Choice City Cliffhanger

Oct 042009
Authors: Matt Minich

In the years leading up to 1991, small rock climbing anchors started appearing on the rock walls on the outside of Washington’s Sports Bar and Grill.

Local climbing legend Craig Luebben and Jon Shireman, the manager of the bar at the time, would spend hours drinking beer and figuring out new routes up the side of the building, then installing the anchors after it would close for the night.

They would spend the days bouldering the crags surrounding Horsetooth Reservoir. Over the years, they came to see the climbing areas as neglected by county land management, which at one point discarded construction waste in a gully commonly used by climbers.

Then, after returning from a bouldering competition in Phoenix at the turn of the decade, the two long-time climbers had an idea to bring climbing in the area to the forefront of county officials’ minds.

The result was the now-annual Horsetooth Hang, which turned 14 this year and was held Saturday in the memory of Luebben, who was killed in an ice climbing accident Aug. 7.

He had been climbing an ice route on Mount Torment, in Washington’s North Cascades National Park, when an automobile-sized chunk of ice broke free beneath him. Luebben fell 30 feet before being caught by his rope and was then hit by falling debris.

He died of injuries before help could arrive, leaving behind his wife, Silvia, 6-year-old daughter Giulia and a community of climbers who had read his words as an editor for Climbing Magazine and climbed his routes for decades.

Now, though no one has climbed on the bar’s walls in years, the anchors remain as a memorial to the adventurous spirit of one of the city’s most well-liked and prolific climbers.

Luebben had attended each of the 13 Horsetooth Hang festivals held during his lifetime.

“He was a regular fixture in the climbing community and was always out. Everyone knew Craig,” said Cameron Cross, Luebben’s close friend and president of the Northern Colorado Climber’s Coalition, or NC3.

Cross wrote an obituary for Luebben that ran in this month’s edition of Climbing Magazine. He described his longtime friend and climbing partner as not only a talented climber but a source of encouragement for Fort Collins climbers of all abilities.

“From the time he started climbing to the day that he died, he spent a lot of time getting people into climbing,” Cross said.

Shireman agreed.

“His death was a real loss to the climbing community and to humanity,” he said. “He was a good, good person.”

Saturday morning, climbers gathered at Rotary Park, a popular climbing area on the east shore of Horsetooth Reservoir, to pay tribute to Luebben in the only way they knew how.

Hundreds of climbers from Fort Collins and across the state celebrated the 14th Hang, where they climbed the smooth Dakota Sandstone boulders that Luebben had devoted so much of his time to protecting.

They climbed them in neon spandex.

Rotary Park is an undecorated collection of boulders, short cliffs and shrubs for most of the year. At the Hang, the area was converted to a brightly colored carnival.

In tents at the area’s parking lot, vendors offered demos of climbing shoes, backpacks and other equipment while volunteers belayed climbers on the boulders and cliffs below.

Though most routes in the area are typically climbed without ropes, the NC3, which organized the event, roped many of the routes in the competition for safety reasons. While some veteran climbers considered the ropes a nuisance, others lauded the decision as part of the NC3’s efforts to create a safe and friendly atmosphere.

“They’re trying to get the ego out of it, and I 100 percent support that,” said Nick Zepeda, a 25-year-old from Thornton. Zepeda has been competing in indoor climbing competitions for 10 years. This year’s Hang was his first outdoor climbing competition.

The absence of stiff competition is now an essential aspect of the Hang, which originated as a standard climbing competition with large cash prizes for the victors.

The priorities of the festival now revolve around community involvement and stewardship, and participants are rewarded for picking up the most trash as well as for climbing the hardest routes.

“I don’t really feel a competitive vibe about anything,” said Carlo Traversi, a climber with the Five Ten climbing equipment team.

Corbin Freeman, a senior recreation and tourism and Spanish major, praised the event as a rare opportunity bringing the Fort Collins climbing community together around preserving what has become known as an essential climbing area to the community.

“I feel like people definitely care about the area,” Freeman said.

At an after-party at Hodi’s Half Note, climbers enjoyed free pizza and beer donated by New Belgium Brewery. NC3 members raffled off climbing gear and gave out prizes to the winners in each category – those who picked up the most trash and the winners of a karaoke contest.

Climber Mark Wilford, who is widely recognized as one of the premiere alpine climbers in the world, returned from an expedition in the Himalayas to deliver a slide show including pictures of himself and Luebben on a climbing trip to Madagascar years ago.

NC3 members held an auction for a climbing rope. Proceeds went to the Craig Luebben Memorial Fund, which will provide money for Luebben’s wife and daughter.

Cross wiped away tears at the party while encouraging those who knew Luebben to tell Giulia any stories they had of him.

When asked if Luebben would be satisfied with this year’s Hang, the first festival held without him, Shireman smiled and nodded.

“He would be psyched,” he said.

Senior Reporter Matt Minich can be reached at

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