logo

The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir

living in Boulder, Coloradoimage

Adventure Travel

Jun 12, 2018

The Bounty of Living in Boulder

From its refined downtown gem, Pearl Street, to the tops of its sandstone giants, the Flatirons, Boulder has a variety of adventures for all your tastes.

WRITTEN BY

Mick Follari

This story originally featured in The Outdoor Journal print edition. Subscribe here.

Swirl three times, pour. Wait three breaths, turn the cup back over. In Dushanbe, Tajikistan I’m reading tea leaves stuck to a white cup, without much success. Gaunt and tired from climbing in Afghanistan, I have 7,000 miles of travel still ahead, and a baby due in a few weeks, so my mind is only on getting home to Boulder, Colorado.

Having lived there almost 20 years, it’s easier to reflect on it when I’m far away. Ironically, we have our own authentic Tajik teahouse, sent piece by piece from the City of Dushanbe as a gift. I’d be glad to be there right now.

Boulder sits elevated at 1600m where the Great Plains suddenly meet the soaring Rocky Mountains. If you arrive overland from the East, as I did, across a flat sea of grasses, it’s breathtaking. Once here, you find a stunning variety of outdoor activities accessible from a picture-perfect downtown where the sun shines nearly all the time and everybody’s healthy. But, an ominous curse whispers across 150 years. Arapahoe Chief Niwot warned the first settlers: “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”

climbing Boulder

The Earth makes herself known here. Rock juts out of the hills and canyons around town: from glacially-polished granite, to sandstone, to a unique igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic link. Baseline Road lies on the 40th latitude, gold mining brought the first white settlers, and several national earth science research centers are housed here. Weather moves quickly. A sunny June afternoon can turn into hail and ankle-deep slush. Likewise, in January a Monday snow storm can become T-shirt weather by Thursday.

For visitors, as well as those who live here, it is a wonderland of outdoor adventure stocked with world-class dining and culture. 230 km of trails, 98,000 acres of open space, 60 urban parks, and 500km of bike ways and trails are set aside for 100,000 citizens and their guests. Rocky Mountain National Park, an hour away, is laced with trails, lakes and wildflowers, Denver lies only 40km away, and skiing is within 40 minutes’ drive. The 20 bike shops, 40 yoga studios, and 79,000 square foot Whole Foods hint at an obsession with fitness and well-being. Numerous professional athletes (and wannabes) make it their home, and her trails, cliffs, and roads are well-loved by many hands, feet and wheels.

The topographic playground and backdrop are beautiful, but they are matched by an impressive community and culture. Colorado University is a research powerhouse, there’s Buddhist Naropa University, massage, and herbal medicine schools. Vibrant creativity, a sparky startup community, and leading science research make for an inspirational population.

The wonders of Boulder are no secret however, and the press, enamored with superlatives, regularly place it in various Top-Ten type lists. Usually they extol the fitness, healthy lifestyle, outdoor opportunities, braininess, creativity, business verve, foodie-ness, etc. But there is, naturally, a backlash, and it is a favorite target of some post-modern negativity.

It is wryly called ‘The Bubble’ or ‘The People’s Republic of Boulder’, or more cynically, “25 square miles surrounded by reality.” The same preservationist and well-intended progressive policies that keep it so attractive have elevated the cost of living, changed demographics. You will see bumper stickers shouting to “keep Boulder weird!”

Chief Niwot must be smiling to himself.

living in Boulder, Colorado

Before you get too distracted by intriguing lectures, local craft beer, galleries or restaurants, however, plan out some of those outdoor activities you came for. Start a hike at Chautauqua Park and you can stroll leisurely up the Bluebell trail or southward on the 12km Mesa Trail to connect with dozens of others in the Open Space where moderate hikes are plentiful. Pound out a difficult ascent of Bear Peak and you’ll be rewarded with sensational views of the eastern plains, foothills, and snowy Indian Peaks. The trails at Mt. Sanitas and Flagstaff are favorites, lined with bouldering. If you’re lucky, you may see black bear, foxes, coyote or even a mountain lion off the trails.

As expected, climbing is nearly a cultural imperative. Locals enjoy an early-morning jaunt up the 450m First Flatiron before breakfast. Contact the Colorado Mountain School for help setting up instruction and equipment. If you are an experienced climber, head to Eldorado Canyon State Park whose sandstone walls are lined with thousands of routes and 50 years of history. Boulder Canyon is another popular destination, with thousands of its own granite sport routes. Neptune Mountaineering can outfit you, including guidebooks.

Boulder, Colorado

Bikes are everywhere… whether the rattle of a single mountain bike, a peloton of road bikers passing farms on the edge of town, or several hundred glowing, rolling costumes slowing traffic on the Thursday night downtown cruiser ride. There are even 100 automated bike rental stations around town. Visit University Bikes for your general needs. If you’re a connoisseur, there are specialty shops just for you.

