Archive for the ‘Rock Climbing’ Category

Angel’s Way

August 8, 2010

Sometimes, the adventure is found in just getting in and getting out; but as long as its in there somewhere, it is all good.

With an ankle under repair, I was limited to a short sort of adventure. Brian suggested Angel’s Way, a Flatiron’s route we’d found only a few months earlier and put on top of our Flatiron to-do list.

Angel's Way is the 3rd rib on the north side of Skunk Canyon, sandwiched between Satan's Slab and Mohling's Arete

August 7th, 2010, was going to be a hot one; the high temperature forecast was 96F. To beat the heat, we started from NCAR at 6:30am; but, it was already in the 70’s.

(Position #1 on map)

I had a vague memory of having to hike back down the main NCAR road to find the path leading to the water tank on top of the hill separating us from the Mesa Trail. Brian agreed and we found ourselves hiking through tall grass that made me think of Africa.  I kept wondering if I’d find a sleeping lion in the grass until my mind hit on a more likely scenario:  snakes.  Yikes!

Our Angel's Way map and reference points along the way

My pace was energized by my worrying about my route-finding mistake so early in the day.  Fortunately, we quickly came upon a super high quality trail/road. Heck, it looked brand new.

We then quickly worked our way over to the Water Tank (passing the correct trail junction along the way) and then down to the Mesa Trail.

(Position #2 on map)

We followed the Mesa Trail north for a couple hundred yards before exiting the trail at the end of a switchback, heading west toward Skunk Canyon on a climber’s trail.

Before leaving the Mesa trail, we had been quizzed about our wearing long pants on such a hot day; the sea of poison ivy on the climber’s trail justified the extra water loss. We were forewarned.  We were also warned about the shocking bushwack and route-finding needed to reach the base of Angel’s Way, but we were not prepared for the confusing directions provided to guide our efforts.

Here is where I’ll officially complain about the poor quality of information available to guide us to the base of the climb.  I don’t mean to say that all the information was incorrect; it was all correct.  The problem is that the people providing the information were not thinking about the uselessness of a description that while correct cannot be used to distinguish the right rock or path from many other wrong ones.  Much of it was so bad that it actually seemed to be contradictary, for example:

“It (the 3rd rib) is about 100 yards west of the [2nd] rib that forms Satan’s Slab”


“The Third Ridge is almost abutting the Second and the gully that separates them is very narrow”

Note: both of these statements turned out to be true, in one way or another

I know, I know.  All we had to do was count the ridges, right? The third ridge comes right after the second ridge which is preceded by the first ridge. And while there is no hiding from this fact, it is only useful if it is obvious what makes up a ridge when you are standing far below them, and for only as long as you knew in advance to avoid losing track of what you’ve already passed.

Neither of us managed to succeed with either requirement. Fortunately, Brian did bring along his brain which proved helpful in isolating the important data and using it to reason out the correct conclusion.

(Position #3 on map)

After considerable debate of the information and our observations (collected via hiking back and forth between the ridges in dispute), we finally found the start to Angel’s Way at 8:30am, with a route-finding cost of about an hour.
To summarize, follow the creek bed and keep careful count of the ribs of rock to the right.
  1. The first rib is Stairway to Heaven; the ridge starts with an overhang.  There is no directly opposing rib of rock on the left side of the creek bed.
  2. The second rib is only 50-100 feet further west and is called Satan’s Slab; the ridge ends in a steep slab that slopes down to the very edge of the creek and meets another rib of rock coming down from the left side of the creek; the two ribs block the creek from easy passage.  Once past this obstacle, you are below the backside of Satan’s Slab.
  3. To find the third rib, leave the creek path and head North following a faint trail.  Continue up and west for 100 yards to find the unimpressive start to the 3rd rib, Angel’s Way. This rib does not reach down into the creek bed
  4. If you continue past Angel’s Way for another 100 yards, you will find Mohling’s Arete.
(Position #4 on map)

Angel's Way Route

After such a confusing start to the day, it was gratifying to finally start climbing and find the climbing to be very enjoyable.

