SHIRTLESS, WITH MY EYES, hidden behind a pair of amber-hued aviators, I belayed Andy with my back to the wall. It was February and 60 degrees, and we were two Colorado College students out for a day at Shelf Road, just an hour from Colorado Springs. I basked in the sun’s warmth like a bear emerging from hibernation.
As Andy clipped the third bolt of the classic Tits Up (5.12b), three 30something members of the Boulder female wolf pack arrived, made adjustments to their hair and Verve costumes and tossed their ropes down at the Hot Beach Buttress. Scanning their left hands for rings or an indelible tan line, I confirmed my initial impressions: they were without handlers.
Intrigued by their total disregard of my presence, I, a good ol’ boy from the South, attempted to engage them with a hospitable greeting: “How’re y’all doing?”
Reticent responses ensued, promptly followed by this comment: “You’re giving the worst belay I’ve ever seen!”
Clearly, these women haven’t seen Dave Pegg belay, I thought.
I politely divulged my tanning strategy: back gets tan while climbing, chest gets tan while belaying. They sneered, but to me it made perfect sense. Cañon City, the town closest to Shelf Road, has the title for being the sunniest spot in Colorado—over 300 days of skin-scorching warmth. Besides, spring break was a month away and I needed to brown up.
By the time Andy reached the ground, I’d tamed the ladies, earning their trust with offerings of helpful beta and well-timed interjections in their discussion of Sex and the City. (My ex-girlfriend made me watch—I swear). Soon enough, the sun melted their icy hearts, and they joined us as we lounged around like lizards, unified by the beautiful, carefree setting and quality limestone routes that comprise the country’s first outdoor gym.
SHELF ROAD GETS ITS NAME from an old, rutty passage that snakes through the cliff line and connects Cañon City to the once prosperous gold-mining town of Cripple Creek. Constructed in 1864, Shelf Road was first a toll road: $1.75 for a six-horse stagecoach or 30 cents per horse. It provided crucial access north to Cripple Creek and the greater Arkansas Valley. The northbound trip, a 15-mile uphill slog, took approximately six hours to navigate, while descending southbound only took around four hours.
In the valley beneath Cactus Cliff, a log cabin, still there, served as the toll collector’s home. The first oil well west of the Mississippi is located close to where the pavement now turns to dirt. Today, Cripple Creek is a gambling haven for Front Range and Arkansas Valley residents, and in some ways the town’s history has always revolved around money and conflict.
In response to the Silver Panic of 1893—when gold replaced silver as the basis for U.S. currency—both Cripple Creek and Cañon City prospered. Cripple Creek retains a place in history for the violent strikes that occurred in 1903 when the miners’ union fought with fists, guns and explosives against the corporate interests that sought the union’s demise, resulting in over 30 deaths. People were gunned down in both the streets of Cripple Creek and in the mines themselves.
By the 1980s, Shelf Road had become a hotbed of conflict again, this time in the climbing world, and though not as bloody, the situation in this wild Western region became a significant turning point for American sport climbing.
Shelf experienced sporadic climbing development, mostly limited to traditionally protected cracks and corners, in the mid 1980s. The European limestone vision had not yet made its way across the Pond. In 1986 Dale Goddard, a svelte Colorado College student, spent a semester abroad in France and experienced the joie de vivre of climbing French and German limestone. Like a crusader returning from the Holy Land, this Lycra knight rappelled down and threw in the steel on what would become Line of Strength (5.12c) at the Dark Side.
At this point, sport climbing had technically already kicked off in the United States at Smith Rock, Oregon. In 1986, the beautiful sport-bolted arete of Alan Watts’ Chain Reaction (5.12c) appeared on the cover of Mountain Magazine, directing attention to Smith and attracting the French superstar J.B. Tribout to it as well. But while Smith is credited as the birthplace of American sport climbing, the rapid pace of development of Shelf Road may ultimately prove to have been more influential.
Goddard’s approach typified the early style of American sport climbing: seek out the most obvious and aesthetic shields of rock and place bolts sparingly. Taking it one step further, Bob D’Antonio, Rich Aschert, Dave Dangle and Daryl Roth looked past the most striking features and saw potential even on the more generic-looking faces, unearthing surprisingly fun climbing on pimpy pockets and technical footholds.
The scene at Shelf Road was a huge departure from the ground-up orthodoxy found at nearby mega-crags like Eldo and Pikes Peak. Whereas climbing in those areas demanded a certain degree of mental readiness, not to mention the hassle of more gear, Shelf was blithe, a place where climbers could just rattle off pitches. It expanded climbers’ perceptions of what the vertical experience could be and introduced the idea that there was room for both Eldo and Shelf within the spectrum of climbing.
Yet Shelf was hardly embraced widely, and the existence of this “trashy French crag” was one of the main cruxes of the trad versus rad arguments of the 1980s.
“The naysayers,” says D’Antonio, “were just scared that this new form of climbing would somehow dilute the purity of the entire sport.”
Now, over 20 years later, climbers seem to have a difficult time contextualizing the importance of Shelf Road.
