Pay Your Dues: Colorado Front Range Bouldering

No, these problems won’t help your scorecard. But they are must-dos for any afficianado of Colorado bouldering.

Years ago, I was researching an article on bouldering, probably half-assing it out of my basement in sweatpants (like I am now), pushing cats off the keyboard, and fending off wayward toddlers. Lazily, I used Facebook to crowdsource picks for Colorado’s top 10 boulder problems. One local strongman messaged me a list that skewed heavily to double-digit gneiss roofs with upside-down razor-blade crimps up in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“Can you think of any V9 or under problems that also fit the bill?” I wrote back.

His response: “Well, I haven’t really done many of the moderates, so I’m not sure.”

Moderates. There’s that word, with all its connotations. We all love moderates—for warming up, getting back in shape, teaching new climbers, or just getting out and moving on the rock when we don’t feel like pushing it. There is nothing wrong with moderate climbing.

However, I struggled with this boulderer’s definition of “moderate” being V9 and under. When the V-Scale was first introduced, in the 1991 Hueco Tanks guidebook, V9 was the top end. The V9s at Hueco—almost all John Sherman problems—had an aura to them, one of extreme difficulty and commitment. They were lines, some unrepeated, like the tips roof crack Mother of the Future and the mammoth-rub slab of Nachoman, that just looked impossible when you walked up to them. Like, who the fuck climbed that, and how?! At the time, Full Service was still an open project, and V10 had yet to be proposed.

In other words, V9 wasn’t only not moderate. It was very, very hard.

There are many V5 to V9 range problems that would be laughably sandbagged by today’s standards.

When I entered the sport in the mid-1980s, we still used John Gill’s B-Scale. During my formative years in the 1990s, the V-Scale first started spreading. During this era, there was a lot of grade compression as former B1 through B2+ problems were shakily translated into V-Grades. Subsequently, there are many V5 to V9 range problems that would be laughably sandbagged by today’s standards—yet somehow those grades have stayed fixed because, well, “That’s what they are.”

The Front Range of Colorado is rich with bouldering history on its innumerable sandstone, gneiss, and granite blocks. Its legacy stretches back to the days of local Boulder climbers training their fingers on the blocs of Eldorado Canyon and Flagstaff Mountain (the 1950s and prior); to John Gill plying his craft on the Dakota sandstone boulders of Rotary Park at Horsetooth Reservoir outside Fort Collins; to Gill and Pat Ament pulling off difficult cracks and mantels on the granite of Split Rocks, near Estes Park (1960s); to Jim Holloway doing problems light years beyond anyone else’s abilities at Flagstaff and in the Flatirons (1970s); and to the pre-crashpad-era ascents of thin faces and highballs in Eldo and RMNP (1980s) that set the stage for the modern era.

Encompassed in this broad swath of history are scores of “moderates” that are in fact nails hard and, were they discovered and first climbed today, would probably be graded much differently. These are not really problems you just stroll up to and warm up on. They aren’t really that “moderate.”

To truly consider yourself a well-rounded Colorado boulderer, you really ought to make the effort to tick these problems

Still, these problems are utterly classic, not just for their historical values but for both for the beauty and quality of the climbing they offer. To truly consider yourself a well-rounded Colorado boulderer, you really ought to make the effort to tick these problems before seeking out the scorecard-fluffing double-digits of recent memory. They are a necessary rite of passage, and, even to this day, command respect.

Besides, they shouldn’t take you long to do. After all, they’re just a bunch of “moderates.”

Left Eliminator (V5)

Eliminator Boulder, Rotary Park, Horseshoe Reservoir, Fort Collins. FA: John Gill, late 1960s.

Mountain Project link

This John Gill classic tackles the left side of the long, monolithic west face of the Eliminator Boulder, and represents bouldering at its most austere and committing: Step on from a platform block, grab an edge with your right hand, paw an undercling with your left, then huck your meat at a distant crack up and left: a jug hold, sure, but then there’s that whole problem of momentum, not to mention the dodgy drop-away landing.

