Month 2: Colorado & Beyond
In some places it's very difficult to take a bad photo. Great Sand Dunes NP is one of those places.
After the San Jauns, we had plans to meet up with Kelly, a friend from back home, and do some climbing over in the Front Range. She decided to drive from Phoenix to Durango straight through, for an eight hour drive. We met her late at night in the parking lot of the Durango City Market, and headed up into the hills for some shut-eye. Thinking she was done with driving and ready to adventure in the mountains, we spent the next day driving another 6 hours to Great Sand Dunes National Park, where we did not climb a single rock or mountain. We did, however, climb to the top of some some dunes, got pelted by sandy gusts of wind, pretended to be searching for The Spice, and then slid back down the dune on our butts. With the closest town being Alamosa, 45 minutes away, we opted to simply camp in the park. This was our first night so far that we actually paid for camping!
Pulling away from our campsite the next morning, we got the dreaded Check Engine Light on in the Jalopy. The van began shifting very hard and erratically. Trying to reverse made it feel like the engine was about to stall. Lucky us, we got to spend even more time in Alamosa! - Aside: I'm sure Alamosa is a fine town, but when you're a climber and you come to Colorado for the mountains, you try to spend very little time in farming towns that look like they belong in Iowa instead of the Rocky Mountain State. - Limping the van to an Autozone to have the code read, we were told by the clerk that because our vehicle is older that 1996, he was unable to read the error code due to it having a non-compatible connector with his reader. Generously, he mentioned that we could purchase the reader we needed in the store and read the code ourselves. Gee thanks mister! We drove the van over to a proper mechanic shop, where the mechanic gave us our answer: an error in our throttle position sensor was causing the automatic transmission to shift erratically due to not having proper information from the throttle. We mentioned that our destination was Colorado Springs, about 3 hours away. He said we should be fine, that this was not a super serious problem, and recommended a shop in town over there. He reset the code for us and sent us on our way. We didn't see the check engine light come back on for another two weeks.
In Colorado Springs we have a friend, Kelsie, who opened up her kitchen and shower to us. She was able to show us around to some awesome climbing and bouldering areas as well! There is a little boulder pile that we walked to from her house!
Kelly riding The Wave. In this town, there is pretty cool sandstone bouldering that is literally in a subdivision.
The next couple of days were spent climbing at the Garden of the Gods. Stoke for this area ran the spectrum from "let's climb everything" (me) to "the rock here is sandy shit, its crowded, and everything is run out" (Kelly). While I understand her annoyance, this is my blog so I'm going to write about how great it was! First of all, The Garden (as locals call it) is like Disney Land when it comes to crowds. on top of that, the tallest routes are only three pitches, so you are always a spectacle for tourists from middle America when you are roped up at this place. At any given time there were at least four people taking my photo or recording video of us climbing a sandstone fin. Makes you feel like a celebrity. I felt like putting out a tip jar that read "will take a whipper for $20." Despite the fact that that would only confuse these people as to why I would want money to eat whipped cream while climbing. I actually had one man take my photo with his phone after I was back on the ground and packing up my rack. I still had my harness and helmet on, this guy comes about 4 feet from me, and without saying a word snaps my photo and walks away. Not only is that sort of weird and rude, but whenever I see tourists taking random garbage photos I just imagine the vacation Powerpoint they are going to show their family later. "And this is a complete stranger I saw standing on flat ground next to a backpack. He was wearing a helmet for some reason and a weird belt thing that went around his waist and legs and strange rubber shoes on his feet. What a weirdo! I took his picture but never asked him or said anything to him at all." What are you going to do with that photo!
On a serious note, I could see how the crowds or tourists mixing with climbers could result in injuries, and I'd be surprised if things haven't happened in the past. Many of these rock formations are surrounded by park visitors just walking around, oblivious to the climbers above them. This seems like ideal conditions for someone to get injured from rockfall. Climbers know to wear helmets when underneath another party, and to keep your head down and stand into the wall when someone yells "ROCK!" When we were trying to throw our rope down to rappel, I couldn't get people to move out of the way no matter how many times I shouted "rope!" I had to shout down to families from 200' up and explain to them in complete sentences that I was going to throw a rope down and to please move out of the way. Meanwhile more people wander into the landing zone. Be conscientious if you climb here, climbers are a minority in the park.