We completed the climb in 8 pitches.
  1. Pitch 1: Brian insisted on starting from the bottom of the ridge for his personal sense of aesthetics, a 15′ exposed climb led to the ridge which he climbed along  for 200′ before belaying in a nice shady spot next to a tree
  2. Pitch 2: I climbed under the ridgeline in a low-angle dihedral to a roof, and then mounted the ridge top and climbed to an exposed belay after approximately 180′
  3. Pitch 3: Brian continued along the ridge for 30′ before stepping climbed near the ridgeline for another 180′.30 feet into Pitch 3 is where I stepped over a horizontal tree and avoided clipping it.  After that came one of the occasional steps in the ridge.
  4. Pitch 4: I climbed up a dihedral and then over some easy rock for 200′
  5. Pitch 5: Brain started up a very boring start, but after 30 feet came a hidden dip in the ridge had a short steep wall on its other side. He then traversed over some dark-colored rock to regain the ridge, and then belayed in the middle of dull-looking spot after 180′.
  6. Pitch 6: I continued up the ridge for about 50′ to find another notch in the ridge.  This notch created a relatively hard required move (I thought of it as the crux), after which the pitch turned into another easy traverse, but this time below the ridge crest which cliffed-out at the end of a big notch in the ridge after 150′.  I climbed down the ground to set up the belay.
  7. Pitch 7: Brian moved the belay up the slope a bit, and then he climbed a steep wall under a tree to reach the ridge
  8. Pitch 8: I led the short climb to the summit, which had better pro than we’d been led to believe

(Position #5 on map)

We did a belayed down climb from the summit and then north to reach a likely down climb.  I should say Brian thought it looked likely, but when I moved the belay to the official ‘rappel tree’ I surely didn’t like the look of it.  Brian allowed me to go first and take the belayed down climb while placing gear to protect Brian’s descent.  I couldn’t figure it out until Brian lowered me past the crux where I found the necessary footholds that Brian shortly used to join me at the bottom.

We then scrambled down the next section before packing away our gear and switching into hiking boots.  We contemplated returning to the start of the climb, but since we had brought our packs along to avoid having to go back down the ridge, we were loath to crawl back into the poison ivy pit of death.

Instead, we started hiking east.  We figured we’d find a way to get to the Mesa Trail and we used Brian’s research into booze to pass the time.

It turns out that Gin, Whiskey & Vodka are all very similar forms of liquor.  Back in the day, the problem with Whiskey was its harshness out of the still.  The only way to make what was essentially Vodka, palettable, to “anyone other than a Russian”, was to put it in wood casks and let it sit for a few years.   That is, until some enterprising Belgian doctor discovered that if you put Juniper berries in the un-aged whiskey and distilled it again, you got something tolerable.  It is called Gin.

If this is incorrect, talk to Brian

(Position #6 on map)

After a considerable amount of bushwacking down and across a moderately steep forest of small pine trees, we broke out onto a talus field.  At this point, we could see that we had been heading a bit NE instead of E, but it was going to work.  We reached an old road cut into the talus which we followed NE for a 100 yards to its end, and then we scrambled further down the talus to reach the current Mesa Trail.  We turned south and hiked toward NCAR.

(Position #7 on map)

It had been a hot day, but really it was not so long compared to others we’ve done recently.  We powered back up to the water tank and then took the proper trail toward NCAR.  A few hundred feet of hiking got us back to the car at 2pm.

My first thought was that now I get to cross off one more flatiron from my endless list of flatirons not yet climbed. I haven’t done much of that in the last few years; if I don’t pickup the pace, I may never finish that list.

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See Boulder Flatiron list

Lumpy Orange Julius

June 21, 2010

Okay, okay.  The title is a bit misleading, but I felt a little less than myself when trying to come up with a title.  I made do; I hope you’ll do the same.  This is a trip report about a misadventure on the Bookend crag at Lumpy Ridge climbing the classic rock climb, Orange Julius (5.10b).  It is a great climb, I hear; I can personally attest to the 1st and last pitch, which is all we did of the route.

The weekend before, we had successfully dodged trains and unsuccessfully dodged poison ivy in an unsuccessful attempt to climb on Mickey Mouse Wall near Eldorado Canyon.  After finding a “Raptor Closing” sign on the rock, we decided to make the best of what was available, some hard (5.10ish) face climbing on a few bolted routes we found nearby.  With that success, we felt confident to try something new (and hard) at Lumpy Ridge.  Brian picked Orange Julius.

On June 20, 1998, we hiked into Lumpy’s Bookend area and did a warmup climb on The Great Dihedral before starting up Orange Julius.

It was an epic.

Our unintended variation of Orange Julius

Pitch 1

Brian led the first pitch, which was the official crux of the climb, rated at 5.10b (very hard for normal people and one of the top 3 difficult routes I’ve ever done). Oddly, he struggled to get off the ground, but soon was cruising.  He ascended the dihedral and then used thin, wet face holds to traverse left out from under the roof.  The nice horizontal crack at the top of the face (under the roof) provided excellent placements for pro.  Once out from under the roof, he moved higher and found a nice belay behind a tree. I was impressed with how easily he moved past the crux; it gave me hope that the climbing was easier than the rating.

After a moment or two, Brian yells down to announce that the blue rope is stuck and he could only give me a belay on the green rope (we use a double rope system). Great.

