Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Vanquished, At Last

Vanquished is one of those routes that every dedicated alpine climber in Colorado would love to do, but almost none has. Yesterday, thanks to a tip from Kelly Cordes, who had completed Vanquished two days earlier with Steve Su, I got to do the climb myself—or at least most of it.

Each spring, after a cold and wet spell, the whispers go around: "What do you think? Is Vanquished in?" I can't tell you how many times friends have walked in to Powell Peak thinking those white streaks might be ice, only to find they were powder snow over blank granite slabs. The trick is waiting long enough for the snow to melt and refreeze: Vanquished comes into good nick during those rare late May or early June cold fronts that dump lots of moisture and bring numerous freezing nights to the high peaks.

Yesterday it certainly was cold. After the four-mile walk to Sky Pond, Jack Roberts and I nearly bailed because the wind was howling and it was somewhere in the 20s. In mid-June. During the climb, we wore five layers on top, nearly full winter armor, and still we shivered. But of course this is what it takes to bring Vanquished into shape.

The key to the route is usually a thinly iced slab on the first pitch. Kelly had said this was the crux of his climb, and he sent me a photo with a possible alternative start. Even though there appeared to be more ice on the normal first pitch than Kelly had found, Jack and I were intrigued with the alternative, which looked difficult and wild. I started up the pitch and then bailed after the first third, scared off by unprotected moves over super-thin foamy ice. (If this pitch were at Loch Vale, 45 minutes from the road, it would be classic, but three and a half hours from the road it seems a lot more serious.) Jack managed to lead through and then carry on up strenuous liebacking and chimneying and a weird and insecure upper groove. It's hard to put a grade on this wild pitch because it wasn't as technically difficult as some things I've done, but it was very insecure and strenuous (especially placing the gear). Jack said it was like an awkward 5.9 crack that keeps coming at you. That sounds right to me. It's possible (but who knows) that this could be in shape more often than the usual first pitch of Vanquished, making that route more doable.

Above this the climbing was simply superb and very unusual for Colorado. Thin streaks of neve and ice wove through granite ribs and up short chimneys. It felt very much like the Alpine climbing above Chamonix, and not at all like Rocky Mountain National Park's usual snowed-up-rock grovelfests. But the Park returned with a vengeance at the top of the fourth pitch, where I started up a short bulge of ice barring the entrance to the lower-angle groove that leads to the top. Either the sun had hit the ice too much or Kelly and Steve had shattered it, but I soon discovered that the ice wasn't as solid as it looked. With my feet skittering on foam-ice and blank rock, I got high enough on the bulge to plant a tool well over the lip, into what I assumed would be nice neve in the groove. But then all the ice at the lip shattered around and below my pick. Luckily my lower tool was good, and together with a bunch of falling ice blocks I slithered back down to a stance. I tried a bunch of ways to get past this section, including aiding off a pathetic screw, but I couldn't reach any solid ice or higher pro. I brought Jack up, and we decided it just wasn't safe to continue, so we bailed from there.

Vanquished may hang in there for a day or two, but it's over 90 near Boulder today, so probably not. I feel really fortunate to have been able to climb this route, even though we didn't get to finish the last half-pitch, and I'm grateful to Kelly for the tip-off.


Graham @ CiloGear said...

nice story Dougald! I love knowing that folks are doing new stuff in the black on the same days that folks are hitting ephemeral ice. Nice pictures too.

Anonymous said...

Jesus christ, that first pitch variation was hard. Nice work, Jack