Flatirons: 2nd, 1st, 3rd, Sorta Satan’s Slab

Good morning, Flatirons!

While there is much to dislike about the Front Range in general and Boulder in particular, there is also the Flatirons. This is the perfect time of year to visit them, and as I have been staying with a friend nearby, I made the drive up to Boulder early on a weekday, finding shady street parking near Chautauqua. I put on my pack containing rock shoes, water, and a few snacks, and started hiking the now-paved trail toward the rocks in an overshirt and gloves. It had been punishingly hot, but a cold front promised perfect scrambling temperatures later in the day, cool enough to wear long pants to defend against the poison ivy should I choose to get adventurous.

Starting up the First

I started as I usually do, scrambling up Freeway on the Second, an easy route that links well with the First, and gives me time to warm up, get my head in the right place, and accustom myself to the featured but somewhat slick Flatiron rock. As usual I stayed in my trail runners, as the route is mostly class 3-4, with only a few fifth class bits and plenty of generous hand- and foot-holds. I passed another group of three scramblers near the top, the only other climbers I would meet all day. I was sweating by the time I got to the top, and stopped at the top to take off my overshirt and put on sunscreen.

Upper First

I met a few people on the trail between the First and Second, then stopped at the base of the First to switch to rock shoes. Plenty of locals scramble the First in trail runners, and I had on good ones (Kaptivas), but I have always worn rock shoes, and usually find the slabby first third somewhat delicate. Being somewhat out of practice, I was more nervous than usual, but took my time cautiously picking my way up the route, and eventually reached the big ledge with a tree that signals the end of the hard stuff. From there on the rock becomes more featured, though the climbing is harder than that on the Second or Third.

Fresh Front Range snow

Reaching the summit, I saw that the high peaks were receiving a dose of snow, signaling the end of summer mountaineering season in northern Colorado. My memory of the downclimb off the First was more or less correct: descend a steep section on huge rails, then follow some ramps to the left, dropping from ramp to ramp where possible, before finally cutting back right on bad holds to reach the ground. The only sketchy part is the final couple of moves, and my friend Ted had fallen on this section in the Spring, causing himself some damage. I put my trail runners back on then, bad person that I am, took the climbers’ trail directly to the base of the Third.

Angel’s Way is over there

I opted to use rock shoes for the Third, though I probably could have done it in trail runners — I had them with me, and they made the whole experience much more relaxed, so why not? I took a different line than usual, staying near the right side until it merges with the main face, then cutting left to the normal line. It was fun as always, but I was slow, my heart and lungs not keeping up with my hands and feet. It was surprisingly cool and breezy on the summit, where I hid for a bit to eat half of a Mr. Beast Bar (freebie). I found the start of the downclimb much easier than I had a couple days previously, and was soon back on the ground.

First roof on Satan’s Slab

Tired and slow though I was, it was still early in the day, I had more food, and this would be my last Flatirons day of the year. I had both heard and read good things about a 5.2 route called Angel’s Way on a formation farther south. I had never visited that part of the Flatirons, and it seemed lame to just repeat my usual circuit, so I willed myself to head down to the Mesa Trail and follow it to Skunk Creek. As promised, on the other side of a rock wall I found a nice climbers’ trail along the north side of the creek. I had photographed Ted’s guidebook, which gives a highly detailed description of how to reach the base of the formation. I followed it for awhile, but my eyes began to glaze over as I wondered whether I had passed the “large boulders” and “unpleasant slot.” The picture of the start of the route was similarly unhelpful: a pine tree below a slab.

Looking down Satan’s Slab

I eventually settled on a formation that had a faint climbers’ trail to its base and seemed vaguely correct. The route description basically said to traverse up and left through a weakness to reach the arete, then stay on or near it to the top. I (fortunately) put on rock shoes, then climbed up and left from some point above the base of the formation to reach its crest. The climbing was slabby and delicate, and felt a bit sandbagged for 5.2, but as promised, there were more holds on the ridge.

