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
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
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.
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.
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
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. 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.
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. 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.