Gregory Canyon at 6 a.m.,” Bill Wright’s email read. “We’re gone by 6:05.” I was meeting Wright and one of his friend’s, Danny Gilbert, the next morning for a pre-work circuit in Chautauqua: a jog up to a couple of the more obscure Flatiron formations — Morning After and Challenger — quick free solos of each, more jogging to the top of Greens Peak and finally back to our cars at the trailhead.
Wright is one of the founders of Satan’s Minions Scrambling Club (SMSC) — a quasi-exclusive, semi-secret, pseudo-underground group of athletes (average and world-class alike) that meet for early morning outings in Boulder’s Flatirons. As the club’s name alludes to, these outings are not mere hikes, but hybrid climbing and trail running excursions.
When I met Wright and Gilbert, there were summary introductions and then we hit the trail. Wright quickly hopped over an orange mesh barrier blocking the trailhead for no discernible reason.
“I look at it as more of a guideline than a rule,” he said. We assumed a steady clip, never too fast to hold a conversation. We ran on the flats and walked briskly on the steeps. At a certain point we left the trail and made a beeline for the base of Morning After — a slab with a few hundred feet of 5.4 climbing and a short 5.7 roof right in the middle of the wall. Breathing hard from my first run in longer than I cared to remember, I took a deep breath and started up behind Gilbert and Wright, sans rope or harness: just chalk and climbing shoes.
The roots of Satan’s Minions date back to the late ’90s when Wright found himself wondering just how fast he could climb the Third Flatiron, car-to-car. He had heard of others doing it in under an hour, but he was skeptical. Along with friends George Bell and Ken Lydens, Wright took his own crack at it. “We did it under an hour,” he says. “It opened up my eyes. Just blew me away.”
After a climbing accident that resulted in a broken back and prevented him from cranking hard, Wright started to rack up some serious mileage on easier Flatirons scrambles as well as another way to get his climbing fix. Originally, Wright would go out mornings with his friend, Mark Oveson. Then one day, Wright invited a friend from work to join, who in turn invited another co-worker, who didn’t mince words about Wright’s masochistic morning scrambles:
“My advice: Stay as far away from him as possible. He sounds like one of Satan’s Minions.”
And so, Satan’s Minions Scrambling Club was born.
The founding principles of the club have changed little since those early days.
“Morning scrambling — whether new routes, old routes or what have you — is a great way to start the day. Run, climb, run,” Wright says.
As the club grew during its first few years, Wright also began organizing annual time trials of the Third Flatiron, the same challenge that had inspired the group’s founding. Within a few years, the straightforward Third Flatiron time trial morphed into what Wright christened the Tour de Flatirons: a pre-determined course, slightly different every year, linking up several formations in Chautauqua.
The Tour has attracted a number of elite athletes since its inaugural installment. One such individual is Boulder speed-demon Stefan Griebel. Griebel, a 41-year-old electrical engineer, was 28 in 2003 when he “emailed Bill (Wright) out of the blue. I needed some challenge in my life, I guess.” Since then, Griebel has gone from the “casual weekend climber” to one of the preeminent speed climbers in the country. In addition to holding speed records on both the First and Third Flatirons for a time, Griebel currently holds the joint speed-record on Eldorado Canyon’s famous testpiece The Naked Edge, as well as the fastest known time (along with professional ultrarunner Anton Krupicka, also a Minion) on the Longs Peak Triathlon — a round-trip biking, trail running and climbing trifecta from Boulder to the summit of Longs.
For several years early in Griebel’s SMSC tenure, it was just him, Wright and ultrarunner Dave Mackey competing in the Tour de Flatirons.
“Bill podiumed every race,” Griebel remembers with a laugh. “He was always psyched about that.” But as SMSC grew in the mid-2000s, upwards of 20 people started showing up for the Tour and the individual Flatiron time trials.
“It got us noticed and the City Council cracked down,” Griebel says.
While it was not necessarily targeted exclusively at the Minions, a City Council rule that prohibited “competitive events” — defined in its parlance as “four or more persons [trying] to exceed the performance of each other or another person in a physical activity” — on City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks lands, the general sentiment is that it was designed at least in part to stymie SMSC’s activities.
The Minions get around these restrictions through semantic gymnastics of their own.
