Take Aim at Rifle

There really is something for everyone here at north america’s toughest limestone sport climbing crag.

I knew that Rifle has an epic repuatation as a climbing spot—and I am a thoroughly mediocre rock climber. So the thought of spending a weekend in what is known as the epicenter of the toughest limestone sport climbing in North America seemed daunting at best and wet-my-shorts-worthy at worst. After all, this canyon boasts the highest concentration of 5.13s in the world, and some of the best climbers in the business make for the Western Slope hot spot to work on new projects and try ridiculous routes.

We chose a short climb that we judged as a 5.9 for a warm up—but looks are deceiving. Holds you think you can hook your fingers on turn out to be nonexistent. The slick limestone slides out from under your feet at the most inopportune times, and pretty soon, you start second-guessing every next move.

But as the day went on, here’s what we discovered. Yes, Rifle is home to three miles of cryptic, kick-you-in-the-pants climbing, no matter your skill level. You’ll almost never make it up something your first try, and each route is a puzzle that Rifle climbers claim again and again.

However, the nature of the place is changing thanks to a healthy infusion of newer routes rated from 5.8 to 5.10 in recent years.

“That’s a huge stereotype—that you have to be a 5.12 climber to find stuff here,” says Golden-based climber Jeremy Stocks. “Especially in the last five years, people have added many 9s and 10s. Coming out here can be sort of scary, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t. If you can climb a 10 here and 10 is your limit, you can climb a 10 anywhere. It takes you outside of your comfort zone.”

By the end of the afternoon, I was tackling some of the more humble climbs in the canyon, failing plenty and, oddly enough, completely enjoying myself. In some ways, making it part-way up a route in Rifle was just as gratifying as sending a climb elsewhere.

“That’s how it goes here,” says Rifle fan Zach Friedman.

“You can’t come here expecting to win,” he says. “A lot of people come here out of the gym, or out of Boulder Canyon thinking, ‘Oh, I climb 5.11s,” but that doesn’t mean anything here. Don’t equate your fun with sending, otherwise you’re going to have none of it.”

—Melanie Wong