After The Gold Rush

High country cragging in western Colorado.

 

Damon Johnston enters the committing realm of Hydropower (5.13a), Telluride, Falls Wall area.
I crank the wheel hard as another sheer drop fills my windshield. My back wheels skate out, spraying grave as I overcorrect. My knuckles are white and my eyes are fixated on the guard rail. Instinctually, I hit the gas on my aging Subaru, gaining some speed but also control. As my heart rate slowly regulates, my gaze wanders from the road toward the majestic San Juan Mountains near Telluride — and again I nearly miss a turn, 1000 feet above the valley floor. I’ve driven this pass countless times, yet the exposure and panoramic views always get me. It’s only early autumn, but already the peaks are dusted in snow and the aspen trees are turning gold.
I pull over to take in the view, letting the blood back into my fingers. Beyond Ophir Pass lies the Ophir Wall, a 600-foot plaque of silvery granite, now bronzed in the waning orange sunlight. I sit on the hood of my car and watch the sunset bring closure to what’s been an amazing day of high-altitude cragging. I’m on day two of a seven-day road trip and I’ve already visited two crags, with six more to go. This is proving to be the best trip I’ve ever done on a single tank of gas.
The San Juan Mountains, located in southwestern Colorado, are rugged and high, harboring thirteen of Colorado’s fifty-four “Fourteeners,” with hundreds of peaks over 13,000 feet. Three towns, including Ouray to the north, Silverton to the south, and Telluride (plus the small hamlet of Ophir) to the west, contain the best of the San Juan crags, and are linked together via the Alpine Loop Road, which tops 11,000 feet in several places, mostly dirt with a few stretches of sketchy pavement.

 

Rise and shine. Nathan Martin savors Morning Glory (5.12d),
The small towns of the San Juans contain tight-knit communities that focus their attention on playing outside. The local climbing is a cocktail of potential epics, erratic mountain weather, and excellent rock. The range, mostly volcanic in origin, offers a great diversity of stone, much of it metamorphic, including gneiss and quartzite. My partner for today is Nathan Martin, a longtime Telluride resident who now lives in Moab. “Each town has a different vibe,” Martin explains. “Each is a melting pot of odd characters from rednecks, to ski bums, to blue-collar workers, to wealthy business people who are all drawn to the same thing: the mountains.” With a miner’s spirit for prospecting, Martin and I head down valley, our climbing gear bouncing like tin pans, in search of climber’s gold.

Of all the San Juan crags, the Ophir Wall — just a twenty-minute drive from Telluride — has the deepest heritage and strongest trad roots. Climbers have been epicking here for decades, and several noted celebrities climbed here when still in their teens.
Throughout the 1970s “Hot Henry” Barber worked as a guide in Telluride, climbing in Ophir (just twenty minutes from town), spending his summers guiding and creating Ophir Wall classics like Hot Wee Wee, the Y-shaped fist crack Honey Pot (5.10+), and several other bold, naturally protected routes in his signature style.
In 1978, Royal Robbins moved his Rockcraft climbing school from California to Telluride, accidentally turning the Ophir Wall into a pivotal crag in the career of another teenager, Lynn Hill. In 1980, she and John Long came to work for Robbins, and subsequently freed a beautiful A3 line on Ophir’s Mirror Wall sector, called Ophir Broke (5.12+).

 

Doug Byerly dodges friendly fire on his route Washington Bullets (5.10c), Sandinista Wall, Silverton.
Notched into the east edge of the Ophir Wall is Cracked Canyon, a steep gorge lined with impressive cracks. The numerous short crack lines are popular on weekends, and ideal for after-work sessions. Knotted pines blanket the hills across the valley, and provide shade and anchors for the routes up canyon. “The Ophir Wall is extremely thought provoking,” Martin says. “You can’t just aim for the next chalked hold. It goes back to the art of climbing: finding lines and placing difficult gear. It makes you really tune into the rock.”
After a short but rugged approach, Martin and I drop our packs at the base of Orange Peel (5.10). An afternoon breeze whips through, lending an alpine feel that keeps the summer heat at bay. Several other parties arrive. Martin and I fight our way up Orange Peel’s insecure finger locks, taking in deep breaths of thin air to stave off the pump. We share several routes with our new friends until the light fades and our arms cramp. We follow them back to their house to swap a few stories and have a couple of beers.
Afterwards, we take the short cut to Telluride’s Falls Walls by way of Black Bear Pass. The rough four-wheel-drive road drops sharply down toward Telluride, but we find redemption from our steep descent in the form of a perfect campsite near Bridalveil Falls.