Hand traverse

My next landmark was an “oddly shaped pine hanging over the eastern side of the ridge 380 feet up.” I kept scrambling for awhile, dodging some difficulties to the right and thinking “wow, this feels hard for class 4-5,” but attributing that feeling to my being out of practice. I eventually found a tiny pine perhaps a foot high in a nook, and desperately concluded that it was the tree in the route description. The mentions of 5.0 and 5.1 cruxes were odd, as I felt that most of what I was climbing was harder than that, but I was tired and out of practice, so maybe I just sucked. In any case, the climbing was engaging and varied, with everything from jug-hauling along the crest, to some balance-beam flat sections, to delicate slab climbing on the right to pass vertical steps.

Second and third bits from first

Unlike on the First, though, I was in the zone: thoughts of falling disappeared, and I methodically made upward progress with total focus. One particularly memorable section was a 100-foot ascending hand traverse with mostly smears for feet. Angel’s Way is supposed to be one of the longest routes in the Flatirons, and this was certainly taking me a long time. But I no longer felt the day’s earlier fatigue, focused as I was on the task at hand, reading the rock rather than the book. The formation had a final summit blob separated by a wide chimney, but I saw two higher formations separated by short forest sections ahead, and skipped this blob, descending the chimney to take a short rock-shoes walk to the second formation.

First through Third from top of… something

This one was generally easier than the first, and much shorter, so I made quick work of it, dropped easily down the back, and had another short forest walk along the ridge before descending to the final section. This started out with some moderate slab, eventually reaching a ledge with a vertical step between it and the summit. I searched back and forth, eventually settling on a burly pull-up with two hands on a knob and smears for my feet to surmount the short wall. Beyond, I found more moderate climbing, then a bit of shenanigans to reach the actual summit, where there was a helpful (to other people) rappel anchor.

Now to get down… I dropped down the uppermost summit blob, dismissed a steep crack climber’s right, then circled around left and found a steep sloping chimney that looked even worse. I eventually descended farther on the north edge of the formation, doing a slightly sketchy reverse pull-up, passing an old piton in a crack on the north face, and finally finding a place where I felt comfortable cutting back west to the ground. As I put my trail runners back on I was shaking with adrenaline, still wired from the climb. That was some hard 5.2!

I was initially pleased to find a good climbers’ trail, but soon lost it in the brush, bashing my way down bits of what could have been game trails, or just erosion. There were some brief stemming shenanigans, but I mostly worried that some of the brush I was bashing might be poison ivy, endemic to the Flatirons. I emerged on a trail sooner than expected and, taking out my phone, learned that it was the Royal Arch trail. Whatever I had done, it had landed me in a convenient place to return to Chautauqua. I started fast-walking down the trail, passing groups of hikers, then started jogging, still full of the energy of the climb. Part of me wanted to head-bang to the music in my earbuds as I ran the road back to the park. My pace was a pathetic jog by local standards, but it felt like running to me.

I uploaded my Strava track, texted a bit, then booked it for Ted’s place, eager to get away from the possible urushiol coating my skin and clothes. By the time I had showered, a friend on Strava had figured out that I had in fact climbed something on Satan’s Slab. The actual Satan’s Slab, which starts at the base of the ridge and goes left of the first big roof, is 5.8, while neighboring Purgatory, staying well right of the roof on the slabby face before joining the ridge, is 5.6. I started somewhere between the two, joining them for the remainder of the formation. As far as I can tell, I skipped the 5.8 bit, which is left of the big roof, but had probably climbed a bunch of 5.5 and 5.6. No wonder it felt hard for a 5.2! I still don’t know what the upper two blobs I climbed are, as they don’t seem to be part of Satan’s Slab. In any case, it was a huge, fun, varied, challenging route that I probably wouldn’t have done except by accident. Sometimes you should just accept the win.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *