Petit Grepon: 14 Years Later


Me (right) and Mark (left) and Jim on the Sharkstooth summit in 1992, shown here instead of the 1993 Petit summit photo which has been lost to the ages.

Ah, The Petit.  It was the second rock climb I ever did in RMNP (07/04/1993), back when I lived in the Flatlands and dreamed for 12 months at a time for my next high peaks adventure. I climbed the Petit with my Chicagoland friends, Mark & Jim (summit photo lost to the Ages) after a high altitude bivy beneath the stars .  It was a scary, wonderful experience that weighed heavily on my decision three years later to move to Colorado.

I repeated that climb in 1997 as a part of a bargain with Brian who wanted to climb the Petit while I wanted to climb Northcutt-Carter.  We agreed to do both to further our mutual progress on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.

And, then, out of the blue, fourteen years later, Brian said, “I’ve been thinking about doing the Petit again.”  Hell, yes!  Why haven’t we been back?  It was a plan.

I remember back in the pre-internet days, route information was hard to come by.  But these days, the trick is sorting through the noise to find the information.  In this particular case, I had only to dig out my old trip report to confirm what I already knew….the key to climbing The Petit Grepon, 17 and 14 years ago was to arrive before the crowds show up to climb one of the most popular climbs in North America.

Early Bird Tenet: early starters get the best parking spots, the best trail and snow conditions, the most comfortable temperatures for exercising hard, the least lightning, and the highest success rates

~ CliffsNotes: Rules, Laws, etc.

A view of Petit Grepon and South Face (5.8) route. Taken after descent.

My old trip report indicated that we started hiking at 4am, which today meant leaving the house at 2:30am, and rolling out of bed at 1:45am. And then I remembered why we haven’t been back to the Petit in 14 years. Ugh.

Oh well.  The only thing worse than getting up at 1:45am to do a rock climb is getting up at 1:46am, committing to a 10 mile hike, waiting on the rock for hours for slow climbers to move, and then having to bail because of weather.  I set two alarms and then woke up 10 minutes early.  July 23rd, 2011 had begun.

We left Boulder right on time (for a change) and arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 4am to find a 1/3rd full lot.  As if we needed reminding, it was time to haul ass.  We pushed hard the entire way, passing 2 parties along the way to Sky Pond. To match my previous efforts (done in a 35-year old body), I had to put my full spinning-induced fitness to work.

As we neared the Petit Grepon in the early light, we could not see or hear anyone ahead of us.  Our ‘start early and hike fast’ plan worked again.  The old strategies are the best strategies, it is said.

1st Pitch (“Why Bother?”):

Brian approaching the top of the 4th pitch

Since the bottom part of the climb was wet, and not very interesting looking in any case, we decided to skip it and hike up the left side of the Petit to reach the ‘1st Terrace’ (a big grassy ledge at the bottom of the giant chimney).  It was rather easy route finding, but the climb was quasi-technical in my boots.  I’d call it hard 4th class.  But it was fast.  We reached the bottom of the giant chimney at a little before 6am.

That’s when we noticed the climbers already 2 pitches up.  Now that was an early start.   They were far enough ahead that we didn’t figure they’d factor into our day, and we were almost right.

2nd pitch (“The Giant Chimney”):

I took the giant chimney pitch so Brian would have the crux pitch without interrupting our pitch swapping.  The “chimney” was big, cavernous and chilly in the early morning, and the climbing was mostly dodging around chock stones or steep face moves on the left side.  It appeared dirty looking but the holds were solid and clean from frequent use. The pitch finished by passing the second of two large chock stones to the left, and setting a belay on top (approx. 150′).

The holds were so positive (5.6), in fact, that I was tempted into hauling legs rather than stepping up. It was a mistake possible to make on many of the pitches on the Petit, and one that would pay dividends for me later it the day.

3rd pitch (“The Bombing Range”):

Brian took the 3rd pitch, climbing up the left side of chimney and exiting the top of the chimney to the left (dodging the roof), into a steep hand crack (5.7). The crescent crack was offwidth-sized, but there was little need for crack technique.  Its jagged interior was  a source of fun holds to go with the foot edges on the wall to the left.  It soon turned into a steep but easy chimney which spit us out onto the second terrace.  Like most of the belay ledges, this one was shaped like a drain, designed to funnel plentiful loose rocks directly onto the pitch below.

