Getting There/ What To BringGetting here is easy. Park at Glacier Gorge Junction one mile before the Bear Lake parking lot. Take the standard trail towards Alberta Falls, hike past The Loch for a mile, and then cross a footbridge going towards Andrews Glacier. Zowie Tower will be ovious from here. Find the path of least resistance to get to the base.
For more specific beta on each pitch and for a list of gear to bring, look at the Zowie Tower route page.
Morning (The Beginning)After a short rest and a slow start, Larissa and I woke at 4:00 a.m., (well, Larissa woke up a little later after some encouragement), grabbed a quick bite to eat, and grabbed our bags that we had packed the evening before. I had not slept very well and was replaying each pitch in my mind since I had studied the route before hand. We were both a little sore from bouldering the day before at the Suzuki Boulders with Larissa’s co-workers. This climb had been on my list for a long time and I was super nervous and super anxious. This was to be my first true alpine climb; I had never done any route over three pitches, set up multiple anchors, or been that far away from the car before. I did not tell this to Larissa though, and somehow convinced her to go with me. I’m not saying I was completely unprepared. I had been practicing anchor building at North Table after work and had read, and re-read a book about bomber anchors. The acronym SREN (Safe Redundant Equalized and No Extension) was drilled into my mind. I was comfortable with rope management and had done many multi-pitch climbs before. I had the route sauced and got some beta from a friend and knew that the grade of climbing was much lower than what I normally climb at. Everything would be fine, I had it all planned out. I had just not done anything this long.
We arrived at the Glacier Gorge trailhead at 5 a.m. just as the sun was rising. We joked and told stories along the trail which made the approach seem less arduous. The temperature was cool and the sun was illuminating Cathedral Wall as we passed the Loch. We stopped and admired some of Larissa’s work, (she had been on the RMNP trails crew here two years ago making steps and maintaining the path we were on) and were soon at the base of our goal, Zowie. Zowie seemed much larger now that I was at the base; the climb is near 800 feet tall and goes directly up the south face.
The weather looked great and we decided to leave the rain jackets and anything else we didn’t need in the packs at the base of the climb. I racked up all my gear, everything meticulously placed in its appropriate position on my harness. I checked and double checked and then put on the helmet and shoes. Larissa asked me what was wrong because I was so quite. It had finally hit me, the magnitude of this climb, and I was terrified before even leaving the ground. This seems to be a common feeling I have with any climbing I do. I knew that once I get on the rock and focus I will feel better and relax. With some encouraging words from Larissa, I started up a tiny crack and placed my first piece. The rock felt solid and the climbing was fun, not difficult. As I got higher, I became less scared and I could feel my body flowing better with the rock. Soon I forgot about anything but climbing and just headed upward.
Climb (The Middle)With a 70m rope I planned to go as far as possible and string the first two pitches together. The first two pitches seemed a little run-out to me, and I realized that I was only placing gear every 20-30 feet or so. I made an effort to place more, not for myself, but for Larissa. I had once followed a poorly protected line before and knew how difficult it was to find the route and take a nasty fall without good placements. I tried to place some more pro, but laughed at what I was doing. At one point I slotted a large hex in between some rock that was held together with moss. I knew this would do nothing, but convinced myself it was bomber and moved ahead. I soon heard some noise from below and knew I was soon out of rope. I went a little further, found some good cracks next to a ledge and set up an anchor. Two cams, two nuts, and a hex later I had a picture perfect anchor that fit the SREN acronym.
I pulled up the black rope that I had been dragging and coiled it neatly. This was our sign that I was good to go and that Larissa could get ready to climb. After pulling the slack from the blue rope I was tied into, I head a loud, ‘Climbing!’ and waited for Larissa to meet me on the ledge. I looked around at the great views. From here you could already see the outstanding Sharkstooth to the north and the many small streams and ponds that resided in Glacier Gorge. I soon saw the bright orange dot that was Larissa’s helmet and in no time we were sorting gear and getting ready for pitch 3. I could tell she was a little nervous after removing some of my pro that was essentially laid on top of the rock and could only imagine what was going through her mind. She told me that I did a great job and that boosted my spirits a little. I asked for some water, since Larissa was to carry it when she followed. I saw her grab for the bottle and saw that there was only one liters worth of water. I was too focused on climbing and thought we would be fine. I tried to think of all those other extreme mountaineers like Reinhold Messner and Joe Simpson who had gone for days without water climbing even harder than me.
I knew we needed to go a little higher to a large ledge that spanned the south face of Zowie. I climbed a little higher and traversed until I found an acceptable place to set up another SREN anchor. Larissa followed and we discussed which line we were to take. We very carefully simul-climbed on the ledge a ways east. The grass band was large, but there was also a large drop-off. We finally found the dihedral that marked the third pitch and I set up another anchor. This dihedral looked intimidating, but after I got on it I was amazed at how fun and simple it was. There were places for pro everywhere and I had no problems placing anything. I was now at the point where I had been placing gear long enough that I could look at a crack and know exactly what was going to fit, first go. It shaved off time and allowed me to retain my energy. I went up the crack quite a ways and found another good ledge for belaying. I set up another perfect anchor, even faster than the last two and pulled the rope I was trailing. Larissa soon joined me and seemed much happier. I think the combination of fun climbing and seeing the pro placed like it should be helped ease her mind.
