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How 1990s Rifle Laid the Foundation for Hard American Sport Climbing

Rifle Mountain Park has a history, reaching back to the canyon’s first sport climbs from the late 1980s and early 1990s, that played a critical role in the modern explosion of difficulty in American sport climbing, especially on overhanging stone.


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Adam Ondra has yet to visit Rifle Mountain Park. In an interview with Climbing, while speaking of the rock in the United States, Ondra said: “Shitty limestone. But in the end, the shittier, weirder rock you have, the more interesting movements you can have. You know, shitty rock can never be monotonous.”

Shitty rock. Weird and usually interesting movement—that’s Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, for you. If you’ve never been, here’s Rifle in a nutshell: deep, sometimes dark limestone caves, swells, and bulges, flanked by unbroken vertical walls, all in a narrow, verdant canyon at just over 7,000 feet on the Western Slope of Colorado. The rock quality has wild variability, from the bullet-hard, streaked stone of the Anti-Phil Wall, Project Wall, and Wasteland to the blocky, scalier rock of the Wicked Cave and Arsenal. There are just over 500 routes from 5.7 to 5.15a, and all are more or less roadside, with approaches often measured in seconds. Rifle has a smorgasbord of slippery holds unique to the area, from the infamous open-hand pinch, to the flat crimp, to the dreaded “Rifle sloper,” to burly underclings, to pockets, and even the rare tufa. And a history, reaching back to the canyon’s first sport climbs from the late 1980s and early 1990s, that played a critical role in the modern explosion of difficulty in American sport climbing, especially on overhanging stone.

(Photo: Christian Beauchamp)

Of course, Rifle is great for reasons beyond the rock. There’s this whole ambiance: Climber and picnicker families alike promenade along the road, alongside a stream drowning in watercress. Boxelder bugs drop from the trees and cling to sunlit patches of rock and dirt, careless in their reverie. A dog may pee on your rope, and your belayer will be too distracted by thoughts of her own project to notice. Rednecks speed down the road, blasting country music and howling expletives at climbers. You’ll hang midair, pretending you’re definitely going to get through the next section this time. Someone next to you might wobble after having just punted, again. Down below your project, hops grow in thick patches. Avery Brewing once made a craft beer with these hops, and if there’s a better example as to why Rifle is a climber’s paradise, I’m not sure what it is.

Rifle these days is chaos—and pretty much always has been, with so many high-quality routes in an idyllic setting. And yet, it retains its innate magic and allure. This past summer, I witnessed six individuals—four of whom were primarily boulderers and, as such, rarely seen on a rope—take refuge in Rifle Mountain Park after heart-wrenching breakups. They tried hard on projects, heckled redpointers, drank beer with friends: Some places just heal you in ways that a new haircut or tattoo or ice cream cannot. There’s a real power to the canyon—the original dwellers of the canyon, the Ute Indians, whose bands roamed the southern Rockies and whose beliefs are based in nature, knew this. Certain Ute bands believed there were mystic powers linked to land; shamans sought natural “power points,” where they left offerings and pleaded for favor from the gods. Rifle feels like one of those places—it just draws you in, over and over.

“It’s really funny, because I think certain people get the Rifle bug and they just have to go back,” says Scott Franklin, an early visitor to the canyon and still a diehard Rifle aficionado. In 1992, Franklin grabbed the first ascent of Simply Read (5.13d), the direttissima up the Project Wall. Simply Read starts with a boulder—V8?—followed by an easier section, a V6, a V8, a good rest, and a likely V5 to the top. These are my estimates after trying the route last summer—I never did send. Simply Read is a burly, tricky, finnicky, radically overhanging route with numerous kneebars, and it made me want to call my mom on the drive home. Of course, I was trying it in fancy kneepads with duct tape, while Franklin did it in jeans. … On his fourth day of effort.

Andrew Bisharat on ‘Fistful of Dollars’ (5.11c) at the Project Wall, first ascent by Kurt Smith in 1992. Fistful is one of six classic lines on the Project Wall that range from 5.12c to mid-5.11.

Franklin, 24 at the time and a full-time professional climber, had developed his climbing skills primarily at Smith Rock. “We were pretty low-key, just smoking weed,” he says. Today, he lives in Nederland, Colorado, with his wife, Gia. They still make the three-hour commute to Rifle most weekends during the season; both of their children are climbers.

Simply Read was equipped by Eric Fedor (the bottom half) and Phillip Benningfield (the top half), who lived in nearby Carbondale and worked at Climbing magazine. The line had been red-tagged by Fedor, who tried the bottom sporadically until Benningfield, frustrated by the lack of progress, swung over from the neighboring climb Apocalypse and down-bolted the top half. According to Chris Knuth, another early developer, Fedor had been in over his head. So Franklin nabbed the ascent. The name, as you might have guessed, is a play on the taken tag.

