Friday, September 4, 2009

The Petit Grepon

After two great days of climbing at Lumpy Ridge, Alex and I were ready to tackle our main objective, Le Petit Grepon, an ultra classic 1,000 ft. pinnacle in Rocky Mtn. National Park. We were both climbing well, and this climb was well within our range, but we wanted to be sure to make good time to beat out any potential thunderstorms. I had set out to do the Petit about 5 years ago with my partner, Mark, but Mark was having altitude issues. We opted for an easier climb, the Sharkstooth, which has a great view of the top of the Petit. We saw several parties top out on the Petit as we struggled to stay electronically neutral as lightening struck all around us. It was a terrifying adventure, my first alpine ascent, and I was addicted. I pledged that I would come back and do the Petit at some point, but I always wondered when that day would come.

Alex and I both get a little edgy before tackling a big climb, and I had to chuckle as we both negotiated a 1:30AM start time. Alex wanted to get up at 1:30 and I figured 2:00 would give us plenty of time to get to the trail head, hike in the 4.5-5 miles, and start up the climb by daybreak. In the end, I conceded, and we were hiking in by 2:30AM. Alex was flying down the well groomed trail, and I was wondering what we would do at the base of the climb at 4AM. As it turned out, we ended up getting lost a couple times searching for the cathedral spires in the dark. We plodded past what we thought was Sky Pond a couple times, and finally started to see the outline of the Cathedral Spires in the dark. I got excited at the sight, and immediately focused in on the peak I knew was the Petit.

We traversed through the talus slope without much trouble, and easily found the base of the climb. We had agreed to simul-climb the first 2 pitches, and Alex asked if I wanted to take the lead. Since this climb was my idea, I was really anxious to jump on the lead. We had read though the description the night before, and I practically had the climb memorized from years of looking at it, but I could not remember which pitch was the crux. Regardless, I just wanted to start climbing, so off I went.

After 200 feet of easy climbing (Pitch 1 and 2), I arrived on top of the chockstone in the big chimney. The climbing was fairly easy, but I was still a bit cold as the sun was not helping much at this point. We noticed 2 more climbers approaching the base of the climb as Alex started to lead the 3rd pitch. Pitch 3 and 4 were uneventful, and I thought pitch 5 looked more like 5.8 climbing. Alex came up and led pitch 5 without any trouble, and as I followed I though the pitch was fairly easy for 5.8. In fact, I thought the rest of the climbing should be easy if this was the hard part. Famous last words...

Up to this point, the climb was very easy to decipher, but now ALex and I were unsure where to go. I asked Alex to read the description as I prepared to lead the next pitch. Alex read, "200 feet of wandering and sparsely protected climbing". Ugh, I thought, as I remembered him reading the same line the night before...I figured I would end up with this pitch. I'm usually pretty good with run out pitches and am generally pretty bold, but the pucker factor increases with altitude, and here I stood on an exposed pinnacle, over 1,000 feet above Sky Pond where the altitude was around 12,000 feet. The air was thin, and my balls were shrinking!

Nevertheless, I remained stoic in front of my partner...the last thing you want to be is a wuss at 12,000 feet. So, off I went trying to stay "30 feet from the arete" (outside edge of the wall). I wandered all right. I wandered left, then right, then left, then waaaay right, and over a roof, and then did a really cool traverse back left. The protection was OK, but after 200 feet I had very little active pro left. I stood on a ledge with an ad hoc rappel station tinking this was the end of the pitch. Alex's next pitch started with a nice finger crack, and I was looking at one directly above me. The problem was that the book indicated that the belay ledge was supposed to be the size of a "pizza pan". This ledge was much bigger. We also thought we were supposed to be back on the south face at this point, and we were still on the east face. Ugh! I agreed to press on to see if I could figure out where we were.... After leading the 40 foot crack with 2 pieces of gear, I looked up to see easier climbing, but no obvious place for a belay station. I was standing on a ledge the size of a pizza pan, and figured I had enough pieces left to build an anchor.

I brought Alex up, and we both realized we were in the right place and I had climbed the first half of Alex's pitch as well. So, Alex combined what was left of his pitch with the last pitch and we topped out with big smiles on our faces. Yee haa! I stared up at the Shark's Tooth as if to say, "Hello, old friend, it's been awhile!". We took some pictures, and quickly prepared for our descent. After leading the wandering pitch, my brain was fried, so Alex took the lead on finding the rap stations. After two hours of rappelling, we were back on solid ground, and regrouped for the hike out.

Life was good, and we chatted on the walk out. The view was much better than the approach in total darkness, and we passed many tourists having their big adventure for the day. It rained for 20 minutes or so, and then it stopped as we approached the last mile. With about 0.3 miles to the car, I asked Alex if he wanted to race to the trailhead. Alex is always up for a challenge, so with full 35 pound packs, we sprinted like little kids in a 100 yard dash. Alex is wicked fast on technical descents and went off trail to pass an elderly couple. I scooted past behind him, but could never make up the lost time. Eventually, we stopped as we approached the parking lot and smiled and laughed. The perfect end to a great climb!


Alex received an email from his wife, Olga, that evening indicating that she was in the hospital. Alex quickly made plans to leave that evening to return to Russia. We spent the rest of the day doing the tourist thing in the park, and then headed over to my cousin Paul's place for a great salmon dinner. Afterwards, I drove Alex to the airport in Denver.

I haven't heard back from Alex on his wife's condition, but am hopeful that she is well. Alex is moving to Seattle when he returns to the states, so I will not be seeing him as often.

Since Alex is a regular reader of this blog...

A great climbing partner is hard to find. You trust your life to this person, and share a lot over time. It's been a great pleasure, my good friend. I have the greatest respect and admiration for you, and wish you all the best in future adventures. I hope we can manage to rope up again in the future. It's been a blast! Thank you for some great memories!

All the best!