Posts Tagged ‘RMNP’

RMNP Trail Ridge Rd E-W-E

September 27, 2014

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park ascends up to 12,183 feet as it passes over the Continental Divide, connecting the cities of Estes Park and Grand Lake in Colorado.  It is the highest continuous road for automobiles in the United States.

The weather had started to trend colder and wetter, and I still had my heart set on riding over Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park to Grand Lake (and back) in 2014.  I knew it was important to not wait too long since Winter hits the top of Trail Ridge Road early and often (see photo of snow plow).

Trail Ridge Road being plowed in Spring (303 Cycling)

Trail Ridge Road being plowed in Spring (303 Cycling)

The idea for this ride came from my friend, Phil, with whom I had twice ridden up the eastern side of Trail Ridge Road, to the Alpine Center, and back down (43.8 miles, round trip; ~5037′ elevation gain).  Phil couldn’t follow through on what I feared was the last good weekend, but another friend, Chris was game for the extended journey. We booked Sunday, September 14 for the attempt.

Trail Ridge had been used by native Americans to cross the mountains between  their home lands in the west and hunting areas on the east side. Arapahoe Indians called the trail located on the ridge as “taienbaa” (“Where the Children Walked”) because it was so steep that children could not be carried, but had to walk.

Trail Ridge Road profile (by xxx)

Trail Ridge Road profile starting from Grand Lake and end at Estes Park  (Wikipedia)

Our ride would start just outside Estes Park (and a bit inside the northern entrance to RMNP), and would take us over the Continental Divide, near the Colorado River’s headwaters, and end just outside of the western entrance to RMNP (near the town and body of water called “Grand Lake”). Of course, from there, we would have to turn around and retrace our path to get back home. Our cycling adventure would cover approximately 80 miles and would climb (and descend) about 8,700 feet of elevation, and nearly all of riding would between 9,000′ and 12,000′ of elevation (more mileage above 9000′  than the 120-mile Triple Bypass ride).

 The Start – 6:30am

We started up the Trail Ridge Road in the dark at 6:30am, shivering from the freezing temperatures the weatherman predicted we’d find.  We started at such a terrible, cold hour to reduce the traffic we’d dodge (tourists sleep in) and to minimize our exposure to the possible afternoon thunderstorms (moderate likelihood; devastating consequences).

Photo of Many Parks Curve in 2013

Photo of Many Parks Curve in 2013, taken at dawn. The shadow of photographer (me) can be seen on right half of photo.

Riding hard to warm up, we quickly passed West Horseshoe Park, where the road signs warned of frequent encounters with bighorn sheep, deer and elk (but, I guess they slept in as well), and then we went by the Horseshoe Park Overlook before we finally had warmed up enough to shed some clothes.  We stopped at the intersection merging US-34 with US-36 to remove a few clothing layers and eat a bite of food, and then we turned right to follow Trail Ridge Road past Hidden Valley.  From Hidden Valley (9,239′), we knew we had 10.5 miles of 5% grade road that climbed 2,898′  to reach the Rock Cut (approximately the start of the up and down traverse to the Alpine Center, 4 miles away).  That was our first objective.

A photo of Brian at Rainbow Curve in 2012.

A photo I took of Brian at Rainbow Curve in 2012, with Ypsilon and Fairchild mountains in the background.

We continued upward, passing Many Parks Curve and later a sign announcing we were 2 miles above sea level (5280′ x 2 +10,560′). Higher still, the trees we passed became increasingly beaten down by the brutal weather they endure for much of the year.  After we passed the Rainbow Curve, a tourist favorite for the amazing views of the northern end of RMNP, we passed through the treeline.  The next 11 miles would stay above the treeline, which meant no protection for cyclists from the freezing wind we were sure to meet.

Treeline is the edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing. Beyond the tree line, trees cannot tolerate the environmental conditions (usually cold temperatures or lack of moisture). The tree line should not be confused with a lower timberline or forest line, which is often defined as the line where trees form a forest with a closed canopy.

~ Wikipedia

Amazingly, we didn’t have the wind I’d always before had to endure.  Feeling lucky and fast, we hurried through the Rock Cuts (12,137′), and started the 4.5 miles of riding which would remain at an altitude of around 12,000 feet. We started down the first long descent of the day, and enjoyed the rest as well as the awesome feeling of speed.  But all too quickly it was over, and then we had to climb back up every one of those ~400 feet of altitude and then some to reach 12,183′ (the highest point on Trail Ridge Road).  One last fast descent led us past the Gore Range Overlook and then to the Alpine Center, which we reached at 9am.

As I feared, it was closed until 10:30am, which meant no source of water to replenish our dwindling drinking supplies.

Alpine Center (11,717′) – 9:00am

After putting on my rain jacket to cut the wind (and windchill), and with dehydration looming, we set off down toward Grand Lake. I had never traveled Trail Ridge Road between the Alpine Center and Grand Lake; I was excited to be exploring a new part of RMNP.

From the Alpine Center, the road immediately hits the hairpin Medicine Bow Curve, which displays a sign indicating the State of Wyoming can be seen in the distance.  And, as the road steepened, so did our speed.  I quickly lost my body heat and started shivering.

Continuing the decent, the road reentered alpine forest and then reopened as we approached Poudre Lake (the official “source” of the Colorado River). The sunshine felt so good.  Once past the lake, we went over the Continental Divide, the virtual line marking where all water east of the line flows towards the Atlantic and all water to the west flows to the Pacific.

Trail Ridge Road map (by Darekk2)

Trail Ridge Road map (by Darekk2)

Trail Ridge Road route Sept. 14, 2014

Trail Ridge Road route Sept. 14, 2014

Once the road reentered the forest (and we lost the sun), I had to stop to put on my fleece jacket under my rain jacket. I just couldn’t stand the shivering it any longer.

Chris went by me while I changed, and then I happily spent the next 30 minutes chasing him down, warmly.

Two miles after the last of several hairpin curve, we went past a sign for the Colorado River Trailhead, which facilitates a modest walk to the Colorado River where is it only a small stream.  This also coincided with the end of the steep descending.

