I was invited to write the foreword to the new Rifle sport climbing guidebook: “Rifle Mountain Park: Western Colorado Rock Climbs Volume 1.” Of course, I was happy to do it. Now, I’m publishing it here because … why not? Hope you enjoy it, and be sure to check out Wolverine Publishing for the new Rifle guidebook, among many other excellent guidebooks.
Alex Lowe once said, “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.” This bumper-sticker-grade quote—widely embraced by the climbing community as an unquestionable truth—is, to the contrary, the most seriously wrongheaded idea to have ever entered our psyches as climbers.
In reality, the best climber in the world is the one who is the best; coincidentally, being the best also happens to be fun. Ipso fact, the better you are at climbing, the more fun you will have.
It’s a twisted argument … but it’s true. And nowhere is it truer than Rifle Mountain Park—a narrow canyon of steep 150-foot walls but with a reputation as tall and intimidating as El Cap.
When I first arrived in Rifle, it was pretty apparent to me who was having fun, and who wasn’t. The local Rifle climbers were all warming up on 5.12s and merrily reciting, at the drop of a boar’s hair brush, every piece of convoluted beta on various 5.13d’s as casually as if they were giving directions to Target. They were having the times of their lives.
Meanwhile, I—despite my persistently jovial attitude, ear-to-ear grin and Hawaiin shirt—couldn’t even get up Pinch Fest. I was not having fun.
There’s a universality to this experience, I think, of feeling like you kinda know what you’re doing somewhere else and then showing up in Rifle and—BAM!—getting ass-hammered by the warm-ups. You would expect this humbling brand of ego-thrashing to afflict your patent gumbies and cocky gym noobs—and for that, you’d be absolutely correct—but sometimes even the “strong guy from Texas” (or wherever) ends up initially having trouble trusting the black, oily footholds and reading the cryptic sequences for which Rifle is renowned/loathed.
In fact, most people, on their first visit to Rifle, say something like, “I HATE IT!”
The angry outburst is often followed by a pattern of blame: “These holds are all facing the wrong way!”
Then, sweet surrender! “Do you have beta for me?”
And that’s how you get sucked in.
Ah, but now I’m just repeating the same old myths and tropes of American climbing’s great enduring narrative, in which Rifle appears as the quintessential sport-climbing “scene” replete with choss, crowds, babies, beta, alpha dogs, submen, belay slaves, wobblers, tick marks, and more elitist wankers than you’d find at an Ayn Rand convention.
And, at times, it’s not an exaggeration to say that that scene still exists. Perhaps it always will. But it seems as if ever since the 1990s ended, and all the flannel grunge-shirts retired to the Seattle suburbs, the only pissing matches you really see in Rifle are the ones between the dogs. Gone are the days of Kurt Smith’s mullet, of Bobbi Bensman threatening to bang off newly discovered kneebars, or of Charlie Bentley lapping Debaser, a route apparently so easy for him that he once did it naked and with a watermelon hanging from his harness.
But while the stories of those early Rifle legends and their aggro-awesome culture endure, a new chapter in Rifle climbing has been written, by a new crop of climbers here for just one reason: to have fun. By that, of course, I mean whip themselves into shape and become the best.
How do you become the “best”?
Ruthless self-flagellation via longterm projecting is a proven tactic here. Rifle is one of the few places I’ve climbed where it’s customary for the majority of climbers to spend a whole year, and anywhere from 50 to 150 tries, just to send one stupid route!
The redpointing process typically unfolds in eight stages:
Stage 1: Spray. You have a new project. Because you’re psyched, you tell everyone about it.
Stage 2: Positive Progress. You’ve done all the moves. You are pretty confident the redpoint will come soon.
Stage 3: The One Hang. Psyche is high. Any day now, glory will be yours!
Stage 4: The still one-hanging One Hang. Remember Groundhog Day with Bill Murray? Your life is now like that: an inescapable torture trap of déjà vu. Do the same warm-ups. Make the same small talk with the same people about the same routes. Fall at the same spot on your project. Go home believing that tomorrow will, for some reason, be different.
Stage 5: Negative Progress. Suddenly, you’re falling lower. Why? This route is pure evil! Motivation plummets. You resort to prayers and faith that things will be better.
Stage 6: “Sendtember.” Temps drop. Suddenly, you’re getting new high points. You’d like to think that you’re in better shape, but really, it’s just no longer balls-hot outside.
Stage 7: The Redpoint. Gawd, that felt easy! Why didn’t you do that, like, 30 tries ago?
The process repeats for the next project, but the question remains: Why would anyone do this to themselves?
Again, we return to that loaded three-letter word: fun. Because when you finally send your project, you feel—for a short but bright and glorious period of time—like the best climber in the world. And the physical manifestation of that feeling brings us to
Stage 8: Getting to check off the route’s tick-box in the guidebook.
A sport climber knows no greater pleasure than checking a tick-box on a hard-won redpoint.
Everyone’s routine for marking their guidebook is different. I’ve seen some people lower off of a redpoint and run to their cars, still tied in (which, no kidding, you can do in Rifle), and hastily scribble a mark next to the route they just sent. Sloppy and undignified, if you ask me.
My ritual is much more refined, a performance that is sultry and beautiful, full of revel and delight. I savor the act; cherish it. After all, it might only happen once a year, if I’m lucky. Post redpoint, I might wait days before retrieving my guidebook, just to tantalize myself. And I keep my guidebook hidden in my home, never bringing it to the crag, lest anyone accidentally browse through it and see what I’ve done—or, to be more precise, what I haven’t done.
And when I finally sit down and gleefully fill in that tick-box, always with a black Uni-ball Signo 207 ball-point pen, I get the sense that Alex Lowe was right. Right now, I am the best climber in the world!