Rifle Sucks, Or Does it?

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“Dude, I thought you hate Rifle?”. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked that question this past summer. Truth is, I once hated Rifle with a passion. I thought the rock was total choss. The routes were uninspiring to me. I always thought to myself, “If you want quality limestone, head to Europe!”. If that was not doable, then a quick 7 hour drive from Boulder would get you to Tensleep, which surely had better rock quality than the super crowded cliffs of Rifle. On that note, I always thought Rifle was a total shit show. Baby strollers and cribs at the base of climbs, people spraying beta everywhere to one another, and routes that seemed impossible to send despite being solid at the grade, were just a few things I hated about this place.

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Many years ago ascent of Pinch Fest

In past years, I frequented Rifle a few times every spring and fall and always thought the exact same thing. “This crag sucks!”, I told myself. I can remember getting on routes for the first time and getting a total beat down, sometimes, even on the so called  “warmups”. I could truly not understand for the life of me what people saw in this place. I have heard numerous people compare the climbing in Rifle Mountain Park to that of the famous Red River Gorge, arguably the best sport climbing venue in North America. This comparison always made me snicker. Having not climbed in Rifle for a few seasons, I went on one single weekend trip during the summer of 2015. I vividly remembered getting on a 5.12b called Lost and Found on the right side of the Meat Wall like it was yesterday. Fresh off sending some 5.13+’s, the hardest I had climbed at that point, I thought I was going to crush Lost and Found. On my onsight attempt, I managed to fight through some difficult sections and make it all the way the top, as in, I was at the anchors. Having not climbed much at Rifle and especially not accustomed to the awkward and preplexing style, I found myself nothing short of being pumped out of my freaking mind, a term I like to call “stupid pumped”. Fiddling with my feet amidst my arms melting in fatigue, I grabbed some rope to make a quick clip of the chains. Guess what happened next? Yup, that’s right, I punted off the top like a red headed step-child. No pun intended. I walked over to my climbing pack, tore off my harness and nearly wanted to cry. “I hate this fucking place”, I muttered soft enough that no one could hear my words.

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. I was eagerly planning my summer and where I wanted to focus my energy. Rather than climb at my physical limit, which for me now requires freezing cold temps, the summer is as good time as any to step down and tick a bunch of 5.12’s and 5.13’s that I hadn’t already done. Problem was, in the front range, I had done just about all of them. Any route I deemed worth doing in Boulder Canyon, Clear Creek Canyon and the Flatirons, I had already ticked. Given that I didn’t want to climb harder than 13a as the temps skyrocketed in June and July, I got it in my head that I was going to try something different this year. That something “different”, turned out to be Rifle.

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Uli Fernandez on The Crew, Wicked Cave/ Vian Charbonneau Media

One of the first things I had to do, making the decision to spend a summer rock climbing in Rifle, was to let go of my ego. Since I hadn’t climbed much in this style and SENT not a single route past what is usually a warmup for me, I decided to give this place one last shot. I would not get frustrated and I would not get annoyed. I was determined to not have freak outs trying to send routes that I can usually do first go at literally any other crag in the U.S. “Dude, I thought you hated Rifle” barked my friends from the front range who were not use to seeing me in the canyon. Climbing hard routes for me is all about personal growth and for the summer of 2016, deciding for the very first time in my entire climbing career, to spend ample time at Rifle, turned out to be a very memorable summer and quite the learning experience.

My route philosophy has always been the same and an attribute I think has positively influenced me as a climber.  I have always loved the feeling of being crushed in the beginning phases of a project, only to later find success. We all know that feeling when magic happens at the crag and you “hike” your project with relative ease. It is that feeling, for me, and probably for ALL of us, that keeps us coming back for more. So if I liked that feeling of failure, which ultimately would change to success, why did I have such a problem with failing at Rifle? The answer is ego.

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From the start of the summer, my only goal was to climb at Rifle and learn from the experience. Now that warm weather is long gone, and I sit here at my kitchen table typing this, with snow outside, it’s grey and miserable, I reflect on my past summer in Rifle and it undeniably does nothing but make me smile. I was truly blown away by the quality of the climbing, length of most rock climbs and the sheer volume of difficult routes the canyon housed. To add to all this, and honestly what surprised me the most, were the people of Rifle. Many of the climbers on any given weekend in the summer, were the same people I saw ALL summer. Many of these climbers, regardless of where they were from, would come to Rifle year after year, summer after summer. In many cases, I found climbers would literally not climb anywhere else BUT Rifle during the summer months.

Overall, the locals and weekend regulars were very welcoming. I found myself exchanging beta with dozens if not hundreds of climbers over the course of the summer. Sometimes it was me giving beta to a climber who hadn’t been on the route that I just did or more likely it was another climber(a complete stranger) screaming over to me to clip from one hold higher or telling me that I was missing a critical “knee bar”. The beta was welcome and proved to be quite useful, in many cases shaving countless burns off the back end by simply allowing me to have one more trick up my sleeve.

