Ben Wilbur set out with his climbing partner last Wednesday and tried to break a record. They came up short.
That was just fine for Wilbur, a 2015 Durango High School graduate. The record he and John Ebers set out to break was their own.
Ebers, 23, and Wilbur, 24, set the new speed record May 22 on “The Naked Edge” climbing route on Redgarden Wall. It is the most famous wall in Colorado’s climbing haven of Eldorado Canyon in Boulder County. The duo shaved 15 seconds off the previous fastest time set in 2015 by Stefan Griebel and Jason Wells, two legends of The Naked Edge who raced for years against Scott Bennett and Brad Gobright as each team continually lowered the record.
In 2015, Griebel, who is from Dolores, and Wells finished the challenge in 24 minutes, 29 seconds. As they sprinted across the start and finish bridge across South Boulder Creek on May 22, Ebers and Wilbur clocked in at 24:14.
“Climbing The Edge is such a pleasure, and doing it fast is really enjoyable,” Wilbur said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “You really get into the flow of moving over rocks without ever stopping. It’s always fun to go and do that.
“We went back up last Wednesday and tried to break our record, but it was kind of rainy and there were a couple of parties on the route. So, we didn’t go super fast. We are planning to keep going up there once a week, so we will see. I still want to go a little faster and think we can go faster.”
The Naked Edge, which Bennett called Colorado’s most famous route, is a unique challenge with a running start and finish across the bridge. The first “bridge race” came in 1991 when Michael Gilbert and Rob Slater conquered the feat in 1 hour, 38 minutes.
It was in 2012 that Griebel and Wells completed the feat in under an hour for the first time when they set the mark of 49:44. In 2013, Bennett and Gobright would finish it in 44 minutes. The two climbing pairs would trade the record back and forth until Griebel and Wells’ mark in 2015. Gobright and Wells both have died in climbing accidents since then, and The Naked Edge’s record remain untouched before Ebers and Wilbur lowered the bar once more.
“Records are made to be broken, and it makes me smile inside to think that something I found so fun and rewarding has also motivated John and Ben to enjoy the same feeling,” Griebel said. “It’s so neat to see all the positive energy surrounding Ben and John’s quick trip up The Edge. They are hardworking, quality guys.”
The record climb was witnessed by Jason Antin and Wade Morris. Griebel also was on hand to cheer on the new record holders.
“It was really cool. It was the first time we’ve ever had people out there timing us,” Wilbur said. “We had never told anybody we were going for the record until that go. To have Stefan Griebel there, the previous record holder, it was great positive energy. He was excited for us and excited to see us break the record. Overall, it was a good sense of community. Everyone was excited to be there, climbing in Eldo.”
‘Fast is really enjoyable’After a sprint to the base of the wall, climbers must solo three pitches at a grade as high as 5.8 before beginning five pitches of 5.11 climbing on The Naked Edge. The 460-foot, highly-exposed route features a bit of everything from think cracks, a chimney and technical faces, not to mention loose rock.
Ebers and Wilbur brought a rope, six quickdraws, six cams and three microtraxion devices for the project. Wilbur described microtraxion as a progress-capturing device so that the lead climber isn’t pulled off the wall if the second person falls.
After climbers top out 650 feet above South Boulder Creek, they then face a Class 4 scramble down the “East Slabs” before a sprint back down the trail and across the bridge.
“For me, at least – and I think for John, as well – the difficult part is the cardio aspect,” Wilbur said. “Most of that comes with the running and easy soloing to get to the route. The route itself is quite challenging, and you have to make time by going well and keeping your heart rate in check. You’re staying at the threshold, almost over the top redlining but not quite.
“The way we’ve been doing it, John is leading and I follow. It’s interesting how that breaks it up. When he’s leading, he doesn’t get any break at the beginning. You get to the base and just start climbing after the sprint and soloing. I get to the base, and I get a few seconds to belay, catch my breath. On the way down, you top out after the two most difficult pitches back to back, and they you start sprinting down. For me, the whole way down I am fully redlined. You’re going as fast as you can. You don’t think about the time, you just focus on your feet and not tripping on rocks as you run down.”
Ascent of a partnershipEbers and Wilbur both work as mechanical engineers. Ebers went to Colorado School of Mines, while Wilbur attended the University of Colorado at Boulder after he graduated from DHS.
Wilbur, son of Sue Kraus and Chris Wilbur, didn’t start climbing until he was a junior in high school. Days spent on routes at East Animas and X Rock got him into the sport. He picked up a job at The Rock Lounge climbing gym and started to learn under owner and coach Marcus Garcia.
But it was when Wilbur got to Boulder that his climbing hit a turning point.
“My progression has been slow and steady more than anything else,” Wilbur said. “When I got to Boulder, I found a bigger climbing community with people closer to my age who were out there doing hard routes, climbing with gear I couldn’t even imagine. To be part of that community makes you a better climber and shows you what can be done. It opened up possibilities.”
It was during a spring break trip to Zion National Park that Ebers and Wilbur would meet. Wilbur was on a three-day soloing project of Moonlight Buttress, while Ebers was attempting to solo the 10-pitch, 12,00-foot trad climb in a single day, a feat he would accomplish.
“Every day, John would come out and pass us and give his attempt on the pitches, and we’d be cheering him on,” Wilbur said. “We would go, and he’d be there cheering us on, too. On that trip, we realized we had a lot of similar interests. We were excited to climb a lot of the same stuff and actually ended up having him split off to climb Red Rocks with us.”
Ebers had gone for The Naked Edge record before with Morris. The two finished in 37:34 in 2018.
“John knew all the systems and how everything worked if we wanted to go fast on The Edge,” Wilbur said. “We started trying together earlier this year in January. We did the route a couple of times to get familiar with it. The first time we did a lap of it for speed, we got 28:41. It was kind of a big surprise for us. We were way closer to the record than we expected for a first attempt.
“After that lap, we realized we might be in the running.”
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the duo’s speed climbing plans were grounded by stay-at-home orders.
“It was just not a great time to be out doing something with serious consequences if we messed up,” Wilbur said. “We spent a month or two climbing in more remote areas, being a little safer and dialing it back. When we did get back to The Edge, it wasn’t for speed. We were taking it slower.”
In May, the itch to push for the record was back. They started climbing the route twice a week after work before the record day finally came.
Since then, the two have had their story shared in the biggest climbing publications with star climber Alex Honnold even sending his congratulations after watching the video of their effort.
“It’s kind of strange,” Wilbur said. “We didn’t really expect so much publicity from it. It was just kind of a fun challenge for us. All of a sudden, it kind of blew up. Right now, a week later, it’s kind of died down.
“Now, we’re just back to going out climbing.”