The Mind Needs Scrambling

Flatirons Boulder 1st Flatiron Ian King 2 copy

By Kevin Riley

A short time back I had a really tough weekend. I was exhausted from a week of climbing and running and had weekend plans that should have included one day climbing at the Black Wall on Mount Evans followed by a day climbing Mount Toll in the Indian Peaks region west of Boulder. But that didn’t happen. It started on a Friday night. I told my friend Ian that I’d belay him for an evening photo shoot in Eldorado Canyon. His buddy Rob Kepley wanted to shoot Sunrider (5.11c) at dusk. As a photographer frequently looking for belay support I felt that paying it forward was the right thing to do.

Ian and I met Rob up at the climb. “Help yourself to beers in my pack. They’re still cold,” Rob yelled down to us. He was up at the anchor fixing his rope. Ian and I eagerly accepted his offer. I thought to myself Rob was a true pro to bring beers for his climbing model and belayer. We cracked beers. Rob came down to the belay ledge and he gave us a rundown of his strategy. He also showed us his DIY off-camera flash pole he made out of PVC piping and tape. We had about 20 minutes to kill, so we sat around and talked about climbing and photography.

When the sun sank low, just above the mountain skyline, it was time time to climb. Ian and I put on our harnesses and racked up. Rob jugged up his fixed line with his camera and light pole. Ian got stuck at the crux on his on-sight attempt. He took a few goes at it. It didn’t go, so he pulled through the hard section and continued up the rest of the route. Then it was my turn. I got stuck at the same crux. I pulled through, too. After another 20 or 30 feet of climbing I was done. “I’ve had enough Ian. You can dirt me,” I said.

Ian King Rob Kepley Sunrider Eldorado Canyon
Ian King on Sunrider (5.11c) , Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. Photo by Rob Kepley (

Ian wanted to try the crux moves on the climb again. He asked me to take a couple cell phone photos of him from the belay ledge. I said I’d take some with my phone and send them to him. He insisted that I use his phone. I told him I could take photos with both phones, but I ended up just using my own. While he made the first few moves of the climb I snapped a few pics then placed the phone on the ground, well to my right so I didn’t step on it. Then I returned my focus on belaying Ian through the crux moves. Then all of a sudden I hear Rob yell, “Heads up!” from above. I put my head down and moved towards the wall. There was a crash to my right. I was fine. I thought it must have been a rock that got dislodged by Rob or his rope. “I knew that was going to happen,” said Rob. His DIY flash pole had come apart and the top part with his off-camera light and receiver went crashing hundreds of feet to the ground. Later Rob would find the pole but not the off-camera flash and receiver.

When we confirmed nobody was hurt Ian continued to climb and Rob came down. As he unclipped from the rope he looked down at the ground and noticed something. “Is that your phone? Did it get hit?” asked Rob. He picked up my phone and the screen was completely smashed. I knew immediately I’d have to go to the phone store the following day to get a new phone and that meant I wouldn’t be able to climb Black Wall at Mount Evans the following day. I wasn’t upset. It was just one of those things that happens in life, and I was still going to climb Mount Toll on Sunday. At least that’s what I thought.

I planned to meet my friend Leela at a grocery store in Boulder at 5:30am on Sunday morning. From there we’d drive up to the Indian Peaks region to climb Mount Toll’s North Arete (5.6). That morning I woke up at 4:30am. I headed straight to Starbucks where I was going to buy a coffee, use the bathroom to brush my teeth, and then pack my bag for the day. I ordered a large Americano and an egg and cheese sandwich. When I got my wallet out to pay I realized I was missing my personal debit card. I thought maybe it was in the back of the truck. So I paid for the coffee and sandwich with another card and headed off to grocery store to meet Leela. When I got there the parking lot was empty. The sun was just starting to rise. I had a half hour before Leela arrived so I searched for the missing card. I removed everything from the truck. I looked in every little nook and cranny. Nothing. No debit card to be found. My spirit broke. I cursed under my breath and shook in frustration as I walked frantically around the truck.

I had to get control of myself before Leela arrived, so I took a few deep breaths and remembered that it’s only a debit card and can easily be replaced. When she arrived I told her all about the broken cell phone and lost debit card. She could see the anxiety in my face. “I know how you feel. It’s totally OK if you’re feeling stressed out and don’t want to climb today,” she said. I knew I’d feel guilty about it, but I took her up on her offer. We postponed climbing Mount Toll for another day.

At this point I had no phone, no debit card (though I’d find it later in the day at the spot where I camped out for the night), and my alpine climbing plans for the weekend had all crumbled. I was discourage. But I couldn’t just sit around and wallow in my own pity. Instead, I went scrambling. It was the one activity that could focus my mind and body away from the negative thoughts I felt were suffocating me. On Monday I scrambled in the Flatirons, sticking to the 1st Flatironette (5.2) -> The Spy (5.3) -> 1st Flatiron North Arete (5.4) circuit I often repeat. On Tuesday I ran the Walker Ranch Loop (7.5 miles) that starts with a wonderful view of the Flatirons and Eldorado Canyon.

