Climbing in Montrose is commonly associated with the Black Canyon, where climbers on top of their game suffer long descents through legendary poison ivy forests to climb in baking heat and risk the “walk of shame” back to the edge of the canyon rim if they fail. The Black Canyon’s narrow confines have a vice-like feel that make even accomplished climbers squirm.
On the other side of Montrose, though, it is a different story – and that’s where I am today. Fifteen miles west of town, as you begin the imperceptible ascent up the Uncompaghre Plateau, drainages trace through sandstone rims that run for miles. Out of sight and mind for most traveling climbers, these canyons, spread around the perimeter of the Plateau, offer climbing from Colorado National Monument, in the north, down to Dry Creek, and across to uranium country in the Paradox and Big Gypsum valleys, 50 miles to the south.
Figuratively and literally, I am somewhere between the massive walls of Red Rocks, outside Las Vegas, and the Gritstone Edges of England’s Peak District. The climb I am on atop Dry Creek mesa reminds me of both those distant places at once. The rock texture is an exact match to Red Rocks sandstone, but the size of the cliff shares a smaller, welcoming, even cultivated feel, endemic to many British crags. U.K. climbers are remarkable for making the most of small rock piles, establishing routes and turning them into pilgrimage sites, and I see a similarity in what the climbers who developed Dry Creek were doing here.
Twenty years ago, Montrose resident Keith Reynolds began establishing the area known as Dry Creek by putting up routes along this section of rim. Its quality rock, known as Dakota sandstone, is revered for face climbing, where holds have been sculpted into a veneered surface. The holds are thin and ladder-like, with cracks appearing periodically. Crimping with fingers and toes is required over a lattice of edges, and climbers must use all their finesse and intelligence to puzzle their way up. Reynolds focused on developing the best climbing walls here – panels, dark umber in color, laced with seams and weathered fractures that match the best of Red Rocks climbing, but shorter and more “Gritstone” in size.
Local teacher Rusty George is part of a small, experienced fraternity of Montrose climbers who frequent this place. In the 1990s, George accomplished the improbable by bringing indoor climbing walls to Montrose High School. At a time when climbing gyms were developing a following in places like Boulder and Seattle, George saw the benefit of having them in schools; his singlehanded effort and perseverance eventually persuaded the school administration to allow them. There are now climbing walls in three Montrose elementary schools and one middle school, as well. George also formed an outdoor club, and has been bringing club students out here to camp, learn the roped skills of climbing, and practice stewardship of public land for 20 years. The club also works with the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, building trails at the climbing areas of Shelf Road, outside Canon City, and at Indian Creek Canyon in Utah.
Today, George is my guide, showing me the approach and descent to Dry Creek’s west-facing walls. The walls start catching the sun sometime after midday, making it a perfect climbing area from September through May. George assures me, “All you need is 40 degrees [in Montrose] and no wind, and you’ll be baking out here.” Summertime is too hot, unless you are out early or encounter a rare cloudy day. An additional Dry Creek bonus is proximity: I can drive from my home in Ridgway, grocery shop in Montrose, do some banking and still have time to climb in the afternoon.
George and I have climbed together for years, beginning at Lumpy Ridge in Estes Park. Today, I watch an old hand rig anchors for students on a variety of climbs in an area known as the Brown Wall Sampler. The ropes are hung about every ten feet, so the kids can bump from route to route, testing both their climbing and belaying skills. The rim is especially good for top roping (a technique where ropes from overhead protect the climber), because there are many places to climb and anchors are easy to come by. With some slings and a long section of rope, anchors can also be set around the nearest solid trees.
Cracks offer a spot to place protective gear as you move along. Since there is a dearth of cracks at Dry Creek, the climbing walls utilize bolts, a style of protecting climbers that evolved in the early 80s on the smooth rock faces of Smith Rock, in Oregon. Since that time, hundreds of cliffs throughout the west (in places such as Rifle, Colorado, and Maple Canyon, Utah) and the world (in southern Thailand and most of France) now offer protected climbing where none would otherwise exist. As long as there are bolts, the global climbing culture can tour the world, sampling all types of rock, including the 40 routes George estimates are here along a few hundred yards of Dry Creek.
The following weekend after George and I tour Dry Creek, I go out by myself to walk the length of the rim, assess the rest of the climbs and get a further feel for the place. To my surprise, there are no other climbers to be seen. A solo motocrosser passes me, and I hear a couple of pops from a distant hunter’s gun, but on this day, Dry Creek reminds me of the lyrics to a Johnny Cash song: “There’s something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone.” As I wander along the base looking at each bolted line, I’m reminded that climbing is like a portal, creating meaning for a place. I can imagine what climbing here feels like, what we bring here, and how ephemeral 40 small climbs can be. Just a week ago, I saw climbers creating something for themselves in Dry Creek, but in the silence, that memory remains elusive. The air is charged instead with the scent of piñon, and the climbing spirits are distant. All that’s left is the murmuring breeze and the outline of the Sneffels Range.
And that is a good thing. We live in an era of burgeoning numbers of climbers; popular crags, increasingly crowded, are known as much for climbers crowing loudly about their exploits and emotional failures as the climbing itself. That is all blessedly missing here. Dry Creek is a place where one can pull holds in peaceful silence on a windless October afternoon. It proves there are still places where climbers can tour the obscure and find no less quality – just less jive.
In the spirit of the place, please be careful of soils and vegetation. For having been established for so many years, Dry Creek is a miracle, and a testament to local users who have taken care to minimize tracks along the base, and avoided turning the most active climbing areas into sandboxes. On the drive in, you’ll pass an oversized corral that is ATV parking for the Tabeguache trailhead. Stop and look at the Bureau of Land Management map posted at the kiosk, and you will see how extensively Off Road Vehicle use is promoted on the Uncompaghre. From the parking area (basically, wherever you decide to stop), the walk in shows braiding of the track and tire tracks out through biotic soils. Your tracks, and those of your dogs, will be visible for a long time, so do what you can to keep the area from sustaining further damage.
The Dry Creek climbing area has no guidebook, which adds an element of adventure to locating it and selecting routes. Don’t be surprised if it takes a little longer to find the crag the first time you go out.
Head west on Spring Creek Road (an extension of Montrose Main Street), and drive about six miles to road 5875. Turn right on 5875 and go north to Kiowa Rd. (watch carefully for the sign after the road descends a hill). Turn left and cross an irrigation ditch at a left dogleg onto Rim Road. Make a right at the Rim Road sign; the corral for the Tabeguache trailhead will be on your left. Continue uphill to another dogleg left; it is about 2.5 miles to a brown BLM flexi-sign indicating a right turn. Watch carefully for this sign; the main power lines will be just in front of you. Park here if you’ve brought a vehicle without much clearance. Smart phone apps have GPS and compass capabilities for UTM coordinates. The parking area is 758294 E and 4264981 N. The walk from here is west/northwest; heading in the 270 degree range will get you to the crag in about 40 minutes. The descent pillar, which offers a nice walk down to the base, is at UTM coordinates 756457 E and 4264981 N. The track out is sometimes hard to follow because of braiding, and a few bends through the trees. George’s advice is to “follow the track without taking any hard turns right or left.” I found it easier to follow on foot; if in doubt, bear right. From the base of the descent, the Brown Wall Sampler is 40 yards south; the Brown Wall itself is an additional 200 yards to the north. The websites mountainproject.com and summitpost.com have small write-ups, and offer the closest thing to a guidebook. Visit them at www.summitpost.org/dry-creek-crags/720043 and mountainproject.com/v/montrose/106454069.