This journey began over Labor Day weekend 2004. At that time, myself, the wife Jackie (Cruzit), and Barry drove out to the Ouray area to climb in the Sneffels range. After getting weathered out, we opted to drive out west of Ridgway, where the prominent Cimarron Ridge and Courthouse Mountain beckoned. As we drove up to Owl Creek pass, a single magnificent tower greeted us. A brief check of the map indicated that we had stumbled on Chimney Rock, a spire which closely resembled Lizard Head Peak. The closer we got to Chimney Rock the more I was attracted to it. The road kept getting closer and closer until we were so close, I could see even the most minor features very clearly. I was mesmerized by the shear beauty of this peak and vowed to find out more about it. All we talked about on the way home was Chimney Rock and if it could be climbed. Surely there was lots of info on climbing this magnificent mountain.
Shortly after arrival home in Oklahoma City, I discovered that the route to the summit was rated 5.6. This fact further fueled my interest in that 5.6 was well within my on-site ability. So for three years, Chimney Rock was always in the back of my head as one of my goals, and finally in 2007, plans began to come together to head back to the San Juans to attempt this mighty tower.
During the previous three years, I scoured the internet, guidebooks, and climbing forums for beta on the route. What little info I found was sparse, vague, and brief. This was somewhat disheartening. I was surprised that such a beautiful and accessible mountain would have so little information on climbing it. Finally, in April 2006, SP member John Prater emailed me some beta from a friend of his who climbed Chimney Rock in 1998. We were set to go, but family issues and injuries prevented us from making an attempt in 2006.
At the end of June 2007, I found myself driving up the same road with the same people to Owl Creek Pass and Chimney Rock. Everything had come together and we were finally getting our chance to make an attempt on this mountain. The closer I got to the mountain, the more excited I became. But it seemed like every Sunday driver was on the road that day, slowing me down and preventing me from getting there faster. Earlier that day, SP member Ktimm met us in Ridgway and he followed us up the long dirt road, all the while having to eat my dust while I drove like hell to get to the Courthouse Mountain trailhead. Courthouse Mountain would be a nice day climb and an excellent opportunity to scope out the approach and route up Chimney Rock. With Courthouse Mountain successfully climbed, we set up camp with Chimney Rock looming directly above us. I slept fitfully in anticipation of a day of alpine climbing in perfect weather.
For some stupid reason, we didn’t do an alpine start and finally left camp at 6:30 am. I figured we were so close to the base of the mountain, that we could easily get up to the base and get started. I couldn’t have been more wrong. First, the “logging road” which I thought we could use to drive and haul our climbing gear to the base was blocked by a huge boulder. As a result, we had to hike this road instead. Not that hiking is bad, but I didn’t realize how much time would add to our approach. Finally at the end of the logging road, we began to bushwhack through the spruce forest and relentless clouds of mosquitos. Just when we thought it could not get worse, the grade increased immensely as we reached the ramparts directly below the cliffs that guarded the base of the mountain and the beginning of the route. Slogging through mosquitos, brush, and downfall up the ramparts was slow and I was kicking myself for not leaving camp much earlier. Upon arrival of the cliffs that guarded the base of the route, I whipped out the e-mail that John sent me to find out how to negotiate this section. There were two small amphitheaters in front of us which looked to be at least class 4. So Barry and I each scouted one of them out to find out which one would get us up to the top. The beta said that one of the amphitheaters was loose and scary and should be avoided. Naturally, this was the one that I picked, and what appeared to be class 4 turned out to be loose and unprotectable low class 5. About halfway up this mess, I found a ledge and decided to rope up and put on my helmet. I had already accidently rained rocks down on Jackie and Barry several times, and Jackie was smarting after one of those rocks beaned her in the arm. I tied in and threw the single twin rope down to them approximately 50 ft below. Even though I couldn’t place pro and would be soloing the route, I could still drag the rope behind me and then belay them up. No sense in all three of us soloing it. I finally made it to the top and set up my anchor by looping the climbing rope around a huge chicken head. Everything else was just too loose and unreliable. They began to climb, but the rock was so loose, that even the movement of the rope during belay was dislodging rocks down upon them. I thought, “Holy shit, if this is what it is going to be like, then we’re in for a tough and long day.”