I was really enjoying the climb now, and even though it was getting warmer and I was getting more dehydrated, I felt safe and in control. Some more encouragement from Larissa was all that I needed and I took off to string pitches 4-5 together. We gradually moved to the east side of the tower and I soon saw the summit block. Holy Shit! was the first thing to enter my mind at the sight. It was gorgeous and completely free standing. I was a little intimidated because this was supposed to be the crux of the climb, but was still in good spirits and moved on. Larissa quickly followed. Even though I could not see her for much of the line, I knew how she was climbing. I am always amazed by Larissa’s style. Her movements are always very careful and smooth, never erratic. I can tell that she is never over-gripping or over-exerting herself. It is like watching water flow up the rock, it is not supposed to go that way, but it moves so smooth, in the case of Larissa, her feet and hands move as if they were one. Soon she joined me on the ledge. We only had a short ways to go to the final pitch and I led a very short traverse, not placing much gear, to get to the base. Being a geologist, I made sure to yell at Larissa (a fellow geology student) about the large garnet crystals I saw in a vein and asked her to take some pics if she had the time.
After re-racking my gear I took off on the final pitch. It was steep, and looked fun. I remembered the advice to stay to the right when the climbing got hard and to look for the finger and hand sized crack. The holds were large but there were some tricky movements. I was pretty whopped now and spent some time placing a hex that took a lot of energy from me. I clipped the hex and extended the runner, dropping a biner in the process. Damnit, I have to focus, I am almost there! I surveyed what lay ahead and saw the crux bulge. I excitedly yelled below that there were some pitons. I climbed a little higher and clipped into these. They had saved me a lot of time in placing gear. I asked Larissa to take for a second and took a quick breather right before the crux bulge. I was pretty knackered now from leading and knew that I needed one last burst of energy. We had run out of water, so I was going on reserves now. I pulled the bulge and climbed a little higher and was soon on the summit block that is no larger than a few pool tables. I yelled out loud and found the bolts at the top! YES!!! I did it, no accidents, no injuries, all as planned! Larissa followed and was soon on the summit block too. I was so excited at this point and the huge smile on Larissa’s face was truly a genuine sense of accomplishment. We made it to the top at 1:05 p.m. and still had great weather. We congratulated each other, gave a hug and high-five and relaxed a while. After listening to the echoes we made for a while, we took some obligatory summit shots, and grabbed a bite to eat. Larissa had saved me one last swig of water which I eagerly gulped down. It was really kind and thoughtful of her, and I can truly say that those few mL of water were the best I have ever tasted.
Rappel ( The Conflict)
We set up the double rope rap and threw the ropes over the west face. I decided that I did not want to tie the ends in a knot since I saw several places that they could get stuck. Instead I backed up my rap with a prussik and I rapped down to the large ledge where the ropes stopped. I then flaked the remaining rope and threw it down further, hoping it would reach the gully. I rapped a little further down and saw that we were in the clear. Larissa came down next and we attempted to pull the ropes, with no avail. Great, what now! We just wanted to get down and get some water. After struggling for a while we climbed to a large ledge higher on the face and tried to pull the ropes from there. Still no luck. I knew that the only way we could fix the problem was for one of us to climb the rope.
I was totally beat and Larissa offered to climb the rope. I tied her a backup prussik and she used her ATC as well to ascend the rope. I was a little nervous when she climbed the summit block and mantled over, but was excited when she got there. You’re so awesome Larissa! She had moved the knot over the lip and began her rap again. It occurred to me that if the rope was catching on a rock though, that having the knot over the lip still would not fix the problem. I yelled at her to stop at a ledge and see if she could pull the rope. No luck! Larissa was surely as beat as me and know had to climb to the top again! I tied on some runners to one end of the rope and told her to extend the runners over the lip so that the ropes were completely free hanging. The clouds began to move in a little and I was nervous for Larissa on her third time on top of Zowie. After fixing the slings, she rapped all the way down and we successfully pulled the ropes. All in all Larissa climbed about 300 feet worth of rope.
Descent ( The Happy Ending)The whole rope ordeal took nearly three and a half hours and had turned our little excursion into a mini-epic. Even when beat and tired, Larissa is happy and in good spirits. She came down and said, “Hey I’ve never epicked with you, that is kind of cool, this makes a good story!” Glad to know Larissa was happy and that I could most likely convince her to do some more alpine climbing in RMNP, we headed down a short grass gully and had one more short 40 foot rap to the scree field that led to our packs.
We got to the packs and engorged ourselves with water. We were home free now, and after taking off our gear and packing it up we hiked back out. We cranked the music in my truck on the way back and were soon home. Larissa’s co-workers were waiting there for us and wanted to know how it went. They had grilled some chicken for us and we grabbed a few beers to join them around the grill to tell our mini-epic. A perfect ending for a perfect day. My first alpine climb could not have gone any better, and I will undoubtedly remember those moments for the rest of my life.