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Climbing Independence Pass

Looking back on a transformative season of rock climbing

Cameron M. Burns
For the Aspen Times Weekly
(James Whaley)

I suspect I’m like most climbers; I never came to know Independence Pass easily.

The climbing routes there are weird, the rock is the worst hodge-podge of granites (there are about four separate types of granite), and the way Indy Pass’s rock has been lain down for practical use is akin to the way M,C.Escher would jot down his two-dimensional landscapes—a confusing and confounding mixture of angles and depths, ridgelines and basements.

Escher was 70 before his bizarre, tangled constructs were fully appreciated in a retrospective exhibit. Independence Pass is going to be waiting far longer than that. Maybe a hundred times longer.



•••

In 1992 I moved to Aspen with my friend Ann Robertson.




I’d seen a weekly edition of the Aspen Times that allowed its authors to write long-form articles on environmental issues and I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do. We moved to town in June, and I set to work digging into environment news the way a vampire avoids garlic.

I talked Ann into dabbling around on Independence Pass. We immediately recognized that the climbing was incredibly small. These weren’t crags. They were mere boulders—some bolted some not—that led the average person to a point high enough above that a fall would smash bones. Ipso facto: it was climbing.

Harvey T. Carter bouldering on Indepencence Pass, 1975. (Aspen Historical Society/Aspen Times Collection)

Independence Pass was never my first choice, even living at its base. The desert called, and there were so many untouched towers to climb. Plus, my best partners at that point were two younger guys from my quasi-native New Mexico: Luke Laeser and Jon Butler. They were based in Grand Junction, so climbing in the desert was the ticket. Independence Pass and its glorified bolted boulder problems—which I couldn’t do anyway—was bunk.

But we lived there. So, Ann and I worked our way through a variety of routes and areas on the Pass, finding nothing wildly interesting in any of our adventures. We did manage to put up one new route, though. Near the Upper Boulderfield on a slanting wall. At the time it was the only route there; now there are quite a few.

Tom Perkins included the route in his first guidebook. I can’t remember what he called it (the route or the book). But he described it as “reachy” and 5.10c. I thought it was 5.8-, but I’ve never climbed enough to be able to grade rock climbing routes.

With the exception of 1989 and 1990, I’ve never climbed more than 12 days per year. I recently realized that fact, and it’s quite remarkable considering the mental space in my empty mental garage the mental sport of climbing has taken up.

Wow. Flipping bizarre. Flipping mental.

•••

A man placing a caribiner into a piton on Weller Rock up Independence Pass, 1965. (Aspen Historical Society/Aspen Illustrated News Collection)

When I heard Carbondale climber Jason Brown was putting together a new guide to Independence Pass last year, I figured I’d get involved—do some actual climbing, that is.

Well, one thing that is always fun when you’re a vastly generic middle-aged white man is to do things with your teenaged daughters, both of whom would rather sit in a Porta-Potty on a hot Grand Junction summer afternoon than spend five minutes with you.

So, I suggested it.

“Zoe, you wanna do a new route with me?” I asked one morning while she was preparing to go and spend a day with her boyfriend, a vastly more balanced chap than her sweet old dad.

“Er, maybe?” she queried.

Her questioning hesitation was a typical response, and through it she was saying: “That sounds okay, Dad, but a lot of your adventures turn out to be horrible slogs up gravelly hills with sharp thorns, falling rocks, and general displeasure.” She was correct.

Regardless of her upcoming pain, she was off to college in the coming weeks, and she agreed to go with her “dear old dad”—the most bogus term ever applied to the useless side of the parental spectrum.

Wandering around the Pass several years prior, I’d seen a cliff that looked beautiful for climbing. It was about 70 feet tall (enough to break bones) and maybe 150 feet wide. It sat back at a nice 85-degree angle, and there were delicate seams and genuine crack systems running up and down it.

And, it boasted the key to Independence Pass climbing in general: the cracks and seams and portions of face were very clean. No debris, no moss, no vegetation. No mess, no fuss. Many of Independence Pass’s routes are in dirt-gathering drainages, hanging gardens of a sort, kept clean by the passage of hands and feet. This crag was clean without a human caress. It was golden.

In mid-August, I took Zoe there and we top-roped then led the most prominent arete. It was a crazy route, with some of the more bizarre body positions I’d been crunched into. Because of the orange color of the route, we called it Orange Street, after the street Prince Buster was born on in Kingston, Jamaica. We also climbed a thin, beautiful crack with delicate moves and named it after one of my colleagues at the Aspen Skiing Company: J-Roy’s Crack.

The next day I went up solo and bolted another couple of lines. I kept going up solo because that was the easiest way to develop routes. Week after week.

In early September, we brought a friend and photographer, James Whaley, up to the crag to photograph Zoe leading something, but she was sick (“Thanks, Dad, for dragging me up here when I’m dying….”). We bailed. A few days later, I brought my younger daughter Mollie, 15, up to the crag, and we bolted another route. She climbed it and I suggested she name it.

