Ouzeling Along

Leisurely climbing at Natural Bridge.

On a warm and cloudy Saturday April morning, we pack up the truck and head for Natural Bridge. It’s south of Big Timber, in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, and was named for a formation that collapsed in 1988, the year I was born. Natural Bridge is known for its tough sport lines on steep limestone, but there are plenty of lower-octane routes to keep us busy. 

Tom Wells and Alec Tkach discovered the climbing here in 1990, the year MC Hammer came out with “U Can’t Touch This.” This seems apt—Natural Bridge is home to some of the toughest routes in the state. 

We walk across the bridge and look 60 feet down at the Boulder River, which flows underground before emerging again under the falls. We head to Greystone Wall for a few mellow routes with nice big holds and neat chert bands. Stemming feels good on my legs, sore from endless quarantine trail runs, and I linger on Spread Eagle, enjoying the feeling of stretching out after the drive. 

Water ouzels, which walk along the bottom of the river looking for insects, live here. I’m reminded of these eerie birds as I make delicate moves on small edges, looking for the next foothold. This is the first time I’ve used my green rope in a while, and it feels good to flake it out.

Most of the climbs are in the Foyer (16, according to Mountain Project), including fun, short warmups like Snap Dragon, and on the Porcelain Wall (15). If you’re looking for an iconic testpiece, head to Isla de Los Locos, an 85-foot route with a three-bolt-long crux. In 2018, a woman lost a hand and a leg to natural rockfall, so keep an eye out and wear a helmet. These routes have been cleaned and re-bolted as needed, though some are now a bolt shorter, and a few have new anchors. There are several new top-rope routes on Hangover Boulder, put up by Dave Miller: Sympathy for the Enemy (5.11, one star) and Justification for Existence (5.10b, four stars), described as “thoughtful climbing on great holds.”

There are two or three other parties out climbing today, but it’s not hard to keep our distance. We stick our feet in the river until they turn numb. I’ve heard rumors of nearby petroglyph caves, confirmed by a friend whose parents ranch in Big Timber—but we’re not sure where they are. We wander around the hiking trails before leaving and find a few caves, including one with a palm-sized pine tree growing from the ceiling, but there are no primordial markings or renditions of alien life.

I’m struck by how, during my beloved long winters, I forget about rivers and wildflowers. I may dream of effortless slushy ski turns at night, but I’m coming around to the idea that summer is pretty nice, too. We drink bitter hot cocoa from a dented thermos and eat bacon burritos in spinach wraps. Around noon, patches of rain move through but it’s still sunny. The drops feel amazing on my sunburnt arms.