View of the Menses Wall from the Mural Wall – see all the climbers?
70 degree weather, in February. Gotta love Colorado Winters! We still get at least a few days of bluebird skies, even in the harshest of months. And when you take a trip a couple hours south, the weather turns even better!
Shelf is known as a Winter crag, and while it’s also good in the shoulder seasons of Spring and Fall, it comes into its own in the dead of Winter.
The weather was perfect – warm in the sun with a cooling breeze. Partly cloudy, and angled light rather than the full-on solar of the Menses Prow.
That day we nearly went to Menses, but seeing the crag gangbanged with every route taken up we hung a right at the Mural Wall sign at the split in the trail.
And to paraphrase: it made all the difference.
We had a section of the wall all to ourselves, with a 5.9- warmup (Protect the King), and a series of various flavors of 5.10’s further right. There’s actually a series of seven 5.10s all in a row to the right of Protect the King. To the left of Protect the King are harder climbs of 5.10d to 5.12s.
From the Mural Wall, one has a good view of the Menses Wall, and with the acoustics of the canyon – you can hear everyone pretty clearly too (this is sometimes a bad thing).
View of the Menses Prow across the way from the Mural Wall
We decided to warmup on Protect the King first.
Randy on Protect the King
Mural Wall – Protect the King 5.9
I found Protect the King slightly weird actually. It had varied surfaces to practice anything from crack to face climbing, <BETA> but the large crack to the right of the bolts at the top I found to be a total fakeout. Better to get on the face to the left immediately, rather than utilize the sidepull of the offwidth to the right.</BETA> I think we have a natural desire to stay close to the obvious crack, versus the scrimpy crimpy face, but the holds are good on the face, (and less awkward).
From there, we just kept moving right to Killer Queen (5.10a). varied climbing again, starting with a right sidepull, crimps and pockets and edges to the top.
Then we skipped the 5.12 and 5.7 to move right to Soldier without Faith (5.10b). This, I thought, was one of the coolest climbs. It meanders left to a faceclimb with varied pockets and edges and exposure. Then at the top the chains are around the corner to the left, and when things start to get desperate in the crimp department,<BETA> there’s a huge jug to throw for. I missed seeing it, and threw for something around the corner. I had half a finger pad on sharp edges and went, ‘Nope, that wasn’t the jug!’ before flailing off!
After a rest I could see the horizontal line marking the juggiest of jugs.</BETA> My second go I grabbed the handle and made it to the chains.
Recon Jones – gettin’ at it!
We finally finished things off with Los Pepes, a 5.10a which is mostly easy, interesting terrain with huge jugs…that gradually get smaller and smaller. Once you get to the slotted roof the holds are small – but all there. A slight roof and the chains.
Randy, AKA the biggest man in climbing, on the start of Los Pepes, 5.10a
Mural Wall – Recon Jones makes his way up Los Pepes, 5.10a sport
So, after leaving home at 7am, at the crag by 9:30am, 3 climbers swapping leads on one 5.9 and three 5.10s on bullet hard limestone and bluebird skies – Randy had something to get back to at 1:30pm. A short hike back and home by 5pm.
This year, I was invited to the 3rd Annual Shelf Road Gathering. This is a climbing party organized by Angela Benefiel, for her friends, and friends of her friends. Marissa invited me for this year’s gathering, and with every invite to Shelf I feel compelled to go – as Shelf is one of my favorite places to climb.
The limestone walls at Shelf are super rough, sharp and griptastic! Sometimes on certain walls I feel like I could almost just slap my palm against a spiky wall and pull down – it can be that spiky. And with the temperatures dropping, it’s my go to place when I need a winter climbing fix.
It’s November in Colorado, and the nights drop temperature into the 30s with daytime temps in the upper 60s. Against the south-facing walls of the Menses Prow, or the Bank it can get 10-20 degrees warmer, feeling like mid-Summer.
On Friday, only about 10 of the 21 total people arrived (out of 49 invited), the remainder arrived on Saturday. Sitting at the campfire on Friday night I talked to Megan and we discussed how just 2 years ago Shelf was fairly empty on a Saturday. Nowadays, the popular areas such as Cactus Cliff, the Bank, and Menses Prow can get overrun with climbers. We debated on whether the area was just discovered, or whether it was just because of the density of climbers invading Colorado. Probably the latter. Because of the hordes number of climbers there’s even a GoFundMe to pay for more pit toilets at Shelf.
