Ophir Wall: a trad climber’s paradise

Antoine Savelli on the Ophir Wall. [Photo by Melissa Plantz]


Climbing in Ophir is a throwback to the days of hand-drawn route maps, elusive beta and hand-me-down photocopies of out-of-print guidebooks. The most comprehensive collection of route information in Ophir, published by late area legends Andrew Sawyer and Charlie Fowler, is out of print, and the copies that do exist are hard to come by. 

In Telluride, Between the Covers bookstore and Jagged Edge Mountain Gear will both let you take photos of their hard copy editions, but you can’t walk out the door with the guidebooks. The local library’s copy has gone not-so-mysteriously “missing.”

“The big, bad, rad cliff of the Telluride region, standing in a spectacular alpine setting, subject to all the whims of the mountain environment; this crag is one of Colorado’s hidden gems,” wrote Sawyer and Fowler in their rare “Telluride Rocks” guidebook.

“Predominately a traditional climbing area, Ophir is becoming even more unique in the current era of rock climbing. Many routes here were put up by legendary, pioneering climbers who at the time were pushing the limits of climbing,” Sawyer and Fowler wrote. “Be prepared to run it out and test your gear placement savvy.”

The climbing crag is located 20 miles south of Telluride at a bend along winding Colorado State Highway 145; a small sign indicates the turn-off to the hamlet of Ophir, and the wall looms immediately to the driver’s left. Ophir wall consists of rhyolite, a rock type similar to granite and volcanic in origin.

“It’s just a really unique alpine crag in our state. It’s got an incredible history and, despite its appearances, some really quality long routes that are worth doing,” said Josh Borof, a longtime local climber and the vice president of the Telluride Mountain Club. “It’s a worthy area.”

Climbing in Ophir exploded in the 1970s, starting with an ascent of the obvious crack located directly behind the small post office. (The route, rated 5.8, is aptly named Post Office Crack). Telluride Mountainfilm Festival co-founder Bill Kees began what would become a three-decade-long dedication to opening up new routes on the towering rocks in 1972, officially putting the rock wall on the map.

The secret of Ophir Wall didn’t stay under wraps for very long. Just a few years after Kees began establishing routes on the wall, pioneering Yosemite big wall climber Royal Robbins purchased a home in the Telluride area, leading to an era of California greats turning their attention to Ophir Wall and upping the ante on new routes.

Yosemite legends John Long and Lynn Hill stayed in Robbins’ house one summer in an ill-fated attempt to start a guiding business. Instead, they spent their days exploring the cracks on Ophir Wall.

Lynn Hill described her first free ascent of Ophir Broke, a 5.12c overhanging crack, in her autobiography “Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World.” Hill later became the first person, male or female, to free climb The Nose route on Yosemite’s El Capitan, a feat for the history books.

“I proceeded to set both my feet up high onto two small edges, then I popped my hand up to the tiny crystalline edge for just long enough to still myself and find that perfect zero-gravity moment that exists somewhere between falling and jumping higher. Once I latched onto this hold, I was able to reach the thin crack and continued jamming to the top,” she wrote.

She made the first free ascent on Ophir Broke in 1980 despite previous attempts by Long and other accomplished climbers, using her smaller hands combined with mental toughness to best the route. (“I realized that no matter what our physical differences, with the right combination of vision, desire and effort, just about any climb was possible. Short or tall, man or woman, the rock is an objective medium that is equally open for interpretation by all,” she wrote of the climb.)

Climbing in Ophir is largely done in a ground-up, traditional style. That means that routes are protected with removable gear instead of bolts drilled into the wall, and routes are established as the climber ascends instead of relying on fixed ropes or rappelling to drill permanent bolts into the wall. Trad climbing has a strong “Leave No Trace” ethic.

The rock in Ophir can be loose and chossy, a common characteristic in the San Juan Mountains. Climbers attempting routes in Ophir should always wear a helmet and be aware of freezing and thawing patterns in the mountains that could loosen chunks of rock and cause it to come crashing down. Major blocks on popular routes have broken and fallen in the past, sometimes resulting in serious injury to the climbers below. Climbing is an inherently dangerous activity, and newcomers to the wall should hire a guide.

A highly detailed poster with a map of routes and a list of first ascents was recently produced by Clay Wadman of Diamond Productions and can be purchased at Jagged Edge Mountain Gear or online at climbingmaps.com/ophir.htm.