My high altitude climbing goals for the 2010 summer season meant I needed to get back into shape.
Brian had talked about redoing the Spiral Route on Notchtop; I had been talking about redoing the North Ridge on Spearhead. We were worried about snow on the descent behind the Notch, so we agreed to do Spearhead. A Spearhead Bootcamp, as it were.
I asked Brian what time he’d pick me up. He responded that we used to start at 2:30am. Now, I have to admit that 2:30am sounds too early. I mean, why did we used to start at 2:30am? So I started counting: 1.5 hours to drive from Boulder to the Glacier Gorge parking lot (4am) plus 2 hours to hike to Black Lake (6am), plus 45 minutes to hike to Spearhead (6:45am). With sunrise at 5:30am, it would be light enough to climb by 6am; and with a forecast of possible thunderstorms at 1pm, starting at 2:30am seemed foolishly late. The question was, could I live with getting up even earlier than 2am?
I agreed to be ready at 2:30am. We’d just have to get down by 1pm.
When the alarm went off at 2am, I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. I used to do this all the time, and I always hated it. But this time, it just felt right. I jumped up and got ready.
We arrived at the Glacier Gorge parking lot at 4am and started up the dark, windy trail. There were a few cars in the lot, but we had the trails to ourselves.
Upward and onward we hiked toward Loch Vale, taking the cutoff to Black Lake about 1.75 miles in (using the shortcut). We could hear the full creeks roaring by, but could not see a thing outside the flashlight beams. It wasn’t until we were hiking below Arrowhead that the sky started to get light. To that point, we’d walked on dirt and rocks; no snow any where near the trail. But as we approached Black Lake, we found a lot of snow. It was a delicate thing, walking across frozen snow in sneakers. But it only slowed us a bit, and we arrived at Black Lake at 5:45am.
I really should have brought better footwear. Sure my light hiking sneakers felt great while carrying them up the climb, but on the hike in and out they felt like slippers that permitted the roots and rocks to bash and mangle my feet. It is said that good fences make for good neighbors; I contend it is also true that good boots make for good terrain. I won’t make that mistake again anytime soon.
Sunrise may have been at 5:30am in Denver; but in Glacier Gorge, we could see little of that sunshine.
While I was starting to feel the weight of my pack (full of rock gear) and my lack of conditioning, I decided to push on to Spearhead without a rest. Of course, Brian didn’t need one.
We were ahead of schedule and made good time up the drainage creek path to reach the Spearhead basin. All that was left was to figure out a path through the willows and streams. Brian was ahead and took a wide detour to the left. I thought I’d head straight on to save time. After dunking a sneaker (made of meshy, spongy material), all I can say is my path was straighter.
At least by that time, the sky was fully lit, even though the sun would not be seen for another hour.
Spearhead is a spectacular chunk of rock. The North Ridge route ascends the long ridge that forms the northeast face.
I stopped at a small pond to fill my water bottles, take off my wet hiking sock, and give my right Achilles tendon a rest. It only took 5 minutes to complete my chores, and then I worked my way past some sleeping biviers to the start of the North Ridge route, where Brian was catching a few winks.
We started up at 7am. Brian was shivering after his grass nap and so took the first pitch to warm up.
Brian started up some easy rock and then moved left to cross a slab to get beneath the twin chimneys. I followed and was amazed to struggle on the slab traverse. I commented to Brian that perhaps he should have gone lower. Perhaps, my declining skills and tolerance for altitude just made the low 5th class rock feel hard.
I joined Brian beneath the left chimney and grabbed the gear.
First on the agenda was to look at the rappel sling someone had left behind at the top of the chimney. I always like to find biners and usable rock gear to use for own my escapes. But this was just a knotted sling stuck in a crack, and the water knot was tied with the tails so short that one has slid back into the knot. That sling had some bad karma; I left it behind.
I continued up the crack to reach a flaring dihedral .
Then I reached a 2nd flaring dihedral, this one had a wide crack in the middle. I used the left face as it had all the holds.
I continued up the ridge until I reached a ledge below a short crack. The rope was starting to feel heavy and my Achilles was demanding a sit-down rest. I took it.
I started Brian’s belay with 3 tugs, and then I enjoyed the spectacular view of Glacier Gorge. My eyes followed our approach path, winding up from below Bear Lake, past Mills Lake and continuing beneath Storm Peak, Thatchtop and Arrowhead to reach Black Lake, and then winding through the willows and drainage creeks to reach the foot of Spearhead. It was breathtaking.
And we had the peak to ourselves.
Brian arrived after a short while; we re-racked and then he left, heading further up the ridge
Brian scrambled up the ridge line with all apparent intentions of going further than he had rope. I gave him some rope tension to signal the impending ‘end of the line’. He quickly found a solid belay and then I followed after struggling to extract my bomber nuts in the belay anchor.
I followed up the exposed ridge and enjoyed the excellent views of Sykes Sickle and the great rock above us. The sun was finally beating down on us and my sweater and rain jacket started to feel like too much.
I reached Brian and requested I get in one of the photos, and then I started up.
Initially, I wandered left to take a new line, but the rock looked dirty and steep; I backed off. I went up the obvious weakness in the otherwise slabby rock directly above the 3rd belay. The climbing was rather easy and I was surprised when the rope ran out. I struggled to put in a good belay anchor, but was soon giving Brian a belay to my position.
He arrived quickly and then set off for the “big block” (Roach).
