Posts Tagged ‘RMNP’

Blitzen Ridge, At Long Last

September 6, 2010

Mt Ypsilon and its Donner (left) and Blitzen (right) ridges

Blitzen Ridge.  It has officially been on my Climbing Goals list since 1/1/2000.

Unofficially, it was added the day I climbed Ypsilon Mountain from Chapin Pass (a walk-up) and marveled at the majesty of the entire area on July 11, 1999 (see Mummy Range Weekend trip report).

One of the key problems in accomplishing this goal is I never get to see it; I’m always driving to Estes Park in the pre-dawn dark, and I’m always climbing in the Longs Peak, Glacier Gorge or Loch Vale areas which are far to the south.  Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

Still, every few years or so I’ve been reminded of it in some way.  Each time, I mentioned it to Brian for consideration and always get a similar negative answer, all of which boil down to: too much hiking for too little climbing. The fact that this statement is essentially true led me to never push very hard.

But in the year, 2010, I decided I would finish a number of my long-standing goals. I started my lobbying efforts early, and was unintentionally aided by the fact that our climbing skills have fallen far enough to severely limit our RMNP alpine rock climbing options.  Earlier in 2010, we’d done everything in RMNP we could think to do: Spearhead North Ridge, Notchtop Spiral Route, Hallet Great Chimney, Zowie Standard Route, Sharkstooth NE Arete, and we even bagged one of my long-standing goals, the Solitude Lake Cirque, a linkup of Arrowhead, McHenry, Powell and Thatchtop.  And, so, with a perfect weather forecast, Saturday, September 4, 2010, was the time to dedicate ourselves, finally, joyfully, to climb Blitzen Ridge.

Interesting story about the first ascent and naming of Blitzen Ridge

On about Sept 1958, a group of Yale students did the first ascent of the Blitzen Ridge. After a forced bivy on the summit, they walked down to Fall River Pass (where the RMNP Alpine Center is located) in the morning and hitch-hiked down. They named the two ridges “Donder” and “Blitzen” intending the names to mean ‘thunder’ and ‘lightening’.

~from a Charles Ehlert email published by Andy in the Rockies

Oddly, the ‘Donder’ ridge is now named ‘Donner’. It is impossible not to recognize the reindeer names, and a little research revealed to me that naming of Santa’s raindeers has changed over the years.  ‘Dunder and Blixem’ (Dutch) from the 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (i.e., “twas the night before…”) by Henry Livingston, Jr. became ‘Donder and Blitzen’ in later versions by other authors, and eventually became ‘Donner and Blitzen’ in the 1923 song Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  ‘Donner’ is the german word for ‘thunder’. Unfortunately, ‘Blitzen’ means ‘flash’ in german; it was used instead of ‘Blitz’ which is the german word for ‘lightning’ because of the need to rhyme with the name ‘Vixen’.  Still, it works for me.

The Plan

The plan was a simple one, and was designed to finish the ridge climb with the least amount of hiking possible.  It would also approximate the route used by the first ascent party in 1958, minus the hitchhiking.

The Blitzen Ridge route map

We would start from the Lawn Lake trailhead at the bottom of Old Fall River Road and hike to the bottom of Blitzen Ridge via the Ypsilon Lake trail spur.  We would climb the ridge and then descend from Ypsilon Mountain to Chapin Pass, where we would use a stashed vehicle to drive back to the starting point.  Yeah, driving would save ~4 miles of hiking and scrambling, but it would still be a hard day: 10+ miles of hiking & climbing from the Lawn Lake Trailhead (8540′) to the summit of Ypsilon Mountain via Ypsilon Lake and Blitzen Ridge to cover over 5000′ of elevation gain in 12 hours.

“Opened in 1920, Old Fall River Road earned the distinction of being the first auto route in Rocky Mountain National Park offering access to the park’s high country.” (

I also hoped to check out the ‘Louis R. Leving Grave’ that is indicated on my GPS map as situated on the Blitzen Ridge.

On 2 August 1905, Louis Raymond Levings lost his life on the face of Ypsilon Peak…his body is buried there and a bronze tablet was erected where the body lies, to his memory.
~ Estes Park Archives

The Day

We met in Boulder @ 1am and drove up to RMNP in single file order. We drove past the Lawn Lake Trailhead at 2:10am on our way up Old Fall River Road to stash Brian’s truck at the Chapin Pass Trailhead.  The road was in good shape, but still narrow and winding in places and so slow (and explaining why it is a one-way road). It took a little over 30 minutes to drive the 9 miles; then we dropped Brian’s truck at what seemed to be a parking spot (next to the sign forbidding overnight parking).  We then continued up the one-way road in my 4Runner to the Alpine Center and then down the new Fall River Road to complete a 30 mile loop to reach, again, the bottom of Old Fall River Road and the Lawn Lake Trailhead.

And so it began.

Position 1

I was delighted to start on-time.  I figured some part of my start-up plan wouldn’t work and we’d start late; I was glad to have the extra time.  We actually arrived 20 minutes early.  But my estimate of 1 hour to position the cars was actually low by 15 minutes, and that was with no traffic at all.

When we pulled into the Lawn Lake trailhead, the lot had half-a-dozen cars already parked.  I couldn’t believe it; we wouldn’t be first on the rock. Brian suggested some of them might be headed toward Lawn Lake; I agreed it was good to have hope.

I had expected a cold, windy day, based on a forecast for Longs Peak on But it was not cold, nor was it windy, except for the occasional gust. I packed away my extra clothes against the chance that the weather might change once we got above treeline.  And at the last minute, to save on weight, I decided to leave behind my extra water and only bring 1 liter of water and an extra (empty) bottle.  My plan was to drink a liter and refill both at Ypsilon Lake.  I figured 3 liters would be too little water for a 12 hour hike & climb, but still enough to get me home.

Position 2

In my preparation for the trip, trying to remember my previous 3 visits many years ago, I couldn’t recall a cutoff for Ypsilon Lake from the Lawn Lake trail. I was worried that the Ypsilon Lake trail would be hard to find, and worried that not finding it would be a quick end to a long plan. I decided to bring my GPS primarily for the purpose of finding the cut-0ff in the pitch dark.

We started up the excellent Lawn Lake trail making good time in the pitch dark. At about 1 1/4 miles in, I pulled out my GPS to guide us. But it was all unnecessary. At 1.5 miles along the Lawn Lake trail, we came upon a small sign indicating the turnoff.

So far so good.

Position 3

The Ypsilon Lake trail started as a fine trail but eventually reminded me of the Knobs Shortcut to the Glacier Gorge trail; it was rough and dark. Still, I only lost the trail once as we worked our way past Chipmunk Lake and, finally, Ypsilon Lake at approximately 5am.  In the dark, Chipmunk Lake looked like a swamp; Ypsilon Lake looked magnificent.

In my preparation research, I could not find any certain evidence of a ‘best’ way around Ypsilon Lake to reach Blitzen Ridge.  Roach wrote of heading north from the east end of the lake, while Rossiter indicated to hike up a grassy gully on north side of the lake.  I guessed ‘clockwise’ but wasn’t sure.

Once we arrived at the lake, I decided to take a couple minutes to see if a trail went counter-clockwise; it didn’t. And we did find a climbers trail to follow clockwise. The plan was still working.  But at this point, I forgot to do something important.

Position 4

Our first view of Mt Ypsilon and the ‘Aces’ (see the shadows)

We followed the climber’s trail across a good bridge and for another 30 feet before completely losing all sign of a trail.  We continued hoping to find a trail, but willing to bushwack our way eastward, moving up or down depending on the obstacles. I was looking for a talus field that was supposed to mark Rossiter’s ‘grassy gully’ that led to the start of the ridge. In the dark, the talus field we found 1/2 way around looked more like landslide debris; but we took it.  It was very steep, but it went to the start of Blitzen Ridge, which we reached at 6am.  Still on plan.

But then I realized that I had forgotten to get water at the lake.  Shit.  One liter of water for 12 hours of high altitude exercise = bad day.  I started making an effort to breath through my nose instead of my mouth.

And, under the circumstances, I was glad to finally find the cooler temperatures and higher winds above treeline.

Position 5

It was still too dark to see any landmarks, but my GPS confirmed that we were on course.  The next step was to follow the ridge as it turns from a rounded hill to a sharp-edged ridge.  When we reached a point were we could see the Spectacle Lakes, the sun had come up enough to expose the scenery. Mt Ypsilon’s Y-Couloir and accompanying Donner and Blitzen Ridges are wildly spectacular; in my opinion, the area rivals Longs Peak, my favorite mountain in the world.

Brian examining the long way up Blitzen Ridge

The only odd thing was that we couldn’t see the Aces on the ridge.  Eventually, we saw the shadows of the Aces on the Donner Ridge wall, highlighted by the morning sun. By 7am, we arrived at the base of the 1st Ace; it was an impressive pinnacle.  To climb to the top of it would be a time-consuming undertaking.

Position 6

Our plan was to skirt the 1st two Aces. I took the 1st lead and did a descending traverse on 3rd and 4th class terrain to get below the 1st Ace and then continued with an ascending traverse over somewhat easier terrain to get by the 2nd Ace and to the base of the 3rd Ace.

Brian followed, arriving at 8am, and then prepared for his climb of the 3rd Ace.

Position 7

Brian’s lead of the 3rd Ace

The 3rd Ace was the one we had to climb, according to the route beta.  Brian, delighted for a chance at some real climbing, worked his way up the 3rd Ace, taking the hardest path when possible.

When I followed, the route felt a bit harder than 5.4, but that made sense.

When I arrived at the top, Brian indicated that he couldn’t find a rappel anchor. Now that was a bother, as we brought two ropes specifically for the 2-rope rappel off the 3rd Ace.

I climbed out to the ridge edge to see if I could find an anchor or a place to set one without leaving iron behind; I couldn’t. The going was easy enough that I shouted to Brian that I was going to down climb and place gear to protect his down climb. I admit it would have been better if I had taken the rack; I only had the 5-6 pieces I cleaned from Brian’s lead.

I continued down until running out of rope, but I could see it was going to work. Brian followed and then we scrambled the rest of the way to the saddle between the 3rd and 4th Ace.

Position 8

The plan for the 4th Ace was to pass it on the right.  I had read that the best path comes of climbing up for a bit before turning right.  Looking at the 4th Ace from high on the 3rd Ace, I couldn’t make sense of this advice; and worse, the rock looked hard to climb. But once up close, the obvious weakness in the rock started up and right, right off the ground. It was my lead so I started up, following the slight ramp to see where it would lead.

The climbing was easy but the protection was scarce. I worked far enough right to see a probable path around the corner about 50 feet away.  And then Brian yelled out that I only had 20 feet of rope left.  Shit.

I brought Brian over and then he finished the climb by turning the corner to find a nice walking and scrambling path to the foot of the Headwall. He brought me over and then we scrambled to the Headwall, which would be Brian’s lead.

And then I forgot to look for the brass plate marking Louis Raymond Leving’s grave.  Oh well, I guess it will wait for me.

The Blitzen Ridge ‘Headwall’

Position 9

Brian indicated that he’d read that climbing the white pillar was the best start to the Headwall.  I didn’t think he meant ‘easiest’…he didn’t.

Brian’s lead up the Headwall 1st pitch

He started up the SE corner and found the hardest climbing of the day.  It was a balancey climb in a strong wind. I was surprised to be able to make it without a fall; I’m sure Brian was pleased with himself.

But we had another 125 feet of steep rock to reach the top of the Headwall.  I ran the rope out 75 feet up some 4th class rock and then led a 50-foot pitch to reach the top of the Headwall near a notch in the ridge. Brian came up and then we unroped, based on the advice we’d read (but absolutely not based on the look of the rock).

Position 10

The first 50 feet or so were wickedly exposed, but the rock was good.  The key was to get to the top of the ridge as quickly as possible. Once on the ridge, the difficulty was primarily past.  It was mostly 2nd & 3rd class movement; the hardest part was avoiding the overhanging rocks just out of sight that jumped out to bash my helmet at any moment of weakness.

The last 100 feet was the easiest terrain since before the Aces.

Position 11

Ypsilon summit: enjoying our first break after 10 hours of hiking and climbing

I reached the summit at 1:30pm and sat down for my first official break of the day. I had saved 1/3 liter of water for my lunch. I was surprised that I didn’t feel dehydrated, but it had not been a hot day (so far, I should have realized).

I found Brian trying to use the sun to melt some found ice into his water bottle.  We sat and chatted about the day; I insisted that the Blitzen Ridge was a great idea.

Brian asked if we were behind schedule; he thought I had mentioned a plan to summit at noon. The weather had been so good all day that I didn’t pay any attention to the time.  I dug out my trip plan and found that our 7 hour climb was the high-end of my predicted range (5-7 hours).   We decided to stay awhile and enjoy the views.

I claimed that we could have gone faster if we hadn’t tried to make the technical climbing portions interesting. I was probably right, but it was all good. A good climb and a good plan.

After a 30 minute break, it was time to head down; but not before stopping to appreciate our path over the many obstacles on the Blitzen Ridge.

Position 12

I had a mind to find the best compromise between shortest line between two points and avoiding losing any altitude that I’d have to re-climb. I followed a cairned path much of the way as I bypassed Chiquita and aimed for the saddle between Chiquita and Chapin, finding and losing the path at least a dozen times.

Brian had the energy to bag Chiquita on the way past.  I skipped it since I had already done these peaks on my Mummy Range Weekend adventure some years ago.

Once at the saddle, the trail became excellent and we made good time back to Chapin Pass, finally seeing other people for the first time in the day.  But it finally started getting hot, and I started feeling thirsty.  I wished I had stashed some water in Brian’s truck; now I’d have to wait for the long ride through RMNP.

As we approached the trailhead, the sight of Brian’s truck (13 hours after leaving it) was a sight for sore feet.

We made it.

Panorama of descent path to Chapin Pass trailhead

All that was left was the drive back to my 4Runner at the Lawn Lake trailhead.  Naturally, the traffic was horrific with all the tourists gawking at the aliens dressed as elk.  But, as a mere passenger, I was permitted to sleep and catchup on the lost sleep of the night before (I only got 2 hours of sleep: 10pm to midnight).

