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The Spearhead - North Ridge (III 5.6)
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Feeling a little bleary-eyed, I met Fabio at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead at 3:00. I'd gotten no more than two hours of sleep the night before and I was feeling a bit weak as we began the long approach in the dark. Nonetheless we made steady progress and I was feeling pretty good when we arrived at the base of The Spearhead's north ridge a little after 6:00.
The sun was just coming up as we sorted out our kit and had a snack. The wind was blowing a little making it a bit chilly so, with the exception of my rain pants, I put on every stitch of clothing I brought.
Somewhere around 6:30 or so Fabio started up the first pitch. He elected to wear his new approach shoes for the initial pitches because they were supposed to be no harder than 5.4. This made the slab work on the initial pitch a bit more challenging so Fabio's line wandered a bit as he looked for the easiest terrain. As I belayed one of the biviers wandered up to chat. He was a West Point cadet on vacation with another cadet from West Point and one from the Air Force Academy. They'd climbed The Sharkstooth the day before and were looking at giving The Spearhead a go before heading back to school. We chatted for a bit while Fabio finished the pitch and set up a belay just below the pair of chimneys.
I wished the cadet well and then climbed up to Fabio's belay. We swapped gear and I set off up the chimney that was directly overhead. This was really fun climbing up vertical, and maybe slightly overhanging, juggy terrain. However, when I attempted to place my first piece of pro I dropped a hex down into a slot behind a rock. I tried to fish it out but was having no luck and I began to tire holding on as I was on overhanging rock by one hand. Eventually I gave up and slung a nearby horn instead. I was pretty sure Fabio would be able to fish out the hex with a little tenacity. After I got the first piece of pro in I continued up through the chimney and made it to easier ground.
Above the chimney I found the V-shaped slots/dihedrals described by Roach and Rossiter. This was more fun climbing where I utilized some fun stemming techniques. The V-shaped slots ate stoppers which was nice too. Above the slots I ran it out to the beginning of the easy scrambling where I set up the belay. This belay stance was in the sun and the temps were gradually beginning to warm up so I took off my gloves and helmet liner. Fabio followed behind and by the time he neared the belay he was second guessing his decision to start out in approach shoes - he nearly peeled off right below the belay. He joked that when he transitioned into approach shoes for the next pitch the difference would feel like becoming Spider Man. Fabio was also successful in retrieving the hex from where I'd dropped it.
Ahead we faced several hundred vertical feet of class-3 and class-4 terrain so we coiled the rope and scrambled upward. We made it quite a ways before encountering stiffer slabby terrain. When we found a nice big ledge we decided to use it to rope up once more. Fabio led our third roped pitch up a nice clean slab that was nicely featured but was a little run out. In searching for a good belay stance he took out all 70 meters of the rope and required an additional 10 feet of simul-climbing to reach an adequate belay. The wind had picked up a little while I'd been belaying so before I set out again I put my helmet liner back on. I easily followed up the pleasant climbing and soon arrived at the belay stance.
We swapped gear and discussed our next moves. We both thought we recognized the "large block" a little to our right and we agreed that the best way to proceed was around the right side of the block (following Roach's description). I set off and carefully negotiated the near featureless slabs and eventually got myself directly below the block.
There I ran into a very tricky move. I had an awkward lieback grip with my left hand and could not reach any good holds with my right hand. I would be forced to move my feet up underneath me, putting my tenuous left hand grip in even more peril, so I could reach something with my right hand. However, I wasn't sure there were any good holds for my right hand. I continued to work my feet up until I was committed - retreat would be just as perilous as continuing. I shouted to Fabio to "WATCH ME!" and went for it. I stuck my right hand into a wide crack. There was very little to grip so I quickly moved my feet up a little higher until my left handhold became worthless. I swung my left hand into the crack a little higher up where I got a shaky fingerlock. I moved my feet up a little more and lunged for a jug with my right hand. I breathed a huge sigh of relief once I'd made it to safer ground. That was the closest I'd ever come to taking a leader fall! I had a bomber piece of protection in about 10 feet below the move but I was still really glad I hadn't peeled off.
Above the crux move I worked my way along the right side of the block up a right facing dihedral and arrived at a spacious ramp. At this point rope drag was beginning to become an issue so I set up a belay and brought Fabio up. We swapped gear and got out our photo copied beta. We knew we were at a critical point in the route and wanted to make sure we got the next bit of route finding correct. According to Roach we seemed to be perfectly on route! From our belay atop the block the next pitch should be our last and would take us out onto the Northeast Face before regaining the ridge for the last bit up to the end of the technical climbing.
