North Ridge of Spearhead, RMNP Trip Report
Colorado Mountain School guide Mike Soucy climbed Spearhead with clients in Rocky Mountain National Park on July 18th, 2019. See and hear their climbing adventure from Mike’s point of view.
Disclaimer: Conditions change quickly in the mountains. The conditions you read in this trip report may be outdated. There is an inherent risk of being in the mountains and this climb is no exception. Proper skills, experience, and decision-making are a must.
The Spearhead is one of the premier alpine rock climbing destinations in RMNP. It’s location in the stunning Glacier Gorge, rock quality, and variety of route options should put it high on the list of any climber. I guided a two-day ascent of this climb on July 17-18 via the classic and moderate North Ridge route (III, 5.6). We found the approach, climb, and descent in excellent and dry condition. See my account below leading up to and during the adventure.
Spearhead’s North Ridge requires a 6-mile approach, gaining 2,000’ of elevation from the Glacier Gorge trailhead. This will take a solid 3 hours for most parties moving at a moderate and consistent hiking pace. The climb is 8 pitches long on solid granite, with mostly 5.4-5.5 climbing and two pitches of 5.6. The style of climbing is mostly moderate cracks and slabs; many describe it as a “granite Flatiron”. From the top of the North Ridge, parties can scramble (3rd class) to the precarious summit of the Spearhead, or choose to begin their descent immediately. I’d recommend the West Side descent, which involves class 2-3 scrambling on talus and ledges and requires a good nose for route finding.
After choosing the objective, we decided to make a two-day ascent to take advantage of the scenic bivouac opportunities in upper Glacier Gorge, located just minutes from the base of the climbing. One-day ascents are common, but require a very early (3am?) start from the trailhead and lots of hiking time.
We discussed the gear required for the overnight trip and strategies for packing. Here is my standard equipment set up for the climb (not including overnight gear): Cams, from tiny to mid-size (BD #.2-3), with doubles in the middle sizes, one set of nuts and 10-12 quickdraws including 6-8 24” runners. Slings/cord for building your own belay anchors. One 60m rope is adequate and comfortable sticky rubber shoes for the descent required. I like to carry a small summit pack with snacks, water, a rain jacket, small knife, and a first aid kit/locator beacon.
Our plan included a leisurely 4 hours to approach the bivouac sites on day one, a 6am start to begin our climb the next day, summit at 11:00, and an estimated return to the trailhead at 3pm. We were nearly spot-on in our time plans.
I like to check the weather at least twice before alpine outings. First around 3 days before and again within 12 hours of departure.
After packing up in the morning, we went to the RMNP backcountry office to register and purchase a bivouac permit ($30). Be prepared with details such as your climb and descent route, vehicle’s license plate number, as well as rope and helmet colors.
Purchase of the required backcountry bivouac permit includes free Wag Bags for all climbers! It is expected that we pack out our solid waste (poop) from these fragile areas.
The Glacier Gorge trail gains 1,600’ in 5 miles en route to Black Lake. This equals a fairly gradual gradient. There are several intersections to navigate, but overall it is quite easy to follow. The scenery grows more dramatic as you climb from Mills to Black Lake, where you’ll catch your first views into upper Glacier Gorge. From Black Lake, an unimproved trail climbs steeply east to the upper bench of the gorge, where you’ll follow cairns along the glacial moraine to the bivouac sites. Refer to p168 of Rossiter’s RMNP guidebook for details.
Comfortable approach shoes and trekking poles are recommended for this hike. Current conditions require minimal snow travel. No spiked equipment needed.
Generally, I count on ~1 hour to Mills Lake (2.5 miles), another 1.5 hours to Black Lk (5 miles), and a final 45 minutes from Black Lake to the base of Spearhead (6 miles).
The North Ridge is 8 pitches long on generally solid granite cracks and slabs. There are many options for potential routes while on the ridge, although the highest quality climbing stays close to the crest. The two crux pitches come at the end of the route where it steepens and narrows, so prepare for a scenic finale. Each pitch has options for good protection and solid belay anchors. Plan on 4-6 hours for your ascent.
We were lucky to have beautiful clear weather with little chance of thunderstorms. The wind was moderate with gusts (~20mph) and required us to use non-verbal communication strategies between climber and belayer. The approach, climb, and descent were all snow-free and dry.
This climb has no fixed anchors and requires solid and efficient multi-pitch climbing skills. Spending an entire day on the Spearhead could lead to an unpleasant encounter with the common afternoon thunder/lightning storm. On most days, you should plan to summit before noon or hope to get lucky with the weather.
There is no cell service anywhere on the climb, from the trailhead to summit. Consider a personal locator beacon for emergencies.
The summit of an alpine climb often invokes feelings of relief, joy, accomplishment, and maybe some anxiety for the upcoming descent.
For us, we reached the summit at 11am and the top was windy! I was psyched to have my Rab Borealis Jacket to block the wind. Nonetheless, we hung out to enjoy the spectacular views around Glacier Gorge, which include Longs Peak, Pagoda Mountain, and McHenry’s Peak. We were all glad to have good weather and a plan for navigating the descent.
There are two options for descending from the top of Spearhead, one going east and the other west. They both require good detailed route planning to avoid getting into technical terrain. Many will want a rope for belaying short sections of exposed 4th class on the East Side descent. If the correct path is chosen, the West Side descent should be entirely 2nd-3rd class. Refer to Rossiter’s guide for good descriptions and photos.
The most efficient descent from the North Ridge is to the west. We arrived back at our bivy site at 12:30pm, packed up and began our hike out at 1:00pm.
A Day Well Spent in the Mountains
We arrived back at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 3:30pm. The best burger and beer on the way out of Estes is at Bird and Jim. Happy hour ends at 5pm, so plan accordingly!
My clients were elated and exhausted! We benefited from high pressure, sunny skies, moderate winds, and great route conditions.
The North Ridge of Spearhead is a perfect intro to alpine rock climbing for the experienced multi-pitch climber with good physical fitness. It scales an iconic formation in a spectacular basin that should be on the top of any alpine rock climber’s destination list
– Mike Soucy, Colorado Mountain School guide
One of the most iconic formations in Rocky Mountain National Park, Spearhead features sustained climbing at moderate grades in beautiful Glacier Gorge.
After a scenic hike, there are abundant places to bivy in upper Glacier Gorge as Mike and his clients did, but the climb is often done in one long day going car to car.
Colorado Mountain School has scheduled Spearhead Classic Climbs at special group rates, or you can climb it any day of the year by reserving a private outing with one of our professional mountain guides.
About the Author
Mike Soucy is an IFMGA/UIAGM- and AMGA-certifed guide: the highest achievement in mountain guide certification in America. Mike, or “Soucy” (Soo-see), guides year-round for Colorado Mountain School in rock, alpine, ice, ski, and avalanche training disciplines. Mike is also a member of the AMGA Instructor Team.