I did a layback move to get past the ground level difficulties, and made good time up the dihedral to the roof. I then examined the rock under the roof to see what kind of hand I’d been dealt.  My high hopes for a moderate traverse were dashed immediately.

The holds were very thin and very wet.  I didn’t see any way my shoes could stick to that thin razor of an edge protruding from the rock face that I had to use, and my hand holds were worse. And everything was slick with water. I had to admire Brian for his grace, but then I realized that he had a top-rope!  The gear was above his head when he did the crux.  I had already removed the piece in the roof that protected these thin moves, and the next piece on the green rope (blue was stuck, remember) was 15 feet directly to my left; if I fell, I was going to swing a long way before smashing into the rock.

So, I had to do it.  The sequence was step out onto the wet, razors, and then step through to the next set of wet, razors, and then grabbing for a bucket.  Oh shit!

Okay, I’ve done stuff like this before, I can do it! (yeah, right; I’d done it once or twice, when dry, and not facing a big fall).

1-2-3, step, and step, and reach….made it!  How’d I do that?  Sticky rubber is truly a miracle.  I love sticky rubber!

I then cleaned up the rest of the gear, including the one that was all jammed up with the blue rope. I joined Brian at the belay and we exchanged some prideful notes on the crux pitch.  It was my turn to lead next; I was so pumped full of adrenaline that I didn’t bother to look at the topo in my pocket.  I just started climbing up the rock.

We wouldn’t see the Orange Julius route again for several hours.

Pitch 2

I went straight up the crack above me looking for a traverse right; what I should have done was quickly head right.  But I was just climbing along without thinking, and was happy as a lark.  That is, until, the good rock ran out.

I came to a mantle move that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. I didn’t want to have to reverse a mantle (and I hadn’t been able to place gear in a while), so I looked around for a better path; there wasn’t one.  So I took the mantle and then started feeling around the bulge to the left for holds; the rock above and to the right was blank.

I felt a crack, so I blindly stuck my foot around the corner and jammed my toe in the crack to balance my reach around to place some protection.  Delighted that I wouldn’t have to fall a long way, at least for a while, I made the move around the bulge and continued up.  The higher I got, the less protection I found and the dirtier (read: not climbed often) the rock became. My mind finally started working, and I started to realize that something was wrong.

I made another mantle…8 feet above my last protection…I put in a very bad TCU and then made a 5.9 crack move to a ledge…now 15 feet over my last good protection…and all the while thinking that my gratitude for chalk bordered on the religious. And looking up for some salvation, I could see bolts!  I’m saved!

My desire to live was high as I crept up a sloping slab of grit covered rock to reach the ledge with the bolts.

Brian followed quickly and offered me his highest possible compliment under the circumstances, “I bet that was scary!”  What I mean is he couldn’t rightly offer me a ‘nice lead’ complement when I really screwed the pooch.

Pitch 3

Brian then took off up some nasty off-width. He found the right path, but didn’t have enough big gear to stay in it; so, he stepped left and worked up some overhanging rock with good holds to reach a good ledge atop a pillar.

I followed quickly, but begged off taking the next lead. It was getting late and God only knew what rock was above us; we needed our best climber on lead, if we were going to have our best chance to make it out alive.

Pitch 4

As we were getting ready for Brian’s lead, the rope pile slipped off the ledge.  Brian asked if we should restack the rope; I looked over the ledge and saw that it was merely hanging straight down, not caught on anything.  I said ‘no’, it will be okay.  Brian accepted my judgment and started up the 4th pitch.  The Utter Fool!

As he was climbing, the rope was giving me more and more trouble.  It was getting friction on the rock below somehow; but I kept working on it enough to feed Brian the rope he needed….right up to the moment that the rope got fully stuck below me.

I yelled up to Brian to see if he could get off belay to let me fix the rope. I could barely make out what he was saying until I finally understood that he was saying ‘no’. I pulled like madman and managed to get enough slack to let Brian reach a belay.

But even with both hands available, I couldn’t work it out.  I managed to pull in enough slack on one rope to rappel over the edge to clear the jam.  It was overhanging, so it wasn’t easy to reach the problem.  I finally managed to work it out, but then I had to climb back to the belay station while giving myself a belay; I would climb a bit and then take in the slack and re-tie in.  The climbing involved some hard face climbing and a pendulum, but I made it.

And then I had to climb up to the next belay; well, at least this part was on a good belay.  The hardest part was a dead vertical section with thin holds.  Normally, the pro is placed before a hard section, but this time Brian had really wedged in a brown tricam right at the pitch crux.  I worked on it until my hands gave out; then I worked on it while hanging on the rope.  I still couldn’t get it out; I really hate it when Brian places tricams like nuts instead of cammed.

I was already in a foul mood from the stuck rope; I just left it.

