I realized my headlamp batteries were almost dead as the last of the remaining sunlight disappeared over the Indian Peaks and I tried to wedge a stopper in a seam on the North Arete of the First Flatiron, a few hundred feet above the lights of Boulder.
It’s only 5.4, a grade lots of people free solo and kids warm up on at climbing gym birthday parties, and it’s barely at the bottom end of the scale of climbing difficulty nowadays—closer to hiking than technical rock climbing. Still, if you slipped for some reason, you’d roll and scrape about 600 feet down the east face of the First into the trees below, and probably wouldn’t have a lot of intact bones at the bottom. So I plugged in a nut here, a cam there, and clipped in the ropes leading back to my two partners as I scrambled across the skyline ridge with a soft, shrinking yellow bubble of light in front of me. I shut off my headlamp at the belays to try to save some battery. It must have turned on in my pack when I threw it in the car that morning, and been on all day, slowly dying.
I hauled in rope as fast as I could, trying desperately to keep up with two people who had no trouble climbing the easy moves. I was sweating. I could see the lights of a police cruiser far away, maybe on Broadway, and the slow lava flow of headlights and taillights moving along US 36 in the distance.
This is just about my favorite damn thing to do, I thought to myself as I panted, pulling big lengths of green rope through one side of my ATC, then blue rope, then green again. I’ve climbed the North Arete four times, three of those in the dark. The first time was when my friend Alan arrived at DIA from Chicago, and we drove straight to the Chautauqua Park trailhead and headed straight up to this route. We never saw another climber, let alone another person, save a couple headlamps on some trail over by the Third, far below, as we made our way across the ridge, about 700 feet of climbing in all. A single rappel off the summit dropped us at the back, then a quick hike down the trail to the parking lot by headlamp, and a mediocre 3 a.m. breakfast at the Denver Diner. Everybody else in the restaurant was drunk; we were just tired.
No one knows who did the first ascent of the North Arete, but I’m sure it was several decades before sticky-rubber-soled climbing shoes, and maybe a few decades before dynamic ropes (the first ascent of the neighboring East Face of the Third Flatiron was in 1906, and it couldn’t have been too long after that the First was climbed). It’s a relic by today’s climbing standards, especially in Boulder, where the average serious climber can link dozens of gymnastic moves on overhanging handholds too small for more than a single finger pad or a half-inch of shoe rubber.
But damn if it isn’t fun, and everyone I take up this route at night seems to think so, too. Or at least they tell me so. And fun, I think, is the point for me.
I learned to climb in Colorado, on the Front Range, where we have 10,000 climbing routes within a two hours’ drive of the center of a city of three million people—sport, trad, bouldering, alpine, ice—and I’ll argue with anyone who thinks their city has better climbing access (operative word being “city”). I started out sport climbing, clipping bolts, and as soon as I found someone to teach me, I started placing gear, climbing easy trad routes, the classics, the sandbags, the stuff put up in the 60s and 70s by climbers with gear half as good as mine and balls five times as big. After almost eight years, I’ve just barely scraped the bottom edge of leading 5.10 on gear, and don’t get into routes that hard very often.
My friend Lee and I have had days upon days of adventures on multi-pitch routes in Eldo, Lumpy Ridge, Boulder Canyon, and other places, and I’ve never regretted any of those days, but part of me is a little ashamed that I don’t climb harder. I write for Climbing magazine, for Pete’s sake. And I’ve never led a pitch harder than 10c.
I blame it on the Front Range. I understand many climbers in the U.S. only have access to a few crags within a couple hours’ drive of where they live, so they are able to focus on a few hard routes at those crags, set goals, work on their project climbs, and send them. Or they don’t live that close to a world-class climbing area, so they work hard in the gym most of the year, and then take two or three big trips to marquee climbing destinations. Or they only have a few months of good weather per year.
But this is Colorado. We have 300 days of sunshine per year. Did I mention the 10,000 routes? That’s just an estimate. There are probably more, if you count all the stuff in Rocky Mountain National Park, too. And a fairly progressive understanding of “work-life balance,” in that lots of employers understand when you want to knock off at 3 p.m. on a summer Wednesday to go climb. How the hell can anyone focus on just one crag, let alone just one area? Wanna climb granite? Boulder Canyon or Lumpy Ridge. Sandstone? Eldorado Canyon. Gneiss and schist? Clear Creek Canyon.
When I was a kid, I explored my backyard, then the big field beyond my backyard, then the train tracks behind my friends’ house. When I moved to Colorado as an adult, I got to be that kid again, exploring the mountains in the figurative backyard on the western horizon. I bought guidebooks—one, two, three, then a dozen. I cracked open their bindings next to bowls of oatmeal in the morning, by bedside lamp, and in the bathroom. I created a mental tick list, some climbs to do next weekend, some to do next month, some next year, and some someday. And the someday list keeps growing.
People talk about being a climber and being in love with the movement, the gymnastic control and grace of moving upward on tiny footholds, pulling sideways on a handhold, and holding it all together under the pressure of a potential fall. I get that, but what I remember more are the belays on multipitch climbs: watching parties inch up the sandstone cracks on the Bastille in Eldorado Canyon from high up on the Wind Tower, watching the clouds bury Longs Peak from near the top of Sundance Buttress on Lumpy Ridge, or watching a blood moon sneak over the horizon from a spot on a dark ledge on the Third Flatiron.
If I never get strong, it’s because there’s so much terrain left to explore, and that’s where my heart is. Jason Haas said in the introduction to the 2009 Flatirons climbing guidebook he never intentionally set out to write, “I prefer new routes, whether they are classics or choss, easy or hard, and I am a sucker for the obscure.” In the Front Range, you don’t have to climb Route #6 at Crag A the week after you climb Route #4 and Route #5 at Crag A—you can go climb at Crag B, or C, or Peak X or Y. And if you get bored of all that, you can leave work on a Friday and drive to Indian Creek.
Jeff Achey summed it up best when he wrote in the 2002 edition of Climb! The History of Rock Climbing in Colorado: “Writers go to New York. Actors go to Hollywood. Climbers go to Colorado.”
Sure, Denver doesn’t have Yosemite, the Gunks or Joshua Tree in its backyard, but those places don’t have Denver in their backyards either. I grew up in a small town in very rural Iowa, and in the summertime, I still revel in the fact that after work (at a “real job”) on a weekday, I can walk to a Major League Baseball stadium, or go catch a show at Red Rocks, or go get Indian or Vietnamese food—or I can drive a half-hour and go climb a route in Eldorado Canyon.
And maybe the best part is that on any Saturday night, I can grab a friend, a rope, and some gear, and climb up to the top of a thousand-foot chunk of sandstone in the foothills, and look over all those city lights, and not hear a single one of those three million people I know are down there on the streets. And then I can go eat a 3 a.m. breakfast with them 90 minutes after I start rappelling down.
Brendan Leonard is a writer and climber based in Denver. He is currently co-authoring a guidebook, Classic Front Range Trad Climbs, to be published in
the spring of 2015.