If you've ever had the privilege of visiting the peculiar West Fork Cimarron Valley in the Northern San Juan Mountains, Chimney Rock has likely caught your eye. If you haven't – do it. This is one of my favorite places in the state.
Despite its stature as the lowest summit in the area, little Chimney Rock's unique and striking character more than compensates for the shortcoming. All sides of the 400+ foot summit tower are nearly vertical and they're capped by a small, flat summit plateau. The composition of the tower is perhaps even more interesting: a dirty conglomerate of questionable integrity that is most definitely not sought out by the typical rock climber looking for a quality climb. WARNING: Scrambling and climbing on Chimney Rock can be a dangerous undertaking to say the least and I do not recommend it.
The only known route to the top of Chimney Rock utilizes a chimney system on the south side and is comprised of three 5.6 pitches on highly suspect rock. It was first climbed way back in 1934 by Ormes. Checking out this oddity has been on our to-do list for several years now and last weekend when we consulted our “peaks worth climbing” list for something to do its straw was finally drawn.
The short approach begins with an easy walk along an old road and culminates with minor routefinding and scrambling (brief low 5th class) up the amphitheater system south of the summit tower. The key seems to be to start at the far right side of the amphitheater, climb past the initial difficulties, traverse back left under the summit tower and deeper into the amphitheater, then continue more or less straight up to the saddle overhead. Here is where we get our first taste of the unusual rock we'll be coming to terms with today. Large, smooth pebbles are imbedded in a cement which seems to vary from solid to chossy. Like nothing I've ever climbed on. Holds aplenty but will they stay put? Its a game of experimentation.
Soon we reach the saddle south of the summit tower and traverse to the start of the massive chimney. The route couldn't be more obvious from here. We gear up and I timidly start up the first pitch. I'm unhappy with the completely unprotectable 5.6 overhang near the start and it doesn't help my head when a foothold blows as I'm pulling over it. No big deal as I have several other good points of contact but its enough to freak me out. The next section looks harder and more committing so I tuck tail and have Dominic lower me off a pair of nuts. The seasoned veteran takes over the lead for the remainder of the climb.
The climbing on each pitch is never harder than 5.6 but it takes some time and nerves to build confidence in the bizarre rock, especially after hearing stories of holds blowing and people decking. Despite the conglomerate's creepy appearance it actually proves to be shockingly solid in many places. Still, its hard to not envision those dang pebbles popping out.
The second pitch has the added bonus of dripping water and lush green moss. This is the crux pitch but its only marginally harder than the other two.
Finally by the third pitch I feel considerably more comfortable. Chimney Rock is a good place to hone and test your delicate climbing skills, if there is one. Stemming and pushing in on the cobbles instead of pulling on them often proves be the best tactic. Whatever you do climb lightly! And remember to stay out of the line of fire as much as possible while belaying because small rocks WILL come whizzing down.
After the 3rd pitch the chimney ends rather abruptly and we find ourselves on the surreal summit plateau. Its not flat like it appears from afar, but a complicated jumble of rock.
We leave the ropes behind and begin scrambling the short distance to the highpoint but we're soon stopped by a deep gash that requires a highly exposed step-across sequence. Dominic solos over it while I go back to the top of the chimney to retrieve one of our ropes. A belay seems worthwhile here.
The summit register is sadly defunct, empty with its lid off for no apparent reason. The views of the Cimarron are inspiring as usual but we don't linger long since the cookies are back at the base of the chimney. Reversing the route two double rope rappels, one from the top of P3 and one from the top of P2, get us down quickly. Rock fall is unavoidable.
Some parties report rappelling portions of the amphitheater approach but downclimbing our ascent route seems plenty reasonable and certainly the most efficient option. We arrive back at the car by early afternoon and Dunsinane is calling our names...