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The Petite Grepon, Rocky Mountain National Park

Author: Mike Sullivan

Participants: Mike Sullivan, Andy Grieder

The Petite Grepon might be the single most popular alpine climb in North America, and with good reason - it is steep, clean, solid, and has breathtaking exposure all the way to its tiny summit perch. Standing on top of this nearly thousand-foot spire is an altogether amazing experience. Despite its steepness, fat piles of juggy holds keep most of the route in the 5.6 to 5.7 range, with a short 5.8+ crux.

The route is so popular, I've heard stories of parties being found on each of its 8 pitches during peak season. Andy and I decided to try it on a weekday early in the season to avoid the summer swarms. We had the additional luck (?) of having a 4" snowfall in the Park 36 hours before our attempt. We figured this might add to the challenge, but would hopefully cut down on the possibility of having to share the route.

At 5 AM, we pulled into the Glacier Gorge parking lot, hoisted packs, and swung out towards the Loch Vale trail. It was practically summer solstice and the stars were already fading into the dawn, so I decided to chuck my headlamp back in the jeep. Fateful decision music swelled up in the background, but I chose not to hear it...

We zipped up the trail, and as the sun rose we were blessed with the coolest display of alpenglow I've ever seen. The photos I took are so red that they look totally fake. Despite a few camera stops and a brief detour caused by mistaking Glass Lake for Sky Pond, we were at the base of the route by 8:30. It looked dry, but we figured there had to be some water lurking up there somewhere.

We free soloed the first pitch, a 5.3 slab, and immediately found the water. Well, slush, actually... It turns out that 5.3 moves covered in slush are pretty interesting without a rope. We survived, and roped up for the next pitch - a chimney that had dripping ice clotting up all of the holds and a small waterfall pouring in the top. Cold, wet, miserable, and oddly enough - a lot of fun. (At least for me, since Andy "won" the coin toss for the 1st lead. He had to use his nut tool to chip ice out of the cracks in order to place gear.)

Each of the next 3 pitches were also slushy and wet in places, though none were as bad as the ice chimney. We placed our belays in sheltered spots to protect from the occasional ice chunks that came whizzing down the face. The crux crack on the 5th pitch was also wet and dripping, but by this time we were getting pretty used to it, and I was able to scurf my way up it on lead with only a minimal amount of whimpering.

The final 3 pitches were absolutely fucking stellar. They were almost perfectly vertical, with incredible exposure. The holds were great, and the pro was reasonable, though sparse enough to keep it pretty exciting. Best of all, the rock was dry. We topped out around 4 PM, in crosswinds that were stiff enough that my loaded pack almost blew into the abyss during one gust.

Because of all the ice and snow on the slopes behind the Grepon, we made the decision to go down the long but safe way: up to the col behind the summit, then down the back side to Andrews Glacier. This took us into the wrong drainage, but the gullies leading down to the base of the Grepon were funnels of falling ice and debris in the afternoon sun.

The descent sucked. We did 3 more roped pitches, 7 rappels, and endless snow slogging in our sopping climbing shoes. It became more fun once my feet went numb. We finally made it back down to the trail at about 8:30 PM. Andy volunteered to hike back up to the base of the climb to retrieve our stashed gear. It was well after dark when he returned. I was pretty bummed when I discovered that he had not found my hiking boots next to the pack, and had returned without them. There was no choice but to hike out in my climbing shoes. OK, now I know why I should've brought the headlamp.

We stumbled down the infinitely long trail by starlight, with Andy doing his best to warn me about all of the obstacles he tripped over. We finally staggered out to the trailhead at the stroke of midnight. We had not seen another person all day.

As an interesting, uh, footnote, the dye from my wet climbing shoes turned my feet a lovely shade of sky blue, which persisted despite several scrubbings. I did a snow climb on Twin Peaks two days later, and got caught in a rainstorm that soaked my feet. When I took my boots off after the climb, my feet were clean and my socks were blue!


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