17 July 2008

Helper and the Balanced Rock Incident

I have spent a lot of time in Utah, especially in the Book Cliffs region. I love the area, its got some stunning geology, it's very remote and has a unique rugged beauty. In the northern part of the area is a town called Helper. There is not much you can say about Helper except it’s a total shit hole. Back in the day it was a big railroad hub. The name is taken from the extra steam engines that used to help the coal trains up the steep grade over the Wasatch Plateau. After the advent of diesel trains that didn’t need a helping push, the town degenerated into a center of gambling and prostitution – which in Utah, especially during the 60’s and 70’s was very illegal and very popular. Apparently it was so corrupt that the local police just took their cut and let it go on. Eventually some out of town, incorruptible state troopers were drafted in to close down the fun and the party was over. The town then went into serious decline and has been going down ever since.

Above the town is a steep cliff about 400 m high with a narrow promontory. At the end of the promontory is a large block of sandstone, detached from the main cliff perching on some crumbling shale. The locals imaginatively called it Balanced Rock. In 1923 some adventurous souls climbed up on to the top of the rock and erected a flag pole and a flag. Ten years later after several flags had blown away, including a solid steel one, they went back up and put an empty barrel on the pole and filled it with rocks.

The barrel survived the winds and apart from the locals who took turns to shoot at it, nobody really noticed it was there. Then in 1996 some out of town climbers teamed up with a couple of local boys from Price, climbed the rock and replaced the barrel with a Welsh Flag. To say that this upset the locals, is like saying that George Bush is a bit of a dickhead – a monumental understatement! Boy these people were mad! Not much happens in Helper and this was probably the most exciting event since somebody got married to someone who wasn’t there first cousin. The Police were kept busy trying to stop the good-ole-boys getting their rifles out and taking pot shots at the climbers.

The day after the adventure, two of them returned to Wales. The local boys were quickly rumbled by the Police, there aren’t that many climbers in the area. The Police tried to get heavy and then when that didn’t work, pleaded with them to go back up and re-erect the barrel. A week later they did but left the flag flying. The Y Ddraig Goch (the Red Dragon) flew above a small piece of Utah for the next couple of years.

Despite monumentally pissing off the locals, I the climbers meant no harm. They felt that they were recreating the spirit of the original balanced rock gang. They removed the barrel and placed it next to the pole. The barrel was full of bullet holes and falling to pieces but they did not throw it off the edge. It was an adventure, not an act of desecration. The locals and the press did not see it that way. The climbers were seen as criminals and vilified! The accounts that were published then and subsequently are full of errors and are basically crap.

Sitting in a diner in Salt Lake City eating breakfast the following day I saw the article below. It was published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s main newspaper. It’s a truly cracking piece of journalism. Enjoy!

Click on the image to get a full sized version

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