Find high-performance outdoor clothing, gear, and accessories that make wise and responsible use of resources. See more Mountain Gear Sustainable Pick items.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Brain Freeze

I'd been scheming a long new route in Rocky Mountain National Park for almost a year, ever since I spotted the line last spring on the south face of Mt. Otis, right behind the spire called Zowie. I figured it would be in perfect shape in March, and I certainly didn't think there was any hurry: Not many people like these kinds of routes to begin with, and the odds of someone else spotting this one seemed pretty low. But in mid-February I opened the First Ascents page on Mountain Project and discovered that two lads, Andy Grauch and Chris Sheridan, had beaten me to my route. They called it Brain Freeze, after the intense ice cream headaches they got from continuous spindrift in the chimney, and their pictures and description made it look just as good as I had hoped.

Second ascents aren't first ascents, but I still wanted to do the line. So, earlier this week, Jack Roberts and I skied up to Mt. Otis on a cloudy morning, with snow threatening. It took longer than we expected to get to the base of the route—it always does—and we didn't start climbing until after 10. After a short band of snowy rock climbing and a snow gully, we arrived at the meat of the route. A diagonal chimney called the Changing Gullies Pitch was filled with a ribbon of ice. From below, this appeared to dead-end, but after about 60 feet of fun climbing, the route intersected another, deeper chimney that shot up about 400 feet toward the summit ridge. This was the business: sustained snow groveling, dry tooling, and chimneying with crampons. At its best, the groove narrowed to a boot width and you could jam a foot in the icy crack. At its worst, soft vertical snow filled the chimney and you had to wudge up the groove using every inch of your body for friction on the walls.

Just as I was beginning to panic amid the worst of this insecure stuff, I poked an axe through the snow wall and revealed a cave behind. I squirmed into the gap and stood up: a cozy, flat-floored room, sheltered from the wind and the spindrift that by now was pouring down the route. Jack wasn't too tickled when he got there and eyed the next pitch: The cave walls were plastered with enormous snow blobs, and the exit looked fierce and intimidating. Spindrift funneled down the narrow groove at the lip of the roof like it was spraying from a snow-making gun. But once Jack committed to climbing, he found it wasn't too bad. A key hex placement and a tied-off chockstone high in the roof safeguarded the moves, and the walls turned out to be covered with footholds. At the lip of the roof, we both spun around twice to maximize the use of the holds, and at one point we could sit relatively comfortably above the void, looking straight down the chimney below. Wild.

The route didn't let up above, with more sustained chimneying and dry tooling. Near the top, we deviated from the first-ascent line, choosing what seemed to be the more direct and logical line for our sixth pitch. This appeared from below to be a short, moderate rock band, but the corner I chose steepened to vertical just as the footholds disappeared. We both thought this pumpy dry-tooling section was the crux of the route, though we just may have been tired. Fortunately, the pro was very good.

At the top, it was snowing hard and the wind was up. We weren't sure how to find the gully we had planned to descend, so we decided to rap the route, which turned out to be a good call. Andy and Chris, the first-ascent team, had struggled to descend in a whiteout and didn't make it to their car until 3 a.m., having left their skis at the base; they had to return the next weekend on snowshoes to retrieve their gear. We were down to our packs in an hour and a half and ready for the fun ski out on several inches of fresh snow.

I don't know why more people don't do routes like this; it's actually hard to find partners for these big spring routes in the mountains. Yes, they're exhausting days, and I have a big blister on my left heel from skiing in mountain boots, and the climbing is inelegant and sometimes scary and cold. But the rewards from a day like this, when all of one's skills and desire are tested, seem so much greater to me than a day of rock climbing in the sun. Maybe I'm just a masochist.


Unknown said...

nice work more people dont do it cause they cant wish icould, keep up the evolution

Anonymous said...

I'd love to, but all my partners who enjoy suffering like this have gotten married and/or gotten kids. I'm out of gonzo partners!