We were supposed to go to the Black Canyon this weekend, but not all worked out as planned. We decided instead to do a couple of day trips in the area, and one of those trips was to Shelf Road, a sport climbing area with a dozen cliffs, a few dozen crags, and hundreds of bolted, sharp, limestone routes just waiting to be pulled by the two studs that "Jello" and I are.
Shelf Road - Cannon City, Colorado
Dark Side Wall
Other than climbing in Garden of the Gods this past week and at Farley Ledge in Massachusetts, I haven't done much sport this season. In fact, I haven't even made the short trek up to Rumney this year to tackle my only tick up there: Hammond Organ (5.10d). I was looking forward to clipping bolts and pushing my grades for the first time all year (well, except for my attempt on Hold the Mayo (5.9) in the 'Gunks). I'm sure most people will tell you that sport offers an opportunity to bump the grades up over the typical trad grades. This is almost exclusively because with sport all one has to do is clip the bolt, whereas with trad one must find the right gear, set it, and then clip it. Of course, all of this trad gear also weighs more than sport draws, too.
Anyway, I'm not sure where I was going with that, except that maybe I was trying to say that I just wanted to try something hard outside for once. While I've led 5.10 outside before, I've never actually flashed or onsighted a 5.10. "Jello" told me that the grades at Shelf Road were a bit soft, so this was a perfect opportunity for me to meet that goal, even if I didn't set that out as a goal this summer. I would have been happy to lead 5.10c/d today, too, and that opportunity did come later in the day. But this day was really about three different events, two of which damn near killed me (OK, so I'm being a little over dramatic about one of the events, but still, if you know me then you know why).
The drive to Canon City was uneventful, and the ride to the Shelf Road area was also without any excitement. We wanted to get to the Dark Side Wall in order to hit the shade on what we figured would be a warm day in the sun. Shelf Road is spread out a bit, with a few different parking lots for the various crags. It is possible to park in one location and walk to all the cliffs, but that is inconvenient because walking from one cliff to the next would take about 30 minutes. As you could expect, the parking lots are also spread out and closer to each cliff. This is somewhat important to note because: 1) we were using a rather crappy map in the guidebook to find the parking lot for the Dark Side Wall and; 2) I can't read a map.
We were supposed to be looking for the Bank Camping lot, and apparently we drove right past it on our way in. The road to the Bank is pretty easy and safe, but once past that point the road becomes narrow, dirt, and enclosed with a rising cliff on the left and steep 200-foot drop into a shallow canyon on the right... without a guardrail. The road is barely wide enough to allow two cars to pass by each other, and it is as winding as any famous mountain road in Italy - with the road ahead blinded out of sight by weaving turns that bend around the opaque cliff. You can't see what you're heading at nor what's heading at you. It's a scary thing to think of when you know cars are coming the other way, but thankfully we couldn't see any cars on the road ahead of us (where we could see, anyway) and it felt as if we were the only car on the road. Not a spec of dust thrust up by uncoming cars was to be seen. The low-lying air was as crystal clear as any at the break of an uncoming rain storm. I was on the passenger's side of the car, which had a much clearer view of the bottom of the canyon than the driver's side. "Jello" is known for his driving... ... ... and I'll just leave it at that.
Not seeing any cars, "Jello" barelled ahead at my direction. He wanted to see the map, but I refused. Despite the map's lack of clarity, I was certain that I could figure out where we were supposed to go. Of course, he had been there before, and so he kind of knew the area. A quick look at the map for him would have easily solved our problem. But no, he was stuck driving for the vast majority of the trip and I felt the need to hold my otherwise carried weight. Our climbing partnership is an interesting dynamic. To start, we're friends. Our sense of humor is at least understood, and when we're on there's no stopping the laugh tracks. Yet, when we're often dropping jokes we don't really laugh so much as we smile and get the joke. It's as if it isn't about the laughing but about the appreciation of the moment instead. I think we get along so well because we cope in similar fashion: it's best to get whatever is on the inside on the outside before it eats up the soul. I'm glad that we at least understand that we each have quirks, and that those don't really play a role in our character. But where we separate is in our approach. I'm an eternal optimist. I'm not sure if "Jello" is truly and optimist or pessimist at heart, but I definitely deal with my optimism by communicating my pessimism very loudly and clearly. It's how I cope. It's how I know that I'm going to be OK in the end, because I've already cleaned the bad out of me by displaying it for the world to see - almost as if I'm allowing the whole world, as an army, to tackle my pessimism at once. Call it dilution if you will, but it works. "Jello", on the other hand, is much more likely to speak honestly about his experiences and to use that openness to build the internal strength to push him onward. In short, he's a fighter who storms the beach with a plan whereas I'm the guy who is willing to wait for his heart to tell him when to shoot. I'm careful about picking my battles. He just picks them and goes. As a result, he tends to be the one who carries the heavy pack during the descent (my weakest moments). He's the one who forges ahead quickly when the rain is coming. He reads the guidebook more than me. He cooks, he drives, he takes control of the road, the seemingly empty road that - AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!