And once back at my vehicle, I started home immediately, and I drank 2 liter of water as I drove home.

Another great trip.

Trip data (click for more details)

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A Quick Zowie

September 1, 2010

For August 28, 2010, it was another bad weather forecast.  This time we chose Zowie for its short approach (1.5 hours) and short climb (6 short pitches) that, combined, would allow us to beat the 40% chance of rain after noon.

The only problem with Zowie was the 5.8+ finish on the easiest route to the summit. There was a time when that was no problem; but, we haven’t climbed anything harder than 5.7 in a long time. Brian remembered that we could bail from the bottom of the crux pitch, so we decided to go for it.

Approach to Zowie & Wham

We started hiking at 4:45am on a clear night from a nearly empty parking lot.  The trail went faster than the week before, and so the sun didn’t come up until just before we left the trees.  Heading toward Zowie, we left the trail soon after leaving the trees; we turned left to cross the Andrews Glacier drainage creek, and then hiked uphill to the base of the climb.

I’d done Zowie at least three times before.  The first climb of Zowie (7.27.1997) was up the left side of the South Face with a true south face finish. I don’t know the route name; I just climbed where Mark indicated.  The second climb of Zowie (9.21.2001) was the standard South Face route (that ends on the East face), or, at least Brian and I thought so at the time. The third climb was in August 2003 when Brian and I redid the standard South Face route except for a variation on the last pitch where we traversed back to the south face to climb to the summit.

This time we’d repeat the standard South Face route although, this time we’d find a better path, that stayed on the south face until the final pitch.

We stopped at the base of the climb to eat a bit of breakfast. Oddly, neither of us could remember the actual start to the climb.  The topo didn’t seem to match the rock; but since we could see the big chimney that we had to climb to reach the big ledge, it didn’t matter.

I took the first pitch so that Brian would lead the crux pitch.  I traversed along a seam in the rock to get below the big chimney, and then belayed on a nice ledge below the “V”. It was rated 5.5 but felt harder in a few spots; I supposed I just wasn’t climbing well.

Brian then ran the rope up the chimney.  We took the lefthand part of the “V”.

Once on the big ledge, we moved the belay to below the dihedral/chimney. I used tricams to set the belay to I could have all the cams.  I had a feeling that I’d need all the cams on the climb.

The third pitch felt hard.  It was very steep with great holds, and since my hands were way out of shape, great holds on steep terrain eventually felt like bad holds on steep terrain.  At least the protection was good.

Once at the top of the dihedral, the ledge looked familiar. The topo showed the route continuing up the chimney, but it didn’t look familiar to me. I yelled down to Brian and he remembered traversing right. I thought I should follow the route this time and climbed up into the chimney to see if I could make it work. The only problem was my backpack and my big body (215 lbs) fitting into that tight space. But it went.

Brian wasn’t convinced that it was the real route, but if it wasn’t, it should be.

Brian took the 4th pitch.  He stayed on the south face, near the east edge; he climbed past one ledge and belayed on the second. The crux of his pitch was an excellent 20-foot off-width crack, where we found and cleaned a fixed nut.

I took the 5th pitch, my last of the day.  The topo said to traverse to the east side and then climb up cracks to the base of the ….  But when I traversed over to the edge and looked over, it didn’t look right. As I moved back toward the belay, I noticed a fixed nut near a giant flake about 10 feet above me, on the south face.  It struck me that I might be able to climb that flake and the rock above…and I could clean the nut.

It was a great pitch! The climbing was awkward, but otherwise easy (5.5ish). I stayed on the south face until reaching the bottom of the summit block; I climbed NE over some blocks to reach the normal belay below the crux.

Still, Brian had a big job to do.  He had to run the rope up to the summit, and that would take some doing for an old guy.

Remarkably, he did a great job.  He got all the way to the dead-vertical part, 10 feet from the top, before needing a rest.  After a short rest, he made it to the top. And, then it was my turn.

I started up the initial wall.  It looked hard, and was certainly harder than anything climbed on the day.  I made it up to the ledge below the hard crack, and then continued up past the pins and to Brian’s last piece of protection before succumbing to gravity.  My hands were gone.

I was surprised to feel the grip of panic as I hung from the ropes; out of practice, I suppose.  I was able to put it out of my mind and just focus on helping my hands recover. But they wouldn’t come back.

After a couple minutes, I decided I would just try to move up a a few feet.  I did this a couple times to reach the top. My hands were so bad I was worried I couldn’t hold the rope on rappel.

The weather, which had been good all day, finally turned ugly.  We rappelled into the backside without incident and then scrambled down to the final rappel with only the miserly of scrambling down loose scree.

We continued the scrambling down the gully to reach our packs, where we stayed to eat until a few drops of rain fell out of the sky.

The light drizzle continued for about 30 minutes as we made the 1.5 hour hike back to the trailhead.  We arrived at 3:30pm for an 11 hour round-trip.

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Another Sharkstooth

September 1, 2010

It finally happened.  I finally did Sharkstooth’s NE Arete and actually felt like I knew the route.  It really felt more like a Boulder Flatiron than an RMNP Alpine route, although I’m sure the beautiful, sunny day helped with that perception. I thought I’d document this trip (8.24.2010) to have and to hold for future reference, after the details once again slip from my mind.

We left the Glacier Gorge parking lot around 4:30am in an attempt to finish before the 3pm forecast for rain (30% likelihood).  We hiked up the Knobs shortcut and then past Loch Vale before turning west for Andrews Tarn.

Brian was ahead of me for much of the approach.  After the turn toward Sharkstooth, he built up a big lead.  I just couldn’t motivate myself to go any faster; that is, until I saw the guys ahead of Brian.  I knew he’d push to get ahead; now I had to pick it up. I didn’t want to be the reason that we got stuck behind another team when the weather was threatening.

I lost sight of everyone for a while, but I pushed as hard as I could without vomiting. I was surprised to find how much I had gained on the other team; it made me think I had regained some of my old strength.  I neared them just below Sharkstooth; as I passed them, I could see they were older than me.  Oh well.

At least we got on the rock first.

Sharkstooth seen from Zowie

Below is a summary of the pitches:

Pitch 1:

Brian took the right-most of the two obvious cracks and worked he way straight up to a large ledge.  When I arrived, he suggested I look to the left before setting off. He was right; the proper route was up the left crack.

Pitch 2:

I traversed left 10 feet to get into a slot which I climbed up (was crux for me).  I continued straight up until reaching a roof, which was at the bottom of a left facing detached flake.  I seemed to recall doing a layback up the flake, but the face to the left looked easy enough so I just walked up to the ledge atop the flake, where I setup the belay.

Pitch 3:

Brian continued up the steep but bucket-filled terrain to the big flat part of the NE Arete. Every variation of the NE Arete 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.

Pitch 4:

I climbed up the off-width crack and then moved left to climb the left side of the ridge.  I continued past the next big ledge and belayed at the end of the 200′ rope on a smaller ledge below the roof protecting the summit.

Pitch 5:

Brian finished it off by scrambling over the roof.

After a brief stop so I could drink the liter of water I hauled to the top, we started down the rappels.  The Sharkstooth rappels are always interesting for the ; we had to sacrifice a sling on each anchor to back up the aged cords.

