Archive for the ‘Alpine Rock’ Category

Spearhead Bootcamp

June 29, 2010

A dark Spearhead in the distance

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.

The beautiful terrain of Glacier Gorge

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.

A snowy barrier below Black Lake

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.

My first good view of Spearhead for the day. The North Ridge route ascends the right hand boundary of the broad face in the photo.

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.

Brian catching a few winks at the bottom of Spearhead's North Ridge

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.

Pitch 1

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.

Brian leading the 1st pitch of Spearhead's North Ridge

I joined Brian beneath the left chimney and grabbed the gear.

Pitch 2

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.

Above the 2nd pitch

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 arrives at the end of the 2nd pitch

Pitch 3

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.

Joe (me) at the 3rd belay, about to start the 4th pitch.

I reached Brian and requested I get in one of the photos, and then I started up.

Pitch 4

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).

Pitch 5

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.

Above the 3rd pitch

It would be my pleasure to pick a line.

Pitch 6

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.

The view above the 4th belay with Brian near the 5th belay and a route line drawn to indicate the 6th pitch

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.

The start of the 5th pitch, heading left of the block overhead

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.

Brian nearing the top of the 6th pitch

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.

Our view from near the top of Spearhead

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.

Spearhead approach & hike out

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.

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The Stone Man Project

June 5, 2010

Three years before, in the Summer of 2002, Brian and I used the Stone Man Pass to scramble out of Glacier Gorge in RMNP on our way to the Double Crown of Chiefs Head and Mount Alice. While hiking past the famous Stone Man, Brian, out of the blue, speculated on the difficulty of climbing the Stone Man pinnacle.

The Stone Man from low on McHenry

While perhaps admitting to a lack of imagination, the question caught me off-guard to the extent that would musing over what marmots think about when not raiding unattended backpacks.  I mean, who in their right mind would hike 6 miles each way and ascend 3,200 feet of elevation gain in order to do a 40-foot rock climb?

View from Spearhead

Still, I did take a quick look.  My judgment was it looked upper 5th class if it went, and it might not go; and no guarantees about getting down, either.  Brian figured it was easy. Whatever.

I put the notion out of my mind in the years since; Brian did not.

In August of 2005, as Brian and I were going through our weekly “what are we going to do this weekend” exercise, Brian suggested we finally go see about climbing the Stone Man.  The implication was that it’s been next on his/our list for some time.  In some situations, this call would require an official/judicial ruling.  But, our adventuring partnership is based on a choose-and-let-choose philosophy, meaning that when one of us really wants to do something, the other will generally agree. And since I didn’t have a better idea, Project Stone Man was a go.

The plan was to hike 5 miles to reach Black Lake, scramble 1800 feet from Black Lake to reach the top of Stone Man pass, and then figure out a way to climb 40 feet of technical rock climbing to stand atop the Stone Man.  Whoo Hoo! Well, it would at least be a good hike into beautiful terrain; no doubt a better day than that of 99% of the population.

We started hiking right at 6am and made okay time reaching Black Lake at 8:00am; 2.5 mph at 288 feet per mile is 720 feet of altitude gain per hour while covering 5 miles — good enough while carrying rock gear.  (See hiking pace discussion).

My hiking speed chart

After a short water break, we left Black Lake for the shortcut to Stone Man Pass heading west beneath Arrowhead.  After a lengthy scramble up the steep grass and cliffy slope, we reached the bench above Black Lake; we then turned south to head underneath McHenry toward Stone Man Pass. We reached the top of Stone Man pass around 10:00am.

After a short break, we began our exploration of the base of the Stone Man, looking for a probable line of attack.

We started on the ridgeline and started going around the Stone Man counter-clockwise. In my eyes, it still looked hard. Once we made it around the the north face, we found a probable line…at least a line that would go to within 5 feet of the top.  Brian said he’d do it; he grabbed the rack and started up.

Our climbing route to the summit of the Stone Man (the dashed line indicates the route view is obstructed)

It turned out to be only a 20-foot climb, so I didn’t bother to get comfortable. After 10 minutes, Brian yelled back down that it went. He said there was a single tricky, hard to protect move; then he went for it.  And he was on top.

He yelled down that it would take a bit of time to set up a belay. I didn’t know what to make of that but did what I could do; I waited.

I watched from below as Brian flipped the cordellette a few times to get it all the way around the Stone Man’s head.  Then he yelled out that I was on belay.

I followed his route, admiring the quality of the few moves it required. And then I was standing below the summit and studying the exposed move that Brian had made to accomplish his (our) goal. I repeated it, and then I was on the summit as well. It was an admirably exposed summit, but not a good place to spend the rest of your life.

View of Stone Man route from Spearhead

When I looked around, I noticed that the cordellette was the only anchor. Brian informed me that it was the only thing he could find for protection, and asked me if it was okay that we sacrificed it (the cordellette was mine). Well, I did want to go home eventually, so I complied.

We rappelled back to the base and started back down. We started following cairns down the east slope (toward Spearhead & Longs), simply curious to see if the path would lead us back to the basin below McHenrys. It was a winding route, but far superior to the nasty Stoneman Pass route.  It worked! Since we were in an adventurous mood, I suggested we try the waterfall descent route Brian had mentioned as a possibility some years earlier.

Brian was game, and we angled directly for Black Lake and the top of its major waterfall.

The ascent and descent routes from the Stone Man, seen from Blue Lake area

The descent was a bit more dramatic than I expected. The climb down into the waterfall notch was easy enough; but once into the notch, the passage got thin and steep.  It was worth doing, but not superior to the scramble up to or down from the bench above and west of Black Lake.

A view from summit of Arrowhead of alternate descent to Black Lake

A short scramble led us back to Black Lake and another short rest, and then 5 miles back to the car for the 1 hour drive back to Boulder.

Brian insisted on replacing my cordelette and so we drove to Neptunes to buy 30 feet of 6mm cord.

Despite my early lack of enthusiasm, The Stone Man Project turned out to be a worthy adventure.  My only regret is our having to leave a cord where it can be seen. I hope the sun and weather beat that cord down quickly.

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May 20, 2010

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
How about Wham tomorrow?  It’s fairly short.  If we’re feeling fast maybe we could redo Zowie afterwards.

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).

17-Hour Saber

May 1, 2010

It had already been a full summer, and it was only July 11 of 1998.  I had been hitting the rocks hard since my early June summit on Mount of the Holy Cross, and had done a number of hard climbs at Lumpy Ridge, Eldorado Canyon, Red Rocks (NV).  I was in good rock climbing form and looking for good routes; and what could be better than a Layton Kor Route?

Brian was angling again for his notion to visit Vedauvoo for some hard crack climbing; but I had my eye on The Saber, Kor Route:  11 pitches, 5.9. Brian is an easy mark for classic climbs in RMNP.

We knew it would be a long day with darkness at both ends. We tried to start early enough, hitting the road from Boulder at 4am.  Still, when we arrived at the (old Glacier Gorge) parking lot a little after 5am, it was 1/3 full already anyway.  Still, it was odd that we didn’t see anyone on the trail; either they were fast hikers or they arrived the night before for bivies in Glacier Gorge and Loch Vale.

