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Frozen in Time: The New School Sport Climbs of the Flatirons, Colorado

Due to a bolting moratorium from 1989-2003, climbing activity essentially “froze” in Boulder's Flatirons, making them a living museum. The new routes that have gone up since 2003? Few and fantastic.

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In 2011, the Boulder, Colorado–based climber Matt Segal swam his way up crimps and sloping huecos on a black streak on Seal Rock’s south face, 15 feet above a nest of cams in the fused Fountain sandstone. His target, just above, was a pre-placed Big Bro tipped diagonally between a jug and a small lip. A fall before the tube chock would launch him toward a giant boulder in the gully below. Segal had no bolts to protect him on the climb, Primate, as it had been established—headpoint-style, without bolts—in 2000, squarely amidst a bolting moratorium. Though Primate has since been bolted to be a “sensible-enough” mixed lead, for years it and the other climbs on this wall sat idle, victims of the moratorium and their own lack of natural protection.

As of press time, Primate is one of 54 new routes to go up since 2003 on these massive formations, which tilt out of the ponderosa-cloaked ridges and canyons of the Boulder Mountains. That year, the local climber organization the Flatirons Climbing Council (FCC) came to an agreement with Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) and the City of Boulder to lift a ban on all bolting, including updating old hardware, originally imposed in 1989. It all began with a pilot area—specific formations on Dinosaur Mountain, one of the densest clusters of climbable rock—and later expanded to include formations across the seven-mile breadth of the range. Today, dozens of formations are approved for new-routing on a permit process overseen by the FCC’s Fixed Hardware Review Committee (FHRC). The FHRC meets three times a year and can approve three new routes per cycle.

During the hiatus, climbing activity essentially “froze” in the Flatirons, making them a living museum that escaped some of the worst excesses of the 1990s, when gluing, chipping, and grid-bolting were often part of the sport-climbing experimentation process. Sport climbing had come into existence in America in the mid-1980s. It was a turbulent time marked by clashes over ethics, in which former friends got into fistfights in parking lots over the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of rap bolting. The Flatirons remained a relative backwater compared to mega-destinations like Smith Rock and the New River Gorge, and so had only a few flare-ups of controversy. The long approaches (a grueling mile-plus) and geographic separation of the formations kept a concentration of climbs from emerging except in a few key areas, like Dinosaur Mountain, Bear Canyon, and Fern Canyon.

Maiden Voyage (5.12c), The Maiden

Maiden Voyage 5.12c Flatirons Sport Climbing Ian Cavanaugh Rock Boulder Colorado
Maiden Voyage (5.12c), The Maiden. (Photo: Rob Kepley)
Climber: Ian Cavanaugh
First ascent: Matt Wilder; 2012
This double-overhanging arête departs from the legendary Crow’s Nest, a tiny perch below the Maiden’s beastly summit overhang that has 100-plus feet of exposure plunging to either side. The climb begins on the “5.9” pitch of the West Overhang, then moves right across an improbable traverse before punching up the arête on forearm-blasting laybacks and slopers. I’ve only been on this route twice—once on a flash attempt (nearly pissed my pants), and then on redpoint. Both burns, I felt like I was going to throw up from the exposure. Moreover, you can only get back to the Crow’s Nest through logistical ninjutsu—fitting, as the first ascentionist, Matt Wilder, is a frequent competitor on American Ninja Warrior. A direct start has yet to be redpointed. If V14 bouldering ten million feet above the ground is your thing, then have a go!

As a result, the Flatirons were more of a locals’ area, though in climber-centric Boulder that still meant constant activity. In keeping with the 1980s vert-slab sport ethos, the early Flatirons sport routes were thin and blank. Take the six-bolt Cornucopia (5.13a) on the Box high on Dinosaur Mountain. This very first Flatirons sport climb, put up in 1986 by Dale Goddard, is a bright-orange scooped face that has no holds bigger than a half-pad crimp, with a flurry of sloping, unhelpful pebbles. It would probably be easier to redpoint in a pair of board-stiff Megas—the cutting-edge rock shoe of the 1980s—than any of today’s softer, more downturned offerings.