I followed and made ready for leading the 4th pitch when a sharp whistling sound arrived an instant before a big rock (about 12 inches cubed) falling from far above hit like a bomb 15 feet from us.  It scared the crap out of us and spooked us with the reminder that random death was so close.

It is criminally negligent for climbers to knock down big rocks that would mean instant death (as Brian pointed out, “Helmets wouldn’t have helped with that rock”).  We’d have to be extra careful, until Beavis and Butthead were no longer overhead.

4th pitch (“The 2-Pin Belay”):

Brian at the top of the 5th pitch with Sky Pond far below

I took the 4th pitch, which started up into a roof-less chimney through which I could see the knife-edge summit ridge.  This had 20 feet of easy chimney, but then returned to STEEP.  Never hard, but a sustained face.   Near the top, the line angled right to reach a right-facing dihedral below the left edge of a shallow, sharp-edged roof. From the dihedral, I followed a short ramp to reach a belay below the right edge of the roof, where I found two pitons. The belay ledge was nothing more than a sloping ramp with room for one belayer, one itinerant climber and no guests.  But at least it was clean.

5th pitch (“The Crux”):

The crack overhead (5.9+) seemed obvious, but we followed common advice and 14-year old memories to the run-out right.  Slabby feet and hard-to-see finger edges took us right, then up and back over the belay to the first pro:  a flaring TCU hole and small stoppers.  Yuck, but only 5.6.

Better holds and a vertical finger crack brought us to the “v-slot” where another clean crack separated two smooth walls.  A couple crack moves later we pulled out of the slot onto flatter ground followed by the belay ledge.  This had the usual funnel-shape, and it would be the last of the grassy ones.

I had strong memories of the crux section…that might have been from my first climb 17 years earlier.  It was really the only thing I thought I remembered from either previous climb. But my memory was nothing like the climb, and the climbing was also harder than I remembered. Heck, I was grateful to not be leading it.  

When I crawled out onto the grassy ledge on the east side of the pinnacle, I was careful not to repeat the rock fall that the earlier team has produced.  This looked to be the source, with lots of loose rocks, small and large.


A view of the upper pitches (photo taken on descent)

6th pitch (The “Pizza Pan Belay”)

The 6th pitch was mine.  Once again I had zero memory of it. The route description said to go up and right and then go back left to reach the arête. So, I started up and right, following the easy ground.  After I passed below a large detached flake, I decided it was time to start back to the left.  I was torn between moving back over the flake or climbing the off-width crack formed by the right edge of the flake.  Even though the off-width crack looked dirty, it looked interesting plus I thought I could work back left after the flake.

It worked, although was a bit thinner I expected as I worked to reach a crack that led to a small ledge that extended to the arête.  I wasn’t sure that this was the ‘pizza pan’ belay at first but stopped because it was a good spot for a belay.  Later, I noticed the triangular ledge jutting out from the ridge (at my feet) that was approximately the area (but not the shape) of a large pizza, and finally noticed the piton above my head that I had failed to use in the belay anchor

Brian says:

We were now on the east side of the PG and would only occasionally visit the south face again, as it changed from a narrowing face into an overhanging arete.  Like most of the next 3 pitches, we had to wander through the wide east face following out-of-sight handholds and brief weaknesses, hoping to find the next belay ledge.  Joe’s lead seemed a bit far to the right, jamming the right edge of a huge detached flake before sliding over thinner face moves to attack the pizza pan belay hanging on the arête.  Restacking gear while dangling 800 feet over Sky Pond was a challenge.  Joe offered to surrender the big cam out of the anchor, but I preferred to have him in as solid as could be.  The cam also turned out to be holding 100 feet of rope stored in loops.

7th pitch (“The Sacrifice”)

The view of Pitch 7 from the 'Pizza Pan'

Back on the arête, the wide edges were gone, replaced by nubbins, hooky points, cracks and stems, all clean, solid and steep.  After 20 feet the route dodged left into a crystal-filled chimney that took us back onto the east face.