But Shelf is quite large, with over 1,000 routes, from what I’ve been told, so if you don’t like the crowds, either climb 5.11 and above, or easier – go to one of the less visited crags. The area is also being actively bolted, with new routes going in every day. If folks would spread out, then there would be plenty of space to climb.
On Saturday, Marissa, Dana Shin and I explored Menses Prow, one of the crags closest to the Sand Gulch camping area. It’s in the area known as the Gallery.
The night before was windy, and was a “3-dog-night,” an australian saying that it was so cold that you would need “..three dogs to keep warm.” I used 2 sleeping bags, my down one inserted into my cotton one. But Saturday was sunny and warm.
Approach to Menses Prow
The hike is forested, and while steep at times, had many areas for photo opps.
Marissa spreading her wings!
Trails are well marked, with signage pointing the way to different crags. Once we arrived at Menses Prow, we found a large group of climbers taking up many of the routes. We were able to squeeze in on The Baroque Period. A nice 5.8 warm up. It felt longer than its 80 feet, with a dihedral crack to start, flakes and edges and long reaches to get to the top.
But after that, we looked to swap with the party to our left.
‘We have one other person, then I’ll clean it, and then you can have the route,’ the guy who led that route called Prima Nocta, replied. What this translated to was ‘Well, we have 10 other people in my group gangbanging the side of the mountain, and at least 4 of them want a crack at this before we let you have it.’
We tried to be patient, saying things like, ‘It’s just nice being outside!’ all the while glancing over to see a new person roping up. Dana hinted that we could jump on the short 5.9 two routes over called Period Epic if those a-holes other climbers were still on Prima Nocta.
That’s the thing, huge groups of 10 or more climbers come and take over crags, forcing others to wait, or move on to farther crags. While our group was quite large, we all separated into smaller 3-4 person groups to different crags.The same was true when the group expanded to 21 people. We didn’t all converge onto one crag, not allowing others a crack at a particular climb. It was a little infuriating.
‘Though, it would be nice to have 4 routes setup, and then you could go from one route to another,’ I mused, but swiftly disabused myself of that thought.
I don’t want to be part of the problem.
So, we moved on over to Period Epic, a nice 5.9 with a high first bolt.
‘Dang, I forgot my stick clip back at camp!’ I said. Despite what some hardmen say, some routes were actually meant to be stick clipped. The first bolt is high not to scare the bejesus out of some newbie (although sometimes I think it is), it’s so that it has sufficient height to actually save someone from decking. With rope stretch the first bolt has to be high, sometimes 15-20 feet in order to be of any practical use.
But getting there can be sweat inducing.
Whatever, I gut up and nutup and went for it. The first clip wasn’t that bad, actually, the leading holds were solid.
Saturday night, the rest of the gang arrived, 21 people in all, playing music and drinking it up. Angela, the organizer, was a brewer at Coors/Miller in Golden, and she brought a few cases of beer with her. Despite all the beer, booze and spliffs being passed around, it was a chill, cheerful group. The fire ring was piled as high as we could get it with burning logs, a fire proof glove lending a hand to turn logs and retrieve fallen foil-wrapped foods.
From DeMartini, I eyed the 10b to the right, called Soldier Without Faith. I knew that I needed to start consistently doing 5.10s, but I knew a 5.10b would be a stretch, but should be well within my wheelhouse. The climb was airy at points, exposed on a face at the upper half, with a blind reach around the arete with a high reach to gain the jug that was just below the chains.
I felt pretty good after leading that one. We then moved on to the 5.9- Protect the King, which had a bonafide crack up the first half, where again I could utilize my mad crack climbing skills I learned at the Steph Davis Crack Clinic I just took. I inserted my hands wrist deep, compressed my hands till they filled the crack, and dropped my elbows down to cam them in – and rose up, camming my feet as I went.
