Revisiting Hell: Black Diamond's RetroModern Series Heads Back to Utah Climbing History

 

“There’s a caretaking that needs to happen now with old routes,” explains BD athlete Sam Elias.

And that’s where this story begins. But what transpires in this four-part series by Sam and documentary filmmaker Mike Call goes deeper than the new bolts drilled into stone. Through the resurrection of classic, historic routes, a meaningful, impactful connection is made between old and new generations. This is RetroModern, a series breathing new life into the storied past and bright future of climbing.

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American Fork (AF) canyon is a quick escape out of the bustle of the city. It’s a pretty big canyon of limestone with crags strewn on the mountain slopes on both sides. Despite the canyon being impressive as a whole, the crags themselves are small and they generally have shorter routes. The walls and individual climbs aren’t beautiful per se, but the quality of the movement and the effort required to climb well there make up for it. This place has taught me as much as any, and I vividly remember the early struggles I had there upon first moving to town in mid 2013. The place makes you earn its enjoyment.

My relationship with AF comes mostly by way of “Hell,” which is really the formal Hell Cave, Hell Wall and the Diablo Wall. It took me a couple years to adapt to the style having spent the majority of my time on longer, more endurance-oriented climbing in places like the Red River Gorge and Rifle. I got slapped around and I struggled for a while, but I tend to be curious about things that are difficult and/or that I’m “bad” at. I steadily learned the subtleties. I got stronger, and I slowly worked my way through almost all of the routes there over the years, even adding a couple first ascents. In 2020, I helped with a group effort to replace nearly every bolt at the area with stainless steel glue-in bolts. I’ll never forget that season. I was up there so many days, often finishing and walking out in the dark.

Hell has a distinctly important place in American climbing history. Coinciding with the first international climbing competitions ever in the United States, in 1988 and 1989 the best climbers in the world showed up to compete at Snowbird, Utah, and then climb in American Fork. It was then that the routes Burning and Cannibals were first ascended in the Hell Cave. That gave AF some of the hardest climbs in the country at the time.

Furthermore, that moment sort of opened the door and helped everyone realize that very steep, cave style rock could/should be bolted and climbed. The years after saw a lot of steeper rock being developed in the US and in Europe. Boone Speed sent Ice Cream in 1997. It was the 3rd 5.14c in the United States and the 2nd one done by an American, and it cemented AF as one of the most important hard sport climbing areas in the country at the time. But that might have been the height of importance for AF, because not only was bouldering gaining popularity, but also sport climbing was shifting to longer, more endurance-oriented routes. AF got left behind in this broadening of style.

Ice Cream itself has a bit of an interesting history. It was climbed just a few times after Boone, but then a hold broke and it sat for over 15 years, rumored to be unclimbable. It didn’t get re-bolted in 2020 for this reason. It wasn’t until after the hold was repaired that people started trying it again, and it saw a recent ascent in 2022. Thus, inspiring the effort to update the hardware like everything else at the crag.

Words by Sam Elias

 

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