Talking Ellingwood Arete with Rifle Climbing Guides owner Joda Hankins | SummitDaily.com

Talking Ellingwood Arete with Rifle Climbing Guides owner Joda Hankins

Rifle just might be the finest rock-and-ice oasis you've never visited.

Ask Joda Hankins, a former U.S. junior national team bouldering veteran and owner of Rifle Climbing Guides, a new guiding outfit made to give both locals and visitors a taste of everything Rifle Mountain Park has to offer. And he'll tell you it offers plenty: top-rope climbing on 5.8 and 5.9, traditional climbing on 5.12+, endless bouldering problems and secluded ice caves come wintertime.

Yes, you read that right: Rifle has ice caves.

"You have these ice floes that freeze and create a massive cavern behind them, where you get freestanding stalagmites," said Hankins, who's spent the past five years exploring and leading treks in Rifle and across the Western Slope with The Absolute Alpine, his other guiding outfit. "And it's not a hot spot!"

Hankins has come a long way from spending endless hours training in a gym. The Absolute Alpine boasts a crew of seven international guides with experience on five continents, 34 peaks and more than 50 glaciers. This summer, the Tennessee native and longtime Colorado resident is launching a slate of new local programs through Rifle Climbing Guides, including day camps for youth and a combo yoga-and-climbing week for women.

"I left the competitive side for more of the traditional, outdoor climbing scene," Hankins said. "I've pretty much been on that same path with a bigger alpine twist since then and that's what I like to guide. I use that competitive background for a coaching background, and then get into the alpine for guiding."

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Before summer treks and camps begin, Hankins sat down with the Summit Daily sports desk to talk about Rifle Climbing Guides, transitioning from gyms to the high-alpine and how he bit off more than he could chew the first time he tempted Ellingwood Arete, a multi-pitch route on 14,203-foot Crestone Needle.

Summit Daily News: How'd you get started rock climbing? Outside? Inside?

Joda Hankins: I pretty much ended up living at a gym for a while. I ended up competing with the (U.S.) junior national team for bouldering and that was where I spent a lot of time and put a lot of effort. That's where I got my coaching background: from a bouldering focus. I left the competitive side for more of the traditional, outdoor climbing scene. I've pretty much been on that same path with a bigger alpine twist since then and that's what I like to guide. I use that competitive background for a coaching background, and then get into the alpine for guiding.

SDN: What made you fall in love with alpine climbing?

JH: I think a lot of it was being drawn to the outdoors first of all, and then I also liked the idea of getting away from tape. In the gym, it's more about short bursts of power and movement, but I wanted more of that mountain feel. To get there, the next step is trad climbing, with short, multi-pitch routes, and then I went from there to Boulder and Rocky Mountain National Park. Trad was the stepping-stone for me to get to bigger alpine routes, and that encompasses a lot more. You get snow and ice and rock, all on one route, so to be well rounded in all areas was a huge draw for me.

SDN: Any routes stick out in your head from those early days of trad and alpine climbing?

JH: One of the first that sticks out is the Ellingwood Arete, down in the Sangre de Cristo Range. There's Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak and this is on the Crestone Needle. That was a multi-day, hike-in, camp-and-stay sort of trip. That was in late October and it was already full of ice. We thought, "We can rock climb around it, or maybe bring just one tool," and that was my first experience of transitioning from bare-hand climbing to having crampons and a tool on rock. Like so many first timers, I bit off more than I could chew and this thing turned into a 15-hour, semi-epic route. We got what we came for — we got into the alpine.

SDN: Have you been back to Ellingwood since?

JH: I have. We went back the following fall, a month earlier, and it was still ice. There's a shallow window for that route and it must be July. The biggest thing you're battling is the elevation up there.

