Climbers hang on to the area's undocumented and overlooked routes

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— You could've lived in Steamboat Springs for 10 years, driven past it 100 times and still wouldn't have known it was there. Even if someone told you there was a set of quartzite granite outcroppings a stone's throw from a U.S. Highway 40 shoulder pull-off on your way up to the Rabbit Ears Pass West Summit, you'd still have trouble finding the unmarked trail.

The hint that you need to head for the Harrison Creek Canyon overlook reveals a lot about the nature of rock climbing in Routt County. It is exactly that - overlooked.

The south-facing climbs at the Harrison Creek crags are ideal for beginner and intermediate climbers, with plentiful footholds up slab pitches (rated mostly 5.7 to 5.8) topped by anchor bolts set for entry-level top rope climbing.

But those looking to get into the sport won't find these aspen grove-shrouded climbs in the one and only guide "book," if you can even call it that - eight pieces of paper, halved and stapled together is more accurate.

"The Steamboat Springs Rock Guide," is as humble as it gets, and Ski Haus still keeps a few copies on their shelves. There are only six climbing areas listed, but Greg Dennis' collection of information originally published in 1992 does as good and as detailed of a job as he can, with penciled drawings, to provide a "resource as you embark upon the challenges of rock and life, body and soul."

Still, Rocky Mountain Ventures guide Patrick Meyer estimates it has only about 20 percent of the area's climbs listed. But spoken like a seasoned guide, Meyer joked, "85 percent of guides make up percentages."

The fact is, routes still are being pioneered in what has long been a frontier of newly-explored and ascended routes.

"Most of the climbs I've done, I'll just go check it out without any beta, just word of mouth, when now there's guidebooks for Yosemite (National Park) that tell you where every bolt is," Meyer said, pointing out the need for the updated guidebook. "There were four new sport routes last year that went up at the Seedhouse crag."

The lack of documentation for the developed climbs that the county does have is both a blessing and a curse. Much of the devout core of climbers would like to keep the climbs crowd-free and off the radar.

"You can go to pretty much any crag in Steamboat on a Saturday afternoon, and there'll maybe be one other person there - and you know them," Meyer said, pointing out how the lack of information often can lead new climbers astray. "People see the (Seedhouse Road) Box Canyon, but at the end of a huge talus field, it's not necessarily the best for a group of Boy Scouts."

Rocky Mountain Ventures owner Dave Fix sees the importance in exposing people to the climbs as a way of strengthening the local foundation of the sport. Fix used to own the local climbing gym, Vertical Grip, but since its 2001 closing, he's seen the climbing community disperse from its central hub. Fix hopes RMV's new kiosk on the corner of Fifth Street and Lincoln Ave. will be an information resource for area Alpinists.

"The long-term goal is that it would be great to shop where you can get gear and apparel, but also look at a map before you go on a hike or pick up a chalk bag before a climb," Fix said.

For Mike Malley, a Fourth of July trip to Steamboat from Brecksville, Ohio, meant an opportunity to explore the area's vertical possibilities and an opportunity to see if he could still put his 1979 vintage Chouinard climbing shoes back to work.

Meyer set out on the Harrison Creek climbs to challenge Malley and his two teenage children, Bill and Hannah.

"We're going to start with a few easy ones to help you relearn your primal instinct to climb - everyone naturally knows how to climb, it's trusting your equipment that matters now," Meyer said after setting the top rope and instructing the intricacies of the all-important, dressed figure-eight knot.

The Malleys quickly found their feet, making it up a series of three progressively harder climbs throughout the morning.

"The older granite made it more enjoyable than the last time we went on some smoother rock in Yosemite," Malley said. "There's better grips and footholds to get up, and the kids had more fun."

As new climbers find these established topographical gems dispersed around the county, Meyer is still confident there's new routes to be found and ascended.

"There's climbs out there - not like the ones in Eldorado Canyon or in Rifle, where you can drive up and belay off your bumper - you just have to work to get to them," he said.

- To reach Dave Shively, call 871-4253

or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com

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