Classic Climb: The Naked Edge

On Monday, my colleague Ted Alvarez posted a video link to Erik Weihenmayer ascending the Naked Edge. The Edge, as many people call it, is a truly striking line that grabs the eye of every climber entering Eldorado Canyon. From the road at the parking lot, it looks much like a sharp ship's prow, beckoning the climber upward with its perfection.

The Edge has a long and storied history that is intertwined with the history of climbing in Colorado, and to an extent, that of climbing in North America. Two first ascents of the climb marked changes in the Colorado climbing scene.

The route was given its name by Stan Sheperd, a minor player in the Boulder climbing scene of the 1960s. Usually, climbs are named by the first ascent party, but Sheperd, who didn't climb it, named the line after a book he had been reading, and the name stuck.

Early unsuccessful attempts on the Edge were made by Bob Culp and Jack Turner, who succeeded in aid climbing the first pitch before backing off, and Layton Kor and Steve Komito, who also backed off on the second, difficult slab pitch. Kor and Culp made an attempt in 1962 and climbed the slab pitch and continued up, but they couldn't find a line up the final steep prow and headed up to the side. Kor finally made the first ascent in 1964 with Rick Horn.

The first ascent teams climbed the Edge using extensive direct aid, meaning the climber puts pieces of gear in the rock, usually pitons or hooks, and climbs web ladders attached to the gear. By the late 1960s, as environmental consciousness bloomed in the U.S., climbers were abandoning pitons, which scar the rock, and pursuing free climbing, in which the climber only uses holds and cracks on the rock to ascend, and the gear placed is only there to prevent the climber from falling to her death.

At the time of the first ascent, no one would have thought of climbing the Edge free, but by 1971, a group of Boulder climbers who were pushing their limits dared to attempt it.

Jim Erickson made the first free climbing attempt in 1969, and tried again in 1970, but backed off after falling on the first pitch. In September, 1971, Erickson teamed with Steve Wunsch for a free attempt. The two shared lead duties on the first pitch, each pushing the route a little higher and setting protection a little higher, then lowering off, before Wunsch climbed it to the belay. Erickson led the second pitch free, then Wunsch climbed the third pitch, the easiest on the route. The two back off from trying the final two pitches.

A week later, Erickson went up with Duncan Ferguson, one of the leading iced and mixed climbers of the last 30 years. The two started early, and on the fourth pitch, Erickson and Ferguson took turns leading and lowering the overhanging slot until Ferguson reached the belay. Erickson succeeded in leading the final overhanging hand crack, which had first been led free by Larry Dalke in 1966, and Erickson and Ferguson claimed the first free ascent.

In 1978, Jim Collins upped the ante by becoming the first climber to free-solo the Edge (climbing without a rope), a daring move, since he had done the route six times before roped and only climbed the last pitch without falling once.

While the Edge is no longer at the cutting edge of difficulty, it hasn't quite descended to the old guide's sobriquet "an easy day for a lady." Just getting to the first pitch of the Edge requires climbing Touch and Go, a strenuous finger crack that goes at 5.9- for two pitches or one long rope-stretching pitch.

The first pitch of the Edge is a a 70 foot finger crack that goes at 5.11a. The second slab pitch starts at 5.9, then involves a balancy 5.10b move at a small crack. The third pitch is a 120 foot 5.8, reaching the final steep prow. The fourth pitch involves an overhanging crack and then a shallow chimney that goes at 5.11a. The final overhanging hand crack, with breathtaking views of the ground falling away beneath your feet, goes at 5.11b. From there, a 5.5 traverse pitch to the right takes you to the downclimb.

The Edge should be on every climber's ticklist, once you get good enough to attempt it.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Candace Horgan