The Maiden

I first heard of The Maiden while taking a climbing class with the Colorado Mountain School in 1992.  We had taken a day to climb in the Boulder or Eldorado Canyon area; one of the climbs we considered was The Maiden.  The guides described it as a “scary but easy” climb up the last pinnacle in the Flatirons to be summited due to its lack of a non-technical route. We did the Yellow Spur in Eldo instead, but the name stuck in my head.

While back in Chicago, I found another reference while reading about John Gill, the great boulderer.  I read that climbing The Maiden inspired Gill’s rock climbing career after a climb done as a kid while on vacation with his family.  I decided that The Maiden was on my tick list of climbs I just had to do someday.

Yet, somehow, the sense of high priority fell out of my consciousness once I moved to the Boulder area.  I guess I just had so many things I wanted to do and, as many new climbers discover, to find a climbing partner often meant doing what the other person wants.  When Brian (very early in our climbing partnership) suggested The Maiden, it all came flooding back.

The Maiden looks like any other minor flatiron when seen from afar. Photo from different trip.

Now, from the road, The Maiden isn’t much to look at.  I’ll bet most people don’t even know about it, tucked beneath the ridgeline below the well-known Devil’s Thumb.  And I’ll bet that Brian would never have considered The Maiden via the standard route [5.6s] under normal circumstances, as it is too easy and too short to consume a precious weekend day. But this wasn’t a normal situation:  it was Wednesday, January 1st, the last holiday of the holiday season and the 11th day of winter.

We were in a bit of a heat wave, as far as winters go, and so still in the “inbetween” time between the climbing season and the skiing season.  We figured one or two more weekend until the snow would be good enough to warrant 6-7 hours of driving.  And with another warmish forecast, we thought we’d climb in the Flatirons.

And as it turned out, January 1, 1997 made its way into the record books as the warmest January 1st in the last 100 years, with a high of 70F!

So, on January 1st, we set out from Eldorado Canyon to hike up the old Mesa Trail to reach Shadow Canyon.  Following Roach’s advice in “Flatiron Classics”, we turned off the trail aiming for pinnacles on the ridge. Scrambling up the talus, we were in a “green-out”…blind to our destination as we couldn’t see anything except the trees around us.  Eventually, we topped the ridge; and as I looked up to see the rock I was struck with an emotion that I can only describe as terrible excitement.

"The Cobra!"

The rock looked like a giant cobra ready to strike! Yet, the route was only rated 5.6 so it promised to be an amazing climb.

I took the first pitch and found it had no protection.  About the time I started to feel insecure, I reached the top of the 40 foot climb.  After setting up the anchor, I looked around to take in the sights and noticed I was nearly level with the summit of the flatiron.  It was very weird.  The rest of the climb would gain almost no additional altitude; essentially, we’d just be traversing.

Brian took the second “lead”…it was essentially a top-rope downclimb.  Following it was a very strange experience to follow on a downclimbing pitch…it felt like I had all the risk of a fall.  But Brian had figured it out and did a good job of protecting the pitch for my descent.  This took us to the “Crow’s Nest”….a small, secure belay station 115′ beneath the summit and yet, somehow, set atop 120′ vertical cliffs to either side.

The Maiden from the first belay...Brian (in red) on lead

I took the 3rd pitch, which moved to the vertical north side of the The Maiden.  At first, the pitch continued the downclimbing trend, following a ramp down to the crux wall. I was happy to find the piton that Roach mentioned was originally used to pendulum across the crux.  Clipping it, I then set out to do the “12-foot ascending traverse” to reach the ledge with a tree.  I tried it a couple of different ways:  I could either have good feet or good hands, as best I could tell. I actually started to think about doing a pendulum, but then my hands found a bomber, super-positive hold that eliminated all doubt.  Brian followed without finding the bomber hold and was impressed with my lead. I guess he did the 5.9 version.

Brian then took off on the 4th pitch, starting with a climb of the tree.  He found some bolts and followed them. Neither of us understood that the standard route descended further, but the “Walton Traverse” Brian used was a superior route anyway.  This route lead us to a big alcove just below the primary, low-angled, east face.

I scrambled out of the alcove and climbed up onto the east face where I found “normal” flatiron climbing; it was easy with spectacular views of the Boulder area.

The Maiden standard route, Walton Traverse variation. Photo taken from the Fatiron, which is the next flatiron to the north.

