Ever since the Colorado Chautauqua Climbers Club formed in the late 1800’s, people have been climbing and playing in the Flatirons. Long before Floyd and Earl Milliard pioneered the first ascent of the Third Flatiron over a century ago, Native American’s roamed the very land that Chautauqua Park was named after, which houses the three iconic Flatiron’s formations that command a presence over the quaint town of Boulder, Colorado. I first started playing in the Flatirons, mostly hiking and trail running, many years before I even lived in Boulder. At that point in my life, I was living in Vail and focused on skiing. However, I ended up dating a girl from Boulder so when we visited the front range to catch up with her family, the first thing I often did was go straight to Chautauqua Park. Little did I know, that nearly a decade later, the Flatiron’s would literally change my life. This is where the story begins…
There is something magical about climbing in the Flatirons that every climber MUST experience at least once in their lifetime. Truth be told, there is so much rock above the city of Boulder that many people are confused with what the Flatirons climbing area even means. Pop open a guidebook for even a second and you will realize how vast of an area the Flatirons make up. Even with a guidebook in hand, a compass, or even a GPS unit, finding a specific route can be quite an adventure. For many of the Flatirons best routes, it would be easier to locate organic food at a 7 Eleven convenient store in the middle of the California desert. But this is what makes the Flatiron’s so special.
I think its important to make the distinction between the actual Flatirons(there are three of them) and the Flatirons climbing area as a collective. In large part, local climbers refer to the Flatirons, as the climbing anywhere in the hills of Boulder between Flagstaff and Eldorado Canyon. Looking above the city of Boulder as you drive on Broadway south from Baseline Avenue(the main access point of Chautauqua Park), there is an 8 mile stretch of rocks that seem to just fire up into the night sky. There is so much rock for as far as the eye can see, trying to distinguish one rock formation from another is like looking into the ocean and trying to distinguish one grain of salt from another. The climbing is endless. But, what most people don’t realize, is that outside the traditional First, Second and Third Flatiron, lies some of the best sport climbing in the entire world. Sure, romping up one of the iconic Flatirons is amazingly fun in it’s own right, but it’s the routes that can’t be seen, the ones the are hidden in the densly thicketed pine forests, that really make the Flatirons special. If it were not for the bolting moratorium that went into effect in 1989, the Flatirons would surely be up there with some of the most famous sport climbing destinations in the United States.
Every year thousands of climbers from all over the world flock to climb on the sandstone routes of the Red River Gorge in Kentucky and the New River Gorge in West Virginia, arguably the two best sport climbing areas in the United States. But how many people do you see coming out to Colorado to do some sport climbing in the Flatirons? The answer, NONE! Most people that travel to Colorado would rather climb just south of the Flatirons in Eldorado Canyon or if they are a sport climber to make the 3 1/2 hour drive to Rifle Mountain Park on the Western Slope. But, truth be told, most people are simply ignorant when it comes to sport climbing in the Flatirons. For many years, I lived in Boulder and didn’t even know such routes existed. I hiked, trail ran, explored, soloed and romped up so many rocks for so many years that I was unquestionably a hardcore “local”. I lived to climb and spent nearly every second of my free time(which was a lot given that I worked an evening server job), and for so many years I was completely ignorant myself to the gold that was right before my eyes. All I needed was to grab my shovel. Finally, the buzz was out and words of epic sport routes started to surface. I kept hearing the locals talk about this climb and talk about that climb that finally I broke down and had someone show me “the light”. I remember hiking into the Flatirons for the first time to go sport climbing, carrying a full rack of quickdraws, thinking to myself, “What the fuck am I doing here?”. Little did I know, the Flatirons was about to change my life. Now nearly 6 years after ticking many of the routes in neighboring Boulder Canyon and Clear Creek Canyon, the progression and where I needed to go next was obvious. For the lack of quantity of sport routes in the 8 mile stretch of sandstone above the city of Boulder, the quality of sport routes makes up for it. I guess you could say that one of the major drawbacks of the Flatirons sport climbing venue is the lack of moderate routes overall. If you are only climbing 5.10 and 5.11, the number of routes slowly starts to dwindle. But as you start in the 5.12 sector and start working your way up in the grades, the options become much more abundant. Most world class climbing destinations such as the Red River Gorge give routes a 1 to 5 star rating, one being not a great route and 5 star meaning you could drive across the country just to touch the rock on that one single route. If the best of the best areas could award one star higher to a 6 star status, many of the classic sport climbs in the Flatirons would certainly qualify, they are simply that good!
