Tuesday, July 28, 2015

North Ridge of Spearhead

I've been wanting to climb Spearhead for close to 2 years now, since before I could even trad climb. The North Ridge of Spearhead is an easy, high quality, fun route, in the beautiful setting of Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park. The climb is 8 pitches, 1,000 feet long, up to an elevation of 12,575 ft. As big as the route sounds, Spearhead is dwarfed by all the surrounding mountains with Longs Peak, Pagoda, Chiefs Head, and McHenry's all being much taller than Spearhead. Nevertheless, it was a great first alpine rock route for us.

The Estes Park/RMNP area was crowded as usual with flocks of tourists up to Alberta Falls. It wasn't too long before we started seeing fewer and fewer people.

Our packs were heavy with camping and climbing gear and neither of us were in particularly good shape, so the hike was pretty tough for us. But the farther we got from the crowds, the happier and more excited we became. Around Black Lake, the trees started to thin out a bit so we started seeing some amazing views.

 Black Lake

After Black Lake, the trail starts to get steep and it's the final climb before hitting tree line, so we just put our heads down and ground our way up the gully. With some careful routefinding through willows and across streams, we finally crested the last hill and started singing Lion King songs in celebration. We made it to Glacier Gorge. 

The park service doesn't allow tent camping in the gorge, so we had to find a boulder to sleep under for the night. Thankfully there are several nice "bivies" with good shelter from the wind and flat ground to sleep on. Ours was so nice we dubbed it the Marriott. We arrived right before sunset, so we had just enough time to cook dinner, filter water, and head to bed. We brought a couple bivy sacks (glorified body bags) to sleep in, which helped a lot with wind protection.

The Marriott

Wake up call was at 5:00 in the morning, a relatively casual start since we knew that the forecast for the day was nearly perfect with nothing to worry about except a bit of wind. We racked up and started the hike to the base of the climb which took a good 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, we were the first group on the route. The next three groups showed up as I belayed Shelby on the first pitch. Good timing! Shelby headed up the first pitch at 6:30 up some easy slabs to the base of a chimney. As I climbed up to her, I could already feel pressure to go fast since there were already 3 groups waiting to climb after us. I climbed a short pitch up the chimney and quickly set up another anchor so that we could climb the next pitch without as much rope drag. The next pitch was a pretty fun and thoughtful one involving climbing some cracks and up a slab to a slot which leads to the base of a v-shaped corner.

I belayed Shelby up to me and she quickly took off onto the next pitch. As I gave out rope, I could tell the climbing started getting easier because the rope was passing through my belay device faster and faster. When I climbed up to her I could see that the next bit of climbing would be easy class 4 stuff. So we unroped and scrambled up the next 150 feet to a nice big ledge right next to the Barb Flake. After roping up again, we headed up a couple easy, but fun pitches up good cracks to the base of the steep part of the ridge.

We were a bit off route, so I started by traversing to the left to get back onto the route. I found the route, but I also found a tricky looking roof that looked like it was much harder than 5.6. I made a move up the roof and couldn't find any solid hands, so I stepped back down and found a way to bypass the tough move. I came to a beautiful finger crack in a corner than I went up. The crack was so beautiful that I would have loved to place a bunch of gear in it, but it was really quite easy so it only got one cam before I found a small stance that I could sit on to belay Shelby. This belay was the coolest place to just sit down and look around from. Being right on the ridge crest, I could look straight down the east face to the harder climbing on Spearhead, looking north I could see the 5 parties climbing behind us, and looking south I could see the precarious summit of Spearhead not too far away.

The cool belay stance at the top of pitch 7

Shelby climbed up to me and we enjoyed resting for a minute. Her feet were tired of smearing up so much slab and we had felt like we were pressured to climb fast all day, so it was nice to pause for a minute. What next ensued was some of the most awkward climbing ever. The guidebook described it as an "awkward slot" and awkward it certainly was. Shelby did a great job climbing up this weird and difficult section, but when I climbed it, it was a pretty ugly sight to see. I wedged my body into the slot and tried to inch my way up it, but it was incredibly strenuous. Somehow I made it up without falling and then I caught up to Shelby at the end of the roped climbing. 

We had heard that the summit of Spearhead was spectacular, so we wanted to make sure we visited it. So it took about 150 feet of scrambling up some cool natural stairs, through a tunnel, and then up an exposed slab until we reached the amazing summit. It was about a 6x10 foot block perched over the steep east face. If you looked over the edge you could see all the way down to the base. It was a pretty amazing summit and we were glad that we stopped by.

For the next two hours we made our way back down to the Marriott. The descent involved a lot of scrambling with plenty of loose rocks, but mostly pretty solid. It looked like we were going to run into a cliff, so we looked around the corner and found a rappel station where we made a rappel down to the route we should have taken off the mountain. Eventually we made it down to easy hiking and were glad to be almost done for the day.

So we spent the rest of the day napping, eating, walking around and generally relaxing. We slept in our cave again and then headed back home in the morning. It was great to finally get on some alpine rock. The climbing itself wasn't anything spectacular, but the setting was just amazing and the sense of accomplishment to have hiked in 6 miles, climbed a big route, and hiked back out was great. The scenery was amazing in Glacier Gorge and I'd venture to say that the cave we slept in was one of the coolest places I've ever camped. So overall, it was a great experience.

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