Petit Grepon, East Face

By: Frank Reeves | Climbers: Frank Reeves, Roger Rumsey |Trip Dates: Aug 18-21, 1999

Photo: Gary Clark

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High Adventure in the Rocky Mountains

(Or, Adventure high in the Rocky Mountains)

I was down in the dumps at the loss of a reliable climbing partner; he bought a powerboat and now spends his leisure hours on the lake. Good climbing partners are hard to come by. I began the process of prodding friends into taking up climbing, with limited success. None showed a burning desire to take it up as a regular activity. Enter an old climbing partner from several years ago. Working out at the gym one day I ran into Roger Rumsey with whom I had spent a couple summers climbing together several years ago. He asked if I was interested in a trip to climb the Petit Grepon. I nervously said yes! I was nervous because I had no idea what or where the Petit Grepon is and I know Roger sets his sights high when choosing a climbing adventure.

Roger informed me that the Petit Grepon is a rock spire in the backcountry of Rock Mountain National Park with a reputation as a high quality rock climb in a pristine alpine setting. It is also number 34 in Roper & Steck's book, "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America". Roger sent me a reprint of the book and I poured over the pictures and route descriptions. Yep, true to form, it appeared that Roger had picked a stiff climb, at least for my moderate climbing abilities. We set a date and spent a couple evenings climbing at the local crags to hone our skills, both individually and as a climbing team.

Roger picked me up at 4 in the morning on Wednesday, August 18th for an 8-hour drive to Rocky Mountain National Park, north of Denver. We reached the park by mid afternoon and proceeded to the backcountry office to obtain our bivy permit. You may ask, "what's a bivy?" Kevin, the young park service employee, informed us that overnight stays in the Sky Pond drainage, our destination, are limited to technical climbers only and subject to bivy regulations. To wit: No tents no fires, camps setup only after dusk and struck before sunrise. Oh, and sleeping bags/bivy sacks can be set on rock or snow only. Peachy. We drove to the Glacier Gorge trailhead, sorted climbing gear and headed out for the 4.6-mile hike to Sky Pond. The scenery along the way is truly spectacular, passing two high mountain lakes, The Loch and Glass Lake, replete with large feeding trout (why didn't I bring my fly rod??). The first two miles was a typical national park trail super highway with passing lanes and hoards of people. All were in awe of two guys actually carrying backpacks. We ran into a couple climbers on their way out after climbing the Petit the previous day and probed them for beta on the climb. "It took us 12 hours and seemed harder than the rating indicates". Par for the course.

As the distance lengthened the tourists dropped off and the trail degenerated into a much more rugged backcountry condition. We trudged on, steadily gaining elevation. We reached Sky Pond after 2.5 hours of hiking. Sitting high in a glacial cirque, Sky Pond (at 11,000-ft. elevation) is surrounded by many rugged rock spires with descriptive names such as 'The Sharks Tooth' and 'The Saber', with numerous snowfields dotting their flanks. Viewed from the south The Petit Grepon stands out as a fang shaped spire (to quote the book), with a ramp like lower face, increasing to a near vertical wall at its apex. It rises 1000 ft above the lake; its technical climbing route begins 200 ft. above the lake, gained by scrambling up a scree slope. As the sun set we relaxed in an unusually warm evening, watching the trout rise to insects and the alpenglow playing on the peaks. With no fire to keep us up we crawled into our bivy sacks at 9 and went to bed with great anticipation. We rose at 6, amazed at how warm it seemed for such a high elevation. I heated water for coffee and oatmeal (Roger munched dry granola) before heading out. Another climbing party beat us to the punch. We watched them gain the base of the rock face and begin the 1st pitch as we finished breakfast and packed our climbing gear. We hurried our breakfast and headed out, fearful that some other party may also beat us out and delay our start.

We reached the rope up point at the base at 7:30 and geared up. At this point I volunteered to lead the 1st pitch, mainly because it looked to be an easy one. It turned out to be a decision I would recall as stupid later on. The route description called for 8 pitches of mainly 5.7 rating with the crux pitch being 5.8. Roger, being the stronger climber, agreed to lead the most difficult pitches. Yea right! . Little did I know that my decision to lead the first pitch would coincidentally set me up to lead some of the more difficult sections later.

