Colorado’s Alpine Bouldering – First Ascent Fever
By Jon Glassberg.
The 2012 Colorado alpine bouldering season was a carbon copy of the last decade of development. Area development often happens in cycles, and “new” zones are discovered and rediscovered in a pattern that can be predicted like clockwork. I have watched countless areas in the high country receive newfound attention when rock-stars establish ground breaking, difficult problems in previously “tapped” boulder fields. That’s how it works, and is likely to continue as bouldering styles change, safety gear improves, and climbers become more willing to walk deeper into the woods to seek out new climbs.
There is an ever-changing mix of alpine players in the Colorado development scene, with a handful of core first ascensionists that never seem to change. As professional climbers make the pilgrimage to the Front Range of Colorado each year, new areas are developed quickly, and the majority of low hanging fruit is plucked right away, regardless of difficulty. Ten years ago, only a handful of boulderers climbed V12, so the harder lines were often left as open projects. These days, a new bouldering area can see hard first ascents right away, in large quantities where a flurry of development sets the pace for modern climbing. The key developers tend to be climbers entrenched in the local scene. This summer was no exception, as Mount Evans and Rocky Mountain National Park were once again the center of attention. For most of the newly“re-discovered” zones, we are seeing a younger crop of climbers come through and develop harder grades in areas that have not seen traffic in five, ten, or even fifteen years.
Tools like Google Earth allow boulderers with an adventurous spirit to seek out fresh rock and discover areas for themselves. Mount Evans is home to some of the most extensive boulder fields in Colorado, and the location offers the rare opportunity to drive above the tree line on the highest paved road in North America. Access to over eight world-class destinations right off the road creates a unique atmosphere with tons of variety for climbers to choose from. If you like crimpy overhanging boulders, Area A has plenty to offer. If you want to escape the crowds and dig deep into the wilderness, take an hour-long hike to the Aerials and you won’t see a soul. The potential is staggering, and the ability to drive an hour from the Front Range and end up in the middle of nowhere is extremely rewarding.
This season has been particularly exciting for my friends and I, who have chosen to “rediscover” an old area developed in the mid-2000s and document our first ascent efforts. Our goal was to find an undeveloped area and record the birth of a new zone on its path into the public eye. We hoped that documenting the process would act as a social experiment, focusing on the ethics of development and secrecy. This project was particularly interesting because people have been to our chosen area in the past and climbed in many of the various zones we focused on. Developers in the Front Range such as Cameron Cross, Jason Tarry, and Ben Scott have spent the past 10 years putting up first ascents in a variety of boulder fields at Mount Evans. Often, little exposure is given to developer’s contributions in the mainstream media when areas are being established. Only years later when the masses swarm these boulder fields does history reveal itself. That cycle has played out time and time again in the high country of Colorado and will do so for many generations of climbers to come.
By accident, my friend Rich Crowder and I stumbled onto a secret area that had seen very little development over the past ten years. Located on the backside of Mount Evans, we started calling this area “The Abyss”, as it is located near Abyss Lake. With the easiest hike in the alpine, at 25 minutes on relatively flat ground, this area seemed like the perfect fit for our project, so we dove in full force and began our first ascent siege. For two months straight, our crew spent five days a week in the alpine above 13,000 feet, attempting virgin boulders, feasting on first ascents, and relishing in our small victories each day. There is no feeling like running around a new boulder field, looking at new lines, realizing they can be climbed, and then seeing a vision come to life.
Cleaning and prepping a new boulder is not a simple task. A newfound appreciation arises after spending hours brushing lichen, removing loose rock, chalking holds, fixing landings, working out moves, and then ultimately, sending the project. There is a mix of excitement and tension in the air as secret areas are developed. Everyone wants to send their projects before the area goes public, and this sense of urgency creates an awesome energy.
We developed over 80 boulder problems from V0-V13 on our summer retreat to Mount Evans, but it did not come without opposition and skepticism from other local developers. The area had been kept relatively secret for years and our presence in the new zone was not welcomed with open arms. Draws were stolen and feelings were hurt, as our efforts in the alpine became common knowledge. After some telling interviews with previous developers, we learned that the area had seen quite a bit of action but was kept secret from the community to maintain the private atmosphere. We have seen this scenario play out just down the street at Lincoln Lake, where development occurred in the early 2000s and then saw a massive explosion of activity in 2010, resulting in a wave of previous developers coming out of the woodwork to defend their efforts.
To me, it seems that ninety-percent of bouldering development is done by one percent of the bouldering community. It takes a rare breed of climber to go out day-after-day and establish routes others might enjoy. The amount of work that goes into a first ascent is overwhelming and it’s not for everyone. Busted knuckles, moving rocks for landings, days of failure, and hiking gear and pads are just the start, but the reward is overwhelming. I am sure that years from now, the efforts of our crew in this new area will, too, be overlooked.
Good documentation through photos, videos, and other media help to preserve this history. As technology increases in speed and capabilities, documenting these efforts will become easier and more complete, but it is unlikely that new climbers will do all of their homework as they venture into the alpine. Regardless of the negative feedback we received from a very small facet of Colorado climbers, the majority of boulderers love that they have a new climbing area to check out. With 80+ new problems and a hard new sport route established at Mount Evans, our hope was to inspire people to get out and explore. Tapping into climbing’s adventurous spirit is extremely rewarding and hopefully our efforts at Mount Evans will inspire others to follow in our footsteps, like we have followed in those that have come before us.
For more information on the development at Mount Evans please visit:
ABYSS – North America’s Highest Bouldering will be available for free on September 17, 2012 at LT11.com
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