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Aug 5, 2003, 6:26 PM
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Registered: Dec 24, 2002
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TR: Birds of Fire and Spear Me the Details
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Birds of Fire and Spear Me the Details:
July 11-13, 2003

Climbing in the Park this weekend started out with a bang – of the “I think I’m going to be sick…. Yep, I’m definitely sick” variety. Anxious to get started on a weekend of climbing in the Glacier Gorge area, David Benson and I made great time hiking in on Friday evening. David dispatched the six miles from the trailhead to our bivy cave above Frozen Lake in 2.5 hours, and I arrived shortly afterwards. I was doing okay until the last half mile and 500’ or so of elevation gain, but during this last stretch my heart rate was way up and I couldn’t get it down despite frequent pauses. When I finally cast off my pack at camp I felt awful. It was all I could do to lay out my bivy sack and sleeping bag before flopping down while David cooked dinner. Spicy Indian food… mmmm great. Over rice and curry, David cheerfully explained that men ages 20-30 are the most common victims of altitude sickness (“They tend to just “push through the pain” when they’re not in shape but unfortunately, in the case of altitude sickness, pushing through the pain only makes things worse”). Yeah, so what, I’m not in shape. I was only able to eat three spoonfuls of dinner. As David drifted off to sleep, I lay there wondering how I was going to make it through the night and marveled at how I could feel my pulse throbbing in my temples.

About two hours later I rolled over and, in a panic, tore open my sleeping bag and threw my jacket on. I frantically tried to put my pants on but I could only pull them halfway up before I found myself lunging out of our shelter and diving onto a large, flat rock. What followed were two “gut-wrenching” sessions of emptying my stomach.

Yes, it was ugly.

After catching my breath I felt some strange need to alert David to what was going on:

Josh: David???

David [now]: Yeah?

Josh: I’m throwing up.

David: Yeah. You'll feel better when you’re done.

A third and final session commenced. I lay there on the rock for some time, pants still around my knees, before finally getting up and wandering off to clean myself up.

Josh: I’m so sorry…

David: It’s OK.

Josh: I wish you didn’t have to listen to that.

David: It’s OK.

Josh: I tried to make it further from camp but I couldn’t.

David: No worries.

I sensed that David wanted me to shut up so he could go back to sleep. I think I just wanted to make sure that the next morning he’d know I had a valid reason for not wanting to climb. But, as it turns out he was right – I already felt much better.

Saturday morning, after a quick breakfast, we racked up for our first climb of the weekend, Birds of Fire (III 5.11a). The scramble over to the base of Chiefshead took about 20 minutes, but there was a substantial, steep snowfield blocking the way. I carefully kicked steps for David and we made our way across it for about 50 yards, breathing a sigh of relief once we stepped onto solid rock – the snow was very frozen that early in the morning and one slip would have sent us uncontrollably sliding.

Birds of Fire is characterized by nine pitches of sustained technical slab climbing (most at the 5.9 to 5.10 range), devious micro-route finding, and, most of all, runouts. The route is largely bolted, with a few supplemental gear placements, but bolts are often spaced 20 feet apart and you definitely have to keep your cool – especially since the silver bolt hangers blend in perfectly with the white-gray granite and often you find yourself climbing upwards onto blank rock, hoping that you’re not getting yourself irreversibly off route (i.e. screwed). Fortunately we had perfect weather and since David had done the route a few years ago we had some added confidence. David did a fine job of dispensing the technical crux (pitch 3) and I followed cleanly. I then led the supposed “mental crux” (pitch 4) but it didn’t seem that bad – a few dicey moves here and there but some decent gear. I linked pitches 6 and 7 together and David led up the upper arête pitch – again doing a fine job by finding the exact point at which to step out of the dihedral and onto the arête. At 10b, I actually found this move to be easily as difficult as the 11a crux lower down. I then led a short, easy pitch to the summit, and David followed up, topping out at 12:48. We had started climbing at 7:20 AM and were very satisfied with the time considering our casual pace.

The raps were very fast and uncomplicated, although I missed one station and had to anchor into a ledge and wait for David to set up the rappel above me. At the bottom we coiled our ropes and discussed our method of descent back to camp – I wanted to glissade down the snowfield but David was concerned that it was too steep. Ultimately he reluctantly agreed to do it if I went first. Stepping off the rock I took a few cautious steps in the now soft snow. Right at the base of the cliff, the snowfield was almost vertical for a few feet as it reached up to meet the rock. Beyond this it still maintained a very steep angle for a long ways before finally leveling out into a low angle bowl. With a quick double check to make sure my chalk bag was closed and my jacket was fully zipped, I half-jumped half-slipped onto my butt and accelerated like a rocket. Snow was flying everywhere and I was squealing with joy. That minute of sliding was just as fun as the five and a half hours of climbing, and definitely less effort. David followed, hooting and hollering, while I snapped photos.

