Alpine Climbing: The Quick and the Bailing

Two weekends ago, my friend Whitney and I set out on our first Alpine climbing adventure.  Our journey to the summit of Spearhead was nothing short of magical. The Rocky Mountain gods were on our side and we knew that we were lucky. Naturally, we decided to press that luck the following weekend. Let’s start with the first adventure.

Spearhead

keyboardofthewinds
Hiking out after climbing Spearhead with the Keyboard of the Winds behind us. Photo: Said Parirokh

We didn’t need headlamps for the hike in; the sky was so clear that the moonlight was sufficient.  We hiked to 11,000 feet, where the trees shrunk away and wine colored wildflowers grew. Over a dozen elk grazed in the field beneath our objective, which sits inside an idyllic cirque that was more reminiscent of the hills of the Sound of Music than the lifeless granite scree I had imagined. Glacier Gorge is truly one of the most amazing areas I have been to, and everyone should visit. It is the type of place that reminds you how important it is that we take care of our environment, both by minimizing our footprint on a daily basis and by practicing strict Leave No Trace ethics in these incredible ecosystems.

We got a late start, but made a quick ascent of the North Ridge (5.6). This moderate route is casual but allows for flowing movement and still offers engaging sections. And the view isn’t half bad. We enjoyed sunshine all day, allowing us to take our time on the descent and the hike out. These conditions are very rare for Rocky Mountain National Park, and we would not enjoy them again the next Saturday.

summit view
View from the top of Spearhead.

While inhaling my standard recovery burger and beer that evening, I thought that I could do this every week.  Whitney was also psyched, so we set our sights on Hallett Peak. With more challenging climbing but a shorter approach, we figured we were set up for success.

Hallett Peak

Working in the CMS office, I have the good fortune of being a novice surrounded by masters. Culp-Bossier (5.8) is IFMGA guide Mike Soucy’s favorite, and he is not the only one here to sing its praises. I asked our general manager and senior guide Mike Alkaitis about Hallett. He warned me that the route finding was tricky.   Others told me that the route was difficult to onsight due to the cruxy navigation. All I heard was, “Hallett is great. Have fun!”

Whitney was leading the first pitch minutes after sunrise. We had beaten two other parties to the base. We had this Alpine thing dialed. Then Whit got off route. She immediately saw where she should have climbed and retraced her steps. I started the second pitch after rereading the guidebook, which told me I should be headed to the top of a right-facing corner. I found my right-facing corner. As I climbed, my protection thinned out and I assumed that I had reached one of many run-out sections that Hallett is known for. I told myself to cowgirl-up and keep going. My handholds, like my gear, began to thin out. I’m not sure how much time I spent there wondering what to do, but ultimately we discovered that the correct route followed a different right-facing corner just out of sight.

Photo: Said Parirokh
Creeping from the wrong dihedral to the correct dihedral. Photo: Said Parirokh

We got back on track, but spent a lot of time doing so. It was getting late; thundershowers frequently start at 2 PM in RMNP. We knew we’d have to move much faster through the rest of the route. As Whitney started the fifth pitch, the sky opened up on us. It began to hail. In minutes, we were soaked and shaking uncontrollably. The thunder sounded like mountains crumbling. It was time to bail.

This was a potentially dangerous situation. Mistakes could not be made. Bailing meant forging a path into the unknown, as we could not simply descend the route that we had climbed. The descent took almost as much time as the five-hundred feet of climbing we had done. We had to leave gear, find safe places from which to rappel, and keep it together. I found myself questioning the integrity of all of my gear and everything I knew about rock climbing. I stared at my soaking wet rope as I rappelled and tried to shut out thoughts of it failing (this is not a rational fear). Ultimately, we made sound choices and the experience proved a level of capability and coolheaded-ness that I’m actually proud of. However, I would never choose to put us in that situation again, and if it had to happen, I would feel much better if we were with one of our guides.

Had we been with someone who knew the route, we would likely have summited before the thunderstorm. Even if we hadn’t, a guide would have been able to better navigate our descent route, and their experience would have helped us descend more efficiently. They have actual experience with bailing, and could answer all of the questions I suddenly had.

The Alpine is an awe-inspiring experience. It is not to be missed, but the risks must be known and respected. I will definitely go back for more, but this weekend, you will find me in my comfort zone: clipping bolts in Boulder Canyon.

alpineflowerglaciergorge
Photo: Said Parirokh

Check out CMS Guide Andy Hansen’s upcoming post: The Art of Bailing.