Few sport-climbing areas are surrounded by as much myth, mystique and ill-repute as Rifle Mountain Park in Rifle, Colorado. Rifle is often called the prototypical sport-climbing “scene,” replete with perma-draws, bro-brahs, radsters, spray lords, sandbags, grade-boasting, grade-debating, down-grading and more beta-beta-beta than a Greek fraternity.
The truth is, many of those impressions and stereotypes are actually true. But once you can get past the scenesters, you will find not only a warm, genuine, friendly community of devoted sport climbers, but arguably the highest-quality concentration of varied 5.13 rock climbing in the world. Yes, there are plenty of other good routes in the 5.9 through 5.11 range. There are even dozens of fantastic 5.12s. But the routes of the 5.13-and-harder range are what distinguish this crag and make it world class. The rule that the harder the route is, the better it gets generally holds true in Rifle.
Over 400 routes, good camping, and relatively cool, summer climbing conditions thanks to 7,000 feet of altitude and a fair amount of shade draw skinny-legged sport climbers from around the world each summer. Many come with long tick lists, but few leave having checked off more than one or two lines. Only the strong and determined survive.
Everyone has the same first-day experience in Rifle. It goes something like this: You drive through the canyon, passing by all the walls in two short miles and think, “I came all this way just for this?”
“Is that person really belaying off the hood of his car?” you then say. Yes. Yes, he is. Approaches in Rifle range from zero seconds to 20.
Ascending Living in Fear (5.13d), straight from the car.
After driving up and down the canyon two or three times, taking care not to hit the inevitable climber-dog running off-leash, and bypassing hordes of barbecuing Rifle locals blaring Mariachi music out of their pick-up trucks, you finally find a free space to park.
Today’s agenda: warm-up and try one of the famous 5.12’s such as Easy Skankin’, called by the guidebook “the best 5.12b in America.”
You navigate to a wall with a warm-up you think you might be able to do. For some reason, most people end up at the Meat Wall, with their sights set on doing two adjacent lines: Cold Cuts (5.10d) and 80 Feet of Meat (5.11a). These routes are hands down the most polished and over-chalked routes in the canyon. Because these are many climbers’ first impressions of Rifle, they believe that all other routes are just as polished and perma-chalked, which isn’t quite true … yet.
Most intermediate to advanced sport climbers stand a good chance of getting up these Meat routes, as long as their feet don’t skate out from under them on the oil-slick-black footholds.
For a third warm-up, climbers head toward the right side of the Project wall, in which you belay two feet off the road itself. Rehabilitator (5.11c), the classic Rifle warm-up, is next on the agenda. You put your rope down and watch between five and ten Rifle locals flow up this route in a quick 60 seconds. Now it’s your turn. As soon as you get on it, you quickly realize that not a single hold seems to be facing the right direction, and not only that, there’s chalk absolutely everywhere, which makes knowing which part of which chalked blob to grab, and how to grab it, seem utterly impossible. You fall, you take, you sweat. You spend the next hour or two trying to redpoint the warm-up.
OK, that was disheartening. Time for Easy Skankin’, you guess, which stands 30 overhanging meters tall and seems quite intimidating at first. Once again, you arrive to see more locals who have this route so sauced, you think they could probably climb this thing with a blindfold on.
When it’s (finally) your turn, you are surprised to find tiny holds and an in-your-face tricky sequence that spits you off at the third bolt. This thing feels desperate!
“You want some beta?” say, like, 20 people, in unison, who are the bottom of the route watching you fail.
This is where most people, on their first day, go wrong. They don’t take the beta. Trust me. Take the beta. It’s part of the culture. You’re not proving anything by not taking beta. Just take the beta and don’t get bummed out.
Once you have the beta, you begin to realize: You know what? This actually isn’t that desperate. Rifle climbing is all about learning to move your body into a position that lets you use a hold that would be otherwise unusable. When you learn to move your body, this very three-dimensional style of climbing begins to make much more sense.
Feeling a bit more prepared for the style, the scene, the lines, and the beta, you drive down from the campground just a half-mile up canyon, and find, once again, all the parking spaces are full.
Many people are tempted to just double-park a car in at the Ruckman Cave, or park on a little random pull-out on the side of the road, or near the designated parking areas. Don’t do this! There is a tenuous relationship between the town of Rifle and the local climbers, who go to great lengths to follow the rules, keep the park clean and not do anything the town doesn’t want them to—such as park in places that aren’t precisely designated a parking lot. Worst case scenario: you park in the campground and walk into the canyon. This will increase your approach time to a whopping five minutes, so don’t complain.
One way to avoid the parking nightmare is to leave your car at the campground and use mountain bikes to get around the park. Then, you won’t have to drive up and down the canyon and you’ll enjoy some active recovery between burns.
Today, the warm-ups begin to feel a bit easier. You are starting to remember the moves, the funny-shaped holds, and how to stand up into the side-pulls and underclings in such a way that allows you to actually use them.
