As we flew, crammed together like three adult-sized sardines in my climbing partner’s small plane, gear stacked in every available space, the pale green great plains of northwest Oklahoma and eastern Colorado seemed to stretch forever.
Finally, the foothills of the Rockies appeared on the horizon. Just beyond, a ghostly line of snow-capped mountains shimmered out of the haze.
We wanted to do two principal climbs during our four days in the Boulder area. One was the 1,000-foot Direct East Face route of the First Flatiron. The second was the 400-foot Bastille Crack in Eldorado Canyon.
The Flatirons, a Boulder backdrop icon, are a series of steeply angled, 800- to 1,000-foot sand and conglomerate stone faces with absolutely vertical or concave (free) rappel or multiple rappels off the backside. Their creation dates from the birth of the modem Rockies.
The Flatirons have been climbed by locals for more than 100 years and provide multiple interesting routes for beginning and moderately skilled climbers. While not difficult or technical, their sheer height, lack of available places for belay protection and the long open-air rappel you must take to descend off the back of the Flatirons ensure challenging and enjoyable climbs.
Our second climbing objective, the Bastille Crack, is just inside the entrance to Eldorado Canyon. The canyon has been described not only as Colorado’s most popular and oldest technical climbing area, but along with Yosemite National Park in California and the Shawagunks in New York, one of the premier climbing sites in the United States.
Two U.S. Army climbers made the first ascent of the Bastille Crack in 1954. The Bastille cliff face is actually a buttress protruding from the Eldorado Canyon wall, about 200 feet wide at the base of the cliff face. A constant stream of visitors on foot and cars passes on the narrow unpaved road. Standing just below and looking directly up at the cliff face is like standing at the base of a 40-story stone building.
My longtime climbing partner Harry Woods and I were accompanied by Oklahoma City friend Srin Surapanani. A gifted climber who grew up in Cheyenne, Wyo., he was going to lead our climbs. As the least-skilled and in-shape climber, I would climb second, and Woods would finish. We arrived at the base about midday and were fortunate that no climbers were on the Crack before us.
The Bastille Crack begins about 40 feet up the cliff face. You have to climb huge, thin, sharp-edged flakes of stone until you are even with the beginning of the crack and four feet away across a blank wall. The guide books warn about the numerous ground falls that occur in this transition move. Falling all the way to the ground violates two basic rock climbing safety rules — don’t fall, and if you fall, don’t hit the ground.
Surapanani climbed effortlessly up to and across the lower crux and was soon past the first belay to the second belay point 165 feet above me and hidden from view. Our sole means of communication was three pulls on the rope when he wanted off belay, and three pulls by me when I was ready to climb and wanted a belay.
I pulled three times, felt the rope taken in and began to climb.