As the 1980s wore on, dozens of sport climbs went in and the cliffs hummed with activity. Then, in 1989, Boulder Mountain Parks (BMP), OSMP’s precursor, shut the party down. It was not any one thing; mountain biking had been the first to go a few years earlier when complaints about the new-fangled trail bikes breezing by and alarming hikers reached the city council. And then, it was climbing’s turn. While the Flatirons have a rich climbing history reaching back to the late 1800s, most of that activity had been quiet, tweedy, and traditional—well-behaved people discreetly clambering up the moderate east faces, with the odd 1970s or 1980s crack climb thrown in. (The Flatirons are largely crackless, and so steep, hard trad climbs are rare.)

But now, suddenly, the whirring of power drills echoed off the canyon walls, while the new-school climbers wore bright, obnoxious Lycra and screamed obscenities when they fell. Some birders, hikers, and conservationists hated it. In 1989, BMP imposed its bolting moratorium and even threatened to remove trailside climbs like Colin Lantz’s Superfresh (5.12d) and The Mentor (5.12b), both in Fern Canyon. Though nothing came of the threats, climbers formed the Colorado Climbers Coalition to fight the changing rules here and in Eldorado Canyon, just to the south, which was experiencing similar growing pains. All this was happening right as climbers finally began to develop an eye for the steep lines—the money pitches. It was a paradigm shift led by the likes of Dan Michael, with his 1987 5.13b Slave to the Rhythm, a wildly overhanging pebble-and-crimp line on the back of the East Ironing Board, and Lantz, who just before the ban finished off the 80-foot Honemaster Lambada (5.14a) next to Slave as well as his unrepeated arête The Violator (5.13c) in Fern Canyon.

Thunder Muscle (5.14a), Seal Rock

Thunder Muscle 5.14a Seal Rock Flatirons Rock Sport Climbing Boulder Colorado Isabelle Faus
(Photo: James Lucas)
Climber: Isabelle Faus
First ascent: Matt Samet, Ted Lanzano; 2013
In 1989, Chris Beh, Chip Ruckgaber, and Colin Lantz installed anchors atop this route with every intention of returning to bolt it, but then the hardware ban was imposed days later. The trio certainly had an eye for a line—Thunder Muscle feels like a limestone tufa route from Spain or Kalymnos transposed onto Flatirons sandstone. While the moves are bouldery and fierce, the route has two good rests: one at the “heart” at one-third height, and the other a no-hands before the upper 5.12c funkfest. In 2016, Daniel Woods flashed the line, giving it French 8b on his Facebook page—ooh-la-la, eez nice to be zo strong!

In other words, just as climbers clued into the interesting, wavy, hueco’ed overhanging south, north, and west facets of the Flatirons, sport climbing was shut down. A case in point would be Thunder Muscle, a 13-bolt 5.14a up Spanish-style sandstone flutings and tufas on the overhanging south face of Seal Rock. Lantz, Chip Ruckgraber, and Chris Beh installed anchors atop the route in 1989, but then the ban descended days later before they could return. The route sat idle until 2013, when Ted Lanzano and I bolted it, replacing the rusting 24-year-old anchor with half-inch stainless-steel hardware and equipping the rest of the line.

Next to Thunder Muscle is Primate (5.13b), one of a handful of headpoint-style lines put up during the no-bolt era. While it’s now a mixed line with six bolts supplemented by cam placements, it was originally led on gear at 5.13 X in 2001. (To test the key Big Bro placement during the first ascent, I threw a haulbag full of rocks onto it—and it held.) Similarly, Thunder Muscle’s neighbor is the much-sought-after Choose Life (5.13d), originally toproped in 2002 but never led. The hardest Flatirons headpoint is Matt Wilder’s 2009 Cheating Reality, a 5.14- R up the tilted west overhang of the Devil’s Thumb, a sinister spire an hour-plus uphill in remote Shadow Canyon. With a dynamic V7 final crux five feet above marginal gear, and with your next reliable pro seven feet below that, Cheating Reality has seen only two repeats, by Joe Mills and Brad Gobright.

