Posts Tagged ‘hallett peak’

Chaos Canyon Loop

May 14, 2011

May 14, 2011

The weather forecast was iffy for snow climbing…rain/snow after noon with higher temps.  We chose Flattop Mountain to give ourselves some options for choosing a descent after we see the conditions.  My guess was for Brian to drop down from the Flattop summit toward Notchtop via the Ptarmigan Glacier into Odessa Gorge and then circle back to Bear Lake via Lake Helene trail to Fern Lake trail to the bottom portion of Flattop Mountain trail. I liked having the option of simply returning via the Flattop trail.   Of course, my personal decision would be based on how I felt, the weather conditions, and the condition of the snow.

Brian picked me up at 5:30am and we headed up to Estes Park…for the 3rd weekend in a row. As we drove up, a solid wall of dark clouds blocked our view of the mountains….and even extended down to the tops of the foothills.  It was not going to be a nice day. But that was okay; I came for the exercise.

Flattop seen from Hallett. The trail approached from right to left.

The closer to RMNP and the higher we got, the darker the sky became; at the same time, we could tell the temperature was unusually warm.

Hello Spring.

Eventually, we got high enough to reach the cloud bank; we were driving inside a cloud. As we neared the Bear Lake parking lot in RMNP, we could see, to our surprise, that there were blue skies above the cloud bank. Suddenly we realized that we were going to get a lot of sun, at least until the after noon weather arrived.

As we pulled into the parking lot, Hallett Peak looked as beautiful as I have ever seen it.  And, once out of Brian’s truck, we could tell there was not a bit of wind for the first time in the 2011 season.

The plan for the ascent was to skirt Bear Lake (9450′) which sits at the mouth of Tyndall Gorge, taking the Flattop Mountain Trail for 4.4 miles to the top of Flattop Mountain.  The trail ascends the long north slope of Flattop that rises between Tyndall and Odessa Gorge.

We started up around Bear Lake at 7am…the snow was perfectly frozen hard, somehow.  My snowshoes were needed to grip the trail, not float on the snow. We made great time. I felt good enough that I took the lead and kept up a fast pace all the way to tree line without a break.  It was hot as Summer. At tree line, we stopped to put on sunscreen and admire the solid bank of cloud cover below us.  I had only ever seen it once before.

It was a spectacular day: blue sky, warm temp, no wind.

The great views from Hallett Peak. Longs Peak is the big peak pictured; the fog below can be seen to the left.

As we neared Flattop’s summit @9am, we decided to keep going to Hallett Peak, 1/2 mile and 500′ of elevation gain away.

Hallett Peak (12,713′) sits on the Continental Divide between Tyndall Gorge (on the north) and Chaos Canyon (on the south).

I arrived first, for a change; Brian had to stop to remove & put away his skis, and I kept going in a fit of competitive furor.  I cannot remember the last time I beat Brian to a summit.  The Spinning continues to deliver a high level of fitness.

It was only 9:45am, but I decided to eat my lunch.  I wasn’t hungry as much as I couldn’t think when I’d have another chance. It didn’t seem fair to have to wait until returning to the car.

Even on Hallett’s summit there was no wind.  Brian spoke of the conditions being perfect for spray painting….absolutely zero wind. It was truly spectacular.

Joe on top of the world! Not really....Estes Park is buried beneath the fog in the background.

After the obligatory summit photos, I asked Brian how he was planning to descend. He shocked me by saying he was going down Chaos Canyon.

I had zero interest in that Chaos Canyon.  But Brian did make a good point when he said we needed to use these perfect days to try new things. I wavered.

I got up and walked toward Otis Peak so I could see the Chaos Canyon and Chaotic Glacier which links the canyon to Flattop.

The glacier looked steep; I thought ‘no’….too dangerous without an ice axe. But then I remembered Brian’s comment and got back on the fence.  I wanted to find a way to agree, but I didn’t want to die being stupid.

I moved back to Hallett’s summit where Brian and my gear were awaiting my decision.  I said that I wanted a closer look before deciding.

A view of Chaotic Glacier from the southern flank of Hallett Peak

We hiked down the southern side of Hallett; I took particular note of how firm the snow was on that side.  Once I could see more of Chaotic Glacier, I could see that it was way too steep if the snow was hard.  No way.  I said out loud that it would be plain stupid for me to descend something that steep with nothing to arrest my slide.  Brian gave me hope by offering to let me use one of his ski poles that had a plastic pick extending from the handle.

