If there was a Mount Rushmore of all-around rock climbing in Colorado, Steve Mammen’s mug would be in the running for one of the four chisels. In the heyday of ticking aid lines and putting up new FAs, Mammen was at the forefront of the heady, balls-to-the-wall ethos surging through Eldorado Canyon. With FAs such as Perilous Journey (very spooky 5.11d in 1975) and Krystal Klyr (very, very spooky 5.11b, also established in 1975), he cleared the constipation problems of many a strong man and woman. Closer to the deck, he also authored some of the classic, intricate, and difficult boulder problems of the day. In Eldo, he shunned the nay-sayers across the country by crushing the “that will never be done” blank slate that he later named Never Say Never (V9/V10/V11?…he never graded it), on the Milton Boulder in Eldo. He went on to establish classics at Horsetooth Reservoir, Morrison, and other Front Range hot spots. Calling Mammen a legend is not hyperbole. It’s not ass-kissing. It is exactly what it is.
Thomas Betterton, on the other hand, is a new school guy with some new school digs. In June of 2009, along with Lee Payne and Kevin Brown, he opened the newest bouldering temple in Denver, called the Denver Bouldering Club (denverboulderingclub.com). This ain’t your momma’s climbing gym, however. The DBC stands out among its competitors as the only 24/7 climbing gym in Colorado (or anywhere else?). With a one-time fee, members are given a door code and free reign, lending pebble wrestlers the convenience of pulling on plastic whenever the mood strikes them. Members often set their own routes. They work out with Dave Wahl’s monster punishment machine, Athlet’k Spe sif:k, a training company that whips even the greenest of gumbies into galloping send horses. The DBC stands as a new paradigm in the indoor gym galaxy.
On February 20th, 2010, Mammen (SM) and Betterton (TB) joined Mike Brooks (MB) and Krys “Smokey” Obrzut (S) on the talk-radio show ClimbTalk in the KVCU 1190 AM studios for a half hour chat about all things climbing. Read on and take care of those sweating tips!
MB: Welcome to ClimbTalk. My name is Mike Brooks and we’re here with climbing legend Steve Mammen and Thomas Betterton, the owner of the Denver Bouldering Club. And I’m here with my co-host, of course, Smokey. Smokey, what’s happening?
S: Good evening folks. Welcome to ClimbTalk.
MB: So, I imagine you haven’t been climbing, because it’s been snowy. Well, you go to The Spot [Bouldering Gym], right?
S: The Spot seems to be a good place to show up these days. Wintertime.
MB: You didn’t go to the competition at the Boulder Rock Club tonight?
S: How was that, tonight?
MB: That was great, dude. They put on a great show, 100 competitors, great turn-out, great schwag. Great competition. Good job to the Boulder Rock Club. Now, Thomas, you own the Denver Bouldering Club. What’s that all about?
TB: It is a gym in downtown Denver, and the concept behind it was to create a gym that is geared towards people who want to train and focus on climbing; somebody who really is motivated and wants to see how far they can push themselves.
MB: Steve Mammen, legendary climber, did you ever think it would come to this from 30 years ago – all the climbing gyms and what-have-you?
SM: 30 years ago, no. I would say…pretty surprising…pretty surprising. I actually worked a little bit with Jeff Lowe and we did build some walls and I definitely had the idea this could definitely take off and could get pretty big. You know, the gyms were much simpler then, but still they were a lot of fun. It definitely allowed for a lot more climbing to be done in a shorter period of time.
MB: I was talking to everyone outside the studio earlier, and it came to my attention that climbing potentially might be in the Olympics. What’s your take on that, Steve?
SM: I don’t know. Competitions have been around for quite awhile, if you look at Europe competitions are pretty popular. It’s pretty different than the way we took climbing back in the day. When I started climbing, the orientation was more towards mountaineering. And mountaineering isn’t really a competitive sport. It’s more of a life-style or a way of life. Yeah, it’s definitely turned from a way of life into a sport.