“I think that was sort of a transitional phase from the climbing ethics of the ‘70s and early ‘80s,” says Mike Pont, who put up many of the early routes, including Thieves (5.13b) at the Wasteland. Thieves was named for a stolen rope he’d left on the climb, although many figured it also related to red-tag poaching and would-be aspirants to his closed project. “Rifle was where the minutiae of etiquette and ethics and all that stuff came to a head—questions like how long you can leave a red tag before the route is just opened,” says Pont.

I tried Simply Read in 2021 after watching the Boston-based pro climber Jesse Grupper flash it, and then continue on to the higher anchors for Simply Redlined (5.14a), which he also flashed. It was one of the most impressive ascents I’ve seen. Grupper came down sweating but with more gas in the tank and beaming ear-to-ear, singing the route’s praises. After consulting his guidebook, Grupper was on to the next route.

Bobbi Bensman, the first woman to tick 5.14 in Rifle, on ‘The Path’ (5.13c). (Photo: Jim Surette)

Thirty years have passed since the first sport routes went in (the canyon also has established ice climbing, which began earlier) but its manic “sending energy” remains the same. Rifle was and still is a hub, for its concentration of easy-access difficult climbs. You won’t find a better, more robust mix of limestone lines in the country. In fact, many of America’s current top climbers fluffed their wings here before taking off across the world, folks like Joe Kinder, Jon Cardwell, Matty Hong, Emily Harrington, Paige Claassen, Jonathan Siegrist, Daniel Woods, Dave Graham, and Margo Hayes. And you can’t forget Tommy Caldwell, who took the limestone and kneebar skills honed at Rifle to establish Flex Luthor (5.15b), America’s first 5.15, in 2003 at the nearby Fortress of Solitude. 

“I think American Fork and Smith Rock preceded Rifle’s explosion,” says Mark Tarrant, who sank the first sport bolts at Rifle, “but Rifle seemed to bring a new style and drive for consciously pushing the grades.” 

“Before Rifle, there was a lot of hostility and conflict around the new Euro tactics,” says Colin Lantz, an early developer in the canyon, most associated with the Arsenal, as well as equipping and cleaning the benchmark 5.14 Zulu. He was referring, of course, to tactics like hangdogging and bolting top-down. Projecting for long periods of time was controversial, even. “Screaming matches at Boulder Mountain Parks meetings [over new sport climbs in the Flatirons], bolt chopping, physical violence at the crags, friends becoming enemies, and lots of hate,” he recalls of the tumultuous era, as sport climbing began to gradually emerge across America.

Jim Hall, first ascensionist of Vitamin H (which sadly fell down in ‘98), with the new Arsenal sign, gifted from the city of Rifle. (Photo: Colin Lantz Collection)

As sport climbing came to fruition in the canyon, which had historically been quiet and enjoyed only by locals—picnicking families, fishermen, and hikers—it was suddenly full of Front Rangers. “In the very beginning, local people in Rifle were skeptical of climbers, and they would steal our coolers and shoot guns off,” says Tommy Caldwell. “Because I mean, especially then, climbers were like these super-skinny people … it was like the tail-end of the spandex era. And Rifle was kind of a cowboy town. So it was just a clash of cultures.” Lantz and Smith rallied to create the Rifle Climbers Coalition (RCC) to address these issues directly with Rifle’s city council. To mitigate the effects of crowding, the city instituted entry and camping fees. Seeing little improvement, a bolting ban was created in 1994; it was lifted in 2005, with bolting now allowed on a permit system, thanks to efforts by the RCC.

“Developing Rifle and doing the right thing as far as access and relations with the City of Rifle felt really good, really positive,” says Lantz. “Some of the same [climbers who’d been] against sport climbing in Boulder started showing up in Rifle. It felt like the war over sport climbing was won at the ‘Battle of Rifle.’”

Mike Pont on ‘Monster Magnet’ (5.13a). (Photo: Tom Addison)
Kurt Smith on the canyon’s first 5.14, ‘Slice of Life.’ (Photo: Chris Goplerud)

Finding the Lines 

Going linearly, the history of modern rock climbing in Rifle goes like this: Mark Tarrant went to high school in Rifle. He spent time fishing, camping, and cross-country skiing with friends in and around the canyon. He took up climbing, driving back and forth to Boulder while eyeing the lines in Rifle. Rock climbing in the 1980s was still ground-up and gear protected in America, so Tarrant didn’t pursue development on Rifle’s crackless walls—not until after he moved to Boulder in 1980, that is, and sampled some of the Flatirons’ and Eldorado’s new sport climbs. Tarrant reconsidered his old stomping grounds as he and his brother rolled through Rifle Mountain Park one spring evening in 1987. That day, Tarrant sank two anchor bolts atop a 55-meter-tall vertical panel on the right side of the Project Wall, above an eye-catching electric-blue water streak. He sussed out the line, but didn’t fully bolt it, just adding a few lower down for safer toproping. Two years later, just up the road, Tarrant and fellow Front Range resident Richard Wright bolted and sent the first sport redpoint in the canyon: Rumor Has It, a long vertical 5.11b up a beautiful gray streak. The name, naturally, was a prudent prediction of the canyon’s potential as the next American climbing mecca.