We got back to the packs at 11:30am.  We ate our lunch before starting the long walk to the trailhead.

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A Notchtop “Bad Variation”

August 3, 2010

It was going to be our 4th weekend in a row in RMNP, but the weather report was uncooperative.

A 40% chance of rain, mainly after noon.

Rats.  Rain at noon, or earlier, and long approaches didn’t leave a lot of time for climbing. We discussed our options for shorter approaches, including going to Lumpy Ridge and climbing on Hallett Peak.  We both wanted to continue climbing in RMNP, so Hallett was the better of the two.  But the only route on Hallett that would not be a reach at our current level of climbing would be the Great Dihedral (5.7); however, it was sure to be wet after all the recent rain.

We decided to take a chance and do the Spiral Route on Notchtop Mountain, which is what we’ve been thinking about for a few weeks any way.  The trick would be to start early and go fast, as always.  And, finding a bit a weather luck wouldn’t hurt.

We started from the Bear Lake parking lot this time (just before 4am), and started up toward Notchtop in a very dark night (the moon was just a sliver). The trail was good up to Joe Mills Mountain, and then the climbers trail to the base of Notchtop was pretty good too. It felt like a walk in the park compared to our adventure on the Solitude Lake Cirque.

From the bottom of Notchtop, the next step was to reach the top of the big platform that made up the bottom 3rd of the pinnacle. We took an obvious path up the gully next to Notchtop to find the right leaning ramp we’d used twice before to reach the top of the platform that marks the start of the climbing.

Reaching the platform, we stopped to get organized and to put on more clothes…I mean, all the rest of our clothes.  We were freezing to death on July 9th. The sun had been up for a short while, but it was not putting off much heat; and the wind was ferocious. There is something about Notchtop that leads to strong winds; we’ve had strong wind on all 3 visits over the past 13 years. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough clothes, so I shivered as Brian started up.

When it was my turn, I climbed in my gloves and hiking boots; I was still too cold to do otherwise. When I found the climbing very easy going, I was sorry I hadn’t taken the 1st lead. I was doubly sorry when the 2nd pitch turned out to be hard, at least the path I chose was hard. By the time I reached the grassy ledge that we’d take to the East Meadow, I had warmed up very well.

Brian then led us over toward the East Meadow.  He stopped at the slight ridge which pokes out about 2/3rds of the way there with an idea for a new route to the notch. When I arrived, we decided to continue on to the East Meadow and use the Relief Train route (I think) to climb towards the notch.

It was a nice route, rated around 5.7; I enjoyed climbing it in my hiking boots  since I had a top rope.  Brian’s lead reached to just below the Notch.

When I arrived, Brian suggested we take a new path, on the north end of the ledge.  It looked like a bouquet of fins leading up and left toward the summit.

Roach’s RMNP Classic Hikes and Climbs:  “There are three places in the minicirque where it is easy and tempting (and wrong) to head farther north.”

Brian and I found a fourth.

It actually started off well, but once we got high enough to see down into the normal ascent gully (on the other side of the notch), the climbing became steep over crumbly rock.  It probably could have been protected, mostly, but we had put away the ropes and gear.

Once we reached the Notchtop summit, I was relieved to finally have the unprotected climbing behind me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

It is surprising how little I remembered about the two previous downclimbs of Notchtop.  I suppose I put it out of my mind. Every section just kept getting worse. I’d agree it was only 4th class, but downclimbing is always harder due to a lack of vision at the feet level.

A surprisingly quick scramble down with a few rain-drops reminded us of the primary issue of the day.  We hurried up to our packs (and water!); and we enjoyed a few minutes of rest.

I once again did my, ‘guess the time’ game.  This was the only time I can remember winning.  Brian guessed 12:30pm while I guessed 11:30am.  It was only 11am.

Brian’s water bottle made a mad-dash escape attempt, bouncing all the way down the gully toward the South  face bottom.  Brian pursued while I returned via the ascent route and met up with Brian at the bottom.  Brian was bottleless, but heavy one torn, faded down jacket that was spewing feathers; it wasn’t a good trade.

Another long hike on tired legs and sore feet back to the Bear Lake parking lot ended another RMNP adventure. And when we got back down to Boulder, we found it had rained cats and dogs. At least the weather luck is holding up, even if the legs aren’t.

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Solitude Lake Cirque

July 6, 2010

A low altitude illustration of the 'off-trail' ascending and descending required to complete the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'.

It was finally time to do it. After many years of thinking about the various connected pieces, it was time to attempt the entire Solitude Lake Cirque: a climb of Arrowhead (3rd or 4th class) from Solitude Lake, then traversing to and climbing McHenrys’ NE Arete (4th Class) to the summit, then traversing McHenrys’ Notch (5th class downclimb and 2nd class scramble) to reach the summit of Mt Powell, and then traversing and downclimbing Mt Powell’s entire NE Ridge (4th class) to the summit of Thatchtop.

We knew it would be a long day.  Even if everything worked out perfectly, it would be a grueling, body-breaking day: over 13 hours, 11.5 miles, and 5140′ of elevation gain & loss, with much of it being off trail. For illustration purposes, the planned effort is similar to scrambling up and down the 3rd Flatiron five times in a row with a mouth-full of water (to simulate high altitude oxygen availability).  Fun, right?

The Solitude Lake Cirque objective and plan evolved over the last 13 years:

  1. The ‘McHenrys Notch’ piece: I learned of ‘The Notch’ when sitting on top of Flattop during the summer of 1997 and wondering out loud about hiking the Continental Divide to Chiefs Head. Brian notified me that ‘The Notch‘ was a challenging obstacle. I was intrigued.
  2. The ‘NE Arete of McHenrys’ piece:  I still vividly remember looking up the NE Arete of McHenrys while sitting on the summit of Arrowhead in 1999 and thinking that it was the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen; I also thought it looked way too scary to to climb unroped (only 4th class).
  3. The ‘NE Ridge of Powell’ piece: I climbed this ridge almost exactly 11 years earlier in a solo effort; it was a near disastrous day as a late start and rainy weather nearly ended my climbing days (and every other kind as well). While my ability to do it while wet was confidence inspiring, the experience was psychologically traumatic.  Brian and I attempted to repeat it in late 2005 but were turned back by heavy snowfall.
  4. The ‘Do Them All Together’ Goal:  in early 2010, I informed Brian that the ‘Solitude Lake Cirque‘ was a goal for the 2010 summer.
  5. The Plan:  during the last week of June, I decided that we’d do the climb clockwise.  Even though The Notch is easier to climb than descend, I worried that a descent of McHenrys NE Arete would be too hard (since I didn’t know the terrain at all); and I thought we’d could rappel ‘The Notch’ if necessary.  And, I didn’t think a down climb of Powell’s NE Ridge would be much harder than an ascent since the elevation change was small. I was very wrong about this last point.

The 'Solitude Lake Cirque' -- illustrative route

And, throwing a monkey wrench into the works, the weather report was not perfect.  A “20% chance of rain after 1pm” was very worrying since it meant the rain would come while we were on Powell’s NE Ridge.  Given my history with that chunk of rock, I was justifiably worried. In addition, the weekend before a forecast of only 10% chance of rain after 1pm came 100% true on a climb of Spearhead in RMNP; I just couldn’t ignore the threat. However, Brian and I worked it out that we could summit Thatchtop by 1pm, if we started @ 4am and moved at a quick pace. That was somewhat reassuring, but I wondered how long we could keep up such a pace.

