- Climbers: Zambo, Josh & Dillon
- Peak: The Sharkstooth (12,630 ft)
- Route: Northeast Ridge (5.6), with 5.9 Variation
- Pitches: 5
- Raps: 3
- Distance: Approx 8 miles
- Vert: 3,400 feet
- Round Trip Time: 12 hours 45 minutes
Pop. Boom. Crackle.
Explosions in the distance were going off as I rolled out of bed at 1:00 AM on a Sunday. That might be the only time in my entire life I have been annoyed by the 4th of July. Much as I do not usually mind a bunch of high-schoolers lighting off fireworks in the middle of the night, it was an annoyance when trying to catch some sleep before a big day. The concert and midnight bedtime the night before were not helping either.
Oops. I guess that one is on me.
I silently reminded myself that if Andrew Hamilton can climb 58 peaks in 10 days on basically zero sleep (a record which was in progress during our climb), I could slog up Glacier Gorge for some rock fun on 1 hour of it. Besides, this is the park we are talking about. As Dillon is always keen to remind me, there are no bad days in the park. No arguments here.
Like so many trips, this one was characterized by weeks of planning and organizing, only to see it all go completely out the window the day before departure. NOAA was predicting a 90% chance of heavy rain for our original plan to go up Cathedral in the Elks. Rain, hail, and an endless supply of freshly lubricated Elk rock did not sound like fun. Neither did the prospect of sitting in returning 4th of July I-70 traffic. No matter how ya slice it, Colorado is overflowing.
Ok….time for Plan B.
The forecast for northern Colorado appeared to be slightly better, offering us just the window we needed to try something as ambitious as The Sharkstooth. This one had been on Josh’s list for a while and we were both itching for a more involved day. So, less than 12 hours before we were set to leave, we were on the phone hammering out the route beta, peak info, and final details. I fired off a few texts to Dillon, who was game for whatever. In a flurry of late messages, we all got on the same page for this now substantially more complicated day we were getting ourselves into.
One of the last things I texted Dillon was in response to his question about what to pack. I told him the most important thing was to bring his big boy pants. We were going to need them.
Pulling past the deserted entrance gate at 2:30 in the morning, I reflected on all the peaks in this special place. What a gem.
There are 169 named peaks in Rocky. Of those, 91 are counted as hard-ranked summits. Out of the total, I am not 100% sure how many have mandatory class 5 routes to the summit, but it is not many. Maybe 4 or 5 “non-walkups” at most. The Sharkstooth is one of the finest.
This impressive spike of rock juts out of the jagged ridge line without apology. It is a big, lonesome, and worthy peak despite its relatively low absolute height. It is a stark reminder of just how wild RMNP can get, a few mere miles from the relative civilization of the Bear Lake gaper shuttles. I am in awe every time I get high in the park. I am certainly not the first to be captivated by it.
Anyway, with our objective sufficiently scouted, our plan was simple:
- Get a very early start.
- Blitz up to the base of the Gash.
- From the base of the route, make a call on weather before committing.
- Hopefully, climb the peak and rap out before any storms hit.
- Be safe.
- Have fun.
The start of the route took us to the familiar confines of Glacier Gorge. I am continually amazed of all the possibilities accessible from this singular parking lot. From here a competent mountaineer can find hiking, skiing, snow climbs, rock climbs, soaring spires, gentle 13ers, and enough routes and walls to stay busy for a lifetime. It was no wonder we encountered multiple other parties racking out and gearing up when we pulled in. I was worried we might not be the only ones on the peak, but it turned out to be unfounded. Even on a holiday weekend in July, there are enough options to all but guarantee you will have your choice of route to yourself.
As we hit the trail at exactly 4:00, it was evident we were not messing around. Or I should say, Josh wasn’t. A few weeks prior I had given Dillon a friendly warning about the pacing, but it is something you do not really know until you feel it. Josh is fast enough as is, but coming fresh off of two weeks on Denali does something to a man. Combine that with the need to move fast to get ahead of the weather, and my calves were hating me. The pace was a blitz. Only thing you can do is put your head down and go.