In 1989, Tarrant finished bolting his original line on the Project Wall (Tripping the Light Fantastic), but there were access issues given the line’s proximity to the road. In came another climber, Pete Zoller, who in 1992 added a different start to the climb with Benningfield, making the first ascent of this version, The Eighth Day (5.13a).

Rifle’s earliest sport lines went up on bulletproof, mostly vertical stone. These routes were easier to bolt than the blocky stuff, sure, but they were also in line with the first wave of sport climbs going up in the country (and world)—thin, clean, vertical faces like To Bolt or Not to Be (5.14a) at Smith Rock. Jailhouse Rock and American Fork, with their steep pitches and blocky stone, were perhaps the big exceptions, although they still paled in comparison to the size and quantity of Rifle’s caves and walls. “Rifle offered bigger routes, as steep as anyone had ever seen then, and the cliffs were tall enough to test the limits of human endurance,” says Derek Franz, a canyon local, who first climbed at Rifle in 1996. “The way I see it, Rifle taught Americans how to climb severely overhanging rock and what might be possible when developers took the time to unearth future classics from layers of dirt and choss.” 

Matt Samet on ‘Dumpster BBQ’ (5.13c). (Photo: Matt Samet Collection)

Starting in earnest in 1991, drills echoed throughout the canyon, with Rifle’s first batch of overhanging climbs going in. Although Tarrant had told no one, Wright did, and word spread. Independently, Zoller, then a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, discovered Rifle’s potential by studying maps in the college library. He rallied others to check out the canyon with him, and they hit gold. Initial routes to go up included lines in the Wasteland, an obvious target with its blue stone and 20-degree-overhanging angle. Zoller and Benningfield put up the two classics in the middle of the wall, Never Believe (5.12d) and The Beast (5.13a). Then, up-canyon in the Ruckman cave, the brothers Bret and Stuart Ruckman put up Primer (5.11b), Pump Action (today known as Pinchfest [5.12b]), and others.

One early line, the first to be redpointed on the Project Wall, was Hang ‘em High (5.12c), FA’ed in 1991 by Smith and Pont, who established the pitch ground-up. (Given the canyon’s unbroken walls, in the early days before you could swing over off existing anchors, it was easier to start drilling from the base.) The late Darek Krol, developer and author of the canyon’s latest guidebook, Rifle: A Climber’s Guide, called the route one of the greatest Rifle classics.

I hopped on Hang ‘em High on my first trip in the canyon, in 2014. It’s a long, meandering route, doable with endless beta combinations—each roughly the same difficulty—using mostly crimps and slopers. I opted for a series of highsteps and shouldery lock-offs, twisting and turning, nearly falling, and then clipping the chains. A moderate pump factor, plus a few choice crimps, make the route an ideal warm-up for climbers projecting nearby. Over the years, it’s become a glossy litmus test for the day to come. 

“We put that route up on hooks,” says Pont, laughing. “And then pulling a big-ass Bosch drill up there with all the gear. I think that’s probably why my shoulders don’t work anymore.”  

Smith put up many more classics, including Movement of Fear (5.12c), bolted ground-up, cleaned, and sent in a flurry of activity in a single day, and Slice of Life (5.14a at the time of its FA, sans kneebars). Broadly speaking, he added range to the canyon. “I remember there was sort of this elitist attitude, that no routes below 5.12 should go up,” says Matt Samet, an early developer and now this magazine’s editor. “Our fears about crowding [with the addition of moderate climbs] were based on us being young and elitist. There was a lot of attitude back then, and it wasn’t always a good attitude.” Smith, however, was prescient in knowing that Rifle would be a more well-rounded area—and open to all—with some mellower climbs. He called it “community service,” and in fact the Wasteland’s first 5.11, an FA by Smith in 1992, takes this very name.

Mike Pont on De Stijl, the first route put up in the Bauhaus (Photo: Chris Goplerud)

Originally from Detroit, Smith found climbing after his family moved to Lake Tahoe in 1979 and a high school friend showed him the ropes. Ten years later, after cutting his teeth on the technical granite of Joshua Tree and Yosemite, he made his way to Rifle. It was “empty” then he says. Smith has long since lost track of his first-ascent tally. Currently living in Fayetteville, West Virginia, Smith returned to Rifle two years ago. “I took my son there on a road trip; he was 6,” says Smith. “Rifle has changed, like all crags. More people, more dogs, more [of a] scene. Only the rock stays mostly the same.”