“I can’t remember anyone thinking that Shelf was cutting edge,” says Boone Speed, one of the sport’s earliest developers and the first American to climb 5.14b. “It was just another place to go climbing and was compared to other mediocre areas like Cochiti Mesa in New Mexico.”
For a time, Shelf was deprived of the limelight due to its dearth of difficult lines. But while J.B. Tribout was getting busy at Smith with To Bolt or Not to Be, the first 5.14a on U.S. turf, a bevy of Shelf developers were frenetically establishing new routes of all grades.
Rick Thompson remembers that when the cordless power drill came on the scene, “the fever spread quickly.”
“Difficulty was not the deal,” says D’Antonio. “Quantity of routes was the deal.” D’Antonio estimates that hundreds of routes were put up in a mere year and a half.
Route names reflected the new style of climbing: The French Are Here, The New Ethic, The Gym Arete, My Generation. Members of today’s generation may have difficulty comprehending what a departure from the norm this style of climbing and these routes were. Most U.S. climbers at the time adhered to the Yosemite-bred view that climbers should establish routes ground up. The early developers of Shelf Road helped usher in a new vision: one that was less concerned with adhering to a narrow black-and-white style and more with just having fun outside. Even within its own sport-climbing sphere, Shelf Road followed that definition. The experience of enjoying a multitude of limestone routes in a picturesque Colorado setting trumped pursuing the limits of difficulty.
Shelf was also a place where standards for equipment were quietly developed. For economic reasons, many early developers used homemade hangers, often sparsely placed. Unimpressed, Colin Lantz bolted The Example (5.13a) in 1987 using bomber Metolius hangers.
For a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shelf enjoyed a prominence in the Colorado climbing community. Before the arrival of climbing gyms, it was a training ground for Front Range climbers. The use of a crag as a training ground, not just as proving ground, was also a new, subtle step. By the mid 1990s, Rifle Canyon had been discovered and climbers seeking optimal training began viewing Shelf as too slabby. Still, Daryl Roth, Dan Durland and Mark Van Horn kept busy at the North End and Great Black North, establishing climbs like The Function (5.11b), legitimately heralded as one of the best pitches in Colorado.
Today Shelf Road is more than a mere repository of routes equipped by power drills. Rick Thompson suggests Shelf should be viewed as a “mature climbing area, with a wealth of grades with modern gear and modern anchors” only made possible by climbers acting and being viewed by land managers as a responsible user group. In 1989, as soon as the first access issues arose with the initial closure of Cactus Cliff, developers began working with local land managers, the BLM in particular, to ensure that climbers’ access to the area would continue into the future—another significant precedent. The Access Fund’s acquisition of the Cactus Cliff in 1998 spurred a revival in route development, producing 200 new lines. The Access Fund’s Rick Thompson, Becky Hall and Michael Kennedy were integral players in raising the $140,000 necessary to acquire the 100-acre parcel, which includes Cactus Cliff, Spiney Ridge, The Vault and the southern half of the Gym. The Access Fund helped raise money and found public money from a BLM fund to acquire the parcel from a private landowner. Since then, the Access Fund conveyed the Cactus Cliff parcel to the BLM, which now manages the Cactus Cliff and the other areas of Shelf Road. Both the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, led by Mark Hesse, and the Access Fund continue to maintain the area during regularly scheduled trail days. Cactus Cliff still serves as an example of how climbers should interact with private landowners and public agencies.
A trip to Shelf Road today for many modern climbers, honed on infinitely overhanging limestone, is to cross a bridge from present to past. Yes, the routes are predominantly vertical, but retro is in. Those who demand steeper climbing can get after it on the classic testpieces Head Cheese (5.12d), Ejection Seat (5.12b/c), and Aggro Monk (5.13a). In March, Mike Anderson redpointed the region’s hardest line, Carnage (5.13d), a striking arete bolted in the early 1990s but unsent until now. Anderson, along with guys like Ben Schmitt, is among a new breed of local crushers who seem like the perfect, skillful contenders to finally give Shelf its first 5.14.
But even if Shelf never gets that distinction, it hardly needs it. Shelf is great and popular for its range of grades that accommodate parties of every skill level. It’s not uncommon for 5.9s to neighbor a bevy of classic 5.12s. In recent years, efforts have been made to replace and add existing bolts to easier routes, and to fix high-traffic ones. Camping is cheap ($4/night) and kid-friendly, and sites come with picnic tables, fire rings, grills and pit toilets. Access is stable and over 1,000 routes are spread among 11 distinct areas, with D’Antonio, Aschert and others still actively establishing new climbs. But most important, the “Sport Climbing is Neither” attitude once espoused by provocateur John Sherman, father of the bouldering V scale, has become passé—even the “Verm” himself now hangdogs on sport routes, in his helmet and idiosyncratic dual chalk bags.
With the sunny weather and the Sangre de Cristo mountains a scenic Colorado backdrop, Shelf Road has a timeless beauty that has outlasted the old arguments over style and ethics. Ultimately, the place speaks for itself.
Mason Baker, a graduate of Colorado College and the Gym of Shelf Road, attends law school at the University of Utah.