Pearl Street is the heart of downtown and it beats from 6am coffee to 2am boozing. Re-born in 1977 in an effort to revitalize downtown, the street was torn up, permanently closed to cars, and repaved with bricks. A thousand businesses and flowers line the Mall in historic buildings. 85% of them are local, and with public art, sculptures, and street performers it’s the most popular area of town for restaurants, night life, galleries and coffee. Lots of coffee. I keep a rotation and can’t recommend just one. Ozo, The Cup, Amante, the Trident and the Laughing Goat each have their distinct appeal. For me, sitting here drinking a rich dark coffee is like a vacation, even just after a vacation.

Boulder, Colorado

You will have earned your meals doing all that activity, and luckily Boulder can feed the hungriest and the most discerning diner alike. Nationally-renowned chefs preside over a number of the best spots in town with taglines like Farm-to-Table, wind-powered, and organic. Try the creole breakfast at Lucille’s, rooftop margaritas at The Rio, and for deceptively casual dinner, neighbors The Kitchen or Salt. Between April and November, visit the lively Farmer’s Market, located on 13th St, which gets closed to traffic, sandwiched between Central Park and the Dushanbe Tea House.

So, here I am, sipping tea again, in a Dushanbe Tea House, but this time relieved to be doing it in my hometown. This one is nicer than the one in Dushanbe! Completely hand-built by Tajik craftsmen then shipped here, it is a work of art that serves food and drinks. The menu is wonderful and varied, with dishes from Cuba to Persia, North Africa to Thailand. And teas. When you can’t decide your next activity, maybe you’ll have luck reading the leaves.

Mick Follari is a alpinist, rock and ice climber, photographer and videographer. You can find out more about his work here and follow him on Instagram here.

Continue Reading

image

Adventure Travel

Jul 11, 2018

The Mountain Monks of Montserrat – Exploring History, Legends, and Great Climbing

.

image

WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief, recounts a climbing trip to Montserrat in 2009, where he followed in the footsteps of the mountain monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey.

A small boy scrambled up the rough rocks, yanking at tough brown shrubs and grabbing the pebbled conglomerate of the rocky Catalan spires. His sure-footed goats had already reached a large clear ledge above. He gasped with the effort and tried not to look down. It was late afternoon and he had to gather his flock and drive them homewards soon. He mantled up to level ground and looked around. There they were, near a large, dark-mouthed cave. He yelled at them, the stupid creatures. He spoke only Catalan, a language native to these wild, mountainous parts between France and Spain. And then, the woman emerged.

She was dark and luminous. She was haloed by light, a strange sort of energy exuding from her, illuminating the entrance to the cave. He felt something touch him, a sort of blessedness. And then he fainted.
So was born the legend of the black Madonna.
Fast forward three hundred years. A large monastery and church stand on that ledge, surrounded by thousand-foot high spires of rock. There are two ways to the monastery – a winding mountain road, or a cable car. Today, like most days, the road is closed due to rockfall. The cable car has limited running hours – and we barely catch the last one up, with the lone operator holding it for us.
Montserrat – Jagged Mountain in English  – is a four-thousand-foot high plateau composed of reddish pebbly sedimentary rock needles that reach up into the sky, with holds that seem like they’ll pop out the moment you pull on them. Pinnacles emerge from the jumbled matrix, cliffs, and aretes that soar over the surrounding countryside.

More than a thousand routes spider the mountain. There are barely enough climbers here. When I was there, it seemed possible to spend a whole day climbing thousand foot classics without ever meeting another party – in near-perfect temps, even in February, the month of my first trip here. This is the warm, beating heart of Catalan mountaineering.

It was a warm late February day, and we had been completely alone so far. The only other people we’d seen was a small group of climbers hiking ahead of us on the trail before they disappeared into the brush as we detoured towards the base of our route. Even though we were barely a 40-minute drive from Barcelona, it felt like wilderness climbing. The overgrown brush covered everything. It is an incredible sensation, to know that there is real adventure all around us, so close to established urban centres. There are ibex and wild boars in the forests in and around the mountain, and we walk carefully to not disturb the peace and natural beauty of this place.

The base of the route appears suddenly from the green brush. Vegetation ends and rock begins. The sensation is familiar and reassuring. The first part is not-yet-vertical, but real climbing nonetheless. I like to lead first pitches, since I haven’t yet had the time to feel scared and I can bluster my way through, while the ground seems reassuringly close – which in reality makes no difference to any real or perceived danger, of course. The route is mostly bolted or marked with old pitons, there is little scope for natural protection.