When I reached the belay, I told Brian that I left that damn tricam behind because it was placed badly.  He grinned and said, ‘that was a hard section, huh?’  I agreed, and then he said, ‘that’s where I was when you asked if I could get off belay’. Touche.

Pitch 5

We figured we were back on route, finally.  All that was left was a 5.7 chimney that led to a bunch of easy but exposed scrambling.

It was a hell of a day. I really have to be more careful.

Someday I’d like to really climb Orange Julius; I hear it is a great climb.

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2nd Flatiron Waterfall Climb

June 16, 2010

Brian and I had scheduled a Lumpy climb for Saturday, June 12, 2010; but the weather didn’t cooperate.  After a month of hot, clear weather during which Brian skiied and I did therapy on my knee, the forecast for our rock climb was rain and cold.  Thanks.

But the forecast for Sunday looked better, so we agreed to push the plan back a day; and in addition, we agreed to move the climbing to lower elevation. We agreed to go to Eldo if the weather was good or Flatirons if the weather was bad.

We didn’t have a plan for very bad weather.

When the forecast turned to “rain all day”, we agreed at the last moment to do the 3rd Flatiron.  We’ve done the 3rd in snow and ice; we felt confident we could do it in a steady rain as well.

We started hiking from the Chautauqua Ranger Station parking lot around 8am, taking the old paved road to avoid the muddy trench that the main trail becomes when wet. It was steadily drizzling into the standing puddles that had accumulated over the past 2 days of rain. On the hike in we discussed Paul Graham’s essay on Why Nerds are Unpopular (in school).

At the turnoff the Royal Arch trail to the 2nd/3rd Flaitron approach, Brian stopped to look at the “Rock Climbing Closure” sign.  Shit.  We’d forgotten about that stupid raptor closure program that I’ve had to contend with since before I moved to Boulder many years ago.  The 3rd Flatiron was closed until the end of July.

There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate governmental action.

~Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)

Neither of us had a guidebook, so we resorted to mining our failing memory about past climbs and unclimbed objectives that might work under the current horrendous conditions.

My first comment was that the Tangen Tunnel route would be perfect except for the blanket of Poison Ivy living in that particular gully. I then offered the idea to finally climb the Royal Arch, but Brian rightly thought the climbing would be too steep for exceptionally slippery rock.  Brian then suggested the 1st Flatiron, but there was no way I was going up the steep East Face Direct in a steady rain.  I’ve done it wet by accident; I wasn’t going to do it intentionally.  Then I had the idea to do the 2nd Flatiron.  I remembered someone telling me about the “Highway”,  a 4th class route that went up the gully between the South Block and the main portion of the 2nd Flatiron that led to the Hanging Garden below the “Pullman Car” that capped the 2nd Flatiron.  Of course we’d skip the Pullman Car, I said.  The route had been described to me about 10 years ago, but it still felt fresh in my mind because I had thought about it every time I’d climbed the 2nd Flatiron. Brian agreed and we started for the base of the 2nd Flatiron.

Unfortunately, I was completely wrong.  The route was not “Highway” but “Freeway” and that route doesn’t go up the gully but rather up the face well to the right of the gully.  The route that does go up some of the gully is “Dodgeblock” but it starts differently and dodges the Pullman Car to the right; it does not go left of the Pullman Car and into the Hanging Belay.

In fact, no established route, 4th or 5th class, goes up the gully all the way to the Hanging Belay. I misunderstood what I was told about “Freeway” all those years ago and I never bothered to check it out. My foolishness would be the catalyst for an interesting day in the rain.


The 'Waterfall' route and our other regular routes up the 2nd Flatiron


On the way there, the weather actually worsened.  It was raining hard by the time we started up the vegetated gully.

Position #1

About 100 feet above the hiking trail, we stood beneath a house sized boulder choking the gully.  It looked like we might be able to work up and around to the right, but Brian wanted to try to climb the left side up a low angled dihedral. We got our harnesses on and then he started up in his hiking boots. He refused a belay.

Under the current conditions, I surely did not want to be standing beneath him when he came sliding back down the slip-n-slide.  It would have been a bad tumble back down the rocky, tree-filled gully.  I stood off to the side and encouraged him to request a belay. He explained that the rope might let him avoid getting so wet and dirty (he was laying on the rock for full body friction), but ‘no thanks’. Apparently, he was working on his mental toughness.  Fortunately, he made it to a small ledge with injury only to his clothing.

I took a belay and managed to avoid the mud wallow Brian endured, but it was very sippery. I was very glad to have the belay. I continued up the next obstacle and setup a belay behind a large tree another 50 feet above.  It was a wet, gooey, slippery experience, not significantly different from how I would imagine the experience of climbing a waterfall with mossy vegetation beneath the water.

