Whatever your adventure pleasure, Colorado delivers.
Gripping a sliver of granite, I pulled myself up to the right of a chin of rock jutting out from Boulder Canyon 30 feet off the ground. I plastered myself to the rock face, unclipped the carabiner, swung my left foot around the chin and planted it. On what, frankly, I have no idea, but I put weight on it, and it held.
I bear-hugged the rock as I swung my body over. Next thing I knew my chin was pressed against the rock chin as I plotted my next move. The fact that in a couple of hours of climbing I was already comfortable enough to do that was a testament to my teachers, Mo Beck, one of National Geographic’s 2019 Adventurers of the Year, and her climbing partner, Justin Berger.
I looked up. I had maybe 30 more feet to go on this pitch called Lightning Strike in an area known as Cascade Crag, just outside Boulder, Colorado. An hour earlier I would have seen nothing but flat rock and said, “No way can I climb that.”
But having already completed three pitches and watching Beck and Berger do the same, I saw a path. Each “step” along the way shone as if lit by neon arrows. Right hand here, left hand there, right foot stretch over to that knob, etc. A few minutes later, I slapped the top.
I caught my breath for a minute up there, and as I rappelled down I paused again. To my right and left, climbers worked their way up and down the rock face. As I floated there, I had a curious thought: I wonder what my wife and two daughters are doing right this second.
I’ve taken many people on assignment with me — my brother, a bunch of friends, my wife, one kid at a time, both of my girls (13 and 10) together. But I’ve never taken our whole family of four … until now, in a weeklong trip to Colorado that I called “He Thrills, They Chill.”
Today, thrilling meant rock climbing in Boulder for me and chilling meant jam making at Three Leaf Farm in Lafayette for them. I was definitely thrilling with Beck and Berger. Were they chilling with Three Leaf Farm co-owner Sara Martinelli? I hoped so.
An hour later, Beck, Berger, and I arrived in downtown Boulder for lunch. As we walked to a Mexican restaurant, just by coincidence, so did my wife and kids. “Hey!” I hollered as they approached. I was still high on adrenaline and eager to tell them all about my adventure. Before I could say a word, my daughters launched into a description of theirs.
“We made jam and saw animals and petted dogs and held ducks and goats and the puppy was so cute I wanted to steal it. …”
They took a breath, so I jumped in and said I climbed four pitches three of them were really steep and I didn’t fall or die or anything.
Then we went inside and had an outstanding lunch.
Also: The strawberry and lemon jam they made at Three Leaf Farms was delicious.
I had an ulterior motive for calling this trip, “He Thrills, They Chill.” I wanted my girls to see my thrills and yearn for some of their own. Nothing crazy, of course. I merely hoped that at some point they would walk right up to the edge of their comfort zones, get a little scared, maybe even a lot scared, and then take one more step. And for that we were in the right place. Whatever their comfort level for adventure — whatever anybody’s comfort level — Colorado has something for it.
I learned that, more than anywhere else, in Estes Park, where my wife and the girls chilled at YMCA of the Rockies. There they met Wade Jagim for a morning event called Creek Stompin’.
Their task was to determine the presence, if any, of pollution. They walked together to a creek, where a duck watched as they gathered samples of water. They tested the water for acid first, and the results were good. As they waited for results from an oxygen test, they lifted rocks and scraped the macroinvertebrates off of them and into the sections of an ice cube tray.
Whatever their comfort level for adventure — whatever anybody’s comfort level — Colorado has something for it.
Jagim pulled out an identification chart, which listed pictures of bugs and categorized them according to their pollution tolerance. In one of the trays they found a nymph that is intolerant of pollution, so between that and the two other tests, they concluded the creek was healthy.
As they chilled studying small things, I thrilled studying a big thing — Twin Sisters Mountain. For hours, my face was right up against it, thanks to Kent Mountain Adventure Center. Co-owner Dustin Dyer — an experienced climber, traveler, and mountain biker — says the company’s operating principle is to ask themselves “What would I want to do on vacation?” and then craft experiences accordingly. In this case, the answer, “tackle an impossible route up a mountain,” required building a via ferrata. Translated from Italian as iron path, a via ferrata is a climbing route fitted with a series of steel cables and hand- and footholds that turn ascending a mountain into a cross between hiking and rock climbing.
Though vie ferrate date to the 18th century, people tend to associate them with World War I, when Italian soldiers built them so they could get across the mountains rather than going around. They have been popular in Europe for decades, and in the last few years, they have caught on in the United States.
As we climbed 600 vertical feet to the top of Deville Rocks, Dyer told stories of chasing adventure all over the world. He has been struck by lightning twice and caught in avalanches twice. After an avalanche killed his best friend, Rick Gaukel, Dyer thought his life needed more chilling and less thrilling. At the funeral, he told Gaukel’s mom that. “She said, ‘You can make good decisions. You can mitigate the risk. But you can’t stay home.’”
So he hasn’t. As we walked down the mountain, we talked about the life-enriching difference between mitigating risk and completely avoiding it.