S: How would you feel about seeing climbing in the Olympics?
TB: It’s probably a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s going to give all of the top athletes in the world more exposure and a chance to actually make money off of it. I mean, there are a lot of people who are world class climbers right now who basically live in their cars and have trouble making ends meet on a day-to-day basis. It would give them a lot more chance to have sponsors and to actually pursue the sport they love. On the other hand, it might put more focus on that competitive aspect of it. Get people farther away from outdoor climbing and less pursuing climbing for the fun of it and more turning it into their career.
MB: Do you have any competitions at your gym, Thomas?
TB: We haven’t had a competition yet. We’re talking about doing it. We’re still pretty new, so the focus was to get the gym off the ground. I think it’s something we’re going to look at for the future.
MB: The Denver Bouldering Club, you guys do things a little different down there. Tell us about that.
TB: We do a couple things differently. First, I think we’re one of the only gyms that is completely oriented towards members. Most gyms have whatever percentages from their members, then they have good business from people coming in for day passes, and then other groups and events, corporate team building, cub scout/birthday party kind of stuff. We’re completely focused on our members. All of our business comes from our members. Another thing that is different about us is we give our members the keys to the kingdom. When they sign up for a membership they get a six digit code and can come to the gym whenever they want, 24 hours a day. It works really good [sic] for people who have weird schedules. We have a couple medical students that come at strange hours, 2/3 in the morning, and then some people with families who can only come climb between 7 and 9 am. It gives them the ability…whatever they want. And then probably the third thing that sets us different is we have “member set nights.” So most of the route-setting we do, we’ll invite all of our members to come in and either fore-run problems, set their own problems, just make fun of our problems. It gives us a really good variety of all sorts of different problems. It really gets the members involved in everything we’re doing with the gym.
S: Those are really fantastic ideas.
TB: Oh, thank you!
S: How long has that been up and running?
TB: We opened on June 10th, so that puts us about 8 months now.
MB: So, website, where are your locations, phone number…?
TB: We’re located just off 6th and I-25, so right outside of downtown Denver. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we also have our website, denverboulderingclub.com.
MB: How are your prices, Thomas?
TB: Our prices are pretty competitive. I think what really set us apart is we have a joining fee, when people sign up for a membership they have to pay a $75 joining fee, and then they have to either agree to sign up for six months or twelve months. That is because of the 24 hour access; we need people to buy into the gym. It’s a lot more like joining a club and becoming part of something than just, “Hey, I’m going to get a membership to a climbing gym.” The cost of it is $75 for the joining fee, and then if you sign up for a year its $55 a month, and for six months its $65 a month. So, on a month-in basis, it’s pretty comparable to your average climbing gym, we just have that up-front cost to get people to earn their 24 access, so to speak.
MB: So, nothing like the old days, eh, Steve?
SM: No. Totally different, for sure. You know, I can remember building gyms in our garages back in the 80s and making handholds out of wood. We could see that it was definitely a way to get stronger.
MB: You were part of some of the early ascents, things like Perilous Journey and Krystal Klyr up on Mickey Mouse, southwest of Eldorado springs, and also Never Say Never, in Eldorado, on the Milton Block. Tell us about that ascent.
SM: Everybody has walked by it a million times, it was right there on the Milton Boulder, it was this blank face. There was actually an article in Outside Magazine that commented…they had a list of five or ten things that would never be done. Some mountain face, I think it was actually the Lhotse Face, which has been climbed. And then they mentioned this blank face on Milton. And I was like, “Well, you know, I hate to use the word ‘never.’” So, I had looked at it, and I actually read the article in Outside. I was recovering from a motorcycle accident and I was like, “That’s a good reason to get back into shape and get going.” I was living on Table Mesa, so it was pretty easy access, so I was going to Eldorado every day to go bouldering – so I just started working on it. It was kind of a joke to begin with. But, I started seeing moves and figured out some sequences and eventually it went…
MB: I have to ask, did you put that together ground up, or did you put the parts together?
