Posts Tagged ‘climbing’

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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Lake Como Deathmarch

December 6, 2008



Ten thousand toe-smashing steps over loose gravel and unstable boulders swatting at swarming mosquitoes and wondering again and again how much farther, it still was not until 4 miles into a 5 miles crawl down the Lake Como access road that my mind flirted with regret.  Such was the magnificence of Lake Como and the surrounding Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingswood peaks.  It was a great trip.

I left Boulder at 3:30am on 7/13/03 with a 3 day plan to bag Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingswood, and headed toward Golden and C-470 that I took to I-25 toward Pueblo.  I exited on hwy 160 toward Fort Garland.  After passing beneath the Sierra Blanca Massif, I took hwy 150 to the unmarked road leading to the Lake Como trailhead.  It was a nice and short approach to the passenger car parking.

My plan was for 3 days with a option to bag Little Bear on day 1 (and save a day) if the weather held.  As I arrived, the weather was promising, and I was of two minds:  (1) I wanted to do Little Bear before dark, but, (2) I was worried about the harsh road and destroying my only ride home (Boulder is a long walk).  I decided that discretion is the better part of valour and parked at the initial trailhead.   Either the good weather would last long enough or I would do my 3-day plan.

I started hiking with my massive pack at 8am.

Almost immediately, I was sorry I had parked so low. I hate avoiding exercise for the sake of laziness, but I needed the extra time that parking at 10,000′  (instead of 8,000′) would have provided.  The road and availability of parking was good enough up to that elevation.

My five mile trek to Lake Como took a long time.  I was pushing as hard as I could to save daylight, and getting more and more frustrated with my parking mistake.  My attitude improved immediately when I came upon on of the most beautiful mountain lake settings I have ever seen.  Lake Como is spectacular.  The trees are thick and massive, even at 11,750; I suppose the protection of the Massif on three sides plus the constant availability of water must allow for unusual growth.

The second thing I noticed was the mosquitoes.

Oh why didn’t someone stop the insanity of the mosquitoes?  I am from Florida and I know mosquitoes.  These were bad mosquitoes and I didn’t have repellant.  Rather, my sweaty clothes acted as an attractant…like I sprayed a can of “On” all over myself.

A swarm of mosquitoes and I arrived at my creekside campsite at 12pm and the group of us (mosquitoes and I) took an hour to build my camp.  The long setup time was caused by the extra activities required to co-exist with thousands of mosquitoes while building a camp.  Take out the tent poles…. swat, spin, dance, take out the tent foot print, … swat, spin, dance, etc.

The weather still looked good at 1pm and I started up thinking I’d turnaround if the weather turned on me.   The approach gully (directly east of Lake Como) was a steep and loose scree and dirt slope that barely tolerated human presence.  I finally topped out of the gully at 2pm and then became a bit confused about the way to the Hourglass.

The proper course is to stay on the ridge following nice, easy trails to the top of point 12,980 (which lies in a direct line between the top of the gully and the summit of Little Bear).  I misunderstood the route directions to mean I should look for a trail lower and followed a friendly-looking false trail heading that way.

As I was wandering up and down the east side of Little Bear’s south ridge looking for the trail, I was thinking that I hate directions given in linear form, e.g., do 1, then 2, then 3; and that I much prefer a pyramid structure where by the entire picture is given briefly followed by more detail of the picture already described, e.g., the South ridge leads directly to the Little Bear summit, between the top of your ascent gully (12,500) and the Little Bear summit is Point 12,980.  Stay on the ridge to reach Point 12,980 and then drop down on an established trail below the ridge to reach the bottom of the Hourglass which you will ascend to the summit.

The route I wish I had taken

The route I wish I had taken

After an extra bit of time on the traverse (about 1 hour extra), I came to the bottom of the hourglass around 4pm.  Since I was alone on Little Bear I didn’t have to worry about the major worrisome aspect of this climb…rockfall.  The rock was dry and so after a short break, I scampered right up the middle without any problem.  I climbed past a rope that was hanging from a dubious anchor and I feared for those who trusted it blindly.  I continued upward to the summit that I reached at 5pm.

The weather was still great, but now I had to worry about getting down before dark.  I followed a trail down that took me to the far right edge (left side of the hourglass looking up) that seemed much easier than the path straight up the gully.  I angled back to the center of the hourglass at the level of the anchors (by the way, there is an excellent piton anchor a few feet higher than the poor anchor so no hardware is necessary if a rappel is needed).  I then walked down the center to the base of the Hourglass where I collected my stashed gear.

On the way back, I was following the excellent trail below the ridge heading toward Point 12,980 when the weather turned on me.  It happened fast.  The flash-bang separation was small enough not to count.  I was moving fast when I came to what I thought was the gully I used to climb to the ridge.  Since I had been too low on the approach, I didn’t have any memory of the terrain.

Anxious to get low, I started down.  Fortunately, I realized my mistake before descending past the point of no return and continued until I reached the proper gully above Lake Como.  At that point the sky cleared.  Still, working my way down the loose gully was the worst part of the climb.

Once I got close to the wooded area, I prepared for the mosquito onslaught by putting on all my clothes, e.g., long pants, rain jacket with hood up, hat pulled down low.  Back at camp at 8pm, I refilled my water bottles, collected a few bars from my food bag and dived into the tent.  I had just enough daylight to crush the life out of the few foolish mosquitoes that dared enter my tent with me.  I tried to drink a lot of water to fend off cramps, but I just could not do it and fell asleep to the sounds of a bubbling brook by 9pm.

About 5:50am I woke up feeling great.  It was one of my best nights sleep ever and I am a connoisseur of sleep.  I organized myself for the attempt on Blanca and Ellingswood via the ridge traverse and was on the trail by 6:30am.

The trail to the basin was excellent and I followed it all the way in without incident.  I could not decide which direction to do the ridge, i.e., Blanca to Ellingswood or Ellingswood to Blanca, so I kept moving forward and looking and thinking.  Eventually it seemed the easiest path would be to go straight to the ridge and then use the ridge in both directions.  Once I reached the ridge I could see the area very clearly….it was an impressive view of both the Massif, the Lake Como area and the Huerfano Valley area.  I could see the entire route I took on Mt. Lindsey the week before and I could see the Gash ridge route that looked so interesting from the trail to Mt. Lindsey and I could see my routes to Blanca and Ellingswood.  The ridge up to Blanca looked terrible (read: very steep) from my perspective so I decided to head over to Ellingswood first.

I stayed on the ridge for a while until I came to a big notch in the ridge that looked impossible to down climb, so I worked down from the ridge to where I could enter the gully.  I then scrambled up the gully to the notch and continued the rest of the way on the ridge to Ellingswood summit.   I reached the summit at 10am and tried to enjoy a break and a snack but the mosquitoes had followed me to the heavens.  And these were no angelic mosquitoes.  After a quick bite and killing a few dozen mosquitoes, I headed back down the ridge.  This time I was determined to stay on the ridge the entire way.

My ridge route, as seen from Little Bear

My ridge route, as seen from Little Bear

When I got back to the notch that defeated me earlier, I spied a short route on the far side of the notch that looked like it might go.  So I down climbed into the notch and took a line that started about 5 feet from the edge toward the Blanca basin and worked up and right at a 45 degree angle over a few loose blocks to climb out of the gully about 10-15 feet below the ridge line above the notch.  I moved back to the ridge and stayed on the ridge all the way to Blanca.  Apparently, my earlier views of Blanca were foreshortened; the angle was not bad and the climbing was mostly hands-free.

My view of Little Bear from Blanca

My view of Little Bear from Blanca

I reached the summit of Blanca at 11:30am and studied the traverse from Little Bear while swatting more bugs.  I was very tired at this point having climbed over 9,300 feet in the last 28 hours, so I thought I’d rest a bit before pounding back to camp.

While resting I began to think about my mosquito strategy.  In a flash of insight, it seemed strange to me that when I see a mosquito, I wait for it to land so I can smash it.  Nobody ever did this with a wasp or bee, so why a mosquito?  Oh sure, it feels great to kill a mosquito, but I’ve noticed that it never does any good in an open environment.  Now, if I kill the only mosquito in my tent, then I have no mosquitoes in my tent; this is a good thing.  But if I kill a mosquito outside, a million more take its place without any notice that I have killed a cousin.  I’d have to destroy the planet to get rid of enough mosquitoes to make a difference, so I decided to henceforth employ a “no land” strategy and do without the pleasure of killing the little bastards.

The scree field below Blanca reminded me of the Little Bear approach gully (not hourglass) and I wanted no part of it.  I decided to return down the ridge to just above the saddle where a trail intersects the ridge.  Leaving the summit at 12pm, I followed this trail down to camp, which I reached at 1:30pm.  Once again trying to pack and dance simultaneously, I gathered my belongings and took off down the trail to the car by around 2pm.  Within 30 minutes of my departure, the skies opened up and it poured a mixture of rain and snow for about 30 minutes in a strange localized burst just over the Sierra Blanca Massif.

I actually enjoyed the cooling rain (no lightning) and was quite pleased with my trip, but knew I had to get down to the car…something about counting chickens popped into my head.  After over 3 hours of blister-forming, ankle-turning, knee-wrecking hiking, I could finally see my car and knew it was nearly over, and then I felt great all over again.

Little Bear, Blanca, Ellingswood Climb SummaryAverage of 721 elevation feet gained per hour & 0.8 overall mph

Average of 721 elevation feet gained per hour & 0.8 overall mph


  • Climbing alone
  • Unfamiliar weather patterns
  • Insufficient route and driving information


How I Got Lucky

  • The weather stayed good during late summit push on Little Bear
  • Didn’t get hit by lightning when I was trapped on ridge descending from Little Bear
  • Didn’t get injured while climbing by myself

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