On Wednesday I texted Ian to see if he had any climbing plans. He replied that his Grandma had passed. From his tone it seemed they were close. That same day I learned a childhood friend, the kid who in 3rd grade was responsible for knocking out my front tooth with a baseball bat while he was warming up, passed away. Doesn’t matter why. It was sad. But I didn’t bring that up to Ian. Instead, I said I was going scrambling in the Flatirons later that evening during last light and he should join if he feels up to it.

We texted later that day. He said he had a friend that wanted to run laps on Country Club Crack in Boulder Canyon. I said I’d love to take photos and take a lap or two myself. Fifteen minutes later Ian’s friend bailed and we were back to scrambling in the Flatirons. We met at the Chautauqua parking lot around 6:30pm. He asked what I wanted to scramble. “How about the usual 1st Flatironette -> The Spy -> 1st Flatiron North Arete,” I replied. He agreed. Shortly after we began up the 1st Flatiron approach trail.

The rock was still warm from being in the sun all day. The air was humid. We were both dripping sweat as we scrambled up the 1st Flatironette. I was moving a bit faster then Ian. He seemed at peace with his slower pace, and it looked like he was enjoying the monotonous motion of scrambling up the low angle slab. Maybe it was taking his mind away from the pain and suffering he and his family were experiencing. I thought back to when I lost my parents and that inescapable feeling of finality, the sense that death is the only forever. But nature gave me hope, because in the absence of everything, nature remains. For some reason that singular consistency brought me solace. I like the idea that nature is forever and that when I die and long after that when the universe as we know it is no longer that nature will continue to go on and there will always be something new.

When we topped out The Spy we were greeted by a beautiful setting sun that was dropping behind the Indian Peaks to our west. We stopped there for a bit to take in the scene and take some photos. We discussed how lucky we were to be in those mountains on that day or on any day and how having an outdoor playground like the Flatirons is a true blessing. I can’t think of any other place were that quantity and quality of low angle scrambling is so readily available.

Flatirons Boulder 1st Flatiron Ian King
Ian King starting up the 1st Flatiron North Arete (5.4) with the top of The Spy in the background. Photo by Kevin Riley.

Our final objective was the 1st Flatiron North Arete. We stopped many times along the way to take in the view of where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. The air had cooled down and a nice breeze had picked up. As I watched Ian top out the 1st Flatiron a moment of clarity hit me, my mind needed a scramble. It made sense to me. I was in a funk and needed a swift kick in the ass to get out of it. The attention and focus scrambling requires makes everything else fade away, which allows the mind the time and space to hit reset and start with a clean slate. I think some part of me knew this instinctively, but I never had the words to define it. After Ian had topped out I followed behind him and climbed to the top of the 1st Flatiron. Then we downclimbed the back of the 1st Flatiron and made our way down to the parking lot.

Flatirons Boulder 1st Flatiron Ian King
Ian King topping out the 1st Flatiron. Photo by Kevin Riley.

The next day I was up at the 4th of July Trailhead to climb the North Arapahoe – South Arapahoe ridgeline. I started early in the morning. By the time I reached treeline I had passed the other hikers except one guy who was running with his dog. The mountains seemed so big around me. I started to remember all the scrambling objectives in the Indians Peaks I had ticked for myself the previous summer. Now I had an entire season to enjoy the alpine environment and I promised myself I was going to take advantage of it.

I moved up the trail at a slow jog. It being my first alpine scramble of the season I wanted to see how my body felt before pushing myself too hard. Surprisingly, everything felt pretty good. My knees felt solid, my lungs felt conditioned to the thin mountain air, and my motivation was strong. I couldn’t help but smile as I followed the switchbacks up South Arapahoe. The familiar smell of mountain flowers and the warmth of the alpine sun filled me with joy and appreciation. I thought about my sweet mother and wished she was enjoying the bluebird skies with me. I thought about my most lovely and hoped we’d be together soon. I thought about my father and sisters and aunties and uncles and wished grace upon them.

From the summit of South Arapahoe it wasn’t far to North Arapahoe. I got to a short scramble section where I was able to setup my phone to capture the moment. I climbed. I downclimbed to retrieve my phone. Then I climbed it again. I had to laugh at myself for the narcissistic, media-obsessed capture, but, as always, brushed it off as a mere sign of the times. Within minutes I was at the top of North Arapahoe.

The way down felt easy. I felt lighter. I had my phone. I had my debit card. I had a growing appreciation for everything that brings happiness to my life. And that’s what I need to remember. As long as I’m on this earth, on my own two legs, breathing with my own two lungs, able to be with those I love, help those in need, receive help when I’m in need, and have my health I don’t need anything else. All is good.