The Watch Crystal
A Brief History of rock climbing on Durango's classic cliff.
by Timmy Kuss
DISCLAIMER: As recent poly-socio events clearly demonstrate, it is important that history be remembered and documented accurately. One man’s fun is another man’s horror show. This author has relied on anecdotes from aging climbers who likely didn’t see their accomplishments as notable or different from whatever they did the next day. This author’s memory for names, dates and events has proven unreliable, generally. Events represented here should be considered lore- that is- part history, part legend.
Select Routes from left to right:
Evolution, 5.11b, 90'. FA: Tim Kuss, Dan Foster, 1992.
Crime & Punishment, 5.11a, 150'. FA: Tim Kuss, John Duran, 1984.
Durangutan, 5.10c, 190'. FA: Ken Trout, 1980.
Jailhouse Monkeys (On Dope), 5.12a, 165'. Tim Kuss, Peter Day, 1992.
Apes of Wrath, 5.10, 100'. FA: Jim Kossin, Mark Katz, 1993.
Watch Crystal Crack, 5.10d, 190'. FA: John Byrd, et al. Early 1970's.
Simians to the Sun, 5.9+, 120'. FA: Bruce Lella, 1981.
Primate Highway, 5.11a, 65'. FA: Bruce Lella, 1987.
The Kong Route, 5.11c, 140'. FA: Tim Kuss, 1993.
The Black Arete, 5.8r/x, 40'. FA: David Kozak, 1985.
Chronology of Events:
Watch Crystal Crack: First climbed via aid in 1974. Not long after, Steve Wunsch, one of the top climbers in the country at the time, was in town repping a line at Pine Needle Mountaineering. Peter Jamieson lead Wunsch to believe the route had already been completed without the use of aid. After reportedly “hiking” the crux pitch (5.10+) with ease, Wunsch repeatedly queried Jamieson, suspicious of the scary upper pitch (5.8), which was relatively easy and had been free-climbed many times over.
Durangutan: Bolted mostly on rappel in 1980 by Ken Trout. John Duran and Tim Kuss added a bolt to the direct finish in 1983. At first a heady endeavor, the route has been through several rounds of retro-bolting by the first ascent party and others.
Simians to the Sun: The moderate classic route on the Watch Crystal. Bolted on lead in 1981 by Bruce Lella.
Crime and Punishment: Originally bolted on rappel by Tim Kuss and John Duran in 1984 with five split-shank, 1/4” x 1-1/2” bolts branching off pitch 1 of Durangutan. It was a terrifying route to lead. Three more bolts were added to the start soon after. The climb has since been modernized with more and better hardware.
Primate Highway: In the mid-late 1980’s Bruce Lella returned to Durango after moving to Mammoth, CA and added this stout first pitch to the wall.
The Black Arete: In the mid ‘80’s Dave Kozak was a poor college student and a bold climber. From the ground-up, Kozak established the route on-sight, with no bolts! 30 years later, the overall attitude regarding the use of drilled hardware to protect climbs has become liberal. Being virtually unprotected, Kozak (now a professor at the college) liked the idea of seeing his route get bolts so that more climbers could enjoy it. He encouraged a well-intended student to finish the job. As the lad started drilling, horrified voices from below shouted him down. Many climbers who have done the route in its original state were very proud of the boldness required to lead it, and they weren’t going to let their experience become devalued by the addition bolts.
Apes of Wrath: Bolted on rappel in the early 1990’s by Jim Kossin and Mark Katz with a power drill. Kossin recalls, “Mark and I hiked back to the car and found a note on the windshield. Some guy had already threatened to chop the newly installed bolts from the route! We were really pissed off about this anonymous note and that’s where the name Apes of Wrath came from.”
Jailhouse Monkeys (On Dope): Bolted on lead by Tim Kuss and Peter Day after getting arrested in Utah on their way to Yosemite in the early 90’s. The route intersects the original finish to Durangutan at the shared last bolt. (full story at durangorockclimbing.com)
The Kong Route: Bolted on rappel in the early 90’s by Tim Kuss. The route intersects The Black Arete for a short distance where the bolts refrain, in deference to the previously established route.
Evolution: Bolted on lead by Dan Foster and Tim Kuss in the early 1990’s. Later re-bolted to be conveniently climbed from the ground.
In the mid 1970’s, there were just a handful of climbers in Durango; those who climbed at X- Rock and sometimes at the almost forgotten cliffs at Lightner Creek. No one seems to remember who the first climbers were to explore the comparatively grand crags of East Animas. More than likely, it was exactly those who can’t remember, climbers like Peter Jamieson, then a student at Fort Lewis, who recalls “The interesting thing about East A [Animas] in the ‘70s was that nobody really knew what had been done or when. At least a couple of times we thought we were doing a first ascent only to find a rusty piton half way up. Did they rappel off? Did they complete the route and leave the pin? Who were “they”?”
Such is the history, where Durango climbers complied with an ethos of climbing in the moment, without thought for posterity. They climbed well without sticky rubber or cams; humility and understatement were common. There was no internet, Mountain Project or other digital venues for which to spray about the radness of your most recent ascent. It was the climbing shops where folks shared information, found partners, and partook in all manner of climbing geekery.
In the early 1970’s, John Byrd ran the Fall Line shop, which was on College Drive near 8th Avenue. Bringing experience from the California scene, Byrd, with partners Tom Norton, John Ritchey and the late Rob Blair (all profs at Fort Lewis) were surely among the first climbers to visit East Animas, completing early aid ascents of the now classic Watch Crystal Crack.
During that period, Mel Matis opened Pine Needle Mountaineering and hired Peter Jamieson, who with partners like Bub Smith, Mike Borga and Mark Dalen, plucked several classic first ascents at East Animas, including the fabled sandbagging of Steve Wunsch for the first ascent of The Watch Crystal Crack without the use of aid.
Later in the ‘70’s, Bruce Lella was working at Gardenswartz and Ken Trout was a student at the college. With these two ultra-talented climbers, Durango climbing standards jumped at least a notch, if not five. With Trout’s addition of Durangutan in 1980 and Lella’s Simians to the Sun in 1981, the Watch Crystal face was validated as classic territory.
The establishment of these routes also introduced the first climbs in Durango to be protected entirely by drilled hardware. Durangutan and Simians to the Sun could be viewed as early forays by visionary climbers into what later became the sub-genre of “sport climbing” and, of course, the associated never ending “to bolt or not to bolt” debate.
If local climbing standards were elevated with the addition of Durangatan and Simians, they were soon blown away by John Duran’s stunning un-roped solo ascents of both routes on the same day in 1983. The Ignacio native represented local climbing by matching or elevating standards without fanfare wherever he climbed.
The decade from the early 1980’s to early ‘90’s saw steady and sometimes controversial route development on the Watch Crystal face. From the well-protected classic, Apes of Wrath, power drilled on rappel by Jim Kossin and Mark Katz, to the notorious Black Arete, climbed on-sight by David Kozak with no bolts, the Watch Crystal face not only mirrors the do’s and don’ts of the climbing world, but represents Durango’s world class.