For better or worse, the ‘Solitude Lake Cirque‘ was a go!

On the morning of July 3rd, 2010, Brian and I left Boulder@ 2:30am for the Glacier Gorge trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. Unlike the previous week, the sky was mostly clear; it was a good sign on a day when good weather might be required to survive.

Ascending toward Solitude Lake with Arrowhead in background

I was driving, so we arrived at the trailhead a bit earlier than planned.  We started hiking at 3:45am.

Looking back down the steep hike up toward Shelf & Solitude Lakes

We took the ‘Knobs‘ shortcut to save 1/2 mile, and then took the Black Lake fork off the Loch Vale trail.

Position 1 (see references on map)

About 3.5 miles in, we reached the avalanche gully which marked the cutoff for Solitude Lake.  We turned toward Glacier Creek, gingerly walked along fallen logs to avoid sloshing through the marshy terrain.  A quick hop across the creek and then we scrambled up the steep slope to reach the Shelf Lake area, swatting mosquitoes all the way up.  On one of the longest days of the year (daylight-wise), it was light enough that we could have started hiking 30 minutes earlier.

It was Brian’s turn to dunk a boot, this time working across the Shelf Lake outlet.  But Brian was smart enough to wax his boots, so no wet foot for Brian (unlike my experience on Spearhead the week before).

Nearing Arrowhead, our 1st objective

Position 2

We reached the edge of Solitude Lake at 6:15am; I was delighted with our quick pace.  I thought we would be close to my goal of a 7am Arrowhead summit.  But clearly I had forgotten about the long talus-hop needed to reach the base of the Arrowhead climb.

Our route up Arrowhead

It took us another 45 minutes to reach the base of the climb.

Position 3

We started up a 4th class path Brian picked out; he didn’t want to use the 3rd class route we’d used before. I figured it would be a good warm up for climbing to come later in the day.  Rather than angle directly for the Arrowhead summit, I decided to climb to the ridgeline first.  I was rewarded with spectacular views of Glacier Gorge through the clear, early morning air.

Position 4

Joe (me) on Arrowhead summit with McHenrys NE Arete in background

I then joined Brian on the summit of Arrowhead at 8am.  We were already one hour behind schedule. It was time to start going faster, somehow.

The weather looked good, but we could see the winds above McHenry were moving very quickly.

Looking back down the NE Arete toward Arrowhead

We started back down the ridge toward the saddle, and then up the NE Arete. The climbing was not very difficult; there were a few spots of harder climbing below the Gendarmes on the ridge.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the climbing was nearly all 3rd class, with only a spot or two of 4th class. Accordingly, our time was pretty good, even though I was slowing down a bit after over 4300′ of elevation gain in the last 5+ hours.

The finish was remarkably easy and led to within a few yards of the summit.  A great route.

Position 5

Joe (me) on McHenrys summit with Longs and Chiefs Head in the distance.

We reached McHenrys summit at 9:30am; still one hour behind schedule, but at least no further time was lost. And the wind was cold and strong.

After a short break, we started toward The Notch.

Brian hiking toward 'The Notch' with Powell in background

Progress was easy for a while, but then became confusing. It was unclear which ledge was the correct ledge to take to the downclimb.  We decided to stay on the ridge crest as long as possible, which forced us to make an exposed move or two to reach the end.  From that position, we could see that the ledge below us had been the correct ledge; we downclimbed to it and then traversed over to the gully that led directly to the top of ‘The Notch‘.

Brian put on his rock shoes (removing Makalus); this says it all.  It was steep.  Plus, the freezing wind rushing up the gully was enough to unnerve anyone.

Brian descending the last few feet of the gully toward 'The Notch'

At first, the downclimb felt very hard; but that was just me getting used to the awkward nature of downclimbing steep terrain. The holds were good and we made good time for a bit. After about 100 feet, Brian found a rappel anchor and thought we should do a belayed downclimb. I was thinking we were past the hard part, but I rarely argue for less protection.  Brian was right. The next 150 feet was harder.

A view of the ascent path out of 'The Notch' to reach the summit of Mt Powell

We had brought a small rack, so it took some doing to put in gear for Brian’s protection.  And we were both freezing in the wind.

Position 6

I reached the bottom of the gully at 10:45am and worked my way into the sunshine before stopping to give Brian a belay. He came down quickly and joined me in the sunshine to warm up. The downclimbing was good due to the solid hand holds; it was a luxury we would miss later in the day while downclimbing slabs.

A view of the spectacular Mt Alice seen from 'The Notch'

We wandered over to the edge of The Notch to have a look and also gathered in some great views of Powell Lake and Mt Alice.

We also marveled at the great looking rock marking the Powell edge of The Notch; still, we were happy to have an alternative to escape The Notch.

Brian led the way down The Notch to reach the gully we could ascend to reach the top of Mt Powell.

Brian taking the final few steps to Mt Powell's summit

On the way up, I was delighted to find a trickle of snow-melt running over a rock that I could use to refill my empty water bottle.  I was very worried about not having more water for the rest of the day; it was only 11am. I silently wished for 2 bottles to fill.

Brian moved ahead and I followed as soon as my full bottle was put away. The gully was a bit loose, but not too bad; a mere 2nd class scramble.

Position 7

Looking back at McHenry from the summit of Powell, with Longs and Chiefs Head in the background.

We reached the summit of Mt Powell at 11:30am; we had picked up 30 minutes against our schedule and were now only 30 minutes behind schedule.  And 3 peaks down; only 1 more to go!

I realized that I had never been on the summit before.  The time I thought I had summited, on my trip up the NE Ridge from Thatchtop in the rain, I must have stopped at the false summit some yards to the north.  Well, better late than never.

And, now I was feeling very confident.  While the weather was getting worse, it looked like it would hold out until 1pm….just a few dark clouds so far. We didn’t even have to discuss our plan B of descending Andrews Glacier. I was thinking, ‘how long could it take to complete the NE Ridge’?  The reports of the ridge taking 4 hours seemed ridiculous.

Position 8

A view of the Cathedral Peaks and Sky Pond

We hiked toward Mt Taylor for about 200 feet and found a keyhole to slide through to get onto Powell’s NE Ridge. We then had to navigate a few feet of snow to reach the climbing, but that was the only snow we had to contend with all day.

Position 9

Finally, the only real hurdle remaining was the crux section of the NE Ridge; the section that I struggled so terribly with all those years ago. If we got past that section of the ridge, we would certainly make it. If the rain came before, we’d have to rope up if not turn back for Andrews Glacier. But the remaining hour before 1pm would surely be enough, wouldn’t it?

Brian working down the steep slabs on Powell's NE Ridge

I had budgeted 2 hours to do the entire NE Ridge; it took us 2 hours to just to finish the hard section.

