Shelf Road’s First 5.14, An Interview With Mark Anderson

On March 13th, Mark Anderson gave Shelf Road its first 5.14 when he redpointed Apogee Pending at the North Gym. We caught up with him to find out more about the route, the future potential at Shelf, and what it takes to climb hard while still having a life.

Let’s talk about fatherhood for a bit, how has that affected your outlook on climbing?

I had to learn to become much more patient and flexible, neither of which come easily for me. My brother Mike has two sons, so I benefited a lot by watching and learning from their experiences. You need to be extremely organized and maximize whatever time you have, but you appreciate the entire experience much more, which makes every success that much sweeter.

So how do you manage to juggle a job and family, and still climb at a level that most would consider pretty high?

I have a really awesome, supportive & accommodating wife. I wouldn’t be able to do it without her patience & generosity. She tolerates a lot of crappy weather, crags she hates, and whining from me. Last year she repeatedly forded Fourmile Creek while 6 months pregnant so I could climb Triage, and she post-holed through a foot of snow so I could climb at The Monastery in March. Before we were married she stood strapped to the base of The Totem Pole, literally getting pummeled by waves from the shark-infested Tasman Sea to belay me on The Free Route. She’s a real gamer.

Sounds like it! Tell us about your new route, Apogee Pending.

The route climbs probably the steepest, most consistently overhanging panel of stone at Shelf, so in that sense it’s relatively gymnastic and athletic. It begins with the only real bit of “typical” Shelf climbing, with ~10 feet of ticky-tacky moves on near vertical rock. The next section is completely anti-Shelf, with big holds and a huge dyno that, no matter how many times I did it, always made me apprehensive.  Then the major bummer on the wall, a huge flake with a 6” crack behind it that allows a no-hands rest.  If that flake ever falls off, the route would become ultra-classic and substantially harder I suspect.

The hardest moves come right off the flake, moving left to a beautiful section of pink & beige-swirled rock.  This stone has a lot of features but they are all sloping and small. The crux is a big crank to a positive but very shallow (half-pad) two-finger pocket that you latch open-handed then roll up into a crimp, which is regrettably rather tweaky. Then swing the feet over to a good foot and make a big rightwards stab into another 2-finger pocket. That move is probably the hardest move on the route, as it requires good finger strength and precise movement.

After another cruxy reach to a small hold, it’s just enduro pockets on some really cool, sculpted rock that climbs almost like tufa flowstone with slopey liebacks and pinches. You get one more bad shake, then the upper crux is a desperate reach to a hard-to-see crimp. It’s the sort of move you would never fall on off the dog, but when you’re pumped, the hold just seems so far away, it’s hard to get up the nerve to go for it. And admittedly, the bolting is somewhat “old-school”, as I tend to do things the Smith Rock way, since that’s where I “grew up” as a climber so-to-speak, so you’re looking at a decent fall if you blow that move.

So you bolted the line then?

Dan Durland installed an anchor above the wall some time in the late 80’s or early 90’s, according to his partner Darryl Roth. Apparently Darryl had a “turbo” drill rig which he lent to Dan, and while drilling these anchors the battery pack shorted and smoke started coming from the backpack containing the batteries (which Dan was wearing). Dan frantically rapped to the ground and resolved the matter, though unfortunately he never went back up to bolt the wall. I suspect that they never attempted the route for whatever reason, at least I didn’t see any evidence of previous climbers. I installed the other 6 bolts on the wall in mid-February, and sent it on March 13.

Do you think this will inspire other 5.14’s in the area, does the potential exist at Shelf?

It’s certainly inspired me! The entire process has been extremely rewarding, despite a lot of work, and I look forward to establishing more lines in the future.

A couple years ago there was a thread on MP about “No Hard Climbing at Shelf”, and at that time, I thought like most everyone else that the crag was tapped out, and really didn’t have the potential for hard lines due to the nature of the rock (too featured, not steep-enough, not tall enough). Darryl Roth joined the discussion and vehemently disagreed, describing this wall as an example of hard routes just waiting to be climbed. I pretty much dismissed it at the time, but kept it in the back of my mind.

