By Carl Cote
Lander local BJ Tilden has made the first ascent of the most difficult sport climb in Wyoming. The new line, Hard Twisted, meanders its way up the middle of a huge cliff formerly referred to as “Mirage,” now known as Wolf Point, in the Little Popo Agie Canyon area. The feature lies 12 miles from Lander as the crow flies, or as climbers get there – an hour long drive in a 4WD vehicle followed by a 45 minute hike uphill both ways.
“It was this distant, mythical thing that you would never actually walk out to,” said Tilden about the community’s feelings on the huge cliff before he and other climbers began bolting routes at the crag. The Point now contains 17 climbs graded at 5.14 (a high concentration of an extremely difficult, if not unattainable, grade for most climbers).
“It certainly takes some extra effort, but ultimately that makes it a little more special,” Tilden continued, “Any wins at Wolf Point are hard earned.”
The climb is particularly significant because Tilden, who has been putting up first ascents of routes graded 5.14d for 10 years, calls it 5.15a in the Yosemite decimal grading system–making it the first of its grade in the state of Wyoming.
The route combines two routes that Tilden has climbed since 2018. Lionshare (5.14d) climbs from the ground up about 80 feet, containing “the longest section of resistance climbing I think I’ve ever done,” said Tilden.
“Usually sections of hard resistance climbing are in the mid to high 20’s for number of moves and this one has 36 to get through the business and you still have to keep it rolling without getting a good rest until about move 50,” Tilden explained.
To get to the rest between the two sections, Tilden had to discover a new section of climbing that traverses the wall up and to the right, leading to the bottom of Dire Wolf (5.14c) at the upper most-overhanging section of the cliff.
After a forearm shake-out, the top of the climb is guarded by a difficult 15-foot section of climbing–known as a ‘boulder problem’–on a gray streak in the steepest section of the climb. Here, hand and footholds become further spaced from each other and harder to use because of the angle of the rock.
“It seemed really logical to try and link the hardest start with the hardest finish,” said Tilden, “When I did Dire Wolf the climbing was 5.14a up to the gray streak, so much easier and when you know it you can get up it every time. I probably fell off that 25 to 30 times, which is acceptable when you’re coming from the easier start. I eventually realized trying the new link up that the new start was hard enough to where I wasn’t going to get up it 30 times.”
Combining the long resistance style climbing of the bottom section with the short, but powerful bouldery section of the top proved to be a difficult puzzle to solve. Tilden quickly realized that he needed to get back to bouldering and climb shorter, more powerful routes on smaller rocks to level up his power if he was going to put it all together.
Tilden spent part of his winter climbing in Hueco Tanks, a state park outside of El Paso Texas that birthed the “V” grading scale and catalyzed bouldering’s popularity in the United States in the 80s and 90s. While in Hueco, he climbed his first V14 in Esperanza, and upon his return to Wyoming in the spring he ticked off another V14 in Zef at the Rockshop, a collection of granite boulders at 8400’ south of Lander on the way to South Pass.
“I definitely made some gains in the bouldering department and it translated to the route nicely,” Tilden said.
To add to the feat’s difficulty, most climbers who climb at the V14 and 5.15 levels are full-time climbers with at least a handful of sponsors supporting their endeavors. Tilden, on the other hand, is hitting this world-class stride at age 41, while simultaneously operating his full-time construction company, Tilden Construction, which focuses in carpentry and general construction in the Lander area.
“I think overall working construction is a good thing,” said Tilden of the relationship between his trade job and his climbing, “Construction is actually really great cross training for climbing. The trade-off is finding the time to rest.”
Climbing has been a priority for Tilden since he was 14 when he fell in love with the sport on a trip to visit his sister who was attending college in Bozeman, Montana.
“I knew there was a climbing gym there,” said Tilden. “I had her take me and that was pretty much it. I went the first day and then I was there every day for the whole week.”
Flash forward 27 years, on June 13th 2022, Tilden topped out the hardest sport climb in Wyoming when he sent Hard Twisted at Wolf Point.
With respect to the grade breakthrough, the first ascensionist of a rock climb has the responsibility of assigning a grade to their route to let other climbers know what they’re getting into before they attempt it themselves. After the first ascent, other experienced climbers who make future ascents will either agree with the first ascensionist’s grade, or disagree, upgrading or downgrading the route.
While grading a climb 5.15a has been a long time in the making for Tilden, the climbing community’s consensus-style grading system doesn’t bother the Landerite.
“If somebody comes in and doesn’t think it’s quite on that level I’m not going to be offended,” said Tilden of Hard Twisted’s 5.15a grade, “For me it’s for sure the hardest thing I’ve done around Lander… If there were going to be a 5.15a here I think it’d be this one.”
As Tilden shifts his thoughts to the future he doesn’t see this as the end of his time at Wolf Point or progressing in his climbing: “This seems like the hardest thing possible at The Point, but there’s still lots to do and I’m still psyched to get out there,” said Tilden, “I don’t see myself slowing down. I see myself doing some prepping at home and traveling to investigate more 5.15”