Early this summer I contacted Davin Bagadonas in an effort to check out one of his most recent finds, El Dakota. He spoke of sandstone boulders lurking deep in a dark and primeval forest, far off the beaten path. Few had been there and most that had weren’t interested in going back. I was intrigued.
June 21, 2014: My first trip to El Dakota was solo. Over an hour of rough dirt roads and two tracks deposits one at the base of a massive mountainside. A steep 1,000 ft beast of a hike guards the forest and it is no easy task up this hill. As abruptly as the hill goes up, it stops, and enters a very dark forest, reminiscent of Fangorn forest from Lord of the Rings. The trees crowd in, blocking the light and what could hardly be described as a trail winds up and over numerous and massive deadfall. Navigating this terrain is difficult at best and sometimes miserable at worst. Sporadic and unexpected boulders seem to appear out of nowhere. Jumbled talus, enormous tipped over rocks tenuously lie haphazardly perched and abrupt changes in the land itself only add to the wild feel of the place. There was little wind and the gentle warmth of the summer had just started to build.
That first day, I saw at least 2 large piles of bear scat and one lion scat. Elk and deer roamed the hillside. I had no clue what I might stumble upon but whatever it was I would surely have to work for it. This was just the kind of adventure I’m usually looking for.
There was one boulder in particular I had heard of and that was my focus for the day. The Mega Mega Project. Tucked into a small corner of a broken hillside, this massive boulder has but one project on its very large and overhanging face. While the rediscovery of El Dakota was spearheaded by Davin Bagdonas, the project was found by Laramie local Josh Oxner, who thankfully had the vision to see that it might be possible. I figured (without having seen it) it would probably too hard. It’s so uncommon to be able to find such an amazing line that actually goes at some kind of reasonable difficulty that I was skeptical. But I had to know and so I plowed through the dense forest. What I stumbled upon was incredible. I spent almost an hour cleaning, studying the holds, trying to figure out numerous sequences, wondering how I would get up the nerve to climb the finishing slab and hoping beyond hope that it might actually go. It looked hard, but the project was so amazing I was determined to find a way. I left the boulders feeling an ever so subtle twinge of optimism, like a whisper in the woods “…it goes!”.
I continued exploring that day, bushwhacking several miles through incredibly spooky and dark forest, the silence broken only by the occasional grouse, which exploded out from hiding. I cannot emphasize that when the clouds gathered and the wind picked up, being alone and miles from the car, El Dakota is special place. It is beautiful and sometimes dark, always wild, and mostly peaceful and quiet, with far less rock than one would hope for. It’s a place I decided would be worth spending some time in this precious life of mine and it has not been wasted.
July 26: I didn’t return for over month, due to basic life obligations. It’s not easy to always have the time, or motivation from other climbers to make such a trip. But we finally had a crew. We got a landing built (which was just a matter of moving several large and loose rocks into safer places) and figured out a reasonable sequence. All the moves were done by various climbers that day and motivation was high. Hoping for a late afternoon storm that never came, the air remained warm and still.
And so it was. I spent 12 more days making the usually 3 hour drive (almost half of it on dirt roads), hiking up that massive hillside, and working on this one amazing project. Occasionally I would have the great company of friends, but often I was alone. It was warm at first, and the line seemed at the limit of what I could climb, but as the summer wore on the pieces slowly came together and my excitement for better conditions, and a hopeful send, grew.
The summer ever-so-effortlessly turned to fall, my motivation to finish the project increased, but it was not always so easy. It’s hard to find time when school takes the first priority, and several perfect days were spent inside studying. With a difficult math exam looming and winter coming soon, the pressure began to build to finish it before the snow started flying. Fall is so fleeting and there are still so many other places for me to spend time looking, and to keep pushing things forward. I knew El Dakota was not the next big thing. The rock quality is wildly variable at best. Most who have visited have not returned. It is a small area. There isn’t “endless potential” or the “best rock I’ve ever seen”. But I have a vision for what I want climbing to be for me. I’m looking for solitude, adventure, good rock, big lines, first ascents, and wild places. It fit the bill so perfectly I had to give it a serious effort. It was a big commitment, one I feared would be over before I knew it if the snow came too soon. Thankfully the stable weather held, giving me numerous clear days to put in the work necessary for such a line. All the while the aspens put on a brilliant display, tinged with red.
Eventually winter started to call, and there were less leaves on the trees than on the ground. It was time to push hard to the finish.
Oct 31st: Fall was starting to slip away and I went to the mountain alone. Much of the dirt road was covered in snow which made the going slow. Two moose crossed the road in front of me. It took two 40 minute trips up the 1,000 ft trudge with three pads both times to even give myself a chance to try and it still wasn’t enough. It was an exhaustive effort that took a lot of energy out of me. I probably rapped down the top five times to clean it properly and figure out a reasonable sequence that brought the difficulty down to 5.10 or so. There was a fear I may pull off a loose block and I had no interest doing the 25+ft topout slab if I wasn’t sure I could climb it as safely as possible. I was a little nervous being up there on a rope looking down, knowing that if I really wanted to do this thing I would have to be up there ropeless. The clouds gathered and a large animal moved about in the woods below that I heard but never saw. I yelled out but the sound was gone. The wind picked up, the sky darkened, and I was alone. I went home as the project loomed large in my mind.
Nov 2nd: I finally got the day I was looking for. Wendy and Collin decided to join me and it was great to have them there for support. We arrived late in the night and camped on the edge of a now leafless aspen grove. A million stars hung in the dark sky. The morning was brisk and the wind was sharp. Perfect conditions. Motivation was high. I rapped down the top once again and climbed the slab easily on a rope. Knowing for the first time that the door had truly opened. I sat down and settled my mind. I entered a zone of total and complete focus, and fired it first try. The tall slab, to which I had devoted much nervous energy fretting over went totally smoothly as my drive and focus to complete the line superseded any and all worries.
I may never climb a better first ascent. I may never have time to devote to such an endeavor again. I hope that is not the case, but real life responsibilities are slowly mounting. It’s a choice I’ve made and am happy about, but it’s nice to stop and enjoy the rewards of all the hard work. As a good friend once said, “That’s why we do it!”
As I celebrated on top, two hunters came running over to see what all the racket was about. “What did you kill?” “Nothing” I said, but in my head I yelled “MY PROJECT!”. They were kind and I apologized for the noise I had made. I was elated to have finished it. It was a perfect end to a long and difficult struggle. We hiked out as snow blew through the air and the wind whipped across the open fields, and I had snagged the best first ascent of my life, The Hunter V12.