1. Montezuma Tower! One of The Garden's ultra-classics. It's two pitches to the top, epic exposed climbing, and enough shutters going off underneath you that you might mistake it for rockfall.
2. This is how thin this rock fin is! Pro is pretty sparse, taking a fall over either edge would certainly be quite an adventure in its own right! Good thing the climbing is easy...
(PC: Mikhaila Howard)
Despite all this, Garden of the Gods is a rad place to climb. The park is a range of orange and red fins, paper thin on one side with broad faces that make them seem like towers when viewed from the face. It's as if the whole park were a movie set and these formations were just like the fake old western town store facade. They soar above the pines and broadleaf trees, contrasting perfectly against the lush foliage. It honestly looks like something out of fantasy. Simply driving the loop around the park is breathtaking. There is tons of climbing, all sandstone, from 5.6 to 5.13. Routes tend to be just run out enough to remind you of your mortality and make you feel like a badass. I suppose this is the reason our friend wasn't stoked on the place.
We found another area to climb called Elevenmile Canyon. Granite! Granite was made for trad climbing. With renewed pysch we set off. We got six pitches in total that day on two routes. The rock quality in Elevenmile is some of the best I have climbed on, and Kelly was having a blast! Super sticky, slabby granite, pro everywhere (except on one pitch, dubbed "the bathtubs," which was free-soloed) Plus we saw a butt rock. Trip complete.
You need to have a bird's eye view to see the giant butt in the river! This is why we climb! Scroll right for zoom.
It had been one week since we met Kelly in Durango, and her time had come to an end. We parted ways in the early morning from our campsite in the canyon. She headed back to Phoenix and Mikhaila and I continued north to Denver.
Mikhaila's brother, Malakai, has an apartment in Lakewood, a suburb of Denver. After living in a cramped space for two months without running water, we were quite excited to do things like actually relax on a couch and enjoy things like climate control and a real (air mattress) bed. He was very gracious to us and even gave us our own key! For the next week we had access to a full kitchen, refrigerator, and a real shower! It was heaven! It's pretty crazy all the stuff you take for granted that makes van living such an experience. We took full advantage. Finally being able to use an oven, we made pizzas, cake, and lasagna. We took enough long, hot showers that his water bill was probably in the tens of thousands. But it's cool, I gave him one of my beers. Once again, it was amazing to have a local to show us around town and take us to some of the better climbing areas. With his days off, we went out for a high-elevation bouldering session up near the summit of Mt Evans. I called it alpine-style bouldering because the approach was over a talus field with around 1000' of elevation gain over a half mile. Now I'm not very serious about bouldering, but apparently Metolius is regarded with a lot of derision among boulderers because Malakai and his friend made fun of our crash pads the entire time we were out. They even gave us some handy suggestions for better uses, such as: a mattress, a tiny thick tent, a very bulky jacket, protection against attack dogs, or extra incentive not to fall off of a problem.
Malakai on some V5 or something, I don't know. Important tip for building a landing zone under your project: the Metolious pads go in the pit underneath, or somewhere where you will not land on them. "If you fall, make sure you land on one of the Organic pads!" Sage advice.
