Grand Junction lies just beyond the detritus in the Grand Valley, a 30-by-five-mile desert carved by the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, which happily clasp hands here, turning the lifeless soil into an oasis with lush orchards of peaches, grapes, pears and apples. Dubbed the unofficial capital of Western Colorado, GJ is home to some 46,000 doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, hippies, hipsters, goths, old people, soccer moms, farmers and vintners. I often wonder, beyond more obvious job reasons, how my parents, who were reared in small-town Connecticut and the Chicago suburbs, came to call the place home. I also wonder how it shaped my interests. Would I have gotten into climbing, biking and homemade dynamite if I were from Boston? Or would I now be playing lacrosse and attending regattas?
What surrounds us shapes who we are, and Grand Junction has made me a climber. Just what is Grand Junction climbing? It’s many things, from desert towers to town boulders pocked with bullet holes. You don’t hear much about Grand Junction, but its diversity and quantity of rock is staggering. Besides the sandstone towers and canyon walls of Colorado National Monument to the west, you have Unaweep Canyon to the south and its hundreds of Dakota sandstone blocks. About 20 miles in, the canyon morphs into towering granite walls that are the spitting image of the Black Canyon, but without the heinous approach.
In good years, there’s even ice climbing in Unaweep, up on the nearby Grand Mesa and in the Monument. In February of our junior year in high school, my friend Craig and I racked up three Smiley ice screws, a rope, some webbing, one Screamer and two joust-sized Alpamayo axes, which together made one good set of tools. No Thoroughfare Canyon (WI III) in the Monument had supposedly formed into a solid 130-foot ice fall for the first time in a number of years, and we were determined to crush it.
Craig showed up early and I wasn’t ready. I instantly recognized a superior smugness that Craig felt upon his tacit acceptance of the early preparedness award. But the award was not without consequence, spurring a mental lapse in Craig that didn’t become apparent until we reached the base of No Thoroughfare after hiking for 45 minutes.
I left the rack on your kitchen table, he said.
Well, that kind of fucks us, I said.
We decided there were two options. We could either go back and get the rack, or whoever’s fault it was in the first place could solo the climb and set up a toprope. Craig affixed his semi-flexible crampons and stuck his hands through the homemade webbing loops on the axes. I pinched the rope through an ATC and started dishing out slack. With the form and power of a T-jacked East German Olympian hucking a javelin for a world record, Craig inserted about five inches of axe pick into the base of the ice fall. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen someone swing a 75-centimeter Alpamayo axe into a wall of ice, but it generates the force of a sledgehammer. Craig now looked like a Germanic warrior wielding two giant weapons, only one was stuck in the dragon’s mouth and he couldn’t get it out. I let go of the rope and helped him tug on the stuck axe.
Hello, came a voice. The two of us turned but saw nothing. Then, from behind the stark shrubbery, out stepped this square-jawed dude who I swear was Kurt Russell from the movie Backdraft.
How you boys doin’? he asked.
We were both still on our knees trying to extract the tool from the ice. Kurt Russell was wearing a plastic helmet and squinting toward the top of the ice fall as if it were the sun beating down on the open range.
Jesus, Russell said. You boys planning on going up that thing or bringing it down to you?
Up, Craig said.
Tell you what, said Russell. I’ll get a rope up on the anchor, then you boys can use my tools to yo-yo it.
He fastened his crampons to his plastic boots and pulled out a set of ice tools that looked like toys compared to ours. Our new leader flaked his rope and examined the points of his ice tools. He tied in and handed me a loop of slack.
Then the bushes began to rattle again and a couple of other figures emerged, two guys in caution-yellow jumpsuits and backpacks the size of trash cans.
Whoa. Looks like someone diverted some water there at the top, the first stranger said. He wore round glasses and had shaggy blond hair.
I did that, Russell said.
Really, you did that? the guy said.
Yeah, I did that, Russell said again. Then he began climbing. He had no ice screws, and when he reached the halfway point, we realized that he was going straight to the top without placing anything. That’s when the shaggy-blond guy began releasing his onslaught of disapproval.
This is a bad situation. I hate it when a single person compromises everyone’s time by taking risks. This is a bad omen. We should always use protection. It’s so selfish. One person out to ruin everyone’s time.
From that point on, our leader pretended that the guy with the shaggy hair and strong opinions did not exist.
Initially I thought that there was some merit to what Shaggy was saying, but as Russell began climbing, I realized that Shaggy’s skills didn’t compare to Russell’s, who hadn’t swung his axes the entire climb, and instead set the picks in holes and pulled. One solid kick and stand up. I considered that Russell probably felt safer not being attached to Craig or me.
