Sunday, December 30, 2018

Winter Flatiron Top Ten

Danny Gilbert taking a breather high on the First Flatiron around 7:30 p.m.

Roach's Top Ten Flatiron climbs hasn't attracted a lot of attention, but it should. Though one could argue over the choice of the routes, this collection is high quality, varied, and spread nicely along the entire length of the Flatirons. Doing them all in a day is daunting. I have no idea how often it's been done, but all of the ascents that I know about was documented in this trip report by Danny Gilbert. Most of the time it's done as a point-to-point (and for some reason almost always strictly north to south) to avoid the 6-mile hike back to the start. Danny upped the ante the first time he did the Top Ten and finished where he started. Darren Smith followed suit and set the FKT in 6h28m.

A long time ago (10+ years, I think, I need to find that trip report) I tried the Top Ten, alone, in January and, after scaring myself silly when my rope got stuck on the North Face of the Maiden, decided not to solo, for the first time, the North Face of the Matron. Hence, I only got nine done. Cleaning that up had been in the back of my mind ever since.
Danny high on the first section of the Fatiron. 
Doing the Top Ten in winter is harder than you might first imagine. First, because it must be done in late December or January. February and March are out because the Third Flatiron closes after January 31st. So, you're pretty much guaranteed a cold, dark day. My good friend Danny Gilbert and I made it a goal of ours this year and then didn't get it done in January. The first few days of winter were semi-reasonable temperatures but family commitments precluded us from giving it a go until the 29th, which happened to be the coldest day of the winter season.

I'm known among my partners for being particularly wimpy in cold weather. So, what am I doing trying this? I can't explain that sufficiently even to myself except that it's a challenge. I aspire to climb big mountains and it's cold up there, so I better train for it, right? But, still, I'm not suited to it. My hands and feet have poor circulation and I need good gear to survive and still suffer. Danny knew this and still wanted to team up with me. I might not be the worst partner for this, since I know the climbs pretty well, but I'm a long way from being the best. Maybe he needed more of a challenge himself. Layton Kor, one of my climbing heros, was famous for doing first ascents of very difficult routes, with neophyte partners. He succeeded not because of his companions, but in spite of them. This is basically what Danny did.

Rapping down off the Maiden
The night before the weather forecast was for 13 degrees the next morning and not rising about 15 degrees for hours. My son Derek, who had been interested, said he was out. I sent a text to Danny telling him about our doubts. His response: "We can do it!" No easy way for me to back out. When I arrived at Chautauqua Park the next morning it was 8 degrees. I figured we'd just be going for a long hike. Danny really wanted to at least give it a try this year (since it was on our list of goals) and if we failed, we'd just try again in January.

I wore my Keen Mountain boots - soft-soled, warm boots that I used to climb Aconcagua - and would change into freezing climbing shoes at the base of each route. Danny did the entire day in his scramblers. With my wimpy feet that wasn't an option for me. I brought a down jacket and wore it most of the day. I brought big down mitts and wore them at the start and whenever I needed to warm up my hands, which was frequent.

Our plan was to close the loop - to start and finish at Chautauqua. Why make it harder? Danny. We planned to climb up each route, which sounds obvious, but frequently people do this link by climbing down Stairway to Heaven because it climbs south to north. Why make it harder? Danny.
Danny leading the first pitch on the Matron
 So, we started by hiking about six miles south to the Fatiron, which is east facing and we hoped it would be climbable by the time we got there. This allowed us to hike during the dark and the coldest part of the day. We chatted non-stop and just hiked. We were carrying two 30-meter 7.8mm ropes, a rack of five cams and five slings, harnesses, belay/rappel devices, food, two liters of water. I wore a 30-liter pack to give me room to carry my huge boots when necessary. We were not going light. It was too cold to go light for 12+ hours.

We navigated well and arrived at the Fatiron after 1h35m. I switched into my climbing shoes, kept on my down jacket and we scrambled upwards on great, dry rock and in the sun, though it was still very cold. At the top of the first section we set up a rappel from the anchors and I went first and noticed that the ropes didn't reach. The terrain at the end of this rappel is very overhanging and the ends just dangled. We moved the rappel down to a horn near the edge of the overhang and it worked great.

At the top of the Fatiron we experienced very strong, biting wind. We'd meet these conditions on the top of each route and it would be so brutal at times that we questioned whether we could continue. Each time we'd arrive back on the ground in a miserable state. I'd switch back to my boots, pull on my down mitts and we'd hike on, and each time, we had recovered enough by the time we got to the next climb to head up once again.

We made the short but complex hike/scramble over to the Maiden and Danny discovered that movement in his scramblers without Microspikes was not only slow, but dangerous. He'd wear them continuously (not on the climbs, of course) for the rest of the day. We roped up for the Maiden, as we would on the Matron, the Backporch, West Chimney, and Friday's Folly. We soloed the rest: Fatiron, Pellaea, Stairway to Heaven, First and Third Flatirons.