Charlie Fowler is one of America’s best all-around climbers, and one of climbing’s most-loved characters. He’s called Telluride home since 1988. Fowler frequently visited Telluride from Boulder to climb the local ice, and fell in love with the people, the mountains, and the climbing. He decided to stay. Passionate about new routing, Fowler saw the rock-climbing potential and tapped in. “What makes Telluride a unique place is the setting, beauty, and that the rock is so featured that you can climb just about anywhere.” Fowler says. (Ply him a little and he’ll also mention the close proximity of twenty-three bars between his house and the Falls Wall area.)
Telluride is home to many annual gatherings, including the famed Telluride Bluegrass festival, but it’s the Mountainfilm Festival that best captures the adventurous spirit of this community. Thousands of mountain freaks descend annually upon Telluride to mingle and gossip with international rock stars, gain enlightenment from Buddhist monks, take in the latest spin on “extreme sports,” and share Beta on routes. It’s a modern-day Woodstock where old friends unite, new stories are made, and much adventure is had.
Telluride sits at the end of a box canyon, with towering walls and peaks surrounding town. There are five crags within a short drive of the village center: the Falls Wall, Pandora’s Wall, Ajax’s Corner, Pipeline Wall, and Last Light Wall, all situated between 9500 and 10,000 feet in elevation, with cragged peaks and lofty waterfalls as a backdrop. The rock, a conglomerate, is amazing to climb, whether you’re pulling on pockets (tons), crimping, or pinching chunks of embedded limestone.

 

Corrie Eldred shakes it on All Night Rave (5.12c), Technicolor Wall, Ouray.
The Falls Wall is over 800 feet tall at its highest point, with several multi-pitch routes, nearly all established ground-up. There are many shorter routes, including our climb for the day, Hydropower (5.13a), on the Streaked Wall sector, a marbled and streaked cliff of pastel blues and grays. Martin established the 190-foot line, and comments, “I wanted to leave a testpiece that requires a climber to commit to hard moves far above protection, something that I consider good training for the mountains,” Martin says.
I spend my afternoon taking huge, arm-swinging falls off Hydropower, logging plenty of good “mountain training,” before nabbing the route’s second ascent. It’s hair-raising, but at least it’s on bolts.
Martin has to split for Moab, so the following morning I head toward Ouray. My loaded-down Subaru wheezes and whines to a halt on top of Imogene Pass, elevation 13,120 feet. As I let my aging motor cool, I imagine the hundreds of runners who race past here, covering the seventeen miles from Ouray to Telluride in the annual Imogene Pass Run. There are an abnormal number of elite runners living in the San Juans, and after my lung-burning sessions on Hydropower, I’m impressed with the level of endurance required to finish — let alone win — this hell-a-thon run.

As I roll into Ouray I pass a sign that reads, “The Little Switzerland of America.” The town sits below an alpine cirque formed of mysterious rock spires and magnificent cliffs. Famous today for its annual ice festival and abundance of manufactured and natural ice climbing, Ouray now has a group of climbers who have developed excellent cragging on the local rhyolite, conglomerate, and limestone cliffs.
Ouray’s quaint Victorian homes are dwarfed by the steep cliffs and mountains that guard them. The town vibe says, “get out in the mountains,” and this is discernable at every turn with numerous trailhead signs, dirt roads, jeep tours, and business names like Wiesbaden and Matterhorn. The people work hard here, but they play even harder. The guy who fixes your gutters can likely tele-ski double-black diamonds and hike 5.12 finger cracks. Best yet, the community provides plentiful climbing partners, and fosters a healthy learning environment.

 

“I dreamed of moving to the San Juans for years with the assumption that climbing would be less important in my life when I did,” claims Ouray resident Mike Pennings of his 2002 relocation. “The lifestyle is laid back. I moved here for the natural beauty and recreation, plus it’s a tight community. We look out for each other.” If Pennings moved to the San Juans for a life where climbing was less of a focus, he quickly fell off that wagon. “When I saw the potential for new routes, it got me really psyched,” he says. “It rekindled my desire for climbing.” A naturally gifted climber, Pennings has added over a dozen new routes in the area. Some of his all-star climbs include the amazing Stone Age (5.12-) at the Trough, and Technical Ecstasy (5.12+) and All Night Rave (5.12) at the well-named Technicolor Wall.
I spend my afternoon climbing at the Technicolor Wall with Michael Gilbert, another “local” who transplanted himself to Ouray from Boulder in 1999 and has since established over fifty routes around town. “I moved to Ouray to get away from traffic lights, highways, and cars,” Gilbert states. “There aren’t too many places where you can ski in the morning, ice climb mid-morning, and rock climb in the afternoon without really driving.”
Gilbert has an aloof nature that veils his mental sharpness. He’s a practicing attorney, and I detect a bit of sandbagging in his route descriptions. Nonetheless, we fuel up on caffeine at his house before walking out his backdoor to the crag, the Pool Wall, located 500 feet from the town’s signature hot springs. This downtown crag is a double tier of tanned, sturdy sandstone, about a quarter-mile wide, with airy arêtes, crimpy and pocketed faces, and roofs that demand technical foot wizardry.
Gilbert has an eye for picking out challenging routes, though he claims to look for “clean, aesthetic rock with holds.” As I sample classics like Annie’s Arête (5.11b), The Deep End (5.11c), Bay of Pigs (5.12b), and Fine Line (5.12b), I realize he meant small holds. Thanks to Gilbert, the Pool Wall now has over sixty routes from 5.6 to 5.13b. The climbing is excellent, but we soon decide to soak our over-worked muscles in the hot springs and call it a day. We eat mondo burritos at the Buen Tiempo Mexican restaurant and Gilbert reflects, “The community is small — there are less than 600 people in San Juan County. The climbers see each other all the time. Tightly knit implies exclusionary, but I think it’s a very open and friendly climbing scene. It’s like a group of extended friends. Information travels quickly, you get new route Beta fast, plus people tell you about climbing on your routes.”

