Colorado Springs is to technical rock climbing what Huntington Beach is to surfing. Just as the practice of riding on giant swells evolved in southern California, the brave feat of climbing hundreds of feet of rock progressed in technology and technique right here.
Our "big bang" happened during the early 20th century, when Colorado College graduate Albert Ellingwood studied on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford and acquired European climbing techniques and knowledge. Ellingwood returned from his year abroad and began climbing all the crags he could find, from the Garden of the Gods to the South Platte. Along the way, Ellingwood started a climbing tradition in the Garden of the Gods that led to the park becoming, according to lifelong Colorado Springs climber and adventure photographer Stewart Green, "the oldest sport climbing area in the U.S."
And there's a certain respect for that history here. For one thing, free-solo climbers (those who go without ropes) have become legend around these parts; though it's been decades, Green remembers internationally renowned climber and mountaineer Earl Wiggins free-soloing a bunch of Garden of the Gods climbs.
That said, Green isn't looking to further glorify the practice.
"Free-soloing is a good way to die," Green assures. "It doesn't take much for a foothold or a handhold to break."
On that cheery note, here are some superb and classic climbing areas that have all been part of the evolution of the sport of rock climbing right in our own backyard. For info on the routes, consult the guidebooks listed below, which can be found at our local climbing outfitter, Mountain Chalet (mtnchalet.com).
Really local climbing
Garden of the Gods: The Garden is home to both sport and traditional style routes, as well as some bouldering. You'll find everything from mellow 5.7 multi-pitch climbs to powerful 5.12 routes. The Lyons sandstone can be brittle and dangerous, especially after recent rainstorms — stay off when it's wet.
You need to register for a free technical climbing permit at the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center for both Garden climbing and Red Rock Canyon climbing. Get your bouldering fix at the Snake Pit boulders, or climb the many rock faces of the Garden. For a guidebook, turn to Ric Geiman's Garden Guide.
Red Rock Canyon Open Space: This spot features close to a hundred bolted slab and vertical climbs. It's one of the Springs' most recently developed areas, and its abundance of moderate routes make Red Rock Canyon a great place for beginners. The Red Rock Canyon Climber's Alliance works with the city and advocates for safe and low-impact climbing in the park. Guidebook: Red Rock Canyon Open Space: A Rock Climber's Guide by Stewart Green.
Cheyenne Cañon: Climb sport and traditional lines on Pikes Peak granite. This biotitic formation is sometimes reliable and sometimes not. The routes on this rock are sure to please beginner and advanced climbers. Information is hard to come by, but Stewart Green published an extensive mini-guide in Rock and Ice Magazine in 1999 that is available at stewartgreen.com.
Ute Valley Park Boulders: This easily accessible local area sports heaps of fun, powerful bouldering problems that will keep you scratching your head all day and leave your arms feeling drained. Ric Geiman's Garden Guide has some good information on the sandstone boulders, and more detailed descriptions of the bouldering problems can be found at tiny.cc/9jQuW.
Shelf Road: One of the West's great limestone sport climbing areas lies a little over an hour away, where Shelf boasts more than 1,000 routes on clean limestone.
The warm temperatures of Cañon City draw large crowds during the early winter and spring months, and there's overnight camping right near the crags. Shelf has it all and is always tons of fun for both beginners and pros. A good guidebook is Shelf Road Rock: A Complete Climbing Reference by Fred Knapp, Rick Thompson and Rich Aschert.
Eleven Mile Canyon area: Not only can you spend a day fishing in Eleven Mile Canyon State Park, but you can climb some marvelous granite domes in the nearby Elevenmile Canyon Recreation Area. This Forest Service property has mostly granite traditional routes, but also has a handful of sport climbing options.
As in all South Platte areas, the climbs have the potential to throw you. You're also subject to paying $5 for a day pass to Elevenmile, but the money goes to maintaining the land and keeping human impact low. Your guidebook here should be Classic Rock Climbs No. 03 Mueller State Park/Elevenmile Canyon, Colorado by Bob D'Antonio.
Turkey Rocks: Some of Colorado's best granite cracks exist at Turkey Rocks. Located in the South Platte within the Hayman Fire area, Turkey comes with ratings that, like Elevenmile, are "old-school" and can be deceiving. Read up on this area in South Platte Rock by Ken Trout.
Where to learn
There's so much rock to climb in our town it can be overwhelming. Whether you're looking to get into climbing, or you're a regular mountaineer, there's always something to learn about our local rock, ice and snow climbing areas. The following companies can guide you in techniques ranging from the most basic to the frighteningly advanced.
• Front Range Climbing Company, 722 N. 31st St., 473-8349, frontrangeclimbing.com
• Gravity Play, 4955 Northpark Drive, 531-7510, gravityplay.net
• Pikes Peak Alpine School, 10 S. Limit St., 630-3934, pikespeakalpineschool.com
Also, when the weather isn't agreeable, or the office is eating up all of your daylight hours, you can still crush a 5.12 sport climb at one of three of our local climbing gyms (after you fill out the liability waivers). The two CityRock climbing gyms and the Sport Climbing Center offer hundreds of sport climbing routes and bouldering problems for both the novice and you Chris Sharma wannabes.
• CityRock Colorado Springs, 21 N. Nevada Ave., 634-9099, climbingtherock.com
• CityRock Monument, 16240 Old Denver Road, Monument, 481-9099, climbingtherock.com
• Sport Climbing Center, 4650 Northpark Drive, 260-1050, sportclimbcs.com