|Derek high on the First Flatiron|
“Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. They make you late for dinner.”
— Bilbo Baggins, on adventures
The first time Derek climbed the Maiden, at ten years old, he slept on top of it. The first time he led 5.9 trad was 700 feet up the Touchstone Wall in Zion. The first time he ever did an “ultra” was when he linked ten 14er ascents over 20 hours. The first time he even climbed a mixed pitch was when he led the crux pitch on the Amy Route in Patagonia. So, it seemed appropriate that his first time doing Roach’s Flatiron’s Top Ten would be in winter.
Today we completed the third linking of Top Ten in winter and the first time all the routes had been led. It’s uncomfortable for me to even mention that, as the only reason Danny and I didn’t lead all the routes when we did the Top Ten was because it was my lead and I wimped out. Danny, not wanting to embarrass me, just followed suit and we top-roped the route. There are some who disdain the distinction between leading all the routes, or even climbing up them. They prefer the cleverness of downclimbing some routes. To each his own, but climbing up them all is a distinctly different outing. While we did go faster than Danny and I did a year ago, I think the concept of a winter FKT is suspect, as it is largely (not entirely, of course) determined by weather and conditions and not on the speed of the climbers. That said, Peter Bakwin did the Top Ten earlier this winter, solo, in just 11.5 hours. That’s badass, no doubt, and the only solo of the Top Ten in winter.
|Derek setting up the last rappel off the Third Flatiron|
We left Chautauqua Park at 6 a.m., headed for the First Flatiron. We scrambled this entirely in the dark. We moved deliberately. In the cold and in the dark, this climb seems harder, but we know it well. Still, we relied more on our fingers than we do when scrambling in the light of day and the warmth of summer. The temperature was 21 degrees when we started, but no wind. Conditions throughout the day would be embarrassingly pleasant. I wore my jacket for half of the approach to the First and then never put it on again.
|Soloing up the chimney on Green Mountain Pinnacle|
The link to the Third went well, with hardly any postholing or nasty talus. Now in the light, the Third went smoothly, but at the top we had our first issue. We only carried one 30-meter rope for this adventure and this necessitated using a special device called the Escaper. This is a Chinese-finger-trap-like sling that grips the rope when under tension. The rope is retrieved from below by pulling and releasing the lower end while a clever bungy moves the Chinese finger-trap up the rope it grips. Under ideal circumstances, this works well, though it generally takes 20-30 tugs on the rope to get it to release. The number of tugs can be reduced by reducing the tail of the rope protruding from the trap…but if you guess wrong and use too short of a tail…it’s all over. But for the device to work at all, it needs to be able to “bounce back”, meaning the rope needs to be completely free of tension. For this to happen the knot attaching the climbing rope to the device must be free to move up and down. If there is an edge that catches it, the device won’t work. If the device isn’t free hanging, then the friction of the knot on the low-angle rock can prevent a usable “bounce back.” This was the case on the first rappel from the top of the Third Flatiron. We experienced the same thing on our recon, but thought the main problem was that we threaded the device into both chains at the top. For this device to work best, it need to use a single anchor point. Otherwise the friction can be too great for the “bounce back.” This does require, at times, rapping off a single bolt.
|Derek high on the Fatiron|
Once on the ground, I immediately led back up to the same anchor, via the route Friday’s Folly. This is such an excellent pitch and we were glad that most of it faces south and we were full-on in the sun. We repeated the rappel and retrieved the rope yet again. At this point, Derek tells me that he is feeling stronger today and is good-to-go on the bushwhack. Sweet. On our recon, failure to put on his Microspikes, feeling tired, getting frustrated, and lagging behind me, caused this link to take 60 minutes. This time we did it in 31 minutes.
|Rapping the Maiden on a single line attached to the Escaper|
We descended to the pass and then down the Woods Quarry Trail to the Mesa Trail, which we took south to the approach trail for the Fatiron. Along the way we ran into Minion Kevin Smith. He was doing the Double Mesa, so it was a quick hello-goodbye. On the way up to the Fatiron I lost the climbers’ trail and veered too far to the north. The woods are so dense you can’t locate any landmarks, despite being near huge rocks. My instincts led me in the correct direction though and we didn’t lose but a couple of minutes.
