A Sense of Place: The Monastery

An Essay about Revered Rock Climber
Paige Claassen


Wines of place are tasked with a higher calling, sacred and not easily attained – to transmit the unique vinous identity of an individual plot of land from which the grapes came. The reasons we ask this of fine wines are cultural, commercial and historical. They are also personal and spiritual.

Through OVID Guest Essays, we invite a broader perspective on the intersection of place, purpose and time, as told firsthand through authors, artists, innovators, explorers and craftsmen. Each storyteller has spent a lifetime listening to these evocative places and advanced our understanding as vineyardists and students of terroir.

We invite you to enjoy this piece penned by author Ian Gammie about the sense of place legendary sport climber Paige Claassen experiences during her trials as an internationally renowned rock climber.

The trail to The Monastery begins inconspicuously, lacking any formal marker. At a bend in the road, amidst parting trees, a narrow path unveils itself, leading steeply down a ravine before ascending the opposite slope. Its course is occasionally clear, though often discernible only by distant cairns. Emerging from the forest, the trail meanders through an alpine meadow, offering vistas of the snow-capped Mummy Range to the west and the notched summit of Longs Peak to the south. Upon reaching its terminus, the trail overlooks a labyrinth of golden cliffs, inviting further exploration through its enigmatic beauty.

For professional climber and Estes local Paige Claassen, the memories forged at The Monastery are vivid and enduring. “I have these really vivid memories of experiences that I had at The Monastery,” she recalls. “Whether a conversation I had talking through a route or a hike where I was trying to keep up with my partner and caught my shoulder under a rock – I still have a scar on my shoulder – just these little bits. And I think it’s just – I love that place so much that my memories there are really sharp.”

In Estes Park, Colorado, there’s no shortage of world-class climbing. From the classic routes littering Rocky Mountain National Park to the famous Diamond on the east face of Longs Peak to the newly established sport climbing destinations of Jurassic Park and the Wizards Gate, it may seem strange that anyone should spend so much time and effort driving in the opposite direction – away from town – in search of an unmarked trail and an obscure little crag hidden somewhere in the hills. And yet, for those who have climbed there, The Monastery holds an almost mystical appeal.

“The Monastery was this really formative place for me and really changed me as a climber,” says Claassen. Despite being halfway across the globe in South Africa, her nostalgic tone speaks volumes of the profound impact this place holds in her heart. “It’s still one of my favorite spots in the world, even though I’ve traveled all over the place.”


Claassen was nine years old when her family moved to Estes Park. Surrounded on all sides by famous climbing hotspots and increasingly famous local climbers (most notably Tommy Caldwell, who is credited with establishing many of the classic routes at The Monastery), Claassen soon carved out a name for herself within that storied Estes tradition. In 2007, she won the Sport Climbing National Championship and, in the years following, added a second- and third-place finish to her trophy case.

Despite her early success, she didn’t stay on the competition circuit for long. By 2010, she was already transitioning away from climbing on plastic holds and gravitating towards the unique styles and challenges presented by climbing on real rock.

Stripped down to its core components, The Monastery is an obscure outcropping of metamorphic rock, jutting jaggedly out of a steep and crumbling hillside. The major formations – those popular enough to have names – run parallel from the top of the hill to the bottom and are separated by a series of narrow corridors. As you descend, the faces on the right side of the corridor lean away from you, forming nearly featureless slabs with some of the trickiest footwork that a beginner or intermediate climber is likely to ever encounter. On the left, the overhanging cliffs contain several of the most difficult routes in the entire Front Range.

“If you do one of those routes, you have gotten that grade. There’s no question. Those aren’t getting downgraded,” Claassen explains. “You really have to know how to stand on your feet and trust your feet and trust really bad holds.”

Like the nuances of terroir in winemaking, the distinct characteristics of rock dictate the climbing experience. Granitic pegmatite, The Monastery’s geological foundation, challenges climbers with razor-sharp edges and intricate movements, fostering a graceful yet demanding ascent. Much like winegrowing, climbing is as much about instinct and familiarity with your site as the science backing it.

The climbing routes at The Monastery consist of a metamorphic rock known as granitic pegmatite. Unlike the smooth granite cliffs frequently climbed in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, granitic pegmatite is permeated by large crystals, which provide an unlikely source of hand and footholds for perspective climbers. Although the composition of the granitic pegmatite is extremely secure, climbing from one crystal to the next can be trickier than it sounds. For one thing, the tiny edges are razor sharp, requiring delicate movements and nearly flawless technique.

“The movement is just really graceful. I think delicate is a great word, but it’s graceful,” says Claassen. “I think The Monastery demands that you rise to the best version of yourself as a climber.”

Among the many classic climbs that can be found at The Monastery, one route stands out above the rest. In climbing parlance, it’s known as the king line. At The Monastery, its name is the Grand Ol’ Opry.

“I think that route, Grande Ol’ Opry, just really struck me,” Claassen recalls. “I was like, ‘I want to do that route.’ And typically if I say a goal out loud, I’m going to pursue it. So just to speak that out loud was like, ‘Okay, I want to devote myself to this.'”

Like many of the hardest routes at The Monastery, the first ascent of the Grand Ol’ Opry was made by Tommy Caldwell in 1998. 12 years later, when Claassen set her sights on the route, only two other climbers had managed to repeat the feat: Andy Raether and Jonathon Siegrist. Along with Caldwell, himself, it constituted a short list of climbing royalty.

While the rest of her classmates at the University of Colorado were still asleep in their dorms, Claassen woke before dawn every weekend for over two months and made the long trek from Boulder to The Monastery to work on her first major climbing project. The sun was still low in the sky by the time she reached the base of the route and from deep within the long corridor between the cliffs, she could look out over the whole of the Estes Valley.

“I could be in there and see this place I grew up, even though I didn’t live there anymore,” Claassen says. “It’s like, there’s Estes. I can picture my family down there in that little valley and I’m here climbing in this special spot. I think the style definitely suits me and, you know, when you’re getting into projecting, finding a style that speaks to your strengths is helpful.”

The style of climbing on the Grand Ol’ Opry combines the quintessential delicacy and technique demanded by The Monastery with an uncommon level of dedication, which by that point had already turned away many of the world’s strongest climbers.

“That route was the first time I’ve tried what I would call, ‘As hard as I possibly could.’ Where it’s like, every muscle in your body is engaged and you’re making a noise and when you stick a hold, you can’t even believe that you did that move. But the more often you do that, as a climber, the more normal it becomes. Then you believe that you can try that hard and do moves that seem completely unreasonable. I think that’s why The Monastery is so special. It changed my approach to projecting and I was able to prove to myself that, ‘Yes, you are capable of something that feels totally impossible.’ I love that about climbing.”

Now, 13 years and thousands of climbs since her historic first-female ascent of Grand Ol’ Opry, Claassen still regards The Monastery as one of her favorite places in the world to climb. She remembers the unique texture of the rock against her fingers, the view looking out over the Estes Valley, the partners who helped her along the way, and she remembers watching the sunrise from the car on those early morning drives to The Monastery.

“Some people can just go climb on whatever chossy rock and be motivated, but I’ve always been motivated by really stunning lines with a bit of history. That’s when I’m going to try my hardest, when I’m like, ‘This route is worth my efforts.'”

The iconic, red volcanic soil series of Pritchard Hill lines the narrow road leading up to OVID Napa Valley.