Secret rock climbing at Arapahoe Basin with the Colorado Escapist

Editor’s note: In 2016, we launched Colorado Escapist, a monthly adventure series about all the cool and crazy stuff folks do in the Rocky Mountains. Host Shawna Henderson went backcountry skiing in funky Montezuma, crewed on a J24 sailboat for the Dillon Open Regatta and tested her kayak skills in the Glenwood Springs whitewater park. This feature on local’s-only rock climbing at Arapahoe Basin drew some ire (as in, “Why are you telling everyone about our secret spots?”), but it taps into the Colorado Escapist spirit. Henderson is back in 2017 — watch the paper every third Friday for the latest installment.

Everyone loves to discover spots only the locals know about. You know what I mean: Those hidden gems only a few can find, like that smoke shack on the ski mountain, or that perfect tree run with endless freshie powder, or a secluded hike that brings you to the ultimate overlook.

Today is your lucky day. I’m going to share with you an epic, multi-pitch rock climbing area that has remained hidden from the general public — until now.

I’m not normally one to spill the beans, but this knowledge needs to be shared with passionate rock climbers who give back to the community. If sport climbing tall walls and multi-pitch routes are your passion, then Black Rock Crag at A-Basin should be your next destination.

Where it all began

The first time I experienced rock climbing was at Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins. At Colorado State University, I was in the “outdoor adventure dorm” and met crazy, like-minded individuals who were passionate about adventure sports.

One of those wild ones was Joe Vallone, a man of many athletic talents, one being rock climbing. He took a few of us on our first rock adventure, and after reaching the top of the pitch, I was hooked.

Since that day, rock climbing has been the perfect traveling sport, since all you need are climbing shoes and a harness. Joe and I both moved to Summit County about the same time and met up skiing at Arapahoe Basin. Like myself, Vallone is a multiple-sport athlete who finds joy in pushing to the extreme in all he does.

Black Rock Crag

Since CSU, Vallone went on to get his UIAGM/IFMGA certifications through the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations and is now trained to guide across the U.S and all of Europe.

After skiing at A-Basin for the past 15 years, he saw that this unique rock had potential. He made the initial discovery with Tim Tullia, and since then, Vallone has put around 40 days into cleaning the area and bolting routes.

The first ascent on Black Rock Crag was a traditional route, or trad route, with climber David Delemora. They named it MoraLone (their combined last names). Many of the routes are named after themes or people from A-Basin who have made a difference in the sport of climbing or skiing in this area. They come with unique stories inspired by the ski area and the local climbing community.

Even though Vallone believes that all sport routes are rated a 5.9, realistically the routes at the crag range from 5.8 to 5.11d, with a few multiple-pitch routes.

“There is nothing like this area in the county, as it is not your typical place to climb,” Vallone said. “I built these routes because I like to contribute to the community and to climbing. The area that you hang out drinking a beer or belaying your friends is known as PHQ, the patrol headquarters.”

Where exactly is the crag? I can’t give up that much insider info — you’ll have to piece together the clues.

Meet Joe Vallone

Vallone has been a Summit County resident for the past 15 years, but recently made a full-time move to La Grave, France, where he guides rock, Ice, snow and off-piste skiing.

“I consider myself an educator,” Vallone said. “That is what my certification is: an elite class of educator qualified to teach others about these sports. Currently I guide off-piste ski routes in La Grave, an area with no avalanche control, no ski patrol (and) no marked runs in a true, natural mountain experience.”

At La Grave, there is one lift servicing over 7,000 vertical feet of skiable terrain. It’s also the gateway to one of the most amazing natural parks in the world, known as Parc National des Ecrins.

Vallone has been featured in many films, including “Almost a Blaze” and “Dream Line.” He is highlighted in the book, “Tracking the Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs” by Robert Cocuzzo, and hosts an online show about proper backcountry techniques. He has made his living guiding people on ultimate adventures and is the guy to contact if you are interested in a real European backcountry ski adventure.

Why France?

Vallone explained to me why he loves his new home in La Grave.

“It is freedom to ski when and where you want, with no ropes preventing you for accessing areas,” Vallone said. “I do not like being told when and where to ski, especially from those who have less training than me.”

Vallone spent time in the area with Doug Coons, his mentor, and he told me that’s one of the big reason he decided to return for good.

“I wanted to find a place where I can truly practice my profession,” Vallone said. “The USA has so many rules when it comes to guides using the ski resorts. In France, I can use the lift to access more remote areas, and with my certification I can take clients wherever I want to go. We go above and beyond teaching people to use the land sustainably and teach people the right way to go into the backcountry.”

A big thanks goes out to Vallone, Todd Hanson, Dave Delemora, Jamen May and Peter Kraiz. Combined, we’ve probably set over 1,200 pieces of hardware to make Black Rock Crag user friendly.

Shawna Henderson is a multi-sport adventure athlete and founder of, a web-based booking platform to connect active travelers with guides and adventure sports in Colorado. Through her website and writing, Shawna offers insights on new outdoor gear, activities and destinations to fuel your passion.

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