Gold Butte – What’s Old is New Again

Bob Wade pulling through a steep section at Gold Butte, Aspen, Colorado.

Climbers in the Roaring Fork Valley have something extra to be thankful for this year: the reopening of an old crag, and one that’s good in winter too. Gold Butte, just outside Aspen, was a popular spot in the 60’s, but has been closed for many years. It officially reopened this fall, and I caught up with Aspen local Bob Wade, who spearheaded much of the effort to get the place reopened, to find out more about the area, the process of getting it reopened, and what the climbing is like there.

When did folks first start climbing at Gold Butte? When did it close, and why?

Gold Butte is a climbing area that was originally developed in the 60s’, primarily by Harvey Carter. The Stein family tolerated the climbing activity on their property until the late 70’s or early 80’s. When Henry Stein passed, his widow was advised that there was some liability associated with letting people climb on her property. As a result, she posted no trespassing signs and climbing activity effectively ceased at Gold Butte.

How long has it taken to get this cliff reopened? Can you talk about that process?

Contact was made with the Stein’s daughter in the 90’s asking her to consider an easement but she was uncomfortable with that. When the property sold to the Hurst family, they started using the low angle rocks to the west of the butte for taking their kids and friends climbing. Dick Jackson had guided the Hursts and helped float some requests to them to talk about opening the area again to the public but we did not hear back from them directly. At the same time I contacted the folks at the Access Fund and started educating myself on the possibilities. There is a lot of law, particularly in Colorado, that protects landowners that allow people on their land for recreational uses. Jason Keith from the Access Fund was really helpful with all this and suggested that I get in touch with Pitkin County, which I did in the early 2000’s. Our small climber’s group lobbied the commissioners about how cool a little local climbing venue would be. George Newman, one of the commissioners who probably climbed there in the early days, became an advocate.

I wasn’t privy to some of the back and forth that took place over the next decade but at some point the conversation changed from allowing climbers on the property or the county getting an easement, to the Hursts handing the property over to the county in trade for some concessions on their building plans. Then the painful process of public meetings began. Dale Will of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and Boots Ferguson helped navigate us through some legal logjams that threatened the process. This all took years, but the end result was that the county took possession of Gold Butte on January 1, 2013. They appointed a small climbers committee (Michael Kennedy, Jeff Jackson, Jeremy Graham, Annie Rickenbaugh, Dirk Bockleman and myself) to make recommendations on how to develop the crag, and turned us loose to develop the climbs and trails at the butte.

I’ve heard many of the climbs have been updated with new fixed hardware, can you tell us more about that?

The rock is Entrada Sandstone and it has some very soft patches. In the early days we lead with trad gear and clipped the copious amounts of pitons that Harvey fixed there. I’ll bet there are between 50 and 75 of them out there. When we started refamiliarizing ourselves with the routes and rock, it was a little scary. Between 50+ years of freeze/thaw plating on the surface of the rock and going to work on those old pins, the current state of the fixed hardware seemed a little dangerous for the high-use hometown crag we envisioned. So we decided not to trust any of the old pins and put bolts in instead. We left the old pins in for historical reasons, they are the really exotic ring pins, wafer blades and such, but Harvey placed them well. We’ve left many of the climbs a mix of trad and bolts where there are reliable cracks. Much of the rock exhibits slickenside, which is an extreme hardening and polishing along fault planes, so gear placements and holds can be pretty reliable where that has occurred. One of the things that we did that was very different than the old days was to put top anchors in. We used to lead up and then tie off on some patch of sage or a stray boulder. With the top anchors we added steel biners so that the leader can just clip at the top and lower rather than untying and re-tying.

When’s the best time to visit?

Because the large southwest facing portion of the rock acts like a solar oven it is possible to climb there through the winter. And it is pretty hot in mid-summer. Best to go early or late in the day at that time. There are lots of aspects so you can find shade except when the sun stands straight overhead. It is a really beautiful setting with the river pounding below in spring and the changing leaves viewed in the fall. Certainly it is a nice place to visit when the pass is closed or you only have a couple of hours to get out. Because it is soft rock, it is smart to let it dry a day or two after wet spells.

What are some of your favorite pitches there?

The routes tend not to be too hard or crimpy because the rock is not hard enough for that, but I find the routes very engaging, overhanging climbing in many cases on big, but soft, holds. I really like Hermaphrodite (5.10), Far Out (5.9) and the classic four pitch(!) Dusty Ridge (5.8+).

There is decent bouldering there as well. When John Long and Lynn Hill lived in the area for a summer, they developed some sweet (and difficult) traverses on the southwest wall.

Bob Slozen got his hands on an old pencil drawn guide on a couple of sheets of paper that had 45 different routes that Harvey developed. We’ve retained his naming of the routes which are very sixties…  We’ve put together a crude but free guidebook on the Ute Mountaineer website. It also has a link on the Pitkin County website. Some of the history is included there as well. Also while there is cell coverage out at the butte, it is best to download our guide when you have WiFi or a good signal and then you’ve got it for when you are climbing out there. We update it often and are working on a more phone friendly version.

Also a BIG thank you to the people and organizations that helped us out. ASCA was totally amazing, giving us glue-in bolts for the top anchors.

Anything else?

The place has been getting a lot of traffic since it was opened to the public in mid-October of this year. Our scrappy little crag is not world-class, but it is beautiful and a lot of fun. I hope I see you out there!

Bob Wade is a local climber and the owner of the Ute Mountaineer in Aspen.

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