The Best Worst Trad Climbing in the U.S.

I was a spry 22 and a half years old when I finished college in Maryland, and moved to Estes Park, Colorado. At that time, I knew I was a climber—I just didn’t have any idea what that might mean. What I knew of climbing was single-pitch sport routes in the New River Gorge that my friends and I could lead with our combined eight quickdraws (seven hours away from campus), bouldering V4 and under low balls at Cooper’s Rock (five hours from campus), and toproping river-polished schist at Great Falls (two hours from campus). Which is to say, I knew basically nothing.

What caught my eye when the sun rose on my first morning in Estes was not the mountains. Mountains were large, obscure, unfathomable, distant, confusing, and tended to be covered in meddlesome clouds. What caught my eye was Lumpy Ridge. And what I saw there was a rock climbing paradise. It was the most stone I had ever seen in one place in my life. From Crescent Wall to the east, to Sundance Buttress to the west, what stretched out before me was, for all intents and purposes, the center of the climbing universe.

Thus, before I ever set foot on Lumpy Ridge, I had my mind made up that it was the best climbing in the United States. When I learned that it was primarily a trad climbing zone (you know, trad—that crazy thing that only crazy people do that you would be crazy to ever consider trying yourcrazyself) I decided that what I needed to do to be a REAL climber … that, in fact, what being a REAL climber meant … was I needed to learn to climb trad.

Luckily, I lived next to Jess Asmussen.

Jess was, at the time, what I considered to be the best climber in the United States—possibly the world. He was about to start a job as a climbing ranger up in Rocky Mountain National Park, which was, and still might be, the coolest job I’ve ever heard of. So I knew he was a badass. But he also had a perfect set of pearly whites, hands like baseball mits, a winning smile, and he could send the Ranka traverse—a 5.13 or something like that boulder traverse in park headquarters that I only ever saw Jess climbing on. He had a gear porch. Not even a closet—a porch!—and one of those boxes you put on top of your car, tape gloves, guide books, and pictures of climbing on his walls. Jess was God, and I was his disciple.

So when God invited me to go climb on Lumpy with him, I was gaga. “You’re a strong boulderer,” he told me, “you’ll do fine!” Teed up for the day, he had in mind “a little linkup.” “We’ll just do Thindependence to J Crack to Cheap Date to Outlander,” he told me casually. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but I smiled my quiet acquiescence like a dog. “It’s a five-pitch route, and they’re all right around 5.10. That makes it about a 50-point day, which is a good day!” Jess did confess that 5.10 on Lumpy would feel a little different from the 5.10 I was used to in the gym. But he was sure I’d do fine.

What followed was perhaps the coolest, as well as the most challenging, day I had ever experienced on this planet. My god. I was already smoked by the end of the approach. I felt college jelly rolls—baby fat—grinding between my harness and the waistbelt of my chalk bag. I was greener than a Colorado license plate, trying desperately to crimp crystals while perfect cracks mangled my uncallused hands and angry feet. I toproped the shit out of all five pitches, Jess’s pearly mansmile greeting me at each god-given belay. I fell, I hung, I cursed, I bled, I cleaned gear, I failed to clean gear. I didn’t cry. But I think I was close.

And then came the last pitch. All day long, we danced our way up delicate slabs. But in the last 60 feet of the whole route, the wall kicked back like a fat American on his La-Z-Boy before the warm glow of the television and his made-for-TV dinner. A perfect(ly horrible-looking) hand crack split the overhang, traversing left, then straight up, through the looming headwall.

Now tears finally came. Sinew tore from bone, skin rended from flesh, the very essence of my being fought the good fight to surmount the impossible pitch of 5.10 torture. Nothing could be this horrible. My feet were placed at unnatural angles, my ankles were sure to break any moment, my poor paws looked like something from a Tarantino flick. I was done. Cut the rope, Jess. Save yourself.

And then, right when I least expected it, it was over! I grabbed a jug at the lip, pulled my tired and deflated body over, and stood on top. And all of a sudden, it was the best day of my life.

Jess flashed a perfect grin at me: “Wasn’t that awesome!?”

“Yes”, I assured him, “awesome is precisely the word I was thinking of to describe that experience.”

But in spite of my beleaguered corpse of a body, I realized that I was telling the truth. I was hooked.

Following that day on Lumpy, I called up my friend Miranda Oakley, who lived in Yosemite National Park, and was one of my first climbing partners and best friends. I casually mentioned to her my epic 50-point day, and let her know that I was now a hardman.

“By the way,” I told her, “Lumpy Ridge is probably the best trad climbing in America, maybe the world.”

“Really,” she asked, skeptically. “Even better than Yosemite?”

“Yeah,” I assured her, having never climbed there, “almost certainly.”

“‘My favorite thin crack link up on the Book’,” I read to her from my new copy of Bernard Gillett’s Climber’s Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park. “‘Thindependence to J Crack and finish on Cheap Date to Outlander’s last pitch (six or seven million stars, enough classic climbing to last a lifetime).’”

“Did you hear that, Miranda? That’s six or seven MILLION… Enough to last a LIFETIME...  Does that sound like Yosemite? Huh, Miranda?”

