This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 206 (December 2012).
We skidded across the crusty gravel pullout, a cloud of our own dust billowing past the car. Across the valley, the walls of Thunder Ridge looked like a collection of slabby mounds—nothing like the granite heaven we had been expecting.
Over campfires in the Black Canyon, I had been regaled with stories of Thunder Ridge, my partners gushing over the steep granite patina that climbs like limestone, with gear and sport routes from 5.6 to 5.13, all soaring above young aspen groves. In turn I had convinced my visiting Canadian friend Gordon McArthur to join me in the 90-minute drive from my Denver apartment to check it out.
Now Gordon was equally underwhelmed, but we were here, so I shouldered my pack. I traversed the margin of the gated dirt driveway, unaware that I was hiking toward what would become my favorite crag in Colorado.
The climbers’ trail wound through the downed logs and torched remnants of 2002’s Hayman Fire. Thunder Ridge lies within the 215 square miles charred by Colorado’s largest single wildfire. Though today the landscape is open and bare, old-growth ponderosas obscured these walls when Steve Cheyney first arrived to scout the area in the late 1990s. He returned home, raving to his friends about what he’d seen. On his next available climbing day, Cheyney brought the prolific South Platte first ascentionist Kevin McLaughlin, perhaps best known locally for establishing the seven-pitch classic Shock Treatment (5.12+) on Big Rock Candy Mountain. On their first day together, McLaughlin and Cheyney established the obvious Reptile Tears (5.10+), going ground-up and experiencing the best 100 feet of climbing in the area.
After that, McLaughlin was hooked. Often joined by Glenn Schuler, McLaughlin spent every available day driving out from Colorado Springs to establish more climbs at Thunder. Now, more than a dozen scattered walls host some 200 routes, featuring everything from friction slabs to wild overhangs.
We approached the first of Thunder’s half-dozen major walls, passing beneath scorched pine trunks tilting menacingly on the slopes. I wondered if I’d brought Gordon on a wild goose chase. But upon reaching the Brown Wall, where Reptile Tears is located, we found ourselves already planning a return—even before roping up.
Alligator scales of patina covered the wall, creating obvious holds and the potential for gear-protected climbs despite a dearth of crack systems typical on granite climbs.
Standing below Reptile Tears, I recalled the superlatives of one South Platte devotee I’d met atop Cynical Pinnacle, who described this pitch as “the best 5.10 anywhere.” With no suggested rack (Thunder Ridge has no guidebook) and only two visible bolts high on the wall, I led up with trepidation and a full array of offset cams, ball-nuts, Tricams, and other Eldo-inspired funk pro.
But rather than fiddling in tiny gear, I pulled up on a jug and found myself facing a deep letterbox slot that swallowed any mid-sized cams. The route was a puzzle-board of incuts, laced with deep cracks that securely held mid- and large-sized wires, easily placed from good holds. I found myself climbing the protruding knobs, patina flakes, and occasional hand-jam with a gymnastic flow, reminiscent much more of limestone-and-fixed-draws than granite-and-stoppers.
After the first ascent, McLaughlin returned and added two bolts to the formerly runout headwall to entice the average 5.10 leader to continue all the way to the top. As my forearms grew tired amid the long pulls on the bulbs of tawny stone, the fixed pro kept my nerves in check. This final stretch of hero-climbing ended with a climactic pull up and over the wall. I lowered from the chains, already eager for another lap.
Find more beta on Reptile Tears, Thunder Ridge, and the whole South Platte area on MountainProject.com
Blake Herrington began climbing in Washington. He chased the sun (and his eventual wife) to Denver to wait tables between trips to Patagonia, Alaska and across the West.