1876 & 2005: Helen Hunt Jackson and I Name The Whale in Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon Open Space, a 1,474-acre open space parkland on the western edge of Colorado Springs, opened to the public in November 2005 after being acquired by the City in 2003. Before the park opened there was a detailed master plan process to determine recreational uses, one of which was rock climbing. Since climbing is a historic use of city parks like the Garden of the Gods, it was a given that climbing would be an acceptable use.


In July of 2005, a bunch of local climbers got together and began establishing routes on the unclimbed slabs and faces flanking Red Rock Canyon. It was a wonderful opportunity to build a recreational climbing area on previously private, closed cliffs next to a major city. I was one of the activists and the only climber, besides Ric Geiman who worked for the parks department, to attend all the master plan meetings to ensure that we could climb in the new park.


Since I was one of the main route developers and the first to open new lines on the slabby walls, I went ahead and named most of the cliffs. I named the Westbay Wall for Billy Westbay, my old friend and climbing partner from the 1970s who had passed away a few years earlier, and the Wiggins Wall for Earl Wiggins, another friend and climbing pal, while Brian Shelton named the Sayers Wall for Ryan Sayers who died in a double lightning strike in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.


Ric Geiman named the Ripple Wall, a rippled cliff that he established most of the routes on. Other cliffs I named Solar Slab for its big hit of morning sunshine, the Wailing Wall since it reminded me of its Jeruselum namesake, and the Coyote Wall for a wily trickster I saw at the cliff base the first time I was there.


I named the last cliff, a huge hunk of pink sandstone that stretches a third of a mile along the canyon’s west flank, The Whale. It seemed appropriate because from the canyon floor the 80- to 100-foot-high wall appears like a giant surfacing whale. Probably a finback or maybe an elusive "red" whale.


A couple weeks ago I was reading a travel book by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), the original grande dame of Colorado Springs writers, that was published in 1878 as Bits of Travel at Home, a sequel to her bestseller Bits of Travel, a book about travels around Europe.


I’m working on a new edition of the Colorado section of Bits of Travel at Home with commentary, historic images, and my photographs that will be published later this winter by Every Adventure Publishing in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Colorado Springs next year.


So, as I was poring over the original text and reading a chapter called A Study of Red Canyon, imagine my surprise when I found that Ms. Jackson also referred to that hulking sandstone cliff as a whale.


She details a trip in a carriage up the then-wild canyon, called Red Canyon at that time, on June 4, 1876, a mere two months before the Colorado Territory became a state. She writes about the team of horses and carriage plunging across the deep frothy Fountain Creek and then the wonderland of the Red Canyon, fields of wildflowers, a silent woodland of pine and oak, the trickling creek on the canyon floor, and the magnificent red sandstone cliffs that hem the sides of the canyon. She called Red Canyon “a sudden sanctuary of refuge.”


This is Helen Hunt Jackson’s evocative description of The Whale:


“Now the canyon narrows again. It is only a chasm. The ledges on each side present a front as of myriads of plate edges, so thin are the layers and so many. Again, they are rounded and smooth. One on the right looks like a gigantic red whale, hundreds of rods long. Opposite him are great surfaces of slanting rock, finely striated, as with engravers’ tools. You can see only a few rods ahead. The road is a gully. Roses begin to make the air sweet. In a thicket of them, the road turns sharply round a high rock, and you are again in a little grassy open, some hundred yards wide. The great red stone whale on the right has his backbone higher than ever, and dozens of loose boulders are riding him. On the left hand the rock wall is perpendicular, serrated at top, and with slanting pinnacles shooting out here and there. Tall pines, also, seventy and eighty feet high, rooted in rocks where apparently is no crumb of earth. At the base of this wall, a thick copse of oak bushes, whose young leaves are of as tender and vivid a green as the leaves of slender white birches in June in New England.”


Her description takes me back to that sunny June day in 1876.


I wish I was there too, riding beside Ms. Jackson in that carriage up the rough track through thickets of scrub oak and meadows sprinkled with penstemon and paintbrush, stopping to take off my waistcoat and to take a long drink from the tumbling clear creek, looking up at the wall of cliffs above and thinking, yes, that looks like a whale surfacing below the vast Rocky Mountains.


And then another thought would have crossed my mind, I wonder if some future version of myself will climb on that sunny slab? Nah...


The Whale lifts its sandstone bulk above Red Rock Canyon on the west side of Colorado Springs. Photograph © Stewart M. Green


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