From the parking lot, we hiked up the trail for 2 hours to cover the 3.5 miles to Sky Pond.  As we arrived, we could see The Saber sitting between the Petit Grepon and the Foil, towering over both and Sky Pond. We couldn’t afford a break yet as we had already lost a bit of daylight that we’d never get back. (Sunrise: 5:42 AM Sunset: 8:29 PM Day Length: 14h 47m 19s).

A view from below The Saber of the 'Kor Route' which Layton Kor put up in 1962.

Layton Kor did the initial ascent of The Sabor  in 1962 during a period of time during which he put up many great climbs, including a few that I’ve been able to enjoy:

  • Yellow Spur, Rosy Crucifixion, Calypso, Ruper, and West Buttress in Eldorado Canyon State Park
  • Kor’s Flake & Pear Buttress in Lumpy Ridge, Estes Park
  • Satan’s Slab & Southeast Arete on the 2nd Flatiron in the Boulder Flatirons
  • The Owl in Boulder Canyon

The initial name for the Kor Route was The Saber, which was some years later stolen to provide a name for the pinnacle.

The first third of the Saber is lower angled. We skipped a big chuck of ugly climbing by hiking up 300′ of talus to the right of the SE corner of The Saber.

The Kor Route on The Saber. Topo constructed from original work in Rossiter's High Peaks guidebook

Below are the pitch descriptions by the position numbers indicated on photo & topo:

Position #1:

When we reached a grassy meadow and the first of two big, slanting ledge systems, we put on harnesses and rock shoes, and roped up for a few warm-up pitches to start the day.

I took the first lead and scrambled up and left along the easy ramp, and then straight up some low 5th class climbing to reach a grassy ledge (position #2).

Position #2:

Brian moved left and climbed some mid 5th class terrain to reach a ledge with some large blocks (position #3)

Position #3:

I had two options, as I recall. I could have gone up & right or up & left to reach the big grassy ledge that would make the real start of the technical difficulties. I chose the left ramp since it was described best by Rossiter.  When I could, a short distance later, I climbed straight up some low 5th class rock to reach the large grassy ledge. I moved about 1/2 way toward the big dihedral to save some rope drag on the crux pitch (position #4).

Position #4:

Brian had the pleasure leading the prominent, 100 foot long, left-facing dihedral that starts off in the middle of the ledge. The crux pitch. He is more likely to succeed quickly on a 5.9 lead, so that is his honor.

He climbed up the dihedral until it ended at a small roof.  He then moved left to pass the roof and reach another left-facing dihedral that led to a good ledge right on top of the crux pitch (position #5).

This was the crux of the climb, and really the only difficult climbing of the day, rating-wise. But our fast start was a thing of the past due to a variety of obstacles.

I followed badly at first and then well.  The 5.7 section right off the ledge was a strange combination of dead vertical plus giant holds; the crux felt easy by comparison. I joined Brian on the small ledge and prepared for some route-finding difficulty as we left the SE Ridgeline and entered the ‘Open Book’ section.

Position #5:

I started by downclimbing and traversing right to reach another ledge from which I could climb an easy dihedral to reach the ‘long’ grassy ledge (position #6). I had thought about taking the belay to the next position, but feared rope drag and a (unlikely but serious) long whipper for Brian.

Position #6:

After Brian arrived, we moved the belay to the far end of the ledge to the bottom of a large left-facing dihedral (position #7).

Position #7:

Brian took off, heading up the steep dihedral, looking for a ledge with a pinnacle.  He found it and brought me up (position #8). From this belay, we struggled to know where we were and to judge where to go.  I do not claim any of the rest of the climb is the “official” route.

Position #8:

I climbed the dihedral above, looking everywhere for “the second grassy ledge”. I continued up through rock that didn’t look like the topo; I only stopped to belay when it looked like I wouldn’t find another good belay for a while (position #9).

I brought Brian up; he didn’t know where we were either. The climbing wasn’t technically hard although it was steep; rock wasn’t solid and the route-finding took more time than we thought it would.  We were going too slow; the daylight was running out.

Position #9:

Brian started up looking for “a ledge with rappel slings” and possibly a dead tree (Rossiter’s topo). He found lots of old slings, but didn’t find the belay described by Rossiter. But as I had done before, he found a good belay (position #10) and brought me up. Good enough.

Position #10:

I wandered up toward the ridge line towering above me; the closer I got, the steeper the rock.  The climbing felt dead vertical at the very top, but the holds were gigantic and some were even safe to use (position #11). We made it.

Only my dehydration posed any continuing problem, that and the fact that we didn’t really know how to get down, the ground was a long way away, and the wind was trying to force us to take the fast way down.

I brought Brian up and asked him about the rap anchors; he pointed and then turned and pointed toward the summit which he said was a long way off.  He said ‘choose’, and I chose the summit.  Of course.

Position #11:

Brian led a simulclimb of the summit ridge, which involved a lot of up & downs over easy terrain. It was a magnificent exposure but the hurricane winds blew us around mercilessly. Brian had a close call when a gust nearly threw him off the summit after he untied from the rope.


Since the daylight was ending, we quickly started down the back side into The Gash (between Sharkstooth & Saber). Fifth class down-climbing in hiking boots on snow and ice covered loose rocks with strong, gusting winds was scary enough to keep me alert despite my physical and mental exhaustion. Brian followed his nose down ledge after ledge; I followed Brian.  Once we reached the talus, we had to traverse underneath the backside of The Saber and The Foil to reach the descent gully. It was endless.

The descent gully was tricky in the failing light.  And we weren’t really sure we were in the right gully until AFTER we rappelled past a section that we couldn’t figure out how to downclimb. Fortunately, it was the right one.

But even then it wasn’t over.  We had to descend toward The Saber and hike back up the talus to collect our gear at the base of the climb. What a pain; and did I mention I was exhausted? All that extra work just so we could stand on the summit. It was almost enough to make me sorry for my choice.

But the good news was that we reached our packs and headlamps with a few minutes of daylight to spare. Finding our way down in the dark without lamps would have been horrific. We got lucky once again.

Still, no water for 13 hours while exercising at high altitude was not smart. And the liter I had stashed was not enough beyond making it home.

A 2+ hour hike back to the parking lot and we had done it.  We spent 17 hours hiking 10.5 miles and climbing 12 pitches on The Saber (Kor Route), another Kor Classic!

And twelve years later (as of 2010), 17 hours is my personal record for continuous climbing/hiking without a bivy. But I still haven’t been to Vedauvoo.

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Long’s Southwest Ridge

April 15, 2010

For my 9th summit of Longs Peak, I wanted to do something new.  I had already done an iced-over Keyhole (late fall), a winter Cable Route, a spring Notch and Kieners, a summer Stettners and Diamond, and had even done a Keyhole Ridge and a traverse from Meeker via Gorrells and a climb out of the Notch to the Longs summit ridge.  This time we’d do the Southwest Ridge route pioneered by J. Alexander in 1924.

