In late 2009, my friend Ben Schmitt bolted a typical-looking Shelf Road face climb at Cactus Cliff. The line climbs a beautiful white wall of limestone, featuring a brutally hard 5-or-so-move crux right in the middle of the wall. When Ben put the hardware in, I was just finishing off the last of Shelf’s (existing) hardest routes. I wasn’t really much into establishing routes at that time, and besides that, I didn’t really see any potential. About a year earlier there was a thread on Mountain Project titled “No Hard Climbing at Shelf Road”, and (ironically) I actually defended that position, noting that (at that time) there were only 9 routes at Shelf harder than 5.13a. The truth was, the visionaries who kept Shelf relevant through the 80’s and early 90’s had all moved on to greener pastures, and with the discovery of Rifle, few arrived to take their place, so development stalled for 15 years or so, until Ben arrived.
Ben is probably the most magnanimous and genuine climber I’ve ever met. He showed me that the question of new-route-potential was simply a matter of perception. I had to learn to look at these cliffs a little differently. The following spring I worked and sent what was to become “Carnage”, at the time Shelf’s hardest free route, and the next route right of Ben’s line. We spent a lot of time hanging out during this process, and he taught me to see Shelf in a new light.
Ben’s route is a bit of an outlier for hard Shelf lines, in that its not tweaky, thin, or sharp, and doesn’t require especially skilled footwork. This thing is burly and in your face. Its something you would expect to find at Rifle’s Winchester Cave, not at Cactus Cliff.
Ben put in a valiant effort to send the line, but eventually became burnt out by the low-percentage crux, and graciously encouraged me to try it. I first tried it in 2010 with Ben, but I had other things on my plate, so I didn’t give it a serious effort. I tried it again at the end of 2011 with my friend Sheldon, but I decided it was too late in the season for such a powerful climb, so I decided to come back early the following season. In 2012, fresh off 3 weeks of good campusing, I spent three days on it, and made really good progress. On the third day I tweaked my left ring A2 pulley while warming up on a nearby climb (never crimp a 2-finger pocket!). The injury didn’t seem like much at the time, and I climbed through it that day, and for another few weeks before I realized I had a major problem on my hands (pun intended!). I spent the rest of the Spring season, and the entire summer season, rehabbing this injury.
With winter (and therefore, crisp temps at Shelf) rolling around once again, I decided in November to plan my following season around a few leftover projects at Shelf. Eventually I got back to Cactus in late January. Honestly, I was quite hesitant to try it, because I was never really sure which route was the primary cause of my finger injury, and I didn’t want to aggravate it. But its hard for me to resist facing a climb that has shut me down. All the climbs I’ve failed to master keep me up at night. I knew I wouldn’t ever be satisfied until I proved to myself that I could climb this route.
The crux bulge is about 15 feet above a sit-down ledge, so there is no pump element to deal with. The business boils down to executing a huge dyno after completing a succession of committing moves (at least, that’s how my sequence went). Just by itself, the final dyno is a very low percentage move, but with just enough fatigue to get my hips sagging and sap what little contact strength I have, the move was downright frustrating. After a few days of work I got to a point where I could hit the dyno 75% of the time off the dog, but climbing into it was another story. The target hold is actually pretty good; a 2″ deep flat ledge. But the holds setting up for the dyno are terrible and the feet are basically non-existant. A quarter inch horizontal foothold anywhere on the wall would make the move trivial, but your feet are right in the bulge where everything is sloping down and into the wall, making it very difficult to generate any momentum from the legs. Ultimately its a balancing act; trying to push just hard enough with the feet (and in the right direction–into the wall) that they don’t pop off before they’ve generated sufficient velocity. I probably fell on this move alone a good 40 times off the dog and on redpoint.
