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Flatirons Marathon

By: George Bell

Written March 2001; Climb Date 10/29/00

I like climbs that are long rather than extremely difficult. The Flatirons, above Boulder, Colorado, hold a huge number of easy routes, and are one of my favorite places to climb and explore. A group of friends, who call themselves "Satan's Minions Scrambling Club", get up very early on weekdays and knock off an easy Flatiron route (or several) before work.

The Minion's Bible (or Book of Armaments as we call it) is Gerry Roach's guide: Flatiron Classics. This book is currently out of print and it surprises me how many climbers have never even heard of it. The guide lists hundreds of routes up to 5.8, which is the upper level considered. The book is more about exploring the rock wilderness of the Flatirons than challenging yourself technically. Many of the climbs can be comfortably done without a rope.

As these Flatiron routes are not difficult, one way to make them more challenging is to do a lot of them in a short time. Years ago, one of the first such challenges was climbing all five Flatirons in a day (by the East faces, of course). This goal was inspired by an article in the CMC publication Trail and Timberline. This is an enjoyable goal, which wasn't too hard to complete.

More recently, the latest goal among the Minions was to climb all of Gerry Roach's *Top Ten* classics in a single day. Buzz Burrell first accomplished this feat (solo, around 1990) with a time of 15 hours and 15 minutes. Buzz is probably most well known as an ultra-runner, and holds the current record on the 480 mile Colorado Trail.

Climbing the *Top Ten* in a day is more of an aerobic endurance test than anything else. The climbs range from 5.0 to 5.7 and are from 1 to 13 pitches long. To get between them involves significant hiking. It turns out the total amount climbed (and descended) while linking these routes is over 8000 vertical feet. If done with conventional belays, the total number of pitches is over 50. However, many of these climbs are easy enough that they can be free soloed or simul-climbed, even by ordinary climbers like us.

In 1999, fellow Minions Bill Wright and Tom Karpeichik shattered Buzz's record with a car to car time of 10 hours 26 minutes. I wanted to do the *Top Ten* in a day as well, but had no desire to break any record. When climbing, I do not enjoy feeling rushed by time pressure. Sure, I like to fit a lot of climbing in before the sun sets, but I am not about to rush up the Third Flatiron just to see if I can shave a minute off my best time. My partner John "Homie" Prater agreed that we were just out to have fun and be safe, and hopefully complete all ten climbs before dark.

This challenge can only be done in the Fall, because several of the routes lie within the Peregrine Falcon restriction. This meant short days, but of course we carried headlamps. Two months before, John and I had both completed the Pikes Peak Marathon, which was probably ideal training for this adventure. Unfortunately, I hadn't done much training in the mean time. Although I have done quite a bit of climbing in the Flatirons, I had only done two of the *Top Ten* before our attempt. I suppose I was saving them to savor, or perhaps I assumed they were crowded. John, on the other hand, had completed all except the Maiden. He was thus the route finder on our team, as it was important to navigate quickly between the climbs, and locate the start of each climb without wandering around.

It was the last Sunday in October we decided to attempt the link-up (10/29/2000). Other than talk to Bill about getting between some of the routes, we didn't do much planning or scouting. I wasn't sure exactly the best way to get between some of the climbs, but we would figure it out. The general plan is to climb them consecutively from north to south.

5AM, I meet John in Eldorado Canyon. It is pitch black, and the parking lot is deserted. We leave a car there and drive over to Chataqua. We are in no hurry to start as sunrise isn't until after 6, and we don't want to start climbing in the dark. It is warmer than I had been expecting, perhaps 45 degrees and no wind. Our gear consists of a 60m 8mm rope, a small rack, and we are each carrying 3 liters of water and a small mountain of energy bars and gels. We both have daypacks and climbing shoes as well as hiking shoes. We later estimated that all the footwear changes probably cost us a half hour in total time (compared to Bill & Tom who did it all in approach shoes).

The adventure begins at 5:35 AM. We navigate by headlamp to the base of the First Flatiron. As I flake the rope out, it is just getting light enough to climb. We agree to simul-climb the route as one long pitch. John has done the route recently, and agrees to lead.

