Rock Climbing in the San Juans
Before or while engaging in rock climbing anywhere in the San Juan Mountains, an extra measure of enjoyment and thrills can come from an understanding of the forces that have shaped Colorado’s landscape over billions of years. In other words, in addition to experiencing rock climbing in the San Juans as just a special kind of sporting adventure, it also can provide a unique form of geological exploration.
The Southern Rocky Mountains, extending from the Laramie Mountains in Wyoming to Santa Fe, NM, part of the U.S. Rocky Mountains, are the dominant form of landscape from north to south. West of the Rockies, the Colorado Plateau is the land of canyons, mesas and sculpted rock formations like those surrounding the marvelous Four Corners region. The Colorado River and its tributaries cut through this incredible labyrinth of canyons. In this Rocky Mountains region, visitors can find the greatest concentration of national parks and monuments in the U.S., including Mesa Verde, Black Canyon, the Gunnison National Parks and Dinosaur National Monuments.
Over eons various forms of Colorado’s rocks have formed from minerals beneath the earth’s surface. Igneous rocks were born from fire in wild cauldrons deep within the earth, slowly cooling into plutonic rocks that pushed through the earth’s crust to eventually become exposed by uplift and erosion. Granite is a form of such plutonic rocks. Magma traveling to the earth’s surface also formed igneous rocks known as volcanic rocks, The San Juans are one of North America’s largest mountain ranges formed from volcanic eruptions over 30 million years ago. Also, starting much earlier, brewing beneath the earth’s surface, a complex process of temperature and pressure changes was forming metamorphic rocks. With rare exceptions, like the Elk Mountains, most of Colorado’s mountains are primarily eroded cores of igneous and metamorphic rocks. The varying types and quality of rocks in each climbing area (gneiss, basalt, conglomerate, granite, limestone, and others) adds additional challenges to the sport of rock climbing.
One of the geologically newest mountain ranges in the U.S., a great deal of the rock quality in the San Juans is “chossy” (rock which is too soft or unstable for rock climbing) but the quality improves at higher levels. For every climbing route, it’s essential to find out beforehand (gather “beta”) whether: the route offers “traditional climbing” (“trad” climbing), rock climbing with a harness and rope; the “pitch” of climbs or whether the route requires stops at “belay stations” (“multipitch climbs”); whether “bouldering” (ascending large rocks) is an option and, if so, the “problems” (routes); and the ratings of climbs (using Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)) starting with Class 1 (hiking on flat, easy terrain) and increasing to 5.0-5.4 (easy), 5.5-5.8 (moderate) and up to 5.15 (very challenging and technical). Over 5.10 requires specialized training. Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton are surrounded by thirteeners, fourteeners and plenty of rocky areas at lower altitudes that offer a vast variety of these technical climbing options year-round.
Based on the opinions of rock climbers at every skill level and their trained guides, no other outdoor sport compares for the combination of technical, physical, mental and emotional challenges, satisfactions, and value. All of these rewards for rock climbers can be found in rock climbing locations near the San Juan Skyway. For example, Ouray is a perfect destination for rock climbing and bouldering any time of day or season. To name just a few locations for sport/adventure climbing near Ouray: Rock Park (across from the Ice Park); Rotary Park (right above Ouray Ice Park); Overlook Cliff (right above Ouray Ice Park); and the Pool Wall (across from the Ouray Hot Springs Pool). High above Ouray, the Upper Cascade Wall offers a variety of short, moderate “trad” routes and some harder sports climbs.
Some rock climbing locations require 4x4 access or hikes to the start like the Secret Stash south of Ouray. The steep Overlook Cliff, reached from the Sutton Mine Trail, offers some very challenging sport climbs as well as a great selection of moderate ones. The Pool Wall offers high quality sport and “trad” climbing, including challenges for even the best climbers. Rotary Park’s easy/moderate climb works well for brand-new climbers, families, and experts alike. Another source of really good easy/moderate climbs in Ouray can be found in The Alcove. And then there’s the fantastic Via Ferrata, a protected climbing route built with steel cables and metal steps attached to the rock that allows scaling of the walls above the Uncompahgre River in Ouray Ice Park.
Each one of the towns along the San Juan Skyway has their special rock climbing destinations. The Ridgway Dike Wall, not far from Orvis Hot Springs, has been a legendary rock climbing location for decades. Ridgway State Park offers bouldering. Telluride has rock climbing at nearby Clay Creek or the Ophir Wall. If the 600-foot-tall Ophir Wall is not enough, scaling Telluride’s via ferrata takes climbers more than 500 feet above box canyon. Ophir has a lot of very high quality rock, similar to granite and volcanic in origin, but also rock that can be “chossy”. It offers several high quality long routes. Climbing Ophir exemplifies “trad” climbing -- removable gear, instead of bolts drilled into the wall, and routes that are established as the climber ascends instead of relying on fixed ropes or rappelling to drill permanent bolts into the wall. But climbers also need to be very aware that the rock in Ophir can be “chossy”. Newcomers to the Ophir Wall probably should hire a guide.
As most expert rock climbers and many others know, the highlights of rock climbing in western Colorado are Black Canyon on the Gunnison National Park and Rifle Mountain. The Black Canyon is one of Colorado’s finest multi-pitch adventure climbing destinations. Located between Montrose and Gunnison, no other canyon in North America combines the narrow opening, sheer walls, and depths found in the Black Canyon. Two totally different climbing experiences, Black Canyon is a very deep, narrow and intimidating canyon that offers mostly long and complicated routes. Full of thrills, chills and adventure, Black Canyon has some of the tallest cliffs in the state with spectacular rock climbing and views for those up to the challenges and not scared away by the stories. Not as well known, Black Canyon actually has some moderate routes with 5.8-.9 pitches. As for Rifle Mountain, overhanging limestone walls offer over 400 routes ranging from very hard to easier suitable for novice and intermediate climbers.
It’s only about 50 miles to the north from Ouray to Black Canyon and some of the steepest cliffs, oldest rock, and craggiest spires in North America. Exploring the inner canyon is a rewarding adventure like no other, but requires skill, experience, and preparation to be successful. The inner canyon is also a designated Wilderness area and requires a permit to enter. At its deepest, the canyon is 2,722 feet deep (Warner Point). The Painted Wall, the tallest vertical wall in Colorado, rises 2,250 feet. Around North and South Chasm Walls, where the majority of the climbing activity takes place, the canyon is 1,820 feet deep. Of the 145 climbing routes that are found in Black Canyon, many have ratings of 5.10 and don’t see any regular ascents.
Whether visitors are looking for some of the most awe-inspiring climbing destinations in the world or simply a fine selection of classic climbs at accessible grades, visitors can find these unique experiences in the San Juans. But before heading for the San Juans, do some homework. Research climbs beforehand. Read guidebooks, online trip reports, talk to guides and experts. Look at “beta” photos. Become as familiar with the terrain as possible. Plan ahead. Bring copies of topo on the climb. And figure out who is leading which “pitches” before ascending.