 

A more intimate look at the committing “mountain training” of Hydropower, Streaked Wall, Telluride.
At 9800 feet, Silverton is one of Colorado’s highest towns, and sits nestled in a broad valley under looming peaks. Over 100 named avalanche paths frequently seal off the passage in or out of town during heavy winter months, and roughly half of the local businesses board their storefronts for winter. In the summer tourist season, warm temperatures, reopened boardwalk cafes and restaurants, and bustling bars fill the nights with excitement. The locals are usually somewhere between work and play, pursuing backcountry skiing, climbing expeditions, and outdoor adventures of all kinds — as well as paying their bills. I’ve never seen a tighter community than Silverton, and I can hardly drive a block before stopping to catch up with a friend.
Rex Wolters is a tall, dread-locked woodworker and drummer who has lived in Silverton since 2000. After a trip to El Potrero Chico in 2002, he came home motivated to scout the local cliffs for new lines. “I was surprised no one had tapped its potential,” Wolters recalls. “The seclusion is the draw for me. It’s weird because people have stated the climbing is bad here. Sure, the rock on the high peaks is questionable, but we climb in the river valleys, and it’s really good.”
The next day I take the short hike to the Stripe, a 100-foot granite cliff along the Animas River just south of town, and I see what Wolters is psyched about. The black-and-white-striped wall is scored with diagonal dikes, intermittent cracks, chiseled faces, and overhanging arêtes, and had only two spicy 5.11 routes until Wolters set to work and added eight more lines. His best effort scored him The Motherload (5.13a), following a white column to an overhanging arête for eighty feet.
Later that afternoon I hook up with Doug Byerly, who moved to Silverton looking for big ski thrills, virgin rock, and late-night jam sessions with Rex and other musicians. We drive a few miles north along the Animas on the dirt road leading to the old mining camp of Eureka. There is the 600-foot Eureka Tower, of which many of Wolter’s bolted multi-pitch gems lay, such as Gold Digger (III 5.7), and Hardrock Miner (III 5.8). Lining the canyon where great ice forms in the winter are several more of Wolter’s climbs, including Silver Stage (5.10c), and Five Cart Draw (5.9). The last two routes climb the steep face just to the right of a classic ice route I’ve previously climbed called Gold Rush.

 

The Falls Wall looms above “metro” Telluride.
Doug wants to show off his new routes, so we head across the canyon to the Sandinista Wall. I’ve walked past this cliff countless times while approaching the ice climb Stairway to Heaven, but it never caught my eye for its rock climbing potential until today. Enthused by Wolters’ motivation, Byerly recently put up over twenty routes here. One day after the spring melt another local climber, James “Bobo” Burwick, came waltzing by on the way back from a booty hunt below Stairway to Heaven and ran into Byerly. Excited to contribute to the cause, he offered up the gear he’d found. “Bobo was holding up these ratty slings, busted ice screws, and jingus biners.” Byerly says, laughing. “They were useless, but it was a nice gesture.”
Climbing up mirror-polished bulges onto a steep face peppered with hidden pockets, I bask in the quality of the Sandinista’s Washington Bullets (5.10d), Rock and Roll Animal (5.12a), and Mass Wasting (5.12c). “The winter is when you realize who the true locals are: the folks who can stick it out for the cold.” Rex laughs. “In the summer it’s a flood of tourists, in winter you get to know the hardcores, and the ice climbing.”

 

Mike Shepard fishes for pockets on the Creamy Salmon Wall, Lake City, Colorado — another sweet detour off the San Juans’ circuit.
Later, I’m standing above the crag, near the headwaters of the Animas River. I can make out the river’s path through the canyons, past town, and down into the gorges of the Weminuche Wilderness south of town on its way to Durango and New Mexico.
Taking in the view, I make out a visual roadmap of the crags I’ve visited on this trip, and I can almost trace my path over the passes and valleys in front of me. I never realized how lucky I was to be a rock climber living in the San Juans until I made this road trip and saw firsthand what was up here, and the new lines that have gone in since the turn of the millennium. Having climbed all over the world, I’m now returning home way psyched about how much untapped stone and new-route potential still exists in my backyard.

Jared Ogden is a Contributing Editor at Climbing, and lives in Durango, Colorado, with his wife, Kristin, and son, Tobin. He’s the author of Big Walls: Elite Technique.

 

 



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