Posts Tagged ‘sharkstooth’

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

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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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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Sharkstooth: My first RMNP love

January 2, 2010

The Sharkstooth taken on approach in July 1992

Sharkstooth.  My first RMNP love.

The Sharkstooth is well named.  It is the highest (12,630′) of the Cathedral Spires group of pinnacles on the ridge that splits the Loch Vale area and separates the Sky Pond/Taylor Glacier area from the Andrews Glacier area. When viewed from below Andrews Glacier, it looks like a massive tooth jutting up from the jaws of the Earth. It is located just east of the Continental Divide and Taylor Peak, and is a stone’s throw from the popular Petit Grepon.

In July of 1992, the Sharkstooth was the very first alpine climb I ever did, using the Northeast Ridge (II, 5.6) route. 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. I honestly felt I might not survive but thought the experience would be worth the risk. 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

Me and a couple buddies on the Sharkstooth summit in 1992. From left to right, Mark, Jim, Joe

life. Fortunately, survival was not an issue; and in the months that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about climbing more peaks.

My inevitable return visit to Sharkstooth occurred in October 1996, and was the first climb I ever did with Brian. It was a freeze-fest due to the late season effort that concluded with a 4pm summit, leaving only 2 hours of light to rappel down and hike out (in case you don’t know, it takes at least 3 hours).  And we didn’t bring headlamps.  As you may guess, it was another epic experience, cementing the Sharkstooth’s place in my heart.

Despite being my first RMNP love, so many peaks to climb meant it would take 3 years before we’d return once again; and this time, to complete the North Face [5.8] route, the key factor in success would be perseverance.  Return trips would come much more quickly, out of necessity.

The Climb

After digging deep into Rossiter’s guidebook, Brian had the idea of climbing the obscure North Face route [III, 5.8] which starts at the popular Northeast Ridge route but then spirals up and right around to reach the summit from the west side.  And on August 29, 1999, we set out to climb Sharkstooth once again.

We drove into RMNP in the predawn twilight and parked at the now extinct Glacier Gorge access parking lot.  With a quick sorting of gear, we were hiking at 5am.  We kept up a good pace and reached the base of the climb at 8am to find the rock wet & very slippery.  Our only hope was that the wind would dry the rock before the climbing got too hard.

Progress made in initial attempt of North Face route on the Sharkstooth. Photo from 1992 climb.

From the start, we knew it was going to be an adventure.  Rossiter’s description of the route was more like a set of tips than detailed description of the pitches he generally lays out:

“Climb the first pitch of the Northeast Ridge route, then traverse right to the higher of two grassy ledges.  Work up and right onto the North face following the easiest line. Continue in a spiral onto the West face until it is reasonable to climb directly up to the summit. Beware of climbing too high on the North face before rounding the Northwest arete; follow the line of least resistance.”

Essentially, he says to start at the SE Ridge route and go up and right. And the topo didn’t help very much either, as it just showed an arrow pointing around the corner of the NW arete.

But that is okay; more adventure for us.  We enjoyed and were good at route-finding.  We just hoped we had time for that sort of adventure.

Route-finding Rule of Fun

Good Route-finding Skills plus Enough Time

=  Fun Adventure

The first couple pitches were clean rock alternating with grassy ledges which brought us to the shoulder where we could see the north face above us.  That was our last sunlight for the day.  An ascending traverse right over broken terrain took us to the far right base of the north face.  And by 11am, I found a windy belay perch on a ledge from where we could peek around the corner and see the steep unlikely-looking west side.  This spot was about 150 feet short of the summit (2 short pitches).

And a few drops fell.

In a valorous effort to intimidate the weather, Brian ignored the mosture and started up the pitch.

Brian adds the following details regarding the crux pitch:

I led over couple blocks, then onto a grand piano sized flake.  It seemed like something we didn’t want the rope connected to.  After some more traversing past a grungy flaring chimney, I could see the slope start to ease off above me.  A couple more moves, and then I had my chin and a bomber brown tricam right at the crux move.

All I had to do was pull over onto easier ground.  Unfortunately, the rain drops that I had been denying were now becoming very insistent.  I could see that we still had more than a pitch to go, and while it was less steep, it was also thin on protection, and getting wetter by the second.  I must have been staring at it quite a while, because Joe politely yelled up that it was obvious we would have to bail, so why was I just standing there getting both of us more and more soaked…

We were fortunate to have the double ropes that day.

