As a pretty weak climber, I tend to try and leverage my strengths that come from 22 years experience as a runner when I’m dreaming up mountain objectives. The problem is usually finding a partner that harbors a similar interest in mixing A) moderate alpine climbing, and B) linking together lots of it. Most of the climbers I know who are strong enough to move quickly on 5.8-10 terrain are more likely to want to spend their time challenging themselves on harder routes and minimizing the amount of enduro foot travel (this tendency is totally understandable). Enter Jed Brown.
Jed and I climbed the Diamond together back at the end of June and had a great time. Jed is one of the more impressive mountain athletes I know—Alaskan-born grit, endurance sport enthusiasm and experience, unwavering mental composure when things start to go a little bit sideways, doesn’t mind running with a climbing pack, and, oh yeah, recipient of a Piolet d’Or. He’d never tell you.
But then he spent the entire month of July on an expedition to a 7000m peak in India, so we never got out again. When he got back last week, he texted me saying he had three weeks before school started again (he’s a Computer Science professor at CU-Boulder—some people are truly next-level human beings) and was psyched to get on some alpine granite. In typical fashion, a casual text rapidly and inexplicably snowballed into an out-sized objective: a link-up of Longs Peak, Spearhead, Chiefshead, and Mt. Alice in Rocky Mountain National Park. And, it makes the most sense to complete the loop via bike, too.
This would be a notable and big day as a simple run. And in the past I would’ve been super psyched on this as just a run. However, a big part of my motivation with climbing has always been to mix it with running into an engaging amalgam of mountain movement that covers inspiring, remote terrain via challenging, aesthetic routes. Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect arena for this type of thing. Hence, we would be spicing things up by climbing each peak via a technical rock route.
So our plan was this: on the drive to the Longs Peak TH, stash bikes at the Wild Basin TH; climb the Casual Route on Longs Peak’s Diamond, Syke’s Sickle on Spearhead, Central Rib on Chiefshead (really just the most logical means of gaining the Continental Divide), and Central Ramp on the East Face of Mt. Alice; run the 8+ miles out to the WBTH; bike the 8 miles on the road from there back to my truck at the LPTH. Do it in-a-day, preferably without extending it too far into the nighttime.
There was precedence for this kind of thing, by much stronger climbers than myself. In 2003, Jonny Cop and Kelly Cordes established the “Triple Lindy” linking what they determined to be the three biggest faces in RMNP (the Diamond, Chiefshead NW Face, and Mt Alice East Face) in 22h42min car-to-car. In 2011, Scott Bennett and Blake Herrington upped the ante by climbing some slightly harder routes and adding the NE Face on Spearhead, completing the loop car-to-car in 23h45min.
I’m not a good enough climber to efficiently get up any of the 5.10-11ish classics on Chiefshead (there doesn’t appear to be anything of quality at a more moderate grade on these faces EDIT: the Flight of the Kiwi route that Scott and Blake did during their link-up actually looks pretty reasonable, something to think about for 2016…), so I settled on simply climbing Spearhead and linking along the obvious ridge to the summit of Chiefshead (its Central Rib).
A key piece of our strategy of fitting all of this terrain into a single day was the equipment we planned to carry. Or maybe, the equipment we planned on not carrying. Jed and I each carried <20L packs—day packs, really—mine was a prototype of Ultimate Direction’s forthcoming 18L Skimo race pack. I prefer it for its sleek profile, low center of gravity, and durable materials.
We kept our packs trim by bringing almost no extra clothes—I had a longsleeve baselayer, a pair of cycling leg warmers, and rain shell—a 30m rope, and a trim rack of nine cams (doubles 0.3-0.5 and one each of 0.75, #1, #2) and maybe half a dozen finger-sized nuts. And three Petzl MicroTraxion progress-capture pulleys. These would be key to keeping our strategy of simul-climbing all day as safe as possible. Jed didn’t even bring leg coverage, spending the entire day in essentially his underwear. But, then again, he’s Alaskan. With food (~1300 calories of bars and gels) and water (a half liter flask was my total capacity), my pack weighed in right at 10lbs, carrying the rope (Jed had the rack).
