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Colorado Climbing Road Trip


by Kelly Bates

December 29, 2001

It all started on rec.climbing. A guy named Brent asked 'if there was any climbing around Breckenridge.' I'd just happened to be working on an online guide project for the area and was excited to get up there to do some of the routes I'd been researching. Then, as happenstance, my old partner Scott (who'd bailed on CO for surfing in Cali late last year), got an assignment to teach a prosthetics class in Denver, during the same week Brent (a long-term, possibly lifer, grad student at GA Tech) said he'd be around. Everything was coming together. With 200 hours of time saved up at work (and a cool engineering job where I get my stuff done and play on my own schedule), anything was possible.

I picked up Scotty at the CoS airport Friday night at 2130 and we drove straight to Breck, where Brent had gotten a shuttle from DIA. Blessed with a big H hovering over the state, we slept at the ski house and got up the next morning ready for adventure. Our first trip was to the local Montezuma crags at Zuma Rocks - a half-dozen single pitch, mostly TR climbs on a south-facing crag with plenty of trees for shade. Zuma had some nice slab stuff on the east end that I thought would be pretty scary on lead, and some really difficult fingertips layback cracks on the west end. We never did figure out the start to the highly-recommended Perpetual Motion (10d), but above the start crux it was almost dynamic (fingertips!) to the top trad anchor.

After a grilled lunch of burgers and dogs back at the house, we headed over to see the action on the beach at A Basin and climb some unbelievable mellow and fun routes on Basin Rock. Basin Rock sits right across from Pallavicinni at the Basin, which still looked almost skiable (if one was willing to risk base- and edge-damage for rock-strewn moguls). The party on the beach was over for the season, regrettably - no one to bum beers and burgers from this trip! We climbed some corner routes at 5.7 that were some of the best mellow corners I've ever had the pleasure of, and generally looked at the rest of the routes. I really need to go put some anchors on top of Tree Top - several of the climbs on the far western end of the rock looked fabulous, but there was nothing, absolutely zero, to protect up top or to set up TRs on without 75 feet of slings from more solid trees behind the crag. Dinner at the new mexican joint in Silverthorne (finally, some decent mexican in the county!) and much drinking and bs-ing about what we'd climbed, quantum statistical mechanics, and CCD research (the simple application of Einstein's photoelectric effect, right Brent?), and we were done for the day.

The next morning I wanted to check out the only big 'wall' in the area, Mount Royal's west face, at the mouth of Ten Mile Canyon in Frisco. It looked like a huge chimney with lots of atrocious offwidth, or a huge nasty airy face, with tons of choss - and that's what it turned out to be. We initially decided to attempt the Central Chimney route, which reportedly went at 5.7 R, grade III. The approach slog from the bike trail parking lot was 1000' of lower 5th-class moss and duff lightly bonded to lichen-covered rock, and little scrub bushes that threatened to pull if you even wanted to use them for balance. An hour of nastiness later, we were at the base of the route.

Brent took the first runout lead up easy 5.4 lichen slabs to a bush, where he set up a quick anchor. No one really pulled or kicked rocks off all day, but the rope started the game early and didn't let up all day. We were continually pelted with small (pea-sized) to medium (baseball-sized) rocks knocked off ledges by rope drag. I recommend body armor for the first two pitches of this climb! Scotty and I followed up, and as it looked like a chim-chim-chiminey above I took the next lead. (Scotty excels at slab, which I can't stand, and I'm working to become an o/w master.) After a half rope length on slab I found a manky old ¼" pin (all of probably 1" long) and clipped to the dubious pro, then stepped into the pleasant but tight and loose chimney. I went to the top of the first 40' and jammed in a #3 camalot, then decided I didn't want to be in the rock-gully above. Too much risk of killing my belayers with inadvertent pulling off of blocks. Scotty had already been hit by a softball size rock that literally stopped right on his foot. I stepped right with 40 feet of rope left and found some decent pro on a 1' wide semi-hanging ledge.

Brent had the next lead - it looked interesting, with big roofs and overhangs directly above us. Brent went up 30', put in some pro, found a newer stainless piton and clipped it (don't fall on it - it might bring the roof down!). He looked up. He looked left. He looked around an airy traverse right. He repeated the procedure. He called down, 'Kelly, you want this?' We all went up to take a look around.

It was pretty intimidating. The roofs and unprotectable slabs above us didn't look to good for a lead, and the blocks all looked like the cracks behind them might split them off onto us if we pulled to hard on them. After several minutes of indecision, I got ballsy and traversed out right where my RPs might be of some use. Big air below, no idea what was above, and the only way to go was up. Here goes. Fifteen dicey minutes later, I looked out over the roof above Scott and Brent and told them it was thin. They seemed surprised that I was only 15' above them. I traversed and climbed right around an arête, hoping that my line would go. Oh, don't touch the rock by the blue TCU. Oh, don't touch that one either. Okay, I see a ledge 30' right. Hmm. Hand traverse, hope the feet don't knock the ledge clean off. Ah, finally. I came to a 4' wide ledge with what looked like some protectable cracks and radioed that I was setting an anchor (I was at half-rope). Nothing fit. There was a semi-fixed #4 stopper in the only crack that felt reasonable, and I backed it with another. A larger o/w pro was split by a loose flake - I put a cam in on either side and hoped the opposition would hold anything bad. My feet would be the best pro for this anchor. I settled in for a few hours.

