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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Free Solo Climbing the Flatirons

Written by Nicholas Ducker
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Today is the 23rd of June, 2014. Today is the day I almost died.



Until recently, the world of free-solo climbing was a world totally unknown to me. It was a world shrouded in mystery. For those who aren't familiar with the climbing jargon, free-solo climbing refers to the act of climbing rock considered class 5, a la dangerous enough to warrant the use of a rope, without the rope.



I had been climbing for just over a year, a trivial amount of time in the world of climbing. I was pretty confident in my physical ability and considered my mental control of fear a lot better than it actually was. I had also recently moved to the picturesque town of Boulder, Colorado, a relatively compact town based on the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park, and at the base of what is called “The Flatirons”. The most prominent of the Flatirons are the first three, giant slabs of granite, seemingly propped up against the mountainside. Easily accessible from the downtown and ever present,  these giant monoliths are observable from almost every part of Boulder. The town itself has even implemented measures to keep the heights of buildings to a minimum in order to preserve the breathtaking view that almost the whole town provides.




It was on the Second Flatiron that I got my first taste of what it is to free-solo a climb. After hiking the trail that runs between the first and second Flatiron to the summit and back, I got home and one of my housemates Matteo, a working astrophysicist and fellow recreational climber, suggested we free-solo the Second Flatiron. My initial thought was “That seems like a bad idea”, but the more I thought about it and looked into it, the more attractive it became. As well as the pure intoxication of climbing without a rope and acquiring the bragging right, the route that we were looking at, called Freeway, was 5.0, the lowest roped climbing grade in the book. According to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) technical roped free climbing is graded in difficulty from 5.0 up to 5.15, with A, B, C and D further separating the grades starting from 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c etc, up to 5.15c. The grading numbers are still being pushed by the elite athletes of climbing today. While on belay (with ropes) I was pushing my climbing ability up to the grade of 5.11b without falling, so I figured 5.0 would be a cake-walk. I looked the route up on Mountain Project, a community powered website providing information (or as climbers call, beta) on routes around America and other select parts of the world. MP users claimed that Freeway was indeed the easiest route on the major Flatirons, and a beautiful climb. Many a picture was posted of others of all ages climbing the route without ropes, looking relaxed and fully in control. “Surely I can climb as well as these people”, I reassured myself. With my resolve firm, my research on the route complete, and the pro's and con's weighed, I was fully confident in my ability to complete my goal. I took my housemate up on the offer and we decided to climb the route the next morning.



We left the house a little later than we planned, but in the morning none the less. The sun was out and by the time we arrived at the bottom of the Second Flatiron, we were thirsty and sweating already. The hike to the base of the Second Flatiron is a moderately strenuous 20 minute walk uphill, that changes from gravel road to rocky path. My housemate hiked fast and I made sure I kept up. I wasn't sure if It was the altitude or just my general lack of fitness in regards to hiking up hills, but the initial approach was not an enjoyable experience. Staring up at the granite face I encountered a few thoughts along the lines of, “Is this going to be the last thing I do? Is today my last day in this life?”. I quickly pushed them out of my head as fast as they entered and started taking my shoes off in order to switch to my climbing shoes. “People had done this climb in tennis shoes before, this will be a piece of cake” I reassured myself, a slight feeling of nervousness still ever present in my stomach.



We started the climb. Much to my surprise I found myself extremely relaxed once I started climbing. The route itself is granite slab, slab meaning that the angle of the rock is less than vertical. For a majority of the climb, the angle was just a little over 45 degrees and the hands and feet were huge. Every move I made I felt confident, fear of falling didn't even cross my mind. I found this extremely satisfying. I was climbing up a 1000 ft face of granite without a rope and felt great! Soon we were relieved from the somewhat sweltering heat halfway up the route, when a slight breeze picked up and made the temperature very pleasant. We meandered on up the rock, stopping every now and again to drink water, take photos and just generally take in the amazing view. We got to the top of the route and decided to push it a bit higher, stepping over to a slightly more technical and steep slab section to gain a higher summit as the route we had chosen doesn't actually take you to the true summit. This climbing was probably around 5.4, harder than what we had signed up for, but I powered through it confidently and gained the (not true) summit, as high as we were willing to go without ropes or a guidebook. After admiring the view and hanging out on the rocks for a bit, we put our hiking shoes back on and rejoined the trail, which conveniently ran right past the end of our climb. I went home that day talking of future free-solos we could do on the remaining two Flatirons and finding a route that would take us to the true summit of the Second.


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A few days had passed and I hadn't been climbing outside since the Flatirons expedition. A few of my housemates and I had been climbing at one of the local gyms a few times since. It was at one of these gyms that Matteo stumbled upon a guide book that illustrated another route that ran directly up the guts of the Second Flatiron. It dodged to the right of the huge granite block known as the Pullman Car, which is home of the true summit and spits you out at the exact same place we had ended up before. The route was graded 5.0 and looked much more heroic than the last climb, sending you straight up the middle of the Flatiron, instead of skirting the Northern (right hand) ridge. It was interesting information and I went into town the next day and bought the guidebook for the house.