I have read many reports of climbers complaining about the approach to this peak, but I am not sure I can join in. I did not think it was all that bad. We ascended on the main trail until taking the well known climber’s trail to avoid the Alberta Falls switchbacks. As many have said, it is a bit tricky to spot, so we were glad to find it. The right turn is immediately after the fourth bridge from leaving the parking lot. What starts out a bit scattered but very quickly turns into an excellent path which saves 15-20 minutes. We were glad to utilize it going both up and down.
Beyond this, a gentle climb up past the Loch eventually gives way to a low timberline break en-route to Andrew’s Glacier. The final obstacle is to ascend up into the Gash – a looming valley at the base of the peak with rough walls and ample snow. All told, four miles and roughly 2,800 vert takes you to the base of the Sharkstooth itself.
We were prepared for snow in the upper basin and we got it. Thankfully, it was in perfect condition. For the duration of the route we had perfect booting snow – a great mix of supportive enough to hold us, but soft enough to kick in excellent steps. We did not encounter any slopes over 25 degrees, rendering the crampons we brought unnecessary. An axe was a nice aid, but not required. Although, I can certianly see the snow being far trickier in this valley than we found. Earlier in the season could present much steeper and more complicated snow. By August, my suspicion is that much of this turns to ice, presenting an entirely new mountaineering challenge.
Suffice it to say, we were happy to have timed it in just about the perfect seasonal window.
Some class 3 scrambling brought us to the base of the first pitch by 6:00 – a time we were quite proud of based on other reports. Now it was decision time. A few whispy clouds were the only hint of weather troubles. Easy decision – let’s go for it.
The next 45 minutes was spent in the familiar routine of racking up, flaking out ropes, putting on gear, separating out what was not needed*, etc.
One of the things I especially enjoy about these alpine rock days is the attention to detail required. Starting now, all your attention needs to be focused. Gear, belays, anchors, climbing, holds, partners….each of these things requires 100% diligence and attention for hours on end. For me, this hyper-focus creates a slight buzz all day. It is invigorating in a very unique way to have to be dialed in for so long. Aside from the obvious exposure and complications of an alpine rock route, it is this concentration which really sets them apart from a typical day in the hills.
I tried to communicate as much to Dillon, who was peering up at the face, pondering his fate. Aside from the First Flatiron, this would be his first trip up a route like this. The best I could offer was, “I like these days because you just have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It is not natural to be dangling over hundreds of feet of exposure, but the challenge of mastering that and moving with skill and expertise is what makes it invigorating.”
I don’t think that really did much for him. But standing some 650 feet below the tower above us, this was never more obvious to me. Go time.
(*PRO-TIP: We read tales of super-marmots eating gear in this valley. We were not eager to become the next victims. Pondering this, Josh struck gold with an idea on the way up: we could bury the gear. Honestly, none of us had ever heard or read of others having this idea. I have heard a millon people tell me to hang stuff (and it is usually what I do), but burying it under boulders had never been suggested. It paid off brilliantly. A few short minutes of piling mid-sized rocks on gear had it perfectly locked down all day. We did not see a hint of marmots when we got back hours later. I’m sold. I am going to rock-bury my stuff from here on out to keep the bastards out. Brilliant.)
(Video by Zambo. NOTE: To my everlasting shame, I realized I took vertical video upon getting home. My only excuse is trying not to drop my phone. But that is a horrible excuse. I fail at the internet.)
As reported by many others, pitches 1 & 2 were brilliant fun. 5.6+ climbing on solid rock is a blast. One of our overall impressions was just how sustained and consistent the difficulty and quality of the rock was. Generally solid rock yielded excellent holds and good pro the whole way. Ample juggy hands combined with great feet made for fun work up the pitches. We were ascending on double 60M ropes with Josh leading the whole day. I took belay and the rear climbing as Dillon cut up the middle.