It lasted only a mere few seconds, but it was one when nearly every memory of my childhood raced back to the forefront of my eyeballs: when I realized Dad didn't live with us anymore, getting my first pet (a rabbit named Rudolph-the-Snoopy because I didn't want to upset my two favorite cartoon characters by choosing one over the other), having my Christmas present taken away from me and sold one year due to my misbehaving, and getting the game ball in the local Farm League championship baseball game. All these memories flashed as soon as I saw the driver's side edge of the car scream around the corner. We both yelped, but as I saw us slowly moving into the other car the memories faded. "At least we aren't heading over the edge," I thought to myself while I watched "Jello" do the right thing and steer into the accident. But then, just as soon as that final word popped into my head, instinct grappled with his hands and foot and he slammed on the brake, sending us into a dirt-screaching skid all the while turning away from the car and, yup, you guessed it, toward the soft edge of the road on the canyon side. I didn't have a chance to get through my high school years with the first flashback, but within a matter of split seconds I was moving from my sophomore to junior year and was suddenly thinking of college all over again. The irony of that moment was that I had no place to go but up in high school, and now I was watching the right, front tire of "Jello"'s car for the instant it began it dangle over the edge. The braking didn't help soothe my fears. After all, it was a dirt road and he didn't have anti-lock brakes. All eyes in both cars stared widely at us. Would we go over? How many times would we flip when we did? Did I remember to change my underwear this morning?
The skid lasted a few feet, and the tire I had so steadily watched finally came to a halt only a few inches from the edge. We all stopped, breathed a few deep breaths, looked at each other, smiled, laughed, and carefully went on our way. A hundred yards later we hit a small rut in the road that sent us into another skid, but because "Jello" had learned the hard way how to drive in snow (which is similar to dirt in how you react to it), he was able to turn out of it. Unfortunately, at this point, we were well beyond where we were supposed to be and "Jello" demanded that I give him the map. I sheepishly handed it over to him and he confidently said, "It's back there." He tossed the book in my lap, turned the car around, spied the car we almost hit several hundred yards away and declared with an evil grin, "Wouldn't it be funny if we caught up to them?" I gulped, and he spun off back to our intended destination. (count: two near death experiences, thus far)
Approach / Descent Info: Park in the parking lot for the Bank area camping. In between the two day use parking lots is a road that heads down into the canyon. Follow this road to the first path on your right, and then take the next path again on your right toward Dark Side. Once on this path, you will cross through a thin cave and you should see the path continue down the hill. It is ill-advised to go down the hill if you want to climb at Dark Wall. I suggest that you look closely to the rock pile that is to your right and search for a faint trail that goes through the rocks and meets another dirt path on the other side. This path will lead you to all the climbs on the wall. Taking the main path downhill will only send you well below the cliff and make getting back up not only difficult but dangerous (Rattlesnakes do live here and I've got the picture to prove it). It is also important to note that this path leads you to the higher-numbered climbs in the guidebook, and that the lower-numbered climbs are about 15 minutes down the path.
As for descending, all the routes listed below could be lowered or rapped off the chained anchors with a 50m rope if needed. We had a 60m rope, so please be aware that I may be a bit off on my estimates regarding lowering or rapping (but I'm pretty sure it's all good).
I don't have much to say about each of these climbs. They were all fun and we got to the top of them all (me with several hangs on one climb in particular), but there wasn't anything peticular about each climb to have a story. Most of the below text will be guide-like info, but there will be one story mixed in that nearly ended my life a second time, so be on the lookout for it. And by the way, my apologies if the beta photos don't like up as well as they usually do. That is a direct result of there not being enough text. It is important to note that we walked from the main path all the down to the end, and then worked our way back toward the path.
Beginner's Outing (5.8) - six bolts
We got a little lost due to us not finding the path to the wall, but eventually we found this route. It was nearly all the way down at the end of path. It tooks us about 20 minutes to get there, so I imagine it would have been closer to 15 minutes if you took the proper path and knew where you were going. Essentially, though, walk all the way down until you see a dirty descent gully / trail up to the right. The route has a black, right-facing corner with a flake at the top. There is a rounded, white prow at the left. Climb the face to the corner, and then follow the corner to the flake at the top (crux). This felt more like 5.6 than 5.8.
Black and Dicey (5.10a) - six bolts
I enjoyed this route, even though it was a one-star route in the book. In fact, I thought it was better than the three-star next to it (next climb below). It was thin and technical, with a gutsy traverse just below the mid-way point. Head right from Beginner's Outing. Climb the black face between a large right-facing corner with a squarish / triangular roof midway up to the left and a black arrete with a triangular roof about the same height up as the left-side roof. Sorry, I thought I had a photo for this, but I guess I don't.
27 Tons (5.10a) - eight bolts
Again, head right from Black and Dicey and find the black and white face below a right-facing corner that is high up. It is between a right-arching, overhanging corner high up to the left and a chimney and large roof up to the right. Again, sorry for the lack of photo.
This was supposedly a three-star route, but it wasn't as fun as the Black and Dicey, which is right next to it to the left.