I agreed to continue to the top of the glacier to see how the snow felt.  If the snow was hard, I planned to turn back toward Flattop and descend the way we came up.

Once we reached the glacier at approximately 11am, the snow felt promising.  It was soft in spots, sometimes as deep as 6-8 inches; I decided I would descend Chaotic Glacier and then hike out Chaos Canyon to Emerald Lake and back to Bear Lake.  I had never descended that way before; it would be an adventure!

A view of the descent into Chaos Canyon

I traded Brian for one of his poles, per his earlier offer.  After fiddling around with the two poles, I decided that I would be better served with just the pole with the pick.  I figured that if I really needed to self-arrest, I was likely to drop both poles if I was fumbling around with two.  Then we walked together down the top of the glacier to reach the part where the slope increased dramatically.  Too dramatically. And, the steeper snow was not soft.

Was I really going to do this?  Crap.

The angle was terrible, but there were no obstructions below.  Even if I lost control, I wouldn’t hit anything.  At worst, I’d get injured.  But I didn’t want to get injured.

What was I thinking?  Okay, I would do it.

Brian started down and stopped after skiing about 50 feet to wait for me to start down.  I sat in the snow and got used to the new pole.  I envisioned how I’d use the pick to self arrest and did a practice roll over.  The pick was made of plastic and so was made thick so not to break.  The thick material didn’t want to sink into the snow and so the pick tended to roll to the side when I weighted it. Crap.

I couldn’t do it.  Could I?


I tried going down face in with both hands on the pole with the pick buried.  It was working!  I was able to get the toes of my boots into the snow and then reposition the pick lower, and then repeat.  As long as the snow didn’t become frozen at some point below me, I would live. But now I was committed.  And that’s when it occurred to me that the pick could break-off at any moment.  These poles were 10 years old and made of plastic.  If it broke, I was going for a long, fast slide.

But I got lucky.  The lower I got, the softer the snow became.  I would live…with my parts unbroken.

Brian in a whiteout on Chaotic Glacier

I decided the snow was soft enough to glissade, and so I turned around to begin.  Suddenly, I couldn’t see anything.

The cloud bank beneath us had rolled up the canyon and now completely obscured our vision.  It is not a good idea to start sliding down steep snow without being able to see what I might hit or fall into.

I’d just have to trust that my last view of the glacier, which showed nothing to worry about, was accurate.  And, so I started.  Down I went….woohoo! And then it was over.   I made it.

But now we couldn’t see anything about where to go.  If we had to rely on simply going downhill, it was going to be a hard escape.

Then I noticed the tracks again.  I could follow the tracks.  And, if these folks could see where they were going when the hiked out, then the tracks would lead us out.

Down and down, we followed the tracks down Chaos Canyon and past Lake Hayhafa.  Visibility as still poor, but I figured we just had to keep following the tracks out toward Dream Lake, which was the only exit from Chaos Canyon, right? Keep reading.

Once past Lake Hayhafa, the terrain looked less and less trail-like. After some distance of plunging through tree branches where sunglasses were necessary as protection from poking, Brian stopped and said, “do you know where we are?”

I said I did not, but indicated that I assumed that the tracks had to lead to Dream Lake.  Brian then said, “well, we’ve been heading right (south) instead of left (north) for a while now….I think we are headed toward Glacier Gorge.”

Glacier Gorge!  He might as well have said ‘The Moon’.

I said I didn’t think it was possible to go to Glacier Gorge from Chaos Canyon.  Brian said he didn’t think so either, but that where he thought we were going, possible or not.

We looked around and couldn’t see anything beyond 100 yards.  We certainly had no way to see any landmarks to guide us. We were screwed.

Then I remembered that I had brought my smartphone, and that I might be able to figure out where we are…if I could get a satellite signal.

It worked.  Of course the screen was almost entirely unreadable in the weird light conditions, and Google Maps is not designed for optimum readability on tiny screens. But I was able to make out that we had indeed been heading SSW, toward Glacier Gorge. I pointed toward Dream Lake and then Bear Lake. Brian didn’t think turning north toward Bear Lake would work as there could be cliffs and other obstacles between it and us. We either had to backtrack or continue toward Glacier Gorge and hope we could find a path to join-up with the winter trail next to The Knob.

