A hotbed for underground talents and colorful characters, Durango, Colorado, continues to yield fine crags and cutting-edge boulder fields.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 215 (January 2014).
“I got a rat bite.
So don’t let me bounce too much.”
Jimmy Symans’ squinting blue eyes met my gaze. We were standing above the Florida River in the narrow box canyon upstream from Lemon Dam near Durango, Colorado.
“I got a rat bite and I can see a little white. So don’t let me bounce too much.”
“In the rope, man!”
He pointed to the rope hanging over a line of shiny new bolts. I looked closely and there it was: A thread of the rope’s white core bulged from the black sheath like a frog trying to fight its way out of a king-snake’s belly. Jimmy threaded the end of the rope through a worn harness and pulled on his climbing shoes. He rolled up the pant legs of his thick workman’s Dickies and stepped onto the rock.
“Keep me tight,” he muttered.
Oh shit …
In a strange twist of fate, Durango became my home because of a climbing-magazine article. As a Mississippi boy living in the alpine wonderland of Ouray, Colorado, I had stuck out like a cat in a dogfight. But after reading the magazine article “Durango Days” by Jeff Jackson, I knew where I’d rather be. Jackson described a sunny Southwestern town with a “peaceful vibe” that was also endowed with some of the finest little-known rock climbing in the state. I couldn’t resist, and eventually drove south on the Million Dollar Highway, my four-door Honda Accord stuffed with guitars, clothes and climbing gear. As I crested Red Mountain Pass, I thought little about the friends I was leaving behind in Ouray. Honestly, all I could think about was the bullet rock I’d seen and read about in that article.
What I soon found in Durango was a climbing scene alive with colorful characters, and enough rock to keep me busy until my hair turned gray. Although never considered a rock-climbing “destination,” Durango had long served as a hotbed for underground talents that thrive in relative seclusion. Perhaps its major characteristic is that new routes, boulders and entire areas have continued to sprout like wildflowers in a neglected garden.
The last time I ran into Jimmy he was alone, crouched in the gravel parking lot of Lemon Dam’s east-side entrance, washing his breakfast skillet. Afroman pumped from his truck’s speakers, vibrating a freshly cracked PBR can balanced on the tailgate.
I wasn’t surprised to see Jimmy. This weathered rock junkie has been climbing at Durango’s crags and boulder fields for more than 20 years. Today, rumor has it that he lives completely off the grid in a solar-paneled trailer-camper near the Rio Grande basalt gorge in Taos, New Mexico. But on that morning in the spring of 2012, he was in Durango, doing exactly what I imagine he does in that basalt gorge near Taos—drinking beer and bolting rock climbs.
Jimmy excitedly mentioned two recent additions to Lemon’s East Side walls.
“One’s called Grendel. A nice 11+,” he said, a smile breaking across his lined and tawny face. “But the one I’m trying to finish up is a bouldery little 5.13. I’m gonna call it Beowulf ’cause it’s fucking powerful.”
I was stunned to hear about new routes on Lemon’s East Side. It had been nearly a decade since Symans, Mike Shepherd and other Durango pioneers first plucked lines from Lemon’s cliffs, yet pitches were still going up in the canyon. I offered Jimmy a catch on his project and then my partner, Lily Stroud, and I walked through the parking lot and onto a climber’s trail that weaves through a mix of pine and aspen trees for roughly 20 minutes, ending in the gullet of a granite canyon.
The walls of Lemon sit high in the San Juan Mountains and are a 20-minute drive north of Durango on Florida road. The Florida (pronounced Flo-ree-da) River tumbles through boulders, creating large pools that divide the canyon into opposing cliffs—the East and West Sides.
Routes here are a recent addition to Durango’s climbing circuit. In 2002, locals including Symans, Shepherd and Brady Johnson began exploring the canyon for bouldering, but instead found a wealth of undeveloped cragging. “Jeff Jackson said there was some bouldering in Lemon so we went out there,” Shepherd says today. “We were looking at the cliffs and thought they were kind of chossy, but Jimmy eventually rapped off and told us it was really good.”
