Genesis of the Choss Boys

Red Rocks is famous throughout North America for its beautiful, tall sandstone multipitch climbs. Epinephrine is one of the most classic routes that everyone talks about. A 2000 foot high climb which includes almost 500 feet of amazing chimney climbing. Epinephrine tops out at the very summit of Black Velvet peak. Routes that finish with a summit are rare in Red Rocks, which I initially found surprising. Almost all of the most classic multipitch routes are descended with double rope rappels, which saves the time and energy of walking all the way back down to your car from the top of a mountain.

Most of us who went on the trip were fascinated by Epinephrine for various reasons. For some, the sheer challenge of climbing 2000 feet was enough. Others seemed to be excited to try out the famous chimneys. For me, I was possessed with the idea of bagging a summit. From the first morning that we awoke and looked up at the peaks around us from the motel parking lot, I knew I had to stand on top of one of these beautiful mountains.

Some of the crew managed to tear their eyes away from the mountains long enough to mess around with the local peacocks.

After getting our first taste of Red Rocks’ multipitches on day two, Daniel and I decided to avail of the excessive amounts of trad equipment that ended up in the motel room, and try some single pitch trad routes. So, on day three, I led my first real trad climb. After belaying Donavan while he cruised up this 5.8+ crack, I decided it couldn’t be too bad to lead. Cocky and undaunted, I set off up the climb. Very quickly, I realised that I had gotten into a real battle. After spending about 30 minutes on the 100 foot pitch, I nearly fell twice on hasty placements I had run out. I flopped, exhausted, onto the finish ledge. Daniel decided to take a different approach. He coaxed both Donavan and Jared into belaying him simultaneously on top rope and lead while he climbed the entire pitch, taking screaming whippers on every single piece of gear he placed. After hearing of this, Dave declared that Daniel was “an adrenaline junkie.”

With the experience gained on the previous day, Daniel and I decided to go ahead and attempt our first ever trad multipitch on day four. We set out with the modest ambition of topping out a two pitch 5.6 climb called Physical Graffiti. At the top of the endless 180 foot second pitch, I built my first ever trad anchor. We then hiked up to one of Red Rocks’ most famous crack climbs and got inspired watching both Donavan and Dave flash The Fox, a 140 foot beast of a climb, that gradually expands from a finger crack into a heinous offwidth at the top. I felt the allure of the challenge and decided to try the climb as well. After leading up as far as the hand crack, I discovered how insane 5.10 crack climbing really is. I was lowered off the climb, humbled.

By the fifth day, Daniel and I knew that it would not be realistic for either of us to climb Epinephrine. Dave and Donavan were the only ones who were fast enough and had experience leading on trad to finish the massive route in a day. As they made plans to climb Epinephrine on day six, Daniel and I got inspired to attempt a route which would be as challenging for us as epinephrine would be for Dave and Donavan. Looking in the guidebook, we identified two climbs on the black velvet wall which would be a real test of our skills: Prince of Darkness, a 5.10c mostly sport multipitch, and Dream of Wild Turkeys (DOWT), a 5.10a mostly trad multipitch. After a short discussion, influenced by the seemingly vast amount of trad climbing experience we gained over the past two days, we knew we had to accept the challenge of DOWT.

The climb is 1150 feet, and both of the cruxes are protected by bolts. We figured that because we were only doing 11 pitches instead of Dave and Donavan’s 18, we would be finished significantly earlier than them. Since we were to set out with them at 5:00 am, somehow the idea started forming between us that, rather than rappelling from the end of the route, we could scramble up from the top of the climb and meet Dave and Donavan at the summit.

Despite apprehensions from Dave, Daniel and I stubbornly researched the climb and read accounts from people who had summited Black Velvet peak from the top of DOWT. By the eve of day five, our plan was to finish the climb. Then we would assess, based on how much time we had and what the climbing looked like, whether we would rappel or push for the summit.

Full of optimism and caffeine, the four of us set out at 5:00 am from the motel to go to our respective climbs. The “road” into Black Velvet canyon tested Daniel’s rental sedan to previously inconceivable limits. The walk to the base of our climb took roughly 80 minutes, and our two parties split ways with a few mumbled encouragements. Daniel and I began the climb around 7:30 am.