When Shaggy started, he placed about 10 screws in 20 feet, including one at his waist while still on the ground. He jabbered to his partner the whole time, and as he climbed higher and higher, the hooting and hollering started back up. He was so amped by the time he reached the top that he was congratulating everybody on such a fine day and seemed to have forgotten entirely about Russell’s solo. Craig and I took turns running up and down the ice fall. We felt lucky. A couple of dumbasses who forgot their gear and got a free clinic from Kurt Russell.
Over the centuries, inspired explorers of the West have concocted numerous stunts out in the desert, but none more so than John Otto, who arrived in Grand Junction in 1906. Maybe the sun warped Otto or maybe he was just a raving fruit from the start, but he absolutely fixated on the 20,000 acres of sandstone canyons and towers on Grand Junction’s western outskirts. In a manic fit he took a miner’s hammer and bit and hand-drilled a ladder of two-inch steel pipes into the 557-foot Independence Monument, the area’s largest freestanding formation. Otto, who knew nothing about climbing, swung untethered from pipe to pipe, using a leg wrap to steady himself and free his hands for the Lord’s work. As Otto toiled away on the tower, his wife, in a fit of neurotic patriotism, carved much of the Declaration of Independence on one of the flat boulders near the tower’s base.
Otto sank the last pipe home on Flag Day, 1911, just in time to hoist a 6- by 12-foot Stars and Stripes atop the sprawling, mesa-like summit. His ascent and the media attention it generated helped the area become one of our first national monuments.
In the 1920s the Park Service removed Otto’s pipe, but today Otto’s Route (5.9) is a classic all by itself, giving untold climbers their first sweet taste of desert-tower adventure, albeit on a pegboard of old drilled holes. To this day, on every July 4, climbers swarm the tower like red ants on a watermelon, and hoist Old Glory, rekindling the madness of a climbing original.
The Colorado National Monument, just a few miles outside town, remains the setting for some major freak-show epics. It’s a popular spot for suicides, who regularly plunge their cars off the canyon’s rimrock road, and home to multiple pitches of abundant sandstone on towers such as Sentinel Spire, with its moderate Fast Draw (5.10a) and not-so-moderate thin-hands gem Medicine Man (5.12c); Bell Tower, where you find the Monument’s best 5.11, the Long Dong Route; and Clueless Tower, where Get a Life (5.12c) has been favorably compared to Moab’s Primrose Dihedrals.
The first rock band of most Monument climbs is a pitch of red chile, basically loose dirt shedding itself onto the canyon floor at many times the erosion rate of the sandstone atop. It’s like having a whale balanced on top of a sandcastle, with someone digging away from beneath. Somewhere along any given Monument route, you’ll probably pull off a flake or two, and that’s when you realize that not a whole lot of people have been up there. My reaction is to peer around the canyon abyss looking for someone to blame. I hear no reply but the sound of my own breathing. I get it. It’s the Monument saying, That’s right, you silly bitch. And if you come again tomorrow, the same thing is going to happen. We’ve got rock to spare, so don’t blame anyone but yourself.
One harrowing reminder of Monument erosion is the cap of Sentinel Spire lying upside-down right near the base. I don’t think anyone has ever checked to see if there’s a climber under it.
Then there’s the inevitable pitch of flaring offwidth. If for some reason you’re on a climb in the Monument and think you’ve finally found a route that doesn’t have a flaring offwidth on it, brace yourself, because like Zulu warriors, the flaring offwidth is always lurking just around the bend.
Despite the sometimes (OK, usually) chossy starts and the ubiquitous wide crack, the climbs of the Monument are breathtaking and still pretty untapped. Think Arches outside nearby Moab, but with more climbable towers, far fewer tourists and none of the hassle.
The bouldering is adventurous, you have to thrutch about the canyon and possibly even camp for a night to find the good ones, although some of the best are within spitting distance of the road. Just get out and stumble around the pi±on and juniper. Start at Mecca, about 10 miles into the canyon at the scenic overlook with the interpretive sign and work your way down.
Rock quality, like our very society, varies from sucky to five-star, but the bouldering gets a bad rap for being chossy and soft, usually from folks too lazy to look or too dumb to see. Certainly, there’s a lot of swine among the pearls, but pick around and you’ll find the goods.
Usually, the bouldering is slightly to very overhanging, on fine-grained, skin-friendly jugs, crimps and pockets. One boulder, Fossil Rock, comes complete with the imprint of a dinosaur bone. That hold is off.
