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10 Things You Didn't Know about the Third Flatiron

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Illustration by Jamie Givens

One of the most iconic crags in the country, the Third Flatiron rises majestically just to the west of Boulder, Colorado. When it’s not closed by winter weather or to protect nesting falcons, the eight-pitch Standard East Face (5.4) is among the busiest multi-pitch routes in the world. In addition to its popularity, the Third is rich in history and has seen some madcap antics.

1. In 1906, Floyd and Earl Millard completed the first ascent of the Standard East Face on the Third Flatiron, marking the earliest recorded rock climb in Colorado. The earliest known roped ascent took place in 1919. Another historic ascent on the Third transpired in 1949: the Northwest Passage on the west overhang, established by Bob Riley, Dick Sherman, and Tom Hornbein (the American who, with Willi Unsoeld, did the first ascent of the West Ridge of Mount Everest in 1963). Although similar overhanging aid climbs had been done elsewhere in the U.S., the three-pitch Northwest Passage was the first in Colorado to be attempted with artificial aid and bolts. Northwest Passage was free climbed in 1972 at 5.10.

2. In the early 1930s, Hull Cook and Ev Long, then working as summer guides on Longs Peak, conceived the idea to guide tourists up the Third Flatiron during Longs’ off-season. They installed the six prominent eyebolts on the East Face still in use today as belay anchors.

3. Since 1989, the Third Flatiron has been closed to climbers and hikers from February 1 to July 31 to protect cliff-nesting raptors during mating season. In recent years, peregrine and prairie falcons have competed fiercely for nesting grounds, and the peregrines, being the slightly larger species, usually win the turf war. However, in 2010, the two species nested successfully in harmony for the first time—each pair produced three chicks—with about 200 feet separating the nests.

4. From 2004 to 2005, according to the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks visitation survey, approximately 211,000 people visited the Chautauqua and Bluebell trails leading to the Third, with about 10,500 there to climb (mostly on the Third and First flatirons).

5. In 1949, on a moonlit night, then–CU freshmen and Boulder climbers Dale Johnson and Bob Rolands climbed the Third Flatiron, hauling up white house paint, a four-inch brush, and a broom, and slathered a 50-foot-tall “C” on the rock. Upon their descent, a group of men who’d witnessed the act jumped the pair, angry about the damage, and tied Johnson and Rolands to a tree (they managed to free themselves later that night). The two turned themselves into the police, striking a deal that would allow them to attempt to remove the paint and only pay a $50 fine. Then, in 1955, a “U” was added, completing the University of Colorado acronym. An “I” was added in 1956 to read “ICU.” On another occasion, right before a CU football game against rival University of Oklahoma, the “C” was transformed to an “O.” A “D” has also preceded the “U,” presumably to represent the University of Denver. Since then, the letters have been removed and repainted many times. In 1980, paint specifically blended to match the rock was applied to cover the letters, though they are still faintly visible from town.

6. Dale Johnson made Flatirons-related headlines again in 1953. After a trip to the local Goodwill, Johnson and Phil Robertson headed to the Third with “clamp-on roller skates.” They tied the skates to their climbing boots with nylon cord and roped up for the climb. The pair did not lock the wheels—rather, they relied on the rock’s broken face and large pockets to support the free-rolling wheels. At the final pitch, where the climb is too slabby and smooth for the skates, Johnson and Robertson were forced to climb on their hands and knees.

7. In 2007, Bill Wright and Stefan Griebel skied part of the Third Flatiron, starting about 200 feet below the summit. After several major snowstorms in January, the pair hiked to the back of the Third carrying alpine skis, poles, boots, and climbing gear. They soloed the Southwest Chimney and rappelled from an eyebolt anchor to the top of the 1911 Gully. The climbers skied several hundred feet down the super-steep gully to the edge of a 200-foot cliff, rappelling once again to reach the ground. Then Wright and Griebel skied the trails back to the car.

8. The Third has seen many other unusual ascents, including being climbed with no hands, being “streaked” by shop owner Gary Neptune in the 1970s, and, most popularly, climbed by full moon sans headlamp. Word to the wise: the hulking rock blocks any moonlight for the steep, rocky descent hike, and headlamps become desirable.

9. The Flatirons are a part of the Fountain Formation—a rock unit that stretches along the eastern margin of the modern-day Front Range. The formation was deposited in rivers and streams roughly 300 million years ago along the flanks of a mountain range that geologists refer to as the Ancestral Rockies. The Flatirons were tilted into their present position by the Laramide mountain-building episode approximately 70 million to 40 million years ago. In Boulder, the Fountain Formation (composed of shale, sandstone, and conglomerate) is unusually hard and resistant due to the presence of fine-grained feldspar cement called adularia. Along the steeper south side of the Third are deep slots that provide excellent bouldering in an area called the Ghetto. Dark holes here prompted rumors that the Third is actually hollow, and a forum post on once imparted (fake) directions to a pristine bouldering cave inside the Flatiron.

10. A popular pastime for local climbers is speed climbing the Third Flatiron. The fastest known time for free-soloing the 1,200-foot East Face is 5 minutes 59 seconds, set by Stefan Griebel. He also holds the fastest known roundtrip time, car-to-car (about 1.25 miles each way, with a long downclimb), at 36:14. The fastest roundtrip time using a fixed line for rappel is 33:17, held by Dave Mackey.