Once Symans vouched for the cliffs’ quality, Shepherd knew they were onto something. “Jimmy has the eye for development,” he says. “He sees things in routes that a lot of people can’t see.”
Shepherd, Johnson and Symans immediately bolted new routes at Lemon. “Brady bolted Space Odyssey (5.12b) with a hand drill,” Shepherd says, laughing. “And it was the first route he had ever bolted!” Space Odyssey is one of the highest-quality routes in the canyon, a 16-bolt tour through the East Side’s tallest section. Just left of Space Odyssey is Shepherd’s own Holy Grail (5.11d), a 125-foot line of striped granite that he bolted in 2003. As the name implies, Holy Grail is one of the finest climbs in the area.
In typical Durango fashion, Shepherd and crew kept Lemon to themselves for nearly two years before spilling the beans. “Basically we finally told people,” Shepherd says, “because we wanted them to come out and spend the money [to buy bolts] and help us develop the place.”
Lemon’s cliffs have now blossomed into a popular sport-climbing destination with over 30 routes. At an elevation of 8,400 feet, the setting stays cool during the Southwestern summer and the varied grades appeal to a broad range of climbers.
Thankfully, Jimmy’s rat-gnawed rope didn’t break. Unfortunately, he was so psyched on his “one-hang” of the route that he demanded I, too, toprope it.
“You gotta try it, man,” he begged. “Just check it out.”
I had noticed Jimmy’s pile of PBR cans lying next to his pack. It was barely 10 a.m. and I was more than a little apprehensive about tying in to a core-shot rope only to be belayed by someone three sheets to the wind. Yet Jimmy’s route looked damn good.
I tied in and readied myself for the hard crimping, determined to hold on with everything I had—since I was truly scared to fall. But just as I stepped on the rock, Jimmy stopped me.
“Oh, wait, I forgot. Here,” he said, pulling a six-inch piece of red webbing from his pocket. “Do me a favor. Just one time around the first bolt.”
I held the webbing, again confused.
“But tie it high on the hanger so it’s out of the way of a draw,” he said.
Oh. A red tag … to make sure no one snags his project.
I tied the webbing to a gear loop on my harness, but just as I began to climb, Jimmy once again interrupted.
“Oh, and mind the rat bite.”
You can’t write about Durango climbing without mentioning Sailing Hawks. Well, actually, that’s exactly what Jeff Jackson did in “Durango Days.” What he wrote about instead was an area called TSS (The Secret Spot), which he described as a truly world-class boulder field. TSS was the main reason I moved to Durango. I had to find those boulders despite the fact that, apparently, the access was very sensitive—hence the secrecy.
But within a few weeks of Durango living, I was bouldering with friends at an area right off 25th Street called Sailing Hawks, and my searching subsided. Sailing Hawks was good enough! But then, on an exploratory hike through the “Hawks” during one spring afternoon, I stumbled upon the boulder that had permeated my thoughts long after I saw that picture in “Durango Days.” I knew the caption by heart: The author moves in to spot Jimmy Symans attempting Legacy of the Kid (V9), one of the hardest problems at “The Secret Spot.” Wait a minute … I had already found my dream destination. In fact, I had been bouldering there for days!
It turned out that in 2005, three years after Jackson’s article appeared, the city of Durango had actually purchased TSS—which sits on the western flanks of the pine-forested Animas Mountain—creating an Open Space area named Dalla Mountain Park. However, locals refer to the area by the name developers gave to an adjacent proposed subdivision: Sailing Hawks.
The day I found Legacy of the Kid, my dream-like visions collided with reality and I realized I had to try and climb that boulder. The trouble was, I could barely pull off the ground.
It was during an early beat-down session with Legacy that I heard the first of many John Duran tales. I remembered his name from the article, which described Duran as an elusive Native American “ninja” who had basically climbed every problem, including Legacy of the Kid, in the Hawks. “Don’t claim a first ascent at TSS,” wrote Jackson. “Duran has done them all.”
