We had heard that the climb up Independence Rock in Colorado National Monument was unique among desert towers in that it had been pioneered in the 1911 by John Otto, who was obsessed with getting to the top of Independence Rock and raising the flag. Mr. Otto accomplished this by drilling holes and sticking pipes into the holes to create a ladder of sorts, then chopping steps into the ramp-like west-facing ridge. In the fullness of time folks would be married on the summit after getting the nervous bride and preacher to the top. Over the years the pipes have come out and the holes were filled with grout, but in the early 1970’s the route was still a monument to the earliest aid route in Colorado – after a fashion. As you can see, Independence Rock has a long and proud history of manifesting the machinations of adventurous young men. Over spring break in the early 1970’s Charlie and I were attracted to this historic path to high places. We hitch-hiked to Grand Junction with both climbing and camping kit and camped near the trailhead. At that time there was fencing to make the mouth of Monument Canyon an enclosure for their herd of about three or four buffalo. In the morning we skirted the buffalo and made our approach to the north side of the rock where John Otto started his engineering pursuits. As I recall, and please bear in mind that this was a long time ago in a world far removed from ours today, so my recollections might be a bit foggy, the first pitch was mostly fourth class scrambling up a series of corners connecting a series of ledges for about 50 to 60 feet. Once we were in the fourth class scrambling frame of mind, we just kept going like that with the rope coiled and hung around my shoulders. There were still enough of the pipes left from Otto’s route to make what might have been more challenging rock climbing go at a fairly casual level of commitment.
Once we had achieved the large ledge one pitch from the top, the character of our endeavors began to change. To climb up to the sloping west ridge one had to make a mantle move on sloping holds on friable eolian sandstone; this one 5.8 move represented the technical crux of the climb and was essentially unprotectable, although a slip and fall would have just landed one back on the ledge. I tied in to trail the rope and gained the ramp-like ridge and began working my way up the steps Otto had carved into the friable sandstone. This is not difficult rock climbing but it was eerie beyond belief. Again, it is entirely unprotectable and the ridge rolls off to either side of the steps into hundreds of feet of vertical drop-off – if the wind is blowing it can be completely un-nerving. The top of independence Rock has an overhanging caprock of well-cemented fluvial sandstone but Otto had thoughtfully put in a couple of pipes that made surmounting this overhang pretty easy – just exposed as all heck! Once on top I plopped my fanny into a pothole and waited for Charlie to appear. When we were there the summit had a register comprising a stubby pencil and a small spiral notebook crammed into an old tobacco tin.
The descent was interesting in that our rope (45 meters) was not long enough to make it all the way to the large ledge (called “lunch ledge” in some route descriptions). We used a pipe driven in vertically into the caprock as our rappel anchor (since removed and replaced by bolts). If I am remembering this correctly, and I might not be, Charlie rapped down on a single line all the way to lunch ledge, then I doubled the rope around the anchor pipe and rapped down to the base of the ramp and pulled the rope. From there I tossed one end down to Charlie, who then gave me a belay as I down climbed to the ledge. From there we were able to make a couple of more raps for which our rope was long enough. All in all, a most wonderful climbing adventure.
We decided to hitch hike to Paonia where our friend Tim Fall was staying with friends in their teepee. Although it doubtlessly would have been easier for the three of us to hitch home through Delta and Montrose, Charlie and I prevailed upon Tim to hitch with us on Colorado Highway 92 on the north side of the Black Canyon. This was NOT one of our brighter ideas, as Co 92 probably sees about one to two cars on it in the winter once one has passed the small ranching community of Crawford. It was cloudy, cold, occasionally windy, and we walked for miles without seeing anyone. At one point we decided that we might actually be better off dropping down into the upper portions of the Black Canyon, wading the Gunnison River (it was late winter/early spring – how high could the water possibly be?), and come out in Cimarron where our friend Jimmy Newberry lived and could give us a ride back into Gunnison. So we did, sort of. Since this was the part of the Black Canyon well upstream from the vertical walls we thought it would just be a stiff hike. It was, sort of. After descending over a thousand feet through steep brushy we came upon a cliff with an old ladder made from plumbing pipe and an old fixed rope. Although Charlie and I thought this was a pretty cool find, Tim was not at all amused, as this was distinctly not his thing. We got down the ladder and quickly taught Tim how to rappel and sent him down the rest of the fixed line. With Tim safely down we batmanned down the rope to join him. Still cold and cloudy, we were at least out of the wind and hope filled our hearts that deliverance was only a hike and a wade away.
