If I were to tell you it is fun to rock climb in winter, you would probably laugh at me. Who would want to take off their gloves and snow stuff, slip into a pair of shorts and long sleeve shirt, and cling to the side of what could only be imagined as an icy cold cliff? I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to tell me that this seemed to be a bit more than a moderately extreme activity. But then you wouldn’t know why Boulder is considered to be the climbing Mecca of America.
Boulder Colorado is a place notorious for cheating on it’s seasons. In Boulder, it can snow in the middle of June, and get downright balmy in the middle of January. Last weekend the area of Boulder decided it needed a break from winter, and decided to spend the weekend with summer. The temperature got up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. I called my friend Pierce, because it would have been irresponsible for us to not take this window of opportunity to climb in the middle of January. I guess that way I could write a blog post about it, and then hopefully you would all think I was cool enough to visit my page.
As uniquely moderately extreme as I thought we were being, it turned out that tons of other Boulderians experience similarly moderately extreme tendencies. It didn’t take us long to realize that our warm, isolated day on a sunny piece of rock was going to be moved by the crowds into the shady, and colder side of the canyon.
We would spend the day climbing at a place called the Cascade Wall, a 15 minute drive up the canyon from town. One of my favorite features of this wall is the single cable tyrolean traverse, which every climber has to pull themselves across to reach the other side of the river. Connecting a carabeaner from the loop of my harness to the wire of the tyrolean, I pulled myself into the middle of the creek.
Today was special for me because it was going to be my first time doing a lead climb. We were climbing a route rated as a 5.9, which isn’t too crazy if you know rock climbing, but I’m a beginner, and as a beginner it felt a little like I was about to climb Everest, and doing so in a frosty pair of athletic shorts. Luckily I wasn’t going first.
Pierce scaled the route first, setting quickdraws into bolts that had been drilled into the side of the cliff as he went, and bringing the rope with him all the way from the bottom of the cliff, to the top. He was doing what is called setting the route. It is the hardest, and most dangerous part of climbing. Now that he was finished, it was my turn. I reluctantly started to take off my hat and puffy winter jacket.
Many climbers don’t like lead climbing because you can still fall and get hurt. With both ends of the rope on the ground, the climber has to begin the climb unsupported from the bottom, and anchor the rope to different carabineers that he attaches to the cliff on the way to the top. When they finally reach the top, the lead climber creates an anchoring system of locking carabeaners, or quick draws, before repelling back down to the bottom of the cliff.
The reason why this is a little dangerous, is because the climber can still fall as far as the last bolt they set, before finally creating the anchors at the top of the route. Lead climbers can fall as little as 5 feet, but also as much as 15 and above.
I was considering why I had chosen to lead climb this route rather than top rope it, when Pierce finished pulling the rope down from the top of the cliff. He handed me one of the ends, and said, “Your turn.” and handed me one end of the rope to tie in.
When everything was ready I approached the wall, dipping my cold, sweaty hands into the chalk bag hanging over my butt as I went. The world felt as though it was going slowly silent around me. I slid my hand into the first hold and moved my feet off the ground and onto the cliff wall.
Though it was a pretty warm day for January, it was still the middle of winter and the wind had a biting chill in it. I had to alternate between holding onto the wall with my hands, and blowing into them to keep warm. I was starting to get cold and thinking of turning back around, when I reached the second clip and looked down. I was now far enough that I could fall and hurt myself. Then the adrenaline began kicking in.
Full of adrenaline, my hands and feet started to warm up. My mind was clear. The chalk I kept liberally applying to my hands made it easier to grip the rock, which helped my confidence.
Everything was going so smoothly that it felt kind of like I was cheating. I never have good luck when I first go into uncomfortable situations. So, as it were to be expected, things started to go wrong fast. Winter was about to find out that Boulder had been cheating on her with Its summer mistress.
Almost at the top of the wall, a snow flurry with gusting winds blew over the ridge and into our side of the canyon. The winds were now howling past me, whipping the rope that dangled between my legs to the left and right in a very, non-reassuring way. Little flecks of snow started peppering my hands, making them cold and uncomfortable.
I had reached a turning point moment, where it would have been fine for me to be lowered down by Pierce, or I could continue climbing until I reached the top. As the people standing below me seemed to be miserably cold enough, I decided that it was for the good of everybody if I continued.
The scariest part of lead climbing for a beginning climber, is at the top. The lead climber has to attach themselves to the wall with strings of webbing, untie themselves from the rope (the same rope which had been saving your life), and then pull that rope through a set of anchors to prepare for a repel. As I was doing all of this for the first time, it was snowing and cold. There was no time to enjoy the beautiful view that a 100 foot cliff has to offer a climber.
After everything was set up, I rappelled down almost immediately, jumping into my coat, hat, and gloves at the bottom of the cliff. Pierce and I discussed leaving because of the snow, but as we were wrapping the rope up to put away, our little flurry blew over a mountain ridge to the north, and it was like summer again. Whatever argument Boulder had been having with winter ended with the snow leaving, and summer returning once again.
Pierce and I walked a little further down the wall to find some different routes. Our day of climbing had just begun.