Ultimately, it was Smith who helped drive initial attention to Rifle. He wrote an article, published in Climbing’s Basecamp (destinations) section in 1992, about the canyon. That same issue, No. 131, also had a photo feature by Jim Thornburg about a road trip to new limestone sport areas in the western U.S., “Steel Wheels,” which included the canyon. Suddenly, the world knew, and the race to bolt the canyon’s most attractive lines was on. 

J.B. Tribout on ‘The 7 P.M. Show.’ (Photo: Jim Surette)

The Evolution of Development

Although my first trip to the canyon was within the pleasant season of summer, September is when the real action occurs. When fall settles over Rifle Mountain Park, saffron-colored leaves drape the trees and the dirt road like golden bijou. The crisp air both welcomes and warns—“Winter is coming”—as the days get shorter and the locals go hard on their projects. There’s an energy to send and to connect, both with yourself and the surrounding community. 

It was amid that energy that, years after my first trip, I finally dispatched one of Rifle’s most infamous routes, the Project Wall’s Living in Fear (5.13d, although largely thought to be a sandbag), put up in 1992 by the Bay Area climber Scott Frye. According to Frye, Samet once called the route the best on the planet for its grade, and so it is. It’s a sustained, beautiful line that plays host to countless epics year after year. I once heard this line broke up three marriages, so stressed were its would-be ascentionists, with downstream effects wreaking havoc on their relationships. “It ended people’s climbing careers,” said Knuth.

Living in Fear starts with a heady boulder to the third bolt. A few moves off crimps to the “tooth” will shake most. Then you punch up to the “bevel,” a flat slanted plate, sloping at the edge. Here is your rest, albeit a bad one, situated—atypically for Rifle—such that you can’t readily slap a knee against it. Crank through another V4 and then the “5.8 dyno.” After that, it’s the final power-endurance push in a faint groove, where most people flame out and fall. “It’s so homogenized,” says Frye of the route. “Take any eight moves, and it’s about V4.”

Frye started climbing in Berkeley in 1974, bouldering at Indian Rock. He trad-climbed 5.11 in Yosemite. He heard about Rifle from Smith, and first visited the canyon in 1991 on the “Steel Wheels” road trip with Jim Thornburg and others to Sinks Canyon, Rifle, American Fork, and Logan Canyon. 

“And I wish we had just stayed there [in Rifle] instead of continuing our tour,” says Frye. On that two-week trip, Frye spied what would become Living in Fear on a striking panel of blue- and tan-streaked stone on the Project Wall. He scrambled up a low-fifth-class ramp left of the wall to access the top of the route and bolted it top-down. Frye only made it halfway down before it was time to hit the road again. 

The following spring, Frye returned to wrap up the bolting, only to find the access ramp covered in snow. “I had to rope-solo-mountaineer up that snow patch to get to my anchor,” he says. He made it up and finished bolting, cleaning the route and sussing out the beta. Frye hung around the canyon, based out of his van, hoping to try the climb. Then, “there’d be these monsoonal rains that lasted 24 to 36 hours. And then the route would start seeping.”

This is where the name of the route comes in, says Frye. He prayed for the rains to subside—but they didn’t. It wasn’t until the following fall, 1992, upon a return trip to Rifle, that he clipped the chains. 

By today’s standards, three trips to send a project is nothing. I’ve seen climbers project that exact line for years. But back then, the standard for projecting was different—coming off the fire-or-lower days of the 1970s and 1980s, dogging and mega-projecting were still seen somehow as “cheating,” an ethos internalized, even if only subconsciously, by America’s fledgling sport climbers. “Living in Fear took Scott forever,” Samet says. “That sort of micro-beta, I think it was a big thing that happened at Rifle. Some of these projects from that era were some of the first major long-term projects in American sport climbing, too.”

Thirty years later, Frye, too, seems frustrated with the time it took him to complete the route, albeit much of it a battle with conditions. Still, he reflects, “The climbing [in Rifle] was great. I thought it was one of the premier crags in America. I guess now everyone knows.”

Darek Krol, guide book author, on the FA of ‘Kenose Eskapa’ (5.13b). (Photo: Emily Korth)

Colin Lantz, originally from Philadelphia, moved to Boulder with his wife in 1987. He caught on to Rifle’s goods along with the rest of the Front Rangers, and was a regular by autumn 1992. Given his formative climbing years at the Shawangunks, Lantz was drawn to the Arsenal, a steep amphitheater of blocky stone near the canyon’s entrance—literally overhanging the road. Gloss over the first 20 feet of shaley rock, and you’ll find yellow and blue bulletproof stone, with smooth crack features, blocky pinches, pockets, and miniature tufas.

