The blizzard worsened and the cloud of snow covering the canyon grew thicker, veiling the opposing walls from sight. My hands became icicles on the cold stone, my fingers dry, cracked, and bloody, leaving smears of red on the rock. The final pitch was my lead. I pulled over an awkward bulge to find a delicate slab partially covered in a thin sheet of verglas. A smile drew across my face.
The scene seemed like a climactic moment from an alpine epic in Alaska or Patagonia or some other foreboding landscape. In reality, my partner Mat Gruber and I were climbing The Young and the Rackless (TYATR), a classic four-pitch 5.9+ sport route in Boulder Canyon, Colorado. Just a 15-minute drive from downtown Boulder, TYATR is one of the most popular intro-to-multi-pitch routes in Colorado. The “plus” is gratuitous, acting as a deterrent for 5.9 sport climbers who don’t know how to top-belay.
So what the hell were we doing up there in a blizzard?
It was the first time that Gruber and I had tied-in together; I was new to Boulder and looking for climbing partners to match my psyche. We’d set aside an April afternoon to climb the route, thinking it would be perfect to test a partnership given the easy climbing.
The morning of, however, a winter storm blew in over the Front Range. Glaring out the office window that morning, dark clouds blanketed the horizon. Snow was coming down in droves.
I texted Gruber: “What do you think?”
“Fuck it dude, I’m still psyched if you are.”
The temperature was in the low-30s in town, and dropped into the 20s as we drove up the canyon. We made the short but steep approach, and my hands were numb by the time we reached the base of the route. Despite the conditions, I’d failed to wear gloves, or even a waterproof layer. Snow was piling up on the ground as we tied in, and I furiously rubbed my hands together to regain feeling. Gruber and I fistbumped as he took flight.
“See you up there, bud.”
I’d run into Gruber at the crag once or twice before, but I really didn’t know what his capabilities were. When he got held up for a moment 15 feet off the ground of TYATR with one bolt clipped, the thought crossed my mind that he might just be some punk with a rope and pull a slip n’ whip square on top of my skull. But he quickly sorted out the sequence, floated up the rest of the pitch, and began pulling up rope. As the line snaked through the draws, my mind wandered.
I’ve heard from many different climbers that say their favorite discipline is bouldering because they can do it alone. All you need is a pair of shoes and a crashpad. Indeed, a day of solitude frolicking among the boulders is a pleasant way to pass time, but I find that it lacks an essential piece of the climbing experience: partnership.
When you tie in with a partner and leave the ground as a team, the rope acts as a lifeline between central nervous systems. The experience becomes shared—the joy, the fear, the hope, the stoke, and the communal burden of get to the top. This is what fosters partnership.
The rope tugged on my harness, breaking my reverie, and I began climbing through the screaming wind and snow. I got crossed up in the same awkward spot Gruber had, worked it out, and started cruising. I could not help but revel in the absurdity of our situation. It’s not as if we were expedition climbers mid-route on a mountainside when the storm blew in with no other option but to carry on; we were out there by our own volition.
As I closed in on Gruber’s belay, I started to play around on the easy terrain to get a rise out of my new partner. I slapped both hands on a jug and matched with an overhead heel-hook.
“Ha-ha! Hell yeah, brother. Gotta throw the heel!” Gruber shouted.
“The heel is always the beta,” I echoed.
I rocked up into a mantle, then scrambled the last few feet up to join Gruber at the belay ledge.
“This is ridiculous,” I said, smiling.
“Today is probably the only day of the year that there isn’t a queue to climb this route,” he said.
“I reckon we’re the only people climbing in Boulder Canyon right now.”
“I reckon we’re the only people climbing in the Front Range right now.”
We continued up the route as the storm came down harder. The crux of the day was not some difficult move or cryptic sequence—not by a longshot. The crux was our own hands, frozen like blocks of ice, useful as an arcade claw machine. It took directed focus and effort to unclip the quickdraws from my harness.
On that final pitch, the icy slab, I began skipping bolts. I didn’t want to fumble with quickdraws anymore with my numb pinchers—but I think more of me craved that proper runout feel. The route had become our playground, and we became make-believe alpinists, testing what effect gravity could have on the weightless arrogance of youth.
I topped out and Gruber was soon to join.
“We’re a couple of proper mountaineers today, aren’t we?”
We both laughed at the notion, standing at the top of one of the easiest bolted multi-pitch routes in Boulder Canyon, less than 15 miles from our homes.
The Young and the Rackless is far from my proudest climbing achievements. I’ve had countless days—many of them with Gruber—of bigger, harder, scarier, and more aesthetic routes. Nonetheless, that snowstorm remains one of my fondest climbing memories, as it was a formative moment in a partnership.
For me, the relationships we forge in the mountains are more meaningful than the difficulty of the climbing itself. There are few other arenas where codependency is key for not only success, but also survival. Tying in with your partner is not symbolic, it is a very literal display of: “I trust you with my life.”
That’s something you just won’t find alone with a crashpad and some boulders.