And this is when the bottom fell out. I mean really fell out.

•••


“Mollie, what do you wanna name our new route?”

“Can I call it ‘Penis?’”

“Well, yeah, but.… but why, Mollie? That’s an awful route name.”

“Because I can.”

“Really? C’mon. You can do a lot of stuff, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.”

“Well, sure…but no, I think I’m going to stick with ‘Penis.’”

“Jesus Christ, Mollie.”

“”Ha ha ha…” (Endless hysterics. Mollie was always prone to such cacoethes.)

If you’ve ever been a father of young women, you know how annoying, frightening, and just plain off-putting the word “penis” can be. It’s something you pretend doesn’t exist for the first 15 years of their lives, then it becomes a talking point, an instructional moment, and later, something that makes you want to bury your head in a pillow for the next 10 years. When you’re a dad of girls, the word curdles your brain. It’s short, rough (not to mention Germanic sounding), and viscerally awful.

And yet, here we were.

“’Penis,’ really?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

I thought I had a few answers to that question, but I didn’t.

“Okay, okay, okay.”

Hell, I thought, Mollie would rename the entire place Indepenis Pass if she could.

•••


Chris Pattillo came to my rescue. He got me thinking of things other than penises.

Chris was in his late 30s and I worked with him, monkeying about—literally—in the trees at Snowmass Ski Area’s Lost Forest. He was heavily into climbing, and he wasn’t like a lot of the climbing partners I’d had in later life. He was reliable, experienced, and cerebral. Most young climbers I knew were like Slurpees—powerful and short-lived.

On our first day out we climbed a couple of new routes. Just easy-grade stuff—easy if you climb a lot, hard for a guy like me who was likely on his seventh day of climbing for the year.

Then, on a day I was alone, I looked around the corner.

I found a short but aesthetic rock (which honestly reminded me of a tiny El Cap) and top-roped several lines on it with a solo belay system.

One of the great truths about Independence Pass climbing is that there’s always another crag, always something lurking in the woods. There’s always something better. Maybe only by a small amount, but crags are relative, and everything being equal, a new one will always win.

Chris told me about Leavenworth, Wash., where he’s done a lot of climbing, and how a fire there had burned down all the trees and exposed dozens of heretofore unseen granite domes that were subsequently developed for climbing. Independence Pass is a bit like Leavenworth, I thought.

Chris and I bolted a couple of routes on our mini El Cap, and he even returned with his girl Kim Hammond, who led an ugly-looking crack system. As it turned out, the ample moss was bone dry and the nice crack took camming units the way a nice crack does.

“Chris, what do you think about Mollie calling that route ‘Penis?’”

“Well,” he said, “That’s hard. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, but then she’s her own person.”

The damn word was back on the table.

•••


Later in the fall, I pointed out a tower of rock, high—impressively high—above the road and just northwest of the famed Grotto Wall. I showed a photo to Chris. He was in.

On Sept. 12, 2021 we hiked up to the tower, bypassing several small, interesting weird looking crags. We arrived below the tower and realized it was comprised of three separate ribs of granite, each slightly off-set to the right (east) from the lowest one. We clambered up the drainage on the right side of the tallest rib. And, tired, we decided to climb a two-pitch route on the rib’s right side. It was dirty, it was grassy. It was spectacularly short on those characteristics climbers like in a route (clean edges, solid rock, good gear, etc.). But for what it lacked in most qualities it more than made up for in position. The location above the Roaring Fork Valley was spectacular. It was just like flying.

I led the first pitch then plugged in a belay using only cams and a rope tied around a block. The ledge was fabulous. The backside of the Grotto wall was below, as was the Second Grotto Wall, and the Third, the Grottos day use area, Lincoln Creek, Sunset Cliff, Grizzly Peak…we were flying.

Chris came up and took the second lead, a holdless slot off the ledge. He edged his way up and after 20 minutes—and a brief hibernal storm—was on top. It was the best route I’d ever done on Indy Pass but not because of the climbing. I could never recommend the route to any of my climber friends, but probably to my few pilot friends. Zoom.

On top we found a cairn with a shredded dollar bill in it. A local climbing guide and wildlife biologist, Todd Reeves, had written on it: “I am curious who comes here.”

A climber on Weller Rock up Independence Pass, 1965. (Aspen Historical Society/Aspen Illustrated News Collection)

We debated leaving our gear up there for another day, but in the end decided the season was drawing to a close.

Skiing through deep powder snow was beginning to occupy our thoughts, and in the closing weeks of the summer, we were fine with that.

Chris and I hung around and climbed a few more routes in the main area we’d been developing. But the season, the magical September days of clean skies and quickening sunshine, were going fast. We climbed a few more short routes and called it a season.

It had been a good fall, relatively speaking.

Cameron M. Burns is an independent communications consultant, writer, and editor who has been writing about climbing and environmental issues for more than 25 years.

Simi Hamilton bouldering up Independence Pass in July 1999. (Aspen Historical Society/Russell Collection)

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