South Platte Climbing: The Northern Volume—A Review
On day 100, or maybe it was 200, or 250, or 300—hell, who’s counting?—Jason Haas’ dog refused to get into the car for another guidebook-researching trip to the South Platte, a vast, wild, forested region dotted with granite domes and crags southwest of Denver, Colorado. Haas’ beater Saturn, which could barely power up the region’s steep dirt roads anymore was so trashed it was leaking exhaust into the backseat. The dog couldn’t breathe, and wasn’t getting in the car again. Not this time, no way. Forget it!
By the time it was all said and done, Haas had climbed 1,487 of the nearly 1,600 routes described in his, Ben Schneider, and Craig Weinhold’s new guidebook South Platte Climbing: The Northern Volume ($38.95, on sale early May 2012, fixedpin.com/The_South_Platte.html), which offers 432 big, beautiful, glossy, full-color pages for an area, often cloaked in secrecy, that’s not seen a comprehensive new guide in years. To complete the book, Haas logged 15,000 miles of driving and spent 430 days on the stone, 100 of those with his wife; he also established first ascents that included a 5.14a and a 5.13c crack, and a few off-route death climbs he strayed onto trying to find existing lines. Haas’ partners logged a total of 300 days combined, and the crew often climbed in small packs, descending “brushfire style” on a cliff to check out as many routes as possible and snap photos. Their endeavor took 4.5 years: almost half a decade. In a region where the approaches, history, beta, and first-ascent provenance are often cloaked in provincial obscurity, theirs was a massive undertaking. The Southern Volume, with hundreds more climbs, is still to come and will offer similar challenges.
The Platte is most known for the Cathedral Spires, a beetling of vertigo-inducing pinnacles up a grueling gravelly hill above the South Platte River, and their centerpiece Cynical Pinnacle, with the four-pitch Wunsch’s Dihedral, often called the best 5.11 in Colorado. Then there’s the famously manmade (but now closed) Sphinx Crack, one of America’s early 5.13s, cragging destinations like Turkey Rocks and Thunder Ridge, epic-big multi-pitch domes like Big Rock Candy Mountain, and so much more. An infinity of granite, really. The catch is, “the Platte” isn’t one single set of cliffs but instead a region so vast and with its rocks so spread out, often way into the woods or up some axle-snapping dirt road, that you pick one as your destination and go only there. If you can find it.
I had a typical “Platte day” lost in the trees, pissed off and overheating, two years ago. It was a day that this book—with its crag GPS coordinates, approach photographs, detailed road and cliff maps, and full-color photo-topos—will beautifully and finally obviate. Navigating off some terse, crappy, four-line Web description that listed only a handful of climbs, four of us tried to find our way to Asshole Rock, up off Forest Road 550 in the Buffalo Creek area. One hour passed, two, as we made moron circles in the woods, scrambling onto boulders to look for something—anything—resembling a cliff. Finally, we found the climber’s trail, but by then the dogs had drank all the water, the sun burned high and bright in a clear June sky, and it was time to go back to camp and drink. Well, page 231 of South Platte Climbing: The Northern Volume would have rendered a much different “Platte day”: as an example, it features photos of the parking lot, forks labeled in the approach trail, both facets of the rock with route lines drawn and numbered on, and detailed beta for the crag and its sixteen climbs, including pitch lengths, sun/shade aspect, a grade breakdown, star ratings, and a tick checkbox. All of the amenities of the modern, full-color, full-service guidebook are presented in a logical, clear, easy-to-use format. With essays from Platte pioneers and tons of juicy action and historical shots, this book is treasure. It is a labor of love that climbers will love and appreciate.
The Platte tends toward slab and crack climbing, and is thus not for everybody. If you don’t like long approaches, raw elements (sun and wind), sometimes grainy or crystalline rock, runouts, mankous old bolts, and a general atmosphere of funk, the Platte on the whole won’t appeal to you, though the true classics should speak to everybody. The book does, however, also include the sport climbing of Devil’s Head up on the Rampart Range Road, with steep fins of red-brown and orange granite equipped with hundreds of modern sport climbs from 5.7 to 5.13. (Devil’s Head is also wonderfully detailed in Rampart Range Rocks by Tod Anderson, one of the area’s prime developers and its main motivating force.) By Haas’ account, there are as many prospective climbs left in the Platte as there are ones that have been completed. Now, with Fixed Pin’s stellar guidebook in play, perhaps more climbers will be encouraged to get out and explore.
