Third Flatiron, Regular East Face
By: Bill Wright & Warren Teissier | Climbers: Cast of Thousands |Trip Dates: August 1, 2002
Photo: Gary Clark
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The 2002 Third Flatiron Time Trial
Each year I organize a time trial up the classic East Face of the Third Flatiron. This route is eight pitches of 5.2 or easier climbing on the most solid, clean, and featured rock you can imagine. It has been called the best beginner climb on the planet and I never tire of scrambling up this face. The Third Flatiron remains closed from February 1st through July 31st each year to protect falcons nesting nearby. To commemorate the opening of this fabulous rock, I scheduled the time trial for August 1st.
To add a twist to the time trial, and to increase the safety, I wanted to rig a singled fixed line from the summit of the Third to the ground on the backside. The plan was to solo up the face with a harness and rappel device and then slide down the fixed line to the ground. This way no participants would have to downclimb (much more dangerous than climbing up) or have to carry a rope and do two or three rappels off to the ground (also dangerous and time consuming). Of course with this strategy all times would be supported times and not valid to compare to an unsupported time, but this didn't bother any of us in the least.
The record for the unsupported time for climbing the Third Flatiron, from Chautauqua Park to Chautauqua Park, is just over 36 minutes by the venerable Bill Briggs. Buzz Burrell, the record holder on the First Flatiron, has also gone under 40-minutes unsupported. My best time unsupported was 44+ minutes. Since I had only once done this route supported, my supported time was actually slower than my unsupported time: 47+ minutes. When I did the latter time the Trashman (George Bell) carried the rope up and down. There were just three of us that year and to save time, Ken Leiden ran the entire way down in his climbing shoes!
This year the Trashman once again agreed to be our lead support person and course marshal. He agreed to fix his 11mm 200-foot rope from the summit. He recruited War n' Peace to be his assistant and the point man on the summit. I met these two at Chautauqua Park at 5 p.m. and we coordinated radios for communication and video cameras for documentation before they took off up the trail. I had only expected four or five participants, but people came out of woodwork.
Warren: Trashy and I headed up the trail at a good clip, trying to get to the base by 5:30 when we assumed the runners would start. We were surprise to find the 3rd completely empty.
Trashy reached the summit first and started rigging the rappel. As I reached the top I found out the rope had gotten stuck somewhere out of reach. We haggled over what the correct rappel trajectory should be and after a few minutes Trashy set off over a nasty limp and onto a ledge where he was able to free the rope.
Record holder Bill Briggs couldn't compete due to an injury preventing any vigorous running, but Buzz Burrell was there and the heavy favorite to clock the fastest time. Veteran adventure racer Mark "BTO" Bockmann showed up looking fit and hungry. He was well rested from the PrimalQuest 5-day adventure race. We had climbed the North Face of the Longs Peak on April 30th of this year and he had put me into some difficulty. I knew he'd be fast.
King Kreighton is always hungry for competition and especially enjoys besting yours truly. Since I had gotten the best of him in a couple of recent events he wanted to re-assert his royal dominance. I was a bit disappointed later to find out that he had no intention of pushing hard up the face - just on the run up and down from the rock. This is a good time to point out the inherent danger in such an event. While the Third Flatiron is relatively easy climbing - more like scrambling really - a mistake can be catastrophic, even deadly. Hence I stressed the time trail nature of this event and tried to avoid the dynamics of a head-to-head race. Of course, that couldn't be completely avoided with ambitious, competitive guys (one of the biggest disappointments of this event is the complete lack of females - Greg Opland thinks the event is too testosterony!) but we all knew this was for fun and kept within our safety margins.
BTO recruited Isaac Savitz and he was a classic sandbagger. He claimed he couldn't run at all, but then mentioned he has hiked up Sanitas in 22 minutes - a very respectable time. Yes, this trail is so steep that running isn't much of an option, but the same goes for most of the Third Flatiron approach. I'd estimate that the difference between running to the base of this route and power hiking it is probably around five minutes.
Tim Lim (of Tim and Kim - lots of rhymes there) showed up at the last minute and hastily donned his harness. Tim is a regular trail runner and a strong climber. Dave Silverman, a climber for just two years, was there early and excited about this crazy event. He'd take off a bit early since he knew he'd be a bit slower. Peter Spindloe did the same since he expected his ankles to severely limit his running. The former triathlete was surprised to find that trail running suited him well and plans to do lots more in the future.
Myke Komarnitsky, the founder of www.climbingboulder.com, also joined the craziness. I had never met Myke before, but knew him from his site and numerous emails. He is a young stud in training for the mountain relay race.
