Normally I write a “year in places” post, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent much of this year at home, in Colorado and other states of the American West (WY, UT, CA). A look back on the year thus involves a bit less horizontal distance, and a lot more vertical!
Most of these climbs involve 5-10 miles of hiking in addition to the technical climbing. This isn’t Europe, and you can’t ride the telepherique to your objective. Here, you gotta walk.
These are the major climbs of the year.
Joshua Tree, CA
Jose wanted to go to Joshua Tree for his birthday. One year ago I taught him to climb there; this year he returned as a competent climber, with his own knowledge and goals. Funny enough — we meet a lot of the same people we saw there last winter. The “dirtbag community” is small, and traveling climbers are creatures of comfort. Joshua Tree in February is pretty comfortable. Sunny days, tolerable temps, and crisp long nights to spend laughing around a campfire, surrounded by quartz-speckled domes and endless scrambles. Animal creatures of the desert roam under a full moon. Not once in the eight days do I pitch a tent, instead sleeping on the ground, under the stars, amidst the great possibility.
Linkup: Kor-Ingalls (Castleton Tower) & The Honeymoon Chimney (The Priest)
K-I: 4 pitches, 5.9, Grade III // Honeymoon: 5.11, 4 pitches, Grade III.
We meet Anna in Joshua Tree. We are camp neighbors. We never actually climb together in J-Tree– but the morning Cumbia music and cervezas at our camp certainly start plenty of conversations. Quit her job, left her relationship, and headed to another continent to chase her climbing dream. She has climbed the Captain. Done ice in Norway. Bagged the Grand. Owns an impressive CV of the American classics — and shows no signs of letting up. You have to love people like this.
Anna and I meet up a few weeks later in Utah, to go climb desert towers. Coronavirus cuts our trip short, but we do manage to link Castleton Tower with Honeymoon Chimney in a day, an exhausting sandbag of a day. The Last Good Day we will have, before COVID changes the world.
This is a valuable one.
The Notch (Longs Peak)
AI2, M3, Grade II
Covid kills ice climbing season, too. The season proves disappointing for me; only 12 days out, mostly on small easy flows with large groups. I achieved no personal goals. The USA slouches into half-hearted ‘quarantine’, and things settle down for a bit.
Three months after climbing in Utah, my corner of the USA has settled into an unnatural, awkward rhythm — but a rhythm none the less. It seems we understand the virus a bit better. Cases drop off, and we learn it mostly spreads inside. It finally feels ok to climb again, and to loosen up a bit. Going for big routes, with the potential of problems or injury, seems more reasonable.
Our climb of the Notch reminds me why I learned to ice climb in the first place.
While thousands of tourists scale Long’s Peak via the 3rd class Keyhole Route and consider it a thrilling experience, the Notch gains the same summit via a varied, technical route involving snow climbing, a wildly exposed traverse of Broadway Ledge, almost a thousand feet of moderately-angled alpine ice in a deep gully, and rock climbing to the summit ridge.
Walking up the shoulder of a mountain like people do on Colorado 14ers is fine. But don’t call that mountain climbing. The Notch is mountain climbing.
5.6, 5 pitches, Grade II
One of the more popular beginner rock climbs in RMNP, the Sharkstooth takes an easy route up an impressive formation. I take Jose up this one. He considers it his “first alpine climb” despite the two weeks we spent climbing in the Teton Range last summer.
“First REAL alpine climb,” he says. “You and Trish and Paul dragged me up all those Teton climbs.”
You can’t put a price on being an equal participant.
Vedauwoo — the rock is sharp, and the cracks are wide. Climbing hurts, there are shotgun holes in the shitter door, and the dispersed camping is covered in broken glass. Ranchers shuttle in their cattle to graze, and good beta is strangely hard to come by. Bring your big cams.
What a spot.
The Diamond (Longs Peak)
5.10a, 8 pitches, Grade IV
When asked to reflect on my year recently, I chose “climbing the Diamond” as the best moment of the year. Not that it was that enjoyable at the time — climbing the Casual Route felt somewhat akin to being stuck in traffic. Next summer I’ll seek out some of the prouder lines.
Still, the Diamond face was one of the things that motivated me to get into trad climbing more seriously. Ticking it off, even via the easiest route, felt like good progress towards broader goals.
And “I climbed the Diamond” is a nice brag to have in your pocket.
Zowie (Loch Vale)
5.8+, 6 pitches, Grade II/III
I climbed this tower twice this summer, with two different partners. Neither time did it feel particularly serious.
This one often gets compared to the Petit Grepon. The Petit Grepon seemed a lot more engaging to me, but I did that climb in 2019. I could just be getting better!
Still, this is a fun climb which isn’t too committing. A good one to get after if you are a bit unsure of your skill level in the mountains.
Related Post: https://medium.com/core-shot/zowie-e1a17df6810b
Great Dihedral (Hallet Peak)
5.7, 4 pitches, Grade II
Another easy, moderate day in the Park. The Great Dihedral route on Hallet does indeed contain a great dihedral. Unfortunately, the rest of the pitches are fairly ho-hum. This route climbs quickly, in only four pitches. The walk to the base of Hallet is a short approach by RMNP standards, only about 2 miles. The Great Dihedral is the rare alpine climb which only merits a Grade II commitment rating. It makes a nice morning out.
