Pay Your Dues: Rifle

In order to become a master, you must first learn how to suck (and kneebar) …

Peaceful Rifle, where the only sounds you'll hear are the trickle of a babbling brook and the F-bombs of a wobbling climber falling off her project for the 1000th time over the mariachi music and diesel truck engines. Photo: Keith Ladzinski
Peaceful Rifle, where the only sounds you’ll hear are the trickle of a babbling brook and the F-bombs of a wobbling climber falling off her project for the 1000th time over the mariachi music and diesel truck engines. Photo: Keith Ladzinski

Having sent nearly every 5.14d in Rifle, Jonathan Siegrist turned his attention to a short, unassuming-looking route called Lung Fish.

“I knew Lung Fish would be a challenge because routes from the ’90s are simply harder,” says Siegrist. “That said, I didn’t necessarily expect to spend that many sessions trying it.”

Lung Fish, first climbed in 1994, is considered Colorado’s first consensus 5.14. The first ascent of the route, which was originally rated 5.14a/b and is now considered to be solid 5.14b, fell to Salt Lake City-based climber Jeff Webb, one of America’s foremost sport-climbing pioneers. Twenty-four years later, a lot has changed in climbing and 5.14 climbers are a dime a dozen. Today, an ascent of Lung Fish would hardly turn heads.

And yet … “Lung Fish was very hard for me,” says Siegrist. “Given the temps were never perfect and it’s a style that I struggle with in general … blah blah blah … All excuses aside, I tried my best and it took me days of effort. I don’t remember how many tries, but at one point I did count and determined that it was likely the longest project I’d ever had in the canyon.”

That suggests that Lung Fish took Siegrist more tries than The Crew (5.14c), Fat Camp (5.14d), Bad Girls Club (5.14c/d), Planet Garbage (5.14d), and even Shadowboxing (5.14d), Siegrist’s own FA and a contender for Rifle’s hardest rock climb.

J-star on the FA of Shadowboxing (5.14d).
J-star on the FA of Shadowboxing (5.14d).

This story isn’t to throw shade at Siegrist’s superlative climbing résumé. Rather, it highlights an inescapable and ubiquitous reality of climbing: that even the best climbers among us know the pain of being humbled by a piece of rock well below their limits.

This atavistic desolation is especially potent in Rifle. In fact, as far as I can tell, getting spanked by “easy” grades accounts for the main, underlying reason some naysayers don’t seem to like the climbing in Rifle, despite their insistence on blaming the usual suspects: crowds, dogs, parking, the “scene,” etc. (Really, they’re just getting their asses kicked!)

As Siegrist hinted, a surprising number of these ass-kicking rock climbs are the vestiges of an earlier era—a time in climbing when grades were kept stout in order to reign in the egos; when the fear of being downgraded by one’s peers outweighed the allure of making headlines in the mags.

People in the road. Cameras. Crowds. Dogs. Typical Rifle Saturday morning. Photo: Keith Ladzinski
People in the road. Cameras. Crowds. Dogs. Typical Rifle Saturday morning. Photo: Keith Ladzinski

Many of Rifle Mountain Park’s mega-routes from the 1990s have never looked worse for the wear. They’ve taken on the perma-sheen of residual chalk and glassy rubber scuff marks, making them greasier and arguably more difficult than they were as freshies. Yet … in another sense, these routes have also gotten easier, as surgically precise beta and a surfeit of kneebars have been discovered and recorded in that great, open-sourced compendium of oral climbing history—Beta—which gets passed on from generation to generation of Rifle junkies.

When in Rifle and stumped by a route, you only need to dial up the 1-800-Beta-ma-Phone to learn exactly how to do the crux of your proj. You can even press 3 to filter for climber size.

With global standards hovering around 5.15d, there’s nothing in Rifle that couldn’t theoretically be onsighted. Rifle isn’t a “hard” crag anymore. It’s a place for 5.13d-projecting gumbies who can’t figure out rather straightforward beta without being told exactly how to do it by others; who are unwilling to endeavor up a route they don’t know that isn’t already affixed with perma-draws and tick-marks.

Alas … perhaps pure difficulty isn’t the reason to go to Rifle anymore.

Rifle’s earliest and best routes may be beaten up, chalked to shit, and utterly dicked down … but they are still fucking brilliant. I’ve been to a lot of world-class sport crags around the world. Rifle remains my favorite, no question.