I was also pleasantly surprised with the weather in Rifle Mountain Park during the summer months. Whether a climber wanted sun or shade, depending on what time of day it was, was easily accommodated by simply moving around in the canyon from one side to the other. Often times I would find myself warming up in the sun at Ruckman Cave, then heading over to the Project wall in the middle of the day when it started to get hot. In the evening, when the south side of the canyon was again back in the shade, I would head over to the Arsenal or the Anti-Phil. During the hottest days of summer, taking a dip in the creek running through canyon made things quite pleasant. This same creek, acting as a refrigerator unit throughout the canyon, kept things strangely cool despite ambient temperatures soaring well into the 90’s. Bottom line, you can find pleasant conditions at virtually any time of day, any day of the week in any month of the summer. If it gets too hot for your project, you can simply head to the shade to try and onsight a route you haven’t been on, or grab a cold one from the cooler which is conveniently located a short walk from your car.

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Andrey Shprengel doing some “standard” block pinching at Rifle

Simply “hanging out” in Rifle on any given day, is part of the life here, reminiscent of the slower pace that accompanies traveling to many areas in and around Europe. People are not in a rush to get anywhere(well maybe getting their warmup on before the masses show up to do the same thing), or taking a much needed break to rest their tired and weary bodies. Climbing at Rifle is physical to say the least, so taking an hour or more between burns is mandatory for most climbers. Despite the common Rifle climber really getting after it, on any given day there are a lot of people just hanging out, either waiting for cooler temps or taking a long break before their next burn. And lets not forget the Rifle mid-day siesta, where people can be seen sipping a frosty cold one in just about every local in the canyon. Its not uncommon, on a scorching hot summer day, to see people drinking a beer under a shady tree, laying in a hammock or sitting on the tailgate of their pickup truck in one of the dozen parking lots. Needless to say, the “downtime” at Rifle is unlike anything I have seen at any other climbing area in the United States. And even after the lazy lunch or beer break, most people can be seen a few hours later back at it, on their projects or cooling down at the end of a long day on a route they have wired. Quite frankly, this is what makes Rifle awesome!

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Hanging out between burns with the crew

Similar to that feeling of a route seeming impossible at first and then ultimately it coming together for an eventual send, I found my mindset from the start of the summer til the end very much the same towards climbing in Rifle. At the start of the summer, I literally hated Rifle with every ounce of energy I had. I was asking myself on a weekly basis why I was going to waste another weekend in such a place.

My first couple weekends camping in the canyon were quite tough. I didn’t know anyone and every time I showed up in the canyon the camping was already full, sometimes even by Thursday night. By the end of the summer that had drastically changed. Not the actual busyness but the routine. Before I even left my house in Boulder for a weekend in Rifle, I often had multiple text messages from various people letting me know that they had already grabbed a site. I even showed up late Friday one weekend in the midst of the busy summer season only to find all the campsites full and a GIANT Hispanic church group engulfing the entire group site, partying hard like it was Cinco De Mayo, in the middle of July. WTF! There had to be 100 people in the group campsite, yapping little shit dogs everywhere, campers lined up like it was an RV show in South Florida, and blasting Mexican music like I was at a Ricky Martin Concert, only the music was far worse. Guess what? I still managed to find camping. Granted it was the “overflow”sites and what seemed to be the only spot left in the canyon to pitch my tent. The chaos of that night quickly fades into my memory when I start thinking about all the dark, cold, and starry nights I spent in Rifle last summer, far more good than bad and overall a really fun camping experience.

On the actual climbing realm, I had a similar experience. My first weekends in the park were filled with doubt. I had no idea what to get on. Grades seemed confusing and all over the place. Every single route felt really hard, even at levels I usually can do first go. As time went on, I didn’t much care. I was finally enjoying myself! My years of climbing experience ultimately bled through and I started to find myself dropping routes like a fly swatter dropping an insect. BUT this is not to say that a few routes took WAY more burns than they should have taken, for instance, the route In Your Face 5.12d at Ruckman Cave. Despite having ticked short burly routes all over the country and have done dozens of 5.12d’s onsight or flash at major crags all over America, I just kept falling at the crux over and over and over. I think it became comical. Overall, that was a memorable one, not necessarily because of the quality but because of the amount of burns it took me to send. I have done several 5.13c’s faster than it took me to send that route. But in the end, much like the rest of the routes I have done, before my feet even touched the ground, I was already thinking about what was next?

By August, I would say my persistence and patience paid off as well my complete mindset on how I viewed this place. Throughout the summer, I climbed an incredible amount of awesome rock climbs, many of which were the same I thought were a total choss pile of confusion just a few years back; really just a few months back! Overall I had an amazing time learning the canyon and got to meet a lot of great people. I spent years hating on Rifle and not fully understanding what all the fuss was about. Now I knew. On my final weekend, with not a single person in the Arsenal(“Oh the Arsenal is too crowded whine the masses!”), I managed to hike the ultra-classic Pump-O-Rama like it was my job. I tied in, in utter silence, only to my breath, and started up the long, pumpy and overhanging 80 foot route right up the center of the cave. The sweat poured down my face as my arms melted in fatigue. Jug after jug, knee bar after knee bar, I inched my way up this all time classic endurance route. When I managed to the get to the top and clip chains in relatively quick fashion(this is Rifle after all), I thought to myself one simple thing.

“Damn, this place is fun!”…

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Fighting the pump on Pump-O-Rama
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