Friday was forecast to be 42degF and mostly sunny in Canon City. Pretty much ideal in my book, as long as we could get there through the snow in Denver. Perhaps the best part of this process was re-visiting many of the great 5.11 and .12 lines at Cactus. I got to polish off a number of awesome face climbs I had missed out on the first few times around, especially 14 Carats at The Vault, which climbs an amazing wall with continuous cruxy moves. With the chilly morning temps, we headed to the far east end of Cactus to warmup and I did a rad little 11a on flawless stone, then Cro-Magnum, a brilliant prow of sinker pockets with a stopper dyno near the top.
Honestly I felt kinda flat, but I’ve noticed through the years that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the way I “feel” during the warmup and how I perform on my project. Many times I’ve felt awful or bumbled sequences only to end up sending a long-term project. For example, the day I sent Scarface I fell on (Lower) Heinous Cling, a 5.12a that I had competely dialed and had sent probably 15 times before (Palo knows what I’m talking about; he was belaying IIRC). My point being, you should always try, because you never know what might happen. If you don’t try, you will definitely not succeed.
But I wasn’t very optimistic. I climbed easily up to the crux, but fell on the second dyno, a short slap to a slippery, sloping sidepull. Not real inspiring. I hadn’t fallen that low on the route in my last 8 or so attempts. For various reasons, this season had stretched out longer than I wanted, and it was starting to seem like my improving familiarity with the route was barely keeping pace with my fading fitness. After a brief moment of self-pity, I pulled back on and sent through the crux. Aha! That was the most linkage I had ever had through the crux boulder problem. Now I had something I could really believe in. I brushed the key holds and lowered. The burn only took about 10 minutes, so I just popped the heels off my shoes and maintained my concentration. After a relatively short 10 minutes, I headed back up.
Sometimes when you send, everything just flows, and the route suddenly feels easy. I knew that wouldn’t be the case on this route, ever. This would be a struggle, no matter how many times I tried it. The difference would have to be effort and perseverence despite the struggle. Nothing felt different this time around. The only difference was that when I arrived below the pivotal move I really believed for the first time that it was possible to stick on redpoint. Rather than a split-second thought of “prepare to fall”, my mind said “this is possible”. I wasn’t any less pumped, but when I hit the ledge I refused to let go. The move is almost a double dyno; the trailing hand is on a miserable sloper, so you have to match very quickly to control the swing. As I threw my low hand up to match, my right foot popped off, but I was able to get my right hand up before I came off.
There is one more really iffy move just above the ledge, so I didn’t do any celebrating. I had never had a chance to really climb into this, so I expected it would feel much harder with a pump. Surprisingly, I wasn’t pumped at all, so after a brief shake I rocked up onto the ledge a breathed a huge sigh of relief. 20-more feet of relatively trivial face climbing brought me to the chains and the first free ascent of Flight of the Phoenix. Flight for the big dyno (and my countless wingers there), and Phoenix for my recovery from injury. Sending this route is like coming full-circle. The finger is now stronger than it was before the injury, and there is one less route out there to interrupt my sleep!
Now to everyone’s favorite topic: the grade. This is hands-down the hardest route at Shelf for me, but I really suck at this type of climbing, so I don’t have much confidence in my ability to grade such a route. Compared to other short 5.14ish climbs I’ve done (like Busload of Faith, Come Home Curly, or Smoke Shapes, all at Sinks), this is much harder. But those climbs all suit my physical strengths, length notwithstanding (and I think they’re all on the easy side of ‘a). I’ve heard others suggest the crux of Flight might be V11, but again, I’m really not qualified to grade a boulder problem of this style. With that in mind, I prefer to be conservative. I’m certainly open to the opinions of past and future suitors. It would be awesome to have a harder-than-14a route at Shelf to attract some of Boulder’s superstars down to our humble little limestone cliffs, but I’m certain that will happen eventually regardless.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ben for bolting and invisioning the route, and for showing me what Shelf still has left to offer. I also want to give a shout out to the various partners that have held the other end of the rope at one time or another on this campaign: Ben, Sheldon, Wes, Logan, Nate and of course Kate, who put up with 30-degree temps and intermittent snow flurries over the last few weeks. Thanks to all of you!