Climbers are drawn to the Petit Grepon, the most famous and most spectacular of the Cathedral Spires, like hikers are drawn to Mount Fuji. Located in superbly scenic Loch Vale, this spire has everything: an aesthetic line, solid rock, adequate protection, and mind-bending exposure. Qualities which earned the South Face route a place in Steve Roper and Allen Steck's Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.
Best of all, it's not that difficult. The crux pitch is 5.8, and the other pitches range from 5.5 to 5.7, so it's within reach for weekend warriors. Of course, difficulty takes on a different meaning when you're in the high peaks.
Whoever named this rock "little climb" had a big sense of humor. Deep in the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park, with its base at 11,400 feet, this 800-foot spire is no small undertaking.
At 5:15 a.m., our bodies complained that we were waking much too early. But when my partner Britt and I arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at dawn, more than a dozen cars were already in the parking lot. By the time we reached Sky Pond, at the base of the Petit Grepon, we could see a party on every pitch of the South Face route.
The adventure begins with a four-and-a-half-mile hike. After the Andrews Glacier turn-off, a good place to cache gear, the gentle switchbacks of the Glacier Gorge trail give way to a steep climb to Sky Pond. A narrow climber's trail leads up the talus to the base of the Grepon.
The first hundred feet is third-class terrain, wide rock stair-step ledges which can be scrambled without a rope by careful climbers. The technical stuff starts at a fat ledge called the First Terrace, where a dark chimney, easily visible from the approach, heads upward.
When we arrive, a pair of self-described slow climbers is just starting the first pitch, and a party of three is waiting on the terrace behind them. Faced with this crowd, we opt for a sneaky alternative.
With one 5.9 pitch, the Southwest Corner route is a wee bit harder than the South Face, which makes it far less popular. The first two pitches, though, are 5.5 and 5.6, and they end at a ledge which is shared with the South Face route. At this ledge, the Second Terrace, the harder route angles off to the left while the easier continues straight up.
We fly up the elegant left-facing corners of the first two pitches, and we're both at the Second Terrace just after the leader of the slow party, over on the South Face route. While I rack the gear in preparation for the next lead, Britt strolls across the terrace and engages the other climber in polite but pointed conversation. After a few moments he gives me the thumbs-up; the other climber doesn't mind if we butt in ahead of him and his partner. I scoot over to the wide crack that forms the third pitch, and head up.
The climbing isn't that hard, from a technical perspective. But at this point we've been working hard for six hours, hiking and climbing and gaining altitude, and the oxygen level has been dropping as we go. What little atmosphere there is up here in the all-but-stratosphere whips past me in a strong, cold wind from the west, chilled by its passage over the permanent snowfields of the high country. The sky is still vividly blue, which is a good sign. This is not the place to be caught in a thunderstorm.
The third pitch ends at some fixed pins, a pair of pitons that look old enough to have been placed by the first ascensionists back in 1961. William Buckingham and Art Davidson are credited with that feat, although nobody knows exactly what route they followed. The Grepon's south face still has a lot of room to wander around at this stage in the game, but looking up I can see the spire narrow above me. All the routes converge for the last few pitches; the foreshortened perspective makes the tip of the spire seem only fifty feet or so above my head, although there are still four pitches to go.
Gingerly, I test the pitons. They don't wiggle under my fingers, so I clip them and add a few pieces to beef up the stance. I drink in the view while I belay up my partner. Beneath my feet, past a thousand feet of granite cliff and eroded talus, Sky Pond is a small blue spot. To the east, the grand mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park give way to lower foothills, which drop to the plains; I imagine I can see all the way to Kansas, although I'm probably just looking at Greeley, fifty miles away. Britt arrives at the stance, racks up, and begins the next lead.
This is the crux pitch, and it begins with a not-very-protected traverse to the right that has me eyeing those pitons again, thinking about the forces that will be generated if he takes a swing. But he moves upward easily, so I return to my contemplation of the view until it's time for me to follow.
Watching the Clock
Seconding the 5.8 crux pitch reminds me again of the differences between alpine cragging and garden-variety climbing. Though technically it's well within my ability, the combination of the heavy pack on my back, the thin air, and the empty space between me and the nearest horizontal surface all conspire to make me sweat. "This is hard!" I whine.
"Granite is supposed to be hard," comes Britt's response, from somewhere above me.
I make another bid for sympathy. "This is scary!"
"Are you having fun?"
"Of course I'm having fun!"