The crux pitch of DOWT is pitch 4, a 180 foot 5.10a which starts in an exposed offwidth crack, and finishes with 5.10a face moves above the crack. As I set out to lead the massive pitch, I knew that my pathetic conceptions of what run out trad climbing was would have to be greatly exceeded. After about 90 feet of what I figured was pretty run out offwidth thrutching, I came upon an awkward belay stance protected by rusted quarter inch bolts (most people apprehensively trust them with holding body weight today). I moved on about 30 feet past the antiquated belay, and managed two marginal placements before accepting that I didn’t have nearly enough gear to make it to the bolts. I down-climbed and built a gear anchor to back up the old bolts. While I built the anchor, Daniel and Wilhelm decided a photo shoot was in order.

Daniel ended up climbing up to me, filling the rack, and charging on to send the final crux of the pitch. Around pitch 7 or 8, we were able to spot Dave and Donavan on the wall above us. They were way ahead of us. Likely due to the shenanigans involved in building a bomber gear belay half way up pitch 4. We took this picture of them on the wall above us… Yes that small orange pixel is Dave’s helmet.

We topped out our climb at 4:40 pm, and were at what we thought was the end of our difficulties that day. After a few celebrations for sending the climb, we had a quick phone call with Dave and Donavan, congratulated them on their send, and informed them that we were “only 1000 feet from the summit.” Dave seemed particularly thrilled to hear this. All four of us had run out of water by this point.

The wind was picking up, so it was starting to get pretty chilly with the wall completely in the shade. Daniel and I went onto simulclimb. Daniel was so confident that he decided to put on his approach shoes, which meant that I had to lead the way in my climbing shoes. I was wearing his 8 year old, twenty dollar, long sleeve shirt to keep me warm while he suffered in my very warm down jacket. As we blundered on past our last hope of a safe rappel, we were optimistic that the summit would be reached in an hour, and we return to the car before dark.

We couldn’t have underestimated the final 1000 feet more drastically.

What we expected to be a long and easy scramble to the top quickly turned into a drawn out head game. The “rock” after the end of the proper climb set a new standard for choss piles. The mostly 5th class climbing felt like a minefield, where every hand and foot hold was liable to crumble to dust and pitch us off the climb. Entire boulders sat perched on little more than a crumbling pile of loose earth. The best protection I could find involved slinging half dead shrubs clinging desperately to the loose choss built up inside shallow cracks. We shimmied up the climb with painstaking precision and delicacy. The climbing was easy, but we ended up climbing about 6 more true pitches and 4 simul pitches after topping out DOWT. By 8pm the sun had set, it was cold, and Daniel and I huddled together on a ledge to finish off our food. Daniel gave me back my warm puffy jacket for a short amount of time. We had no idea how much climbing was left before the summit, but we knew that the only way down was up.

After putting Daniel’s battered old shirt back on and shivering a moment to get used to the cold, I led one more pitch after the ledge, with about 3 marginal placements in 60 feet. At the top was a broad and very exposed ledge. The wind was howling at 70km/h and I was freezing cold. I yelled out to see if Dave and Donavan were nearby. To my relief, Donavan’s headlamp appeared just 50 feet above me; Daniel and I had nearly reached the top.

As I belayed Daniel up to my ledge, Donavan and Dave built an anchor at the top. Donavan rappelled down and greeted me with a casual “hey, what’s up?” We used his rope to ascend to the top. I went up the rope first and discovered Dave shivering with his back pressed into a very small alcove of rock, just enough to escape the wind. I quickly joined him and huddled up to try to get warm again. When Daniel joined us, toasty warm in my belay jacket, we cordially requested that he join our huddle to lend us some of the excessive heat he was generating. Instead, he handed over Wilhelm, and sat perfectly content and exposed in the freezing wind.

Without Wilhelm we have have been frozen

With a little desperate route finding, the four of us made it back to the car slightly winded, and a little thirsty. By the time we arrived back at the motel past midnight, our friends had ordered several large pizzas. I had been fantasizing about the tap in the hotel room for about 5 hours. As soon as we got through the door, I charged straight for the sink, opened my mouth under the faucet, and soaked up the water like a dry sponge. After the others had quenched their thirst, we tore into the pizzas like savages (except Dave, who preferred a banana).

The 20 hour day out was the biggest of our lives, and Daniel and I learned quite a lot about multipitch and trad climbing. We underestimated the slog to the summit from DOWT, got benighted, and for a moment, feared for our lives. Dave and Donavan ended up waiting almost 4 hours for us at the top in the freezing cold with no water. But even though Dave had his reservations about us topping out from DOWT, he and Donavan have barely mentioned the fact that we kept them waiting for so long in such desperate conditions. So, thanks Dave and Donavan for putting up with our silly ambitions, and for sticking with us all the way to the end in such great spirits. We owe the success of the day to you.

Black Velvet Peak, as seen from the road


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