Rifle grabs hold in climbing world

Joelle Milholm
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
A silhouetted Ryan Young makes his way up "Sometimes, Always," a 5.13c route at Rifle Mountain Park, where more than 230 routes lining the canyon walls draw climbers from around the country and the world. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)

RIFLE ” Their demeanor is calm, but their determination is fierce.

Day after day, summer after summer, they face challenges that test their athleticism and their mental strength.

They are rock climbers, and they come to Rifle Mountain Park for those challenges. The park is home to massive limestone rock walls, which, combined with its easy access and huge concentration of difficult sport climbing routes, make it one of the most coveted places to climb in United States, and maybe even the world (see related story in Sports).

“I think people come from all over the world,” Matt Cupal of Park City, Utah, said recently. “In the United States, this has a really high density of really difficult climbs and easy access to it and that brings people from everywhere.”

One really couldn’t ask for a more beautiful setting. The boxy canyon, created by the park’s majestic towering limestone walls, is home to the gently flowing, trout-laced Rifle Creek. Fields with wildflowers including shooting stars, yellow coneflowers and even the red and yellow western columbine, sprinkle color and the high canyon walls keep the park shaded and cool in the summer.

The spectacular canyon at the park’s entrance is 2.5 miles long, with hundreds of climbing routes on both sides of the majority of its red walls. Most serious climbers say they could never grow tired of scaling the park’s rocks.

“I consider this full-body climbing. Some places you go and it’s really fingering. So when your fingers are done, you are done,” said Eric Harrison, a Salt Lake City, Utah resident who’s been climbing for more than 20 years. “But here, it’s not that straightforward. It takes your core. It’s more gymnastic.”

Normally, a climber chooses a project (specific route) or two each trip. If they plan to stay several months, each week might be a different project. Gazing up at the rock as if it were an equation waiting to be solved, they study the route before beginning the ascents. A project can be a trial and error challenge with repeated attempts to master. Climbers have to learn the route, memorize specific moves for each section. Climbers must find and choose their hand and foot holds carefully.

The solution doesn’t come easy, it takes repeated failure before success is achieved. Those challenges are why climbers flock to Rifle Mountain Park.

“You can climb hard in other areas and then come here and it’s almost like you have to start over,” said Christie Whitehill, a climber from Eldorado Springs, Colo. who comes to Rifle almost every weekend with her boyfriend. “In a sense, you are still capable of doing hard things, but we took three weeks off because we had other obligations, and we came back and it’s like “Oh, my God.” We were doing the same climbs and they felt harder.”

When people work on project climbs, it is also called red-pointing. When a climber can arrive at a route and immediately climb to the top without falling, then that is called onsighting. Only the best climbers, like ones on the national climbing teams from around the world, can onsight the hardest routes in Rifle.

“It was really cool watching the Italians when they were here five years ago,” Harrison said. “These guys make a point of trying to onsight very hard rocks. So they come here and they try to prepare for World Cup (a climbing competition founded in 1989) season. It’s a resource. It’s very unique.”

The routes at Rifle Mountain Park, which have grades of difficulty based on the strength and stamina it takes to climb, the moves it requires and the different features of the rock, range from 5.10a – 5.15a. From 5.10 – 5.14b, the range of difficulty increases from a to d before going up a numeral.

“If you go to a typical climbing area, your big climb of the day could be an 11 or a 12a. Here that is like a warm-up lap because there is nothing else,” Whitehill said. “People that come here are pretty strong. And that keeps people coming back.”

Beginning climbers normally don’t visit Rifle Mountain Park because the rock is too difficult. Often, it takes a year or two of serious climbing before people can expect any level of success.

“It took me a long time to get here because I heard how hard it was and I was intimidated,” Whitehill said.