Crimson Chrysalis (Red Rocks)

By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark |Trip Dates: October 21, 2002

Photo: Gary Clark

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More than seven years have passed since we first climbed this, the finest moderate long route at Red Rocks, and one of the best in its class on the continent. We had deliberately avoided it on our many intervening trips to the area for two reasons. First, it is so popular that adding to the crowding problem seemed unjustifiable; it didn't seem fair to compete for a route that we had already done. Second, there are so many great routes at Red Rocks that it isn't necessary to repeat routes to find quality climbing.

On the other side of the balance sheet, I felt I had a responsibility to the North American Classics community to report on those routes as accurately as possible, and my perspective on this route was becoming dated. The photo collection in the NAC collection was also limited compared with other climbs in the collection. Thus as we finished the almost equal quality route "Ginger Cracks", a close neighbor to Crimson Chrysalis, I suggested to Lynn that we just dump the gear we had carried up the hour-and-a-half approach, and come back the next day to see if our recollections of the climb were accurate. Contributing to this decision was the fact that we had noticed only one party on Crimson that day, a Sunday! Maybe the popularity of the route was waning, or maybe this was just a statistical fluke. At any rate, there was a reasonable chance that on Monday there might not be a mob scene at the base. Still, it would be nice to be first on the route, because it attracts teams that might be, politely stated, a bit underqualified. It is difficult to pass such a team, and doing so would almost certainly eliminate any chance they would have for the summit.

We were at the entrance gate to the park at 6:04, four minutes after opening. I asked the booth attendant if there had been a queue at 6:00, and he shook his head. We drove 'efficiently' around the long loop in the gathering light, but noted a set of headlights gaining rapidly from behind. We pulled into the Pine Creek parking lot simultaneously with this mystery vehicle, and as I got out of the car, the other driver asked "What are you guys climbing today?" I answered "The same thing you are," nearly certain that I was guessing correctly. As we made last minute preparations at the car, I asked if they had done the route before. They hadn't, so I offered to guide them up the approach, which can be the route-finding crux of the experience. He declined, responding that they had done a reconnaissance a few days prior. Hmmmm . . . they were clearly serious about getting to the base first.

They left a few minutes before we were ready, and as we came off the hill on the first part of the trail, I was surprised to see them take a quick left turn on the "Fire Ecology Trail." Clearly they had found an alternate approach path, which was certainly possible, as the desert is interlaced with trails in this area. It remained to be seen whether it was a better way. 30 minutes later the question was answered. We arrived at a trail junction a few minutes before they did, which implied the two approaches are essentially equivalent. However, we were now in front, which would spare the embarrassment of passing them on the trail in a fully anaerobic state, sweat dripping from every pore, while trying to pretend this isn't really a race.

Later, as I started up the route, the guy asked, "Did you guys cache your gear? We couldn't believe how fast you were moving, and then we noticed you had tiny packs! Either you were planning on free-soloing the route, or you must have cached your gear!"

Now we were behooved to stay well ahead on the route!. I was surprised at how easily and quickly the first pitch went, particularly since I had commented about feeling uncomfortable with the level of protection on it in my 1995 trip report. The protection seemed perfectly adequate this time up, and the climbing straightforward. The first three pitches are all short, and although the third supposedly contains the crux of the route at 5.8+, it seemed little different in difficulty than almost any other pitch on the route, just a bit steeper than some. I was climbing as fast as basic safety would permit, and was quite surprised to see that the party below had not even started climbing when I started the lead of pitch 3. By the time we reached the headwall on pitch 7, they still hadn't cleared the top of the chimney on pitch 4. I could stop worrying about having engaged in a race to the base, only to be embarrassed by offering to let them to pass.

The day before, Lynn had been vastly amused as I proclaimed Ginger Cracks "One of the best routes we've ever done!" She is used to such pronouncements, and has commented that my favorite route is always the one I just did. In that climate, I was eager to see how Crimson Chrysalis, a route that achieves consensus as one of the best in the known universe, compares to a relatively unknown neighboring route about which I had been so positive. The answer was that, I had to almost grudgingly admit, Crimson was good. Almost unbelievably good - In nine pitches, there wasn't a single uninteresting move, and the holds seemed crafted to be as ergonomic as possible. Again I was reminded of how unique sandstone climbing can be. The steepest face can offer holds of such profusion and positive nature as to make climbing it routine. The only possible criticism of the route is the monotonous nature of the climbing. Although the first four pitches in the big dihedral can provide a few hand jams and stemming, about 90% of the climbing is face climbing on a steep wall on big, positive holds.

