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Category Archives: Clear Creek Canyon

New Front Range Moderates at “The Aqueduct”

by Mark Anderson

With summer in full swing, I’m always on the lookout for crags that are high and shady. I’ve had my eye on just such a crag at the very top of Clear Creek Canyon for a few years now. This chunk of rock is plainly obvious when approaching Clear Creek from the west, but its sky-scraping position roughly 1000-feet above the river (at an elevation of ~8000’) has discouraged the lazy sport climber in me from doing much about it.

High above the river on Well Done Sergeant, 5.11a, at The Aqueduct. Photo © Nicholas Zepeda

Earlier this year I finally hiked up the impressively long and steep hillside to investigate the crag. Although most of the cliff was too broken or low-angled to be of interest to me, I found a couple walls with great rock and some interesting features. Just as importantly, I discovered a much better approach.

Luckily for my knees, Clear Creek County Open Space acquired the large parcel of land between the cliff and I-70 in the spring. This allows for a much easier approach from the saddle at Floyd Hill through the Open Space (still not trivial though, about 20 minutes with ~300 feet of elevation gain).The formation is massive, and has cliffs facing in just about every direction, but the best cliffs are generally west-facing, staying in the shade till around noon. There are currently two developed sectors which are a few hundred feet apart. The lower, northern-most wall, dubbed the “Committee Wall” consists of long-ish, more or less vertical panels of solid, well-featured rock. The routes on this wall are in the 5.10- to 5.11 range, with generally consistent difficulty and fun climbing.

Climbing One Total Catastrophe is Just the Beginning, 11b, at the Committee Wall. Photo © Nicholas Zepeda

Kate cruising Well Done Sergeant, 11a

Boer nearing the chains of This Calls For Immediate Discussion, 10c. Photo © Nicholas Zepeda

The southern sector (“Wabble of Wowdy Webels Wall”) is much shorter, but overhanging, with bullet stone, littered with incut edges. These routes are all excellent despite their brevity. The two 5.12s climb on incredible rock, featuring fun, dynamic boulder problems to reach the lip of the overhang. The best line on this sector is probably Fight the Oppressors, which climbs the stunning, jutting arête on the far right edge of the wall. The prow overhangs on both sides, but thanks to perfectly positioned incut jugs, the difficulty is never much harder than 5.10.

 

Cruising the short but sweet jutting prow of Fight the Oppressors, 11a.

Boer sticking the big dyno on The Meek Are the Problem, 12a.

Straining through the crux of Solidarity Brother, 12b.

Thanks to Nicholas Zepeda for his great work shooting some of these routes. To see more of his work, please checkout his website.

Kitty’s Back (in Clear Creek)

By Mark Anderson

Topcat, one of three new routes atop the Catslab in Clear Creek Canyon, CO.

Over the winter I bolted three routes on the steep visor that sits high above the “Catslab” in upper Clear Creek. This feature looks like a roof from the ground, but it’s more like a convex bulge, gradually sweeping from about 60-degrees overhanging at the base up to ~30 degrees at the top. The business overhangs right around 45-degrees.

Once we returned from Europe I finally got around to trying the routes. In a nutshell, all three of them offer really fun movement in a spectacular setting on subpar rock. Like most steep routes in Clear Creek, you have to weave around some mungy ledges and cracks to reach the goods. Fortunately the rock improves steadily once on the visor, and notwithstanding the typical Clear Creek exfoliating flaky stuff, the rock is pretty good where it counts (and totally bullet on the headwall above the visor).

Each of these routes has a distinct character. The first line I climbed is the middle route, Kitty’s Back. This line is incredibly fun, pretty much a complete jug haul. The line follows a system of exfoliating flakes, with super steep off-balance/barn door-y liebacking. The flakes end with one long huck right at the top of the overhang, followed by more fun jugs up the beautiful headwall. The rock at the start is marginal, but it improves substantially and is bomber in the crux and beyond. I reckon this goes at about 13a, and would be classic if the rock were consistently good.

Fingerlocking onto the steep visor on Catlong.

The next route I tried is the right-most line, which follows a seam through the steep wall. Catlong is pretty unusual for Clear Creek in that the crux requires some gymnastic finger locking (if that’s a thing). Although it has its fair share of exfoliating flakey stuff to either side of the seam, the handholds are all solid, generally large features. Unfortunately you have to weave through a 6-foot-tall band of dusty ledges just below the start of the overhang. There are solid hand jugs through this obstacle but your feet will be pasting on scaly, sandy stone. Above, the climbing is really cool and exotic if you like crack climbing. It begins with a long reach from a finger lock to reach a big jug rail, then the crux comes next with sequential moves and an overhead heel hook to set up another bomber finger lock. Next you get to do some hip scums, wild stemming and even a kneebar, all with a steadily building pump. The climb ends with large but well-spaced crimps on the headwall, checking in around 13c.

Steep, fun pretzel climbing on Catlong.

The final route, Top Cat, is the furthest left. Against all odds it turned out to be the best, with good rock throughout, and really fun, athletic climbing. It’s also the hardest, with two difficult dynos. The most powerful move is a burly stab to a half-pad crimp at the second bolt, after which heel hooks and big lock-offs between good-for-the-grade holds lead into the redpoint crux–a crossing drive-by to reach the 4th bolt. Although it’s short, it’s completely sustained from the moment you step off the slab. I think its at the low end 5.14a.

Powerful lock-offs on Top Cat, 5.14a.

Meow if that doesn’t get you stoked for rock climbing, perhaps this will:

Aftermath

by Mark Anderson

Fall 2016 probably would have won the title “Best Season Ever” even if it ended after the third day (the day I finished off my year-long bout with Shadowboxing). After that send I spent a night celebrating, which for me entails eating a bunch of food I normally wouldn’t, in this case a greasy double cheeseburger, fries, chocolate shake, onion rings, several donuts…(you get the idea).

High on my new jughaul Aftermathematics, 5.12a, at Aftermath. Photo Nicholas Zepeda.

High on my new jughaul Aftermathematics, 5.12a, at Aftermath. Photo Nicholas Zepeda.

Normally after a big send, and especially after a landmark send such as that one, I’m content to quit for the season, or at least dial back the intensity significantly. Actually, I often find it very difficult to climb at a high level successfully in the aftermath of a big send.  This is most likely because it’s hard to mentally re-engage with another challenging goal after experiencing the euphoria, relief, and letdown of completing a major goal. But I had trained incredibly hard for this season, in anticipation of another extended battle. To give up my hard earned fitness and slim physique after only three climbing days seemed foolish.

So while I was itching to let myself go, scarf up my “9a Cookie” in one sitting and follow it up with a dozen Krispy Kremes, I felt like I owed it to myself to at least try to eke a few more results out of my new climbing level. Thanks to my late-2015 bolting frenzy I had a long list of potential projects to choose from.

About a week after sending Shadowboxing, this "9a Cookie" (complete with boxing gloves) showed up at my house, courtesy of my friends at Trango. Trango has meant a lot more to me than just free gear, and I really could not have made it to this level without their support and motivation.

About a week after sending Shadowboxing, this “9a Cookie” (complete with boxing gloves) showed up at my house, courtesy of my friends at Trango. Trango has meant a lot more to me than just free gear, and I really could not have made it to this level without their support and motivation.

One such line is perched high on Clear Creek’s Wall of the 90s. When I was working the twin roof-climbs Harlot and Hellcat, I was regularly distracted by an attractive swath of molasses stone heading up the extreme left end of the large roof system on the north end of the cliff. This looked to be the “last great roof problem” at the Wall of the 90s (which was already home to four roof routes in the 13d -14b range). I imagined the line would climb easily out to the lip of the roof along an incut flake, and then follow a series of small crimps up the slightly overhanging headwall.  I bolted the line in November 2015, as soon as I heard that new bolting restrictions would go into effect for 2016.

As steep lines go, it was impossible to inspect the rock in the roof without bolting my way down to it. When I arrived at the roof I found the flake I was counting on to support my body-weight was barely stable enough to support itself.  Once it was cleaned, there was no clear path out the roof.  But, since I had already bolted 90% of the route, I decided I might as well finish the bolt job and hope I could find another free sequence.

The Wall of the 90s' "last great roof problem" climbs out to the swath of dark brown stone ten feet left of Harlot.