People tend to describe the climbing in Rifle as “full-body.” On routes of every grade, you may find yourself using parts of your core that you never knew existed as you twist your limbs into crazy positions trying to make sense of the sidepulls, pinches, and underclings—all of them invariably facing the “wrong” way.

Jen Bisharat on Dumpster BBQ (5.13d), a Matt Samet testpiece from the 90s, which recently broke and may now be unclimbable.
Jen Bisharat on Dumpster BBQ (5.13d), a Matt Samet testpiece from the 90s, which recently broke and may now be unclimbable.

Yet as much as I enjoy the full-body challenge of Rifle rock wrestling, that’s not what keeps me coming back. After all these years, Rifle holds my interest not because of how physical the climbing is, but how mental it is. Not mental in the sense that the climbing is scary—but mental in the sense that the movement is cerebral, varied, and perennially interesting. It’s hard to get bored of the climbing in Rifle, a place where 5.13d remains relevant, interesting, and, most important, humbling no matter how many 5.13d’s you’ve climbed.

Each route must be learned. One doesn’t become proficient at a grade in Rifle; one only becomes proficient at a single route, regardless of its grade. Each rock climb, therefore, is both a lesson in humility and a journey in excellence.

You have to put in the time to learn the moves on your route in order to make them feel easy enough to eventually do, and subsequently experience the joy of the send. And upon attaining that send, of course, you will no doubt begin to believe that pernicious lie: that you are strong, talented, confident, and worthy of self-respect and even peer admiration. Fortunately, that myth will be revealed painfully and sharply, as if tearing duct tape off your own hairy thigh, upon hopping onto the next route of the same grade, at which point you will realize that, indeed, you do still very much suck.

Of course you suck. Inevitably, you will suck at a route in Rifle—whatever the next one is. Even if you’re Jonathan Siegrist. Just remember that the opportunity to suck hard in Rifle, openly and for all to see, is precisely what makes Rifle a gift that continues to give.

Siegrist sums it up perfectly:

“Feeling like you deserve a certain grade or that something should feel easy for you is a dead end. In my climbing I go through a clear cycle of absolute confidence and stoke, but invariably I meet a challenge that knocks me down, crushes my ego, and reminds me to be a student of the rock. I’ve worked really hard to accept these moments as learning opportunities and not just run away.”

Feel free to go to other areas that don’t crush your egos; areas where you can get by as a B+ students of the rock. But I’d argue that you’d be missing out on the whole point.

Rifle is a good place to learn how to climb, a good place to pay your dues, but more important, it’s a good place learn how to learn—and potentially even break through the cycle of suffering to catch a glimpse of momentary enlightenment.

Here are some of the best learning experiences this little canyon has to offer.

Carlo Traversi climbs Eighth Day, 5.13a limestone route in Rifle, CO. Photo: Elly Stewart
Carlo Traversi climbs Eighth Day, 5.13a. Photo: Elly Stewart

The Eighth Day (5.13a)

FA: Mark Tarrant (1987), Richard Wright; Pete Zoeller

Mountain Project link

This is the first route that was ever bolted in Rifle, and for a good reason. It’s one of the tallest and most of the aesthetic single-pitch sport climbs in the country. A 180-foot plumb direttissima of long pulls between pockets and edges up a striking blue streak.

The story of the Eighth Day’s first ascent, however, is less direct.

The route was originally envisioned and bolted by Mark Tarrant, who grew up in the town Rifle but was living in Boulder at the time. Tarrant and his Boulder compatriot Richard Wright must be recognized as two of the primary visionaries to have gotten the ball rolling for Rifle sport climbing with their vision on the Eighth Day. (Another“blue streak,” Rumor Has It (5.11b), was also concurrently bolted by the duo, and subsequently became the first sport climb redpointed in the canyon).

Tarrant had placed anchor bolts atop the Eighth Day in the spring 1987, and endeavored to access the big, blue streak from the left-hand side of the route, as there was less choss to remove. Shortly after placing these bolts were placed, however, city park officials shut down climbing on a big section of the Project Wall as it was so close to the road.

