Living in Europe, the land of infinite limestone, for a year gave me the opportunity to hone my skills on perfectly sculpted, tufa-filled overhanging technical routes. But after a year, I began to long for splitter granite cracks and I found myself at square one once again. Where should I live, what should I do … what, where, why, how? I got short-term satisfaction when I completed my mega-project in the Valley in the spring, but the climbing life is a lifestyle that is anything but fleeting. Wherever I am, there must be rock. I ended up in Colorado, teaching at a new school outside of Denver … familiar territory. New routes are hard to come by here and while some people say the Front Range is home to the hardest climbing community in the country, it is often difficult to find a prize project that is both inspiring and climbable.
The two areas I started scoping for the next big lines were the Diamond and Mount Evans, both areas noted for unusually high quality granite faces at high altitudes. My quest ended at Evans when I climbed a route on the immaculate Black Wall. From the fourth pitch, I glanced down the valley and noticed that there was new route potential a few miles further down. After a recon hike, I spied a couple of lines and took the initiative to fix some ropes and see what was possible. What I found was a thinly protected dihedral that led into an overhanging face with what appeared to have just enough features for free climbing. Further up the wall, the crack continued and met a right trending pegmatite band (a pink vein within the granite) covered with the tiniest of features all facing the wrong way.
Over confident (a state of mind I am vulnerable to), I told myself that this line would go free and proceeded to clean and hand-drill my vision.
I’ve established enough new routes to think I might know what I’m doing, but I came to realize that most of the bolting I’ve done has been on vertical or slightly less than vertical rock. This route was steep and the steep sections were not short. It took me longer than usual to hook and fix myself into positions where I could hand-drill (read this sucks!) the overhanging bolts and after a few trips to the wall, the route was finally ready to be climbed.
I am happiest when I am working a new route. Trying to unlock the sequences and nuances that save energy and strength, trying to discover rests and clipping positions and, finally, just figuring out a way to put all of the moves together is extremely engaging and progress extremely satisfying. I spent what seemed like a lifetime working the route, all with different belay partners. I fell a lot, screamed in frustration and was reinvigorated with each new link up. Kind of like the feeling you get when you search for a puzzle piece for hours, figure out exactly what you are looking for, can picture it in your mind, and then find it on the floor. The prospect is both frustrating, but the wait is worth the while in the end.
The day prior to my ascent was a freezing nightmare. I arrived early to crystal clear blue skies and snow dusting the footpath leading down to the route. I was dressed in everything I own. My partner looked like the little kid in the snow suit from A Christmas Story. The ‘warm-up’ first pitch froze my fingers and toes. I tried leading the cruxes, but quickly found that my body was focusing too much on staying warm and not enough on staying tight. The slopers and crimps that connect the first crux lent no purchase like they had during previous sessions. The wind continued to howl and the temperatures never rose above 35 degrees that day. Yet, I remained hopefully optimistic for the next day.
Perfect weather and sending temps cheered me on as I approached the next morning. As I tightened my climbing shoes at the very base of the route, I asked my belayer to watch and spot me since I had never actually led the unprotected slabs at the bottom of the route. Awkward corner climbing felt smooth and the technical stemming above sparsely placed gear felt easy. I quickly made my way to the first anchor, fixed the line and my second warmed up as he jugged the first pitch.
The second pitch is the crux. It is comprised of 25 feet of a 50-60 degree overhanging face. Each move makes your feet cut and swing, only to be followed by more precise smears from which you set up and burst for the next lunge. Gastons and lie-backs out a corner lead to a right-trending sequence that feels like climbing on poorly sculpted monkey bars. Eventually, you reach the exit moves which consist of a hand traverse made possible by insecure heel hooks. A rest comes after some 5.10 crack just before the final crux. This is where the route meets the overhanging, right-traversing pegmatite band I mentioned earlier. A series of technical moves on tiny holds leads to a series of throws for grovelly slopers high above the last bolt. I fell over and over at this spot when I was in project mode. But today, I was in sending mode. I was ecstatic when I latched the final sloper, gasping for air as my feet cut out exposing me to 250 feet of air. This is why I climb and climbing is what I live for.
Gathering the gear at the top of the climb was surreal. It felt like I had just finished a great book that took me ages to read, but was never once able to put down. It dawned on me how making this trip from the south of Denver has added up. The weekend drives, the alpine starts, the wind and rain, the cleaning and drilling, the after-hours sessions, the corridor traffic. New routes are hard and I can’t decide which is harder … a new route near home or far away. On the one hand, routes within driving distance are more accessible, but it is rare to find the time to spend multiple days in the field where you can devote yourself entirely to the line. Distant routes force longer trips and mandate more focus and motivation due to the limited amount of time and the investment made.
The question, however, is neither here nor there. Whatever the answer is, it will not alter my behavior. I am constantly in search of the next big route and I will be heading to the Wind River Range tomorrow to continue my quest.
BACK TO THE EARTH is a 3 pitch free route located in Mount Evans Park just west of Denver, Colorado. The route sits at about 12,000 feet and goes free at 5.13c/d. It is protected with a mix of gear and bolts.
THIS JUST IN: My partner broke his toe on the morning we planned on leaving for the Winds! Anyone looking for partner to bag some big routes? I’ve got ten days …