Attemptiong the Wall of the 90s’ “last great roof problem,” which climbs out to the swath of dark brown stone ten feet left of Harlot.  Photo Mark Dixon.

So I wasn’t exactly optimistic when I returned to investigate the possibilities. I climbed up into the roof, and spent about 30 minutes dangling and groping for options. When I arrived back on the ground, convinced the line would not go, I started brainstorming ways to salvage the rest of the day. Perhaps I could try to onsight something, or try another open project at a nearby cliff….

Kate’s much more logical in these situations. She realizes if I were to bail after one go, I’d just end up dragging her back out there another day to try it again. And she remembers the countless times I’d lowered off a route after one try, dismayed and convinced it would not go, only to discover the solution on my second time up (in fact, that happened once on this very cliff, during my first day on Double Stout). Unable to deny her wisdom, I headed back up one more time.

Of course, the second time I found hope. I wasn’t able to do all the moves, but I could imagine how they would go, and figured I would be able to do them. The remains of the loose flake offered a couple decent underclings, from which I could make a huge reach to a sloping, 1-pad, three-finger edge just over the lip. The problem with such a reach is that it leaves you over-extended, from which it’s hard to do much of anything, but with the right toe-hooking and core tension I figured I could match near the lip, and then theoretically dyno higher to another good edge.

Reaching up to undercling the remains of the big flake. After matching the undercling, you have to make a huge reach to a 3-finger edge along the crescent shaped rail near the bottom of the lime streak.

Reaching up to undercling the remains of the big flake. After matching the undercling, you have to make a huge reach to a 3-finger edge along the crescent shaped rail near the bottom of the lime streak.

Two weeks later I made it back to the project, and this time I did the move. Once out of about 10 tries. Not super encouraging, but at least I knew now that I could do it, eventually. The rest of the route was getting much easier, and at least the crux was only a few moves in. I wasn’t able to return again until the end of October, and so I assumed I wouldn’t have the power to do the crux anymore, but I wanted to find out for sure before moving on to less bouldery projects.

My first go of the day I managed to stick the crux dyno after only a couple of tries. Anytime you’re throwing and catching all your body weight on small holds, there’s a chance of destroying your skin. I think when I had tried the move earlier in the season, I was reluctant to really commit 100% to latching the target hold, for fear of wrecking my skin. But now, nearing the end of a long season, I had little to lose, and found myself squeezing much harder on the latch.

After a short break I roped up again. I had more trouble than usual getting to the lip of the roof. These moves require my maximum strength, and doing them even a few times can take quite a bit out of me. I had to lunge the last few inches to the three-finger edge, a move I did statically on my first go. As I worked my feet into position for the throw, I could feel my hand slowing opening up on the three-finger edge. “Now or never,” I thought, unleashing myself outward and upward over the lip. I nailed the hold and somehow controlled the violent recoil of my lower body. I threw a foot up, slapped up onto the hanging upper panel, and cruised up incut crimps to the anchor.

Cranking between incut crimps on the pumpy, slightly overhanging headwall.

Cranking between incut crimps on the pumpy, slightly overhanging headwall.

I named the route “Seven Minute Abs” for its core-intensive crux. I reckon this is the hardest of my roof climb first ascents.  The crux move is much harder than the crux move on any of my other roof routes, but the climbing is quite a bit less sustained than on the others.  I put it at the low end of 5.14b, but with a relatively intense, reachy crux that makes for sketchy grading.  I find it bizarrely ironic that I’ve evolved into a roof-climbing connoisseur. I really don’t care for that type of climbing at all, nor do I consider myself in the least bit good at it, but when you want to do new routes in a place that’s thoroughly picked over, you have to work with the rock that’s left over. Clearly nobody else likes hard roof climbing either, since so many “good” roof routes have been left for me to claim.  I am grateful for that.

With my hard projects wrapped up, I was free to try easier routes (and eat donuts). I was particularly psyched to check out some routes at a steeply overhanging wall in Clear Creek called Aftermath that I bolted in December 2015, but hadn’t yet had the chance to climb.

aftermath-topo1The rock is relatively fractured, resulting in tons of jugs, jutting overhangs, and a relatively adventurous flavor (for sportclimbing). Overhanging jughauls are unusual for the Front Range, so I hoped the climbing would make up for the marginal rock quality. I headed  up there a few weeks ago with my friend Boer to check out the routes. We were lucky to have Nick Zepeda along to shoot the flattering photos you see here. Check out more of his gorgeous climbing shots on his website, https://zepedaphotography.carbonmade.com/

Just after topping out the crux mantle of Aftermathematics, 5.12a. Photo Nicholas Zepeda.

Just after topping out the crux mantle of Aftermathematics, 5.12a. Photo Nicholas Zepeda.

Certainly the crag won’t appeal to everyone, but those who don’t mind a bit of an adventure are in for some really fun, exposed climbs at relatively modest grades. The crag has five lines, ranging from 5.11+ to 5.12+. There are three routes climbing out the largest overhang, and all of these climb almost entirely on full-hand jugs. Boer and I thoroughly enjoyed the climbing, so much so that I climbed “Strapped with Lats” twice, just for fun.

The first ascent of Strapped with Lats, 5.12c, at Aftermath. Photo Nicholas Zepeda.

The first ascent of Strapped with Lats, 5.12c, at Aftermath. Photo Nicholas Zepeda.

This was by far the most successful season of my climbing career. All told I sent my hardest route ever, and still had time and psych left over to complete more than ten first ascents between Clear Creek and Shelf Road (including two 14b’s, a 14a and three 5.13’s). For the first time in a couple years I found myself wanting to extend my climbing season rather than jump back in the barn to train for the next one. I’m a bit bummed it has to end, but I have plenty to get stoked (and strong) for this coming winter.

A Season of New Routes

by Mark Anderson

I spent the end of 2015 bolting a bunch of new lines. With a huge “To Do” list looming over me, I focused my winter season on ticking off as many of those new lines as I could. The weather during February and early March was amazing (from my perspective)—highs in the 50s or 60s most days and zero precipitation—which allowed me to get a lot done.

As the snow melted, I worked my way up Clear Creek.  I polished off two crags in the canyon that I’m particularly proud of. The first, dubbed the Iron Buttress, is a brown shield of rock I had been eyeing for a long time. When I finally hiked up there, I was a bit disappointed the cliff wasn’t steeper, but the rock quality exceeded my expectations. In the end the routes turned out really good—among the best I’ve established in the5.10 to 5.12- grade range—and the fact that it’s not super steep means that more people will get to enjoy these climbs.

Climbing Good Time To Be Pretty, 12a, the best line at the Iron Buttress. The name is a Tina Fey punchline. Just to the left is an excellent 5.10 jughaul, Chocolate Bandit, named for my daughter Amelie who is almost scheming ways to steal my Dove Dark Chocolates.

Climbing Good Time To Be Pretty, 12a, the best line at the Iron Buttress. The name is a Tina Fey punchline. Just to the left is an excellent 5.10 jughaul, Chocolate Bandit, named for my daughter Amelie who is almost scheming ways to steal my Dove Dark Chocolates.

Irony Man starts up this sweet arête, but deteriorates a bit on the upper half. To the left is another ultra-techy 5.12, Iron Maiden.

Irony Man starts up this sweet arête, but deteriorates a bit on the upper half. To the left is another ultra-techy 5.12, Iron Maiden.

The original Chocolate Bandit helps daddy camouflage some hardware.

The original Chocolate Bandit helps daddy camouflage some hardware.

The second crag was actually bolted over a year ago, but I never got around to climbing the routes since high water in Clear Creek prevented me from reaching the crag over the summer. “The Talon” is a precarious, jutting finger of rock that overhangs on the north and west faces, creating a super sick overhanging arête on the northwest corner. There are two other great lines, to either side of the arête, but Where Eagles Dare, 13b, is the premier line.

The west face of The Talon. Where Eagles Dare climbs the arête just left of center, essentially following the lime green lichen streak.

The west face of The Talon. Where Eagles Dare climbs the arête just left of center, essentially following the lime green lichen streak.

The rock on the arête is outstanding, with beige quartzite intrusions reminiscent of Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. The line offers true arête climbing, with many slaps and heel hooks.

The rock on the arête is outstanding, with beige and knobby quartzite intrusions reminiscent of Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. The line offers true arête climbing, with many slaps and heel hooks.

