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 a.m., the trailhead parking area held a few cars, but by the end of the day it would be full of climbers taking advantage of the good weather and Leavenworth’s abundance of rock climbing. I frequently knew many of the climbers I saw in these parts, but in recent years as rock climbing grew in popularity even more were day-trippers or weekenders from the West side.

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

A few of us had been working on a new 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 guidebook author who’d just published a fourth addition to climbing in Leavenworth. I noticed his parked truck and figured a few members of our crew were 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 her trunk. I overheard them saying they thought they might be in the wrong location. 

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

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

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

“I’m not sure,” she admitted. 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 stepped out of the car. He looked like he was in his early thirties and wore a vest with a patch saying,“Explorer.” He was holding his smartphone.

“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 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 a half-hour up the trail.”

The guy nodded, but I could see he doubted me. “It says it’s farther up the road,” he pointed to his phone, holding it out to me, so I could see the map displayed.

I laughed, “Up to you to decide whether you trust the smartphone or a dumb local.”

He nodded and thanked me, but I could see he was having trouble believing his phone could be wrong. I put on my pack and began to walk up the trail. Even with their indecision, I assumed they’d be 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 in the early afternoon. 

About 30 minutes later as we were placing some anchors at the top of the route, I looked down the trail and saw a group of four climbers approaching.  

That had me wondering what had happened to the woman and her two friends. Had they really gotten back in their cars and looked for the trail farther up the road?

Another 90 minutes later I got my answer when the threesome finally walked by.  Despite our discussion, the digital map had still won their devotion and robbed them of a few hours of pristine morning climbing that the local climber had tried to give them.  

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