For Memorial Day weekend, Matt and I drove down to Shelf Road, Colorado, which is an area of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land outside of Cañon City. We met up with some friends we knew from UNC (that’s North Carolina, not Northern Colorado), John- who is doing a multi-week road trip out west from Asheville, NC with his friend Stephanie- and Kevin, an adventure videographer and photographer now living in Boulder, CO. We knew it would be a little crowded at the campgrounds since it was a long weekend, and we ended up sharing a campsite with a very kind and obliging group of parents and small children, which ended up being fine since we didn’t stay up very late anyway.
The drive to Shelf Road from Laramie takes us through Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs, so we hit a lot of traffic on the way, despite leaving Laramie before 5PM.
We didn’t get to Shelf Road until about 11, and it rained a little as we set up the tent and chatted. Poor Kevin tried to come in from Boulder down Shelf Road itself, which was closed because of flooding. Colorado normally gets a large amount of precipitation this time of year, and this spring has been no exception. Kevin drove his Subaru up to a bonafide stream running across Shelf Road, and decided to test the current. He picked up a rock which he described as weighing about 30 pounds, tossed it in, and watched with shock as it barely bounced off the road underwater before being swept downstream quickly enough to dissuade him from fording it Oregon Trail-style.
On Saturday, we woke up to sunshine, discovered Abe had made his way from the back of Matt’s car to the front passenger seat (fur everywhere!!), made breakfast, and decided to hit up the Sand Gulch area of Shelf Road since we could hike there directly from our campsite. Unfortunately, the recent rain thwarted us.
The guide book describes the trail to the climbing area from our campsite as going down a hill, then following a dry creekbed for a while before a sign points you up a trail toward the near end of the cliff line, or you can keep going down the creedbed for the second trail, which takes you to the cliff’s far end. Unfortunately, as you can see above, the creekbed had turned into a stream. The picture makes it look worse than it really was; the water was actually quite shallow and manageable, but still deep enough to thoroughly soak your shoes and socks, and to scare Abe.
Abe hates water- he doesn’t seem to have inherited a love for water from any labrador ancestors he may have. Matt had to carry him across a couple times, and we were able to coax him across a few more narrow sections.
The worst part of this amended trail wasn’t actually crossing the stream, but then bushwhacking our way alongside it as we searched for the trail where it exited the water and took us to the climbing. Never a dull moment!
We did a couple of warm-up routes before rain and thunder loomed in the distance. Up on a cliff is not exactly the best place to be during a thunderstorm, so we cleaned our routes (climber-speak for “retrieved all of our gear”) and retreated back down toward camp. Abe hates thunder, so Matt and I vacated the climbing area before John, Stephanie, and Kevin. Because we couldn’t follow the trail due to the stream it had become, Matt and I (and Abe) got separated from the rest of the group. The storm passed fairly quickly (but lasted long enough to make the trail muddy and the rock damp) so, after it ended, Matt and I headed back up to the climbing area- crossing the creek again on the way- to catch up with everyone else. We hiked part of the length of the cliff and didn’t see them, so we sat down and had lunch. Finally, convinced they must have either gone back to camp or to a different climbing area (there isn’t reliable cell phone service near the actual climbing), we packed up and headed back down toward the menacing creek, crossed it several times to navigate the “trail,” and made it back to our tent. Everyone was down there waiting for us- oops.
When you’re in a canyon like you are in Shelf Road, the steep hills and cliffs block oncoming bad weather and make it almost impossible to anticipate storms. This is why hikers and climbers in the mountains get caught in surprise thunder- and snowstorms so often. By the time you see and hear the weather, it’s sometimes too late to act upon it.
In the meantime, after we reunited at camp, the weather had calmed down again and the sun was shining like nothing had ever happened. Since the rock was still too wet to climb, we took a break. Some opted for naps; John and I opted for a private yoga lesson! John took a great video from Saturday, including sped-up compilations of morning and afternoon climbing as well as our yoga session. Check it out!
While Matt was relaxing on the ground outside of the tent, and next to Abe, one of the little girls sharing the campsite wandered up and said to him, “Do you want to hear something embarrassing?”
Matt said, “Uh, okay.”