Continuing toward Grand Lake, I was still hurrying to catch Chris.  This distraction was welcome given how dull (flattish, straight, not much to see) it was to ride this 10 miles of road simply to get water at the Kawuneeche Center.

Dehydration on a long bike ride leads to phone calls to annoyed wives who have to drive a long way to bring stupid husbands home.

I caught Chris after a few miles of this flattish section, and then we continued down the road that was getting warmer and warmer, especially to those wearing fleece sweaters beneath rain jackets.

We reached the Western RMNP entrance around 11:30, and after stopping to make certain we could get back into the park, we continued another mile down to the Kawuneeche Center.

Kawuneeche Center – 11:30am

Ah, the half-way point.  All we had to do was turn around and go home.  Unfortunately, it had taken us 4 hours to do the first half, so we were going to have a long day.  But first, lunch!

After a 30 minute lunch break, and topping off our water bottles, we started for home.

The reclimb of the flattish 10-11 miles of road was a misery, but then we got to enjoy (translation:  suffer on purpose) the 2,604′ of climbing from the Colorado River Trailhead to the Alpine Center (about 10 miles of 5% grade road).  And, going slower allowed us to enjoy the scenery whenever we managed to get ahead on our breathing and didn’t have to stay on the edge of the road to let the cars go past.

Once we passed Medicine Bow curve and turned to head toward the Alpine Center, the brutal mountain winds found us.  It was unreal; only the 40 mph, freezing winds on Pikes Peak were worse.  Fortunately, we only had to ride 1/4 mile before turning off to get more water/food at the Alpine Center.  We arrived at 1pm, and we found that the tourists had decided to come to the Alpine Center.  Not one parking spot was available, and cars were crawling through the lot hoping to catch someone leaving.  It reminded me of shopping on the day before Christmas.

Average daily summer wind speeds at the Alpine Center are about 48 mph with gusts up to 79 mph. During summer, winds are generally most turbulent at midday and least turbulent at sunrise.  Alpine visitors have a unique opportunity to be standing in a breeze one moment and a hurricane-force wind the next.

~ National Park Service

Alpine Center – 1pm

We decided to stop for a lengthy rest inside the gift shop to get our bodies ready for the long push exposed to the terrible wind.  The tourists were packed into the already overstuffed (with stuff for sale) gift shop / café; I suppose they were hiding from the wind as well. Everyone was startlingly friendly. We were approached a number of times by people who wanted to talk about cycling.  It was quite fun until there was a gigantic crashing noise which indicated someone had knocked over one of the large glass structures containing breakable, expensive items for sale.

That was our cue to head home.

We started up the first climb toward the Gore Range Overlook, competing with cars for road space and heading directly into the teeth of the wind.  The pace of riding was painfully slow, but at least I had put on all my clothes to avoid hypothermia.

Fortunately, the wind direction remained largely out of the west, so we only had to deal with the headwind during the opening climb.  Generally, we had side-winds, which was unsettling but not physically challenging.  And on the last climb of the day, we actually had a tailwind pushing us up the mountain.  Nice!

Fairly quickly we reached the Rock Cut, which left only the descent, albeit a very long one.

After an hour of careful avoidance of speeding cars and oblivious pedestrians for an hour, we reached my 4Runner at 2:30pm.

Finish – 2:30pm

We had hoped for a 6 hour ride, but took 8 hours including over an hour of stoppage time.

The ride not only took longer than I thought, it felt harder than I expected.  After-the-fact, I attribute it to the long exposure to high altitude….or old age.

We had ridden 81 miles and climbed (and descended) 8,700′.  A worthy effort for a day in the Rocky Mountains.

Another great ride was in the books.

See Mountain Ride Reports listing

Sharkstooth Sprint

July 18, 2013

July 13, 2013

The Sharkstooth taken on approach in July 1992

The Sharkstooth taken on approach in July 1992

I did my first rock climb of 2013 on June 30  and was amazed to discover that this latter-day cyclist missed his rock climbing days. It had been over a year since I had done any climbing on non-snowy or icy rock, and afterward I found myself actually moved to happiness simply by thinking of possible climbs to do this summer. And then, after a wonderful day in Eldorado Canyon State Park July 6th, my mind moved immediately to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). I wanted alpine rock, and what better place to start than Sharkstooth (12,630′), the location of my very first alpine climbing adventure 21 years ago this July 10th.

In truth, I suppose I might have gotten ahead of myself a little bit.

The jump from moderate climbs on Eldo’s Wind Tower to RMNP’s Sharkstooth is a rather dramatic one:  a short walk from the car at 5200′ elevation for few 2-3 pitch climbs in the sunshine vs. a 5 mile approach in the pre-dawn dark over rough trail and talus gaining 2700′ to begin a 5-pitch climb that would take 4 hours to ascend another 650′ and 1 hour to descend for a 10-12 hour adventure. But I had done it many times before, and so it did not feel like foolish overconfidence to claim I could do it.

And Brian agreed with only the slightest hesitation.

Sharkstooth seen from Zowie

Sharkstooth seen from Zowie in 2010

With such a plan in hand, due diligence includes checking the weather report to understand whether the climbing window is wide, narrow, or closed for the targeted day.  The month of July is the height of the thunderstorm season for Colorado and its high peaks, and depending on our overall speed we would need 6 to 7.5 hours after first light to do it: a 30-60 minute talus hop through The Gash to the base of Sharkstooth plus a 30 minute climbing prep (including breakfast) plus 5-6 hours of climbing/descending to get off the mountain. And this not counting another 45 minutes would get us below tree-line, and out of the danger zone.

The thursday forecast was for ‘showers and storms starting at 9am’, but the friday forecast would rule for a saturday climb.  While waiting for friday’s report, below is a ranking of possible weather forecasts, from worst to best that I carried in my mind:

Storms starting:

  1. at or before 10am, meaning less than 6 hours to finish (nope; reschedule)
  2. at 11am, meaning about 6 hours to finish (everything goes perfectly plus we hike out in storm; take a chance?)
  3. at noon, meaning about 7 hours to finish (everything goes perfectly; go for it)
  4. at 1pm, meaning about 8 hours to finish (probably safe; definitely)
  5. at 2pm, meaning about 9 hours to finish (very safe; a no brainer)
  6. at or after 3pm, meaning 10 or more hours to finish (no weather risk at all)

On friday afternoon, the forecast improved to ‘storms starting mostly after noon’.  We decided to proceed and make every effort to start fast, maintain speed and finish safely.