“The first 20 feet of some of the routes consists of very soft rock,” says Lantz. “Soft like the inside of a Kit Kat bar, like vertical kitty litter held together with sugar water, or perhaps like melba toast.” On these spotty patches, he decided to try to reinforce the rock. Working to find a solution with Chas Fisher, who’d founded the hold company Straight Up in Boulder, Lantz mixed a clear two-part epoxy (the resin used to make Straight Up’s climbing holds) with sand to bond the choss and to fortify the lips of crimpy pockets, such as the hole you jump to on the Arsenal testpiece Spray-a-Thon (5.13c).

“I came up with an application technique using thick blue rubber kitchen gloves and a spray bottle of water,” Lantz says. 

Lantz pretty much established all the Arsenal goods, including Spray-a-Thon, Pump-o-Rama (5.13a), and Slagissimo (5.12d). Lantz’s Colinator (5.14a) was the first route to go up in the cave, right out its guts. He worked the route throughout fall 1992, and—due to weather and seepage—sent the following spring.      

“It felt really hard, like 5.14 hard,” he told Climbing. “But I rated it .13d so as not to have to suffer the inevitable downgrading so in vogue at the time.”

“People were terrified to call anything 5.14, because you just knew someone was going to come along and downgrade it as a dick move,” says Samet, who that same fall freed an open project bolted by another Climbing mag employee, Scott Leonard, and Ryan Sappenfield in the Crystal Cave, the bouldery Dumpster BBQ (5.13+). (One comment on Mountain Project: “This climb is .13d; in any other climbing area it would be .14a. Soo hard. V11”—and this was before a key block fell off at the start.) “I think that mentality held the sport back,” says Samet. “People could have just loosened up and been, like, ‘This thing’s probably 5.14,’ but a lot of it was just hard to gauge because there weren’t that many 5.14’s in America at that time to even benchmark against.”

See Living in Fear. Or Simply Read. Or Gropius at the Bauhaus Wall. Or Slice of Life in the Wicked Cave (more on that below). Or Cracked Open Sky in the Skull Cave. Rifle is known for hard “5.13d’s.”

Andy Raether on ‘Mr. T’ (5.13d). (Photo: Keith Ladzinski)

The Arsenal, being roadside and with a string of steep, hard lines, became a focal point for endurance laps, crag-side partying, and shenanigans—a tradition that continues to this day. Charley Bentley, from Boulder and who worked for Fisher at Straight Up, climbed Vitamin H (5.12d) naked and with a watermelon strung to his harness. Samet climbed the same route and then Pump-o-Rama in wet pants and a pair of muddied running shoes, having just fallen into the creek. And the Denver climber Steve Landin did Pump-o-Rama in a tutu and high heels. 

Lantz recounts his favorite memories: “Belly-laughing about every silly new route name in the Arsenal. Jonathan Houck bringing a full-sized barbecue grill and handing out hamburgers and hot dogs in the Arsenal on a weekend. I knew it was special at the time.”

Skip ahead 20-plus years, and Franz is volunteering at Rifle’s annual Rendezspew event, a cleanup and fundraising initiative held each autumn. He’s working with fellow Roaring Fork Valley local Joe Villacci to time and belay speed runs on Pump-o-rama. “We had to talk people into participating. Traffic was sporadic, so I figured I might as well take a burn [on Pump-o-rama] while waiting for others to show up,” Franz says. He surprised himself by matching the previous standing record, set by Herman Gollner, at 2:24, clipping all the bolts except the last. Gollner, however, had toproped it. Friends pestered Franz into going again. 

“Next thing I know, everyone is double-checking their stopwatches (which were started upon clipping the very first bolt), with a time of 2:04,” he says of his second record, which stands today.

It’s funny, because over the last 30 years, a term has developed for the crew found climbing in the Arsenal, usually late in the day, doing libation-fueled “fitness burns” on the 5.13s: Arse-holes (n.) The arse-holes may be spotted throughout the summer, heckling from a tattered lawn chair, a koozie in one hand and a joint in the other. Last year, after a beer bong was brought out, I saw an arse-hole stagger into the creek, still wearing his harness. 

After Franz smashed the record at the Rendezspew, “Simon Longacre foisted a bottle of tequila on me, and I downed a couple of shots as the final seconds of the competition ended,” he says. “Then Darek [Krol] came over and said that as the winner I was obligated to do a victory lap with a watermelon tied to my harness.” So Franz did just that.

