Text and pictures © 2000-2015 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2012/12/13
"It is better to retreat off a good climb than to succeed on an indifferent one." — Chris Jones, 1971.
Disclaimer: I wrote this page as we were discovering Colorado, its grandiose places but also its sometimes silly human shortcomings. It thus contains some American bashing of the mild variety you might want to skip by only looking at the pictures. Who reads on the Web anyway...? So click here to skip the rant and go to the climbing part ! If you want to read it all, just bear in mind that this is meant to be tongue in cheek, even if I miss my target... Otherwise we wouldn't have spent 3 years enjoying our time there.
Well, so we moved to Colorado at the end of November 2000. For a new job, a new life and some new climbs. Not everything is golden in the US of A but we like the place. We didn't come unprepared: I had lived and worked several summers in Maryland when I was still a student (about as bad a place as my definition will allow) and 10 months in Alaska in '95 (although the locals will argue that Alaska is not acquainted to the lower 48). So we were hopeful for a better pay, a job with fewer hours, much less traffic and car accidents...
Right: Obnoxious Christmas decorations in Fort Collins
So were did we go wrong ? Finding a place was easy enough and we like the apartment; it's much nicer than the hole we last had in Rome, with disrespectful cats pissing on the windows. Finding a car was easy too, although I can tell you that when a car salesman sees you arriving on a bike he's not gonna let you off the hook easy. So I got the car I wanted, paid more than what I wanted, got ripped off by the loan ("we're sorry, but you have no credit history" and hit you on the head with 14.5%) and cried when I had to pay 6 times more for the insurance than in Europe ("You have a new US driver's license, then you are a new driver !") even though I never caused an accident in 12 years of driving...
I did remember the driving on the east coast as a long endless bore of slow moving traffic. But having had 2 cars go up in smoke in less than a year due to speeding idiots, it's not something that makes me complain anymore. And Colorado has a 75 mph speed limit ("What do you mean, not in the city ?!") No the real fun here is spotting the ugliest or stupidest car. Colorado is SUV land. Super Ugly Vehicles such as the Dodge RAMs which I considered the ugliest car ever made till I had more time to look around (although I'm not sure a 3 tons monster can be called a car). You see 16 year old airheads driving 3 tons pickup trucks on icy roads while painting their nails, holding a cell phone with their shoulder and smoking: "But it's OK, I've got 4 wheel drive...", yeah with an empty trunk I really wonder how much traction the back wheels get. And no matter what kind of SUVs or pick-up they get, americans don't like them. Or so I understand from the modifications they do to them: they put bigger wheels, higher suspensions, larger axes with more wheels on them, longer beds, roofs on pickups. And then they complain when those copies of the Vasa roll over when a tire goes 'pop'... Like Paul Graham said, "SUVs are gross because they're the solution to a gross problem: How to make minivans look more masculine".
But back to ugly cars, it's more fun than talking about accidents waiting to happen. Yeah, the Dodge RAM has been beaten by something, an uncertain Chrysler PT Cruiser, that looks somewhat like an old Ladybug... except that it's more like a cockroach due to the usual choice of a black body paint. And another new one which is kind of in between in term of absolute butt-ugliness, the Pontiac Aztek. Of course all the penis-cars mounted on 2 meter wheels are off the scale... But not off the road as they seem to mainly be used to drive to the supermarket in clouds of gas fumes and loud crappy rap music. I've heard it said this way by locals: "Colorado: where SUV tire sizes exceed their driver's IQ". On the other hand we saw a Metro Geo low-rider with tube-like wheels sticking out the sides of the car... driven by a blonde. The obvious conclusion is that americans don't like the wheels they get upon buying a car: they either put bigger ones or smaller ones. It doesn't take much to be entertained while driving around here looking at all those funny looking things with wheels, but the thing that bothers me is that in all the accidents I've seen, there was either a low-rider or a SUV involved.
Left: A lone tree, Rocky Mountain National Park.