This ‘go fast’ strategy required three tactics:

  1. get up very early to start hiking very early
  2. hike as fast as possible (i.e., hiking fast as possible in the dark)
  3. reach the trail-less talus right at first light (daylight needed for navigation) to avoid lost daylight
  4. be first on the rock to avoid having to wait for other climbing parties

Just to be safe, we decided on an extra early start to give ourselves some extra margin for age-related slowness now that we are both over 50.  We decided to meet in Boulder at 2:15am and drive together to the Glacier Gorge trailhead in RMNP for a 4am targeted hiking start. The only obstacle to starting even earlier was the need to have some daylight to navigate the giant talus field in The Gash below Sharkstooth; if we got there too early we would have to wait for the sun to catch up.

The Day

I got up at 1am and met Brian at 2:15am. After throwing my gear into his truck, we started from Boulder right on schedule and arrived at the trailhead (9,240′) a bit after 3:30am to find only 1 or 2 cars. We assumed they were left the day before by bivying parties since no one could be crazy or worried enough to arrive even earlier than us. After an bit of last minute dumping of extra gear and water to save weight (and needless suffering), we started up the star and moonless trail at 4am.

We made great time in part by not stopping to rest. It was about 5:15am as we approached Andrews glacier in the dark. Brian said, “headlights,” and my heart fell. Damn. As I looked to where he pointed, Brian said, “I wonder what they are doing up there?” They were way off the hiking route to Sharkstooth and seemingly headed toward nothing that we knew. “Perhaps they are planning a climb up that way,” Brian said hopefully, but without conviction.

Approach to the Sharkstooth via the Loch Vale trail and junction to Andrews Glacier & Pass

Approach to the Sharkstooth via the Loch Vale trail and junction to Andrews Glacier & Pass

The sky was lightening quickly and was sufficient to start across the talus when we arrived at 5:30am. The lightening sky also revealed a cloud filled sky.

It wasn’t long until we could see that they were headed toward Sharkstooth.  I said, “Let’s go faster.” And we did.

We used a patch of snow to gain a chunk of ground on the other party, and a short distance later, we passed them. They didn’t know the area, but they were not slow.  And now that we were showing them the way, we had to keep up the brutal pace. We did it. We arrived at 6am, about 15 minutes before they did, ensuring a clear path to the top.  When they arrived, we discovered they had started hiking at 2am and simply got lost in the dark.  One of the cars at the trailhead was theirs!

It is worth noting here that we only took 2 hours to hike 5 miles and ascend 2,700′ to reach the base of Sharkstooth. That is 2.5 mph and 1,350 feet per hour, with 20 lbs of iron in the pack.  That pace is off my personal speed chart and a full 50% faster than we managed almost 17 years ago as 34 year old men. With such evidence in hand, I am pleased to report that Brian has regained nearly all of his pre-illness strength, and that my increased cardio fitness (and lower weight) has held off the ravages of age for a bit longer than expected.

Pitch 1:

After changing into dry, warm clothes and consuming a bit of breakfast and 1 of 2 liters of water I brought for the day, I started up the rock at 6:30am, taking the most obvious dihedral.  My fingers quickly froze as I slowly worked past the wet vegetation, straight up to a large ledge directly below the slot marking the start of the 2nd pitch.  They key for us was to stick to the route we knew to minimize any lost time.  The sky was not yet threatening, but did look like it could rain in the next few hours.

Pitch 2:

Brian continued straight up until reaching a ledge at the top of the prominent left facing flake.  I followed the rope without much thought for route finding until I reached the flake.  I paused to decide whether to face climb the rock to the left (as I had done before) or simply layback up the flake.  I decided to do the classic layback to reach the belay in style.

Pitch 3:

View of Estes Park from top of 3rd pitch

View of Estes Park from top of 3rd pitch

I continued straight up the steep but bucket-filled terrain to reach a big flat ledge that marked the start of a recognizable arete. Every variation of the NW Ridge route must hit this ledge, as it is the first part of peak that actually forms a ridge.  The views are spectacular off both sides.  This was the longest pitch of the day, taking nearly the entire 200′ rope.

At this point, the clouds seemed to be thinning.  It seemed that we would get lucky with the weather, as we have so many times when we show proper respect.  Still, it looked to be raining in parts of RMNP, so we stayed alert.

Pitch 4:

Brian climbed up the off-width crack and belayed at the next large ledge below the white face.  I followed after taking many photos in a foolish attempt to capture the majesty of the views from that spot.

Pitch 5:

I took the last pitch, starting by moving left of the white face and climbing the rough rock toward the summit.  I stayed left to avoid rope drag, continuing past the next big ledge to belay a few feet below the summit level.

We untied and scrambled to reach the summit at 10:30am.  We enjoyed the views for a moment before heading down to get some water; it had been 4 hours since our last drop of water.  And, while the weather had held, we were still at least 1.25 hours from treeline.

Panorama from Sharkstooth summit July 2013

Panorama from Sharkstooth summit July 2013

The Sharkstooth rappels are always interesting for the questionable anchors; we sacrificed a sling on on the middle anchor where the slings looked particularly aged.  After downclimbing the final 70 feet, we scrambled down few hundred feet over blocky talus to reach our packs.  I found that the marmots had knocked my pack down from a ledge in a vain attempt to get my food (I had carried it with me).

View of Petit Grepon and Sky Pond from Sharkstooth rappels

View of Petit Grepon and Sky Pond from Sharkstooth rappels

We got back to the packs right at 11:30am.  With the improvement in the weather, we stopped to rehydrate and eat lunch before starting the long walk to the trailhead.  I finished my last liter of water and a couple Larabars.

The steep descent was brutal on my aging knees, but we kept up a good pace to get to treeline before any late arriving weather spoiled the day.  We continued back down the way we came up; I was dreaming of ice for my knees.

