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Rock Climbing Unaweep Canyon: Handholds & Hjelle


Thirty minutes outside Grand Junction, I followed Kris Hjelle up a steep mountainside toward the base of a solid granite wall in Unaweep Canyon. With each step, my heart rate quickened. I took a few deep breaths, trying to calm myself into a state of confidence.
“It’s only a 5.5 climb,” said Hjelle. “When’s the last time you were on a wall?”

A vision of my 12-year-old self, harnessed and scaling a boulder in Stoney Point in Los Angeles comes into view. In the memory, I saw my body being hoisted, more than actually climbing.
“It’s been a few years,” I said.

Upon reaching the wall, I waited at the bottom and watched Hjelle scale upward to set the rope. On the granite rock, her lean, long body moved effortlessly, and in minutes, the top rope was secured. She repelled down gracefully, a smile on her face.

“Your turn,” said Hjelle, and without further discussion she cinched my harness, and performed a last check on my carabineer and knots.

Hjelle (pronounced “yelly”) is the owner of Colorado Alpine & Desert Adventures. She’s guided tours for more than 20 years and has recorded first ascents on places like Devils Tower, Colorado National Monument and Dominguez Canyon. Hjelle’s expertise is the product of a lifetime of climbing experience.

I reminded myself of these facts: You’re in good hands. Hjelle is a professional. You’re not going to die. And then hoisted my body off the ground, placing my hands and feet against the cool, smooth rock.

The first portion of the climb passed easily. Holds were generous, solid and always within reach. But moving past the initial pitch, I approached a bigger, more technical wall. From the bottom, my eyes scaled upward and over its flat, smooth surface.

I paused for a moment and looked out at the Colorado landscape. The mountains across the valley were bathed in sunlight, a light breeze passed over my face, and a hawk soared above, at ease beneath an endless sky. I tried to breathe in some peace from the postcard surroundings, but my mind quickly returned to the task at hand.

Halfway up the second wall, 40 feet above ground now, the comforting holds have vanished. My fingers are scrunched together, the tips red and dusty and slipping. My clumsy feet are oversized, clinging — but just barely — to the tiny cracks below.

“You’re doing great,” said Hjelle. “Just swing your body around to the other side.”

There’s a 90-degree cut in the granite face and I’m left with no choice but to follow Hjelle’s instructions. I outstretched a leg blindly, forced to rely on feel alone. At first reach, there’s nothing but air, and the grip in my left hand has loosened even more.

I pictured how it would all play out. I would struggle for a few seconds more until my grip ultimately failed, then swing outward as I lost contact with the wall. Next would come the cinch of the harness between my legs, my body spinning around like a top on its last few rotations. And then finally, I would arrive at the last unavoidable step, my face-to-face encounter with an unforgiving slab of granite.

“A little farther, nice,” said Hjelle, “right there.”

Exhausted and out of ideas, my weight dropped onto the surface below my right foot and to my surprise, I’m not plummeting down. I moved forward on pure instinct, reached around and grasped another ledge. With one more move, my body rounded the face, and the end of the route came into sight.

I couldn’t head upward right away. First I had to stop, take a number of deep breaths, and let my heart rate fall. But with Hjelle below and the safety harness tight on my hip, there was only one option — keep on climbing.

The area around Grand Junction is full of excellent rock-climbing opportunities for any skill level. For a guided tour in the region, there is no one better than Kris at Colorado Alpine & Desert Adventures.

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