John ties in and rapidly works up the face. I have done the route many times and remember that the first pitch is the crux. I have never had the guts to free solo the route, but I have simul-climbed it several times. I'm not sure that simul-climbing it is that much safer, but it always feels that way at the bottom. I tie in about 30' short, as I know the rope drag can get nasty with 60m between us.

In only a minute or so John runs the rope out, and I take him off belay. Now we are really simul-climbing - moving at the same time. Immediately I become gripped wondering if I have started the smooth slab in the right place. Since I am only a few feet off the ground, I have nothing to worry about. But should I fall, I will yank John off, and he has run out 50' above his last piece. This fact makes me much more nervous than had I been free soloing at this point. I take my time, and convince myself that my feet are not going to slip. Soon I am moving more confidently upward. At this point my hand bumps into an eyebolt and I realize John failed to see it in the low light.

The rest of the climb goes quickly as we ascend the giant slab and then north ridge in the first rays of sun. I will never tire of climbing in the Flatirons, and the East faces have a particular ambiance at sunrise, almost as if they have been dipped in fluorescent pink paint. John keeps one piece between us most of the time and at the top the rack is pretty much gone. John threads the rope through the summit eyebolt, and we descend in one rappel. One down.

We quickly hike down to the base of the Third Flatiron. This is the most popular route in the Flatirons, but at just before 7 AM it is empty. This is the easiest route we'll do all day and we free solo up it quickly. We quickly rap and are back on the ground at the base of Friday's Folly.

Exiting the chimney onto the summit of Green Mountain This now exhausts the two routes I have done, the rest of the day will be new territory for me. I have looked at Friday's Folly many times on rappel but have never gotten on it. I lead up this one pitch beauty, John follows and we rap off.

Next we scramble down to the Royal Arch Trail, and up to Sentinel Pass. At this point we take a short break for water and food. I feel the fatigue of the two long climbs, but I still feel good. I will just have to take the rest of the day at a slow and steady pace. John is stronger and often outpaces me hiking between climbs, but he doesn't seem to mind waiting. Near Sentinel Pass we stash our packs and hike up to Green Mountain Pinnacle. We pause at the base of the route Death and Transfiguration, where 15 months earlier our friend Bill Wright had miraculously escaped death or even long term injury in a 75' groundfall.

With some helpful beta by John, the West Chimney goes quickly and we relax on the summit during what has become a perfect, clear day. This summit, it turns out, is the high altitude point for the day.

The next route is Stairway to Heaven, which lies a good distance south of us. If we bushwhack south from Royal Arch, we know that we can run into the top of it (Heaven). This is one of the trickiest route finding sections, but John does a great job locating Heaven. Here our strategy is somewhat bizarre we decide to down climb Stairway to Heaven. The reason for this is that we are at the top of the route. Fortunately this is one of the easier routes and John did it a few weeks ago so knows the tricky spots.

Downclimbing Stairway to Heaven Following John's lead, we work our way down the stairway. It's easy, but it seems we move more slowly than going up. I guess instead of climbing a stairway to Heaven, we are descending a stairway to well, better not think about that. We're descending a stairway to Skunk Canyon. In the middle, I take time out to visit the summit of Like Heaven, a spectacular intermediate pinnacle, but John has already been there and scouts down ahead. In retrospect this may not be much faster then descending, going up, and descending again, but it saves a lot of effort.

At the base of the route we stop again for water and food. It is now 10:20 AM, almost 5 hours since we started, and we have completed five of the ten climbs. This seems encouraging, but I know from Bill and Tom's account that the approaches between the next five are significantly longer. We will be lucky to make it before dark.

It is remarkable that we have not seen another climber on any of our routes. In fact, we have not seen any other climbers at all. The only people we have run into were on the Royal Arch Trail. We join the Mesa Trail briefly, but soon turn off to the Backporch. This route we do conventional style in 2 pitches. This is a good idea as I have not done the route before and find some sections crumbly, surprising for a *Top Ten* climb.

Two spectacular raps down the west side, and we race down to our packs. Well, not "race", our fastest pace at this point is a brisk walk (downhill). I am down to my last liter of water and wonder if we should get some water at Bear Creek (we have brought iodine tablets). But we figure we can make it to Bluestem Creek below the Fatiron.

