– July 12, 2 a.m.
My partner, Core, wakes me up from my short yet peaceful night’s rest. Even though we didn’t get to our campsite until 10:30 pm and I didn’t slide into my sleeping bag until a little after 11, I feel surprisingly refreshed for the day ahead. The feelings of doubt, fear, and excitement flood over me as we finish up breakfast, get into the truck, and make our way to the trailhead. The morning was calm except in the cab of the truck where the sounds of Pantera ooze from the speakers as we get excited for what is to be my first alpine climb in Rocky Mountain National Park, The Petit Grapon.
This spectacular alpine summit is probably the most climbed moderate alpine rock climb in the park. It’s a picture perfect summit and the ratings top out at 5.8. This is a popular destination for those seeking the alpine experience. This is a great training ground for climbers who have their sights set on the Diamond or any of the other spectacular craggy peaks within the RMNP.
Arriving at the trailhead slightly after 3am there were already 2 trucks parked in the Glacier Gorge parking area; foreshadowing what was to come. The approach consists of a casual 5 mile hike up to Sky Pond. The hiking through the woods that morning was extremely tranquil. The pre-climb jitters had been suppressed by the peaceful approach and our steady pace. Our intention was to make it to the base of the climb by sunrise, start cruising up the face, and summit no later than noon. The summer monsoons had began and the chance for thunderstorms later in the afternoon was likely.
The morning light began to shimmer on the horizon as the sun slowly made its way up in the east. The increased light made the scramble from Sky Pond to the Petit simple, although it also revealed the source of delay for the remainder of our day, another climbing party. Another group was planning on climbing the same route on the south face as we were. This normally is not an issue, and should be expected at such a popular climbing destination. Unfortunately, this group’s lackadaisical pace would become detrimental to our climb.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt we let them start before us on. We took some extra time at the base to allow for some separation between parties, because no one wants to try to share the pizza pan belay with another party. The extra time spent at the base would do us no good. We reached the top of the 2nd pitch at the same time as the other climbers. We were stuck on the first terrace, a large grassy ledge 200 feet from the base for over an hour before we were able to get back to climbing. The delays we were encountering were becoming increasingly worrisome as sirrus clouds whisked overhead and nimbus clouds would build up, break to blue sky, and build again. The feelings of doubt began to set in after we were once again stuck after pitch 3. With our summit time of noon closing in we felt all but helpless as we waited our turn once again on another ledge.
After spending too much time waiting and not enough time climbing, we reached the second terrace just before noon. With the other party still on the pitch directly above, our hopes were completely shattered as we realized we would not be able to safely reach the top before looming storms rolled in. We had to make the hard choice and descend. Our stance at that time put us in close proximity to a set of fixed rings, the last easy ones to reach without topping out making this the easy spot for a safe and efficient rappel.
Climbing that day with 2 half ropes made the rappel a breeze. Back down at the base of the climb we could not help but feel defeated in our efforts. As we loaded up our packs we heard the first loud bangs of thunder. In dealing with defeat, we came to realize we made the right choice in getting off the climb before the storms rolled in. To our suprise, the group ahead of us was still up there, well up there, exposed and unprotected from the elements. As the storms began to roll in and the rain kicked up, the only thing we could do was worry about the condition of the other party. The last we saw of them they were nothing but two specks of blue and lime green, high up on a ledge, hopefully trying to get off the rock. Being loaded with a rack metal climbing gear, high up on an alpine rock face, is no place to be with lightning sparking the sky.
I have recently come up with a saying for climbing that helps keep me in check while I’m playing at the crags or up on a high alpine route – “Safety third, after pride and ignorance.” We didnt let our egos get in the way and make a brazen push for the summit. We were forward thinking enough to know the storms were rolling in and not to test the force of Mother Nature. Although the summit was not gained, the feelings of joy and accomplishment were not exuding from us on the way back to the truck, we did leave knowing we had made a good decision. We traveled safely in the mountains and will live to climb another day.