Petit Grepon, East Face
By: Mike Sofranko | Climbers:Mike Sofranko, Carol Adair |Trip Dates: June 8, 2000
Photo: Gary Clark
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Sitting at work one day in early June, I saw a news blurb about the snowpack in the mountains being extremely low. That got me thinking about an early season alpine excursion. I figured it would be a good time to get on a typically crowded classic, since most people probably weren't thinking alpine so early. I talked to Carol, and she was game for the Petit Grepon, a climb high on both our lists.
I decided I didn't want to hike all the way into the Petit with climbing gear only to find out that it was wet, so on Thursday I left work at lunch time and drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park. I started hiking around 2:30 or so under gray skies and thunder, and two pleasant hours later I was staring at the Petit. What an amazing piece of rock! It towers about 1000 feet over Sky Pond in a beautiful alpine cirque. It is wide at the base, but the top third of the route is knife-edge thin. It looked impossibly steep, but by looking at my guidebook I was able to make out most of the eight-pitch 5.8 route to the summit. It was dry, and I was disturbed to find out that about 6 people had climbed it that day - just imagine how many people would be on it that weekend!
Carol and I resolved to give it a go, and found ourselves hiking with our fully loaded packs at 4:35am on Saturday. Within 20 minutes it was light enough to turn off our headlamps. After a brisk 2-hour walk, we stood at the start of the route with absolutely no one else in sight. I couldn't believe our good fortune.
We took our time getting ready, and I started the first lead at 7:10am. We started at the right side of the large tongue of snow at the base of the rock, and I angled up to the left to connect with the right facing dihedral. This proved to be rather runout 5.7 face climbing, but I took my time and felt solid. Soon I was at the first large ledge, where I reached the end of our 60m. rope, and Carol climbed up about 15 feet until I could get an anchor.
Carol quickly led the 5.5ish second pitch up a large chimney. The pitch looked short from below, but proved to be about 100 feet long. She belayed in the shade, and looked quite cold as I set off on the 7+ third pitch. I had spied this pitch on Thursday - a slanting wide crack. I had carried my #4 Camalot for this reason - but it turned out that I could have easily gotten by without it. I found the climbing much more straightforward than I had expected, and I was soon at the next large ledge battling severe rope drag.
I anchored in, and after an eternity Carol joined me. I had messed up with the rope management and could barely pull the rope up due to excessive drag. Carol had to climb extremely slowly as she waited for me to pull up the slack. The problem was compounded by our inability to communicate. After that time consuming debacle was behind us, Carol headed up pitch 4. It started with a chimney, then followed a ramp and face up to an exposed belay stance at a couple fixed pins.
Next up was the crux pitch. The 9+ direct start was right over the belay and the protection looked less than optimum, so I opted for the unprotected 5.6 face to the right. I found it tricky, but was soon through it and stepping back to the crack that I would follow to the belay. I was suddenly aware of how steep the rock was as I glanced down at the ground 500 feet below. I found a fixed nut, but it lifted right out of the crack. I replaced it and clipped it and climbed on. After moving up the crack, I found myself at a weird V-slot. I clipped the fixed flexi-friend and moved through the slot and up to the belay. I found the moves strenuous as I was feeling the altitude at this point.
Once again I got to belay on a spacious ledge. This is definitely a climb to lead the odd pitches for just that reason. Carol and I stopped here for a bit to snack and drink some water. The next pitch looked like a route finding challenge, but Carol did great in finding her way. I thought this pitch was about the same difficulty as the previous crux pitch, although it was only given 5.7 in the guidebook. The belay at the top is an extremely exposed and tiny ledge out on the arete. Definitely one of the most spectacular belays I have ever seen. However, it turned out to be another uncomfortable one for Carol, and I quickly headed off on the 7th pitch.
This pitch was fun and juggy, but had some pretty large runouts on 5.7 terrain. I clipped a few fixed nuts and threaded a runner behind a fixed hex in a horizontal crack. Almost like sport climbing, yet strangely different... Once again I got a prime belay ledge. Carol led the last pitch to the summit as the leader from the pair on the route next to us joined me on my perch.
This last pitch is wildly exposed. I climbed up to the ledge directly above my belay, and peered straight down the other side - my head was spinning. The top of the Petit can't be anymore than 10 feet thick, with sheer drops down either side of 500 to 800 feet. I was soon at the summit, and discovered that it was only 30 feet long, and slanting to one side. I felt no need to unrope at all.
Soon the other party joined us. They asked to team up for the rappel down, which was a change from their initial plans. I had hiked up the Gash - the traditional descent - a few years before, and I described my memory. I commented that I thought it might be filled with snow this early in the season, which was enough for them to alter their plans. We all downclimbed the last pitch to the first rappel anchor, and headed down.
At first I wasn't overly pleased about rapping as a group of 4, but as it turned out the rappel route generally followed the route our new friends had just ascended, so they provided much route finding help. Five double rope rappels saw us back to the ground. Definitely a little sketchy due to nearly stuck ropes and sometimes less than optimal anchors, but we made it just fine. [Note: I later determined we rapped down bail anchors. I do not recommend this descent. The established rappel takes a different line, consult a guidebook.] After a leisurely hike out and dinner in Estes Park, Carol and I finally made it back to Fort Collins well after 10:00pm. A long and fulfilling day.