A few weeks ago, I wrote about how to crush your next dyno (slang for "dynamic") move. Now I'm here to share the first installment in a multi-part series documenting my recent experiences in the realm of backcountry alpine bouldering exploration.
But first, a quick reminder of who I am: My name's Connor. I’ve been climbing for 13 years, primarily as a boulderer. I’ve lived in Colorado for the past 10 of those years, getting lost in the ocean of rock throughout the state as often as I can. I’ve climbed up to V11 and established new boulders up to V10 outside. I am a professional route setter, a student of climbing movement, and a coach––but only to you, readers :)
Here’s a basic definition of what the ambiguous term "backcountry alpine bouldering development" actually means:
Exploring, locating, and climbing new boulder problems (first ascents) in the alpine or subalpine climate zone through long-distance hiking and/or wilderness camping.
That definition came straight from my brain, just now. Let me know in the comments if I'm missing anything!
The Niche We Live In
If you follow the rock climbing world—through this blog or other media—you’ve likely witnessed its diversity firsthand. It’s not like most sports. You can’t follow it on ESPN; you won’t see the neighborhood children climbing in a sunlit park on a Saturday afternoon; there is no National Climbing League paying its athletes millions of dollars every year.
Rock climbing is still a niche activity. Despite its recent inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, climbing still enjoys a relative obscurity. Most people who develop a passion for climbing often find themselves trending in a particular direction within the sport. They may not understand why, but their love runs deeply enough not to care. Sport climbers clip bolts until the lactic acid runs orange in their veins. Trad climbers jam their hands into cracks and bleed with pride. Boulderers cover the ground with foam and climb naked, gearless. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you find that you can always go deeper.
Into the Talus Field
I’ve been a boulderer for my entire climbing career. I don’t know why; maybe I love the purity. Maybe I was always too broke to buy a rope and quickdraws and cams. All I know is that, over the years, all I’ve wanted to do is venture into boulder fields and climb the most beautiful lines.
And that’s what I’ve done. I visited Bishop every Thanksgiving with my friends, flaying my skin on the sharp patina. I’ve bouldered in Rocky Mountain National Park on the best rock in Colorado for 10 years. I’ve walked deep into the granite valleys and bowls of Mt. Evans to slap slopers and crimp crimpers. I’ve driven seven hours to Joe’s Valley countless times to burn the skin from my hands. And while I haven’t even come close to tapping out these amazing areas, after so many years of repetition I felt ready for something new.
So I started putting up new boulders.
The Cosmic Game Of Bouldering Exploration
I won’t pretend I’m a prolific developer. I have not established hundreds of boulder problems over the years. In reality I’ve been focused on developing for just over a year, and I have only a modest collection of first ascents (FAs) to my name. The majority of those FAs are in Colorado, though a few gems reside in the enchanted desert known as Indian Creek, Utah. Yes, Indian Creek, the trad climbing paradise, also holds thousands upon thousands of pristine boulders.
I became almost entirely consumed with developing at the beginning of last summer. My friends Lee Payne, Wes Walker, and Nate Davison were spending almost all of their time at an area in the Indian Peaks Wilderness (just west of Boulder, Colorado) that Lee had discovered years earlier. Nate was my coworker at the Denver Bouldering Club climbing gym, and it was through him that I jumped in with the crew. We spent months in the backcountry, putting up lines on the stellar, bulletproof rock. This biotite gneiss, a rock type that forms underground through the metamorphosis of granite, is 1.7 billion years old.
The rock we climb on has existed for 37% of the time Earth has been a planet in our solar system.
In those terms, you can see that what we do is fleeting. On the geologic time scale, there are two ways to think of first ascents. On one hand, we have done virtually nothing: in another 1.7 billion years, our achievements may fade away in a heap of data so thick that they are forgotten, meaningless.