SM: Actually, the way that we did it, I figured out the top part first off of a trash can that was right there.
MB: It used to be there.
SM: We dragged the trash can over to stand on it, and then I did the top part off of the trash can. It was the first couple moves that were the difficult ones, so I started working on that ground up.
MB: And I heard Dave Graham recently climbed that and he rated it harder than V10 – V11/12, is that correct, Smokey?
MB: V11, although that’s not that hard, in the grand scheme of things. I think Never Say Never is a little harder than that. What do you think, Thomas?
TB: Well, it’s kind of interesting, because you gave it a V9, right, originally?
SM: No, I never rated it. Somebody else rated it.
MB: Why didn’t you rate it, Steve?
SM: I guess when I did it, I sort of had my own rating system, which was basically comparing it to the problems that I had done. So, my rating system was: it was the hardest thing that I had done. That’s about it. It was harder than the other problems I had done. It was different than the other problems, because it was just a slab climb. It’s not overhanging, it can be considered pure slab. You know, I just never came up with a rating system.
MB: You did the first ascents of climbs like Perilous Journey and Krystal Klyr back in the 70s. Take us back to that time. What was it like; what was the mindset like?
SM: It was much simpler. It was a much smaller climbing community. Climbing with Dave [Beashears] and the routes that we did…he was pretty intense and the routes were pretty scary. Those particularly were pretty poorly protected. You know, the gear wasn’t as good back then and so it was always an adventure.
MB: So, climbing with Dave Beashears was an adventure. You guys were part of the [scene], back in the 70s, when the thing to do was to free old aid lines. Is that true?
SM: Yeah. You know, that was actually more prestigious, for a short period of time in Eldorado, than doing new routes. It wasn’t that difficult to wander Eldorado and find a line that hadn’t been climbed.
MB: That’s true.
SM: But there was [sic] a limited number of aid routes that were being freed, so there was almost a feeding frenzy of doing aid routes back then. The Naked Edge had been done… You’d look through the guide books trying to find some aid route that Ament had done and you’d definitely focus on that. About the time that Jules Verne was done, there weren’t many left. And then, the focus shifted to doing new routes.
MB: Jules Verne is a 6 or 7 aid pitch climb in Eldorado that was a test piece for a long time.
SM: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what it was considered, aid-wise. I think it was an A4 or something like that…I’m not sure. But, there was just a really blank section that there was no protection. I guess they probably hooked it back then in the day, so maybe it would’ve been A5. Steve Wunsch was working on it pretty hard, and he was doing it real methodical, not taking falls; climbing up, down-climbing, climbing up, down-climbing. And everybody had their eye on it – Wunsch was really close. Dave wanted to try it and I remember Dave asking Steve, “Do you mind if I try it?” And Wunsch was like, “Yeah, I do mind. You know, I’m pretty close, here.” It may have even been that day, that Dave kind of stormed off and goes, “We’re going up to Mickey Mouse and we’re gonna do a new route up there.”
MB: “We’re going to do something big up there.”
SM: Right. That was almost the day that the pursuit of aid routes ended and the transition to doing first ascents took over…
MB: So, Jules Verne, that was one of the last big aid pitches in Eldorado to go down. After that period, did you trend or stray away from trad climbing towards bouldering? Would that be correct?
SM: Yeah. I mean, I always had a passion for bouldering. I always liked it. I always considered it separate. I never really thought of it as doing training for routes. To me, it had its own beauty to it. So, Dave was really into crack climbing, and I was not a crack climber. He was going out to the Valley to do some crack climbing, and I could tell that something was up. He was kind of sheepish about it. He wasn’t inviting me to the Valley to go do crack climbs, and I was very relieved of that. I am not a big crack climber.
MB: Because you weren’t a star crack climber.
SM: No, I’m not at all. I had no problems stepping away from some extremely painful finger crack.
MB: Back in the seventies – I think I can say this, I think we talked about this before – if you were a Front Range climber or a Boulder climber, you didn’t really need to be a great crack climber. Is that true?
