It's the second part of FA member James Dunn's story about preparing for his first outdoor multi-pitch ascent. If you missed Part 1, read it first here: Journey to Multi-Pitch: Part 1. Then read on to see how all of James' hard work and training paid off!
On June 5, 2019, three friends and I took a rock climbing trip to Boulder, Colorado. The trip had been planned over 8 months ago, and I spent that time training to be able to follow my group. As excited as I was about doing multi-pitch routes, I was always worried about slowing them down, or worse, finding a spot that I couldn't get over.
The drive to Boulder from Peoria is as long as it is flat, but good company helps to pass the miles. We talked about the climbing world record Flat iron 1, which ultimately takes 30 minutes and 19 seconds round trip (car door to car door) defined by Kyle Richardson. We arrived as the sun was setting and thunderstorms were coming. I was a little worried about what the conditions would be like the next morning. We had agreed to start early because even with guides you cannot book routes.
We arrived and met our guides Ian Fowler and Wes Fowler (unrelated), two members of the Colorado Mountain School. We organized our packs, applied sunscreen, and made sure we had all the rope and locking carabiners we needed. It was pleasantly cool and I was excited and nervous. We reached the base and put on our climbing shoes, helmets and harnesses. I packed my hiking boots with the water bottles and snacks in my backpack (which would turn out to be my biggest regret of the day).
We split into two groups of three and four. After reviewing communication, which is very important to everyone's safety when climbing multiple lengths, we both strapped in and I assured Wes. On the way up he used cams and nuts to set up protection points and to build an anchor at the top of the first step. Once he got attached to the anchor, I heard him call out “Team Kitty, off belay”, to indicate that he had set up the anchor. I was amused that he chose my wife's nickname for our team name. I undid my GriGri and yelled, "Team Kitty, off assured."
I looked at the boulder for features and was dismayed to see nothing. Wes told us that we had to rely on friction and keep our center of gravity above our feet to provide as much traction as possible. Our hands were just to stabilize us. The slack in the rope tightened and I heard, "Team Kitty, belay." I placed my foot against the virgin face and began to apply weight. I slipped. Then I noticed a small bead-sized button and put my toe against it. I pushed and lifted the wall. After finding a few tiny features, I learned to use pressure only and started to progress at a good pace. Although the F1 is a big slab, it has some interesting features such as big flakes to climb up and around. The last stretch includes a descent followed by a vertical route up a ridge to the summit, which was probably my favorite part of the climb.
The view from the top was, of course, amazing. We waited for the other group while we signed the logbook and took pictures. We had done it in about four hours, and not once did I feel like we were slowing down. It was an incredible feeling. The only thing that bothered me was my shoulders, and it was carrying the backpack (my only regret), not the climb itself. We rappelled about a hundred yards from the back of the summit and returned to our cars. This was the hardest part. In the end, my legs and shoulders were in a lot of pain. I was tired and very hot.
We went to Central Park and dipped our feet in the refreshing waters of Boulder Creek. Even in June, the water was so cold I could keep them under a minute each time. After cooling down a bit, we headed over to Avery Brewing and took their tour. It was a fantastic tour and a great way to relax. The rest of the day is a blur. I remember I had a lot of shoulder pain and was worried for the rest of the trip. When we got back to the hotel I sat on the bed and passed out around 4pm and slept until the next morning when we set out to tackle Eldorado Canyon.
After some discussions the next morning, we decided to go our separate ways. A group would climb the Yellow spur (5.9+) and the other would climb Rewritten (5.7). I chose to go with the latter. I also decided to lose the backpack. I stuffed my pockets with protein bars, dried fruits and sunflower seeds. Then I tied my shoes to the back of my harness. The only thing I was missing was a good bottle of water with a carabiner.
Rewritten was a much more vertical climb than F1 and a lot of my training really helped. Again the guides led the way and we went up after them and got the cams and nuts. At the top of the third pitch, Ian informed us that we were going to be surprised when he drew our attention to a side crack on the left. Under the crack there was nothing but flat rock. “You're going to use hero hands and grab the crack as you coat your feet,” he told us.
