I am, much to the contentment of both of my parents, home “safe”, back in Connecticut and missing the multitude of inspiring climbs, dry, thin air, and outdoor spirit that is Colorado.
My departure wasn’t to be without one big goodbye adventure, however, and so when my friend Mark and I sat down to pick a climb to bid me farewell with, we wanted something big. In the climbing world, big is synonymous with alpine, and so we set our sights on Rocky Mountain National Park, were the sheer granite sides of the 13 and 14 thousand foot peaks that litter the park can make for the most harrowing and memorable of days.
While both Mark and I prided ourselves on our strength in climbing and efficiency as trad climbers, neither of us was particularly experienced with the alpine world, with its unexpected storms, exposure, and grueling approaches. For this reason, we settled in on the Culp-Bossier route, an 8 pitch 5.8+ up the 13,000 foot Hallet Peak. It’s a beautiful route with some of the best exposure and most classic climbing in all of RMNP, a local acronym that everyone else seemed to be in on, including my iPhone, with its usually-obnoxious auto-correct making me seem cooler and more “in” than I could have alone. “So ready for RMNP,” I texted my friend the night before our climb. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It began in the dark, around 4am, and on most of the 3 mile approach to the beautifully green emerald lake, my whole world was an 8 foot bubble lit by my headlamp. Moving quickly in the bouncing glow from my headlamp and not taking much time to look around, I was frozen when the glow of Hallet Peak, a behemoth rock looming over the lake and guarded on all sides by intimidating steep talus and snow fields, crept up on us. There was a man taking photographs of the sunrise on Hallet’s intimidating face who, incredulous, asked, “You’re going to climb that?” And we were.
A slow and exhausting mile or so through talus and snow brought us to its base. Route finding with the little information we’d picked up on the Internet proved a challenge, and it took some time to find what looked like the start of our climb. Harnesses on, rope flaked, gear racked, Mark lead the first pitch, a gentle 5.5 ramp, and the climbing was gold. I lead the second pitch of easy 5.6, leading us beautifully off route by following a feature that was much like the one described in our guide book, but 30 feet to its right.
By the grace of some climbing god or other, the traverse to the left and back to our route was easy 5.8 and offered some good gear placements. One more pitch of very easy 5.4 climbing brought us to a large grassy ledge and the midpoint of the route. Everything was going so well at this point. The sun was with us, we were all smiles, and most of all we were really excited for the rest of the route. The next pitch of delicate 5.6 face climbing killed my feet, but it was all still okay until Mark joined me on the belay after that pitch. Thunder. Unmistakable thunder.
Being at such a high elevation and with so many infinite peaks and valleys, one of the problems with RMNP is that weather forms very quickly—literally out the blue—and socks itself in between the peaks. And here Mark and I were, 12,000 feet above sea level on the side of a now-foreboding cliff watching this very phenomenon unfurl. It’s was so odd, because we knew something was wrong, but the only thing to do was to go up, to climb through the storm. And, so, we did. I’ve never climbed so fast in my life, though. Gear thrown into cracks, rope moving at a hundred miles an hour, we made a lot of progress.
Mark offered to lead the second to last pitch and set off quickly. At the top of the pitch, he could see the top and realized, as he would later tell me, that he would be able to summit without going through the painstaking process of building an anchor, bringing me up, swapping gear, and belaying me to the top. Although the guidebook had split the pitches into two, he was able to make it all the way and all was good and quick…except that it was totally impossible for me to hear a word he said after building his anchor. Once the leader of a pitch of climbing builds an anchor, he tells his belayer to take him off belay, pulls up any extra rope, and then puts the follower on belay. Each step in this process requires clear communications to go well, and all I could hear was rain, thunder, and wind.
It turns out, I would later learn, that the book splits these final 160 feet into two pitches even though one can climb them on one rope because two large roofs inhibit communication between the summit and the ledge where I was stuck, even in the best of weather. I sat there for at least 20 minutes, waiting. Marc was tugging on the rope in an attempt to suggest that I was on belay, but I was unsure if this meant that he needed more rope to gain the top of his pitch, or if I was on belay, or what was going on. Finally, I decided to approach the situation as if we were simul-climbing—a process in which both climbers move up at the same time, keeping the rope between them as tight as possible. Gear is placed by the leader, so that if either climber takes a fall, there is something there to catch them both when they’re yanked off.
It seemed like I climbed forever. A big slabby section on white rock that I imagined must have been quite scary for Marc to lead, a roof, more slab, another roof—I felt like I had been on the wall for forever. Turning the second roof, two wonderful things happened. Mark’s face came into view, smiling apologetically and encouragingly, and the clouds passed. He was standing on the edge of Hallett Peak’s summit, urging me to join him.
We sat on the top for a little while and soaked in the wonderful view and the newly wonderful weather, never saying it, but knowing that what we had just been through was one of the biggest adventures we’d had that summer. It’s funny to think that a 9 mile descent off of a 13,000 ft mountain could feel like nothing, but in light of what we’d done and with the energy of successful climbing propelling our sunburned, sore bodies, Mark and I made it back to the car without an ounce of effort.