Sam Lightner: Climbing Is Booming And Lander Is The Center Of Its Growth

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By Sam Lightner Jr., Cowboy State Daily

It started with the first peoples of Wyoming. Hundreds, and perhaps even thousands of years ago, descendants of the first tribes to set foot in Wyoming climbed to the high summits.

Perhaps to acquire a name, see into the future, or even possibly just because it was fun, our predecessors climbed Wyoming’s mountains. We know this from their legends, but also because relics of this past have been found on peaks like the Grand Teton and Young Mountain. Mountaineering and Wyoming have been linked for as long as people have been here.

In 1965, famed mountaineer Paul Petzoldt chose to make Lander the base for his National Outdoor Leadership School. He could have created the company in Jackson, Boulder, Tahoe, or Seattle, but he didn’t. Petzoldt picked central Wyoming, and his choice has left Lander with a large scale employer and outdoor-oriented population who want to be close to the mountains.

Lander is a wonderful community, and this no-doubt influenced Petzoldt’s choice, but central Wyoming has the right geology and geography to seal the deal.

From a mountaineer’s perspective, Lander has everything you need to take part in the sport. Obviously the granite walls of the Wind River Range and Granite Range (Sweetwater Rocks) are a draw, but the Tensleep Sandstone in our canyons offers cracks and clean faces for traditional climbing. Then there is the Bighorn Dolomite, with bulging caves riddled with solution pockets. This stone is unique to Wyoming, but it’s world-famous to climbers. Easy access to Sinks Canyon, which stays warm enough to climb through the winter, is a huge draw to Lander. And if that’s not enough, it’s an easy drive to the ice climbs of Dubois and Cody.

Sinks has been a recreational playground for Landerites for 100-plus years, but we also have access to the crags of the Little Popo Agie Canyon (Wolf Point) and Limestone Mountain (Wild Iris). The quality of the climbing and the beauty of those places make mountain towns in Colorado and Utah green with envy.

And you can see this every weekend by checking the license plates in the parking lots of the climbing areas. The Greenies aren’t staying home to climb on their less than stellar stone. They are coming here, as are folks who claim “The Greatest Snow on Earth” (Utah), because our rock climbing areas and outdoor-lifestyle are simply better. 

The community of Lander is actually recognized around the world as one of the greatest places to live as a climber.  Mountaineers from Europe, Africa, Asia, and of course North America, make our town “home,” and far more come to visit. This, in turn, is giving us a recreation based economy that insulates our community from Wyoming’s sad pattern of boom and bust.

Most non-climbers don’t realize this, but a visit by the average American climber is very good for your bottom line. A study done a few years ago found the typical climber has at  least 4 years of post-high school education and an income of over $90,000. We may see tents and Primus stoves in City Park in the summer, but there are also a lot of $100,000-plus Sprinter vans whose owners buy beer at the Lander Bar, dinner at Mulino, and stock up on camping supplies at Wild Iris and Mr. D’s. That is good for all of us.

The single biggest week for climbing in Lander takes place in mid-July. That is when the Central Wyoming Climbers Alliance, a local non-profit that works for the local climbing community,  hosts the International Climbers Festival (ICF). Now in its 27th consecutive year (yes, we secretly had one during COVID!), the ICF is the longest running climber’s festival in the world. It brings in thousands of climbers who want to learn from the pros, get inspired by newly released films,  and simply commune among their peers.

“The Climber’s Festival is an amazing event,” says Josie McKee, a pro-climber who is the executive director of the CWCA. “It draws together local climbers, internationally recognized pro’s, visitors from all over the world, and the people of Lander and central Wyoming. The fact that we have been successfully doing this for 27 years, longer than anyone else in the world, shows Lander is the right place for it.”

Lander is becoming one of the recreation capitals of the country, and it owes much of this to the sport of climbing. Lander’s mountain biking community, which has its origins with the influx of climbers, is growing by leaps and bounds. Growing companies like Maven and Butora have chosen to make Lander their home, and others are said to be considering a move.

Lander has a lot of wonderful attributes… relatively warm winters, plenty of water, clean air, and happy residents (who are at least tolerant of each other) are just a few. Our outdoor recreation, be that hunting, hiking, biking, or climbing, is another, and the last of those is continuing to grow in popularity.

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