My buddy James is fun to boulder with in Unaweep because his energy is endless and he constantly reassures me that all of my ascents are between V6 and V9. James is not afraid to push it on untouched rock, won’t hesitate to scout for the entire day, and on rest days goes up there with a few tools to make things a bit more pleasant for the rest of us. Sometimes I catch glimpses of his work: faint trails outlined with tiny rocks or a sharp boulder neatly rolled away from a landing. A few of the more modern classics, which probably have an assortment of aliases, include Constellation (V3), Airhorn (V6), Bucket Racer (V5) and Garden Party (V7). All of these problems are located about six miles from the east entrance on the south side of highway 141, with the exception of Airhorn, which is located several miles farther on the south side of the highway at the large parking lot. I mention these areas because they are worth exploring no matter what, and if you actually find any of the aforementioned boulders, feel free to rename them and claim first ascents, just as everyone has been doing for the past 20 odd years.
Nobody cares how Unaweep Canyon was formed, because right now there’s climbing in it and that’s all that matters. However, an interesting theory is that both the Colorado and the Gunnison rivers once flowed through the canyon at the same time; then as the canyon rose up near its center, the rivers changed courses and began work on the Grand Valley. Driving west several miles south past the bouldering area, you see Unaweep’s geology go through an abrupt change. Red chile appears at the base of some of the sandstone walls, then suddenly the canyon becomes granite, specifically schist, gneiss and pink pegmatite. A geologist once noted that the granite at the same altitude, sitting above the sandstone, constitutes a major geological anomaly, which permits something quite exceptional of a morning of multi-pitch granite followed by an afternoon of sandstone bouldering, followed by an all-night rager on Main Street in GJ.
The Hidden Valley, Sunday and Fortress Walls boast many pitches of granite climbing, serpent-like and rounded, sometimes peeling away as gneiss knows how to do, with a small array of vegetation, though not unwelcome, dotting the routes. Sweet Sunday Serenade is the classic (5.9) intro route to Unaweep, commanding some of the sweetest real estate on the centrally located Sunday Wall.
Immediately north and just east of Grand Junction, passers-by will briefly note the mud towers of Mount Garfield, the world’s largest flat-topped mountain. Jutting from Garfield’s shale-gray flanks and just yards off I-70 are dozens of ominous, gray hoodoos. Ascending these things involves any number of creative tactics ranging from ice tools to tent stakes to lariats. A very bored Pete Takeda kicked off climbing here one sizzling summer in the early 1990s, but lately the ex-pat Brit Paul Ross has taken a shine to the shale towers, bagging a dozen or so of these things of beauty, as he calls them. Some are so delicate, thin and precarious you’d swear a stout fart could topple them. Ascending these towers is like drinking Listerine instead of fine single malt, an acquired, if perverse taste.
Whatever your desires, don’t expect anyone to care. The Grand Junction climbing community, despite having an 80-member access coalition, is scattered and diverse. There’s no real scene and there won’t be any spray down in the bar afterward.
You have to get into climbing [here] because you like climbing, says local Mike Patz.
But, if there were ever an environment to support the independent climber, the desert around Grand Junction is it. The days are committing and unpleasant enough to filter out anyone who doesn’t actually enjoy the solitary challenge. A giant canvas awaits the brush of sovereign climbers. To repeat these works is to bear witness to the creative, though not always elegant, spirit of exploration.
What is it about these monument canyons, desert mud towers and remote reject walls that magnetizes these artists? There are plenty of climbs elsewhere that are not so remote and do not necessitate an arsenal of ascensionist trickery. The desert is beautiful, yet simultaneously eerie, gross and uninviting. When you are there, especially in the more desolate, less colorful parts, you’ll find yourself harboring simultaneous love and hatred for it. The freedom offered by the landscape is comfortable and accommodating, and offers an important aspect to the climber’s education.
Climbers I know from Grand Junction all retain the grit they gained from their original years of working hard. It is climbing the hard way, with no social reward to greet you in the end. Junction climbers carry with them a special ability to create and live through unusual climbing adventures. Thisskill carries over well into other facets of the sport, whether mountaineering in Pakistan, skiing in the Chugach, sport climbing in Rumney, or gaining an irrevocable membership in a religious cult in South America. Climbing in Grand Junction is like swinging two bats in the on-deck circle, then stepping into the batter’s box of some crag elsewhere in the world and thinking it’s all pretty straightforward.
Still, it’s never hard for me to leave Grand Junction. I have all the respect for the Junction lifers,ho couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to get Western with first ascents. But after a few days, a bit of nostalgia and a re-acquaintance with the harsh lessons of the desert, I’m ready to go. As I drive south toward the ragged outline of the San Juans, the air cools, the road gains altitude and the red desert sand gets blasted off the windshield by a violent mountain squall.
David Roy resides in Durango, where he is busy applying to medical school.