Bend climbers Alex Reed and Chris Hatzai spent long hours together in the rarely used, northeast corner of Smith Rock State Park last summer. Often starting at dawn, their days could last 14 hours. The friends, suspended by ropes, created numerous routes in The Marsupials by drilling and bolting the lichen-coated, 80-foot walls made of consolidated volcanic tuff. They often hung side by side, chatting about matters large and small.
“Alex was super good at developing,” Hatzai said recently. “We’re basically doing construction on the rope. He loved every minute of it.”
Although just 20, Reed had already made a mark in the Central Oregon climbing scene by pioneering routes with a skill that promised a bright future. But that passion for developing routes led to Reed’s early death, highlighting the risks and the consequences climbers face.
On the morning of April 10, Reed hiked the back end of Misery Ridge Trail to the anchor of a new route in Smith Rock’s main area. Hatzai had told him about the spot on the face where there was room for the route.
“No, there’s room for two routes,” Reed had corrected him once he spied the pristine face of Picnic Lunch Wall.
That morning, Hatzai was driving to Smith Rock to join his friend. Reed planned to reinstall a static line down the face. He had removed it because he thought it was an eyesore in the increasingly popular state park. Hatzai found this typical — Reed’s thoughtfulness was causing him extra work.
Reed was squeezing in time at Smith Rock before a shift at the Bend Rock Gym, where he worked. But before Reed could attach himself to a rope, he fell.
His body was found 300 feet below on a section of Misery Ridge Trail, according to the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. The death was ruled accidental.
From 2002 to 2017, seven visitors died at Smith Rock. Four have died in the past two years.
The causes of death vary from critical health issues to falls.
Each year, 776,632 day visitors wind through Smith Rock’s 652 acres, according to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
Reed’s death marked the first death at Smith Rock for 2018.
“We definitely lost a huge part of the climbing community,” Hatzai said. “But my own selfish way of thinking is I lost one of the best climbing partners I’m ever going to have.”
Finding a way
Developing a route means first installing a master point anchor from which to rappel. From there you descend bit by bit, drilling holes, hammering bolts into the rock and cleaning future holds with brushes. That’s the simple description of what’s usually a several-day process. As soon as Reed and Hatzai finished a route, they’d begin another, saving the unclimbed — and therefore unnamed — routes for later. They tied a red tag to the lower bolt hanger of several routes to tell others they had called dibs on the first ascent.
But now Hatzai wants to remove the red tags and invite Central Oregon’s climbing community to experience the routes that he, Reed and Mike Mejaski put together.
“Now is the time to open up the routes,” Hatzai said while recalling memories of Reed during a recent outing with four friends during a bright Sunday morning.
Hatzai, 32, and Reed had developed a strong, respectful friendship that spanned their 12-year age difference.
“We would literally have each other’s lives in our hands,” Hatzai said. “In developing routes, there’s a real camaraderie. … It ups everything.”
Stoked on life
Originally born in Massachusetts, Reed spent his first five years in Kyrgyzstan, where his parents, Scott and Gwen Reed, worked as missionaries. They returned stateside to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where their son finished high school. He forged a strong bond with his sister, Leana, who is now 16, Scott Reed said.
Alex Reed moved to Bend in early 2016 by way of Bishop, California, another climbing destination. Living out of his van, he quickly found his footing within Central Oregon’s climbing community. Reed became a near-daily fixture at Smith Rock and at the Bend Rock Gym, where he became assistant manager in October 2016.
Climbers remembered Reed, who had a penchant for bananas, Spotify playlists and “dad jokes,” at the memorial service they organized at Smith Rock on April 14. Scott, Gwen and Leana Reed traveled from their New Hampshire home to attend.
Hatzai, whose new forearm tattoo reads “Alex: Bold as Love,” spoke at the service. He remembered Reed’s “stoke,” or unrelenting enthusiasm, for climbing and life. Hatzai shared funny anecdotes about Reed, who favored beat-up sandals and once ripped the skin off a toe while challenging a friend to a foot race through a field of small, loose rocks after a grueling day of climbing. In the following days, Reed taped up his bloody toe and climbed through the pain. He never complained, his friends said.
“His selfless, caring, goofy nature is what made him feel so close to all of us,” Hatzai said during the memorial. He later posted the speech online. “It truly breaks my heart to now know you are not with us anymore. And damn, what an impact you made in such a short time. Not just on me, but to many. My greatest memories of you, Alex, will be kept in my heart forever.”
The Reeds were heartened to meet the people with whom Alex had made such deep friendships through climbing at Smith Rock and at the Bend Rock Gym, Scott said. Hatzai gave Scott a tour of Smith Rock, pointing out the many routes Alex had climbed.
“We especially asked Chris to take us to where the spot where Alex fell,” Scott said. “It was important for me to embrace that pain.”
The Reed family met with the ICU nurse who happened to be hiking nearby when Alex fell. She prayed with Alex during his last moments, Scott said.
“Our family will be eternally grateful for the role she played,” he said.
Last, first ascent
In July 2017, Reed was the first climber to conquer the 350-foot Puddy’s Tower at Smith Rock. Smith Rock expert and pioneer climber Alan Watts named the yet-to-be-climbed spire after Mike Puddy, a climber and prominent dentist who died in a motorcycle accident. Puddy’s Tower, in the Monument Area, is made of loose, consolidated volcanic ash.