I had no intention of actually free-soloing the Second Flatiron again that day as I had already made arrangements with a Mountain Project user to climb the Direct East route of the First Flatiron with ropes in the afternoon. The idea was to recon the route in order to see if it was even a good idea to free-solo the route. It was graded at 5.6, which was well within my abilities but still requires care and there were enough variations to the route that getting lost mid-climb was a real concern. Unfortunately an hour before I was meant to meet my climbing partner, I got a message detailing that they would not be able to make it and that we should reschedule for another time, which we did. I unpacked my bag and sat down, then decided to repack my bag with just my shoes and chalk and free-solo the same route on the Second Flatiron again, as Briana, another of my housemates, was going for a hike there anyway and I was just pumped to climb something. As we were about to leave, Matteo got home from work and suggested that I climb the other 5.0, called Dodge Block, that he spotted and was in the book I'd just purchased. We briefly flicked through the book and found the route. I barely knew anything about this route other than the guidebook said it was a 5.0 and seemed to give me fairly decent directions up the climb. I figured I'd work it out when I got there and I put the book in my bag then jumped in the car with Brianna up to the trail head.




I hiked up the trail with Brianna and her friend Nate, till we came to a cross section where they decided to do a shorter loop because of time constraints. I said farewell and continued up the trail on my own till I arrived at the base of the Second Flatiron, where I started my previous climb. On the hike up I'd been tossing up the idea of climbing the new, unknown route. I had scant information other than a guidebook. I was by myself and there was a thunderstorm due at 5pm, though by the time I reached the base it was only 1:50pm. Standing at the base I figured that if its 5.0 then the line will be obvious enough and the climbing secure enough that it should be a breeze. As per the guidebook, I hiked up and left of the face, past a grove of trees to my extending up a gully to my right, to rib of rock where the guidebook claimed the route started. I was to summit this rib and step down and right to another rib which would take me up all the way to a tree just below the Pullman Car. From there I was unsure where the route went, the guidebook line seemed to indicate that I head directly up and right of the tree, then hug the left wall of the Pullman Car. The book claimed that this was easy slab climbing to the top, though I remembered looking at it from my previous climb and thinking it looked rather involved. I figured I would just climb up and work it out when I got there. This was my first error.




I took my hiking shoes off and put my climbing shoes on and started to climb. I immediately noticed that the rock was much more mossy, gritty and slightly steeper than the rock I had been climbing on previously. I had a bad feeling, but figured it would pass when I got a bit higher into what would surely be better rock. A mere 15ft off the ground my left foot slipped and I almost slid down to what surely would have been a broken ankle. I cursed under my breathe and the bad feeling washed over me again. I looked down and considered down climbing and calling it quits. I resisted, mostly due to pride, and decided to push on, half confident in my route finding ability and that the climb would improve as well as my mental state. This was my second error.



I gained the summit of the first rib and found the start of the second. The rock quality thus far had not improved and I had to check the guidebook several times to make sure I was on the right track. The route line drawn on the picture seemed vague and the description seemed cryptic. Standing at the base of the second rib, I knew I was on the right track, yet the climbing seemed harder than 5.0 and I was struggling to find a rhythm. I looked at the grove below me, recognizing it from the base. I could put my hiking shoes on and probably scramble to the bottom safely, but what does that make me? Surely I'm not going to bail off a 5.0! Feeling slightly apprehensive I started up the second rib towards the tree just below the Pullman Car. This was my third error.



The rock quality on this rib was a lot better, but still not great. I was in a very exposed position, almost directly in the middle of the Flatiron, with the giant block that is the Pullman Car looming ahead of me. I knew that in order to bail, I would have to down-climb the entire rib. This was something I was sure I could do, but would take me a long time and would feel even more insecure than the climb up was turning out to be. I kept on climbing, focusing on my breathing in order to keep the swelling feeling of anxiety at bay. What If I'm on the wrong rib? What if the storm rolls in early? What if I have to down climb and I slip? What if I slip right now?  I kept breathing in and out and climbed on, making sure each foot was solid and my position as flawless as I could get it. I still felt off kilter, I wasn't climbing in sync with the rock or myself. Thoughts of drawn out rescue operations, thoughts of being stuck on a rock face, unable to move with terror entered my mind. Still I climbed on. I arrived at the tree and looked at the next section of climbing.




