This book is a celebration of the joys that come from moving over easy rock. The Flatirons above Boulder, Colorado offer one of the finest arrays of easy rock climbs anywhere in the world. This guide reports on more than 20 miles of routes – not 20 miles along the base of the range, but 20 miles as measured with a rope!
–Gerry Roach, Flatirons Classics: Easy Rock Climbs above Boulder
Roach’s classic guidebook, which describes over 250 climbs, serves as the basis for years of adventure, exploration, and projects for the willing scrambler. I myself have played in these hills and on these rocks for decades. As kids in the 1970s we simply explored, crashing around in the woods, climbing unnamed (as far as we knew) rocks, getting lost, and coming home bruised and scratched, but happy. Come to think of it, not much has changed, except that these days the outings are usually a bit more directed, I know the names of pretty much all the rocks, and the bruises take longer to heal.
Scrambling in the Flatirons is quite popular, and there are even informal races on various rocks every year. Guys like Anton Krupicka, Dave Mackey, Stefan Griebel, Matthias Messner, and Kyle Richardson have set astoundingly fast times on some of the more well known routes.
Kyle’s 30m26s TH-to-TH on the Third Flatiron (2.7 miles with 1500’ of elevation gain, YDS 5.2), and 30m19s TH-to-TH on the First (2.4 miles with 1500’ of gain, YDS 5.6) are astonishing, especially when you consider that YOU CAN DIE during a good portion of this time.
I’m way too old and slow to consider competing with a kid like Kyle. Anyway, I naturally gravitate to “How much can I do?” Big link-ups in the Flatirons remind me of being a kid again, out there exploring. It’s good to learn new things, and to challenge our abilities. I’ve been an endurance runner for 20 years, but to become an endurance scrambler I’ve had to learn and improve. Climbing raises the bar because, like I said, YOU CAN DIE.
Plus, you use so many more muscles and skills than just running. I’ve done some of the biggest Flatirons link-ups ever climbing over 30 routes in a day a couple of times.
Well, so now it’s winter, the days are short and cold, there’s snow on the ground. Scrambling isn’t normally considered a winter activity. But, here in Boulder we do sometimes have very nice days in the middle of winter. On one such day in early January I decided to keep my scrambling skills sharp by climbing Roach’s “Top Ten” Flatirons climbs. This little outing, which involves about 64 guidebook pitches (the way I did it), covers about 17 miles with 8500’ of elevation gain, has probably been done by fewer than 20 people ever, and only once in winter. On December 29, 2018, Bill Wright and Danny Gilbert climbed the Top Ten on a miserably cold day. It took them 15h59m of pure suffering, but resulted in a most engaging trip report by Bill. I can’t decide if Bill and Danny are masochistic idiots, or if I’m just a total wimp. But, I figure if I’m going to do this in winter I’m going to wait for a warm day!
I started at Chautauqua Park an hour before sunrise and tromped up to the base of the First Flatiron by head lamp. Not surprisingly, there was a big pile of snow blocking easy access to the route, and my scrambling shoes were damp on the slippery first moves. The 1000’ route was peppered with snow and ice, which made it a bit more thoughtful, especially climbing by headlamp. But, I know the moves extremely well. There Top Ten starts here, but if there was a Top One this would be it: the First is the closest big route to Chautauqua, and it is excellent. About halfway up I was able to switch off my headlamp, as the eastern sky lit up pink and orange. A bracing wind met me at the top of the climb, and kept me chilly on the 200’ downclimb, but overall the temperature was moderate and I knew it would warm up quickly.
On the short, off-trail hike over to the base of the Third I donned my microspikes for the snow-covered talus. I used the spikes only twice all day, for maybe 15 minutes total. Roach has called the standard east face of the Third “one of the best beginner climbs in the Universe”. ‘Nuff said. At the summit I pulled out my 2oz skimo harness and my rope, and rapped down to Friday’s Folly ledge. Friday’s is a 1-pitch 5.7 on the vertical southwest face of the Third. People solo it, but I didn’t want to, and since you have to rap it anyway (or down climb, as Darren Smith did on his remarkable Top Ten FKT, you might as well just top rope it, which I did with a self-belay. Using a rope in this way has it’s advantages and disadvantages: It’s safer and more relaxing than soloing, I could climb everything in my scrambling shoes (La Sportiva TX3), but I had to carry the rope. I’ve experimented with all kinds of set-ups for these things, but today decided to carry a full 60m, 7.5mm rope, for the simplicity and safety of it. I wasn’t going for max speed – just trying to get it done. The rope, harness, a few items of pro, clothing, food, and 1 L of water, adding up to maybe 6kg, fit very nicely and carried comfortably in my Fastpack 15.
It’s a long slog over to Green Mountain Pinnacle, and I was relieved to find there wasn’t too much snow on the hike up. This 70’ chimney is one of the most unusual climbs in the Flatirons, which are most characterized by long, moderate east facing slabs.
The morning was warming up nicely as I traipsed over to the TOP of Stairway to Heaven. People complain about this odd, long, discontinuous ridge climb being included in the Top Ten, but it certainly allows for a very direct link if one down climbs this route, as it is exactly between where you are and where you are going. Being in the shade of Skunk Canyon, the bottom of Stairway was a bit icy and wet, but it didn’t take too much creativity to find a way through.
Next up was Backporch, a fun, 3-pitch 5.6 climb followed by a 2-stage rap, including the strangest, most awkward rappel start in the Flatirons.
I decided to skip Pellaea for the moment, since it doesn’t matter whether one does it on the way southwards, or on the return to Chautauqua at the end, and I wanted to be sure I could get off the Matron before dark. I’ve climbed the Matron in the dark twice, and it’s not really my favorite thing. It was a long hike on the Mesa Trail to the turn-off for the Fatiron – another fantastic, 1000’ east facing slab. If the Fatiron was close to Chautauqua it would be as popular as the First and Third, but being miles away I’ve never encountered another climber on it.
Next up, the north face of the Maiden is certainly one of the oddest climbs, being mostly a traverse with as much down climbing as climbing up. The hard part is getting onto the north face of the pinnacle itself, with a thin and insanely exposed 5.6 move. Fortunately, there’s a way to protect this move with a top rope, and I had the exact pro needed for that. Safety first! (At least that’s what my wife tells me.) Once across this scary section, I stuffed the rope in my pack and just soloed the rest. The rap off the Maiden is legendary: 100’ of free air onto a small platform with vertical drops on either side. Fun!
Another fairly long hike brought me to the base of the southernmost of the Top Ten, another remarkable pinnacle called the Matron. The Top Ten route is the North Face, a vertical 5.5 that I didn’t really want to solo, but that intersects the East Face halfway up. So, I soloed the East Face (still 5.5, but to me less scary), set an anchor at the top of the NF, rapped and top roped the route, then continued on to the top. Working out techniques that are comfortable for ourselves is a big part of this game! I was very happy to get off the Matron before 3pm, with plenty of time to hike back and pick up Pellaea before dark.
I finally reached my car at Chautauqua about an hour after sunset, 11h27m after starting. A fun and satisfying way to ring in 2020!
Editor’s Note: For purposes of this project, “winter” ends with raptor closures on 2/1.