| Taking a bite out of The Sharkstooth
The Sharkstooth is an awesome rock spire in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the tallest of the Cathedral Spires and has the distinction of being one of the few named summits in the park with no routes easier than 5th class. We attempted this climb in mid-June but were thwarted by weather and snow conditions. Armed with more experience, better conditions, and a forecast to die for, we set out to make good on our second attempt.
Stock overview photo. Photo credit: Eli Helmuth
My climbing partner, Chris, and I had discussed taking a weekend off of big alpine days this weekend. Consecutive Sunday climbs of Dreamweaver and the Notch Couloir, respectively, had worn on us and we were ready to sleep in. But an absolutely perfect weather forecast of 0% chance of storms in the park seduced us with the possibility of a post-dawn start.
We set off from Boulder at 5:30 and arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead just over an hour later. We were pleased to find another group of climbers departing for the Barb, somewhat validating our choice of such a late start. After making last minute changes to our rack, we set off from the trailhead at 7:00.
The first 3 miles of the approach are a popular and scenic hike up to and past the Loch. A good quality trail leads all the way to a basin known as "The Gash" where the approach immediately goes from pleasant to heinous. We had discussed bringing our axes for the approach, but were confident that the snow would have melted out. It was late July, after all. We were less than pleased to discover upon entering the gash that thee quarters of a mile and a thousand feet of talus, scree, and snow lay between us and the start of our objective.
The Sharkstooth from the Gash. The route begins just below the highest showfield
Even though we strolled up to the base of the Gash at a leisurely pace in an hour and a half, negotiating the talus field up to the base of the first pitch took us the same amount of time. We scavenged a couple of sticks at treeline to negotiate the lower angle snowfields and more or less picked our way through the rock bands. After finally reaching the base of the Sharkstooth at around 10:00, we discovered at least 2 or 3 other parties already on the climb.
Looking up the Northeast Ridge from the bottom
As expected, the weather was holding wonderfully so we took our time fueling up and making final preparations. I moved all the gear I wouldn't need on the climb into Chris' pack, taking the camera in mine. We agreed that the follower would carry my pack, freeing the leader up from dealing with that hassle. We stashed Chris' pack and our approach shoes on the starting ledge, switched into rock shoes, and took one last look at the route description. It was only then that we realized that the printer had failed to print the critical page of the route description, and all we had were a couple of overview shots of the approximate locations of each belay station. Fortunately, we could roughly see which line the other parties were taking and the description did say that many lines existed, so we decided to climb the route by feel.
I took the lead on the first pitch, which was exposed but easy. The starting dihedral took gear as frequently as I wanted to place it, which was sparse due to the terrain. I reached the halfway point in our rope after what only felt like moments, and was up on the first belay ledge not long after. When Chris arrived at the belay, he said he wasn't quite ready to lead yet today, and offered me the next lead again. I gladly accepted.
The second pitch started off with a steep, nearly splitter finger crack which then turned into a hand crack. I delightedly teased Chris that he would have to learn to get comfortable with jams real fast for this pitch, and was happy to see he didn't treat me with penalty slack for my route choice. After a half pitch of fun jamming, the terrain eased off and I cruised up to another ledge near the end of the rope length.
Chris at the top of pitch 2
While I was belaying Chris up, I felt a rush of air and a crisp WHACK right next to me, followed by a call of "rock". I guess better late than never? We had apparently caught up to the party above us, which was finishing up the 3rd pitch in the dihedral above me. I moved over to a slightly more protected position and was thankful that they didn't send a big rock my way.
Seeing that we were at the base of the crux pitch, Chris was not interested in starting his first lead yet, so I was once again delighted to take the sharp end. I wasn't sure if we were on route, but dihedrals are my absolute favorite features to climb and I was looking at a beautiful pitch of stemming and smearing. The great thing about dihedrals is even tiny holds become super positive when wearing rock shoes. Just remember the mantra: Spread your legs and trust the rubber.
Stemming up the crux pitch
Making good progress up the dihedral towards the roof
Near the top of the dihedral I discovered a small roof blocking progress. The climbing itself was not difficult, but commiting to such a hugely exposed move on gear at altitude is a heady proposition. I was able to crimp onto small holds above the roof and quickly pull over, delighted to see many positive holds available. As icing on the cake, I found a fixed TCU shortly after. I was expecting it to be permanently fused to the rock, but was ecstatic to find that it lifted out of it's crack with just a small, quick tug. That marks my first bootied piece and a very useful addition to my rack!
Chris loving the crux pitch
At the top of the first pitch we had an excellent vantage point of climbers on the Petit Grepon. We found ourselves standing on a small, 1 foot wide ledge with a great anchor and awesome exposure
Climbers on the Petit Grepon
Chris still wasn't feeling in a leading mood, so I once again took off from the belay. I immediately found another fixed cam, a .75 camalot, which was hopelessly stuck in the rock. At the very least it provided an excellent fixed placement to protect the anchor.
On easier terrain not far above I found yet another fixed cam, this time a .4 camalot. This one looked a little less hopeless than the last, so I told Chris I wanted to try to work on it seeing as how the weather was still excellent. Using my nut tool I managed to get one lobe to move, then a second, then a third, and finally small movement out of the entire thing! I was gleefully confident that I was about to booty a second cam. Sadly, the trigger was buried so deep in a thin flake that I just couldn't access it well enough to remove the cam. After probably close to a half hour of trying to work it out, I thanked Chris for his patience and continued up the pitch.