As for the food, I expected the worst, remembering days of diarrhea after eating hamburgers and such fast crap many years ago. It's not too bad as long as you stay away from restaurants: a lot of choice at the supermarket (even some European cheese like mozzarella [no! not yellow mozzarella sticks]), and some natural food stores. But the first surprise: the price; we hardly ever manage to do the weekly shopping for less than 200$... it was our monthly expense back in Rome (and there the salami was good). Second surprise: the ingredients. Even the bread comes with a label on it with the ingredients. I checked one and it had no less than 21 ingredients ! Last time I made bread I used only 4: flour, water, salt and yeast. And what about packaged breadcrumbs ? Well above the insanity threshold with 35 ingredients. As far as I know there should be only one: bread ! Still ranting about the bread, they sell bread making machines that will do all the job for you, even cook it during the night so it's ready for breakfast; but still the bread sucks. One of the 21 ingredients must have been missing... And I could go on and on, like the impossibility to find normal yogurts instead of wet cement made mostly out of corn syrup, corn starch, agar gum and gelatin; and of course they are all fat free, calorie free, sugar free and taste free. I wish the marketers were not brain free too (yeah, sis', I hope you read that too). So we no longer only cook in the mountains, but also at home...
Right: Sunset on Carter Lake.
Sports... That's a really funny one. When there is a world championship in the US, there's only one country invited: the US ! You think I don't make sense ? Well, when was the last time another country played baseball, football or Lacrosse ? Baseball, the most boring sport in the world, where players are stupidly dressed 40 year olds with beer gut bellies who chew tobacco at the same time they play; and there's only ever one player at a time doing something. Football, a denomination for a sissy version of rugby that stops for commercial breaks every time somebody takes a step forward. Lacrosse, something invented out of the blue by a gear company to make more money with people who can't think for themselves which sport they want to practice [Correction, someone sent me an email to explain that it actually comes from an old Indian game, so I retract that comment]. At least for climbing, you need to have 2 balls...
Left: 4th of July fireworks above Fort Collins.
People... No, I'm not going to criticize Americans while being here, I don't want my ass kicked ! Just one funny observation: everyone has a first name with less than 4 letters: Brad, John, Wes, Lisa, Dan, Joe, Al... Is it so they can remember their own name more easily ? Oooops, no can be, there's a George...
It's always easier to criticize than to point out good things which are too easily taken for granted. I'm kinda writing this rant for foreigners thinking about a stay in the US, but then I'm writing it in English, so that pretty much restricts the readership to the wrong people... It's simpler to write this way ! But don't worry, I can also say some bad thing about other places where I've lived: France and its yearly month-long strikes, Italy and its insane waiting lines, crazy driving and insane administration, Antarctica and its carnivorous penguins... Just kidding. On thing of note: after living in Colorado, if you go anywhere else on the planet the air feels sticky and you notice the sky is no longer blue.
But enough rant for now, let's get down to business.
Right: Bouldering at the Mesa near Grand Junction.
Upon arrival, the weather almost scared us off Colorado. I arrived a couple days after a record cold and snowfall, it was -17°C, windy with 20cm of snow in the streets. Then when I went to pick up Jenny at the airport 2 weeks later, there was freezing rain making the road particularly hazardous. Most people here seem to know how to drive on snow OK, except for some out of state 16-wheel truck drivers from Texas going 75mph on the ice... How the hell do they think they can stop ? The weather is mostly sunny with thunderstorms every early afternoon; the winter mostly cold with some sunny days allowing for easy bouldering in the sun, and about one day a week is very windy; the autumn is about perfect. Not a bad place.
Left: Jenny bouldering by the frozen Horsetooth lake, just above Fort Collins.
A 10 minute bike ride outside of the city will thrust you right away into boulder territory, they are just about everywhere on the west side of town. Most of them are on private land, but some are on really scenic places like on the ridge that dominates both the city and the large Horsetooth lake. The lake was mostly drained the year we arrived but still it looks good with its layer of wind swept ice. It can also get pretty windy up this ridge, although one of the best spots is south facing and well sheltered, thus called: 'The Tropics'. And best of all it's 500m from were I work allowing for some interesting lunch hour pauses.
2002 update. Those morons blasted the Tropics ! Yep, rigged it full of explosive and blew it to gravel. The dam was leaking and they wanted to cover it with more dirt, so they took it from the best climbing cliff in town. I still can't believe my lunch pause was turned into gravel...
