Old classics and new finds in Colorado's South Platte
Déjà vu—or, what do they call it the third time? Once again, the forecast is 40 and sunny—perfect. It’s January, and all my friends are skiing, save for one. Craig has given up a third powder day to help me slay this goliath of a crack, a 300-foot, four-pitch, offwidth squeeze that leaves my inner thighs so sore I can’t walk right for a week after an attempt. Even so, I can’t leave it alone. Establishing a new route on Cynical Pinnacle, one of the most iconic formations in Colorado, is a dream come true. Located a mere 150 feet right of Wunsch’s Dihedral, this obvious line has been pointedly ignored by climbers for decades. Someone had to do it. I’ve been defeated twice before by lack of gear, but this time I’ve called up seven different friends, borrowed the single Big Bro each one owns, and amassed an arsenal.
Beyond the first belay lies a mystery, as a massive offwidth roof blocks any view of the terrain ahead. I work my way into the roof and immediately feel a strange combination of claustrophobia and exposure, chest wedged firmly in an A-framed crack, legs kicking in space 100 feet off the ground. Too big to fit through the constriction, I wrestle outward, legs thrashing like helicopter rotors. I eke over the lip and finally stab a welcome foot edge. It snaps. My body lurches downward, but I wedge tight; slowly I regain the lost inches and sketch through, part from tenacity, part from fear of falling out of the roof onto the single Big Bro I’d left for pro, which I kicked burro-style on my way past. I carry on through the offwidth above and collapse on a ledge, heaving with exhaustion. Two wide and strenuous pitches later, we top out and name our new route in honor of all the climbers who have walked past it: Don’t Fear the Boogie Man (5.11c).
Not everyone will be up for a four-pitch wide crack like The Boogie Man, but this new line shares some features with hundreds of other unclimbed lines in Colorado’s sprawling South Platte region: It is clean, on bomber rock, is appallingly obvious, and was begging for a first ascent. Three- and four-star routes, from 30 feet to 1,300 feet, 5.8 to 5.14, await in quantity.
Why such incomplete development, so close to Colorado’s Front Range cities, after almost 90 years of climber exploration in the South Platte? First, the region is huge—600 square miles of craggy foothills just southwest of Denver and northwest of Colorado Springs—and just too spread out for any one group to dominate. Climbers from Colorado Springs largely developed crags in the south, including Turkey Rocks, Big Rock Candy Mountain, and Sheeprock. Meanwhile, Denverites (and the occasional Boulder climber) primarily climbed in the north, at crags like the Cynical Pinnacle, the Dome, and the Bucksnort Slabs.
As a result, the Platte has always lacked a unified climbing scene. The region spawned a few die-hards that might be considered “locals” in the 1970s and ’80s, but most of them have long since moved on or quit climbing altogether. For nearly 20 years, route development stagnated, with only the occasional first ascent—or so it seemed. Many Platte developers kept their activities secret. Slowly the ethos has changed, with information finally making it to the climbing websites and a new guidebook about to be published. Almost overnight, entire crags have exploded onto the scene.
As I flake the rope below the base of our warm-up, Tony surveys the route. “Man, this thing looks sick! You sure it’s 5.10?”
I simply grin and say, “Enjoy.”
He pulls the initial roof, declaring the route amazing between gasps for air, then stems easily up a dihedral until the crack ends. Then he turns and yells down, with a bit of trepidation in his voice, “It looks blank up there!”
“Trust me, it’s all there.”
Tony gropes the face, not willing to leave the comfort of the crack. His searching fingers find something, and suddenly his grimace melts. Almost nonchalantly, he commits to the blank-looking face. Massive patina jugs appear out of nowhere on the gently overhanging wall. It’s gym climbing on gear, and as he clips the chains, he yells down, “Is this for real?”
“It ain’t named that for nothin’,” I reply. Is This For Real? is just a standard 5.10 around here, I tell him. “Welcome to Thunder Ridge.”