Author, low on crack. Chris Kalous from Enormocast watches
Been eyeing the October Crack Clinic that Steph Davis runs in Indian Creek since July. Facebook helpfully put it in front of my eyeballs every few days or so, but I wasn’t sure if I could stomach the expense: $1,400 for 2 days of training? EarthTreks (ET) in Golden, my home gym, has a crack clinic that was free to members!
But I have been following Steph’s adventures, from her soloing a route on the Diamond in Colorado, to her BASE and wingsuit flying – for a few years now. To actually take a course from someone who has mastery of a subject is a rarity. I don’t see many of her calibre conducting courses. I considered some more…
Steph, on her FB profile, put out the word: “There is one spot left on my October Crack climbing clinic…” I emailed her, expecting not to get it, actually. I responded late, but to my surprise she said I got the last spot, and after sending a $900 Paypal deposit I would be good to go.
That’s when I got nervous.
Living in Wheat Ridge, I am right next to Golden, and 15-20 minutes from Clear Creek Canyon, my home crag. I also take expeditions to Eldorado Canyon, as well as Boulder Canyon, Devil’s Head and Shelf, but none of those places are really known for crack climbing. You might find an occasional crack on granite in Clear Creek, but for the most part a continuous crack is the exception, not the norm.
Crack climbing is what that old guy is doing on the seams in the rock gym, running laps in his taped up mitts, while all the youngsters climb the regular sport routes wondering what the hell he’s doing.
The straight and slippery crack climbs in the gym only have a fading resemblance to actual sandstone cracks that populate the crags in the desert Southwest of Utah and Arizona. Sandstone has the properties that generate these hundreds of feet long cracks soaring into the sky. The first time I saw a video of someone climbing one I knew that I wanted to try it. It just looked so beautiful: a person self-suspended using only a crack as the basis for applying tension to progress upwards. Seemed like the impossible made possible.
And the desert sandstone tower scenery could not be beat.
It looked like my love affair with climbing – all over again.
But, could lightning strike twice? Would I love crack climbing the way I loved sport climbing, and trad climbing? It seemed to have some elements of off-width climbing with compression and using not so much finger strength to progress, but major muscle groups.
I know that that famous off-width woman Pamela Shanti Pack did offwidth for that reason. She had some sort of physical condition that prevented the use of her hands, so she switched to off-widths. But crack climbing also had it’s own arcana of hand and foot compressions, things like ring locks and finger locks, crushed toes
– and pain.
That’s what one of my climbing partners told me, ‘Crack climbing is about enduring pain. And doing that same damn thing over and over.’
I chuckled with him at the time, thinking ‘Who the hell would think to do crack climbing?’
But then I started seeing photos on Imgur and Facebook, of my friends and acquaintances climbing in the middle of a soaring crack, hands sunk wrist deep, toes only an inch or two in the seam – seeming impossible, but yet enough to attach and progress upwards. The scenery combined with this kind of levitation seemed to suggest that there was something there there.
So, I took a preparatory crack climbing class offered at ET. I was the only one who signed up.
The instructor, though, was enthusiastic in showing me the magic of crack climbing. He showed me how to do finger jams and hand jams; toe jamming had their own character of excruciating pain, and I lost skin in the fist jams. It was painful, and I kept slipping and getting spit off, but I did, at the end, managed to get up half a climb in a go before popping off my stance.
I felt wrecked, my breathing ragged, and about to throw up. The instructor told me climbing inside cracks was harder.
“When you get onto sandstone, first of all sandstone is grippier. The cracks at indoor gyms are all straight and smooth, making it harder to find purchase for your feet and hands,’ he said. “And on real rock you can find edges and surface irregularities to grip, even inside cracks. Also, you’ll also find opportunities on the face to do some face climbing.”
I did learn some things from the ET teacher, but I soon found out that there’s a lot more subtleties to learn when you get on the actual sandstone cracks of Indian Creek.
Coincidentally, I also just bought a small (13′) Casita travel trailer I named “Conchita la Casita,” and this seemed like a good cross-the-border shakeout trip.
Conchita la Casita
I left for Shelf Road the Friday prior to the Monday that the crack clinic would start.
I mean, why not start the shakeout with a trip to Shelf – see how Conchita likes the dirt roads and ruts of Sand Gulch prior to the desert of Moab.