When they came across, carefully disregarding my instructions on not touching the block by the blue TCU, I learned a new word. 'Burly.' This was an interesting lead, one of my better onsights with no previous beta. I think we crossed into another just-not-quite route on the face, but it was pretty obvious no one else would think of climbing what I just had. We agreed it was around 8+ with some pretty decent arguments for an R rating. And my first two RPs had pulled from my circuitous route's drag, leaving me with a couple of questionable small cam placements. I felt relieved I hadn't peeled. Scotty christened the new route Chaucer, and we debated whether The Canterbury Tales were poems set to some tune. I think I was thinking of Camptown Races.

Brent took the next lead (we hoped the last), back over the arête and around a tree - then straight up. He called back down at rope-end that his route was kind of zig-zaggy. Scotty followed and cleaned, and when I got over the arête the line looked like it followed the rope, straight up. I got into some quite ugly the-line-ends-here-and-don't-touch that 9 terrain before I finally pulled up to the anchor, with the summit actually in sight. The line apparently was much easier 7 10 yards to the left. Scotty took the summit lead across the notch on 5.5 and we topped out with great views all around of Lake Dillon and Ten Mile Canyon. The descent was another nightmare. My only previous beta on it was 'descend on the Mt Royal trail to the saddle and go down.' This led to 1600' of avalanche chute, rock walls, rolly talus, and cliff bands to either side. I received my second compliment of the day from Scotty that I'd outdone his old partner Alan Moseman (developer of many crags in the SPlatte) in miserable bushwhacking and slogs.

We grilled steaks at the house that night and took Brent over to Breck for his conference (something on atmospheric studies) and slept well that night. Scotty had to go over powerpoint slides for his presentation the next afternoon, so I drove him to Denver and dropped him at his hotel, then drove home to CoS. I slept all afternoon. I went into work for a few hours the next day to check the messages of worried customers (what's going on, where are we, what's the status - same as it was Friday, thank you), then headed back up to go out with Scott, Heather, and Tanya Tuesday evening.

We met one of my other partners, Sheri, and her cousin Cheryl (from Boulder) in Eldorado Canyon on Wednesday morning. Having never climbed Eldo, I wanted to hit Bastille Crack immediately. There was another party of 3 just starting the second pitch as we arrived, and Cheryl persuaded us to go try some stuff on Wind Tower instead. We had great fun climbing the 4-pitches (without of course bothering to read the guide book beta) and looked around for a way down, which we eventually found. The girls had to leave at lunch, and Cheryl suggested some climbing on lower Redgarden by Whale's Tail for our afternoon. I flailed trying to get up cracks, underclings, and slabs, and eventually gave it up and downclimbed both of the 8+/9- things I'd started. Oh well. Maybe a guide book would be a good idea. We drove to Estes Park.

Immediately we went into the local climbing store and pulled out a headlamp for Scotty and guides to both Eldo and Lumpy (for me). As it was only 1800, we thought maybe we could go pull a single-pitch crack in Lumpy for Scotty. I found a nice-sounding 5.7, Campground, on The Book, and we headed to MacGregor Ranch to go climb one more pitch. I owed it to him after he belayed my flailings at Eldo earlier in the afternoon. It was a nice 30-minute hike in, and Scotty went on lead. He's not a crack-fan like I am. He didn't seem too excited at some of the stacks and offwidth on the climb, but got up (on some face stuff to bypass the offwidth up top, no less) without too many difficulties. The sun had just set by the time he topped out and put me on belay, so I climbed as quickly as possible. Which wasn't too quickly, as I had to fudge with the heavily-yarded stoppers and cams all the way up. Still, a great climb and Scotty was very excited. We hiked out in the dark, and got to the car at 2130. Estes apparently shuts down completely at 2100, and even the brewery was closed. We ate at the (yuck) Taco Bell/KFC (the only choice besides McDs) and drove into RMNP for our big plan day.

The park entrance shuts down around 2000 so we didn't pay the entrance fee prescribed for day-tourists. I drove to the highest campground on the south end and we found a vacant and secluded spot to quickly pack gear for the next morning's early rise. We slept from about 0015 to 0400 and left the campground quietly, driving to Bear Lake parking area. The idea was to rise early, hike in light to the Petit Grepon, climb it in fine fashion, and get out by dark. Turns out we took the long trail in, and we hiked an extra 3 miles and 700' on the way to Sky Pond. The trail from Loch Vale to Sky Pond was either boggy mud or deep but hardened snow, and we were soaked, tired, dehydrated, and hungry by the time we got to the talus slopes below the Petit. Nevertheless, I was on the rock around 0945 (about 3 hours later than planned) for the first easy 5.6 pitch to the First Terrace. Scott followed rapidly and swung for the second, a wide chimney with a chockstone the size of a small apartment. Scott got up to the hard move to pull onto the chock (5.7) and didn't have any pro for 20'. He sketched and finally got in a stopper before flying, then pulled over and set a belay. It was the minor sketch of the day, let me assure you. From atop the belay we heard and then spotted a large avalanche breaking off an east-facing cornice on the ridge above the Taylor Glacier, falling a couple of thousand feet before stopping (except for smaller follow-on sluffs). Very impressive thing to hear and watch.