On the other hand, when you climb a rock for the first time, you’re doing something that has never been done before. In the 1.7 billion years the Brain Boulder (pictured in the photo above) has existed, and in the 50 million years primates have existed, I happened to be the first life form to ascend that one specific line up the boulder’s face—what we called Autoimmune.
It doesn’t matter that I was the first to climb it. It matters because I was the first to interact with a part of the universe that’s much, much bigger than myself. I created a miniscule piece of history on a cosmic scale. Even if that piece eventually withers from the collective memory of humanity, it’s still a moment in universal time that exists forever. And that’s what gets me psyched the most.
Finding The Next Area
My crash pad weighs 50 pounds. Or is it 40? I can’t even tell anymore. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the four miles of uphill trail ahead of me. I’m bent over, an ancient, a monk, nowhere to go but up.
But I can’t complain. I fell in love with hiking far before climbing anyway, before I ever came to Colorado. And by the time I finished my first backpacking trip in 2003—three nights, soaked by rain, desperately unacclimated to the elevation of the Rockies—there was no way for me to look back. I’d never been a runner, never been an athlete; but hiking finally gave my skinny legs a purpose.
There’s something deeply satisfying about hauling everything you need on your back. Sure, it destroys your neck, your shoulders, your hips, your thighs. But the comfort of having your belongings within reach outweighs the physical burden.
We found the newest area of interest on Google Earth. This free online program is the first step for most developers—it’s almost too easy not to use. My own process is simple. I scour the high elevation landscapes of Colorado, looking for rocky canyons that produce talus fields like the one in the photo above. Once I find one, I evaluate three aspects of the boulder field:
If two of those three questions yield optimal answers, then it’s worth exploring. It’s that simple. Admittedly, it’s not always easy to answer those questions accurately (especially regarding rock quality), which usually entails a little extra research.
Have people explored this talus before? Undoubtedly. Have people climbed here before? I wouldn’t be surprised. But we found no evidence of it. And besides, that’s not important. All that matters is that there are campsites close by, there are many boulders to climb, and the rock quality is relatively high. There is very little flaky or sandy stone to scrub away, holds don’t break, and the rock is hard. I won’t put it in the same category as certain areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, but it’s close.
Putting in the Work is the Reward
Hike for miles. Carry everything: climbing gear, rope, enough food to survive, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking kit, fuel, all the little miscellaneous items you might need. Set up camp. Gather wood and make a fire. Hide your food from animals. Sleep under the desolate blanket of the galaxy. Hike more. Find rock. Retrieve your tools and clean them; rappel down its face; brush away the millenia; make it climbable. Clear your mind. Forget how far you are from civilization, the hospital. Now climb it.
Finding new boulders takes more work and grit than you may realize. And that’s exactly what makes it so rewarding.
Jamie Emerson—FrictionLabs athlete, a leader in bouldering exploration around Colorado and surrounding states, and a friend of mine—agrees. “There’s so much that hasn’t been explored yet. For a certain core group of people, there’s so much potential,” he says. However, “people in general are less and less inclined to suffer. I feel like the more you work for something, the more value it has. The reward is that you’re out there alone in some wild, crazy place. That’s a difficult experience to find. But if you’re willing to work for it, you can have it.”
It’s not necessarily the finished product that gives us the most satisfaction—sometimes just moving rocks around to build a safe landing is the highlight of our entire day. What fulfills us the most is the process. Finding a little slice of the unknown and making it ours, even if it’s only for an instant. Painting a picture of nature that was always there, we just hadn’t found it yet. Knowing that we’re interacting with the world in an infinitely small way, but that we’re still contributing something. Building a small life in the wild with people of a similar mindset, a few days at a time, until it’s shown you what you need to see.
See It For Yourself
Check out the video below that highlights the first leg of the trip. Nate Davison—my climbing partner and the guy in the pictures—is an artist.
Check in soon for Part 2 of this series to learn about the climbs we’ve established, the impact of bouldering development on the future of climbing, and how the climbing community responds—only on the FrictionLabs Blog.