The Knob seemed to be the easiest choice, but, even if it was successful, we’d have to loop back to Bear Lake.  Crap.

For some reason, we stayed with the tracks that had led us to the middle of nowhere, but the tracks did seem to head in approximately the right direction.  Heck, either they made it or we’d find their frozen bodies along the way.

Another 30 minutes in and our situation hadn’t improved.  I decided it was time for another direction check.  We were still in the middle of nowhere. And, then I noticed that my battery was about to die.  I gave Brian a heading and then we stayed with it until we finally joined up with the well-established trail.

Our approximate route looping from Bear Lake to Flattop to Hallett toward Otis and then down Chaotic Glacier and Chaos Canyon, where we got lost. The line east from Chaos Canyon does not reveal the unpleasant wandering involved in such a bushwack.

We plodded along, happy to know where we were for the first time in a while.  By 1:30pm we reached the Bear Lake parking lot.  It was over.  We had taken 6.5 hours to hike approximately 11 miles while gaining and losing 3200′ plus a 100-250′ needed to wander from Chaos Canyon to the Glacier Gorge Winter trail and back up to Bear Lake.

On the drive home, Brian told me about a tale he heard from a fellow who took a bad fall skiing down Lambs Slide.  This fellow used the same poles as Brian, with the plastic picks.  When he fell on Lambs Slide, both picks broke off, sending him to serious injury.

It is plain stupidity for me to fail to bring an ice axe when venturing high in the mountains, especially given my apparent inability to refuse an opportunity for adventure.  I’ll not forget again.

Another great day in RMNP!

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Lost Again on Hallett Peak (Hesse-Ferguson)

March 1, 2011

Our Route

I wanted that big, giant roof.  You know, that imposing structure jutting out to the right of the Englishman’s Route. And, since that roof was on the last of the major routes on my tick list for the 2nd buttress of Hallett Peak:  Hesse-Ferguson (5.9).

I HAD to do it.

Brian was game, naturally, but even more so having failed to get past the 3rd pitch on his earlier effort due to route finding difficulties.

“I’ve never NOT been lost on this rock!”

~ Joe, shouted at no one in particular while on Hallett’s 2nd buttress in the vicinity of the Hesse-Ferguson route

On August 29, 1998, we arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot at 5am and, after a brisk 2.5 mile hike in darkness, started climbing at 7am.

The climbing promised to be hard, so I left my food and water at the base to save on weight. It was good to not have a pack weighing me down and trying to pull me off the mountain, but I just didn’t think about how long it might be before getting a drink of water.  Think 2,000 year old mummy, when I later describe how dehydrated I became on this long, long climb.

Our Climb

1st Pitch (5.6)

I took the first lead and began as for the Love Route, climbing through a pink band of rock left of a big, right-facing dihedral. I continued up a dirty, right facing dihedral to reach a good ledge with a good anchor after ~160′.  The entire pitch was very easy with good pro (5.6).

2nd Pitch (5.7)

Brian took the second pitch in which he went straight up the dihedral from the belay ledge to reach a left facing dihedral below a white roof that blocked the way above. Brian climbed to just below the roof where he set an uncomfortable belay.

As I watched, I thought the correct dihedral for Hesse-Ferguson was further to the left, to allow for the roof above us to be defeated to the left (per Rossiter). But the party ahead of us blazed a path past the roof to the right and, I suppose, Brian was still smarting from his recent route-finding challenges. So, with a long day ahead of us, I just had to hope the guys ahead of us knew the way.

3rd Pitch (5.8s)

To my great relief, I turned the white roof to the right rather easily.  But, having lost sight of the group ahead, I decided to pick my way left to get to the large left-facing dihedral capped by the big, giant roof, which was, after all, the goal for the day.  But that was easier said than done.

To get to the large left-facing dihedral below the big, giant roof, I would have to climb up and over some seriously run-out, slabby, dirty 5.8 rock.  Yuck. I proceeded slowly, checking out every hopeful indentation.  I got stuck in a spot where I was sure I could get in some protection only to abandon the effort after burning 30 minutes in the attempt.  I then found the courage to proceed after spying another ‘certain’ placement that turned out to be good only for ‘psychological‘ protection (read: almost certainly worthless).