SM: Well, everybody did their pilgrimages to the Valley. There were some crack climbs up in the [Rocky Mountain National] Park, like Lumpy Ridge. But yeah, I like sandstone. I can remember going to the South Platte with Dave, and there’s a 5.12 finger crack that he led, at the base of Wunsch’s Dihedral, I think. He led it, trad style, putting silly old nuts in this thing, hanging on 5.12 finger jams. And I got up there a couple of moves, and I’m trying to hang on, I’m trying to pull this gear out, and it was like, “I’m stepping off. I don’t want to trash my fingers for this.” And back then, it was considered unethical to tape. So, if you had tape on your fingers it wasn’t considered an ascent.
MB: What do you think, Smokey?
S: I think taping is perfectly ethical!
MB: You do? Good point. You know, ethics in our sport – climbing – the ethics change and we’ve all seen that. What’s your take on that, Thomas?
TB: I think that climbing is a really wide-ranging sport, with bouldering being the complete micro-end of the spectrum, and mountaineering and alpinism being the macro-end of it. The neat thing about it is it really gives everyone to find their own personal niche and what they like the most about climbing. It seems like it evolves over the years, what people admire right now. If you can do really hard sport climbs and really hard boulder problems, that’s an admirable thing. Back in the day, it had a lot more to do with doing things that were dangerous and the risk associated with it. It seems to kind of go back and forth in what people are into. It’s just neat that you can pursue whatever you want and there are so many different types of climbing, that whatever you want to push yourself at, you can do.
MB: What kind of climbing do you like, Smokey?
S: I don’t legislate my climbing. Any and all climbing is good climbing.
MB: Very good answer. So Thomas, in the Denver Bouldering Club, I understand you guys have some good coaches. Tell us about that.
TB: We have Dave Wahl, with Athlet’k Spe sif:k [www.athletikspesifik.com] training.
MB: What’s that mean, Athlet’k Spe sif:k training?
TB: That’s just the name of his company, but what he does, he’s a strength coach. Strength coaching is very similar to personal training, only rather than just having the ultimate goal of fitness, it’s to get better at a specific sport. So, the Denver Nuggets have a strength coach that works out all of their players with the idea of getting better at basketball. Dave does the same thing with the idea of getting better at climbing. He does two different types of training. One of them is a general conditioning, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a general conditioning circuit that involves a lot of core, cardio, stretching – just getting yourself in overall better shape. It really helps with your endurance, and how long you can climb during a day. And then he does a climbing specific circuit that focuses a lot on climbing specific movement. So, he has a campus board and then a systems wall with an adjustable angle. He runs people through a lot of different climbing movements and technique things. And then he has this sports software called Dartfish. What he does, he’ll video tape somebody doing something, say, a campus move. Sometimes you’ll try and do a campus move and it feels easy, you can go two rungs higher. And then other times you’ll try the same move and it’ll feel impossible. What Dave can do with this software is actually over-lay the two images of you trying to campus, and really clearly point out the, “Here’s the difference, when you did this correctly, you know, you were turning your whole body, you were picking your knees up, and you were letting go right at the very top of your pull. When you did it poorly, it was a completely different story.” And he can also take someone who’s a really good climber, someone who boulders V13/V14, over-lay an image of them campusing on top of you campusing, and say, point blank, “Here’s the difference.” Because it’s not all strength. There’s a lot of subtle stuff that good climbers do to make it easier for them that’s really hard to explain. But when you can actually watch the videotape of yourself doing it, it really helps with improving technique.
MB: You’re listening to ClimbTalk on KVCU Boulder. My name is Mike Brooks, and along with Smokey, we’re talking to legendary climber Steve Mammen and the owner of the Denver Bouldering Club, Thomas Betterton. Smokey, what should we talk about now, [with] our guests?
S: Well, I’ve heard that Steve does some amazing woodworking. I’d like to ask him about that. I’ve seen some of it personally, but how that all happens is kind of a mystery.
