A long time ago, in what feels like almost a different life, I was a die-hard surfer. I was fortunate enough to have a father into such a cool sport and lucky enough to have an aunt and uncle who owned a beach house in Ocean City, NJ. The combination proved to be very inspirational in my life. By the age of 10, I had my first surfboard gifted to me on Christmas morning, my dad as excited to give it to me as I was to receive it. Needless to say, I have been hooked ever since. The classic Billabong slogan, “Only a surfer knows the feeling” is very true. I have done a lot of fun things in my life, including rock climbing, but just for the record, there is NOTHING like pulling into a glassy barrel at your local break. Absolutely nothing. Surfing at such a young age is still one of the most memorable and gratifying things I have done in my entire life. I can remember there were days when the weather was beautiful, the swells were up(meaning big waves) and everything was perfect. It was a surfers dream come true. Surfers would often refer to those perfect/dreamy days as “going off”.
Jim Mankovich in the middle of Shelf Road “Going off”
Winter Camping at Shelf Road with views of the crags in the back drop
Shelf Road, located in the western foothills outside of Canon City west of Colorado Springs, can be absolutely dreamy when the rest of the state is buried in snow. Many winter climbing days are spent basking in the warm sun working on your tan. The temps are perfect, the routes are prime and for the most part, just like my former surfing slogan, the days seem to just “Go Off”. Truth be told, for more or less 4 months out of the year, Shelf Road quintessentially “goes off” and it has become my go-to winter crag here in the Centennial State.
This winter has been a very fun and successful one for me down here in the high desert and its only getting started. Coming off my first 5.14 send back in October, my strength and fitness were as high as they have ever been leading up to the start of the winter. I started out the year with some great Shelf Road onsights in the 5.12 range, a feit I always feel proud of given that this climbing area can be not so straight forward and relatively blank, sometimes humbling the strongest of climbers. Getting a 5.12 onsight at Shelf, even if your a 5.14 climber, can be quite a challenge. One wrong move as simple as putting your left hand in a pocket where your right hand needs to be is definitive enough to spoil a first try attempt. Sometimes, even on some easier climbs, reading a sequence for the first time on the fly can be utterly frustrating. Needless to say, first try climbing at Shelf can be a heart breaker.
My dog Mama wondering “What the heck we are doing at this place, AGAIN?”
Despite being a solid onsight climber overall, having done as high as 5.13a on my first try in other areas around the country, I have not done harder than 5.12b at Shelf Road on a first try attempt. This is where second try “sends” become the norm at this beautiful climbing mecca in the heart of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains. It’s pretty common to get on a new route here, climb about half way up, fall on a blank panel of rock, yard back up only to figure out a sequence that works, rehearse the moves til your fingers are shredded and turn purple, then turn around and try to fire it second try. Yup, that sounds about right! It seems as though with most of my sends this winter thus far, this was exactly the case.
Shaking out on the Example 5.13 a/b
The sad thing about Shelf Road is that the climbing never really lived up to the difficulty of the first ascentionist’s dreams. Unlike Smith Rock, which happens to have a plethora of hard routes in the 5.13 an up range, Shelf never fully delivered. There might be a couple dozen 5.12+ routes and maybe only 20 routes that are 5.13a or harder. This is not to say that Shelf Road doesn’t have hard climbing though. The hard routes at Shelf(basically anything 5.12a or harder) can be extremely challenging, especially given that the harder routes tend to be a very old school style of climbing. Over the years, I have tried many of Shelf’s hardest lines, only to find many of the climbs much harder than what the given grade was in the guidebook. If you don’t believe me, try a route like “the Example”, put up by none other than Colin Lantz in 1988 right before the International Sport Climbing Competition at Snowbird, Utah. This route was cutting edge at the time and despite only being given a 5.13a/b grade, the route is super sandbagged.
The guidebook explicitly states, “Undercling like your life depends on it” at the crux
So far this winter, some of my sends have been epic; and others, well, not so epic. I bagged Cure for the Common Crimp (5.13a) on my second try, after coming extremely close to my first true 5.13 onsight. I had no beta whatsoever and came one move away from hiking it first try. It didn’t take much effort to send it on my second go and it felt pretty soft for the grade. Literally the day after, I went and did My Generation(5.12d) on my second go, in what was a full on “balls to the walls” attempt. On my first try of My Generation, I couldn’t even do the boulder problem off the ground. It was really hard and I fell right away not even making it to the first bolt that I had stick clipped. The moves felt desperate and I didn’t think there was any chance of sending on my second try. I worked certain sequences over and over and over til my face turned blue. On my second go, with every bit of fight I had in my body, I stuck the opening boulder problem, feet cutting and my body swinging far away from the wall trying to stick a jug near bolt one. I surprised myself and got through it, only to have the crux of the route coming up next. I think I fought harder on that route than I ever have on a 5.12d! But for the record, that’s how Shelf Road can be. I happily clipped chains on that beast second try.
A week later I returned to the same area, only to send Ejection Generation(5.12c), a linkup of its two classic neighboring routes, very casually on my first burn. It felt extremely easy compared to what I did the week before. It was fairly straight forward and the holds felt like jugs compared to everything else I have been trying at the equivalent grade the weeks prior. Next up was Fossil Future, again the experience being polar opposite of my send on My Generation, which happened to fall in the similar 5.12+ grade range. The day I did Future Fossil, I had a pretty big mileage day. I think I climbed close to 10 routes before giving my first burn to Future Fossil at the very end of the day. I was physically tired and my skin was totally shredded. I only got on it to check it out and maybe come back to it on another trip. To my surprise, I had a little fight left in me and managed to fire it second go. Future Fossil was certainly one of the best routes I have done at Shelf and not one to be missed!
Shelf Road Sunset Circa Winter 2013
Warm days, abundant sunshine, epic camp fires, delicious meals and great people have made this winter at Shelf totally epic. Shelf Road plain and simple has been going off!