Brian recalls:

You were stuck forever (it seemed) on that section.  When I followed, I could see why:  it was thin, slabby, and the only relief that could be seen ahead was thin, slabby, and covered with grass.  The one piece of pro that I cleaned was absurd.”

After the longest 50-foot climb of my life, I reached the dihedral and safety, at the cost of burning up my reserves of energy and courage for the day.  I finished the pitch by ascending the dihedral to near the roof where I set my anchor, leaving the terrible-looking crux for Brian (the best climber on our team).

Note: many years later I figured out that we’d gotten onto the ‘Right Dihedral‘ route that would skip the big, giant roof. It was fortunate that I lost sight of the party who’d led us astray.

4th Pitch (5.9)

With all due excitement, Brian took off to figure out how to escape that big, giant roof…which turned out to be a fiendishly hard trap we’d been so careful to get into.

Brian recalls:

“From the distant ground, the giant roof appeared to have a hand-jam crack slicing through it along the right wall.  But after reaching it, I saw that the hand jam was much larger:  more like a bomb-bay chimney – just wide and deep enough that one could scrunch into it and inch toward the roof’s edge, with good placements in the narrower crack above and the vast Tyndal gorge below.  Turning the roof edge to regain the face was stunning.

I watched with amazement and dread as he crawled up into the bomb-bay chimney and shimmied his body further and further out over Tyndal gorge.

“How was he going to get out of there and onto the face?”, was my big question, as I looked at the blank wall below him.  He threw down a lay-back to reach past the blank wall and grab the face climbing holds that took him out of my line of sight.  It was beautiful.

I followed and found the moves to not be too technical or strenuous, but wildly awkward.

2nd Buttress of Hallett Peak, Hesse-Ferguson route


5th Pitch (5.8)

The next pitch was described as 5.7 serious…it was both.  And I was tired.  But since it was only 5.7, I figured I could manage.

I started by climbing straight up from the belay, aiming for a small roof.  I was able to find pro until I reached the roof, but then the pro ran out.  My choices were to continue up over completely run out face climbing to a belay on a flake (official route) or traverse 40 feet, up and right, to join a left facing dihedral on the Culp-Bossier route.  The Culp-Bossier route had good pro.  As I was completely exhausted and had already burned through my entire supply of courage, it wasn’t a hard choice.

I climbed as far as the rope let me, not quite reaching the top of the Culp-Bossier dihedral.

We were off route again, but I was alive. It was a good trade.

6th Pitch (5.8)

When Brian came up, I mentioned that I was tempted to stay on Culp-Bossier, since we knew the route and the day was old.  But Brian wanted to get back to Hesse-Ferguson, and it was his lead.  So, he traversed left to reach the flake belay atop the run-out section before realizing that the Hesse Ferguson route then moved up and right to a point directly above my belay. We could have just gone straight up to get back on route, but all we lost was a little more time.

7th Pitch (5.8)

After bringing me up to get a full rope, Brian continued climbing up to the base of a white band (face climbing) and belayed on a nice ledge we shared with a couple of guys who insisted they were on Culp-Bossier.  I couldn’t swear I was actually on Hesse-Ferguson, but I sure I wasn’t on Culp-Bossier route, at least not the route I’d climbed twice. But they were nice guys and Halletts can be forgiving for that sort of error, if you’re willing to work for it.

8th Pitch (5.9)

My lack of water (and courage) was taking a toll. I was too tired to lead anymore, so I let Brian finish the route. He climbed up the left side of the white band through some small, fun roofs and a shallow right-facing dihedral. It was a great pitch; it started hard (steep with good holds) and then became harder (move under roof without feet) and then ended with a thin, blank traverse to reach the top at 5pm.  It had taken 4 hours longer than expected.  Ouch!

Since we’d left our packs at the base, there was no reason to stop for a rest.  It took us another hour before I could have my first drink of water since 7am. I’ll just say that I was seriously dehydrated.  Brian went without a drink as long as I did, but he is unnaturally immune to dehydration.

After a long rest, we packed up at got back to the parking lot at 8pm.

What a day! Despite my fatigue, I thought Hesse-Ferguson was a great route:  far better than merely a way to climb that big, giant roof.  It was a classic Hallett climb.

Hallett Peak, 2nd Buttress

And, now, 14 years later, I’m amazed that that was the last time I did a rock climb on Hallett’s 2nd Buttress.  At least it was a good one.