We arrived at the trailhead at 2pm for a 10 hour truck-to-truck roundtrip.

Not bad for two 51 year olds.

Timeline:

  • 1:00am – I wake up before alarm goes off after 3.5 hours sleep
  • 2:00am – leave the house for Boulder
  • 2:15am – meet Brian at 29th street mall and leave together for RMNP
  • 3:30am – arrive at Glacier Gorge Trailhead parking lot
  • 4:00am – start hiking toward Sharkstooth
  • 5:15am – see headlights ahead of us
  • 5:30am – arrive at turnoff for The Gash and The Sharkstooth; first light
  • 6:00am – arrive at base of Sharkstooth (15 minutes ahead of other party)
  • 6:30am – start climbing
  • 7:15am – finish 1st pitch
  • 8:00am – finish 2nd pitch
  • 9:15am – finish 3rd pitch
  • 9:45am – finish 4th pitch
  • 10:30am – finish 5th pitch; arrive at summit
  • 11:30am – descend to base; eat lunch
  • noon – packup and leave for trailhead
  • 1:00pm – arrive at Loch Vale
  • 2:00pm – arrive at trailhead and leave for home
  • 2:30pm – stop in Estes for ice
  • 3:30pm – arrive in boulder
  • 4:00pm – arrive home 14 hours after departure to hike 10 miles, ascend (and desend) 4000′ of elevation, burn 4000 kcal
  • 4:05pm – soak in hot bath until cooked and pruned

An Arctic Sky Pond

March 20, 2013

March 17, 2013

It was one of those days.  The weather was warming and clear in Boulder, and I was suffering from a strained bicep tendon (from the previous week’s Tangen Tunnel adventure) and an Achilles tendon (that started complaining the day before for no discernible reason).  I wanted to do a bike ride to protect my sore bits.  Brian was determined to get to the high country, and while he preferred skiing, he would settle for a hike in RMNP to Black Lake or Sky Pond.

As the more reasonable of the two, I agreed to go to RMNP.  And, it was a great adventure, even if it was a bit on the quick side.

We left my house at 8:30am, after waiting for Susan to return from her predawn hike.  On the drive in, the clear skies allowed us to see that the mountains were socked in above treeline.  We started hiking at 10am and made quick time to the Black Lake – Loch Vale junction (Glacier Junction?).  Based on a previous day review of the RMNP weather report, I was worried about how solid the lakes would be for hiking on.  I wanted to head to Sky Pond to minimize the hassle of thawing lakes.  Brian thought we might be getting into bad weather at Sky Pond, but I convinced him we would be fine so far below the Continental Divide (where we have experienced numerous freezing hurricanes).

IMG_0551

The Cathedral Spires seen from Loch Vale

We made quick work of the trail to Loch Vale, and discovered the lake as frozen as we’ve ever seen.  We continued up over and then past the lake, following a well-beaten trail in the snow.  The trail was surprising populated with a dozen or so of hikers, skiers, and ice climbers, but still empty compared to a summer day.

As we approached the waterfall below Glass Lake, the weather began to reveal its unfriendly nature.  We worked up to the right of the waterfall area and then back left to avoid the rocky summer scramble which was covered in ice and snow.  We found 3 fellow adventurers doing an ice climb on some beautiful waterfall ice, in the bitterly cold wind and blowing snow;  the belayer must have been suffering in the seriously cold and strong wind.

Brian climbing past the sign pointing to Sky Pond

Brian climbing past the sign pointing to Sky Pond

We crossed the frozen pond beneath the climbers despite their warnings of  falling ice, and then we started up the steep snow covering the frozen waterfall.  There were enough firm patches for us to make it up the 30 foot slope, albeit with some difficulty.  When we crested over the top, we were greeted by a blast of constant 50 mph wind.  I hid behind a boulder as I endured a bit of suffering to add a down layer to my clothing.  It was either that or just go home.

Properly insulated, I could focus all my energies on route finding and stable footing over the icy boulders and frozen standing water.  As we crossed Glass Lake, we encountered a 2-man party heading toward safety.  The lead fellow looked official (read:  guide) while the fellow behind looked frozen and afraid.  The official looking fellow asked if we were okay, and admonished us to “make good decisions”.  He then told us roughly the location of a snow cave he had built and then left for better conditions.

The visibility was very poor, with the snow fall and blowing snow, but the air cleared periodically to allow us to find our way.  We hoped to find the snow cave for some shelter while we ate our lunch, but the directions were a bit vague, the area large, and the conditions did not encourage exploration.  After reaching Sky Pond and hiking along the Petite side for about 1/2 the length of the lake, we turned back to avoid freezing to death.  Brian said he was shivering already.

The Cathedral Spires seen in a brief moment of visibility. Taken from Sky Pond.

The Cathedral Spires seen in a brief moment of visibility. Taken from Sky Pond.

We backtracked to a hollow between the two lake where we’d found some windless air on the way in.  The wind was again muted in the low-lying hollow, and we found further shelter in a snow well beside a large boulder.  There, we stopped for lunch around 1pm, which also allowed us to enjoy the accomplishment of the day while extending the sense of adventure.

I quickly ate my frozen food and finished my water (in an insulated bottle holder).  And, before long, even my down layer wasn’t enough.

We started back and quickly lost our bearings in the near whiteout.  But we knew the area and a 15 degree adjustment put us back on our old tracks.

Crossing Glass Lake was challenging as the wind turned our bodies into sails, pushing us while we had near zero friction on the ground.  I managed to find my way and maintain my footing by traversing the lake perimeter.  The waterfall area descent was a fun glissade after I was able to catch a glimpse of the bottom and know that I wouldn’t hit rocks or go over a cliff.

photo-25

Self portrait taken during a lull in the wind.

And then it was just a matter of slogging back to the parking lot.  Before heading for Boulder, I stopped to use the latrine and looking down into the pit, with immediate regret, I was reminded of the quote from the movie, Wall Street:

… if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.  ~Friedrich Nietzsche

It is an exhilarating experience, the living for a while so close to the edge where the slightest miscalculation could result in death.  It is even fun when you know you can get out whenever you want to go home and get warm.