|Starting up the North Face of the Matron|
We did the familiar link over to the Maiden and I led it as one pitch, using one Microtraxion to protect the leader. On all of our roped climbs, I did the leading and we simul-climbed them. When simul-climbing it is best to put the strongest climber in back and Derek is definitely much stronger than me. Also, I knew the climbs very well and could lead them relatively quickly. We took the high traverse across the north face, my preferred route when simul-climbing. It is more difficult than the lower version, but much more direct.
|Derek at the crux of the Pellea|
|Bill in the midst of the Pellea's crux|
With just three to go, I turned my attention to the remaining light. We had a long hike back north to Fern Canyon and then a steep hike uphill to the Pellea. We’d only brought 84 ounces of water for both of us and we were running low. Thirst was becoming an issue. We scooted along the trail the best we could, even trotting the downhill sections, not to lower our elapsed time, but to get as much done before darkness engulfed us and route finding would become a serious challenge.
|Starting up the Back Porch|
I really started to fade on the long hike up to the Back Porch. For us, this climb started when we left Bear Canyon on the Mesa Trail. It’s over a thousand feet of climbing from there to the top of the Back Porch. It was on this climb that I really started to lag behind Derek. We dumped our packs behind the Front Porch and continued with the rope and rack and, just in case, our headlamps. We also downed the last of our water.
We continued up to the route and geared up well below the start, on the only tiny flat section of the steep, pine-needle-covered slope. For the first fifty feet of my lead I was still in hiking terrain, albeit steep hiking. Climbing this route confirmed my belief that it has no place in the Tour. There is so much lichen on this route and the rock quality is marginal. The spire itself is very impressive and some of the climbing is nice, but it isn’t a good solo. We simul-climbed it as one pitch, using the Micro at the top of the first pitch. Just as I was coming to grips with the crux overhang on the second pitch Derek called up to me, “Pops, I need to down climb. Can I have some slack.” Uh…no. The rope is through the Micro and I couldn’t give Derek slack without down climbing all the way back to the Micro. Thankfully, he figured out an alternate way, but it was even sketchier than the main route.
Derek’s Backporch Experience
I messed up Backporch pretty bad. It started with me sort of idly scrambling up a lichen-covered ramp, when my rope started to tighten to my left, over the step to the next higher ramp. I tried to flick it, to no effect. So then I stepped up and saw a red cam slotted nicely in a crack up there. Uh-oh. There wasn’t a good spot to get over where I was. The last good spot was a ways below me, and I figured I didn’t need to take that option since I was on a ramp. I should’ve been watching Pops climb it, but I was pretty far down, and probably too tired to keep my head up. I called up for slack and that I had messed up, but I didn’t even think about the Micro. Even if Pops could downclimb, no rope would come to me. So I began plotting my strategy. I couldn’t go down -- no slack. I couldn’t go up -- no slack, the cam preventing any progress. I had to go left. I grabbed a hold under the little overhang I was at and it immediately crumbled. I stepped over into the overhang to get a bit higher and I scraped off a bunch of that black lichen that is so prevalent on this climb. Hmm. I ended up crimping a solid-looking, thumb-and-index-finger-only crystal, slapping the higher ramp, and swinging the left foot over. It worked out well enough.
But my route-finding woes were not over. Higher up, there is a little chimney section before the pin and the final overhang. The easy solution here is to lieback the chimney’s edge, but I didn’t know that, so I cruxed it out under the chimney. I had just committed into it when my foot slipped and I was sure I was going to fall. But I had just enough balance to keep it together. I stepped over to under the pin and my foot slipped again! Anyways, the Back Porch was definitely my crux…
|Rapping off the Back Porch|
Once he was on the ground, I rigged the Escaper and then dropped it below me. With a Grigri, I could use both hands to climb down as far as possible before dropping on it. Freaky! But the gear worked as I knew it would (or I wouldn’t have tried it!). Soon I was on the ground. The Escaper came down easily and we stowed it away for good. We packed up the rest of our gear and descended back to our packs. Here we had to turn on our headlamps.
