2nd Flatiron Waterfall Climb

Brian and I had scheduled a Lumpy climb for Saturday, June 12, 2010; but the weather didn’t cooperate.  After a month of hot, clear weather during which Brian skiied and I did therapy on my knee, the forecast for our rock climb was rain and cold.  Thanks.

But the forecast for Sunday looked better, so we agreed to push the plan back a day; and in addition, we agreed to move the climbing to lower elevation. We agreed to go to Eldo if the weather was good or Flatirons if the weather was bad.

We didn’t have a plan for very bad weather.

When the forecast turned to “rain all day”, we agreed at the last moment to do the 3rd Flatiron.  We’ve done the 3rd in snow and ice; we felt confident we could do it in a steady rain as well.

We started hiking from the Chautauqua Ranger Station parking lot around 8am, taking the old paved road to avoid the muddy trench that the main trail becomes when wet. It was steadily drizzling into the standing puddles that had accumulated over the past 2 days of rain. On the hike in we discussed Paul Graham’s essay on Why Nerds are Unpopular (in school).

At the turnoff the Royal Arch trail to the 2nd/3rd Flaitron approach, Brian stopped to look at the “Rock Climbing Closure” sign.  Shit.  We’d forgotten about that stupid raptor closure program that I’ve had to contend with since before I moved to Boulder many years ago.  The 3rd Flatiron was closed until the end of July.

There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action.

~Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

Neither of us had a guidebook, so we resorted to mining our failing memory about past climbs and unclimbed objectives that might work under the current horrendous conditions.

My first comment was that the Tangen Tunnel route would be perfect except for the blanket of Poison Ivy living in that particular gully. I then offered the idea to finally climb the Royal Arch, but Brian rightly thought the climbing would be too steep for exceptionally slippery rock.  Brian then suggested the 1st Flatiron, but there was no way I was going up the steep East Face Direct in a steady rain.  I’ve done it wet by accident; I wasn’t going to do it intentionally.  Then I had the idea to do the 2nd Flatiron.  I remembered someone telling me about the “Highway”,  a 4th class route that went up the gully between the South Block and the main portion of the 2nd Flatiron that led to the Hanging Garden below the “Pullman Car” that capped the 2nd Flatiron.  Of course we’d skip the Pullman Car, I said.  The route had been described to me about 10 years ago, but it still felt fresh in my mind because I had thought about it every time I’d climbed the 2nd Flatiron. Brian agreed and we started for the base of the 2nd Flatiron.

Unfortunately, I was completely wrong.  The route was not “Highway” but “Freeway” and that route doesn’t go up the gully but rather up the face well to the right of the gully.  The route that does go up some of the gully is “Dodgeblock” but it starts differently and dodges the Pullman Car to the right; it does not go left of the Pullman Car and into the Hanging Belay.

In fact, no established route, 4th or 5th class, goes up the gully all the way to the Hanging Belay. I misunderstood what I was told about “Freeway” all those years ago and I never bothered to check it out. My foolishness would be the catalyst for an interesting day in the rain.


The 'Waterfall' route and our other regular routes up the 2nd Flatiron


On the way there, the weather actually worsened.  It was raining hard by the time we started up the vegetated gully.

Position #1

About 100 feet above the hiking trail, we stood beneath a house sized boulder choking the gully.  It looked like we might be able to work up and around to the right, but Brian wanted to try to climb the left side up a low angled dihedral. We got our harnesses on and then he started up in his hiking boots. He refused a belay.

Under the current conditions, I surely did not want to be standing beneath him when he came sliding back down the slip-n-slide.  It would have been a bad tumble back down the rocky, tree-filled gully.  I stood off to the side and encouraged him to request a belay. He explained that the rope might let him avoid getting so wet and dirty (he was laying on the rock for full body friction), but ‘no thanks’. Apparently, he was working on his mental toughness.  Fortunately, he made it to a small ledge with injury only to his clothing.

I took a belay and managed to avoid the mud wallow Brian endured, but it was very sippery. I was very glad to have the belay. I continued up the next obstacle and setup a belay behind a large tree another 50 feet above.  It was a wet, gooey, slippery experience, not significantly different from how I would imagine the experience of climbing a waterfall with mossy vegetation beneath the water.

Position #2


Our route followed the rock seam and then the tree lined gully toward the 'Hanging Garden'. Photo not from rainy day (imagine torrents of water pouring down the gully)


We then scrambled up another 100 feet to reach the bottom of a true waterfall. The water was cascading down a broad slab of smooth rock with a channel cut just below a rib of rock; the channel looked to be cut into the rock by thousands of years of running water. The slab of rock blocked easy access to the tree-filled gully 100 feet above. Uh oh.

With most of our views obscured by trees and by the heavily falling rain & mist in the air, I wasn’t sure where we were.  At first I (wishfully) thought we were underneath the Pullman Car, but it was just the overhang on the South Block.  I noticed another gully to the right (north) and thought I had found the way up; we traversed north 50 feet and then scrambled up 50 feet to were I could see well enough to know where I was.  We here standing at the bottom of the gully that we use to reach the bottom of the Pullman Car on our normal 2nd Flatiron route (which is similar to Free For All).  I remembered that this water-smoothed gully is steep with delicate climbing when dry and in rock shoes, and that the only escape I knew was the 5.6 traversing crux underneath the Pullman Car.  No way we were going to do that in these conditions. Shit.

That was when I knew that I had screwed up.  We weren’t going to make it. If we were going to push ahead, we’d have to commit to a risky effort. Turning around was a solid option, in my mind.

