Climbing to the last frontier
It was a dreary day at Rifle Mountain Park. Although the spring equinox had passed, rain and temperatures in the 40s echoed winter’s chill. But the gloomy weather and icy limestone walls were a welcome — if not exactly fun — combination for Joda Hankins and Brooke Lockard.
“This is really accurate training,” Hankins said. “It’s mountain weather at the crag.”
The pair was preparing for a two-week rock climbing and skiing trip in Alaska, on which they embarked Sunday. For Lockard, it’s a celebration of a major life achievement: She’s just completed graduate work in physical therapy and passed her board exams. For Hankins, it’s just another day of work.
Hankins is founder of Rifle Climbing Guides and touring company The Absolute Alpine. He spends about 200 days annually seeking handholds and jams. Lockard hired Hankins, who has climbed for 15 years and worked as a guide for 10, for her Alaska trip.
It’s not a simple mission. Although the peaks they’ll tackle don’t reach as far skyward as many in Colorado, the climbs begin at a much lower elevation. The duo carried about 500 pounds of gear into the mountains, where a Cessna dropped and will later retrieve them. They’ll set a main camp and at least one other, and weather conditions will dictate each day’s activities. Hankins said they’ll step from skis to climbing shoes and back again.
“It’s hard to prepare for that,” Hankins said. He and Lockard spent the months prior to the trip climbing and skiing, individually and together. “It’s kind of like what she did for the Grand Traverse training — you just do what you’re going to do.”
Rifle may be the ideal place to prepare for such an excursion. There weren’t many other climbers out on that gloomy training day. But at other times of the year, that’s another story. The difficult, technical routes draw climbers from all over.
“It’s such an international destination,” Hankins said.
The mountains drew Hankins himself to Colorado from the East Coast. He started climbing in high school at a New Jersey gym, and he sought colleges where he could deepen that hobby. He studied English and outdoor leadership at Colorado Christian University, and spent as much time as possible on the Western Slope. In 2016 he launched Rifle Climbing Guides to add local instruction to his existing touring offerings.
He aims for his instruction builds skills and, in the process, confidence.
“There’s a really good foot hold on your left,” Lockard shouted as Hankins took the lead on a route. When it was her turn, he returned the favor: “Yes, Brooke! Yes! You’re doing awesome!”
The pair didn’t need many words to communicate. The meditative quiet was broken only by the sound of rushing water and occasional shouts of encouragement.
“This rope is your communication line in a way,” Hankins said. “Even though you might not be able to see your partner or hear your partner, you know they’re up there working somewhere hard for you. I love that concept. Then you get to repay that trust.”
In the weeks prior to the trip, he monitored the weather to get a sense of what they could expect. It’s important to him to deliver a safe and enjoyable experience, even if that means letting go of some ambitions.
“We’re here to do A, B and C, but we can safely do B and C and be OK with that,” Hankins said.
Lockard has goals, of course. She’s climbed for several years, and Hankins said she’s strong. Adventure sports are nothing new; she completed the 40-mile Grand Traverse point-to-point ski race in April. But she wants to improve her alpine climbing and mountaineering skills. That may include summiting Moose’s Tooth, which is famously technical, assuming conditions allow.
“I don’t want to die. That’s a goal,” Lockard said with a laugh.
Whatever awaited on The Last Frontier, Hankins and Lockard felt ready. They met up to climb days before departure. Their prep work was done; he had just returned from four weeks of climbing in India, and she had spent as much as possible on climbing walls and skiing in the San Juans. It was time to reconnect — and then embark on an adventure of a lifetime.
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