THE BIG D
How Rifle Mountain Park Became the “Land of 5.13d”
Something terrible dwells in the East. Eyes sharper than flints, a back rippling with veins and muscle, its arms long and sinewy, knees covered in a thick, black carapace, this horror is, as we speak, hurtling through the icy maw of the mountains. The beast has rolled the stoutest cord of 60 meters into a black bag, the line coiled like an angry cobra. This creature quickly sends the hardest routes at Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, and it loves to downrate. It is coming for you; it is coming to downgrade your route.
They call the creature “George Squibb.”
If you haven’t spent much time at Rifle Mountain Park, America’s preeminent limestone sport area, then know this: Squibb has climbed most of Rifle’s 25 5.13d’s, establishing a few himself. And Squibb, today an environmental engineer, has been in the game since 1991, when Rifle’s first bolts went in. Now 42, he still climbs at Rifle and still sends 5.13d; last summer he redpointed the 5.13d’s Tomb Raider and The Gayness. So what up with 5.13d? you ask. Isn’t it just another number?
Well . . . back in the early 1990s, a motivated crew began tapping Rifle’s abundant limestone, walls up to 300 feet lining a 2.5-mile canyon. Far more popular then were American Fork, Utah, and Smith Rock, Oregon, the crème de la crème of American sport climbing. It was to Smith that France’s Jean-Baptiste Tribout imported the States’ first 5.14a — To Bolt or Not to Be — in 1986, rubbing salt in the wounds of inferiority that festered among America’s top climbers. Perhaps the future of hard climbing could be found at an obscure, blocky pile in western Colorado, they reasoned. And so, the race for Rifle’s first 5.14 was on . . . sort of.
Ironically, Rifle climbers’ egos played a key role in preventing 5.14 from becoming well-established on home soil. (As Squibb asks, “Who wanted to rate something 14a just to have some Euro flash it?”) Thus, you had a bumper crop of severely sandbagged 5.13d’s. On the other hand, Rifle’s blocky stone lends itself to ultra-tech kneescum trickery (aka “jessery”), meaning some 5.14s have become easier over time. And even though Chris Knuth, Tommy Caldwell, and most recently Andy Raether imported 5.14b-on-beyond, it’s primarily Squibb and other strong-sters — many from the hyper-talented Boulder sport-climbing scene, which relocates to Rifle each weekend — who have turned Rifle into the “Land of 5.13d.”
Here, we’ve pulled together Rifle’s best and biggest “Ds,” from easiest to hardest. In this quiet canyon, 5.13d still spans from 5.13b to 5.14b, depending on whom you ask (and don’t ask “The Squibb”). And that, for the grade-obsessed, might be scariest of all.
Editor’s Note:Check out Wolverine Publishing’s (wolverinepublishing.com) new guidebook to Rifle Mountain Park to find your new project in the land of 13d.
The Bride of Frankenstein (5.13d) Well-Dunne Wall; FA: John Dunne, 1998
When John Dunne in the late 1990s bolted what is now dubbed the Well-Dunne Wall, he admits to choosing the locale for its radically steep angle, not its rock quality. The Bride of Frankenstein required an honest man’s workweek of cleaning, prepping, and bolting before she would be tamed. “The natural holds were going to break off, so instead of having a hold that would break,” says the burly Dunne, “I creatively removed some rock so the natural fractures created holds.”
The Bride, up a belly on the wall’s left, is Rifle’s most popular 5.13d power-endurance testpiece. It climbs like a well-set gym route — every move is pretty damn hard, but never desperate — and has been called the “poor man’s Living in Fear”.
Dunne explains that the “creative cleaning” he used on his three hardest Well-Dunne routes reflected the sport at the time. But his ethics evolved, and the last routes he bolted in Rifle were completely natural. Dunne can’t get enough of Rifle, which he calls a world-class crag: two years ago, he climbed 10 routes he hadn’t yet done, bringing his route count to 167, 20 of these FAs.
Cracked-Open Sky (5.13d) Skull Cave; FA: Jim Surette, 1992
The upside-down Cracked-Open Sky lurks in the back of the Skull Cave, a seeping chosspile that nevertheless hosts a few of Rifle’s steepest and most gymnastic (read: fun) routes. One of the first things you’ll notice about this climb is the rusty time bombs masquerading as pro — so gnarly and calcified that for at least the last seven years, the two bolts protecting the crux have been equalized haphazardly with multicolored tat. (Titanium glue-ins, anyone?)
