Of Bolts & Bullets, Pt. 1
In April 1909 Ten Sleep was the site of one of the last deadly conflicts of one of our lesser civil wars, the Sheep and Cattleman’s War. When relationship to land is central to life, divisions among appropriate land use are sometimes as salient as the Berlin Wall. On the night of April 2, 1909 a Ten Sleep sheepherder named Joe Allemand and four associates were camped in Ten Sleep near Spring Creek when seven masked figures raided their camp, executing Allemand and two of the four associates. And for what? For grazing sheep in cattle country. And although the Ten Sleep Raid was the last deadly conflict of the Sheep Wars, dogmatism about the proper use of the area’s natural resources has not faded.
Around dinnertime on the first Thursday I was in Ten Sleep a Sheriff showed up to the recently established Rock Ranch, a private campground in Ten Sleep Canyon that caters quite obviously to rock climbers. Being that I hadn’t seen a police officer since maybe Fargo, ND I was thrown off. From a distance I saw one of the Ranch owners, Louie, giving what seemed like a solemn deposition to the officers, the red and blue lights still turning. Let’s back up.
In recent years the Bighorn Dolomite walls of Ten Sleep Canyon in the Bighorn National Forest has found acclaim in climbing magazines throughout the United States, Europe, and beyond. Unlike many of the world’s most famous rock climbing areas however, Ten Sleep Canyon is relatively untraveled and ill-equipped to handle large volumes of people. There are no outhouses—which leads to ecologically ruinous levels of human feces populating the subterranean landscape—no proper parking lots—which forces vans and Subarus to fill up every one of the nineteen scene pull-outs throughout the canyon—and no trash receptacles—which unfortunately leads to a yet-investigated dystopian ecosystem of Clif Bar wrappers tumbling about. It is notable as well that the town of Ten Sleep itself in the upcoming census will register no more than 200 residents. With the recent publicity, Ten Sleep Canyon and the nearby town are seeing a rapid increase in climbing traffic during the warmer half of the year. From the perspective of Forest Service employees charged with conserving the pre-historic character of the space, climbers are an environmental problem. From the perspective of a savvy, climbing-oriented business owner however, the traffic is a boon.
The Ten Sleep Rock Ranch was opened in 2016 by Louie and Valarie, an Orange County couple looking to leave California and open a place to support a growing rock climbing community. There was never any intent of making a profit, simply to become instrumental to the development of America’s next big rock climbing area. Developing a rock climbing area in many cases, and particularly in Ten Sleep, means drilling steel bolts into the canyon walls so that as climbers ascend the face they can clip their rope to the bolts, effectively preventing a fatal fall. The path in which these steel bolts are drilled into the rock is called a climbing route. Developing a climbing area is to create more routes, thus, to drill more bolts. To date, the National Forest charges nothing to develop new climbing routes. There is no permitting nor licensing process for developers. It is the real Wild West.
Part of the draw for Louie in opening the Rock Ranch was that Ten Sleep is incredibly undeveloped. As a crag developer, Louie spends many hours per week finding new climbing areas and bolting new climbing routes in the Canyon. New routes are like his cattle: to be raised with love and then enjoyed by others. Over the past few years he’s bolted so many new routes he’s had to begin writing a new climbing guidebook that’ll come out next year. He’d bolted hundreds of routes before bullets started flying on that first Thursday I was in Ten Sleep.
He was dangling from a remote wall in the canyon when it started. Eight shots. Rifle. A few went off before they got close to him. The fourth hit about three feet to his right, the fifth about three feet to his left. Shards of dolomite splintered from the wall and fell the some fifty feet to the ground. The moment tasted like the subtle violence of Pop Rocks. The shooter was close enough for it to be intentional, wasn’t someone off shooting stray bullets at rockchucks. It was a calculated assault, and Louie was a fish in a barrel. Or perhaps, a sheep in a ditch.
I could pen some pithy line for climbers to reflect on like, don’t bring your sheep to Ten Sleep. But, if you leave town these days heading East on 16 the first thing you’ll encounter is a massive sheep farm. Turns out, nobody won the Sheep Wars, they just ended. And they ended because of both compromise and humility. They ended because of dialog...and the courts.
I’m not yet sure what it will take to get the rapidly growing climbing community to the table with those who’ve called this place home for generations. Nobody I’ve talked to yet has any idea what this town will look like in 20 years. Most people think that it’ll continue to decline. Since 1980, the town’s population’s been decreasing by about 12% each decade. The school is always on the brink of closing. Although the graduating classes hover between 10 and 15 students, they always turn out a good football team.
When I asked a local business owner whether he thinks Ten Sleep could be the next Jackson, WY he said, “That’s what my father thought back in the 70s. That’s why we moved here from Jackson. I mean look at this place! He bought a bunch of land, prepped it for subdivision...since then about half the population’s gone...20 years from now? I think Ten Sleep’ll still be Ten Sleep.”
Perhaps what you should understand about Ten Sleep is that nothing changes too fast. And you should know too that the town has its own immune system, ready at any moment to halt rapid foreign invasion. They’re magic, really. These things called bullets.