Back at camp we ate and napped for a few hours and then strolled around to the face of Spearhead to scope out our route for the next day. We had planned on climbing Spear Me the Details (IV 11d) but had agreed to not make a final decision until after Birds of Fire. We were tired and easier lines like Sykes’ Sickle, The Barb, Age Axe, and even Stone Monkey were all enticing, but after identifying the direct, steep, and intriguing line of Spear Me the Details our decision was made. On our way back to camp we excitedly discussed the logistics of the ascent.

I hadn’t eaten much since lunch the day before and fortunately regained my appetite just in time for the pasta, foccacia bread, and strawberries. After dinner we boiled water, organized camp a bit, and ultimately were in bed around ten.

At daybreak on Sunday we tore down camp and headed over to the base of Spearhead. We had decided to attempt to rap from the summit instead of the traditional walkoffs (neither one of us wanted to carry approach shoes) so we stashed our packs under a boulder front and center of the formation. Again we had to cross a snowfield (albeit a less steep one) to the base of the rock. At almost the same time we spotted two other climbers making their way to the start of The Barb. We also spotted a herd of elk in the cirque below. Watching one of these elk walk up to an (occupied) bivy cave and begin nosing around one of the backpacks there was highly entertaining. David commented that he didn’t think elk were known for raiding campsites. We both chuckled as the climber woke up and the elk, obviously surprised, backed up a few steps. No doubt the climber was surprised too!

After changing into climbing shoes I ran the rope out for 200 feet on 5.6 terrain to the Middle Earth ledge. David followed and then led up more easy ground and belayed on a flake system just right of the Eye of Mordor, and dead center on the Northeast face of Spearhead. The next pitch was where the business began – a steep 5.9 crack in a dihedral that started off at about 3 inches and quickly opened up to 12 inches. David was all about giving this lead to me. Apparently he’d rather do the 5.11d bolted face climbing than the 5.9 unprotected thrashfest. I placed a half-inch cam down low and began working up the crack – the largest piece we had brought on the trip was a #2 Camalot and I held onto it hoping to place it as high as possible; unfortunately I ended up walking it up until it was completely tipped out and useless. Knowing that that half-inch camp was way below me, I took my time surveying the climbing above, planning out my moves and rests. I ended up liebacking the last 15 feet or so of the crack – probably 25 feet out from my last piece. David and I both agreed that it was soft for 5.9, but that didn’t make it any less exhilarating for me. David took off on the next pitch. This pitch wanders a bit and is somewhat confusing. After trending off to the left on flakes he clipped a fixed pin and consulted the topo. Rossiter doesn’t indicate the presence of this pin nor does it show the bolt on the blank face above it. Ultimately David decided to not climb up to the bolt but to continue to the left to a dihedral/flake system that is in fact indicated on the topo. He ascended this for about 50 feet and then traversed straight right and down slightly to a good belay stance. Later on we agreed that the line actually goes straight up to the bolt and then trends only slightly right to the same belay stance, and this was confirmed by Gillett’s description. However, the climbing was still very interesting and aesthetic – probably checking in at easy 5.10. The next pitch (pitch 4 from Middle Earth) was mine and involved a 5.10d mantle over a roof – supposedly protected by a bolt. I couldn’t see this bolt but after meandering slightly left on very fragile flakes and then back right on good holds, I worked my way up to a great stance (and gear) just below the roof.

David: Do you see the bolt?

Josh: Yeah.

David: How is it?

Josh [hesitating]: Well, it’s a bolt.

David: Is it good?

Josh: Well, yeah, I mean it’s a bolt. I mean, no, not really. You know, it’s a button-head and it’s rusty. But my cams are good.

David: The bolts on the crux pitch had better not be button-heads or we’re bailing.

