“An urban climber that wants climbing to fit seamlessly into our modern lives”
Colin Cox has been climbing and developing routes in Northern Arizona for decades and has been a fixture in the Flagstaff climbing scene for many years. He has established routes and built crags all over Northern Arizona, with much of his effort focused on Mt Elden at Solitude Canyon, the Red Dragon, the One Wall, and Oaklands. I had the chance to ask Colin a few questions in this, the first in my series looking at influential climbers and developers in Northern Arizona. Colin’s stories and insights on the value of climbing shed light on the natural integration of climbing with life.
Thanks so much to Colin for sharing some pieces of his story and for all of his contributions to Northern Arizona climbing!
Check out some of his routes on Mt Elden at Mountain Project!
How were you introduced to climbing?
Around 88′, a high school friend named Andy took me and another friend up to Windy Point at Mount Lemmon. We top roped High Karate 5.7 and some steep 5.8 that went up the West side of Hitchcock Pinnacle. We rented climbing shoes from the Summit Hut on University Ave. He also took us out to Gates Pass boulders west of Tucson. Bouldering really felt natural to me. At the time I was deep into skateboarding, so the process of trying over and over until “sticking it” was already a huge part of my life. Falling off a boulder seemed pretty tame compared to launching myself off staircases at speed.
In 1991 I moved to Prescott to go to Prescott College. I didn’t take any outdoor education courses (rock climbing etc.) because I was already a year deep into Anthropology. I kept to the books in school, but I slowly began climbing more and more with friends and some instructors from PC. I fell in love with Groom Creek, and started bouldering there regularly. I climbed a lot at Thumb Butte, and occasionally tested my ability and nerve at Granite Mountain.
Who were some of your early climbing partners and mentors?
After graduating from PC, I moved to Flagstaff because I wanted to master snowboarding. I worked a season at Snowbowl, and then took a summer job working the front desk of the Kaibab Lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I formed a short lived climbing partnership with another guy who worked up there named Mike. Early that summer we went to Red Rocks and climbed Sunshine Slab. I was stoked and I imagined it was just the first of many routes we would do, but a week later Mike broke his ankle, and then lost his job on the North Rim. Mike breaking his ankle may have been the greatest influence on my climbing, because a few days later his replacement showed up…..Jimmy Symans.
Jimmy had a notorious reputation in Flagstaff for living fast, climbing hard, having the hand shake of the terminator, putting up routes of all kinds, and burning bridges. Jimmy told me that “Fred Beckey has more F.A.’s than anyone…but not for long.” But Jimmy’s psych was infectious. He immediately shared his intentions to climb new routes on the North Rim, and I, of course, would be his partner. We hatched a plan to climb a new route on a pinnacle in the canyon.
At first light Jimmy barges into my trailer, holds a loaded pipe up to my face, lights a lighter and starts chanting a song about “gonna start a coalition!…to ban the coalition!” Afterwards he quickly whips up 6 scrambled eggs and frosts them with salt. We eat in a matter of seconds, pack his Yamaha motorcycle with a rack and rope, and before the sun has risen we are dodging turkeys and deer on our way to Point Imperial.
Within a month of meeting Jimmy, I had ridden hundreds of miles on the back of a motorcycle, done my first first ascent, hand drilled my first bolt while hanging on a hook placed in a shallow sandstone pocket, and survived my first ground fall. For the first few months I knew Jimmy, I had a conversation with myself a lot about dying:
” If this is my time to die, then it must be my time. It’s not for me to decide.”
I developed and acted with a lot of faith that summer.
At the end of the season, with the money I saved, I bought a blue and white VW bus from Sean, the manager of the general store. We dropped off Jimmy’s motorcycle in Flag and hit the road with only vague plans of where we would go. Faith carried us to Jtree, Mexico, Enchanted Tower, and finally Durango, CO, where Jimmy and I parted ways as winter closed in. I hunkered down in my van for two winters working at Purgatory Ski Resort, while Jimmy bounced back and forth between Flag and Moab.
During my first summer in Durango I visited Jimmy in Moab, and climbed with a crew of developers there including Jimmy Dunn, Kevin Chase, Eric Decaria, Lisa Hathaway, Dave Medera, and others. They were developing Mill Creek at the time, and they happily showed me their new crags.