We got an early start (4:30am) but still had to park 1/2 mile down the road due to a full parking lot.  I have never been able to get right with the notion that the safest way to climb Longs Peak is to do it in the dark to avoid the lightning.  Shit; I like to see what I’m doing.  And I’ve not been chased off Longs by lightning yet.

We passed a hundred people on the way to the Boulderfield which we reached at 7am.  We needed to let the rock warm up a bit, so we lounged in the Boulderfield for a while and speculated on new routes we could put up.  Big talkers.

Longs Peak from Taylor with our route marked in red

Position #1

Then we continued along the Keyhole route until we reached the top of the Tough, from which we scrambled up 40 feet to reach the start of the Southwest Ridge Route climb.  We started the rock climb at 9am.

The rock was freezing.  I was freezing.  The rock was covered in lichen.  It must not get much traffic.

Brian took the first pitch.  The guide book says traverse left and up ledges until a steep gully leads back to a belay on the ridge, but I don’t remember what Brian did.

For the second pitch, the guide book says to pass an overhang, then work up to an exposed belay.  All I can remember is crawling up licheny, cold rock with numb toes and frozen fingers, and then not being able to find a belay spot until I ran out of rope.  Calling down 175′ in high altitude winds is impossible, so I put in the best belay I could.  You should imagine a very terrible belay.

Brian finished up by climbing over some ledges and moving somewhat right.

Position #2

At noon, as we sat on the summit block just above the Southwest Ridge, we both suffered a bit from the altitude and were really huffing and puffing. Brian dared me to hold my breath for a minute, but I feared at least a stroke and at most my head exploding, so I declined.

Position #3

We then wandered over to the summit proper to enjoy the views and receive our honors.

After a short disappointing wait, we descended via the Cable Route.

Position #4

We descended past Chasm View and into the Boulderfield to get more water and then becgan the long march home.

That last 1/2 mile down the road always feels like a bit of insult on top of injury from a day of pounding. At the end, we’d used 10.5 hours and hiked 15 miles to get 3 pitches of 5.4 climbing.  We must love Longs Peak, eh?

Once back at the truck, all that was left was to imagine a new way to reach the Longs Peak summit.

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The UnTolled Story

March 15, 2010

It has been many years, but I can still remember my first visit to the summit of Green Mountain in the Boulder foothills in 1996 when I discovered the “mountain finder” placed at the summit by the Colorado Mountain Club in 1926.  At the time, I only knew Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker, and learning the names of the visible peaks inspired a longing to explore them all.  I was so happy to have moved to Colorado.

One peak was noteworthy for not being listed.  It had a marker aimed at it, but did not have a name listed; I wondered why and vowed to find out. Unfortunately, my energy for the quest did not last, but, at least, the question did not fade from my memory.

Indian Peaks Wilderness (most of it anyway).

In December, 2003, I was led by the nose to discover that the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area was a wonderful playground even closer to my home than my beloved RMNP. Naturally, I had heard of the Indian Peak and even noticed that many peaks in that area had Indian tribe names, but I was too busy with RMNP and other pursuits to worry about a bunch of 13ers.  But when Brian and I were looking for some new terrain after 7 years of RMNP fun, Brian suggested Mt Audubon for a moderate hike we could do in winter.

And so a new habit began.

After Audubon, the ski season intervened to delay our return until April, when we did Apache via the Apache couloir (a Roach “classic” — 1000 feet of 45 degree snow).  Hiking in and on the summit, we were amazed at the incredible climbing opportunities all around.  Driven to do them as soon as possible, we returned the next week to climb Shoshoni via Pawnee Pass.  On Pawnee Pass, we noticed a perfect looking little peak that sat in between Pawnee Pass and Paiute.  It was time to buy a guidebook; and for our next visit, we would target Mt Toll.

Mt. Toll is described as a “classic” alpine route reaching a 13er summit by Roach (author of the Indian Peaks Guidebook).  His opinion has long carried weight with me in his other books.  Plus, there aren’t many of this type of route and we both were excited about some more high altitude climbing.

The next weekend we went up to Blue Lake below Mt Toll with our rock gear and found we couldn’t get to Mt Toll without snow climbing gear. We decided to use the day to go up Paiute instead.  To reach the Paiute summit, Brian had to lead a pitch across steep, hard snow using just his nut tool while kicking marginal creases in the hard snow for footholds. It was spectacularly stupid.  He made it.

As we sat on the Paiute summit and admired the ridge to Audubon and the spectacular North Ridge of Mt Toll, I still didn’t put two and two together.  I still didn’t know how close I was to the answer of my Green Mountain question from 8 years earlier.

Mt. Toll via the North Ridge – A Classic Alpine Rock Route

Sunday, July 11, 2004 was the day we set aside for our 2nd attempt.

We set off at 3am from Boulder, heading up to Nederland and then to the Indian Peaks entrance.  In the pitch dark, we found a parking spot right at the Mitchell Lake TH and began hiking at 4:15am.

The progress was fast, but slippery (icy) and dark.  I took two full out (laying flat on the ground) spills; one fall skinned and bruised my left knee, tore off a part of my right thumbnail, skinned my right forearm, and hurt like hell.  That fall pissed me off so much that I cursed out loud at the dark sky and icy ground.

We arrived at Blue Lake at first light and then scrambled to the ridgeline toward Paiute before hiking back to Toll. We arrived at the base of the climb around 7am.

A view of Mt Toll from Mt Audobon.  Photo from summer visit to Mt Audobon; background removed to highlight Mt Toll.

We had scouted out the route on the earlier trip and continued to study the “go directly up the ridge” instructions provided by Mr. Roach.  We decided to start to the right of the ridge, following a shallow ramp to a narrow ledge. And, since the descent went down the other side of Mt Toll, we couldn’t stash anything. We had to do the rock climbing while carrying our packs full of headlamps, water, food, and anything else we forgot to take out from previous trips. Fun.

Brian led the first pitch.  When I arrived at the belay, he was shivering in the shade and wind.  The start to my pitch was to traverse left along the ledge toward the North Ridge.  Upon reaching the ridge, I found the sun, shelter from the wind, and a great line.  I brought Brian over to save his misery, and then I started straight up the line.


Mt Toll North Ridge close-up

The first portion involved climbing up into a dihedral, and then escaping left before the grade became difficult.  The climbing then followed a vague line with easy but awkward climbing, simply staying with the easiest terrain.  Along the way I found and used (with backup) an old piton.  My pitch did not quite get to the “big ledge”.  I found a secure anchor that allowed me to sit comfortably in the sun on top of a big block to belay Brian.

Brian took us to the big ledge that traverses right (SW) to gullies for a 4th class ascent to the summit.  Brian had other ideas.

Pinnacle on North Ridge (Brian’s Variation). This piece of the ridge can be seen near the top of Mt Toll in the North Ridge close-up photo.