The next day we decided to take Malakai out to do some real climbing. With a rope, and a harness even. I may have a cheap crash pad, but at least the buckle on my harness isn't rusted from being left in storage for so long. After a pit stop at a gear shop to pick up a new, badass pink harness for him, we were on our way to some cragging near Golden. Highway 6 runs east out of Golden through Clear Creek Canyon, where there are lots of little parking pullouts at the base of some sheer granite walls, and you can climb to your fill and scream at your belayer over the sound of engine brakes echoing through the canyon. First I put up a top rope on a nice and mellow 5.6 so that the V8-climber (Malakai) in our group could feel nice and comfy on a "high ball." After that it hailed, and we took shelter at the base of a 5.11 route that had a vast roof jutting out above it around 150 feet up, keeping it nice and dry. With no other routes that were both dry and below 5.13, we decided to put it up. Face climbing on granite has never been my forté, and this route ended up kicking my butt. I put up the first three bolts, then Malakai top roped up to that point and managed to clip the next four, after which I tied back in and finally clipped the anchors. Once it was done it did prove to be a pretty cool climb though, if not a bit thin for the grade. Our next group project was a bolted 5.12 nearby. I have no idea why we thought we could do it after getting massacred on an 11 at the same crag, but we roped up. To our credit, we clipped the first two bolts, and only one of them was clipped from the ground! We flailed on the moves under the third bolt for about 45 minutes, taking turns when our tips felt like they were going to tear off from cranking on crimpy sidepulls. Defeated, we walked back to the parking area and said our goodbyes to Malakai, as we were to move on.
Leadville is pretty high up there in my list of favorite towns we've visited in the van. Good dispersed camping that's close to town and has awesome views of the second highest peak in the lower 48, a pretty chill coffee shop called City on a Hill, and a good mechanic shop. Remember the check engine light? It came back to haunt us on our drive to Leadville from Estes Park where we had been after Denver. I was able to replace the faulty throttle position sensor in the parking lot of an auto parts store, but we had bigger problems by this point. All the steep mountain driving had done a number on our brakes. As it turns out, we sprung a leak at some point in our rear brakes, rendering them useless. This put all the force of braking down mountains in an obese car on the front brakes, destroying the pads and rotors. I replaced the brake pads myself, but the rest of the work was beyond me. After new front brake rotors, new rear seals and brake cylinders, our total was around $600. Not an easy expense for two funemployed people to absorb, but it was nice to be able to stop the car.With this finally put to bed, we could concentrate on more important matters, such as climbing mountains. Mt. Elbert is the highest point in Colorado, and second only to Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range for highest point in the lower 48. The summit reaches 14,440 feet above sea level.
Mikhaila enjoying our primo campsite at the base of Mt. Elbert.
Our summit of this peak began at 3:30 am. This is an incredibly popular trail. We rolled up to the trail head at around 4:30, and the parking was already beginning to fill up. Early is the name of the game on Elbert. We hiked pretty briskly, because I wanted to be above the timber line for the sunrise. There were a lot of people on that trail, and by 9:00 we started meeting insane people coming down who had apparently started hiking at 2:00 in the morning. We reached the summit, snapped some photos, and headed down. In all, not that great of a hike, but still cool to get to tick that peak. I'd die happy if I never repeated it though.
Our last stop in Colorado was Aspen. Or rather, the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. We spent a total of one hour in Aspen probably, not counting restroom breaks at City Market. To be fair I'm not much of a skier, and I know that's what the town is known for. To me, Aspen just felt like the kind of place to be if you like going outdoors to be seen. The wilderness around it, however, is breathtaking. Mikhaila and I did an overnighter up to Snowmass Lake after being warned by a bus driver about crowds in the backcountry of Maroon Creek. This lake was stunning - crystal clear water with sheer rock faces dipping right down into the waves. One imposing fourteener and a few thirteeners encircle the basin. If you felt like hiking 9 miles uphill with an inflatable dinghy, there could be some FA potential out there.
Snowmass Lake with Snowmass Peak in the back against the sky and Snowmass Mountain (yes, they are different) beyond. Snowmass Village is several miles to the north of here. Despite all the hype, we didn't see too much snow on this little excursion.
The morning after we returned to the trail head, we watched an unimpressive sunrise over the Maroon Bells, the main reason people come to this area. The Maroon Bells are regal looking mountains that also sit above a reflecting pool. But something about hiking on pavement turns me off, so we didn't continue much further down that trail. Heading back to the van, it was only 7:30. We determined that two months was enough time in one state (even though it really isn't) and if we were going to see and do all the other things we had dreamed about all over the country, we had better start moseying. Next stop, Wyoming!