Fabio set off and when he tried to place the first piece of pro he dropped a hex from his rack. After shouting "ROCK!" and hoping it didn't bean anybody on the way down (there was at least one party behind us on the North Ridge and two parties below us on the East Face) he coined the phrase, "There's no use crying over dropped hexes" (the climbing equivalent of "There's no use crying over spilt milk"). He placed something else instead and was quickly out of sight. On the second pitch we'd been out of visual contact for a while but we were out of visual contact for the entirety of our fifth roped pitch. Thankfully our radios were working like a dream - this time we'd made a point of making the radios easily accessible from the get go and we'd chosen a more obscure channel/sub-channel combination so we didn't have the annoying background chatter. Eventually Fabio radioed down that he was off belay and he also warned be about an extremely loose flake on the Northeast Face. He said that rope drag had become too much of an issue so he hadn't been able to make it all the way to the end of the technical climbing. This was a little surprising as he had no more than 20 feet of rope left. Roach had claimed the pitch was 120 feet long, we were using a 70-meter rope, and I was pretty sure we were exactly where Roach said the belay was. Maybe we weren't?
When Fabio was on belay I set off. The ramp I was on curved around to the east as it gradually steepened. At this point I could look down over the edge to the sheer Northeast Face - it was impressive. A little ways further the ramp turned a corner and then totally disappeared where I was confronted with the gut clenching view of the Northeast Face falling away before me. My pucker-factor meter went through the roof! The thought, "I can't do this," briefly crossed my mind before being replaced with, "Fabio led it so I should be able to find the courage to follow it." Had I been on the sharp end I'm not sure I could have forced myself to take the next step onto the extremely intimidating Northeast Face. I might have sat down right there, wet my pants, and had myself a good cry. Luckily I didn't have to find out ;-)
Instead I gathered my courage as best I could and set off out across the void. The exposure straight down was fantastic, made more so by the horizontal nature of the traverse. If I'd been climbing straight up I would have been able to block it out to some degree, instead focusing more on what was above and the task at hand. Instead, since I was moving sideways, it seemed there was no escaping the dizzying nothingness below me. I took great care with every move as a fall would have meant a swing out across the Northeast Face. At one point I stepped on the flake Fabio had warned me about and felt it wobble slightly underneath my feet. However, it didn't seem like I had much of a choice as the flake provided the only real footing. I gingerly stepped on it and moved past as quickly as possible. With my heart in my throat I eventually made it easier climbing and joined Fabio at the belay back on the ridge crest. Wow - that was intense!
With rope drag an issue (and not enough rope to make it to the top anyway) Fabio had set up the belay below what we thought Roach claimed was the crux of the route: "a steep, awkward slot." Though it was supposed to be the hardest climbing of the day it didn't look too bad from below, certainly not as scary as the terrify exposure I'd just left. The slot turned out to be really fun and fairly easy to protect. After I got a nut into it I really enjoyed the stemming moves and holding myself into it using opposing pressure on the walls of the slot. This fun climbing only lasted about 20 feet until I reached easier scrambling terrain through a couple of narrow chimneys that dumped me out onto the top of the technical difficulties. I set up a quick belay and brought Fabio up - we made it!
It was about 12:30 and there was not a cloud in the sky so we took our time packing up our kit, having a snack, and enjoying the fantastic views. Situated as we were out in the middle of Glacier Gorge we had an incredible 360 degree view of spectacular mountains. Fabio reminded me of a quote we attribute to Jim Disney (though I'm not sure he made it up). It goes something like this: "Taking off your climbing shoes is better than sex because it feels so good and you can do it twice right in a row." I'm sure this is debatable, but it's a pretty close call!
After we gathered our stuff together we moseyed on over to the true summit. The scramble up to the exposed summit block was cool, but I couldn't quite bring myself to scoot all the way out to the edge and dangle my legs off over the Northeast Face. While we hung out on the summit block we noticed some clouds gathering out to the southeast on the other side of Longs Peak. Though they looked fairly benign, it was probably best to be safe rather than sorry so we scrambled down of the summit block and began our descent. We unfortunately missed the nice scrambly descent and ended up floundering down the most miserable talus slope I've ever had the displeasure of encountering. This talus slope dumped us out at the very southeast corner of Frozen Lake. When we got down to the lake I was battered, bruised, and absolutely exhausted. It was about 14:30.
We scrambled back past the start of our route and down into the upper reaches of Glacier Gorge as the clouds continued to gather into a large ominous mass. The dark clouds steadily crept over the top of Longs Peak and into Glacier Gorge as we descended. We could feel the rain in the air so we continued to push on. Just about the same time we found the trail back down to the Black Lake the rain started to fall. It was a real light sprinkle at first but when we reached Black Lake it turned into a steady drizzle and the thunder and lightning commenced in a big way. We were really glad we'd made it off the mountain and we hoped the parties that were still on it would be okay. The rain continued off and on all the way back down to the trailhead but it never got so heavy as to be unpleasant, instead it felt really good. The death march finally ended at about 18:00 when we arrived back at the car. It was pretty late and we were both pretty knackered so we decided to forego the traditional after climb meal at Ed's Cantina and headed for our respective beds.
Man I was beat, but I guess that's to be expected after a 15 hours car-to-car day on two hours of sleep. Nevertheless, I was really pleased with my climbing. I felt I was a lot smoother and faster placing pro and building/breaking down anchors. Another interesting thing to note is that I didn't place a single cam - I protected the entire thing on passive protection. I felt pretty satisfied with that too. No matter how you looked at it we had another fantastic day in the hills.
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