Brian had been thinking that continuing up the ridge line would be the more elegant way to finish.  We found a couple alternatives, one or more even looked do-able.  Brian picked the most unlikely line:  a start on the left side of the ridge (20 feet left) with a traverse under a roof with good pro (small cams) and poor hand-holds (but good feet).  We made it, and continued up the ridge-line (Brian estimated 5.8, but I thought it was harder).

Brian kept his pitch short to stay within earshot of me (the line turned around a corner into the wind).  It looked as though we were near the top, but we weren’t.  I topped out on the ridgeline after about 30 feet and found a rather large gap between the mini-summit I was on and the real summit of Mt. Toll.  I down climbed carefully and then ascended the far side to find a belay at about the same level as the top of the ridge.  Since I had not placed gear during the descent/ascent of the gap, the rope stretched across the gap like we were setting up a Tyrolean traverse.  I was later sorry not to get a photo of Brian as he popped up on top of the false summit….it was a great image.

Brian quickly scrambled up and we climbed the last 30 feet of elevation to the summit.  There we found 6 people lounging in the wind break after having come up the South face (a walk up) after coming over Pawnee Pass.  We reached the summit at 11:30am.res

After a quick break and change of shoes, we scrambled and glissaded down the talus and snow slopes to the area just west of Blue Lake, arriving at 12:15pm.  Here we rested and ate lunch.  An hour later we were in the 4Runner and heading home after another great day in the Rocky Mountain.

And, still, it was not until several weeks later when pointing out to my wife the Indian Peaks off in the distance that I realized that Mt Toll was the unnamed peak.  And years later, I still have a special place in my heart for Mt Toll whenever I spot it on the horizon.

Our passion for the Indian Peaks persisted for two years, during which time most of the remaining Indian Peaks summits would fall beneath our boots.

But until recently, I didn’t know how Mt. Toll got its name among the Indian tribe-named peaks. I’d read that the Ute tribe name was rejected for one of the peaks due to already being used to name many geographic features in Colorado. Perhaps it was the proposed Mt. Ute that was instead named Mt Toll, but I don’t know.  As far the name, Mt. Toll, I originally thought the name came from Henry W. Toll, a Colorado Senator from 1922-1930; then Brian told me one of his books indicates Mt Toll was named after Roger W. Toll, (the brother of Henry) a charter member of the Colorado Mountain Club and superintendent of RMNP (and Yellowstone & Mt Rainer).  It turns out that the Toll family in Colorado goes back to 1875 and produced several prominent leaders who were also mountaineers.

It seems that Mt Toll is well named.

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For Whom the Bells Toll

February 28, 2010

Due to a rare alignment of coincidences, Brian and I were able to join up again for a hard 14er traverse; our last big traverse effort together was the successful Crestone traverse just over 1 year ago done to celebrate my 40th birthday.  We both wanted to do the Maroon Bell traverse, but for different reasons.  Brian had attempted the Maroon Bells traverse seven years prior (summited on North Maroon Bell, but not on South Maroon Bell) while I climbed South Maroon Bell (SMB) in 2002 but had not attempted North Maroon Bell (NMB) yet; a successful traverse would check-off a peak for both of us.  Plus, it is one of Roach’s “Great Traverses.”  We had to do it.

A view of the Bells from Pyramid, taken a few days earlier

Our planning discussions led us to plan on a N-S-N traverse with a N-S option if the weather was bad or we were too slow.  I had done the standard SMB route and felt confident I remembered the trail.  Brian felt that the double traverse and descent via NMB would be faster and easier, if we could finish the traverses before the weather came.

Day One

On Thursday night I made my dutiful check on the weather forecast; and it was bad.  The forecast called for “morning thunderstorms and rain and afternoon thunderstorms and rain; chance of precipitation 50%.”  It was the worst forecast I’ve headed into yet; and this effort would have the longest exposure to weather problems of any climb we’d done to date.  Still, we’ve done enough climbing over the years to know just how unpredictable the weather can be…we decided to proceed and hope for luck.

We started toward Aspen on Friday, August 1, 2003, in the late afternoon with a plan to hike up to a campsite near the starting point for NMB.  Our driving speed was good the entire way and we arrived at 8:00pm.  Anxious to make progress before dark, we quickly hiked up from the Maroon Lake Trailhead west before the fading daylight forced us to pull out the headlamps prior to the cutoff for Pyramid.  Now hiking more carefully, we continued up in the dark, past Crater Lake, and watched carefully for the turnoff for Maroon-Snowmass Trail. We found it and took it for approximately 0.5 mile to where we found a previously used campsite, 20 feet off the trail and buried in the trees. We setup camp and turned in with hopes of a restful nights sleep (position #1 on map).

Our N-S-N route up North & South Maroon Bells

Day Two

I didn’t sleep well and so the pre-dawn alarm was not welcome. But with our bad weather forecast, we both jumped up and got ready for our big day on August 2nd in 2003.

The Climb of North Maroon Bell

A beautiful field of flowers below the North Maroon Bell north face

We quickly found the cut-off a short way above our campsite.  We crossed the Minnehaha Creek before we wandered up through trees and rocks to reach a grassy area and then a rock glacier below North Maroon’s North Face as the daylight started to pick up.

Brian had been more of a speed devil than ever; and I kept up until I was ready to puke.  Oddly, I really felt bad and needed a 15 minute rest in the talus field in the basin below NMB’s north face to recollect myself (position #2). I felt bad enough to go home.

Hiking Pace Maxim: Hike at your own pace or slower

Each of us has a sustainable pace based on our conditioning, our physical mechanics, and the situation; going too fast means to risk illness (mountain sickness, deydration, bonking), injury (falls, twisted ankle) and loss of situational awareness (concentrating too much on footing).

Joe heading toward the grassy gully from the rock glacier (Brian says sorry for taking too long to get film developed)

Starting to feel better and anxious not to lose the weather, I started up again.  We completed the traverse of the rock field and found a trail at “a point below the lowest cliffs on the NE ridge”. We used that trail to do an ascending traverse below the cliffs to get to a broad grassy gully.

It was a very cool setting: a thin trail cut into side of the mountain and a magnificent drop down to the valley floor.

The grassy gully that we took to begin our ascent of North Maroon Bell

We followed the trail south under the grassy gully, and then we started up the left side of the gully following a worn trail (position #3).  We climbed about 600’  before exiting on the left side below some white cliffs.  After we exited the grassy gully, we turned a corner and traversed across ledges to reach a 2nd gully (position #4).

Just like South Maroon Bell, the North is a steep pile of rocks just barely hanging on before committing to a suicide plunge to the bottom. Every rock we stepped on was a potential death missile for any below us.

In the 2nd gully, we worked our way higher to reach some challenging ledges below the ridge crest.  We then hiked up the remaining distance to reach the ridge at approximately 13,100’ (position #5). We stayed approximately on the ridge the rest of the way.

The first major obstacle we found on the ridge was the infamous “rock band” at around 13,600’ where we took our first break.

We found some water run-off and stopped to take advantage. I finished my 1st liter to free up some space, and then refilled with the questionable water.  Brian recalls:

When I filled my water bottle at the rock band, it was full of moss specks, and some had six legs.  I used two iodine pills.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be my only refill opportunity up high….I would have to survive on 3 liters until returning to Minnehaha Creek.

