Rocky Mountain National Park – Spearhead, An Early Season ‘Diamond in the Sky’
Colorado’s Front Range was blessed, or maybe cursed, with a lot of late season snow. When the snow finally stopped falling, the precipitation did not, and we have now suffered what feels likes weeks of rain. In need of some altitude training for an upcoming trip and wanting to pull on rock, I came upon the Spearhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. The peak having no snow fields above its sheer East face dries fairly early, and topping out just past 12,000 feet qualifies as alpine in my books. Routes consisting of 800 feet of brilliant rock make for an excellent early morning outing, especially when you need to escape thunderstorms that threaten as early as 10am.
Syke’s Sickle (5.9+, 7 pitches)
This is the Spearhead’s classic line, going up the middle of the face and through the most obvious feature, Syke’s Sickle.
P1 (5.6, 150 feet): A right facing corner that appears to almost always be wet slowly eases off and joins a massive slowly leftward arching flake. A slung horn partway along this flake provides the end of the pitch. The giant flake takes gear to back up the tat. Expect this pitch to be wet but more than featured enough to climb.
P2 (5.6, 150 feet): Continue along the flake to the right facing corner that ends in a small blocky roof. From here continue up blocky ledges to middle earth. Follow the easy leftward leaning dihedral to wherever looks easiest to gain the giant flake system above and provides a comfortable belay. Early season this proved to be our last really wet pitch.
P3 (5.7, 200 feet): About 30 feet of unprotected slab climbing gains the flakes, our path trended up and right from the belay towards the lowest of the slung horns. The flakes once reached are the most amazing jugs you have ever experienced and they just keep going! There are quite a few slung flakes for anchors but why stop? Keep going until you reach an easy leftward leaning ramp and setup a comfy belay.
P4 (5.7, 100 feet): Launch up the steepening dihedral until you transition into a giant right leaning flake. Follow it until it ends and then transfer crack systems to the left to setup your next belay.
P5 (5.8, 100 feet): Go up the right facing corner forming the sickle. After some awkward wet moves when things turn vertical transition right to gain the now visible giant off width flake. Things stay vertical for a few feet when you gain the flake but soon the angle eases. Follow the flake up to a nice ledge underneath the crack at the end of the sickle. There is a large loose block on the left side of the belay ledge.
P6 (5.9+, 60 feet): Face climb/stem upwards using the seams on the right. There was a piton immediately above the belay and then three in the roof as well as a fixed nut. The seams to the roof protect well with aliens or nuts. As you get closer to the roof you get a great hand jam and hopefully you can establish a comfortable stem. If so, look down 800 feet for some of the best vertigo of your life. You could place a cam in the roof (#3 tipped, bomber #4) but you have two pitons and a fixed nut at your feet. If you place a cam in the roof, remove it for your second as the rope will pull it into the crack, there is an old bolt once you flip the roof to redirect your second. Continue up the left leaning crack ramp above to a nice ledge from which to belay.
P7 (5.7, 80 feet): Go a little ways up the left leaning crack system (maybe 15 feet from where we belayed). If you reach a piton you have gone too far. If you make it all the way to the top of the corner system you will find an old rusty bolt, again way too far. From the piton look down 5 feet and over 15 feet and you will see the bolt you need to traverse to and the obvious ledges and chicken heads that will take you there. Easily down climb the corner to where you want to start the traverse, place a cam and extend it and launch out and slightly upwards towards the bolt. After mantling at the bolt traverse hard right to gain the ridge a short distance below the summit and setup your final belay.
Summit: Down climb about 20 feet (5.2) to some easy ledges that will allow you to traverse to the summit gulley. Follow this upward until you find the top.
- nuts, single set
- doubles of aliens (blue, green, yellow, grey
- doubles of BD (#0.5-2) and one BD #3
- 60m, twin ropes, many pitches were full length.
Descent: From the summit head down the North West slopes. The face you turned the ridge onto. You can begin down the first gulley but at some point you need to switch over one gulley to the left, facing down (West). Follow this down until it seems like it cliffs out. At this point start trending right and you will find the couloir that splits the cliff band you are on and the North East ridge. From the bottom of this couloir you are near the base of the North East ridge.