Brian took the 7th pitch which was supposed to be longest pitch on the route Brian noticed that the team below us was catching up and would soon be joining me at the Pizza Pan belay (where there was absolutely no room).  I think this factored into his thinking to shorten the pitch to 100′ when he arrived at the 1st good belay ledge.

The climbing was once again hard as the start felt like a 2nd crux, although now the problem was my hands were giving out after hours of leg hauling. Still, the position was spectacular:  almost 1000 feet of air below my feet, climbing along the knife-edge arete.

8th pitch (“The Knife Edge”)

This is the part everyone sees from Sky Pond and can’t believe that it’s the route.  When you’re on it, it’s too steep to plan your line, and there’s no major features to discern except up.  But the holds are all there, often thick edges, many times positive, sometimes requires deft sidepulls.  Pro gets a bit thin, and the route touches the arête near the top

A quick calculation confirmed that I could finish the climb on the 8th pitch; adding the 60′ of the normal 7th pitch to the standard 80-90′ of the 8th pitch meant I would have the longest pitch of the route.  I was delighted while also hopeful that my arms would hold out. Surely the climbing difficultly would ease, right?  No.

The pitch started with a 10-foot lay back finger crack that I took a few minutes to figure out.  When I finally committed to it, I counted on finding a hold to pull myself up to stand on top of a large (12″ square) platform but found nothing.  So, I was left with a balancy move that I regretted needing.

Joe enjoying a moment of satisfaction on the Petit summit

From there I moved straight up to a nice ledge below the ridge line (after it flatten out), which I figured was the normal 7th pitch belay.  I stepped up to continue directly to the ridge (as I thought proper) but paused to noticed that there was no pro or holds above me. Out of self-preservation, I decided to down climb a bit and then move right to find better ground.  This area was passable and led me to the ridge line which I followed to the always spectacular summit, which turned out to be the only thing on the entire climb that I remembered.  Oh, the ravages of age!

The summit (“The Teeny, Tiny Platform in the Sky”)

I brought Brian up and we once again marveled at the uniqueness of the Petit’s summit.  Over the years somewhere I misplaced my fear of heights; so this time the summit did not feel like it was about to fall over or that I might simply fall off.  But it is really something to experience every few years.

Brian on the 'far' end of the summit

It was approximately Noon, so we had taken 6 hours to do 8 pitches.  Not bad, but 6 hours is a long time in the high country without a drink of water.  We couldn’t stay long, and didn’t try.

The Descent (“Let’s Leave the Boots”)

A rappel descent is always a 2-edged sword:  little or no physical effort is always attractive, but the added risks of rappelling error, anchor failure and failure to find anchors makes for a bit of extra stress.  A 6-part rappel makes the problem larger by somewhere between 6 times and to the 6th power.

We made it and can recommend the rap route highly.  It was put together very well, but the necessarily twisting route means that the anchors are not simply below you.  We found it important to review the directions for finding each anchor just prior to each rappel.

The only problem we had was the infuriating tendency for the ropes to tie them selves into knots when tossed.  Fortunately, we noticed the knots before becoming stranded while dangling in mid-air, and we resorted to feeding the ropes over the edge.  The ropes didn’t often make it far down the wall, but they no longer became tangled.

Still, it took us 2 hours to descend the 6 rappels.  It was the longest continuous rappelling effort of my life.

We did pause briefly on the 1st Terrace to pack up & drink our water.  We had gone without water for 8 hours at that point.

There could be no delay in the consumption of water.

The rappel route from the summit of the Petit to the base...leave your hiking shoes and pack on the ground

We took our time getting out.  We started with a dash for a water fill-up and then ‘skied’ down a snow field to Sky Pond that we skirted to link-up with the hiking trail.  We took some photos, admired the beautiful rocks of the area, and eventually worked our way down long enough to allow the iodine pills to dissolve.  We stopped at 3pm below the waterfall marking the transition to the Loch Vale level to eat lunch and consume every drop of liquid we felt confident wouldn’t make us sick.

The hike out went easily for a change.  We reached Brian’s truck at 4pm for a 12 hour round trip….only 1 hour longer than our time 14-years earlier.

Brian gazes upon the Petit after acquiring more water

Thus ended another great day in Rocky Mountain National Park.  And, a big ‘Thanks‘ to Brian for contributing mightily to the story.

See all RMNP trip reports

See all trip reports

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