We followed the Minions-worn trail down into Skunk Canyon, putting on our Microspikes near the bottom, as there was snow and ice to negotiate. I was desperately thirsty and dehydration was definitely slowing me down. Down in the canyon, in the pitch dark, it was hard to tell what was what. When I started down canyon, Derek was confused. He thought we had to go up canyon, via the long approach in the Tour. Alas, he was thinking of Angel’s Way. We carefully picked our way to the east with me trying to determine where Stairway to Heaven was. I was so intent on finding the start of the route, navigating by a quickly dimming headlamp, that I didn’t think about getting water from the stream. Being so thirsty, this is hard to explain. Thankfully, Derek said, “Pops, there’s water.” Duh. We filled our bottles and I drank 10 ounces. Why not more? It was freezing cold and I got a brain freeze from just that amount. We filled our 20-ounce bottle and a liter bottle and moved on.
|Getting badly needed water in Skunk Canyon|
We descended the ridge to the tree and did one final, short, simul-rappel to the ground. It felt good pulling off the harnesses and packing them away for the final time. I had debated in my mind what was the best way down. We could do the bushwhack over to the Royal Arch Trail or descend the Stairway/Hill Billy Rock climbers’ “trail” back down into Skunk Canyon. We started with the former, but the deadfall was great and we couldn’t see very far, so we aborted and tried to get on the latter. But I was lazy and didn’t climb back up to orient myself against Stairway. Instead I just thought I knew where I was and headed down, hoping to intersect that climbers’ trail. But I couldn’t find it. I told Derek that I was lost. We decided to just continue downhill. We could see the lights of Boulder and knew we were going down and at least somewhat to the east. That was enough. Surprisingly, the going wasn’t that bad. It helped to be moving slowly and searching for the easiest way. After awhile I brought up Gaia (GPS mapping app) on my phone to confirm we were at least headed in the right general direction. It showed that a trail wasn’t too far away from us. A trail?! I knew of no trail in this area. At least not one that would be listed on a map. But we continued down and towards the trail and low and behold we found a faint trail. After following it for a bit, I said to Derek, “I think this might be the Regency Trail.” At first he was skeptical, but when we hit the “talus road” section, which lies just above the Mesa Trail, we knew we were on it. Instead of heading down the talus, per the usual Tour de Flatirons route, we stayed on the talus road, which turned back into a faint trail and went all the way to the Mesa Trail!
Once on the trail we exchanged final high fives and even a hug. We knew it was in the bag at that point. The hike back to the car was blissfully free of any drama and we arrived 13h37m after we started. My feet and my legs were beat. During that entire adventure we never just sat and took a break. During the brief times we were stopped, we were either belaying, putting on or taking off Microspikes or harnesses and coiling ropes. I don’t remember sitting down all day, save for putting on Microspikes. There is just no way to make this easy. Summer or winter. It's just so much work. So much climbing. So much off-trail travel. So many miles and so much vertical.
A year ago, when I did this with Danny, I wore my down jacket most of the time. On this adventure I didn’t even carry a down jacket. These were completely different adventures. That’s not to say that this outing was easy. It wasn’t and it will never be for me. Much like the Skyline, which I did 13 months in a row in an attempt to get used to the mileage and vertical gain, this outing just never seems reasonable. I’ve now done the Top Ten four times, 2.9 times in winter. 2.9?! Yes. About 15 years ago I tried to do the Top Ten in winter solo and stopped after doing the Maiden, with just the Matron to go. It wasn’t dark yet, but it would have been for the Matron and I’d never soloed the North Face before. I’d had some trouble with the Maiden and was mentally done, so I bailed.
|On top of Stairway to Heaven -- our 10th and last climb of the day.|
Was using the Escaper the right choice? It definitely isn't faster when rappelling versus using two ropes. With our troubles, I think carrying the extra line probably would have been faster overall. A thin 30-meter isn't enough weight to justify the use the Escaper this many times. I think it is really useful as an emergency back-up and when you are carrying a full 60-meter rope, as the extra rope in this case would be heavier. Or when you know you are only making 1 or 2 rappels.