The other day I was thinking about what it is that compels me to maintain Boulder, CO as my home base (i.e., my winter crash pad and touchstone of all things urban and civilized in the summer season). Aside from the fact that I have friends here and I enjoy the compact layout of the city, more and more my motivation has become the city’s iconic Flatirons. Not the trails that surround these 50-55 degreed slabs of stone, nor the pair of peaks (Green and Bear) upon which they reside, but rather, the towering chunks of rock themselves and the proximity they have to a thriving city center. Quite simply, if I lived anywhere else on the Front Range I know that I would spend most of my time dreaming and scheming as to when I could make a trip to Boulder to link together a few thousand feet of scrambling. Makes a lot more sense to just continue residence and save myself all of that inevitable stressful yearning.
Most proper climbers would find such a sentiment laughable. Climbers live in Boulder so as to spend their days in Eldorado or Boulder Canyons, testing and expanding their abilities where the hard routes on truly vertical rock exist, not to waste away bluebird days strolling up exceedingly moderate lines on kicked-back gradients.
Make no mistake, I am not a proper climber. I’m simply a lover of mountains and efficiently moving through (or on) them. My outstanding attributes comprise lung capacity and marching uphill, not finger strength and gravity-defying technique on a steep wall. I especially get frustrated by and impatient with the necessary methods of protection (ropes, harnesses, slings, carabiners) that become part of the equation when one is looking to challenge one’s climbing limits. There are times when I am looking to push myself in that way in the mountains, and climbing at my limit is a great way to do that. However, a lot of the time–just like your average addict–I’m chasing a feeling, not necessarily an expansion of my abilities.
(Warning: the rest of this is long. Apparently, I’m a wordy bastard. Or, maybe I just like history, context, and detail. Plus, climbing ten flatirons takes a long time.)
After I had finished the Leadville 100 back in mid-August, I was excited about coming down out of the thin air and using the ensuing couple weeks of recovery time to hang out in Boulder and work on my scrambling skills in the Flatirons. While the Sawatch Range offers heaps of altitude and vertical, the mountains themselves really are no more than giant piles of talus, with little opportunity for quality, moderate 5th-Class scrambling. Turns out, once you attain a certain ability threshold in scrambling–comfortably soloing 5.6 in running shoes seems to be about the tipping point in the Flatirons–a whole world of fantastically enjoyable, quick, efficient movement in the vertical axis opens up to you and it becomes difficult to be motivated by anything else.
At least in my case.
The east face of Green Mountain in Boulder holds the highest concentration of moderate slab climbing in the area–pretty much everything is grippy Fountain Formation sandstone/conglomerate–and between Baseline Road and Skunk Canyon on Green Mountain, these slabs are dominated by the five numbered Flatirons of Boulder. Before I left for a month in Spain and Africa this past fall, I never got around to scouting the Fifth Flatiron, which meant I never got around to completing the most obvious enchainment in this scrambler’s paradise–a link-up of the five numbered flatirons.
As with most things having to do with scrambling in Boulder, the idea of completing this link-up was first brought to my attention by Bill Wright and UD’s own Buzz Burrell, a couple of grizzled scrambling emeriti who have quietly gone about doing all sorts of impressive things in the mountains above Boulder for years and years now. Including what they logically dubbed the Flatiron Quinfecta.
Of course, being the young and brash fellow that I am, when I hear of these things, I not only want to repeat them, I want to do them fast. When it comes to scrambling quickly, another “B” name gets thrown into the mix–Bill Briggs. If you are interested in technical mountain outings in the greater Boulder region and you dig around enough, you’ll find that Bill and his brother Roger have already done anything and everything you could possibly think of. And they’ve inevitably done it more quickly and in better style, too. Every time I unearth a new nugget of information about either of them, I’m instantly humbled, almost without fail. Roger has countless hard first ascents all over Boulder and is the undisputed authority on Longs Peak’s Diamond–when he first climbed it at age 17 in 1968 he was the youngest ever to do so, and has since amassed something like 103 additional ascents (far more than anyone else). His comprehensive history of climbing on the Diamond is required reading if you’re interested in alpine climbing and have enough sense to try and learn something from the pioneers of the activity. Roger and Bill also do a bit of running, too. Among many other and varied achievements, Bill held the unsupported (downclimbing instead of rappelling) car-to-car record on the Third Flatiron for nearly 20 years (36:27–Stefan Griebel has since lowered that to 36:14) and Roger used to have the speed record on Longs Peak. Bill’s quick traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park’s Glacier Gorge originally motivated me to give it a go as well this past fall.
