Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Obscure Tour: Bullet

In early season, the most rewarding ice and mixed climbs often are those on the obscure tour—climbs that might not seem worth the trouble when fat ice is everywhere. Sometimes, the result is a happy discovery, as with Bullet, a short route at the foot of Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. I'd never heard of anyone climbing this route since its first ascent nearly 10 years ago, but this fall, thanks to a couple of compelling photos at MountainProject.com, Bullet has seen a flurry of attempts and ascents.

As Jack Roberts and I neared the base of the route on Sunday after the relatively short walk from Bear Lake (less than 1.5 hours), we were surprised to hear voices—two climbers were just starting the climb. We watched them complete the first pitch as we geared up, and then Jack started up after them. Bullet isn't super-inspiring from the ground: After about 50 feet of easy ice climbing, it's all gray rock above. But the climbing was much better than it looked.
After taking a brief gander at the crux of pitch one, a poorly protected lieback, Jack opted for a bulging but well-protected variation to the right. Good stuff.

The party ahead of us hadn't liked the look of the second pitch, which follows a steep corner to a leftward traverse under a big roof; the leader bailed after about 15 feet, citing a lack of pro. Attempting the first ascent, Greg Sievers had taken a 25-footer from this roof. Neither of these facts gave me much confidence as Jack handed me our jumbo rack of rock gear, but, on the other hand, I could see that Bullet suited my style. The angle was less than vertical, and tiny footholds dotted the icy rock. I'm no good on really steep routes—rock or ice—because I don't have the strength and confidence for sustained overhangs, but on good days I can stand on small holds for a long time and work out moves and protection. This was a good day, and as I moved up the corner I was able to find decent pro every few feet. Below the roof, I spent many minutes balancing on monopoints and carefully slotting tiny wired nuts and C3 cams into the ceiling. The slab below the roof was nearly blank, but I could see jugs at the far side. When I was more or less happy with the pro, I committed to the traverse and quickly but carefully dry-tooled across the slab to reach a good stance and more pro.

Every once and a while, I feel really great about a lead. Bullet required some skill, but the real key was patience and mind control—the willingness to hang in there on tiny, tenuous holds until I'd done what had to be done with the gear, and then—and only then—switch to confident but controlled aggressiveness for the short run-out to good holds. Whether it's traditional rock climbing, steep ice, or dicey aid, the best climbers seem to muster this combination of patience and aggression at will. It rarely happens for me, and it's just so satisfying when it does.

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