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Alison Osius | Photo: David Clifford | July 18, 2014
A historic climbing area in Aspen gets its day in the sun—again.
Lou Dawson was 50 feet up the southwest face of a cliff named Gold Butte, set on a hillside high above the Roaring Fork Valley, when Harvey T. Carter came walking along the base. It was the late 1960s, and Dawson was 17 or 18, in high school. Dawson and his climbing partner recognized the ruddy, stocky Carter as the cliff’s leading activist even before he introduced himself.
That first meeting between Carter and Dawson was a genesis of a strong partnership. Carter, some 20 years older, befriended the aspiring climber in the way of the era, conflating their strengths of experience and youthful athleticism. The two would go on to climb often, from the walls of Yosemite to the first ascent of a major desert tower, all starting with the introduction at Gold Butte.
A mere 10 minutes from Aspen and easily visible from McLain Flats, Gold Butte is 60 feet at its highest and several hundred feet wide. Decades ago, its then-owner, Henry Stein, kindly allowed climbing on the cliff, where the period of highest use occurred from the early 1970s through the early ’80s. Access ended, however, after Stein died, and his family halted the climbing because of increasing liability concerns.
The intertwined stories of Dawson and Carter, and of Gold Butte as an active crag, are both tales of climbing gained and lost—and regained.
In the 1970s, the commanding Carter and some younger climbers, such as Dawson and Michael Kennedy, frequented Gold Butte, a sun-catching nugget of pale-yellow banded and pocketed Entrada sandstone. The rock was soft and loose—hence, often frightening (the climb on which Dawson was poised the day he met Carter later simply fell off the cliff, in long slabs). But the climbing moves were intriguing, demanding balance shifts and the strength and technique needed to swing up the rock overhangs.
Mostly, the place was incredibly accessible—convenient (even for a quick jaunt over a lunch break) and open year-round. And it was breathtakingly beautiful. The vista stretches for many miles, with an unusual view of the town of Aspen and across many ski slopes, up toward Independence Pass and
Over time, climbers established about 30 new routes, most by Carter with various partners. A ski patroller in winter, Carter spent his offseasons climbing. He, Dawson and others spent many hours cleaning loose rock off the walls; Dawson established some new routes and also succeeded on the first free ascents (i.e., using only hands and feet, without weighting slings or pitons to move upward) of some lines. But Gold Butte would also be the scene of a deep rift between him and Carter, when the younger man, climbing strongly at age 23, pulled off the first free ascent of a route Carter was still working on. Ebullient, Dawson hastened to Carter’s house, where he would often be welcomed for lunch by Carter and his wife, to share the news. He thought his mentor would be pleased.
Instead, Carter, a tough, brusque mountain character, blew up.
“He threatened to beat me up,” Dawson recalls with a wry laugh. “He said something like, ‘Get out of here, and I don’t want to see you again!’”
“I screwed up,” Dawson reflects calmly. Carter’s reaction, of course, should have been expected, if in character for a man so forceful and proprietary. During his climbing career, he would ultimately claim first ascents of a staggering 5,000 new routes around the American West. But he was said to love home best, and at Gold Butte, his old ring pitons still dot the cliff, rusted and fused into the geology, appearing suddenly in the corner of a climber’s eye like a phantom wave. Among Carter’s eccentricities—one objectionable to other climbers—was his habit of painting a red dot on the base of each route he climbed.
Carter died in 2012, at 81. His bizarre red dots have all since disappeared, and everything else at Gold Butte has changed over time as well.
Many notable climbers frequented Gold Butte over the years. Among other top mountain athletes were Aspen’s Raoul Wille, who would die mountaineering in the Himalayas in 1998, and his brothers, Andre and Pierre. In the early 1980s, the legendary California climbers Lynn Hill and John Long eyed and established the steep, low bouldering traverses at the base of the cliffs.
By 1988, when I moved to Aspen, Gold Butte had already been closed to climbing for several years. I bouldered there just a few times with friends. Bouldering—climbing ropeless and low to the ground for fun and training—couldn’t be seen from the road, and no one seemed to notice or care.
In the early 1990s, I moved downvalley and forgot all about Gold Butte. Then, last autumn, Andrew Hewitt, a 22-year-old intern at Rock and Ice magazine, where I work, surprised me greatly one day by mentioning that he had just climbed there.
He showed me a topo, available on the Ute Mountaineer website, and pointed out a couple of routes, one of which he called interesting, and the other excellent. The rock, he said, remains loose despite renewed and energetic cleaning efforts—but the place was handy and enjoyable.
“It’s fun,” he said. “You should go.”
This latest chapter in Gold Butte history started with Aspenite Bob Wade, a longtime climber and the owner of the Ute Mountaineer. Wade was among the early Gold Butte climbers in the mid-1970s, just after Carter’s era and overlapping with Dawson and Kennedy. His other peers included Greg Davis and the early area guidebook authors Molly Higgins and Larry Bruce.
Wade always wanted to get his backyard climbing spot back.
“For 10 or 12 years, he bugged us,” says Annie Rickenbaugh, a former member of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of trustees. Wade appealed to Rickenbaugh as well as to County Commissioner George Newman, himself a past climber.
Over the years, Wade’s efforts stopped and started, but he kept plugging away, talking first with Henry Stein’s heirs and then contacting the ensuing owners, the Hurst family, though receiving no replies. Around 2006 Wade began working with Jason Keith of the Access Fund, a Boulder-based climbing-advocacy group.
Says Wade, “He was really helpful in getting me up to speed to be able to talk to the county”—which could in turn communicate with the family—“and say, ‘There are ways to [allow climbing] without [putting the owners] on the liability hook. There are a lot of options.’
