It’s well past dark at the Wall of 90s in Clear Creek Canyon, a granite outcropping west of Tunnel 2 on US 6 heading west from Golden, Colorado. I’m here with Alex Stypula and Peter Holben, both in their mid-twenties, doing laps on the steep hand and finger creek crack .30-06 (110 feet, 5.12a; pronounced thirty-aught-six).
We’ve been exchanging turns on the route for the past few hours, taking advantage of the cool evening air, which helps our hands and feet stick to the rock. As we hiked in the sun was setting and it was raining, but the clouds parted as we headed up the first pitch.
As one of us climbs, the other is sprawled out on a sleeping mat placed over a jumble of sharp rocks, on belay duty, observing the climber above. The third member sits back against the flat, smooth wall at the base of the route overlooking the creek and highway below.
Every so often a car exiting Tunnel 3 to our west releases a roar of wind.
Bird parts – wings, feathers and the stench of bird excrement surround our perch. The air smells of rot. Sick of sitting next to a half decayed bird, I pick it up by its wing and toss it off the side of the cliff.
Peter lowers to the ground and now it’s my turn to do another lap. Unlike face climbing, which is circuitous and crimpy, crack climbing provides a steady line to repeatedly jam with cadence. Once I’ve climbed a crack a few times the beat becomes familiar. This is why I often revisit the same crack route many times.
My back feels tight, forearms pumped, and feet feel sore after smashing them time and again in the route that grows increasingly steeper until it’s about 110 degrees. The steepness of the rock means I drive more force onto the jams, which takes a toll on the body.
Fifty feet up the route I’m grabbing the right side of the crack like a rail. Though my hands fit the three-inch crack tightly and securely, I avoid sticking my mitts inside because there’s a rotting bird there, upside down, its dried up eyes and beak pointing out.
I’m feeling powered down, and laying back on the flake is more physical than taking it straight on. Instinctively, my left hand – wrapped in climbing tape – slides in the crack and nudges up against the bird. I feel a crunch. I set my other, taped hand above, pull the first hand out and look to see what caused the sound.
I point my headlamp in the crack to a beak bent to one side, and the bird’s dry face squished ever so slightly. The picture leaves an instant impression on my brain and I hurriedly climb past the scene of the crime.
A few feet higher up the route I’m in a bird’s toilet. White and pink feces smear the path. I’m coughing from the rising fumes. A few moves later, I’m back to clean jams followed by a break on small ledge.
The roof, and crux of the route, comes next. Even during sunny hours, the sequence is hard to read and holds are hard to find. The problem with night climbing is that even though I know the sequence, it’s the subtleties that I can’t see. If a foot chip is too small then it goes unnoticed and a bigger, more powerful move is executed.
Soon I’m in a horizontal position on the forty-five degree wall, scuffing my shoulders into a corner in an attempt to get weight off my arms while my feet slide around for something on a distance ledge to grip onto. Directly in line with my waist are tiny rails to stand on but I can’t see them until it’s too late. Struggling, panting, and a few sloppy jams later I advance to terrain that is less steep and regain composure. From here more tight hand jams lead directly overhead. Nearing the anchor I stretch my body out, then slide my left hand over a block wedged in the crack. Familiarly, I curl my pinky and ring finger securely behind the block and pull up to reach the anchors.
The rope gently spins as I’m lowered to the ground. I’m in free-hanging space, ten or so feet from the wall, and with each spin I see the highway, flowing river, and the crack getting progressively further away. Then the scene is repeated.
After three times I’ve had enough. Alex heads up for a final lap, cleans the gear and is lowered back to the ground. We pack up and hike back to the car, sharing stand out moments with laughter as we negotiate our way around tall blocks scattered on the trail.