Road Warriors

The spectacular drive-up alpine climbs of Colorado's Mt. Evans

Rob Pizem and Jesse Mattner near the top of Aqualung (5.12+) on the Possibility Wall, with the Black Wall and Mt. Evans at the head of the valley. Photo by Dan Gambino

You want irony? Consider Colorado’s two best alpine-granite climbing areas: Rocky Mountain National Park and Mt. Evans. “The Park,” home to famous formations like the Diamond of Longs Peak and the Petit Grepon, is a backcountry area where the minimum approach is over an hour, with many climbs requiring marches of three hours or more. Mt. Evans, just 40 miles west of Denver, has a paved road to its 14,265-foot summit. (Much of the climbing on “Mt. Evans” is actually on surrounding peaks, including Mt. Warren and Mt. Spalding, but climbers call it all Evans.) On Mt. Evans, you can leave downtown Denver and be roping up for a multi-pitch route, perched above a snowfield with mountain goats scampering across nearby ledges, less than two hours after banging the snooze button on your alarm.

So here’s the irony: Many of the best routes in the Park are dotted with long lines of climbers during the summer season, despite their grueling approaches, while on Mt. Evans, with one or two exceptions, good climbs go years without traffic. It’s as if Colorado climbers choose to suffer.

Mt. Evans does have some issues. The rock is not as solid as the granite and gneiss of Rocky Mountain National Park. A few routes stay wet for most of the season. And by some fluke of orographic and meteorological juxtaposition, the weather on Evans is unusually bad for Colorado. But it’s hard to complain about the weather when, by paying a $10 toll, you can shortcut your approach time by several hours.

In recent years, bouldering has generated the most news on Mt. Evans. The striking granite blocs along the six-mile Chicago Creek basin and the jumbled apron of boulders above Lincoln Lake have seen an explosion of new routes, reaching V15 in difficulty and world-class in quality. Roped climbers also have begun exploring Evans again after nearly two decades of relative stagnation. Two entirely new areas have been developed—the Tan Buttresses and Possibility Wall—at both ends of the difficulty spectrum.

In fact, granite buttresses sprout all around Mt. Evans. There are the beautiful Aprons above Summit Lake: three 750-foot slabs that offer a classy way to reach the main peak. There are crack climbs above Lincoln Lake’s boulders, and alpine romps below the Sawtooth Ridge connecting Evans to Mt. Bierstadt, a neighboring 14’er. There are ice and mixed routes above Chicago Lakes. And there are mystery crags above Abyss Lake and below Gray Wolf Mountain. Some of these cliffs may never have been touched—or, more likely, climbs have been done and never reported. On this easy-access, drive-up massif, the days of exploration are far from over, which is the greatest irony of all. —Dougald MacDonald

Beta

  • Getting there: Take Exit 240 from I-70 in Idaho Springs. Drive south on Hwy. 103 for 13 miles to Echo Lake. The trail to Chicago Lakes (Areas A and B, Possibility Wall) starts here. Just past the lake, turn south onto the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway (Hwy. 5). Pay $10/car. Summit Lake is 9 miles up the road, with 5 more miles to the top. Road conditions: coloradodot.info.
  • Season: The road usually opens around Memorial Day and stays open to Summit Lake (12,850 feet) until early October. Boulderers can access Areas A and B from mid- June through October. Climbers are asked to avoid Upper Chicago Lake and the Black Wall until the end of June to protect young mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Beware of sudden, dangerous thunderstorms, even at lower crags, and know the signs of altitude sickness— all of the climbing is between 11,000 and 14,000 feet.
  • Camping: Echo Lake and West Chicago Creek campgrounds are closest to Mt. Evans. Limited sites; $14–$15/night; forestcamping.com
  • Regulations: Much of the climbing is inside Mt. Evans Wilderness Area, meaning no power drilling or pad stashing. Clear Creek Ranger District: 303-567-3000; 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Parking is extremely limited above Lincoln Lake—plan to carpool.
  • Guidebooks: Mountainproject.com has current info on the Aprons, Black Wall, and Tan Buttresses. Bouldering: Rocky Mountain National Park & Mount Evans covers Areas A and B along Chicago Creek (b3bouldering.com).

Climbers on Road Warrior (5.10c/d) on the Black Wall. Photo by Andrew Burr

The Black Wall
By Greg Cameron

“Greg, Clean Dan. Have I got the climb for you! Road Warrior; it’s near Mt. Evans. I’m looking at a picture of Jeff Lowe on it right now. Incredible!”