It was great fun to watch Dillon work the route and get out there for the first time on something like this. He nailed it. Although only an intermediate myself, I enjoyed discussing the various intricacies and complexities of climbing and protection with Dilly as we hung out at the belays. Meanwhile, true to form, Josh masterfully sent the first two pitches without issue.
As we went up, the fun continued. The exposure did as well.
Upon reaching the top of P2, Josh gave us our theme song for the day. Shake it off baby.
(Video by Zambo)
Pitch 3 was an added challenge. The common theme on this peak is confusing route finding. That was certainly the case for us. At the top of P2 we made a right hand turn around a small corner to set up the top belay. In retrospect, the standard 5.6 route takes a slight left here to find a left-facing dihedral, but this was not obvious. We found a different dihedral on the right (NW) side of the face. A fingery cracky leading to a slight bulge marked the first 75 feet of this alternative pitch. The general consensus seems to be that this crux bulge goes 5.8, but Josh and I agreed it felt more like a 5.9 move. The crack leading up to the bulge felt very 5.7ish, and only relented after the overhang. The top of P3 met back up with the standard route at the top.
Seeing the impending challenge, we were game. We rigged a few prussics to protect against the tricky move to come and then Josh took off. The excellent pro continued through the bulge, with 3 solid pieces adequately protecting that move in particular. From there, the fun climbing continued onwards.
(Video by Josh)
Pitch 3 took a long time. Some rope-management issues and slow climbing on difficult terrain was taxing. However, when we hit belay at the top of P3 my spirits rose quite a bit. Again, the belay had plenty of space and the summit was quite close now.
From here, Josh opted to do a quick half-pitch to avoid rope drag. As the lean of the peak went over an upper ledge, it made more sense to make P4 a quickie and take advantage of the table before hitting the final ridge to the top.
Yet again, the base of P5 was a great ledge – maybe the best yet. The last pitch eased somewhat, but offered some unique features of its own. A traverse out on the face eventually led back to a narrow spine. The drop off the west side of the ridge was epic. From the top of this final belay, a short scramble led to a very well earned summit.
(Video by Zambo)
Reaching the summit of one of these is always a relief. The top offered a relaxed platform with plenty of room to spread out and finally take a breath. For the first time in hours we could come off belay and stretch out a bit.
To this point, be had been hugely blessed by the good weather. A few building clouds and a distant rumble or two over the Never Summers were the first hint of trouble all day. As expected, NOAA wasn’t even close. (I wonder how many times I will say that before I am through?) But as Dillon quipped, if we always listen to NOAA, we would “still be trying to finish the 14ers.” Wise words. All you can do is go and see I guess.
Now it was time for the really fun stuff.
After a few short minutes looking out across Glacier Gorge, we started exploring around for the first rap anchors. A very short down climb on the SE of the summit block led us to 3 fixed pitons interspersed with several pieces of webbing. We would be thankful for the double 60m ropes on the descent. We were able to find a new set of fixed gear at each 60m stop. Two full raps and one final 30m rap took us to the Sabre-Sharkstooth col. From here, it was a simple class 3/4 down climb back to our gear stash.
(Video by Josh)
The col allowed us easy passage via boulders and an old climber’s trail back to our gear. The snow was avoidable, but quite steep up the melted out couloir. I could see this being tricky if filled in.
Thankfully we did not need to worry about that. Getting back to our stash, the gear bury had worked flawlessly. No furry critters here. I can not remember the last time that it felt that good to get back into my boots. My only gripe was realizing I had unknowingly hauled a full liter of un-drunk water up and down the Tooth. Coulda used that when I ran out three hours earlier….
But hey, if that is the biggest complaint from a full day of rock climbing in the alpine, that is a good day indeed.
The hike out was quick and easy. We took a pause right at tree line to sit and rest for the first time all day. The soaring towers and glacier-carved faces of the gorge framed the perfect backdrop to reflect and think. What a blessing and a gift this day had been. Thank you Lord.