Joe on the climb to NMB (photo by Brian)

We passed the rock band using a short Class 4 chimney, and then we navigated around numerous obstacles to stay near the ridge crest all the way to the NMB summit (position #6).

To our delight, the weather was holding. But we didn’t trust it; so we only dared stop for a quick snack before starting the traverse.

Scrambling down an obstacle on the traverse (photo by Brian)

The Traverse to South Maroon Bell

From the NMB summit, we started by following Roach’s instructions to descend southwest from the summit.  It was a surprisingly exposed first move for a 14er, but it was an effective foreshadowing of things to come.  We scrambled down a loose talus slope and then climbed up, over and around various obstacles to reach a 20-foot cliff that we downclimbed without much difficulty.

We continued the obstacle course until above a 35 foot cliff we couldn’t figure out how to downclimb safely (position #7).  We rappelled to the bottom and continued.

This was the only very difficult part of traverse, other than for the constant exposure to terrifically long falls that would provide the victim enough time to regret the error.

We had to downclimb two short cliff sections to reach the low point of the traverse, which was also the top of the Bell Cord Couloir.

From there, we began our ascent to SMB. We started up some ledges and then climbed up a gully to reach additional ledges which led to the east end of the summit ridge.

The last scrambling section was disappearing beneath our hands and feet pretty well when a big commotion behind us caused us to stop and look. It was a group of college-age men who were running up the route and racing each other to the SMB summit.  We stood aside to avoid being trampled.  Once on the summit (position #8), we learned they had run up NMB and over the entire traverse.  As I was breathing hard from my own modest efforts, I was impressed with their physical ability to do it….even as I was annoyed at the lack of courtesy involved in the process.

Brian & Joe on the summit of South Maroon Bell

The weather was holding, but just barely.  We decided we could make it back across the traverse to NMB based on the hope that our familiarity with the terrain would compensate for the slowing of our tired bodies.  We just needed the weather to hold out a couple more hours.

The Traverse Back to North Maroon Bell

North Maroon Bell from the summit of South Maroon Bell

From South Maroon‘s summit, we returned to the north along the summit ridge to the northeast corner of the peak and started for home.

We descended to the west through a series of small cliff bands and then down a loose gully. Once down the gully, we turned to the north and traversed a series of small ledges to reach the top of the Bell Cord couloir.

From the low point in the traverse, we climbed up the first 20 feet of the cliff to a small ledge, from which we scrambled another 20 feet to mount the cliff band.

From the top of this cliff band the ridge flattened out and narrowed to only a few feet (with a big drop-off to either side). We scrambled for a while along the ridge toward a 20 foot tall bump on the ridge.  We climbed up and over the spire and then down climbed another small cliff band.

More scrambling led us to the cliff that forced a rappel earlier; this time we were able to find a climbing route to get past. We continued staying mostly to the ridge until we returned to the last section below the summit.

We climbed up some talus and then some ledges to reach the summit ridge, and finally the summit where we had been a few hour earlier.

I’d have to say that I preferred the South-to-North pattern due to the predominance of climbing up vs. downclimbing.

The Descent from North Maroon Bell

Looking down at the start of the upper gully from the ridge

Everything had gone better than we had a right to expect.  The only real discomfort was my increasing dehydration.  Of course Brian was satisfied with his thimble-full; but I needed more than 3 liters for such work. Plus, I still had a touch of the mountain sickness I caught early in the day, and I was very anxious to begin losing some serious altitude.

I’ll admit to being irritated that nothing looked the same on the descent of the gully. North Maroon Bell is not a friendly mountain. I tried to follow the cairns but once again found myself lost in a sea of loose rocks.  I managed to avoid knocking anything loose, but it was a serious mental strain.

Brian and a fellow we met on the climb of NMB and SMB

About 1/2 way down the gully, it started raining and then stopped.  And that was the last of the weather. We had really gotten lucky in two ways.  One, the weather was good despite a bad forecast, and, two, the bad forecast had kept the crowd to a manageable level.  I would hate to do NMB or the traverse on a good weather forecast weekend day; the rockfall would be deadly.

Exhausted, we slowly made our way to the Minnehaha creek.  While approaching the creek, the idea formed in my mind to soak my feet in the freezing water to cure my “fire toes.”  I had been thinking about this for a long time, but never took the time to try it.  With the willing sacrifice of a few minutes, it felt so good to freeze my feet after filling my water bottles.

But then Brian reminded me that we need to get to camp to break it down and hike back to the car (Brian’s Mustang, “The Mach”) before starting the long drive home. Reluctantly, I put on my socks and boots and starting hiking, only to find that my feet hurt worse than ever!  The cold water treatment had turned on every nerve ending in my feet and turned every callus into soft cheese. Oh, the misery! The 2 mile hike back to Brian’s car was an ordeal….like hiking with broken glass in my boots.

But, once off my feet and with Brian driving home, I was able to reflect on a great trip.  I was pleased to have completed another of Roach’s Great Traverses and bag my 48th 14er.  This trip was one of the great ones:  full of strenuous effort, difficult problem-solving, and mortal danger; and our betting against the weather forecast and winning made the victory all the sweeter.  The church bells need not toll for us, except in celebration.

Brian heading toward Minihaha Creek

And as I thought about having only ten more 14ers to go, I discovered that I was both happy and sad. I had become addicted to the mental, physical and emotional challenges found on the Colorado 14ers.  Before the month’s end, I’d planned for another seven 14ers to fall beneath my Makalus:  Chicago Basin Group (8/14/03) & Wilson Group (8/6/03).  The list of remaining 14ers would soon be very short indeed.

And a big ‘thank-you’ to Brian for thinking of a great trip report title.

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Dog Star on McHenrys Peak

February 18, 2010

Brian dug deeply into his copy of Rossiter’s High Peaks book of RMNP alpine climbs and found Dog Star (5.8).   When Brian introduced the idea, I was interested right away because I had long wanted to climb McHenrys Peak.  And I love the adventure of climbing up a big alpine wall; Dog Star is recommended in multiple guide books.  But this trip is documented here due to the epic nature of the climb, only partially caused by illness.

“Dog Star:  it’s a bit of both.”  … overall assessment put in writing by me on the following day

We started hiking from the old Glacier Gorge parking lot @ 4am expecting to make our normal fast pace, but I was off.  My body just wouldn’t cooperate with my cerebral wishes and its own best interests; but I suppose losing some of my altitude tolerance (spending 5 of 7 days in Atlanta for the last 3 months) and failing to get a minute of sleep the night before was just too much for my old body.

I hiked as fast as I could (read: slow), and we reached Black Lake a little after sunrise, around 6:30am.  We took our normal shortcut toward Arrowhead from Black Lake and worked our way up to the large triangular buttress that dominates McHenry’s northeast face.  At 7:30am, we stopped a few hundred yards below the face to study the rock and find our bearings.  While Brian studied, I slept.