I followed and found a bomber foot-knee lock under the chockstone to work the moves from, and pulled over. Ah, slab climbers. We're like two different breeds. I'd chosen first lead so I could have the presumably harder crack pitches and the crux 5.8 face bulge. I started back up the third pitch, put in some pro at 40', moved up. The crack turned awkwardly left with extremely thin vertical face on the left and a deep offwidth with some slight overhang on the right. I put in a #7 stopper horizontally 40 feet farther up, not wanting to increase the rope drag (which was already becoming troublesome). As I moved up a few more feet, it felt slightly more difficult. Small feet. Poor hands for a second. A large opening in front of me, and more leaning crack above. As my feet passed my piece, the drag pulled it up and out, and sent it sliding down to my only other piece, 45' below. I sketched hard. 90' might have damaged me, if the first piece held. I was out of visual at this point unfortunately - I imagine this just looked ridiculous. I jammed my entire body, head first, into the body-sized hole in front of me. A head- and backpack- jam (lots of crinkling of water bottles) all the way to my navel, with my feet sticking straight out into the air, and me desperately trying to suck in my stomach to bring a piece into reach below my body. I finally grabbed a #1 camalot and jammed it in in front of me, then wriggled the other way for 2' of slack. Yikes.

I finished out the pitch after a minute or two of rapid breathing, another 60' to the Second Terrace, fighting incredible rope drag. I can't imagine doing that pitch with any more gear in. It was now 1430. We were moving really slowly. We'd both been sketched pretty well, and were tired. The weather still looked fair, but some taller clouds were showing over Taylor Peak. Scott thought that it seemed like a pretty hard 5.7, and was glad that I'd led it. We considered continuing; I'd take pitches 5, 6, and 7, and he'd lead the next 5.5 chimney to 5.6 face and the last 5.6 face. I didn't think I had the strength to run 3 long sustained pitches like the last on lead at this point. We decided we'd had a good day so far and bailed. Three double-rope raps off terraces (50s will work for the raps, but 60s are nice to make sure you hit the ground) and we were back on the deck. At the second rap station I saw another avie come right off the top of Taylor peak from a hanging cornice, fall 1000' freefall, and hit a hanging snowfield. Even cooler than the first. We hiked back out on the shorter 5 mile trail to Glacier Gorge parking, and then back uphill ½ a mile to the car, our shoes squishing the whole way. The snow, harder in the early morning, was now post-holing slush several feet deep. We got back to the car at 1730, happy with our decision and glad we'd made the trip. We only saw one group of hikers up at Sky Pond all day, and no other climbers. That's pretty amazing for such a reportedly busy route. Many lessons learned were taken away from this, one of my more ambitious alpine climb attempts. Next time.

We ate and drank at the Brewery, happy to have full bellies again, and drove off to forest access to find somewhere off an FR to camp. We slept for 12 hours and woke hungry and still dehydrated. Friday, our final planned day of roadtripping, took us to MacGregor Slab just outside of RMNP. Scott had finagled an interview for a job back in CoS Saturday morning, so we intended to climb and drive back through Denver either before or after the Friday rush hour. We decided on a three-star route right up the center of the slab, Direct (5.7). From the car it looked maybe 3, 4 pitches long. The long slog up the hill to the base of the climb said maybe it was bigger than it looked. Scotty took odd leads, and I took even. Beautiful rock, nice dimples in the slab portions, and wonderful dihedrals for hands when they were needed. Pulling over a roof on vertical 5.6-but-felt-lots-harder 'jugs' seemed to be the hardest thing there, and we wandered about the whole center of the face. After 3 pitches (2 full, one half) the time was again getting late, and Scott needed to confirm the interview. He'd left the cell in the car. We raced the last 3 pitches, stretching to within 5 feet of the end of the rope in each pitch, barely protecting on easier slabs with occasional 5.7 moves to put in pro, snapped quick victory shots on the summit, and I sent Scott running down the eastern gully to make his call before his contact called it a week. Walkoff trail? Where? Deadfall the whole way down. Nasty descent, and that's the only negative comment this climb gets. Definitely 3 stars. We debated censorship and population control methodologies and their joint merits and evils the entire way home.

Saturday was an easy day. A nice mellow airy 5.7 arête up Montezuma's Tower in Garden of the Gods, one of our local classics that I've done easily a dozen times, even barefoot and in the dark. It was enough. I'd had a good week.

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