Slippery Slick Rock

No Way but Up

Story and Photos by Ray Brooks

My friend Mike Paine was not a patient man. In 1981, when Alpine Club climbers from Washington State University blocked access to the usual start up the Three Cracks Route of Slick Rock in Payette National Forest, Mike’s course of action was to start up an enticing blank slab to the left that I had pointed out to him a few weeks earlier.

The problem was that it was “unprotectable,” meaning there was no place to affix a piton or other gear that would secure his climbing rope. When he was about ten feet up, he was able to establish a good piece of protection. After that, he climbed and climbed on beautiful smooth crackless granite, never finding a spot to place more protection.

Finally, after many minutes of bold but very careful slab climbing, with nothing but finger-wide down-sloping ledges to cling to, a “thank God” ledge loomed close above him. He had just enough length left in his 150-foot rope to reach safety.

Unfortunately, one of the last holds he grabbed peeled from the rock, and Mike went with it. He later told me that during the first seconds of falling, he had time to think several times over, “This is going to kill me,” before he was knocked out.

I wasn’t there that day, but eyewitnesses agreed the fall was spectacular. Apparently, Mike slid backward for a while and then started taking bigger and bigger bounces, up to thirty feet long. Luckily for him, Slick Rock has a base of only somewhat sleep rock slabs, upon which climbers don’t feel the need to use ropes. When he reached this lower-angled base, he began the long bounces down the slabs. Finally, after he fell about 260 feet, the rope stopped him.

He hung upside down in a low-angled corner and when he woke up, he was unable to see because of blood running into his eyes. But he realized he had lived through a killer fall.

He later told me, “I thought: ‘I’m alive, but I’ve paid the price. I must have broken every bone in my body.’”

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Slick Rock from Lick Creek Road.
Harry Bowron leads the way to the rock, 1972.
Harry leads a climb, 1974.
View from the top of the rock's third crack, 2015.
Mark Mason near the top of Slick Rock, 2015.
Ray on the first lead, 2015. Mark Mason.


A Danish exchange student who was nearby rushed to his aid. As Mike hung there, he flexed his limbs and miraculously failed to find broken bones. I don’t know how he got off the rope but he would have been wearing a buckle-style harness with leg loops that could have been unbuckled to release him.

In any case, the student reached him and pillowed his bleeding head in her lap. Although she was braless, she removed her T-shirt and wiped the blood from his eyes with it. His first sight was a close-up that later induced him to tell me: “I thought, ‘I’m going to be all right.’”

Mike indeed walked away from Slick Rock. He had back trouble related to the accident, but the last time I saw him, he was dating the Danish exchange student’s sister. A few years ago, we got back in touch via email and I discovered he was married to the same sister.

 I’ve often wondered what percent of climbers could take such a fall and walk away. I never found anyone excited about pursuing that line of speculation in reality.

Slick Rock, just east of McCall on Lick Creek, is a granite slab about a thousand feet high that reposes gracefully at an angle between fifty to seventy degrees. A bold roped climber who is not too worried about falling can go just about anywhere on the rock’s glacier-polished granite.

By the time Mike and I climbed Slick Rock together in 1981, I already had ascended it about fifteen times. For the first “lead” or stretch of climbing with a rope, I started from my favorite crack on one of the steepest parts of the face.

Just to the left of this well-protected crack is a steep blank face of about 150 feet to the first ledges. I told Mike that this hard but climbable slab was an unprotectable dream route of mine. He made only polite expressions of interest, but the stage was set for his disaster.

Years before this, in late September 1972, my friend and climbing mentor Harry Bowron camped with Dave Thomas and me below Slick Rock on our return to Idaho from climbing in Canada’s Bugaboos Range. Much fresh snow had limited us to a single ascent in four days in the Bugaboos, plus we were intimidated by the huge granite spires and heavily-crevassed glaciers.

Now we were back in friendlier mountains and Harry knew Slick Rock, having participated in its first known ascent in 1967 [see “On Slick Rock,” IDAHO magazine, April 2013].

It was a rainy fall day in central Idaho and we needed to build a campfire to cook dinner, which was a considerable trick when the firewood was wet. We achieved the goal with the aid of a cup of white gas, ate a late dinner in the dark and dreamed of adventures the next day.

We waited a long time for the sun to reach our camp in the morning and didn’t start hiking up Slick Rock until about 10 a.m. I asked Harry if we should take a headlamp with us, but he assured me we would get back to the car before dark.

The most obvious way up the rock is the Three Cracks Route, although the best start to that route is well below and to the left of the lowest of the three cracks. Harry remembered this and we soon were roped and climbing. He was kind enough to let me lead some of the lower and easier routes but once we were in the cracks, Harry led everything.