The mantling hold at the lip of the roof was positive but the exact body position was not obvious to me. I really wanted to continue my onsight effort thus far and David patiently allowed me to take plenty of time to try out a few different starts before committing to the mantle. Once I was standing on this hold, I realized how steep the route suddenly becomes. From here I traversed left on vertical 5.10 to a dihedral and then followed this up easier ground to a hanging belay. David climbed this pitch flawlessly, but when he arrived at the belay he asked if I was interested in leading pitch 5 (also the 11d crux of the climb). I agreed: I wasn’t very comfortable at the belay and was glad to try my hand at the hard stuff; I’d never onsighted a 5.11d trad climb before, but I figured what the heck – surely 12,000’ and 24 hours out from being sick as a dog is as good a time as any. Well, it was a hang-fest. Not a complete, utter, aid-climbing spectacle, but the opening moves were definitely a hang-fest. Rossiter and Gillett both rate these moves as easy 5.11 with the crux being a bolted section much higher on the pitch, but the climbing at the start was just plain hard! Frustrated by what I thought were supposed to be 11b moves and the fact that the pin that supposedly protected this section was missing, I lost my composure and slumped onto my gear. After a few more half-hearted attempts I informed David that I was sorry for dogging and that I was going to proceed to aid the move. I fished in a #4 RP and, with my foot in a sling, was finally able to reach up to a tiny handhold. From this hold I desperately clipped the first bolt (it turns out they are not button-heads) and then slumped down again. While I rested I pulled the RP so as to give David a better chance at getting it clean, and studied the moves I’d just yarded through. Even hanging there looking at the holds I couldn’t make sense of it. Oh well, upwards. I actually faired quite well on the next section of sustained 5.10 face/slab climbing up to an incredible, potato-chip-thin flake formation – here the rock was again dead vertical and pulling up to this flake was committing and exciting. Amazingly, a hole in the flake allowed for a great rest. I wasn’t looking forward to the actual 5.11d crux, but found the climbing past the next few bolts to be much more manageable – David and I agreed that it checked in at easy 5.11. From here I climbed right into a steep dihedral, and somewhat confused about where to belay, continued up this past a fixed pin. Here I realized that I had overshot the belay and was well into the next pitch. I clipped yet another bolt and considered linking the next pitch, but ultimately, due to lack of gear, I decided to belay David up from this bolt. When he reached the base of the dihedral (while we still had a few pieces between us), I informed him of the situation. We agreed that I should extend the anchor off this bolt so that I could also clip into the pin and then David would lead right through. This worked really well and my discomfort didn’t last long. Incidentally I should point out that David climbed the crux section down low cleanly – amazing! The remainder of the (now 6th) pitch had a few more difficult moves up a seam in a dihedral. Apparently this dihedral used to have a few fixed pins but fortunately only one remained – this allowed for at least a few fingertip jams. We felt like this section was sustained 5.11- fingertip liebacking. At the belay we were merely two (linkable) pitches from the summit. It was up to me to get us to the top. I led up a 5.8 pillar to a bolt on the face above. Here it took me a long time to figure out the devious 5.10 move past this bolt to some weird left-trending strata. A balancey traverse left from the bolt led to a stance below a 5.10 seam. Again I took a long time here – but this time it was not to decipher the moves but to instead fiddle in gear. The gear was not good and I was looking at a very ugly swing off the bolt 15 feet to my right and at about shin level. Two RP’s and a #2 BD stopper (all facing a directional force from the bolt) had me “uncomfortably anxious.” I stepped up and held my breath past a marginal green Alien, and then, finally, I slapped a big hold and then a hand jam! Cruising up the last 20 feet to the summit, and too tired to emit any victory noises, I set up a belay and brought up David. Spear Me the Details was ours.

In my two years of climbing this was possibly the hardest route I’ve done – perhaps not in terms of commitment or difficulty alone, but certainly considering both of those together, along with the hard route the previous day and my, ahem, “food pyrotechnics.” Despite a few blemishes, I was very happy with my performance, and I was certainly thrilled with how Birds of Fire went. Both routes were phenomenal.

Still feeling occasional bouts of queasiness, I took my time on the hike out – including swimming in Black Lake. Fun… er… chilly! On our way out David and I decided to see how much time the popular climbers’ shortcut down to the trailhead actually shaves off – I took the main trail and he took the shortcut; it turns out it only saves about ten minutes. A short wait for the shuttle bus and we were off to Estes for burgers and beer – another great weekend in RMNP.


Aug 5, 2003, 6:45 PM
Post #2 of 4 (1741 views)

Registered: Apr 7, 2003
Posts: 278

Re: TR: Birds of Fire and Spear Me the Details [In reply to]
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Nice work and writing, Josh! :) (All recovered from the 32-hour fasting, and wondering how Pearly'd go feeling like this now...) cheers! Good TR!


Aug 5, 2003, 8:20 PM
Post #3 of 4 (1741 views)

Registered: Sep 28, 2002
Posts: 581

Re: TR: Birds of Fire and Spear Me the Details [In reply to]
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Good read! Sounds like quite a fun weekend of climbing.


Aug 6, 2003, 9:04 AM
Post #4 of 4 (1741 views)

Registered: Aug 23, 2002
Posts: 742

Re: TR: Birds of Fire and Spear Me the Details [In reply to]
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Moved to the Feedback and Trip Reports forum by yours truly.


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