Entering the high crux of Where Eagles Dare. This send was somewhat epic—on my second go I sent to one move past this point, and as I was midway through the last significant move, the hold I was hanging from exploded. After I pulled back on, I found another hold that worked just as well, but at that point I was six burns into the day, and wasn’t sure I would have the energy for another quality attempt. On the next go I barely made it to the same spot, sure I would fall on the final dyno to the lip of the tower, but I went for it anyway and somehow managed to stick it.

Entering the high crux of Where Eagles Dare. This send was somewhat epic—on my second go I sent to one move past this point, and as I was midway through the last significant move, the hold I was hanging from exploded. After I pulled back on, I found another hold that worked just as well, but at that point I was six burns into the day, and wasn’t sure I would have the energy for another quality attempt. On the next go I barely made it to the same spot, sure I would fall on the final dyno to the lip of the tower, but I went for it anyway and somehow managed to stick it.

Full beta for the Iron Buttress can be found here and The Talon can be found here.

In related news, back in January I applied for a seat on Jefferson County’s inaugural Fixed Hardware Review Committee (FHRC).  I was selected in February along with six other great folks from the Front Range climbing community.  While I would certainly prefer unregulated bolting, an FHRC is much better than an outright bolting ban.  We’ve had three 2-3 hours meetings since then, trying to define our internal procedures as well as attempting to establish new fixed hardware approval processes.  I’m really optimistic about the direction things are headed.  The Jefferson County Open Space staff has been a real pleasure to work with.  They are incredibly receptive to the FHRC’s recommendations and have proven to be very reasonable and open-minded in their approach to climbing management.  I can’t really speak on the record about what is in the works, but hopefully there will be an official update coming out soon.

Bolt Barrage

by Mark Anderson

In mid-November I learned some unfortunate news–the agency that manages my county’s open space lands had decided to begin regulating bolts on county land (among other climbing restrictions). A permit would be required to install any bolts or other fixed hardware, and development of new crags would require extensive environmental impact and trail building assessments. When they explained the intended permit evaluation process, it became clear that this would make it extremely difficult to develop new crags on Jefferson County Open Space land (though I’m optimistic it will still be feasible, albeit time-consuming, to add new routes to existing crags). The most significant area affected would be Clear Creek Canyon, where I’ve spent the vast majority of my climbing and route development energy over the past three years. Other affected areas include North Table Mountain, Cathedral Spires, and Three Sisters, but Jefferson County is peppered with rock outcroppings, some of which may hold substantial potential.

I spent quite a bit of time over the last two months attending meetings, coordinating with The Access Fund, The Boulder Climbing Community and interfacing directly with Open Space managers. Based on everything I was hearing, I wasn’t very optimistic, but open space officials did provide a temporary grace period, declaring at the public meeting on November 19th that it would remain a “free-for-all until January 1st”. That’s all I needed to hear.

One of the new crags I bolted in late November, tentatively named "Iron Buttress".

One of the new crags I bolted in late November, with the working title  “Iron Buttress”.  Though not very tall, the rock here is some of the best I’ve seen in Clear Creek.

In the next three days I bolted four routes in Clear Creek. The first two were lines I had been eying for years, but figured I wasn’t quite good enough to climb yet. Well, there was no longer time to wait for my abilities to catch up to my imagination! While approaching the cliff to install those first two lines, my eye caught a well-hidden alcove along the highway, and the next day I returned to have a closer look. It never ceases to amaze me how you can pass by something literally a thousand times and not notice a line staring you right in the face. The next day I returned to bolt two radically steep lines shooting out the clandestine cave. It may be a few years before I’m able to climb the harder of these, but it’s tough to judge a line’s difficulty from rappel, so who knows?

These lines will all be really fun jug hauls. There are two other new lines at this crag not shown.

These lines will all be really fun jug hauls. There are two other new lines at this crag not shown.

Over the next two weeks I continued working my way through the canyon. Last spring I conducted a fairly comprehensive “survey” of Clear Creek, bushwhacking around the canyon in search of hidden gems. I have a “black book” spreadsheet detailing the potential, so I had a good idea how to prioritize my time. Depending on your aesthetic standards, there could be a lifetime of new routes remaining in the canyon. I didn’t have a lifetime, so I focused on the best rock and the lines most appealing to me personally (in other words, the hardest lines). By early December I had bolted 16 new lines in the canyon, including breaking ground on three new crags. But, I was starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of quality, so I turned my attention elsewhere.

For the past several years I had been curious about a nearby area. From a distance it was obvious there was a great deal of rock, but a complicated approach had deterred me from exploring more closely. Realizing it was now or never, I dusted off my gaiters and snow kit and set out for some recon. I’m glad I did.

When I saw this wall I knew I'd hit pay dirt. Note the rope which gives an idea of the wall's steepness. The rock on this cliff is flawless.

When I saw this wall I knew I’d hit pay dirt. Note the rope which gives an idea of the wall’s steepness. The rock on this cliff is flawless.

Over the month of December I returned eight times, adding 25 more new lines in the process (for a total of 41 routes between November 20 and December 24th!). We’ve had way above average snowfall so far this winter, and so, many of those outings were fairly intense. I was routinely crawling on all-fours through 2-3-foot snow drifts, up steep, loose, and heavily vegetated slopes. On the worst days it would take me close to 30 minutes to get only a hundred yards from the car. At various points, trudging through the powder-coated talus, I sunk chest-deep into the pits between boulders. I can’t count the number of times I face-planted when a foot got tangled in the underbrush, but the worst incident resulted in an Urgent Care visit to flush out a corneal abrasion I received when a tree branch snapped back suddenly, whacking me in the eyeball! Thanks to the marvelous invention of steroid eye drops I was back in action three days later 🙂

Another section of the previous cliff from below, with bolts in.

Another section of the previous cliff from below, with two routes in.

The cold was harsh on my batteries and on some days I got as few as 18 holes drilled (compared to 30 on a good summer day), but in the end I think I got around to all of the very best lines. There are now lines on five distinct cliffs, and room for easily another 25 lines if someone is willing to do the work (and paperwork) in the future. The rock is magnificent, and this is hands down the best new crag I’ve discovered. I can’t wait till the summer thaw so I can return to climb some of these.

Another cliff, this one composed of bullet-hard quartzite. The leaning arete left of center will easily be in the 5.14-range, and to the right of that are five more lines that I would guess will range from 5.8 to 5.12.

Another cliff, this one composed of bullet-hard quartzite. The leaning arete left of center will easily be in the 5.14-range, and to the right of that are five more lines that I would guess will range from 5.8 to 5.12.

Now that January is here, the county has released the final Climbing Management Plan. Unfortunately they didn’t concede a single point on the new bolting regulations (including opting not to eliminate the clearly un-safe permit requirement for one-for-one bolt replacement), so I’m glad I got some routes in before the end of the year. However, they did compromise on a number of other items that affect the average climber much more directly than route development.  Specifically, they significantly reduced the size of proposed seasonal raptor closure areas and eliminated a proposed ban on temporary project draws. Watching the Access Fund and the BCC in action I can say they did a tremendous job fighting for our interests. I can assure you that your donations are very well spent. Without a team of experienced advocates that could respond at a moment’s notice, the outcome would have been far worse. In particular, Tony Bubb of the BCC was a marvel to behold. He got everybody together and kept pressing for the best possible outcome when others were ready to give up. Without him I’m certain the seasonal raptor closure would have been much worse. Thanks to everyone who attended meetings, sent in comments or donated money in the past. Please consider making a contribution to the Access Fund or becoming a member if you aren’t already.

The area also boasts a number of steep slabs with bomber, well-featured rock like this.

The area also boasts a number of steep slabs with bomber, well-featured rock like this.

In other news, if you are a Forge user and you have not already done so, please consider taking the Rock Prodigy Forge Survey for a chance to win something awesome.  The information from the survey will be used in a new research paper.  More details on the survey can be found here.

Finally, below is a mini-guide to a new Clear Creek crag I developed a while back called “The Banana Stand.” I was waiting to share this information until construction on the Peaks-To-Plains bike trail was completed (since the construction traffic makes the approach much more difficult), but with the new bolting rules I think it’s best to publish it now.  Some Banana Stand action shots can be found here.

