Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
No matter if it’s for a hot date, for a meeting, or, in my case, in the season — “late” is never good. Laboring halfway up a barren Colorado hillside in convulsive 100-degree July heat, I beg for mercy — and for shade. I follow closely behind Tommy Caldwell, his wife Beth, and Adam Stack, and imagine this hike in the cool temps of winter. There will be no mercy, however, not on this hike nor on the crag that awaits.
We’re on our way to the Fortress of Solitude, a limestone crag not far from the famed Rifle Mountain Park in western Colorado. It is a little-visited crag cloaked in an odd mix of fame and obscurity. It is known for being home to North America’s hardest sport routes, Caldwell’s Kryptonite and Flex Luthor—and for little else.
From a distance the Fortress appears large and foreboding, stretching across the hillside for nearly half a mile and maintaining a 100-meter height for most of its length, with castle-like turrets guarding the skyline. From below, your neck cramps as you search in vain for an end to white-, orange-, and tan-streaked walls that sometimes overhang by more than forty-five degrees. Your cohorts make their way out the main cave until they are dots on the horizon and their voices echo against the caverns and faces. The most impressive walls are still unclimbed, and for the dedicated few, lines of 5.15 or harder are waiting.
“I saw more potential on that wall than on any other wall in the U.S.,” my friend and pro climber Joe Kinder had told me of the Fortress.
After a few days at the massive cliff, I felt the same way.
I thankfully drop my pack as we finally reach the wall. The central cave looms directly above. I scan the wall to the left, which forms an ever-steeper hidden cavern, then, farther left, eases to slightly overhanging, vertical, and then slabby 300 yards out. The even broader wall to the right of the cave reminds me of an Endless Summer longboard wave — steepness followed by easier terrain, then a growing steepness that carries to easier cruising ground.
Upon closer inspection, the rock is the typical Western Slope limestone — murky brown with white and gold streaks of more solid rock. There is some choss, but also some of the most solid limestone around. The routes are blocky, kneebar-intensive, vastly overhung, and complex. High-end onsighting here is out of the question. Combined, these featured walls hold less than twenty established routes, and having seen what neoclassics can be dug out of the gullies and dirt-covered slabs of the Boulder Canyons and Rumneys of this country I see no end to the Fortress’s potential. I feel like Picasso staring at a blank canvas. Unvisited as they are, these walls already hold the Western Hemisphere’s hardest sport routes, dizzying, rope-stretching pitches of unrelenting steepness and difficulty. Just as impressive is the first-ascent ethic. The Fortress is a glue-free, chip-free crag for the twenty-first century, with potential for a dozen or so more 5.15 mega classics, certain adventure and solitude guaranteed.
A few days earlier, Caldwell had shown me the first route bolted at the cliff, equipped in July 1998.
“I pretty much set aside three months of my life and decided that I was going to do it,” he said of the route — Kryptonite (5.14c/d) — a thirty-meter line up the gold-and-white-streaked central cave that ends halfway up the wall. “We totally blew it, too,” he continued, gesturing to the cave. “We thought it was going to be like 5.12s in here, and that the harder routes were going to be over there.” He points farther right, to a towering white wall that remains untouched. The wall looks like it could hold another dozen routes. To the trained eye, however, it holds perhaps one line, a future 5.15.
Caldwell, at twenty-five, is without question the country’s top all-around climber, having established some of the country’s hardest sport routes, as well as countless trad 5.13s from Colorado to Yosemite. He is a climber who knows the meaning of dedication. After severing his left index finger in a home-improvement accident in November 2001, he battled back, recently completing what is probably the hardest roped pitch on this continent, Flex Luthor (unconfirmed at 5.15a) at the Fortress. He spent four months straight working on the climb and living at the cliff. Climbing on Flex Luthor, Tommy swings from side to side. Like a kid on a swing he gives a kick to gain momentum, stabs a foot high and right, and pulls up into the next kneebar.
The route climbs a prominent right-leaning crack feature, the obvious weakness on the central wall. From a distance it appears readily climbable. On closer inspection, the line’s size and steepness become more apparent, and once on the climb the meager grips make their presence — and absence — known. Although it does have a mandatory ring lock, the route is anything but a crack climb. Just holding onto the holds appears heinous. As with all of the climbs at the Fortress, everything is smaller and more sloping than it looks. From kneebar to kneebar, Tommy slugs up the steep, blocky roofs, each movement intricately calculated after weeks of rehearsal.
Routes such as Flex and Kryptonite have established an ethical standard that contrasts starkly with the more “industrial” tactics applied at areas such as American Fork and Rifle.
“I don’t glue or drill anything here,” says Caldwell, “and it just kind of proves that it doesn’t really need to be done.”