“This is my favorite route on Hallett Peak. It is demanding both physically and mentally. The run-outs epitomize what climbing on Hallett Peak is all about, and it has some burly, physical cruxes.”

Mountain Project (Hallett Peak, Hesse-Ferguson Route)


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No Love on Love Route

October 17, 2010

Brian and I were near the end of a run on the major Hallett Peak rock climbs.  The year before we had climbed Northcutt-Carter (5.7), Culp-Bossier (5.8), and this year we had already climbed Jackson-Johnson (5.9). Brian picked the Love Route (5.9) for what would turn out to be our last high peaks preparation for our upcoming attempt on the Casual Route (5.10), Longs Peak.

The weather wasn’t perfect, but we’d had great weather luck for many weeks in a row. I figured my luck would continue to hold.  I was wrong.

On August 1, 1998, we set off for Hallett Peak a little later than usual. The day before, in a flash of stupidity, I reasoned that if we could do Jackson-Johnson after starting at 8:30am (after a false start), we certainly could climb the Love Route with a 7:30am start (6am sunrise) in the face of poor weather.  This would allow for a 4:30am departure from Boulder instead of the normal 3am. One and one-half hours of sleep was the difference between 3.5 hours and 5 hours of sleep. Apparently, I was willing to gamble a lot to exchange a miserable night sleep for a mere bad one.

Brian wanted to be flexible, I suppose, and he didn’t argue the point. Perhaps he also looked forward to a few extra winks.

As planned, I felt much better than usual when Brian showed up for the drive to RMNP. And, after hiking to the base of Hallett in the dawn light instead of the pitch dark, the day was officially off to a grand start.

Pitch 1:

To the left of the Cup-Bossier start is the dihedral start to the climb.  Rossiter says, “Climb the pink wall 20′ right of the smaller dihedrals and 80′ left of the big dihedral”

A 160 foot 5.6 climb up the grassy, right-facing dihedral leads to the 4th class gully (the big dihedral) that leads to the top of the triangle buttress.  We started up the route at 7:15am.  I took the 1st pitch to allow us to switch off pitches (not counting the 50-foot ‘move the belay’ pitch) and leave the crux pitch to Brian.

Pitches 2 & 3:

The 2nd and 3rd pitches were only 4th class. The only interesting event on this section of the climb was Brian’s apparent attempt to drop his car keys to the bottom of the buttress.  The rock didn’t cooperate and snagged them only 50 feet below where Brian was able to collect them.

But the rock was very wet. It is quite common for have wet rock early in the day, but we’ve been able to rely on the wind to dry off the rock before long.  But not this time.  Not with overcast skies.

Pitch 4:

Brian led the 4th pitch up some wet, but good 5.6 rock through the white band for about 160 feet.

Pitch 5:

The 5th pitch was mine and was very bad…wet and runny. I started up, angling right. I was supposed to stay in a right leading crack for 90 feet then angle left and up. I was in water the entire time, and every time it looked like the route could go left, the path required friction moves over slime. No way.

According to Rossiter’s guidebook, there were no routes between Love Route and the Englishman’s Route, which was far to the right.  But the weakness in the rock and the only safe climbing went right. I had to try something.

I stayed right, picking my higher and higher. But every step was in mud, and every hand hold was in water. And I was unable to find any good pro for long stretches. At one point I was 15 feet over my last good pro before I found a good placement. It was a foregone conclusion that I was not going to get back to the route; I had passed up all changes to traverse back to the line. I was probably screwed. I just hoped I could find a safe belay before running out of rope.

It was turning ugly, but at least the weather had held despite threatening otherwise.

Looking up, I spied a potential belay and could see a line to get there. Thank God.

Just below the ledge, I had to pull up on and then step on two loose hand-sized rocks wedged into a shallow crack.

But I made it.  I had 5 feet of rope left.

The ledge turned out not to have much pro or space, but it was a satisfactory belay given that I was out of rope.

As I brought Brian up, he was whining about how far off route I was and how I should be more careful. Yeah, whatever. I was just glad to be alive. I told him we’d be back on route if he’d go up to the lower angle rock and then head left to get below the roof.  He said he’d try; what more could I ask.


The upper route topo. Red line is our route. Green line is the true Love Route. Blue line is the Better Than Love route, unknown to us at the time.