Brian made short work of the rather easy rock leading up to the base of the big block, and I followed quickly. As I approached, I recalled reading Roach describe that the standard route went right of the block to reach a ramp. But I was certain that we’d always gone left for some challenging (as I recalled) climbing.
It would be my pleasure to pick a line.
I asked Brian what he thought. Instead of left vs. right, he suggested a hard crack variation (further left) that we had done the last time we did the route. I had no memory of the crack variation at first, but once I saw it I remembered. And I remembered it was hard. Brian suggested that
I take the crack and belay near the top of the crack, for a 100 foot pitch; then he could take the last 100 feet to the summit, including the awesome step back to the ridge and ‘The Slot’ (Roach) leading to the top of the climb. Hmmm. Well, I did seem to recall that is the way he did it when he led it some years ago.
I worked up the left leaning crack underneath the roof. I had to choose between traversing left beneath the hard crack or continuing to the top of the roof before traversing left using a nice looking hand ledge. I picked the hand ledge.
I continued up and stood on top of the roof; it was a nice rest for my Achilles. Then I looked at the hand ledge and discovered it was not as ‘nice’ as I had perceived from below. I was still within talking distance from Brian, so I asked him what he remembered from his last visit. He seemed to recall putting in gear on the left; I’d missed the route. I felt I could make it, but I would have had to make a hardish, unprotected traverse to reach the bottom of the hard crack. I bailed on the idea.
I wasn’t terribly disappointed. I had mixed feelings to start with. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the hard crack anyway, and I was damn sure I didn’t want to give up my lead on the best part of the route. I called back down to Brian to tell him that I wouldn’t put in any more gear until I was above the hard crack so he could climb it, and that I would see how high I could get.
He nodded and sealed his fate.
I continued right across the roof to reach the bottom of the left leaning ramp. Then I worked my way back above the crack where I finally put in another piece of protection. I asked Brian how much rope; he indicated more than half.
How could I stop?
I looked up at the set of dihedral leading to the top and couldn’t tell which one I was suppose to climb. But I did know that I was supposed to reach the ridge at the top of the dihedral, so that meant I needed to climb the furthest left one. It started looking familiar, and I remembered climbing it easily in the past, but those days were gone (not forever I hope). I struggled up, and desperately searched for places to rest my Achilles. The only place I could find a rest was at the top of the corner with one foot on the either side of the ridge crest.
It had been my intention to belay below The Slot, but I couldn’t work out a good belay. Plus, I could see that the route only had 20′ to go. I decided to push on and explain later.
I stepped up and wedged myself in the slot, and found the climbing to be easier than I remembered. Before, I’d always had tremendous rope drag, like I was dragging a couple dudes behind me. But this time it was smooth sailing. Later I figured out it was because I didn’t place any gear on the ramp (to the right of the belay); a great lesson for the future.
I dragged my oxygen deprived body over the top, grinning like a Cheshire Cat. I set out to place an anchor but found the rack to be nearly empty of gear and slings; I guess I had been stressed a little bit. I managed to build a solid anchor out of a cam and a wedged ass, and then I pulled up the rope. I had at least 20 feet of slack!
I brought Brian up and was thinking about how I’d explain not leaving anything for him to lead. I was ready with my excuse, but he caught me so off-guard by cursing me while he was still doing the crux that I could only say, “I still had rope so it was technically my pitch.” I think I’m right about that.
Once at the top, I had intended to return to the summit, as we had done the first time we climbed Spearhead in 1997. But the weather wasn’t looking great, so after a short visual tour of the area, we started back down.
Rarely is a mountain summit a literal point, like the tip of a spear; but Spearhead was one of the rare ones. The top was so small, we had to take turns sitting on it (on our initial visit in 1997). And, to make it even more interesting, the top was shaped like a throne; it was a flat seat with a comfortable back and arm rests. It is the best seat in my RMNP palace. Feel free to use it if you stop by.
The descent was as bad as I recalled, but we made it down without incident.
Once at the bottom of the route where we’d left our packs, our first order of duty at Spearhead was to confirm that our lunch survived our absence. This is the only real difficulty with Spearhead….there are no trees and so no obvious way to secure the food. On our first climb in 1997, Brian tried to hang his lunch from a steep part of a large boulder; a marmot ate the sandwich and most of the plastic bag. This forced me to give up one of my food bars and Brian to gag it down. On our third visit, crows got into my pack (they unzipped my top compartment) to get my food bars; I don’t remember what Brian shared with me to power me home.
This time Brian resorted to burying his lunch beneath a heavy rock while I carried my bars to the summit. And we each managed to eat the lunch we brought from home.
I also did my normal ‘what time do you think it is?’ contest. Brian guessed 12:30pm; I thought it had to be later, so I guessed 1:30pm. After digging my watch from my pack, I could see it was 12:23pm. Brian has a very good internal clock.
We had now climbed the North Ridge route on Spearhead 4 times. It is a classic.
The rain and hail did catch us on the hike out, but we survived it. The last part of the hike out felt like a death march, and my joints were killing me. My knees are old foes, and my ankles were in revolt as well. And my feet were destroyed by stupidity.
We made it back at 3:30pm for a 11.5 hours round trip, only 30 minutes longer than our first effort 13 years earlier. But I was hurting pretty badly; I forced Brian to stop on the drive out so I could soak my legs in the creek for a while. ’Awhile’ in running, freezing water turned out to be 3 minutes. But it was good for what ailed me.
I may get into shape yet.
Maybe next week we’ll do the Spiral Route on Notchtop.