“Dude, I saw Duran once,” my friend “Gentle” Ben Griffin said. “He walked up here and hiked Legacy barefoot. It was crazy, man.”
I couldn’t even wrap my head around how anybody could climb this sharp and powerful V9 without the aid of super-aggressive, downturned bouldering shoes—much less no shoes at all.
“Dude, it’s true,” Ben insisted. “He’s the ‘Kid.’”
In encounters like the one with Ben, Duran’s legend grew, but I still wondered about that barefoot ascent.
While compiling this article, I decided to contact Duran through Facebook. As I typed his name in the search box, the predictive software brought up a John E. Duran, yet the city listed was Wuhan, China. I studied the profile picture, which showed a handsome dark-skinned man, jet-black hair parted in the middle and hanging just above a pair of opaque, deep-set eyes. It had to be him. I hesitantly typed a message asking about his barefoot ascent, half expecting never to hear a reply, but within a few days Duran wrote back.
“I used to climb nearly all my problems barefoot and I still do on occasion,” he wrote. “It just seems so Dresden in nature”—a reference to the East German Bernd Arnold’s barefoot ascents in the Elbsandstein—“and it can be very special to chalk up your feet and hands and set off for the top.”
Unable to resist, I also geeked out and asked Duran if he is “the Kid,” as in Legacy of the Kid, to which he cosmically replied: “I don’t know who named it that. I think it was a convenient coinage of the old movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I don’t think that we even named it at all and it’s just another version of the Gray Truth of what really happened, and where it happened, who happened to be there and how it happened or did not happen.”
Interested in hearing more about the origins of Sailing Hawks and Duran’s own climbing tales, I began corresponding with him via e-mail. It turned out that Duran is now a world-traveling Montessori kindergarten teacher, currently working in China. He is 52 and his passion for climbing is still as strong as ever.
“Here in China, there is so much new and undeveloped limestone that we are busy cleaning and drilling routes,” he wrote.
Duran grew up with an eclectic Native American heritage comprised of Ute, Navajo and Taos Pueblo. At just 8 years old, while living in Shiprock, New Mexico, he soloed a 5.6 dirt groove with “seductive stone” embedded in its matrix. After that first taste of climbing, Duran continued soloing steep shale escarpments near his home. He would also pound re-bar into the loose stone for anchors and rappel with a cotton rope.
When he was a junior in high school, his family packed up and moved to Ignacio, Colorado, which put him within striking distance of Durango.
“I began formal climbing with equipment around 1976 at X-Rock,” Duran wrote, referring to a beginner’s crag of Navajo sandstone on the north edge of town. “We would hitchhike in every weekend.”
Eventually Duran was making the 60-mile round-trip to Durango by bicycle and establishing a wealth of Durango’s climbing.
Of the early days of exploring Sailing Hawks, he wrote: “We bushwhacked directly up the hill from the Junction Creek trailer lot and explored many of the boulders. The most memorable was the Euro Boulder. We could barely get off the ground on anything and the traverse was futuristic, as was everything else we saw.”
Duran’s futuristic traverse eventually became The Sacred Traverse—a beautiful problem with a 5.13b/c grade that crosses the belly of the 40-foot-tall Euro Boulder’s west face for roughly 70 feet—or continues around the corner to the boulder’s north face for the full Golden Arms Traverse (5.14a). Duran said that he climbed The Sacred Traverse in 1982 and the Golden Arms in 1997, and again he confirmed what I had been sure was another tall tale. “I would climb The Sacred barefoot all the time, too.”
The tall problems rising to the top of the Euro Boulder are among the most impressive lines at Sailing Hawks. With grades up to V10—given to The Duran Problem, which climbs the knee-buckling west face’s center prow—these proud lines are just another part of Duran’s astounding legacy. Duran said he approached many of these climbs as solos, “with no pads,” and that he finally climbed the V10 prow in 2007, after years of work.
