(Photo: The First, Second and Third Flatirons (from right to left), looming above Boulder.)
Another summer vacation in Colorado meant another chance for me to do a little climbing.
My family spent a week in the (beautiful!) Salida area doing lots of fun stuff that did not include rock climbing. Horseback riding, zip lining, hiking (including our first fourteener, Mount Yale), stand-up paddle boarding, mountain biking... we had tons of outdoor fun, but all week I eagerly anticipated the two days of rock climbing I was planning to do with my old friend and partner Vass when my family returned to the greater Denver area.
Two years ago, while I was in Colorado on a similar vacation, Vass and I had a good day in Boulder Canyon and the next morning climbed the Yellow Spur (5.9) in Eldorado Canyon. I liked our day in Boulder Canyon well enough, but I loved our time in Eldo. I was taken in by the red sandstone with the bright green lichen, and by the majesty of the enormous Redgarden wall. And the climbing, while not exactly like the Gunks, was instantly comfortable for me. There is a certain Gunksy quality to the climbing at Eldo, both in the grades and the feel of the rock. The cracks aren't as relentlessly horizontal as they are in the Gunks (in fact, usually they are diagonal) but the techniques and the gear placements are similar.
The last time I was in Colorado I knew ahead of time that I wanted to tackle the Yellow Spur, one of the best 5.9 climbs in the state. This year I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. As my two days with Vass approached, I thought the weather forecast might preclude any climbing at all. Rain was predicted for several days in a row. I remembered topping out on the Yellow Spur two years ago with a storm coming in and I wasn't sure I wanted to put myself in that position again. But Vass wasn't worried. He assured me that rain in the forecast at this time of year usually meant afternoon showers. We could probably get plenty of climbing done in the mornings and then see how the afternoons shaped up.
Vass suggested we could start with one of the Flatirons. These flat sandstone rock faces lean back on the hills just above Boulder. The major formations are numbered from the north to south. The Flatirons were the scene of much of the early development of rock climbing in Colorado, and today there are thousands of routes spread among the many formations. But most of the traffic is centered on the trade routes up the popular First and Third Flatirons, which are close to central Boulder. The main routes up these Flatirons feature run out low-angled slab climbing at a moderate grade. On any given day you can see beginners taking much of the day pitching out the classic routes on these Flatirons, while confident free soloists run past, finishing the same routes in an hour or less.
We weren't planning to go ropeless, but Vass figured we could quickly romp up the Direct East Face route (5.6) on the First Flatiron. This route covers over 1000 feet of climbing, and is traditionally done in around ten pitches, but Vass believed we could knock it off in a few hours if we simul-climbed the easiest pitches, meaning that we would climb together at the same time, at either end of the rope, with several pieces of gear between us. I had never simul-climbed before but I was willing to try it so long as I felt comfortable on the slab. Slab climbing is not wholly unfamiliar to me but my experience in it is limited. Vass has known me a long time, and he knew our route well. I trusted him to know what we could reasonably do. He explained that the first pitch has the hardest climbing on the route. If I could follow the first pitch easily then he figured we'd be fine to simul-climb.
When we met up on Monday, some dark clouds were rolling through the Boulder area, but it looked like it might clear up in short order. We hiked up to the First Flatiron to find another party already bailing off of our route. They'd done the first pitch but decided to come down when it rained for a few minutes.
This was not a great sign.
We hadn't detected any rain on the walk up. We decided to go ahead with the climb. It was getting much brighter out and Vass knew there was a bolted anchor at the top of the traditional pitch two. He would combine the first two traditional leads into one pitch and if the weather was poor we could always bail from there.
I watched Vass calmly lead this extremely run out pitch, using almost the entire length of our 60 meter rope. There are two protection bolts along the way but they don't provide a great deal of comfort. Despite these bolts there are many spots at which a fall would be a very bad idea. Vass got through it all with no worries, getting maybe three gear placements (besides the bolts) in nearly 200 feet of climbing. I was happy I could follow him cleanly without any trouble, though I wasn't sure I felt comfortable enough to lead through this same territory. The early going on this route has pure friction climbing, without much in the way of features for the hands or the feet. Though at first I felt jittery, as I settled into it I started to really enjoy it. The sandstone has a grippy texture and as I grew accustomed to the movement I started to feel more confident in my feet.