Pitch 6:

He made it.  The climbing was moderate, but the pro continued to be scarce. Still, it was another possible path to take when The Love Route was runny and slick. We were back on route.

It turns out that I wasn’t the only one to think so.

In the years since our climb of the Love Route, another route emerged into general knowledge between the Love Route and The Englishman’s Route.  It is called “Better Than Love” and follows the line we used except for continuing to the top while remaining to the right of the Love Route. See Gillett’s High Peaks guidebook 2001 version.  Apparently the climb was done many years ago; but since it wasn’t in my 1997 Rossiter guidebook, it might as well have been classified Top Secret by the US Govenment.


Brian approaching the top of the 3rd pitch



Pitch 7:

We took a moment to study the 7th and crux pitch.  And then it started to rain and hail. Shit.

It was bad. We’d never bailed before but this maelström did not look like the ‘take prisoners’ kind of storm. But Brian thought he could aid the crux, and since the top was a lot closer than the bottom, we agreed to push on.

It was so slippery. He had to aid the roof then then pulled off a couple unprotected traversing moves in a waterfall to make it. It was well done; one of his more heroic efforts of all time.

When it was my turn to step around the roof, I didn’t think I’d make it.  But I had a top rope, so I had to try. Sticky rubber is sticky even wet.

Pitch 8:

I took the last pitch, which was thankfully short and only 5.6. And by the time I reached the top, the rain had gone.

Our perfect record was still intact.

Lucky again.

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2 Classic Climbs: Northcutt Carter & Petit Grepon

January 5, 2010

It was one of those things that gets into your head and you just have to do it.  When I first heard of it, I wanted to do all or at least a lot of the 50 climbs listed in the Fifty Classic Climbs Of North America (a climbing guidebook and history) written by Steve Roper & Alan Steck in 1979. Out of all the climbs in North America, the best 50; the ultimate tick list.  Since two of them were within my reach as a climber and nearby my house (in Boulder), I wanted to start as soon as possible.

The Colorado Climbs within “The Fifty”

  1. Hallett Peak, Northcutt-Carter Route III 5.7 [1956] (in RMNP; top of my list for a while)
  2. Petit Grepon, South Face III 5.8 [1961](in RMNP; had done once before)
  3. Longs Peak, The Diamond, D1, V 5.11 (in RMNP, but too hard; did “Casual Route” instead)
  4. Crestone Needle, Ellingwood Ledges III 5.7

Brian wasn’t crazy about the list (he is too anti-establishment to follow someone else’s list), but he did want to do the Petit Grepon and was willing to re-do Northcutt Carter; so, for next two weekends in 1997, we agreed to focus on 2 of the 50 classic climbs: Petit Grepon & Northcutt Carter.

Petit Grepon (August 30)

It probably wasn’t the smartest plan, to climb the most popular rock climb in RMNP on the busiest weekend of the year (labor day). I guess we just didn’t think of it in time to start the “classic” program earlier and couldn’t wait any longer with the changing season. And, the Petit climb is long enough (8 pitches = 5-8 hours, depending on difficulty and avg length of pitch) compared to the daylight hours before the probable rain (7am to somewhere between noon-2pm = 5-7 hours) such that we had to be first on the climb or expect to fail. [Note: learning to climb faster was another option, but it would take too long to get ready.]

Another complication was the planning for the descent.  The details we could find on returning to the base of the climb were too vague and included ugly descriptions of a “death gully”. So we agreed to escape over “The Gash” as I had done a few years earlier with my CMC rock climbing class, and descend down the Sharkstooth approach.  But, this meant we had to carry everything with us on the climb. It is never ideal to carry everything up the rock, but sometimes that is the best or only way to do it; the obvious key is to not bring too much.

The fact that we couldn’t get a bivy permit worked well with this detail.  We bring very little, start very early, and blast up the trail to be first on the rock.  In reality, we figured we’d be tip-toeing past the sleeping climbers to beat them to the rock. It was a great plan.

We hit the trail at 4am and got in line.  It was crowded like I had never seen it before in the pre-dawn hours.  We put it into high gear and passed everyone and got to the rock ahead first.  One group of sleepy climbers tried to pull themselves together quickly as we passed by, but it was too late; we were first on the rock. “I love it when a plan comes together.” (Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, A-Team)

Our path up the South Face route (III 5.8) of the Petit Grepon. We descended over "The Gash" which is directly behind the Petit Grepon, between the Sharkstooth and the Saber, from this vantage point.

