Matt and Joanne’s Page

July 31, 2008

A Sampling of RMNP (Part 1)

Filed under: Climbing, Roadtrip — Tags: , , — Matt Stamplis @ 8:39 am

So after hanging around RMNP for a couple weeks, it’s probably time to put a post up! Our base camp has been up in the Monastary, a 45 minute drive from the town of Estes Park – this is a bit of a hassle but it beats the $28/night camping in town. Estes Park is a very touristy town with all the amenities you could want, including more than a half dozen ice cream shops. Although, we haven’t been able to find a place that has showers yet!

The big thing to keep in mind when climbing here is the weather. Almost every day, when noon rolls around, thunderclouds menacingly gather above the high peaks. Most days you want to be headed DOWN at this point, though on particularly nice days you may be safe until 2-3PM. We haven’t had any real close calls yet (other than a hailstorm atop Longs Peak) but we’ve tried our best to get early starts: it’s not uncommon for us to begin hiking around 3AM, or as early as midnight for bigger routes.

The first route we bagged in the park was the South Ridge of Notchtop Mountain. The approach was somewhere around 3.5 miles and mostly easy except the last bit of scrambling up a steep 3rd class gully. You have to scramble a long ways up this gully before stepping right onto the ridge and the route. We quickly discovered that route finding was a bit of a problem for us here. The ridge was quite “climbable” with many options available on each pitch. We thought we were mostly on the route except when I reached the top of the “last” pitch and discovered we still had 2 pitches left!


Notchtop is pretty easy to identify on the approach with it’s distinct notch near the summit. The South Ridge follows the steep lefthand skyline.

By this time some clouds were starting to form around the peak so we were understandably nervous. We figured at this point it was easier to go for the summit than try to bail so I told Matt to take all the leads and run to the top. Eventually after a couple strenuous pitches (easy but we were really running up it) we made it to the top. By this time, the clouds seem to fade a little giving us hope to get off before any storms. Lucky for us there was another party that made it to the top when we get there and informed us that despite the guidebook not specifying, two ropes are needed for a safer descent (we only brought one). Fortunately they were happy to let us team up with them on the descent, and we quickly made the 4 double-rope rappel down the west face. Our first success was sweet but made us realize that weather here is really fickle.


Hanging out on one of the bolted rappel stations on the West Face of Notchtop.

A couple days after Notchtop we went and climbed the Culp-Bossier route on Hallet Peak. The approach is the shortest in the park for any of the high peaks, around 2.5 miles although the last half mile is pretty slow, with some scrambling up a steep, loose talus field. After finishing the first pitch we looked down and saw several fat marmots running around the boulders, heading for our packs….uh oh! Thank God we had nothing edible in it because they just ignored our bags. They made me really nervous though because I heard horror stories of the marmot chewing through bags and boots. The climb ended up being one of my favorite peaks because the climb was pretty easy and the descent is easy too.


Sunrise on the approach to Hallett Peak.


Here’s the “North” Face of Hallet Peak – it catches way too much sun to really be a North Face, it seems. Our route is marked in blue.

Our approximate route can be seen in the picture above: towards the top, we went a little off-route and end up with a pitch of roof traverse which had some fixed gear. We soon found out that this is pretty common because the party below us did the same thing and one guy I talked to later also claimed he did the roof traverse. The roof traverse is actually quite fun except I got so much rope drag near the top and end up doing a hanging belay on 1 good cam and 1 so so nut placement. I think the actual route goes somewhere to the right of where we climbed at the top but who knows? In any case, we had a good time!

Our next endeavor was to climb Spearhead in Glacier Gorge. Our original plan was to hike in and camp and do the route the next day. However, when we went to the ranger station to apply for permits, we decided that it was too costly and so I suggested a car-to-car attempt. We woke up at 1am and started hiking around 3am. Actually that wasn’t the real plan but Matt woke me up when he went to pee and the guys near our campground was so noisy (they left 30 beer cans around their campfire the next day). I couldn’t fall back asleep so I woke Matt up and told him to just get going.


Spearhead sits right in the middle of Glacier Basin, a beautiful alpine meadow.

The hike in to the peak is 6 miles and fortunately, mostly on flat ground until the last mile when you climb out of the Black Lake Basin. We both agreed this is one of the coolest looking formations anywhere. We climbed the easy 5.6 North Ridge route which is mostly 5.5s and 1 crux pitch. We simul-climbed all the way till the base of the crux pitch (at the Barb Flake). And to get to the real summit, you have to do some easy climbing and stand on top of this exposed small rock (very airy).


