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Mutt & Jeff: Memories of the Bastille

Locations: Opinion Published

At the entrance to Eldorado Canyon stands a rock tower, the Bastille, named after the gloomy prison stormed during the French Revolution.

It is 350 feet high, dark and bulky, yet stately, like its namesake. It rises crisp and vertical, an emphatic statement in rust-red sandstone. In the early days of Eldorado Springs a fellow named Ivy Baldwin would walk a tightrope from the Wind Tower over to the Bastille. I would never want to try it. The wind would yaw the cable in a graceful, terrifying arc while Baldwin kept his cool hundreds of feet above South Boulder Creek.  

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I had never climbed in Eldorado before, was long on chutzpah and short on experience, owned a few Army pitons, a goldline rope, and a couple of steel carabiners. Phil Sokol met me at the Holubar climbing shop on the Hill in Boulder. Red-haired and quiet-spoken, he agreed to join me for an ascent of the Bastille Crack.

We didn’t own a piton hammer, so we knocked on doors in the little resort town of Eldorado Springs asking for a hammer. That’s how we met Cosimo and Matthew, two hospitable fellows living in a bungalow near the canyon’s formidable cliffs.  

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They invited us in for a bowl of steaming rice sprinkled with saffron, then lent us a carpenter’s claw hammer. Phil and I scampered up the Bastille without incident. That was back in 1965. Two years later Frank Prescott and I sauntered up to the Bastille, counting on an easy ascent to the top.

We were climbing buddies and best friends in the ‘60s. He wasn’t that easy to know: contrarian by nature, and belligerent. He bucked the tide for the sheer pleasure of it.  I led the first pitch of a hundred feet or so, then brought Frank up.

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He anchored in to belay me on the second pitch, and I started up. I felt unstoppable. After gaining thirty feet or so without placing protection I heard Frank call up, “Put in a piton now, or I’m going to untie the rope.”

Just to humor him, I slammed a piton into the nearest crack I could find and clipped in. I climbed a little higher into a ticklish place, and that’s the last thing I knew before coming to, spinning in space, laughing my head off. It was such a giddy, free feeling, spinning weightlessly above the canyon floor.

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Another two years passed, and it was time to try a new line up the Bastille. On a cold morning in December 1969, I joined Jim Erickson and John Behrens to tackle the precipitous west wall. John was stocky with a round, benign face and dimpled chin — girls would call him a teddy bear. Jim Erickson had a gentleman’s bearing and dark curly hair. He was a preeminent figure in Colorado rock climbing in those days. The new route was his idea.  

John Behrens took the first lead. He breezed up it, maneuvering his way on small holds. I took delight in watching his upward progress, the liquid folding and unfolding of his body, an elegy to being there. Jim followed; then my turn came.

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I remember delicious moves up a steep, conglomerate face, gray-purple pebbles for fingerholds, creases and edges appearing at the proper moment, bridging across delicate footholds, then clambering onto a platform to join the other two. We were already halfway up the Bastille. A chill wind bit into us. John kindly lent me a bulky, cream-colored sweater, hand-knit by his wife. I pulled it on and felt the warmth flow into my arms and torso.

Erickson asked, “Would either of you like to take the next lead?”

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The rust-red rock above our heads was slightly overhanging with rotten little fingers dangling down. I had no inclination to tackle it.

We told him, “This is your route. You should have the honor.”

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Jim engaged the rock with craftsman’s skill, moving over a difficult bulge and up another hundred feet to the top. John followed. Out on the wall I quickly sensed the desperation of the moves Erickson had so efficiently dispatched. Pulling hard on the rotten little upside-down fingers, I strained upward, then came to a halt. Looking down I saw John’s sweater snagged on a protuberance at my waist. I had no choice but to lunge with all my might, tearing a sizable hole in it.

The rest of the climb went easy. We congratulated each other at the top and named the route Hair City. I handed John the torn sweater, hoping his wife would somehow understand. The route has become a classic in Eldorado. The cold sky and steep rock are still tangible in my book of memories.

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