After locking up our bikes in the dark at the Wild Basin Trailhead, Jed and I drove to the Longs Peak TH and started up the trail at 4:06am. A little bit of a late start, to be honest, but the sun is rising later and later these days, so it worked out pretty well. The approach was uneventful, other than finally nailing all the below-treeline shortcuts in the dark but then losing ~5min to extra bathroom breaks. As we rounded Chasm Lake, the early breezy conditions abated and the sky was clear, and we could see a pair of headlamps already high above us on Broadway and they seemed to be hovering right around the center of the face, at the start of the Casual Route. Bummer. Oh well, with our plans of simul-climbing, we hoped passing would be easy.
After scrambling the North Chimney, I arrived on Broadway first and was surprised to see the headlamp party still camped out at the base of the Casual. Seeing that these guys clearly weren’t in much of a hurry, I immediately set about flaking and tying into the rope. By time Jed arrived all he had to do was hand me the rack and I started climbing, 2h05 after leaving the trailhead.
We basically planned on climbing each route in two pitches. I’d lead the first half of each one and Jed would lead the second half. This was my fifth time climbing the Casual Route this summer, so I have it pretty dialed and moved through the first four pitches in 38min, placing four cams and clipping five fixed pins and/or anchors, protecting the 5.9 sections of climbing with the Micro Traxions.
Jed is a stronger climber than me, so he, of course, never held me up in following and 50min from Broadway he was leading up the magnificent, long 5.8 dihedral that makes up the meat of the middle part of the route. I got a bit tired in this corner, which seems to be the norm for me, but got a bit of a break when Jed hit the crux 9+/10a climbing above and 1h48 after leaving Broadway we were both at the end of the route, on Table Ledge, just before 8am. So much fun! The weather was perfect and our energy and spirits were high. Onwards.
We topped out Longs Peak (via upper Kieners) at 8:23am and snacked for a couple minutes amidst a crowd of hikers that were steadily making their way up the Keyhole Route. Both Jed and I were a bit worried about how our knees were going to hold up with the 10k’ of descending we would encounter on the day, so the next nearly 3000′ drop down the Trough on the west side of Longs to the base of Spearhead in the Glacier Gorge would be a good test.
It went well. I was feeling really high energy through here so got a bit ahead of Jed and when I got to the base of Spearhead I remembered the guide-book mentioning being able to take an alternate start at 5.6/7 for Syke’s Sickle from the left to get to “Middle Earth Ledge” a pitch up. At first I thought it looked like easy slabs, but these slabs turned out to be relatively feature-less and there were a couple cruxy sections in running shoes, working a dirty finger crack. Once on the ledge, though, it was an easy scramble up to the base of the next pitch on Syke’s and we roped up here, with me taking the lead again. The first few rope lengths were fun but not very challenging climbing in the 5.6 range. I had to remember to have at least one piece of gear between Jed and I, otherwise there was no point in having the rope out at all.
Eventually, though, the face steepened and the climbing became much more interesting, especially when we got up into the “Sickle” feature of the route and Jed took over the lead. The position and exposure here at the crux stemming 9+/10a roof section is spectacular and my impression of the route became much more positive—it suddenly felt like it deserved all its acclaim of classic status.
Once I’d grabbed the thank-god fin/arete, it was a quick (albeit, run-out) romp up the final slab, and right at noon Jed and I were standing on the summit of Spearhead.
The next section of the route is a bit of a trudge up the connecting ridge to the Central Rib headwall of Chiefshead, and I definitely felt low-energy through here, letting Jed set the pace. In retrospect, I think I was just feeling the altitude. I was happy to get to the steeper, more technical sections on the headwall as this offered a break from the cardio action, and Jed and I had fun following our nose looking for the most direct line still in the 5.6-7 range. We certainly weren’t going to go to the trouble of breaking out the rope and rock shoes for this section.
Once on the summit of Chiefshead at 1:06pm, the day’s weather had definitely taken on a different timbre. Low, grey clouds darkened the skies to the south and east, and an insistent cold wind made us each don an extra layer. Nevertheless, things were actually looking pretty favorable with patches of blue to the north and west, so there was really never any question of whether we were headed over to Mt. Alice. Of course we were.
