by Mark Anderson
Whenever I spot an unknown outcrop of rock I find myself craning my neck for a better view. The more I become interested in first ascents, the more I become curious about the countless blobs of stone that litter the Front Range. Perhaps the backside of that distant cliff is hiding some mega classic line? Clear Creek Canyon is surprisingly complex, with the river twisting dramatically and the road weaving around geologic obstacles and through tunnels. Even after seven years of visiting the Canyon, it seems each time I drive through I spot another mysterious formation (or see an old formation from a new perspective).There’s a plethora of rock out there, and much of it is still unexplored.
In late March, between seasons, I dedicated several days to filling in the blank spots on my CCC map. Some crags were disappointing, others were better than expected, but the sweetest find was a crag I wasn’t looking for. While hiking down US 6 to scope a leaning pinnacle on the south side of the river, I glimpsed a jutting obelisk of gneiss out of the corner of my eye. This reclusive feature was so positioned—tucked in a narrow gulley, obscured by tall pines, and camouflaged by a backdrop of gray stone—that it was only visible from my precise vantage point.I shifted gears and briskly scrambled up the gulley for a closer look. The apparent geometric symmetry of the block faded as I scrambled closer. So often I have watched a promising feature deteriorate before my approaching eyes. But not this time! The stunning east face of the free-standing tooth was slightly overhanging, sparsely featured, and composed of brilliant molasses stone, infused with a web of swirling pegmatite intrusions.
This is the moment the explorer in me lives for—to find a diamond in the rough right under my nose, yet astonishingly overlooked. The crag was a true gem—great rock, east-facing (providing after work shade), with a short approach, nice staging area and a spectacular position. The cliff was short, but in retrospect it’s at least as tall as the perpetually crowded Primo Wall. I started sketching a topo of the Sharks Fin in my head, but this only led to more questions–how many climbs would there be? Is the rock as good as it looks?
I returned within a few days to rap the wall and inspect the features. If anything the rock was even better on rappel than it looked from the ground. That was an unusual experience for me! Soon after, I returned with my bolt kit and put in four seemingly moderate lines. I was still in my Strength Phase, and my first priority for the season was The Bunker, so it would be some time before I could return to try these climbs.
Once I had finished off the Bunker I returned for what I expected to be a brief session of back-to-back onsights of the Fin’s four lines. I warmed up at home and started on what I expected to be the hardest line. This one begins with some thin face climbing on small edges, and I figured it might be as hard as 5.13a. I was totally shut down at the start. I couldn’t get off the ground! Over about 45 minutes I sussed out some of the opening moves, but there were still a few I couldn’t do.
It was still quite warm, so I moved on to the next line to the left—expecting it to be about mid-5.12 and well within my on sight abilities, even in the sun. Again the wall slapped me down. I spent the next 30 minutes or so sussing the opening boulder problem, which turned out to be V8 or so. I lowered and went for the send, figuring I could onsight the rest of the climb, but after sketching through the start I was stymied by a devious sequence exiting the large left-facing corner system at 2/3’s-height. This problem I solved fairly quickly after a hang. After continuing to the anchor, I lowered, rested a few minutes, and (finally) redpointed This Ain’t Seaworld absent any additional drama.
With slightly cooler temps, I went back to the first line, and was eventually able to work out the rest of the moves, but I was too worked to link them. I finished off the day with an actual on sight of what I expected to be the crag warmup. Get Your Towels Ready links a series of mini-ledges on the slabby right edge of the fin. It’s a really fun, cerebral 5.11a-ish climb on excellent rock. Unfortunately it’s a bit shorter than the rest of the lines due to the sloping hillside, but it’s still a great outing.
I returned at the end of the week in cooler temperatures, and with a much more realistic attitude. I think approaching a climb with the expectation that it will be (relatively) easy can seriously undermine the process. We should expect routes to be challenging, and we should expect to have to try hard, persevere, and overcome difficulties, while remaining confident that we have the toughness to do so.
This time I was ready to rage. I scraped up the opening boulder—burly thin crimping which I reckon is V11 or so. The rest of the climb is brilliant and engaging, but nowhere near as hard, and I continued with relative ease to complete the FA. The line is reminiscent of White Buffalo (5.13d) at Wild Iris or The Present (5.14a) in the Utah Hills—quite hard for not very long. With the difficulties coming right off the ground, I think it’s more in line with White Buffalo’s 5.13d/V11 head-scratcher grade.
I finished off the day by cruising Nautical-Themed Pashmina Afghan, a mid-5.11 hand crack/arête/hand traverse. This line was the last I bolted and the one I had the least hope for. It’s kinda silly and perhaps contrived, climbing along the left edge of the fin. In many places you could mantle the edge and lay down, or walk easily down the back side and hang out for hours before retracing your steps to finish the “ascent”. Still, if you take it for a warmup and stay on the wall, it’s quite a fun and sustained jug haul. All told I’m really stoked with how the crag turned out, and proud of all the routes. I hope Clear Creekers will enjoy climbing them as much as I did.