Chris Knuth on ‘The Crew’ (5.14c), the canyon’s hardest for over a decade. (Photo: Chris Knuth Collection)

A Change in Tactics

It was Smith who dared break the 5.14 barrier—i.e., to propose an FA that was not 5.13d—with Slice of Life, in the Wicked Cave. The route flows from low-end 5.13 to a stopper crux, which, without kneebars, comprises a big dyno to an incut hold. From there, it’s pumpy 5.13a to the chains. 

“I started to bolt that line during the winter [‘91–92],” says Smith, who as per form went ground-up. “I worked on it all through the summer, taking breaks to compete on plastic and support myself working at Paradise Rock Gym, in Denver.” Smith sent in October 1992, sans kneebars (they weren’t widely used at the time), skipping clips on the upper stretch as he charged for the anchors, terminally pumped.

“I found what I was looking for in that project and walked away satisfied with my work and effort,” he says. “I’ll leave the others to huff and puff over endless kneebars and raging egos.”

The way Smith did Slice, it was most certainly 5.14. Later ascents, however, used kneebar rests and a key kneescum at the crux, and one climber even found a variation, Piece of Cake, that climbed out left to bypass the crux. The line was—can you guess?—eventually downgraded to 5.13d when Bobbi Bensman, one of the few women climbing hard in the canyon in the 1990s, climbed it in September 1996.

“Total misogynistic typical male climber bullshit,” she wrote in an email to Climbing.

Chuck Fryburger on ‘Lung Fish’ (5.14b), a route that took Jonathan Siegrist more tries than ‘Shadowboxing’ (5.14d). (Photo: Keith Ladzinski)

Chris Knuth began climbing at age 23. Living in San Diego, he was a surfer when his brother got him on a multi-pitch route in Yosemite. “I was scared to death,” he says, but he was hooked after that. Knuth gained technique in Joshua Tree, and strength at American Fork, Jailhouse Rock, and Cave Rock. That latter is where Knuth sank his first kneebar—a technique he became known for skillfully executing in, if not importing to, Rifle.

You could consider Knuth a late first ascensionist in the canyon—he arrived around 1993 or 1994, just in time for many of the hardest routes to have already been established. Since Rifle’s rock is similar to the steep blocky rock of Jailhouse, Knuth quickly adjusted. Actually, he quickly began throwing down, throwing his knees against the rock as integral beta. Famously, Knuth was said to have found seven kneebars on Slice of Life.

“I didn’t do seven kneebars on Slice of Life,” Knuth says with a laugh, contradicting the myth. “The way that Kurt did it was groundbreaking and hard,” he adds. Knuth also famously downgraded Zulu, equipped by Lantz and then freed by a 15-year-old Chris Sharma in 1996, from 5.14b to 5.14a. At that point, first ascensionists began to get mad, says Knuth. “‘You can’t actually climb hard stuff because you’re relying on kneebars,’” Knuth recalls them supposedly griping. “So then I hopped in my car and drove to Bend, Oregon. I did To Bolt or Not to Be, and that shut everybody up.” 

“I remember we were all insecure about how things started feeling way easier once you stuck your knee behind holes [in the rock],” says Pont. “Being still yet to have any humility in our climbing or something, I think we were all, like, ‘That’s stupid; we’re not doing that.’” Eventually, however, the technique took over, and all the approved, crowdsourced beta began to involve kneebars.

Knuth, after sending all the hard routes in the canyon, opened The Crew (5.14c) in the Wicked Cave in 1994. Kneepads—crude by today’s standards— “were made with the inner-tubes of semi-truck tires, and you just cut them to size,” says Knuth, and then glued the rubber to a neoprene sleeve. Ultimately (to further prove the legitimacy of kneebarring), Knuth eschewed pads on many Rifle classics in favor of blue jeans, even for his kneebar-intensive Crew. 

Last year, I was well into my campaign against The Crew when I knew it was time to walk away. I had tried the route in the spring and then the fall. Crew is a powerful, technical, desperate, relentless climb, right up to the chains. It’s just plain hard, even for its high grade. But in 2011—in legendary form and on a revenge tour through Rifle after falling low at a World Cup lead event in Boulder due to a height-dependent dyno—Ramón Julián Puigblanque (5’ 3”) onsighted Living in Fear and then The Crew. The latter remains the most impressive onsight in Rifle to date.

Although development in Rifle for the past decade ushered in routes from 5.14+ to 5.15a, many of the original hard routes still stand as testpieces, and were foundational in pointing to the future for both Rifle and steep limestone cave climbing in America. “The hard climbs in the ‘90s are still the hard climbs today,” says Knuth. “I’m very good at suffering. That’s what climbing taught me.”

Adds Knuth, “Climbing in Rifle was the best time of my life.”