“It might well have been the last unclimbed spire at Smith Rock,” Watts said. “But it wasn’t Alex’s crowning achievement. He did it just so he could prepare some other routes. I don’t think it was necessarily a hard climb. It’s just something that he did. It’s ironic, in some ways, that he did end up doing the first ascent of a spire that was named in memory of someone. (Now) we’re thinking of ways to remember Alex.”
Watts knew Reed well.
“Alex was young, motivated and passionate. He saw Smith Rock the same way I did when I was 19,” said Watts, 57, who authored the 1992 “Climber’s Guide to Smith Rock.”
“It kind of took over his life. He had lots of passion and enthusiasm about doing new routes and climbing routes that people hadn’t done. Alex was doing everything for the right reasons.”
Rock climbing is inherently dangerous. Watts has lost a lot of friends in his 45-year climbing career, he said. Reed is the second friend to die at Smith Rock.
“It was a fluke, a freaky accident,” Watts said. “Smith Rock lost part of its future. Who knows what Alex would have done over the next however many years — lots and lots of new climbs. What’s the deceptively dangerous thing about climbing is … you get to where you don’t have a fear of heights anymore. You get very comfortable walking along the edge of a cliff. You almost lose sight of the fact that the danger is just so close.”
Hatzai, standing at the base, worked Reed’s safety rope while Reed made his ascent on Puddy’s Tower. At one point near the top, Reed nearly dislodged a rock ledge.
“Alex said it started pulling out on him,” Hatzai said. “He got his other foot up and pushed it back. He told me all this when he got back to the ground. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, dude.’ There was a huge part of him that really liked that. He really liked adventure.”
Time to send
On a recent bluebell Sunday morning about two weeks after Reed’s death, Hatzai and five friends carried packs crammed with a day’s worth of climbing gear, layers and provisions across the footbridge over the Crooked River at Smith Rock. Droves of hikers and climbers streamed along the trials, some opting to trek up Misery Ridge Trail to climb popular routes such as Gulag Archipelago and Five Easy Pieces. Instead, the crew turned right off the bridge and away from the scrum of visitors. While hiking a half hour along the Wolf Tree Trail to Burma Road, the group pointed out various rock features they’d climbed and those they intended to tackle in the future.
Conversation often circled to Reed. He loved bananas, for instance — even scoring a sponsorship from Barnana, a banana-based energy bar company. Early this year, Reed climbed Chain Reaction, an expert route featuring an overhanging roof section made iconic by the Clif Bar logo — while wearing a banana costume. Hatzai and Jonah Durham, 20, laughed while telling the story, gravel crunching underfoot as they neared the day’s climbing destination.
“Afterward, Alex was like, ‘I couldn’t see my holds! I was slapping around trying to feel,’” Hatzai said, adding that Reed knew the route well enough to navigate its most challenging section by feel. “He totally did it, and he got some rad pictures.”
Durham said the banana stunt and Reed’s general devotion to the fruit inspired a tattoo idea, which he plans to get below the crook of an elbow.
“It’d be a smiley face with bushy eyebrows, a pair of glasses and a banana for a smile,” he said.
Durham met Reed in Bishop, California, while doing the same “dirt bag climber thing as Alex,” he said. Reed had already landed in Central Oregon, whose climbing opportunities and community he gushed about. Durham, from Washington state, was so impressed he followed him here last month. Now enrolled at Central Oregon Community College, Durham said Reed’s passion for nutrition, fitness and yoga rubbed off on him: He began pursuing a degree in nursing.
Reed was interested in kinesiology, Hatzai said, although travel lust tempered any immediate plans for higher education. He wanted to live in Spain and climb elite routes that only 2 percent or 3 percent of climbers can tackle, Hatzai said. Still, Reed was committed to his current home. In his short time here, Reed developed 10 climbing routes at Smith Rock.
His climbing drastically improved, too. When he arrived, Reed could hang with most of Central Oregon climbers. Within a year, Reed had accomplished several expert ascents in three attempts or less. Such ascents feature small, far-apart holds that require gymnastic athleticism to connect, Hatzai said.
“It’s a significant step up,” he added. “That shows how far Alex came in such a short amount of time. It shows how hard he was willing to work.”
Open the routes
Soon, Hatzai and his group arrived at the Marsupials section of Smith Rock State Park’s northeast face. The jagged, incisor-like rock faces found in the main area had been replaced by the molar-like pillars that jut from loose rock fields. They split into smaller groups: Hatzai and Durham alternated climbing and manning the safety rope duties while Tommy Smith, Dan Ling and Mejaski did the same on a route a few dozen yards away. The section is shaded and far from the view of most Smith Rock visitors, yet the friends climbed and cajoled through dusk. By the end, Durham had climbed a route in one attempt without falling. Majeski had bolted that route a couple weeks before, next to one of Reed’s yet-to-be conquered routes. His friends whooped and cheered. Per climbing tradition, Durham assigned the route a difficulty ranking of 5.12a, which Watts described as the “entrance exam for an accomplished climber.” Durham named it “Eternal Stoke” after Reed.
“Alex was the ultimate ‘Super Stoker,’” Durham and Hatzai agreed.
When Reed and Hatzai were developing these Marsupials routes, they quickly began developing a new route as soon as they had finished. Since Reed’s death, Hatzai and his friends have removed the placeholders so other climbers can attempt Reed’s routes.
“We want to share this. Alex was so good at bringing the community together,” Hatzai said. “This is totally how Alex would do it.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, email@example.com