Climbing slowly, we reached halfway up. I was belaying my partner Gilles, a Franco-Australian climber I had met some years ago in India. The route is considered the area’s classic and most popular climb – the 5.10a+, 11-pitch, 1033 foot (315m) Aresta Ribas. The Aresta – “arete” – first climbed by a certain Ribas in 1979, is the prominent spur of rock on the sunnier, south-facing side of the mountain – perfect for a winter climb. Despite its ranking, there is literally no-one else on the climb. For comparison, a 3-star multi-pitch classic like this one nearly anywhere in the United States or even in the French Alps would literally have a queue of climbing parties on it.

Suddenly, an old man in a blue sweater appeared to my right, climbing in what looked like sneakers. As I watched, their party of three appeared one after the other, traversing to our belay station, moving much faster than us. The leader was a younger man, the only one who spoke English. That was how I met Josep Castellnou, a local who told me stories of this amazing history of Montserrat. Josep, a vet from a nearby town, also managed rocktopo.com – a climbing site extolling the virtues of the natural park of Montserrat, with downloadable guides for each part of the mountain. [Ed: unfortunately the site is no longer online, but some topos are still available elsewhere].

“You are visiting here?” said Josep, casually while on lead. I was well secured in my belay anchors.
“Yes”, I replied, shielding my eyes from the sun while paying out rope to Gilles.

“Good!” he said, smiling. “But you will not know how to find the trail down. We will wait for you!” he exclaimed, before setting off again.

Their party was doing a route just adjacent to ours, and flying on it. I cherished such encounters in the mountains – in every way a normal social interaction, but between two strangers clinging spider-like to a vertiginous mountain wall. These meetings sometimes lead to lifelong friendships, and one can meet again decades later with the same sense of warmth and gratitude.

The climbing was unexpectedly difficult. The holds were rounded cobblestones emerging from a matrix of hard sediment, requiring you to balance your toes on rounded surfaces, with no real edges. I needed to think about footwork before making each move, which meant our progress was very slow. The route was series of spires stacked one upon the other. An immense panorama behind us gave me a massive sense of exposure, a feeling of stomach-churning, calf-tightening vertigo that kicks in when you can only see the air above, below and behind you. Eagles rode rising thermals, balancing motionless with outstretched wings on waves of invisible air. They nested on the cliff walls, and climbers were under strict instructions to leave certain areas and routes alone in this protected Park Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat.

A young fresh faced Editor-in-Chief, Apoorva Prasad

The climbing took nearly the whole day. We reached the top as the sun began to set. Gilles and I quickly began to coil the ropes and switch out our rock climbing shoes for hiking footwear – wearing rock shoes the whole day is an incredibly painful experience, for those who haven’t yet tried it. Josep and his party were patiently waiting for us at the top, just beyond and below the ‘summit’ of the arete. I was warmly surprised, they must have reached at least an hour before us. They smiled and greeted us again, and rather quickly now, given the fading light, led us towards climber’s left, towards whatever path there was. Within some minutes it became clear to me that we would have never found it on our own, especially in the dark. The trail down was a complex, hours-long scramble over water-worn rock and incredibly dense brush, and not really a proper ‘trail’. If we hadn’t run into Josep’s party, we’d have probably spent the entire night cautiously hunting for the way down, having heard enough stories of climbing parties lost on descents upon being cliffed out, or going over an edge in the haze of fatigue, in darkness.

A little while later Josep pointed out a cave.
“You see these caves? Monks used to live here and meditate. Now climbers use them. They spend the year just living here and climbing”.
So medieval Benedictine monks had faded away, replaced in this new age by climbers, similarly meditating on paths to salvation amongst spires reaching up to the sky. Who were these 21st century rock-climbing monks? I was eager to find out, but tracking these unknown climbing hermits, seekers after greater truths… was not going to be easy or feasible.
The sun had already set below the horizon, we were hiking down in the twilight, and could barely see the trail. Yet I paused to look inside the cave. It was a small nook in the rook, just enough to serve as a passable campsite sheltered from the rain, to lay a sleeping bag on the uneven ground, a mendicant’s bowl on a rock ledge, perhaps a worn book. For a second, I closed my eyes and imagined that life. Then I heard the group outside, patiently waiting for us to follow that hidden trail, and I stepped back into the fading winter light.

Recent Articles



Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Peter Van Geit, wilderness explorer, ultra-runner, Founder of the Chennai Trekking Club, shares the field notes from his 1500 km alpine-style run across 40 high altitude passes the Himalaya.

Bringing Kiwi Back to Wellington

As New Zealand announces a new plan to reverse the decline of the iconic kiwi bird, Wellingtonians are already lining up to save their emblematic bird.

Plastic Patrol: How One World Record Became a Global Movement

Eco-activist and paddleboard adventurer Lizzie Carr inspires a global community of citizen scientists to map plastic pollution in her crisis-fighting app.

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Advertising

Analytics

Other