The Local or the Smartphone?

by Jim Phillips

I parked my 1953 Willys Jeep at the trailhead several miles up from my house. It was a typical Leavenworth July morning, sunny and getting warmer. The Icicle River was ice cold and swift below the deep canyon road I’d just driven, and seven- to eight-thousand foot granite peaks rose up beyond it.

At 9 AM, the trailhead parking area held a few cars, but by the end of the day would be full of climbers taking advantage of the good weather and Leavenworth’s abundance of rock climbing. I knew many of the climbers I ran into around Leavenworth, but many others were day-trippers or weekenders from the west side, especially in the last ten or fifteen years as rock climbing continued to grow in popularity.

Jim driving in his Willy’s Jeep up Icicle Road.

We’d been working on this project, a granite outcrop with the potential for a dozen new routes from 5.6 to 5.10 in difficulty. I was working with my friends Victor, Sean, and Marc. Victor was a local guide book author who’d just published a fourth addition to climbing in Leavenworth. I noticed his parked truck, so they were likely already at the project site, just ten minutes up the trail. 

I got out of the Jeep and began to check over my pack. It was routine; we’d been putting in four to five days a week for a month and I expected the area to be complete and documented by the end of summer.

As I dropped a climbing rope into my pack and cinched it shut, a car pulled in beside me and parked. A twenty-something woman got out and opened the trunk while a second car pulled part way in. The driver rolled down his window.  

The occupants of the cars began to discuss the digital map on their phones, while the woman dug around in the gear in her trunk. I overheard them saying they thought they may be in the wrong location. 

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

The woman looked up from the trunk. “My keys!” she said, gesturing to her trunk filled with gear.

I laughed. “No, I mean, where are you trying to go?”

“Oh, actually, I’m not sure.” She leaned toward the rolled-down window. “This guy wants to know where we are going!”

The guy in the passenger seat leaned out the window. “Condor Buttress.”

“You’re in the right spot,” I said, gesturing to the trail.

The guy in the other car stepped out. He looked like he was in his early thirties, with a beard, and wore a vest with a patch that said “Explorer.” He was holding his smart phone in his hand.

“Follow that trail uphill for about ten minutes,” I said, “Then you’ll come to a flat area.”

He nodded, glancing toward the trailhead where I’d pointed.

“Cross that, and at the large pine tree, the trail forks,” I continued, picturing the trail I’d traveled at least fifty times, climbing the established routes up higher than our project site. “Take the right fork and follow it for about an hour to an hour and a half, and you’ll be at the base of the climb. You’ll see Condor Buttress when you are about half an hour up the trail.”

The guy nodded, but I could see there was still a question in his expression. “It says it’s farther up the road,” he frowned. He pointed to his phone, holding it out to me, so I could see the map displayed.

I laughed and said, “Well, you might want to believe me.”  

I often see climbers wandering up or down Icicle road, looking at their phones trying to find a trailhead to a climbing area, but that’s a story for another time.

He nodded and thanked me, but I could see he wasn’t entirely convinced that his phone could be wrong. I left them to get their gear together, and I put on my pack and began to walk up the trail.  Even with their indecision, I assumed they’d be only a few minutes behind me. 

I met up with my friends at the crag and we started working, cleaning dirt off holds and working out the moves. We wanted to finish the day’s work before the summer sun hit the face around 1:30 PM. 

About a half an hour later, as we were placing some anchors at the top of the route, I looked down at the trail and saw a group of four climbers approaching.  

I wondered what had happened to the woman and her two friends. Had they really gotten back in their cars to try to find the trail farther up the road?

They walked by over an hour later.

I guess in their case, the digital map won, stealing an hour of their pristine mid-morning Leavenworth climbing.  

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