It was 1989, and the first topos for the Black Wall had just been published. A weekend or two later, Dan and I drove up to the Summit Lake parking area. I’m sure it was cold and plenty windy—it always is at Summit Lake in those early hours. A short jaunt to the northern edge of the lake brought us to the overlook where you can see the Black Wall. I never tire of this view.

Road Warrior, a zigzagging, two-pitch, 5.10 offwidth at 13,000 feet, was the first of three or four climbs I did that season at the Black Wall. From 1989 to 1992, along with “Clean Dan” Grandusky, Clare Dunning, and George Lowe, I managed to establish four new routes of my own: three on the Black Wall proper and one on a north-facing buttress of the same cirque. The latter, Roofer Madness (5.11b, 8 pitches), is the biggest route in the cirque.

Roofer Madness was the only of my Evans new routes that you might call a project. The others, Cary Granite (5.11c), Espresso (5.11a), and Cannonball Corner (5.10d), went down on the first attempt. Roofer Madness was a striking fin with only one obvious line, and it was very steep. I knew it would be hard, so one day I played hooky from work and rappelled the route to inspect it. After getting to the bottom, I was pretty sure that both the biggest roof and the hard crack leading up to it would go, in spite of some wet sections.

My first attempts were with Clare Dunning. The weather was particularly bad that year, with rain always arriving early. The first attempt got us four pitches up, to a horizontal crack and ledge system below the crux crack and roof. A second attempt brought us to the same spot, only to be rained out again. At some point, we realized that we could scramble down along grassy ledges to the northeast of the Roofer Madness buttress and gain access to the horizontal fractures below the roof. On our next attempt, after scrambling down, a short 5.9 traverse pitch brought us to the belay below the crux.

Finally, a chance to tackle the feature for which the route was named. We broke this crux into two sections, and I led both. The first, a vertical hand and finger crack, maybe 50 feet long, was stiff at 5.11b. The second part was the money pitch: a huge roof cut by a wide crack involving chimney, offwidth, and layback techniques. It went at a surprisingly moderate 5.11a and ended at one of the most exposed belay stances I’ve ever experienced. After one more pitch, it started to snow.

The snow was heavy and lightning was smashing in full force as I down-aided the roof, protected from the elements while Clare belayed in the fierce storm. I’ll never forget scrambling out of the cirque while lightning crashed all around.

Ultimately, I did the bottom-to-top first ascent with George Lowe. The pitches above the big roof cross two more roofs, but of the 5.10 rather than 5.11 variety. Possibly because I had already done the crux, I don’t remember that ascent as vividly.

I moved away from the Denver area in late 1993. All of the obvious lines on the Black Wall had been done—or so I thought. On returning, in 1999, the very first climb I remember doing was Road Warrior, with George Lowe. I almost puked that time.

Recommended Routes

  • Good Evans (5.10d, 5 pitches). The most straightforward and popular line on the Black Wall.
  • Road Warrior (5.10c/d, 5 pitches). Exhausting offwidth.
  • Cary Granite (5.11c, 5 pitches). Harder version of Good Evans, with striking jam cracks. Tape fingers for sharp roof crux.
  • Coffee Achievers (5.10d, 7 pitches). Strenuous laybacks and jam cracks, often wet at the top.
  • Roofer Madness (5.11b, 8 pitches). Rarely repeated pillar on left wall of the cirque.

Rob Pizem high over the Chicago Creek Drainage on A Vacation from your Problems (5.13b), The Possibility Wall. Photo by Dan Gambino

The Possibility Wall
By Rob Pizem

It was a Friday in July 2007, and my incredible boss had just let me off again at noon—I had come up with some lame excuse for leaving two hours before all the other teachers at my school. I stepped out of the stimulating staff meeting with my heart racing and quickly drove 45 minutes to my secret, highaltitude playground. There, I was developing one of the most spectacular granite walls I had ever seen.

Although it’s at about 12,500 feet, the Possibility Wall, or P-Wall, was so close to home that I could bash out climbs after work and on the weekends. I would get to the wall right after teaching and watch the sun set as I worked out the moves of my latest project. Most days I was alone because it’s such an intimidating and committing place to be. The nearly 400-foot wall overhangs in most directions, and I generally rappelled in from above. I loved it.