Position #3

We returned to the waterfall and Brian said he wanted to try it. I tried to talk him out of it as I thought the protection would run out after 20 feet. My point was we were in a good place to bail from, while 50 feet up with no way to secure a rappel would not be a good place to decide to go home. But Brian was feeling adventurous, I suppose; and he started up the waterfall. At least, this time he took a belay.

But, the rock was too slippery for hiking boots, and we figured rock shoes would be worse.  He slid back to the ground before putting in a single piece of protection, and gave up on the waterfall.

Position #4

I looked around and then pointed to a seam and a potential ramp in the rock above us and to the left, just below the South Block.  I wondered out loud if that would allow us to work our way above the waterfall area. Brian jumped to it, apparently determined not to go home just yet.

He led a scrambling pitch to a saddle between the waterfall gully and the South Block of the 2nd Flatiron.  From that platform, we could see the diving board flake that is the crux of the Southeast Ridge route on the South Block; it’s a 2-move route, but it is awesome set of moves. We could also see that our best bet was the seam in the rock face that led toward the tree-filled gully.

Brian again took the sharp end and oh-so-gingerly worked his way across the slick rock using the rock seam.  The seam provided just enough protection and friction to make it possible to cross this amazingly slippery rock in hiking boots while dragging a 20 lbs rope (soaked with water).  Brian yelled that the slabby bit at the end (after the seam ended) wasn’t as bad as it looked from afar.  When it was my turn to cross it, I complained that it was exactly as bad as it looked.  Yet, we both made it without a slip.

Position #5

And once we were past the waterfall area, I felt sure we would make it.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still clung to a certainty in my mind for the climb-ability of the gully beneath the Hanging Garden that I had casually glanced at on a number of occasions over the years. It surely was a day for being very wrong.

A 20 foot scramble led to another waterfall, and this time the water fell over an overhanging lip of rock; we wouldn’t be climbing directly up it. We found a path to the right that required a significant reach to utilize a hold big enough to pull our bodies out of the falling water. As I pulled my gore-tex protected bulk out of the water, I could feel the difference between a good rain jacket and a dry suit; I could only wish for the latter.

Position #6


The 'Waterfall' route crux


Another 20 feet of scrambling led to another waterfall, and this was a big one. It was directly below the Hanging Garden between the summit of the South Block and the Pullman Car atop the 2nd Flatiron. And, it was another overhanging rock formation that we would not be able to climb.  But while we could climb around it, I could finally see the gully beneath the Hanging Garden; and I could see how it was steep and featureless, and I could see how so very wrong I had been all day long.

I got that sinking feeling, the one that says “I’m screwed!”

Brian rightly insisted on solving one problem at a time, and we climbed up and right to get past the waterfall and reach the bottom of the technical climbing directly beneath the Pullman Car formation.  From there, we’d have to traverse left back into the gully, and then climb straight up into the Hanging Garden.

This was it.  The crux.  If we couldn’t slither our way past this last section of rock, we’d have to rappel all the way back down the gully.  I dreaded it with all my heart.

And, it looked hard.  Just looking at the smooth rock, I wasn’t confident we could even get around the corner to get back into the gully below the Hanging Garden.  The rock was slick and it lacked the normal flatiron features we’d been using to get this high.  Once again, Brian started up.  I told him to aid it, if he could.

The only thing going our way was the weather.  At last the rain had stopped.

Position #7

He put in a yellow camalot and then the grey one in the overhanging lip on the corner.  He managed to pendelum out into the gully and then climb up a few feet, but soon slipped back down.  It was too slippery. It wasn’t going to work.

In desperation, I suggested he try his rock climbing shoes.  I was just thinking that we should try all the possible variations; I really didn’t think the treadless rock shoes would hold any better. Brian returned to the belay to change shoes.

It was still agonizingly slow, but Brian managed to work back out to the gully and then upward about 1/2 way to the Hanging Garden before bringing me up. I took my own advice and put on my rock shoes; they stuck to the wet, slabbly rock very well.  We should have known. I quickly made my way up to Brian with the gear he’d need to complete the rest of the climb.

He started up again, slowly making progress toward the Hanging Garden. Near the top, he made an awkward flopping move to mount a block that he then used to step up to the belay ledge.  He made it!  We didn’t have to rappel all the way back down the gully!

I followed, using a batman rope climbing move to quickly overcome a particularly thin and slippery section. I was amazed at the volume of poison ivy that I had to trod upon to escape.  But I did escape.

We had to overcome another tricky move to reach the last layer of the Hanging Garden, but from there I knew how to escape the Hanging Garden and led Brian to the downclimb that led to the backside of the 2nd Flatiron.

We made it! I think we actually put up a new route in the process.  I think I’ll call it the “Waterfall” route. I cannot say I recommend it.

We stopped for quick, late lunch and to put away the gear. It was approximately 1:30pm.

After the short break, we started hiking up slope behind the 2nd Flatiron to reach the descent trail between the 1st and 2nd Flatirons, which we took all the way back to the parking lot.

On the hike out we discussed on plans for the year.  We decided to next do the Spiral Route on Notchtop and then the traverse from Thatchtop to Powell as preparation for a fun scrambling climb around the Solitude Lake Cirque, climbing up Arrowhead to McHenry to Powell to Thatchtop.

And, yes, the lower part of the main trail was a miserable, slippery muddy mess (that is still stuck to my boots).  But at least I didn’t slip this time, unlike 6 months ago when I slipped on the same trail, icy instead of muddy, and spoiled my 2010 ski season.

We always find a way to find adventure, and so far, we always get home to tell tall tales.  And we share credit this time: Brian gets all the credit for the positive outcome, while I get all the credit for getting us into a jam.

See all trip reports


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