Shelf Road Virgin (5.10a) - three bolts
Find the shelf / ledge about 10 feet off the ground and just right from where the path goes steeply up to the left. Belay just above a square boulder-step in the path and climb the pockets on the left of this particular cliff face. We both found this to be sequency and fun despite it being so short.
It was at this point in the day where I had my second adventure. I really had to drop a load, but there didn't seem to be a good place to go because of the way the path around where we were was shaped (or, to put it a better way, the way the cliff was shaped). I won't describe it much, but let's just say that anyone walking from either direction would have easily been able to see me squatting and bearing my ass to the world. But I just couldn't let it go, and so I had to walk off the trail to find a nice quite spot. However, I'm afraid of snakes. I've had my days at the 'Gunks where snakes were by far and away the biggest mental obstacle of the day. The guidebook to Shelf Road says that rattlesnake bites are not that uncommon here, and that most of the bites happen on the back of the leg as one steps over a log or boulder. "Great," I thought, "not only are they aggressive, but you don't see them coming." We had been lucky, in my estimation, earlier in the day because of the bushwhacking we had to do to get back to the main path (ever hear that before? Yup, every time I climb with this guy there is definitely a bushwhacking adventure. Just click here, and here, and here for proof). I feel that we were lucky because rattlesnakes are apparently not that dissimilar in color from brown dirt and brush. But no strikes happened, and so I was a little more confident walking down what appeared to be a normal animal path. In other words, I wouldn't be stepping over any logs or boulders, but down an easy-to-read path instead. And so I stepped on to the path when - AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!
There it was, no more than three feet in front of me. I damn near stepped on it. "Jello" ran over to see what had startled me and, without hesitation, sent a few more shivers up my spine when he said, "Yup, that's a rattler." I froze and stared at its coiled state. It was docile, for the moment, but I didn't want to move anywhere out of the fear that another one would be nearby. "Jello" warned me to back away, though, as he had heard that they can strike at twice their length in distance. I did as I was told, but the sad thing was that now I desperately needed to lighten my load and I had no where to go but around this snake, and over the logs and boulders that surrounded it. I backed up and walked about 10 feet away. There was only one place I could go, and that was toward a large boulder that would shield me from public view. The problem was that there was no path anymore in this area. I couldn't walk down the main path in either direction either due to other parties being nearby in both directions. I had to bushwhack to the large boulder, and I was nearly as afraid as I've ever been in my entire life. It took me about 20 minutes to walk 15 feet. I'm not kidding. I would take one step and look around me to see if there were any snakes. And then, before taking another other steps, I double checked just to make sure I didn't miss something. I would then take another step and repeat the sequence. "Jello" thought this was hilarious. I was not only worrying about getting to the boulder safely but about dropping by pants and not seeing the rattler that was about to bite me in the ass. Everything turned out OK (we didn't see another reptile the entire day), and "Jello" was happy in the end because, and I will quote his great sympathy, "I didn't want to get stuck carrying your ass out of here." Once the load was dropped, climbing subsequently became much easier. (count: three near death experiences)
Puddle of Holes (5.10a R)- three bolts
This route is on the other side of the tree on the same cliff face as Shelf Road Virgin (see above). Climb the route right of the tree. I'm saying this is R-rated because of the fall potential at one particular spot. Despite the fact that this is a sport route, it isn't bolted well. Any fall between the first and second bolts will result in a swing into a small tree and down to a ledge below the first bolt. Despite this climb being well within our limits, we both felt the stress of this particular section. It wasn't hard, but any screw up here is going to hurt.
Lou Raven's Nest (5.10c/d) - nine bolts
Find a large, right-facing corner with a tree on a ledge about 30 feet up. Walk left, past another tree at the base to a ledge about six feet above the path. Climb the shallow right-facing corner to its top, then step left and climb the upper, right-facing corner, and then head left on very thin and slopey holds to the chains.
One of my goals for this year was to lead 5.10d clean. This grade is really pushing my limits outside, and I had a particular route set aside for this potential accomplishment: Hammond Organ (5.10d) at Rumney. I chose Hammond Organ because after toproping it a few years ago I felt as if it was within my grade range and definitely within the style of climbing that I prefer: thin and slabby. As noted above, our goal was to start at the far end of the cliff and work back toward the path and claim all the 5.10s that we could get on, and it had been a successful day thus far. Unfortunately, this route shut me down.
I took several times at the crux, and even fell at the same spot on TR. There was just one move that had no feet and required a bit of a lunge for me that I couldn't get. I tried it several times on lead before I decided to come down. Falling at the same spot on TR confirmed my thoughts that this was less of a fear issue than it was a physical obstacle. I was even more glad that I hadn't managed to get through this section on lead when I finally got to the top on TR. It was very slopey and that is absolutely against my preferred style.
We left after I got to the top and the thunder claps that were coming over the mountains behind us pushed their early light rain upon our bodies and tired souls. We thought about continuing to climb after the rain passed, but it ended up dropping buckets, and we had a long drive home anyway. Still, it was a good day despite our adventures. I will definitely buy cowboy boots for the next time I go back there, though. I'm damn sure not getting bit by one of those things. No. Eff'n. Way.
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