She responded, “I peed outside- over there,” and gestured to some bushes and cacti behind our tent.
Matt said, “Yeah, I think a lot of people do that.”
The little girl insisted, “No, I peed outside,” possibly referring to the pit toilet located inside a shelter about twenty yards away. After this heartfelt confession, she walked away and rejoined her family.
We decided it had been long enough for the rock to dry out, and got ready to do some more climbing. Literally as soon as we began buckling our packs, it started raining again. “I thought this was supposed to be a desert!” Someone said. The cacti everywhere had tricked us.
We went climbing anyway, this time hiking to a different area of Sand Gulch called the Freeform Wall, which involved precisely ZERO river crossings, to everyone’s relief.
We climbed another few routes and I got shut down by a height-dependent dynamic move to a small pocket on the start of a 5.11c. Afterwards, we hiked back to camp and cooked dinner under some intermittent rain showers.
The next morning, we drove up to a different campground to hike into a climbing area called, ironically, The Gym. We spent about 15 minutes in the car waiting for the rain to stop before beginning the approach, which involved a much smaller and more manageable stream crossing. Nonetheless, Abe didn’t appreciate it.
The rock at Shelf Road is limestone, which is essentially squished marine life from when this part of the country used to be underwater. Sometimes you can spot fossils in the limestone while climbing. Limestone is also heavily featured (meaning lots of great places to put your hands and feet), but has a tendency to be sharp, which is tough on one’s skin.
I top-roped (meaning we already put the rope up, so I didn’t have to) a pumpy 5.11+ with a roof called Pulley Mammoth (roofs are kind of my nemesis) and led a fun 5.10b called The Crack of Dawn which followed a very distinct flake up a sheer face. Matt got on a really challenging 5.12c called Gym Arete Direct, which joins up with Gym Arete, a 5.12a, but has a particularly tough start with very small holds.
Before the sun set, I wanted to get in a route we had passed on the hike up called The Raw and the Roasted. It was a beautiful 5.11c sheer face climb, and several people were climbing it as we’d hiked by. We climbed a fun 5.9 to the left of it called Ga-Stoned Again, so I’d heard a couple climbers fall at the top of the route.
The first three bolts of the climb are very easy, a 5.9 sort of warm-up, as you approach a ledge from which the clean limestone face emerges, and the real climbing begins.
Since we moved out to Wyoming, I’ve been working on my leading technique and all the little things leading a route entails, almost more than I’ve worked on my actual climbing technique. On a sport climb, every 5-15 feet or so, depending on the route, are bolts that have been drilled into the rock. The first climber to put up the route ties the rope to her harness and brings up as many quickdraws (essentially two carabiners connected by very strong fabric- see this post for what it looks like) as there are bolts. As she reaches a bolt, she clips one carabiner on her quickdraw to the bolt, and then clips her rope into the bottom carabiner of the quickdraw, which is now hanging from the bolt. This is purely a safety measure and essentially keeps sport climbers from hitting the ground or hitting any protruding rock feature (e.g. a ledge) below them should they fall. There are 13 bolts on The Raw and the Roasted, plus an anchor (made up of two bolts next to one another, marking the top of the climb), so it’s a pretty long route.
Face climbing, where the rock is almost exactly at a 90° angle, is probably my favorite type of climbing. It requires balance, body awareness, finger strength, and finesse. It’s beautiful to both do and see done.
In the picture above, you can see a small roof by the climber’s right knee. I kept climbing and clipping quickdraws methodically, pulling past a hard move around that little outcropping and continuing onto the face. I shut out any fear of but-what-if-I-fall-here-oh-wow-that-would-be-scary and kept going. The handholds were smaller and required more finger strength at the top, but I did it! I on-sighted (i.e. ascended a climbing route without falling, and with no prior practice or advice on how to successfully complete) a 5.11c on our first climbing trip of the summer season! I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the rest of the summer for us.
We plan on meeting up with John and Stephanie again as they continue their road trip, and we hope to climb with Kevin again soon, but he sure is a busy man. If you’ll be in the Colorado/Wyoming area this summer and want to spend some time outside, let me know!
To the summer! Love to all.