Culp-Bossier (Hallet Peak)
5.8+, 8 pitches, Grade III
All routes on Hallet Peak require careful routefinding. Culp-Bossier in particular has a reputation for parties getting lost up there in the sea of granite. My partner for this route and I had ice climbed together before, but never done any rock climbing. She is careful and meticulous, following the topo with great attention and reverence. My very first lead, the third pitch, I go immediately off-route.
The nice thing about Hallet is that you can basically climb anywhere on the face, as long as you are comfortable running things out a bit. There are chickenheads everywhere — just not the type you could sling for protection. A long, questing 70-meter pitch gets us back on route. We laugh a bit, enjoy the sunshine on our big ledge, and continue up, finding each successive pitch better than the last.
This one deserves the classic status.
The Barb (Spearhead)
5.10c, 9 pitches, Grade III
The hardest route in this list, going by grades. I tackle this one with a partner from Mountain Project, the leading US climbing website. Conversation flows easily enough on the long hike up, and she agrees to ropegun me up all the hard pitches, a privilege I rarely get to experience.
My partner does unexpectedly fall on the crux piton, and it held! She weighed about 90 pounds though, so… YMMV.
This is a nice climb in an outstanding setting. I highly recommend it.
Blitzen Ridge (Ypsilon Mountain)
5.4, Grade II, 10,000 feet gain/loss
I solo this long ridge route, and it feels amazing.
With no partner to chat with, no one putting pressure on the pace (up or down), I can tackle the mountains in whatever way I want. I choose the route, I choose the breaks, I choose when to run and when to sit down and simply enjoy the view.
Although the air quality is terrible from nearby forest fires, I find this day regenerative. To be alone in the company of nature is one of this world’s most healing capabilities. Mentally, at least.
This route involves 10,000 feet (~3,000 meters) of vertical gain and loss. I ice my knees afterwards.
Alexander’s Chimney (Longs Peak)
WI4, M4, Grade III
Summer vanishes in a haze of wildfire smoke. Colorado experiences the TWO largest wildfires in state history, and going outside somehow seems unappealing when the sky is dark orange at mid-day. By present day, these devastating wildfires seem Paleolithic in memory, so many are the crises in USA at the moment.
But anyways. Back to October.
Due to the utter lack of rain throughout summer and fall, the route is a bit dry (the first and last ice pitches are missing entirely), but we climb it in good style and without incident. A classic tick; with shiny clear weather, it feels almost too easy.
Although, I have to admit: I was sore for a full week afterwards.
Indian Creek, UT
Indian Creek is a feeling more than any specific story. A vibe; an attitude. A carefree desert haze.
“What did you guys do today?”
“Oh us? We uh… climbed some rocks.”
“Whatcha gonna do tomorrow?”
“Probably climb some cracks.”
“No shit?! Us too!”
There is no cell service in this corner of the world. To me, those spaces are feeling more and more sacred.
Joe Biden has signed an executive order re-examining the National Monument status of this area, which had been under attack from the Trump administration and local Utah mining interests. This is good.
But a round-trip drive from Boulder to Indian Creek and back measures 900 miles, and I alone made the trip three times this fall. Four times in the year, if you count our tower-climbing trip in March. I am far from the only “environmentalist” climber making that drive.
We Americans love our freedoms. In all parts of modern American life, that “freedom” is pushing up against the edges of “sacred” and “sustainable.” And nowhere is that conflict more obvious, to an observant tourist, than Indian Creek.
West Gully (Black Lake)
WI 3-4, 3 pitches
I first met Ted two years ago, after a trip abroad. My life had been changed completely in the previous months, and returning home to find the same people, still going ice climbing on the weekends as if nothing had changed was jarring. It was here, in a car headed up the interstate highway to the mountains, that I met Ted. He was our leader that day, putting up the rope so I could follow, unsure, with my mind in Italy.
This winter, the situations were reversed. Ted’s bike tour around the world had run smack into a wall at the edge of the EU. Covid-19 closed the borders, and after a few months of optimistic lingering in a serviced apartment near the Turkish border, Ted came home. He told me tales of biking through rural Italy (his favorite country of the trip) while I led all the pitches, focused on swing of my axes, the sensation of the climbing, the sheer impossibility of hanging on in such a precarious position with such small points of metal.
I’ve heard a lot of people say this year featured a “lost summer”, or even that 2020 was a “lost year.” It was different, for sure — but we kept busy out here in Colorado. I can look back on this year with pride, at least in this aspect.
Some of my foreign readers may find the fact that I was able to get out and do these things despite the pandemic odd. The simple fact is, here in the USA our lockdowns have been loose. This has allowed the virus to spread, yes. But it has also allowed all of us at the middle of this horrible cyclone of sickness to continue taking care of our mental health.
These climbs kept me busy, gave me something to focus on, and kept me 70 meters away from other humans! (The length of a climbing rope). And yes, maybe I would have traded these climbs to save 150,000 of my countrymen — but that was not an option.
I hear of tough lockdowns from friends in the UK or Australia, people allowed out of their houses for only an hour a day, and I increasingly feel sorry for them. They see the US death count in the news, I am sure, and feel the same for me.
Hopefully, 2021 will be better for us all.