The Euro Boulder is just one of over 50 pocket-spattered, steep and bullet Dakota sandstone blocks at Sailing Hawks, which is why the area has always been the epicenter of Durango climbing. With a 15-minute walk uphill, Durangutangs can quickly leave the “busy” town behind and escape to a pine-forested bouldering labyrinth. Two major single-track trail systems, dubbed the Upper and Lower Trails, split the forest and a person can walk for roughly a mile on each, confronting new boulders every five to 10 minutes. Problems range from juggy V0s to crimpy V8s, with a few harder sleeping giants such as Legacy of the Kid hiding in the forest.
Duran’s lines now have the company of some new-school problems such as infamous “V8s” like Global Warming, established by the soft-spoken “beast from the east” Cory Arellano, or the ballistic Al Montana (V12), put up by the charismatic Sam Redman, who now prefers to make music instead of climb. Standout problems put up by Jared Ogden, one of Durango’s most accomplished climbers and a world famous alpinist, include the sharp and orange-hued Ellen’s Arete (V8), named after his daughter, or the slopey Lorax (V7), lying near the outskirts of the Hawks.
But Duran’s legend still reigns supreme. To me the myth hangs in the air like a spirit. Though sometimes, while on holidays from teaching, he travels back to visit the boulders in person, and the sightings are reverentially reported, as if the observer had seen an actual ghost.
Rumors spread. There was a new cluster of beautiful boulders near Durango, but nobody I talked to knew where they were! Videos began to surface online depicting a burly dude squeezing his way up sandstone ships’ prows, sloper rails and desperate-looking highball slabs. The videos would list the areas as “Southwest Colorado” and the bald, bearded climber was Chris Schulte, another Durango heavyweight. We knew the blocks had to be close … so we searched.
Eventually my friends and I began finding Schulte’s lines hidden among the scrub oak off Lightner Creek road, roughly five miles west of Durango. Climbing problems we had seen in videos such as Airbus (V10) or the technical Sloop (V9) felt like finding a pirate’s buried treasure. The more treasure we found, the more respect we gained for the pirate.
I had never met Schulte, but his boulder problems in the Durango area were formidable. The blunt prow of Agent Orange (V12) at Sailing Hawks is arguably the Hawks’ hardest line, and the full sit-start to The Fin (V11) at Turtle Lake remains a testpiece for the Durango elite. In fact, pretty much every bouldering area we visited housed a chalked-up marvel. If we weren’t sure who actually established the problem, we’d shrug and say, “Schulte, probably.”
During a recent trip to Durango to meet Schulte for a tour of his favorite bouldering areas, I confirmed our guesses. If there is a highball prow or sloper problem that looks pretty much impossible, Schulte has climbed it.
Just before I drove down for the tour, Schulte’s Facebook status caught my attention. “Sent the Durango projetto! Huzzah!” Accompanying the post was a picture of Schulte climbing another hold-less sandstone arête, the features barely there. I immediately texted him for info.
Dude! Where is that new problem?
He laconically replied, You’ll see:)
A few days later I was hiking through the brush around Lightner Creek. Schulte led the way, describing the blocks like an artist showing off his oeuvre. Although the setting seemed a bit rugged compared to more developed areas such as Sailing Hawks, Lightner Creek represents the raw beauty of potential. Schulte casually lumbered through the faint trail and arrived at one of his masterpieces.
“Holy shit! What is this?” I asked, fondling what seemed to be manageable holds.
“That’s the hardest problem in Durango,” he deadpanned.
Only then did I notice that the problem had no footholds.
“We called it the Impossible Face forever,” Schulte added. “It was a 10-year project.”
Schulte became animated as he pantomimed the moves to what he eventually named Yonder Goes the Light. “The stand-start went first at V9,” he said. “I eventually added the sit three or four years ago. It could be V13 … or harder.” Schulte went on to say that he “grew as a climber” more on this hunk of sandstone than on any other boulder problem he ever climbed, which says a lot considering that this winter he became the first American to climb The Big Island (V15) in Fontainebleau, France.
