Every autumn, droves of climbers flock to Smith Rock State Park near Terrebonne to take advantage of the perfect climbing weather: not too hot, not too cold.
If Alan Watts went out to Smith Rock this fall, he would be surrounded by other rock hounds.
What a difference 20 years makes.
As perhaps the most influential individual in the evolution of American sport climbing, Watts spent much of the 1980s making first ascents and establishing new climbing routes at Smith Rock.
"It was a lot of quiet time," Watts recalls. "More often than not I'd be alone. It was fun, because I could tell what was going on was something special. It was cool to know that nobody had figured it out yet. My attitude was the longer it took (for climbers to discover Smith Rock), the better. Once it became famous, it really changed a lot."
Watts, who lives in Bend, has seen Smith Rock transform from a place with extremely difficult routes for only the most hard-core climbers to a destination where beginner to moderate climbers have their pick of routes that suit their ability.
"The golden age of Smith Rock for climbing happened many years ago," Watts says. "They aren't putting up new (difficult) routes. It doesn't appeal to everybody to go through the work to put up a new route, especially a very hard one. There's a lot of new routes, but most all are in the easy to moderate range."
Watts, 45, grew up in Madras and moved to Bend in 1983, when he was already heavy into the climbing scene. He achieved first ascents of more than 200 climbs at Smith Rock, including "Watts Tots," which marked the transformation of American sport climbing in early 1983. "It was a change in ethics, and changed the way climbing was practiced," Watts says. "It focused more on gymnastic difficulty, finding the hardest way up the rock, rather than danger and trying to climb from bottom to the top without preplaced gear."
Watts also placed the bolts in many of the park's most famous routes, including "Just Do It" on the Monkey Face - considered the most daunting route in the park - and "To Bolt or Not to Be" on the main south-facing wall, which he later climbed. In 1985, he achieved the first ascent of the East Face of the Monkey Face, at the time considered the hardest route in the country.
"You worked on it a whole lot, and the feeling was always relief," Watts says. "Not from the fear of getting hurt, but from the fear of failing again."
Watts wrote the "Climber's Guide to Smith Rock," first published in 1992, and he was featured last year in Rock and Ice magazine, which called him the "godfather of American sport climbing." Watts' new guide book to Smith Rock is due out sometime in 2006.
Watts says that by the late 1970s he had completed every climb in the park, so he had to create new ones.
"Nowadays it's different," Watts says. "Nobody's done everything, and nobody ever will."
Smith Rock remains one of the most popular climbing sites in America, but not necessarily for the top-end professional climbers.
"There's not as many hard climbers here as there used to be," says Mike Volk, who has owned property across the road from Smith Rock for 22 years and from his house runs the Webcam on smithrock.com. "It continues to be very big for climbers, but it's not a destination for the hard men."
Watts said he now climbs only "rarely," after developing joint problems in his fingers in the early 1990s from climbing.
"They just wore out," Watts says.
He now spends much of his time with his two children, including 12-year-old Ben Watts, a talented snowboarder and skater.
Ian Caldwell of Redmond has climbed five of the 11 most difficult climbs at Smith Rock (all in the 5.14 range) and is widely considered the most talented local climber at the park today.
Routes on the climbing scale range from 5.0 (easiest) to 5.15a (most difficult). From 5.10 to 5.14, routes are broken down by a, b, c, and d ("a" being easiest, "d" being hardest).
Climbs are given these ratings based on natural features of the rock, which include difficulty of holds and the steepness of the route.
Caldwell, 35, considers his climb in early 2004 of "To Bolt or Not to Be" - the first 5.14 in America - his single greatest achievement at Smith Rock. He began climbing there in 1991 and has witnessed the park's transformation.
"There's a lot more people hiking around," Caldwell says, "but from a climber's perspective, there's a lot more mid-range climbers here, in the 5.10 range."
Caldwell says that's not necessarily a bad thing, because it does not affect his climbing. Only a handful of climbers are climbing at Caldwell's level, 5.13 to 5.14.
"In the early '90s, a lot of people traveled here (to Smith Rock)," Caldwell says. "The best climbers in the world came. We still get some, but not as much. On a national level, there's a lot of other areas that get more of the best climbers."
Caldwell says that limestone rock - unlike the welded tuff (hardened volcanic ash) at Smith Rock - is becoming more popular among professional climbers because it has more features and is steeper and more overhanging.
Limestone rock sites in Utah, Colorado and Nevada are hosting the top-notch climbers these days, Caldwell says.
But Caldwell is content at Smith Rock, where he is currently trying to climb "Shock and Awe," a 5.14c that has been achieved only once, by the professional Canadian climber Scott Milton, 2> years ago.
Caldwell climbs year-round and hopes to complete "Shock and Awe" by next spring.
"There's so many moves to do," Caldwell says of the climb. "It's so hard to do all of them in a row."
While Smith Rock still offers plenty of challenging routes, Caldwell seems to be the exception to the rule as far as climbers go.
"There's always been a ton of beginners," Watts says. "Visits are at record levels. But the high end is lacking a bit right now."