Boulder, CO – 4:00am, May 17, 2018 –
Peter Bakwin and I hike out of Chautauqua Park, intending to climb 4 routes in the Amphitheater, then continue south and climb 29 more. Today. Climbing 5th class rock in the dark with no rope wearing scrambling shoes can be alarming, but we’d rehearsed this section last week – a key parameter of this project was to be safe and have fun, which when free-soling, is basically the same thing.
T-Zero is the first formation and it has a tricky opening move, so I repeated it four times in a row last week, just to make sure I had it dialed for our attempt. The plan worked – I scampered right up – nice! It had taken me a few minutes to work out this one single move on our first practice sesh a month earlier, so this was a good start. In fact, doing it by headlamp had the unexpected bonus of feeling safer – you can’t see how far down the ground is.
The “Flatiron Classics” are 53 routes deemed as such by Gerry Roach in his 1987 book of the same name, accurately subtitled “A Guide to Easy Climbs and Trails in Boulder’s Flatirons”. He also designated his “Top Ten” climbs in the Flatirons, which like all lists, sometime seems arbitrary and pointless. It all likely would have faded to obscurity if it wasn’t for a certain local scrambling club and its charismatic and passionate leader, which has pursued scrambling up these otherwise picturesque rock formations with startling if not alarming dedication. This is localism at its best. I await the video on the Reel Rock Tour. If they don’t wait much longer to film it, I might even be in it.
To become even more fine-tuned, 20 of these classic routes are Closed Jan 31-July 31 due to theoretically Nesting Raptors. One can certainly go for the full monty when they re-open, but August is really hot and dry in Boulder, while the mountains are at their best. Viola: There are 33 Classic routes open during the glorious month of May, when the mountains remain snow-packed, everything down low is green, water is flowing, and the flowers blooming. Whew, sorry – got all that? Peter thought of this first, and I deemed it brilliant: the “Spring Flatiron Classics”.
I used to be really good at this. I’m not anymore, and I’m not sure why. So this story is about our attempt at doing 33 routes in one day, plus me dealing with how much harder it was to do even one.
We knocked off the 4 very short routes in the Amphitheater, then as the eastern sky lightened, we bushwhacked up the steep forested hillside to the Spy, with it’s beautiful but seldom-climbed East Ridge. In classic Roach prose: “It is a ridge of rock 370 feet long, with an upper portion less than 10 feet wide. The hillside below … drops rapidly down into Gregory Canyon, and the exposure along this narrow rib is dramatic. You will feel suspended high over Boulder.”
I can’t quote Gerry’s description of every route, so that description will suffice to sum up almost every one of the Flatirons. They appear on countless calendars and postcards, and living in Boulder we take them for granted, but after decades of adventure travel, any of us scrambling devotees will calmly assert that if you like being on rock, the Flatirons are truly world-class.
Next up was the First Flatiron, one of the 3 most iconic formations, and my former stomping grounds. I used to have the FKT on this, most of the fastest times, and was able to beat people on it who ran a minute faster than me to the bottom, but then I could make that up once on the rock, and put on another minute gap by the top.
But when I got back on it this spring with Peter, I was sketched. Really. My scrambling speed used to be limited only by cardio-vascular fitness, moving up as fast as my lungs could manage, but now I was limited because of technical difficulty and risky moves. Dang.
The holds seemed smaller, and ground farther away.
This didn’t make sense. When one ages, one becomes weaker and slower; I accept that, but I would think the ‘head’ could remain the same. The head game was always my strongest attribute as an athlete, so to experience it as my weak link was disconcerting and not logical. Since I had always easily scrambled the First Flatiron, and since strength isn’t required for scrambling, the rational conclusion is I could still easily scramble it. But it didn’t feel that way. Flatiron scrambling is all about trusting your feet – countless ‘smears’ on nubbins and tiny bulges – there are few ‘lock-off’ holds, only friction.
Since this shift logically didn’t make sense, this spring I just kept practicing, presuming my confidence would come back. Peter was terrific, being very patient. This situation was a major role reversal for us, and I was now aware of how other people must have felt around me, when I would on-sight almost anything, no matter how steep or exposed. The shoe was now on the other foot.
Indeed, somewhat desperately, all this spring i experimented with different shoes. They all felt slippery. Shouldn’t modern sticky rubber be stickier than it used to be?
As the date for our big attempt approached, four solutions finally emerged:
1. I went into my basement and got out the original Exum Ridge shoe by La Sportiva. The first, the pre-curser of everything, the shoe I first used to crush. Walking to our practice scramble a few weeks ago, it made that re-assuring “chink-chink” sound of hard, nasty, sticky rubber on pavement. I needed to up my head-game, so irrationally reached for the skeleton in my closet. They worked – the ground didn’t look so far away.
