IN THE UPPER REACHES OF Boulder Canyon, in an area called Upper Dream Canyon, is an awesome crack with a convoluted history. The story behind this beautiful feature is, in many ways, an allegory of modern rock climbing, beginning with its first ascent, 26 years ago, to when the crack was bolted, to this summer when Mike Patz climbed China Doll and its new extension in one long mega-pitch, entirely on traditional gear. The result is a 130-foot 5.14a with small pro and potentially dangerous runouts.
Located on the Lost Angel wall, possibly the region’s biggest and best chunk of granite, China Doll is already being hailed as Colorado’s most difficult trad pitch.
Kyle Copeland and Marc Hirt established China Doll in 1981, climbing the route to the top in five pitches at 5.9 A3+. Later, the first 25 feet were freed at 5.11, but left the wall’s most prominent feature, an increasingly steep, right-arching thin crack, open for a first free ascent.
In the late 1980s, Bob Horan worked this section on trad gear, and thought that it might be 5.13c/d. The gear was cruxy, so Horan added bolts to the route and sent the second pitch in 1996.
“In the past,” said Horan, “I have sent some beautiful lines with marginal gear, and they went unrepeated because of this. I felt, ‘What a waste. A beautiful line that only a few people will ever want to get up the nerve to send.’ After putting all that time into it, I figured why not make it so you can do it safely?”
With the new bolts, Horan thought China Doll might only be 5.13b, though it is now called 5.13c since a foothold fell off. Adam Stack eschewed the bolts for the route’s first traditional ascent. Despite his stylistic improvement, the bolts stayed in and China Doll remained a popular project for burly sport climbers.
As a clip up, China Doll ended at the anchors Horan had placed to work the moves out on toprope. As a trad climb, however, it ended arbitrarily, and there was an even harder-looking extension to the crack, one that had been spared the addition of bolts. Chris Weidner added an anchor at a good stance at the end of the splitter climbing, allowing FFA aspirants to try to free China Doll’s second pitch. Weidner, Mike Patz, Luna Keely and others tried, though honors again went to Adam Stack, who thought this extension by itself might be 5.13c/d.
Patz, for one, thought the crack should be climbed in modern trad style: as one long pitch, with gear placed on lead. “At the time, I could not fathom myself doing it,” he said. “I thought Adam, a 5.14+ climber, would go ahead and do it. But Adam didn’t take it on.”
Mike Patz, 23 years old, is quiet and intensely driven. He grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado, one of the most underrated climbing towns in the country, with easy access to desert cracks, the Black Canyon and Rifle. Patz became an accomplished trad and sport climber, with ascents like Zulu (5.14a) at Rifle under his belt.
Patz sent the bolted section of China Doll, clipping the steel, in 2004. He began working on linking the upper headwall this spring with Brian Kimball, also a Colorado native and a good sport climber gone trad.
Kimball became the first to link the complete China Doll in one long pitch on toprope, and thought it was solid at 5.14a. Though Kimball appeared closer to the FFA, it was Patz who freed the full version first on June 5.
Bill Ramsey belayed the ascent. “When I had belayed Mike on an earlier attempt, he protected the crux sequence with two nuts. On the send, he put in only one, and then went for it. At one point, he was looking at about a 40- or 50-foot fall onto a ramp. I was very happy not to find out what would’ve happened.”
Patz says he wouldn’t mind if someone removed Horan’s bolts, but because they were placed off to the side, he was never distracted by their presence. “I originally [used the bolts] and it was a nice route. But there are so many bolted climbs of all grades, while China Doll is a rare gem. A beautiful, sustained and protectable hard trad climb.”
He would mind, however, if someone decided to continue the bolt line up his extension.
“That would be horrible! Trad climbing is still rock climbing, and rock climbing is supposed to be hard! Trad climbing at your redpoint limit is a really rewarding form of climbing. I don’t know whether it was wrong to bolt China Doll 11 years ago, but given today’s standards, it is clearly wrong to bolt a splitter crack that takes bomber gear.”
Patz is slated to attend medical school at Harvard University this fall.