"Ready to Climb" I nervously stated and started up with his response of "Climb On". The first pitch was relatively easy, being a full rope length (160-ft.) and ended at a huge grassy ledge. It was a good warm-up pitch for me as I got used to the beautiful granite and settled into a good climbing rhythm. Roger came up, transferred gear and started up the second pitch, a large chimney. He worked the left side of a steep ramp within the chimney and reached the belay point, on top of a big chockstone, and belayed me up.

We both agreed that the route possessed a good clean quality with good holds when you needed them. I began the next pitch by finishing out the chimney and exited out around a large roof into a left slanting crack that tended to want to push me out, off balance. Added to this was the first inkling of the exposure to come. As I worked the crack I glanced down to the lake below and appreciated just how high we had climbed already. Roger led the next pitch, another chimney. It was very exhilarating stemming up a 50-ft chimney, glancing between your extended legs to seemingly sheer open space below. I was glad I was seconding it. It was shaping up to be a great adventure! The 5th pitch was mine to lead and turned out to be the crux pitch of the climb. I angled up right and mantled up on to a thin ledge. From there I made a dicey move left to gain a vertical crack. Exposure always kicks up the difficulty factor in my mind! As I was placing a nut, Roger informed me from below that wired nuts were falling past him. I looked to see that a gate on the biner holding the nuts was open. I had just lost 3 pieces of his gear! I didn't really care at the moment because I was preoccupied with controlled terror.

The vertical crack seemed thin and exposed. I placed another piece of protection and, as I prepared to pull up over a bulge into another thin crack system, I noticed severe rope drag from my rope below. Roger looked up and yelled to me that I was back-clipped, not exactly what I wanted to hear at that moment in time. I had to down climb, remove and reset the piece and reposition myself for the crux move. I did this with great anxiety, hurriedly placed another piece of protection above me and went for the crux move into the crack. It seemed like I was in adrenaline overload as I fumbled to sink my hand as far into the thin crack as I could. Luckily the move was straightforward and I quickly finished out the pitch, breathing hard and very happy to be on (another) large grassy ledge. Roger came up, saying that the pitch even got his attention as the second. I took this as a compliment and spent a few minutes to gulp some water and wolf down a granola bar.

At this point the route rounded the south face onto the east face where it meanders up a near vertical wall, staying close to the knife-edged south/east arete. Roger took off on lead. As I sat there belaying him I looked across the long ledge that was my perch to see a furry animal loping my way. A marmot came a calling. He approached to within 5 feet of my stance and seemed to be looking for handouts. Sorry, my hands are full! He got bored after awhile and took off. Meanwhile, Roger had completed a long pitch requiring some zigzagging to find good protection points and had reached the fabled 'Pizza Pan Belay'. The name is appropriate, as it is a small ledge on which to stand (or sit) that is the size of a pizza pan. It is located on the arête, with sheer drops of 500-600 ft on both sides. What an adrenaline rush!

As I reached his perch and viewed the exposure my confidence waned. I looked at the moves above and asked him to take my lead. Roger stated that he was afraid a lead switch here could cause a rope entanglement on rock spurs and was not a good idea. Reluctantly I agreed to do my duty and took off on the next pitch. My pucker factor was high as I jammed a crack above the belay with so much exposure. I reached an overhanging blank wall and was forced to move first right, then left on thin ledges before gaining a generous ledge from which I belayed Roger up. Roger took the 8th and final pitch, which started out with a dicey move up a vertical crack but then transitioned into great big generous jugs and buckets the rest of the way to the summit. He brought me up to a spectacular summit perch, about 6' X 30' in size and dropping off precipitously on all sides. We reached the summit at 2:00pm after 6.5 hours of climbing. The adventure was not over however.

Most all my previous climbing experience involved climbs that, by and large, have relatively easy walk-offs off the backside. The top third of the Petit Grepon is a freestanding spire. The most straightforward descent route (the one requiring the least amount of hiking) requires multiple rappels. It descends the spire and drops into the prominent gully to the east, between the Petit and the Saber.