We reached an enormous ledge, big enough to put several tents on which gave us excellent prominence over the Petit Grepon and fantastic views of the entire area.
Me posing on our giant party ledge
Great views from the party ledge
When I set off on the 4th pitch, Chris was feeling ready to lead the next one. Unfortunately, the 5th pitched turned out to be a very steep off-width crack with dubious gear. The first placement was at least 20 feet up and if you didn't land on the party ledge, you were going for a nasty fall off the east face. He declined the lead, so I pressed on.
Looking up the steep off-width pitch
I ran out of rope shortly before reaching the crack I had in mind to belay from, and opted to sling a large horn. Midway up belaying Chris, I inspected my "horn" more carefully to discover it was actually a large, detached block. I quickly moved the belay onto my harness, pulled the belay tight, and told Chris to not fall, relieved that he was on easier terrain. Once he reached me we quickly built a new anchor in the crack I had originally eyed and moved off of the block. It was big and probably would have held, but I'm not keen on gambling with my life.
The final pitch was short and exposed. Chris decided his head wasn't in it today, so I cruised over to the summit where he joined me shortly.
Summit of the Sharkstooth
We finally arrived at our objective at 3pm, with blue sky all around us. We definitely could have moved much faster, but the weather inspired us to move at a casual pace and we spent much time taking pictures and working on fixed gear. I was in desperate need of answering nature's call, so we began our descent after a short break on the summit. In stark contrast to how the Sharkstooth appears from below, it is actually a very large fin with a surprisingly spacious summit. Sharkstooth does have awesome views of the other Cathedral Spires, as well as an excellent view of the Imposing Taylor peak.
The descent called for 3 50m rappels, but we had read that many rappel stations exist and descent was possible with a single 60m rope and some 4th class downclimbing. We neglected to bring a tag line, but brought along plenty of webbing and rap rings. Fortunately, we found a plethora of rappel stations on the way down. Some downclimbing was required between a few of the rap stations, but it was on easy but grassy ledges for the most part. Four 30m rappels and a few short sections of 4th class downclimbing brought us to the saddle.
Me starting the rappels
Plenty of snow remained between us and our packs. The snow was steep enough to be concerning, so we opted to use a combination of ledge traverses and rappels to get us back. We found a 5th rappel station nearby which brought us within a short but exposed scramble to what appeared to be the final station. After a short but somewhat sketchy traverse to the rap station, we discovered it consisted of a single double length sling and a non-locking carabiner, looped over a block which moved when I kicked it. We picked up the sling and biner, and continued downclimbing to a more suitable anchor location. A large, column-like block on cliffs above our packs made for an excellent 6th and final rappel, and I was able to touch down within 3 feet of our packs - talk about plush!
The Sharkstooth as we finally being our trek home, standing imposing as ever
It was now 6 pm and we were beat. The descent was much longer and more tedious than we had anticipated, and we were more than ready to be home and most definitely not looking forward to dealing with the Gash on our way out. Fortunately we still had our sticks scavenged from earlier in the day, so we opted to descend a moderate snow field with a good run out. Ice axes would have been better, but the stick worked good enough given the situation. The snow was slick enough to be tedious to climb up, but made for an excellent descent route. In hindsight it would have been very nice to have microspikes for this approach.
We arrived back at the trailhead just after 8:00, too tired to fire up the grill as per tradition from previous weeks. We drank up, ate some chips, and jetted home where we would perform our regular tradition.
Much needed food after a looong day.
The Sharkstooth turned out to be a much bigger day than either of us had anticipated. We had left boulder at 5:30 and didn't get back until 9:30 at night. The climbing itself was fun, exposed, and sustained. Had we not needed to deal with the arduous approach, this would have been a 4 star climb. Regardless, we were thankful to have spent such an excellent day out on a great route.
Mostly good decisions today, only a few things to note. The weather worked out great as expected, which allowed us to really take our time. Had we kept up our climbing pace we would have certainly caught the party ahead of us. However, we learned from the last two weeks that getting two rope teams near each other turns into a clusterF*** real fast, so it was probably good that we spent so much time trying to work on stuck cams.
Slinging the big block at the top of pitch 5 was definitely my error. I usually look very carefully when slinging such blocks. Indeed, I had tested several others throughout the day so missing that this one was not solid is inexcusable. The problem stemmed from being unable to reach my target belay station, and having to improvise with dubious working material. In hindsight I would have been better off to downclimb and look for better gear, or have cut the 5th pitch short and stopped at an earlier ledge. This was also somewhat due to missing that page in our route description - something else to double check in the future.
The rappels worked really well. We did them textbook, tying into the ends and setting up autoblocks with an extended belay device. The downclimbs in the gully were fine, but some of the traversing on the ledges once we reached the saddle was unnecessarily sketchy. We probably could have rappelled the snowfield and found a boulder to sling for our final rappel. If we had been carrying a tag line, we could have rappelled the entire snowfield from the saddle. We discussed that while the traversing wasn't terrible, it is still a poor habit to get into and something we should think about carefully before committing to in the future.
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