The 14-year moratorium was just long enough for many of the OG sport routes, equipped with the usual 1980s hodgepodge of disreputable hardware-store bolts, homemade hangers, and sketchy Euro ring bolts, to fall into disrepair, though there were no failures. Until the FCC, formed in 1997 by a crew of dedicated Front Range climbers, struck its 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)—an agreement about how climbing would be carried out in the mountain parks—with OSMP, the sport routes faded from favor. Climbers would go up there occasionally, but the bolts became less trustworthy, the climbs less chalky, the coating of pine needles and lichen on the holds ever thicker.

The Yellow Door (5.13a/b), Seal Rock

The Yellow Door 5.13a/b Seal Rock Phil Gruber Lynn Hill Sport Climbing Rock Boulder Colorado Flatirons
(Photo: Caroline Treadway)
Climbers: Phil Gruber and Lynn Hill
First ascent: Phil Gruber; 2017
The north face of Seal Rock is special—perched high on the southern flanks of Bear Canyon, it’s the last piece of Flatirons rock to catch the setting sun. From town, the 300-foot wall lights up with yellow, black, and red hues, fading as the sun drops behind the Rockies. For a long time, there were only two routes here: the three-pitch Archaeopteryx (5.11d X), known for its long runouts, lichen, and shaky pro, and its neighbor, Sea of Joy (5.13a), an all-bolt counterpoint with a tech-nine third pitch. In 2017, the Boulder hardman Phil Gruber equipped and freed a line that follows the right-leaning tilt of the wall: his brilliant, two-pitch The Yellow Door (5.12b, 5.13a/b). On the sustained second pitch, you cross Sea of Joy (you can link into its crux at 5.13b) and finish on Archaeopteryx. Or you can do the first two pitches of Sea of Joy, then halfway up the third pitch cut right onto The Yellow Door for a three-pitch 5.12, Sea Bird. Confused? Guess you’ll just have to hike up there and see for yourself!

The first new climb to go in under the MOU was Chris Archer and crew’s excellent Hell Freezes Over, an airy two-pitch 5.12a on the Red Devil on Dinosaur Mountain. The name referenced a comment a BMP employee made about the timeframe for allowing bolting again in the Boulder Mountains—i.e., never. More routes followed, with a surge in activity around 2007 when Beh helped rekindle interest in the Slab, a broad parallelogram of rock guarding the mouth to Fern Canyon. As activity has ramped up, the three slots for each FHRC cycle are usually full. The new climbs range from 5.10 jug romps, like those on the shady west face of Der Zerkle; to thin 5.12 pebble and face climbs, like that on the north side of the Matron; to gymnastic 5.13/5.14 tufa, hueco, and pocket hauls, like those on the southwest arête of the Maiden and the south face of Seal Rock, currently home to the Flatirons’ hardest, the 35-meter Jonathan Siegrist route I Am the Walrus (5.14b). Meanwhile, a huge percentage of the 1980s sport climbs have been resurrected with half-inch stainless hardware and bomber chain anchors, and they’re popular anew.

People climb here again, and it’s been great to see. As OSMP ranger Rick Hatfield, the liaison to climbers, puts it, “Climbing is one of our biggest success stories.” Moreover, with the renewal of the MOU every five years, the pilot area has expanded to include a good chunk of formations of interest, with potential for dozens more climbs in the “new-school” vein. Everything is now above board and legit, and the handful of active Flatirons first ascentionists have happily complied with the rules. In a way, the permitting process has been a boon, keeping development to a modest pace that has helped the Flatirons avoid some of the overbolting and overcrowding issues manifesting in nearby Boulder Canyon.