The weather to this point had been marvelous for the high country but clouds were beginning to build and we had a long descent to go. We snapped a couple photos, enjoyed the tremendous view from our perch in the sky and then prepared for the first rappel. We were climbing with dual ropes so were prepared to do full 165 ft. rappels. Note: there is now a bolted/chained rappel anchor on the summit. Roger took the first rappel, momentarily leaving me by myself on the summit to ponder my vulnerable position. Hearing his "Off rappel!" from far below, I clipped into the rope, double-checked my set-up, and started over the edge. Never having done a full double rope rappel, I was impressed at how far 165 vertical ft. seems. My adrenal glands were getting a workout that day.

Since this is a popular climb, there were preexisting rappel anchors/rings to run ropes through as we descended, although we always inspected the set-up for loose bolts or worn webbing. Another full rappel bought us into a deep gully with lots of loose rock. From here down we had to be extremely careful not to dislodge rock projectiles on each other. It was about this time that our good weather finally ran out and the rain commenced. It rained lightly but enough to wet the rock and ropes. Twice during the 7 rappels, we experienced that sinking feeling when the rope hangs up on something when pulling it down from above. In both instances we were fortunate to work it free and continue down. We reached terra firma of the base scree slope at 4:30, a round trip time of 9 hours. We quickly descended the scree slope, anxious to get back to our packs for something to eat. Back at our packs, we packed our gear and ate in a steadily building rain. We watched with sympathy as a climbing party that had started up after us was in the middle of the same rappel gully we had descended, only now doing it in a driving rain and lightning for added peril. We were glad we had started as early as we did!

At 5:30pm we donned our rain gear and backpacks to hike the 4.6 miles to our vehicle, in the steady rain. We reached the trailhead at 7:30pm, very wet and tired. The rain showed no indication of letting up that evening so we decided to forgo a camp and headed into Estes Park to get a motel room. We slept like babies that night, waking up to stiff muscles the next morning. These 40+ year old bodies were pushed hard. That morning, feeling the previous day's exertion and elation at having accomplished what we came to do, we decided to scale back our plan to climb some more at Lumpy Ridge and decided to see a few more of the sights that Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer. We took off on a moderate day hike up to Nymph and Emerald lakes. As we reached our destination we had a good view of Hallet Peak. We hiked up to its base to watch a couple parties climbing its impressive face (another of the Fifty Classic Climbs). We talked about attempting it next summer. I also hiked up the canyon to view Tyndall Glacier. Back at the truck, we decided to complete the drive over to the western side of the park and continue south towards home. That night we camped 20 miles north of Buena Vista and enjoyed the pitter-patter of rain on our tents. Saturday morning we drove to Buena Vista, did some sport climbing at Pump House Rock and drove home, tired but happy.

Author's Note: Climbing is a interesting activity. It combines the pleasures of athletic exertion, the opportunity to surround oneself in mind boggling natural beauty, and the thrill associated with placing yourself "on the edge". Most people think of the latter when I mention climbing but to me it is the combination of all these factors that make climbing so fun and exhilarating. There are times on a climb that I ask myself how I came to knowingly place myself in this predicament. And then the moment of terror subsides and the other attributes overwhelm me once more. The Petit Grepon was, by far, my most ambitious climbing adventure. This climb was well within my capabilities but I would probably have never attempted it on my own initiative, being very conservative in the assessment of my own climbing capabilities and exposure to risk. All things are relative and many seasoned climbers would snicker at my narrative as overly dramatic for such a straightforward climb. But like beauty, adventure is in the eyes of the beholder. Having climbed with Roger years ago, I was/am fully confident in his climbing ability and good judgment. We made a good team and shared in the fun and adventure of this trip. I am also blessed with a family that doesn't always understand my passion for this activity but none-the-less indulges me my desire to do all things wild and fun. Climb On!!!

A parting note, if I may steal a quote "If you don't like this one, consider taking up another sport." Right on!