The news headline the next day about the fatal avalanche on Ypsilon Peak, several miles to the north of Sky Pond, was a grim reminder of the risks we all take when we venture onto dangerous ground.

Estes Park man presumed dead, hiking guide author rescued after avalanche in RMNP – Boulder Daily Camera

First Alpine Adventure

January 28, 2012

The Sharkstooth taken on approach in July 1992

 It sounded like just the thing (i.e., far away, complete different, somewhat stupid, brag-able material) and so I signed up. 

On July 10, 1992, the Sharkstooth was the very first alpine climb I ever did, using the Northeast Ridge (II, 5.6) route.  The Sharkstooth is the highest (12,630′) and farthest west in the Cathedral Spires and has the most elevation gain above any col. This adventure was an unexpected part of my week-long rock climbing course at Colorado Mountain School (CMS), which in itself was a last minute, spur-of-the-moment decision made while sitting comfortably in my air conditioned office in tropical Miami, Florida.

I had lived my entire adult life (albeit I was only 30) and my entire childhood since the age of 4 in Florida.  I loved the ocean and the adventures I found therein, but I had a sudden craving for some new kind of adventure. A co-worker, Bill, who had taken me to a climbing wall in the recent past suggested I take a class at CMS in Estes Park, Colorado. It sounded like just the thing (i.e., far away, complete different, somewhat stupid, brag-able material) and so I signed up. And, two weeks later, I was in Colorado and relying on every ounce of my Triathlon training fitness to survive the daily onslaught of hiking and climbing exertion.

It was a serious grind complicated by high altitude (I lived at 16′ elevation in Coconut Grove, Florida) and overwhelming fear (see Scared to Death on Pear Buttress).

Approach to the Sharkstooth

At the time, the 5 mile approach in darkness and 6 pitches of technical climbing for a total of 3350’ in elevation gain over snowy rock were far beyond anything I had ever experienced to that point in my life. Adding to the allure, I was told that Sharkstooth was the only officially named peak (i.e., name is on map) in RMNP that required a technical climb to stand on the summit. It seemed the perfect candidate to be the only peak I would ever summit, and I planned to brag about it for the rest of my life. It was too bad that I was wholly unprepared for such an adventure.

CMS 'Bunk House' 1992 (photo by Mark)

I had been told that the weather forecast was poor, and to expect chilly conditions in the low 30’s. Now that doesn’t sound so bad today, but 20 years ago, to a life-long Floridian, 30F sounded deadly. In fact, my biggest concern about the climb was the possibility of freezing to death. I brought extra food so I would have enough energy to stay warm, but I didn’t bring any hiking boots, long pants, hat or gloves. I didn’t even bring a flashlight.  But unlike every other moment of unpreparedness I’ve faced in the years since, I just didn’t know better. Twenty years later, I cannot recall if the equipment list provided to me was incomplete or I merely stubborn (all suspicions indicate my guilt), but I did not bring anything useful besides a rain suit and a ridiculous ski sweater I bought the night before in panic. Naturally, I did have the rock shoes (the newly introduced Five Ten), harness, stitch plate (an old fashioned belay/rappel device) and pack (think: rucksack) I rented at the beginning of the class.

My classmates, Mark and Jim (both from Chicago), and I slept badly in the CMS lodge until awoken by Mike Caldwell, our guide, at some ungodly hour.  It was so far before dawn that I wasn’t fully awake until after we started hiking. I didn’t have any idea why we’d start so early, but my only serious concern was a lack of light since I had no flashlight or headlamp. I asked what I should do, hoping someone had a spare light; I was told to follow behind someone and step where they did.

On the hike in, Mike Caldwell in the lead position

That sounded like a dumb idea to me, but what choice did I have. The trail turned out to be rather flat, so I was able to keep up without mishap for the first 1/2 mile.  About 100 feet past the first creek crossing, Mike abruptly stepped off the trail and headed uphill into the even darker forest.  He announced that this was a great climbers’ shortcut that would shave 1/2 mile from our hike, which was somehow our top priority.  Oh, it was a stumblefest for me. I had to resort to asking for the kindness of a light a number of times, but by the grace of youthfulness I survived with only minor ankle and knee twisting. What a great shortcut!

Our shortcut eventually reconnected with the main trail and then quickly took a fork to the right toward something called ‘Loch Vale’. It was still pitch dark, and the Sharkstooth was apparently still so far away that it didn’t seem manly to ask how much farther.

We continued to and then around Loch Vale, which turned out to be a very interesting, oblong lake that we couldn’t see very well.

Loch (/ˈlɒx/ or /ˈlɒk/) is the Irish and Scottish Gaelic (cognate with the Welsh llwch) word for a lake or a sea inlet.

Once

Loch Vale on approach to the Sharkstooth.

past the far side of the lake, we continued along the trail until we reached a small creek with a log bridge crossing. We crossed the slippery log carefully and then turned right to leave the path (again) and head toward Andrews Glacier. After a bit of steeper hiking through the forest on a faint path that quickly diverged from the creek, we emerged into a rocky and snowy valley that was the source of the creek water. At this point, the morning was dawning and I could finally see the impressive panorama. In the distance was Andrews Glacier bracketed by Mt. Taylor to the left and Mt Otis to the right. Below Otis and directly to our right was Zowie, a scary-looking tower that was described as similar to the Petit Grepon. To our left was a rocky buttress that we were told held the ‘Cathedral Peaks’ on the far side, including the Petit Grepon.  The Sharkstooth was not yet visible, but it was supposedly close.

The snow cover seemed truly Arctic to a Floridian, but no one else seemed to care so I didn’t mention it. And while the temperature and my feet (clad in running socks and shoes) were cold, it did dawn on me that I might not freeze to death. If the weather was not so socked in, I might have even felt happy. As it was, I was still afraid.  But I was not a quitter.  And think of the stories I would tell!

To tell the truth, I was willing to take a serious chance on death to finish this goal. My first climb, Pear Buttress, frightened me so badly that I was willing to quit climbing forever, but after another week of learning and overcoming fear, I was ready for ‘something massive’ (to quote The Eiger Sanction) … something that would really scratch the itch that led me to seek an adventure in the first place.

