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Soloing in Sneakers: a Return Trip to Boulder and the Flatirons

It's standard practice for climbers and non-climbers to free-solo big routes on the Flatirons, but should it be?

I thought the climber was going to fall and die, so I stopped to watch, ready to turn away—what else could I do? I hadn’t been to the Flatirons in 15 years, not since my first trip there when I was a burgeoning wannabe alpinist. I was travelling around the U.S. living in the back of a pickup truck trying to tick the classic American peaks. You know the ones: Devil’s Tower, Grand Teton, Mount Whitney and so on. The Flatirons were at the top of the list.

My partner and I climbed all three of the main Flatirons, linking pitches and reading about the history as we went. The Standard East Face of the Third Flatiron was declared by the great alpine climber Yvon Chouinard as the “finest beginner climb in the country.” It’s seven pitches of 5.4 and 5.5 climbing up a slab of easy-to-hold features and cracks. I highly recommend it. During our trip, two climbers free-soloed past us, both with climbing shoes on and both having climbed it before. The soloists stopped to talk to us about local climbing and asked if they could pass before climbing above us—we always said yes.

View from the top of the First Flatiron. Photo by Brandon Pullan

That was back in 2007 when the parking lot to the Flatirons was nearly empty and the town of Boulder seemed quieter. The trail up to the rock routes wasn’t as beaten in as it is now and there were only a few people out hiking. I’d purchased a guidebook to the area at Neptune Mountaineering, but lost it shortly after the trip. So, on my most recent visit, which I made to attend the 2022 summer Outdoor Retailer tradeshow, I stopped into Neptune Mountaineering once again.

The shop was different from 2007, as it’s gone through several changes since first opening in 1973. Of all the climbing shops in North America, I’d say it’s one of my favourites. Founded by accomplished climber Gary Neptune, the store has evolved from a hybrid gear museum/retail store to being more of a climbing-focused one-stop-shop for gear. In 2017, Shelley and Andrew Dunbar saved it from becoming just a memory and in 2021, Maile Spung and her father, Bob Wade, owners of Ute Mountaineer in Aspen, acquired it.

After I purchased Climbing Boulder’s Flatirons by Jason Haas, I went to the Flatirons parking area, where I drove in circles for 15 minutes until a spot opened—it was that busy. And it’s not a small parking area—there were just hundreds of people out and about on a Wednesday afternoon. But it didn’t matter, the people don’t bother me if I can access the climbing. A big sign at the trailhead warned that the Second and Third Flatirons were closed to protect breeding birds. So, I opted to climb the east face via the East Face, South Ridge and East Gully and Direct East Face. I’d climbed them all before, so I was confident I could go alone. I wouldn’t be climbing anything harder than 5.5 on secure rock up six pitches.

I arrived at the base of the wall at 5 p.m., just as it went into the shade. I veered off the busy “summit trail” to sit on a flat pile of iron-coloured rock. It was around 35 C, so I wanted to wait until my heart rate slowed and my swollen hands were less sweaty. As I laced up my sticky rubber shoes, two people in their early 20s, who looked like a man and woman on a first date (I know that’s presumptuous), moseyed up and stood next to me. They were outfitted in limited clothing and talking in a flirty way about their ski season. I thought they were hikers taking a breather. Then the one who seemed more experienced pulled a chalk bag out of their pack and handed it to the other, who didn’t have a pack or water, just sneakers and a hat. He, I’m just going to go with he, then said, “Follow me and use what I use,” and she said, “OK.”

A climber coaching another after a scary moment while free-soloing a 150-metre route on the First Flatiron in sneakers

Confusion swept over me, as I was too dumbfounded to process what I was seeing. She was moving well behind him, as they started up the 150-metre 5.5 rock route that I was about to climb. He said, “Don’t worry, I brought my brother up here last week and he was fine.” She said, “Oh, I’m not worried.” And off they went. I moved away from the bottom of the climb just as an older couple walked up with ropes and gear and helmets and said, “Are they with you?” to which I replied, “Nope.” They said they weren’t sticking around for the circus and left. I stayed and climbed to their side, keeping an eye.

Until the middle of the wall, about 100 metres up, they were great together—free-soloing away in running shoes up a slippery slab of granite. I was so scared for them, mostly her, that I felt gripped watching. It wasn’t like watching Free Solo or one of my experienced friends soloing, it was real fear that I was about to watch someone fall and die. I didn’t say anything; people know that if they fall, they can die—right? Mid-route was bad, as she stopped and said, “I’m kind of slipping.” He turned around, perched like he was taking a dump, and started to walk her through the moves. “Go lower and take two big steps right and then reach up,” he said. It took around 20 minutes, but she managed it. I then climbed up and met them, asking if they were OK, to which they said yes. I went up ahead of them and to the side and waited on top. They reached the upper ridge, where I said, “That seemed really sketchy, eh.” Looking insulted, the guy said, “No harm, no foul.” And they hiked off.

Two days later I went rock climbing with the legendary Yosemite climber Lynn Hill in Clear Creek. I said to Hill, who lives in Boulder, “You’ll never guess what I saw on the Flatirons the other day.” Hill looked straight in my eyes and without hesitation said, “People soloing in sneakers?”

Lynn Hill belayed by Sasha DiGiulian onsighting Hazardous Waste 5.11d at Clear Creek

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Gripped: The Climbing Magazine