The first of the group took care of it, no problem. I started, but my body was too high and my elbows were bent. It was poor amateur form, and I collapsed against the wall. Resuming my hands after a lower purchase, I was able to grab hold of and move with my right arm along the crack to where the road is vertical. It was a great photoshoot, and I didn't want my other friend to miss it, so I found this little one-foot ledge and parked. I could see across the canyon and looked up to 300ft to the base between my dangling legs. I took a few pics of the view and my friend navigating the crack perfectly
The final push was on an exposed ridge. Again, it was just the right amount of challenge. My shoulders felt much better without the bag. The feeling of being so exposed as you climb is truly indescribable. We did the summit around the same time as the other group and took some good photos of them celebrating on the other summit. Unfortunately, the return trip was truly treacherous. There were two sections where our guide used ropes to pull us down. At one point I ended up sliding on a wet rock and hitting my shin. I was lucky it was a minor injury and we managed to come back with no further issues.
This afternoon we had a late lunch with our guides at South Sun Pub. We made some future plans with the guides for 2020 and talked about our last day of unguided sport climbing. I felt very 'ready for the ride' at that point. I was worried we might get into something too difficult for me. We left our guides after lunch and headed to Neptune mountaineering, a large outdoor outfitter. I highly suggest making this your first stop. I bought a collapsible water bottle for the climb the next day. We shopped and enjoyed their coffee / beer.
The next morning we headed to Clear Creek Canyon. Had a rocky hike over the creek / river from the setback area. We have located our route, Playin 'hooky (5.8). I chose to insure the first, even though I couldn't wait to lead. The first lot had a very fun overhang, which I got over with no problem. The neighborhood was simply majestic. The river runs right at the foot of the cliff and the scenery is breathtaking. Unfortunately the noises of the water made communication difficult and sometimes we had to help relay messages about insured and uninsured people to their climbing partners.
When I joined my group at the top of the first trail, they gave me a reminder on belaying from an anchor point. It was the moment that I was waiting for. As I walked up, I noticed that the bolts were farther apart than I was used to. It was a bit confusing, but I was able to find some good features when slicing. There were a few times when I was way over the last bolt, when my heart raced. My grip felt very strong, though, and I managed. I also noticed that my finger, which was still recovering from a pulley injury, was starting to give me trouble.
I got to the anchors and installed my belayer. After securing my group, my friend recommended that I borrow some climbing tape and wrap my finger. I formed a cross under the joint and then wrapped it around the finger bones a few times to hold it in place. Everything went well and we continued to climb the cliff. We had split into the same groups as the day before, but chose to all follow the same path. It was nice to all spending time together on our last day, taking pictures and encouraging each other.
When we all reached the upper anchorage it was very crowded and we didn't wait long before rappelling down. It was probably the most dangerous part of the weekend. Not so much the abseiling, but the anchoring, the management of the ropes, the cleaning of the anchors, the descent, the repetition. There are just a lot of things that can go wrong. It was a bit crowded, and at one point we anchored ten feet above a ledge full of people heading the same route. Finally we came back down and the climb was over.
My first multi-step adventure was an incredible experience. I would say once in a lifetime, but after doing it once, there's no way I won't do it again someday. I am completely addicted to it. The preparation I did helped make my first experience a success. Now I have to keep improving so that next time I can climb more difficult roads.
James Dunn is a member of First Ascent Peoria. Give him a punch if you see him around the gym for reaching his goal of climbing his first multi-pitch course!
Rock climbing is everywhere these days. From the Dawn Wall to your Instagram feed to the new gym going up in town, climbing is no longer the fringe sport it once was. Kids are starting to climb almost before they can walk, and now more than ever, there’s no reason for you not to give it a try as well. However, climbing can be one of those intimidating hobbies to begin. Many ask, “How do I get started ? ” citing fear and feeling overwhelmed with gear and safety as huge barriers to entry. We get it, and so what follows is everything you need to know to get out on the rock.
The term “rock climbing” encompasses a great number of disciplines, from bouldering to big wall climbing, to mountain climbing and mountaineering. Before you begin, it might be important to first identify what style of climbing you are interested in, or perhaps to ask, “Why do I want to climb ? ” Do you want to summit peaks, boulder at your local gym, or perhaps learn to lead climb at the local crag ? Do you want to make friends, be outdoors, or get in shape ( or all three ) ? Once these questions are answered, you can work out the potential steps you’ll need to take to get there. Below ( in the Sport vs. trad vs. bouldering section ) we attempt to inform this decision by breaking down the various genres of climbing; each has its own specific culture, gear, and learning curve.
Climbing is a complex sport : it’s potentially expensive to get into, difficult to find mentors, and can be dangerous if not done correctly. With the evolution of climbing gyms, however, it’s easier than ever to give climbing a try : just grab a friend and head to the nearest gym, rent a pair of shoes and a harness, and jump on the bouldering wall. However, if and when your progression leads you to climbing on ropes and outside, technical skills become essential to safety. Many choose to learn from friends; however, safety is so important that we recommend enrolling in a formal chic. The easiest and best way to learn the essential skills, which include belaying and tying proper knots, is by taking an introductory course at your local gym. Or, if you’re interested in climbing outside or even more specifically climbing in the mountains, seek out a chic either through your gym or a local guide.
The first indoor climbing gym opened in Seattle in 1987. Now just 30 years later, there are 430 gyms across the nation, with over 50 more in construction at the time of writing. Areas like the Denver metropolis have as many as 10 gyms, all stuffed to capacity each day. Whereas climbers used to be a tiny community of mostly adult men with access to the wilderness, the climbing gym revolution has brought climbing to the masses. It’s safe to say that more people now climb indoors than outdoors. The climbing gym has developed its own culture, and climbing inside - “pulling on plastic, ” as climbers often say - is vastly different from climbing outdoors. It is arguably safer, much more convenient to access, and far more social; for these reasons, the gym is an génial place to begin climbing. Gym passes cost anywhere from $6 to $30/day, with monthly memberships being the best option for those who go regularly. Outdoor climbing takes place on boulders, on cliff bands, and in mountains - anywhere where there is solid rock'n'roll, climbers can be found. Some of the most popular genres of rock to climb include granite, sandstone, limestone, basalt, and conglomerate blends. Each of these kinds of rock'n'roll has its own style of climbing, from overhanging jugs much like gym climbs, to technical slabs, to splitter cracks. Climbing outdoors demands a higher level of expertise than climbing in the gym, as there are more variables and dangers on real rock. Weather can be a factor, as well as rock'n'roll fall. Climbers will also need to possess a great deal more gear to climb outside, including their own rope and harness, quickdraws or other protection, a personal anchor and locking carabiner, and a helmet. Although many climbers begin in the gym, some learn to climb immediately outside, most commonly with the help of a guide or an instructional course.
Rock climbing is generally broken down into three categories : sport climbing, traditional ( trad ) climbing, and bouldering. Climbers tend to specialize in or prefer one discipline over the others, though many climbers participate in all three. Sport climbing is a style of climbing where the leader attaches quickdraws to pre-existing bolts, looping the rope through the quickdraws for protection while ascending the cliff. Sport climbs are often one-pitch climbs where the leader then comes back to the ground after fixing the rope to the anchor, though in some cases these climbs might continue up larger faces for multiple pitches. As a discipline, sport climbing focuses on difficult movement, résistance, learning to face fears, and risking a fall ( and being caught by the rope, oui ! ). Trad climbing is the most rootsy and historical form of climbing, in which the leader climbs weaknesses in the rock'n'roll ( generally, cracks ) and places gear in these weaknesses that will hold the rope in the case of a fall. Although trad climbs can be single-pitch routes like the majority of sport climbs, they often ascend features that are more than one rope length and end at a summit ( these are called “multi-pitch climbs” ). Trad climbers generally love long and adventurous days of climbing in wilderness areas, focusing on movement, logistics, technical rope and gear skills, and partnership. Bouldering is perhaps the most modern form of climbing, and certainly the fastest-growing. Boulderers ascend boulders or short cliffs ( generally 20 feet and under ), using pads and spotters at the base for protection instead of ropes. Bouldering is a form of climbing that focuses on difficult movement and problem solving, and is more social than the other techniques. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a few other forms of climbing : aid climbing, alpine rock'n'roll climbing, speed climbing, and deep water soloing. Pick your poison ( or shall we say passion ) : each has its own set of joys and défis !
