The Hardest Bouldering in America … and Maybe the World
With three V15s and four V14s just minutes off the pavement, Bear Lake Road near Estes Park, Colorado, has the highest concentration of hard bouldering in America and possibly the world.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 217 (April 2014).
Daniel Woods was working his dream project: a 30-degree overhanging gneiss face with just enough holds to make it possible … maybe. It was December 2010, and the forecast for the Colorado alpine showed snow, and lots of it. The Veritas Boulder—the one that housed Woods’ project—is located just outside of Estes Park, in the Colorado high country, and once it snowed, the line would be out of condition. Adding to the pressure, Woods had pulled through the one-arm lock-offs on quarter-pad edges on his seventh day of attempts, only to fall on the last V5 jump to the lip. But today Woods was determined to send. He once again muscled through the crux, stared down the final jump, and executed. As he manteled over the lip of Hypnotized Minds (V15), Woods felt the relief of climbing the hardest boulder problem of his life. And one of the “best parts,” Woods says, was that “the boulder sits just 30 seconds away from Bear Lake Road.”
Bear Lake Road is Rocky Mountain National Park’s busiest byway, and must be driven with the utmost care, because tourists can and do stop anywhere. Oh, is that an elk? What most of these travelers don’t know is that if you drive this road starting from the Stanley Hotel—made famous in the classic horror flick “The Shining”—and continue through the north side of the park via Sheep Lake and down through a bit of Trail Ridge, you will have passed through the highest density of difficult boulder problems in North America—all within minutes of the car. Some problems are so close to the road that tourists might slow down and take a photo of you.
After moving to Colorado from Delaware in 2005, I spent the first few summers living in Estes Park, where “the road” begins. I worked in Rocky Mountain National Park as part of the trail crew. It was a hardy experience and a great way to get to know the Estes and RMNP region, which continues to yield a plethora of previously undiscovered boulders. I climbed with a few co-workers when I wasn’t exhausted from the tough work, and we would often make do with the boulders at “ground level” instead of hiking the two-mile uphill slog into the popular Chaos Canyon. Some of the rock was good, some was just OK, but it worked for us and we still felt like we were exploring despite the close proximity to the road.
During those early days of boulder hunting on Bear Lake Road, I began to hear stories about the pioneers of the area, many of whom, coincidentally, had also worked on the trail crew. One was bouldering legend Hank Jones—known in climbing circles for discovering the ever-popular Kind Boulder and Large Boulders at Emerald Lake and numerous areas in the Poudre Canyon. He, Rob Pizem and Ken Kenney climbed at these areas as well as Chaos Canyon, but also noticed boulders lining the road. They were among the first climbers to seriously explore the roadside areas.
Jamie Emerson was there, too, and describes the overall vision as “a shift between what the areas were, to what they could be; from a traditional area like Hueco or Flagstaff into more of a focus on individual problems. On the way to Chaos, we wondered, What are we driving past? Early examples of what we found were Veritas and Stinkbug, both right off the road and at about the same grade [V9/10].”
Jones and Emerson discovered and first climbed on the Veritas Boulder in 2001. The block sits right off the road near the popular parking lot of Sprague Lake. The overhanging gneiss block is 20 feet tall, beautifully striped and pleasantly featured. The stand-start went first by Kenney, then Johnny Goicoechea added a sit start at V11—one of the most classic problems at the grade in the state.
In 2010, Daniel Woods opened one of his hardest lines, Hypnotized Minds (V15) on the boulder’s east face, and Bear Lake Road’s reputation began to grow.
“When I first saw the “Veritas Right” project, I was immediately drawn to the line’s simplicity, rock quality, hold formations and rock color,” says Woods. “The line ascends the blank, proud 30-degree overhanging face. There are just enough holds to make it possible. I was psyched to find something that would really challenge my style of climbing, and this line was the gem.”
Daniel worked the project for eight days in good conditions before making the first ascent, just before a snowstorm blew in and ended the season.
“This boulder still remains unrepeated,” says Woods.