A big ledge on the southeast corner of the Petit Grepon provides a convenient lunch spot. Although we take a leisurely break, the climbers behind us still haven't arrived by the time I rack up to begin pitch five. The sky is still perfectly blue, but it's after two o'clock, and there are still three pitches to go -- plus a time-consuming descent. I head up "somewhere right of the corner," as the guidebook directs, conscious of the time pressure.
The route-finding is tricky and the protection is sparse. Easy ledges give way to steep dihedrals, corners like open books, and suddenly it's not so obvious where to go or what to do. Looking down gives me vertigo; here on the east side of the spire, the view is a perspective-bending gully between the Petit Grepon and the rock just to its east, the Saber. I carefully place some gear and move up to a ledge under another open-book corner.
I'm nearly at the end of my rope, both figuratively and literally. The next belay is ten feet above me on the southeast corner, on a tiny triangle of a ledge called the "pizza pan," but I can see no easy way to get there from my position. The climbing seems harder than 5.7, so either I'm off route or the alpine nature of the climb is fooling me again. Possibly both.
The dihedral above me has a skinny crack in the back that will take only my smallest gear for protection, which makes it seem a bit scarier, since the larger pieces usually inspire more confidence. I place a little brass nut above my head, clip the rope to it and move up -- and the nut falls out, clanking on the ledge I just left as it slides down to rest on the previous piece. No confidence here.
If I fall now, I realize uneasily, I'll hit the ledge. Not a bad enough fall to kill me, but enough to break my ankle. And a broken ankle up here would be no small problem. It would take us several hours to rappel to the ground, and several more hours for Britt to hike out to call a rescue helicopter.
One hand in a death grip on the rock, I fumble with the rack and extract another brass nut to slot into the crack. This piece is a #4 RP, about the size of my smallest fingernail, and it's all that stands between me and the ledge below. I make certain it is wedged so firmly in place that a nuclear blast wouldn't dislodge it.
And a good thing, too. I'm shaking so much that my fingers can barely grip the granite. As I desperately attempt to work my body up higher, the muscles in my hands give out entirely. The message from my tired fingers barely gets to my brain in time for me to shout out, "Falling!"
The #4 RP -- and Britt, on the other end of the rope -- catch me. Too exhausted, both mentally and physically, to continue to lead, I lower to Ankle Break Ledge and set up a belay.
Britt comes up easily and takes over the lead for the final two pitches. I'm glad to simply follow; the sky is beginning to cloud up, and I've lost the mental edge necessary to lead with confidence and speed. I follow out to the "pizza pan" and then directly up the southeast edge of the Grepon. The spire narrows alarmingly. As I approach the summit I can see around both sides. It's like climbing a granite flagpole.
When I reach the top, I can't bring myself to stand up. The summit stretches thirty feet to the rappel anchor, where Britt sits and belays me, but it's only as wide as a city sidewalk. With the wind threatening to blow me off the edge, I flop over onto my stomach and crawl to the anchor.
As I ungracefully slink to the northmost point of the rock, I look over the edge at the climbers behind us. They weren't kidding about being slow; one of them is just beginning to lead the pitch above the big grassy ledge, the pitch I fell on.
Nasty-looking clouds are moving in, so we don't dawdle on the summit. Two long rappels put us in the gully to the east of the Grepon.
The leader of the party behind us has not yet made it to the belay. They're on the east side of the rock, so they can't see the clouds approaching from the west, but it's clear to us that they're not going to summit before the gathering storm hits. We shout warnings, and they wisely decide to bail off.
Smiling in the Rain
Although we're on the descent route, there's still a little climbing left to do. We scramble upward from the head of the gully, up an easy chimney, through a rabbit hole formed by an enormous chockstone, and out onto the ridge behind the Grepon. Two of the other Cathedral Spires loom above us, the Saber on the east and Sharkstooth on the west. Between these two hulks, the Petit Grepon is a delicate granite finger.
My toes wriggle with pleasure as I remove my climbing shoes and put my hiking shoes back on. We slog down a climber's trail next to the snowfield called the Gash, still broad in September. I hear thunderclaps and look back; the spires are completely shrouded by a curtain of rain. We make our way as quickly as we can through a huge boulderfield, jumping from rock to rock, racing the storm. It catches us just as we reach treeline.
An hour later it gets dark enough to pull out our headlamps, and half an hour after that we reach the car, at exactly 8:00 p.m. We've been hiking and climbing for fourteen hours; we're tired, we're wet and we're ravenous. But we're smiling.