With rock that is sometimes compared to the Needles of California, Thunder Ridge was until a few years ago one of the best-kept secrets in Colorado climbing, despite rumors of highly featured overhanging walls that inverted the Platte’s reputation for dime-edge slab climbing. With crag heights barely topping the surrounding pine forest, Thunder Ridge looked no different from any other granitepeppered hillside you could see in every direction throughout the Platte. Even after the Hayman Fire, the largest forest fi re in Colorado’s history, which razed the area and thrust the crags into plain sight, they eluded detection. It wasn’t until the routes—most put up by Glenn Schuler and Kevin McLaughlin—began to pop up on the Internet that more visitors arrived.
Route after route goes down in the same fashion as For Real: Seemingly impossible faces are unlocked as perfectly sculpted holds appear, as if the route had been “set.” Though lacking in continuous cracks, Thunder Ridge’s alligator- skin rock allows for sinker nut placements between patina plates and bomber cams in the horizontals. Bolts fill in when natural protection is absent, but mixed routes far outnumber sport clip-ups, and virtually everything here was established ground-up. While the area has only around 100 routes, there are few that disappoint.
Tony revels in the jug-bashing on W.A.S.P. (5.7) and then heads back over to For Real Canyon for a line he spied earlier, the fully bolted Real Black Velvet (5.11c). An easy start leads up to the obvious crux bulge through a black streak. Arms failing, Tony wildly throws for holds above the bulge—which appear right where he wants them. Sapped now, he moves up and right, hoping for a reprieve in the obvious scoop just below the anchors. I wait for it… wait for it.
“What the hell is this, man!?”
Ah, there it is. The unexpected final crux—a tricky mantel just out of reach of the anchor. I chuckle while Tony mutters something about it “not being fair.” Despite the closeness of the anchors and the bolt in his face, like many climbers I’ve seen before him, Tony grabs the draw. He lowers down, does the move on toprope, then yells, “Aw, man, I coulda done that!” Buzzing with psych, he reaches the ground and immediately says, “Let’s do another!”
With so few routes, one could potentially climb out Thunder Ridge in a matter of weeks, but somehow, no one does. Climbers repeat routes frequently, enjoying each pitch as if it was their first time on it. For some it’s the diverse movement that wins them; for others it’s the cryptic nature of the gear and the fact that you have to earn the route. There are very few lines below 5.10, and even the sport routes should be approached with a “trad” head.
Then there's Devil's Head. While Thunder Ridge is compact, the rock fins and corridors riddling the mountainside at Devil’s Head seem endless. Although routes date back to the 1950s, this was an obscure, sleepy area until the drills started whirring in the 1990s. By far the most active route developer is Tod Anderson, author of the guidebook to the area, Rampart Range Rocks. The area has become one of the most popular in the Front Range with the weekend crowd, not only because of quantity and variety, but also because the majority of the 400 climbs are generously bolted sport routes in the 5.8 to low 5.12 range.
In late April, my wife, Erin, and I headed to a Devil’s Head crag called Wipeyur Buttress. After only 15 minutes of walking, totally alone in a labyrinth of rock and forested mountainside, we tossed our packs down below overhanging walls that create a sort of half-formed arch. Just learning to lead, Erin usually topropes first before trying routes on the sharp end. Here, though, she surveyed the routes from the ground, taking comfort in the obvious jugs and incuts, as well as the closely spaced bolts, and decided to jump directly on a climb. She gracefully danced up a low-angled arête to a roof—usually her weakness. Feeling at ease with a bolt overhead, she went for it, letting out an involuntary scream as she pulled through. More bolts appeared exactly where she wanted them, and she calmly clipped the anchor on Plastic (5.9). We headed back to the arch area, and I jumped on the area classic, a 17-bolt, 5.12c pump-a-thon known as Holy Crap, because that’s how you feel once you’re done. Arms nearly exploding, I got lucky reading the last crux and barely snagged the onsight. The charm of the crag grew on us as Erin took the sharp end for the rest of her day, leading her first 5.10 as well as four other 5.9s. I threw myself at the half-dozen other 5.12s and 5.13s in the area.
By day’s end, we were both fully worked and grinning ear to ear. We made the casual hike back to the free camping area and kicked back to watch the sun set over Pikes Peak.