Another thing that draws me to the alpine is it forces you to have time management and priority management. In the terrain where you know you're competent, you move faster, which tends to increase the risk, but you hope your skill and experience offsets that. When I get into that really nasty vertical terrain, that's where I slow down. You have pitch after pitch at 14,000 feet and it makes a big difference. It's not just a roadside crag.

SDN: How did you move from pushing your personal boundaries to guiding with The Absolute Alpine and now Rifle Climbing Guides?

JH: I was introduced to climbing through a really solid mentor — someone who talked to me in way more ways that climbing. I wanted to be that presence and voice for youth in the Western Slope and Rifle is a place that can use that. The other side is that the terrain out there is incredible. Being outside is always a huge influence for me. It has been since high school, when kids choose a direction for their life and recreation and what they want to do. I hope this provides a mentorship side to things, a way of giving back to the community in cool terrain with a cool activity I'm comfortable teaching.

SDN: Talk about a day in the field with Rifle Climbing Guides. What's it look like?

JH: It depends on the season. This past winter we did a ton of ice climbing around Rifle and down to the Ouray ice park. Another unique feature about Rifle is that there are ice caves and a lot of people don't realize that. You have these ice floes that freeze and create a massive cavern behind them, where you get freestanding stalagmites. And it's not a hot spot! That's the thing — you can literally get out there with a family on a trail that connects them all (the caves), walk them in half a day, and you won't hardly run into anyone. Even something as lame as that I'm still psyched to do because I love giving folks the experience of: A) something new, and B) something outside. I love seeing the reaction.

SDN: What about youth programs? Those are a big part of what you offer.

JH: We have a summer climbing camp, for kids 8 to 18, and we're running those throughout Rifle and the Western Slope. They're very introductory, from building good habits to technique. It's all top-rope climbing, so you get technique, communication, belay technique, and all of that sets a foundation for what we hope is a safe climber, someone who is informed. We could simply go out somewhere, tie a rope and get someone experience, but we hope to help people become proficient in the outdoors. It's more about training and mentoring than just working with a client, like you get with guided hand holding.

SDN: One program you lead is called the Alpine Edge. How does that work?

JH: It's an experiential leadership-type program. Take something like backpacking: you head out on a trip like this and focus on community and leadership for seven days. We have eight students and two instructors, and two of the spots for youth are scholarship-based. We want to prioritize youth who are interested in this trip or topic or idea — whatever you want to call it — but can't afford it. We've taken groups like this to the Sawatch Range and the southern Front Range so far, but it can go anywhere.

In a way, this has been a big motivator to develop with the Rifle and Western Slope area in mind. But we're certainly not limited to it.

SDN: If someone wants to join a group — no matter how long or where it is — what should they know?

JH: Totally no experience required. We go from folks who have never worn a harness to veterans who want to climb a 5.12. We do quite a bit of strength and training-focused guiding, if you will, that give people a six-week program before they show up to Rifle. Once they're there, we hope to progress their skill level by at least one grade. We run these trips year-round and because of our guide's influence through the community, we have a ton of terrain and options across the country, not only in Colorado.

Rifle Climbing Guides

Owner Joda Hankins recently launched Rifle Climbing Guides to complement the work he’s done with The Absolute Alpine, a high-adventure guiding service hosting treks on five continents. Transportation to and from the climbing locations is included. To find out more or sign up for any of the following camps, see RifleClimbingGuides.com.

Youth Climbing Camps ($215) — Designed for youth climbers (ages 8-18 years old) of all abilities. This weeklong day camp runs from July 17-21 in Eagle.

Women’s Climbing and Yoga ($165) — Made for ladies only to mix the physical rush of climbing with the mental and spiritual training of yoga. Another weeklong day camp held from Aug. 14-18 in Eagle.

Pikes Peak guided trip ($330) — Made for aspiring and experienced alpine climbers with a two-to-one climber to guide ratio. This weekend trip runs from July 18-19.

Capitol Peak guided trip ($330) — Another 14er excursion with a small group and experienced guides. Held Aug. 12-13.

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