Finally reaching the base of the tower, I looked at my watch. It was 10:30 am and it had taken four hours to do a mile and a half approach. However, I racked up, eagerly anticipating the first pitch. The first 15 ft or so was an unprotectable 5.6 overhang which had some nice conglomerate holds. After quickly dispatching of this small section, I found myself on a ledge looking up at a chockstone above me. I put in a .75 Camalot and began to climb. Looking up, I saw a beautiful conglomerate knob which looked inviting. I tested the knob, then applied weight as I brought my feet up. Suddenly the knob popped out and I found myself laying on my back on the ledge 10 ft below with my foot in pain. Only the quick reaction of Barry and the cam kept me from falling all the way to the ground. I lay there in agony as my ankle began to swell up. After 5 or 10 minutes the pain began to subside a bit and I thought that I could possibly finish the pitch. I stood up and made a feeble attempt at trying the route again, but backed off as soon as I put weight on it. Barry lowered me to the ground.
Back at the bottom, Barry and Jackie were looking at me. I knew what they were thinking, so it was decision time. Being the worried wife, Jackie was all for bailing. Barry was agreeable to that option but I wouldn’t hear of it. As far as I was concerned, there was only one choice: We had two healthy climbers that needed to do this climb; especially after a long drive from Oklahoma and a plane ride from Texas. There was no way I was not going to let them keep going. So they agreed and Barry racked up and began leading the first pitch appearing a little nervous after he had watched me damn near kill myself. After Jackie followed and was out of sight, I sat there for seven hours wallowing in a pool of self-pity while hearing their faint voices on the tower all day. My only consolation was that they would hopefully get to summit and not make our trip from the flatlands wasted. Although the fall was an accident, I could not help being pissed and wondering if I could have somehow prevented it. Turns out that my fall and injury was somewhat of a blessing. There would have been no way that three of us could have finished the route before dark. The poor rock quality made for extremely slow going. With that, I will let Jackie continue with this trip report and describe the actual climb of the tower.
The nasty bushwhack and rock bombardment during the approach left me feeling pretty crappy. The day before on our day hike of Courthouse, I had felt really strong, so I was disappointed that on the day I needed to really be strong, I was instead experiencing altitude sickness. Nevertheless, I choked down a couple of bites of a sandwich, some Cheetos, and a about a quart of Gatorade while Alan racked up for the first lead. The first pitch looked to be a solid 5.6 with some overhanging moves and Alan was really stoked. He soloed up to what looked to be the first hard move of the climb and quickly got a cam in. We were all surprised (although we shouldn’t have been given the overall condition of the rock) when the hold Alan was attempting to climb on gave way. It was a nasty lead fall and I could tell by looking at Alan he had just had a day-ending injury. My concern was whether we could actually get him off the mountain. Barry and I let Alan recover his composure while quietly discussing ways to get him down the mountain if need be. Fortunately, as Alan has already discussed, this was unnecessary and then the question became whether we would bail collectively, or whether Barry and I would continue the climb. There was really no question. We had already come a long way, and as Alan pointed out, it would take exactly the same amount of time to get off the mountain at that point as it would later on after we climbed. So after asking Barry if he wanted to give it a shot, I hooked up my belay device and off we went.
Barry made short work of the first pitch and I was soon on the rock. I couldn’t see Barry on belay as he was hidden by the infamous chockstone. I made it up to the ledge where Alan had landed and began to negotiate the first hard move. The piece that had saved Alan from near-death (no, I’m not exaggerating) was well placed and came out easily. After a couple of attempts, I figured out where I needed to be and made the overhanging move around the chockstone to see Barry grinning at me at the first belay station. I finished cleaning the route (only two pieces in an 80 ft pitch) and I scrambled up to greet Barry. Barry suggested we lighten our load a little so he and I left some of our outerwear and a quart of water (we were carrying three quarts) and we quickly began to get set for the next section.
Barry led off on pitch two. The second 100 ft pitch meandered through a cave and out on to a knobby face. No move was above 5.5, but it got pretty airy when you stepped out from the cave on the face. I remarked to Barry at the 2nd belay station that I wouldn’t have liked to make that move on lead. There was tons of loose shit on the route and I dodged rocks the whole time I was belaying. Barry placed 5 or 6 pieces on this pitch. I only had trouble with one placement (.50 Camalot) because it was placed deep in the cave and I couldn’t maneuver into a position to reach it as I was climbing with our pack. It eventually became our sacrifice to the mountain.