Colorado locals will appreciate the Platte’s new crags, but for the traveling climber, a greater challenge looms. With more than 2,000 established routes, choosing an area for any particular day, let alone a specific climb, will tax your powers of decision. Interested in Colorado’s best crack climbing area? Visit Turkey Rocks, with nearly 170 lines from 5.8 to 5.12. Want something big? Childhood’s End (5.12a) on Big Rock Candy Mountain is a 1,300-foot, nearly fully bolted, behemoth classic. Many more routes fall somewhere in between. Helen’s Dome has great multipitch slab routes, with Beam Me Up Scotty (5.9) being the standout classic. Sheep’s Nose has several great two- to four-pitch lines that combine jam cracks and bolted slabs, including Lost in Space (5.9), Ten Years After (5.9), and Ozone Direct (5.10b).
But today the choice is easy for me. After years of researching a new guidebook (available late this fall) and climbing almost exclusively in the Platte, I’m ready for the ultimate link-up: to climb the best route on each of the eight major formations in the Cathedral Spires in a single push. Headlamps bob as we huff through the silent forest. I start racking as dawn illuminates the first objective of the day: Bishop Crack (5.12b). A hundred feet of jamming leads through a chimney that tapers to hands, then tapers again to fingers at an optional hanging belay. I chalk my sausage fingers and continue, hoping to send in one monster 170-foot pitch. A splitter 5.10 and 5.11 finger crack thins and steepens at the top into tight, sequential locks with the most minuscule of foot chips, yet I know what to do and top it out. Mark quickly follows.
A brief hike takes us to the base of the Dome and Colorado’s best slab route: the four-pitch 5.10b Topographical Oceans. We simul-climb past perfect smears and dime edges, basking in the morning light. Then we jog over to Sunshine Wall for its Standard Route (5.11a), with four pitches of techy face climbing and roof pulling on perfect granite. On top, instead of rapping the route, we walk off the back, easily reaching the base of Traffic Jam (5.10d) at the Wall of Mirrors. We punch through 100 feet of fi sts and hands until the crack tapers down to a short face crux and an easy rap from a tree.
A quick jaunt down the approach gully leaves us at the start of the next crux of the day, the mega-classic, twopitch thin crack on Poe Buttress called Mississippi Half Step (5.11d). Once again, we can’t decide which is harder, the short but powerful thin crack on the first pitch, or the crimpers and enduro jamming on the second.
It’s noon, and Block Tower is next. We decide to simulclimb the three-pitch Queer Bait (5.11a), tastelessly named but with fun jamming and a bolt-protected face crux on the last pitch. We hike off the backside and in 10 minutes reach the base of the Cynical Pinnacle.
Mark racks up below Wunsch’s Dihedral, one of Colorado’s best multi-pitch 5.11s. He opts for the powerful finger locks on the harder Breashears Finger Crack start (5.11d). Arms fading from the day’s efforts, he drops the nuts, then falls. I suggest the regular start, a casual 5.8. Mark simply raises an eyebrow, grabs the fallen gear, and sets off again on Breashears, quickly firing the pitch and arriving at the comfy belay ledge. As I re-rack on the ledge, I feel sapped. A pumpy, sustained, 100-foot hand crack pitch is next. Too tired to place gear near the top, I make a run for the anchor and nearly pay the price when a foot slips in the final layback. Mark silently grabs the rack, pulls over a roof directly above the belay, and disappears into the thin, hanging corner above. Fully drained, we sit atop the pillar above the third pitch, just shy of the summit.
With our eyes fixed on the short bolt ladder above, Mark coolly breaks the silence: “Dude, it’s only 40 feet. What’s the problem?”
The problem, I think, is that it’s a 5.12 slab. Virtually everybody yards on the bolts, including me at times, for a casual A0 romp to the summit of the tower. It’s hot now, and the face has been baking in the sun; I’m not surprised when I pop off at the second bolt.