Position #2


Our route followed the rock seam and then the tree lined gully toward the 'Hanging Garden'. Photo not from rainy day (imagine torrents of water pouring down the gully)


We then scrambled up another 100 feet to reach the bottom of a true waterfall. The water was cascading down a broad slab of smooth rock with a channel cut just below a rib of rock; the channel looked to be cut into the rock by thousands of years of running water. The slab of rock blocked easy access to the tree-filled gully 100 feet above. Uh oh.

With most of our views obscured by trees and by the heavily falling rain & mist in the air, I wasn’t sure where we were.  At first I (wishfully) thought we were underneath the Pullman Car, but it was just the overhang on the South Block.  I noticed another gully to the right (north) and thought I had found the way up; we traversed north 50 feet and then scrambled up 50 feet to were I could see well enough to know where I was.  We here standing at the bottom of the gully that we use to reach the bottom of the Pullman Car on our normal 2nd Flatiron route (which is similar to Free For All).  I remembered that this water-smoothed gully is steep with delicate climbing when dry and in rock shoes, and that the only escape I knew was the 5.6 traversing crux underneath the Pullman Car.  No way we were going to do that in these conditions. Shit.

That was when I knew that I had screwed up.  We weren’t going to make it. If we were going to push ahead, we’d have to commit to a risky effort. Turning around was a solid option, in my mind.

Position #3

We returned to the waterfall and Brian said he wanted to try it. I tried to talk him out of it as I thought the protection would run out after 20 feet. My point was we were in a good place to bail from, while 50 feet up with no way to secure a rappel would not be a good place to decide to go home. But Brian was feeling adventurous, I suppose; and he started up the waterfall. At least, this time he took a belay.

But, the rock was too slippery for hiking boots, and we figured rock shoes would be worse.  He slid back to the ground before putting in a single piece of protection, and gave up on the waterfall.

Position #4

I looked around and then pointed to a seam and a potential ramp in the rock above us and to the left, just below the South Block.  I wondered out loud if that would allow us to work our way above the waterfall area. Brian jumped to it, apparently determined not to go home just yet.

He led a scrambling pitch to a saddle between the waterfall gully and the South Block of the 2nd Flatiron.  From that platform, we could see the diving board flake that is the crux of the Southeast Ridge route on the South Block; it’s a 2-move route, but it is awesome set of moves. We could also see that our best bet was the seam in the rock face that led toward the tree-filled gully.

Brian again took the sharp end and oh-so-gingerly worked his way across the slick rock using the rock seam.  The seam provided just enough protection and friction to make it possible to cross this amazingly slippery rock in hiking boots while dragging a 20 lbs rope (soaked with water).  Brian yelled that the slabby bit at the end (after the seam ended) wasn’t as bad as it looked from afar.  When it was my turn to cross it, I complained that it was exactly as bad as it looked.  Yet, we both made it without a slip.

Position #5

And once we were past the waterfall area, I felt sure we would make it.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still clung to a certainty in my mind for the climb-ability of the gully beneath the Hanging Garden that I had casually glanced at on a number of occasions over the years. It surely was a day for being very wrong.

A 20 foot scramble led to another waterfall, and this time the water fell over an overhanging lip of rock; we wouldn’t be climbing directly up it. We found a path to the right that required a significant reach to utilize a hold big enough to pull our bodies out of the falling water. As I pulled my gore-tex protected bulk out of the water, I could feel the difference between a good rain jacket and a dry suit; I could only wish for the latter.

Position #6


The 'Waterfall' route crux


Another 20 feet of scrambling led to another waterfall, and this was a big one. It was directly below the Hanging Garden between the summit of the South Block and the Pullman Car atop the 2nd Flatiron. And, it was another overhanging rock formation that we would not be able to climb.  But while we could climb around it, I could finally see the gully beneath the Hanging Garden; and I could see how it was steep and featureless, and I could see how so very wrong I had been all day long.

I got that sinking feeling, the one that says “I’m screwed!”

Brian rightly insisted on solving one problem at a time, and we climbed up and right to get past the waterfall and reach the bottom of the technical climbing directly beneath the Pullman Car formation.  From there, we’d have to traverse left back into the gully, and then climb straight up into the Hanging Garden.

This was it.  The crux.  If we couldn’t slither our way past this last section of rock, we’d have to rappel all the way back down the gully.  I dreaded it with all my heart.

And, it looked hard.  Just looking at the smooth rock, I wasn’t confident we could even get around the corner to get back into the gully below the Hanging Garden.  The rock was slick and it lacked the normal flatiron features we’d been using to get this high.  Once again, Brian started up.  I told him to aid it, if he could.

The only thing going our way was the weather.  At last the rain had stopped.