The next two approaches each take over an hour, and here the length of our enterprise is really starting to wear on us. The climb out of Bear Canyon is much more noticeable than usual. Eventually we reach the base of Pallaea. Here we see the only other climbers we are to encounter the entire trip off to the right climbing difficult sport routes.

John isn't exactly sure where Pallaea starts. We find an easy spot, then I rope up, traverse left and follow a ridge upward. This climb isn't too hard except for a headwall near the start, and we simul-climb it as one pitch. Another quick rap and we grab our stashed packs and hike over to Bluebell Creek.

At this point I am beginning to seriously question if we can make it. We have been going for over 8 hours, it is 1:45 and I am out of water. My legs are starting to cramp up if I stop for long. This time of year the sun sets around 5, so we have only 4 hours left to do 3 routes with a lot of hiking between them.

Bluebell Creek is only a tiny trickle. I finally find a pool just below the trail that is a half-inch deep. By laying one water bottle in the pool, I transfer a cup at a time to another water bottle. In the middle of this two people on horseback come along the trail. I don't want to move, and the first horse is towering over me. Great, it's going to pee in the creek, I think. Is it safe to drink water contaminated by horse pee, if lots of iodine is added?

Fortunately, both horses hold their bladders (and bowels), but who's to say the last horse to pass this way did not? We get 2 liters of cloudy water and add 2 iodine tablets each. Soon we are plodding up to the base of the Flatiron. The Maiden We rope up and simul-climb the first section. It is smooth near the start with not much pro, but higher up becomes easier. When John is at the crux, I find myself trying to hang onto a good jug at all times. I did this on Pallaea as well. But John is solid.

After a short rap we free solo the next section. This climb is long and it is already evident the sun is getting low. Another short rap I begin to explore the best way to get down to the Maiden. A friend had warned me that this did not seem to be that easy. But it turns out if you go west over the ridge, you can scramble down to the Maiden.

At 3:25 PM, the Maiden is still in the sun, but not for long. The key to completing the *Top Ten* is the Maiden, we must summit this sucker before dark. I am sure we can make it, but John is not totally convinced and takes his headlamp on the climb (I didn't find out this out until later).

John leads the approach pitches to the Crow's Nest. Although Friday's Folly is rated the hardest, I think the Maiden is the crux of the *Top Ten*, especially if done on sight. Also, it comes at the end of our day and we are much more tired. I become confused after passing the tree and go too low. This works, but is probably harder than the normal route. John follows quickly, and I hope that we are back on track. The sun has left the Maiden and it is growing noticeably colder and windier.

The famous rappel from the Maiden. At 4:30 PM, we reach the top of the Maiden. It is clear at this point we are going to be climbing the Matron in the dark, but unlike the Maiden, this seems possible to me. The famous Maiden rappel can be done with a single 60m rope, although just barely. Mark Oveson had advised me of this point, and it is critical for making the *Top Ten* without carrying two ropes the whole way. John quickly leads back over the approach pitches to our packs.

We pack up and head over to the Matron. This is also quite a long hike and soon John is out of sight ahead. I hope he will wait for me at some obvious point so we do not become separated in the dark.

We reach the base of the last climb, the North Face of the Matron, at 5:30, almost exactly 12 hours after starting this adventure. At this point it is almost completely dark. I fit my headlamp to my helmet and start up. This is actually quite a good climb to do in the dark, because, unlike many Flatiron routes there is a lot of pro. I take my time and place lots of gear, there is no need to rush now that it is dark. At the belay, the wind comes up and I'm getting cold. The lights of Boulder are visible out on the plains. Soon John joins me and I continue up the East Ridge much easier but with less pro. I can't quite make the summit and set up another belay. John finishes the next short pitch to the summit.

We have made it! Well, almost. The raps could be a problem in the dark but they go without incident, because we have both done them many times during the day. John on the Summit of the Matron, 6:30 PM Down on the ground, we are ecstatic. I gulp down some of the horse piss water in celebration but John declines, knowing safer water awaits at the cars.

We slowly slog down the old Mesa trail to Eldorado, reaching the car at 7:41 PM, after 14 hours and 6 minutes total elapsed time. What really matters, though, is that we have lived a great and challenging day in the Flatirons. We set our goals high, and barely pulled them off. This is the essence of climbing for me.




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