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Chris Kalous, the host of The Enormocast: A Climbing Podcast, has been pumping out interviews with notable climbers for nearly a decade. Beyond being an entertaining show and fueling climbing stoke, The Enormocast has also become a chronicle of climbing history. In episodes seven and eight, the late Hayden Kennedy defends his motives for removing the bolts on the infamous Compressor Route on Cerro Torre; in episode 133, Alex Honnold gives his first serious interview after free soloing El Cap, long before the film and subsequent media storm hit the airways; in episodes 155 and 156, legendary Yosemite photographer Dean Fidelmen recounts the epic history of the Stone Masters and Stone Monkeys. The list goes on and on.
The reason that Kalous’s podcast has been tied to the cutting edge of climbing is due to the fact that he has been an active member of the community for more than 30 years. Despite being a popular climbing podcast personality, Kalous’s own climbing history is not as well known. Below is a condensed history of Kalous’s long and varied career, told by significant routes that mark the epochs of his climbing career.
Kalous was born in Wisconsin. He moved to Libertyville, Illinois, when he was 5 and spent his formative years there. It was an area where, in the 1980s, rock climbing was unheard of. As a teenager, he read an article about the Yosemite climber John Bachar in an outdoor magazine and knew in that moment that he would be a climber. He began training for rock climbing in his high school weight room.
Kalous moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend Colorado State University, choosing the school for of its proximity to the mountains. He started toproping at Horsetooth Reservoir. Soon after, he learned to lead and place gear in Eldorado Canyon and climbed at Lumpy Ridge, but was soon interested in larger objectives. Kalous immersed himself in climbing literature, and became obsessed with what he believed to be the ideals of the sport—notions of toughness, willpower, and an unrelenting, at-all-costs drive to the summit.
Northcutt-Carter Route, Hallett Peak (5.8)
The Northcutt-Carter Route on Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park was one of America’s 50 Classic Climbs before the first two pitches fell off in the 1990s. Though it is an “easy” route at 5.8, it is still 900 feet of climbing on the notoriously loose face of Hallett Peak, making for a big, epic day in the alpine for a couple of young climbers. Kalous climbed the Northcutt-Carter Route in 1990 when he was 19 years old.
“It was a big route coming from shorter stuff in Eldo,” Kalous said. “It was a big step. And it poured rain on us the whole time, but we just climbed through it. We just kept going. Now I would never do that. Now if I felt a drizzle it would be like, ‘Alright, let’s get out of here.’”
The notion of bailing on account of the rainstorm hadn’t occurred to Kalous because it didn’t fit his ideal of what climbing was at the time—the hardman-style of perseverance. He also concedes that they might not have known at the time how to descend the wandering route. Instead, they carried on to the summit and returned to the trailhead. The pair then drove an hour from Estes Park to Fort Collins in a Jeep without the top on. By the time they got back, they were soaked to the bone and nearly hypothermic.
“I remember that as being like, Wow, these big routes are super cool and I can climb and be tough,” Kalous said. “And it fit my vision of what climbing should be, this idea of going for it and keeping going.”
An Intro to Aid Soloing
Phantom Sprint, Fisher Towers (5.9, C2)
Kalous made his first desert pilgrimage later in his college years, to climb at the Fisher Towers. He and a partner made an ascent of Layton Kor’s, Finger of Fate (5.8/C2+). In 1992, at 21, he returned to the Fishers on a spring break trip to climb Phantom Sprint with the same partner, but the partner bailed after arriving in the desert.
“I was like, Fuck that. I grabbed all of our stuff and soloed the Phantom Sprint,” Kalous said. “I rope soloed it, but I didn’t really know how to rope solo, so I made it up as I went. I had some idea in my head how it worked, and I had aid climbed already… I don’t know if there were times I was doing it completely wrong and could’ve died or anything like that, but it worked and I got to the top.”
But Kalous’s ascent of Phantom Sprint wasn’t flawless. At one point, he put his aiders on a loop of webbing on a fixed pin and stepped into them. The webbing was tucked through the hole in the pin, not connected to anything.
“I took a 15-foot factor-two directly onto the anchor,” he said. “I just stepped off the dock into the pond. I had this huge rack of iron on so it just wrenched my back and I was upside down and flipping myself around. I got myself straightened back out and I’m like, ‘Holy fucking shit what happened?’”
Despite the blunder, Kalous reached the summit, learning from his mistakes along the way. “That was the gateway to soloing aid climbs,” he said.
