A look at the new-school sport climbs of the Flatirons, Colorado.

Climbing - - CONTENTS -

In 2011, the Boul­der, Colorado–based climber Matt Se­gal swam his way up crimps and slop­ing hue­cos on a black streak on Seal Rock’s south face, 15 feet above a nest of cams in the fused Foun­tain sand­stone. His tar­get, just above, was a pre-placed Big Bro tipped di­ag­o­nally be­tween a jug and a small lip. A fall be­fore the tube chock would launch him to­ward a gi­ant boul­der in the gully be­low. Se­gal had no bolts to pro­tect him on the climb, Pri­mate, as it had been es­tab­lished—head­point-style, without bolts—in 2000, squarely amidst a bolt­ing mora­to­rium. Though Pri­mate has since been bolted to be a “sen­si­ble-enough” mixed lead, for years it and the other climbs on this wall sat idle, vic­tims of the mora­to­rium and their own lack of nat­u­ral pro­tec­tion.

As of press time, Pri­mate is one of 54 new routes to go up since 2003 on these mas­sive for­ma­tions, which tilt out of the pon­derosa-cloaked ridges and canyons of the Boul­der Moun­tains. That year, the lo­cal climber or­ga­ni­za­tion the Flatirons Climb­ing Coun­cil (FCC) came to an agree­ment with Open Space and Moun­tain Parks (OSMP) and the City of Boul­der to lift a ban on all bolt­ing, in­clud­ing up­dat­ing old hard­ware, orig­i­nally im­posed in 1989. It all be­gan with a pi­lot area—spe­cific for­ma­tions on Di­nosaur Moun­tain, one of the dens­est clus­ters of climbable rock—and later ex­panded to in­clude for­ma­tions across the sev­en­mile breadth of the range. To­day, dozens of for­ma­tions are ap­proved for new-rout­ing on a per­mit process over­seen by the FCC’s Fixed Hard­ware Re­view Com­mit­tee (FHRC). The FHRC meets three times a year and can ap­prove three new routes per cy­cle.

Dur­ing the hia­tus, climb­ing ac­tiv­ity es­sen­tially “froze” in the Flatirons, mak­ing them a liv­ing mu­seum that es­caped some of the worst ex­cesses of the 1990s, when glu­ing, chip­ping, and grid-bolt­ing were often part of the sport-climb­ing ex­per­i­men­ta­tion process. Sport climb­ing had come into ex­is­tence in Amer­ica in the mid-1980s. It was a tur­bu­lent time marked by clashes over ethics, in which for­mer friends got into fist­fights in park­ing lots over the le­git­i­macy, or lack thereof, of rap bolt­ing. The Flatirons re­mained a rel­a­tive back­wa­ter com­pared to mega-destinations like Smith Rock and the New River Gorge, and so had only a few flare-ups of con­tro­versy. The long ap­proaches (a gru­el­ing mile-plus) and ge­o­graphic sep­a­ra­tion of the for­ma­tions kept a con­cen­tra­tion of climbs from emerg­ing ex­cept in a few key ar­eas, like Di­nosaur Moun­tain, Bear Canyon, and Fern Canyon.

As a re­sult, the Flatirons were more of a lo­cals’ area, though in climber-cen­tric Boul­der that still meant constant ac­tiv­ity. In keep­ing with the 1980s vert-slab sport ethos, the early Flatirons sport routes were thin and blank. Take the six-bolt Cor­nu­copia (5.13a) on the Box high on Di­nosaur Moun­tain. This very first Flatirons sport climb, put up in 1986 by Dale God­dard, is a bright-or­ange scooped face that has no holds big­ger than a half-pad crimp, with a flurry of slop­ing, un­help­ful peb­bles. It would prob­a­bly be eas­ier to red­point in a pair of board-stiff Me­gas—the cut­ting-edge rock shoe of the 1980s—than any of to­day’s softer, more down­turned of­fer­ings.

As the 1980s wore on, dozens of sport climbs went in and the cliffs hummed with ac­tiv­ity. Then, in 1989, Boul­der Moun­tain Parks (BMP), OSMP’s pre­cur­sor, shut the party down. It was not any one thing; moun­tain bik­ing had been the first to go a few years ear­lier when com­plaints about the new-fan­gled trail bikes breez­ing by and alarm­ing hik­ers reached the city coun­cil. And then, it was climb­ing’s turn. While the Flatirons have a rich climb­ing his­tory reach­ing back to the late 1800s, most of that ac­tiv­ity had been quiet, tweedy, and traditional—well-be­haved peo­ple dis­creetly clam­ber­ing up the mod­er­ate east faces, with the odd 1970s or 1980s crack climb thrown in. (The Flatirons are largely crack­less, and so steep, hard trad climbs are rare.)

But now, sud­denly, the whirring of power drills echoed off the canyon walls, while the new-school climbers wore bright, ob­nox­ious Ly­cra and screamed ob­scen­i­ties when they fell. Some bird­ers, hik­ers, and con­ser­va­tion­ists hated it. In 1989, BMP im­posed its bolt­ing mora­to­rium and even threat­ened to re­move trail­side climbs like Colin Lantz’s

Su­per­fresh (5.12d) and The Men­tor (5.12b), both in Fern Canyon. Though noth­ing came of the threats, climbers formed the Colorado Climbers Coali­tion to fight the chang­ing rules here and in El­do­rado Canyon, just to the south, which was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sim­i­lar grow­ing pains. All this was hap­pen­ing right as climbers fi­nally be­gan to de­velop an eye for the steep lines—the money pitches. It was a par­a­digm shift led by the likes of Dan Michael, with his 1987 5.13b Slave to the Rhythm, a wildly over­hang­ing peb­ble-and-crimp line on the back of the East Iron­ing Board, and Lantz, who just be­fore the ban fin­ished off the 80-foot Hone­mas­ter Lam­bada (5.14a) next to Slave as well as his un­re­peated arête The