Photo Album (pitch by pitch beta)
The Barb (5.10-, 8 pitches)
This is the other moderate classic on the Spearhead. Again the lower pitches were extremely wet early season but still climbable. When the climbing gets hard the route was manageably dry, though the crux finger locks and crimps as we encountered them were seeping. While maybe not as aesthetic a climb as Syke’s Sickle from a distance. I thought the route had better and more sustained climbing.
P1 (5.6, 180 feet): Begin up the obvious right facing corner with a huge detached block composing part of it. We switched out of the corner and face climbed its edge for its upper portions to avoid the water. Above easy ledges and cracks will take you to a comfy belay on the middle earth ledge.
P2 (5.5, 160 feet): More or less straight up from the belay via blocky ledges to a giant grass covered bench beneath a large roof. Place a directional for your second and then walk left about 100 feet past the roof. When the grass ends just after passing out from under the roof, make a few low angle face moves to a rock ledge at the base of a giant flake. This flake is your route upwards. Setup a comfy anchor.
P3 (5.7, 180 feet): Launch up the leftward trending flake. When it ends transition around the corner left to find another giant flake system continuing up. When this ends, a couple face moves left will gain you the right facing but left trending corner ramp. You can continue up this to the top if you have a 70m rope and minimal rope drag. Otherwise we set up an anchor just before the climbing appears to get vertical and hard.
P3.1 (5.8, 30 feet): Go up the last bit of steep corner, really really fun climbing, and setup a belay on the ledge at its top.
P4 (5.9, 120 feet): The crack/seam running left at a 45 degree angle yields a brilliant fairly sustained passage and was my favorite pitch of the route. I am not sure how cleaned out the crack gets later in the season. We found it with lots of pretty flowers that we left in place but this meant good pro was only possible at about 10-20 foot intervals. It was a bit wet but not problematic as the edges are large and feet mostly dry. Belay where the left leaning crack ends. You should have a small roof directly above you that also has a ledge, but if you belay there your second will not be able to see you on the next pitch.
P5 (5.9, 100 feet): Go up to the small roof and take the corner on its left side. The corner transitions into a first left then right leaning hand crack. The crack is flared so likes small cams, yellow and grey aliens, purple 0.5 BD maybe 0.75 BD. When the crack turns back right things become briefly challenging as you pull onto a ledge underneath a small roof. Pull the roof and follow 20 feet of plumb line straight perfect splitter until it ends and you turn left to join a right facing corner. We setup a hanging belay with a good stance here.
P6 (5.10-, 100 feet): Go up the right facing corner to its top. Where it ends a wild move right gains a hand crack that curves up and right. It ends in another hand crack crossing in the opposite direction. Get your feet in this crack, clip the piton in the seam that allows you to continue your rightward train of progress, and execute a few face moves with a good ring lock. The crux passed you regain a friendlier crack that takes you to the summit ridge. Belay here.
P7 (5.2, 100 feet): Turn the corner to the North East ridge’s garbage chute (giant right facing corner). Follow this to the top of the barb and setup a belay.
P8 (5.6, 210 feet): Fun finger crack leads up a left facing corner. Where it ends pull up onto a ledge and walk right around the bulge to find another finger crack. Take the flake that the finger crack ends under to the right which will get you to a large right facing corner. Follow this corner until it pinches down and throws a few final fun moves at you before you exit on the summit ridge.
- nuts, single set
- doubles of aliens (blue, green, yellow, grey
- doubles of BD (#0.5-2) and one BD #3 (used the 3# a lot, though read reports saying it was unnecessary)
- 60m, twin ropes, many pitches were full length
Descent: Same as for Syke’s Sickle (described above) and all the routes on the Spearhead.
Photo Album (pitch by pitch beta)
We reserved a backcountry permit ($26) to make the most of the weekend, making it just in time Friday evening to pick it up at the backcountry office before they close at 1900. After entering the park we parked at Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead and made the leisurely 5 mile romp up to Black Lake. Early season, shortly before reaching Black Lake the snowpack consumed the trail and we switched to post holing but with a fairly solid snowpack snowshoes were unnecessary. From Black Lake you turn left (East) following the creek up and around the cliff band that appears to close off the valley ending on a plateau below spearhead and longs with our pick of bivvy sites (approximately 1.5 miles to the base of the routes).
Glacier Gorge Junction Trailhead – Estes Park, CO