Unfinished Business Part 2: Insurrection

In July 2012, Mike and his family took an extended road trip through Colorado, visiting a number of crags, included the ultra-scenic and oft overlooked Independence Pass. I spent that entire summer re-habbing an A2 Pulley Strain, so I was not climbing, but the family and I visited the Pass one weekend to hang out. Mike was working a classic 5.13+ face climb established by Tommy Caldwell called Before There Were Nine, located on the right end of the overhanging central shield of the Pass’ proudest cliff, The Lower Grotto Wall.

The magnificent Lower Grotto Wall.

The magnificent Lower Grotto Wall.

I wandered up to the wall, and between burns Mike and I gazed at the large swath of flawless, unclimbed granite to the left of his project, fantasizing about a potential directissima through this shear and stunning wall. The nearly featureless cliff was traced with discontinuous rails and random edges—perhaps just enough to support a free sequence someday.   I filed away my impression of the wall and went about my usual business for more than year.

In October of 2013, fate intervened. The Federal Government Shutdown left me with plenty of time on my hands and no partners, so with ‘nothing better to do’, I threw some gear in my trunk and drove the two-and-a-half windy hours to inspect this wall a bit closer. I found some of the best graniteI’d seen in Colorado, and a conceivable sequence. It would be hard, but I thought it would go—eventually. I hurried back to the top of the cliff, this time with my drill.

"The Indy Pass Project"

“The Indy Pass Project”

The route begins with a desperate, balancey V9/10-ish boulder problem right off the bat, liebacking powerfully up a suspended dagger of stone. A gymnastic 5.12 traverse heads left to a large eyebrow, and then straight up to a decent stance below the next crux. A devious sequence spans a pair of opposing rails, leading to a strenuous clip off a sharp crimp. The redpoint crux begins here, with a series of dynos to reach the Crimp Rail—a ¼”-deep, right-facing flake. The hardest single move is matching this feature, followed by two more difficult moves to reach a marginal shake at the fifth bolt. This stretch is around V11/12 by itself. About ten more 5.12 moves lead to the only really good rest stance on the route. You can camp out here on a pair of large jugs and contemplate the final thin, reachy boulder problem that guards the chains.

Just above the Crimp Rail.

Just above the Crimp Rail.

I pushed all my other projects aside, and obsessed over this new line for the next month. On October 30th, nine days into the campaign, I finally stuck the match at the crimp rail on redpoint. This was my first new highpoint in several days of work. And then I fell on the next move! Still, I was very close. At this point in the climb each move is slightly easier than the move before it, so it’s theoretically possible to sketch through with a moderate pump to reach the jugs 15-feet below the anchor. I could sense that after so many days away from the gym, my fitness was beginning to fade, but I had a good feeling that the next day would be the day.

The summit of Independence Pass sits at a dizzying 12,095 feet, making it the highest paved through-road in Colorado. The weather on the pass can be epic, and so the highway department closes the road for “winter” (typically closing the road on November 7th and re-opening on the Thursday before Memorial Day each year). Time was running short, but I figured I had at least a few climbing days left.

Nightmare anyone? Artwork along Highway 82, just outside of Twin Lakes

Nightmare anyone? Artwork along Highway 82, just outside of Twin Lakes

After a rest day, I returned with Kate on November 1st. The drive from our home in Evergreen is scenic but occasionally terrifying. On more than one occasion we passed overturned vehicles on Fremont Pass, the connector route from Interstate 70 to the tiny village of Twin Lakes, nestled at the east end of Independence Pass. After two anxious hours in the car, we turned onto Highway 82, just outside of Twin Lakes, and beheld the flashing hazard sign that deflated all my hopes:


Frowny Face!

Frowny Face!

I pulled off the road to consider my options, and after a few incredulous minutes, I hatched a plan. Aspen sits at the west end of the pass, and it’s accessible via a 4 hour drive from our house along I-70 through Glenwood Canyon. The closure point on the Aspen side is just under 4 miles from the Grotto Wall. We could drive around the Sawatch Mountains via I-70 to Aspen, and then hike up the road to the cliff. It would be difficult to pull off this approach and still have enough left in the tank to climb at my limit, but I couldn’t accept quitting when it seemed I was so close. I had to try. Fortunately Kate is always willing to support (perhaps mostly for the morbid curiosity of observing my insanity in action). It was already too late in the day to implement this harebrained scheme, so we headed home to make arrangements for the coming weekend.

Rigged to tow Logan up to the Grotto Wall.

Rigged to tow Logan up to the Grotto Wall.

After 4 hours of driving and over an hour of hiking with a heavy load, I was pretty well spent. I put in two attempts, but I was unable to match my previous highpoint. We stashed whatever we could, and then headed back down the road to Aspen. The next day the hike was more of the same. Clearly this approach would not work, but having tried, I could finally accept that my dream to free this wall would have to wait a few months….

I spent the intervening months preparing, like Rocky holed-up in a snowy cabin, training to face Ivan Drago. I trained and I climbed. I selected Mission Impossible as a stepping stone, for its similarities to the Indy Pass Project, and so I might be calibrated to eventually grade it. I sacrificed climbing opportunities at the end of my winter and spring seasons so I could be in peak condition on the day Independence Pass finally opened. And I watched as record snowfall hammered Colorado’s high mountains.