SM: There’s no mystery to it, it’s just a whole lot of hard work. Actually, in high school I started as a framer, and all I did really was supplement my ability to climb. So, jobs were easy to get. I’d go out and get a framing job for a couple of months, and that allowed me to climb for the next six months. I didn’t particularly like it, but it worked with the lifestyle. And then it turned into, from framing, into interior finish. But in the back of my mind I always wanted a cabinet shop. It took me a long time to get there, but finally I have my cabinet shop. It’s worked out really well, supplementing the time between cabinet-making and climbing. It’s a good pursuit.
MB: Cabinet shop? Do you have a website? How can people learn more?
SM: No, I don’t have a website.
S: He’s plenty busy.
SM: Yeah, I’m plenty busy, and it’s all word of mouth.
MB: I see. Now, my old radio partner and I used to ask our guests, “Tell us an exciting, adventure, dramatic story. Let’s hear a really exciting, dramatic, climbing-related story.” What do you got, Steve?
SM: I can remember…there was one time, and we got the idea from Pat Ament. He used to ride freight trains. There was one time when we got the idea that we were going to ride freight trains out to the Valley.
MB: Were you guys kids, college kids?
SM: We were in college, yeah. And so, it was summer, and I had talked to Pat a little bit about riding the rails, and stuff. And we got the basic ropes, what to look out for. So, we actually sent our gear with somebody else. Then, we got our hobo packs and our old clothes on, and went down to the rail yards in Denver. It took us five days of riding freight trains, but we finally made it to the Valley. It was a pretty good adventure. We met some very interesting people on the way.
MB: A train straight to the Valley?
SM: No, we ended up having to hitchhike. I think we got to Merced, or something, I can’t remember. And then we got a ride into the Valley. I was really happy to see my climbing gear and shed the train-riding clothes. It’s a hard way to do it.
MB: What about you, Thomas? The pressure’s on you…let’s hear it.
TB: I don’t know if I can top that, as far as the hobo train-riding. I’ll throw out my bouldering story, because I think that’s the best I can do. When I first moved back to Colorado, I started going to the alpine areas a lot. It was made very clear to me that every time I go I should prepare for a mountain storm. So, I’d always bring rain gear with me. But it never really rained; I think I got really good luck the first dozen or so times I went up into the mountains. And then one of the second or third times I ever went to Mount Evans, we were up at Area B, and all I brought with me was the tee shirt and shorts that I was wearing. Beautiful, beautiful sunny day, and just randomly the temperature dropped to about, maybe, 35 degrees, and it started pouring rain. After about an hour we realized it wasn’t going to stop, so we just started walking out. It was about an hour and a half hike, and I was so cold by the end of it. It was the first time in my life I really understood how people could die of hypothermia, because I got so cold all I wanted to do was just stop hiking and lay down and take a nap. But I knew that was a really bad idea, so I just kept walking until I got back to my car. Yeah, I guess you can have epic times bouldering, too.
MB: Mount Evans, that’s a cool little bouldering area, west of Denver?
TB: Yup, it’s up just by Idaho Springs. There’s actually a road that goes all the way to the top of Mount Evans. It’s a great place.
S: Is that Guanella Pass?
TB: No, it’s a little bit before Guanella Pass. Guanella Pass goes up right about at Georgetown; it goes over to [Highway] 285, and then a few miles before that is another road that goes all the way up to Mount Evans. It’s a great place, if you have a family member coming to town, you can drive to the top and see an amazing view. But there’s actually, if you park at Summit Lake or the Chicago Lakes area, you can hike in and – it’s a long walk – but some really amazing boulders in an amazing setting.
S: I’m going to have to try that out.
MB: You’ve never been up to Mount Evans?
S: Never been bouldering up there.
MB: It’s great granite. Great stone.
TB: It’s so beautiful, even if there wasn’t climbing up there, it would be worthy to go up there and just hang out and have a picnic. And the fact that there is amazing boulder climbs right there, it’s a huge plus.
