Sinks Canyon via ferrata route debated

Becca Harris climbs at the eastern edge of the established sport climbing area in Sinks Canyon. A via ferrata has been proposed for a nearby cliff band.

RIVERTON — A much-debated man-made climbing route soon might be installed in Sinks Canyon State Park, but on a different cliff with no peregrine falcons.

The new site is the proposal of the rung-and-cable climbing path’s advocates, who have offered to build the potential tourist attraction on a south-facing cliff across from the Sawmill Campground, on Wyoming State Parks land in the canyon.

Originally, the via ferrata was proposed to be built on a much higher, north-facing cliff across from The Rise, which had been purchased by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department with federal funds, presumably for conservation purposes.

However, beginning in spring of 2021, peregrine falcon advocates raised public awareness that the canyon’s only peregrine pair brood on one of the ridges of the higher cliff each year.

“We read the signs, we see all the community outreach as far as the peregrine situation, and there are no peregrines on this cliff,” said Tom Zimmer, gesturing to the new proposed site during an interview with The Riverton Ranger at the entrance to the canyon last Monday.

Zimmer, who is a youth outdoor educator, said he has been a via ferrata proponent since the idea’s conception in 2018, because he sees the course as a gateway to nature enthusiasm for youth and adults increasingly hemmed into urban systems and behind video screens.

Another primary via ferrata proponent, Wyoming climber and former Jackson resident Sam Lightner, also spoke with The Ranger on Monday, noting that he and the other fundraising volunteers had offered to shift the original course plot farther away from the peregrines but still on the same sheer rocky face.

But the birds’ advocates, members of the “Citizens for Keeping Sinks Canyon Wild” group, asked that the via ferrata be moved to a different cliff altogether.

Falcon expert Bob Oakleaf, a retired Wyoming Game and Fish biologist, said the peregrines nest on different ridges along the north-facing feature from year to year.

The new proposed site is an easier climb, and it receives more direct sunlight.

Lightner said the south-facing wall known as the “Gunky Buttress” could be the most-climbed feature in the state of Wyoming. He said its accessibility detracts somewhat from the need for a via ferrata — an attached system designed to make generally inaccessible routes enjoyable to amateurs.

“In the plan,” Lightner said, “we’re calling it the Sandy Buttress.”

The climb is about 100 feet shorter than the falcons’ cliff. Because the new wall faces roughly south, it’s also bound to be hotter during the summer months, which could limit midday climbing during the tourist season.

However, Zimmer noted, the “shoulder months” could bring more activity and the warmer conditions could increase access by schools and educational groups during the school year. Terms have been volleyed by via ferrata proponents and opponents alike.

Peregrine advocates asked that the new site not be occupied by sensitive wildlife or plants; that it would be sited where “heavy climbing” already occurs and infrastructure –– such as parking lots –– already is in place; that it would not be sited in areas “lightly impacted by current visitor activity;” that it would not impact Native American sacred sites; and that it only be installed where environmental analyses demonstrate minimal detrimental impacts.

Path proponents also produced terms and compromises going forward, along with their new site proposal.

They offered to spend $2,000 of the roughly $30,000 already raised to build an “interpretive site” and fence to protect petroglyphs around the corner from the buttress.

Another offer is an interpretive site at the top of the cliff celebrating the canyon and the view, along with a path down to the climbing course from there.

Lightner said proponents have asked the “Sinks Canyon Wild” group for a $2,000 match but have not yet heard a response.

“In return,” reads the proposal, “we would like for Sinks Canyon Wild and Friends of Sinks Canyon to endorse the project as we have stated here for the Gunky Buttress.”

In his interview, Lightner maintained that the goal of the via ferrata was not to enrich a stakeholder, as many opponents had implied.

He said privately donated funds were gifted to Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites & Trails for the project toward a free or inexpensive climbing opportunity that could produce more nature enthusiasts and attract tourist money to Fremont County.

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