Bill Briggs and Buzz have, by far, the quickest car-to-car (Chautauqua-to-Chautauqua) times on the Quinfecta enchainment. Bill with a 2:16:08 and Buzz with a 2:01:48 (which, for Buzz, included the interesting–and clearly, much faster–wrinkle of downclimbing the east faces of the Second and Fifth Flatirons instead of the traditional approach of scaling them from the ground up). So, it was time for me to do the link-up.
Finally, near the end of November–after a reconnaissance mission where we scouted the best lines on the Fourth and Fifth Flatirons–Joe Grant and I got out for a full enchantment of the five Flatirons. We went at a leisurely pace and enjoyed fantastic autumnal weather as we worked our way through the nearly 60 guidebook pitches of climbing (including downclimbing) and 5000 vertical feet that this link-up requires. Once we’d topped out on the Fifth and were descending from Sentinel Pass (the geographic divide between the Third and Fourth Flatirons) back to Chautauqua, I let the satisfaction of the morning get the better of me and commented something along the lines of, “Now, a real adventure would be to do an ‘out ‘n back’ link-up of the Flatirons, climbing ten Flatirons in one push.” We were both pretty proud of our simple Quinfecta, though, so at the time a Double Quinfecta seemed a little ridiculous, but once the thought had occurred to me, I knew that I would have to give it a shot as long as the weather held out for a couple more weeks.
Recently, I received an email from Buzz that said, “You have almost certainly already climbed more Flatirons this year than I have in a life-time of scrambling. Of course, I never really liked to repeat things.” When it comes to repeating things, I’m almost exactly the opposite. And this attitude represents how divergent Buzz and I can be in our personal philosophies of being in the mountains. Buzz has almost always been more inspired by “doing things that no one had done before”, by combining varied skill sets (running, biking, off-trail travel, canyoneering, scrambling, climbing) to tackle objectives that either hadn’t been approached in that manner before or weren’t approachable at all without such a combination of skills. Armed with this kind of creativity, Buzz can look at a map or a landscape and see all sorts of potential that simply isn’t visible to someone with a more limited point-of-view.
To me this approach seems driven by exploration in the most commonly-accepted form of the term, and I have heaps of respect for that. However, instead of achieving some objective once and then moving on to the next thing, I tend to get hung up on striving for a higher level of personal mastery that can only be achieved through repetition. A perfect example of this was when I joined Peter and Buzz for a virgin trip up the Kieners Route on Longs Peak this past June. Since I was just learning the route, I was happy to go at their pace, find the best line, identify the cruxes, and generally glean what I could from their combined massive mountain experience. However–because Kieners is so good–I went back the next day. And the next day. By day three I was confident enough to try and really go fast and put down what I could accept as a reasonable time standard (of course, by the third day, my legs were understandably tired, and I finally caught a day with non-ideal conditions–high winds, not uncommon on Longs). After that initial spree, I went on to climb Kieners at least once each of the next four weeks.
For me, this mastery-through-repetition is maybe the most satisfying thing I do in the mountains. When I get to know a route or a mountain as well as one does through repetition, I’m usually able to achieve a certain type of flow and connection with the terrain that I find extremely seductive. This flow-state is the “feeling” I alluded to earlier. Not surprisingly, achieving this state of movement almost always means that I am moving at or near my limit of how quickly I can go on any given terrain. This feeling of integration with my surroundings simply doesn’t occur as completely when I’m just jogging along leisurely, likely because my level of focus and awareness is several notches lower.