I remember climbing Discipline(5.12b), perhaps one of the first “classic” sport climbs I ever climbed in the Flatirons on a mid winter day, with Boulder as the backdrop. There is a school bus size boulder at the base, making the hangout so surreal. I have joked with friends for years that I’m going to cart a cooler full of beer and a charcoal grill up there and throw a massive party. The hangout alone is worth the near 50 minute approach to get to the crag, not to mention Discipline is a world class route. Crux to start and crux to finish with oh so sweet “fluff” climbing in the middle. The position is out of this world. Sometimes when I climb in the Flatirons, I feel like I’m climbing in the French countryside or some place comparable. Boulder has lots of open space that butts directly up to most of the rock formations. Overall, the beauty of this place makes for a special outing. Directly next to Discipline lies a classic 5.13a called Cornucopia, which was the first rap bolted route in the Flatirons. Surprisingly, I haven’t been back in years to give Cornucopia a shot, there is just too much climbing in the Flatirons and my attention was drawn to other crags.
The Slab off Cragmoor Street is truly a world class sport climbing venue as well. Located in the heart of the Flatirons climbing area lies this gem of a crag, hosting dozens of amazing and high quality sport climbs. Try your hand on routes like the ultra-pumpy and overhanging Superkreem(my first 5.13a I ever sent), Film Noir(5.12c/d) or Prime the Pump(5.12c). Get your bouldering on by roping up on Sookreem(5.13b) or get dynamic with the crux of Undertow(5.12b). There are so many routes at this crag that most would be kept busy for an entire season of hard sport climbing(or multiple seasons). To the 5.12 and 5.13 climber, this one crag is paradise. Just up Fern Canyon Trail from the Slab lies the classic route Supefresh, which is located directly above the popular Fern Canyon forest hiking trail. Superfresh was literally the route that ended bolting without a permit in Flatirons. I have never been up to it since I’m always occupied with the routes at the main wall lower down canyon.
Let’s not forget about the amazing and historical routes on the East Ironing Board above the third Flatiron. The approach to this little “tucked away in the woods” crag is so long and so strenuous that by the time you actually make it to the crag, you feel like you got done running a strenuous 10k mountain race wearing a 30lb pack. If you have the fitness to actually make it up to the crag, you are then confronted by some formidable opponents including Slave to The Rhythm(5.13b) and Honemaster Lombada(5.14a), which is credited as being one of the very first 5.14’s in the entire state. To add to the excitement, there is really no warmup that exists so after doing one of the most tiring approaches, virtually the only option is to warm up on some chossy boulders near the base or to jump straight on hard 5.13b. Yeah, that’s what I thought! But despite this, the hard work pays off quite well. Slave to the Rhythm is one of the coolest routes I have ever done. It is a severely overhanging burlfest, one of the steepest in the Flatirons actually. The route has become so infamous that every hold on the entire route has been named. It has a wicked hard boulder problem to start and a tricky technical heart break crux right before the chains. If you don’t know how to knee bar, good luck on that top crux! There is even a famous much needed lie down(sorta) rest called the bathtub right before the top section. Rumor has it that Colin Lantz had it padded out and would lie in it, using Slave as his warmup while working Honemaster. This may be the best route I have done in the Flatirons. It is sooo good! Honemaster Lombada lying directly to the right is potentially the hardest route in the Flatirons and perhaps one of the toughest in the entire state of Colorado. After Colin Lantz sent in 1991, which was cutting edge at the time, many big name strongman followed suit including Alex Honnold, Chris Weidner and Tommy Caldwell. Originally graded 5.14a, holds have broken recently and it has been confirmed by some other local pros that the route is considerably harder than 5.14a and in its current state, has not likely been done. Come and get it. Booya!