I started climbing while I was a student in Paris in 1989, and soon went from the climbing wall to the boulder fields of Fontainebleau. So bouldering was what got me into climbing in the first place. I soon moved onto higher grounds: first sport climbing, then long bolted routes, then trad, then technical mountain climbs. So going back bouldering after all those years leave me with mixed feelings. It's nice and easy going, but it's a lot of pulling and grunting for only a couple feet of height ! The boulder problems are mostly sandstone or granite, depending on where you go. Some places are famous (but far from crowded), others totally unknown and hidden.
Right: Me bouldering in Rocky Mountain National Park on a day we were too lazy to do any real climbing...
Left: Jenny bouldering high up at Carter Lake....
The way the park system is organized in the US is about as easy to understand as their tax forms. There are at least 4 concurrent park systems: National parks, State parks, County parks and City parks. Oh, and I forgot National Forests and National Monuments. They are public land, yes, so it means the public has to pay to enter. Beats me. And it's not cheap either. The local small park by the side of the lake, where you can go to get your feet wet or for a little bouldering, is 6$ a visit, with a 60$ year pass... Does the US government hire people in marketing ? And the territorial limits between those parks are entirely unclear too: they are next to each other but you don't know when you are stepping over the limit. The few times I've been there, there was nobody who could sell us the pass. Annoying. I used to complain about having to pay fees to go climb in Himalaya, but at least the money goes into some poor country's economy (or more sadly in some corrupt bureaucrat's pocket). Here it just goes on to make more RV parking lots.
Left: Jenny climbing up Lumpy Ridge, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Right: Winter conditions at Palissade, above Drake
At first we were a bit disappointed to see that there weren't any cliff nearby. Lots of boulders, yes, but no cliff. But looking at it more closely it's not that bad. The very famous ones like Boulder Canyon, Eldorado Canyon and Lumpy Ridge (right) are hardly more than an hour away, and unlike Rome, there's never any traffic to get there. And even closer there are many unknown, hidden or otherwise secret spots waiting to be found like Palissade above Drake, Greyrock, or the secret spot I've been sworn not to reveal (below, left)... In other words there's no shortage of rock.
Left: A secret climbing spot with large offwidths, north of Fort Collins.
Right: Sport climbing at Shelf Road, south of Denver
Most of those places offer traditional climbing on granite cracks or unprotected slabs. There are a few exceptions, but if you want to find bolts for sport climbing on limestone, the closest place we know of is Shelf Road (right), south of Denver. Other sport climbing places include Lyons (from bad to fairly good) or Golden (good but crowded).
Left and Right: Here is Jason in action on the limestone of Shelf Road.
Right: Brad stemming a 5.10 at Golden.
Left: Jenny and Lisa both on lead at Golden.
Right: That's me clipping a 5.11 at the Monastery, a pretty nice place above Drake featuring anything from very easy to 5.14. If you go there, be sure to check the back of the towers, they have the most interesting climbs.
"If you can't eat it nor fuck it, piss on it." — Dog philosophy.
Grrr, why is it that americans feel the need to take those parasitic animals everywhere they go ? I thought they were meant to guard your homes...
I got pissed bouldering at the Kraft (Red Rocks) in december. I was there alone on a nice early morning and the dog show started when a party of 4 showed up with 4 big dogs. Then a guy showed up not quite alone: he had no less than 8 big dogs with him !!! And then more dogs showed up with a few more people in tow later. Now I don't normally mind well behaved dogs, but:
Right: Happy dog bringing a piece of rotting animal back for dinner. Feel the power of dog breath for the next 2 days...
Note: all of the above are true, and so is this. As for people taking dogs mountain climbing, I once had to rescue a huge St Bernard which had skidded on icy snow and almost made the Big Jump over a 300m ice fall (maybe he'd used his own barrel of rhum, who knows). And it's so lovely to find heaps of dogshit on backcountry ski trails when the spring snow starts to melt off (and I'm not the only one), or to never see a wild animal anymore.
Now every time I go bouldering in the US, I'll consider taking a BB gun, pepper spray or home-made Exlax dog cookies.
"My dog has the same rights as you !" — My all-time favorite dog owner quote.
Note: hate mail to love mail ratio about this section is about 50% and continues to generate interesting outbursts...