And thank you as well to these guys for getting out. Josh is a total stud and was integral to pulling this off. As usual, his guiding sense and expertise is incredible in the hills. One of my favorite parts of these days is just soaking up as much knowledge and insight as I can from his experience. This was a beautiful lead and we were very thankful to benefit from it.
Dillon crushed it as well. An amazing first experience out in the big alpine. For someone who loves the Park as much as he does, I think that was a special treat to experience it in a totally new way. It was fun to get out there and see him work the route.
And so, down safe, the only remaining objective was a fat bison burger at Ted’s in Estes Park. Unfortunately, the gaper-traffic-train was backed up all the way to the Y Camp trying to get into town. Fighting traffic was the last thing we wanted to do, so we settled for a diner out the western edge of Estes. So-so burgers and fries were nullified with a set of cold brews. Always the best way to finish.
All in all a fantastic day with great partners on a very, very fun route. Hopefully there is some helpful info and insights for anyone thinking of trying this route. I for one, would happily jaunt up it again some day.
Thanks for reading along if you did. Happy climbing!
Appendix & Beta
- 2 8mm, 60m half ropes
- Standard single set of cams, fingers to a BD Camalot #3
- Set of BD stoppers (#3-#13)
- 8 single length alpine draws
- 2 standard quick draws
- 3 double length alpine draws
- 1 cordellete
- Glacier Gorge Trailhead: 4:00am
- Base of NE ridge route: 6:05am
- Start of pitched climbing: 6:45am
- Summit of Sharkstooth: 12:15pm
- Start of rappels: 12:30pm
- Base of rappels: 2:00pm
- Back to base of climb: 2:20pm
- Hike out: 2:45pm Glacier Gorge Trlhd: 4:45pm
*For beta’s sake, the climb on the rock itself could be much, much faster than these splits. From the belay at P1 to the summit we spent a full 5 1/2 hours on route, largely due to slow climbing in our party. Not a big deal for us, but a faster group could easily send this in 2-3 hours, with 3-4 hours being a reasonable estimate for most parties.
Miscellaneous Route Notes
- We probably could have climbed the route in 4 pitches with 60 meter ropes, but, looking back, the belays would have been awkward. In all, the route was longer than thought, and we were using most of our rope length for each pitch. A 70 meter setup would have obviously got you further, but rope drag (especially with two lines) would be a factor.
- Rope drag was more of an issue on pitches 4 and 5 as the angle of the climb eases. Pitch 4 was the shortest of the five because we intentionally wanted to keep drag to a minimum. It also had a fantastic belay ledge to re-group.
- It appears the consensus on that roof section on pitch 3 was 5.8. We all felt it was a little harder than that (5.9 ish), but who knows. The majority of pitch 3’s right facing dihedral was in the 5.7 range upon reflection.
- The “left facing” 5.6 dihedral on pitch 3 was not obvious unless you trended left on pitch 2. We more or less went straight up on that pitch and, hence, didn’t see this easier option. We checked the Mountain Project route description and went ahead with setting up a belay at the base of the right-facing dihedral.
- The first rappel anchor is a little hidden about 20 feet down on the southeast side of the summit. It required a very short and easy scramble to reach.
- The rappels require a good degree of rope management because of how flaky the terrain is on the descent. In windy conditions, it probably would be wise for the first rappeller to “saddlebag” the rope in coils – at least on the first two rappels.
- With a few exceptions, the rock was great quality and quite solid. There are definitely loose blocks on the climb, but they were fairly obvious to note when ascending.
- Overall, the quality of rock, position, and nature of this climb made for some spectacular alpine cragging. 10/10 – would happily recommend to others.
Beta & Trip Report Links
- Excellent Route Write Up: http://climbinglife.com/rmnp-alpine-routes/912-sharkstooth
- Mountain Project Route Description: http://www.mountainproject.com/v/northeast-ridge/105750940
- Mountain Project Peak Page: http://www.mountainproject.com/v/sharkstooth/105745133
- Summit Post Peak Page: http://www.summitpost.org/the-sharkstooth/152298