Climbing Monkey Face at Smith Rock (with an Approach on Mountain Bikes!)


Climbing Monkey Face at Smith Rock (Video)

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I’m balanced on my toes 300 feet off the ground, chalk dust blowing off my fingers. My friend Brandon yells encouragement, but the gusting wind gobbles up his words.

It’s my first time climbing Monkey Face, the famous feature in Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park. Tomorrow, we’ll crush plates full of Thanksgiving food. Today, I’m tied into the sharp end of the rope thinking about nothing except where to put my feet and how much air is between me and the ground.

Monkey Face! We climbed up the opposite side, then out the mouth on the right to the top.

This is where the rubber meets the rock. The route I’m climbing, Monkey Space, is famous for its exposure, and I’m overgripping like mad at the moment. My mind knows the rope I’m tied to will keep me safe, but my amygdala is screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

The video tells the story best!


A little background: I inked “Climb Monkey Face” onto my bucket list soon after arriving to Oregon. It only took 10 years to stand on top! It’s a must-do for any experienced climber visiting Smith Rock.

To add some adventure, Brandon and I loaded up both our climbing gear and mountain bikes. After a two-wheeled approach to the base of The Monkey, we laced up our shoes and headed skyward. Our route: three 5.8 trad pitches via the West Face Variation of the Monkey, then enjoyed the infamous exposure of the two pitches of 11a/11b sport climb Monkey Space.

Climbing out of the Monkey’s mouth on the 11b final pitch to the top of Monkey Face. (An old photo of mine from 2012!)

Quitting Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Start Again

Screaming Yellow Zonkers Smith Rock

Me high above the Crooked River at Smith Rock on the aptly-named “Screaming Yellow Zonkers.”

Have you ever quit something you used to love? A job? A relationship?

Well, four years ago, I quit rock climbing. It was no longer fun for me, so I stopped after a decade going at it.

At the time, I was also cranking on my fledgling business and every day was intense. Keeping climbing in the mix felt like tapping a dry reservoir, not a release of pent up energy.

Kicking back around the fire after a great day outside.

Kicking back around the fire after a great day outside.

Enter mountain biking. Instead of static, cautious moves on a rock wall, I spent hours pedaling through wild areas and ripping down rocky trails. I was a control freak in my business, but I could hit a flow state on a bike. I shelved my climbing gear and spun pedals, initially near home and then all over once we hit the road in 2013.

I still love biking, but a funny thing has happened since we landed back in Portland two weeks ago – I’m stoked to climb again. And now I have two things I previously lacked in Oregon, our Sprinter and a flexible schedule to explore my backyard.

To kick off our Pacific Northwest spring/summer stay, we landed and I quickly turned around to hit the road with my friend Martin. Bachelor trip! Chelsea waved sayonara and went back to back to relaxing at home, exactly where she wants to be right now.

Martin at the top of Smith Rock.

Martin at the top of a climb at Smith Rock.

For me, five days in Central Oregon followed. I’d forgotten the easy nonchalance of a bro trip, the swing of pushing hard physically and then sitting around a campfire trading stories. With the van as base camp, we launched into days rock climbing at Smith Rock and a “rest day” mountain biking in Bend.

After 2.5 years traveling, I’ve found that I’m definitely calmer and more centered now that work doesn’t dominate my mental space the way it used to. (Martin even noticed.) The angst I used to feel climbing a hard route is still there, but to a much lesser degree. It was actually fun to be on my edge, teetering on a cliff, not just a fear-soaked experience.

Nothing like a trad lead to keep the heart rate high. Here I am on Spiderman at Smith Rock.

Nothing like a trad lead to keep the heart rate high. Here I am on Spiderman at Smith Rock. (Photo: Martin Tull)

I attribute this to happiness via subtraction, as these days I’m rarely doing things I dislike. The result is that I don’t hit decision fatigue, mental exhaustion, or frustration as often. I’m still working on curbing my road rage though!

Realizing my head is stronger while tied into a climbing rope is one thing. Translating that into appreciating being home for awhile is another game entirely, and I’m trying to apply my feeling of contentment to the (relatively) stationary life.

Smith Rock in all it's glory

Smith Rock in all it’s glory. This place should be a national park!

After all, I can do all the things I enjoy here, even if it doesn’t carry the cool factor of traveling to new places. We both want to be in one place to just hang out and not constantly be exploring distant realms.

My goal is to appreciate the Pacific Northwest for all the excellent fun it offers, whether in or around Portland. It just takes a new head space. As travel writer Pico Iyer penned, “Going nowhere is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.”


Ryan tightrope walks the ridge on Indian Point, a calf-buster hike east of Portland with killer views.

Ryan tightrope walks the ridge on Indian Point, a calf-buster hike east of Portland with killer views.