The ladder and fixed rope were obviously part of a fisherman’s path to the inner canyon and we were happy to follow the rest of the fisherman’s trail along the Gunnison River. At one point as we hiked along a block of rock about the size of a small cabin broke off an overhanging cliff on the other side of the canyon and dropped into the river with an explosion of sound and mist that blew us away. “Well that was pretty amazing, sure glad it didn’t hit us”! It was the most astonishing rock fall event I have ever witnessed. After what seemed like a couple of miles walking along the river we made it to the Morrow Point Dam. Morrow Point is just up-stream from where the Cimarron River comes into the Gunnison River, and about a mile from Jimmy Newberry’s place. Alas, water was shooting out of the tunnels at the base of Morrow Point dam for about 50 feet, the level of the Gunnison River was high and the water frigid. There was zero chance we could wade across this river safely. However, there was a long cement stair case going up the side of the dam, so maybe we could cross it and climb down the other side. Nope, that stair case ended in a viewing platform half way up a cliff and nowhere near the top of the dam. We were well and truly stuck.
Well poo, what to do now? It was late in the day and was shaping up to be a rather cold night. Charlie and I had pads, sleeping bags and a tent, but Tim had bupkis. We started gathering drift wood, of which there was an abundance, and prepared God’s own camp fire. If a “squaw fire” is a fire just large enough to cook your food but no larger, ours was the fire the Huns used to sack Rome. That sucker was so big we had to stand back about 10 feet just to avoid our own spontaneous combustion. This went on until about midnight when it became obvious we were going to run out of consciousness long before we would run out of fire wood. Eventually we pitched the tent and put Tim between Charlie and me as we did our best to keep Tim buried in portions of our sleeping bags. Non one perished in the wilderness, but it was not actually the best night of sleep any of us had had. The next morning we started our trudge back up the side of the canyon, reuniting with the pavement of Colo 92 about a half mile further along than from where we had left it. Not actually the best decision making we had ever done. After ambling along the highway for another hour a snowplow came along and gave us a lift out to the junction with U.S. 50. The snowplow drivers’ exact words were “Why are you guys hitch hiking this road? No one travels this in the winter”. Well, yea, we were actually in the process of figuring that one out. From the junction with U.S. 50 it was easy to get a ride back into town. Tim Fall remained a good friend, but not once did he ever want to do anything with us in the back country again. Charlie and I, of course, continued our illusive relationship with good sense and sound decision making.
Postscript: Since that time I have NEVER hitch hiked Colorado 92 again, although I maintain that it is one of the very best motorcycle roads in the state. Additionally, since that first ascent of Otto’s route I have climbed Independence Rock numerous times with numerous partners and each time more pipes are gone and more holes filled in with grout. The last time I climbed it was in the early aughts with my new bride Pam; all of the pipes were gone, nearly all of the holes filled with grout, and the climb had become a much more challenging rock climb – still 5.8-ish, but with much more sustained difficulty relative to what Charlie and I had encountered. Also, surmounting the overhanging caprock is still not the technical crux because of an abundance of incut horizontal ledges into the fluvial sandstone, although it might represent a psychological crux. As I remember it the footholds Otto cut into the sandstone near the overhang were dusted with a patina of wind-blown silt, which made them a bit more slippery and I vowed that if I ever did it again I would clip a wisk broom to my harness. In fact, I think the second pitch overhanging off-width is now the crux of the climb. Also during the intervening years, someone had installed an electric plug in the summit – not energized donchya know, but there just the same. Truly, this rock has a long history of attracting adventurous young men with all manner of peculiar agendas.