Petit Grepon, East Face
By: Greg Opland | Climbers: Greg Opland, Tim Schneider |Trip Dates: July 1, 1992
Photo: Gary Clark
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The alarm went of around 2:30am...way too early. When I got out of bed, I had that "raw nerve" feel that I used to experience in college when I pulled all nighters. Down to shower, haul the stuff to the car and we were outta there. We pulled into the Glacier Gorge parking lot after the about 3:30am, yanked the stuff out of the trunk and headed for the trailhead. It was pretty dark at the time, but it was a feeling of adventure to be heading into the unknown. We strapped on the headlamps, and cruised down the trail.
After an hour of staring at the ground within the beam of the headlamp, tripping over small rocks embedded in the trail, and a erie feeling of tunnel vision, the sun finally came up enough to allow some peripheral vision to creep in. Tromping along the trail, I was surprised that it wasn't as steep and nasty as I was expecting (too much Arizona approach hiking!).
We didn't push the pace too much. I think we both knew we had a long day ahead of us and were saving the real juice for later when we would need it. Somewhere in the dark, just short of Glass Lake, we were tooling along the trail and I heard some weird low-pitched thuds...what the hell? We stopped and checked it out. Our tunnel vision/headlamp hiking had led us into a small group of elk kicking back for the night in a small meadow just beside the trail. Pretty cool! Some headed up, some headed down and we continued after watching them for a while.
We passed Glass Lake and arrived at The Loch, the second mountain lake you see on the trail. Our arrival at The Loch was pretty much in concert with sunrise. A beautiful sight at that time of the morning. Galen Rowell, noted photographer, calls this the "magic hour"...I would have to enthusiastically agree with him after experiencing The Loch at sunrise. Crystal clear water, majestic pines, and mountain ridges feathered with snow made this one of the most awesome natural sights I've ever seen. We pushed on.
A short time later, we arrived at the junction of the Andrews Glacier Trail and the Sky Pond trail. We planned on caching some stuff at this point so we picked an obvious spot well off the trail and sorted through the gear. Non- essentials were left behind in the second day pack. We loaded into our harnesses and I did the rest of the hike with the gear rack slung over my shoulders. Tim brought the two ropes and other "essential" gear in his day pack for the climb.
The rest of the hike was pretty routine, although it took place in an non-routine location. Peaks, snow, and waterfalls everywhere led us into the end of the trail over and around a waterfall leading to Sky Pond. Some of the hiking even took us across the water several times. We arrived at Sky Pond around 6:30am. The day was clear and beautiful. Checking out the layout, we skirted the pond on the right side to the base of the Grepon. The topo said 200' of Class 4 slabs and ledges, so up we went. The route appeared to go up the large chimney in the center of the face, so that's what we shot for. We arrived at the bottom of the chimney quickly and I racked for the first pitch. We had brought helmets for the climb and strapped those on as well. Awesome lookin' helmets dude! I kept thinking, "I am the eggman, I am the walrus..."
Moving carefully to get a feel for the rock, I stemmed my way up the easy (5.5) chimney to the first belay. The climbing was fun and the pro was solid and easy to place. I moved out to the left just below a large black roof in the chimney and set up the belay. I put Tim on belay and he cruised it in no time. from here, I had the brilliant idea to draw a topo as we went along. I figured it wouldn't take long, so I whipped out my trusty pen :-) and sketched out the first pitch. The weather was great, and I was going to enjoy this climb by taking my time and smelling the roses on each pitch.
From the belay, I moved into the "left slanting crack" that is mentioned in the Fifty Classic Climbs route description. This section is a little offwidth, but easy (5.6) and you then move into another shallow chimney and up to ledges below the headwall. As I pulled up onto the large ledge system, I looked up and there was (as I later identified from pictures of the park) a large yellow-bellied marmot sitting on another ledge in front of a chimney/cave in the rock face. It was moving its head around and sniffing, but I don't think it could smell me because of a stiff cross breeze. I also can't say much for its eyesight since it didn't seem to see me. The thing reminded me of the R.O.U.S.'s (Rodents Of Unusual Size) from the movie The Princess Bride. It was about the size of a small cocker spaniel. Anyway...back to the climb. I strapped in and Tim fired up to the belay. Two down, six to go!
