It was one of those things that gets into your head and you just have to do it. When I first heard of it, I wanted to do all or at least a lot of the 50 climbs listed in the Fifty Classic Climbs Of North America (a climbing guidebook and history) written by Steve Roper & Alan Steck in 1979. Out of all the climbs in North America, the best 50; the ultimate tick list. Since two of them were within my reach as a climber and nearby my house (in Boulder), I wanted to start as soon as possible.
The Colorado Climbs within “The Fifty”
- Hallett Peak, Northcutt-Carter Route III 5.7  (in RMNP; top of my list for a while)
- Petit Grepon, South Face III 5.8 (in RMNP; had done once before)
- Longs Peak, The Diamond, D1, V 5.11 (in RMNP, but too hard; did “Casual Route” instead)
- Crestone Needle, Ellingwood Ledges III 5.7
Brian wasn’t crazy about the list (he is too anti-establishment to follow someone else’s list), but he did want to do the Petit Grepon and was willing to re-do Northcutt Carter; so, for next two weekends in 1997, we agreed to focus on 2 of the 50 classic climbs: Petit Grepon & Northcutt Carter.
Petit Grepon (August 30)
It probably wasn’t the smartest plan, to climb the most popular rock climb in RMNP on the busiest weekend of the year (labor day). I guess we just didn’t think of it in time to start the “classic” program earlier and couldn’t wait any longer with the changing season. And, the Petit climb is long enough (8 pitches = 5-8 hours, depending on difficulty and avg length of pitch) compared to the daylight hours before the probable rain (7am to somewhere between noon-2pm = 5-7 hours) such that we had to be first on the climb or expect to fail. [Note: learning to climb faster was another option, but it would take too long to get ready.]
Another complication was the planning for the descent. The details we could find on returning to the base of the climb were too vague and included ugly descriptions of a “death gully”. So we agreed to escape over “The Gash” as I had done a few years earlier with my CMC rock climbing class, and descend down the Sharkstooth approach. But, this meant we had to carry everything with us on the climb. It is never ideal to carry everything up the rock, but sometimes that is the best or only way to do it; the obvious key is to not bring too much.
The fact that we couldn’t get a bivy permit worked well with this detail. We bring very little, start very early, and blast up the trail to be first on the rock. In reality, we figured we’d be tip-toeing past the sleeping climbers to beat them to the rock. It was a great plan.
We hit the trail at 4am and got in line. It was crowded like I had never seen it before in the pre-dawn hours. We put it into high gear and passed everyone and got to the rock ahead first. One group of sleepy climbers tried to pull themselves together quickly as we passed by, but it was too late; we were first on the rock. “I love it when a plan comes together.” (Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, A-Team)
To make sure we stayed in front, we skipped the initial pitch by scrambling up the west-side talus to reach a ledge which we used to traverse back to the South Face III 5.8 climb.
Still in a race to be first or at least not hold up anyone else, we quickly got ready for the next part of the day. After putting on more clothing (we wouldn’t be burning calories like we did on the hike in) including rock shoes and harness, organizing the climbing gear & ropes, and eating a quick breakfast (a couple bits and a swig of water), we packed away everything else we brought into our small packs.
And, then, without another glance back at the climbers jostling for position, we started up.
- Traversed right to reach the giant chimney in the center of the face
- Exited the “cave” to the left and climbed to a large ledge below another, but smaller chimney
- Climbed the chimney, then traverse right to a belay below the right end of a roof
- Moved right and then climbed a steep crack, into a left-facing corner with a finger crack (crux), and continued up and right to a ledge on the east side of the Petit Grepon
- Climbed up, then right and then left to a small stance on the southeast arete. I believe this spot is called the “Pizza Pan” belay
- Climbed a crack above the belay to a ledge, and then up the wall. Belayed on ridgeline
- Followed the ridge to the teeny tiny summit
- Enjoyed the spectacular views of the world from the sofa-sized summit while resisting an urge to lay flat on the rock
It was incredible; the summit was a 10×30 diving board offering lots of air time before the sudden end. The summit was so small that I had to look at my feet when I stood upright to keep my balance; the ground was outside of my peripheral vision. And the fear of falling off was somehow magnified by this phenomenon. When I sat down, I thought I could feel the rock swaying, which brought on fears of the rock breaking off. It was the coolest place I’ve ever been, and getting down right away felt important and promised to be interesting.
We looked around for rap anchors and found a good set on the back side (NE corner). We then scrambled up a deep chimney to the north to reach the Sharkstooth side of “The Gash.” From there we descended back down the Sharkstooth approach. Once we reached the the Loch Vale lake, we found the crowds again; the trails were packed elbow to elbow; it was horrific. Welcome to Labor Day weekend at RMNP.
But the weather stayed perfect the entire day: clear skies, warm temperature, no wind, and after 11 hours, we made it back to the parking lot. We got back so early that a Ranger questioned us intently to see if we had done an illegal bivy. All we had to do was point at our tiny packs to prove we didn’t do so.
One classic down, and one to go.
Northcutt Carter (September 6)
Then it was time for my test-piece. And I was scared for a number of reasons. At the top of the list, the route was famous for route-finding disasters; a rating of 5.7 was only true if you could stay on route. Undoubtedly, the actual difficulty would be harder. Another was that I had never climbed on Hallett Peak before; I just hadn’t worked up the courage yet. If I could overcome my fear and successfully climb Northcutt Carter, if I could pass the test, then I could call myself a real climber. Well, that’s how it felt, anyway.