(Photo: Vass has just clipped the first bolt on pitch one of the Direct East Face of the First Flatiron (5.6).)
By the time I joined Vass at the belay all traces of rain were gone. It was now a sunny morning. I had to decide whether to lead the next pitch, another 200-foot rope stretcher with very little gear. Vass told me it was going to be easier than the last pitch. I'd felt fine on the rock so far, so I decided to go for it. It turned out to be great fun, and it was indeed easier, with more features to grab here and there. The climbing was mellow; Vass said it was 5.5 but that was meaningless to me when it came to slab. All I cared about was that it felt casual. I found four or five gear placements in nearly 200 feet. I tried to be very precise with my footwork and not to fret about the distance to the gear. By the time I finished leading this pitch I was feeling pretty comfortable with the Flatiron style.
(Photo: Vass following me on our long, sparsely protected pitch two.)
Now Vass proposed we simul-climb the next three pitches. Vass was definitely the stronger climber of the two of us in this environment, given his greater slab and Flatiron experience, and he was planning to go first. This violated the prime directive of simul-climbing, which holds that the stronger climber should go second. This rule exists to minimize the risk of the second falling and pulling the leader down off of the rock. But Vass was thinking that the climbing over the next few pitches would be very easy, with lots of features, and that a mistake in route finding would be the only way either of us was likely to fall. Since he basically knew the way already it made sense for him to go first.
(Photo: Vass heading up our middle simul section of the Direct East Face.)
I went with it and it worked out fine. For at least half the distance I had him on belay as usual but when the rope was nearly tight I dismantled the anchor, took Vass off belay, and started climbing behind him. As he predicted, everything was totally calm and easy.
I led the next two pitches to the summit ridge. The final pitch to the ridge was the best one on the route, in my opinion, with several pure slab moves around a ceiling/corner and into a notch with a crack at the back. This pitch has some committing moments but because it follows a corner and a crack it has much better gear than most of the route. I never felt that I was terribly run out on this pitch.
Now we were almost atop the First Flatiron, with a scramble up the ridge our only obstacle to the summit. (This last bit is traditionally done in three pitches.) We were in a great position, with expansive views over Boulder and, looking sideways, to the summit of the Third Flatiron. And now that we could see over the back of the formation we had a clear view of the Front Range in Rocky Mountain National Park, including Long's Peak.
But now we could also see some dark clouds about to roll in. Luckily, due to the peculiar geography of the Flatirons, even though we'd been climbing for 1000 feet we were only a single rappel away from reaching the ground behind the leaning cliff from pretty much anywhere on the summit ridge. We could leave gear and bail at any time if we really needed to.
(Photo: Vass racing up to the top as the clouds rapidly roll in.)
Our plan was to simul-climb quickly to the summit where there is a bolted rap anchor. Vass led off as the clouds came closer. Once I took him off belay and started climbing behind him it started to sprinkle. I tried not to worry and was very careful not to do anything stupid. Just then a shirtless free soloist came running past me. He politely asked permission to pass and when I granted it he hurried on, pausing only to utter an expletive about the rain. Soon he was out of sight, and as I resumed climbing, shaking my head, I could tell from the way the rope was being pulled in that Vass had reached the top and that I was now on a traditional belay. Feeling relieved, I finished scrambling to the top in a light rain. As I reached the summit the storm passed over, giving us an opportunity to take in the view from the top for a few minutes before we rapped off and walked back down to Boulder.
I loved the experience of climbing in the Flatirons and would gladly do it again. The unique formations of the area are a real treat, and by the end of the route I started to enjoy the slab mindset, though this kind of climbing only makes sense to me if it is several grades below your limit, making a fall extremely unlikely.
Unfortunately our day was just about shot, even though it was early afternoon and we still had plenty of time left. We drove over to Eldo, hoping to run up the Bastille Crack (5.7). But another, bigger storm came in as we parked. We never got started. After waiting a while in vain for the rain to pass we drove back to Boulder to find that Boulder Canyon was actually dry-- it appeared not to have rained there at all. But after all the driving around and waiting we only managed to squeeze in one more mediocre pitch there before we had to call it quits.