I think he was tempted to push it, since he was so close; but since we were in a good position to retreat back down the path we had taken, we had to take the only safe option.  If we continued up our spiral route but didn’t make the summit, we’d probably have no choice but to try to rappel into the gully below us, between Taylor and Sharkstooth.  And since we didn’t know if such a rappel was possible or how dangerous it would be to escape from that gully if we reached it, well… it was another time for a bit of discretion.

  • “Courage would fight, but discretion won’t let him” — Poor Richard’s Almanack, B. Franklin (1747)
  • “The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.” — Falstaff in Henry IV p.1, W. Shakespeare (1597)
  • “Than as wyse and discrete he withdrewe him sayng that more is worth a good retrayte than a folisshe abydinge — Jason, Caxton (1477).
  • “Bravery consists in foresight” — Suppliants, Euripides (510)

Brian managed to escape his position losing very little gear.  Then we backtracked around the North face and rappelled down the east face to our packs and the hiking terrain. And after the long, wet hike out, we reached the parking lot after a total of 11 hours of fruitless labor.  It was only the 2nd time either of us could remember bailing on a climb; we agreed that we’d come back soon to complete the effort.

Attempt #2

The approach to The Sharkstooth

We had tentatively set September 12th as the return trip, but the weather didn’t cooperate.  In fact, on the 11th, we decided to climb at Eldorado Canyon State Park due to the forecast; but at the very last minute, we decided to go for it.  We were worried about losing the season and not being able to finish until the next summer.

To give ourselves a better chance of beating the rain, we started hiking at 4:30am. Unfortunately, the rain started @ 5am.  It is a strange experience to hike in the dark while it is raining.  My initial reaction was, of course, disappointment; but quickly I realized that it was early enough to go back to Eldo and still get a full day.  Brian again convinced me to press on with the reasoning that the rain might stop and the rock would eventually dry.

The rain didn’t stop until we reached the base of the climb at 7:30am.  We sat for a minute to ponder our fate, but the cold temperature and wet conditions had us shivering before long.  We decided that it was possible that we could climb up the decent route,  and quickly started scrambling up to the start.  On such a bad weather day and with our early start, we correctly guessed that we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way.

Once we reached the descent gully, we could see it was full of snow.  Rather than give up, we decided to climb in our hiking boots. We knew the rock from previous visits and knew we could bail at any time.  And while the climbing was slick, we progressed steadily and reached the summit by noon.  We both insisted on a stop for lunch, and as we ate and shivered, we enjoyed our latest “alpine” experience.

The descent was uneventful and we arrived back at the parking lot after a 10 hour effort.  On the drive home, Brian made sure I understood that we had to go back to finish the North Face route.  Who was I to disagree?

Attempt #3

Against all the odds, the RMNP rock climbing season stayed open for another week (actually two additional weeks, but that is another story).  With a good weather report, we set out for Sharkstooth once again on September 18, 1999.  To give us an even better chance for success, we started hiking at 4am.  This meant we’d be in darkness for nearly all of the approach, but we absolutely didn’t want to miss what was almost certainly our last chance for the next 6 months.

The completed North Face route on The Sharkstooth.

Hiking over broken ground in the dark is hard, but we knew the trail better than most after 3 trips in the last 4 weeks.  And we almost made it without mishaps except for an overhanging rock that clipped my cheekbone as I sped by while my headlamp and attention were focused on my footing.  But without a serious delay we still reached the base of the climb at 7am…and we found beautifully dry rock.  Oh, the joy!  Our goal was to complete the climb by 11am, which was the time of the rainfall that ended our initial attempt.

We knew the initial pitches very well and cruised up quickly.  The last two pitches were very interesting…and hard.  It was my opinion that if we had pushed it on our initial attempt, we’d have gotten into serious trouble.

We reached the summit at 11am and enjoyed the fruits of Brian’s persistance.  Unfortunately, when we tried to leave, we had to share the descent gully with a team of 6 climbers climbing up the East Gully route (5.4). Through excruciatingly slow movement and brain numbing care, we managed to avoid knocking down any rocks or pebbles and made it back to the base of the climb and our packs.  A very fast hike back (1 hour 40 minutes) got us back to the parking lot in time for some guiltless football watching.

As they say, “Persistence Pays.”

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

~ Calvin Coolidge

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