Standard East Face of the Third Flatiron I had been eyeing the North Arête of the First Flatiron with its jagged, castle-like profile. The North Arête was said to be four pitches of 5.4 and as a bonus you could reach the North Arête via the three pitches of the East Face North Side Route rated at 5.2. It sounded like a great day out!
After choosing the route it was time to drum up some partners. My wife Julie was excited to give it a go and we thought it would be fun to do it with another team of summitpost.org members. I shot a note over to brenta (aka Fabio) to see if he could recruit a fourth. One thing led to another with climbers dropping in and out and a last minute scramble to find replacements. When it came down to the morning of the climb it was just Fabio and myself. Julie got sick and others got scared of by the light dusting of snow Green Mountain got the night before.
Fabio and I weren't about to let a little thing like cold or snow stop us. Although pksander (aka Peter) had bailed on the climb (opting to train for his upcoming near-marathon instead) he offered to hike with us up to the base of the climb and haul some gear. We met him at the Chautauqua Trailhead at about 8:00 and headed up the trail. Peter and Fabio regaled me with their tale from several weeks prior when they climbed the Direct East Face Route up the First Flatiron with CharlesD (aka Charles). It sounded awesome and I was sorry to have missed that adventure. I hoped today would be as fun.
The approach up to the First Flatiron was super short and in no time we were at the base of the East Face North Side Route. Just as we were about to gear up for the climb it started snowing. Bummer. As large flakes swirled down we pondered our options. I was for completing the East Face North Side and re-evaluating once we had reached the North Arête. I figured that the 5.2 climbing wouldn't be too bad even if the snow continued and that we would probably be to the top before the rock really started to get wet. Peter tried to talk us into heading back down into Boulder for a leisurely breakfast where he assured us there'd be lots of "hot chicks." Fabio was for hanging tight for a few minutes to wait and see what the weather would do. After about 15 minutes the snow squall passed and the sun came out more or less. Now that the snow had stopped Fabio liked my plan of heading up the East Face North Side and re-evaluating things once we'd gained the North Arête.
We geared up and Fabio took the first lead. Peter stayed to chat with me while Fabio climbed up the face - generally climbing easy slabby stuff and tending a little bit toward climbers left. When Fabio had neared the end of the rope he set up a belay and it was my turn to follow. I bade my adieu to Peter and set off. The climb was mostly straightforward and it didn't take long for me to reach Fabio at his spacious belay ledge. Fabio handed me the remaining gear as I sorted the rack.
Once I'd got everything squared away I set out. I was able to place a nice piece about 15 feet above Fabio but then protection became sparse. Another 20 feet up I was able to get another cam into a large flaring crack, but after that the face looked like a near featureless slab up to a large bulge. At this point we were fairly close to the gully that splits the East Face and I had a sneaking suspicion that we were off route - we should have been much farther to climbers right. I had remembered reading about belaying from some trees and I spied a couple of likely candidates far to my right. Fabio agreed with my suspicion and encouraged me to head right. I gingerly made my way up beneath the bulge and then angled past its right side. The climbing felt spicier than 5.2 and was heightened by the fact that my last piece of pro was close to 70 feet below me. The threat of a 150-foot whipper got my pulse racing as I finally got around the bulge and found a crack to place a cam. I breathed a sigh of relief and continued upward another 60 feet along more easily protectable terrain. I set up a belay and brought Fabio up. He agreed that the climbing felt much more challenging than 5.2.
I handed Fabio the remainder of the gear and he set off up toward the crest of the arête which looked very close. In less than half a pitch of much easier climbing Fabio reached the crest of the arête and then belayed me up. When I reached the top the wind was much fiercer than it had been on the face. I bundled up into all the clothing I'd brought with me - helmet liner, fingerless wool gloves, t-shirt, thermal top, fleece, and my lightweight PraNa pants. The rest of the day was going to be a little chilly. In hindsight I wished I'd worn thermal bottoms, heavier pants, and maybe my balaclava. If I'd had those extra items I probably would have been comfortable, instead I would have to shivering through the rest of the day.
Now atop the North Arête we pondered our next move. More precipitation didn't look imminent so we decided to continue onward. At the far north end of the arête the ground on the west side came up to meet the ridge just 10 feet below us. In order to avoid horrendous rope drag we decide it would be easiest to climb down onto the ground and then walk along the base of the arête for 20 feet before climbing back up onto the arête to start the next pitch.
Fabio set up the belay while I sorted out the rack. The first 50 feet were a little tricky with some overhanging-ish sections where I had to think for a minute before puzzling out the moves that would get me past them. Once I had climbed the first 50 feet and passed out of sight of Fabio, the North Arête became less vertical and the climbing was more straightforward. I scrambled along easy terrain until I encountered another overhanging section. By this time I had accumulated considerable rope drag and I was reluctant to commit myself to any sustained, difficult sections. The first option appeared a little iffy, so I downclimed about 15 feet down the east side of the arête to where it looked like there was another weakness in the overhanging section. While I explored this option Fabio radioed me and said I had about 10 meters of rope left. Uncertain if I could find another good belay stance with just 10 meters of rope, and hesitant to make the moves anyway with the rope drag I accumulated, I elected to set up a belay where I was. Unfortunately this was both in the shade and in the teeth of the wind.
