Spearhead - 12575
Spearhead - 12575
|Spearhead - North Ridge (5.6)|
Spearhead - North Ridge (5.6)
Glacier Gorge is one of the most amazing places in CO
Man, do I hate dragging-ass on approach hikes. It's odd how sometimes for alpine starts I almost spring out of bed, wired and ready. Other days it's like I wake up wearing a suit made of lead - an issue that no amount of coffee can ever seem to resolve. Well, Saturday was one of those days. After bailing on our San Juan plans due to a bleak weather forecast, Blake and I had gone back and forth about when to leave on Saturday for our backup plan - a two day trip to Glacier Gorge. We would head in, climb the North Ridge on Spearhead on Saturday, spend a night in the legendary Spearhead bivies and then climb the North Buttress on Pagoda on Sunday.
We watched the weather closely on Friday and the forecasts issued by NOAA seemed to change every hour. Starting out in that morning things didn't look good - a 50% chance of thunderstorms starting around 11. As the day moved on we saw the window for storms move to later in the day and the percent chance decrease. The final forecast before deciding on a start time called for 30% chance of storms starting at 11 and then increasing to 50% around 2. We decided on a 3am Fort Collins departure.
Later that night, a poor decision to take some Nyquil (with hopes of getting to sleep early) coupled with typical pre-alpine dreams (I forgot my sunglasses and was climbing barefoot) resulted in a restless night's sleep. The dreams lingered with me as I got up around 2am and started getting ready. I call this alpine-anxiety (often accompanied by alpine-nausea) and it's about as predictable as the tides. Fortunately, so is the alpine-euphoria which settles in later in the day. Anyways, we made it to the Glacier Gorge TH right around 4:30 and despite my level of ass-dragery we were able to make it to black lake in just over 1.5 hours and to the base of the route at 7:30.
Fortunately our decision to get a later start was validated by a conversation with a party that was already at the base when we arrived. Apparently, there had been quite a line in the morning and they had been waiting for close to two hours for their turn to start. Even if we had left an hour earlier, we'd still have started climbing at the same time - score one for lazy starts to the cattle routes on alpine peaks!
First sun on McHenry's and Arrowhead Peaks
First light on the Spearhead
While waiting for the party ahead of us to get moving up the second pitch we geared up and welcomed the arrival of the sun as it exploded over the western ridge of Longs Peak. There had been and was a definite chill to the air, which was only exacerbated by a consistent wind.
Finally, the party ahead of us started their second pitch so I started up the first. One-hundred or so feet of low angle and sparsely protected slabs led to a dirty chimney with a solid belay crack and stance.
Leading up the first slabby pitch
I belayed Blake up to my position, we swapped gear and he took off on the second pitch, a junky chimney that started off with an awkward overhanging block. Note this is the right most of the two chimneys referred to in the Gillet guide. I do not recommend taking this path. Stay to the left as in the image seen here on Eli Helmuth's site.
Blake past the awkward move in the second pitch chimney
Blake stretched almost the full 70m of rope to a belay ledge and brought me up. For as classic as this route is considered to be, I was a bit taken aback by how junky the second pitch was - such is the alpine. I took the third pitch which consisted of a short head wall before I gained the ~200 feet of 4th - easy 5th slabs and cracks in the middle of the route.
Swapping gear atop P2
Blake following the easy 5th midsection
After stretching the rope and simul-climbing another 20 feet, I reached a solid ledge and brought Blake up. I led the fourth pitch as well which consisted of a magnificent finger-to-hand crack that jammed beautifully up solid granite slabs. Again stretching the rope to its end I set an uncomfortable (semi)hanging-belay; just below the 2nd member of the party ahead of us.
Cruising up the awesome finger-hand crack on P4
Blake led the next pitch, which we had assumed would be the crux, but was solid 5.6 and fairly well protected. As Blake climbed this pitch, I started to notice a rapid darkening of the skies to the west and felt a few rain drops here and there. I yelled up to Blake that we needed to boogie and he quickly set an anchor below the final pitch and brought me up. By this time the skies had grown quite dark and graupel started to fall in fits-and-starts.