So after that first Quinfecta with Joe, I made it a priority to become completely comfortable on the east face routes on each Flatiron, on the often non-obvious downclimbs for each one, and on the off-trail connecting routes between each Flatiron. After four more laps of the Quinfecta in the following two weeks, I was still about five minutes short of Briggs’ 2:05 standard (a big chunk of that can be taken off by simply warming up before scrambling the First Flatiron), but I felt more than ready to tackle the Double Quinfecta, an outing that would require efficiency and long periods of unbroken focus, not to mention over 110 pitches of climbing and 10,000′ of vertical ascent.
After a trip to Texas in early December, I returned to Boulder with forecasts of imminent winter weather (snow and such, a rare thing in Boulder these days), so the day after getting back I planned the Double. Running out of Chautauqua the weather was perfect–sunny and windless, but cool with temperatures in the 30s keeping hydration needs low. I started with a single bottle of water tucked in my waistband and four gels in my shorts pocket. Despite my rested legs, I was still slower than I expected on the First. Just like running, climbing requires a short warm-up period to get the body’s limbs coordinated and responsive, to properly align the mind and body to tackle the task at hand. Complicating this process is the fact that the very first pitches of the day–the first few hundred feet of the First Flatiron’s East Face Direct route–could be considered the most technically difficult of the entire enchainment. Right from the start, the route climbs a subtle ridge of slab with thin holds that goes at 5.6. Once you’re past these initial 2-3min of scrambling, the technical crux of the day is over with only some brief 5.6 chimney moves remaining high on the rock near the North Arete.
In fact, many consider the First’s 5.2 downclimb on its Southwest face to be the crux of soloing the rock, but after getting into a good flow on the face this passed quickly for me. To descend to the base of the Second, one runs right past the downclimb off its summit. This configuration of the route is what inspired Buzz to downclimb the Second’s east face in his record-setting 2:01 link-up of the Flatirons. While I admire Buzz’s always dependable ability to think outside-the-box, I personally prefer the aesthetic of actually ascending each of the Flatirons from bottom to top (as I understand Briggs did in his fastest efforts) and am determined to eventually break the Quinfecta record in that style, though it will definitely be even more difficult as a result.
The lower two-thirds of the Second Flatiron is mostly low-angle, high 4th Class-to-5.2 terrain that feels like more of a hike than a climb, but in order to get into the gulley south of the Pullman Car formation that composes this Flatiron’s summit you have to pull a couple of committing 5.6 undercling moves. Once past that obstacle and back onto the east face of the Car, the crux of the rock is by far the very short, 5.2 down climb on its west face.
From the backside of the Second, the shortest line over to the Third’s East Bench comprises ~6min of Class 3 boulder hopping before immediately jumping on the 900′ East Face route that Gerry Roach calls “the best easy rock climb in the universe”. Again, the down climb is almost certainly the crux as it requires reversing the final 5.2 slab crux pitch that guards the summit itself before descending the 5.2 Southwest Chimney route.
From the base of the Third’s Southwest Chimney, the quickest way over to the final two Flatirons is to descend the steep gulley on the south side of the Third and connect with the Royal Arch Trail, which switchbacks its way over Sentinel Pass–a modest ridge separating the Third and Fourth Flatirons. The couple hundred feet of ascent required to get over this ridge always feels harder than I think it should, but, encouragingly, on this day my legs are happy to run all the way to the top–a good sign when I have almost 7000 vertical feet still left to scale.
Linking together the Fourth and Fifth Flatirons is complicated by the fact that the gulch separating the two is a truly heinous nightmare to descend. On Joe’s and my first reconnaissance of this link-up, I had read warnings that this gulley is to be avoided at all costs, but our attitude was, “we’re experienced at bushwhacking, how bad can it be?” The answer: pretty terrible. Determined to link-up the Flatirons in sequential order that day, we ventured down the north side of the Fourth–headed for the base of the Fifth–and it took us a full 20min of endless deadfall, pothole-obscuring ferns, 20-30′ impassable-without-a-rope drops, prickly vines, and more deadfall before we were finally back on the Royal Arch Trail. At one point, Joe commented, “Imagine, Barkley is this kind of bullshit for two and a half days straight.” By time we reached the bottom, scratched and bruised, we’d begun to refer to that gulley as “‘Nam”, as in, “Vietnam”.
