“Unforgettable Moments” in Rifle Mountain Park, CO

On Friday Dustyn and I set out from Vail for Rifle Mountain where we had our sights set on some world-class sport climbing routes. That evening we jumped on three different pitches, perplexed by the cryptic rock and incorrect intel from a local. Nevertheless, we put in work that we could build off of over the weekend.

In the morning, we drove out to find cell service so we could get in touch with Oliver and Moon, who would each be driving in to climb with us. Oliver ended up seeing us on the drive and just followed us back to Rifle with his friend Caroline. Moon showed up a little bit later.

‘Peace, Dude’ taken in Rifle Mountain Park

Dustyn and Oliver go way back but hadn’t seen each other in about a year. It was my first time meeting Oliver and Caroline, but we all became fast friends. We got to climbing quickly — trading belays and burns on the rock. On his second attempt at each, Dustyn sent the 5.11s that we were working the night before. Together, Moon and I worked Winter’s End (a great 11b) but neither of us could get it clean. Caroline and Oliver got their stoke high on all sorts of routes, and Oliver even onsighted his first 5.9 on lead.

‘Through the Trees’ taken in Rifle Mountain Park

We broke for lunch, and while we were eating I saw some brook trout in the adjacent stream. Overly enthusiastic, I rushed to grab and set up my fly rod. Moon followed suit. We spent the next couple hours walking up and down the canyon trying to tempt the fish to bite with mild success; Moon caught one, I caught none. My technique for rainbows in Virginia has no carryover out here, it would seem. Meanwhile, Dustyn, Oliver, and Caroline were continuing to put in work on some more pitches.

‘Skull Cave’ taken in Rifle Mountain Park

Dustyn and Moon jumped on Pile Driver in Skull Cave, a super polished 5.11c. I’d wandered around seemingly forever trying to find them, but when I did I caught Dustyn trying hard.

‘Yeah, I Guess I’ll Coil It’ taken in Rifle Mountain Park

At the end of the day, we were all pretty exhausted. We packed up and set out in search of some free camping that Oliver had the beta for. From here on, the evening would only get weirder.

We passed through the canyon, which eventually flattened into national forestry land. As the gravel road grew more precarious, wild forest children waved us onwards with pool noodles. Just as dusk was falling, the road opened up into the meadow we’d been in search of. What we hadn’t anticipated was the army of cows standing guard.

‘Triptych’ taken somewhere outside Rifle Mountain Park

We honked our way through the herd and eventually joined ranks with the other cars at the edge of the field. The standoffish bovines greeted us coldly with wary glances and expressive moos, arranging themselves in a row while they watched us set up camp.

As night settled, the cows seemed to disappear — inaudible and unseen, though traces of them remained scattered all around, much to Caroline’s misfortune and our amusement. Several moments that night I laughed harder than I have in as long as I can remember.

The night became truly surreal when, near midnight, some thrill seekers decided to fire up their ATVs. I counted four, each racing by behind the other across the meadow in a cloud of dust, silhouetting what seemed like a hundred cows in the foreground from the warm radiance of their headlights. There’s never been a moment I regret not having a camera in hand more.

The weirdness continued in the morning when I sat up to find myself face to face with a cow right outside the screen my tent. Wildly uncomfortable, I periscope around to find that our entire camp is surrounded; hungry cows at our dinner table, curious cows by our cars, forest cows in the bordering aspen grove. I cautiously scamper out of my tent and foolishly make eye contact with a bull passing by. It paws the ground viciously with its hoof and lowers its head, eager for a challenge. I avert my gaze and crawl back into my abode, fearing imminent trampling, but manage to survive another hour until everyone else is up and moving.

We reflect on the strangeness of life over breakfast before saying our goodbyes and heading our separate ways. Moon and I would fish a bit more before he left for work, while Oliver and Caroline peaced out for a hike in the Rockies.

