Asher on Aspen: Beyond the Edge | AspenTimes.com
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Asher on Aspen: Beyond the Edge

Shannon Asher
Asher on Aspen

He pulled over on Independence Pass just past the Grottos at a hidden pull-off point. Stepping out of the truck, I scaled the side of the mountain, closely watching my footing as we parked inches away from the edge of the cliff. It was about 11 a.m. and the sun had just started to wane the brisk, early-morning temps. I was handed a harness, helmet and shoes and without asking any questions, I tucked these items into my backpack and scurried after my friend as he quickly led me up the mountain.

Guiding me was Colter Hinchliffe, an easy-going, friendly 34-year-old who climbs in the summers and skis professionally in the winters. As a total beginner, I was apprehensive about the day, but I knew I was in good hands as Colter has been climbing for 10 years and guiding for the past four summers at Aspen Alpine Guides. He warned me of the strenuous hike that we would have to push through in order to reach our desired climbing location. The hike was steep, and the rocks were loose, but I tried my best to keep up with him. After about 20 minutes, we arrived at Olympic Wall — our climbing destination for the day.

As he showed me how to attach the safety harness and double-check all the knots, he explained how the best time to climb is mid-September through October. Colter climbed up first, with me as the belayer, so that he could set the route. “I think it’s a super safe sport,” he said as he began climbing. “You really push your limits physically and mentally, get stronger and find the edge of your own possibilities.” Just as he started making his way up, two more friends appeared, and I was grateful to have them there to ensure I was belaying him properly.

Once the route was set, it was my turn to climb. And now I had an even bigger audience. We had a group of about eight friends who came to climb with us. One of the girls offered to belay me as Colter ran around the corner to set another route. “If you take a fall, the ropes are there to catch you as long as you have a strong knot, solid protection, and a good partner,” Colter reminded me as he chalked up his hands. It was just the girls when I started climbing and, despite my novice questions and obvious angst, they were all super encouraging.

From the moment I was instructed to start climbing, I was both thrilled and crippled with fear. I purposefully stalled for a moment, and then decided to just go for it. I was about to climb “Fox Trot,” which was considered a 5.8 on the climbing grade scale of difficulty. At first glance, I couldn’t even see the route. Then, as I found one meager foothold, another appeared, and another. Before I could even think about it, I was 40 feet up.

My legs felt shaky as I reached the top. I was instructed to sit back and ease down slowly as I bounced down the rock, eventually touching back down on the ground with a huge smile slapped across my face. My forearms ached with a pain that I had never felt before, but I immediately wanted to go again. We spent the next few hours going back and forth switching partners, and I proceeded to ask Colter way too many questions about the sport.

“I climb because I think it’s safe,” Colter said. “I take all my risks in the wintertime. The danger of skiing is much higher with avalanches and big cliffs. There is no rope to save me when I’m skiing. Stepping into slopes with potentially unstable snowpack is a risk I just can’t manage. Climbing has always been really fun and really safe compared to skiing.”

When it wasn’t my turn, I enjoyed watching other climbers as they overcame the frustrating feeling of not being able to find the next hold. I watched Colter attempt one section of a climb for nearly 20 minutes. He swung his right leg onto a micro-ledge above his hip and reached for a better hold with his left hand. Not enough. He collapsed back into the safety of his harness and rested for a minute before preparing to try again. He looked like Spider-man or a ninja, perhaps a flying monkey — but he definitely didn’t look like a freak. Regardless, I admired the determination.

Discussing the sport of climbing came easy for Colter. He was enamored with the intensity of it all and loved how it pushed him both mentally and physically. He reminded me that it’s just a nice way to enjoy the local culture of Aspen that’s not quite as basic as a night out at Matsuhisa. I agree. In my opinion, climbing beats sushi any day of the week.


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