Friday, April 3, 2020

Accessible Alpine Rock Classics in Rocky Mountain National Park

There are only a few peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park that offer both relatively short approaches and "classic" (read: trade route) climbing: Hallett Peak and Notchtop. Both approaches offer modest elevation change at ~1,600-1,700 feet of gain from the Bear Lake Trailhead (same trailhead for both peaks). Mileage is also modest, especially when compared to 12-16 mile days for objectives on Longs or in Glacier Gorge.

Descending from Hallett Peak, the peak on the left side of the photo. Photo Chris Brinlee
Hallett Peak 

Hallett Peak has several routes of 3-4 star quality from 5.7-5.9. When paired with the 1.8 mile approach and 1,600 feet of elevation gain, the North Face of Hallett Peak is undisputedly the lowest hanging fruit for alpine rock in the area. Routes range from 850 to 1,000+ feet and even includes the mega-classic Culp-Bossier (III, 5.8+).

A climber on pitch 4 of the Culp-Bossier on Hallett Peak

The North Face of Hallett Peak is gneiss, and as such its crack systems aren't continuous (especially when compared to other parts of RMNP like the Diamond, or California's Sierra granite) so protection is variable. For trade routes like Culp-Bossier, the 5.8 climbing has great protection but runouts are substantial at 5.6. Additionally, route-finding on the upper face can also be challenging, though many stretches of the wall offer positive edges as a reprieve from the runouts and route-finding difficulties. Trad leaders who are used to multi-pitch routes in more amicable venues such as Red Rock will want to be cautious about selecting this wall as their first alpine rock route in the area.

A climber on the final pitch of the Culp-Bossier, Hallett Peak

Notchtop offers numerous classics at a variety of grades from Spiral Route (II, 5.4-5.6) to Direct South Buttress (III, 5.9). It's a slightly longer approach than Hallett, with just over 3 miles and 1,700 feet of gain but many of the routes will go quicker than Hallett, offering a similar length of day for competent parties climbing at or below their comfort grade.

Direct South Buttress (III, 5.9) is a favorite at the grade, for many RMNP climbers. It's steep, exposed, and offers quality crack climbing in a heroic position, what more can you ask for! The route goes up the peak's prow in the photo below.

A climber looking up at Notchtop from the base
Spiral Route gets overlooked by climbers seeking more sustained 5th class, but for those looking for a fun and moderate alpine day, this route is a must with 3-5 pitches from 5.0-5.4 interspersed with 2nd-4th class terrain. Near the top, one can tack on "Morning" (two pitches, 5.7) to add more technical climbing to the day. 

A climber low on Spiral Route, Notchtop
The descent off Notchtop has two common options: the 4th class ridge descent or three 60m double rope rappels. The ridge descent is engaging and can be time consuming for parties new to traveling in traversing ridge terrain. The rappels are relatively straightforward, though one will need to bring a second 60 meter rope.

Several other routes exist on both peaks described in this post at a variety of grades. Both peaks also offer incredible winter recreation opportunities. Hallett Peak (and Tyndall Gorge, where it is located) gifts climbers with challenging ice and mixed routes like the Great Dihedral (III, M5) and snow couloir climbing like Dragontail Couloir, which also serves as a popular ski mountaineering objective in the spring. Notchtop's aforementioned "Spiral Route" also makes for a challenging yet fun winter climb, making these "short-approach" destinations a year-round gift for climbers, skiers, and snowshoers. Regardless of the season, these peaks are not to be missed by any climber visiting RMNP (who has the requisite experience).    

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