‘Hop on Board’ taken in Rifle Mountain Park

My work in Rifle remained undone, however. Eager to get the send on Winter’s End, I convince Dustyn into giving me a catch on a few burns before we leave the canyon.

My first attempt I fall just before clipping the fourth bolt. Determined, I work the sequence a bit and have Dustyn dirt me; each burn would be a redpoint burn.

I rest up and give it another go. I remember my sequence and clip the fourth bolt this time, but realize I don’t have the next sequence as dialed down as I thought. I fall again, work that sequence, and once more get Dustyn to dirt me.

‘Send Train, No Take’ taken in Rifle Mountain Park

Frustrated and possessed, I decide I’ll give it one final burn — promising to walk away afterwards successful or not. I cruise through the crux but dry fire at a jug. Even though I thought I was falling, I manage to readjust and somehow hang on. I work up to and through the fourth bolt, but I’m pumped to the max. I feel like I’m going to fall any moment, but in the meantime decide to just keep climbing — one move at a time. Somehow, I stick enough moves to come out of the overhang and into the slabby finish. Before I know it, I find myself eye to eye with the anchors. Clipped one. Clipped two. Done.

Woke up in Vail, CO.

Slept in Rifle Mountain Park, CO.

83 miles.

“The Eagle Has Landed” in Denver, CO

Breckenridge had been good to me, but onwards I pushed. Dustyn would finally be flying in that night and I needed to be there to pick him up. I coffee shop hopped around Denver for the day, fed myself PBJs out of the back of my car, and witnessed an impromptu live action play right there in Tenn Street Coffee.

‘Route 6’ taken outside Denver

As evening fell, it was time to go fetch my partner in crime. With smiles, a fist bump, and a bro hug we reunited and hit the road together at last. We were officially stoked folk.

A spot to sleep for the night presented itself in the back parking lot of a Cracker Barrel, of all places. A Subaru drove up while we were making dinner and two guys hopped out. Curious, I struck conversation and discovered that Josh and Jesse unbelievably also trekked out here all the way from Virginia. We shared stories for a while, discovered a number of uncanny similarities, and exchanged contact info.

We caught a good night’s sleep and started our exploration early the next day. The coffee shop hop continued and we broke up our work flow with a good skate session. Then we moved westward to catch Moon and start climbing.

Dustyn was quickly enamored with the mountains I had come to call home over the past week and a half. He was as equally floored as I by the rock littered across the landscape in every direction.

‘Last Light’ taken outside Minturn

We went straight to my new favorite bouldering spot: The Klettergarden, arriving just as dusk was falling. Moon showed up soon after.

‘Moon Landing’ taken in The Klettergarden

We showed Dustyn around and told him about the lines we’d been working. As the light continued to fade, the stoke continued to grow. We slipped our climbing shoes on and got to work.

‘Why So Serious’ taken in The Klettergarden

Dustyn was as intrigued as we were by the Colorado rock. More polished and nuanced than that of which we were used to in Virginia, deciphering the beta was a collaborative effort.

‘Heil to the Line’ taken in the Klettergarden

Well-rested from a couple days off, Moon finally sent that uber hard V3. The crux, like several of the problems here, was topping out from a less than ideal sloper perched atop an overhung start.

‘World’s Hardest V3’ taken in The Klettergarden

We moved onwards and upwards to some of the tougher lines, taking turns on a couple V6s called Minturn Mile and Mortal Fingers. Moon had sent Minturn Mile already, but he worked it with Dustyn and I anyway. The top out remains undone, but the other moves were conquered. Super fun line with epic movement.

Mortal Fingers was a puzzle from the start. Dustyn and Moon adopted one set of beta, reaching straight for a crack. I felt stronger trying something different, getting in super close to the rock and making a balancy, open-hipped cross from a gaston to a sloper. The next couple moves went smoothly, more or less, before we got stumped by a reachy dyno. Reps were limited because the dyno catch was one of the rare sharp holds at The Klettergarden. My last attempt was my best; I’d gotten the movement right (thanks to Dustyn’s microbeta) and struck the hold spot on. My grip slipped, but I probably would have stuck it had I been fresh. Dustyn came close, too. Moon dialed it down and stuck it. He’ll put it all together and get the send soon.