He had rated the route as 5.5 difficulty, which is pretty easy climbing, although it didn’t seem that easy in places to me. There were many 150-foot leads along the way. We ended up doing eleven leads before reaching the top.

The second of the three cracks was the most difficult, but we had no problems with it. The third crack ended at what is now called Lunch Ledge. On the first ascent in 1967, Harry had to do some looking above the ledge to find a route he felt capable of leading.

One problem is that for about thirty feet above Lunch Ledge there are no cracks where pitons or nuts can be placed to secure the rope for the leader if he falls. The rock is also a little steeper than most of Slick Rock, and the difficulty is more like 5.7.

In 1972, Harry was a much more experienced climber than us and he climbed above Lunch Ledge with no problems. Two more leads brought us to the summit of Slick Rock as it started to get dark. We hurried off the southwestern shoulder of the rock, but soon it was dark.

At about ten o’clock that night, after finally finding our way through brush, small cliffs, and dense trees with only a few mishaps, we waded the creek below Slick Rock and made it back to my car. Rather than trying to change out of our soggy sneakers and wet pants, and then build a fire to cook dinner in camp, we drove to McCall and celebrated our ascent with pizza and beer at a restaurant.

From 1972-1985, I climbed Slick Rock another seventeen times. Harry and I achieved difficult new routes to the left of the Three Cracks Route. Back then, leaders with low morals could make routes safer by laboriously hand-drilling one-quarter-inch holes in the rock and then pounding in bolts that were a quarter-inch by one-and-a-half inches, with hangers to clip ropes into.

I guess my morals were somewhat low, because by the late 1970s I had placed bolts on new climbing routes along the South Fork Clearwater and Salmon River above Riggins. In the early 1970s, Harry’s firmer morals prevented us from placing bolts on Slick Rock, although on some of our ascents, we did place pitons in thin cracks for protection.

Mostly Harry just “ran out the rope,” without placing protection on routes that varied between 5.7 to 5.9 in difficulty. On some occasions. he led as high as fifty feet above the last nut or piton he had placed. Falling was unthinkable, which I guess is why he didn’t fall.

The only time I remember Harry having problems was about two hundred feet from the top, on an afternoon when it started raining while we were climbing a new route. Harry tried to go for it, but finally stopped at a narrow ledge and slumped in misery, because the rain made the rock too wet for friction climbing, in which your hands and feet pull and press in different directions.

After we shivered in the rain for an hour, it stopped, the warm rock dried out, and we got down before dark.

By the late 1970s, I was so confident on the Three Cracks Route that I decided it was a good spot to take beginning climbers for a significant adventure. My McCall climber friend Mark Mason agreed, and together we guided several beginning climbers up Slick Rock with no problems. Although I did occasional rock climbing after 1985, the next twenty-five years flew by without another Ray or Mark climb of Slick Rock.

In 2010, I met up at City of Rocks near Almo for a week of rock climbing with my friend, climbing legend Jim Donini. Jim’s life is centered around climbing, and even though he was sixty-seven at the time, he could still lead very hard climbs, up to 5.12 in difficulty.

I had not climbed anything harder that 5.7 for years, but by the end of our first afternoon, Jim was leading me up 5.9 sections. I peaked at a difficulty level of 5.10, which matched the hardest sections I had led as a young man in the 1980s.

Although Jim still climbs worldwide, he really enjoys City of Rocks. Our week there became a yearly party. Most of the time, I let others do the leading, but gradually I found myself again leading climbs up to a 5.7 standard. Mark Mason, who had retired from the sport, started climbing again with us at City of Rocks.

By 2015, thirty years had passed since either he or I had climbed Slick Rock, and we decided to attack the Three Cracks Route again. In June 2015 we did long training climb at City of Rocks. Our confidence-builder was the 5.7 three-lead “sport climb” called Theatre of Shadows. I had climbed this route once in 2011, and Mark graciously allowed me to lead on his new 230-foot rope.

The route has a lot of three-eighths-inch bolts for protection and we cruised up it. Even though our Slick Rock route would have a lot more leads and no bolts, it was only 5.5 difficulty (in our minds)—no problem for me to lead.

In mid-August I drove up to McCall, spent the night at Mark’s house, and we made the short drive to Slick Rock the next morning. Mark carried a day pack with food, water, rainwear, and two pairs of sneakers for our descent. For me, the joy of leading was also a game-changer with his new rope, which was eighty feet longer than what we had used in the past.

The first lead built my confidence, temporarily. It was a low-angle corner of 5.5 to 5.6 difficulty that had a nice crack for devices such as nuts and cams, and it soon led to a large ledge, which I recalled had a decent crack for a belay, in which your partner controls the rope with a pulley-like device.

But I didn’t find that crack, and wandered about a hundred feet across an unprotectable 5.4 to 5.5 slab, to a two-bolt belay that had not been there in 1985. As a younger man I enjoyed what we called friction climbing, which is now called slab climbing.