Left: Jenny on the summit of Montezuma's spire
Right: Two climbers on the north ridge of Montezuma's spire.
Some places are magic. Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs is such a place. I had seen a couple pictures in an old book and was instantly hooked up by those tall red spires. What the book didn't say is that those spires are made of a very soft sandstone and, unlike Utah, there aren't any cracks to jam. You actually have to face climb on tiny crimpers that either break or turn to sand under the pressure you exert !
Right: Jenny face climbing a sandy 5.10.
To be fair, the most classic routes are good, like Montezuma's ridge or the lower spires in the middle of the tourist trails. You can even place some pro inside some holes that look like they have been carved for that purpose. On the other hand, as soon as you try something different, you end up on 5.10 routes where the pro is made of pitons hammered directly into drilled holes. Do those things hold ? Well, as a local climber told us: "when they come off, we put a bigger piton in the enlarged hole...!" And there are plenty of holes where you can tell a piton has been until recently... Scary thought.
One of the best places around for trad routes long enough for a full day but not so long as to require a 3am start is Lumpy ridge. It offers a bunch of granite walls, from 10 minutes to one hour approach, one to 6 pitches and plenty in the below 5.10 range. Below are two pictures of the Owl, the impressive tower just above the parking lot.
Left: Lisa fighting the 5.9 offwidth of the Wolf's Tooth.
Right: Jenny on a nice 5.9 lead on the right side of the Wolf's Tooth.
Left: Still on the Owl, the 5.8 roof of the East Ridge.
Right: Just below the Owl, Seneca on the 5.9 sandbag of Yosemite crack, a heinous greasy offwidth crack. The grades at the Twin Owls are much stiffer than other places like the Book.
Left: One of the best place in Lumpy Ridge is the Sundance Buttress. It has the longest approach, so it is the least crowded... Here's Jenny finishing one of the upper pitches of Mainliner, a stellar route.
Right: There are plenty of very interesting looking routes on Sundance, and some interesting features as well, such as this big laying boulder...
Left: That's me showing off on the crux of Turn-Korner: 5.10+ offwidth roof ? Bah, don't need no stinking hands... This route is another of the excellent long routes of Mainliner at the far end of Lumpy Ridge. The crux is a roof offwidth which is not so bad, provided you have a bunch of large cams. There's also a hidden hold somewhere, which you can see from above after you have completed the moves !
Left: Jenny jamming the crack of the 2nd pitch of Melvin's Wheel (5.8).
Right: The Owl of Lumpy Ridge in autumn.
Right: Jenny leading the very nice Dags in Beanland, a 4 pitch route located on isolated Seam Rock above Drake. It's a moderate 5.8 trad slab climbing with a few bolts thrown in for good measure.
Left: Slab of The Narrow, near Fort Collins.
For my birthday, we climbed the 5.9 dihedral of The Narrow (hidden on the right behind the arete) and then a 60m 5.10 on the left of that slab: look for Jenny on the top of the photo. The Narrows are on the road between Fort Collins and Cameron pass, and even though there isn't much to climb, it's well worth a stop.
Right: The *** dihedral of the Narrow, 5.9 and a test of the new camera
Left: Then a more technical 5.10 route with bolts only halfway up to whet the stomach. And all this right after work, I like long summer days...
Right: And when the night came we were still climbing, here Jenny on the 5.9R between both previous routes. That was before the nice picnic with orange shrimp kebabs, fish-filled peppers, vin jaune du Jura and bombe glacée au chocolat...
Left: Jenny on the short offwidth section at the end of the 2nd pitch of the Cynical Pinnacle.
We discovered the South Platte very late during our stay, barely 2 months before leacing Colorado. Too bad, it would have been worth many more trips. We climbed the very good Sheep's Nose and the 5.9 classic on Cynical Pinnacle.
Right: End of pitch one of Cynical Pinnacle.
Left: Climber hanging on the hard 5.12 start of Wunsch Dihedral (5.11) while Jenny is rappelling on the right.
Right: Rappelling of the Cynical Pinnacle.
We did a lot more climbing in Colorado than those few pages might hint. In particular, at the end of our 2003 climbing road trip, we finally got the guts to try the classic hard Naked Edge in Eldorado Canyon.