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The History of Hard Sport Climbing in Boulder's Flatirons: Interview—Dan Michael

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This story is a supplement to the feature Frozen in Time: A look at the new-school sport climbs of the Flatirons, Colorado on newsstands now in the July 2018 issue of Climbing Magazine. Subscribe here: print, digital.

Dan Michael and his brother, Jim, are mainstays on the Boulder climbing scene, and you’ve likely seen them at one of the local rock gyms, climbing hard. Today, Dan Michael works as a Rolfer, yoga teacher, and massage therapist, but back in the day he was a diehard dirtbag climber. Wiry, limber, and with fingers of steel, Michael put up lasting Flatirons testpieces like Slave to the Rhythm (5.13b) on the East Ironing Board and the savage double-overhanging dihedral The Fiend (sandbag 5.13c) in Bear Canyon. The latter involves a radical high right drop knee on a miserly pebble, a move so vicious it once dislocated local climber Mike Downing’s kneecap, sending it around to the back of his leg and leaving him howling in agony. The Fiend only recently saw a second ascent and remains a testament to just how hard people were climbing in the 1980s.

Dan Michael The Fiend La Sportiva ad Flatirons Sport Climbing Boulder Colorado
Dan Michael was featured on \”The Fiend\” in an old La Sportiva ad.

Here, Michael shares his thoughts about Flatirons climbing in an interview conducted in 2018.

Tell me a bit about how you came to be a climber in Boulder (briefly)—did you grow up here, or move here?

Dan Micheal: I was born here in South Boulder, more in line with the Flatirons. I didn’t go into the Flatirons until I was probably 11 or 12. My brother, Jim, and his friends were boulderers and climbers, so I climbed with them a little. The brother of a buddy of mine at school climbed, and he gave us climbing shoes, which were stiff hiking shoes back then. We would go up to Flagstaff and go bouldering.

When did you first climb in the Flatirons?

I started climbing up there in 1977. At that time, if there was a bolt up there it was because someone was aiding a route. It was rare. We would hitch up to Flagstaff Mountain most of the time, but if we couldn’t get a ride we’d go do the First or the Second Flatiron.

What, in your opinion, got the sport-climbing ball rolling in the Flatirons early on—how did you and your peers come to realize the potential?

I’m really bad at time, so looking at a guidebook, it says I established my first Flatirons route in 1987—Auspice in Bear Canyon. I’d first bolted in Eldorado—Better Red Than Dead, because the bolts were redheads. Before that I started bolting in Hueco Tanks, Texas. If the rock in the Flatirons were better, I would’ve bolted more. There was just so much loose rock, and things broke so often. There was some good rock that was water polished. So I bolted that.

Was there tension then between the sport climbers and anti-bolting factions?

Yes, there were bolting wars. People would go to fisticuffs and threats, and breaking car windows: “I’m going to punch your face because you’re not listening to me!” I think that’s a lot more rare these days. Back then, things seemed more competitive. You didn’t go put up bolts and clean a crack and say, “Wait for me to climb on it”—people would go out under moonlight and climb it. I don’t understand why it was so competitive. So people in the beginning would be very secretive: “Hey what are you doing? Putting in bolts?” “Why? You going to chop them?”

Slave to the Rhythm and The Fiend might be your two best-known routes, and were some of America’s early very steep, very hard sport climbs. Did you at the time see room for more climbs like this in the Flatirons, and would you have kept going in this vein if the bolting moratorium hadn’t come down?

I moved away from Boulder before that came down, I was traveling a lot. Basically, climbing in the Flatirons is a lot of work: blue-collar, punch-the-clock, carry the pack up, and do a lot of labor. The rock was pretty clean, but you’d have to knock a lot of stuff off through the red bands. These days, people don’t have any problem hiking for an hour and waiting in line at Seal Rock to get on a climb. I’m too lazy for that now!

When I bolted [Slave] I got the top part in on rappel, but I did the bottom on lead because I didn’t want to put small [directional] bolts in to put bigger bolts in. I took Chris Hill up there. He was like, “What are we doing? Is this some type of initiation for the young guy?” And I said, “No! Really there’s a climb up here!” He asked to put a bolt in, and his hook popped off and his hammer hit him in the head. After that, I couldn’t get him to go back.

The Fiend, I guess I was a technical climber—people would consider me flexible. So The Fiend was this overhanging corner, and I think it just got repeated by Carlo Traversi—it was the second ascent. In the video he posted, he said something like, “This climb was harder than any 5.14 I’ve done; it took me days!” Other friends went up there and dislocated knees and shoulders. It had this reputation of being a stemming nightmare. It went through red rock; I had to glue holds because if you broke those holds you couldn’t get over the roof. I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this construction? I just want to climb, and here I am maintaining this rock hold.” It’s a curious kind of climbing.

The lore with Slave was that you’d named all the pebbles (the Skinhead, Neil, etc.) and had a hangboard installed up there, as a warm-up. How long did the climb take you to redpoint? Any funny tales from those first ascents?

Just at the beginning. Neil was a guy who [poached a crack first ascent I was working on.] Needless to say, I didn’t care for his personality. The last name we’ll leave out. The cobble was slimy and kind of hard to get a hold of, and “Neil” just popped into my mind. The lower section was hard, and you got kind of intimate with those pebbles. It took me four or five days to redpoint it. We put up the hangboard so we had something to warm up on—we weren’t smart enough to clip into the middle of the route to warm up before climbing.

I learned how to kneebar in Hueco Tanks. You had to kneebar through the crux of The Fiend. I would tape my knees because it was painful. First I tried taping over tights, and the tights were slipping. So I started shaving my legs and putting the tape directly onto my skin, and that was a mess. I then met this guy who was making crack gloves using sticky rubber. I had him make probably what was the first stick-rubber kneepad. Wild West was the company, I think.

What do you think got it all shut down, and has it been a good or a bad thing that there was a moratorium?

As far as the Flatirons closing, there were a lot of people hiking around. Older people would hike up Fern Canyon, and there was a climb on this big boulder right above the trail [Superfresh]. There was a lot of traffic on it. I heard that some climbers were rude and would lay out all over the trail. They were probably falling off and yelling obscenities. I think it brought a lot of attention to it because the climb was right there. So the hikers would complain, “Oh, I was hiking and there are a lot of bolts on the rock and it ruins my wilderness experience.” And I thought, “Well ,turn just a little further and there’s a city behind you!” Today, with the permit system, it’s nice to have a community that can come together and decide if a route goes up. It’s good to have a bigger group of eyes to say, “Sorry, that sounds silly.”

Have you had a chance to try any of the new (post-2003) climbs?

Yeah, I was really surprised that some of that red rock did not pull off and break in my face. The climbing was great. I still seek out the newer routes when I feel like hiking 45 minutes. I’m open to it. Most of them are in the shade so it’s for a particular season. It’s not limitless by any means.

What makes the Flatirons special to you?

It’s home. It’s Boulder—it’s where I grew up, right out the picture window. I’m so happy it’s a park and I can go up there instead of walking past someone’s billion-dollar house. 

Read more about the History of of Hard Sport Climbing in Boulder’s Flatirons: