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Spearhead with Jim

August 07, 2005

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The Spearhead is a free-standing, 1000 foot, granite peak in the middle of Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park. Jim and I climbed it via the classic North Ridge route on Sunday, August 7, 2005.

The approach is about 6 miles each way, so we decided to bivy at the base the night before, rather than try to do the route in a day. Due to a variety of circumstances, we left Boulder late, and didn't arrive in Estes Park until after 5:00 on Saturday evening. By the time we picked up our bivy permit and drove to the trailhead, it was 6:00. Clearly, we were going to get caught in the dark on the way in.

The hike is relatively docile for the first 4 miles, traveling almost due south through Glacier Gorge. We reached Mills Lake (named after my roommate, Steve Mills -- a lot of people don't know that) just as the sun was setting. After admiring the view for a bit, we continued on into the dusk.

After the fourth mile, the trail steepens considerably as you climb towards Black Lake. The Speared lies directly behind the lake, approximately 3/4 mile south. By the time we reached Black Lake it was dark, and we were hiking by headlamp. Here the trail officially ends, although a climber's trail emerges on the south side of the lake to take you the rest of the way.

The climber's trail is thin and hard to follow in the dark, especially towards the top, where cairns mark the way through a boulder field. In the dark, we took a very circuitous route through the boulders, until a pair of headlamps from fellow bivy-ers guided our way.

Glacier Gorge is a very popular bivy site, and the boulder field is full of overhanging boulders that provide excellent shelter. We found a well-constructed bivy site, and were in our bags by 10:30. Three other parties were bivied at the base, 2 of which were also planning to climb the north ridge. In order to avoid waiting, Jim and I planned to get an early start.

We woke up in the darkness just before 5:00. After pumping fresh water, eating some oatmeal, and packing our bags, we were on the route at 6:00, the first group on the rock.

The route begins with some class 4 scrambling. We simul-climbed the first pitch, such that Jim set up the first belay at the end of the second pitch, just as I was nearing the end of the 4th class section on the first pitch. By the time he had set up the belay, I was in the heart of the first crux, a thin slab traverse that felt extremely tenuous. It turns out that the slab was slightly off route, and the climbing got much easier after I reached the end of the traverse.

The third pitch starts with a brief 5.4 section, before slabbing out into class 4/easy-5 ledges. The fourth pitch was more of the same, leading to the crux pitches that would take us to the summit.

The 5th pitch is amazing. After ascending 700 feet in the relative safety of the north ridge, the 5th pitch moves out towards the east face, and some world-class exposure. You follow a crack above a prominent barb along the very edge of the north ridge, with the east face on your left. The crack keeps getting closer to the east face, and eventualy it becomes a lie-back. This forces you to transfer your center of gravity from the slabby north ridge below you to the massively exposed east face on your left.

What a move! Although the handholds are bomber, it's quite a feeing to swing your body into 800 feet of empty space below. If not the physical crux, this is certainly the mental crux of the route. By the time I reached Jim at the belay, I was breathing really hard -- not from physical exertion, but from fear.

Climbing-wise, the 6th pitch is a bit harder. The crux is a 5.6 chimney that has to be negotiated -- a difficult proposition with a full pack. The pitch pops through a notch to finish on the west face of the peak, about 50 feet below the summit. More class 4 ledges lead to an extremely exposed summit ridge, which Jim walked through with no difficulty. I, on the other hand, was not about to follow him. After some prodding, I found a V0 boulder problem that would lead to the summit. Exposed but easy, I topped out to a beautiful view of the Glacier Gorge Cirque. Unfortunately, I forgot that my new camera has a panoramic mode, as this would have been a great opportunity to try it out.

It took about an hour to get to descend the class 3 gully on the west side of the peak, and we were back at our bivy site by 11:30. On the hike down, I felt tired and wobbly, and it crossed my mind that I might be feeling the effects of the high altitude. I dismissed this theory, because I spend a lot of time at altitude, and tend to be pretty acclimatized. However, upon reaching treeline I felt much better, and was finally able to keep up with Jim. I guess it was the altitude after all.

We reached the car at 2:30, and headed back to Estes Park for some burgers, beer, and homemade fudge.

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