Before the shut down, however, Tarrant and Wright had top-roped the route a number of times, but were ultimately kicked off their project while the Park officials figured out the access before they could send. Tarrant red-tagged the route—and it sat red-tagged for awhile … until around 1991. In the interim, Pete Zoller swooped in and added bolts to the arete to the right of Tarrant’s start—an “admittedly more aesthetic line,” wrote Tarrant on Mountain Project—and subsequently fired the entire rig.

Zoller called his version “MC 900 Foot Jesus” after the musician, as a joke, because the route was so long. Tarrant and Wright’s original name, the Eighth Day, however, has stuck out of respect for their vision (also, it’s also just a better name than MC 900 Foot Jesus).

“We didn’t get the FA because we were playing a different game, abiding by the Park’s rules so we wouldn’t jeopardize future climbing in the canyon,” writes Tarrant. “This route was exceptional to me, not for its difficulty, but because it is so stunning and rare—really, a fantastic line. Climbers feel attached to the routes they envision and work at—even sport climbs! This was the first line I spotted in Rifle and the first thing we got on. I haven’t seen anything quite like it since.”

Ciara Rinaudo on Easy Skankin'. Photo: Keith Ladzinski
Ciara Rinaudo on Easy Skankin’. Photo: Keith Ladzinski

Easy Skankin’ (5.12b)

FA: Sterling Keene, 1994

Mountain Project Link

This route was called “the best 5.12b sport climb in America” by the late Dave Pegg—a superlative that has stuck, regardless of its veracity. Whether it’s the best period, or it’s merely among the 50 best 5.12b’s in America, Easy Skankin’ is inarguably a fun, long 30-meter pitch directly up the Anti-Phil Wall. There’s a no-hands kneebar rest just before the cryptic, airy crux, but you’ll get more style points for eschewing the kneebar and just shaking out on the slopey jugs like a normal rock climber.

I Am Not a Philistine (5.12c)

Don Welsh, mid-1990s

Mountain Project Link

When the Anti-Phil wall was first being developed, trees and shrubs abutted the base of the cliff. Now there’s a wide dirt patch with bespoke custom log benches upon which to lay and spray.

I Am Not a Philistine is the hardest 5.12c in Rifle, I think. It’s certainly one of the most involved, with a crux at the fourth clip that, no matter how many hundreds of times I do it, never feels any easier. You have to place your left hand on the underside of a horrible pinch, high step the right foot, and somehow pull yourself up into a gaston—it always feels a bit like a magic trick.

This route is actually a collaboration between two now dormant climbs: I Am Not Worthy (5.13a, which was FA’d by Duane Raleigh, and Philistine (5.13c), by Don Welsh. A few people, who are totally bored, revisit Philistine every now and again. I’ve never heard of or seen anyone climb I Am Not Worthy, however.

Dialing in the crux of I Am Not A Philistine is a good way to set yourself up to accessing another brilliant link-up called Phil of All Evil (5.13a), which finishes on the Anti-Phil (5.13b) headwall. All together, this represents some of the best climbing in Rifle.

Sam Elias on Rumor Has It (5.11b).Photo: Chris Hunter
Sam Elias in Rifle. Photo: Chris Hunter

Pump-o-Rama (5.12+)

FA: Colin Lantz

Mountain Project Link

This is a route that everyone can and should do. It’s a fun rock climb on steep, massive jugs with a entry-level (for Rifle) kneebar crux in which you make four hand movements off of the same kneebar, all while rotating your body around your knee, taking it from above your head to below your waist. (You can also climb the route, as Colin Lantz did, without the kneebar and take a 5.13a credit—no one does this, though; however, they do still take 5.13a).

There are a lot of ways to have fun on Pump-O-Rama, and very few of them have anything to do with the challenge of climbing the actual route.

This route has been sent in sneakers. Hayden Kennedy climbed it while wearing wool mittens. People used to skip the last bolt and huck backflips from the anchors while drunk—though I don’t recommend this. You can also hold the chains, let your feet dangle in space, and see how many pull-ups you can do to blow yourself out. We’ve also hidden beers in the double-kneebar rest below the roof on Easter—how many beers you can drink from those kneebars?

No, the fun never ends on Pump-O-Rama—it even has a 50-foot swing for your kids.