In March of last year (2010) I exhausted all of the existing hard routes at Shelf, and out of sheer boredom, decided to try the open project “Wild Virus” at Cactus Cliff (now Carnage). I figured a route like that, on perhaps the single most popular cliff, in the single-most climber-populated state, would have been sent if it were possible. Much to my surprise, it was quite possible, and quite good as well. At that point my eyes were really opened to the potential at Shelf, and I started noticing all these features I had walked by many times.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is extensive potential for new hard routes at Shelf. I can think of at least 3 lines, two of which have some hardware installed, that will be in the 5.14 range. I think many of us, myself included, have a very narrow view of what a 5.14 route should look like, in terms of length, steepness and continuity, but if you consider what exists in Lander, the Frankenjura, or Margalef, there’s no reason Shelf couldn’t have many more 5.14 or harder routes, except perhaps for a lack of motivated developers.

Hard climbing on small holds isn’t really in fashion anymore, do you think it’ll see a repeat any time soon?

I totally agree, although really, the holds on Apogee Pending are generally pretty big for a route of this grade (with exception of the somewhat tweaky two-finger pockets in the crux). It’s certainly a lot more modern than any of the other hard routes at Shelf. However, I don’t expect it to be repeated any time soon, primarily due to its location. For whatever reason, people who climb at that level don’t fancy Shelf. Maybe if we changed the crag name to “The Razor” or something exciting like that the local honemasters would be less ashamed to climb there! There are certainly many climbers on the Front Range (and throughout CO) who would be able to climb it if they chose to.

On Mountain Project you reference the fact that certain features are off to “earn the grade.” Can you explain this a little further? Is this a pure line or is the difficulty a little contrived?

There’s a seam with intermittent pods that heads up and right from the top of the flake at mid-height.  It’s possible to climb this seam and skip the first crux. The moves this way are not trivial, but they are much easier. I suspect the route would be in the 13d range if climbed this way. I struggled a lot with what to do about this “problem”. The climbing is far, far superior (in terms of quality) to the left, and the moves happen to be harder. I suppose back in the golden age of sport climbing the solution would be to fill the seam with glue. I considered that option, but decided it was silly to punish the rock for the imperfections of the human ego (both mine, and that of future ascentionists). We’re all adults here, so why don’t we just pretend the seam is filled with glue, and spare the rock?

Inevitably, somebody will climb the route up the seam, and they will either claim the higher grade undeservedly, or they will down-grade it, and I’m OK with that. I’m confident in the grade the way I climbed it, and I wouldn’t be offended if future generations apply a slash grade to the route for climbing it different ways. Shelf is no stranger to contrived difficulty; it’s the nature of the rock, and ultimately the nature of sport climbing at large.

I think a little bit of contrivance is warranted for a good line like this, and there is plenty of precedent around the country. It’s possible to traverse right to Sunshine Dihedral at the 9th bolt on To Bolt or Not To Be, its possible to traverse around the arête at the 6th bolt of Darkness at Noon, its possible to climb into the big scoop on Huge for a no-hands rest just before the crux. These are all classic routes and we all agree to accept a bit of contrivance to keep them classic (and hard). I would say however, if your route is contrived, please spell out the contrivance so that others don’t have to guess at it, and can “repeat the feat” if they want to.

That is what I hoped to accomplish by explaining the way I climbed the route on MP, and that’s one of the great benefits of the internet age—it makes it a lot easier to share this sort of information with other climbers.

Any significance to the name Apogee Pending?

Yes. In space jargon, “apogee” means the point at which an orbiting object is furthest from the earth, so its like a peak or high point. The name is a reflection of my belief that we have yet to reach the apex of what is possible in climbing, be it on the world stage, at Shelf road in particular, or in my own career. I’d like to think Rob Candelaria was indeed wrong when he (allegedly) said there is “no hard climbing at Shelf Road.” Perhaps we just haven’t bolted the right lines yet.

What have you got your sights set on next, any other big projects in the works?

There’s nothing in the short term that I’m dead set on. There are a few things here and there that I’d like to check out and see where it goes from there. I’m interested in several more projects at Shelf but its getting to be too warm, so they will have to wait till next year.

Anything else?

I’d like to add a big THANK YOU to Darryl Roth for motivating me to do this route. The process has been one of the highlights of my climbing career.

Awesome, thanks Mark!

One Response to Shelf Road’s First 5.14, An Interview With Mark Anderson

  1. Many thanks to Mark Anderson for bringing climbing at Shelf forward. We’re all indebted to you. Since the time this was written, Mark has indeed completed more of those potential 5.14’s at Shelf Road. I’m humbled by your kind words and amazed by your determination and vision Mark.

    Darryl Roth June 11, 2013 at 1:32 pm
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