When I graduated from college June 2013, I went out to the Rockies to climb with friends for the summer. Our original plan was to spend a month in Rifle, but we were deterred by forecasts in the high 90s and eventually got sucked into sticking around the Front Range. I ended up on a great climbing trip with great people, visiting RMNP, Mt. Evans, Boulder Canyon, Eldo and Clear Creek – but not Rifle. Four years later I’ve finally made the pilgrimage to one of America’s premier sport climbing destinations, and I’m regretting that it took me so long! And about that heat? It turns out Rifle Mountain Park is about 15ºF cooler than the town of Rifle, where you see the forecasts. Just another reason to be at Rifle in the summer.
rad limestone. go here!
where holds don’t face down
If you’re making your first trip to Rifle, here are a few useful things to know.
Guidebook: Rifle Mountain Park (Western Colorado Rock Climbs volume 1) by Dave Pegg, 2013. While you could easily climb at Rifle using Mountain Project, buy the book. It’s well organized, informative and fun.
Location: Rifle Mountain Park is just north of Rifle, CO, a small town just off I-70 about 3.5 hours west of Denver, CO (GPS 39.70, -107.69).
Season: Summer (or mid-April until October). Sounds like September is sending temps, but if you chase the shade and climb in the evening Rifle is that rare summer sport climbing paradise. If you need any more convincing, we were climbing next to Daniel Woods, Jonathan Siegrist, Dan Mirsky, Joe Kinder and lots of other people who could probably be climbing anywhere they want in June… but they were in Rifle.
Aspect: Rifle is a 1.5-mile canyon that runs south to north, with climbing on both sides. When chasing shade AM = east side, PM = west side. Most people seem to have morning and evening projects separated by a long-ish siesta.
Camping: There is paid camping ($10/night/site) just north of the canyon (after you drive past the climbing), or you can continue up the road to free camping in a meadow on National Forest land (GPS: 39.749995, -107.701263)
Fees: $5/day/vehicle to access RMP or a $50 annual pass. Paid camping is now $10/night.
HEALING A FINGER INJURY AT RIFLE
Sitting in a cafe in Barcelona in early June, I almost called Seth to tell him I couldn’t make the trip to Rifle. I tweaked my left middle finger A3 pulley bouldering in the gym back in April, and the injury seemed to have gotten worse. I’m sure a few intense climbing sessions in May trying to send a super crimpy 13b at Beaver Wall didn’t help, but I subsequently took almost three weeks off, and my finger didn’t seem any better.
After doing a little more research about finger injuries and calling a generous doctor friend who climbs (more on that in another post), I decided the best way to heal my tendon was to climb through it. This definitely isn’t right for all pulley injuries, but it was the right choice for where I was at in the recovery process. I learned that if you can hang on a big hold without pain, it’s probably safe to climb easy terrain. Since I had just done a session at the new Sharma climbing gym in Barcelona – where I sent a few V6-7s – I figured I was definitely in the ‘safe to climb zone’. Still, climbing felt tweaky and I had a lot of pain when I pressed the third knuckle on my injured finger. I decided to tape up (using the H-taping method and buddy taping to my index finger) and I spent a week climbing around Camarasa and Rodellar with my little brother Boden. On that trip I forced myself to stay on 10s and 11s, which was REALLY hard!
The good news is that Rifle is the perfect place to heal a finger injury. While I’m sure I went too hard – there were days when I did some crimpy cruxes and my finger felt worse in the evening – I managed to stay mostly on big holds and still climb a lot of 12s and 13s. The only 5.13 I sent was Pump-o-rama (13a) and the climb seriously doesn’t have a small hold on it! Sure, you can find small crimps at Rifle, but there are also plenty of five-star climbs at almost any grade (5.12- and above) that avoid crimps and small pockets. That’s right – I officially endorse hunting down slopers, jugs and flat pinches at Rifle as a strategy for healing your pulley injury. You can tell your physical therapist.
NO CELL SERVICE = STRONG COMMUNITY?
Rifle has great climbing but half the fun is the scene. Rifle Mountain Park is basically a big outdoor sport gym that turns in to a playground for grownups. It’s where the pros, strong locals, climbers on the international circuit and sorta-strong climbers like myself gather to do what we love.
I drove to Rifle on June 12th from Boston with Seth (a friend from New Hampshire), and a few weeks later I met up with Raines (a friend from Tucson). We happened to bump in to Lévy, a french Canadian friend who used to climb with us at Rumney, and Kyle came out from Boulder with a friend for the weekend. Mike visited from Salt Lake, and Sam even flew out for a long weekend to crush 5.12s in his ankle boot. I also saw a friend I used to boulder with in Taos. Then we made new friends like Joe, Mary, Kat, Laban, Dillon, Brian… not to mention all pro climbers who I recognize but don’t often get to climb with. Dan Mirsky, Joe Kinder, Jon Siegrist and Daniel Woods were all there at the same time as us.