The next day dawned cloudy and damp, with more thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. Vass and I met up at Eldo anyway and found that despite it all everything looked dry. There were plenty of people out climbing at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. The Wind Tower, a mecca of moderate routes, was full of climbers. And there were already two parties on the aforementioned Bastille Crack (5.7), which was no surprise since it is the most popular climbing route in Colorado (and perhaps the world). Its moderate difficulty and proximity to the parking lot make it the High Exposure of Eldo. There is almost always a crowd waiting to climb it.
There were countless other classic climbs in Eldo that I'd never tried so there was no reason to wait for anything. Even though it was looking brighter out we still had the threat of rain hanging over us, so we decided to head up to the huge Redgarden Wall to climb Rewritten, a six pitch 5.7 with a famous airy traverse pitch and a glorious, exposed finishing variation to the top of the cliff up a knife-edge ridge known as Rebuffat's Arete. We figured we could get this climb done without wasting too much time. We decided to up the ante just a little bit by skipping the first pitch of Rewritten and instead doing the popular alternative first pitch of its harder neighbor, The Great Zot (5.8).
By the time we hiked up to the base of the Great Zot it was warm and sunny out. We were in business.
I led up the Great Zot and really enjoyed the first pitch. The crux is puzzling, pulling over an awkward wide crack/pod. Steve Levin's guidebook advises you to jam out of it but Vass told me he'd laid it back. I suppose I chose to jam, but this was not exactly sustained Yosemite-style jamming. This was more like Gunks jamming, throwing a fist in for just long enough to get your feet up so you can grab higher face holds. I'd bet that there are multiple solutions to the problem and the gear is good, so I highly recommend it. At Vass' urging I continued up the easy and loose second pitch of Rewritten and made it in a single lead to the bolted anchor 200 feet up on what is known as the Red Ledge.
(Photo: Already high above the ground after a single long pitch on The Great Zot/Rewritten.)
Vass led the next pitch. It started out a little junky off of the rotten Red Ledge but ended with a fun 5.6 chimney. And then it was time for me to lead the famous traverse pitch, which heads straight left for about fifteen feet. There is a great handrail and wonderful gear, but the footholds are just tiny nubbins. I was drooling with excitement just looking at it. It is not unlike Thin Slabs Direct (5.7+) back in the Gunks, but it is shorter and not as steep.
(Photo: I'm just past the traverse and into the vertical crack on Rewritten (5.7).)
I enjoyed it tremendously, marveling all the way at the perfect tiny toe bumps that appeared just where I wanted them. After the thrill of the traverse, the pitch follows a fun crack system upward. I stopped to belay at a ledge with a dead tree which was at the base of Rebuffat's Arete, the final knife-edge feature to the top of the cliff.
(Photo: Vass reaching the end of the traverse pitch of Rewritten (5.7).)
As I waited for Vass to reach me at the dead tree ledge, I started to grow alarmed.
It was happening again. Rain clouds were headed our way.
Were we doomed to finish every long climb in the rain? This was our third one in a row! It had even happened to Vass and me a fourth time, back in the Gunks a few years back, when we got totally drenched by a sudden storm as we topped out on the last pitch of Lisa (5.6) in the Trapps. We seemed to be in the habit of getting soaked.
This time it appeared to me that we might be cutting it kind of close. This was an electrical storm, though the lightning still seemed to be miles away. We'd left our raincoats behind, at the base of the cliff, thinking we were in the clear.
It was Vass' turn to lead, but he'd led Rebuffat's Arete before and wanted me to have the opportunity. I was eager to lead it-- it looked awesome-- and I wanted to get a move on to get us out of the rain. So I took the gear and hurried onward.