Position #7

He put in a yellow camalot and then the grey one in the overhanging lip on the corner.  He managed to pendelum out into the gully and then climb up a few feet, but soon slipped back down.  It was too slippery. It wasn’t going to work.

In desperation, I suggested he try his rock climbing shoes.  I was just thinking that we should try all the possible variations; I really didn’t think the treadless rock shoes would hold any better. Brian returned to the belay to change shoes.

It was still agonizingly slow, but Brian managed to work back out to the gully and then upward about 1/2 way to the Hanging Garden before bringing me up. I took my own advice and put on my rock shoes; they stuck to the wet, slabbly rock very well.  We should have known. I quickly made my way up to Brian with the gear he’d need to complete the rest of the climb.

He started up again, slowly making progress toward the Hanging Garden. Near the top, he made an awkward flopping move to mount a block that he then used to step up to the belay ledge.  He made it!  We didn’t have to rappel all the way back down the gully!

I followed, using a batman rope climbing move to quickly overcome a particularly thin and slippery section. I was amazed at the volume of poison ivy that I had to trod upon to escape.  But I did escape.

We had to overcome another tricky move to reach the last layer of the Hanging Garden, but from there I knew how to escape the Hanging Garden and led Brian to the downclimb that led to the backside of the 2nd Flatiron.

We made it! I think we actually put up a new route in the process.  I think I’ll call it the “Waterfall” route. I cannot say I recommend it.

We stopped for quick, late lunch and to put away the gear. It was approximately 1:30pm.

After the short break, we started hiking up slope behind the 2nd Flatiron to reach the descent trail between the 1st and 2nd Flatirons, which we took all the way back to the parking lot.

On the hike out we discussed on plans for the year.  We decided to next do the Spiral Route on Notchtop and then the traverse from Thatchtop to Powell as preparation for a fun scrambling climb around the Solitude Lake Cirque, climbing up Arrowhead to McHenry to Powell to Thatchtop.

And, yes, the lower part of the main trail was a miserable, slippery muddy mess (that is still stuck to my boots).  But at least I didn’t slip this time, unlike 6 months ago when I slipped on the same trail, icy instead of muddy, and spoiled my 2010 ski season.

We always find a way to find adventure, and so far, we always get home to tell tall tales.  And we share credit this time: Brian gets all the credit for the positive outcome, while I get all the credit for getting us into a jam.

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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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Flatiron Blizzard

April 15, 2010

It was April 16, 2000, and the ski season at Vail was over.  Due to an injury, I wasn’t ready for any big snow climbs; I asked Brian if he would accept a chilly 1st flatiron climb as a minor adventure just this one time.  He agreed.

We met at Chautauqua Park at 7am and made the short hike to the 1st Flatiron together.  The weather was cold and overcast, but we didn’t even discuss a change in plans.  We’ve gone up the 1st Flatiron in every kind of condition, including heavy snow, ice, and rain.  Heck, I didn’t even bring water proof pants or gloves.

When we got to the rock, we were surprised to see rivers of water running down the rock.  Apparently, there were enough patches of hidden snow up high melting to create the water of a rain shower.

We started up anyway.  The first couple pitches are short on protection, so we took our time and made our way up carefully.  Still, it was rather nerve-racking.  As we progressed higher and higher, the weather started to show it true nature.  It started snowing.

Our route up the 1st Flatiron during the Blizzard of 2000

Position #1

By the time we reached the big platform one pitch below the ridge, the snow was coming down so heavy we knew we had to bail.  And that was saying something; we had never bailed on a Flatiron before.

It was my lead and I decided to take the easiest possible way to the ridge.  I believed that there was a bail spot and had a vague memory of an anchor on the ridge up and right of our position.  I started up and found the snow was accumulating fast, even as it was melting.  Everything was wet and slick as snot.

Position #2

When I arrived at the ridge, I could see no way to set an anchor without leaving behind some iron.  I decided to head up to the normal belay spot we use after initially reaching the ridge line.  I knew we could set a safe anchor there using just cord.  Unfortunately, I also knew I couldn’t reach it before running out of rope.  I would go as far as I could and then bring Brian up to finish.

Position #3

I found a good belay about 20 feet below the ridge and set it up.  It was a relief to be anchored into the rock, but I was getting cold fast.

I put on my gloves, but they weren’t waterproof and so were soon soaking wet.  My rock climbing shoes were soaked, and my pants were soaked as well.  Thank God I had a waterproof jacket with a hood.  But it wasn’t enough.

Of course Brian climbed very slowly in such conditions.  I was shivering violently by the time he arrived; he had managed to bring waterproof jacket and pants plus had wisely changed into his hiking boots to give him some traction on the slick, wet snow.   Brian offered to let me go ahead so I could warm up, but my hands were bad and my feet were numb below the ankles so I didn’t think I could climb safely.