Banana Stand Topo

Banana Stand Topo.

Banana Stand Mini Guide Page 1

Banana Stand Mini Guide Page 1

Banana Stand Mini Guide Page 2

Banana Stand Mini Guide Page 2

Banana Stand Mini Guide Page 3

Banana Stand Mini Guide Page 3

New CCC Crag & Another FFA

by Mark Anderson

Whenever I spot an unknown outcrop of rock I find myself craning my neck for a better view. The more I become interested in first ascents, the more I become curious about the countless blobs of stone that litter the Front Range. Perhaps the backside of that distant cliff is hiding some mega classic line? Clear Creek Canyon is surprisingly complex, with the river twisting dramatically and the road weaving around geologic obstacles and through tunnels. Even after seven years of visiting the Canyon, it seems each time I drive through I spot another mysterious formation (or see an old formation from a new perspective).There’s a plethora of rock out there, and much of it is still unexplored.

In late March, between seasons, I dedicated several days to filling in the blank spots on my CCC map. Some crags were disappointing, others were better than expected, but the sweetest find was a crag I wasn’t looking for. While hiking down US 6 to scope a leaning pinnacle on the south side of the river, I glimpsed a jutting obelisk of gneiss out of the corner of my eye. This reclusive feature was so positioned—tucked in a narrow gulley, obscured by tall pines, and camouflaged by a backdrop of gray stone—that it was only visible from my precise vantage point.

The Sharks Fin from the road.

The Sharks Fin from the road.  [To the English teachers: While this is the possessive case, and an apostrophe is normally called for, I’m following the USGS convention of omitting the possessive apostrophe for place names.  Surely it’s the least of my many word crimes.]

I shifted gears and briskly scrambled up the gulley for a closer look. The apparent geometric symmetry of the block faded as I scrambled closer. So often I have watched a promising feature deteriorate before my approaching eyes. But not this time! The stunning east face of the free-standing tooth was slightly overhanging, sparsely featured, and composed of brilliant molasses stone, infused with a web of swirling pegmatite intrusions.

The East Face.

The East Face.

This is the moment the explorer in me lives for—to find a diamond in the rough right under my nose, yet astonishingly overlooked. The crag was a true gem—great rock, east-facing (providing after work shade), with a short approach, nice staging area and a spectacular position. The cliff was short, but in retrospect it’s at least as tall as the perpetually crowded Primo Wall. I started sketching a topo of the Sharks Fin in my head, but this only led to more questions–how many climbs would there be? Is the rock as good as it looks?

Climbing the exposed southern arête of the Sharks Fin.

Climbing the exposed southern arête of the Sharks Fin.

I returned within a few days to rap the wall and inspect the features. If anything the rock was even better on rappel than it looked from the ground. That was an unusual experience for me! Soon after, I returned with my bolt kit and put in four seemingly moderate lines. I was still in my Strength Phase, and my first priority for the season was The Bunker, so it would be some time before I could return to try these climbs.

Sharks Fin Topo2Once I had finished off the Bunker I returned for what I expected to be a brief session of back-to-back onsights of the Fin’s four lines. I warmed up at home and started on what I expected to be the hardest line. This one begins with some thin face climbing on small edges, and I figured it might be as hard as 5.13a. I was totally shut down at the start. I couldn’t get off the ground! Over about 45 minutes I sussed out some of the opening moves, but there were still a few I couldn’t do.

Near the end of the opening boulder problem.

Near the end of the opening boulder problem.

It was still quite warm, so I moved on to the next line to the left—expecting it to be about mid-5.12 and well within my on sight abilities, even in the sun. Again the wall slapped me down. I spent the next 30 minutes or so sussing the opening boulder problem, which turned out to be V8 or so.   I lowered and went for the send, figuring I could onsight the rest of the climb, but after sketching through the start I was stymied by a devious sequence exiting the large left-facing corner system at 2/3’s-height. This problem I solved fairly quickly after a hang. After continuing to the anchor, I lowered, rested a few minutes, and (finally) redpointed This Ain’t Seaworld absent any additional drama.

Exiting the big left-facing corner midway up This Ain’t Seaworld.

Exiting the big left-facing corner midway up This Ain’t SeaWorld. 5.13c?

With slightly cooler temps, I went back to the first line, and was eventually able to work out the rest of the moves, but I was too worked to link them. I finished off the day with an actual on sight of what I expected to be the crag warmup. Get Your Towels Ready links a series of mini-ledges on the slabby right edge of the fin. It’s a really fun, cerebral 5.11a-ish climb on excellent rock. Unfortunately it’s a bit shorter than the rest of the lines due to the sloping hillside, but it’s still a great outing.

About to top out the Sharks Fin on the FA of This Ain’t Seaworld.

About to top out the Sharks Fin on the FA of This Ain’t SeaWorld.

I returned at the end of the week in cooler temperatures, and with a much more realistic attitude. I think approaching a climb with the expectation that it will be (relatively) easy can seriously undermine the process. We should expect routes to be challenging, and we should expect to have to try hard, persevere, and overcome difficulties, while remaining confident that we have the toughness to do so.

Interesting face climbing midway up I F’ed A Mermaid.

Interesting face climbing midway up I F’ed A Mermaid.

This time I was ready to rage. I scraped up the opening boulder—burly thin crimping which I reckon is V11 or so. The rest of the climb is brilliant and engaging, but nowhere near as hard, and I continued with relative ease to complete the FA. The line is reminiscent of White Buffalo (5.13d) at Wild Iris or The Present (5.14a) in the Utah Hills—quite hard for not very long. With the difficulties coming right off the ground, I think it’s more in line with White Buffalo’s 5.13d/V11 head-scratcher grade.

The exposed start of Nautical-Themed Pashmina Afghan.

The exposed start of Nautical-Themed Pashmina Afghan.

I finished off the day by cruising Nautical-Themed Pashmina Afghan, a mid-5.11 hand crack/arête/hand traverse. This line was the last I bolted and the one I had the least hope for. It’s kinda silly and perhaps contrived, climbing along the left edge of the fin. In many places you could mantle the edge and lay down, or walk easily down the back side and hang out for hours before retracing your steps to finish the “ascent”. Still, if you take it for a warmup and stay on the wall, it’s quite a fun and sustained jug haul. All told I’m really stoked with how the crag turned out, and proud of all the routes. I hope Clear Creekers will enjoy climbing them as much as I did.

Fun jug-hauling on the knife-edge of Nautical-Themed Pashmina Afghan.

Fun jug-hauling on the knife-edge of Nautical-Themed Pashmina Afghan.

[Editor’s note: For route name context, watch this.  Warning: NSFW!]

In the aftermath of my first free ascent of Double Stout, prolific new-router Tod Anderson (no relation) posted on Facebook a reminder about the Vixen extension project—a line he bolted circa 2002 but never climbed. Vixen is a 5.11 slab climb on the broad apron that is the left half of the Wall of the 90s. The top of this broad slab is capped by a system of tiered roofs. A pair 5.12s from that era brave the right edge of these roofs, but Tod’s unfinished line offered a much more direct path through the difficulties.

Chris Barlow stretching through the excellent Y2K, which punches out the right end of the roof system above the Vixen slab. The Vixen Extension pierces the deep roof to Chris’ left. Photo Adam Sanders.

Chris Barlow stretching through the excellent Y2K, which punches out the right end of the roof system above the Vixen slab. The Vixen extension pierces the deep roof that appears to be directly below Chris’ chalkbag. Photo Adam Sanders.

While I was already aware of the project, Tod’s comment compelled me to slide it forward in my lengthy To-Do list. He warned the line may need additional bolts, so during one of my March recon missions I rapped the wall for a closer look. Indeed there was a long runout above the lip of the big roof, from the last lead bolt to the anchor, but the climbing looked much less difficult through this section, and frankly the distance between the bolts was pretty typical of some of the bolder “sport” routes at Smith Rock. The horizontal surfaces of the roofs were dirty—composed of typical sandy Clear Creek schist—but the rest of the stone was excellent. The line would definitely go and I was excited to give it a try.

The left half of Wall of the 90’s is a broad slab capped by a tiered roof system. The Vixen Extension attacks the center of these roofs, beginning from the triangular pod just up and left from the center of the frame. Note all the water!