I set up the belay and brought Fabio up. He made short work of the pitch and soon I had transferred all the gear over. Fabio's first challenge of the pitch was surmounting the overhanging section. He studied the first option that I had spied and agreed that it was a little tricky. I told him about the second possible option about 15 feet down the east side of the arête and he made his way down to scope it out. After pondering it for a few moments he concluded that the first option was best. After working out a clever undercling move with his right hand so that he could reach a bomber hold with his left he effortlessly lifted himself over the overhanging section and was out of sight. Without being able to see Fabio there was little for me to do but hunker down and try to keep warm as I got blasted by the wind screaming in from the west. After a mercifully short while Fabio radioed back that he had finished the pitch and set up the belay. I cleaned up the anchor and followed. The moves that Fabio had worked out to surmount the overhang seemed simple and obvious to me after watching him do it - I chastised myself for not figuring it out earlier. After the overhang there was short slabby section back up to the crest of the North Arête where it was more straightforward scrambling. By this time we had reached the towers that make the North Arête look so cool from afar. The rest of the climb would consist of climbing from one tower to the next.
I joined Fabio on top of the tower where he had set up the belay and he told me that I had just passed the point where the Direct East Face achieves the Arête. While we traded gear Fabio also informed me that the next pitch was what he considered the crux of the North Arête. What? The crux! For some reason that got my heart racing and I pumped him for advice. All Fabio would do is smile and say, "You'll see when you get there." After a little more coaxing he pointed across to the next tower and described the line Charles had taken a couple weeks previously. Fabio said that Charles had followed a crease in the slab on the east side of the arête and the slabby climbing was challenging and protection sparse.
I swallowed hard and set off. I downclimbed from the tower we had been sitting on, crossed the low point, and looked up at "the crux." There was a nice little horizontal crack below the slabby stuff that had some kind of scars in it. I'd never seen piton scars before and wondered if that's what they were. Regardless, the crack was perfect for a Red Alien and I stuck it in thinking this might be my last protection for quite a while. I looked up and studied the crease and Charles' line before launching myself at the difficulties. After I got a couple moves into it I spied what I thought was easier going higher up the east face - almost on the crest of the arête. I opted to take this path and as I made my way upward fantastic holds slowly revealed themselves. One in particular caught my attention - a golf-ball sized crystal sticking out of an otherwise featureless section of slab. This must be "The Crystal" of the "Quartz Crystal Pitch" fame I thought. In another 15 feet of fairly easy climbing I was standing back atop the North Arête. I shouted back at Fabio, "Was that the crux!?!" Piece of cake I thought. I scrambled across the top of that tower, descended down into a notch, climbed the next tower, and set up a belay below another tower. This time I was a little more careful to find a spot that was mostly sheltered from the wind.
During this last pitch I made a mistake that I made before on Piz Badille - something that I really need to work on: I failed to adequately protect my second. After placing the Red Alien below the crux I hadn't placed another piece of protection until the base of the next tower. I was totally consumed with protecting my own falls that I hadn't even thought about protecting a potential fall by Fabio. With such sparse protection, the wind had blown the rope off the crest of the arête down onto the East Face. Consequently while Fabio was trying to climb up the crux to the crest of the North Arête my belay was pulling him sideways across the face. He had to radio me and request that I not keep so much tension on the rope and thus pull him sideways off his holds. In retrospect I should have placed a piece of protection at the top of crux even though I was off the difficulties. This way when I had tension on the rope it would have pulled Fabio in the correct direction and would have limited a fall should Fabio have peeled off.
Luckily he didn't and soon he joined me at my belay stance below the tower. We traded gear one final time and Fabio set off. At this point we were both getting pretty cold and we could see more snow squalls developing to the west that couldn't have been more than 10 miles away. We were looking forward to getting off the North Arête and out of the teeth of the wind - hopefully before the snow reached us. From my belay stance I couldn't see a thing of Fabio after he proceeded about 10 feet above me. I slowly played out rope as he climbed over the final tower down into a notch and then to the summit in less than half a rope-length. He put me on belay and I followed over the top of the final tower. At this point the wind was really screaming and there was no protection between me and Fabio's belay stance. Consequently the rope was arcing out in a wide curve - midair over the notch between the tower I was standing on and the summit where Fabio sat. It was pretty cool looking, but soon I too was feeling the affects of those high winds as I scrambled down into the notch. At one point I had to flatten myself down and hug the rock in order to keep from being blown off the arête and down the East Face.
As the wind battered us atop the summit Fabio and I sorted out the rope for the one long rappel down to the ground west of the First Flatiron. We were both shivering badly and really wanted to get down. After we'd gotten the ropes coiled and ready to toss Fabio climbed a little bit toward the west side of the summit and prepared to throw them. He hung there for about 30 seconds doing nothing. I wondered what he was waiting for, the wind to die down? He must have read my thoughts as he looked back at me and we both laughed. There was little chance that the wind would calm for even a moment and tossing the ropes down the west side would do little as they would be easily blown almost horizontally around the south side of the summit block. Instead Fabio elected to just drop the ropes down to a ledge about 20 feet below the summit. He rapped down to the ledge and then fed the ropes one by one down the west face. This worked okay, and he only had to pause one more time during the rappel to pull the ropes from around the south side of the summit block so that they would drop below him.
This took Fabio a little while and I patiently waited while shivering almost uncontrollably. Finally Fabio was off rappel and it was my turn. I still find rappelling pretty scary and my natural fear of rappelling combined with my violent shivering and being buffeted by the strong winds contributed further to making this an exciting rappel to say the least. Luckily it went relatively smoothly and soon I was on safe terrain with Fabio. We packed up our stuff, changed shoes and headed back around the south side of the First Flatiron for the car. Now that we were out of the brunt of the wind we warmed up fairly quickly but it was still a little chilly as the sun had already passed behind the Flatirons.
Before I headed home to Fort Collins we stopped in a cute little hole in the wall off Walnut Street in downtown Boulder for a beer and a snack. I was very happy to get another solid climb under my belt. I felt I had climbed fairly well, but I still have a lot to work on - namely protecting my second. I also have to remember that even though it's sunny out I should dress warmer for November climbs.