Every now and then a day arrives that sticks in your memory with intense clarity. The little details may fade with time, but the experiences are so unique and profound that the feel is all that matters. This weekend brought such an occasion. Led by Chris Thompson, we labored our way to Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park. There, in the shadow of Long’s peak, we resided in a bowl of granite so expansive that the echos of my “on belay’s” are only now reverberating to their source.
In the middle of the bowl sits Spearhead, a 1000-foot wall surrounded by alpine meadow like a castle encircled by moat. Eli and I climbed it twice. Both times searching for Spear Me The Details (5.11d), finally finding it on Sunday.
We got a late start, but hiked in on Friday past several beautiful lakes and waterfalls. Arriving in the pitch black, we found a sub-par bivy site by the light of our headlamps. Exhausted after six miles of hiking with a 2,000 foot elevation gain, we dropped our pregnant packs, cooked a quick meal, and called it a night. Eli and I slept on a rock with enough of a slope that we would slide, in our sleeping bags, down our pads. Neither of us got much decent rest, only a few naps interrupted by the startle of slipping downhill. I got up in the middle of the night and found the edge of a nearby rock was a little more friendly – but only a little.
On Saturday, we woke at sunrise. The Black Lake valley was engulfed with a cloud so thick it looked like the glacier had returned to the gorge. It was one of the most amazing events I’ve seen.
The very first pitch of our trip proved eventful. Spearhead has a huge ledge that runs almost the entire length of the formation known as “Middle Earth.” This ledge can be accessed by various lines and a party can then set up shop wherever they choose. An obvious flake starts at the base and leads all the way to Middle Earth. Unfortunately, the beginning of the flake was guarded by a huge patch of snow. Instead of climbing up the crusty snow pile in the wet morning cold, we spotted a line about 20 feet left that curved toward the flake 50 feet up. The seam stopped 10 feet from the flake, but it appeared as though a couple easy face moves would deposit the climber squarely on the highway to Middle Earth. Those easy face moves turned out to be a delicate operation with big fall potential. Little did we know, but that section turned out to be the crux of the entire climb (5.10 R). After establishing on the flake, I plugged a few pieces and cruised until the rope ran out. Along the way, in the middle of pulling a move, my .3 cam apparently jumped off the rack and then tumbled into the abyss between the rock and snow, never to be seen by my eyes again. I hadn’t touched the thing since racking it up the day before. Evidently it no longer wanted to be part of my life. I’ll miss you, buddy.
Once on Middle Earth, our goal was Spear Me The Details, a classic, tough route with an incredible crux pitch. I had a printout from Mountain Project and had poured over the description the night before. It seemed as though we were following the pitch instructions, but the belays were not stacking up as described. After five full pitches, we knew that we had taken a wrong turn. The climbing was still fun and adventurous 5.9 and we summited via the enjoyable and popular North Ridge.
We enjoyed an afternoon nap to make up for lost sleep and then found a better bivy site. I made friends with a few rangers who were out to keep an eye on the scene, which proved to be beneficial. Our bivy permits were for Mount McHenry. We had originally planned on hiking and climbing there, but now wanted to try again for Spear Me The Details and didn’t want to repack and deal with additional hours of hiking. The rangers were friendly and were also climbers. We shared some stories and they said that it wouldn’t be a problem if we again bivvied below Spearhead. This was welcome news to us and Eli flagged down Ryan and Dave who had hiked in on Saturday evening.
Ryan and Dave were also more than happy to end their hike abruptly below Spearhead instead of trekking up to McHenrys. They were set to do Spearhead’s North Ridge and the closer camp site meant waking up with the sun instead of an alarm set an hour before first light. We had a great night reliving the day, having a hot meal and getting ready for the next day’s climbs. Ryan slept with his trekking poles in his bivy sack.
Having looked at an actual topo for Spear Me The Details courtesy of some other climbers in the gorge, Eli and I took a longer, but easier approach to Middle Earth. This time we got on route without issue. We were not disappointed. Aside from the spectacular crux pitch, we encountered an easier 5.11 pitch, and several other pitches in the 5.9-5.10+ range. The crux pitch itself (pitch 6) was incredible, very difficult thin face climbing made even more intense by dark clouds gathering overhead and occasional rumblings of thunder that seemed to be the sky reminding us who’s boss. Not surprisingly, Eli got the line clean. I did not. It was hard.
Without wasting any time, Eli gunned up the second 5.11 pitch and I fired the last 5.10 pitch to finish up the route. Just when I thought it was over, a single bolt protected a difficult, thin 20 foot traverse that ended at a difficult, thin finger crack protected only by a #2 nut. I let out a yell of joy when locking into the perfect hand jam above and tossing in a bomber #3. The hand crack to the top was icing on the cake and upon reaching the summit, I felt like we had just done something special. This was a true alpine climb at our limit.
As a bonus, the previous group to have attempted the climb had to bail, as was evidenced by a brand new #3 cam placed perfectly in the pitch 3 dihedral, complete with biner. So we lost a cam and gained a cam on the trip. Not bad. Ryan and Dave were waiting at the summit, having just finished the North Ridge, when we arrived. The four of us hiked back to our bivy site and a light rain started as if by clockwork when we got back.
Having completed Spear Me The Details after getting off route the day before added an extra element of redemption and satisfaction to the experience.
We knew beforehand, but it’s another thing to experience the added difficulties of alpine climbing. Aside from having tough moves, a hard alpine climb is made even more so by the following necessities Eli and I dealt with:
1. Carrying a rack of doubles, 16 draws etc., a pair of shoes, extra long sleeve layers and a liter of water.
2. Wearing your most comfortable, but worst shoes.
3. Making the crux pitch the 6th pitch of the day and the 14th in the last two.
4. Climbing at 12,500+ feet.
I feel good knowing that we planned and executed well.
After an hour that included catching up with Ryan and Dave about their adventure, we packed up and started back.
The return hike was easier, but losing so much elevation can also take a toll on your body. Our legs took a lot of abuse from the shock of stepping down 2000 feet with 50 pound packs weighing us down. But it is also a good kind of sore because it reminds you of what you accomplished.
We got back to the Glacier Gorge trailhead and dropped our packs like Sarah Palin drops her wig when not on camera. In 49 hours we hiked 15 miles and climbed 16 pitches ticking in at more than 2000 feet. I slept well on Sunday night.
Thanks to Kim and Chris for planning and advising for the trip. They hiked out on Saturday. Kim is off to PA school in California in a few weeks. We’ll miss you, Kim and hope to see you back here whenever you can make it.