The left half of Wall of the 90’s is a broad slab capped by a tiered roof system. The Vixen extension attacks the center of these roofs, beginning from the triangular pod just up and left from the center of the frame and exiting through the obvious white streaks. Note all the water!

With the Sharks Fin wrapped up, the Vixen extension was my next priority, so I headed up with my friend Lamont Smith to check it out. Ungodly amounts of spring rain had turned the Vixen slab into a waterfall, but ever-stubborn I devised a circuitous approach to the roof that climbed the first half of Pretty Woman, and then traversed 40 horizontal feet along the top of the slab to avoid most of the water. Once at the roof I was able to figure out the sequences pretty quickly, but there were a surprising number of consecutive, difficult moves. The hard climbing in Clear Creek tends to be bouldery and discontinuous—pump management is rarely a significant factor. This line on the other hand had about 30 sustained moves with no chance to rest, so I wasn’t sure how it would feel on redpoint.

Mid-way through the crux, making a big reach out to the lip of the largest roof.

The Vixen extension climbs through this roof system.  Mid-way through the crux, making a big reach out to the lip of the largest roof.

From the top of the slab, the extension begins with a three-foot roof to reach a horizontal seam in the crook of the main, 10-foot ceiling. The crux is turning the lip and getting established on the sparsely featured vertical headwall. Once on the headwall, the line veers left along a diagonaling seam feature, clearing a pair of overlaps to reach a hanging slab and the anchor. The route is “on” from the moment you leave the Vixen slab until you reach a good jug an arm’s length below the anchor.

On my next burn I climbed my hands out to the lip of the big roof, but fell when I stepped my feet onto the roof and failed to control the ensuing swing. I returned several days later with Kate and Amelie to give it another go.  The extra rehearsal made a big difference and I was able to methodically work my way out the big roof system. The climbing was quite pumpy, but after the big roof it tends to ease as you progress, keeping the pump manageable to the anchor.

The Vixen extension climbs through the big roof system.  Sustained, delicate headwall climbing just above the crux lip pull.

Sustained, delicate headwall climbing just above the crux lip pull.  The line continues heading up and left to an anchor at the top-center of the frame.

I was really excited to complete the first free ascent of this longstanding project (which I’m dubbing Harlot to go with the Vixen theme). However, I felt slightly unsatisfied by the finish. The roof system includes a third, slanted ceiling that Harlot avoids with a left-wards traverse. I have no problem with the way the line was conceived. Traditionally speaking, a free climb should follow the path of least resistance through an otherwise impregnable wall. Harlot does exactly that.

Still, to a certain extent sport climbing is about going out of our way to find challenges, and while Harlot follows the obvious line of weakness, the potential remained to create a directissima—the line a falling drop of water would follow—by heading straight up at the end to confront the final roof. This eight-foot, slanted eave appeared to have a large jug right at the lip, and it seemed likely there were enough features in the roof itself to reach it. While staring at photos on a rest day I became sufficiently convinced the directissima would go, so I gathered my bolt kit and headed up to add three bolts and an anchor.

After sending Harlot, I got to work on the direct finish. Above the crux middle roof, a tenuous, right-ward traverse leads to a pair of slanted jugs and a strenuous rest just below the final obstacle. There’s a flat 1.5-pad edge in the middle of the last roof, allowing a demanding set up for a wild, spectacular dyno to a perfectly sculpted water pocket jug right at the lip.

Moving out to the flat edge on the direct finish.

Moving out to the flat edge on the direct finish.

By now I had the first two roofs well-dialed, so on my next redpoint attempt I climbed to the lip of the middle roof with relative ease. The rightward traverse was slightly desperate with a solid pump, so I shook out for quite a while at the rest stance just below the finish. Feeling good, I worked my left hand out to the flat edge, pulled my feet up, leaned out as far as I dared to spy my target, and launched for the finishing jug. From this point, 250-feet above the river and 20-something horizontal feet out from the slab, I threw my foot up and pulled onto the big ledge just below the top of Clear Creek’s finest cliff.

Pulling over the final roof on the FA of Hellcat.

Pulling over the final roof on the FA of Hellcat.

I’m really proud of Hellcat. It’s a spectacular line packed with a lot of great, hard moves. I think its up there with Double Stout as one of the best hard lines in Clear Creek. The rock in the first roof is a bit chossy, and the approach pitch is not nearly as good as Double Stout’s, but the business is far less cruxy, making for a line that is overall much more continuous and pumpy. Hellcat is noticeably harder than Harlot, though it’s hard to say how much so after climbing them back-to-back. Though I don’t think the direct finish adds a full letter-grade of difficulty, I’m calling them .14a and .13d respectively, figuring the latter is a bit hard for the grade and the former a bit easy. Time will tell.

Topo of the twin lines.

Topo of the twin lines.

 

More New Routes and the Paradox of the First Ascent

After I finished Born on the 4th of July there were two more unclimbed lines remaining at The Bunker. The first, dubbed “Charlie Don’t Surf” by Rock Climbing Clear Creek Canyon author Kevin Capps, was one of the five lines bolted by the crag’s original clandestine developer. It was presumed to be un-sent. The other was a line I bolted at the end of last summer, the last obvious line at the crag—a directissima climbing straight up the center of the cave between Valkyrie and Full Metal Jacket.

Charlie Don’t Surf

Charlie Don’t Surf

With Born finished, my next priority was Charlie. I attempted Charlie many times over several days in June 2014. It was the route that first lured me up to The Bunker, rumored to be 5.14, and with the best rock of the legacy lines. The route is fairly short, beginning with big jugs on gradually steepening rock. There’s a steep bulge at mid-height, where a finger-tip seam emerges, running vertically, eventually flaring into a big right-facing corner. The left face of the corner is composed of brilliant quartzite, laced with incut dinner plate jugs (this is where Apoca-Lips Now! joins Charlie).

Charlie Don’t Surf is the on the left, the new addition is on the right.

Charlie Don’t Surf is the on the left, the new addition is on the right.

The climbing is probably in the 5.11 or low 5.12-range, except for the steep bulge in the middle. The rock is starkly unfeatured over this steep, 6-foot section. The obvious feature is the seam, which is flaring and slick, with rounded edges. It offers few useful fingerlocks, all of which are incredibly painful due to a sharp-edged layer of patina coating the crack walls precisely at cuticle depth. There are a few face features, but they are well-spaced.

Attempting Charlie in June 2014.

Attempting Charlie in June 2014.

I was never even close to doing the route last summer, but I felt there were just enough features that the route should go. I was no longer in top shape by that point, and conditions were on the warm side, so I decided to leave the route for a later time, when I was fit and the rock was cool. As I suspected, when I tried the route this spring, with a fresh perspective, better fitness, and crisp conditions I was able to suss a new sequence and put it together over the course of three days.  Situations like this always leave me scratching my head over the grade. I typically grade things based on the time it takes me to send, which I believe is the typical method. However, if some portion of that time is spent on a dead end, how should those days be counted?

Finishing up the brilliant quartzite panel on the first free ascent.

Finishing up the brilliant quartzite panel on the first free ascent.

The current trend seems to favor only considering the physical difficulty in the grade, ignoring any technical skill or creativity required to solve the movement puzzle (especially now that beta for everything under the sun is easily found on Youtube). First Ascensionists aside, there is no way to know who has made the effort to deduce a sequence, and who has scammed it from someone else, so how can such effort be rewarded in the grade? Yet once you pare away the skill element, all that remains to consider is the bare minimum amount of strength required to execute the moves (with perfect beta, which required no effort to attain). Free climbers have been struggling with this conundrum for decades. It explains why uber-beta-dependent crags like Smith Rock seem sandbagged, and mindless jug-hauling crags (pick one) seem soft. Regardless, it strikes me as a sad state of affairs, and I can’t help but feel like we are failing to capture an essential element of climbing difficulty. I long for the simpler, pre-internet days of John Gill, John Bachar and Jerry Moffatt:

I was trying a Bachar problem at Cap Rock one day and getting nowhere. The man shows up.

‘This is hard, John, how do you do it?’

He wouldn’t tell me.

‘What? What do you mean you won’t tell me?’

He wouldn’t tell me. Bachar reckoned he had got this trait from John Gill; never tell anyone how to do a problem. Let them figure it out, because it’s part of the problem. I kept trying different methods and getting nowhere. All the time Bachar stood there in silence, watching me flail. I couldn’t believe it. A few days later I was there again with a friend of Bachar’s, Mike Lechlinski.