“Lightner Creek was a great find,” Schulte told me. “I’d heard about random crack routes on the sandstone cliffs above, from John Kelly—an ice climber who moved to Alaska. When I drove up to take a look, sure, there were cliffs several hundred feet above the valley floor, but the big white canine boulder a few hundred yards off the road was a pretty obvious spot to have a look.”
We bushwhacked through the scrub oak to more Schulte lines, and several times he’d boot up and climb the problems on the spot, despite the encroaching mid-day heat.
“I just love the style of Lightner,” he said, sitting beneath Shinook, another highball prow that he guesses is somewhere between V9 and V11. “The sandstone slopers, techy feet … and the setting is great.”
Chatting more with Schulte, I learned that he, too, had left the South for Colorado.
“I moved to Durango from Texas when I was 15. My folks had just retired and did the RV thing, and we had family council and I decided to head for Colorado.”
Schulte’s early days of climbing were pretty casual. “I remember going up to Turtle Lake with friends that I skated with. We’d climb up on the big, featured sandstone blocks and smoke grass, and then pick our way down.”
During one of these casual sessions, Schulte witnessed another climber flawlessly execute the V2 overhang of Turtle Lake’s roadside boulder. He described this moment as a sort of climber’s awakening.
“It was that second that I got it,” he said. “I walked around the little boulder garden in a state and I could see lines.”
Schulte’s eye for lines eventually developed into an insatiable appetite for first ascents. He began to discover and uncover boulders that Duran and others had missed. Today many Durango boulderers frequent the dense sandstone blocks at Lightner Creek or the amazing tiger-striped granite block above Lemon Dam, all areas that Schulte developed. However, Schulte believes that a lot of the history surrounding these problems has been lost due to Durango’s mostly oral record.
“With the word-of-mouth style, a lot of things have been forgotten, passed over, and rediscovered.”
Schulte explained that Durango’s early climbing community was small and secretive, which imparts a sense of discovery to the new climbers that now show up regularly to attend Fort Lewis College. “It’s funny to see new kids come in, psyched and looking for lines, do old things and re-name them. It does irk you a little, but hey, what did I do to share the area? I actually withheld info about it.”
The old reticence of Durango’s early climbing community has started to become eclipsed by the openness of the younger crowd. In 2008, local climber Ian Allison compiled a guidebook, Durango Bouldering, and today’s “new kids” can easily find the problems of Duran, Schulte and others. But true discovery still exists.
“New areas keep cropping up around there,” said Schulte, who now lives in Boulder. “Like most of Colorado, if you’re willing to walk, you’ll likely find something. I come back about twice a year, and always find something new to do. I’ll keep coming back. I’ve lived up in the Front Range for eight years now, but Durango is still home to me.”
Check out this recent video release by Schulte documenting his new finds in Lightner Creek:
It’s a weird feeling to visit an old home only to find that your memories don’t match reality. This unsettling experience enveloped my latest visit to Cascade Canyon, an orange-, blue-, and yellow-striped limestone gorge cut beneath Engineer Mountain, 26 miles north of Durango. With a cascading waterfall pooling snowmelt at the base of the north side’s last sport route—the popular Close to the Edge (5.11c)—Cascades, as it’s often called, has always been a contender for Durango’s most aesthetic sport-climbing crag. But during my years in Durango, like most climbers looking to pull hard, I usually stopped 10 miles south at the scruffy, bolted limestone cliff band called the Golf Wall.
Perhaps my perception of what makes a great sport crag evolved after a summer season in Rifle Canyon, a world-class limestone sport crag conveniently located near my new home in Carbondale, Colorado. Because now I was bewildered at my old unappreciative feelings toward the canyon’s climbing. Maybe part of it was that an old Durango friend, Erik Durgin, kept pointing out new climbs. But one thing was now crystal clear. Cascade Canyon offers some of the highest-quality limestone in the region.