To make sure we stayed in front, we skipped the initial pitch by scrambling up the west-side talus to reach a ledge which we used to traverse back to the South Face III 5.8 climb.

Still in a race to be first or at least not hold up anyone else, we quickly got ready for the next part of the day.  After putting on more clothing (we wouldn’t be burning calories like we did on the hike in) including rock shoes and harness, organizing the climbing gear & ropes, and eating a quick breakfast (a couple bits and a swig of water), we packed away everything else we brought into our small packs.

And, then, without another glance back at the climbers jostling for position, we started up.


  1. Traversed right to reach the giant chimney in the center of the face
  2. Exited the “cave” to the left and climbed to a large ledge below another, but smaller chimney
  3. Climbed the chimney, then traverse right to a belay below the right end of a roof
  4. Moved right and then climbed a steep crack, into a left-facing corner with a finger crack (crux), and continued up and right to a ledge on the east side of the Petit Grepon
  5. Climbed up, then right and then left to a small stance on the southeast arete.  I believe this spot is called the “Pizza Pan” belay
  6. Climbed a crack above the belay to a ledge, and then up the wall. Belayed on ridgeline
  7. Followed the ridge to the teeny tiny summit
  8. Enjoyed the spectacular views of the world from the sofa-sized summit while resisting an urge to lay flat on the rock

It was incredible; the summit was a 10×30 diving board offering lots of air time before the sudden end.  The summit was so small that I had to look at my feet when I stood upright to keep my balance; the ground was outside of my peripheral vision.  And the fear of falling off was somehow magnified by this phenomenon.  When I sat down, I thought I could feel the rock swaying, which brought on fears of the rock breaking off.  It was the coolest place I’ve ever been, and getting down right away felt important and promised to be interesting.

A profile view of the top 1/3rd of the Petit Grepon from behind. It is a really disconcerting sight that forces you to wonder if it might break off!

We looked around for rap anchors and found a good set on the back side (NE corner).  We then scrambled up a deep chimney to the north to reach the Sharkstooth side of “The Gash.”  From there we descended back down the Sharkstooth approach.  Once we reached the the Loch Vale lake, we found the crowds again; the trails were packed elbow to elbow; it was horrific.  Welcome to Labor Day weekend at RMNP.

But the weather stayed perfect the entire day:  clear skies, warm temperature, no wind, and after 11 hours, we made it back to the parking lot.  We got back so early that a Ranger questioned us intently to see if we had done an illegal bivy.  All we had to do was point at our tiny packs to prove we didn’t do so.

One classic down, and one to go.

Northcutt Carter (September 6)

Then it was time for my test-piece.  And I was scared for a number of reasons.  At the top of the list, the route was famous for route-finding disasters; a rating of 5.7 was only true if you could stay on route. Undoubtedly, the actual difficulty would be harder.  Another was that I had never climbed on Hallett Peak before; I just hadn’t worked up the courage yet. If I could overcome my fear and successfully climb Northcutt Carter, if I could pass the test, then I could call myself a real climber.  Well, that’s how it felt, anyway.

To combat the legendary route-finding difficulty, I studied my copy of Bernard Gillett’s High Peaks, 1st edition (the importance of this detail will become clear later) more carefully than ever before.  And, of course, I made a photocopy of the topo and route description to remind should I become confused.

Just as the week before, we were planning on climbing a very popular route.  And this time, the weather report promised bad weather in the afternoon.  We needed to get an early start and move fast to make it.  Yet, since the approach was far shorter, we slept in a bit; my alarm didn’t go off until 3am.

We hit the trail from the Bear Lake parking lot at just after 5am and took only 30 minutes to reach Emerald Lake.  It was still dark so we couldn’t see how far we had to go.  I thought we might have started too early, but we didn’t reach the bottom of Northcutt Carter until 6:45am.  And once again, we were the first to arrive; and we didn’t waste any time getting started by scrambling up the broken rock to the right of a break in the “white band” to reach the bottom of the climb.

Pitch 1

Brian took the first pitch, and climbed a corner for about 1/2 a rope before moving a bit left and climbing up a slabby rock.