After weeks and weeks of clear, hot weather without a trace of our usual afternoon boomers, the skies were now threatening rain. In fact some drops of rain did fall and we wondered if the time trial would go off as planned. Fortunately it didn't rain and the cloud cover and cooler temperatures provided ideal conditions for the event. I gathered the participants and gave a short speech stressing the fun of this event and pleading with everyone to be careful. We discussed whether to send everyone off together or separated by a minute or so. Being separated would reduce the chances of racing, but also reduce the social aspects and take longer to get started. We agreed that if you had to wait for the rappel line at the top, it was valid to stop the watch. Once you started to set up to rappel, you had to restart the watch. This would give the waiting person a rest, but we figured it wouldn't make that much of a difference. In the end, four went off early (Dave, Myke, Tim, and Peter). The rest of us started together.
After we broke up to do final preparations, a guy approached me and asked, "What's going on?" From his chalked hands, he was obviously a climber. I said, "We're running up the Third Flatiron." "Running?" he queried? "Yup!" It turned out that either Mark or Kreighton knew the guy. His name was Matt and he had just been up bouldering on the Third Flatiron. I asked if he wanted to join us and after a bit of hesitation and checking with his partner, he agreed. That rounded out the group to an even ten!
I checked with the summit team on the radio: "Summit Team, this is Minion Force, do you read? Over." We got the go-ahead on the radio and took off. The official start is the trashcan at the top of the stairs in the southwest corner of the parking lot, near the ranger's cottage. Everyone started running, though at a controlled pace. The initial paved trail is deceptively steep and very continuous. We all deferred to Buzz. He was the alpha male of the group and no one dared go in front of him. To do so would mean you were going out too fast, because there was no chance to best him.
After five minutes the pack broke up a bit with Buzz, King, and me in front and BTO just slightly behind. We turned onto the Royal Arch Trail after about seven minutes and here Buzz and King started to pull away from me a bit. BTO started to drop back at a fast rate - perhaps he went out a bit fast. As we turned onto the Third Flatiron access trail things got really steep. I power hiked a few sections and didn't lose any ground to the King. Buzz was steadily pulling away from us though. Here we also caught and passed Tim and Myke.
As we neared the start of the climbing, I closed ranks right behind the King. Buzz hit the rock about a minute in front of the King and me. Unfortunately, the King blew a gasket on the approach and had to sit down for a bit to make repairs to his heart rate. Peter was here at the base putting on his climbing shoes. I raced up the face without a pause, grasping the ever-present holds, in pursuit of Buzz.
I love scrambling on this face. The rock is so solid. I would step up without having identified my next handhold yet, confident that it would appear before my momentum turned downward. The holds appeared without fail. I was hurting. My legs were screaming with lactic acid and my lungs burned. I went flying by a group of three climbers, all soloing and carrying a rope and gear. They were moving very slowly and didn't seem that competent. I heard later that one of them was totally gripped on the final 5.4 slab move. They shouldn't have been soloing. As the ten of us zipped by, they eventually asked what was going on. Further up I caught and passed Dave. He was having a great time and moving steadily up the face.
Warren: It wasn't too long until I started to see the first climbers, small specs dodging in and out behind the rocks and bulges. After a couple of minutes Buzz came into view. The one thing that struck me was his pace. It was absolutely continuous; not rushed, not slow but consistent as if he would move up whether there were handholds or not Some 50 ft below me I could hear him breathing. He powered over the short 5.4 section as if it were as easy as the bottom class 4 section. Then he reached me and to my surprise stopped to shake my hand and to tell a couple of times how much he appreciated the work Trashy and I had done What a classy guy!. I asked him to settle down a bit and double check his system. He did so and soon disappeared.
Bill: Buzz continued to pull away, having almost a two-minute lead by the time he hit the summit, but now I could gain time. Buzz is mostly a soloist and doesn't deal with ropes often. He's more than competent but wasn't in the frame of mind to go fast on the rappel. By the time I arrived at the summit he was still on the line and I could stop my watch. I waited for almost two minutes before I could head down - two minutes where I could stop the watch. This little tidbit of information wouldn't occur to Buzz until it was too late.
Warren: Next came Bill, reminding me of Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits with his bandana. Bill was focused and stopped only long enough to check his harness when I asked him to double-check. But after trying to clip in to the rappel line he realized Buzz was still on the line and he finally relaxed for a couple of seconds.
Bill: Warren was on top and shooting the action on digital video. Everyone praised Warren for getting us to calm down a bit, make sure the harness was doubled back and that we got securely onto the rappel line. Once the line was free, I slid off the overhang quickly and zipped down to the ground where the Trashman was minding the rope and filming the action. My rappel device was very hot, but I got it off the rope quickly and headed down the steep, rocky terrain.
The descent is quite technical 2nd class ground for a few hundred feet of descending and then steep talus. It is not obvious how to get back to the approach trail and, in fact, there is a misleading sign directing you to cross the talus field much too early. Everything looks different on the descent and you have to come down much further than you think before regaining the approach trail. I had done this before and knew the pitfalls. Buzz had not.
