Campground Crags

Hot, bluish-black smoke billowed from the end of the buzzing sawblade and swirled about me, permeating my clothes and hair. Chunks of disemboweled wood sprayed out in all directions, sticking to the sweat on my arms and face, and I glanced at my watch. Time to quit. The day had been long, hot, and unamusing: ten hours of chainsawing eight-foot railroad ties into pieces. I finished my cut, put the saw in its nightly resting place, and, feeling as though someone had beaten me with a stick, drooped back to my car and flopped in.

Sitting there that early evening, my skin sizzling on the vinyl car seat, I looked at my oil-caked hands and grimy clothes wreaking of gas, and thought, "There has to be more to life than cutting railroad ties into pieces." I started the engine, opened all four windows and roared south down Paradise Valley. The wind poured in, drying my sweat, and slowly the day melted away as I thought about the wonderful climbing among pine-shaded boulders waiting for me at Yankee Jim.

Yankee Jim Canyon Campground has been a favorite resting place of passing Yellowstone tourists for years, providing sanctuary for the night just a short distance off the highway. Located in the beautiful Paradise Valley southeast of Bozeman, it lies at the bottom of a large talus field that has, over the millennia, dumped dozens of large boulders into the grassy campground confines. These boulders make Yankee Jim Camp-ground a super place for those of any ability looking to get outside and climb around on some rocks. Although the proximity to the highway can be unnerving at times, the native-grass meadows and tall, dappled boulders tucked back into towering pines and scented junipers generally makes one forget the passing automobile melee. The proximity to the road is also a blessing in disguise, since once you park, you’re there. In fact, you can pretty well park right next to whatever boulder you want to climb, and the plethora of rock makes it hard to choose.

At the point I arrived that evening I didn't really care what I climbed. Peeling my back from the car seat, I put on my shoes, grabbed my chalk bag, and walked all of ten feet to the nearest boulder. The sun had set behind the canyon ridge, and the heat of the day radiated from the dark crystalline expanses beneath my fingers. I moved silently among the trees and rocks, picking problem after problem, stretching and pinching, crimping and jumping from hold to hold, rock to rock. I could feel energy flowing back into my body as well as my mind.

Eventually I found myself at the other end of the campground. There was one more problem I wanted to do before I left for home. The last time I was here I tried it and couldn't even get off the ground. I simply had to try it again. I couldn't lose to a rock.

The thing is, this particular boulder is an unlikely stumbling block. At its base it looks so simple, requiring just three moves from the start. The only obstacle is that the rock overhangs forty-five degrees and all three moves have to happen in a matter of seconds or you'll get spit off.

Which is exactly what kept happening to me time after time. Frustrated, I sat under its face after an hour, having gained mere inches. The light was starting to fade. It was time to head home. I was just taking my shoes off when a huge eighteen wheeler, belching noise and exhaust, roared by on the highway, instantly reminding me of what lay waiting the next day. I couldn't bear to lift that chain saw if I didn't at least climb this boulder problem. Although my job might be pointless, my pursuit of climbing was not. There had to be some accomplishment in my life, and if climbing this small span of rock was it, then so be it.

I proceeded onto the tiny starting holds again. Taking a deep breath I shot my right hand up and over my head to a slippery pinch hold. I quickly shuffled my feet into a more balanced position, exhaled, then with the speed of light arced my left hand up to another hidden sloping hold. My feet came swinging off, but my hands held firm. Amazed, but pumping with adrenaline and hubris I completed the final moves to the top, where I sat for a few minutes in the night’s silent darkness.

Although your body may not get too high off the ground at Yankee Jim Canyon, your spirit sure does. That problem was the most rewarding ten feet of climbing I had ever done and the next day at work that chainsaw purred like a kitten while the memory of Yankee Jim still roared in my mind.

From Bozeman, head east on I-90 to Livingston. Take the Yellowstone Park exit and head south toward Gardiner. After about 45 minutes the highway enters Yankee Jim Canyon. The campground and boulders are on the left side; turn into the camp at one of the three access roads. The boulders are spread out parallel to the highway.