Pitch 2

We were swapping pitches, so the 2nd pitch was mine.  I took out my topo for a quick refresher; Gillett said, “go straight up a crack, then move a bit right to the belay.” Unfortunately, the guide book was wrong!  Mr. Gillett was describing what Rossiter calls the “Faux Pas” route…a common mistake on Northcutt-Carter.  Of course, I didn’t know this until I later bought a copy of Rossiter’s book.

As directed by Gillett, I started straight up and then passed a roof.  It was pretty hard (turned out to be 5.8), so I figured I did something wrong; the pitch was only rated 5.4.

As I looked up I could see a couple pins with some gear left behind.  Booty!  I scrambled up to claim it without a thought to why someone would have bailed at that point.  And then it started to really get hard.  With the rock still a bit wet and the terrain now a bit overhanging, I was in trouble.

I kept making progress, but I was wearing out.  I found an unlikely leg jam that I could hang on with no hands.  That gave me a life-saving rest.

The rock was overlapping plates of rock like tiles on a roof…the pieces of rock were loose and the downward slope of the rock plates didn’t offer much to hold on to.  While I struggled to find the right piece of gear, one of the loops on Brian’s gearsling broke and sent the two large cams into oblivion.

Running out of gear and strength, I took to hanging on the pro to gather enough strength to make it another few feet.  But eventually I made it.

After Brian came up, we both were very confused about the route.  We couldn’t begin to think of how we got off-route.  But since the belay looked right, we decided to push on.

Pitch 3

Brian took the third pitch.  The rock all looked similar (the reason for the route-finding difficulties for many); following his nose, he took the original line of Northcutt-Carter, which was a bit to the left of the route we were trying to follow.  We had to simul-climb a bit so he could reach a good anchor.

Pitch 4

I had no idea where the route went.  I continued up the line until I got to a good belay stance in an alcove; the route didn’t seem to go anywhere from where I was; I hoped that Brian could find the route.

Pitch 5

Brian thought he knew where to go and traversed far right to link up with the route.  Once at the belay together, we both felt confident we had re-acquired the route.  This was the good news; the bad news was that the rain had started.

Pitch 6

I continued up toward a chimney and then climbed the chimney.  I saw a great belay spot and got to within 3 feet of it when I ran out of rope.  I had to jam my foot in a crack for balance while I struggled to find a place for one of the last pieces of gear remaining.  I then clipped a long sling to that questionable piece of gear and lowered myself to a sloping ledge where I could find a good placement for my last cam.

My anchor contained 1 good cam, a questionable tricam & my ass on a ledge; I wasn’t happy, but I was out of options.  I gave the rope 3 tugs and hoped Brian wouldn’t fall on the slippery rocks.  I sat in the rain wondering how we would get out with our lives.

Brian didn’t fall.

Pitch 7

Brian slowly crept up the wet rock while I froze in a freezing rain.  By the time he reached the top, I was a stiff, wet fool.  But since Brian was at the top, we were going to make it…I could just fall up the rest of the way.  Retaining a bit of pride, I managed to reach the top without resorting to falling.  And once I started to thaw out, my fingers hurt like the devil was eating them.


The descent gully was very hard to find.  Brian had been in it once the year before but I had never been on Hallett’s north face.  We eventually found something awful that Brian was certain was the right gully, and we started down.  I didn’t believe we were in the right place until climbers descending above us nearly killed us in a rock fall. Eventually we reached the bottom and spent 40 minutes fruitlessly looking for the fallen gear.

After a fruitless search we gave up and hiked out to go eat.  We reached the car at 7pm for a 14 hour day, and then went into Estes Park for a Mexican Food celebration.  I felt that I had accomplished something important, but that was the end of my obsession with the Classic 50; just too many great things to do close to home.  And, while 2 of 50 isn’t really a great accomplishment; not finishing the list at all seems to be rather common.  According to Wikipedia, no one has ever done all 50; perhaps everyone has too many good things to do nearby home.

That was also the end of my use of Gillett’s guidebook; I’ve used Rossiter’s book ever since.  I’ve heard that Gillett fixed that mistake in his 2nd edition, but I wouldn’t know for sure as I never bought it; some mistakes are simply unforgivable.

It is worth noting that it was good that we got Northcutt-Carter done when we did.  A few years later (I believe 1999), the bottom 2 pitches fell off the face into a pile of rubble at the base of the climb.  Northcutt-Carter was dead.

Hallett Peak with "dead" Northcutt-Carter route indicated

See all trip reports

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