The way was not as obvious as I hoped. The book promised that after a traverse out right, the route would lead to easy slab climbing. Looking ahead I saw the gully flanked on the left by the Pullman Car and on the right by a 20ft wall which led to the slab I had climbed previously. The gully was guarded by two overlaps, the first being about 10ft and the second being about 15, with a natural tunnel bored underneath. I thought such a feature would be mentioned in the guidebook and the climbing certainly didn't look 5.0, yet the line seemed to hug the left wall of the gully, over both overlaps. I could see the storm creeping in and decided that I best put the book away and keep going, assuming that the route would unfold before me. I traversed slightly right and headed up the gully. This was my final error, that almost cost me my life.



As I neared the first 10 ft overlap, the climbing became tenuous. The overlap itself ran from the right wall directly across for 2/3rds of the gully, then the last 3rd to the left about 40ft lower. This formed a 10ft wall on my left hand side as I climbed higher into the gully. Directly in the middle of the overlap there was a polished indent where water had been flowing for 1000's of years. I spotted a fixed piton in the indent and figured that it was definitely not 5.0 if it warranted a fixed piton. Yet as I looked around I could see no super easy looking way to climb the overlap. I looked down at what I had just climbed and decided there was a lot of risk in down climbing what I had just ascended and the storm looked more ominous than before. I was beginning to panic. I spotted a crack in overlap in the wall on my left and figured that was the easiest way up. Traversed up and left to it and begun climbing it. The moves seemed solid enough for someone who was on the end of the rope, but I was not. As I mantled left onto the overlap, I found the crack stopped and there were no good hands above me. I spotted another fixed piton directly in-front of me and concluded that I had indeed lost the original route and was now on something of an unknown grade. I stopped for a second, left foot on the overlap, right food precariously balanced on a tiny down-sloping foothold partway down the overlap wall and began to panic in earnest. I could not down climb safely and was at the start of an unknown route of unknown difficulty, roughly 550 ft off the ground with an electrical storm moving in. I tried to gather my thoughts and stuck my left hand pointer finger in the piton and pulled through the next few moves and found myself facing the second overlap.



The next 70ish ft of climbing was insecure slab climbing on mossy granite. I began climbing up towards the next overlap, seriously shaken from the last 5 minutes. This time the overlap was 15ft high with an arch in the middle. The rock underneath the arch looked crap, flakes of rock cascading over one another that looked as if they would break if I so much as touched them. The right hand side looked bare but the left hand side was pockmarked and had a few cracks running in the right direction. I decided this was the best option and started heading up towards it. As I got higher the slab became more and more featureless, still well within my ability, but I had my old sloppy climbing shoes on and the rock was covered in dry moss that would grit up and cause your foot to slip. Halfway up the slab I almost lost it. I knew if I fell I would be rolling down granite slab for several hundred feet before hurtling into boulders below. I didn't know if the features ahead of me were even climbable or how hard they were. No one on the trail hiking trails or in the town would be able to see the tiny speck of human against the wall. I began thinking about my family, about my mother who had only in recent weeks lost her own mother. What kind of son was I to be putting my life at risk, why had I put myself in this situation. My stomach was twisting itself into knots and I felt something I'd never felt before, the feeling of being tangibly close to the end of my life. Muttering to myself and semi-delirious with panic, I forced my limbs, almost frozen in fear, to move. Left foot, right hand, right foot, left hand, repeat, until I reached pockmarked wall. That crack was good and I began up the overlap. As I climbed up the crack ran out again and I found myself using a pockmark, with my feet on mossy holds. I had to move right and up, but a floating shard of rock projecting from the left wall was blocking my torso. I had another mini anxiety attack and realized the next few moves would be the difference between life and death. I found a side-pull out right on top of the overlap, moved right and out and under-clinged the shard with my left and moved my right foot up. “If my foot slips now, I will die” I thought to myself, images of my mother wrought with sorrow, flashing through my mind and whisper of death seemingly right behind me. I weighted my right foot, found a good left, released the under-cling and found a thank god crack just underneath it and moved up on top of the overlap.



Immediately a wave of relief washed over me. I could see the end of the climb. Above me was featured slab that turned into scrambling on some loose rock to the top. I told myself to stay calm and focus, I'm not out of the woods yet, the adrenaline still pumping through my veins. I climbed slowly and deliberately until the last 30ft where I almost ran to the summit.



I topped out and found myself sitting on a boulder next to the hiking trail. 2 women were descending the hike and cheerfully said “Hello! How are you? Did you climb up?”. I meekly responded with something like “I'm okay, almost died I guess”. They laughed and kept on descending. I busted out the food and water from my backpack and sat there for a minute in what seemed like a surreal world. 5 minutes ago, I thought I was going to die a horrible death. Now I seem to be back in reality where things like that don't happen. I changed my shoes and started to descend via the trail, eating an energy bar to combat the building feeling of nausea. I walked all the way home that day feeling like an idiot, a bad son, and that I'd got away with something I shouldn't have.



That was the day I almost died





(c) Nicholas Ducker

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 January 2015