Emily Harrington on Girl Talk (5.14b). Photo: Andrew Bisharat
Emily Harrington on Girl Talk (5.14b). Photo: Andrew Bisharat

Present Tense

FA: Don Welsh

Mountain Project Link

Don Welsh climbed the first ascent of Present Tense without kneepads or kneebars. The route was onsighted by Francois Legrand, and perhaps others. And yet most climbers will use upwards of 19 different kneebars and two kneepads, glued and duct-taped on, to complete this 35-meter route—and despite all that knee tech, they will still call this pitch stout.

Whether you use kneebars or not, Present Tense throws a little bit of everything at you over the course of one of Rifle’s most spectacular and sustained pitches. This is the definition of a “full body” route.

Bonus for continuing past the anchors, up the recently added “War and Peace” extension, which adds 45 feet of 5.12d and gets you to the summit of the Project Wall. Cumbre!

Martin on Present Tense (5.13d). Photo Andrew Bisharat
Martin on Present Tense (5.13d). Photo Andrew Bisharat

Lung Fish

FA: Jeff Webb, 1994

Mountain Project Link

Of course, I’d be remiss not to include this route after making it the story lede. There’s not much to add except an anecdote I once heard from Chris Sharma, who famously redpointed this route in a single day of effort when he was 15 years old.

Sharma was on a sport-climbing road trip with Tommy Caldwell and Tommy’s dad, who was chaperoning the up-and-coming rock stars. They spent only two days in Rifle on that trip. Sharma used the first day to send Lung Fish, which made Climbing Magazine’s “Hot Flashes” as a noteworthy ascent. On the second day, Sharma continued with a notable first free ascent of Zulu (see below.)

But of Sharma’s in-a-day Lung Fish ascent, one detail wasn’t reported: “I literally tried this route 30, 40, maybe even 50 times that day before I eventually did it,” recalls Sharma. “I’m not even kidding! I’d fall, come down, untie, and try again without even taking my shoes off. I kept doing that over and over. I was soooo worked!”

A teenage Emily Harrington on FFA of Zulu (5.14a). Photos: Keith Ladzinski
A teenage Emily Harrington on FFA of Zulu (5.14a). Photos: Keith Ladzinski


FA: Chris Sharma, Equipped by Colin Lantz

Mountain Project Link

The day after Sharma’s impressive in-a-day campaign to send Lung Fish, he had apparently recovered enough to take down this open project, equipped by Colin Lantz, who is responsible for some of Rifle’s best routes, including many of those in the Arsenal.

Zulu is a classic endurance route on big jugs with a heartbreaking crimpy crux at the top. The route is also largely devoid of kneebars, which has helped keep the climb at its grade. Emily Harrington nabbed the first female ascent as a teenager and a number of women have returned to send this reachy, dyno-y route.

Andrew Bisharat (me) on Twisted Sister (5.13a), a route I established and is NOT mandatory for paying your dues in Rifle. Only climb this if you're bored. Photo: Keith Ladzinski.
Andrew Bisharat (me) on Twisted Sister (5.13a), a route I established and is NOT mandatory for paying your dues in Rifle. Only climb this if you’re bored. Photo: Keith Ladzinski.

Tomfoolery (5.14b)

FA: Tommy Caldwell

I’ve never heard anyone say that this route is easy and the only people I know to have done it have seriously paid their dues in Rifle. It contains Rifle’s “single most advanced kneebar,” according to Dan Mirsky, who is the best knee-bar I’ve ever seen.

First sent by a teenage Tommy Caldwell, Tomfoolery is likely distinguished as one of the earliest/oldest routes in Rifle to have the fewest ascents.

Mirsky adds a little more flavor to this route, stating, “There are physically harder routes in Rifle than TomFoolery but perhaps none more technical. Anyone who wants to achieve Rifle master status must put their skills to the test on this classic. And when you find yourself hanging at the end of the rope completely baffled and pumped, just remember Tommy did it first like 20 year ago … probably with out knee pads.”

  • Jon Frisby

    I’ve been telling people since I first started climbing here that if you could only have one crag in America to become a great climber, it’s Rifle. I just glanced through the back of the guidebook and there’s basically a perfect bell curve in terms of the number of routes at each grade, with the most stacked grades being in the 12+/13- range. Doesn’t really peter off until 14s, and the variety at each grade is amazing

  • Daniel Jordan

    Mr. Schlongacre sent “I’m not Worthy” this past Spring!