The Big One – Climbing the North Face of Hallett Peak, Part 1

August 1, 2009 at 12:51 pm

For Mark’s birthday last year, I scheduled a day of hard alpine climbing guided by Colorado Mountain School (CMS). And last weekend, that day finally rolled around.

The plan for our day in the high mountains was to meet Eric Whewell, our guide for the day, at CMS in Estes Park at 4:00am on Saturday morning. We all piled into the car, and drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park. We arrived at the Bear Lake trailhead about 20 minutes later, and started our hike into the pitch darkness.

There was no moon for us, and the stars were obscured by misty clouds that covered the valley. It had rained for five days straight, and we trucked up the trail in the cold humid morning hoping that Saturday would be different.

Mark and Eric on the final bit of dark approach

Our goal for the day was the Culp-Bossier route (III, 5.9R) on Hallett’s Peak. This route is considered one of the best at this grade in the National Park, but is known for long run-outs and tricky route-finding. A perfect prospect for a guided climb.

The approach to the base of Hallett’s is around 2 miles long, another reason Mark and I chose this route. We’ve burned ourselves out on too many long approaches lately. As we walked up the Dream Lake trail in the dark morning, we could see distant lights on the lowest pitches of Hallett’s. It looked as if another group had perhaps slept at the base of the wall, and were beginning their climb just before dawn.

By the time we were nearing the base of the climb, it was just past 5:30, and we watched the sun rise over the park. It was beautiful, and I took a TON of pictures. We left a pack and a few extra items below a boulder at the base of the descent route, racked up in the early dawn, and munched on a little breakfast. Another pair of hikers passed us at this point, and declared their goal was the Culp-Bossier as well.

The warm sun breaks the sky

So, by the time we arrived at the base of Culp, we were third in line. We discussed our options. Wait, and climb slowly below two other groups on the Culp, or look for another route. Eric suggested Better than Love (III, 5.8R) just to the left of Culp, and our plans changed.

Mark and I were happily clueless about this climb as we started that chilly morning. I had never heard or read a thing about this route. We knew the Culp was long – eight pitches or more, and the Culp was hard, with perfectly vertical rock the whole way. Eric assured us that Better than Love was just as good, and not any harder, but that was the only information we had.

The first three pitches of the route followed a steep, sheer, lovely dihedral. It’s the kind of crack-stem climbing that I would normally love every inch of, and we had nearly 600ft of it. But on Saturday morning, the route was still in complete shade, and the rock was cold as ice. I lost feeling in my hands and feet quickly. Let me just point out the obvious here, sticky rubber on climbing shoes doesn’t work at all if you can’t feel your toes. My feet were like dead logs at the bottom of my legs as I climbed, I placed them by sight and hoped all of the holds held.

Lightened up the shot so you can see Mark now

After 150ft of climbing on this pitch, we reached an early crux of the route. A long roof cuts off the dihedral, and we traversed to the right under it, and up the right side. There are no good hand or footholds below the roof, and, normally, I would feel comfortable jamming the crack under the roof and pasting my feet on the blank face. But, when you can’t feel your feet, and your hands hurt so badly, I think the grade of the move goes up quite a bit. We all pulled through cleanly, thankfully. For me, that was a small miracle that morning.

The first three belays were mostly hanging, and at the last one, the corner was so thin that Eric had me hanging next to him, and Mark hanging six feet or so below us. While we were reorganizing the rack at that airy belay, hanging off three pieces of trad gear above 500ft of air, Mark actually got a phone call.

Don’t ask me why he had his mobile phone, I still don’t know. We all laughed out loud as he answered the call and talked to my little brother TJ about the Lupe Fiasco concert in St. Louis that night. Eric said “You’ve got a signal up here? That’s good to know!”

The last four pitches up the headwall of Hallets Peak - Love Route (III, 5.9R)

The fourth and fifth pitches were loose scrambling over the top of the buttress, and then up the right side of a flake leaning against the long, shear headwall of the cliff. From a distance, and even directly below this wall, it looks blank. No cracks splitting the face, no flakes or features to hang off of. Simply clean, dead vertical, granite. Somewhere in here, we moved from the Better than Love route to the origional Love Route (III, 5.9).

I was exhausted looking up at the blank face of our sixth pitch. While we were now in the sun, the wind was howling around us and I was still very cold, and very tired. I was starting to think that I didn’t much like alpine climbing as I shivered at the belay.

Watching the wind blast over dream lake from our tiny belay perch

Continued in the next post…