The P-Wall has long, leaning dihedrals with face moves connecting overhanging corners and cracks. The lone wet crack stays dry once snow melts from the meadow above. As with most alpine walls, there is a fair share of lichen that provides brilliant green, orange, red, and yellow streaks. The scenery alone made it one of my favorite places to be, and the wall is usually in the shade, providing perfect summer temperatures for hard climbing. But the best part of the P-Wall is the approach: In just a 15-minute walk from the road, you can be rappelling into some of Colorado’s most exposed and exciting climbing.

Over those summers, I got to know some of the local elk, mountain goats, and, of course, marmots. At last count, there were at least a dozen marmots prowling the top of the wall. They would destroy your pack and everything in it unless you hung the pack at least one pitch below the rim. I learned the hard way and arrived back on top several times to see that my backpack straps had been eaten.

On weekends, when I was able to convince others to join me, I’d try to redpoint the pitches I had worked on. All of the climbs are protected by a mix of gear and bolts. Over three seasons, I developed nine climbs and finished seven of them, from 5.11 to 5.13. If those routes are too stout, there are numerous 5.5 to 5.11 crack climbs just a few hundred yards down from the P-Wall. I would often end a day by climbing a new line on this 200-foot cliff. Well, the routes were new to me—almost certainly somebody had climbed these routes before and left no trace.

I left two unclimbed lines on the P-Wall, both in the mid- to upper-5.14 range. Both are fully bolted and ready to go, just waiting for someone who can sneak out early from work to try high-end climbing in a closed-in alpine paradise.

Recommended Routes

  • It’s a Homonym (5.12b, 1 pitch, mixed gear to 4 inches and bolts). Pumpy.
  • Rocky Mountain High (5.12+, 2 pitches, mixed gear to 3 inches and bolts). Technical stemming.
  • Back to the Earth (5.13+, 3 pitches, mixed gear to 1 inch and bolts). Heady dihedral to pumpy, powerful crux.

Josh Thompson on Fallen Angel (5.11+), the hardest route to date on the Tan Buttresses. Photo by Dan Gambino

The Tan Buttresses
By Josh Thompson

Charles Vernon and I met at the Morrison Park and Ride at 6 a.m. It didn’t seem all that cold. But 7,000 feet higher, at the Summit Lake parking lot, the puddles in the dirt parking lot were circular ice blocks, and the wind was whipping. Climbing on the Black Wall wasn’t looking like an option. But, hey, we were there! We decided to take a walk at least.

After the short approach to the top of the Black Wall, the temps hadn’t found their way any further north of freezing, and rock climbing was officially off the agenda. I’d been looking at an interesting group of buttresses across the way, and convinced Charles to walk over there. From a distance they appeared to be the kind of rock that dominates the Rockies: choss. But this formation was different. The choss factor seemed to be manageable, and there were lines to do. We’d come back on a warmer day.

The next summer, in late July 2008, a massive dry lightning storm hit northern California, causing hundreds of wildfires to erupt overnight. This had land managers reaching out for help, and as a Denver firefighter I got the call. After 16 days on the fire lines, I was happy to head home—I was thirsty for some time for myself in the mountains. The scruffy band of buttresses by Mt. Evans came to mind, and I called my good friend Glen Griscom.

Two days later, carrying two ropes, a rack, and a small bolt kit, we set off on a line of discontinuous cracks up the central buttress. What we found was good climbing at the high end of 5.10. It was a bit runout, but I needed to stretch my brain after weeks of chasing fires around the woods. We had “Nothing But a Good Time,” and that’s what we named the first documented route on the Tan Buttresses. We’d seen a lot more lines to do, too, and were brimming over with excitement when we came across Ben Collett, who’d just topped out on the Black Wall. This was a fateful meeting, as Ben soon started doing new routes of his own. Together or with others, Ben and I added nine more routes to the Tan Buttresses over the next three years. And there are more still to come.

Recommended Routes

  • Lazy Sunday Route (5.10-, 6 pitches). Just put up in 2011, this is the easiest high-quality route in the Black Wall cirque.
  • Dog Fight (5.10, 4 or 5 pitches). Sustained, fun climbing.
  • Hard to Say (5.10, 5 pitches). Exposed buttress to classic arête finish.
  • Fallen Angel (5.11+, 4 pitches). Hard first pitch followed by beautiful crack splitting an arête.

Possibility Wall

Tan Buttress

Little Possibility Wall



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