In early 2011, Dave Graham, Jon Cardwell, Diego Montull and I drove out after a long day of bouldering in Chaos Canyon, and as we wound down the hill on Bear Lake Road, I recalled the stories of Hank Jones. We were, after all, traveling through his stomping grounds. I told Dave to pull over because I wanted to show him a highball V10 death slab Jones had established. We parked the car on the side of the road right near Moraine Park and ventured into the woods. Though I couldn’t find the slab, Dave, Jon and Diego found a short steep prow with some very nice patina rock, and set to work cleaning it. This boulder problem came to be known as Mirror Reality <(V14), which to this day is notorious for its low-percentage jump move. In fact, Dave and Jon are still trying it! Daniel Woods finally stuck the move and sent the problem in January, 2012.
“Mirror Reality is one of those boulders we’ve always dreamed about except this one was right in front of us,” says Cardwell. “It was there the entire time, watching us as we drove countless times to Chaos Canyon. Mirror opened our eyes to the unique vibe this road holds, which otherwise is found only in places like Switzerland or Fontainebleau.”
During 2011, my last summer working at RMNP, my co-worker Bryce Klinikowski led me up a hill just past the Stanley Hotel to a rather inobvious overhang with bullet rock. It looked like a version of Bishop’s famous V10 Stained Glass. Bryce and other Estes locals had found this boulder to be quite hard and it was an open project.
Later that year, I brought Dave Graham to the boulder. He had recently discovered the nearby Endo Valley, but after seeing the overhanging crimpy dihedral, he was keen to work it. We began to focus on the climbing on the hillside, but this boulder was the first cherry to be picked.
By this time the shift from large areas to individual problems had fully taken hold. This hillside soon became a whole new area, but it all started with this line. Dave managed to send the problem on New Year’s Day, calling it Memory is Parallax (V14).
In typical Graham fashion, he then ran further up the hill and found a whole collection of boulders that would become classic problems of all grades, including Desperate Houseboys’ Traverse (V10) and Sizable Rattler (V8). But the best lines lent themselves to the higher grades and some proved un-climbable at the time. For instance, Dave discovered another prow further east on the hillside and started to try it, but found it harder than Parallax and decided to save it for later.
Meanwhile, Jamie Emerson hiked around and found a majestic boulder downstream from Veritas.
“I was on the road one day, and thought there must be another nice block around here just like Veritas. I hiked for two hours in the wrong direction, but then headed downstream and stumbled upon this big amazing black roof.”
Emerson first brought Graham to the roof, but he thought the holds were too fragile and would break before becoming a boulder problem. Emerson then showed it to Woods, who swooped in for the first ascent.
“None of the moves seemed possible,” remembers Woods. “But after many sessions I figured out a sequence that worked, and it was a cool feeling of overcoming the ‘impossible’ and tricking the head into knowing it could be done.”
Woods linked the moves in the black roof on a cold February day in 2012 to establish Paint It Black (V15), one of the hardest problems in the country and located just 100 feet off the road.
After jet-setting around the planet, Graham felt fit and returned to try the prow east of Parallax—the project he had saved for later.
However, Graham’s problem proved more difficult than he had anticipated.
“Bridge of Ashes is one of the most challenging projects I have ever completed,” says Graham. “Once I found the right method and realized the boulder was actually climbable, I thought it would be just about having the right skin and conditions. I thought it was in the bag. Oh, how wrong I was!”
Each session ended in “utter destruction,” says Graham, and there were always cuts to heal due to the sharp stone. After about 10 days of effort battling freak cold spells, snowstorms and heat waves, and maybe another 15 days spread over the last year, Graham finally made the first ascent of Bridge of Ashes (V15) in February 2013.
“Unlike many hard boulders, it did not feel easy when I finally did it,” says Graham. “It felt desperate, in fact!”
Of course, more exploring uphill ensued, revealing yet another project, which Woods sent one spring night in April 2013. The Purge (V14) is another elite problem only 10 minutes uphill from the asphalt of Bear Lake Road.
Thanks to the efforts of old-schoolers like Jones and elite crushers like Woods and Graham, Bear Lake Road has gone from being a pain-in-the-ass drive you had to endure to get to the alpine bouldering in RMNP to the Hardest Road in North America. And the area continues to yield.
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