[Editor’s note: For route name context, watch this. Warning: NSFW!]
In the aftermath of my first free ascent of Double Stout, prolific new-router Tod Anderson (no relation) posted on Facebook a reminder about the Vixen extension project—a line he bolted circa 2002 but never climbed. Vixen is a 5.11 slab climb on the broad apron that is the left half of the Wall of the 90s. The top of this broad slab is capped by a system of tiered roofs. A pair 5.12s from that era brave the right edge of these roofs, but Tod’s unfinished line offered a much more direct path through the difficulties.
While I was already aware of the project, Tod’s comment compelled me to slide it forward in my lengthy To-Do list. He warned the line may need additional bolts, so during one of my March recon missions I rapped the wall for a closer look. Indeed there was a long runout above the lip of the big roof, from the last lead bolt to the anchor, but the climbing looked much less difficult through this section, and frankly the distance between the bolts was pretty typical of some of the bolder “sport” routes at Smith Rock. The horizontal surfaces of the roofs were dirty—composed of typical sandy Clear Creek schist—but the rest of the stone was excellent. The line would definitely go and I was excited to give it a try.
With the Sharks Fin wrapped up, the Vixen extension was my next priority, so I headed up with my friend Lamont Smith to check it out. Ungodly amounts of spring rain had turned the Vixen slab into a waterfall, but ever-stubborn I devised a circuitous approach to the roof that climbed the first half of Pretty Woman, and then traversed 40 horizontal feet along the top of the slab to avoid most of the water. Once at the roof I was able to figure out the sequences pretty quickly, but there were a surprising number of consecutive, difficult moves. The hard climbing in Clear Creek tends to be bouldery and discontinuous—pump management is rarely a significant factor. This line on the other hand had about 30 sustained moves with no chance to rest, so I wasn’t sure how it would feel on redpoint.
From the top of the slab, the extension begins with a three-foot roof to reach a horizontal seam in the crook of the main, 10-foot ceiling. The crux is turning the lip and getting established on the sparsely featured vertical headwall. Once on the headwall, the line veers left along a diagonaling seam feature, clearing a pair of overlaps to reach a hanging slab and the anchor. The route is “on” from the moment you leave the Vixen slab until you reach a good jug an arm’s length below the anchor.
On my next burn I climbed my hands out to the lip of the big roof, but fell when I stepped my feet onto the roof and failed to control the ensuing swing. I returned several days later with Kate and Amelie to give it another go. The extra rehearsal made a big difference and I was able to methodically work my way out the big roof system. The climbing was quite pumpy, but after the big roof it tends to ease as you progress, keeping the pump manageable to the anchor.
I was really excited to complete the first free ascent of this longstanding project (which I’m dubbing Harlot to go with the Vixen theme). However, I felt slightly unsatisfied by the finish. The roof system includes a third, slanted ceiling that Harlot avoids with a left-wards traverse. I have no problem with the way the line was conceived. Traditionally speaking, a free climb should follow the path of least resistance through an otherwise impregnable wall. Harlot does exactly that.
Still, to a certain extent sport climbing is about going out of our way to find challenges, and while Harlot follows the obvious line of weakness, the potential remained to create a directissima—the line a falling drop of water would follow—by heading straight up at the end to confront the final roof. This eight-foot, slanted eave appeared to have a large jug right at the lip, and it seemed likely there were enough features in the roof itself to reach it. While staring at photos on a rest day I became sufficiently convinced the directissima would go, so I gathered my bolt kit and headed up to add three bolts and an anchor.
After sending Harlot, I got to work on the direct finish. Above the crux middle roof, a tenuous, right-ward traverse leads to a pair of slanted jugs and a strenuous rest just below the final obstacle. There’s a flat 1.5-pad edge in the middle of the last roof, allowing a demanding set up for a wild, spectacular dyno to a perfectly sculpted water pocket jug right at the lip.
By now I had the first two roofs well-dialed, so on my next redpoint attempt I climbed to the lip of the middle roof with relative ease. The rightward traverse was slightly desperate with a solid pump, so I shook out for quite a while at the rest stance just below the finish. Feeling good, I worked my left hand out to the flat edge, pulled my feet up, leaned out as far as I dared to spy my target, and launched for the finishing jug. From this point, 250-feet above the river and 20-something horizontal feet out from the slab, I threw my foot up and pulled onto the big ledge just below the top of Clear Creek’s finest cliff.
I’m really proud of Hellcat. It’s a spectacular line packed with a lot of great, hard moves. I think its up there with Double Stout as one of the best hard lines in Clear Creek. The rock in the first roof is a bit chossy, and the approach pitch is not nearly as good as Double Stout’s, but the business is far less cruxy, making for a line that is overall much more continuous and pumpy. Hellcat is noticeably harder than Harlot, though it’s hard to say how much so after climbing them back-to-back. Though I don’t think the direct finish adds a full letter-grade of difficulty, I’m calling them .14a and .13d respectively, figuring the latter is a bit hard for the grade and the former a bit easy. Time will tell.