A Q & A with Jason Haas
The Platte history (chopping, secretiveness, old-school crust) must have made research tough. How did you get the saltier locals to help out?
That was a real bitch. It was like hierarchy—no one would talk to me at first. Slowly I would get through to someone on the fringe, sort of low on the totem pole and then go from there. Crusher [Steve Bartlett, author of Desert Towers] was a huge help, as he wasn’t really a Platte climber but was friends with a bunch of them. He “vouched” for me, and then Noel Childs talked to me. After that, a bunch more guys talked to me. It was like that with everyone, from Peter Hubbel [author of the 1998 Platte guide] on down to the most obscure first ascentionist. The Platte is a weird place and attracts really weird people. Think of it this way: climbing used to be a fringe activity back in the 1950s, sort of counterculture. Then it became more mainstream from the 1970s onward. Well, all those fringe people with the 1950s mentality climb in the Platte. All of them!
I didn’t quite realize how vast the area was and how much potential it had,
even though I’ve climbed there a fair handful of times. Is it as endless as
Yep. The first time I went to Thunder Ridge, I looked at it from the parking lot, which is a mile and change away, and just said, “Crap.” It looks like a pile of choss from far away. Actually, even up close a lot of it looks like it might break off when you touch it. Then you touch it and realize that it’s bomber and amazing to climb on. The problem is that that heap looks like every other granite blob scattered throughout the Platte. Some pan out, some don’t, but they are everywhere and you can’t tell if they are any good until you touch them. If you were into bolting slabs, there’s another thousand routes on unclimbed formations that I am personally aware of waiting to be done. That’s not even talking about adding routes to existing/documented formations. It’s ridiculous. But… slab climbing went out with the 1980s, so it’ll be a trickle for a while. I personally haven’t seen another true Thunder Ridge, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. For the book, we started with a “brushfire” mentality, trying to climb everything whether it was documented or not. After awhile it felt like we were never getting closer to the end as the book just kept getting bigger and bigger, so I just started drawing “undone” or “unclimbed” in description photos to encourage others to get some FAs in.
Will the Southern Volume be just as big, and are you guys off and running already? When will it come out?
Here’s why we didn’t include everything in one volume: The Hubbel book shows 300 routes in the southern area not listed in our northern volume, most of which is at Turkey Rock. No big deal right? Here’s the kicker— Hubbel gave me three overstuffed three-ring binders and about 50 CDs documenting over 700 more FAs of his that are not in any book. Most were in an area he wasn’t done developing when his book came out so he kept it a secret. Plus I know a few hundred other routes people haven’t put online or in a book. And then there’s Thunder Ridge. Yeah, it’s a big volume. We are off and running with big chunks of Turkey, Thunder, and Big Rock Candy Mountain documented. We’re hoping to be done writing it in two years.
Anything to add?
I’ll also say this—I personally climbed 1,487 of the routes (the other guys climbed about 100 more that I didn’t, but I couldn’t say how many routes each one did; they aren’t as OCD about keeping track as I am). The two scariest climbs I did were actually first ascents due to misreading topos in Hubbel’s book. Check out page 103, the route “Being Thorough Will Get You Killed.” I honestly thought this was an established line, and both Ben and our friend Dan [Hickstein, who just completed The Mountain Biker’s Guide to Colorado) wouldn’t even follow me on it. Never thought I’d seriously get hurt or killed while doing a hand crack until then. Oh well—hopefully it’s beta like that that will keep others from potentially getting hurt. There were of course plenty of other diamonds in the rough, both with new routes and established lines people hadn’t heard about. I hope this book helps people find more classics and really get to experience how wild the Platte is.