The second belay station was at the base of the strip of snow we had observed the day before on Courthouse Mountain. The rap slings appeared solid, but it was wet and icy at the belay. I resigned myself to having wet feet. After a couple of swigs of water and a quick change of gear, Barry led off again. Barry negotiated up the wall along the sides of the snow field and was eventually able to place his first piece some 40 feet up the pitch. The placements were scarce, and Barry ended up soloing about 85 ft of the pitch. The rock fall was equally as bad on this pitch, but the snowfield absorbed the worst of what Barry and the rope was kicking down. Finally, Barry was able to get some pro in and he started to make better time. He had to skip the 3rd pitch belay station because it was covered in ice. As a result, he was down to his last 5 feet of rope when he finally set up a belay on a precarious perch about halfway up the 4th pitch.
Barry radioed Alan to find out the time and we were both surprised to find out it was after 4:00 pm. Barry told Alan to expect to see us around 6:00 pm. Then, while I was sorting out the rope, Barry headed up the short grassy ledge to a rocky slope to see how close we were to the top. The good news was that we were close, the bad news was that there was a three to four foot step across over about a 30 to 40 foot airy crevasse. We decided we would belay each other across (okay I whimpered a little until Barry felt sorry for me because I really hate that kind of exposure and he set up the belay). So with Barry taking the lead once again, we made quick work of the step.
As we made it to the summit, we both hooted and hollered loud enough for Alan to hear us. We were both tired, but very happy we had made it to the top. After the requisite hero shots, we rapped off the summit and across the crevasse to the top of the 4th pitch. At this point we were in full sun and were out of water. Barry was visibly exhausted and I’m sure I didn’t look much better. I tied our twin ropes together with a triple fisherman’s knot and Barry began rapping the route. After one long and two short rappels we were on the ground looking at a grinning Alan who was obviously happy to see us.
(Alan continues:) It was now 6:30 pm. After their rappels, I could see that they were obviously exhausted and dehydrated, especially Barry. The long day, plus the stress of leading every loose, run-out pitch created a zombie-like character which I had never seen before in him. They had run out of food and water and were both sort of grumpy. So, I allowed them to rest while I sorted the gear, ropes, etc, so we could get out of there before dark. We still had at least two rappels and a nasty bushwhack to negotiate before we could get back to the car. Also, we were worried that our hotel reservation would be canceled because we had not checked in before 6:00 pm. There was no way we could camp again because we had to be in Durango by 7:00 am so Barry could catch the train to his next climb.
Anyway, we began to descend. Luckily, Jackie just happened to bring along her ankle brace which was a veteran of many ankle and leg injuries over the past couple of years. So with the ankle brace and high-top approach shoes, my foot was stabilized well enough so I could move relatively quickly. We had to do two raps and I happily did all the setting up while watching my zombie-like companions observe my work. On the final rappel, I cussed pretty loudly while rocks zoomed by my head after a shifting rappel rope continued to dislodge loose rock. An hour and a half later, we were back at the car and packing up, totally spent after 14 hours on the mountain.
A lot of lessons were learned that day. First, we totally underestimated Chimney Rock. After all my research into this climb, I failed to see that the reason why there was not more info on it was because it is such a shitty climb and nobody does it very often. Second, given the close proximity of our campsite and parking, we all figured that our approach would be fairly short as opposed to the four hours that it actually took us. And finally, we did not take enough food, water, or first aid supplies.
I had been seduced by Chimney Rock. I was so enthralled by the idea of climbing this beautiful mountain, that I had failed to follow one of the basic rules of climbing: Show respect for the mountain, the conditions, and the situation. We had underestimated Chimney Rock and had paid for it.
Barry is probably one of the most courageous climbers I know. Like Chimney Rock, he has climbed some of the most heinous backcountry shit you can imagine......usually solo. His final statement after we got back to the car was, “Had I known what I know now, I would have never come near that mountain.” We all agreed. However, I can’t help being still drawn by this mountain, especially since I feel cheated. Again....I am being seduced by Chimney Rock and want to go back and take care of some unfinished business.