“I’m so psyched you’re coming up with me,” Durgin said on the drive out of town. “It’s hard getting people to come here and try these routes, but I swear they’re some of the best around.” Durgin had left his managing duties at the Boarding Haus—a local skate shop—early just to show off his new additions to the canyon. As he described his new routes, he had the crazed and biased look of a first ascentionist, his eyes glistening behind thick-framed glasses. I’d seen that look before, and I was a little skeptical …
But as I hiked into the canyon and craned my neck, looking upward through the blocky overhangs of Durgin’s new routes, I reeled from the vertiginous perspective. “Dude, these routes look amazing,” I shouted while tripping backward.
Eager to sample the goods, I roped up beneath Reverse Cowgirl (5.12c), a route Durgin established last fall, and a precursor to the six new lines he had bolted since the snow melted from the canyon in early May.
Durgin streamed beta and the moves flowed as easily as the nearby cascading waterfalls … until I hit the crux, which involved bearing down on a right-hand crimper and moving left through a shoulder-wrenching gaston. Still gunning for the flash, however, I thrutched through two more moves to the end of the last hard climbing, and set up for a stab into a flake undercling—the last hard move! For a split second I believed the send was in the bag. But I lost power, stabbed for the undercling, and only clutched a handful of air. An instant later I hit the end of the rope. Before I could even consider the frustration of blowing a flash so close to the chains, an epiphany boomed in my brain like a 10-inch subwoofer. I’d never had that much fun climbing in Cascade Canyon.
Later, I belayed Durgin on one of his new projects—a swath of vertical oak-yellow limestone capped by a blocky roof. Ironically, the vertical climbing is the hard part. Durgin seemed to make four moves for every inch of gain. He tried the bizarre sequence a few times and during his rests I scoped a bolted line just to the right. The route starts just above a steep cave that burrows into the bottom of the cliff. As I peered into the dark cave, chalked white fins in the roof appeared, looking like pointy canines in an ogre’s mouth. “So what’s this?” I asked.
“Everyone Poops. It goes at .13a. But that boulder problem in the cave is Schulte’s Haunted House.”
“How hard is Haunted House?”
“I think Schulte gave it V12.”
“Have they been linked?”
A linkup of Schulte’s unrepeated roof into Durgin’s new 5.13a still awaits a suitor. And although the link-up is a hybrid of sorts—akin to new-age testpieces such as Dani Andrada’s Ali Hulk (5.15b)—the obvious challenge could potentially provide Durango with its hardest route.
Durgin and I climbed new pitches until dark, then packed up and hiked out as mosquitoes descended on the canyon like toy fighter planes. As we drove back to Durango, descending from Cascade’s crisp 9,000-foot elevation, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Durango had continued to transform in my two-year absence. My thoughts swirled as we careened down toward the town lights. Why had I never noticed Cascade Canyon’s wealth of virgin stone? Was I blind to the potential lines because I wasn’t ready to see them? Or had I just become desensitized to Durango’s ubiquitous, untouched rock, and tunnel-visioned into only seeing what climbs were already there. But wasn’t the rock always there? Why was this place not what I remembered? Lyrics from a Talking Heads song resonated from the car’s radio:
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Into the blue again, into the silent water
Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground
* * *
In You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.” Maybe that’s true. Durango has changed, and on my occasional return, I feel like I’m visiting an old friend I haven’t seen in years. But Durango’s evolution is positive, and it’s as if my friend hasn’t aged, but instead grown younger with time, and is waiting to show me something new. There are new routes at the Picture Cliffs of East Animas put up by the stalwarts Marcus Garcia and Tim Kuss, new problems from Schulte, and old Durango veterans like Rush Linhart and Cory Arellano.
However, to this day, whenever I visit Sailing Hawks, that area I once only knew as The Secret Spot, I feel as if I am seeing family after a long journey—a journey that takes me back home.
Chris Parker was the online editor for Rock and Ice.
This is excellent. In 1975, ABC Sportsnight followed a group of climbers as they climbed the Candlestick, a tower in Tasmania rising out of the sea just next to the classic Totem Pole.read more