Rod czeching out the solar
With some backing up shenanigans, pine branches scraping the sides of both Conchita and my Subaru WRX I was finally able to get a (relatively) flat area for my Casita, and set up the solar, etc.
I think after running the ruts and dirt road, and attempting to get to the Bank campground up the steeps – that I need a new TV (Tow Vehicle).
While I was able to turn around from the Bank road and get a spot at Sand Gulch below it made me realize the limitations of my WRX as a tow vehicle.
One, the previous owner had lowered the Impreza, so clearance, especially when weighted, was an issue. Deep cavities and high bumps left me bottoming out. I could tell from inspection that the rear wheels scraped the inside of the wheel wells, and that my front bumper would shake loose if I kept this off-roading up.
It’s not that my WRX couldn’t tow the weight, it’s when I left the nice smooth freeways and highways and hit the dirt roads was where I was failing/flailing.
I needed to get a truck.
Except, this is what I think of when I think “truck”:
Gas hogs, road nuisance, waste-of-space-space grabber, blahblahblah.
But, the time has come.
Shelf it! Shelf, as always, was completely great.
The Gallery, Shelf Road, Canon City, CO
My brother and I explored the Gallery. I thought it might be mobbed by weekenders, but while there were about 3 groups we didn’t have trouble getting on our routes.
Rod, gettin’ it!
I love this climbing area, I love the limestone and the cheap camping – and that’s all you need, right?
This is what I see when I look over at Rod most times
Author, top of a Gallery route
But, after a second night it was Sunday, and time to head to Moab.
We were to meet at this Cafe in Moab. After camping at Mill Canyon Road 15 miles northwest of Moab off 191 I went to the cafe and waited.
Camping at Mill Canyon Road – free!
When Steph arrived, I recognized her instantly from the videos – dark hair, earnest eyes, big smile when she recognized someone. She was shorter than I thought her to be – for some reason I thought she’d be taller. Which is funny, because I thought Cedar Wright would be shorter than he was.
Famous climbers are not like other famous people. Like, they aren’t mobbed or anything. But climbers know. You could tell the climbers by the way their eyes tracked her movement through the crowd.
She seemed at first glance like an organized, but normally disorganized person, as she handed out information sheets and collected money. Like a person who is normally a tad disorganized, but has learned to be more organized. I think this was her 6th crack climbing clinic, so she had some under her belt. When we were about to leave, she received a text from the last person saying they would be 15 minutes late.
Oops,almost left a person!
Anyway, I decided to leave earlier since I had my camper and needed to see if I could navigate the turn into her land.
“My boyfriend Ian will be there. He’s clearing a flat place for your RV,” Steph said.
I thought, that was mighty nice of him!
I was the first person to arrive, and while I lost the hooks on the side of my Casita when it scraped the side of the entry gate, I was able to get to my spot and park.
Casita hooks scraped off on turn
Only got stuck a couple of times in the Moab sugar dust (see “need to buy a truck” above).
Why, hello neighbor!
My neighbor Cindy owned the rig parked next to mine. It was a large deisel 3500, which her bf was selling. “He arrives Friday, if you are interested,” she said.
Steph’s Octagonal yurt
This is where we would congregate in the mornings, get our meals and collect our lunch wraps. We were all camped, either in tents, or trucks, campers and cars. I think mine was the only camper trailer in the group.
The first day started with how to tape our hands
I should have learned how to tape BEFORE the clinic!
And we were soon climbing the cracks
The cracks looked impossibly tall and intimidating, but the settors Chris Kalous (of Enormocast fame), and Mary Harland, a Colorado climber I hadn’t heard of prior, but am learning more about her, set the routes in their approach shoes. They didn’t seem overly concerned with slipping, their technique perfect in what for them must have been easy crack climbs.
I can’t remember the names of the routes, but they said they were 5.10’s and 5.11’s.
“Take the grades in Indian Creek with a grain of salt,” Steph said. “The grades don’t mean as much here.”
So much depends on the size of hands and feet and the size of the cracks they are stuck into. A route easier for large man-hands might require double hands for the thinner woman-hands.
We got a quick tutorial in how to insert and expand our hands, and how to slide our feet in sideways and “cam” them by drawing the knee to the centerline.
Steph and Chris Kalous tutorial on crack climbing.