After the fourth whipper, I sit on the pillar and we drink the last of our water. Heading up one last time, I somehow sneak through and start to pull Mark up, only to find him arriving next to me almost immediately. “What?! That was quick! Wait, did you pull on the draws?”
Mark smirks, “Do you think I’m an idiot? Everybody pulls on the draws. It’s called the best 5.11, not 5.12.”
Four raps later, we’re stumbling through the woods to the last formation of the day, Snake Buttress. After Wunsch’s, the 5.11c slab crux on Dr. Demento’s Demise feels casual—although the pumpy 5.10 hand crack above does not. After eight formations, 23 pitches, and about four miles of hiking, we finally sit by the river, feet soaking in the water as the sun sets behind us.
New crags, marathon link-ups, cracks, slabs, overhanging faces: the South Platte feels endless. Lesser-known crags like the Kennels, Slacker Dome, and Okey Dokey Dome have sprouted dozens of excellent two-pitch sport routes. Even the old-school crags of the Cathedral Spires are being looked at with new eyes, including Kevin Stricker’s highquality, multi-pitch mixed routes, 5.11 to 5.12, on Poe Buttress, Sunshine Wall, and Block Tower. While researching the new guide, I became overwhelmed with the unclimbed possibilities. My partners and I picked some plums, but feeling full and satisfied, we left plenty more for others, many of which are marked in the guidebook’s photos.
Recently, Mark and I ventured into the 120,000-acre Lost Creek Wilderness area, the remote heart of the South Platte, named after an unspoiled tributary that becomes “lost” several times beneath jumbles of granite. As we topped out a formation deep in the wilds, miles from the car, Mark looked to the west, then the east, then spun around, throwing a look over his shoulder. His face looked confused, as if he was lost. Pointing, he asked, “What’s that formation over there?”
“Nothing… yet,” I replied. We repeated this exchange with each island of granite he pointed to. Not every crag pans out, but I know there are a couple more Thunder Ridges out there waiting to be discovered. I just know it.
When he’s not behind a computer screen laying out guidebooks, Jason Haas can be found wandering around the Platte with his wife and their two dogs. His South Platte Climbing, a comprehensive color guidebook to more than 1,500 routes, will be available at fixedpin.com.
Click through to page 5 for South Platte beta.
South Platte Beta
The majority of the South Platte’s rock is on National Forest land, and free camping abounds. The area is large enough that there is not one centralized camping location—great for solitude, but bad if you’re looking to meet partners. The best basecamp for the southern region—including Turkey Rocks, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Thunder Ridge, and Sheep’s Nose—is probably around Turkey Rocks on FS-360/CR-51. Camping all along the road is free at the many available turnouts. However, if you’re climbing at Sunshine Dome, Helen’s Dome, or Sheep Rock, camp in the National Forest near the now-closed Molly Gulch Campground. Reach it by driving north from Deckers on CO-126 for 2.7 miles and turn left onto the dirt FS-211 at a sign for Cheesman Reservoir and Molly Gulch Campground. Drive about 8 miles towards the campground (following signs). Just before going down a large hill to the closed campground, find a nice, free camping area on the left. (Note: DO NOT camp at the parking area at Thunder Ridge!)
Devil’s Head is located along one of the most popular ATV roads in the Front Range. There’s plenty of free camping, but on weekends, prepare for the constant revving of ATVs. Pay for a quieter site at Devil’s Head Campground ($15 a night), or choose your spot along Rampart Range Road.
For northern areas like the Cathedral Spires, consider a home base along FS-550 in the Buffalo Creek region. To get there, continue south on Pine Valley Road/CR-126 from the Cathedral Spires for 6.5 miles and turn right onto FS-550. It’s free to camp in any of the pullouts along this road for the first few miles.
Spring and fall are best. Summers can be hot, but quite nice at higher elevation areas like Devil’s Head. Winter climbing is dictated by sun and wind more than temperature. Some access roads can be snow-covered at times, and certain crags, especially in the Cathedral Spires, are often closed for bird nesting from midwinter through midsummer.
Rampart Range Rocks, by Tod Anderson, covers the sport climbs at Devil’s Head. South Platte Climbing, by Jason Haas, is available at fixedpin.com this fall.