OK, time for your project, Easy Skankin’. You wait for it to go into the shade around 2 p.m., and head over to the wall early so you’re first in line. You climb through the first crux, then the middle crux and you find yourself shaking out up on the glorious headwall. You’re doing it! Then you forget about the last crux, you pump out and take a whipper.
You’ve punted off your project. This is a very common experience, and there’s absolutely no need to distinguish yourself by screaming profanities as you hit the end of the rope. You’re just like everyone else who has ever punted off his or her project. You’re an adult; try to show some emotional control and don’t throw a fit.
You’re pissed. You’re angry. You hate sport climbing. You hate Rifle. We get it.
You wait an hour. You go back up. This time you fall at the third bolt. Again, this is not the time to scream! We know you want to. We’ve all been there. You’re not special. You’re right on the fast track to the middle along with the rest of us.
You rest and visualize the moves and beta for the next hour. You watch 20 Rifle locals easily run laps on your project. You’re feeling super bummed out.
“One last try of the day,” you think.
Again, you climb. You make it through the first crux. You make it through the second one. Again, you’re on the headwall! “I’m going to do this!” you think. You climb into the third crux. You’ve remembered the hand beta … but you didn’t actually take the time to learn the proper feet, did you? Nope. Your foot is actually supposed to be on that other black foothold three inches to the right. It’s the only way that sequence will work.
But you’ve forgotten this, and now you’re doomed. Your foot skates off the wall, and you fall.
“Oh, dude, I had it! I was going to do it that try!” you say in a whiny voice to your partner.
Yeah, you were going to do it. But you didn’t.
Last day of the trip. You wake up with a fire in your soul to send Easy Skankin’ at all costs before you have to leave to go home. Nothing else matters.
Unfortunately, you feel really worked. Parts of your body that you never knew you had are sore in ways that you never knew could be sore.
You do a few warm-ups, and fall on the second one. Well, that’s encouraging. Maybe you won’t be sending Easy Skankin’ today, either.
Yet, something in you decides to try anyway. You walk over to the wall, and put your rope bag down. You have zero expectations that this burn is going to go well. But, something in you gets psyched to try. Just try. If for no other reason than to get a work-out, to let climbing be that way that you choose to exercise your body and just move because it’s fun and feels good, regardless of success or failure.
Suddenly, you find yourself staring down that third crux. This time you remember the right foothold. You grab a crimp, set a high foot and toss for the final jug. You stick it and romp up to the anchor. You did it!
You lower down, slap hands with your friends and get congratulated by all the other climbers at the wall.
“Now you need to do I Am not a Philistine,” someone says, directing you to the adjacent 5.12c. And even thought you know you’re about to get a beat-down, you know that you’re going to need beta from at least three different people, and that you might not even make it to the anchors on your first try, something in you decides that you do want to do that. So you rest, and you head up for the ass-whooping of your life, simultaneously grinning and hating it, and planning for your next trip back.
The park can be accessed from either the city of Rifle or the city of New Castle. If you’re driving east on I-70, you’ll get off at the Rifle exit. If you’re driving west, you’ll get off at New Castle.
From New Castle: Turn right off freeway. Drive straight through four-way intersection and continue down road that bends west through a housing development. This road dead ends into Grass Valley Road. Turn Right. Follow Grass Valley Road west for 8 miles, staying straight on this road until you pass Willy’s Ranch and the road dead ends at a T-intersection. Turn right. Follow road until it turns to dirt and you see giant limestone walls crawling with climbers.
From Rifle: Head north on Highway 13, heading out of town. Turn right on Highway 325, heading toward Rifle Gap. Follow this road straight past a reservoir, straight past the T-intersection described above, and continuing straight on in until it turns to dirt and you are in the canyon.
There are cheap hotels in the town of Rifle. Otherwise, camp in the campground just north of the park. Camping is a separate fee from the parking pass. It’s $10/night, and sites are plenty but can fill up when it’s really busy, especially on weekends.
Most of the most popular routes in Rifle have safe, recently installed perma-draws. That said, you will still want a rack of quickdraws as there are invariably great routes to do that aren’t equipped. Twenty-two quickdraws will get you up the 200-foot Eighth Day (5.13a), but most routes will require between 10 and 15 quickdraws. A 60-meter rope will get you down most routes, but there are many routes that demand a 70-meter rope. Kneepads are really useful here, especially if you’re climbing 5.13 and harder.
Once upon a time, there was a wellspring in the campground that provided free water, but it has since run dry, so bring all your own water.
The town of Rifle is a 15-minute drive from the canyon, and the closest option for all food, amenities and restaurants. Rifle is hardly a culinary destination, however. If you’re looking for a fine dining experience, head east down I-70 to the city of Glenwood Springs (25 minutes from the canyon). Here, there are dozens of great restaurants, but the best one is the Pullman.