Wham!

Hike to Wham

Rocky Mountain National Park is my favorite playground.  And, I am not alone in feeling that way.  The secret to finding great alpine adventure unspoiled by throngs of people in RMNP is to start early and to seek out the rock less climbed. This trip report is about reaching a bit too far, a bit too casually to climb Wham, the ugly twin of the Zowie pinnacle on Otis Peak.

Anyone climbing Sharkstooth or Andrews Glacier has seen the fantastic pinnacles hanging off the south side of Otis Peak. Most people just keep on going, but I and a few others have had the pleasure of climbing Zowie. It is a smaller version of the Petit Grepon with the same exposure and great climbing, but with far fewer people competing for a place in line (generally, none) and a good deal less rock to climb to reach the top. I’ve climbed it three times whereas I’ve only climbed the superior Petit twice due to justifiable fear of crowds.

And to avoid lawsuits for lack of disclosure, I’ll mention that there is something terrible about Andrews Creek below Zowie that facilitates the birthing of massive clouds of mosquitoes. One trip in particular represented the worst mosquito event in my life, and I grew up in South Florida. I still blame that day for my serious bout of West Nile Virus in 2003.  Consider yourself warned.

Approach to Zowie & Wham

On our last visit to Zowie in the summer of 2003, Brian and I gazed over at Wham, Zowie’s next door neighbor, and agreed that we should do it before returning for another ascent of Zowie. Brian broached the subject in September of that year, but I was afraid it was a loose mess and didn’t want to waste a day.  Nearly a year later, Brian’s persistence paid off and we selected Wham for the Saturday, August 7, 2004.

The only worry was that Wham would be too short and easy (5.7) to fill the day; the plan was to bag Wham and then re-climb Zowie (5.8+).

August 6, 2004
Joe:
How about Wham tomorrow?  It’s fairly short.  If we’re feeling fast maybe we could redo Zowie afterwards.
Brian

For better or worse, Wham turned out to be more than an appetizer.

We left Boulder at 3:30am for RMNP.  We started hiking at 4:50am and quickly made our way up the trail toward Loch Vale and then Andrews Glacier before turning off the trail just after leaving the trees.

The start of Wham

We crossed Andrew Creek and ascended toward Zowie, winding our way through the trees and small cliffs. Once out of the trees, we aimed toward Wham and made our way to the gully between Zowie and Wham.  This was infrequently visited terrain; there were no clues about the start. We figured the real start was on top of the shoulder, so we just took the nearest nice looking line that led there.

Reaching the shoulder, we found it was covered in dwarfish trees.  Brian remembers it as a “big shoulder plagued by trees”.   We had to bushwhack our way to the base of the pinnacle; the trees grabbed the rope so badly Brian had to untie before bushwacking. We should have tried to climb directly to the spot where the pillar meets the shoulder.

Finally, we could start the climb.  The guidebook merely said to go up the South Face; over the years we’ve mostly found that to mean it is obvious, but other times it has meant the guidebook author doesn’t know (didn’t do the climb).  We hoped for the “it is obvious” option, but it wasn’t. I remember sitting down and studying the rock, but I couldn’t figure out where the 5.7 line was or even how to get off the ground without performing death-defying acts. In a desperate effort to save the day, I offered the notion of bailing and climbing Zowie instead.

Brian refused to be denied.

Brian recalls:

From the runt trees, the line was a not-too-steep dihedral with a few loose-looking holds.  Again and again I started on it just to find that it magically steepened at my touch.  Each time, I came down and looked at the even steeper route to the left, then discarded that idea.  That one just looked very sustained with no chance of success.  Finally we were ready to bail, and I decided we might as well risk one tricam on the left line.

Sure, the line seemed impossible, but the placement was bomber, so why not?

I hoisted myself up and stared at the next 3 feet.  Hmm, more good cracks, Ok, we’ll just risk one more nut so I can see around the corner.  And on it went for the next 30 minutes and 120 feet, until I looked at the depleted rack and relenting angle of the face and realized the we were actually going to make it.  Not only that, but we’d get our rack back, too.  All I had to do was somehow scratch out a belay and haul Joe and the metal up.

The last pitch was easier, but just as dramatic as the face sharpened up into a ridge of bouldery steps.  That was the best pitch, knowing that nothing could stop us.

Our winding route up the South Face of Wham. Photo taken from Zowie.

We made it. But it sure didn’t feel like 5.7. Maybe we didn’t do the correct route, but we sure tried to do so.

We sat on the summit for a while enjoying our success on our unexpected adventure.  Clearly, we wouldn’t be visiting Zowie.

When it was time to head down, I dug out my notes on the descent I collected from my old Gillette guide (the one I swore I would never use again after my fiasco on Northcutt-Carter):

Several long rappels west into gully.

I looked over the edge to the west.  It looked like a long, long way down — too long even for a double rope rap. Brian and I looked around for a better line but couldn’t find one. I said I’d go down and take a look, hoping to find something, anything.  I rappelled over the edge and spent 30 minutes working around from the west to the north side before finally finding a decent spot on the north side to build a rap station for the 2nd rappel.  Brian recalls:

Joe rapped down the left side and then spent a half hour looking for the next rap while I was on top wondering what the heck was going on.

But we still weren’t out of it. We couldn’t figure out how to get back to the base. We hiked around to the West side, thinking that the 3rd rap must be there.  But we found nothing useful.  It was all loose, steep rock split by a big ledge that provided only false hope for an escape.

We went back to the North side again and carefully worked our way down the gully leading west (toward Zowie) below the ledge. It required a couple 4th class downclimb moves, but it went.

Then we scrambled south toward the bottom of the gully between Zowie and Wham. The terrain was serious enough to require a belay for the final 100 feet to reach the edge of the final cliff where we found a rap anchor with an ancient biner that seemed to be made of lead (heavy, soft metal).  I replaced it with a modern aluminum biner and we escaped to the base of the climb.

Naturally, the rope got stuck and required some delicate scrambling among loose rocks. It was a relief to finally escape the grasp of that little pinnacle that we had so little respect for a mere 8 hours earlier.

The path less traveled sometimes leads to some serious shit (see all axioms).

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