At my best, I would almost dance up steep, nearly holdless granite, looking for slightly less steep places to balance on with climbing shoes of special sticky rubber. At age sixty-six, this did not seem quite as enjoyable.

The second and third leads were easy climbing on low-angled slab, with a few large loose rocks to add spice. On the fourth lead, I had slightly more difficult climbing, and I then climbed partway up the first of the three cracks. The fifth lead was easier up to the end of the first crack, where I belayed Mark up.

On the sixth lead, things got more interesting. I crept across a steep slab to the second crack and stepped into its groove, which was mostly twelve-to eighteen-inches wide and occasionally narrower. I used a variety of climbing techniques to a place where the crack ended for a few feet. From there it was 5.7, a level of difficulty I did not remember, and at one point my feet slipped and I almost fell. I managed a few more feet up to a terrific belay crack.

I had used up almost all my supply of protection materials during this two-hundred-foot lead. All I had left to fit into the crack was a nut, or metal wedge threaded on a wire, that I attached to a carabiner or clip to secure the rope. This was all-important for a safe belay.

When Mark came up, I asked him to place another cam, which fits into a crack and expands as weight is applied, to help secure the rope. I soon stepped across to the third crack and found it mostly pleasant, although occasionally I had to “layback” or turn horizontally to the rock with my hands in the crack to negotiate a difficult spot.

At the top of the third crack, I reached Lunch Ledge, where the original first ascent party stayed a while until Harry Bowron boldly led on. I looked up and could see absolutely no cracks, just difficult looking “runout” ground, where I could place no protection. I belayed Mark up to Lunch Ledge, and then looked around again for a way up.

This was a little disconcerting, given that during the numerous times I had climbed this route as a younger man, I had considered it to be relatively easy.

Meanwhile, two pleasant college students passed us thirty feet to our right, on the 5.8-plus Memorial Route, a well-bolted sport climb. I realized it was logical to follow a raised four-inch-wide “sill” along the rock face to a bolt on the Memorial Route.

From there, I could continue on that route up past four bolts, which would involve 5.8 climbing to a two-bolt belay. This would be my only short-distance lead on our route.

After I belayed Mark up to those anchors, I told him I was going back left to the original route, but he talked me into following the line of bolts above me on the Memorial Route. But it turned out there were only two more bolts, and I then traversed right on an unprotectable runout slab of about 5.5, which had sandy spots.

I became acutely aware that if I slipped on the sand, which was impossible to see, I could take a hundred-foot fall. I didn’t enjoy the thought of a fall that big, but retreating was even more dangerous. Eventually, I reached a large unprotectable crack that provided the all-important handholds for me.

It went diagonally left to a big crack that led upward, in which I could place nuts to belay Mark up. We then traversed left under a steep area and reached the top.

We had a brief summit celebration, drank some water, ate some food, and changed out of our tight rock-climbing shoes to the more comfortable sneakers. Then it was time for the long descent. We used a route we had always taken, but this time we avoided the rappels and downclimbing we had done in the past, in favor of the greater safety of brush-beating.

Unfortunately, I had worn shorts for the warm day. Mark had worn long pants, a much better choice for the thick brush we fought through, which gave me dozens of scratches on the old thin skin of my legs that took two weeks to heal.

We reached the car in about an hour-and-a-half, added to the roped climbing time of seven hours. I gave the Three Cracks Route a new rating of 5.7R, with the “R” meant as a warning of runouts.

The route was more difficult, harder to protect, and had way more runouts than in our memories of more than thirty years earlier. We also strongly suspected that in our mid-sixties, we were not quite as tough or capable as we had been in our twenties and thirties.

The best thing was, we managed not to duplicate my old friend Mike’s experience of getting down Slick Rock by falling off it.

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Ray Brooks

About Ray Brooks

Ray Brooks is a native Idahoan. Beyond retirement age he remains an active rock-climber, river runner, and hiker, who keenly appreciates Idaho history. His climbing career started in central Idaho in 1969. To support his outdoor habits, he worked on Forest Service helicopter fire crews, was a Middle Fork Salmon boatman, ran an outdoor shop in Moscow, and became a sales representative for outdoor gear.

3 Responses to Slippery Slick Rock

  1. Tom Boley - Reply


    Fun article, Ray! Have to get up there before I can’t climb 5.7 anymore!

  2. Dana Quinney - Reply


    Great adventures!

  3. Kim Miller - Reply


    Really good reading Ray. I always enjoy the way you write and describe climbing adventures. Good job doing the route in your 60’s – impressive! I remember coming down that descent a few years back and my biggest fear was stumbling upon a bear eating the fresh berries. I made a lot of noice.

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