Thunder Ridge is a beautiful, but tiny climbing area just West of my home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It is somewhat of a backwater crag these days, frequented by locals who know how good it is, but ignored by most. The rock is impeccable granite – possibly the best quality granite in the entire Rocky Mountains (if not North America?) with extremely fine, tight crystals that make for pleasant and bomber climbing, and its walls are covered with gorgeous brown patina that forms wonderful handholds. Unfortunately, this magnificent rock is concentrated in a very small location in the South Platte region of Colorado. By some geological quirk, Thunder Ridge has this impeccable stone, while most of the South Platte region ranges from fair to horrible granite.
I am one of the lucky ones, living only an hour’s drive from the trailhead. Thunder Ridge was discovered in the late 80s, and most of the routes were developed by the mid-nineties under a shroud of secrecy. It wasn’t in any guidebook, and they wanted it that way. Those who knew about it were sworn to secrecy, amidst fears that the sport climbing masses would descend upon it with their rap bolting tactics and destroy the “traditional” character of the climbing. (The South Platte region of Colorado had long been considered a “traditional” area, with no rap-bolting allowed. Many people felt, and still feel, that it should always be that way.)
The major developers climbed what they could in that time span, and eventually stopped putting in new routes. When all was said and done, hundreds of brilliant routes were established throughout its maze of canyons and walls. The most difficult climbs topped out in the 12+ and 13- range owing to the geology of the rock, such as the cliff angles and hold sizes.
I was extremely lucky to first visit Thunder Ridge in 1998, when I was a cadet at the Air Force Academy. A friend of the “officer in charge” of our climbing club, who was an F-15 fighter pilot living in town happened to be neighbors with Kevin McLaughlin – the driving force behind TR climbing. He knew where the crag was and offered to show it to us. I enjoyed the climbing a lot that day, but I was really too inexperienced to really appreciate what a gem it was as a crag. I never went back until just this past spring.
Last summer Jason Haas published a new guidebook to the area, and he got me fired up to take down some long-standing projects in the South Platte, among them a few lines at Thunder Ridge. We ventured out in April to have a look, and were immediately blown away by the potential for high quality, hard routes. I dusted off my drill and a bunch of stainless steel bolts, and got to work at The Brown Wall – Thunder’s biggest and most dramatic wall. Normally, I would try to climb through the grades at a new area, getting to know the climbing style, and getting a feel for the grading, but I was so psyched on the potential first ascents, that I did very little of that.
The first order of business was a line that had reportedly been tried on toprope and Jason had recommended to me. It was a perfect, vertical swath of granite painted with dark brown patina. If this could be free climbed, it would be absolutely brilliant! I decided I would go along with the tradition of the area and establish these routes in the ground-up style. It was something I hadn’t done in awhile, and I thought it would be fun. So, I piled on the gear and I launched up the wall. First bolt…the threads got stripped while it was pounded into the hole because the rock is so hard (and good). I couldn’t tighten the bolt, and I was going up on lead, so I couldn’t do much about it. I clipped the manky bolt and continued. As I went, I could tell the climbing was going to be awesome, and HARD – my dream come true!
I got three more bolts in, covering most of the crux when my old Hilti battery died…shucks! I still had about 40 feet to go before I could get good gear, and I wanted to do this route now, not wait for another trip! It looked like I could get a marginal piece of gear another ten feet up, so I decided to punch it on some easier climbing. I sketched through this and made it to a point where the face rolled over to a heavily featured slab, covered with crazy “chicken-head” holds. I was able to place plenty of gear, and I cruised to the chains. I lowered down, brushed some holds and rehearsed the crux. At the crux, you have a couple nice handholds formed by a 2″ wide ledge, then a long patch of featureless rock. Higher, there is a rounded seam feature, so I thought I might be able to lock off from the ledge and reach very high to a Gaston in the seam. If I latched it, I would be very stretched out and tenuous, so I needed to work out the foot moves to unwind from this. I discovered a possible sequence and lowered down to go for the free ascent.
On redpoint, the moves turned out to be more challenging than I had first envisioned, and the long reach, that had seemed fairly straightforward on the hang, turned out to be quite hard. My first try, I fell, then rehearsed the sequence again. It was getting late, but I decided to give the route a second redpoint attempt. I fell again! I rehearsed the move yet again, and lowered down again. The third try was the charm, and I was able to get through the crux sequence. I had only managed to get four bolts in, so I had to climb the upper part again with no protection, but I knew the moves fairly well by now. The extra fatigue added some spice, but I made it through, for the first ascent of The Spark. At 5.13c, it was now the hardest route at Thunder Ridge. The name is an allusion to what I hope will be the start of a long love affair with Thunder Ridge climbing.
While working on The Spark, I realized there could be two routes here. The section of stone to the left appeared much easier…maybe a nice 12- route, but further inspection revealed the potential for something much harder. This would be the next order of business. I borrowed a friends brand new Bosch, so this route went in much easier…no hijinx were required to get the bolts in. I enjoyed the lead bolting because it made the puzzle a bit more complicated, even if it sometimes leaves the bolts in weird spots.
The route, which I’m calling “Game of Drones” (for reasons that will soon be revealed) turned out really nice. It’s not as cruxy as The Spark, making for a nice sustained face climb with hard, but not stopper moves that build a nice pump:
After these two successes, I was psyched, and a little obsessed with the power of Thunder Ridge. Jason had turned me on to another potential route, also on the Brown Wall. It was listed in the guide as “Kevin’s Mega Project”, and reported to be quite hard. This would be next on the agenda. Was I up to the task? Stay tuned to find out….