So, with that experience under my belt, in my subsequent Quinfectas I gladly took Buzz’s advice to climb the Fifth before descending its south side and finishing with the Fourth (the Royal Arch Trail passes directly by the base of the Fourth on the way to the Fifth). Not only does this allow one to avoid the gulch-from-hell between the two rocks, but from the summit of the Fourth it’s a direct bushwhack back down to the Royal Arch Trail on the north side of Sentinel Pass, cutting out an extra 200′ or so of ascent for the car-to-car journey. (Of course, being the peak-bagger that I am, I always finish off a Quinfecta with a trip to the summit of Green Mountain–the top of the Fourth Flatiron is only about 500 vertical feet below Green’s peak.) For the purposes of my Double Quinfecta, climbing the Fifth before the Fourth had the added benefit of not requiring me to climb the Fifth Flatiron two times in a row. Instead, the sequence of my Double outing would take on the more experientially aesthetic configuration of 1-2-3-5-4-5-4-3-2-1. So, onto the Fifth.
The Fifth Flatiron is a wonderfully lonely rock. Of all the numbered Flatirons, it requires the longest approach from Chautauqua (or any trailhead, for that matter), so despite it possessing as consistently quality rock and sustained difficulty of climbing as any of the Flatirons, it sees far fewer ascents than the mega-popular First and Third and definitely fewer than the Second, even though the Fifth is objectively a far better rock. Roach’s guide lists four separate lines of ascent on the Fifth’s east face: East Face South Side, the Cat Scratches, East Face North Side, and the North Buttress. Undoubtedly, the North Buttress is the most pure line of these four. It begins at the very foot of the rock and simply follows the northern arete of the rock all the way to the summit. Simple, elegant, aesthetic. This was the first line I ever climbed on the rock, and though I was wearing rock shoes that day, there was a ~30′ steeper bulge with very thin holds that rates in the 5.5-6 range that–after that first solo–made me extremely reluctant to return to it in running shoes (though I have since climbed the North Buttress in running shoes during a Quinfecta, that same bulge made me nervous enough again to not be particularly keen on making it a regular thing).
As such, during most of my Quinfectas, I’ve always moved about 30′ south on the rock and climbed the East Face North Side route. This line also begins at the very foot of the rock (unlike the Cat Scratches or the most popular East Face South Side route, which, in my opinion, essentially cheats by beginning half way up the Flatiron on its south side. By climbing that line, you’re denying yourself an extra 300’ or so of splendid scrambling) in a large crack and moves up immediately south of this crack in the 5.4 range before joining the north arete just above the crux bulge for probably the most spectacular finish to any of the Flatirons, a perfect hand traverse right up to the very tip of its pointy summit. I love this rock.
There are a couple of down climbs off the Fifth, neither of which is obvious. In fact, Roach goes so far as to deem this a “dangerous rock to be on top of without a rope” (a designation that he does not grant either the First or the Third, both of whose down climbs are much longer and more difficult, in my opinion). Buzz had always intimated to me that there was a trick to getting off the rock, but said only that he would have to show me some day. When Joe and I approached the rock for the first time, we were aware of its reputation, so we intentionally went to the west side of the formation and looked for this supposedly sneaky way off the rock. We found a narrow, but comfy surprise ledge on the rock’s south side, maybe one pitch below the summit, that looked to offer a way, but it was guarded by an awkward, chest-high, overhanging mantle move that would need to be reversed in the actual down climb. Once past this mantle, however, the ledge offered access to high 4th Class-to-5.easy terrain that leads to the rock’s summit. Perfect. It turns out, however, that other people had been taking an even sneakier line off the north side of the rock, squirming down through a psuedo-tunnel before carefully negotiating a slab onto easier terrain. I like our downclimb, though, as it deposits you on the south side of the rock, the side you want to be descending anyhow. It now takes me less than 2min to get from the summit to the ground.
