The Destination of Independence
February 12, 2004
When a climber knows a route inside and out, up and down – to the point where it’s on par with a milk run – “it’s wired,” as the saying goes.It’s hardly a reach, then, to say that Aspen’s Tom Perkins, author of a recently self-published guidebook, “Independence Pass Rock Climbing,” has it all wired around here.Not only is Perkins, 41, one of the top rock climbers in the valley; in the last three years he re-climbed most of the routes on the Pass with friends in order to gather information for the book. Meanwhile, with a grant from the American Safe Climbing Association, Perkins and friends replaced every single old, potentially hazardous bolt and anchor they could find, some dating back to the 1960s. They also established more than 100 new routes, many of which are in the book.But unlike the book, released in mid-June, the new-route project is still very much under way, which makes Perkins one of Aspen’s leading climbing authorities and practitioners.”All you have to do is look at the number of routes he’s been involved with on the first ascent,” said Neal Beidleman of Aspen, a friend and climbing partner of Perkins.”It’s great to see someone with passion like that.”Of the 500-or-so traditional routes, sport routes and boulder problems from Aspen to Twin Lakes – which are detailed with photographs, notes, difficulty ratings, maps and sketches – Perkins reckons he has climbed 400. But that may be a conservative estimate, given that Perkins, a Southern California native who moved to Aspen 17 years ago, is probably climbing another right now.”First I had to hunt down all the routes,” Perkins said, “then I had to do them. And I’m still doing them. But it’s not just climbing anymore – I’ve always got my notebook, my little recorder and my digital camera.”Since the book’s release about a month ago, the Ute Mountaineer in Aspen has sold more than 70 copies to local residents and visitors alike.”We figured 30 copies would last pretty long,” said Brion After, the manager at the Ute. “They didn’t. We sell a lot of local hiking books, but Perkins’ book jumped over everything else. There’s nothing else like it. It’s the book.””Independence Pass Rock Climbing” is an expanded version of Perkins’ two earlier guidebooks: “Independence Pass West” and “Monitor Rock Select,” a guide to the monolithic fixture just east of Twin Lakes. For the new book, Perkins updated photos and maps, researched old guidebooks exhaustively and got word-of-mouth “beta” from fellow climbers to unearth new or forgotten climbing areas. The process culminated with Perkins writing, editing, photographing, designing and publishing the new book. (A printer in Florida actually handled the press duties.)”This is probably the only book you’ll need,” said Perkins, “and that was my goal the whole time. All the way from the design phase, I wanted a book that fits in the little pouch on top of your pack. And I wanted to make it real simple without giving too much away. I didn’t want to hold somebody’s hand and go, `OK, now 25 steps from your car is where you’ll need a No. 1 cam,’ but rather get them to the crags, give them an idea and leave the adventure up to them.”The Ute’s After, an active climber, said the book exposed him to several new climbing spots, a sentiment echoed by Tyler Stableford, editor of Rock & Ice magazine in Carbondale.”Thanks for the heads-up, Tom,” Stableford said with a chuckle.”It opens up a lot of options for top-level and lower-level climbers,” added Dennis Handley, the Ute’s assistant manager.Whereas Perkins’ old guidebooks featured relatively few “easy” climbs in the 5.06 to 5.08 range, now there are many, as well as areas that run up to 5.12 and 5.13, the most difficult routes on the Pass. And Perkins himself, apart from documenting it all, played an active role in that development.He estimates he and friends put up 50 new routes last summer, a figure he’s rapidly approaching this summer. Perkins said the newest routes will probably show up in the book’s next edition (if not first on his Web site, a complement to the book. “It’s all part of the fun,” said Perkins.”The old, old routes, there was just very vague information out there. Maybe I kind of knew where it was, what cliff it was on, but they’re death-defying; they haven’t been climbed in 10 or 15 years and they’re not bolted – they’ve got old pitons that you can pretty much pull out with your hand, and since then the moss has grown back. So a lot of the old climbs in the book, that’s how they started out again.”Most of the old routes were done ground up where somebody walked up and said, `This looks great,’ then they actually placed gear to protect themselves and climbed it. Nowadays, the kind of rock that’s leftover for us to find are things that other people have passed because they’re so `chossy,’ very loose … and there aren’t cracks to really protect it, so you end up having to place bolts to establish protection on the route.”Cleaning new routes to make them safe for climbing, Perkins says, “is probably the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.””We do it late in the evening when we know nobody’s down below, and we’ll have a spotter down there to make sure of it, because literally you could wipe out a serious group of people with some of the stuff that comes down – the size of cars.””A lot of the new stuff in here, people are going to flip over it when they go check it out,” said Perkins. “And we made sure, in the places that we did put new routes up, to include a few routes that are on the easier end of things, so a lot of these areas really developed into nice, well-rounded areas with something for everyone.”But don’t fool yourself, either. Perkins hasn’t given up all his secrets. Not until the second edition, at least.”Highlands is a good analogy for climbing on the Pass,” he said. “The people who ski Highlands know where all the stashes are, not the stuff you see from the lift. It’s the same on the Pass. The majority of climbing is 20 minutes away from the road, and it’s very spread out. So if I go to a place and there’s another group there, I can walk another five minutes to find my own private little spot with 20 or 30 climbs to choose from. And that’s the beauty of it.”Perkins book is also available at Bristlecone Mountain Sports in Basalt, Summit Canyon Mountaineering in Glenwood Springs.