When I hit the trail, I had been all alone for quite some time. I hadn't seen Buzz since he topped out on the Third. No one had been very close behind since the start of the climbing. I checked my watch and saw that breaking forty minutes was possible, but I'd have to push hard. I normally don't run fast down such terrain for fear of twisting my ankle, but this occasion was worth it and I pushed hard. When I got back to the paved trail I was shocked to see Buzz ahead of me. He wasn't pushing that hard and I opened it up fully. He didn't know I was behind him and he didn't know about the wait on the summit. I knew if I closed within a minute or so, I'd have the fastest time. With a minute to go, I spotted my friend Ben Hoyt sitting on a rock. He saw me and got up to run down the last section with me. I was going as fast as I could, but couldn't quite catch up to Ben. He had just climbed the First and Third Flatirons in 1hr, 36m. He didn't get the mail about the time trial and just happened to be just finishing as we started. He stuck around to see the finish. He would have been a big threat in this outing.
Buzz finished in 39:58 and I came in less than a minute back with a total time of 39:17! I couldn't believe it. I only got Buzz because I rappelled fast and he took it easy on the descent, confident that everyone else was far behind. Nevertheless, it was still a thrill for me. It was like when I almost beat Matt Carpenter in the Barr Mountain Trail Race since he was just jogging it. If I had known he was only a minute ahead, maybe I would have tried to run him down. Just like then, this was my one and only chance to keep up with Buzz. I'm glad I didn't let it slip through my fingers. The great thing about Buzz is that he lifts everyone's game - just like Magic Johnson did. Doing things with him makes you better.
Warren: The rest of the groups showed up really close to each other, most of them were traveling together and I could hear them talk from far away. I do not recall the order of arrival at this point and it doesn't matter since soon enough there were 6 of us up there awaiting their turn at the rappel. There was a merry ambiance and the social aspect of the race was obviously in full swing. After they last person left I tore down the system and rapped in two raps requiring the slow three-person party to free my stuck rope I am glad we did not piss them off when we passed them.
Next to finish was BTO. He was flying down the trail with no one near him and finished in 46:40. Isaac came in at just over fifty minutes. He was very excited about the event and wanted to get on the Minion Scrambling Club email list. He said to me, "So, just the three of you beat me? Cool. I keep track of this stuff. I'm very competitive."
Tim came next and here he describes what the descent run is like:
"I just let myself freefall run and grabbed a tree when I needed to slow down! There are still a lot of boulders in those trees and many 4-6+ foot jumps are required. I did get scraped up a bit more on that descent, with some bloody knuckles and lots of briar/bark/stone scrapes on the legs and knees, so I'm not quite sure it was worth it!"
The other runners came in at strange time gaps due to a big traffic jam at the rappel. Everyone had to keep track of their wait time as things queued up. I think the worst wait was nearly twenty minutes! That seems hard to believe, but I knew Dave in particular had some trouble setting up his rappel. He's a bit of a neophyte still.
The King finished hard - really hard. His heart rate was nearing 200 bpm on the final paved section. He took his time through the more technical section to protect his legs and ankles. Myke, Peter, Matt, and Dave rounded out the group. The Boulder Trail Running group was finishing up as well and there was nearly 35 people milling about chatting about this and that.
I've been involved in some type of speed climbing for about three years. I frequently get a reaction of disdain when someone either sees me climbing fast or hears me speak of it. "What's the point?" they ask. I think a lot of the time climbers feel a bit threatened by speed climbers - as if they need to justify why they aren't climbing faster. That is ridiculous. Climb fast only if you want to climb fast. It isn't better or worse than climbing in a more traditional manner. Okay, that isn't true. Of course it is better - we get in more climbing! It can be handy in storm situations as well. Regardless, I'm not trying to put any pressure on anyone to take it up. But here's the funny thing. Once a climber does this for the first time, they love it. Without fail. They are jazzed by what they have accomplished and how they climbed something so much faster than they ever thought possible. Everyone came out of this event with that feeling. Everyone was excited about the next event. The bottom line is that moving fast over rock is just plain, flat out fun! And this is the best reason to do it.
This was by far the most successful and most popular of the TTTs (Third Time Trials) that I have organized. There will be more in the future and hopefully we'll add new rocks as well. Seal Rock is a natural for this as it has a very overhanging rappel from the summit.
A number of us waited for the support crew to get back down. Kreighton and I walked up the trail for ten minutes to meet them on their descent. Afterwards, Trashy, War n' Peace, King, Peter, Myke, and myself went out to Old Chicago's Pizza where the rest of us subsidized the pizza and beer for Trashy and War n' as a thank you for their efforts. These guys were awesome! As we enthusiastically talked about various adventures, accidents, and speed feats, Myke shook his head a couple of times and muttered, "The company you keep " Indeed. It can change you.
Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.