Notchtop via the Spiral Route with Mornin' Finish (5.7)
July 12, 2012
"This classic route has been titillating climbers for years. It is well named as it spirals completely around the peak to reach the summit. This is a steep and committing route. Retreat can be difficult, and the exposure is often severe. ... There is a lot of grass on the route, and after a summer hailstorm it becomes murderously slippery in slick-soled rock shoes."
- Gerry Roach from his RMNP Guide
Having a free schedule in the summers has been a blessing, but can sometimes make it tricky to coordinate with partners. My upcoming Thursday was wide open but I was having trouble finding somebody who was free in the middle of the week. Fortunately, my buddy John was able to get the day off and also wanted to do something adventurous. We tossed around a few ideas and quickly set our sights on the classic Spiral Route. I'd had my eye on the route for some time, but having heard of parties experiencing epics on the route, I had waited for a solid partner and perfect weather. The forecast was splitter and having seen John cruise a snowy Bancroft, I knew it was going to be smooth sailing.
John and I met up bright and early in Loveland. The drive went quickly, and I always appreciate driving up the Big Thompson without the tourist traffic. We were both surprised to see several cars ahead of us driving up toward Bear Lake this early, but they turned off toward Glacier Basin. The roadwork seems very involved and it'll be interesting to see how long it takes to clear up. We geared up and wasted no time before hitting the trail. The first views of Notchtop were inspiring. Although the peak is not visible from many locations in the park, it dominates the skyline above lovely Lake Helena. It's namesake notch blocks easy passage to the summit of the spire and the whole peak sits along a jagged ridge extending from the continental divide. Notchtop is said to be one of the least accessible summits in the park and I felt my excitement rising as we neared its base. The Spiral Route loomed into full view and I found it hard to believe it would only be 5.4. We left the trail at Lake Helena and skirted around its right side. A vague trail led generally where we wanted to go and we soon found ourselves contouring up toward the obvious gully below Notchtop. The steep walls loomed overhead as we worked up the gully and we kept a sharp eye for the start of the route. A small bowl marked the way to the base of the climbing and we followed an easy grassy ledge over to a large bench at the base of the ridge. Some parties miss this subtle turn and end up trying to gain the route from higher up the gully. As we tossed down our packs and craned our necks upward, we were glad to have found the correct path.
It'd didn't take long to get ready to climb and the wind provided some motivation to get moving. The early sunlight wasn't powerful enough to shelter us from the wind's chill and we both donned an extra layer. The challenge was met immediatley as the ridge's opening step reared upward. Fortunately, holds appeared almost everywhere and I moved up quickly. Easy climbing led up short rock bands that alternated with lovely grass-covered ledges. The rock was solid and the climbing enjoyable making the first two pitches fly by. The third pitch proved trickier, and the line we chose moved us carefully up a slight overhang, across the third ledge and topped out on the fourth and final grassy ledge. As I brought John up I admired the beautiful ridge that soared above my head and wondered if I would ever climb it. Happy with our smooth progress, we quickly tossed a few coils of rope over our shoulders and soloed across the wide ledge. The ledge was home to a beautiful hanging meadow that led easily around to the mini-cirque below the famous notch. After soloing a low 5th-class rock step we decided it was time to start belayed climbing again. I had set my eyes on the 5.7 "Mornin'" variation that followed a steep crack up the middle of the cirque and was excited for the lead. As I entered the crack I realized that it was much steeper than it appeared from below. My lungs complained of the thinner air at 12,000 feet, and I inched my way up the steepest part of the crack. A few awkward jams gave way to easier terrain and a comfortable belay. I eyed the traditional 5.4 finish that followed grassy ledges up the left side of the cirque and was glad that we chose rock over dirt. John cruised the pitch and we quickly swapped gear and I motored up the final 5.6 wall. From there a short scramble across a wide ledge led to the final belay near the notch. At the notch we both dropped our packs, unroped and moved up the exposed ledges to the summit of Notchtop Spire. Our tiny perch was surrounded by air, and the thought of the immense walls below us made the summit feel electric. We chatted and soaked in this seldom-climbed summit before deciding to move on. I tip-toed to the sub-summit on the verge of the spire and dizzied at the exposure. I couldn't help but smile as I turned to go.
Back at the notch, we coiled the rope and shouldered our packs. We made for the summit on the other side of the notch on easy class 2-3 terrain. Once on the upper ridge we followed the faint "trail" until we found ourselves faced with the crux of the descent. As the walls drop neatly into the void below, the route makes a delicate class 4 traverse across the gap. I'd seen photos of this and was happy to see that it looked very doable. We were both still wearing our rock shoes so we felt confident about the moves ahead. The exposure was fierce but the holds always appeared where needed. I carefully inched across and soon found myself taking photos of John on the improbable looking traverse. A simple ledge led us to the top of the standard descent gully and we discussed our options while changing shoes. Faced with beautiful weather, we decided to push up to the divide and descend the nice Flattop trail down. Gaining the divide proved easy enough with a few class 4 sections near the top. Pulling the final moves deposited us on the beautiful rolling tundra and we sailed back. We summited Ptarmigan Point en route and followed the trail to Flattop. At the last minute we decided to add Hallett and cruised up and down. Back on Flattop, we watched a rescue helicopter scurry over the pass toward the east and we wondered what had happened. The miles back out flew by, and we hit the trailhead 8 hours after leaving. The Spiral Route proved to be just as classic as expected, and did nothing but build my appreciation for how much Rocky Mountain has to offer.