Crack climbing on sandstone I found easier than the gym cracks – but still very hard. I appreciated my time at the gym, though, as I seemed to have a better handle on how to climb it than a few of the others.
One girl, Gabby, while she climbed well came down and said “That was really hard!”
It was. And sort of terrifying – but in a good way. Like the first time I learned to climb – it was hard and painful, and I couldn’t wait to get back on it again!
After my second route I knew I would need to come back.
More Indian Creek
The second day was more of the same, except we went to the shadier side of the Creek.
Again, I was amazed at how the route settors climbed in their street shoes. This day we had the opportunity to do some fake leads – on top rope, but with a second rope to set cams and clip into.
I don’t get this opportunity – to fake lead with a belay, and a second rope. Although it was only optional – I wanted to do the fake lead.
I ascended the crack okay, setting the pro as I thought it should be set – squeeze the cams close, shove into crack, crank and yank to see if it was secure – move on.
But when Mary took a look at my placements, it was a litany of “This is bad,” “Too open”, “If I had to grade this you would have failed.”
Funny, my long term trad partner always just took a look, and said my placements were fine.
I found out that the cams need to be (ideally) closed so that it looked like a heart shape. It’s like 75-90% closed. It allows optimum pressure, and also if it “walks” it can still open more to re-cam the sides of the cam.
Instead of moving to the other routes I decided to wait my turn and do it again, this time the right way.
Dave, the photographer took pics of us as we ascended the route.
I belayed and waited and belayed again.
Finally, it was my turn, and I made sure my cams were closed perfectly, placed perfectly.
Mary went up again, “This is good!” she said. “This is another good placement!”
I found her to be a stern teacher, but every time she said “Good!” I felt like I had accomplished something.
“You went from a “D” student to an “A” student,” Mary said.
“Thanks. I feel like a better leader now,” I told her.
I walked around to the other routes, but it was nearing 3pm, when Steph would go over anchors. I was only able to look at the beautiful cracks, wondering when I’d be back.
The anchoring lesson was everything I already knew, but it was good to have a refresher.
Steph, going over anchoring
There was some discussion about the safety of daisy chains. Apparently, Americans were buying so few that they were not any available in the U.S. for our clinic. The issue was that if used incorrectly, with the carabiner between loops the daisy chain would fail. Chris mentioned that some people had died supposedly.
“Who, who died?” Steph asked. “No, I really want to know!” Her thought is that it was an internet rumor thing, that no one had really died using it, and although it can fail in using it wrong, she would never use it that way.
The Metolius PAS was supposed to basically replace the daisy chain, and ensure this wouldn’t happen. But the one thing about Steph was that she went as light and fast as possible, and the PAS was both bulkier and heavier than her preferred daisy chain – and that made the difference.
Personally, I have the PAS, and while I understand that incorrect use of any piece of gear can make any gear fail, I thought the extra weight was worth the extra safety. Steph continued, and we then broke out into groups to practice.
And then the clinic drew to a close.
Taping up! Photo: David Clifford
It seemed to happen so fast, from start to finish. I felt worked, but more in tune with what crack climbing required. I thought about what it would take to get me back out here again – and I wanted to be out here again!
I found Steph to be as I imagined her: positive, earnest, straightforward. Present.
I overheard her at one of the dinners talking about “…everyone was there, everyone was present…” talking about authenticity.
And that’s mostly my impression of her: authentic, present.
When someone in the group mentioned her fame, she just didn’t respond, just smiled and continued on. I thought that she appreciated what her fame had brought her – sponsorships, free gear, ability to draw a group who paid $1,400 for the opportunity to learn and to spend a couple days with her. But, other than that she didn’t let it affect her.
It seemed to me like it was something outside her; she didn’t allow it to go to her head, nor did she assign it any importance outside of what it allowed her to do. It would interfere with being absolutely herself. At least, that was my impression.
Group gathered around for the anchor clinic.
I remember one of the girls looking up and saying, “She’s so beautiful!” as Steph climbed a long crack. I looked up and had to agree.
Steph seemed completely in her element climbing the desert crack. Fully acclimatized to the environment she found herself in. Hand, then foot…foot, then hand. Rising like the wild thing she is.