BEST NEW 5.9 AND UNDER SPORT ROUTES
The Platte is not known for moderate sport routes, but here are a few that stand out. Right of Center (5.8, Radio Head): Slightly slabby, but what a setting! Pulp Friction (5.8+, Thunder Ridge): Brilliant jug bashing on chickenheads and edges up a low-angled water streak. Frequency Modulated (5.9, Devil’s Head): Pull a small roof on chickenheads and flakes. Located next to another half-dozen 5.9s and 5.10a’s.
BEST NEW MULTI-PITCH ROUTES
The Platte is known for stellar multi-pitch climbing, especially in the 5.9 to 5.11 range. Here are a few neo-classics, ranging from smooth, friction-dependent slab routes to vertical jam cracks. Chuck’s Corner (5.8, The Hideaway): A full-blown adventure without the epic. Mountain bike in, bushwhack to the base, then tackle a clean, 300- foot, low-angled corner. Walk off and see what not putting out your campfire can do to an area. Two Jews Blues (5.10b, Little Scraggy Dome): Three pitches, all 5.10-. Think Topographical Oceans at the Dome, but with three times as many bolts. Dance of the Just Plain Folk (5.10c, Okey Dokey Dome): Four pitches of well-protected dime edging take you to the summit and a 70-mile panoramic view. Sunkist (5.12c, Sunshine Wall): Can you hang on by a fingernail edge and place an RP? Don’t let the bolts fool you: All four pitches are game on. One of the best multi-pitch 5.12 routes in the state.
Thunder Ridge and Devil’s Head While there are great easier (and harder) routes at these areas, 5.12 is a standout grade. Here are a few of my favorites. Chocolate Thunder (5.12a, Thunder Ridge): Techy and continuous on steep, clean stone. You couldn’t design a better route. Holy Crap (5.12c, Devil’s Head): Enduro! Overhangs nearly 40 feet, with hardly a move easier than 5.11c. Meanwhile (5.12c, Devil’s Head): Three pitches of perfect stone. The 5.11c first pitch is a good warm-up for the crux second pitch. The third pitch offers a nice 5.10 cool down. Starlight (5.12d, Thunder Ridge): A 40-foot overhang with in-cuts and no rests—it’s out of this world! Huck for the giant manta-ray flake and hang on!
CRACKS OF THE PLATTE
The Platte is one of the best crack climbing areas in Colorado. Here are a few favorites. Classic Dihedral (5.7, Bucksnort Slabs): Hand jams up a low-angled, right-facing corner, with a two-minute approach. Bring two ropes to get down. Center Route (5.9, Cynical Pinnacle): Three pitches of superb 5.9 jamming in a variety of sizes. Drumstick Direct (5.10d, Turkey Rocks): Stemming and jamming and… burly! Whimsical Dreams (5.11b, Turkey Rocks): Beautiful and sustained jamming. Milk the rests for the 5.10 roof at the top.
With more than 2,000 routes, the must-do list is staggering, but these will get you started. Topographical Oceans (5.10b, The Dome): Three pitches of 5.8 and 5.9 smears set you up for the crux, once-controversial fourth pitch of sustained crimping. A bolt every 10 feet was once considered grid bolting in the Platte, and this well-protected route was threatened with chopping. Most of the first dozen or so ascents skipped every other bolt, but I don’t recommend following suit. Wunsch’s Dihedral (5.11b A0 or 5.12b, Cynical Pinnacle): Take the casual 5.8 blocky corner to the ledge or the ultra-classic Breashears Finger Crack start just to the left at 5.11d. Continue up pumpy hands to wide hands on the second pitch, and technical, thin laybacks and stemming on the third. Yard on the bolts at the top to avoid desperate slab smears. Warpath (5.11a, Wigwam Dome): Located two miles into the remote Lost Creek Wilderness, this phenomenal face route will leave a lasting impression. The crux is getting off the ground, but all three pitches are continuous at the 5.10 grade. If you have time, check out its equally great neighbor, El Supremo (5.11b R), while you’re there.