At the belay atop P5
Blake is a much stronger climber than I am, but it was my turn to lead. I took a look at the start of the final pitch, tucked my tail between my legs and asked Blake to take the last lead instead. While I hate chickening out on an alpine route the decision ended up a good one as the final pitch was definitely the crux. A series of desperate moves leads you to a chimney that hangs over the northeast face and tries to push you over the ledge while the final belay stance demands you move the opposite way (I would venture these moves are more in the 5.7 range and wildly exposed). I grunted and whined my way up the final pitch, finally popping out with numb hands and gear jumbled all over my harness and slung over both shoulders. It started to graupel even harder and the wind picked up. We both untied, put on our shells and didn't even consider continuing the final 3rd class stretch to the summit. We traversed to the south and west and began our descent. Alpine descents always suck, by the way.
Blake starts the final crux pitch
Popping out from the final pitch
Right before a big pulse of graupel
The storm ends, the descent begins
We made it back to our packs at 2:30, ate a quick snack, repacked and headed up to find a bivy spot. Fortunately, the party that had been in front of us on the route had just packed up and left one of the best bivy caves in the boulderfield. We made our way up, threw down our pads and took a quick nap. We spent the rest of the day milling around, eating, studying the north buttress route for the following day and drinking bourbon. We went to sleep around 8:30.
Looking out from the bivy cave
Contemplating the route for tomorrow
The NOAA forecast for Saturday night called for a 6% chance of rain and Sunday was supposed to be splitter, with clear skies until noon and then a 30% chance of rain for the rest of the day. In reality it rained and thunderstormed four separate times Saturday night. We awoke Sunday morning to see most of the west side of Longs running with water and the entire north face of spearhead soaked. We lingered in our sleeping bags and watched a larger storm clear from the Mummy Range to our north. We finally emerged from the bivy cave, saw clouds building to the west and decided then-and-there that Pagoda would have to wait for another day.
Watching storms clear from the Mummy Range
The hike out was pleasant albeit muggy and damp. On this trip, I discovered that the rubber on Salomon trail-runners have jack-squat for traction. Even worse, that jack-squat yields to jack-shit as soon as the rock is even a little wet. Quite a few slips on the slabs that make up the Black Lake Trail had me slightly frustrated by the time we made it back to Mills Lake. We finally got back to the car around 11 and fought our way through the hordes of tourists in Estes and back home to Fort Collins.
Blake at Mills Lake on the hike out
The North Ridge on Spearhead is probably one of the most classic routes at its grade in the state and the upper pitches certainly live up to the hype. However, an impending storm put more of the fear of god in us on the last two pitches than allowed us to enjoy the best parts of the route. With that said, the 4th pitch I was able to lead was probably one of the most fun and best alpine pitches I've climbed.
If you plan to do this route, stay in the bivies. These things are legendary and luckily are reserved only for us climbers. Get up there, far and away from the swarms of backpackers below relegated to established campgrounds.
In preparing for this trip I was pretty surprised that there wasn't a TR on this site for this route. It's certainly one of the more popular moderate alpine routes in the Park. There is quite a bit of information available at other sites for this route and the two great resources I used most were Brian C's report and the information provided by Eli Helmuth on his site. However, I think our route differed a bit from those mention in these two links. Here is our breakdown:
Pitch 1: (5.5 - 60m) work up slabs to base of right most chimney.
Pitch 2: (5.7ish - 60m) make an awkward move on a slightly overhanging block to exit the chimney and follow a dirty dihedral and chimney system to a large belay ledge.
Pitch 3: (5.4 - 80 m) cruise up 3rd and 4th class slabs punctuated with an odd fifth class move here-and-there. Simul-climb a bit if necessary to reach a solid belay ledge.
Pitch 4: (5.6 - 60m) an off-width crack with a chock stone gives way to a splitter finger-hand crack.
Pitch 5: (5.6 - 50 m) work up and left on a series of slabs and overlapping flakes, belay just to the left of the piano death block and above the terminus of the Barb Flake.
Pitch 6: (5.7 - 50m) work your way up a series of dihedrals into an awkward squeeze chimney. Resists it's attempts to spit you out over the north face and top out in a narrow channel. This pitch was definitely the crux to me, but that may have been perpetuated by numb hands and an impending storm.
We took doubles of C4 0.5-2, one C4 #3, TCU's 1-4, a full set of nuts and a couple master cams to double up on the small sizes and overlap the C4s. We also took 8 alpine draws, two normal draws and two double length slings. Could have used 2-3 more draws on the longer, rope-stretching pitches.
We certainly encountered several situations were having had a second #3 would have been nice (mostly at belays) as well as multiple places to have placed a #4.
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