Miranda humored me, as she often did, and often still does. Maybe she knew that I would make the obligatory pilgrimage to the cradle of American climbing one day, and see what “enough classic climbing to last a lifetime” really looked like. Maybe she just was sick of listening to my braggadocio. I don’t know. Either way, she didn’t correct me. She just congratulated me on what was probably the single greatest feat of human strength that the climbing world had ever known. A 50-point day, for my first-ever trad climb. Not bad at all.

The funny thing about objectivity is that it’s a circle. In the beginning of your climbing career, you have only a tiny handful of experiences, but they are so profound that they feel like the holy testament. So you come from a markedly unobjective point of view. Of course, after years and years of climbing, you’ve amassed so many experiences under your belt that you come to think you know everything. Suddenly, you think that you are the holy testament. And so objectivity goes out the window again. Somewhere vague in the middle, the things you say about climbing places probably actually mean something. But on either end of the spectrum, you’re about as reliable as an upside-down purple-gray offset TCU in desert sandstone—with the gray side up.

After three years of climbing on Lumpy Ridge, up in the park, and down in the Front Range, I left Colorado feeling confident that climbing could only go downhill from there. After all, I climbed Layton Kor’s famous route, Turnkorner on Sundance Buttress; how could anything be better than that?

But as my climbing travels took me all over the world, my Front Range fervor began to dissipate. I found that Tonsai, Yangshou, and every crag in Spain was better than Boulder Canyon. Yosemite and Squamish were better than Lumpy. Everything I climbed in the Sierra was better than anything I climbed in the park. Colorado, I would come to decide, was simply a pile. And Lumpy, well Lumpy was the pileyest pile of them all. My new West Coast climbing friends all confirmed that immutable truth.

What I learned through the passing of time, and through the scaling of the seasons, is that hyperbole begets hyperbole. Coloradans love their rock climbing, and rightfully so. But the climbing media is, and for a long time has been, overly-Colorado-centric. I get it, Climbing and Rock and Ice are both based out of Colorado. Boulder is home to a slew of climbing companies. There’s a ton of history in the Front Range, up in the park, Eldo and Lumpy.

I mean, come on, Lumpy is STEEPED in climbing history. The original guide service in Estes was composed of Douglas Snively, Michael Covington, Billy Westbay, Jim Bridwell, and Dan McClure. Heard of any of those guys? Layton Kor cut his teeth on Lumpy, and around the Front Range, and then went out and slayed it in Yosemite and everywhere else. Jimmy Dunn climbed there. Tommy Caldwell and Topher Donahue learned to climb on Lumpy. Shit, even Bachar spent two summers climbing there. Mr. Yosemite himself.

So, I get it. It makes sense.

But the backlash to such endless Coloradocentricity in the climbing world over the years has been an equally absurd, equally exaggerated, equally hyperbolic reputation for choss, and worthlessness. “It’s too crowded. The weather blows. The approaches are long. The rock is all decomposing chossvomit. Even the best routes aren’t that good.” All this and more I've heard, and with the passing of time, and distance from my climbing roots, I found myself espousing the same nonsense.

When I realized I was moving back to Fort Collins recently after a six-year hiatus from the Front Range, I was apprehensive to say the least. But since I returned, I’ve managed to have my fun. The Poudre? It’s kind of a pile, but there are some good routes, and the higher up canyon you go the better it gets. Regardless, it’s not bad for an after-work crag. And it’s beautiful. The Black? It’s kind of a pile, but few areas I’ve climbed have been as deeply satisfying, and as wild, and all the routes I have done were world class. Boulder canyon? It’s overbolted, and the grades are soft as a baby’s bottom, but the rock can actually be quite good, and who cares about grades anyway? The South Platte? This is going to blow your mind, but it’s actually really really REALLY good. Like, California good.

And what about Lumpy?

I had to see how Lumpy stacked up in reality to both my positive memories, and the negative reputation it had come to develop in my head. Was it the best trad climbing in the country, or was it the worst?

Well, I just got back from climbing at Lumpy with my new friend, Sam Eck, so I am uniquely situated to answer that question. Sam had never done a trad climb, never been on a multi-pitch, never climbed a crack. So, you know, I figured we’d just do a fun little link up, for starters. You know, just a little 50-point day to sample those trad climbing waters. And you know what? After getting up at the ass crack of dawn to beat crowds and storms, driving up to the parking lot, hiking in, climbing, hiking out, driving home, and thinking about everything I’ve learned as a climber in the six years between my first trad climb, and his ... I can tell you two things are true.

The approach was long(ish), the route was short(ish), the sun was hot(ish), and getting up before the sun was annoying(ish). All of which makes me feel like Lumpy is not the best trad climbing in the country(ish).
The route was just as mindblowingly fingerlicking Ben-and-Jerry’s good as I remembered it; which makes me wonder if, perhaps, it is(ish).

They (Alex Lowe) say (said) the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun. Well, if that’s true, then I suppose the best crag in the world is whichever one the best climber in the world is climbing at. So maybe, to a certain fortunate climber such as Sam, or myself, on a certain fantastic route, on a certain auspicious day, Lumpy Ridge is the best trad climbing in the United States.