Sasha DiGiulian on The Eighth Day (5.13a) at the Project Wall. The first ascent of the line was infamously snatched from Mark Tarrant by Pete Zoller. “I was naive, thinking no one would ever go to Rifle to climb,” Tarrant told Climbing ruefully in 2011. “I saw no rush to get things done in an obscure place with so-so stone. By ‘89, I saw that I had been wrong, and the rest is history.” (Photo: Christian Beauchamp)

After The Crew, the next hard lines didn’t go up until the early aughts, when the bolting ban was lifted. In the space between, Tommy Caldwell dispatched all of the canyon’s established climbs by 1998. Then he began taking down the open projects—bolted before the ban—too, sending Soup Nazi (5.14a), Gomorrah (5.14a), and most famously, Tomfoolery (5.14b). Caldwell, of course, would go on to become one of the world’s top climbers, most notably freeing the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) with Kevin Jorgeson in 2015. 

“You wouldn’t think that climbing an overhanging route in Rifle would help you climb on El Cap, but it kinda does,” says Caldwell, “because the routes take so long and they’re very creative, plus they’re physically demanding. And so those things all translated to all the other aspects of climbing that I ended up doing in other places in the future.”

In 2005, Dave Pegg negotiated with Rifle’s city council to lift the bolting ban. Pegg, then the president of the Rifle Climber’s Coalition (and referred to by many as the “mayor” of Rifle) was also responsible for creating the Rendezspew and he established 20-plus routes throughout the canyon. He passed away in 2014.

Following the lift, Andy Raether cleaned up projects and established a slew of hard lines as well. He FA’ed Stockboy’s Revenge (5.14) in 2005, along with The Gayness (5.14a) and Kuru (5.14c), and finished equipping the 1990s project Girl Talk (5.14b), which Dave Graham FA’ed in 2008.

In 2011, in the Wicked Cave, Joe Kinder equipped Bad Girls Club (5.14c). The route begins with punchy, somewhat risky moves on pockets. You get a rest around the sixth bolt, but from there it’s a string of lockoffs between so-so holds. There’s a final rest before the steepest section of the route, which is characterized by a demanding—and frequently heartbreaking—sprint between undercings. 

“Most people were, like, ‘Naw, there’s no routes there,’” says Kinder, of the chossy-looking wall of Bad Girls. “Mediocre limestone, you take for it what it is, and you can get some amazing routes out of mediocre rock. And so [route development] takes a skill. It takes an artistic eye and a way of preparing the climb for human consumption the best way,” which often involves the industrial adhesive Sikadur-31 Hi-Mod Gel.

After cleaning, bolting and reinforcing holds on Bad Girls Club, Kinder didn’t have time to dispatch the project before going on a trip, so, in a true testament to how far attitudes had come in Rifle viz. red-tagging, he opened the line up. Matty Hong made the first ascent in late 2011.

Later that same year, Jonathan Siegrist completed the long-awaited first ascent of Shadowboxing (5.14d), across the creek from the Project Wall at The Purgatory and equipped by Gollner and Nico Favresse in the 1990’s. Unlike the routes in the Wicked Cave, Shadowboxing is more vertical. Some 130-plus feet of rock build to an undercling crux—typical of Rifle—and then a panel of rock more akin to that of Ten Sleep, according to Siegrist. Siegrist has since ticked more than 400 5.14’s or harder and has climbed up to 5.15b.

In June 2016, Margo Hayes became the first woman to send The Crew and a month later became the first woman to send Bad Girls Club. In February 2017, she ventured to Siruana, Spain where she became the first woman to send 5.15a, with La Rambla. “Rifle has always been home to me,” she says. “It was the place where I gained confidence climbing outdoors, and where I really learned how to project routes. It is somewhere I can always go and continue to grow as a climber.”

Last year, Kinder finally broke the 5.15 barrier at Rifle with Kinder Cakes in the Skull Cave. A meandering, near-horizontal 80-foot roof, Kinder Cakes makes its way up and out the center of the Skull Cave’s mouth. Kinder established a set of midway anchors, calling the first half Cupcake (5.14b). From there, you push through a sustained 5.13c to the redpoint crux, a five-move V10 culminating in a powerful punch to a gaston. You get a rest after that, before tackling the final V8 to the chains.

Ultimately, Rifle’s route density and range breeds a strong network of individuals. “Because of how close together everything is, and how many project-level routes are so densely packed together, there is a constant sense of community there almost like you are climbing in a gym,” says Siegrist. “You quickly learn the characters of the canyon; you share a project with people and also share an evening at the campsite. Much more than any other crag in the U.S., it fosters a connection and an exchange between people.”

