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Friday, October 16, 2009

Total Abandon!

After several false starts due to illness and road closures, Jack Roberts and I made it to Pikes Peak yesterday and climbed the classic ice route Total Abandon. This climb forms occasionally in the fall on the right side of a dramatic granite buttress on Pikes' north face, starting about 900 feet below the 14,115-foot summit. The approach is more akin to a Chamonix cable-car lift than the usual American wilderness slog: To get to the route, you drive up the Pikes Peak toll road ($10/person), park at 13,400 feet, and follow the so-called Hero Traverse for an hour. But you have to be fast: The road doesn't open until 9 a.m. in late fall, and there's a $100 per hour fine if you don't make it down to the gate by 5 p.m.

There's also the problem of knowing if the road will even open for the day. We started calling on Monday afternoon, hoping to climb the route this week, but the toll road was closed on the upper mountain Tuesday and Wednesday because of snow and high winds. With a better forecast for Thursday, we called again Wednesday afternoon, but the staff wouldn't commit to opening the road the next day. Since we live two hours' drive away, we decided to pack both rock and ice gear, plan to arrive soon after the gate opened at 9, and hope for the best. When we arrived, we were told the road was only open to the 16-mile mark—two miles short of the Hero Traverse—but with clear skies overhead we figured they'd probably get the road open by the time we got there. And that's what happened: A ranger had blocked the road just above the parking area, but that was OK with us. We had no intention of driving to the summit.

I had never been on Pikes Peak. Although it towers 8,000 feet over Colorado Springs, the mountain seems like a bland hump from a distance. I was surprised at how beautiful and complex the peak appeared up-close. Negotiating the Hero Traverse into the north face cirque, we saw countless pink-granite buttresses and intriguing gullies. The views made me want to return in spring, when this basin is filled with corn snow, and in summer for high-altitude rock climbs.

We turned a corner and were happy to see a line of white ice on our route, deep in a dark corner. The late road opening had forced perhaps the latest alpine start I'd ever experienced—we didn't rope up until around 11:15—but the three-pitch route went smoothly: A thin ribbon of sticky ice and short mixed steps; a very steep chimney with ice on the left wall and rock on the right, made awkward because both of us wore packs; and a long, somewhat tedious escape pitch of steep snow with occasional tenuous chockstones to surmount. At nearly 14,000 feet, we were not moving quickly, but even so we were back at the car by 3 p.m. There, we found a flat tire on Jack's car.

Changing a tire at 13,400 feet in mid-October is no joy, but we still had plenty of time to spare before the 5 p.m. penalty hour would begin. Even with the flat and a stop for a repair on the way home, we were back in Boulder less than 12 hours after leaving—one of the strangest and yet most satisfying alpine days I've done in years.

1 comment:

Jake Norton said...

Awesome route, eh? It's been years since I've been on it, but was actually hoping to get on it this week. Might still do so...we'll see. Glad you had a good time!