2. On the trickier routes for our project I used climbing shoes! I had never done that once, even when first starting 40 years ago. Timmy O’Neill had always switched into climbing shoes, and I now understood: easier, more secure, more fun. And not much time lost.
3. I wore reading glasses! Having resisting due to vanity, minimalism, and who-knows-what-else, the reality is the holds had been really blurry this spring. With $8.99 reading glasses from K-Mart, those holds were suddenly a lot bigger.
4. After about 8 practice sesh’s – not 2 or 3 as hoped – being up high smearing nubbins of sandstone started feeling reasonable again. Turns out, being gripped isn’t fun at all – I’d never experienced that, so probably good to join the human race. No matter how supposedly ‘important’ a project is, if it isn’t fun I’m not going to do it, so this was a necessary break-thru.
We can wonder: “What’s up with all that?” Was I an idiot all those years, risking my life for no reason, blinded by ‘young male’ syndrome all the way through my 50’s, only now realizing that scrambling really is risky? Or, was I an outstanding athlete back then, and now am an old codger who really does need to watch his step walking down the sidewalk?
I am unclear as to which conclusion to draw. Probably never figure this out. A double-blind study on high-exposure free-soloing would have practical and ethical issues.
Onward: The First Flatiron has 3 Classic routes on it, for which Peter had figured out the most efficient sequence, and then on to the Second Flatiron which has two Classics. We down-climbed one route then up-climbed the other, for maximum efficiency. On scrambling link-ups, tactics like this are key and are an equal part of the project, along with skill and endurance. Some of these routes aren’t really worth doing, so figuring out the most efficient way to link them adds interest.
The uber-iconic Third Flatiron is Raptor-Closed, so we passed by that on a longer hike over to the next open Flatiron Classic, called Morning After. Some of these are famous, some are hidden gems, and some I’d actually never heard of before this project. MA has one tough move, which Peter had dialed.
Peter had all this figured out. He knew how to find every rock, which is a serious project in itself, as there are well over 100 Flatirons up there depending on how you count, jutting up or not out of the trees, brush, and Poison Ivy. He knew where all the Classic Routes were on each rock, how to climb them, and also important, how to get down off the top. He was faster than me hiking up, faster on the climbs, and faster bushwhacking down. Unlike some of our past projects, this one was his project; I had bought in, and was grateful to be on the ride, drafting his knowledge and skill.
12 hours into the day we crossed Bear Creek, still heading south, essentially traversing the entire east slope of the escarpment above Boulder. This was a low point, not so much figurative as literal. In retrospect, Bear Creek would be an excellent demarcation for a 2-day effort, as it is halfway in distance, and it is on an easy access trail from town. But we continued our project by slogging up to the next Classic, Seal Rock. From Bear Creek, Seal is way up there, the east face route is long, then one must down-climb an annoyingly long portion of the east face to find a tricky exit off the north face. A month ago we carried my 300’ canyoneering rope up there and tried rappelling off the top, but even that bad boy didn’t reach the ground, resulting in a funky make-it-work effort that took a lot of time besides being embarrassing. So we reverted to down-climbing, and after averaging 2 classics per hour up to now, Seal took us 1.5 hours.
We were moving well, continuously, and our body parts were fine. I was very happy testing the Ultimate Direction FKT Vest (available next year). We were enjoying ourselves, well, Type 1.5 Fun at least. The day had been hot and sunny, but I was drinking freely out of potholes so was well fed and watered, and now blessed clouds had cooled off the heat. However, the routes were now further apart, and just took more time.
The Slab is huge, as the Classic Route diagonals R to L up the entire face, rather than going straight up from the bottom. All good, we liked it, but the routes in the southern section take time. Central Shanahan Crag I had never heard of, but it has a really fun South Face route which we top-roped. Solo-able, but now is not 5 years ago. Being secure is more fun, and doesn’t take that much more time.
How much more time? I don’t know – I had established my fun/safe parameter in order to undertake this project at all, and stuck to it, and there is not doubt a strong scrambler could do the SFC in one day.
I couldn’t do that, at least not that day with that amount of practice. Sunset was coming, and we didn’t feel like doing the Fatiron and the Maiden in the dark. So we bushwhacked over and up to Tiny Tower, one of the most obscure Flatirons, with it’s nice one-steep-move east face, and called it good at dusk. Switched on the headlamps, and began hiking back to the car through the trees.
Once down on the Mesa Trail we could have ran it back in, but didn’t see the point in that, as our feet were sore from the tight-fitting shoes, and it was a very warm and pleasant evening. Our plan was to do the Regency and Tomato Rock on the way back, two of the easiest Classics and very doable at night, but doing them now after skipping the Fatiron and Maiden seemed like adding a ‘number’ for the sake of a number, so we walked past them. Style is important.
29 Routes. 18hrs, 20mins; 16,58mi; 10,740’ vert.
Another valiant effort by Peter, this one on the computer: https://www.relive.cc/view/1582148336
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