It was time to introduce my girls to that idea.
If it’s active and ends in ing, you can do it in Grand County. Located 67 miles from Denver by the calculations of visitgrandcounty.com, Grand County covers 1,870 square miles and has just over 15,000 full-time residents, all of whom appeared to have gathered at Grand Lake on a glorious Friday morning. The lake teemed with kayaks, canoes, jet skis, pontoon boats, speedboats, pedal boats, paddleboards, swimmers, and more.
The four of us rented two tandem kayaks from Mountain Paddlers. With life jackets buckled snugly across our chests, we pushed off into the water, and I thought back to the first (and only other) time my wife and I rented a tandem kayak.
“I call them divorce boats,” said the man we rented them from in Bermuda. We laughed at that … and an hour later, as I paddled, I wondered when Emily was going to steer us away from shore. At that exact moment, she wondered when I was going to stop paddling so we wouldn’t hit shore. When we hit it, we both asked the other what just happened.
There were no such miscommunications on Grand Lake, which is surprising, considering the distractions. Everywhere we looked, beauty. It was like kayaking at the bottom of a striped bowl. Thick evergreens formed the top stripe. Below that stood a ring of cabins, one of which was ours at Grand Lake Lodge, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020. Along the shore were vacation homes I couldn’t pay off in five lifetimes.
My older daughter and I weaved our way across the lake, stopping only to exult in the view and allow powerboats to pass. My wife and our younger daughter followed behind us, though eventually we lost them on the crowded lake.
We found them on shore an hour later and explored downtown Grand Lake together. If nothing else, the girls were learning to chase culinary adventure: At lunch at Sagebrush BBQ & Grill, we split a plate of Rocky Mountain oysters.
We woke up the next morning in an Airstream at River Run RV Resort in Grandby, and I flashed back to my childhood trailer camping in Michigan. We never had an Airstream, but I remember my dad admiring them, and he reiterated his fondness when I told him we’d be staying in one.
As the sun cooked off the morning mist, I plopped two standup paddleboards into the pond at the center of the resort, attached the straps to the girls’ ankles, pushed them toward the center of the water, and wondered what would happen next. I stayed on shore because a) based on my previous experience on standup paddleboards, I knew I would fall (and often), and b) the water was too cold for that. For me, at least. They are old enough to decide if it’s too cold to go swimming. And they’ve never heard of such a thing.
They floated around for a few minutes, getting used to the boards and trying to screw up the courage to stand up. I moved up and down the shore trying to figure out which mountain to get in the background of the pictures I would take of them.
I snapped out of my mountain photo reverie when one of them, then the other, called to me. “Should I try it?” they asked. “Of course,” I said, simultaneously hoping and doubting that they would.
Soon they were both standing and paddling.
They never fell, the little showoffs.
A sure sign that a day is going to be good is if I have to sign a waiver. It was way harder to sign waivers for my girls. But I scribbled my name at the Fraser Valley Sport Complex, about five minutes from the town of Winter Park, for an aerial excursion with Winter Park Adventure Quest, and hoped for the best.
The ropes-course apparatus looked like a jungle gym as imagined by the set designer for Lord of the Rings. Wires and rope bridges and planks ringed the two-story structure. My hands clammy, I sipped water, as I always do when I’m nervous. As I tightened the older one’s harness, my hand slipped, and I bashed her in the face. For a second I thought I broke her glasses. Better safe than sorry.
A mom and three boys joined us as we tackled a variety of obstacles to get around the ropes course. And by “we tackled,” I mean “they tackled.” I am, I discovered, terrible at ropes course. I mostly watched.
Imagine two wooden swings adjacent to each other, each 3 inches wide and 8 feet long, and you have to shimmy sideways across them while suspended 15 feet above the ground. You’re buckled in by carabiners, of course, but the only thing you have to hold on to is a rope hanging in the center of each one. I made it halfway across before realizing I had no idea what I was doing. I shuffled back from whence I had come. My younger daughter started, stopped, got scared, took one more step then another, and soon enough completed the whole thing.
A few minutes later, the older one froze at the start of an obstacle. Imagine still being 15 feet up, and now you’re facing a series of ropes shaped like giant U’s hanging overhead. To get across, you step from one to the next. That was a big hell-to-the-no for me. She stood on one end of the obstacle; I stood on the other. She asked me how to do it. I offered my best guess but did not try myself, the very definition of Do as I say, not as I do.
For a minute, two, three, she couldn’t move. She wanted to give up. I thought she was going to, but she didn’t. After instruction from the guide, she not only tried, she finished. Then she climbed down off of the ropes course and scaled the adjacent rock wall before I could even get down to watch her.
Full to bursting — with pride, not lunch, naturally — I wanted to take my helmet off and spike it like a football. But the girls hate it when I overreact (which I never do), so I played it cool. I just stood there on the ropes course platform, chilling.
Photography: (All images) Matt Crossman
From our July 2021 issue