‘Oh yeah,’ Mike said. ‘Bachar hooked a heel around the corner there.’

I tried it. With the heel hooked, supporting some of my weight, the holds all worked, and I soon did the problem. Later that week, I went up there again. Chris was there. He had heard me talk about the problem and had fancied a go.

‘Hi Jerry. How do you do this, I can’t quite work it out?’

‘Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, Chris.’

‘What!’

I wouldn’t tell him. What an idiot. Sorry Chris. It was the only time we fell out in six and a half months.

– Jerry Moffat, Revelations p. 62-3

I happily accept that a more difficult climbing experience is part of the first ascent process, but it doesn’t solve my practical desire to select a grade that will capture the effort required, and yet stand the test of time. So with this massive, spineless caveat, I estimate the bare minimum amount of strength required to execute the moves is typical of that required by many a short, bouldery 5.14a. Don’t expect it to feel so “easy” if the periodic seepage washes away my chalk marks and you have to suss the sequence yourself 🙂

Next I moved on to the final un-finished route in the cave. When I put in the bolts I knew it would be good. The rock is great, and I expected it would yield a hard, continuous line, perhaps in the 14a-range. After a brief slab approach, the route stems up an overhanging corner to a good ledge rest. The business begins just above, with big reaches, kneebars, a few dynos and even a handjam to clear a series of steep overlaps. After this section you get another great rest below a 12-foot, curved ceiling. The ceiling is the kinda thing I used to abhor, but now quite enjoy, requiring huge, committing moves, funky footwork and a fair bit of inverted crawling. It seems that just about every move on this route is hard enough to be interesting, and yet there are no stopper moves. Despite a number of great rests along the route, the pump builds and builds throughout, culminating in an exciting finish on slopey jugs, in a stratospheric position.

Pulling through the sustained overlap section at mid-height.

Pulling through the sustained overlap section at mid-height.

On my first attempt I sussed all the sequences fairly quickly, which left me a bit disappointed. This is the grand paradox of the first ascensionist. When attempting to climb an existing route, the grade is essentially a fixed quantity. When you begin the project, you typically have an idea of how long the campaign should take, based on your past experience with routes of the same grade. If you send more quickly than you expected, you feel like a rock star, with the satisfying feeling that you must have improved recently, and are now a better climber than you realized. If the send takes more time than expected, you wallow in self-pity over your pathetic skill and fitness 🙂 Most grade-chasers (myself included) are constantly developing and re-enforcing this ego-gratifying mindset, which encourages us to pull out all the stops to send things as quickly as possible.

The first ascent situation is completely reversed. You have no (legitimate) preconception of the grade when you begin the campaign. It is totally undefined, and as discussed earlier, will be determined largely based on the amount of time required to send. The longer it takes to send, the better justification you have for proposing a high grade. So if you want the route to be hard, the longer it takes, the better.

Sticking a long dyno near the start.

Sticking a long dyno near the start.

This is a major advantage of new-routing. If your underlying desire is to constantly improve, then you should seek challenges, and revel in encountering them, but the standard route-repeating mindset is at odds with this attitude. When trying to repeat routes as quickly as possible, if you encounter a route that is more challenging than anticipated, you are often disappointed when you realize the route will take more time and effort than expected (possibly impacting other plans for the season). That mild disappointment is harmful enough, but it gets worse. Occasionally we go way out of our way to select routes we expect to be less challenging because we want to increase the odds of an ego-pleasing quick send. So while we should be seeking challenges, we sometimes make it a point to avoid them.

Beginning the final obstacle, a 12-foot concave belly-shaped roof.

Beginning the final obstacle, a 12-foot concave belly-shaped roof.

Conversely, when I’m doing a new route, with no grade attached or pre-conceived notion of how long the effort should take, I’m genuinely happy to find the route is more challenging than expected. “A hard route is good to find”, I frequently remind myself. It’s a much more constructive approach to the redpoint process, but it has the potential to inspire less than optimal effort towards completing the first ascent, assuming you want your first ascents to have relatively “hard” grades, which I certainly do (for example, one might drag their feet during the redpoint process so they can later say, “this took X days, therefore it must be at least Y grade”).

The Zen-Climber would not care what the grade ends up being. He would make an honest effort throughout the process, and let the grade take care of itself. But we all know certain grades are just plain better than others. The local 12a gets way more traffic than the 11d next door. And so it goes for 12d/13a and 13d/14a. All first ascensionists want their routes to be popular, and it’s a simple fact that the d’s don’t get the same attention as the a’s. I surely make too much of this distinction, but once you’ve put up enough 13d’s it becomes hard to ignore.

Groping for better holds near the top of the cave.

Groping for better holds near the top of Fury.

I can’t claim to be a Zen climber, but I will say that the ego-gratifying, send-as-fast-as-possible mentality has been so firmly pounded into my skull that I couldn’t “throw” a redpoint attempt if I wanted to. Once I’m on the sharp end, a different Hulk-Mark takes over and my conscious self is just along for the spectacular view. So for better or worse, I sent Fury on my second go (over two days), resulting in what could not be fairly called any harder than 13d (and may end up at ‘c’), no matter how badly I wanted it to be 5.14a.

Despite this mild (and undeniably shallow) disappointment over the grade, I was completely stoked on Fury’s quality. It’s a mega line, long and sustained, with heaps of interesting movement, great rock, and a peerless position. It’s a great addition to the canyon—easily one of the best 5.13+’s—and one of the best lines I’ve discovered.

Topo of The Bunker with “my“ routes highlighted in yellow.

Topo of The Bunker with “my“ routes highlighted in yellow.

 

Clear Creek’s Wildest Free Climb – Part 2

This is part 2 in a two-part series.  Part 1 can be viewed here.

“Foot stabs” like this require good core strength to keep the hips tight to the wall in order to maintain pressure on the extended foot.

“Foot stabs” like this require good core strength to maneuver the extended foot into place, and to keep the hips tight to the wall so that pressure can be maintained on the extended foot.

The most significant obstacle to climbing my looming Bunker project appeared to be a lack of specific core strength. My career for the most part has been spent standing on my feet, not swinging and stabbing them over my head, as is often required for roof climbing. I had pretty good core strength for the types or routes I usually climb, but Born on the 4th of July would require completely different core strength. I ordered a set of gymnastics rings and selected a set of exercises to help solve this problem. [extensive details on my core training regimen coming next week]

From a skill perspective, I knew it would help to practice moving in the horizontal plane. There’s something to be said for familiarity with a set of skills when you know you will be required to execute them in an intimidating situation. We call this “stress-proofing”—when I’m dangling 800 feet above the river, 40 mph gusts battering my backside as I pull out loops of slack to clip that swinging quickdraw, it would be nice to know I can trust my “bicycle*” maneuver to keep me in place. [*Pressing the top of one fore-foot against the back of a protruding piece of rock, and the bottom of the other fore-foot against the opposite or front side of the protrusion, effectively squeezing it between your two feet.]

A "bicycle" maneuver.

A “bicycle” maneuver.

After returning from Germany I was physically spent from such a high volume of climbing, and nursing a mild shoulder impingement, so I took the opportunity to practice my roof-climbing at the local gym. With a pound or 15 of croissant-fueled ballast, I worked my way through the many roof problems, practicing skills like toe-cams, heel hooks, and the aforementioned bicycle.

In mid-winter I took my new strength and skill to the streets, nabbing another Clear Creek prize along the way, the roof-centric open project Double Stout. This litmus test re-assured me that I was on the right track. As the winter snows began to ebb, I redoubled my focus. Spare moments were spent analyzing video from my recon bids, imagining potential sequences around the blank sections, and convincing myself that I would be good enough to execute them, but there was only one way to know for sure.

Practicing roof climbing on Double Stout.

Practicing roof climbing on Double Stout. Photo Mike Anderson.

In late April the Bunker was finally good to go, so I headed up with Kate to give it a shot. There were at least two moves in the first roof I couldn’t do last year, so I would know right away if I’d made any progress. The fingertip rail in the first roof was damp and seeping during my first foray, and I was unable to do a difficult crossing move on the rail. The move seemed plausible, but I kept slipping off the wet rock, so I moved on to the next trouble spot—a big dyno out to jugs on the lip of the low roof. I stuck the slap on my first try, and it felt easy. So far so good.