MB: So, Thomas, Denver Bouldering Club, what’s the future hold for the gym?
TB: We have a lot of short-term, over-the-next-year kind of improvements that we’d like to do, as far as adding on to our walls a little bit, beefing up the floor, and having some more creature comforts around the gym, just to make it more pleasant.
MB: Like showers and what-have-you?
TB: Yeah, I think maybe getting some lockers and some showers. I mean, we really kind of just opened the gym with the hope that if we built something that would be a cool place, that the community would like, that we would get all the support we’d need to improve it and keep making it better. So, that’s kind of our focus right now.
MB: Did you really, in your wildest imagination, ever think your gym would be so warmly received?
TB: No, you know, I didn’t. I knew that there were a lot of friends that I had that would be really excited to have it. The thing that really overwhelmed me is the number of people that I’d never met in my life that came and signed up for memberships instantly. We opened in the middle of June, we only had a few hundred holds when we first opened, and there were people that came in…I literally had people on the verge of tears telling me about how much this was going to change their lives. Somebody who I’d never met before who signed up during our opening house said that this was amazing and that they just had one complaint. I was really interested to hear what their feedback was, and they said, “You should have done this two years ago.” It meant a lot to me to see that many people really get behind an idea.
SM: I’d like to make a comment. You had talked earlier about the training, and I think that’s a really good idea. When I started climbing, basically what we did was bouldering; and we bouldered hard, as often as we could. The overall conditioning – we didn’t know anything about overall conditioning. Consequently, over the years, a lot of scar tissue develops, and that overall conditioning helps alleviate that. I think that if young climbers today can focus on overall conditioning and not just focus on the super-intense bouldering, their careers could be extended quite a bit.
MB: So, when you say “overall conditioning,” is that like saying “strengthen your core?”
TB: I think it’s really strengthening everything. At one point, training for climbing meant taking a bunch of bricks and putting them into a bag and then running as far as you could. I think that it’s gotten really far past that. I mean, there’s a lot of exercises you can do to work other muscles that you don’t use climbing, your push muscles that just kind of balance out your body. If you get that balance you can prevent a lot of elbow injuries and shoulder injuries and things like that. Having a strong core can keep you from having to do more with your fingers and can really prevent a lot of injuries just being in overall better shape.
S: That’s an excellent point, training in all directions, you know, snowboarding, running, hiking, all these things help…
MB: Very well put.
TB: Absolutely. I mean, climbing’s a really specific sport, all you’re doing is pulling and pulling and pulling, and you can get really out of balance and that’s a really good recipe to get injured.
SM: Absolutely. You can’t take your kids, drop them off at the climbing gym, and then go pick them up and send them on their way…they’re going to get injured. That overall conditioning, I think, really needs to happen.
TB: Yeah. The stuff that Dave’s doing is really impressive. Obviously, there’s a focus on the actual climbing strength that you need. You need to be able to campus and do pull-ups and all of that….
MB: Dave Graham, you mean?
TB: Dave Wahl.
MB: Oh, Dave Wahl, Athlet’k Spe sif:k.
TB: So, he does focus on a lot more, “Make sure you do moves the right way,” focusing on technique, building up your knees, and just strengthening your overall body to keep yourself healthy.
MB: Steve, you have kids. Do you promote climbing for them? What’re your thoughts on that?
SM: My daughter Caitlin, she had interests in climbing, and I always encouraged her. But her real passion was running, and so we always encouraged her to do the running thing.
MB: What do you got to add, Smokey?
S: Well, I think that about wraps up our show.
MB: This is ClimbTalk on KVCU Boulder. We’ve been chatting with the legendary climber Steve Mammen and the owner of the Denver Bouldering Club, Thomas Betterton. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us.
TB/SM: Thank you.
After the show…
S: Was it easy to get set up for your gym?
TB: I mortgaged my house.
TB: Yeah, it was horrifying actually.