Dog Star on McHenrys Peak

Once we started, it felt like we were off-route half the time.  And it wasn’t just me (sleepy head). We both seemed to spend much of the day figuring out where we were and trying to get back to the route.  Occasionally, we felt we were doing it right; but in the end, we were just glad to make it to the top.

It was good rock, except for the plant life; we just had to follow our nose and hope we didn’t dead-end.  “Faith” can be hard to come by, but without it, this day would have ended much sooner.

Our route up Dog Star. Pitches correspond to description below. Edited from Gillett original

Pitch 1: I started on a wide crack for 50 feet, then recognized a key feature to my right and traversed to get back on route; climbed up a giant detached flake and belayed on a ledge below a hard dihedral


Pitch 2: Brian climbed the dihedral, requiring a hard pull over the lip without holds. He then turned a bulge on his left (route description seemed to point to right bulge) and belayed at ledge above the bulge.

Pitch 3: It was my turn, but I was feeling nauseated.  Brian climbed up a slabby section to a ledge

Pitch 4: Determined to feel better, I started up a curving ramp and reacquired the correct route (I believe).  I belayed at big flake and felt bad enough to think death would be better.

Pitch 5: Brian climbed up a ramp to the right and continued around the bulge to his right and then up another right leaning ramp.  He belayed beneath a big roof & dihedral

Pitch 6:  Brian took a couple falls trying to free climb the bushy, mossy and, in addition, technically difficult roof.  It was rated 5.8, but I’ll eat my computer if that is accurate. He resorted to aiding it so we didn’t have to spend the rest of our lives there.

Brian recalls:

I angled up to the left on thin moves including a finger crack that held a solid cam.  It looked like there was a ledge above that, but when I pulled my head up over the edge, it was actually sloping quite a bit.  The finger crack was full of dirt and moss at that point.  I fell trying to pull over the edge, and after that we were a bit demoralized.  I stood on the cam to get onto the sloping ledge.  After that were some roof moves.  I remember that they actually had good holds and thinking that we could have free climbed them on a good day.  But after the fall, I just wanted to be done with the pitch.

Pitch 7: Brian led a rope length of hard, steep rock that took a bit of wandering to find the easiest climbing.

Pitch 8: Brian continued up the steep section to reach a left-leaning ledge, which he followed to reach the top of the ridge.  The correct route works straight up from the ledge, but I was ready to use a parachute to get off the rock.

Brian looks up at Dogstar with Longs, Pagoda & Chiefs Head in background

At the top, Brian waited for me to announce a decision on proceeding to the summit.  I hate missing out on a summit when I am so close, but I bailed.  If my leg was off, I would have tried. But nausea is an unfightable affliction. And I must have looked bad, too, because Brian took some of my half of the gear weight.

Heading downhill made me feel better, if only psychologically.  We worked down to Stone Man Pass, and then down the gully to reach the base of the climb.

It was over except for the clean up (the boring hike out).  We had done it, sort of.  I regretted missing out on McHenrys Peak’s summit, but I knew I’d come back eventually (in 2 years, actually: see McHenrys At Last).

We got back to the parking lot at 6:30pm for a 14.5 hour effort.

I cannot say I recommend Dog Star or mountain sickness.  But if only for the great memories, I do recommend aiming high.  A bit of suffering seems to make all the difference.

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Much Ado About Nothing on Chiefs Head

February 16, 2010

For eight years, one of the most significant rock formation in RNMP had stared us in the face every time we’ve ventured into Glacier Gorge, and yet, we’d never thought to venture onto its features.  Primarily, our lack of attention was due to the very long approach, but in some important way, its forbidding and committing look was also a deterrent.

The guidebooks didn’t paint a rosy picture, either.  Rossiter’s guidebook says…

The Northwest Face of Chiefs Head is one of the finest alpine walls in the contiguous United States.  The immense and unusally smooth oval face rises a thousand feet…and is home to some very aesthetic and very hairy routes.  All of the routes have long runouts and no fixed anchors[.] In the event of storm…it is very difficult to escape.

Plus, all the routes seemed to be 5.11X or 5.12R, so our attention was rightly elsewhere.  But one day, Brian sends me an email:


How about “Much Ado About Nothing”.  This is about the only climb on Chiefshead that isn’t 5.10 or above.  It’s way right of the big wall, and has five pitches, with the last one 5.8.


My thoughts were along the lines of: Heck yeah!  Only 5.8, really?  Why haven’t we done it before now?  And we can bag another Chiefs Head summit! I responded via email with agreement and a question about the descent.  Brian replied:


Descent may be most interesting part.  Stoneman could be done, but it would be a long way back to pick up packs.  Rositer recommends rapping down his Birds of Prey route, but first you have to find it.  And find it empty.  The third choice is a third class route much closer than Stoneman. Finding that route could be valuable knowledge.

Forgot to mention:  this climb gets no star in the book.  But I thought it would be worth it to do something on that mountain.


I wondered about the “no star” thing, but was already enthusiastic about the climb. They say, ignorance is bliss, at least for a while.  Soon, we’d find out just how wise it is to be afraid of Chiefs Head’s Northwest Face.  We find out just how hard Chiefs Head climbs really are, even a mere 5.8 route.

The Story

On the morning of August 23, 2003, we caught the 5am shuttle bus (earliest available) to travel up Bear Lake road as we set out for the far end of Glacier Gorge. We had to hike approximately 7 miles and over 3,000 vertical feet just to reach the start of the climb:  we hiked up past Black Lake, over the north shoulder of Spearhead, past Frozen Lake and beneath the west face of Spearhead, and then we scrambled up a rocky shelf before crawling up the snowy talus to reach the northwest face of Chiefs Head.  Then, we turned west and climbed up the snowy ramp to reach the base of the climb.  It was a brutal 3.5 hours; and we hadn’t even started the climb.

Our route plus alternative descent routes from Chiefs Head

Prior to reaching the base of the climb, we stopped for a moment of study while we could still see the entire wall.  The key was the figure of a head that would guide us to know where to start and where to aim during the initial pitches.  We were looking at shadowy patches trying to find one that looked like a head; Brian claimed to be able to see an “Indian’s head” but I could not.  But with a target in hand, we finished the approach.  Just before 9am, we started up the Much Ado About Nothing route on Chiefs Head’s Northwest Face.

Pitch 1

I took the first pitch and climbed over steep, broken ground that was supposed to end at the base of a “head” I could not see.  I could do no more than take out as much rope as I could and find a good spot to belay.

Pitch 2

Brian took the second pitch, following huge broken flakes that provided small left-facing dihedrals on their left side.  He finished over some easy ledges and belayed at the base of a left leaning ramp.  At this time we noticed that the weather was worsening; our view west was blocked, but the sky above was clouding up and darkening.  We knew we had to hurry since the crux was still ahead.

Pitch 3

I took the third pitch which was to climb the ramp leading up and left angling toward a big dark roof that stretched for more than a pitch as it arched left.  To save some time on an easier section, we decided to simul-climb. Using the ramp to travel diagonally under the  roof started out easy, but then steepened.

