I pull into the designated parking lot at Garden of the Gods just before 8 am.
Moments later, climbing guide Dan Markle arrives and pops the hatch on his car to reveal an impressive array of gear. He outfits me with a harness, clips a pair of size 7 climbing shoes to a loop and hands me a helmet.
Gulp. I guess we’re doing this.
I have exactly one long-ago college PE climbing course under my belt. A single weekend with about 100 other students also trying to avoid volleyball and other semester-long classes. I didn’t retain much.
I also have a couple of screws in my foot. (Don’t ask.) And although I ski, hike and camp frequently, I have a moderate fear of heights. Markle isn’t concerned. He works with climbers of every skill level at Front Range Climbing Company.
“Climbing is something that anybody can try,” he says. “If you can climb a ladder, you can go rock climbing.”
Markle has been climbing for about two decades; guiding for one. He knows what he’s doing. He and the other 16 guides at Front Range spend countless hours at Garden of the Gods, Red Rock Canyon Open Space and North Cheyenne Cañon. They also travel to Golden, Boulder, Grand Junction and even Moab, Utah.
In other words, if there are big rocks, the folks at Front Range can help you climb them. Most groups are 2-3 people, but a single guide can take up to four climbers. Bigger group? You get more guides. They offer two, four and six hour climbs, as well as some that fall into the “it takes as long as it takes” category. During the winter, they also offer ice climbing.
Front Range has been around since 2003—one of the oldest, busiest guide services in the region. They serve upwards of 5,000 climbers per year. Families. Couples. Friends. Co-workers. Kids. Even preschool groups.
And the guides? They get together even on their days off.
“Front Range is a close-knit community,” he says. “It’s our lifestyle.” Markle discusses climbing with a reverence more often reserved for health care or religion. “Communities can be a pretty big thing in climbing. It’s this craft that’s passed on. ... We trust our lives to our partner—to that person on the other end of the rope.”
Trust Your Feet
Markle and I walk to the climbing equivalent of the bunny slope—a smallish rock tucked between North Gateway and South Gateway. It’s one of more than 300 climbing routes in Garden of the Gods.
We talk a bit about footholds and the mechanics of climbing. He wedges the ball of his foot onto a sliver of rock no larger than a traditional slice of gum. Then he stands up, easily balancing on one foot—no hands. That tiny groove is plenty to hold a climber, he explains.
He grabs a rope and other equipment, says he’ll be right back and scrambles up the hill.
I’ve barely had time to slip into my shoes and helmet before he is demonstrating how to rappel back down—feet wide apart, leaning back into the harness. He lands on the ground next to me and points out the simplest path to the top—the bumpy one dotted with lichen.
I start up the rock. No sweat. Then, I reach a point where I don’t see any handholds.
“Trust your feet,” Markle instructs from the ground. “You’re doing great!”
He guides me to the left, then to the right, where he sees footholds that my untrained eyes don’t. I reach the top. Look, it’s no Ryan’s Inferno, but everyone starts somewhere, right? When I’m ready, Markle coaches me to stand up, lean back and follow the rope down. He lowers me steadily to the ground. Fun!
Next, he leads me to nearby Silver Spoon. After scaling the bigger rock to attach the rope to two bolts, he rappels down and helps me tie a knot to my harness—a figure 8 that tethers climbers to their partners on the ground. I begin the climb, making it about one-third of the way up before I hit a snag. Markle talks me through where to place my hands and feet to best take advantage of the rutted ledge above me.
“Follow that until it ends,” he encourages from below. But when that ledge tapers off, I’m stuck. I see nothing but smooth sandstone. No visible footholds, let alone handholds. I stop.
“This is the hardest part,” he hollers. “Keep moving. Don’t worry about your hands—just put them flat against the rock and trust your feet.”
I take a few breaths. Then a few more. I feel like a cat in a tree. Finally, I lift one foot up to a barely there indentation. Then, the other. My hands are useless. There’s no grip here. But inch by inch, I crawl to the top.
Suddenly, I hear clapping and cheering from the ground. Hikers, bikers and other strangers have stopped to watch my ascent. I grin and wave. It wasn’t a quick or graceful climb, but I finished! And what a view…
I rappel down to Markle.
“You weren’t going to let me quit, were you?” I ask, laughing, and explaining that I thought about it when I reached the end of the ledge.
He says nearly anyone can make it to that point. But beyond the easy?
“That’s where the magic happens,” he whispers.