Nearing Andrews Glacier on approach to the Sharkstooth

As we approached Andrews Glacier, moving past the Cathedral Peaks buttress to our left, a massive, toothy pinnacle appeared in the gloom. Holy shit! We were going to climb that? Of all the unlikely things I had done during this past week as a part of my rock climbing class, this was the most unlikely.  But since everything seemed to go without a hitch, I had no reason to doubt the word of our excellent guide, Mike Caldwell.

We turned left and hiked directly toward the Sharkstooth, moving over massive boulders when possible and consolidated snow when necessary. I was carrying a ice axe that Mike had forced me to carry because I didn’t know how to do a self-arrest on snow. Hell, I didn’t know how to use an ice axe either, except as a hiking pole.  And on talus that demanded a 2 handed assist, the ice axe seemed more like a prank designed to get me skewered.

We made good speed, but we seemed to be ‘almost there’ for quite a while before we actually reached the base of the climb. It was hard to judge the scale of the Sharkstooth; but you can trust me, it’s big.

As we prepared to climb, the weather worsened. The sky started spitting hail and a snow/hail mix called graupel which quickly covered the ground.

Graupel forms when snow in the atmosphere encounters supercooled water. The size of graupel is typically under 5 millimeters, but some graupel can be the size of a quarter (coin). Graupel pellets typically fall apart when touched or when they hit the ground.  Also Known As: snow pellets, soft hail, small hail, tapioca snow, rimed snow, ice balls.

We put on our rain gear and then Mike started up the rock belayed by Mark.  My Florida conditioning (heat management) did not prepare me for the cold I began to feel as I cooled down from the morning exertions. I was not only lacking a tolerance for cold, I didn’t have any idea what to do to conserve heat or whether the symptoms I was feeling meant approaching death or merely discomfort.  You can believe that I was once again feeling stressed about the situation.  The intermittent thunder and lightning exacerbated my pervading sense of doom.

The belaying technique that Mike used to belay 3 climbers was to bring up Mark and I at the same time, and then I would belay Jim while Mike started up the next pitch, belayed by Mark.  I always tried to watch Mike carefully, to know where to climb; but inevitably, once I touched the rock I couldn’t remember a thing.  Mark started up a path of his choosing, but I didn’t like the look of it; I followed my nose. I couldn’t believe the amount of vegetation on the rock; it felt like my hand went into wet moss on every hold.  My hands were numb in a matter of minutes. And, I had climbed myself into a box I couldn’t get out of.

I yelled down to Jim, “Don’t follow me, I’m screwed. Take Mark’s route.”

Mark recalls:

I had just turned 30 and was looking for some adventure.  [Nearly 20 years later,] I remember one scary hanging belay, the fear and the lightning. The lightning was made worse by Mike’s story of the static electricity catching his wool hat on fire. I remember thinking “great, one more way to die up here”

Somehow I made it to the first belay.  As my hands thawed and gave me my first thawing agonies, I thought I was in trouble.  I worriedly asked Mark if such terrible pain was normal….he just looked at me without comment as if I had requested permission to mumble dogfish to the banana patch (Steve Martin, anyone?).  I soon found that I would live.

In the cold, the body reduces blood flow to the extremities to keep the vital organs — heart, lungs and brain — warm.  Reduced blood flow starves the extremities of oxygen, forcing them to use a less efficient type of metabolism, and in effect causing a mild injury. All of these factors together cause the release of a chemical soup that triggers inflammation and pain.  Cold can block the transmission of nerve signals, so you may feel no pain in your cold, numb fingers, but when you thaw out, the blood vessels dilate, increasing the blood flow. More oxygen gets delivered, and you get that throbbing feeling as the blood pulses into the oxygen-hungry areas. Oxygen wakes up the nerves, and you feel pain.  These changes are normal, and not harmful so long as the cold exposure is brief.

~from Wisconsin State Journal, Kristine Kwekkeboom, an assistant professor at the UW-Madison School of Nursing

Slowly the sky cleared as we progressed up the rock following the narrow buttress at the right edge of the east face.  Aside from the conditions and the exposure blowing my body and my mind, the climbing was easy (in the 5.5 to 5.6 range) and ended in a short scramble to the airy summit.

Me and my classmates on the Sharkstooth summit in 1992. From left to right, Mark, Jim, Joe

We did it!  We had reached the summit of the Sharkstooth. It was a supreme moment of achievement. We were all beaming.  And I was satisfied that my climbing career had reached a fitting pinnacle.

After a summit photo and a quick lunch we started down.  The rappel route we took seems different in my memory from the presently accepted rappel route even though the present route seems nearly the same as described in Fricke’s 1971 guide book.  I think the route we took was the route described in Rossiter’s 1997 guide book RMNP Rock & Ice Climbing:  The High Peaks.

Fricke (1971):  From the southeast corner rappel from one of several old pitons or a bolt into the “meadow”. Walk down to the very bottom of the meadow and find the lowest possible anchor on the left (north) side. Rappel (150′ plus a bit of fourth class) to the belay ledge which constitutes the top of the lead one of the Left Gully route.  From a spike of rock rappel 150′ down the gully.  Then scramble onto the small ridge to the left (north) and down it to the notch. 

Rossiter (1997):  Rappel down the east side from fixed anchors (pitons with slings). Rappel 150 feet to a grassy ledge, then walk north along the ledge about 100 feet to another anchor.  Rappel 150 feet to grassy ledge where an easy 300′ scramble (cl3) leads down to the East Col. 

On descent from the Sharkstooth, a view of The Saber with Thatchtop in the distance.

On the 2nd rappel, I set up my rappel device with the brake rope on the opposite side from all 3 other times in my life.  I didn’t think much of the situation and felt rushed, so I proceeded anyway with my right hand holding the brake rope instead of my left.  About 10′ down, the wind blew hard and my foot slipped, causing me to swing into the rock.  To protect myself I reached out with my hand to slow my impact speed.  Unfortunately I instinctively used my right hand, releasing my hold on my rappel brake….my life line.

But nothing happened.