The tenuous cross move in the first roof.

The tenuous cross move in the first roof.

With one down and several more stumper moves to go, I proceeded quickly to the final visor. I was pretty much entirely unable to climb the visor last year. I mimed some moves with Mike taking 50-80% of my weight at the belay, so I had a sense that they could go, but I was miles from doing them at that time.

The visor crux begins with a long span to a jug rail a few feet out from the crook of the roof. From this rail you can reach out into a crack system that cuts diagonally through the nearest half of the roof. This crack pinches down in one place to create a pretty nice—albeit wickedly sharp—two-finger pocket, and flares open to offer a big pod in another spot. The pod curves as it deepens to offer a set of slopers on the “bottom” side (from the climber’s perspective). Beyond the pod, the crack veers off and pinches down to a seam. A couple feet further a big horn of rock protrudes downward (and slightly west), offering a nice pinch grip. As you near the lip a detached flake emerges from the roof, at first providing a 1.5-pad incut edge, and then flaring into full-finger jugs just before the lip. The lip is adorned with a gnarly blob of knob-covered stone that provides a pair of killer jugs and plentiful footholds.

An awkward stance in the crook of the visor.

An awkward stance in the crook of the visor.

Months of film study had convinced me I knew the sequence, so I set out to execute it. Full stop! My plan to grab the pod sloper, toe-cam in the jug rail and then drive-by to the horn was a disaster. I could barely match in the pod, and even then I had no hope of releasing my toe-cam with any sort of control. The next 30 minutes were spent doing what I do best—putzing around on the rope, groping for possibilities. I messed around with the two-finger pocket, various matches in the pod, and other holds further afield.

A big reach out to "the pod".

A big reach out to “the pod”.  (The knotted orange rope is there to help me pull back on to the rock in the event of a fall.  Since I’m unable to clip again until I reach the lip of the roof, a fall in the latter half of the visor would leave me dangling far below the roof, making it difficult to pull back onto the rock and try again.)

Eventually a new concept emerged: matching hands in the pod, walking my feet around in front of me, and then swinging out to reach the horn. Not easy, but I was able to do all the moves individually. The next bit was at least as hard—linking from the pod/horn to the jug flake. I continued with the same strategy, leading with my feet, and discovered with good core tension I could stab my feet out to the knob garden at the lip. From this position it was barely possible to “unwind” from the pod and slap my left hand to the initial edge in the detached flake. No longer extended, I could get my hips closer to my feet and pull through with my right hand into the good flake jugs. From there it was a formality to swing out to the lip.

Stabbing my foot out to the "Knob Garden" at the lip.

Stabbing my foot out to the “Knob Garden” at the lip.  Note the sage-colored washcloth in the lower left, used to dry a damp hold at the start.

By this point it was raining so I didn’t try the mantel onto the wet moss-covered slab. I looked over the lip, spied a few good jugs and declared it NTB—Not too Bad. I was elated with my progress but still slightly concerned about that first hard move in the opening roof.

The next time out the finger tip rail in the first roof was still damp. Realizing this was the key to the entire route, I put in some more effort on this section, and I was eventually able to do the move in parts, but each time I tried to link the entire boulder problem my fingers would fling off in one spot or another due to moisture. Eventually I was convinced the sequence would go in dry conditions, so I moved on to practice the visor sequence and suss that NTB mantel I mentioned earlier.

As my clever foreshadowing suggests, the mantel wasn’t as easy as it looked. There are two big jugs to work with, one right at the lip, and another about an arm’s-length deep on the slab. The slab itself is about 45-degrees steep, covered in “rock lettuce” (tiny bushes of lettuce-shaped lichen)and offers few appealing footholds. From the jugs, you can throw a left foot over the lip, but due to the angling nature of the visor, that foot is well above head level. Pressing out the mantel begins easily, but then you need to move your low hand up to make room for your hips and the dangling right foot. But there are no more holds, only a plethora of moss-covered bumps, and one finger-tip-wide horizontal crack.

Throwing my left toe up onto the lip in an attempt to mantel onto the slab.

Throwing my left toe up onto the lip in an attempt to mantel onto the slab.

I could make an argument for ending the route at the jugs at the lip of the roof. Sport climbing is an entirely arbitrary construct, and many routes end in the middle of a blank wall, where the holds run out, where the rope ends, or where the climbing stops being enjoyable. It’s the route developer’s decision, there’s no peer review or sanctioning body to appease. However, I really wanted to top this thing out. Since the moment I first considered it might be possible to climb, I wanted it to go to the top. The entire appeal of the line to me was the improbability of it. A magical accident of fate that provides just enough holds to transform something that logic and statistics would deem totally implausible into something that is just barely possible.   Think of the odds! That the roof could exist in the first place, defying gravity for millennia; that I would find it, untouched and waiting to be climbed; that the rock was solid enough to support my weight, let alone its own. And finally the odds that there are just the right combination of completely natural features, the right size and shape, to permit an unbroken chain of free moves! Stopping at an arbitrary point would destroy this miracle of intertwined geology and organics. It would negate the entire endeavor….

A few more burns over the next week allowed me to dial in the sequences and become comfortable with the runouts. I still hadn’t “sent” the opening roof, but I hadn’t tried it while dry either. The weather was steadily improving, and I figured with a bit of luck, I only needed to scratch and claw my way through that roof once.

Finally we arrived on the dry, cool Sunday morning of May 3rd. The very first left hand crimp was wet, not a great omen, but I had fixed a wash cloth to dry it mid-move. I reached out to the finger tip rail—it seemed dry. I went through my sequence, working out to the lip and slapping for the flat mini-ledge at the lip. My left foot popped off as I hit the jug, but I was able to control my swing and reel myself back on. The next section was totally trivial by now, and I quickly climbed to a great rest below the visor.

Clearing the first roof.

Clearing the first roof.

I hadn’t done any Power Endurance training this season—other than working this route—but I figured if I took my time at this rest, and sprinted through the cruxes, I might have enough fitness to make it through. After a long, steady recovery, I was ready. I monkeyed out the relatively brief middle roof, clipped out to the second bolt in the visor, chalked up one last time, and punched out towards daylight. Everything unfurled as I had envisioned. I committed to the slaps, hit every hold just right, and kept my core tight throughout. Before I knew it I matched on the jug flake and reached up to a big knob over the lip. Tactically I was unsure whether to sprint or rest, so I compromised. After a few quick shakes, a dab into the chalk bag, and a moment of visualization, I went for the mantel.

Shaking out at the lip, contemplating the mantel.

Shaking out at the lip, contemplating the mantel.

I threw my left foot up onto a sloping edge, craned my head over the lip, and stabbed my left hand into a fingerlock in the crack. I had considered this beta when I first attempted the mantel, but feared a foot slip would result in me hurtling toward the end of the rope, two or three fingers lighter than when I had started. I like my fingers where they are, but I ultimately exhausted any other possibilities and committed to the fingerlock sequence. With a very carefully placed left toe, and fingers wedged firmly, I was able to squirm upwards just enough to scum my kneecap over the lip. Precariously poised, I moved my right hand into a press and stepped up onto the floating slab.

Success! Stepping up onto the slab.

Pressing up onto the slab…Success!

Born on the 4th of July is not the hardest first ascent I’ve done, but it’s my proudest.  I don’t ever want to leave something unfinished, and so I’m generally fairly conservative when deciding whether or not to equip a potential line.  Considering my relative lack of skill with this type of climbing,  it took a real leap of faith to rappel over the edge and fire up my drill.  It felt like a tremendous gamble, and I’m proud of myself for having the nerve to commit to learning a new style, building new strength and putting in the days on the rock to unlock the sequence.  Making the gamble pay off was extremely rewarding, and I’m sure it will give me the confidence to take more chances on new lines in the future.

Clear Creek’s Wildest Free Climb – Part 1

Above all else, Front Range climbing is known for its variety. These mountains and foothills offer a little bit of everything, and climbers of all tastes can generally find something that suits them. However, one style has always been a bit lacking—long, steeply overhanging, enduro jug-hauling. With few exceptions, desperate Front Rangers have had no choice but to endure the weekly Friday evening gridlock pilgrimage to Rifle to get their pumpfest fix. Not anymore.