Finally, at noon on May 22nd, 2014, the Pass re-opened, two hours ahead of schedule! Of course, I still had one barrier to overcome, which I put away on May 23rd. Normally I hate climbing on back-to-back days, but I couldn’t stand another day of wondering, so we headed out to the Pass early on May 24th.

Indy Pass Open Pic_lo


My first go was typical—spent trying to re-fresh my muscle memory. I have many gigabytes of video and detailed text describing the route’s beta. I spent countless hours studying film during my layoff, so I knew the moves on a conscious level, but it would take some effort to get back to the point where my subconscious could take the reins.   By the last go of the second day back, I reached the crimp rail with my left hand, and nearly stuck the match move. I was more or less back where I left off in the Fall. I felt very solid on this sequence, and much like my second Mission Impossible campaign, I was making huge leaps in progress between attempts. My skin was getting hammered by the sharp crimps, so I was happy to take a couple rest days before returning.

We arrived early on May 29th, with the cliff (and seemingly the entire Pass) to ourselves. I didn’t sleep at all the previous night, straining over what may come, so I wasn’t feeling super confident. My warmup went smoothly, hiking the first pitch of Victims of Fashion and then the uber-classic Scene of the Crime. After 30 minutes of pacing below the object of my obsession, I couldn’t take any more delays and began to rope up.

Finishing the opening boulder problem.

Finishing the opening boulder problem.  Photo Adam Sanders.

The opening boulder felt desperate. I snapped a hold here on the previous day, making the third move just that much harder, but I was able to scrape through. I flowed through the next section to a brief shake before the crux. I was pumped, no doubt, but the sort of pumped where you can still produce power when you need to. I launched into the crux, climbing quickly and efficiently, the best I’d felt on this section. I was able to move my left hand to the crimp rail statically—a good sign. I placed it carefully and paused a moment to adjust and ensure it was in the perfect spot. I wrapped my thumb over, shifted my hips and prepared to match. I stuck the match, and while the pump was steadily growing, I was still in control. I moved out left, positioned my feet, and made a long stab for a flat edge. I matched and clipped, the crux behind me, and tried to shake on the sloping ¾” shelf.

After a few cycles of chalking, I decided the situation was deteriorating, so I better push on and hope for the best. Trusting my beta, I thrutched through each move, ignoring my complaining forearms. Finally I reach the jugs in the black streak. This was a great rest, but I was quite pumped. I had never been this pumped at this point on the route, so I didn’t know what to expect. I camped out for several minutes, slowly regaining my strength. With the sun creeping higher, and the temperature noticeably rising, I set off up the final headwall. My arms felt dull as I paddled toward the anchor. One last, gnarly crimp move guards the chains. I placed my fingers on the edge and cranked.

Stretching for the sloping edge at the end of the redpoint crux.  Photo Adam Sanders. 

As I clipped the chains, I felt a strange sensation—almost melancholy. Not the euphoria I was accustomed to. It’s taken me some time to understand this feeling, but I think it was a sense of loss. The Indy Pass Project has been my companion, my motivator, for a long time, and now it’s finished. With many projects, I tire of the route long before I complete it. That never happened with this route. I enjoyed the “commute” right up to the end. The crag is quite beautiful and great for the kids. I was looking forward to spending more time there. We often had the entire cliff to ourselves, and when we didn’t the people we met were friendly and encouraging. The style of climbing is my absolute favorite, and I enjoyed every single burn on the route.

I think Insurrection is the hardest route I’ve climbed. After so much time on the route, and the long layoff, it’s easy to lose perspective on a route’s difficulty. First ascents in particular are hard to grade because the beta is a complete mystery. The project took me 14 days over two seasons.  Based on the math, I would have to say that for me it was a bit harder than Mission Impossible, somerwhere in the 14c range. The two routes are similar in many ways, though MI is much more bouldery with excellent rests. The moves on Insurrection are not as hard, but you’re more pumped when you climb them.

Nearing the good rest.

Nearing the good rest.  Photo Adam Sanders.

More importantly, Insurrection is the best route I’ve established. The line is pure and continuous. The movement on the route is fantastic, linking a maze of discontinuous and barely-there features in a snaking line up the wall. It’s unlike your typical crimp ladder; you need more than just brute strength. The Pass has some of the best granite in Colorado—and the rock on this section of the cliff is excellent. A remarkable collection of legends have established routes on this wall, including Harvey Carter, Henry Barber, John Long, Lynn Hill, Charlie Fowler, Michael Kennedy, Kurt Smith, Tommy Caldwell, and Matt Samet. I feel extremely fortunate to be able to add a line of my own.

It’s great to get any First Ascent, but when you discover the line, conjure a vision of its possibility, and then put in the effort to make it real, that is another level entirely. When such a route happens to present a challenge that demands all of your ability, that is something really special.  Thanks to all the people who contributed to this project, especially Kate, who braved my driving through numerous blizzards, Logan and Amelie, who suffered through my mega-burns, Adam who came out to take photos, Mike, who led me to this wall, and Janelle who held the rope during the send.


4 thoughts on “Unfinished Business Part 2: Insurrection

  1. Pingback: Unfinished Business Part 2: Insurrection – New Post on RCTM.com! | Lazy H Climbing Club

  2. Congratulations Mark! Nice read, interesting to hear your thoughts on the melancholy of the send. I’ve experienced this same feeling in the past. Glad you had a good time on your project and with the family at the crag.


  3. Pingback: New Indy Pass 5.14 | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  4. Pingback: Insurrection! | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

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