Once on the summit, we agreed that The Maiden is a spectacular climb, and was worthy of prime time climbing. When it was time to go home, we moved over to the edge of the summit where we could see down to the “Crow’s Nest” and study the rappel anchor.  The bolts didn’t look so great to us; apparently they didn’t look great to many others as about 50 slings were backing them up. We added a sling to the tapestry for a little courage.

Brian rappelling from the summit of The Maiden to the Crow's Nest

Brian clipped in and slid over the ledge.  I watched him dangling on the end of his string, and swing back and forth slightly in the wind, and hoped he would land on his tiny perch of rock, the Crow’s Nest.  My initial assessment was it looked fun and a little scary.  He made it, and then it was my turn.  And this is when I figured out what the real crux of The Maiden really was…the rappel!

On a normal rappel, the anchor is at or above your waist (and harness).  This means you can weight the rope right away and slowly lower by feeding the belay/rappel device slack at whatever pace seems prudent.  And, in most situations, the rock face is directly below the anchor, allowing you an additional measure of control by using feet or a hand on the rock as you descend. But not on The Maiden.

On The Maiden, there are no rappel pleasantries.  To start with, since the anchor is on the surface of the ledge (where you sit), it is below the climber’s waist.  And since this rappel requires two ropes, the knot connecting the two ropes adds a bit of extra rope between the harness and the anchor.  These characteristics mean slack in the rope between the climber and the anchor that must be taken up quickly (by jumping) or slowly (by downclimbing). But on The Maiden, there is no downclimbing as the summit is severely overhanging.  And since there is no jumping either (if you don’t know, believe), the climber desperately searches for a 3rd option.

I had watched Brian tie a security knot in the rope to let him use both hands to hang onto the anchor while he slid his body off the ledge.  But I didn’t like the thought of a knot in the rope (and possibly not being able to undo it and hanging 3 feet below the ledge for the rest of my life) or the notion of not holding onto the brake line at all times.  My solution was to hang onto the anchor with one hand (the other hand on the brake line) while sliding my body off the ledge.  But I was so tight, I had to recheck my harness, the rope knot and the anchor 3 times before I could start myself sliding over the ledge.

Then I was hanging by a string, dangling in the wind.

It was a “trip”, meant in the 70’s slang way of “intense and mind-altering experience”. My mind kept threatening to run amok; I could feel panic creeping in at the edges.  The sense of fighting your own weakness in a battle of wills (conscious vs. unconscious) is a disconcerting one. I had no idea I was so weak. I think the key was the duration of the experience.  A 115′ rappel takes a long time, enough time to ponder many bad things:  would the rope break, would the anchor pull, could my harness break, could I miss the landing, etc.

All I could do was breathe and focus on my hand on the brake line, feeling the rope run through and heat up my hand, while at the same time knowing that I checked all the common failure points. And then it was over; I was standing in the Crow’s Nest.  I had made it, without screaming.  And after a more personal experience, I had to update my original assessment of the rappel to:  “scary and a little fun.”

“The Maiden has the most famous free rappel in Colorado.”

~ Richard Rossiter, Guidebook Author

To prepare for the 2nd rappel, I tied into the anchor, unclipped from the rope, and started to pull the rope down.  It took a second for the realization to come over me that the rope wouldn’t pull…it was stuck.

And then I remembered.  In my near panic at the start of the rappel, I’d forgotten to pull the knot over the edge of the summit ledge. Now, with 115′ of stretch in a free hanging rope and in a position of limited mobility, we were screwed if the knot was really stuck.  The only thing we could do was walk the rope up 30 feet of the 2nd pitch to improve the angle and pray. It worked, and we didn’t have to spend the rest of the winter in the Crow’s Nest waiting for the spring climbers.

And after the 2nd rappel, we were down.

It was the most magnificent climb I had ever done in the Flatirons, and 12 years later it is still the best.  Not the hardest. The best.  And Brian and I go back ever year or so to re-live that experience, and we don’t wait for bad weather.  And that rappel still gets me tight every time.

The Maiden summit poses for Joe (left) and Brian (right)

See all trip reports

See all Boulder Flatirons List

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One Response to “The Maiden”

  1. Bear Peak Loop and Two Noodles « PeakMind Says:

    […] The initial going was easy and allowed us to stay on the ridge to pass the top of the Fat Iron (a very good climb, by the way, which has a spectacular view of The Maiden). […]

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