“We just ended up,” says Wade, “with a good one.” In January 2013, Pitkin County acquired the private land in a conveyance as part of a land-use approval process for the owner’s adjacent properties. The next step was to develop a climbing-management plan through a steering committee, and the phase after that was extensive labor on the part of the climbing community to prepare the cliff for use.
Close to 50 people helped clean and re-equip the cliff for climbing and completed arduous trail work on the access route. Among the many was Lynn Sanson of Carbondale, who has long contributed to the regional climbing community by replacing aging bolts and rappel/descent anchors. He calls Gold Butte “a part of Aspen’s climbing history,” adding, “I wanted to be part of getting it open again.”
Through Sanson, the American Safe Climbing Association helped fund new hardware. The original ascentionists had placed pieces of protection—pitons or removable metal wedges now called traditional pro—in cracks in the walls to arrest falls. Today, however, for convenience and safety, a slight majority of the routes on Gold Butte are permanently bolted (and others may be bolted over time). Anchors have been placed at the tops of all routes, and some can be climbed simply by setting a top rope from above.
Sanson also brought volunteers from his workplace, the Jaywalker Lodge, an alcohol and drug recovery center in Carbondale. Over three days, Jaywalker residents and others built the steep but excellent trail from the parking lot to the cliff, battling through sage, thick brush and scrub oak.
Cleaning and bolting the old routes was physically laborious, yet also a process of fond remembrance. Wade routinely sent photos to Dawson, Kennedy and Davis, asking if anyone remembered what routes had gone where. He says, “People could remember some names or grades, or remember a grade, but they didn’t know which route it went to.” Another local climber, Bob Sloezen, provided a piece of the puzzle by producing some old topo sketches of Carter’s.
The group renamed some routes, and at least one entirely new one was established by Jeremy Graham, who heads the rock-climbing program at Aspen’s Red Brick Recreation Center. (He has started, but not yet bolted, another new route.)
Gold Butte reopened for climbing in October 2013.
Asked about the quality of Carter’s old routes, Wade praises them as “brilliant. He climbed just about everything that was possible. I’m amazed at what he did. I’ve been in places on the cliff where I thought: No way has anyone been here, and then there’s a piton tucked under the roof.”
On a recent day out at Gold Butte, I climbed a couple of Carter’s routes, which he graded up to 5.9, which was then at the top of the difficulty scale. Based on the current climbers’ scale, which goes from 5.0 to 5.15, the 5.8-route Hail Hole felt more like a 5.9+ or harder, especially when I avoided touching a questionable-looking block of rock at its top. Another route, Zodiac, an airy roof surmounted by a long blind reach to a horn, was dubbed 5.9+ by Carter, though it’s now more aptly designated as 5.10a. As use increases and people give feedback, other route upgrades may follow.
In 1977, Lou Dawson broke his leg badly when skiing a backcountry chute, Keno Gulch, on Aspen Mountain. He had been lying in the snow all afternoon before word got to ski patrol that he was gravely injured and in danger of death.
Harvey Carter said, “I volunteer.” He and another patroller were taken by snowcat up the mountain, and in the dark, Carter wrestled a sled through rocks, brush and trees.
He hadn’t spoken to Dawson in years. When he arrived, Dawson asked faintly, “Hey, Harvey, are you still mad at me?”
“Oh, no,” Carter said. “I’m going to get you out of here.”
After the rescue and Dawson’s long, ensuing recovery, the two climbed together again a few times before Dawson segued into ski mountaineering.
He is touched that Gold Butte is open once again. “I like it because it honors Harvey.”
Gold Butte is accessed via the lower portion of the Sunnyside Trail, shortly after its start off the Rio Grande Trail. Parking is available at Stein Park (yes, named for Henry Stein, who donated the land) off Cemetery Lane. You can also easily bike to Stein Park or take the bus from Rubey Park (Cemetery Lane route).
For Novices Guided climbs on Gold Butte are offered through Aspen Expeditions ($180 per person for a group of two on a half-day climb, 970.925.7625, aspenexpeditions.com) and Aspen Alpine Guides ($295 per person for a group of two on a half-day climb, 970.925.6618, aspenalpine.com). Jeremy Graham at the Red Brick (pricing available upon request, 970.920.5140, aspenrecreation.com) also holds a permit to guide there.
For Experienced Climbers Routes range from about 5.5 to 5.11d, with most in the 5.9/5.10 range. All except one are single-pitch. Many, but not all, are bolted (over time, more may be), and nearly half require some use of traditional protection.
The east face, on the Aspen side of the main crag, contains all bolted routes, eight in total, while around the corner, the southwest face currently has eight all-bolted routes, seven “mixed” ones that use both bolts and trad pro, one top rope route and one that requires all trad pro. On a section 100 feet below the main crag (about 50 feet above the Rio Grande Trail) is the Guides’ Triangle, a buttress that contains three moderate routes (one bolted, and two that are still led with trad pro but may soon be bolted). Another section of the cliff, adjacent to the Guides’ Triangle, is Dusty Ridge, which offers a continuous two pitches of mixed bolt/trad-pro climbing to the top of the main cliff.
Other Things to Know Always wear a helmet, especially for belaying. It’s not a bad idea to wear sunglasses too, to protect your eyes as you look upward. Rocks and kitty-litter pebbles can pour down. Always stay out from underneath other climbers.
Dogs are forbidden at the crag.
The crag has neither toilets nor privacy. The closest restrooms are the port-a-potties in Stein Park, one of the parking areas near the cliff.