Skills/techniques taught: Crack climbing including hand and foot camming, body positioning, equipment use (shoe type/size, and hand taping), and trad leading for crack. Also includes going over anchor options.
Schwag (We each received the following for taking part in the seminar):
I would answer – hold that thought, have you ever been to Shelf?
Shelf was my first and best experience on climbing on limestone I’ve ever had. And since I’ve climbed at both Rifle and Shelf, <jest>I am a bonafide expert on limestone climbing</jest>.
While I liked climbing at Rifle, I love climbing at Shelf. Shelf trades in the flat planes and knee-bar angles of Rifle for bullet hard, sharp, pocketed climbing . Climbing on one feature rich route I said, ‘It’s like I’m climbing on coral!’ And since much of land limestone was once ancient coral beds, it makes sense. It can be so sharp and featured, but alternatively I’ve encountered smooth face climbing, with double and mono pockets, thin crimps – practically any surface you can think of can be found on a route at Shelf.
Photo: Rod SIngson
Shelf is comprised of limestone walls that line an arroyo (at least, I’ve never seen a creek running…) There are several climbing walls in the area with 935 routes covered in Mountain Project – which doesn’t even account for the new routes on new crags being set every year.
While I’ve explored Cactus Cliff and the Sand Gulch area, I find myself returning to the Bank area of Shelf Road. Frankly, because of the large number of routes I find that I like to concentrate on a single area to get a feel for it before moving on to a new one. And at 175 routes, the Bank offers plenty for the 2-3 times I go per year.
This time I was meeting my friend Emily Loewer Zampedri, who sent me the following text on July 7th:
I’m legitimately sad I can’t rock climb for several more weeks. All I want right now is to hit shelf road…You down to plan a weekend in September to go down there?
She had broken her collarbone in a mountain bike jumping accident gone wrong, which sidelined her climbing.
Over 2 months away. Labor Day. The cooling temps of September. Grippy limestone – hellyeah!
My brother Rod and I came early on a Thursday, to nab a campsite prior to the Labor Day climbing hordes (that never came). In fact we were hard pressed to find another group of climbers within sight of the routes we were climbing.
We warmed up on Ma Barker, a route I renamed “Gunning for Bonsai,” because of the lone bonsai-esque pine at the top of the route:
Gunning for Bonsai
It’s a 5.7 if you go to the left of the face to the featured side, but it is possible on the 2nd half to stay on the face for a 5.10ish crimpfest.
Emily on Ma Barker/Gunning for Bonsai (Photo: Caleb Zampedri)
Caleb gunning for the bonsai
Emily’s collarbone test is a…GO!
Rod gunning for the bonsai
Rod contemplates the ephemerality of life as represented by the fragile existence of the wild bonsai…
Unfortunately, we saw some graffiti at the bottom of the route. At least it was written in chalk, but recorded here to hopefully publicly shame these asshats. I didn’t have anything to remove these marks without damaging the rock, so this may have to wait before removal.
Translation: Asshats were here
After an afternoon rest, we went back that evening to do night time climb. I picked out what looked to me as an easier climb: Pretty Boy Floyd, 5.7:
Now, I’ve heard it said to take grades with a grain of salt, and often, when people ask me the difficulty of a route I tell them “It was five dot fun!”
But, you kind of like to have some consistency to ratings – after all, why have them at all? And I understand that people have different strengths, body types, heights and ape-index (arm length to heght ratio), but after fighting/struggling/thrutching my way up this, I think Pretty Boy Floyd should come with a warning label: May be tough for the grade.
Night climbing fun
Let me put it this way: this route put the “plus” in the 5.7+. I didn’t find a plethora of mad jugs, and the crack was unforgiving.
But hey, maybe I just did it wrong! Or suck…or whatever. Shelf is one of those places, like Eldo, that has some areas bolted in ye olden days, when the ratings only went as high as 5.10, so you will encounter lower-graded routes you might want to grade a couple steps (or more) higher.
See the climber? (in green)
Caleb Zampedri contemplates the route
All-in-all, it’s hard to beat climbing for a long weekend at Shelf. Grippy, featured rock, over 900 sport routes, blue skies and nice camp sites within walking distance of the crags – what’s not to like?