Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Don's Blog Memorable Chock Stone

Among the images from my friend Jim Mytton was this photo of the Notchtop Chock Stone. It brought an immediate
tightness in my throat as I remembered this epic adventure. When I was at Cheley Colorado Camp in Estes Park in the late 40's and early 50's I loved hiking and was developing an interest in technical rock climbing. After several years I became proficient enough to earn the 4TH Degree Mountaineering Award at the camp. There were certain climbs that were named the hardest and required the most experience and Notchtop Mountain (elevation 12,129 feet) was in the most difficult group. As this photo shows we climbed in Levis, T-shirts, and hiking boots. After taking off from Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park we hiked over to Lake Helene. I remember that we hung a left and climbed some gullies and turned right up to this long narrow traverse which was fully exposed. We had been indoctrinated in preparation for the famous chock stone where we had been told that some un-named camper in the past had "frozen" being unwilling to move right or left. 
It never occurred to us that we should be using ropes - just that it was not going to be us that 'froze'. What was unsaid was that we were fully aware that if we slipped it would be fatal and someone else would have to explain it to my mother. This fear was made worse if you had short legs. I can remember this as if it were happening right now. I took my time and concentrated on climbing past the stone. I have little recollection of the glory of the summit. I do remember that on the way up after this I was concerned about coming back down the same way. It was much easier coming back than the going up.

As I recall this adventure I see it from a different perspective. There have been some fatal climbing accidents on the mountain and I am glad that no one in our party was among them. That certainly was not due to our mountaineering expertise. There has been a healthy improvement in climbing techniques and equipment since 1951.
Below this photo of Notchtop  that I took several years ago I present a report of a recent ascent of the mountain from


With Notchtop's south ridge soaring above, work across the bottom of the lake and uphill to the left, through mild talus and grassy slopes. After entering the gully, look for a ramp going up to the right that would lead back to the south ridge. It should look very easy and is in a small cirque with large boulders at its base. An easy scramble leads to a nice perch on the ridge crest. This makes a nice place to rope up and/or put on climbing shoes.

With a two hundred foot rope, two pitches can be made of a series of rock steps in the ridge. These steps are separated by low angle spots that can be used as alternate belays with a shorter rope. Many different paths are obvious on the initial pitches. Look for a cool line and enjoy. Eventually find a belay beneath the south ridge as it increasingly steepens above. A grassy ledge leads right around a spectacular corner. It is never very difficult and is nicely protected for both the leader and the second. Stretch the rope out to a belay beneath the east meadow.

The "notch" should be visible above you. Follow the path of least resistance for a rambling pitch up the east meadow. Find a belay beneath a steep headwall that blocks access to the notch. Look for the easiest path path through the headwall. It should be a crack on the left that is well protected. It goes up to a small roof, where a step to the left leads to easy terrain. This is one of the best pitches on the route.

From the notch, scramble south along a ledge until it is possible to scramble to the summit of the Notch Spire. Keep in mind that this ledge is on the opposite side of the mountain that the climb was on. It is very obvious. Enjoy the summit of the spire. It is very small and very cool.

After descending the spire, work uphill to the north. The goal is to find the West Gully, a third class gully, full of yucky talus, that descends to the lake at the base of the route. Look for some cairns and and a well worn path. Several rap stations appear, but the cliffs below are long, and the trail goes right beneath them anyway. The scramble from the notch to the West Gully is longer and more intricate than would be expected. Don't worry, just look carefully for the path everybody else has used before. Some snow may be in the upper part of the West Gully until mid-summer. This traverse is not a good place to be caught in a big electrical storm. Maybe that's why there are several rap stations encountered along the traverse.

Descend the West Gully down to the start of the route. This is the traverse from the gully to the ridge line. Pick-up any stashed gear or head directly down to the Lake. Reverse the approach to Lake Helene and Bear Lake via the Fern Lake trail.

This is a wonderful route and not too sustained for its grade. It is a good first time route for someone looking to do a moderate tour in the mountains. It is a wonderful route to cruise 3rd class. With a two hundred foot rope, it can easily be done in 5 pitches. Enjoy.

Yes it kind of sounds like the Notchtop that we climbed in jeans and hiking boots and T-shirts with two leaders and a bunch of fit teen-agers with no ropes and no metal and no belays and no raps. I can see why my throat constricts when I see that chock stone picture.

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