Vi­o­la­tor (5.13c) in Fern Canyon. In other words, just as climbers clued into the in­ter­est­ing, wavy, hueco’ed over­hang­ing south, north, and west facets of the Flatirons, sport climb­ing was shut down. A case in

point would be Thun­der Muscle, a 13-bolt 5.14a up Span­ish-style sand­stone flut­ings and tu­fas on the over­hang­ing south face of Seal Rock. Lantz, Chip Ruck­graber, and Chris Beh in­stalled an­chors atop the route in 1989, but then the ban de­scended days later be­fore they could re­turn. The route sat idle un­til 2013, when Ted Lan­zano and I bolted it, re­plac­ing the rust­ing 24-year-old an­chor with half-inch stain­less-steel hard­ware and equip­ping the rest of the line.

Next to Thun­der Muscle is Pri­mate (5.13b), one of a hand­ful of head­point-style lines put up dur­ing the no-bolt era. While it’s now a mixed line with six bolts sup­ple­mented by cam place­ments, it was orig­i­nally led on gear at 5.13 X in 2001. (To test the key Big Bro place­ment dur­ing the first as­cent, I threw a haulbag full of rocks onto it—and it held.) Sim­i­larly, Thun­der Muscle’s neigh­bor is the much-sought-af­ter Choose Life (5.13d), orig­i­nally toproped in 2002 but never led. The hard­est Flatirons head­point is Matt Wilder’s 2009 Cheat­ing Re­al­ity, a 5.14- R up the tilted west over­hang of the Devil’s Thumb, a sin­is­ter spire an hour-plus uphill in re­mote Shadow Canyon. With a dy­namic V7 fi­nal crux five feet above mar­ginal gear, and with your next re­li­able pro seven feet be­low that, Cheat­ing Re­al­ity has seen only two re­peats, by Joe Mills and Brad Go­bright.

The 14-year mora­to­rium was just long enough for many of the OG sport routes, equipped with the usual 1980s hodge­podge of dis­rep­utable hard­ware-store bolts, home­made hang­ers, and sketchy Euro ring bolts, to fall into dis­re­pair, though there were no fail­ures. Un­til the FCC, formed in 1997 by a crew of ded­i­cated Front Range climbers, struck its 2003 Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing (MOU)—an agree­ment about how climb­ing would be car­ried out in the moun­tain parks—with OSMP, the sport routes faded from fa­vor. Climbers would go up there oc­ca­sion­ally, but the bolts be­came less trust­wor­thy, the climbs less chalky, the coat­ing of pine nee­dles and lichen on the holds ever thicker. The first new climb to go in un­der the MOU was Chris Archer and crew’s ex­cel­lent Hell

Freezes Over, an airy two-pitch 5.12a on the Red Devil on Di­nosaur Moun­tain. The name ref­er­enced a com­ment a BMP em­ployee made about the time­frame for al­low­ing bolt­ing again in the Boul­der Moun­tains—i.e., never. More routes fol­lowed, with a surge in ac­tiv­ity around 2007 when Beh helped rekin­dle in­ter­est in the Slab, a broad par­al­lel­o­gram of rock guard­ing the mouth to Fern Canyon. As ac­tiv­ity has ramped up, the three slots for each FHRC cy­cle are usu­ally full. The new climbs range from 5.10 jug romps, like those on the shady west face of Der Zerkle; to thin 5.12 peb­ble and face climbs, like that on the north side of the Ma­tron; to gym­nas­tic 5.13/5.14 tufa, hueco, and pocket hauls, like those on the south­west arête of the Maiden and the south face of Seal Rock, cur­rently home to the Flatirons’ hard­est, the 35-me­ter Jonathan Siegrist route I Am the Wal­rus (5.14b). Mean­while, a huge per­cent­age of the 1980s sport climbs have been res­ur­rected with half-inch stain­less hard­ware and bomber chain an­chors, and they’re pop­u­lar anew.

Peo­ple climb here again, and it’s been great to see. As OSMP ranger Rick Hat­field, the li­ai­son to climbers, puts it, “Climb­ing is one of our big­gest suc­cess sto­ries.” More­over, with the re­newal of the MOU ev­ery five years, the pi­lot area has ex­panded to in­clude a good chunk of for­ma­tions of in­ter­est, with po­ten­tial for dozens more climbs in the “new-school” vein. Ev­ery­thing is now above board and le­git, and the hand­ful of ac­tive Flatirons first as­cen­tion­ists have hap­pily com­plied with the rules. In a way, the per­mit­ting process has been a boon, keep­ing de­vel­op­ment to a mod­est pace that has helped the Flatirons avoid some of the over­bolt­ing and over­crowd­ing is­sues man­i­fest­ing in nearby Boul­der Canyon.

Yes, it can be a slow and some­times labyrinthine process to put up a route in the Flatirons, but as the high qual­ity of these new lines at­tests, it’s been worth the wait. A lot can hap­pen in 14 years. Then again, things can also stay the same. The re­source is what we make of it, and some­times a slow, con­sid­ered pace of de­vel­op­ment can save us from our own worst in­stincts.

Matt Samet is the edi­tor of Climb­ing. For more with Flatirons sport-climb­ing pi­o­neers Colin Lantz, Bob Ho­ran, Paul Glover, and Dan Michael, visit climb­

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