A long wingspan helps on the Left Eliminator, as does toprope rehearsal and padding the unholy hell out of the base. However, for full V-Points do it in hiking boots, like Gill did. Just remember—it’s only V5, same as those fun, constant-stream-of-traffic spring-break problems Hobbit in a Blender at Hueco Tanks and Serengeti at the Happy Boulders. Wheeeeeeeeee! 

colorado bouldering
Dave Chancellor paying homage to Pinch Overhang (V5). “Terrified as always,” he wrote, “I had been dreaming about dispatching this since my first visit 15 years ago.” Photo courtesy: Jess White

Pinch Overhang (V5)

Mental Block, Rotary Park, Horseshoe Reservoir, Fort Collins. FA: John Gill, late 1960s.

Mountain Project link

“Ah, that pinch doesn’t look so bad. Should be able to wrap my hand around it no problem, pull on, and just launch for the lip. OK, here we go—pulling on … and pulling on … and … OK, it’s hard to pull on. Like, where do my feet go? Maybe I could just jump for the lip? Shit, what did Gill do? What do the locals say? What’s acceptable here? OK, here I go. Wow, I stuck the lip! Now match, get that higher sloper, and mantel over. Here we go, and … Oh, gawd, my hands are slipping! These slopers are terrible! I feel like I’m going to fall off sideways and land in those rocks. I hate this! This is impossible. Shit, falling! BOOM-CRASH-OW! V5?! WTF?”

Bottom line: Gill is the man.


Germ Free Adolescence (V5)

Germ Free Boulder, Westworld, Eldorado Canyon. FA: John Sherman, 1980s.

Mountain Project link
colorado bouldering
Germ Free Adolescence

We all love problems where the crux is at the top—they force you to climb smoothly and efficiently to conserve energy for the finish. But what if that top crux is a nail-biting rock-over mantel on slippery crimps at the lip of a giant roof, 18 feet above a hard-packed, sloping hillside? Such is the nature of Germ Free, one of the Front Range’s most aesthetic but also fear-inducing highballs.

Things start out easily enough on a jug rail and in-cut flakes (there are also two low starts: one V7; the other V8). Things get tricky upon reaching the lip, where you may realize just how quickly you’ve climbed up into a predicament: Either commit to the long reach to a four-finger edge, then fight-n-flop your way through the mantel, or drop back to the pads and lick your wounds? (I won’t judge you for choosing the latter.)

John Sherman did this highball in the pre-crashpad era (probably with his trademark dual chalk bags affixed like gun holsters to either hip), an impressive feat given the mattress-like landing the problems sees these days when big posses try it. Bonus beta: Go around first to brush and chalk the lip holds, as the ponderosa trees growing near the rock are always shedding needles onto the grips.

Merest Excrescences (V5)

Square Rock, Dinosaur Mountain, Flatirons. FA: Bob Horan, 1980.

Mountain Project link

Bob Horan freed Colorado’s first 5.13, Rainbow Wall in Eldorado Canyon, in 1984, narrowly beating Christian Griffith (owner and founder of Verve clothing) to the FFA. In the 1980s, Horan was a driving force on the Boulder free-climbing scene, putting up early sport routes and hard boulder problems, and free soloing the short and notoriously slippery mini-climbs on the Whale’s Tale in Eldorado, on grades up to 5.12. (The rock here has a wicked river polish on top of the ubiquitous Eldo grease—like snot layered over Teflon.)

No surprise then that he also liked highballing. (And he is still getting after it to this day.) While Eastern Priest, a V4 above the river in Eldorado, might be his best-known highball, there is a seemingly blank face he climbed up on Dinosaur Mountain in the Flatirons that has greater aesthetic merit: Merest Excrescences, on the west side of Square Rock.

A sheer, blank wall of tan and maroon rock with just enough features—the “excrescences”—to be climbable, this stout V5 is nearly as high as the commonly toproped 5.12 climbs on the rock’s east face. So bring lots of pads, and be ready for gawking from hikers on the adjacent Mallory Cave Trail—though they can always help carry you out if you whiff the landing.

Hollow’s Way (V8)

Notlim Boulder, Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder, Colorado. FA: Rob Candelaria, mid-1970s.

Mountain Project link

Down on the “dark side” of Flagstaff, north of the road and downhill from the hairpin-enclosed Capstan Boulder, is a stash of hard, shady difficult problems up to V12, including this old-school Rob Candelaria highball on the alluring Notlim Boulder. Much like Germ Free, it lures you in with big, powerful moves between good holds that all-too-suddenly disappear to leave you stranded way off the ground, facing a burly crux—in this case, cocking up and doing a cross-body deadpoint to the lip.