Mmmm, beautiful granite. Here’s Joanne heading up into the crux of the North Ridge. At this point, to the climber’s left the wall drops away for 600 feet making for some wild climbing.


The summit is one of the more unique that we’ve seen anywhere. It made me a little nervous the way the “spearhead” is balanced right over the edge of the face. Alright Joanne, get off of there…

The descent is kinda scary: I think we took the wrong descent gully which kept ending in cliffs until we were able to backtrack and traverse over to an easier way down. Eventually we were on safe ground: I think the descent took 1 hour from the summit back to the base of the peak. At this point, we were so tired and exhausted from all the climbing but we still had 6 miles to hike. The whole climb took us 12 hour car-to-car. It was a sweet successful climb but nonetheless painful and lots of hard work.

Route Info + Beta
The South Ridge of Notchtop (5.8) was our introduction to the park and ended up being a little more than expected. The approach is mostly obvious until you end up hiking the 2nd/3rd class gully to the start of the route. But the route finding difficulties started here for us. There are a number of grassy terraces that slash their way across the face: we tried traversing out right on one of these but we ended up too low on the face and ended walking back up the gully. In short, you need to walk farther up the gully than you might expect. Having a route photo and finding your route before hiking up the gully wouldn’t hurt.

Once on route, though, route-finding becomes a serious issue. In some ways it doesn’t matter, since the rock is very climbable though we felt we were off route the entire time. I don’t know what the pitch lengths in Gillett’s guidebook are (they aren’t mentioned) but I would advise stretching your pitches. Otherwise you might end up trying to traverse a pitch (or two!) earlier than you should, while forbidding clouds are starting to build up on the horizon. In general stay near the ridge until an obvious overhang forces you right (on the “4th” pitch).

Some people advise not tagging the “summit” proper because of loose crap. Joanne didn’t knock anything down but I was happy just taking her picture. But even from the top of the route it’s not clear where the true summit of Notchtop lies, although my money is on the eastern summit which would be nasty to reach from this route.

The descent: From the end of the route look down and to the left (North?) of the “summit”. You should see a loose looking pile of boulders: there’s some webbing wrapped around it: that’s your anchor – hooray! From here you make 4 (or 5, I forget) double-rope rappells down the West Face. BRING TWO ROPES! This is forgotten in the Gillett guidebook but unless you bring two ropes, I guarantee you’ll be rappelling from some terrifying anchors. Thankfully we met up with a party who finished The Spiral Route and joined them to get off. Keep an eye out for nice looking bolts: We found most with no problems though one of our anchors was a flake with slings. When you reach the starting grassy terrace, downclimb the gully and feel the relief of being back on solid ground!

The Culp-Bossier (5.8) on Hallett Peak lives up to its name as a true classic in the range. People and guidebooks consistently mention this is the shortest approach in the park: it’s “only 2 miles” from the trailhead. True, it’s a quick 1.8 miles on the trail to Emerald Lake but they fail to mention the tedious talus-hopping required to get from the lake to the base of the face.

The start of the route was a little tricky for us to locate: it helps to look for the rockfall scar from what’s left of the first pitch of the Northcutt-Carter route. Then use a guide and start looking left to find your route. Once you begin, expect route finding to remain interesting. With few crack systems and a featured face you can literally climb anywhere. I think we more or less followed the correct line until the last few pitches where we might have veered onto a “variation”, with a long pitch on a beautiful 5.8 finger crack, then a leftward traverse under a big roof, and a finish on a runout loose + wet section No advice here: you’ll probably have fun no matter which way you take!

Spearhead’s North Ridge (5.6) might be the perfect introductory route to RMNP. Easily one of the most aesthetic peaks in the region, with a straightforward (though long) approach and easy route-finding this one should put a smile on your face. We did the route in 3 pitches, beginning with one ridiculously fun simulclimb from the start to the belay behind the Barb Flake (end of pitch 5?). Solid rock throughout this climb completes the experience!

For the descent, don’t drop down the gully immediate below the summit (just West of the North Ridge). There’s lots of trails that indicate this might be the way down but it’s a false descent: you’ll end up cliffed out like hundreds of suckers before you. So instead, avoid that first gully and walk further west before dropping down towards Frozen Lake.

Next time in the Rockies: Car-to-Car on The Diamond, cragging around Estes Park, and the Cathedral Spires.

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1 Comment »

  1. sounds like lots of work alright, but hey, those are some cool shots – the sunrise and joanne on the summit – although admittedly the later does look scarily unstable…

    Comment by Lil — August 1, 2008 @ 4:23 am


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