I could feel something crackling under my fingers. Was it the edges of the rock crumbling or lichen crunching? I honestly didn’t know.
Up to this point I’d failed on this route, sometimes taking whippers through the open air for 40 feet or more. Once again, I was looking at that same kind of fall, the kind where your stomach rises into your throat.
Then numbness overcame rationality, and it felt like a glass wall lowered over my eyes. No longer caring about falling, or the crumbly rock I grabbed or stood up on. I climbed on and up this nasty route. Such is life on the Mudwall.
The Mudwall, a.k.a. the Grizzly Creek Wall, is a broad cliff of Sawatch quartzite tucked far up Glenwood’s Grizzly Creek Canyon and mostly hidden from passersby barrelling down I-70. The wall was first explored by Colorado climbing legend Layton Kor in the 1960s—I ended up here on my own path, but inspired by Kor’s vision. Called Behind the Curtain, this line has obsessed me ever since a group of friends and I bolted it several years prior. We set a high bar—runout, loose climbing with few bolts and sometimes sketchy gear—up a sustained overhanging line. It’s nasty: Sometimes the rock resembles kitty litter. It’s a line that addresses all my climbing fears and challenges, but it’s something I have to step up to time and again. Perhaps it’s all in my head, but isn’t that what climbing’s often about anyway?
It was the former editor of Climbing magazine Jeff Achey who first shared the secret of climbing on this long-forgotten wall. Achey has reportedly “established 100s of first ascents, from desert… to sport climbs on Colorado’s Western Slope [to]…running it out on dangerous first free ascents in Eldorado Canyon like Le Void (5.11d R) and Wendego (5.12a R),” DPM Climbing says.
Intrigued, I called Layton Kor in 2010 to find out more about his experiences climbing on this odd wall that had so inspired me. “If I devoted myself to that canyon, I could have done a lot routes,” he said. Although his vision and boldness continue to be celebrated after his death in 2013, no admiring climbers had ever stopped to follow Kor’s leads here.
Well, excpet Jeff Achey and company, and a few random folks. It all started for me when, after a day of cragging in Glenwood Canyon in 2006. Back at Achey’s house, we were all a few cold ones deep and he broke out Kor’s classic 1983 book Beyond the Vertical. Jeff had his eyes set on completing Kor’s abandoned Grizzly Creek Canyon project and he was fishing for partners to go up there with him. He’d been to the wall a few times already. He had even completed one new route, and he shared tales of multi-hour leads, crumbling stone and devious route-finding. At the time, it sounded horrible.
Jeff talked about the first route established on the wall since Kor’s visits to the area in the 1960s. The nebulous, 700-foot Mudflap Girl (5.10), is tame by Mudwall standards but it’s still a big adventure. “This is probably the most user-friendly route on the wall,” Achey later wrote in the 2008 American Alpine Journal.
Afew weeks after learning about the Mudwall from Achey, Glenwood local and self professed “choss connoisseur” Mike Schneiter invited me up there. Mike’s a man who can move over loose terrain like a seasoned captain dodging his vessel through dangerous waters by feel. He’d also seen pictures of the wall in Beyond the Vertical, but Layton Kor’s book was long out print and going for up to $1,000 online. “I used to always look at friend’s copies,” he said. It was finally reprinted in 2013 and Mike snatched it up. He soon convinced me to join him out for a jaunt up a low-angle gully on backside of the Mudwall, followed by a an inspection of the face via a rappel in from the top. Approaching the wall the from this safer terrain, Mike and I could rappel in and check out the wall without the risk of pulling blocks down on us. This compromised method also allowed us the convenience of inspecting and cleaning out natural gear placements.
The Mudwall is not only blank and steep, but it’s covered in blocks teetering on the edges of ledges. It also has big, cracked curtains of flaky pillars pasted to wall ready to break off at any moment. If you hit it with your fist it gongs.
On that first day, we wore masks to keep the rock dust from filling our lungs as we trundled blocks and placed bolts for a new route. With the blocks gone and a few protection bolts in, our route was starting to look, well, decent. Maybe this was fun.
For the next few weekends, we returned to the route to scrub holds and work out the complex sequences required to climb the route free. The vast wall offered myriad options for first ascensionists willing to put in the work. To us, that meant crafting a steep continuous line with as few bolts as possible.
The Horse and Pony Show (5.11d) became our first new route on the wall. Our second and more difficult line was Behind the Curtain (5.12a/b). It became my personal obsession, until I finally found that glass wall over my eyes and climbed it two years ago.
Meanwhile, Jeff Achey continues to climb more new routes here. In 2007, he even took Kor’s abandoned project—a truly horrifying line—to the top. Simply called The Mudwall (5.11), it still haunts me: I half want to do it and half never want to see it again because the thing is ready to fall to the ground.
A friend who later repeated the route, describes the first pitch as “a 100-foot towering pillar that I could put my head behind and see all the way to the ground.” Oddly enough, that description only makes me want to go back.