And if you get stuck behind twelve parties of gym climbers, end up in a lightning storm, and have to clutch to chossy edges for dear life as you attempt to escape, well, maybe it’s the worst.

Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s neither. Maybe it’s all of the above.

Maybe Lumpy Ridge—like everywhere, and everything—is only, and precisely, exactly what you make of it. And maybe, just maybe, that is the greatest lesson that climbing has to teach us at all.

Or maybe not. What do I know? Why don’t you give me six years, and ask me again.

Don't just take it from me:

“I realize that the cool kids don’t like slabs and flared cracks these days, but I love the place [Lumpy Ridge]. It’s tricky, technical. You have to think, and not just pull. But—even more—Lumpy Ridge's beauty makes me grateful to be there. It makes me smile every single time.” —Kelly Cordes

“I love the view of Rocky Mountain National Park from there, particularly the Diamond.” —Madaleine Sorkin

"Lumpy is where I learned to crack climb and one of those places that even if you've climbed all over the world, it ranks up there with the best. It's that much fun." —Craig DeMartino

“Lumpy kicks ass. A wonderful world-class training ground in my backyard. Year-round climbing that after 15 years I haven't grown tired of.” —Quinn Brett

Routes To Check Out:

Kor’s Flake
5.7+, 5 pitches. Another route put up by the legendary Layton Kor. The third-pitch offwidth section usually gets all the press (bring a #4 and/or a #5 Camalot), but the fourth pitch has some fantastic exposure as well.

Pear Buttress
5.8, 5 pitches. Probably the most famous climb at Lumpy Ridge. If you climb this, convince your partner to let you lead the 100-foot hand- and finger crack third pitch. The rest of the climb is great, but the third pitch is the best part. Both Tommy Caldwell and Kelly Cordes have said that if they were going to recommend one climb at Lumpy Ridge to someone, this would be it.

Cackle Crack
5.8, 1 pitch. A single, 110-foot hand- and finger crack in a dihedral that’s worth the walk from the parking lot all by itself.

The 37th Cog in Melvin’s Wheel
5.8, 3 pitches. At Lumpy Ridge, sometimes you have to adjust your definition of “splitter,” like on the second pitch of Melvin’s Wheel: a shallow water-groove “hand crack” that goes on for 100 feet from the second belay.

J Crack
5.9, 4 pitches. Gillet called it “the most sought-after climb on Lumpy Ridge.” On Mountainproject, it's touted as “one of the best finger cracks anywhere.” In real life, J Crack lives up to the reputation. A typical Lumpy sandbag, the 5.9 rating may have some folks scratching their noggins. The FA goes all the way back to 1964 by Steve Hickman and John Bryant (visionary). The FFA of the tricky 5.11 headwall, meanwhile, went to a couple of fellas whose names you may recall: Billy Westbay and Dan McClure, way back in 1973. Respect.

5.10b. 7 pitches. Sundance Buttress. “The quintessential crack climbing test piece of this grade at Lumpy Ridge.” -- Gillett’s Climbers’ guide to Estes Park Valley copyright: 2001.  A fantastic route of varying crack climbing, first climbed by Layton Kor and Jack Turner in 1962! Royal Robbins and Bob Boucher returned two years later, in 1964, for the first free ascent. Think of that when you’re groveling out the overhang on pitch three in your TC Pros and modern gear!

Heavenly Journey
5.10b, X. 2 pitches. The Pear. In 1974, Billy Westbay and George Hurley established this mindmelter of a route. Keep in mind, Boreal didn’t come out with the world’s first blend of “sticky rubber” til 1982. Respect.

Crack of Fear
5.10d. 3 pitches. Twin Owls. Another Layton Kor classic. Put together Kor’s propensity for sandbagging with the size of his hands, and his brute physical strength, and fearlessness, and you have every reason in the world to be afraid of this route. Hard for the grade would be an understatement. Kor sent all but a move or two onsight for the first ascent back in 1963 (with Paul Mayrose). Three years later, Chris Fredericks and Jim Logan nabbed the FFA.

El Camino Real
5.12+.1 pitch. The Pages Wall. Aided in 1980 by Bob Bradley and Aaron Walters, this has become one of the best single pitches at Lumpy Ridge. Pumpy, challenging, 5.12 stemming and finger crack climbing make this excellent route techy and exciting. It was freed by Bernard Gillett in 1992. But don’t stop at the chains! Climb Corner Pump Station - a Mike Caldwell (not Tommy, but Tommy’s DAD) 5.11c from 1988 that is still a contender for one of the best pitches of 5.11 at Lumpy.

Country Boy
5.13d. 2 pitches. Not exactly a Clear Creek canyon clipup, this trad testpiece is very rarely repeated, but very good. It was first freed by a young Tommy Caldwell in 1997, with some protection preplaced. Later, Beth Rodden came back for the second ascent. Word on the street back when I lived in Estes was that she placed the gear on lead, but I can’t find anything to substantiate that.

Photos by Sam Eck.