The next pitch was pretty average, as climbs go. I headed up a chimney section in the middle of the face past the marmot after Tim attacked the ferocious, slavering beast and drove it back into the cave at the bottom of the crack. The moves were fairly easy to pull off and I arrived 90 feet later at a horn with a green sling wrapped around it. It looked as good as any place to belay from, since it has a small ledge to stand on, so I tied in and backed it up with some solid pro. This was a pretty moderate pitch (5.6) and Tim came on up with little problem.
I was checking out the climbing on the next pitch, as this was the biggie, the enchilada, the hero pitch, the CRUX! I moved from the horn off to the right and wandered up over some ledges to a roof. The roof was turned on the right end and I was facing a steep face section up a pair of parallel cracks to a dihedral (the crux as it turned out). The pro was a little more interesting in this area. Most of the climb to that point had been medium to large pieces...no more. It was time to get out the stoppers and RPs. I moved into the section and was surprised a how steep it got. Pretty vertical climbing on my small stoppers and a couple of fixed pitons (don't forget to look for pitons!) got me to a bomber hand jam to the right of a bulging section with a left-facing dihedral. Finally, some big pro! Pro in the dihedral, jam and delicately moving around the bulge into the dihedral got me to a final short chimney section to a beautiful ledge that sits on the junction of the south and east faces (mainly on the east looking at The Sabre). My leading was over and I would be following the rest of the climb.
Tim got up the pitch with little difficulty and I piled all the lead gear on the luxurious ledge and kicked back with a Power Bar and some water. Wonderful! The sun was out and the weather checked in just short of beautiful. The only thing that didn't look too hot was the clouds that were oozing their way over the ridge line just across the way...Hmmmmm... Tim got loaded up and we started moving faster.
The next pitch up the face turned out to be some great 5.7 climbing. Steep, almost vertical, face with pretty good handholds. From that side, the face to the summit looked huge as you get around on the right side of the Grepon. No more knifeblade arete Eiffel Tower lookin' climb for a while! Tim headed up the discontinuous cracks wandering here and there to get pro in at the appropriate times. He found a good belay ledge and put in the anchor, and I joined him a short time later. The clouds were still coming and we didn't take long to get moving again.
The next pitch was about a hundred and twenty feet and was very similar to the sixth pitch in its climbing on steep face. It turned out that climbing on this stuff was a lot of fun, but I imagine it was a party for stopping and putting in good pro. Tim headed up to the left side of the face to the very edge of the arete where he found a small stance (the 'Pizza Pan Belay') on a ledge perched on the junction of the east and south sides of the Grepon. Belay ledges don't get much better than this. Looking back down towards Sky Pond, you can check out the first four pitches of the route that just hangs beneath your feet. Way cool! I had a great time climbing this pitch, but was getting a little aprehensive about the rather thick layer of clouds that were starting to get too close for comfort (too many stories of Colorado afternoon storms!).
I set up and Tim headed up pitch 8 which led to the false summit. Only two to go!
The false summit pitch was, once again, some really cool climbing up steep sections with good handholds. As I was climbing the section, I was noting that it would have been pretty exciting to lead this pitch as well, due to the steep nature and one-handed placements that it would required (Note : I would check this pitch in at about 5.7+). Nice job, Honemaster-T! From the belay, Tim worked his way up a nice crack system past an old fixed piton and into a steep rock gully with a large quartz deposit on the left. This pretty much ended the difficult climbing for the Grepon as the face above is pretty much 5.5 and heads to a great ledge on the false summit just below the top. The route became obvious from there, since you can see a 5.6 crack system that heads up the right hand of the summit tower right to the top.
By this time, things were getting right interestin' with the clouds. The entire cloud bank had surrounded and covered us and the Grepon. Sky Pond was completely blocked out by the thick layer between us and the ground. It was an eerie feeling, sitting there on a rock island in the middle of the cloud bank. It gave me a sort of detached feeling that bothered me more than any exposure ever did. The ground gives you perspective and something to reference from that the clouds took away. But, there was one pitch to go so Tim headed up!
...The last lap takes you right to the summit. You got a thousand plus feet of air on both sides at this point, being on the ridge of the Grepon. Traversing out from the belay along the 4th class (huge exposure) ridge is way cool! Don't forget to look down! Tim headed off to the obvious crack system and I snapped pictures of the entire last pitch climbing sequence as he topped out. I followed him up the easy climbing and we shook hands on top amongst the clouds. "Our best summit yet!", I was thinking as we topped out about 1:30 in the afternoon. But, they say in mountaineering, "the climb ain't over until you're back on the ground!" So we headed over to check out the rappel situation.
