Taking it up a Notch

Notchtop and Ptarmigan Glacier from Lake Helene. Dramatic, but not auspicious weather.

“Bless me father, for I have sinned.  It has been almost year since my last rock climb…”

“Hold it right there, my son!  I think I see your problem.  Nothing to worry about.  Go forth, rope up, climb on, and sin no more.”

The scene of my penance was set as the Spiral Route on Notchtop, an oft-viewed but seldom-summited spire of rock in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The Spiral Route is a popular alpine climb since it’s reasonably mellow (5.4) and short (5 pitches) with a fairly easy approach (3 miles) from the uber-popular Bear Lake trailhead.  As alpine technical climbs go, this is about as easy as it gets.  Sounds good.  What I didn’t realize was that the technical climbing would be by far the easiest part of the day.

Fire and ice: sunrise over the snowfields on the approach.

Fabio, Ben and I started out under pre-dawn skies and made quick work of the hike to Lake Helene.  There was a lot of snow on the latter half of the approach, especially for July, but it was fairly solid and didn’t slow us down much.  The weather was not auspicious but not obviously threatening and, once we reached Lake Helene and got a good view of Notchtop towering above, we saw that the route itself looked snow-free and dry.  If we could get up and down before the typical afternoon monsoons started…

Notchtop from closer-up. The route starts on the left side, winds up to just above the water streaks in the middle, then heads for the notch.

The Spiral Route is aptly named as you hike around south side of the spire into a large basin loaded with boulders, tundra and a couple of small tarns at 11,000′.  Then you scramble up the west-side gully for a few hundred yards, traverse south onto a bench, climb three pitches of technical rock up the south face, traverse north, scramble up the “hanging meadow” on the south face, thence more technical ground to the notch itself, slip back over to the west side and ascent the summit spire after making a complete 360 degree spiral.

Fabio starts out on P1 with the impressive spire far above.

Fabio handled the first pitch while Ben and I held the marmots at bay, shivering behind a rock in the surprisingly cold July breezes.  From the grassy ledge at the top of P1, I took over the sharp ends — climbing on Fabio’s double 8.1 mm ropes made a party of three not much more arduous than a traditional team of two — and dragged the ropes up a short pitch to the next grassy meadow.  It felt good, despite the rustiness of my climbing skills.  Ben, a new but enthusiastic leader, took the rack and bravely set out on P3.  Fabio and I huddled on the ledge trying to stay warm while Ben sewed up the bottom part of the pitch.  When we finally followed, we found he’d used all his gear in the first half of the pitch and more or less soloed some challenging terrain higher up.  Stout lead, my friend.

Scrambling up the hanging meadow. It's not quite as scary as Ben's photo makes it look, but it was still pretty scary.

From here, we began the first scrambling pitches on a wide, grassy ledge leading upward across the south face.  Rounding a small buttress, we found ourselves in the hanging meadow, a series of short steps and wildflower-covered ledges leading up several hundred feet toward the eponymous Notch.  This was rather surprising to me since, from below, the east face looks like one continuous slab of rock with narry a trace of green apparent.  The climbing was third to fourth class, but it was still a nerve-wracking with all this exposure below.  Roping up would have taken forever (and speed matters in this kind of climbing), but it was still more than a little unnerving.  If the grass had been wet or snow-covered…

Climbing the meadows.

Several options on the last pitch. Fabio lead up the route on the right side of the photo, but the actual 5.4 finish goes far left under the big roof.

We were warned that there were many ways to climb the last pitch incorrectly.  From the highest point of the meadow, Fabio again tackled P4 through a steep crack system, across a slab, and through a small, wet, dihedral and roof.  When Ben and I followed, we found a fantastic, fun pitch, but obviously way harder than the nominal 5.4.  Turns out, despite the warnings, we’d done it wrong and finished on a 5.7 variation called Relief Train.  The actual 5.4 route was not at all obvious and was on the extreme left of the face.  No matter.  It was over now.

Again we unroped and did a short 3rd class scramble into the Notch.  We slipped down the west side onto a rubble-covered ramp and ascended to the south, then back north up some steep, slabby, slopers (nominally 4th class but with all-caps EXPOSURE), delicately climbed a loose dihedral or three, and stood as close to the summit of Notch Spire as we were willing to get (it’s only a few inches across).

Fabio on the summit.

Time to go down.  With all the scrambling and exposure, I was totally frazzled and just wanted to get off the rock with my life intact.  There’s a scramble over to the other summit and thence to the west gully by some circuitous and unobvious route, but the idea of scrambling down the gnarly Class 4++ terrain we’d just come up filled me with serious misgivings.  The more direct option was the rappel, complicated enough that it comes with it’s own topo.  To further complicate the decision, the top rap station consisted of a chunk of green perlon wrapped loosely around a medium-sized boulder, with significant chunks of core exposed in no less than three spots.

Scrambling to the summit. The first rap station is that green cord worn through in three spots.

Time to be brave.  We backed up the manky cord with some new webbing (though still wrapped around the same modest rock) and sent Fabio down first as being the most expendable.  Once we got underway, the raps weren’t bad.  To my surprise, there was only one minor rope-eating flake and, aside from one brief hail storm, the weather didn’t do anything unpleasant.  The remainder of the rap anchors were nice, two-bolt numbers with small-but-adequate ledges.  The lower we got, the better we felt.  We performed four 50+ meter pitches down a sheer face to a large, grassy ledge above the west gully.  I’ve done some long raps before in my life, but this was by far the biggest, most monolithic face I’ve ever seen up close: 750′ of sheer vertical rock.

Scrambling back down the West Gully.

Back on terra firma, we switched to boots, and scrambled down another several hundred feet of steep, loose (though very pretty) west gully, back down the snowfields to Lake Helene, and then the drudgery of hiking back to Bear Lake.  The whole trip took 13 hours car-to-car and left me drained, sore, and contemplative.

It was fantastic to get back on the rock again and climb such an aesthetic alpine line.  My rock-craft was a little rusty, but the climbing felt solid.  The scrambling, on the other hand, was more than a little scary and I was profoundly glad to get back to “level” ground again.  Have I become more cautious now that I’m a family man?  Was this just wiggier exposure than usual?  Definitely a few things to think about.

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2 Responses to Taking it up a Notch

  1. Bang Nhan says:

    Hi Charles, for the scrambling part “Roping up would have taken forever (and speed matters in this kind of climbing), but it was still more than a little unnerving.”, what about a simultaneous climbing ropped with protection?

    • cdan4th says:

      Yeah, we could have simulled it, but it would still have been a lot slower. It was balancing the hazards of scrambling versus weather. The terrain wasn’t actually *that* hard, just nerve-wracking.

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