thing that moves.
Every year the rock climbing community, and other recreation communities like it, is further entangled in the late-stage capitalism we all live in, where it is not just products that are sold, but identity and lifestyle too. Year after year, these tiny rural communities in the West become smaller and smaller, chipped away by a dying economic system and a social culture that seems to no longer value a small town way of life. What happened in Ten Sleep is one incident in the ever-evolving global pattern of pushing local people to the wayside in favor of something new.
I asked Talena in 2018 what she thought the future held for rock climbing in Ten Sleep. “In the Ten Sleep community…you’re either in or you’re out,” she said. “And if you’re out, it’s gonna take a hell of a long time for you to be in. Having the climbing community and the Ten Sleep community get off on the wrong foot, it’s gonna take one hell of a someone to be able to heal that rift. I don’t know if it’s ever gonna happen.”
If nothing else, the outstanding question we should ask about what happened in Ten Sleep is: is rock climbing good? And if so, for who?