And then the rain started.  It was a only a drizzle, but now we were in it.  It was approximately 12pm.

The crux of the climb was still ahead; I knew we had to get past the slabby crux before the lichen turned into grease.  I put in a quick belay with about 1/2 a pitch of the roof remaining so Brian and I could put on our rain jackets. We then moved the belay to below the crux pitch so Brian could race the weather past the crux.

Pitch 4

Just as Brian arrived at the end of the ramp, the rain began again in earnest.  We could see the next ramp approximately 30 feet above us; Brian had to get there before the rock became unclimbable as well as unprotectable (a slab).  He started quickly but soon slowed as the  rock was quickly getting slick.

As I sat in the freezing rain, I could feel the water soak thorugh my rain jacket.  As I watched Brian slowly working his way up, hoping he wouldn’t take a long fall, and as I got colder and colder as my clothes became more and more wet, I came to understand just how important it is to have proper gear when venturing into hard to escape terrain.  Apparently, my windproof, water resistant, insulated and wonderfully packable North Face jacket was not up to the challenge of a real Alpine adventure.  I was going to suffer terribly as a result.

Brian decided to stop before the ramp, but after the hard section, to allow me to get past the crux before it became too wet.  But it was too late, the rock was completely drenched, and I was certain I could not climb the rock.  I was mentally prepared to “fall up” over the slick rock.

And it was like climbing a greased slope, but 3 points of contact allowed me to cling to the rock like a spider in the shower.  Once I reached Brian, we quickly moved the belay up to the ramp so we could figure out where we were.

Pitch 5

We were very confused because, according to the information we had collected, we should be at the summit ridge already.  But there was no summit ridge in sight.  It turned out that Rossiter’s topo only showed the unbroken portion of rock that was set into and below the full NW face.  We didn’t have any certain knowledge or clue as to how to get to the summit ridge.

All we could do was follow the ramp we were on and then follow our noses to try to find the rappel anchors or at worst take the summit ridge down to either Stone Man Pass or find the mysterious “broken ramp” that Rossiter described as an ascent route to the right of the Much Ado About Nothing route.  But first things first.

I took the lead for a simul-climb of the ramp.  After a couple hundred feet with no rap anchors or anything else looking promising, I found a right leaning ramp that promised to intercept the ridge as it sloped down. Desperate for any escape, I abandoned the search for rap anchors and took the right leaning ramp.  It went, and I was able to piece together a climb off the face.

Yes!  We made it.

While I was sopping wet and freezing cold, I now had control over my fate; I knew that I knew how to get home.  I just needed to escape Glacier Gorge before it got dark; it was approximately 3pm.

Much Ado About Nothing route plus descent. Photo from Longs Peak of Chiefs Head edited to highlight Chiefs Head features by removing other peaks (e,g,m Mt. Alice) from the background.



Shivering with no hope of getting warm, I had no intention of continuing to the Chiefs Head summit.  I wouldn’t have done it even if I had never stood on top of Chiefs Head.  I felt that my life was in play and wanted to take no unnecessary chances.

Brian thought he could find the gully that Rossiter described as an ascent route; from a safety, time & energy management perspective, we desperately wanted to avoid going all the way around to and down Stone Man pass.  We hiked down the much of the NW Ridge to find a likely big gully to descend.  It was more like a series of steep gullies that would work for 40 feet, then we would have to find ledge that would allow us to traverse to another gully.

We kept trying to turn back to the east where the climb started, but each time all we could see was a difficult ledge heading east and then a rock rib would prevent us from seeing whether the ledge continued.  Brian said it reminded him of Pyramid Peak.

Eventually Brian found a ledge that led out to the biggest rib, and from there he could see the start of the climb, and sloping, rubble-covered ramps leading down to it.  We scrambled down and followed it until the terrain started to break up; a path to the right appeared and we took it, hoping it would lead to the snowy ramp we started on.

We had to retrace our steps a couple times as we’d cliff out, and then we split up to double our chances of finding an escape path.  Eventually Brian found a path through tumble that worked.

It was approximately 5pm.  Three hours of light left.

We packed up our gear and headed down as fast as we could manage.  We were going to get caught out by darkness; it was only a question of how much hard hiking we had to do in the dark without headlamps.

We retraced our steps so not to introduce any new variables, and we made it to within a quarter mile of the Bear Lake road before it became too dark to see what we were doing.  Since the buses ran until 10pm, we took our time creeping in the dark to find the Bear Lake road.  Once there, we started downhill and found a small group of people standing by the road.  We confirmed that it was the bus stop and then we layed down on the pavement to wait for its arrival.  We had spent our last ounce of energy.

We made it.  We had hiked 15 miles, and climbed nearly 4,000′ in over 15.5 hours.  And this time we had overcome serious route finding problems, freezing rain, and one serious case of rain gear stupidity to make it home once again.

It was a glorious adventure.

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The Long Way Up Longs Peak (Stettners-Kieners)

February 3, 2010

I love Longs Peak, and one of my unofficial missions is to climb a different route/season combination nearly every time I reach for the summit.

Next on the list was to reclimb the route used by the Stettner brothers (Joe & Paul) to climb Longs Peak on September 14, 1927, including the Stettner’s Ledges (5.8) route to climb from Mills Glacier to Broadway Ledge.  As they did, we’d also use the Kiener’s Route (5.3) to skirt the difficulties of the Diamond and reach the summit. Stettner’s Ledges represented the hardest multi-pitch alpine route in Colorado (and perhaps in North America) for the subsequent 20 years.

“We were familiar with two established climbing routes on the East Wall — Kieners and Alexanders. We studied them. But we wanted to find a new route. We searched for a route by starting at Alexanders Chimney and working our way to the right with the binoculars. With the help of these field glasses, we found a line of broken plates, ledges, and cracks that we could eventually use as a route. It looked challenging enough for us.”

~ Joe Stettner’s Journal, recounting the events of September 14, 1927

On the morning of July 17, 1999, Brian and I started up the the trail towards Long Peak, passing the Longs Peak Ranger Station @ 4:15am.  It would be my 6th different route to the summit of Longs Peak, if everything worked out.  The only thing I worried about was the weather report; we’d have to get lucky to reach the summit on this day.

My Routes (prior to 7/99) to the Longs Peak Summit

  1. The Diamond, Casual Route (7/94)
  2. Notch Route (6/96)
  3. Keyhole Route (11/96)
  4. Kiener’s Route (7/98)
  5. Gorrell’s Traverse with a direct finish of The Notch (9/98)

The hike in went as so many have gone before it….long but tolerable.  And, despite a serious attempt by a slippery trail to destroy my knee, we maintained a good pace and reached the foot of the climb by 7am.  I somehow managed to forget that Mills Glacier would be hard snow and didn’t bring anything to aid my ascent of the glacier/snow field to reach the start of the Stettner’s Ledges climb.