‘Whole Lotta Leg’ taken on Minturn Mile in The Klettergarden

It was another successful night, full of hard climbing and lacking in mountain lion attacks. We celebrated with beers back in town and a makeshift late-night snack (cottage cheese, beans, rice, and spices) back at Moon’s place.

Woke up in Breckenridge, CO.

Slept/woke up in Denver, CO.

Sleeping in Vail, CO.

187 miles.

“Foxcatching” in Breckenridge, CO

Tuesday morning I left Vail for Aspen on a curious whim. While naturally and architecturally aesthetic, I didn’t find Aspen very welcoming towards nomads. So after stocking up on some food I called another audible and moved onwards to Breckenridge. Driving through Independence Pass was stunning and exhilarating with its high cliffs and narrow roads.

‘I’d Climb That’ taken outside Aspen

After arriving in Breckenridge, my decision to move on from Aspen was quickly justified. The town was walkable, the parking was free, and the people were friendly.

I wandered around for a while and happened upon The Crown, a small coffee shop with a super rad vibe. But they closed before I could finish my work, so I wandered on over to Starbucks — an establishment I typically prefer not to frequent unless out of preferable options. It turned out to be a good move, though, because the barista with whom I was chatting alerted me to a family of foxes that live behind the building. Eager to try and catch a glimpse, I ran outside with my camera.

‘Fox Shack’ taken in Breckenridge

Not two minutes passed before the first fox lackadaisically walked right in front of me. I wasn’t prepared for that shot, but fortunately they weren’t done scampering around looking for food.

‘Dinner’ taken in Breckenridge

After Starbucks finally closed, I wandered around town in the dark trying to find my car. I took an unlit path and, in some surreal stupor, spotted an unfamiliar canine silhouette in the distance. The eerie shape, lit only by the faint moonlight, stood motionless and stared me down as I continued to approach. But I blinked and it was gone. Another fox, surely.

After an embarrassing amount of time, The White Buffalo was spotted at last. I found a perfect spot to sleep for the night and put myself to bed.

Woke up in Vail, CO.

Sleeping in Breckenridge, CO.

192 miles.

“Bouldering with Mountain Lions” in Vail, CO

After hiking Longs Peak on Saturday I drove Southwest to meet Moon in Vail, where he’s working as a climbing instructor for the summer. We caught up and made some pasta, but I crashed and was asleep on his floor by 8:30 PM — evidently still exhausted from the early morning hike.

I woke up feeling great the next morning, though, eager to get out and do some proper climbing. Since Moon rolled into town a couple weeks ago, he’s been frequenting a bouldering paradise about twenty minutes away called The Klettergarden.

‘Peace’ taken at The Klettergarden

Moon had warned me in advance of “old, rich hippies” who hang out at the boulders for days on end and pester the climbers. We saw no trace of them, but there were loads of other climbers trying to make the most of the beautiful Sunday.

‘New Line’ taken at The Klettergarden

The Klettergarden is a fairly recently developed site, allegedly established just eleven years ago. Colorado rock is unique, too — there are so many tiny features on the rock that each person can have their own distinct beta on a problem. The freshness of the site and abundance of beta options meant there was lots of potential for new lines, so Moon and I collaborated and set a few new problems. We’re super stoked with what we came up with.

‘Try Hard’ taken at The Klettergarden

After climbing for a few hours and beating ourselves up on the rock, we left to see if any fish were biting. The water conditions aren’t great right now; the rivers are high, fast, and unclear. Nevertheless, we scoped out a prime spot that looked like it had promise.

Unfortunately by the time we got down there, another fly fisherman had beaten us to the spot. He ended up catching a decent rainbow trout. We had no such luck but had great fun anyway.