Yes, it can be a slow and sometimes labyrinthine process to put up a route in the Flatirons, but as the high quality of these new lines attests, it’s been worth the wait. A lot can happen in 14 years. Then again, things can also stay the same. The resource is what we make of it, and sometimes a slow, considered pace of development can save us from our own worst instincts.

Choose Life (5.13+), Seal Rock

Choose Life 5.13+ Seal Rock Flatirons Sport climbing rock Chris Taylor Boulder Colorado
(Photo: James Lucas)
Climber: Chris Taylor
First ascent: Matt Samet, Ted Lanzano; 2012
The mega-popular Choose Life was sussed out on toprope for its lead potential during the ban but then abandoned as being total death as a gear lead—hence the name. Opening the south face of Seal Rock, one of Boulder’s premier walls, to bolting involved seven years of negotiations with OSMP, but the wait was worth it. The wall now has eight sport climbs from 5.11b to 5.14b. Best of all, OSMP and the FCC teamed up to build an amazing trail up the final, steep approach grade. Choose Life follows water-fused stone up a wide black streak on ribs, flanges, mini-pockets, and pebbles, with an airy crux passing the next-to-last bolt. “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking, big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers …. ” Irvine Welsh wrote in Trainspotting. Or you could choose to hang on for dear life, avoiding the infamous crux whipper.

Hasta La Hueco (5.13b; Three Pitches), The Maiden

Hasta La Hueco 5.13b The Maiden Flatirons Sport Climbing Boulder Colorado Rock Steve Annacone
(Photo: Craig Hoffman)
Climbers: Steve Annecone and Mark Roth
First ascent: Bret Ruckman, Steve Annecone (P1 and P2: 2013; P3: 2016)
From the west, the Maiden resembles a cobra head rearing to strike; from the north, a broad, rampy face; from the east, a sinuous sidewalk in the sky; and from the south, a broad, scooped amphitheater, bulging and wild and peppered with huecos and incipient cracks. In the middle of the south face, a brilliant panel of flat, whitewashed rock leads to a wavy brown headwall. Hasta la Hueco climbs this. A pitch of scruffy 5.9+ trad leads to the comfy Stone Oven Belay. The second pitch (5.12d) begins with jug huecos; while the pockets all look good from below, they become ever more slopey and distant as you climb. After much sussing, Bret Ruckman and Steve Annecone freed the third pitch at 5.13b in 2016. Three bolts of crux lead to sustained 5.12, then some 5.10/5.11 as the angle eases. That same year, Phil Gruber and Lynn Hill linked the second pitch into the third for a 160-foot mega-excursion. With an hour-plus approach, the Maiden sees more wild turkeys than climbers, part of the quiet appeal of this remote, untrammeled zone.

Thulsa Doom (5.12c/d), Overhang Rock, Bear Canyon

Thulsa Doom 5.12c/d Overhang Rock Bear Canyon Sport Climbing Matt Reeser Boulder Flatirons Colorado
(Photo: Rob Kepley)
Climber: Matt Reeser
First ascent: Chandler Van Schaack, Shaun Reed; 2016
The name Overhang Rock will at first be puzzling to anyone who climbs on its west face, a broad vertical panel that looks like an oversized drive-in-movie screen. Here, the style is crimpy, techy, and old-school—the “overhang” is instead on the east face. City planner Chandler Van Schaack has been a driving force at Overhang Rock, adding three mega lines—Thulsa Doom, Honey Badger (5.13a), and Ouroboros (5.12d)—all rope-stretchers filling in the blanks around the wall’s OG long sport climb, Snake Watching (5.13a), put up in 1989 by Jim Surette. Thulsa Doom climbs the airy left arête, with a roof crux down low followed by consistent action. Like all the routes on this wall, the holds are tiny but positive—you just have to keep your shit together for a long, long, long, long time.

Matt Samet is the editor of Climbing.