He hurried as well as he could and shortly pulled up the rope.  I had trouble standing up at first, but slowly was able to get ready to climb. I got my hands warm enough to hold on to big holds, which allowed me to crawl up the rock despite feet slipping off of everything.  I arrived at the anchor and waited for Brian to setup the rappel.  Then I clipped in and started to slide off the edge into space.

Position #4

In a panic, I realized I wouldn’t be able to hang onto the frozen rope with wet-gloved, frozen hands.  I desperately pulled off one glove with my teeth and managed to hold on as I swung out into space.  I was then able to descend to the ground.

While Brian came down, I changed into my hiking boots.  But I could barely walk since my legs were now numb below the knees. Fortunately, the activity warmed me up enough to thaw my legs down to the ankles.  I was able to walk out.

My feet stayed numb for 24 hours while my big toes were numb for 2 weeks.

It turns out that even a Flatiron climb demands and should be given respect by us puny humans.

Pretty stupid, huh?

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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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The Maiden

January 12, 2010

I first heard of The Maiden while taking a climbing class with the Colorado Mountain School in 1992.  We had taken a day to climb in the Boulder or Eldorado Canyon area; one of the climbs we considered was The Maiden.  The guides described it as a “scary but easy” climb up the last pinnacle in the Flatirons to be summited due to its lack of a non-technical route. We did the Yellow Spur in Eldo instead, but the name stuck in my head.

While back in Chicago, I found another reference while reading about John Gill, the great boulderer.  I read that climbing The Maiden inspired Gill’s rock climbing career after a climb done as a kid while on vacation with his family.  I decided that The Maiden was on my tick list of climbs I just had to do someday.

Yet, somehow, the sense of high priority fell out of my consciousness once I moved to the Boulder area.  I guess I just had so many things I wanted to do and, as many new climbers discover, to find a climbing partner often meant doing what the other person wants.  When Brian (very early in our climbing partnership) suggested The Maiden, it all came flooding back.

The Maiden looks like any other minor flatiron when seen from afar. Photo from different trip.

Now, from the road, The Maiden isn’t much to look at.  I’ll bet most people don’t even know about it, tucked beneath the ridgeline below the well-known Devil’s Thumb.  And I’ll bet that Brian would never have considered The Maiden via the standard route [5.6s] under normal circumstances, as it is too easy and too short to consume a precious weekend day. But this wasn’t a normal situation:  it was Wednesday, January 1st, the last holiday of the holiday season and the 11th day of winter.

We were in a bit of a heat wave, as far as winters go, and so still in the “inbetween” time between the climbing season and the skiing season.  We figured one or two more weekend until the snow would be good enough to warrant 6-7 hours of driving.  And with another warmish forecast, we thought we’d climb in the Flatirons.

And as it turned out, January 1, 1997 made its way into the record books as the warmest January 1st in the last 100 years, with a high of 70F!

So, on January 1st, we set out from Eldorado Canyon to hike up the old Mesa Trail to reach Shadow Canyon.  Following Roach’s advice in “Flatiron Classics”, we turned off the trail aiming for pinnacles on the ridge. Scrambling up the talus, we were in a “green-out”…blind to our destination as we couldn’t see anything except the trees around us.  Eventually, we topped the ridge; and as I looked up to see the rock I was struck with an emotion that I can only describe as terrible excitement.

"The Cobra!"

The rock looked like a giant cobra ready to strike! Yet, the route was only rated 5.6 so it promised to be an amazing climb.

I took the first pitch and found it had no protection.  About the time I started to feel insecure, I reached the top of the 40 foot climb.  After setting up the anchor, I looked around to take in the sights and noticed I was nearly level with the summit of the flatiron.  It was very weird.  The rest of the climb would gain almost no additional altitude; essentially, we’d just be traversing.

Brian took the second “lead”…it was essentially a top-rope downclimb.  Following it was a very strange experience to follow on a downclimbing pitch…it felt like I had all the risk of a fall.  But Brian had figured it out and did a good job of protecting the pitch for my descent.  This took us to the “Crow’s Nest”….a small, secure belay station 115′ beneath the summit and yet, somehow, set atop 120′ vertical cliffs to either side.

The Maiden from the first belay...Brian (in red) on lead

I took the 3rd pitch, which moved to the vertical north side of the The Maiden.  At first, the pitch continued the downclimbing trend, following a ramp down to the crux wall. I was happy to find the piton that Roach mentioned was originally used to pendulum across the crux.  Clipping it, I then set out to do the “12-foot ascending traverse” to reach the ledge with a tree.  I tried it a couple of different ways:  I could either have good feet or good hands, as best I could tell. I actually started to think about doing a pendulum, but then my hands found a bomber, super-positive hold that eliminated all doubt.  Brian followed without finding the bomber hold and was impressed with my lead. I guess he did the 5.9 version.