Not everyone has been appreciative of this effort, however, including one of the world’s greats, François Legrand of France, who visited the Fortress with Yuji Hirayama in 2001 and generated the crag’s only real controversy. Legrand and Hirayama’s audacious bid to climb all the hardest sport routes in the States was an epic-filled adventure, which eventually sent both men home with their tails between their legs, but it was their time at the Fortress that they surely will remember most. Shortly after the superstars left the States, Adam Stack jumped on Kryptonite and found a new hold—a two-finger pocket that Caldwell had never seen nor used on the first ascent—on the lower part of the route. Stack made his discovery known and soon the controversy spilled onto Internet message boards. Climbers began accusing Legrand of drilling the hold in question.
“I told it how it was, but I think it got blown out of proportion,” says Stack, who says he also got an earful from Legrand. “I think he said, ‘How can someone who has done so little criticize someone who has done so much?’”
Legrand denies chipping any holds on the route, but does say that the pair had to do a fair amount of cleaning. What that “cleaning” actually entailed remains unclear, but the incident has helped advertise the Fortress as a chisel-free zone.
I feel like I’m on an El Cap route. My belayer, Beth Rodden, becomes a little speck below as I chalk and try to shake the pump from my arms. Even on the less overhung Metropolis, one of the Fortress’s easier routes at 5.12c, the climbing is technical and sustained. I jerk my leg awkwardly in hopes of finding a subtle kneebar — often the key to success on the crag’s harder and steeper routes. The holds are never good enough to allow me a full recovery, and after eighty feet of climbing, with fifty more left, I am feeling far from fresh. Beth shouts up encouraging words, but I’m not sure how to take them since she regularly warms up on this climb. She basically lived at the Fortress most of October, November, December, and January, while Tommy worked on Flex.
“I was a dedicated belayer,” Beth says of her contribution, adding, “He had to do that thing — I put in too much effort!”
Clipping the anchors and lowering forty meters back to the ground, I smile and appreciate how good it feels to have a motivated belayer watching the sharp end. Having an adventure at the Fortress doesn’t mean having to climb 5.14, as I found out earlier when I warmed up on the 5.10c Lois Lame (in case you haven’t noticed, Fortress route names follow a Superman theme). Western Colorado locals Matt Samet and Dave Pegg have recently added this and other moderate routes, hoping to make the crag a bit more welcoming.
Living in Elk Creek within sight of the crag and less than 100 yards from the trailhead, Pegg is the only true Fortress “local,” and often takes exploratory hikes along the ridges and flanks of the area. This past year, Pegg was the first to capitalize on the potential of the outer reaches of the Fortress, establishing close to a half dozen lines under 5.13. Pegg lured Samet away from Rifle to check out the new climbs, and Samet soon added a few routes of his own.
“I think it’s fair to say that this crag is the cliff of the future,” he says.
Much of the rock is excellent, but climbing through occasional questionable sections is part of the Fortress experience. This seems consistent with the spirit of the area. To climb well at the Fortress you need to enjoy the whole process. You must be ready to embrace the approach hike as a project of its own; work your project for days, weeks, or months; deal with chossy sections of cliff; and be ready for serious solitude. Climbing at the Fortress is a departure from the narcissistic quest for numerical gratification found at your typical sport crag.
“It takes a lot of motivation to be here,” says Stack, “but to be here with close friends in this beautiful setting is incredible.”
Adam catches my gaze scouring the walls, and says, “I’m excited to put up routes here someday.” He pauses, then adds, “In a few years when I’m a better climber.”
Coming from a typical Fortress visitor, this comment might be expected, but Stack’s qualifications already seem solid. He repeated Kryptonite (sans the questionable hold) last January. The remark exemplifies Stack’s modesty — and patience. At nineteen, he is one of the nicest climbers I have met, low on ego and worries, big on smiles. With a Jokeresque grin on his face, he points out a line he’s been looking at, a series of pockets through roofs on the left end of the main cave, perhaps so tall that it would be two pitches long and leave you twenty-five to thirty meters out when you rapped back to earth.
Before the end of my trip, I ask Caldwell why he has embraced the Fortress and what he thinks of the future here. He reiterates the energy and motivation it takes to hike up here, establish a line — usually from the ground up, since the walls are too tall and steep for rapping in—and succeed on a hard project. Yet amid the general laziness that can surround sport-climbing development, he sees an encouraging new trend, that more and more people are getting tired of the same old thing. They are looking for something new, and are willing to work for it. For Caldwell, the investment pays off.
“I love coming up here because I feel like I need a project to be living my life to the fullest,” he says. “I will always have projects here.”
Given the astronomical standards that Caldwell and others already have established at this cliff, I hesitate to press him about what one of these projects might be, but my curiosity gets the best of me. His answer is perhaps as predictable as it is inspiring—the extension to Kryptonite.
“It would be cool to have something that went to the top of the cliff,” he says. “It’s got to be at least a 300-foot pitch.”
When I ask when, he pauses. Silence. Finally he offers, “It will be a little while.”
Tim Kemple’s photographs (and desperate New England headpoint ascents) appear regularly in the pages of Climbing. This is his first feature-writing project.