A noticeable difference between the route in 2002 compared to 1995 was the quality of the anchors. The protection bolts back then were original, rusty ¼" affairs, and the anchor points were poorly placed, resulting in uncomfortable stances and risky rappels. In the intervening years all the bolts have been replaced with the exception of a couple on the final pitch that were of questionable need. The anchors are now very well thought-out, with reasonably comfortable stances and clean rappel rope retrievals.

We spent much more time exploring the summit area this time, since we were well ahead of schedule. Finally we began the rappels, with the expected complexity of tossing ropes down on top of the parties (now two) below, and sharing sling belays with them. With careful coordination, we were able to keep the maximum number of people hanging from an anchor to two, and everyone was having such a good time that there were no conflicts. As we passed each climber, they spontaneously remarked "What a great route!"

Back at the car, we calculated that our round trip had taken about 10 hours, for what it is worth for the planning of others. This included about two hours of approaching and descending on the trail. We carefully documented directions for the approach, which had proven problematic every time in the past. The same basic approach serves many climbs, so we had done it many times, and each time had ended up with some brush-whacking and rock-hopping in arroyos. I was determined to finally get it right and document it for the route description in the North American Classics collection. We took a lot of photos, but about halfway up I discovered that, although I had installed a freshly charged battery the night before in my camera, I had neglected to install a memory chip - the digital equivalent of film. The pictures would have been brilliant - believe me.

Even with that disappointment, the day we spent on Crimson stands out as one of the best climbing days of my life. It didn't hurt that we concluded the day in a suite at the Rio Casino, a dramatic contrast with the previous three nights in a walk-in site at 13-mile campground. We had eaten nothing but a couple of energy bars to that point. The casino food buffets are no longer the huge bargains they once were, but even at $18 apiece, there is no question we got our money's worth.

Postscript: Take the guidebook with you for this climb! You don't need it for the climb, indeed it is so obvious that we didn't even bother to bring a description. However, if you find Crimson fully subscribed, there are several excellent climbs in the same area to salvage the effort of your long approach hike. Ginger Cracks is the same difficulty level, almost the same quality, and only a little shorter at 7 pitches. However, perhaps because it has no "quality" asterisk in the guidebook (clearly a mistake in my estimation), it is un-crowded. The descent for Ginger Cracks is the route "Power Failure", another excellent route at three pitches, 5.10. Within a few minutes of its base is "Unimpeachable Groping", a well-bolted recent Urioste route up a very steep but heavily featured face at 6 pitches, 5.10+.


Drive the loop road to the Pine Creek parking lot. Hike the well-beaten path down into the basin and up Pine Creek for about a mile. Turn left just past an old homestead (only the foundation of the house remains) at a sign indicating "ARNIGHT TRAIL, etc." The trail goes through an area made bare by burros, crosses the creek, up the creek for 30 feet, then continues left to the south bank of the arroyo where it climbs up to the mesa. At the next sign ("ARNIGHT TRAIL . . . "), go left. At a "Y" in the trail next to a burned tree, go left to cross a small arroyo. Turn right at a the next sign ("KNOLL TRAIL 1.9 MILES . . . "). The trail now parallels the hillside for about 1/8 mile, then turns to head directly toward Cloud Tower. At the next "Y" in the trail, take the uphill (Right) branch. This "Y" is at a large symmetric juniper tree, just left of a distinctive large pink and white striped boulder. Soon the trail drops into the major rocky arroyo coming down from Juniper Canyon, goes up it for about 100' (cairns), then exits it to the left. It soon joins the ridge coming down from the final ramp, and is easy to follow the rest of the way to a small col. From the col, drop down about 50' to the beginning of the route, an obvious major dihedral. Do not leave food at the base, and leave your packs open so critters can easy explore them rather than chewing through them.