“I try not to use the word ‘race’ because that’s not permitted,” Wright explains in talking about the time trials and the Tour de Flatirons. “If I’m actually racing anyone, it’s the two people that are closest to me, and then everyone else is just out there doing their own thing.”
In addition to bureaucratic red tape (or orange mesh barriers) that the Minions have had to toe or sometimes cross over the past decade, they have also had several incidences that have caused them to implement stricter conditions for membership. On more than one occasion, a would-be Minion showed up in running shoes. (Most of the Minions use approach shoes with sticky climbing rubber on the soles).
“They were sketchy. Very sketchy,” Wright says. “I thought one of them might fall. And this is still real climbing — you fall, you die. It was a horrible experience. So they weren’t invited to join.”
Technical climbing experience is a prerequisite for Minions’ membership, to be sure. “We don’t teach or encourage soloing. And we’re not guides. There are accidents every year because people think the Flatirons are easy,” Wright says. “We’re not recruiting or encouraging people to solo, and we won’t teach people how to do it. You don’t get into this group as a beginner. But if you’re already doing that stuff, then you might want to join us because there are lots of like-minded people.”
Danny Gilbert, whom I met at Gregory Canyon with Wright, was a budding climber before he joined the Minions. Knowing there were time thresholds Minions were theoretically supposed to meet on the First or Third Flatirons prior to membership, he trained for a while before reaching out to Wright and asking to join.
“Which I think is a good thing to do,” Gilbert reflects. “It’s better to make sure you’re solid before you try to join.”
Nowadays to become a Minion you have to go on an “interview scramble,” essentially what I was doing with Wright and Gilbert on April 25.
“Minions is a closed group. You have to know someone to do an interview scramble,” Wright explains.
That morning, as we padded up the thinly featured, bullet-hard sandstone of the Morning After Flatiron, Wright kept on filling me in on SMSC’s history. When we got to the short 5.7 section, he deftly pulled the bulge and talked Gilbert and I through the moves. He knew I was a competent climber, but even still, this was part of my interview.
Wright and the other Minions know they walk a fine line. But they’re not harming or interfering with anyone.
“The rangers know about the Minions, they’re not dummies,” Wright says. “But we don’t bother anybody. If this happened all the time, it might be an issue. But not that many people know about it really. I think we’re good just to continue the way we’re going.”
And the Minions are some of the best ambassadors around for the joys of the Flatirons.
“We’re going fast, but we always try to be good stewards,” Wright says. On SMSC’s closed, invite-only email list, most of the threads are about giving back.
“I’d say about 90 percent of the emails you get from the Minions group are stuff about trail maintenance and stuff like that, or about mobilizing if somebody’s lost and needs help,” Gilbert says.
Twenty years on from the beginning of Bill Wright’s obsession with doing the Flatirons fast, Satan’s Minions are still carrying the torch.
“The Tour gets more and more complex every year with enchainments and weird routes people have never done,” Griebel says.
The classic time trials of the First and Third Flatirons, while no longer official SMSC annual events, are still frequently individual legs of the Tour, and personal projects of most Minions. Matthias Messner currently holds the unsupported First Flatiron speed record (from the trash can at the top of the stairs at the Chautauqua ranger station and back) at 32 minutes, 18 seconds.
“I think Matthias’ record is now the hardest record in the Flatirons. I think it will stand for a long time,” Griebel says.
Despite Wright’s need for speed, his preponderance with fastest known times and the Minions’ informal tryouts, being an elite athlete like Griebel, Krupicka or Messner is far from a requirement.
“It’s a great group of people that are really cool, cheer each other on and are just out there to have a good time,” Wright says. “Even as the Tour has gotten bigger over the past couple years, people run by you and everyone gives encouragement.”
Time trials and the Tour aside, most SMSC activity remains perfectly within the limits of activities permitted within Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks, like the three-person party that Gilbert, Wright and myself comprised.
“Bill started it originally because he wanted to get in more pitches before work,” Gilbert says. “It’s the family-man time. Because most of us have other stuff to do after work.
I think that’s what drew me to it,” he adds. “Because of all that, speed is important — you can’t do the First Flatiron and spend five hours on it before work — but it’s not the end goal. We’re just a bunch of people who want to get out and have some fun before work.”
Gilbert, Wright and myself got back to the Gregory Canyon trailhead around 8:30 a.m., after having dispatched 4.3 miles and gained 2,329 feet of elevation. After a quick goodbye and exchange of numbers, we all drove off to work.