I know it seems unlikely, but I actually went on a climbing trip, and accidentally left my camera at home. It was all packed up, ready to go, and on the table rather than in the pile with everything else. So it didn’t go in the car. I realized this around Loveland on I-25, and declared “I don’t need a camera to go rock climbing!” and that was that.
After three days of heavy snow this week, Mark and I decided that most of the rocks and cliffs around Fort Collins would be un-climable this weekend. I took the opportunity to demand one more trip to Shelf Road, and Mark acquiesced. Our last trip had been a lot of fun, and we found ourselves in much better climbing shape than we expected. So we took advantage of the bad weather and headed south to work hard on the long limestone routes at Shelf Road, again.
When we arrived in Cañon City Friday night, the air was clogged with snow like powder sugar in a donut kitchen. As we drove north out of town, the snow began to lighten, and the skies were cold and clear as we pulled into the campground. There was a dusting of snow on the cacti when we arrived, and the desert was white and frozen under the quarter moon.
Saturday morning, we woke late, waiting for the sun to warm up the tent. By the time I crawled outside, much of the snow had melted. We made breakfast and then headed to Cactus Cliffs for some sun-drenched climbing.
Kalahari Sidewinder (5.8) – We had to wait for the sun to hit this climb before we could warm up on it. As we sat at the base in the shade, Mark rebuilt a retaining wall and I tried to determine if we had climbed the route before. It seemed so familiar. When I climbed it, it seemed unfamiliar. Either we climbed it years ago, or the routes at Shelf are starting to blend together, or both.
It was a good warm-up, and as we each took a turn, 4 or 5 groups of climbers hiked past and all stopped to marvel the climb to our left. Each time, somebody from the group would say “This is a really great climb. Do you want to warm-up on it?” Mark and I developed a series of seemingly innocuous remarks that eventually talked each group out of it.
“You know, I’ve heard it’s much harder than 10a.”
“The last group said a key hold fell off.”
“Is it missing a bolt? It seems like there’s a lot of space between the 3rd and 4th…”
“Oh the rock is really cold. My fingers are still numb! When Mark breathed near that climb, his breath actually crystallized and little snowflakes fell out on to that route.”
Dihedrus (5.10 a/b) – After successfully shooing away so many other climbers, Mark and I hopped on this “classic”. It has 4 stars in the book, and seemed to deserve all of them. I love climbs at Shelf that make you do movements you would never normally do. This climb was a 90ft long shallow corner, and full of stemming (one foot on each wall), manteling (pushing down instead of pulling up), and delicate balanced moves. Excellent.
As I hung from the anchors and removed our gear from this route, a group of about 25 climbers, all from Nebraska, settled on our little part of the wall. They sent a leader up The French Are Here (5.12c). It was amazing and creepy to watch this guy climb the route. The bolts were spaced so far apart that he took several long falls. The moves were so delicate and difficult that he would grab a tiny nub of rock, scream his brains out and do a one-armed pull-up to the next nub. It was a sight to behold.
Christmas Tree (5.10 b/c) – After watching the Nebraskan Hardmen show their metal, Mark and I wandered right to a happy looking climb with a little tree on top. Mark had an exciting lead on this one, as he was so set on the anchors being below the tree-ledge that he actually clipped this bolt with a long draw and then started looking for the other bolt. I had to yell up and explain that there was another 30ft of climbing above the ledge. The tree, which looked so happy from the ground, turned out to have a trunk with a sharpened stake protruding upwards. Mark felt that a wrong move above this scary plant would have resulted in some serious unpleasantness.
It was another VERY long route, taking nearly the entire half rope length (100ft) from bottom to top. It was very physically demanding, and by the time I reached the anchors, my hands were twitching and completely sapped of strength. I cleaned it, came down, and we took another break to watch the Nebraskans work a 12d further down the cliff.
Third Stage (5.10 b/c) – We saw this perfect slab climb on our hike in, and we had to do it on Saturday afternoon. The rock was black and covered in classic Shelf Road limestone needles. Every handhold felt like it could pierce your skin. At 80ft, it was another endurance route, this time focused on how long you could stand on a single toe while you looked around for the next tiny, inobvious, foothold. I love hard slabs. I loved this climb.
My fingers and toes hated me for it, and when Mark ran off talking about a 10c with 3 roofs to do next, I felt officially worked. I layed in the sun and napped while he scouted the area. We decided not to do the climb that was described as “poorly bolted loose rock,” and instead I convinced Mark to climb a new route in the area.
Beach Ball (5.8+) – This route was a line of shiney new bolts with an overhanging wide crack at the top. The setters had even made a placard in the desert climbers tradition, and on a flat rock near the base of the climb we read the words “Beach Ball. 5.8. 3-08” A new 5.8! We have to climb it!
We both agreed, it seemed pretty hard for a 5.8. I actually oozed off the holds at the top of the cracked bulge and took my first fall of the day on this route. My hands were no longer staying closed on holds, my stomach was so sore it hurt to breathe, and my toes screamed each time I stood up.
Glass Babies to Gabby (accidentally) (5.11a) – Mark wanted one more climb at the end of the day, so, despite my whining, he hopped on what he thought was a newly bolted 10c. The leader before us had left a bail ‘biner and come down because the lines were confusing, and the bolts seemed to disappear. Mark wanted to get his gear back for him.
Somewhere, the climb went massively wrong. Mark found himself about 20ft further up the wall, faced with a crack so thin he could not fit a finger into it, and no other hand or foot holds. He took one fall that caught me off guard. I flew forward about 10ft, and gave Mark what he later claimed to be one of the nicest, softest catches he’d had in a very long time.
He fell again on his next try. And again. And again. Each time, I clamped down on the rope with cold, tired hands and took my little ride. The sun dipped below the cliff to our west, and the temperature dropped 15 degrees instantly. Mark fell again. And again.
Finally, my whining grew to a volume loud enough to penetrate Mark’s obsession, and he came down, still claiming that he hadn’t tried everything yet. When we looked up the climb later, it seemed Mark had inadvertently begun to follow the wrong line of bolts, and ended up in the crux of an old-school 11a for his sixth long climb of the day. Ouch!
We hiked back to the campsite in the dark, and had a nice evening next to a warm fire. I don’t remember what food we made, and I was asleep within an hour. A perfect day at Shelf.