Between Pikes Peak and the Sangre de Cristo Range, the topography is fairly gentle. Not gentle compared to Kansas, but gentle enough that the original sedimentary rock layers still lie in the near-horizontal state in which they were deposited over a hundred million years ago. The Bureau of Land Management kindly reserved considerable acreage in the limestone cliffs off of Shelf Road, north of Canon City, Colorado. And then the climbers moved in! Over 500 bolted sport climbing routes have been created in the vicinity, likely making this the most popular sport climbing destination in Colorado.
I reached the Sand Gulch campground around 9:30 a.m., just in time to catch the six people I'd be climbing with before they left for the crags. In addition to Phil and Lisa Ensign were Mike and Judy Forshay (Mike climbed with me in Clear Creek Canyon) and Pat and Ana (insert surname here). All three couples are married, all three are 35 years or older, and all three climb 5.11 or higher!
Our first destination was Cactus Cliffs. Since there are only 40 climbs with a difficulty of 5.9 or lower, we knew that finding a route for me might be tough. Sport climbing consists of climbing up the rock and clipping the rope into bolts that have been pre-drilled into the rock. Drilling the bolts takes time and energy. The people with lots of spare time and energy to devote to climbing are generally good climbers. Therefore...finding easy sport climbs is often difficult.
We were lucky to find a 5.9 with 10 bolts, La Cholla Jackson(?) for me to "warm up" on. This was my first outing on limestone, and I quickly ran into trouble. I, along with most beginning male climbers, tend to rely on upper body strength alone to horse my way up the easy routes. The holds on the limestone were small and crimpy, meaning I was suddenly unable to haul up with my hands. My only option was to rely on my feet, and I quickly discovered that my footwork was horrible! I struggled to keep my feet plastered to the rock and had to retire after passing 5 of 10 bolts. The others warmed up on another 5.9 with 7 bolts, White Punks on Pockets(?).
Since I had successfully climbed a couple 5.9 routes in Clear Creek Canyon, and also in the gym, I was pretty bummed that I couldn't do the 5.9 here. We went up the canyon, past Spiny Ridge, to the area known as The Gym Arete area of The Gymnasium. I screwed around on a couple 5.10's, Crack of Dawn and Trout Fishing, knowing that I had nothing to lose and many things to learn. Crack of Dawn had about 40 feet of lieback that looked very non-intuitive to me. Once on the rock, I confirmed the non-intuiveness of the lieback, along with the sheer terror! I don't know why falling seemed to frightening. Probably because I was facing partially outward. Trout Fishing shredded my fingers and body when I did some pendulums, but I had fun trying to crab my way up the face.
After watching a marathon session on 5.12a Gym Arete, Phil graciously offered to set up a toprope on 5.8+ Damn Right I've got the Moves, back at Spiny Ridge. Finally I sensed I had a chance! The 7-bolt route follows a jagged vertical crack system up a vertical (like all the other routes) cliff. The moves were challenging, but I got to the top without too much trouble. The others arrived in time from Gym Arete just in time to see my moment of glory. I think they all felt pretty bad that I had flailed so much on the harder routes, and were glad to see me finish a climb. Still, I was reluctant to exclaim, "Damn right I've got the moves!"
In my haste to leave my apartment, I had underpacked woefully. I had a stove, but no pots or fuel. My food stash consisted of: 1 pack Couscous, 4 packs instant oatmeal, peanut butter (no jelly), 1 bagel, and 4 pieces of bread. I shyly mooched an excellent dinner from the other three couples. The day was hot and dry, making for an exceptionally pleasant evening. Very clear sky, with almost no light pollution, a sliver moon, and beautiful sunset. The setting of the valley itself is aesthetically pleasing, with cliffs of varying hue, shape, and geology permeating the gently rolling high desert topography.
The next morning we set off for California Ethics Pinnacle and Menses Prow, two other clusters of climbs in The Gallery area. We approached by hiking directly out of the campground and upstream into one of the many gulches. The scenery here was even better than yesterday's. Luckily, we arrived early enough to claim spots on the two best 5.8 climbs in the entire area, (the first one) and (the other one). (the first one) was similar to a couple of yesterday's climbs: many foot- and hand-holds of marginal value. This made finding footholds especially crucial. After some careful climbing, my head was even with the last bolt. The obvious and huge handhold, although covered in chalk, was undoubtedly a loose rock. We made the 5.8 a 5.8+ by doing some creative route finding to the right. The feeling at the top was one of true openness. Tough to explain, but sometimes you just can feel that this has been a good climb when you're at the top, whereas others aren't that special. Simply making it to the top probably helps in this regard!
(The second 5.8) was another beauty, but quite different. It followed a very prominent vertical crack, but never called for the mandatory lieback of (yesterday's 5.10). I felt a bit claustrophobic in the crack, but after some concentration and a little hanging, I worked out the problems and squeezed up the crack. Near the top, the rock gets very vertical, and possibly 5 degrees overhanging, with a big roof to give shade. I forgot to mention that (per Phil's recommendation), I had been unclipping the quickdraws from the rope on both climbs. Practicing this skill will probably help me when I start lead climbing. The last bolt was offset perhaps five feet from the top anchor, and I took a fall at precisely the right spot for a small pendulum fall. Since I left blood on every other route I had tried at Shelf Rock, I guess it was only fair that I leave my "mark" on this one as well.
After watching the others climb 5.10d Lunch at the Y
No Passion for Fashion
(Phil led both), I headed back to Littleton. Although my
body was bruised and beaten, I think I learned a lot about
rock climbing this weekend and spent it with some nice
Department of Geophysics