Many climbers—this author included—turn around here, but apparently the move is learnable or you can suss it on toprope.

Candelaria, a climbing and gymnastics coach, opened one of the first commercial rock gyms in America when he installed a climbing wall at his Colorado Athletic Training Center (CATS) in the mid-1980s. Today, the facility has a cult following among elite boulderers, for its steep angles, dizzying plethora of holds that rarely move or change, and gritty, old-school, pull-hard-and-get-shit done vibe. There is even an exhaustive online guidebook at with problems up to V15.

Never Say Never (V9)

Milton Boulder, Eldorado Canyon. FA: Jimmy Ratzlaff (jump start to lip), mid-1980s; Steve Mammen (low start), mid-1980s.

Mountain Project link

This 12-foot roadside scooped face has more history to it than its modest appearance would seem to merit. Listed by Outside magazine in its July 1985 issue as “impossible,” this problem quickly became a magnet for aspiring crushers. It’s classically blank in the most 1980s of ways: a clean, aesthetic face of dead-vertical stone nearly untroubled by hand- or footholds. Its first ascent went to the 6’7” Jimmy Ratzlaff, a one-time basketball player who did some hardcore parkour by executing a run-and-jump start, kicking off the wall to snag the lip. He named the problem “Nothing’s Impossible.”

Meanwhile, Steve Mammen, a Fort Collins climber, began to make his own efforts and, after six weeks of trying, made an ascent that began more properly on the ground, firing up into the problem’s lone reasonable handhold (a left-hand gaston) while stabbing his right foot out to a dimple.

If you want to repeat it, wait for cool temps, put on stiff lace-up shoes, and get ready to get your slab on. According to Bob Horan, who worked the line with Mammen, there are essentially two variants (if you don’t count Ratzlaff’s run-and-jump): with a hop-start up to the high left gaston or by stepping on more statically and cranking for the hold.

As Horan posted on Mountain Project: “[Steve and I] initially tried it as a dynamic, hop to the out-left layaway. We were at that time unsuccessful at holding the move but would push on each other’s back, allowing each of us to stabilize on the face and then complete the rest. A week or so later Steve sent it with the hop start, an awkward move but impressive. That was considered the 1st ascent, and the way Steve described how he did it. A week later I was able to statically do the move from the ground, a new and somewhat more strenuous approach.”

Don’t get discouraged by this hyper-technical bad boy, however: It sees very few repeats, and when Dave Graham did it in 2009 he called it V11.

Trice aka A.H.R. (V12)

Cloudshadow Wall, Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder, Colorado. FA: Jim Holloway, 1970s.

Mountain Project link

Along with Slapshot, on Dinosaur Mountain, Trice epitomizes a cutting-edge Jim Holloway problem. Tall, lanky, and with fingers of steel, Holloway was a singular talent who, in the 1970s, well before the V-Scale, was already climbing double-digits in the vacuum created by his prodigious skill, which far outstripped that of his peers. Back then, his toughest problems would have been B3, the rating given to a boulder problem only done once but then never repeated—not even by the first ascensionist.


While somewhat of an eliminate, Trice is still a proud line—micro holds out a sweeping bulge, with a perfect landing and no excuse other than “I’m weak” for not succeeding. According to Peter Beal’s beta on Mountain Project, you start “at the sidepull and edge on UCT and reach for a pocket with your right hand. Reach left to a very small edge with the left and fight the swing. Pop for the ramp on the right and you are done.” Sounds simple enough, until you feel the actual holds, note how small and sharp they are, and realize how far out in space the bulge pushes your butt.

Unrepeated for 32 years, Trice saw a rash of repeats beginning in 2007 after Climbing Magazine published an interview with Holloway and brought new attention to his problems. It has held at V12 for a decade-plus now. No, it’s not a “moderate,” but it is a testament to just how hard people were climbing well before the modern era of gyms, crashpads, and rock shoes that didn’t suck.

Matt Samet is a longtime friend, brother in sweatpants, and editor of Climbing Magazine