Me nearing the crux of the Pellaea
I led and we simul-climbed from the start over to the East Ridge. We both stopped enroute at the Crow's Nest to ditch our packs. Danny had to stop a couple of times as we traversed the north face in order to warm his hands. We both climbed in light pile gloves and conditions here in the shade of the North Face, with temperatures still below 20 degrees and winds about 30 mph, were nasty to say the least. Danny worried if he was forcing me to stop in a bad position, but before each tricky section I'd make sure I had enough slack to continue to the next rest stance. I was out of slings at the belay on the east ridge and stopped there. I was surprised to hear moans of pain from Danny wafting around the corner. I was gratified by it, somewhat, though. At least I wasn't the only one suffering. From previous experience on winter 14ers with Danny, I'd have thought if Danny was in pain from the cold, I'd have already been left for dead.

When Danny joined me on the ledge, I ran the rope up to the top while Danny suffered the screaming barfies as his hands thawed. At the top the wind was ripping and it was desperately cold. I pulled my down mitts out of my pockets and pulled then on while we set up the rappel. Danny went down first and barely made the Crow's Nest because the our purple rope got blown around the rock and got stuck. He got down, but couldn't free it. I'd have to do it.

Just dropping off the top of the Maiden was scary because my hands were nearly numb. I wore just my pile gloves in case I had to manipulate something. I rapped down until I was the furthest from the rock - probably thirty feet away from it, getting blown around in the wind. I wrapped the rope around my leg three or four times and then hauled myself down the rock via the stuck purple rope. Just before I got to the rock the rope pulled free and I swung wildly away, spinning 170 feet off the ground. I was penduluming so far out to the side, that I didn't think I'd hit the Crow's Nest, but Danny was able to pull me in when he grabbed the ends of the ropes.

Me climbing up Stairway to Heaven
The next rappel went a lot smoother and we rapidly warmed up once on the ground and out of the wind. On the climb, I thought we had to abort, but now back on the ground, I was at least willing to hike over to the Matron. We descended down to the bridge trail and took that over to Shadow Canyon. We dropped some weight just off the Shadow Canyon Trail and headed up to the Matron. It was Danny's turn to lead and he did a great job. We simul-climbed the 3 or 4 pitches in one and met our nemesis, the wind, at the summit. Two rappels and we were down. I carried my pack to the summit because I had to carry my boots. The only routes I didn't carry my pack on were the Pellaea, West Chimney, and Friday's Folly.

We now told ourselves that we just needed to hike back to Chautauqua and we'd be done. Yeah, we had to do seven climbs along the way, but at least we were headed towards the finish. We'd taken about five hours to get the first three climbs done. It was going to be a long day. We were a bit worried about the Pellaea since it is a thin, delicate climb that seems harder than the 5.4 rating. We once again stashed some gear at the trail junction low in Fern Canyon and headed up with just one rope in the pack.

The climb went surprisingly well. It was the only climb of the day that I climbed bare-handed. The rock had been in the sun for quite awhile and conditions were good. Of course the summit was pure hell, but we weren't there long. We hiked down, retrieved our cache and headed towards Dinosaur Mountain. We had previously arranged some aid from Sheri at the Mallory Cave/Mesa Trail junction and she did not disappoint. She brought us more water, Gatorade, Frappuccinos, hot chocolate, cookies, sandwiches, nuts, etc. She also brought me my gaitered running shoes and I swapped them for my mountain boots. Later, I almost regretted this choice, but it worked out.
Bushwhacking over to the Royal Arch Trail
We trudged up the Porch Alley trail to the back side of the Front Porch and dropped some gear. Then headed around the north side of the Lost Porch and up to the Back Porch. It was my turn to lead and once again we did it as a single pitch. Two rappels off the back side, with the second being the freakiest rappel start in the Flatirons and then back to the gear. We took the newly-formed path (from the latest Tour) down into Skunk Canyon where we found some nice tracks in the snow (probably put in my Peter Bakwin and Justin Simoni) and headed east to the base of Stairway to Heaven. Getting up this long climb was tiring and very cold on my feet. We downclimbed off to the west via Danny's route, which I'd never done before. It's pretty neat, though a bit lichen rich. I was thankful to be back in my Crossovers and we did the bushwhack over to the Royal Arch trail.