They even encouraged me to put up an F.A……a chossy hand crack lower in the canyon. This was yet another introduction to the mindset of new routing. I was lucky to have somehow wandered my way into this circle of “superheros” far from my home in Arizona.
After fully satisfying my snowboarding urges in Colorado, I got a little lonely and homesick, so I moved back to Prescott in 96′ to reconnect with my friends, and the Prescott region. I began climbing granite all the time again with my good friends Jefe Bret Harte, Matt Perlman, Jim Erdman, Aron Back, and others. I climbed a mix of stout trad at Granite Mountain, bouldering at Groom Creek, and a little sport climbing mixed in at areas like the Dells and the Promised land. We were always looking for the next new route or boulder problem, adding new routes to Groom Creek, Wolf Creek, Thumb Butte, Promised Land (Sanctuary), and the West Side of Granite Mountain.
I met my wife Helen in downtown Prescott in 1997. In 1998, we got a dog and named him Ty. We decided to move to Flagstaff in November of 98′ so Helen could finish her art degree at NAU. I waited tables at Beaver Street Brewery for years while Helen finished her degree. During the summers we would move out of our rental house and live in our vehicles to save money for climbing trips. Jimmy showed me this was not only possible….but preferable. Helen, Ty and I went on dozens of amazing climbing trips together to areas scattered throughout the west.
What experiences have shaped you most as a climber?
While in the Grand Canyon with Jimmy, I was trying an F.A. of a beautiful limestone crack in the kaibab layer at the top. I couldn’t pull this roof at 20 feet, so I simply let go, expecting my gear to hold. With a horrible noise 2 cams ripped. I missed a death blade of rock by inches, bounced off a slabby boulder, then flipped and tumbled another 30 feet down into the canyon before the rope came tight. I walked away with a bruised butt cheek, but a badly injured lead head.
I was tweaked for a while about it. I didn’t want to try any hard trad pitches. When Jimmy and I were dropping off his motorcycle in Flagstaff, we went up to West Elden for my first time. That S.O.B. recommended Middle Deception, which he called .9+. It took me right back to that crack in the canyon. Too proud to back off, I called on my faith once again, climbed past a single flared cam in the initial crux, and cruised to the top. Jimmy seemed to know exactly what I needed.
Skateboarding gave me a foundation for rock climbing. The creativity of street skating, and the agility and fear management developed by it, translated well into climbing…bouldering especially. I may not have the beautiful gifted body of BK, or Chris Sharma, but I can really put myself out there for some good sports action because of my experience skateboarding at a high level. Most people in Flagstaff don’t know that about me.
Growing up in the Sonoran desert around Tucson was another big influence on becoming a climber and first ascentionist. Exploring, hunting for animals, bushwacking through arroyos…alone….I did a lot of that as a kid.
On that note, I must give full credit to my parents for my development into a climber. When they told me as a child to do whatever I wanted to do in life….I’m not sure they had skating, snowboarding and rock climbing in mind…..maybe tennis. I clearly remember my Dad telling me I can “be whatever I want to be…a doctor…a policeman….a fireman..” and then he said in an even softer voice “or you could be a forest ranger.”
My Dad was a doctor and I think he was warning me away from those professions.
Who inspires you most as a climber?
If I had to pick a climbing hero….it’d be John Bachar. My friend Ren and I went to Jtree specifically to climb, either by lead or top rope, the routes that John Bachar used to solo on his circuits. It was an eye opener, and a good ego check. I saw my climbing was shit by comparison.
So I always wanted to climb as well as John Bachar.
Climbers who have had the biggest impact on my climbing life by sharing the rope or bouldering with me are my wife Helen Padilla, Jefe Bret Harte, Jimmy Symans, Matt Perlman, Jim Erdman, Ren Terkuile, Matt Hoch, David Bloom, and my boy Tyson.
What are some highlights of your climbing career?
The routes Jimmy and I did in the canyon were some of the most memorable. These climbing days had the full package, including riding back to the lodge through hail storms on a motorcycle.
-Climbing Sorcerer to Witblitz to Once in a Blue Moon Traverse at Granite Mountain with Bob Jensen in 97′.
-Climbing Epinephrin and Levitation 29 at Red Rocks, NV with Matty Perlman in 97′.
-Climbing Half Dome in 98′ with Jim Erdman and Todd Skaggs.