Brian working past the crux

I was utterly wrong about how long it would take to complete the ridge. Descending 4th class slabs is much harder than ascending them.  Much harder….even when the altitude loss is minor. My mistake was due to my lack of understanding or appreciation of 2 factors:

  1. Descending 4th class slabs is complicated by the complexity of route-finding as holds are obscured when viewed from above
  2. Descending 4th class slabs is much harder at the end of a long day than seems possible at the beginning of the day

Brian nearing the end of the hard part of Powell's NE Ridge

Fortunately, the weather stayed dry.  The wind was unnerving as it tossed us around while we smeared our way across and down the slabs, but at least the rock was good for sticky rubber.

Position 10

Once past the hard section, I told Brian that I had followed the ridgeline all those years ago (which is also Roach’s instructions; I checked).  Brian said he liked the look of  the talus below the ridgeline. I wondered if there was a reason for Roach’s advice and so I angled up to the ridge near Point 12836 to see if the ridgeline was a better path.  Instead, I found the ridge was much harder than the talus below, so I descend to match Brian’s path.

A tired Brian sitting below the summit of Thatchtop

At a little before 2pm (and the weather still holding), I found Brian resting below the summit of Thatchtop. In his green jacket, I couldn’t see him until I was within rock throwing distance. He looked so comfortable, I couldn’t resist the temptation, and so I stretched out on a grassy patch.  It turned out that he wasn’t comfortable so much as sleepy.

Resting my feet on Powell's NE Ridge while enjoying the flowers

I finished my water and ate a snack, and I remarked to Brian that I would be willing to pay a lot to have the truck close-by.  The thought of descending thousands of feet and multiple miles just shriveled my morale.

All I had left to comfort me were my own words of advice: the greater the suffering, the greater the feeling of accomplishment.

Misery Axiom: never turn back because of mental misery.  More mental suffering (e.g., boredom, frustration, irritation) leads to more personal rewards, which can only be harvested through perseverance (corollary to Reward Rule).

Reward Rule: personal rewards are maximized by seeking an aggressive goal that matches the most optimistic assessment of your willingness to suffer; the right goal allows both success and satisfaction

Position 11

But we had many miles to go, as it has been said before.  We trudged up to the summit of Thatchtop, and I stopped for a photo of our day’s route.

The 'Solitude Lake Cirque' route overview

Brian hadn’t stopped, so I hurried after him, working my way down the endless talus field.  It was another mile of talus hoping to reach the bottom of Thatchtop. And at the end of such a long day, it was an endless misery.

Brian later pointed out:

Thatchtop’s name is appropriate from a long distance, but becomes supremely aggravating when one is actually on it and trying to hike over the ‘thatch’.

So true, Brian.

Brian heading down Thatchtop

And that wasn’t the end.  We still had to find the descent gully, which somehow eluded us.  After wandering through the peculiar stunted forested area at the end of the ridge, we finally stumbled upon the gully.  The gully turned out to be far more loose than I recalled; we slipped and slid down and around the corner before finally escaping.

And that wasn’t the end either.  We still had to work our way down the mixed forest/talus field to reach the creek flowing from Loch Vale.

Statistics for the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'

It was a level of effort I was not prepared to expend.  I was really beat.

I don’t think I’ve ever done so much off-trail descending.  To get down, we had to descend over 4000′ down talus and technical rock.  Try hiking down Longs Peak without using any trails..

And still we had to hike another 30 minutes to reach the car.

What a day!  I’m glad we did it. I’m glad it’s over.

Our route on the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'

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Interesting info regarding ‘Cirque de la Solitude’ on the ‘toughest long distance trail in Europe’

Spearhead Bootcamp

June 29, 2010

A dark Spearhead in the distance

My high altitude climbing goals for the 2010 summer season meant I needed to get back into shape.

Brian had talked about redoing the Spiral Route on Notchtop; I had been talking about redoing the North Ridge on Spearhead.  We were worried about snow on the descent behind the Notch, so we agreed to do Spearhead.  A Spearhead Bootcamp, as it were.

I asked Brian what time he’d pick me up.  He responded that we used to start at 2:30am.  Now, I have to admit that 2:30am sounds too early.  I mean, why did we used to start at 2:30am?  So I started counting:  1.5 hours to drive from Boulder to the Glacier Gorge parking lot (4am) plus 2 hours to hike to Black Lake (6am), plus 45 minutes to hike to Spearhead (6:45am).  With sunrise at 5:30am, it would be light enough to climb by 6am; and with a forecast of possible thunderstorms at 1pm, starting at 2:30am seemed foolishly late.  The question was, could I live with getting up even earlier than 2am?

I agreed to be ready at 2:30am.  We’d just have to get down by 1pm.

The beautiful terrain of Glacier Gorge

When the alarm went off at 2am, I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me.  I used to do this all the time, and I always hated it.  But this time, it just felt right. I jumped up and got ready.

We arrived at the Glacier Gorge parking lot at 4am and started up the dark, windy trail.  There were a few cars in the lot, but we had the trails to ourselves.

A snowy barrier below Black Lake

Upward and onward we hiked toward Loch Vale, taking the cutoff to Black Lake about 1.75 miles in (using the shortcut).  We could hear the full creeks roaring by, but could not see a thing outside the flashlight beams. It wasn’t until we were hiking below Arrowhead that the sky started to get light.  To that point, we’d walked on dirt and rocks; no snow any where near the trail.  But as we approached Black Lake, we found a lot of snow.  It was a delicate thing, walking across frozen snow in sneakers. But it only slowed us a bit, and we arrived at Black Lake at 5:45am.

I really should have brought better footwear. Sure my light hiking sneakers felt great while carrying them up the climb, but on the hike in and out they felt like slippers that permitted the roots and rocks to bash and mangle my feet. It is said that good fences make for good neighbors; I contend it is also true that good boots make for good terrain. I won’t make that mistake again anytime soon.

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

Sunrise may have been at 5:30am in Denver; but in Glacier Gorge, we could see little of that sunshine.

While I was starting to feel the weight of my pack (full of rock gear) and my lack of conditioning, I decided to push on to Spearhead without a rest.  Of course, Brian didn’t need one.

We were ahead of schedule and made good time up the drainage creek path to reach the Spearhead basin. All that was left was to figure out a path through the willows and streams.  Brian was ahead and took a wide detour to the left.  I thought I’d head straight on to save time.  After dunking a sneaker (made of meshy, spongy material), all I can say is my path was straighter.

At least by that time, the sky was fully lit, even though the sun would not be seen for another hour.

Spearhead is a spectacular chunk of rock.  The North Ridge route ascends the long ridge that forms the northeast face.

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

I stopped at a small pond to fill my water bottles, take off my wet hiking sock, and give my right Achilles tendon a rest. It only took 5 minutes to complete my chores, and then I worked my way past some sleeping biviers to the start of the North Ridge route, where Brian was catching a few winks.

We started up at 7am.  Brian was shivering after his grass nap and so took the first pitch to warm up.

Pitch 1

Brian started up some easy rock and then moved left to cross a slab to get beneath the twin chimneys.  I followed and was amazed to struggle on the slab traverse.  I commented to Brian that perhaps he should have gone lower.  Perhaps, my declining skills and tolerance for altitude just made the low 5th class rock feel hard.