Over on the far side of the Grepon, I found another testament to Murphy's Law of Slings: "The strength of an anchor is directly proportional to the weight of sling that is wrapped around it." The anchor consisted of sling wrapped around a protruding block on the very edge of the Grepon summit. Banging on it a couple of times with my hand, the thing reverberated just a little to much to give me a hell of a lot of confidence. Tim kicked it a couple of times and I think I heard an echo. Sheeesh, this mountaineering stuff is pretty interesting some times. What the hell, Bonzai! As I was rappelling, corn snow was falling lightly, but soon quit and the clouds appeared to be thinning. Since we brought two 180' ropes, I went all the way down to the busted up rock saddle between the Grepon and the "death gully" between it and the Sabre. There, I found another set up rap anchors and Tim followed right behind. We hit the next rap quickly and were on the ground at the top of the "death gully".
The weather, which had me concerned at the summit, was pretty much clearing up at this point as the cloud bank proceeded to pass over our area and on to the northwest. The temperature for the entire trip was very comfortable for both of us in long pants and light jackets.
Checking out the situation, and the largely varying descriptions of descent from the Grepon, we picked the chimney that headed up and over the ridge between the Grepon and the Sabre and started up (sans rope). The chimney was very wide and broken up and foot placement was pretty interesting in places. About half way up, Tim cut to the left to head up the most direct way to the notch. The next few moves were a little dicey, so he placed a few pieces and put a long sling on it for protecting the moves. I followed and brought the sling and pro with me (wasn't any sense getting messed up at this point). Up and over the notch brought us to (what I assume was) The Gash.
The Gash turned out to be a steep, snow plastered gully that didn't look too improbable from the top of the notch, but turned out to be very interesting from up close. As I descended the broken talus to the start of the snow slope, I noticed that the warm weather had the snow pretty mushy and figured it was going to make things real intense in a hurry. The first step into the snow slope sent me up to my calf in wet, mushy snow and broken rocks...a broken ankle/leg waiting to happen! I got back up into the talus and we checked out our situation, set up a single rope rappel and Tim headed down to a rock outcrop that stuck out of the snow about halfway down. The view turned out to be misleading in perspective, and we had to add the other 180' rope to get all the way to the bottom of the snow field. What a comical sight, as we rappelled/slid/careened to the bottom of the snow gully. We took plenty of pictures to record the moment. Once down, we coiled the ropes and started the talus hop to what we hoped would soon be the Andrews Glacier Trail (a lot we knew).
After what seemed like eternity, and scaring the hell out of a few unsuspecting marmots on the way, we made it down the loose talus slope to a very large, fairly level rock shelf. We sat down and changed out to the 5-tennies which made a big difference in the comfort department. My socks were soaked from the snow rappel and I felt pretty lucky that the weather hadn't turned cold. At this point, the clouds were gone and the sun was out, making the day very temperate. Once again, we figured; "down this slope, up the side, down the other, and we're there!" (WRONG AGAIN!)
Another eternity later, we found a rappel to get over the huge headwall that leads down to the lower part of the descent valley. So, once again we pulled out a rope and had to recoil at the bottom. This went smoothly and we again did some scree (talus) skiing (screeing) to the boulders at the bottom.
Eventually, we made it to the base of the valley and had one snow slope to go to get to the pond at the top of the Andrews Glacier Trail. I was sick of delays, so I jumped in and careened, out of control, to the bottom, dragging my hands in the snow as extremely makeshift brakes. Didn't work all that great, and I slid right into the rocks at the bottom. A this point, I didn't care anyway. Nothing was broken and Tim found a little more controlled way to the bottom. From there, it was history. A short ways from there, we found the trail and were back at the packs in about a half hour. Boy was I glad we stashed extra water in that pack! It made my day! Restuffing the gear into the two day packs, we hung out and drank water and relaxed for a while. We eventually left the packs around 6pm and headed for the parking lot.
We cruised the trail to the car on busted up muscles and a desire to get to town for food. At some points in the descent hike, we were actually running down the trail like two maniacs. Good thing there weren't any other people around. The trail seemed to go on forever and we arrived at the car around 7:30pm, piled the stuff in and headed for town.
In retrospect, the trip to the Petit Grepon has been my greatest rock climb to this point. It had everything; adventure, great scenery, adventure,unpredictable weather, adventure, great climbing on solid pro, adventure, route finding, adventure, and an alpine feel that is very satisfying. This has honed my appetite for more of this type of climbing and Rocky Mountain National Park has not seen the last of me! Sykes Sickle and Hallett Peak look out!
Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.