The hardware was probably in fine shape when Jim Surette bolted the line in the dry autumn of 1991, on lead, rope-solo. Surette came back the next spring only to realize the cave seeps like crazy. He wired the route’s dry upper half, and then returned in August 1992 for the send.
Once you clip the first bolt, it’s game on. Super-steep bouldering on pockets and edges leads to a huge dyno. Cop an upside-down double-kneebar rest, and then launch into 30 more feet of horizontal rock wrestling to chains just over the lip. “I thought [Cracked-Open Sky] was 13d or 14a, so I went with 13d,” says Surette. “It seemed more respectable to underrate than overrate.”
Gropius (5.13d)Bauhaus Wall; FA: George Squibb, autumn 1996; equipped by Pete Zoller and Mike Pont
1993: Pete Zoller was having a bad day. High on the Bauhaus wall, where routes stretch for 100 feet up a headwall tacked onto an imposing lower swell, Zoller sweated in the July heat, finagling in bolts while his degenerate belayers/compadres heckled him from the ground. The drill weighed heavily as he lifted it overhead. Zoller, today a pharmacist and one of the prime early movers at Rifle, did so much drilling he in fact thinks it contributed to his blown-out left rotator cuff, which required surgery. And while Zoller and Gropius co-bolter Mike Pont soon abandoned the line as “too long,” George Squibb swapped them two six packs of “mid-shelf” beer for their proj, tagging the FA after four days. Gropius has since become a Rifle rite of endurance passage.
You begin on a fussy blue slab, wander left across an underbelly, through bushes and often seepy holes, and then it’s on like Donkey Kong: big moves to pockets, flat crimps, and incut underclings take you out a hanging bulge to a lip encounter. Then it’s a brief shake on two jizzler sidepulls, and on to the redpoint crux — a crimpy V5-ish boulder problem out a secondary bulge — before a long 5.12+ headwall.
So why is Gropius a mere 5.13d? Squibb says he redpointed too quickly for it to be 5.14a — plus, he was happy relaying to “people [he] didn’t like” the sandbag grade of 5.13c/d. And Squibb cites as additional factors the possibility for kneebars and the way grades condensed in the 1990s, when 5.14 was still a rarity. But, he adds, all Rifle 5.13d’s still only rank as such: “The new kids just don’t want to have to work for 5.13,” Squibb says. And there you have it. . . .
Huge (5.13d)Bauhaus Wall; FA: Don Welsh, 1997
In 1997, Don Welsh established this skyscraping, 100-foot route by exploring terrain above his existing Schwa (5.13b/c), at the Bauhaus. (“We were running out of real estate . . . ” he recalls.) Huge is widely considered one of Rifle’s best, albeit softest, 5.13d’s. To Welsh, though, it seemed on par with other Bauhaus 13d’s. “George Squibb downrated Huge to 13a,” recalls Welsh. “But I think he was just punkin’ me because I did [his Bauhaus route] Gropius so fast.” Whatever the grade, what strikes Welsh most about Huge is its aesthetic athleticism.
The first crux hits you at 40 feet, with powerful underclings and pockets that end at a long move to a jug. The second crux is a tricky roof at 80 feet that succumbs to a clever kneescum. After this, you enjoy a brilliant, 30-foot 5.11 headwall on bullet stone. There’s even a solid right kneebar before the last two bolts.
Adam Avery, a partner of Welsh’s since the early 1990s (and owner/founder of Avery Brewing, in Boulder, Colorado), was amazed how Welsh seemed to consume only subsistence rations of rice, yet still drank beer every day. (“It’s unusual for a guy who climbs so hard,” muses Avery. “When people climb hard but don’t drink, it invalidates their ascents in my mind.”) Welsh is also known for his meticulous route maps — jokes Avery, “Don won’t tell you the Beta — he’ll f—king Xerox it for you!”
Personal aside: I — Chris Weidner — almost wobbled my first redpoint try on Huge. My forearms were exploding when I reached the final kneebar, where I barely managed to slam in my padded thigh . . . but something was amiss. The eight preceding right kneebars had rendered my big toe flaccid, and so I succumbed to gravity. No worries: Huge is so darn good, I didn’t mind climbing it again.
