Climbing Mecca comes at a price
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
RIFLE ” Talk about a bargain.
Rifle Mountain Park cost the city of Rifle a mere $1.25 an acre back in 1910 as part of a federal program offering municipalities the option to buy prized land. In June of that year, the city’s newly obtained property totaled 320 acres. It eventually swelled to a little more than 454 acres.
The purchase agreement included strict stipulations. The city had to keep up with the maintenance and ensure the grounds were always used for recreation, or ownership would revert back to the federal government.
Previously a haven for ice climbing, the canyon didn’t rise to sport climbing prominence until only recently, when the sport-climber invasion began. Climbing routes began popping up through the park in the early 1990s, and word spread like wildfire.
Richard Wright and Mark Tarrant, a Rifle native, are often credited with discovering Rifle Mountain Park’s climbing qualities.
“Mark spent several years in high school in Rifle, and he was actually the one who suggested I go out and take a look,” Wright recalled. “I went out alone and looked through the canyon and there was obviously nothing there (in the form of routes). We went through and looked with a fine-tooth comb.”
Further scouting trips revealed no bolted routes, so Wright and Tarrant went to work on early routes. Disgruntled with the state of climbing in Boulder, and the city’s unwillingness to allow new routes in the Flatirons, Rifle became a new obsession for climbers.
One of the appeals of ice climbing was that bolts weren’t necessary.
Soon, Rifle Mountain Park’s metamorphosis into a world-class sport climbing mecca was complete. Climbers were bolting routes like mad early on, with the total jumping to more than 100 by 1992.
“I think telling people was an objective,” Wright explained. “Colorado has always been one of the best places in the nation to climb, and when Boulder’s City Council shut us down, the idea was to grab a killer place and return some of that edge.”
Kicking off the process, said Wright, was a service to the climbing community.
“Getting it started was an important thing to do,” he said. “What really, really skilled climbers have done is a kick in the pants. You could see the potential. I guess, sooner or later, someone was going to do it.
“It wasn’t some blind, dumb thing where telling people was an accident. The idea was to get (the information) out, so people that were better than us, stronger than us, would put in world-class routes. It wasn’t anything that should be secret.”
The exponential climbing development led to the city of Rifle imposing a bolting ban in the late 1990s.
In 2004, the restriction was lifted, but with certain provisions attached. Climbers wishing to bolt routes have to submit proposals to the city beforehand, and only 20 new routes can go up each year. Ten of those routes have to be below a difficulty rating of 5.12.
“The biggest thing you’d hear is, ‘Man, you have to be good to go to the mountain park,'” said Wayne Edgeton, Rifle’s assistant recreation director. “We wanted to be able to make it more friendly, to have more local people around get introduced to climbing.”
High-difficulty climbing routes are scattered throughout the park, which is how it earned its renowned status. People come from all over the world to take a stab at the park’s top-notch sport climbing.
“The climbers love it,” Edgeton said. “It’s honestly pretty crazy. We’re selling passes to international climbers all the time. They’ll come to the states and make laps. They’ll go to Moab, climb around the state. Most end up doing a tour, and Rifle is one of their stops.”
Maintaining Rifle Mountain Park is no easy task, Edgeton said. Between subsidizing camp hosts, paying seasonal employees and regular maintenance, costs can be as steep as the canyon walls. He says the city actually loses money by having the park.
For the most part, climbers are a considerate, self-policing bunch. Still, with heavy use comes common problems.
“We have the regular campground issues with daily trash,” Edgeton said. “That type of situation.”
Though at times in the past city officials have pushed to free itself from the park and its upkeep, Edgeton insists it’s a pleasure to have the park.
“We’ve accepted it as ours, and it’s a great place to go,” he said. “It’s a great place to climb, and we’ll take the loss to have it.”