The competition is heating up for Colorado’s most coveted speed climbing record: the Naked Edge. A friendly rivalry, plenty of support from the community, and of course the crazy fun of the challenge have built this once-obscure pursuit into a (still very obscure) local institution.
As recently as 2006, the record was a stately 1 hour and 38 minutes, measured roundtrip from the bridge over South Boulder Creek. Bob Rotert, a mentor of mine, claimed the record at 1:22, climbing with Dave Vaughan. Blake Herrington and I cut it to 1:13 in 2010, but it wasn’t until the powerhouse team of Stefan Griebel and Jason Wells got involved that the record dropped below an hour (49 minutes in 2012). I teamed up with visiting crusher Brad Gobright in 2013 and shaved a few minutes of that (44m). Stefan and Jason responded this year by dropping it to 40 minutes, but they weren’t satisfied until they’d tried again and set the insane time of 35 minutes and 1 second!
Brad, who grew up in Southern California and spent his formative climbing years in Yosemite, decided to spend a summer season out here on the Front Range this year. I suspect the Naked Edge record was foremost among his motivations.
On Monday, we cleared our schedules and planned to spend the entire day in Eldorado. Arriving at 11ish, we began up the Edge right away. A team of three was already on the route and enjoying the perfect, unseasonably crisp, June day. While initially frustrated that we were stuck behind a big group, we made the most of our time by repeatedly top-roping each pitch as we waited for the team above to advance. I think we each logged three or four laps on the crux pitches on that ascent! By 4:30pm, we were back down, having completed a typical 5 hour roundtrip.
As I mentioned, the competition for this obscure honor is very friendly, and we invited the current record holders Stefan and Jason out to Eldo to watch our attempt that evening. They excitedly obliged, and Stefan showed up in dress clothes straight from work! Word got around among Eldo aficionados, and by the time we were racking up about 20 people had gathered to witness the run. Only in Boulder would such an esoteric event draw a crowd!
Once everyone was in position, Brad and I strapped on our climbing shoes and walked to the designated starting line, in the center of the bridge. With a shout, we were off and running! Immediately, I felt sick, and contemplated stopping the race, resting, and starting again. But perhaps those were just nervous jitters; by the time I reached the rock and started climbing I was narrowly focused. We soloed the approach pitches up the “Ramp Route” (5.6), and then pulled out the short but exposed “Cave Pitch” (5.8) and up to the base of the Naked Edge itself.
Instead of my description of the climb, maybe author Steve Levin’s authoritative “Eldorado Canyon: A Climbing Guide” will give a more objective overview:
Once Brad and I were both on the starting ledge, I uncoiled the rope and dropped it to him. He slapped on the grigri and I was off! Instead of stopping at each anchor along the route, in traditional style, we had opted to “simul-climb” the route. This meant that, once the rope came tight on Brad, he simply began climbing behind me. His body weight would provide me with a belay, if I were to fall. The danger, however, comes if Brad falls: I would be ripped off the wall and dragged down to my last piece of protection. To prevent this, we clipped a simple one-way camming device, a Kong Duck, to the anchors above the first pitch. The device allowed my rope to move upwards as I climbed, but would not allow the rope to move down, if Brad were to fall.
Documenting our climb, Eldo aficionado’s Bill Wright and Mark Oveson had climbed up to the starting ledge to shoot photos and film the first pitch. Bill’s report, as well as video, can be found on his blog.
Having practiced the route that morning, we felt comfortable going light on the rack, bringing just 5 cams for the entire 6 pitch route. I placed three of them on the first pitch, but for most of the route I just clipped the occasional bolt or fixed piton. While this allowed us to move quickly, not constantly stopped to place or remove gear, it also meant that falling was an unattractive option. Fortunately, most of the route is so steep and exposed that even a massive fall would likely hit nothing but air.
Between pitches 3 and 4, a large sloping ledge provides the first break in the routes steepness. Unfortunately, as I mantled onto the ledge, my rope snaked back into a crack. I didn’t notice until I was well into the next pitch, but suddenly I couldn’t pull up slack. My rope was stuck, and I was too! Brad motored up the easy ground on pitch 3, and quickly spotted my problem. He climbed up to the crack, and with much cursing and grunting yanked the jammed cord out of the rock. We were free and moving again!
Pulling around the arete onto the final steep headwall, my heart was racing and I couldn’t control my breathing. I hesitated for a second, thinking I should take a break and regain control, but then decided “Fuck it, I’ll rest on top”. My forearms burning from lack of oxygen as I laybacked up the overhanging crack, but within seconds it was over.
Instead of building a belay on the sloping summit ridge, I simply began walking down the other side, still tied in. With the rope running over the entire mountain, Brad would now be protected if he fell on the final pitch. A minute later, I heard a massive cheer erupt from the road below, and then saw Brad pop up over the top. We would later find out that, from the moment I started on the Edge to when Brad topped out was just 16 minutes! We still, however, had the riskiest part of the challenge ahead: the descent! Over a hundred meters of exposed 4th-class downclimbing lay between us and the descent trail, and we slowed here to avoid the “cartwheel of death”. With my rock shoes still on, though, I felt agile hopping and scrambling down the immense slabs. Back on the trail, we picked up the pace and pounded our poor feet, not wanting to waste a second. I rounded the corner and the bridge came into view, with a big crowd waiting and cheering. Brad and I crossed the finish line together, and Stefan (the official timer) shouted: “under 30 minutes!”.
Brad and I reclaimed the record with a time of 29 minutes and 53 seconds. While Stefan and Jason congratulated us, though, I could already see the look in their eyes: they’d be back up there soon, and no matter how fast, no record is safe on the Naked Edge.