One of the first things you’ll learn when starting to climb is how to choose a route that suits your ability level. In the gym, climbs generally are labeled with a difficulty rating; outside, climbers use guidebooks and often a phone application called Mountain Project to identify the difficulty of climbs. In the U. S., climbs are rated using the Yosemite Decimal System; in short, 5. 3 is a very beginner climb, and 5. 15 is an expert-level route. These ratings do not denote danger, only difficulty. As a beginner, you’ll most likely be choosing routes 5. 7 and under, and often routes that can be top-roped. Top-roping means that the climber establishes an anchor from the top of the climb so that the rope is already in place, rather than leading the route from the bottom. Many routes in the gym are set up with top ropes; outside, climbers can often hike to the top of the cliff or feature to drop a rope down over the climb.
Each discipline of climbing necessitates a different set of gear. For all types of climbing, however, a beginner will need a pair of climbing shoes. For just starting out in the sport, we recommend finding a comfortable pair of climbing shoes ( don’t be persuaded by the salesperson at your local gear site to purchase painfully tight shoes ). Delicate footwork will come later in your climbing career; for now you will just be developing an ability to stand on your feet and trust the rubber of your new shoes. All climbers will generally want to carry a chalk bag and chalk as well, which they will either wear around their waist or keep on the ground ( sometimes the case while bouldering ). Climbers dip their hands into chalk to dry off sweat and keep them from slipping off the rock'n'roll. Boulderers will need the above two pieces of gear, in addition to a bouldering pad ( and friends with bouldering pads ! ). Bouldering pads are placed in the fall zone of a boulder problem, and the more the merrier ( and safer ! ). tera climb on ropes both in a gym or outside, climbers will need a climbing harness. Climbing harnesses come in a range of weights and specifications - some for sport climbing in particular, some with larger gear loops or more padding for trad climbing. Harnesses need to be replaced every few years for safety reasons, so we again recommend purchasing an affordable harness and replacing it when you have a better understanding of your needs. Along with a climbing harness, it is essential to own a belay device and locking carabiner. This equipment will enable you to belay your partner in the gym or outside, and rappel if needed. If climbing outside, a helmet is extremely important in case of rock'n'roll fall. The above-mentioned gear provides the basics for personal gear needed for a day of climbing or bouldering, either in the gym or with an experienced and well-equipped partner. If you are looking to buy gear so that you can be fully self-sufficient ( and not need a partner or a group with shared gear ) you’ll want to also purchase a climbing-specific rope ( 60-70 meters, 9-10mm in diameter, dynamic ), a personal anchor ( PAC ) or daisy chain, extra locking carabiners, cams, nuts, quickdraws, and slings. It is extremely important to buy new gear or to know the history and age of the gear if acquiring used. Both soft materials and metals degrade over time and with wear and should be carefully assessed before using.
We wholeheartedly recommend taking a course taught by professionals before attempting to climb or belay on your own. Climbing is inherently dangerous, though when done correctly can be very safe. After all of the proper skills have been learned, it is still incredibly important to stay on top of safety at every moment. Before leaving the ground, or transitioning from climbing to lowering/rappelling, there are a number of safety checks that must be completed.