The trail was very icy and I was now wearing Microspikes continuously as well. I was dreading the long, complicated, nasty hike to Green Mountain Pinnacle and it delivered on all my fears. Yet, that was nothing compared to the climb. With our light fading fast, Danny headed up into the chimney with 40 mph wind ripping through it. The rope paused for quite awhile I wondered if Danny was bailing. That just shows that I have more to learn about Danny. He doesn't bail, unless his partner forces him to (I've done this to him before). Eventually the rope snakes out and comes tight on me and I start to climb. Once in the chimney it is so cold that my primary goal is movement upwards and I care very little about falling. I'm on a toprope and I know I'm safe, but I'm so cold and only the summit will bring me relief. I'm wearing my down jacket and don't want to rip it against the opposing wall of the chimney. It's a concern, but not my primary one. I fight my way to the top and not a word is said between Danny and I. We both immediately untie our ropes and lower them down the wall to the ground.
Executing one of my twenty shoe exchanges
Back on the ground, I'm thinking that it's over. No way I can climb another route in that wind. I have to bail. Danny can sense my mindset and says, "That was nasty. Seven down. Three to go," assuring me that he isn't thinking about stopping. I stay quiet and resolve to not speak up until I get to the base of the next route. No use in quitting here. Either way we are following the same path for the next 30 or more minutes. We pack up and are moving quickly. It sucks descending, but we're careful and don't stumble. A short ways above the trail we stop to eat and drink a bit more. I'm warmer now, but a long way from comfortable.

By the time we get down the Royal Arch Trail, I'm warm again. We mistakenly go by the bushwhack up to the base of the Third Flatiron and call an audible to go do the First Flatiron next. That way we don't waste the vertical climbing up to the base of the Third. We can link right to the bottom of it from the First. We trudge on in the darkness, feeling every foot of vertical. At the base of the route, things look serious. Each of the tiny edges holds some snow. Just a dusting to be sure, but maybe enough to make them slippery. I mention the conditions and Danny just agrees. I wonder to myself if it is prudent to head up, solo, in the cold and the dark, with my current level of fatigue. Is it worth the risk? I let Danny go first to test conditions. He's just in scramblers. I have climbing shoes. If he feels solid enough my pride will force me to follow. He does and I do.
Our one support stop - thanks, Sheri!
The next two hundred feet, we both agree, demand our complete concentration. Once above forty or fifty feet the chances of surviving a fall are nil. We encounter minute patches of ice occasionally and call them out. The higher we go, the easier things get. We opt out of the slot and head to the ridge, thinking our packs might make things tougher and we just want the easiest way to the summit. We stop once to rest. At the top the wind urges us to go straight into the downclimb instead of messing with the ropes and freezing.

On the ground, we know we'll complete it now. We just have to get to the base of the Third. The East Face is long and we're wasted, but it's well featured and we'll be fine. At one point we weren't sure exactly where we were, but just continued upwards and nailed the route that is ingrained in my hands and feet. We stop a ways below the summit to put on our harnesses out of the wind. At the top we immediately set up the rappels and descend. Danny goes first and deals with the inevitable tangle on the intermediate ledge below. I follow and then we stress when the rope won't pull. It must be tangled with the other rope. Danny uses superhuman (well superBill anyway) strength to pull the ropes down. I try to help.
This is what the Third Flatiron looked like at 8:30 p.m.
Danny sets up the next rappel, dropping one line and then tossing the coil that I gave him of the purple rope. Unfortunately, that coil developed into a massive knot. Danny then made a horrible mistake. One I made early in my climbing career with near fatal consequences. It was similarly dire for him. In his fatigue and haste, he rappelled into the knot.

Danny had to climb up a bit to release the tension on the rope and free the knot from his device, while keeping himself on rappel. He did this and then tried in vain for quite awhile to untangle the knot. He couldn't do it because he needed the end of the rope, which was snagged below him! He was screwed. Then he came up with an idea. He'd complete the rappel on just the unknotted line. But before he could implement this strategy, his headlamp died.

He shouted up his plan to me and I fixed the red line. He felt around in the darkness to switch his rappel device out of both ropes and onto just one. After awhile he called up again, "Okay, I'm on red and will descend." Except that he wasn't. I yelled down, "Red is slack and purple is weighted." Profanities ensued. Apparently Danny cannot tell the difference between red and feel.

After what was probably the most stressful time in his climbing career he was on red and descended safely to the ground. He freed the stuck end of purple and I hauled it up to untangle the knot, which did require pulling through the end of the rope. By the time I was on the ground my feet were nearly numb and I was frigid. It was my lead, but I didn't want to epic so close to the finish. I wimped out and decided to toprope it instead. This proved pretty challenging, but once again the cold drove me upwards with little regard for falling on a toprope. Danny went up after I got down and we packed up for the final time.

The hike out was slow and icy, but mainly because I didn't want to hurt myself so close the finish. The time mattered not. By pure coincidence we finished in 15:59:19. It was a bonding adventure and we embraced once we were on easy ground. I'd never have made it without him to keep the adventure rolling and to never even consider failure. Great partners help you achieve great things.

As we neared the trailhead Danny said, "That's one adventure I won't be repeating." I wholeheartedly agreed.