To combat the legendary route-finding difficulty, I studied my copy of Bernard Gillett’s High Peaks, 1st edition (the importance of this detail will become clear later) more carefully than ever before. And, of course, I made a photocopy of the topo and route description to remind should I become confused.
Just as the week before, we were planning on climbing a very popular route. And this time, the weather report promised bad weather in the afternoon. We needed to get an early start and move fast to make it. Yet, since the approach was far shorter, we slept in a bit; my alarm didn’t go off until 3am.
We hit the trail from the Bear Lake parking lot at just after 5am and took only 30 minutes to reach Emerald Lake. It was still dark so we couldn’t see how far we had to go. I thought we might have started too early, but we didn’t reach the bottom of Northcutt Carter until 6:45am. And once again, we were the first to arrive; and we didn’t waste any time getting started by scrambling up the broken rock to the right of a break in the “white band” to reach the bottom of the climb.
Brian took the first pitch, and climbed a corner for about 1/2 a rope before moving a bit left and climbing up a slabby rock.
We were swapping pitches, so the 2nd pitch was mine. I took out my topo for a quick refresher; Gillett said, “go straight up a crack, then move a bit right to the belay.” Unfortunately, the guide book was wrong! Mr. Gillett was describing what Rossiter calls the “Faux Pas” route…a common mistake on Northcutt-Carter. Of course, I didn’t know this until I later bought a copy of Rossiter’s book.
As directed by Gillett, I started straight up and then passed a roof. It was pretty hard (turned out to be 5.8), so I figured I did something wrong; the pitch was only rated 5.4.
As I looked up I could see a couple pins with some gear left behind. Booty! I scrambled up to claim it without a thought to why someone would have bailed at that point. And then it started to really get hard. With the rock still a bit wet and the terrain now a bit overhanging, I was in trouble.
I kept making progress, but I was wearing out. I found an unlikely leg jam that I could hang on with no hands. That gave me a life-saving rest.
The rock was overlapping plates of rock like tiles on a roof…the pieces of rock were loose and the downward slope of the rock plates didn’t offer much to hold on to. While I struggled to find the right piece of gear, one of the loops on Brian’s gearsling broke and sent the two large cams into oblivion.
Running out of gear and strength, I took to hanging on the pro to gather enough strength to make it another few feet. But eventually I made it.
After Brian came up, we both were very confused about the route. We couldn’t begin to think of how we got off-route. But since the belay looked right, we decided to push on.
Brian took the third pitch. The rock all looked similar (the reason for the route-finding difficulties for many); following his nose, he took the original line of Northcutt-Carter, which was a bit to the left of the route we were trying to follow. We had to simul-climb a bit so he could reach a good anchor.
I had no idea where the route went. I continued up the line until I got to a good belay stance in an alcove; the route didn’t seem to go anywhere from where I was; I hoped that Brian could find the route.
Brian thought he knew where to go and traversed far right to link up with the route. Once at the belay together, we both felt confident we had re-acquired the route. This was the good news; the bad news was that the rain had started.
I continued up toward a chimney and then climbed the chimney. I saw a great belay spot and got to within 3 feet of it when I ran out of rope. I had to jam my foot in a crack for balance while I struggled to find a place for one of the last pieces of gear remaining. I then clipped a long sling to that questionable piece of gear and lowered myself to a sloping ledge where I could find a good placement for my last cam.
My anchor contained 1 good cam, a questionable tricam & my ass on a ledge; I wasn’t happy, but I was out of options. I gave the rope 3 tugs and hoped Brian wouldn’t fall on the slippery rocks. I sat in the rain wondering how we would get out with our lives.
Brian didn’t fall.
Brian slowly crept up the wet rock while I froze in a freezing rain. By the time he reached the top, I was a stiff, wet fool. But since Brian was at the top, we were going to make it…I could just fall up the rest of the way. Retaining a bit of pride, I managed to reach the top without resorting to falling. And once I started to thaw out, my fingers hurt like the devil was eating them.
The descent gully was very hard to find. Brian had been in it once the year before but I had never been on Hallett’s north face. We eventually found something awful that Brian was certain was the right gully, and we started down. I didn’t believe we were in the right place until climbers descending above us nearly killed us in a rock fall. Eventually we reached the bottom and spent 40 minutes fruitlessly looking for the fallen gear.
After a fruitless search we gave up and hiked out to go eat. We reached the car at 7pm for a 14 hour day, and then went into Estes Park for a Mexican Food celebration. I felt that I had accomplished something important, but that was the end of my obsession with the Classic 50; just too many great things to do close to home. And, while 2 of 50 isn’t really a great accomplishment; not finishing the list at all seems to be rather common. According to Wikipedia, no one has ever done all 50; perhaps everyone has too many good things to do nearby home.
That was also the end of my use of Gillett’s guidebook; I’ve used Rossiter’s book ever since. I’ve heard that Gillett fixed that mistake in his 2nd edition, but I wouldn’t know for sure as I never bought it; some mistakes are simply unforgivable.
It is worth noting that it was good that we got Northcutt-Carter done when we did. A few years later (I believe 1999), the bottom 2 pitches fell off the face into a pile of rubble at the base of the climb. Northcutt-Carter was dead.
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