Fortunately, the ropes we were using were worn 11mm ropes that were actually 13-15mm thick due to the frayed sheathing.  The stitch plate I was using just barely fit such ropes and did not require any friction from my brake hand to stay static.  At that moment I looked up at Mike Caldwell who was watching me rappel.  He shook his head and looked away.

At the bottom of the 2nd rappel, we were standing atop a large steeply sloping grassy area waiting for Mike to set up the next anchor.  When he arrived he told us to simply walk down the rest of the way.  We all looked at each other as the apparent death sentence worked its way into our mutual understanding.  No one moved.  Mike then offered to belay us if we felt unsecure; we all accepted.

Once at the base, I begged anyone to take the ice axe down…I pleaded that it was going to kill me to carry it. Jim took pity and carried it out, and let me enjoy the rest of the day.

I was delighted to have survived my adventure and be able to tell my Florida family and friends about it.  I had no intention of ever doing another climb….ever. I was so beat up afterward that while I was waiting for my flight home at the airport the next day, a man and his young son who were waiting nearby asked me if I was a boxer.

Such was the start to my Alpine climbing career and the beginning of my love for the Sharkstooth and RMNP.

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Petit Grepon: 14 Years Later

July 27, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ CliffsNotes: Rules, Laws, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

1st Pitch (“Why Bother?”):

Brian approaching the top of the 4th pitch

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

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

2nd pitch (“The Giant Chimney”):

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

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

3rd pitch (“The Bombing Range”):

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

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

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

4th pitch (“The 2-Pin Belay”):

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

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

5th pitch (“The Crux”):

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

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

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

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


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

6th pitch (The “Pizza Pan Belay”)

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

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

Brian says:

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

7th pitch (“The Sacrifice”)

The view of Pitch 7 from the 'Pizza Pan'

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

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

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

8th pitch (“The Knife Edge”)

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

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

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

Joe enjoying a moment of satisfaction on the Petit summit

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

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

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

Brian on the 'far' end of the summit

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

The Descent (“Let’s Leave the Boots”)

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

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

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

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

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

There could be no delay in the consumption of water.

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

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

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

Brian gazes upon the Petit after acquiring more water

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

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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?

Damn.

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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Andrews Glacier Season Kickoff

May 1, 2011

April 30, 2011

I had been trying to kickoff my 2011 climbing season each of the last 4 weekends, ever since the ski season ended for me at the end of March. My recent passion for

Andrews Glacier from Glacier Gorge TH

Spin cardio had left me with a hip so sore that I couldn’t imagine 10 miles of hiking in soft snow.  I have been a poor climbing partner to Brian lately.

A slight modification to my technique left my hip feeling good enough to give it a try.  We picked Andrews Glacier as a nice starter adventure; well, it was a season kickoff for me anyway.

The glacier was named for Edwin B. Andrews, a relative of Abner Sprague. These two men climbed to the glacier in 1897, and Sprague named it for Andrews since he was one of the area’s best fishermen. Sprague settled in the Park in 1875, was an early landowner, hotel owner, guide, and Estes Park historian. Several features in the Park are named for him. (Source: High Country Names by Louisa Arps and Elinor Kingery)

Brian picked me up at 6am and we did the slow Bronco drive to RMNP.  We arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 8am and found the expected cold snowy conditions (approx 3 inches of new snow at the trailhead, but much more fell up high). I was well and truly sick of the cold after a long Winter, but this was the hand I was dealt.  An accurate weather forecast allowed me prepare properly, e.g., full Gore-Tex outer layer, slight insulation on for hike in, extra insulation in pack for more severe conditions up high).  Bundled up like Arctic Explorers, we started up the snowy trail toward Loch Vale.

Brian hiking toward Loch Vale

My hip felt good and allowed me to make pretty good time up the snowy trail: me on snowshoes and Brian on his tele-skis. I was pleasantly pleased to discover my gym-based conditioning to be very high; my spinning cardio plus weight-lifting workouts have kept me in good shape despite a lack of outdoor work.

We took the standard winter shortcut up the creek where we found 6, and then later, 8 inches of new snow.  The trail was not yet packed down, but had been clearly marked by a few earlier hikers. We were lucky to find footprints for much of the way.

The wind was strong, even in the trees; it foretold of terrible winds up high.

We passed one group as we approached Loch Vale and then continued to follow the footprints across the frozen Loch Vale (a lake).  The route-finding to Andrews Glacier vs. Sky Pond is always tricky after a heavy snowfall; I wondered which of the two was the destination of the people ahead of us.  After a while, we passed the exit that 1 or 2 people had taken toward our objective; but it seemed to early so we continued to follow the better trail with hopes that it went the entire way.  The new snow at our feet was by that time around 12 inches; we knew it would be murder to break trail or even follow poor tracks.

Unfortunately, just as we neared the group ahead of us, we also noticed that we had already gone too far toward Sky Pond.  Crap.  We’d have to backtrack and then crawl up the deep snow.

A view through the trees toward Sky Pond with Powell Peak in the background

A short way back we found the creek bed that marks the Summer trail cut-off; it was a slight concave shape in the deep snow.  And, up we went. Brian took the hard duty, but since we had different equipment, his efforts didn’t save me much effort.   Fortunately, Brian’s nose quickly led him to a set of tracks that aimed in the right direction and packed the snow down enough to make a difference. It turned out to be a far easier hike than we deserved under the heavy snow conditions.

As we exited the trees below Zowie, we could see and feel it was time to cover as much skin as possible to hide from the wind.  We could also see 2 more parties ahead of us, breaking trail. Right on!

We continued up the valley toward Andrews Glacier and caught up with the people ahead at about the turn-off point toward Sharkstooth.  It was our turn to break trail, and this time it was on a steeply sloping traverse….in a freezing strong wind. Yuck.

The traverse ended with slippery tip-toeing over the top of a steep couloir.  A slight avalanche tried to claim Brian, but we eventually made it across to the Andrews Tarn level (the lake below Andrews Glacier). Naturally, the lake was frozen solid, which enabled us to walk across to finally reach Andrews Glacier.

A self portrait with the top of Andrews Glacier in the background

Up we went, the low angle slope allowing rapid progress. Once we reached about 1/2 way up the glacier, the visibility was reduced to zero.  But all we needed to do was go up hill; it wasn’t too hard to find our way.