It was easy to connect with people at Rifle. This may be because of it’s geography – the canyon is relatively small, the climbing is compact and close to the road and there are only a handful of primo hard crags. The north/south aspect also means that everyone is climbing on the same side of the canyon at any given moment, since we’re all chasing shade. It probably helps that the climbing is concentrated around harder grades (most people are warming up on 5.11s), so you end up with a crew that is often on the road and well connected in the climbing community. But I also wonder if the community vibe is strong at Rifle in part because the canyon is a little isolated and there isn’t a bar of cell service anywhere. If you’re staying to climb for the day and camp, you can’t get on Instagram or call your girlfriend (sorry Katie!) so you hang out, spray a lot of beta, socialize and take it slow. After all, most people spend all day climbing and do about 5 or 6 pitches.
I felt pretty out of shape when I arrived in Rifle, so I focused my trip around gaining fitness. This meant climbing a lot of pitches and not trying anything too hard.
One of my favorite climbs – and a Rifle classic – was Hand Me The Canteen Boy (12d) at the Sapper Cave. Hand Me starts up easy terrain to a few bouldery moves out an overhung crack. As you pull the lip you get a knee bar – as is mandatory on five-star Rifle climbs – then power through an endurance crux to the chains. The moves up high aren’t hard but they add up to a very pumpy crux. At the top you do a big cross to a crimp rail, grab a sweet pocket/undercling, pull through a deep 2-finger pocket and use a wide crimp get super high feet and move through some crimps.
I kept thinking that Hand Me was in the bag and then I would fall a move past where I thought the endurance crux would end. This wen’t on for WAY TOO LONG (a theme of the trip), culminating in four tries on the route the morning before we left. This was my third day on the route (tries 5-7) and I still didn’t send. After giving up on the climb and doing a bunch of other routes in the afternoon – including a tour up Spray-a-thon (13c) – I came back at the very end of the day and sent Hand Me in the fading evening light.
Hand Me pretty much sums up my time at Rifle. First of all, there are loads of five-start 12ds (most are easier!), so it’s easy to just not climb 13a. And in general climbs you think you can do quickly take way more tries than seems reasonable. Finally, it’s a lot easier to send everything in the last hour or two of the day when the humidity and temperature are low. Of course, on long summer days only a few disciplined people actually wait that long. Most of us get thrashed projecting in the morning and then the afternoon and don’t send anything!
At Rifle I read Steve Bechtel’s new book Logical Progression and it got me thinking about route pyramids and second-tier routes – climbs that we don’t on-sight but can usually send in 2-3 tries. Steve says most climbers underemphasize the second tier, which is the sweet-spot between too easy and wasting time projecting. A useful way to avoid that mistake is to make a pyramid of the climb’s you’ve done, with each grade on it’s own level.
Here’a a pyramid of routes I sent during 18 climbing days (21 total days) at Rifle, 12a to 13a.
12d 12d 12d (Hand Me The Canteen Boy, Espresso, Blocky Horror Show)
12c 12c 12c 12c 12c (The Promise, Movement of Fear, Pretty Hate Machine, I am not a Philistine, The Brothers Curotherzov)
12b 12b 12b (Easy Skankin, Loose Cannon, Right El Sapper)
12a 12a 12a 12a 12a (Cardinal Sin, Defenseless Betty, Genesis, Gun Show, Baby Brother)
Aside from being excellent route names (and mostly 4-5 star climbs), I did a pretty good job building a stable trip pyramid. I also found it notable that some of these climbs took me WAY more tries than others. For example, Hand Me the Canteen Boy (12d) took me about 8 attempts, while I did Blocky Horror Show (12d) second go. Similarly, I almost on-sighted The Brothers Curotherzov (12c) while I am not a Philistine (12c) took me as many tries as Hand Me (okay, I am not a Phil is REALY hard, everyone knows it!). I think these discrepancies were mostly about how quickly I figured out the beta on any given climb, which seems more common in Rifle than at most sport climbing areas. On most Rifle routes there’s a LOT of beta to be had and how quickly you figure it makes all the difference.
This trip report wouldn’t be complete without some mention of the herd of cows we cohabited with in the free camping field for about a week. They weren’t there when we got there and why we stayed so long I am not entirely sure. If the video isn’t explanation enough, you can ask me for the story in person sometime.
**The Haiku is a Japanese poetic form that I know nothing about. On this blog I use “Haiku” to refer to the redux-English version that has adopted the 5-7-5 syllable structure and missed just about all the other important features that Japanese poets surely emphasize. I like Americanized Haikus as a way to succinctly capture experiences, but one day I will learn what the real poems are all about.