The Aid Rant
Gulf Stream, El Capitan (5.9/A5)
After college, Kalous spent three seasons guiding for Colorado Mountain School before moving to Southern California. While there, he began ticking away at big Yosemite aid climbs. His first aid solo up El Capitan was the 18-pitch Aquarian Wall (5.7, A3) in 1994 when he was 23. On that climb, he got caught in a storm that persisted for three days. With ample food and water, Kalous waited out the storm as other parties called for rescues. “I just sat it out and finished the route,” he said. “That was another threshold of saying, ‘I can solo El Cap.’”
“The next route I soloed was Zenyatta Mondatta, which at the time was supposedly A5,” Kalous said. “Then I did a variation of Lost in America, A5 in the wintertime solo. Got caught out again in a big storm, this time a pretty serious one, but just waited it out. Ended up topping it out in nine days.”
In 1997, at age 26, Kalous made the decision to conclude the big wall soloing chapter of his climbing career. “A pretty definitive moment was when I soloed the Gulf Stream, an A4 or A5 route,” he said. “That was a pretty conscious decision that, This is the last hard aid climb I’m gonna do. I could see the writing on the wall for what became the infamous aid rant.”
The aid rant is a short video in which Kalous bashes aid climbing, saying that more people should be dying on A5 if the grading system is based upon the danger of the route. (To be clear, it is a joke—Chris Kalous does not want people to die on aid climbs.) The rant is in jest, but it’s based in a reality that he felt: “If I just keep doing these hard aid routes over and over again, what is going to happen?”
The Serpent, The Black Canyon (5.11+ R/X)
After ending his career as an aid soloist, Kalous shifted his focus to other disciplines. He spent a summer in Las Vegas, Nevada, and became interested in performance sport climbing for the first time, realizing that it made him a stronger trad climber as well. From Vegas he moved to Gunnison, Colorado, home of the notoriously runout, loose, and sketchy Black Canyon.
Kalous said that he has climbed in the Black steadily for a long time, ticking a lot of the classics up to 5.12. With his aid soloing background, he had the logistics for big wall free climbing on lockdown. The route that was the culmination of his climbing in the Black Canyon came in his late 30s: The Serpent (5.11+ R/X), the free version of The Dragon on the Painted Wall, which had seen three or four ascents at that time.
“It became one of those things that we had to do because it was the raddest, hardest thing in the Black—not grade-wise, but it had all the funk,” Kalous said. “All the worrisome climbing on bad gear.”
Kalous and his partner were both taking the hardman role of the team, trying to pick up the slack and unwilling to admit their crippling fear—until Kalous lead out onto a dicey traverse.
“I was about to start on this traverse and it gets into the business,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to reverse it, and we wouldn’t be able to bail straight down. If we climbed this traverse we would have to go to the top. I got out there and pulled a pin out with my hands. I went back and was just like, ‘Dude, I don’t know if this is in the cards.’ As soon as I said it my partner was like, ‘Alright, we’re going down.’”
They rapped down and were back to the base by 3 p.m., each climber feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. Several pitches fell off the route the next season.
Kalous was able to put something behind him that day: “It was a punctuation point, in a way, on the Black Canyon, but also on my youth. This was in my late 30s, and after that I had a real conscious thought about dangerous climbing and whether I was still game for that kind of thing.”
40 Years, 40 Pitches
Kalous has climbed consistently in Indian Creek since 1991 and has been a key figure there throughout the years. He spent his early Creek days knocking out classics, but as time went on he became more custodial, replacing anchors and establishing new routes. He was also on the Friends of Indian Creek board for years.
“It’s the place I’ve climbed consistently the longest,” he said. “It’s an interesting place for me because I’ve seen this progression. In 1991 it was not well traveled… I’ve got this real time watch on the growth of climbing.”
In 2011, for his 40th birthday, Kalous marked the era by climbing 40 pitches in the Creek in a day without any laps. He and his partner started around 2 a.m. and finished by 5 p.m. so they could have a party afterward. “It was cool,” he said. “It was a nice capstone for a long time of climbing there.”
Still a Hardman
Trail of Tears (5.13b)
Today, Kalous resides in Carbondale, Colorado, with his family. He’s a Rifle local. At 49-years-old, Kalous is climbing as hard as he ever has. In early March of this year (about a week before nationwide lockdowns went into effect), he nearly sent an enormous project in Lake Powell, Utah.
Trail of Tears is a 50 meter, two-pitch 5.13b crack. Kalous was working the route and added a 10-meter extension after the second pitch. Then he decided he wanted to attempt it ground up as one monstrous 60-meter 5.13 crack.
“I fell on the last move, at 59 meters,” he said. “But, what that means is that I climbed the first pitch and the second pitch of that route as a single, 50-meter 5.13. And I hadn’t actually sent the second pitch by itself at that point. Even though I failed I sent this totally rad crack that was super fucking hard.”