In addition, Dinosaur Rock has become one of the most popular crags in the entire state, so much so, that you often have to wait in line to try your hand at one of the routes. They are extremely popular. North facing and an ideal summer crag because it stays shaded, Dinosaur Rock houses 4 of the best routes in all of the Flatirons, ALL directly next to one another. The Shaft(5.12b), Patience Face(5.12a), Milkbone(5.13a) and Ultrasauraus(5.13a) are some of the most sought after routes in the Boulder area and for a good reason, they are all super long, super pumpy and have cruxes right before the chains. The rock and position is as good as it gets. Dinosaur Rock is hyper classic and deserves a 5 star status amongst the best walls in the nation. If you manage to send all the routes over time, try sending all of them back to back in a single day, a feat my friend Chris Taylor and I did a few years back, dubbing it “Jurassic Park”. Jurassic Park has become a hyper classic test of fitness for all capable adversaries. To date, it is one of my proudest achievements and coolest things I have done on rock.
Dont’ forget Overhang Rock in the heart of Bear Canyon with the Jimmy Surette classic Snake Watching put up in 1989. Snake Watching has to be one of the sickest routes I have ever done. Its 150 feet long(that is not a typo) and often done in a single rope stretching pitch. A very cool and hard boulder problem to start, then about 100 feet of 5.12- crimping to a 5.12c thin and devious red point crux near the top. 5.11 hero jug hauling guards the chains. This has to be one of the longest single pitch routes in the United States, that is a fact. Most standard 60 and 70m ropes will not even get you to the ground after clipping the chains. To make this wall even more impressive, two new 5.13’s were put in over the last few years and are certainly hyper classic as well. Honey Badger(5.13b) and the newest route Oroboros(5.13a) is surely going to get harder as holds break and things clean up. All three routes approach the 40 meter single pitch mark. They are totally rad!
To top off the HUGE list of world class sport routes in the Flatirons area, there is Seal Rock. Seal Rock(which literally looks like a giant Seal from a distance), houses some of the most magnificent and hard sport routes in the front range. Years ago, Primate(5.13b), a deadly trad route which is hard to protect and run out with ground fall potential at the crux, has kept the masses away. To my knowledge, the phenom Matt Samet and Matt Siegel are the only two people to have completed this traditionally protected route. Not to worry though, Seal Rock has been resurrected in recent years and has two of the best sport routes I have ever touched stone on. Choose Life(5.13d), named after the FA parties choice NOT to head point the route with gear, later to be bolted, and Thunder Muscle(5.14a), which climbs a wild tufa feature and has some intensely difficult boulder problems back to back. To add to the excitement, local pro Jonathan Siegrist bolted a new line which was red tagged for quite sometime, before being opened to the public for attempts. I have not been on this route yet, but rumors are its a touch harder than Thunder Muscle, currently the hardest route at Seal Rock. Once sent, this will add yet another world class 5.14 to the Flatirons sport climbing venue.
Along the eight mile stretch of rock between Chautauqua Park and Eldorado Canyon lies some of the best sport climbing in the entire United States. There is truly something magical about the experience around climbing here. There are trails that twist and turn in every direction for as far as the eye can see. The mountains and wilderness that encompass that Flatirons are so vast, that life’s struggles seem to fade away. Eagles soar overhead and other than hearing the occasional “Off Belay” being yelled from another climbing party on one the thousands of traditional routes that surround the area, you really do have the place to yourself. Often times, the long approach in just gets you more and more excited to climb and the hike out often leaves you reminiscing of how great your day was. For me, some of the best climbing experiences of my life have been in the pine forests that make up the Flatirons, a place truly remarkable, a place truly magical, a place I call my home. Damn proud of it too…