‘Track Walk’ taken in Vail

Desperately hungry from a long but thrilling day, Moon and I went back to town on the hunt for some late night grub. We found ourselves at a cafe bar exclusively filled with people twice our age, but that didn’t stop us from staying until closing time. Our conversation was so great, in fact, we unintentionally lured an eavesdropping woman at the bar into joining us.

The next day I spent mostly working at a coffee shop in town. But come evening it was climbing time again. First we checked out a local indoor wall that surprised us with a couple tough project problems. Once dusk fell, we headed back out to The Klettergarden to do some night bouldering.

‘Layback’ taken at The Klettergarden

We knew the risks of being out at this hour; mountain lions are frequently spotted at these rocks and Moon has even seen their fresh tracks firsthand. But we had a group of four and made plenty of strange noises to keep the cats at bay. An eerie presence followed us around the whole time we were out there, as if we were being watched (and we surely were), but luckily no lion made its presence known.

I jumped on a few projects and made some headway on each. I found the rock here very inspiring, both in its forgivingly smooth touch and its untapped possibilities. Coupled with the surrounding aspen grove and a night sky dense with stars, I easily consider it my favorite outdoor bouldering spot yet.

‘Sloper’ taken at The Klettergarden

Woke up in Vail, CO.

Sleeping in Vail, CO.

Miles unknown.

“Pushing Limits on Longs Peak” in Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s 3 AM and my phone alarm goes off. I’m already wide awake, fueled by nervous excitement. I roll out of my car and get a quick stretch before tapping on the window of Nathan’s van. We’d slept right there at the trailhead so we could be ready to go. We had our sights set on Long’s Peak, the tallest and most difficult 14er in Rocky Mountain National Park.

‘Fire in the Sky’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

We pack our bags. Double check. Triple check. Our bags are heavier than we’d like, filled with water, food, crampons, ice axes, rope, harnesses, and other gear. By the time we finish packing, we have about 2 hours to get above tree line in order to see the sunrise.

Our timing was perfect. The sky was bloody and fiery — the texture and depth of the clouds unlike any sunrise I’d ever witnessed.

‘Pause’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

We pause again to catch our breath and take stock of the morning light, but not for long. We have a long way to go even after tree line and need to keep moving. Now began the trek through the alpine tundra, where no trees offered protection from the ever-strengthening gusts of wind.

‘First Light’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

The path through the tundra alternates between snow and rock. The rock stairs require huge steps that sap the strength in my legs. The snow is a slog, my morale weakening each time I sink up to my thighs.

‘Tundra’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

As we near the peak, the path disappears, giving way to the boulder field. Few hikers take this path; most follow the desolate snowfield around the base of the peak to the Keyhole Route. Nathan and I had different intentions.

‘The Boulder Field’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

Our plan was to summit via the Cable Route on the North Face of Long’s Peak. The Cable Route is directly visible in the photo above directly to the right of Nathan’s head (the more inclined Keyhole Route far to the right). The Cable Route gets its name from a cable that used to be installed up until the 1970s when the rangers decided it conducted lightning too well. The line remains, though, beginning with a technical 5.4 vertical ascent before becoming a class 3 scramble to the summit. We plan to free solo the ascent and then rappel back down.

‘The Chasm’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

But the wind only grows stronger. It takes my hat, sending it hundreds of yards away in the blink of an eye. It knocks us over and we throw our axes into the snow to keep from following my hat down the mountain. At times the wind beats us back, slowing our trek. At times it propels us forward, sending us face-first towards a boulder. We estimate the gusts to be a consistent 30-40 mph, with gale force bursts of 80 mph or above.

Given the conditions, we decide it foolishly suicidal to attempt our free solo of the Cable Route, expecting that the wind would simply blow us right off the North Face.

‘The Diamond’ taken in Rock Mountain National Park

Nevertheless, we reach Chasm View, where our summit climb was supposed to begin. We stand in awe and bear witness to the legendary Diamond of Longs Peak. In an instant, a gust comes from seemingly all directions at once and I collapse into a rock outcropping to keep from being helplessly thrown over the ridge. I remain there for a while out of sheer exhaustion, snacking on granola bars and drinking water to keep altitude sickness at bay.

