We found a very nice climbers trail that skirted counterclockwise around Lake Helene. We were a bit concerned that this part of the approach might be a tedious bushwhack but these fears were unfounded. The nice climbers trail rose steadily upward and dumped us out at the tarn at the base of Notchtop Mountain.
We took a quick break for a snack near the tarn as we watched the sun rise to the east. The rising sun provided a pleasant alpine glow that bathed Notchtop Mountain and the surrounding cirque walls. Several small pools at the base of the mountain also reflected the alpine glow nicely and we couldn't resist snapping a bunch of photos before heading up the gully for the last bit of the approach.
Gillett indicated that we should ascend the gully for some indeterminate length and then gain the buttress where we would find at least one pitch of 5.4 climbing until we hit a grassy ramp. From the ramp we would traverse right along class-3 terrain to a large meadow. From the meadow we would have several options ranging from 5.4 to 5.8.
From below we were pretty sure we could make out the beginning of the grassy ramp but we weren't sure where to attain the buttress. Only a couple hundred feet up the gully I found an easy grassy ledge system that would take us out to the buttress. Michael thought we should ascend higher into the gully before attaining the buttress. I'm still not sure who was correct, but I managed to talk Michael into gaining the buttress at the lower point.
Initially I thought we could climb the lower section of the buttress unroped because it looked pretty easy. However the first 20 feet off the ledge we stood upon was pretty solid 5.4 and I didn't really feel comfortable climbing it unroped with approach shoes and the weight of the rope strapped to my pack. So we roped up and I began the first pitch at about 6:30. It turned out the first 20 feet was the only 5th class climbing of the pitch - beyond that it was easy class-4 and class-3 terrain. I quickly ascended the length of the rope. It looked like I had another 50' to go before gaining more 5th class climbing so we simul-climbed the rest of the way up to this second grassy ledge system where I set up a belay and brought Michael up.
It's very possible this second grassy ledge is where we should have gained the buttress, but my way worked too. Michael spent a couple of minutes looking for a likely line on the buttress above us. Where I had originally set up looked pretty intimidating, but we could see some fixed gear not thirty feet above us so we could tell others had climbed it (or tried to). However, a bit to climbers left Michael found much easier looking terrain. We swapped gear and he set off. There was a good 50-60 feet of solid 5.4 climbing up off the ledge up to another ledge. Getting off this second ledge involved a kinda tricky bouldering move followed by another 50-60 feet of 5.4 climbing until Michael reached the ramp we would traverse to the meadow. This was arguably the hardest pitch (and most fun) of the climb and I felt it was very accurately rated 5.4.
With both of us on the grassy ramp we packed up the rope and traversed over into the meadow. We scrambled up through the meadow to the base of the rock wall where we would resume the technical climbing. There were several options for us - the easiest being some grassy ramps on climbers left which would keep the climb at 5.4. However, in the middle of the rock wall there some more difficult (but more interesting) lines - the best being a 5.7 finger crack named "Mornin'". I thought this was probably beyond my skills at this point in time but there was a flake system between the easy 5.4 ramps and "Mornin'" that really intrigued me. It consisted of two large flakes that looked really fun (liebacking with hands and smearing with feet) but unfortunately there was a 6' blank section between them. I scrambled up below it and gave it a hard look before deciding against it. It was pretty steep and this was probably not the best situation to push my limits. I think Michael was relieved when I settled up on the easy 5.4 ledges on the left side of the wall.
The first 30 feet of the pitch was nice 5.4 climbing on a series of small flakes. Above that the rock got a lot grubbier with lots of moss and grass mixed in but the difficulty eased off considerably. After that the rock gave way to mostly the grassy ledges. I made my way up this largely 3rd class terrain looking for a spot to belay Michael but I had a real difficult time finding any quality rock that would take protection. Every likely candidate crumbled and moved under my testing jiggles. I searched around for what seemed like I long time before I was finally able to get a pair of nuts in allowing me a precarious belay perch on sloping grass.
