Preserving the Freedom of Climbing in Colorado Springs

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Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs is one of the oldest established climbing areas in the country.  Its dusty red sandstone towers and walls have beckoned to climbers since the 1920s. The 1,368-acre park gained fame in the early 1900s when mountaineer Albert Ellingwood pioneered technical routes there.  Since then, the Garden, as locals call it, has attracted world-class climbers.  Its challenges – especially soft sandstone that flakes and crumbles – are many.  And its routes often are climbed using drilled pitons and bolts that date back more than half a century.

Courtesy of Deb Acord
Courtesy of Deb Acord

Just south of the Garden, another climbing area has developed a more recent but just as devoted following. Red Rock Canyon Open Space is a mini-Garden, with smaller versions of the same sandstone that seems to glow in the brilliant Colorado sunshine.  At Red Rock, local climbers who had just established routes less than a decade ago were shocked to learn that hangers on bolts and lowering anchors had been stolen recently.

Climbers at Garden of the Gods, CO
Climbers at Garden of the Gods, CO

Both areas, managed by the Colorado Springs Parks department, suffer from a conflict between wanting to preserve the rock and be respectful of history, while making sure the climbing areas are accessible to climbers and as safe as possible without taking away from the sport.

“The conflict is often between climbers who want to keep everything old-style and traditional, and those who want to make everything laboratory safe.  We’ve been working on how we should address those conflicts,” says Stewart Green, a local climber, author, photographer and climbing guide for About.com. Green and other local climbers had started a group for Red Rock Canyon in 2004, calling it the Red Rock Climbers Alliance.  The idea, says Green, “was to work on climbing issues with the city.”

Stewart Green on top of Gray Rock at Garden of the Gods, CO Courtesy of Deb Acord
Stewart Green on top of Gray Rock at Garden of the Gods, CO Courtesy of Deb Acord

Today, that climber alliance concept has grown, and the result is a new group, Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance. The group reached out to the Access Fund in Boulder for guidance, and founding members are currently working on establishing non-profit status, writing bylaws, and designing a website and Facebook page.   “Interested climbers can be a member, and help us with trails and access and fixed hardware issues,” Green says.

The to-do list is long.  Among the most important issues:  the age of the Garden’s pitons.  “We have to address how we evaluate those. Are they safe? Do they need to be replaced?  What do we replace them with?  If we remove one and make a hole, how do we repair the hole to make it look natural?” Green says.

It’s difficult evaluating the strength of old hardware, Green says. “We are lucky – we don’t have rust issues here like you do, for example, on sea cliffs, where salt water corrodes metal.  But we know the age of old hardware means it should be evaluated.”

Climber on Gray Rock at the Garden of the Gods, CO, Courtesy of Deb Acord
Climber on Gray Rock at the Garden of the Gods, CO, Courtesy of Deb Acord

The alliance would represent climbers and work with city officials and perhaps create a log of repairs.  Green says it could be a valuable resource for both climbers and the managers of the two parks, as well as the other two climbing areas in Colorado Springs – North Cheyenne Canyon and Ute Valley Park.

“We have a lot of freedom right now, and that’s what we want to preserve.  To keep that freedom, we need to know about wildlife closures such as the Garden’s Tower of Babel for white-throated swifts, and about seasonal closures because of conditions of the rock.”

Green fears that vandalism like that discovered recently at Red Rock Canyon can endanger those freedoms.

“Freedom is what climbing is about,” Green says. “Climbing is a pure sport. It keeps you wonderfully focused on the present.  There’s a wonderful feeling, being outside, and climbing.”

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