Have you ever climbed rocks when flakes of snow are flying around you? Have you ever looked down upon a valley from the top of a cliff, after climbing 80 feet up on it? Have you ever slept inside a tent when it’s snowing all around you? Have you known the beauty of an orange sunset that showers the snow-capped peaks with its dying rays and mesmerizes you into staring at them till the darkness falls upon you, replacing the blankness of sky with star-studded awesomeness? Have you gone out with a group of strangers and yet, experienced a warm camaraderie developed quickly through rigors of climbing and living in harsh weather elements, with dirt in your hair & sweat on the clothes? My week-long rock climbing trip at Shelf Road, Colorado was nuanced with such beautiful moments and was one of my best climbing experiences in the outdoors.
Called a sport climber’s mecca, Shelf Road has about 1000 bolted routes on pocketed limestone, with difficulty rating varying from 5.5 to 5.13. In our 5 days long stay, we climbed in 3 of the 6-7 areas in which climbing at Shelf Road is divided. Everyone got a chance to push his/her limits by starting with routes they were comfortable with and slowly graduating to more difficult ones.
The Bank Campsite was atop cliffs overlooking the vast expanse of Cactus Cliff and Sangre de Cristo mountain range on the west. The campsite was in a great shape, with a toilet, benches and a fire ring for campers. A quick set up of the tents and an oatmeal breakfast later, we were on our way to the Cactus Cliff area for our first taste of climbing. We were in capable hands of team leaders Sam, Greg, Andrea and Rachel and being on the rocks, no pun intended, felt great as the Sun shone upon us brightly.
Beginning with the Cactus cliff, we climbed at the Bank and the Gallery. Everywhere, we were surrounded by limestone walls and juniper forest. Climbers greeted us at most of the sites and so did their dogs! We would get up, have breakfast and hike up-to climbing sites. Next six hours would be spent in climbing, after which we would return to campsite. While half of us would light a fire to survive the cold, rest half would cook the dinner. We would cocoon ourselves inside our sleeping bags by 10 pm, some inside the tent, some preferring the open sky.
On day 1, we did a couple of 5.7s and couple of 5.8s. The first day was more about getting comfortable with the rocks and belaying. Cactus cliff was only a 15-20 mins hike away and that was our destination for that day. On all the days, team leaders lead climbed the routes and then we climbed on the top rope.
Day 2, the group got split up in two. One group wanted to learn the techniques of lead climbing while the other just wanted to climb a variety of routes, before committing itself to the challenges of lead climbing. I was in the latter group. We went to Cactus Cliff again, more specifically, the Green Pillar area. Green Pillar has one of the only two 5.5 routes at Shelf Road. Being the easiest climbing grade, the 5.5 up a route called Alexi’s Climb turned out to be a good warm up before we climbed two other 5.8s. Some climbers tried a 5.10, but I did not feel ready for it yet. I was comfortable on 5.8 routes, both of which ran parallel to big cracks in the cliff. It felt great to climb vertically up 60-70 feet, after so long a time!
On day 3 of climbing, weather took a turn for the bad. The forecast was for snowfall till afternoon and the clouds looked nasty. But we decided to give climbing in bad weather a shot. With the intention of packing up at any sign of heavy snow or rainfall, we hiked on the Sand Gulch trail towards one of the sites at the Gallery.The hike was a little strenuous than the previous days but at the same time, took us to even more beautiful territory. Finally we arrived at the climbing site – Cali Pinnacle. We went through some lessons on anchor building and then one of the leaders lead climbed to set up the route up the pinnacle. This was a very short route, but climbing a pinnacle, that too when a snow flurry is on, seemed exciting and when I actually got to the climb, it did not disappoint me. Climbing with hands that have become numb with cold was a new experience to me and I thanked my luck that the route was short. After the pinnacle, whose rating was 5.8, we also climbed two other 5.8 routes. That night, it snowed and the temperature went down to 17 F. The entire campsite was covered in snow the next morning.
Day 4 was the best among all 5 days for me, as I climbed y highest difficulty level so far and also did a mock climb on a 5.5 route. After doing a couple of 5.9+ routes without having a single fall, I was feeling confident and that led me to try my hand at lead climbing. Being a newbie to lead climb, I only did a mock lead, meaning, that I was still on a top rope while climbing and clipping the rope through the bolts. Day 4 was a very good learning experiencing and made me look forward to climb a 5.10 the next day.
Alas, at the end of that day, a muscle in my right shoulder got pulled badly. After climbing a 5.8 on day 5, that muscle went into a bad spasm, not letting me move my shoulder one bit. Even after trying to relax it through stretching exercises, it was in searing pain whenever I did a climbing move. I had to give up on the last day’s climbing and simply watch others do the some terrific climbing – 5.10c and 5.12 on that day. Just watching your fellow climbers struggle on those difficult routes and then finally make it to the top was a lot of fun too!
With all the camping, climbing, belaying, cheering, learning advanced techniques, cooking, chatting, tending to bruised fingers and enjoying the scenery, time passed quite fast and we were ready to pack up our tents in order to go back to the civilization. The trip had been nothing less than thrilling and we were always rewarded with spectacular views. The entire experience has only heightened my desire to do more of the same and keep climbing high!