Michael followed easily and continued past me up to the notch. After I cleaned up the anchor I joined him. This completed the Spiral Route - Michael's second alpine rock route (he'd done Kieners a couple weeks previously) and my third (I'd done Kieners and the CMC Route on Moran the previous season). What a blast!
Though we'd completed the route we still had to tag the summit. This would involve a fairly intense, exposed, class-4 scramble from the notch around onto the west face and then up a steep gully to the top of the summit block. After a little route finding trial-and-error we found our way onto the correct ledge on the west face and walked across it to the base of the gully. Both the ledge and the gully were pretty wildly exposed and provided quite exhilarating scrambling.
We arrived atop the very cool summit block at 10:00. Unfortunately there was no summit register - Michael and I both thought this would have been a cool one to read and sign. Oh well. After a couple of minutes to enjoy the views (pretty much straight down in all directions) we retraced our steps back to the notch.
We took the opportunity to grab a bite to eat and take our climbing shoes off as we basked in the sunshine. While we relaxed we noticed that the clouds were beginning to build to the south and west so we reluctantly cut our break short and collected our gear for the descent.
The ascent went very smoothly for us but we weren't necessarily past all the difficulties of the day. Gillett describes the descent as "problematic" and reading trip reports from mountainproject.com it sounded like half the descents ended in epics. We certainly didn't want this to happen to us so we re-read Gillett's description one more time before heading up out of the notch and over the first gendarme on the ridge that connects Notchtop Mountain with the Continental Divide. Gillett's description says to climb over the first gendarme and then find a gully on the west face that will lead to a 4th class ledge system. We were to then follow the ledge system to the saddle between Notchtop and the Continental Divide.
We made our way over the first gendarme and found a gully going down the west face. However, we could not see what looked like a reasonable ledge system. I encouraged Michael, who was leading, to scramble up over the next gendarme to have a look what was over there. As I peered down this gully Michael made his way along the ridge crest. When he got a good view of what was beyond he definitely thought that this first gully was not the correct one.
We continued along the ridge until we did find a reasonable looking ledge system and were comforted by the sight of a couple of cairns. We followed the spicy class-4 ledge system as directed by Gillett all the way out to the saddle. This seemed to be pretty straight forward, though there was quite a bit of intense class-4 scrambling along the way. Both Michael and I weren't quite sure why so many people have trouble with it. I suppose if you descend the first gully after the first gendarme that could be a source of much of the difficulty. During the traverse we did see a rappel anchor perhaps 70 feet below the ledge system that had many slings on it. This might have been the starting point for many of the epics we'd read about.
Once we got to the saddle we were faced with one final decision: do we continue the traverse to the divide and then descend via Flattop or do we drop down the gully. At first glance you'd think this would be a no-brainer: drop down the gully because this would be all downhill and shorter mileage wise. However, Gillett uses both the phrases "easy" and "consider using a rope" to describe the gully. Additionally we weren't sure how much snow was in it and if the snow would be avoidable (we had no crampons, ice axes, or trekking poles to arrest a fall on steep snow). However, the rapidly building storm clouds forced us into the decision to descend the gully. Had we decided upon continuing the traverse to the divide we would have been above timberline for several more hours and we felt safer from lightning heading straight down. This also turned out to be the best decision with regard to effort as the gully was very straightforward and posed virtually no challenges. It was mostly just a trudge down loose talus and scree with one short 4th class downclimb.
The air felt like it would start raining at any second but so far we had been spared. We made it down to the tarn below Notchtop Mountain at about noon and re-shuffled our gear for the hike back to the trailhead. Although I would have liked to relax for a bit up in the tundra meadow along side the tarn and enjoy the alpine setting the menacing clouds, chilly breeze, and imminent threat of rain motivated us to continue hustling toward the car. We set a fairly brisk pace down and arrived back at the trailhead at 1:45 - exactly 10 hours after starting out.
We were both incredibly satisfied with how smoothly and enjoyably our climb had gone - another great day in the hills!