It is a beautiful pitch, incredibly exposed with very good climbing up the thin arete, some 500 feet off the ground. Just as I got to the knife-point edge of the arete and started upward, the rain reached us. The thunder and lightning were still some ways off but everything started to get wet. I tried to motor on up and happily I found the arete to be easier than the advertised 5.7. Gear was plentiful too. I was tempted to run it out but then I started to have morbid (and unrealistic) thoughts of what would happen if I were struck by lightning without gear nearby. Shuddering, I resolved to place gear often, but quickly.
(Photo: A rushed shot of Vass working his way up Rebuffat's Arete in the rain.)
At the top of the amazing arete I was peeved to discover that there was another fifty feet of climbing still to go, up a wall behind the arete! I hustled up an easy crack, getting wetter. Flopping over the top edge of the cliff, I put Vass on belay and silently urged him to move quickly to the summit so we could get the hell out of there. As he climbed I listened to the anxious belay commands of others who, like us, were still working to get themselves quickly off the wall before the situation got serious. I tried to judge the distance to the center of the storm, watching the lightning flashes in the distance and counting the seconds until I heard the corresponding peals of thunder.
(Photo: Vass working to free a stuck nut just below the very top of Rewritten (5.7), 550 feet up, in the rain.)
Once we were both on top we got a brief reprieve. The rain slowed to a trickle as we briskly walked off of the north end of the Redgarden Wall. We'd made it, though we should probably have brought up our raincoats.
I don't mean to be too dramatic. We deliberately chose a route that we would feel comfortable climbing even if it were wet. We were lucky that it only rained lightly until we were basically finished, so we were never truly drenched. Just as we returned to our packs and got our rain gear it began coming down again in earnest, and by the time we got back to the car it was a steady downpour.
We drove into Boulder for burgers and beer at the Southern Sun Pub and Brewery. We figured we were done.
After our meal we went next door to Neptune Mountaineering and browsed for a bit. To our surprise, the weather suddenly seemed to clear up. The bacon cheeseburger and fries I'd ingested were still rolling around in my core and the pint of ale I'd thrown down had rendered me just a little bit light-headed. Vass was supposed to drop me in Denver in a couple of hours, but we still had some time to kill....
Could we climb a little more?
Really there was no question about the right course of action. After a quick "should we?" glance at each other, we ran back to Eldo (with a stop for coffee along the way) and I finally led the first pitch of the famous Bastille Crack.
(Photo: That's me placing bomber gear for the step across on pitch one of the Bastille Crack (5.7).)
It was fun. The crux for me (other than wiping all of the wet dirt off of my climbing shoes) was moving up on polished footholds to the big left-facing flake just 20 feet or so off the ground, with somewhat iffy gear underneath the flexing flake. Once I made this move up I found it easy to reach over and place a bomber cam in the left crack before committing to the step across. The rest of the pitch has giant holds, perfect foot jams, and bomber pro. 5.7 seems like a fair grade. It might be a touch soft for 5.7.
I didn't think this pitch was anything amazing but I didn't get to do the rest of the climb. If the whole thing is as good as the first pitch then it is certainly a worthwhile multi-pitch outing.
With our remaining time I quickly top-roped the Northcutt Start (5.10d), a nice line just to the left of the Bastille Crack. It has interesting moves (easier than 5.10) up a vertical crack in a corner and then a hard crux sequence up and around a bulge to the right to arrive at the Bastille Crack's bolted anchor. The crux sequence is crimpy, with poor footholds. I got flustered trying to figure out how to move up into the bulge and took a hang, blowing the top rope on-sight. Then I committed and just did it, and it wasn't so terribly hard. I could see leading it. The crux is protected by two fixed pitons, a welcome sight for any Gunkie like me.
Now it really was time to go. As if on cue, we heard the sound of thunder in the distance while we were packing up. As we drove out of Boulder I could see our old friend the rain coming into Eldo behind us once again.
I've still barely scratched the surface of the lifetime of climbing that is available in the Boulder area and on this particular trip I can't say I really challenged myself. But the slab and simul-climbing were new experiences for me, and I'm happy with how much we got done in our two days, given the weather situation. I'd love to come back and climb in Colorado again. I'd prefer to do it with a little less anxiety about thundershowers!
But maybe when it comes to Vass and me it is simply our destiny to finish our climbs in the rain.