Taylor Shaffer on Magnetar (5.13d). A commenter on Mountain Project wrote: “For those who may not know, this is among the most manufactured routes in the canyon. I gave the respectable Mr. [Steve] Hong some ribbing about his methods when he established this line, but I gotta admit, he knows how to sculpt some pleasurable and challenging moves out of a crumbling pile of choss.” (Photo: Emily Korth)

I first visited the canyon in 2014, after completing my sophomore year at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. I hopped in my friend’s old Subaru—Gretta, as he called her—and we headed west for four hours, arriving in the cool of night. It was spring turning into early summer. By then, the walls were dry, ancient palisades enclosing everything and everyone in like gleaming bubble wrap.

At the time, I didn’t realize that Rifle was considered world class. Coming from competition climbing, I hadn’t kept up with outdoor hotspots. Still, I immediately recognized Rifle Mountain Park as something special. I was 19 and won a case of Pacifico from a friend’s dad, who bet I couldn’t flash Pump-o-rama. As I’m a bit of an introvert, the sense of community in Rifle struck a chord. I’ve been coming back ever since, and finally moved to downtown Rifle last year to be closer to the climbing. 

Over the years, some Rifle climbs have had holds break, and most routes are glossier—Rifle limestone is famous for becoming polished. The crowds are bigger and louder, Sprinter vans take up even more of the limited parking. People try really freaking hard, sometimes on projects that take years to complete. Countrywide, hangdogging and kneebarring are more than accepted. Most importantly, there’s a sport-climbing community at large—one that’s only deepened—that has been and continues to be shaped by Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado. 

Keller Rinaudo samples the oft-wet classics in the Skull Cave. Though it can be a damp cave, it is an impressive one, and it houses Rilfe’s hardest, Joe Kinder’s ‘Kinder Cakes’ (5.15a). (Photo: Duane Raleigh)

How to Kneebar 

Despite Rifle’s reputation as a “kneebar capital” and the rise of the slang term “Colorado etrier” for kneebars, kneebarring was not invented here. In fact, many of the canyon’s routes were put up without them. While kneebars can help make an impossible move feel easy or help you recover, improbably, on severely overhanging terrain, the technique itself is not intuitive. To become a kneebar master, you must understand how to spot the position, load the knee, and counterweight with the other leg. “Most people think that if you put your knee up, it’s going to somehow grab onto the rock,” says Knuth. “But what really sets a kneebar is your other leg. It’s really about the balance.”

Steps:

  1. Choose your pad setup. You have options—you can go for a simple sleeve or a strap-on pad. In either case, you’ll want to purchase one that’s as tight as possible. (The more you use the pad, the more it will stretch!) Sleeves will generally feel less secure than strap-ons; however, you can use duct tape or glue (look for the stuff designed for athletic tape to skin) to better secure them.
  2. Put on the sleeve. This seems obvious, but it does involve nuance. Generally speaking, you want the bottom edge of the pad to touch the top of your kneecap when standing. You may have to turn the pad or pull it up higher, depending on the position of the kneebars on the route—experiment to get it right. If using duct tape, flex your leg, bending 90 degrees at the knee, before wrapping the tape so you don’t cut off circulation.
  3. While climbing, look for two parallel surfaces within roofs, huecos, and other concavities. Keep in mind that these parallel surfaces may be oriented up and down, or (more likely) at an angle to the left or right. As you get more skilled, you’ll identify less-than-obvious places to not only kneebar but also kneescum (a more subtle version).
  4. Play with placing your knee—this takes practice. As you slot your knee in, think about hooking it into place and then immediately engaging your hip flexor, toes, and calf muscles. Kneebaring, no matter how good the placement, is never passive.
  5. As Knuth pointed out, you’ll want to use your other leg as a counterweight. You may want to back-flag, toe hook, heel hook, or simply stay toed into another foothold. In any case, your other leg’s positioning plus an active core help optimize your posture.

Ironically, Knuth argues that kneebars should be used sparingly. “The bad side is they make you completely weak,” he says. “I had this rule that I wouldn’t do kneebars on anything that was 13a and under.” 

Plan Your Trip

You don’t need to climb 5.13 to visit Rifle. In fact, after a bolting ban was lifted in 2005, one of the agreements between the Rifle Climber’s Coalition and the city council was that beginner-level routes be established. Today, 80-plus 80 routes from 5.9 to 5.11a pepper the canyon. 

When: The rock-climbing season runs from spring (can be seepy) through autumn, with late summer to early fall offering the best conditions. 

Where to stay: I recommend the meadow, an alpine plateau up the road beyond the canyon. It’s free and breathtakingly beautiful. You can also pay for a camping spot, with options located just past the climbing. It’s only $10/night, but is first come, first serve—no reservations.

Rest-day activities: Swim in the creek, or drive 30 minutes to nearby Glenwood Springs for a dip in the hot springs.

Guidebook: Rifle: A Climber’s Guide, by Darek Krol

Delaney Miller is a digital editor for Climbing. She was three-time U.S. Lead Champion and made finals in two Lead World Cups, placing as high as seventh.