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

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

Pitch 2

First on the agenda was to look at the rappel sling someone had left behind at the top of the chimney. I always like to find biners and usable rock gear to use for own my escapes.  But this was just a knotted sling stuck in a crack, and the water knot was tied with the tails so short that one has slid back into the knot.  That sling had some bad karma; I left it behind.

I continued up the crack to reach a flaring dihedral .

Then I reached a 2nd flaring dihedral, this one had a wide crack in the middle. I used the left face as it had all the holds.

Above the 2nd pitch

I continued up the ridge until I reached a ledge below a short crack. The rope was starting to feel heavy and my Achilles was demanding a sit-down rest.  I took it.

I started Brian’s belay with 3 tugs, and then I enjoyed the spectacular view of Glacier Gorge.  My eyes followed our approach path, winding up from below Bear Lake, past Mills Lake and continuing beneath Storm Peak, Thatchtop and Arrowhead to reach Black Lake, and then winding through the willows and drainage creeks to reach the foot of Spearhead.  It was breathtaking.

And we had the peak to ourselves.

Brian arrived after a short while; we re-racked and then he left, heading further up the ridge

Brian arrives at the end of the 2nd pitch

Pitch 3

Brian scrambled up the ridge line with all apparent intentions of going further than he had rope.  I gave him some rope tension to signal the impending ‘end of the line’.  He quickly found a solid belay and then I followed after struggling to extract my bomber nuts in the belay anchor.

I followed up the exposed ridge and enjoyed the excellent views of Sykes Sickle and the great rock above us.  The sun was finally beating down on us and my sweater and rain jacket started to feel like too much.

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

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

Pitch 4

Initially, I wandered left to take a new line, but the rock looked dirty and steep; I backed off.  I went up the obvious weakness in the otherwise slabby rock directly above the 3rd belay.  The climbing was rather easy and I was surprised when the rope ran out. I struggled to put in a good belay anchor, but was soon giving Brian a belay to my position.

He arrived quickly and then set off for the “big block” (Roach).

Pitch 5

Brian made short work of the rather easy rock leading up to the base of the big block, and I followed quickly.  As I approached, I recalled reading Roach describe that the standard route went right of the block to reach a ramp.  But I was certain that we’d always gone left for some challenging (as I recalled) climbing.

Above the 3rd pitch

It would be my pleasure to pick a line.

Pitch 6

I asked Brian what he thought. Instead of left vs. right, he suggested a hard crack variation (further left) that we had done the last time we did the route. I had no memory of the crack variation at first, but once I saw it I remembered.  And I remembered it was hard.  Brian suggested that

I take the crack and belay near the top of the crack, for a 100 foot pitch; then he could take the last 100 feet to the summit, including the awesome step back to the ridge and ‘The Slot’ (Roach) leading to the top of the climb.  Hmmm.  Well, I did seem to recall that is the way he did it when he led it some years ago.

I worked up the left leaning crack underneath the roof.  I had to choose between traversing left beneath the hard crack or continuing to the top of the roof before traversing left using a nice looking hand ledge.  I picked the hand ledge.

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

I continued up and stood on top of the roof; it was a nice rest for my Achilles.  Then I looked at the hand ledge and discovered it was not as ‘nice’ as I had perceived from below.  I was still within talking distance from Brian, so I asked him what he remembered from his last visit.  He seemed to recall putting in gear on the left; I’d missed the route. I felt I could make it, but I would have had to make a hardish, unprotected traverse to reach the bottom of the hard crack.  I bailed on the idea.

I wasn’t terribly disappointed. I had mixed feelings to start with. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the hard crack anyway, and I was damn sure I didn’t want to give up my lead on the best part of the route. I called back down to Brian to tell him that I wouldn’t put in any more gear until I was above the hard crack so he could climb it, and that I would see how high I could get.

He nodded and sealed his fate.

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

I continued right across the roof to reach the bottom of the left leaning ramp.  Then I worked my way back above the crack where I finally put in another piece of protection.  I asked Brian how much rope; he indicated more than half.

How could I stop?

I looked up at the set of dihedral leading to the top and couldn’t tell which one I was suppose to climb. But I did know that I was supposed to reach the ridge at the top of the dihedral, so that meant I needed to climb the furthest left one.  It started looking familiar, and I remembered climbing it easily in the past, but those days were gone (not forever I hope).  I struggled up, and desperately searched for places to rest my Achilles.  The only place I could find a rest was at the top of the corner with one foot on the either side of the ridge crest.

It had been my intention to belay below The Slot, but I couldn’t work out a good belay.  Plus, I could see that the route only had 20′ to go.  I decided to push on and explain later.

Brian nearing the top of the 6th pitch

I stepped up and wedged myself in the slot, and found the climbing to be easier than I remembered.  Before, I’d always had tremendous rope drag, like I was dragging a couple dudes behind me.  But this time it was smooth sailing. Later I figured out it was because I didn’t place any gear on the ramp (to the right of the belay); a great lesson for the future.

I dragged my oxygen deprived body over the top, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.  I set out to place an anchor but found the rack to be nearly empty of gear and slings; I guess I had been stressed a little bit. I managed to build a solid anchor out of a cam and a wedged ass, and then I pulled up the rope.  I had at least 20 feet of slack!

I brought Brian up and was thinking about how I’d explain not leaving anything for him to lead. I was ready with my excuse, but he caught me so off-guard by cursing me while he was still doing the crux that I could only say, “I still had rope so it was technically my pitch.”  I think I’m right about that.

Once at the top, I had intended to return to the summit, as we had done the first time we climbed Spearhead in 1997.  But the weather wasn’t looking great, so after a short visual tour of the area, we started back down.

Our view from near the top of Spearhead

Rarely is a mountain summit a literal point, like the tip of a spear; but Spearhead was one of the rare ones.  The top was so small, we had to take turns sitting on it (on our initial visit in 1997). And, to make it even more interesting, the top was shaped like a throne; it was a flat seat with a comfortable back and arm rests.  It is the best seat in my RMNP palace.  Feel free to use it if you stop by.

The descent was as bad as I recalled, but we made it down without incident.

Once at the bottom of the route where we’d left our packs, our first order of duty at Spearhead was to confirm that our lunch survived our absence. This is the only real difficulty with Spearhead….there are no trees and so no obvious way to secure the food.  On our first climb in 1997, Brian tried to hang his lunch from a steep part of a large boulder; a marmot ate the sandwich and most of the plastic bag.  This forced me to give up one of my food bars and Brian to gag it down.  On our third visit, crows got into my pack (they unzipped my top compartment) to get my food bars; I don’t remember what Brian shared with me to power me home.

This time Brian resorted to burying his lunch beneath a heavy rock while I carried my bars to the summit. And we each managed to eat the lunch we brought from home.

I also did my normal ‘what time do you think it is?’ contest.  Brian guessed 12:30pm; I thought it had to be later, so I guessed 1:30pm.  After digging my watch from my pack, I could see it was 12:23pm.  Brian has a very good internal clock.

We had now climbed the North Ridge route on Spearhead 4 times.  It is a classic.

The rain and hail did catch us on the hike out, but we survived it.  The last part of the hike out felt like a death march, and my joints were killing me.  My knees are old foes, and my ankles were in revolt as well.  And my feet were destroyed by stupidity.