Nathan proclaims Longs his favorite place on Earth, and I find that I don’t disagree. The brutality of the approach was beyond anything I imagined. Never have I found myself so pushed to my limits. And yet the reward standing here face to face with the Diamond is sweeter than anything I’ve ever tasted. It’s a moment where exaggeration becomes impossible.

We descend in good time, reaching the trailhead before 11 AM. The 11 mile trek took us up and down 4,000 feet of elevation and lasted nearly 8 hours.

We drive back to Estes to fill our bellies at Inkwell, Nathan’s favorite coffee shop in town. After recuperating for a couple hours, we fondly part ways so I can continue my journey. I head now to Vail to see Moon.

Woke up in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Sleeping in Vail, CO.

162 miles.

“Trail Friends” in Rocky Mountain National Park

Nathan, Conrad, and I met up at Glacier Gorge Trailhead to hike Loch and Mills Lakes. I had met Nathan two days before soloing the Second Flatiron and Conrad the night before photographing the sunset at 12,000 feet.

‘Loching the Loch’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

There was some rock on the hike up that I couldn’t help but jump on. Got the first barefoot ascent. Easy stuff – maybe V2.

‘FBA’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park by Nathan

The entire hike was maybe 8 miles. We were trekking at a pretty good pace for the majority of it. Nathan and I had decided the next morning we were going to hike Long’s Peak, so we viewed this as a warm-up run.

‘Perch with a View’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park by Nathan

Conrad brought beers for us to enjoy once we arrived. Made for a pretty great way to enjoy the view.

‘Candid’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park by Nathan

We met a fly fisherman up at Mills. Made me super jealous that I hadn’t thought of bringing my fly rod on the hike. The water wasn’t moving much so I’m not sure the bite was so good anyway.

‘Alpine Cast’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park by Nathan

We met Brady and Joe on the hike up – they were trying their hands at some of the rock, too. Ended up finishing the hike with them. We all got dinner later together.

‘Flare’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park by Nathan

Woke up in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Sleeping in Estes Park.

Miles unknown.

“New Heights, Sublime Sights” in Rocky Mountain National Park

I left Boulder in the morning for Estes Park – about an hour Northwest, nestled in a valley encompassed by mountains taller than any I’ve ever seen. The initial impression I got from Boulder was closely matched by Estes. What Estes lacks in community vibe (it’s more touristy) it makes up for in beauty and access to world-class wilderness. A five minute drive from town put me in the National Park.

‘Noble Light’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

Trail Ridge Road is the main artery circumventing the park, and it also happens to be the highest continuous paved road in the United States, cresting at 12,183 feet. The altitude messed with me a little, but not as much as expected.

Throughout the drive I scrambled more boulder stacks, drove shirtless and barefoot, got a sunburn on my eyes, found a wild hat that I’ll probably never wear, met a skier trying to take advantage of likely the last snow of the season, and got shooed away by a park ranger for watching this moose.

‘Nice Day for a Swim’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

I couldn’t believe how much wildlife I saw on just my first day in the park – three moose, probably a dozen elk, and a marmot that scampered away before I could get a shot of him. The bigger mammals seemed to pay no mind to the humans watching them.

‘Molting’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

After exploring the alpine ranges and subalpine meadows, I left the park to eat and catch up on some work at a local library. Once I’d had my fill of that, I returned to a spot I’d scouted earlier to catch the sunset at 12,000 feet.

‘Dying Sky’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

While watching the sun dip below the horizon, I met Conrad – a student at CU Boulder who frequents the Rockies. As we watched the sky change colors, we shared stories and longings. We exchanged contact info and he left to return to Boulder.