Simply Read (5.13d)Project Wall; FA: Scott Franklin, 1994; equipped by Eric Fedor and Phillip Benningfield
Sitting center stage on the roadside Project Wall, Simply Read beelines out cavy and blocky (but quartzite-hard) white stone. And though modern Colorado Etrier technology makes Simply Read less fearsome than it once was, when only brute power saw you through the upper crux (reaching high over a lip for flat crimps), the initial V7/8 boulder problem still repels many a suitor.
The line’s history is complex: Eric Fedor bolted the initial cave and swell, and was getting linkage, but never equipped up to the 65-foot mark, where you today find the anchor. So Phillip Benningfield, sans discussing his intentions with Fedor, swung over from Apocalypse 91 and finished the job. (“Eric was f-—king pissed,” recalls Benningfield. “I thought he was going to crush my skull.”) The first ascent eventually went to the powerful Scott Franklin, who says, “All I knew about the climb was that there was a route that had been bolted and was just sitting there.” After a few days’ effort, Franklin completed Simply Read, giving the climb its name.
These days, anyone who slaps on kneepads can cop a no-hands, double-kneebar bat hang in one spot and lever/grind their way through the upper crux with a crafty left kneescum, but Franklin doesn’t recall using any such jessery. In fact, jokes Franklin, now working at a Colorado-based solar-energy company, “Just like Britney Spears and waterboarding, kneebarring is another example of what’s wrong with modern America.” Meanwhile, an undone challenge awaits: punch through blank stone above the anchors, up the headwall, and then out the finishing bulges that jostle for space 180 feet above the road like two hot-air balloons at a launching.
Slice of Life (5.13d) Wicked Cave; FA: Kurt Smith, 1992
Kurt Smith’s pumpy Slice of Life, in the Wicked Cave, has the distinction of being Colorado’s first 5.14 rated such, which it certainly was . . . before kneescums. Smith, also a driving force in Colorado’s Clear Creek Canyon (see “Pretty Gneiss,” Climbing Magazine No. 258 p.56) and today a Southeast sales rep for outdoor manufacturers, led the charge in nascent Rifle. Using his Cali big-wall knowledge, he ground-up bolted and then freed pitches almost more quickly than others could repeat them. For reference, a few Smith classics: Community Service (5.11c), Movement of Fear (5.12c), Vision Thing (5.13b), and Cryptic Egyptian (5.13c).
Smith and Pete Zoller made a 1991/1992 midwinter foray to dink in Slice’s initial bolts. From there, Smith whittled away at the line, with its mid-5.13 climbing up to a stopper dyno (V7-ish), followed by slopey 5.12+/5.13-. Smith used zero kneebars and fell at the ‘mo repeatedly; the instant he stuck it on the link, he went chains, skipping clips in a go-for-broke effort. Over the next few years, Slice saw a handful of repeats — before Chris Knuth opened Pandora’s kneescum box, using the craft he became known for (jeans, no pads) to find seven knee “encounters”on Slice, including one at the crux.
After a key flake broke down low in the late 1990s — its hundreds of pounds barely missing Jim Redo, who was laybacking it — Slice fell into disrepair till it was resequenced. Now with Zulu (5.14a) just next door, Slice has entered the linkage mill — Slice of Zulu, Piece of Zulu, and Lulu are but three modern iterations.
The Glues That BindAs Porter Jarrard famously declared, Rifle is a “roadcut” — blocky and ignoble in spots, but well-suited for hard free climbing. Here are the tools climbers once used to hold it together:
Hilti Hit: This expensive but bomber glue-gun-administered mix is good for hard-to-reach places, and mess (read: exposure to toxic chemicals) is minimal. Although a whole tube of this went behind a key jug on Bone Machine, the hold failed after 12-odd years, proving that choss is ultimately untamable.
PC-7 and PC-11: Respectively, black and white epoxy pastes that can be messy to mix but have impressive staying power.
Plumber’s Epoxy Putty: This compound is cheap and easy to work with. Although the glue is prone to drying and cracking with exposure, you’ll find it still hanging in on Living in Fear and Eurotrash.
Sika: The big daddy of climber glues, Sika is an epoxy-resin mortar that’s perhaps the strongest and most enduring mix at Rifle (see Fluff Boy and the Cyclops Thread that’s held together for the last 16 years). You don’t want to inhale too much sika.
