Man vs. Snake

Castlewood Canyon is an anomaly for Colorado rock climbing, located east of the commanding Rocky Mountains, in the plains between Denver and Colorado Springs.

By Rock and Ice | January 27th, 2010


Castlewood Canyon is an anomaly for Colorado rock climbing, located east of the commanding Rocky Mountains, in the plains between Denver and Colorado Springs. Today, about 600 routes—many of them sport climbs—make Castlewood one of the user-friendliest climbing areas in the entire state. And one name can be credited for most of the development: Tom Hanson.

Shortly after moving from Minnesota to Denver in 1982, Hanson began exploring the nearby sport-climbing area of Shelf Road after seeing a mini guide published in Rock and Ice.

“We learned about this new kind of bolt-protected climbing called sport climbing,” he says, “and figured we could do the same thing at Castlewood.” Since then, no single person has logged more hours in the canyon: climbing, bolting and cleaning new routes. From 1982 to 1999 Hanson ran a restaurant kitchen in nearby Wheat Ridge, with a schedule that allowed him to climb during the day and work at night. Some of his favorite lines, he says, were routes that he bolted, but a good friend first redpointed. One such is  Choss Empire (5.13b), FA’d by Josh Heiney and later repeated by Hanson himself.

Castlewood Canyon isn’t all sunshine, however. It’s home to a large population of rattlesnakes, with which Hanson is all too familiar.

Aside from a terrified partner once flinging a rattlesnake onto him with a stick clip, Hanson’s most memorable encounter came in early spring 2006. Hanson was approaching the canyon by down climbing a fifth-class section of cliff that led into a pit when his partner Greg Reeth yelled, “Snake!”

Hanson jumped the last few feet to the floor of the pit, and looked up to see a prairie rattler at the top of the crack he had just descended. A closer examination revealed three more snakes in the crack, and a large mother “as big around as a baseball bat.” He had just dropped into a winter den and rudely awakened its inhabitants.

Hanson looked around desperately for an escape route. He moved over to a section of climbable rock that looked to be a safe way out only to find yet another snake sunning itself in his path.

His partners, Greg Reeth and Ben Panter, stood at the edge of the pit, dumbfounded. “Do you want us to start moving them with sticks?” Panter asked.

Attempting to stay calm, Hanson said no, fearing that if one started rattling it might rouse the others. He spotted a tree branch in reach that might provide an exit. After checking with his partners to see if the branches were safe, Hanson clawed his way out.

Says Hanson, 49, “Hundreds of routes later, I feel that I have a lot invested in the canyon. I live in Castlewood Ranch, less than a mile away, so it’s a convenient place to pull down. I just wish there weren’t so many damned vipers about.”

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