RetroModern Part 4: Climbing and Crying at Utah’s The Narrows


This fourth and final installment of Black Diamond’s RetroModern series, in which Black Diamond climber Sam Elias refreshes historic climbing routes with new energy. That might mean replacing old hardware or just putting a fresh set of eyes on decades-only crags. 

This time, Elias is at The Narrows, in the Stansbury Mountains west of Salt Lake City. It’s a particularly emotional experience for Elias, as he reaches deep and touches something inside that brings him to tears, maybe restores a bit of his humanity in an otherwise difficult moment in his life. 

“I was shocked, and I just started crying,” Elias says. “I cried my eyes out there for a while in utter disbelief before climbing to the anchors and clipping them. Something about it all made my friend cry too. He lowered me and we talked and laughed and cried for a bit, and then it was over.”

Read the rest and watch the short film below. – Ed. 


The Narrows is a little haven of limestone west of Salt Lake City in the Stansbury Mountains. It’s basically a short corridor of limestone set at a higher elevation split by a dirt road that you pass thru on the way to Deseret Peak Trailhead. There’s a babbling creek on one side, and often a little breeze flowing through it. It’s small, but has an impressive concentration of unique, quality climbs. There is no approach, and the hang is really casual. It’s a pleasant place to get out of the city, and be with friends, even for just a couple hours. The road traffic can get annoying on weekends, but that’s the cost of having no approach. It can be one of the nicer summer areas. It’s good in the late spring. It’s best in the early fall.

It’s rare that the hardest route at a crag is the best or most beautiful, but The Big Smile is absolutely all three. It’s a masterpiece. That is probably why I tried it very shortly after moving to Salt Lake City, despite not having climbed many other routes at The Narrows. That approach is not something I normally do, but this situation was different. It was like I couldn’t even see the other climbs because of how beautiful The Big Smile is. Unfortunately, it was viciously hard for me. Delicate, cryptic, powerful, pumpy. I tried it on and off for a few years making bits of progress and finding certain sequences and methods that I imagined could work for me, but never quite believing I could link the whole thing. Still, I tried, and I kept trying despite knowing it was so much harder for me than the grade that is assigned to it — it hasn’t had many ascents. The first crux has broken. I had to do the “harder” sequence in the last crux —but none of that really matters to me.

I tried for a few more years always in a liminal space of really wanting to climb it, but not getting out there consistently enough, or not being strong enough or confident enough. But there was always enough glimmer of progress to keep me thinking that maybe it was possible, and so I kept trying. Of all the years, the days I remember most out there are the days with a good crew. I remember the creek and enjoying how loud it could be. I remember the way the sun feels on a cold fall day, but also the bite of the breeze. I remember the way the light is soft, and how it flickers through the yellow autumn leaves on the upper side of the canyon. I remember a calmness just from being in that place.

I remember the day I sent. It just kind of happened out of nowhere after 7 years of trying. I don’t think I deserved to send that day. I didn’t feel well. I wasn’t giving climbing my wholeheartedness at that moment. I was kind of in a rough patch of life. I was just happy to be out there with one of my best friends on a perfect fall day. I did all the same things warming up and letting the day unfold. I tied in and floated right thru the first crux, and then the second crux with the “Smile” hold. I recovered a little and gathered myself at the awkward rest, and just smoothed my way thru the last crux with its tricky holds and positions to arrive at the final rest before an easy outro boulder. As I transitioned out of my effort state, I was shocked, and I just started crying. I cried my eyes out there for a while in utter disbelief before climbing to the anchors and clipping them. Something about it all made my friend cry too. He lowered me and we talked and laughed and cried for a bit, and then it was over.

I’m not really sure what happened on that day. Some sort of harmony for which I had no reason to believe could ever happen, and maybe will never fully happen again. But I can feel a sliver of it right now writing all these words. Tears have been welling up in my eyes while writing. I could feel parts of it on the days we were out there to re-bolt and to make this episode — the last episode of the series. Life can be so strange sometimes. Things go in and out of feeling connected. I don’t have adequate words, but it honestly just makes me smile. Big smile.

Words by Sam Elias. Photos and video courtesy Black Diamond. 



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