Straight Up hold mix: The poor-man’s sika, this polymer was imported from the onetime Boulder hold-manufacturing plant Straight Up. It was prized for its superior texture and rock-hue-matching properties (see Sprayathon and Dumpster BBQ).
Terms of En-Jeer-Ment Key Phrases from the Rifle Dark Ages:
Arse-Hole (n.) Anyone who spends too much time in the Arsenal, most of it likely on the Peanut Gallery rocks below Pump-O-Rama.
bottom feeder (n.) A term Alan Lester jokingly used to describe himself and any other Boulderites who visited Rifle in the early 1990s without adding any new routes to the kitty.
”Blah in the blah-hedral!” (imp., colloq.) Yelled at any climber you hoped to distract/cause to fall.
cocus (n.) Any overly enthusiastic outsider who tried too hard to immerse himself in the often-caustic scene; the worst kind of cocus was a “bearded cocus.” (syn.: chosser [chosslord], dorkitect, mungemaster, spraylord [Spraylord Part Deux, Spraylord Part Trois, etc.]) (plural: cocci)
Colorado Etrier (n.) A kneescum, most often employed with the aid of a custom-sewn kneepad (with climbing rubber on its face) attached to the (shaved) leg via duct tape and spray-on adhesive.
fronting (n.) Giving the stinkeye to passersby from the belay patio below the Project Wall. (See story at climbing.com/exclusive/talltales/frontonfronters/ for more.)
“Gastocling!” (imp., n., colloq.) Combines gaston and undercling. (syn.: “Blah in the blah-hedral!”)
Ghetto Meadow (n.) The large, packed-dirt campsite midway along the Rifle Mountain Park Campground occupied each weekend by hordes of Front Range climbers. Nothing of much value was said or done here.
jizzler (n.) A small or sharp handhold. (syn.: crozzler, jibbler)
psyche-blowing individual (n.) See cocus.
sports action (n.) The act of falling off (taking a “sport whipper”), as perceived by lookers-on. Most sports action takes place in the Arsenal late in the day, as Arse-Holes gather to watch each other fail (and encourage said failure).
spraylord (n.) A ground-bound cocus yelling move-by-move Beta, to the point where it becomes unintelligible blather. (See “The Spray Dictionary,” Climbing No. 267.)
subman (n.) Top Rifle climbers once needed underlings to help with bolting work, campfire shilling, and the extended belay sessions requisite for ferreting out Colorado etriers. Tragically, everyone climbs so hard these days that no one has time to serve a subman apprenticeship anymore.
subpar (adj.) Substandard, sub-normal; most often applied to a route’s quality or any outsider’s inability to perform on the very specific, demanding stone at Rifle.
Surette’s Syndrome (n.) Affliction causing a fallen climber to unleash a string of epithets as a precursor to a wobbler (see below).
wobbler (n.) A failure-to-redpoint fit of such magnitude that the affected is seen to “wobble” in his harness. (syn.: Matt Moment)
Fear the D: Other Rifle “Ds” of Despair“D” marks the top end of each grade from 5.10 to 5.14. It’s synonymous with the dreaded “plus,” and anyone who’s tried a 5.9+ from the 1960s or ‘70s knows how dire this little rating can be. Rifle has a handful of fearsome Ds in the 5.10-to-5.12 range:
Pellet Gun (5.10d), Ruckman Cave: This vertical climb might have been 5.10d . . . when it went up in the early 1990s. Today, though, the footholds are so polished you have to tug like a pathological onanist, muckling with glassy sidepulls, smarmy feet, and even a monodoigt.
Guns’n Posers (5.11d), Winchester Cave: Features jibbler footholds, balls-out gastoclinging, and a strenuous blah-hedral.
In Your Face (5.12d), Ruckman Cave: In Your Face is six bolts of mean, with the shouldery crux right at the top and the footholds so mirror-slick you can hear your doggies squeak while you cry flash-pump “Uncle!”
RIFLE Hardness Scale
The Bride of Frankenstein
Slice of Life
Piece of Zulu
Cracked Open Sky
Don't Trust Whitey
Killer Inside Me
Living In Fear
Data courtesy of Western SloperWolverine Publishing
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