Stettner Brothers 1927 (dashed) & Joe/Brian 1999 (solid) Summit Routes

Aiming for the bottom of the obvious left leaning flake system, I used my nut tool as a make-shift ice axe and kicked steps when I could and otherwise crawled to ascend the shockingly steep Mills Glacier.  During this ridiculous episode, I stole a moment every now and again to think how this was a really stupid way to ruin a day, a season, or worse.  My relief was palpable when I finally reached solid protection from a long slide to the bottom of  Mills Glacier.

Looking back on our approach around Chasm View Lake

Stettner’s Ledges

1st Pitch

Brian took the first pitch.  It was a 140-150′ long climb angling somewhat left over many flakes and cracks with a few pitons to guide the way.  He found a nice ledge for our belay.

2nd Pitch

I took the second pitch that started with a step around a corner and involved easy climbing over some blocks to reach a good belay at a right facing large flake (5.5).

3rd Pitch

Looking up, we could see a series of pitons jammed into an overhanging dihedral protecting a steep climb over thin holds navigating a robust layer of slime.  The water trickling down from The Notch was feeding an aquatic ecosystem that looked like it would be protected by Boulder’s Open Space & Mountain Parks organization if located a few miles further east.  I tried to help Brian’s psyche by suggesting he could aid the climb if it was as bad as it looked.  Right.

Brian on Stettner's Ledges

Not one for delaying the inevitable or waiting for government intervention, Brian took off to figure it out (in proper Paul Stettner fashion).  After a moment of sitting, I noticed that the sun was gone; I was stuck in the shadows and my body temperature was dropping quickly.

I got small to preserve my body heat while I waited for Brian to swim up to the next belay and free me from my static duties.  The conditions demanded a slow climb, but my suffering was all out of proportion to the hour it took for Brian to finish.

Climbers Rule of Variable Time Passage

“The rate at which time passes for a climber is directly proportional to the level of preoccupation for the climber and inversely proportional to the level of suffering and pain endured by the climber. “

And to make matter harder to endure, it was during this pitch that the rockfall barrage begain.  I don’t know if it was climbers (I think it was although no one yelled, “rock” ) or merely natural falling rock from freeze/thaw action (the Stettner brother wrote of rock fall here in 1927), but it was damned unnerving to have such volume of rock crashing down the rock within 10 – 20 feet of my head.

When it was my turn to climb, I was so stiff and my hands so useless I didn’t think I could climb the 3rd Flatiron.  But the body can warm up quickly when the stress is right.  I followed Brian’s path through the slimy ecosystem, taking huge sections of it with me on my clothing.  When I reached Brian, I could see he had taken a hit to his nose somehow.  It was now a “blood” adventure.

4th Pitch

I traversed left onto the Lunch Ledge after mounting a steep flake system which felt harder than the rated 5.5.  When I reached the end of the “Lunch Ledge”, it was obvious that we needed to make a team decision about how to proceed.

5th Pitch

I brought Brian up and then we took a few minutes to look for the direct line (Hornsby Direct variation).  The rock was very confusing, and we just couldn’t spot the correct path out of the many options above us.  We reasoned that we needed to hurry given the weather report and our plan to continue to the summit. We decided to find the easiest, quickest path to Broadway Ledge: The Alexander Chimney route. (Note:  we also thought that this was the original line of the Stettner brothers, but that has since been refuted; the original line took a direct path, probably the Hornsby variation).

Even still, the path wasn’t obvious.  Brian followed his nose, generally left and up over ledges and around corners.

6th Pitch

The final pitch was mine.  I couldn’t figure out what I was looking for and eventually tried to climb a dihedral that didn’t quite work.  After a downclimb I finally found something that looked like the Alexander’s Chimney finish, but ran out of rope without a belay spot in sight. I waited for Brian to take down the belay and then we simuclimbed the last 40 feet to Broadway Ledge.

It was a struggle, but we made it.  And we did it without falls, but it took us 6.5 hours compared to the Stettner brothers 5 hours.

“With great trouble, we fought our way upwards. Time-wise, it appeared that we would have to retreat.  The wall was approximately 1,600 feet high and, besides being steep, it had many overhanging sections.”

Yet, despite multiple falls held by a hemp rope (static) they bought at the Estes Park General Store (“Though not the best, it ought to fulfill the purpose”) that was merely tied around their waists, the Stettner brothers reached Broadway Ledge after 5 hours of climbing.

~ Joe Stettner’s Journal, recounting the events of September 14, 1927

Traverse to Kieners

We followed the Broadway Ledge to the Notch Couloir, and then to the far edge where we knew at least one variation of the Kiener’s Route that worked.  We were on terrain we knew, but it was late on a day with a threatening weather forecast.  But, with the weather still holding up well, we figured it was better to run up terrain we knew than to try to rappel down to Mills Glacier without a known rap route.  And descending via Lambs Slide was completely out of the questions without crampons and axes.

Kiener’s Route

“Walter Kiener, a climbing guide, pieced together this route in 1924, looking for the easiest way up the east face with an eye toward future clients. Very little new ground was covered on the ascent. It’s possible he did this over several visits, with help from Agnes Vaille and Carl Blaurock. Another guide from this era, Guy C. Caldwell, installed cairns all the way up the route and advertised his services in the Aug 7, 1925 issue of the Estes Park paper”

~ Bernard Gillett, The Climbers Guide: High Peaks, 2nd edition (2001)

Our Upper Kiener's Route

To save some time, we decided to simul-climb the low 5th class section.

We started straight up through the broken rock and over a chockstone, and then into a narrowing chimney which we took to its end, and, then, up a waterfall to a big, grassy ledge.

Past the 5th class climbing, we unroped to make fast time up the 700 feet of talus and gullies.

We knew from previous experience to aim for the edge of the face and look for the “Black Bands” of rock.  When we finished climbing over the long section of giant steps, we moved to the edge of the Diamond to turn the corner and reach the east talus slopes.

And after scrambling the final 200 feet of talus, we reached the summit at 3:45pm; my 6th Longs Peak summit was in the bag.  We had climbed the 1600′ of elevation between Broadway Ledge and the summit in 1 3/4 hours; its good to see we can pickup the speed if we have to do so.

Our weather luck had held out, but we still had to get down.


We chose the Cables Route, as always, for its direct approach to the Boulderfield.  The path is easy to follow since we’d done several time before, except this time the path was blocked by a large snow patch covering the last 100 feet above the rappel anchors.


Fortunately, this snow had been in the sun all day.  But the terrain was steep enough that it wouldn’t take much of a slip to generate the speed needed for air travel.  We carefully kicked steps and jammed exposed fingers into the snow…anything to get a little friction.  By the time we found the first rap anchor, my fingers were frozen stiff.

Then it started to rain.

Combined with the approaching darkness, we didn’t need any additional encouragement to hurry once again. A quick pace down that death-march trail got us to the Ranger Station by 7:45pm for a 15.5 hour round trip.

The best adventures always include some amount of overcoming or dodging serious setback, such as:

  • A smashed knee
  • Missing ice gear
  • Rock fall
  • A bloody nose
  • A route finding error
  • Threatening weather

And this trip was a great one.

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