Over the Hill

It’s a bright day, warm but not hot, summertime in the early 1980’s. I’m driving into Eldorado Canyon, just outside of Boulder, with a friend. We ease into a nondescript pulloff just across the river, grab our packs and gear out of the truck, and begin the long stroll up through pines to the base of the legendary Rincon Wall.

Despite the crag’s reputation as home to some of the most aesthetic lines in the canyon, there is no trail. We wander upwards, crossing a carpet of pine needles dropped by widely spaced trees on rising terrain, until finally a large, long, red and tan wall looms into view. The Rincon.

Leading 1st pitchWe find our route: Over the Hill, 5.10. Pat Ament calls it “one of the finest climbs on the Rincon Wall.” A photo of his wife on the last pitch graces the cover of his 1978 guidebook. I’m carrying his book that day, and it still sits on my shelf now — patched with duct tape, stained by the years.

I don’t recall all the details of the climbing, but a few images remain in focus: I led all three pitches, comfortably. The first two take one of the most inviting dihedrals on the planet. The moves are technical, but not extreme. The protection is reasonable. When you reach the ledge two-thirds of the way up the climb, you feel like a kid at the top of an amusement park ride, thrilled and happy. The final pitch takes a finger/hand crack up a billboard-sized wall at the very top of the cliff — moderate climbing, but steep, with just enough exposure to add drama.

As we walked down that day, and in the years that followed, I often thought, “If I’m ever asked to name my favorite route of all time, perhaps this will be it.” Over the Hill. Spectacular setting. Aesthetic and diverse climbing. Not too short, not too long. Not too easy, not too hard. It is close to perfection.

…30 years come and go…

Leading last pitch

I’m married, ending a career, graying, a little rusty. But I still climb, several grades below my old standard. And I’ve raised a son. He is grown now and has left home for college in Arizona.

We agree at short notice to meet in Colorado, and do a few climbs over a fall weekend. He flies in, and I drive the camper out, picking him up at the airport.

Our first day, I follow him on the classic Super Slab. The position is memorable; the climbing not so much. And it’s hard for me. At the top, I say I feel like I’ve passed the torch. He says, “I think we each have our own torches.”

The next day it rains, and we fill a couple of days of marginal weather with activities in town plus sport climbing in the cold and wet. Monday is our last day. It dawns crisp and clear — perfect fall weather. He’s flying back to school that evening. What should we do?

“How about going up to what may be my favorite route of all time? I hope it’s as good as I remember it….”

“Sure,” he replies, perhaps a bit skeptical.

There is a trail to the Rincon now, and we slog up rocky steps and across a scree field, to reach the climb.  The first snows of the season have appeared in the high country to our west. It is cold at the base of the picturesque dihedral — the sun has yet to reach the rock. Alex gears up and makes short work of the first pitch. What was a thought-provoking lead close to my limit, back in the day, is a moderate warm-up for him. He is better than me in other ways too. I’m proud of that.

On the ledgeFollowing the pitch, I slip on the low crux. The rope catches me. It’s the first time I’ve fallen at that grade in decades. Lack of concentration, more than strength. But it’s a reminder of the passing years. In the past, I would have been angry at myself. But now I have other priorities. I brush it off and seek redemption above.

Alex hauls the pack to give me an advantage on the next pitch. I gaze up at the harder second crux, hanging over me. Then I connect with some energy from my past, bear down, and climb through, feeling almost like I’m in my 20’s again.

We linger on the spacious ledge for a bit, drinking in the views of the day. The peaks to the west, dressed in the first white of the season, ethereal. The river far below, murmuring ceaseless change.

Looking up, the final pitch is a line in the sky, a meeting of rock and air. Climbing again, we are brothers, connected by a thin nylon line glinting in the fall light. The top comes too soon.

We traverse off, descend, pack, and descend again, mostly quiet, wise enough to say nothing when words are inadequate.Looking back to Rincon

It has been, for me, the perfect climb, on the perfect day, with the perfect partner. I expect no better in this lifetime.

We grab a quick meal in town and I drive Alex to the airport. We say our goodbyes and he gives me a hug. It will be a while before I see him again.