After dropping my phone twenty feet and retrieving it miraculously unscathed, I found myself perched on a rock beside a small boy. I don’t know how old he was, but he was easily one of the most communicative and mature kids I’ve ever spoken to. While he was telling me about his family’s ongoing roadtrip, a stranger took a shot of us on the rock. I never caught his name, but I’ll remember that moment.

‘Small Friends’ taken in Rocky Mountain National Park

I ended up sleeping right there on the mountain. All night long the elk screeched. All night long the wind howled and threatened to blow my car off the ridge. And it was my favorite night yet.

Woke up in Boulder, CO.

Sleeping in Rocky Mountain National Park, CO.

111 miles.

“Did Not Die” in Boulder, CO

Got up at the crack of dawn and rolled out of the Buffalo to get a shot of the first light hitting the Flatirons. Then I shoveled down some cereal and hit the trail. After a short hike to the base of the Second Flatiron, I found what I presumed to be my route: Freeway. Looking up at it from the base was mildly disorienting because I didn’t know what I was looking at. I had beta but no firsthand experience on this rock. Nevertheless, without further ado I began my ascent – rope and harness intentionally left behind. Freeway seemed as good a route as any to break the ice and get my first free solo.

‘Scramblin’ taken on the Second Flatiron (PC: Nathan)

The route of choice was a class 5, six-pitch slab scramble interspersed with sections of 5.3/5.4 climbing because we got off route a couple times. I met Nathan about a third of the way up and we continued our ascent together. I have him to thank for these sick shots of the climb.

‘Summitin Sometin’ taken on the Second Flatiron (PC: Nathan)

I’d been looking forward to a “sketchy” jump about two-thirds of the way up the slab, but we went too far right and missed it. Luckily Nathan had been here before and was able to identify and point out the jump rock from afar. Because I’m helplessly type A and wanted to do the whole route, I went over and jumped the jump. Wasn’t really all it was chalked up to be but at least I can say that I did it.

“The Third Flatiron” taken on the Second Flatiron

We eventually summited and bumped fists to celebrate not dying. After taking stock of the view and chatting with some climbers who finished soon after us, we explored the trailtop a bit before beginning our descent. Nathan is a hardcore trail runner, so it was nice to fly down the mountain with someone who could not only keep up but probably leave me in his dust had he wanted to. We parted ways after bottoming out. Now I’m trying to get him to come up to Estes with me in a couple days.

The fun had only just begun, though. We finished the entire climb before 9 AM, so I still had the whole day ahead of me. After some coffee shop hopping, I went back to my adopted home at Chautauqua and set up a slack line.

I entertained some passers by and slacked off for a few hours, then went back downtown to finish the day at Trident – a coffee shop that stays open later than any other. There I ran into Charles and met Chris, both climbers and slackliners (highliners, actually). Trying to recruit them to come up to Estes, too, and dive into the Rockies with me. Tomorrow I make my next move; we’ll see if anyone is stoked enough to join.

Woke up in Boulder, CO.

Sleeping in Boulder, CO.

Miles unknown.

“Roots” in Boulder, CO

My view after waking up at the Chautauqua trailhead this morning epitomizes why I’m out here doing what I’m doing.

‘Flatirons’ taken in Chautauqua Park

I like it here. I like it here a lot. The food is amazing and impeccably sourced. The coffee shops are abundant. The town itself is clean and well-designed. And best of all, the mountains are right there. The people are absurdly active, intelligent, and friendly — among them, a badass local named Ting Ting who I hope I can be as cool as one day.

‘Commuting’

There are days where I need to buckle down and work, and today was one of those days. And I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic setup to work from. The coffee shop hop enables me to see and interact with Boulder on a more intimate level. I fidget in my seat and repartee with the baristas just like I do back home, and in a small way it kinda makes me feel like I belong here, too. Plus I already know how to get around without directions, park for free, and where to find free food late at night.

Parting thoughts: tap-dancing trumpet players tap dance and play trumpet because they want to. Not because they have to.

Woke up in Boulder, CO.

Sleeping in Boulder, CO.

Miles unknown.