From the downclimb off the Fifth, a quick run down the hill puts me back at the base of the Fourth Flatiron, the last one I need to climb before I begin my sequentially descending trip back to Chautauqua. The Fourth is the longest, highest, and most discontinuous of all the Flatirons–it is really three discrete, stacked pieces instead of one giant whack of rock–but it offers enough interesting climbing for me to personally rate it just higher than the Second in my hierarchy of favorite-Flatirons-to-climb. On Joe’s and my original recce of the rock we both enjoyed the first piece–which offers slabby 5.4 with frequent conglomerate knobs before moving into a heroic position on the rock’s southern arete–but the second and third pieces confounded us with their at times grungy surface and discontinuous difficulty. I could see the rock’s potential, though, and vowed to eventually climb it often enough to “quit hating and learn to love the Fourth”. Which is exactly what I’ve done.
Now, after hopping off the first piece, I take only a few steps in pine needles before stepping back onto rock (the second piece) for an easy traverse south into an off-width gash directly in the center of the rock that I’ve dubbed the “Birthing Canal” as it deposits you in a hidden cavern deep in the rock that exits onto the third and final piece. This chunk finishes with a suitably wonderful off-width crack that eventually dissolves just before a ledge below the summit. (From reading other descriptions, this is considered the summit of the Flatiron. I, however, prefer to jump west from here onto rock, scramble this next piece, step over onto a giant boulder, and climb to its top where a large cairn has been built, thus causing me to think that it is the true summit. The first “jumping summit” certainly has the exposed face feeling of a Flatiron summit, but also has the troubling position of being lower than the higher rocks immediately to its west. I go to the cairn just to make sure, though it adds an extra 50sec or so onto my ascent times of the Flatiron.)
During the Double, I get to the summit of the Fourth–my fifth Flatiron of the morning–in well less than 2hr, in fact, only a minute or so off my PR, but am only half done with the climbing and the vertical ascent I have planned. Nevertheless, after 5000′ of scrambling, I am fully in the flow and really enjoying myself. Even though I’m starting to get fatigued, everything is working together seamlessly to allow me to move up and down these proud rocks with full confidence and efficiency. This sensation of coordination and clear purpose is the ultimate goal I have for the morning and I am immensely pleased to be in the midst of it, even as I gradually dehydrate and flay the pads of my fingers. By the time I make it back to the base of the First Flatiron for my final ascent of the day, I am desperate for water–I drained my bottle long ago–but I’m so fully in the groove now that it doesn’t matter and I easily shave two whole minutes off my initial scramble of this rock despite having to delicately step around a half-dozen other parties out enjoying the beautiful day on the lower portion of the First’s east face.
Which is really what it’s all about, of course. I might have warmed up for my climb of the First with nine other Flatirons, and I might be moving more quickly and more unencumbered than them, but all of us are outside, engaging the rock in our own personally satisfying styles and at our own personal paces, enjoying the sun on our backs and the rock on our fingertips. Though my fingertips might be raw and bloody, in that moment there is nowhere else I would rather be and nothing else I would rather be doing. How often in life can one say that with any measure of honesty?
Full Splits (starting at Chautauqua Ranger Cottage):
Base of 1st- 12:40
Summit 1st – 27:35 (3:15 downclimb)
Base of 2nd – 36:55
Summit 2nd – 48:20
Base of 3rd – 55:20
Summit 3rd – 1:03:20 (5:10 downclimb)
Sentinel Pass – 1:16:50
Base of 5th – 1:21:05
Summit 5th – 1:30:15 (1:55 downclimb)
Base of 4th – 1:37:10
Summit 4th – 1:54:40
Base of 5th – 2:05:50
Summit 5th – 2:14:50 (2:10 downclimb)
Base of 4th – 2:21:50
Summit 4th – 2:40:00
Base of 3rd – 2:56:00
Summit 3rd – 3:08:05 (5:05 downclimb)
Base of 2nd – 3:20:50
Summit 2nd – 3:33:35
Base of 1st – 3:39:35
Summit 1st – 3:52:30 (2:45 downclimb)
Ranger Cottage – 4:07:17