I’m a little ashamed to say that I have never had an epic. My partners and I were always well prepared for whatever route we chose, and we never tried anything very committing. The weather was good to us, and the loose rock fell to the side. Knock Knock.
How long have you been in N. AZ and what do you love about the climbing here?
I’ve been living in Flagstaff for the past 15 years. What I like the most about Flagstaff climbing is how close so many areas are to town. I like the simplicity of running out for a boulder circuit with nothing but shoes and chalk. I like hiking a loop over the top of Elden and then pointing out where I was from the coffee shop.
I started putting up climbs in Solitude Canyon (Mt Elden) because it’s logistically easy, and I could spend most of the day in the woods, and easily get to work for the evening shift. I love road trips, but you really can’t beat finding new routes right in your back yard, on cliffs you can see from town.
I like to think globally and climb locally.
Why put so much time and effort into developing routes? What do you look for when you put up new climbs?
I enjoy the process of discovery, cleaning, bolting and sending. I like to work hard. I take pride in the rope line created by the bolts I put in.
It’s an art form….. like building a house….you have to bust yer ass to build it, but when it’s done you get to enjoy it, and so do others.
I believe in all styles of climbing, and found that there were chunks of rock on Elden that offered excellent sport climbing. I decided to fill a niche that had been vacant since Secret Canyon fell off the radar. (Note: Secret Canyon was the site of early bolted climbing on Mt Elden in the 80’s and 90’s)
I’m not as interested in finding hard climbs as much as good ones.
Route quality is the most important thing to me….and having fun. Pushing the limits has its importance, but it’s definitely not my field of expertise. Finding a wall of enjoyable moderate classics would keep me plenty happy. On Elden, I really just wanted to reveal the potential of the scattered chunks of good stone on the mountain, and open up more local climbing challenges unique to Flagstaff.
The beauty and significance of these routes has less to do with how hard they are, or what style they are, and more to do with that they are what I found just up the hill in our back yard.
I am an urban climber that wants climbing to fit seamlessly into our modern lives.
I am just helping the rock express its potential, and developing a relatively safe, fun, efficient way for me and others to commune with the mountains.
What do you love about Flagstaff and what keeps you here?
The small town and its people, clean air, good water if filtered, the beautiful mountains, lots of open forest to roam with free camping everywhere, excellent varied bouldering and cragging close to town, snowboarding when it snows, mountain biking everywhere, seasons, few bugs, 1 day drive to loads of world class climbing areas, the list goes on….
Everyone knows it can be hard to survive in Flagstaff, but that is what makes the people here so unique.
People would rather struggle it out here than go to some random place where the jobs are. If you don’t value all the great things about Flagstaff, you’ll probably move somewhere else to make ends meet.
What are your passions outside of climbing?
For a long time all my passions were sport related, and most still are, but recently I have been wanting to branch off a bit and start creating art of some sort. Helen is a talented artist and she has taught me to appreciate the importance and value of art. I’m learning to play the drums, and am interested in playing music with friends and family. Both my brothers are skilled guitarists/musicians.
Helen and I have recently had the opportunity to build a new house here in Flagstaff. It’s been a two year project that is just now reaching completion. My climbing has really suffered in the past couple years due to my obsession with building this house. With climbing I’m used to having thoughts and plans and immediately executing them to my satisfaction(or at least trying and failing), but with the house I was doing 100 times more thinking, designing and planning, but I personally was not executing any of the ideas. I think the result was a buildup of stress hormones. Too much thought without action.
I used to do climbing sequences in my sleep, but the past couple years I have been lying awake at night contemplating some detail about the house design, worrying that there are flaws.
I am kind of a perfectionist.
Now that the house in nearly complete, I have been able to start doing the landscaping. It’s a huge relief. Now that there is action to my thoughts, I feel less stressed, healthier and happier. I’ve lost all my unwanted flab and I’m starting to have climbing dreams again. My problem now is that my body is so tired from working that trying to climb feels like I’m asking for an accident. Putting the final landscaping touches on the house is the perfect way for me to have cathartic closure on the whole project. I’m getting strong and I’m certain that when I get some good rest I will be climbing again as well as ever.
This house story reiterates something I have always understood about the value of climbing, skating, snowboarding etc….
The mind and body must work together.
Using one without the other can cause stagnation, or a foolish mistake (disease or accident).