Spearhead approach & hike out

We made it back at 3:30pm for a 11.5 hours round trip, only 30 minutes longer than our first effort 13 years earlier.  But I was hurting pretty badly; I forced Brian to stop on the drive out so I could soak my legs in the creek for a while.  ‘Awhile’ in running, freezing water turned out to be 3 minutes.  But it was good for what ailed me.

I may get into shape yet.

Maybe next week we’ll do the Spiral Route on Notchtop.

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The Stone Man Project

June 5, 2010

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

The Stone Man from low on McHenry

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

View from Spearhead

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

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

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

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

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

My hiking speed chart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of Stone Man route from Spearhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 20, 2010

Hike to Wham

Rocky Mountain National Park is my favorite playground.  And, I am not alone in feeling that way.  The secret to finding great alpine adventure unspoiled by throngs of people in RMNP is to start early and to seek out the rock less climbed. This trip report is about reaching a bit too far, a bit too casually to climb Wham, the ugly twin of the Zowie pinnacle on Otis Peak.

Anyone climbing Sharkstooth or Andrews Glacier has seen the fantastic pinnacles hanging off the south side of Otis Peak. Most people just keep on going, but I and a few others have had the pleasure of climbing Zowie. It is a smaller version of the Petit Grepon with the same exposure and great climbing, but with far fewer people competing for a place in line (generally, none) and a good deal less rock to climb to reach the top. I’ve climbed it three times whereas I’ve only climbed the superior Petit twice due to justifiable fear of crowds.

And to avoid lawsuits for lack of disclosure, I’ll mention that there is something terrible about Andrews Creek below Zowie that facilitates the birthing of massive clouds of mosquitoes. One trip in particular represented the worst mosquito event in my life, and I grew up in South Florida. I still blame that day for my serious bout of West Nile Virus in 2003.  Consider yourself warned.

Approach to Zowie & Wham

On our last visit to Zowie in the summer of 2003, Brian and I gazed over at Wham, Zowie’s next door neighbor, and agreed that we should do it before returning for another ascent of Zowie. Brian broached the subject in September of that year, but I was afraid it was a loose mess and didn’t want to waste a day.  Nearly a year later, Brian’s persistence paid off and we selected Wham for the Saturday, August 7, 2004.

The only worry was that Wham would be too short and easy (5.7) to fill the day; the plan was to bag Wham and then re-climb Zowie (5.8+).

August 6, 2004
How about Wham tomorrow?  It’s fairly short.  If we’re feeling fast maybe we could redo Zowie afterwards.

For better or worse, Wham turned out to be more than an appetizer.

We left Boulder at 3:30am for RMNP.  We started hiking at 4:50am and quickly made our way up the trail toward Loch Vale and then Andrews Glacier before turning off the trail just after leaving the trees.

The start of Wham

We crossed Andrew Creek and ascended toward Zowie, winding our way through the trees and small cliffs. Once out of the trees, we aimed toward Wham and made our way to the gully between Zowie and Wham.  This was infrequently visited terrain; there were no clues about the start. We figured the real start was on top of the shoulder, so we just took the nearest nice looking line that led there.

Reaching the shoulder, we found it was covered in dwarfish trees.  Brian remembers it as a “big shoulder plagued by trees”.   We had to bushwhack our way to the base of the pinnacle; the trees grabbed the rope so badly Brian had to untie before bushwacking. We should have tried to climb directly to the spot where the pillar meets the shoulder.

Finally, we could start the climb.  The guidebook merely said to go up the South Face; over the years we’ve mostly found that to mean it is obvious, but other times it has meant the guidebook author doesn’t know (didn’t do the climb).  We hoped for the “it is obvious” option, but it wasn’t. I remember sitting down and studying the rock, but I couldn’t figure out where the 5.7 line was or even how to get off the ground without performing death-defying acts. In a desperate effort to save the day, I offered the notion of bailing and climbing Zowie instead.

Brian refused to be denied.

Brian recalls:

From the runt trees, the line was a not-too-steep dihedral with a few loose-looking holds.  Again and again I started on it just to find that it magically steepened at my touch.  Each time, I came down and looked at the even steeper route to the left, then discarded that idea.  That one just looked very sustained with no chance of success.  Finally we were ready to bail, and I decided we might as well risk one tricam on the left line.

Sure, the line seemed impossible, but the placement was bomber, so why not?

I hoisted myself up and stared at the next 3 feet.  Hmm, more good cracks, Ok, we’ll just risk one more nut so I can see around the corner.  And on it went for the next 30 minutes and 120 feet, until I looked at the depleted rack and relenting angle of the face and realized the we were actually going to make it.  Not only that, but we’d get our rack back, too.  All I had to do was somehow scratch out a belay and haul Joe and the metal up.

The last pitch was easier, but just as dramatic as the face sharpened up into a ridge of bouldery steps.  That was the best pitch, knowing that nothing could stop us.

Our winding route up the South Face of Wham. Photo taken from Zowie.

We made it. But it sure didn’t feel like 5.7. Maybe we didn’t do the correct route, but we sure tried to do so.

We sat on the summit for a while enjoying our success on our unexpected adventure.  Clearly, we wouldn’t be visiting Zowie.

When it was time to head down, I dug out my notes on the descent I collected from my old Gillette guide (the one I swore I would never use again after my fiasco on Northcutt-Carter):

Several long rappels west into gully.

I looked over the edge to the west.  It looked like a long, long way down — too long even for a double rope rap. Brian and I looked around for a better line but couldn’t find one. I said I’d go down and take a look, hoping to find something, anything.  I rappelled over the edge and spent 30 minutes working around from the west to the north side before finally finding a decent spot on the north side to build a rap station for the 2nd rappel.  Brian recalls:

Joe rapped down the left side and then spent a half hour looking for the next rap while I was on top wondering what the heck was going on.

But we still weren’t out of it. We couldn’t figure out how to get back to the base. We hiked around to the West side, thinking that the 3rd rap must be there.  But we found nothing useful.  It was all loose, steep rock split by a big ledge that provided only false hope for an escape.

We went back to the North side again and carefully worked our way down the gully leading west (toward Zowie) below the ledge. It required a couple 4th class downclimb moves, but it went.

Then we scrambled south toward the bottom of the gully between Zowie and Wham. The terrain was serious enough to require a belay for the final 100 feet to reach the edge of the final cliff where we found a rap anchor with an ancient biner that seemed to be made of lead (heavy, soft metal).  I replaced it with a modern aluminum biner and we escaped to the base of the climb.

Naturally, the rope got stuck and required some delicate scrambling among loose rocks. It was a relief to finally escape the grasp of that little pinnacle that we had so little respect for a mere 8 hours earlier.

The path less traveled sometimes leads to some serious shit (see all axioms).

17-Hour Saber

May 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Position #1:

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

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

Position #2:

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

Position #3:

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

Position #4:

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

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

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

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

Position #5:

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

Position #6:

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

Position #7:

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

Position #8:

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

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

Position #9:

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

Position #10:

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

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

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

Position #11:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Long’s Southwest Ridge

April 15, 2010

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

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

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

Longs Peak from Taylor with our route marked in red

Position #1

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

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

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

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

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

Position #2

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

Position #3

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

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

Position #4

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

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

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

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