After a couple minutes of talus hopping, the Divide turns into a beautiful grassy ridge and an east-extending rib of this offered perfect access down to the base of the East Face of Mt. Alice (along with some scree plunging, shoe skiing, and boulder hopping, of course). Jed and I were both distracted through here by a whole herd of big-horned sheep—an exciting reminder that the Wild Basin is a much more remote and less-visited corner of the park than Longs Peak and the Glacier Gorge, whence we’d just come.
Neither Jed nor I had ever climbed on Mt. Alice, though just the previous week Jed had done a long run looping over the summit of the mountain. A prominent 4th Class ledge defined the base of the East Face and offered convenient access to the start of our Central Ramp route, which allegedly traced the lefthand edge of the East Face itself.
I was starting to get pretty tired at this point—sleepy more than anything—and was reluctant to put rock shoes back on. We eventually found the base of the route—a choice between a 5.8 dihedral and a 5.5 chimney—and started up. Things soon became inobvious, and, being on the sharp end, I was getting frustrated with the uncertainty of route-finding and not knowing whether I’d find gear or not.
After only a few hundred feet of stop and start rambling, I made a hasty belay, brought Jed up and told him he could take over. Really, more than anything, my feet were killing me and I wanted a chance to slip out of my shoes.
Jed, of course, persevered without batting an eyelash (though, notably, he did agree that his feet were quite painful as well), and he continued moving the rope up the face. A long stretch of moderate terrain soon turned into a steep and tricky crux section that was punctuated by a handful of closely-placed, old pitons. Thankfully, Jed set a belay at a large grassy ledge above there and brought me up before continuing up the final couple pitches to the top.
At this point, I finally noticed the gathering dark clouds and rumbling thunder became more insistent. Just after Jed had run out the first 100′ of rope things became much more dire with gusty winds and suddenly it was raining and then sheets of hail were coming down. I looked up to see Jed thrutching through a steep chimney, but he continued charging and with all the atmospheric theatrics I followed just as quickly as possible.
I arrived at the top to find Jed hunkered down just below the ridge, saying that the rocks on the ridge itself were buzzing and that we should probably wait it out here for a minute. No argument from me, other than avalanches and rockfall, electrical storms in the high peaks are really the only other thing that get me nervous.
Thankfully, despite the wrathful intensity with which the storm had initially hit, it had mellowed considerably by time we got the rope and rack packed away and changed back into our running shoes. During this process I put on every piece of clothing I had with me; Jed persevered sans long pants without a word.
When we emerged from our alcove it soon became apparent that things were subdued enough to actually go and tag our final summit (at 5:49pm) and descend to the south via Boulder-Grand Pass and down to Thunder Lake. Just as we dropped into the pass the skies opened up again in earnest and thunder was cracking over our heads—we were pretty psyched to be off the Divide.
While I’d been dreading it a bit when we were up high on the Divide, the run out the Wild Basin (a full 7 miles of trail from Thunder Lake down to our bikes at the road) ended up being one of the highlights of the day for me. As has been the case the second half of the summer, on a long gradual downhill like that my IT band actually feels better and better the faster I go, so I opened up my stride and enjoyed the perfectly graded, often cushy trail. Running along at dusk in mid-August in the evergreen forest at 10,000′ on springy trail after a rain, after 15 hours on the move and feeling some finish line fever…I had distinct flashbacks of joy and nostalgia to running the Colorado Trail around Turquoise Lake at the end of the Leadville 100, which I’ve done so many times. In that moment, I really missed racing, but at the same time felt thankful for the opportunity and ability to challenge myself in an all-day adventure of a different tenor.
An hour of running from the lake, we reached the Wild Basin Trailhead 15h48m after starting our day and were just left with the task of biking the 7.5 miles back up the highway to my truck at the LPTH. Jed got a couple minutes headstart as I was re-packing my bag and proceeded to crush the ride—I never caught up. I was also dawdling like a granny, even weaving at times due to some serious bonkage; I’d hit my last gel back at Thunder Lake, high in the Wild Basin.
All in all, this was an outstanding adventure with a truly top-notch partner. The Mt. Alice route was a bit of a disappointment, but it’s a beautiful mountain and worth including as an aesthetic extension of the loop. On that day, I said I had no desire to ever climb it again, but right now I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have to give this thing another shot next year, if only to do a proper route on the spectacular NW Face of Chiefshead. Time to up my climbing game.