The higher we got, the colder it got.  From previous visits and experience with Hurricane Andrew (coincidentally), I knew that once we exited the glacier, it would be hurricane winds.  With close to freezing ambient temperatures, the wind chill would be deadly.  I knew that I’d have to get the rest of my gear on before I stepped into that wind.  About 100 yards from the top, I stopped to put on a down insulating layer beneath my wind jacket, a facemask, and a wool cap beneath my hood.  I felt like an astronaut stepping onto an alien world.

Brian skiing down Andrews Glacier

When I arrived at the top of the glacier around noon, Brian was already freezing. He didn’t want to stay long but agreed to let me have a quick drink and snack.  With my extra insulation, I was able to tolerate the cold wind.   I wasn’t able to tolerate the cold ground I was resting on, so I hurried along for both our sakes. We agreed to stop for a full lunch once we got to treeline.

We started down blind. I squinted desperately to see a hint of the snow rolling down hill in front of me.  I was looking for any possible clue to an impending step into oblivion.  I have no idea how Brian managed to ski.

Conditions started to clear a bit as we got lower.  Once we were about 1/2 down, the visibility improved dramatically.

Approaching Andrews Tarn on the descent

And then I could see Andrews Tarn.  We were almost at the bottom of the glacier.

We continued plodding until reaching the steep couloir below the tarn level.  With so much snow, we some concerns about avalanche….but not enough to prefer retracing our steps on the long traverse.  So, down we went.

The snow was not heavy, but there was so much I could not glissade.  I was able to work out a sort of skiing technique (using snowshoes) where I faced uphill and used my arms to push as my feet slide down.  It was weird, but it worked.

Once at the bottom of the couloir, I was able to follow the tracks of earlier parties that had turned around at that point.  Brian skied ahead and found a nice (read:  not deadly) spot for a full lunch.  I caught up with him at about 1pm and enjoyed my standard peanut butter and cherry bar lunch.  Dee-lish!

The hike out was uneventful and strangely non-strenuous.  I should have listened to my wife, Susan, about the benefits of cycling a long time ago.

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The Flying Buttress

March 23, 2011

A view of Mt. Meeker's Flying Buttress

Brian & I had been climbing in the Park for weeks. We decided to push it a bit and try out the imposing, intimidating, Flying Buttress of Mt. Meeker. It had been on my goal list since I first climbed Mt Meeker the December before.

On September 12, 1998, we hit the trail  at 4am.  The rain started at 4:30am. Crap.

Determined to not to lose the weekend, we pressed on and hoped the rain would let up. We made good time as we hiked past the Ranger Hut and turned toward Mt. Meeker and the Flying Buttress. We weren’t sure of the best approach and so just followed our noses as we aimed for the impressive, steep, narrow, western-most rib of rock on Meeker’s North Face.  It promised amazing exposure and great views in nearly every direction.

The rain did stop, but the skies didn’t clear. We managed to get up three pitches before the rain started coming down hard enough to convince even the hard-headed to go home.

Flying Buttress topo

And while that was not my hoped for accomplishment, it was a first.  After 5 years of climbing in the Park, I finally had to bail on a climb.   We took an awesome 145′ rappel to an escape ledge and then made the long hike out in a steady rain.

7 Days Later (9-19-98)

Once more toward Mt Meeker, and once again we hit the trail at 4am.

This time the skies were clear. But our late season effort delivered a cold, windy day.  We once again approached the Flying Buttress, aiming for the right-most of the rock ribs protruding from Mt Meeker’s north face.

I did have some warning about the weather and brought a heavier jacket and some down mitts, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the freezing temps and 50 mph winds  My toes were numb for an entire week after the climb.

1st pitch

I took the first lead.  We took the easiest line up the right most dihedral on the east side of the rib that finishes up a 5.8 chimney.  At the belay, to stay warm, I changed into my hiking boots and put on my mitts.  It helped a little.

2nd pitch

Brian took the 2d pitch, a 5.8 dihedral around the corner of  a 5.10 line directly up the obvious line on the prow. The protection (or lack thereof) allowed me to follow the 10a variation just for the practice. I took a fall before reaching Brian at a nice belay ledge with a couple bolts.

3rd pitch

The Neck-Stretcher

This was the 5.9 roof pitch; I was delighted for Brian to take it. But after sitting in a freezing wind tunnel for 30 minutes, I was a popsicle.  Still, I enjoyed the excellent pitch, right up to the moment that I became tangled in a sling right at the crux.  It somehow got wrapped around my neck during my unsuccessful efforts to remove the #4 Camalot.  But I couldn’t get it out and my arms were giving out.  I needed to rest, but being so entwined, I couldn’t back-off nor could I yell over the heavy wind-noise for Brian to take in the rope slack.  I had to get that piece out or die by hanging. Shit.

With the proper motivation, I persevered to success. I continued up a short distance to reach Brian at a nice ledge.

4th pitch

I took the 4th pitch.  It was generally an up and rightward traverse over moderate ground.

5th pitch

I also took the 5th pitch, which turned into a difficult adventure.  Pulling though a 5.8 crack I found myself below a crusty roof.  instead of risking the dirty direct path, I decided to traverse around a bulge to the right and began a miserable rope drag struggle. It was a mistake.

Finish

Looking back at the top of the route

After bringing Brian up and apologizing for my messy line, we started talking about the rest of the day.  We had planned to do the entire ridge, including the upper section to reach Mt Meeker’s summit ridge, but the day was old.  As it was, we’ figured we’d barely make it back to the car by dark if we started down right away.

Brian spotted a line to scramble off the buttress which we followed, scrambling (3rd-4th class) across the exposed top of the rib and moving right when possible. We eventually exited the Flying Buttress and reached a horizontal break on Meeker’s north face, from which we were able to scramble down to the base to recover our gear.

Another long hike out and the day was over after a 15 hour effort. I went home satisfied with the day, but still wanting to come back someday to finish the entire ridge.

But 13 years later, I’m not so certain of the inevitability of that success.

Our approach, climb & descent routes

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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See all RMNP trip reports


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