The new kid on the Front Range block, The Bunker, was first discovered over a decade ago, by some unknown benefactor, who ultimately scoped, cleaned and equipped a handful of the most obvious lines. According to legend, these routes were never redpointed, the developer moved on to non-climbing interests, and the crag sat abandoned, waiting to be rediscovered. Word about this crag has been passed between locals for years, but for whatever reason, it has garnered little serious interest.

The Bunker

The Bunker

This changed in the summer of 2014. I first heard about The Bunker at a Trango Team party at my friend Adam Sanders’ house in the Spring of 2014. Fixed Pin was working on a new Clear Creek guidebook, and during their research Jason Haas and Kevin Capps had heard about the crag and its unfinished lines. They were keen to see the lines sent so their new edition could be as complete as possible. I was keen to score a First Ascent or two without doing the hard work of discovering and equipping the line!

By June I had sent my primary goal routes for the season, so I headed up to The Bunker with Kevin to see if I could polish off any of the open projects. I was blown away by the crag from the moment I first arrived. It’s as if a chunk of the Gunks broke free, hurtled across the continent, crash-landed on the north facing slope—tilted to a 45-degree overhang—and was mercifully rap-bolted before the myopic trad-lodytes could stake their “No Progress Allowed” signs. However, it was apparent The Bunker had more to offer than just a good workout. No Clear Creek crag can match its breath-taking position. The crag is perched crown-like, literally at the top of the canyon, surveying its mighty kingdom of rushing waters, towering pines, and piercing stones. I’ve long treasured solitude and beauty in my climbing experience, in addition to difficulty, and this was a crag that offered plenty of all three.

The view from The Bunker.  The massive central cliff is Creek Side.

The view from The Bunker. The massive central cliff is Creek Side.

Our primary objective was an open project dubbed by Kevin “Charlie Don’t Surf”, that climbs out a huge, steep dihedral of unbelievable Gunks-quality rock. A few people had tried the line, but all were stopped cold by a brutal crux at mid-height. My experience was no better, but while dangling around at the crux, both Kevin and I looked left and spied an unbelievable series of jugs traversing out the lip of the big, listing roof that eventually intersects Charlie’s hanging dihedral.

Charlie Don’t Surf climbs the black-streaked dihedral in the center of the frame.  Note the large tilted roof that joins Charlie from the left.  This would become Apoca Lips Now!

Charlie Don’t Surf climbs the black-streaked dihedral in the center of the frame. Note the large tilted roof that joins Charlie from the left. This would become Apoca Lips Now!

I returned a few days later with my drill to equip the traverse, and sent it a week after that, to create Apoca-Lips Now!   It was an instant classic, seeing several repeats within the next two weeks, and rave reviews as one of the best 5.13s in Clear Creek. Moments like these are critical to my route development process, because they remind me that not everything that is worth doing has already been done. I tend to assume that with countless talented climbers in Colorado, many of them scouring the hillsides for the next classic, every great route was bolted decades ago (usually by Mark Rolofson, Bob D’Antonio or Alan Nelson and co.). It’s good to be reminded every now and then that a few gems are still waiting to be uncovered.

Keith North crushing Apoca-Lips Now! (Apologies for the fixed rope)

Keith North crushing Apoca-Lips Now! (Apologies for the fixed rope)

Thus energized, I became completely focused on realizing the Bunker’s full potential. I moved on from Charlie after a few fruitless efforts, to another open project dubbed Full Metal Jacket. This line was more continuous, with a wild roof pull at the beginning, followed by glorious jug-hauling to reach the lip of the cave. Once again I was impressed by the quality of the line. It was hard to believe this sat, fully equipped, for a decade without attracting any serious interest. Now I was totally convinced The Bunker was fertile ground for new climbs, not just those already bolted and abandoned.

The stellar jug finish of Full Metal Jacket.  Photo Keith North.

The stellar jug finish of Full Metal Jacket. Photo Keith North.

I quickly bolted the next most obvious feature, an intermittent dihedral system near the previously untouched center of the cave, between Charlie and Full Metal Jacket. I spent the next week working Valkyrie, eventually sending on July 2nd.  It’s the longest and most continuous of the hard lines, and second only to Apoca-Lips Now! in terms of quality of movement.

Video still of me on the FA of Valkyrie.

Video still of me on the FA of Valkyrie.

The 4th was a holiday, and Kate offered to take the kids to the local parade, so I was left to my own devices. The right side of The Bunker is capped by a ridiculous roof. It’s a thin wedge of stone, balanced precariously over nothing, tapering to a knife point as it pierces the Colorado sky. It’s impossible to tell what is holding these megatons of stone in place. Would it hold my bodyweight? Would it hold the weight of a single quickdraw? More to the point—could it be climbed?

A closer look at the roof system on the right side of the Bunker. The fixed gear is on Full Metal Jacket and 14:59.

A closer look at the roof system on the right side of the Bunker. The fixed gear is on Full Metal Jacket and 14:59.

To call this line “improbable” would be a massive understatement. It’s simply unfathomable. Initially, I avoided even looking in the direction of this terrifying feature, but eventually furtive glances lead to binocular-assisted reconnaissance. With nothing better to do on that fateful day, I got up the nerve to investigate more closely. I set up a rappel line, said a few Hail Mary’s, swallowed hard, and gingerly worked my way out to the lip, bouncing and pounding the rock as I went in a futile attempt to gauge its strength. Now maximizing my leverage on this frail object, I rappelled slowly over the lip, praying the heap of stone below my feet would not collapse. I was finally able to see under the roof, and to my amazement, the absurd feature had holds, quite a few in fact, maybe even enough to produce a free climb. The rock was generally excellent—a bit dirty, but solid. Over the next 6 hours, my mind bouncing between fatigue and terror, I cleaned the stone, placed the bolts, and the line was born.

July 4, 2014, taking a short break after installing the bolts (my trusty Hilti is hanging from a bolt on the lower left).

July 4, 2014, taking a mental break after installing the bolts (my trusty Hilti is hanging from a bolt on the lower left).

By this point I had climbed my way pretty far out of shape. I was precisely 8 weeks out from my last Strength workout, and I was a good 10 pounds overweight, the happy consequence of “too many” post-send celebrations. My mind was still psyched, but my body needed a fresh start.   That week I did a few dogging burns on the new route in order to get an idea of what I might need to train for over the coming months. I’m not a roof climber. Far from it. My forte is vertical walls with miniscule holds. The further a line gets from that, the more I struggle. This line couldn’t be any further from my ideal.

In my estimation, the line climbs, on average, up about 20 vertical feet, and out about 30-feet. I say “on average”, because the roofs are steeper than horizontal, and you actually lose about five feet of altitude climbing out them. I can’t think of any other free climb in the state that even compares in terms of average steepness or total feet of horizontal climbing, except for a few lines in Rifle’s Skull Cave, some of which are chipped.

Born on the 4th of July, fully equipped and ready for action.

Born on the 4th of July, fully equipped and ready for action.

The business is all “horizontal”, utilizing nearly every trick in the roof-climber’s handbook. The climb begins with a short vertical pillar to reach a ten-foot roof. A fingertip rail slashes half-way across this ceiling, leading to a burly slap to reach a pair of jugs at the lip of this first roof. From here, a few campus moves traverse right along slopers, and then up to an easy stance below the second roof. This seven-foot obstacle is overcome with balance more so than brawn, and leads to a strenuous stance from which you can clip out the last roof, and chalk up one last time. Finally the stunning, core-burning, 13-foot brim climbs noticeably downwards to reach a remarkable set of perfect jugs at the lip of the gob smacking visor. The capping slab is covered in lichen and sparsely featured.

My July 2014 recon attempts confirmed my suspicions: I wasn’t good enough to climb this thing. Yet. There were two or three moves in the first roof I couldn’t do, and too many to count in the final roof. I could conceive of doing these moves—I could imagine how they would go and what manner of strength would be required to execute them—but I lacked those attributes. Fortunately I had plenty of time to get better. My fall season would revolve around our trip to Germany, and The Bunker would be inaccessible during the winter and early spring. I put together a plan to improve my core strength and improve my roof-climbing skills, knowing this bugaboo would be waiting for me come summer 2015.

To Be Continued….

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