Brian then took off on the 4th pitch, starting with a climb of the tree.  He found some bolts and followed them. Neither of us understood that the standard route descended further, but the “Walton Traverse” Brian used was a superior route anyway.  This route lead us to a big alcove just below the primary, low-angled, east face.

I scrambled out of the alcove and climbed up onto the east face where I found “normal” flatiron climbing; it was easy with spectacular views of the Boulder area.

The Maiden standard route, Walton Traverse variation. Photo taken from the Fatiron, which is the next flatiron to the north.

Once on the summit, we agreed that The Maiden is a spectacular climb, and was worthy of prime time climbing. When it was time to go home, we moved over to the edge of the summit where we could see down to the “Crow’s Nest” and study the rappel anchor.  The bolts didn’t look so great to us; apparently they didn’t look great to many others as about 50 slings were backing them up. We added a sling to the tapestry for a little courage.

Brian rappelling from the summit of The Maiden to the Crow's Nest

Brian clipped in and slid over the ledge.  I watched him dangling on the end of his string, and swing back and forth slightly in the wind, and hoped he would land on his tiny perch of rock, the Crow’s Nest.  My initial assessment was it looked fun and a little scary.  He made it, and then it was my turn.  And this is when I figured out what the real crux of The Maiden really was…the rappel!

On a normal rappel, the anchor is at or above your waist (and harness).  This means you can weight the rope right away and slowly lower by feeding the belay/rappel device slack at whatever pace seems prudent.  And, in most situations, the rock face is directly below the anchor, allowing you an additional measure of control by using feet or a hand on the rock as you descend. But not on The Maiden.

On The Maiden, there are no rappel pleasantries.  To start with, since the anchor is on the surface of the ledge (where you sit), it is below the climber’s waist.  And since this rappel requires two ropes, the knot connecting the two ropes adds a bit of extra rope between the harness and the anchor.  These characteristics mean slack in the rope between the climber and the anchor that must be taken up quickly (by jumping) or slowly (by downclimbing). But on The Maiden, there is no downclimbing as the summit is severely overhanging.  And since there is no jumping either (if you don’t know, believe), the climber desperately searches for a 3rd option.

I had watched Brian tie a security knot in the rope to let him use both hands to hang onto the anchor while he slid his body off the ledge.  But I didn’t like the thought of a knot in the rope (and possibly not being able to undo it and hanging 3 feet below the ledge for the rest of my life) or the notion of not holding onto the brake line at all times.  My solution was to hang onto the anchor with one hand (the other hand on the brake line) while sliding my body off the ledge.  But I was so tight, I had to recheck my harness, the rope knot and the anchor 3 times before I could start myself sliding over the ledge.

Then I was hanging by a string, dangling in the wind.

It was a “trip”, meant in the 70’s slang way of “intense and mind-altering experience”. My mind kept threatening to run amok; I could feel panic creeping in at the edges.  The sense of fighting your own weakness in a battle of wills (conscious vs. unconscious) is a disconcerting one. I had no idea I was so weak. I think the key was the duration of the experience.  A 115′ rappel takes a long time, enough time to ponder many bad things:  would the rope break, would the anchor pull, could my harness break, could I miss the landing, etc.

All I could do was breathe and focus on my hand on the brake line, feeling the rope run through and heat up my hand, while at the same time knowing that I checked all the common failure points. And then it was over; I was standing in the Crow’s Nest.  I had made it, without screaming.  And after a more personal experience, I had to update my original assessment of the rappel to:  “scary and a little fun.”

“The Maiden has the most famous free rappel in Colorado.”

~ Richard Rossiter, Guidebook Author

To prepare for the 2nd rappel, I tied into the anchor, unclipped from the rope, and started to pull the rope down.  It took a second for the realization to come over me that the rope wouldn’t pull…it was stuck.

And then I remembered.  In my near panic at the start of the rappel, I’d forgotten to pull the knot over the edge of the summit ledge. Now, with 115′ of stretch in a free hanging rope and in a position of limited mobility, we were screwed if the knot was really stuck.  The only thing we could do was walk the rope up 30 feet of the 2nd pitch to improve the angle and pray. It worked, and we didn’t have to spend the rest of the winter in the Crow’s Nest waiting for the spring climbers.

And after the 2nd rappel, we were down.

It was the most magnificent climb I had ever done in the Flatirons, and 12 years later it is still the best.  Not the hardest. The best.  And Brian and I go back ever year or so to re-live that experience, and we don’t wait for bad weather.  And that rappel still gets me tight every time.

The Maiden summit poses for Joe (left) and Brian (right)

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