The Sharkstooth - Northeast Ridge
I remember being awestruck the second time I laid eyes on The Sharkstooth - a minor rock spire in Rocky Mountain National Park. We were shivering on the summit of Otis Peak in March - totally engulfed by clouds and snow. Then for an instant the clouds broke and the faint light of the sun shone through to reveal the ominous figure of The Sharkstooth piercing the swirling clouds across The Gash. As quickly as its menacing form had appeared it disappeared as the clouds and snow engulfed us once more. Little did I know that not much more than a year later I would climb this impressive rock.
Coincidentally, that winter day on Otis was the first time I met Fabio. Since then we'd become regular partners and friends and had climbed many mountains and crags together. A climb of The Sharkstooth via its Northeast Ridge (II 5.6) would be one more tick in the long list of great climbs we enjoyed together.
We departed the Glacier Gorge Trailhead at about 3:45 and it took us about two hours to get up into The Gash. We arrived just as the sun was coming up and snapped a bunch of photos. Due to the early morning cloud cover the alpine glow on the rock walls was a very intense red - probably the most incredible alpine glow I'd ever seen. However, the cloud cover had its downside too - threatening weather could mean we'd have to abort our attempt. We agreed that it was worrisome, but we might as well scramble up to the base of the technical climbing before making a decision on the climb.
We left the trail and scrambled our way through a large boulder field. After the boulder fields we found a large snow field that we could ascend through a headwall. This early in the morning the snow was quite hard and I carefully kicked steps up it. This was a bit dicey I thought and was glad I brought trekking poles. (Fabio brought his ice axe.) Once past the snow we scrambled across more boulders around another cliff band and up to the base of our chosen route - the Northeast Ridge.
Since the snow field the clouds had appeared to be clearing. As we sat at the base of the climb some patches of blue sky were even breaking through. We decided we'd go ahead and give it a go. As we geared up for the climb two other parties made their way up The Gash to the base of the climb. The first party we encountered saw us gearing up for the Northeast Ridge and decided to execute plan B (ascending the East Gully) to avoid the hassle of having to deal with a crowd on the route. The second party arrived a few minutes later and had no qualms about climbing the Northeast Ridge with us.
Fabio lead the first pitch and started up what appeared to be a nice looking dihedral. However, once he got up into the dihedral he found it really grubby and nasty - filled with moss, dirt, and lichen. About 60 feet up he traversed left onto some clean but very steep face climbing. Fabio went up this for about 30 feet to a huge ledge and set up a belay (he used less than half the rope on the first pitch). I followed fairly easily, though the face climbing after the dihedral really got my attention.
For the second pitch I traversed right for 30-40 feet across the broad ledge to where I found a right-facing, chimney-like dihedral. This was pretty fun climbing but there was a bit of loose stuff that I had to be careful of. On my way up I passed a rappel anchor. After about 100 feet of this rope drag began to be an issue (probably due to the long traverse at the bottom of the pitch) so I set up a nice belay atop a pillar to climbers left of the dihedral.
Fabio breezed up to me and we traded gear for the third pitch. Fabio continued about 50 feet up the dihedral but then slowed up as he encountered some route finding difficulties. He ended up downclimbing the chimney a ways and then traverse left out of sight. After he traversed out of sight Fabio's progress seemed to be very slow as the rope slowly inches upward. There seemed to be a long wait of about 10 minutes as the rope sat at exactly the halfway mark. The rope finally inched out about 10 feet, then Fabio apparently downclimbed something and I took the 10 feet back in. I waited some more and began to get cold as the clouds obscured the sun periodically and the breeze lifted a bit. Eventually the rope began to inch out again and finally I heard Fabio shout that he was on belay.
At this point I was shivering pretty badly so I paused to put on my jacket. This was not an entirely trivial endeavor as my jacket was underneath my approach shoes in my pack. (This was a stupid mistake I won't make again - jacket should be on top!) Perched as I was atop the pillar I clipped my backpack to myself so I couldn't accidentally drop the entire thing and carefully pulled my shoes out of my pack and then my jacket. The whole time I was chanting to myself, "Don't drop the shoes. Don't drop the shoes. Don't drop the shoes." Luckily I didn't drop anything and made the transition into the jacket fairly gracefully.
With the jacket on I set off. I climbed easily through the remainder of the dihedral to where Fabio traversed left. I then found myself on a broad ledge with some intimidating looking climbing above me. I also took note that the first piece of protection was a good ways up - clearly a very bold lead by Fabio. In front of me I found a horizontal crack that angled slightly up to my left and off the ledge. The crack was the only feature on a seemingly otherwise blank face. I reached for it with my hands and began the traverse for 20 feet or so. This was bit spicy as there were no foot holds and smearing on the featureless face only took a little weight off my arms. As I made my way to the left of the ledge a yawning void opened below me. At the end of the crack I made a mighty pull-up/mantle move to stand with my feet in the crack. From here the climbing looked a bit easier - steep face climbing on nicely featured rock. As I climbed up through this easier stuff I cleaned Fabio's first piece above the ledge! A fall by Fabio anywhere along that traverse would have been fairly serious. I made my way up the easy stuff for another 20 feet or so until I could spot Fabio belaying me above. I complimented him on the bold lead above the ledge and he replied that the most "fun" climbing was still ahead of me in the form of a lieback flake.
In another few feet I reached the flake. It was straight up and down with virtually blank faces on either side. What's more, the flake wasn't pronounced enough to get my fingers all the way around it and into the crack beneath. A combination of hand-over-hand lieback moves with very delicate balancing with my feet propelled me upwards. As I neared the top I was forced to move my right hand out onto the face and the last five feet were pretty desperate as I finally lunged for the jugs above the flake. A few feet later I arrived at the belay pretty well gripped and gasping for breath.
As I caught my breath at the belay stance Fabio explained why the pitch had taken him so long. He had spent extra time exploring the runout traverse across the horizontal crack and then when he had gotten above the flake he had been forced to wait for the other party on the route to vacate the belay stance. While we had been in the chimney-like dihedral they had taken a more direct line and beaten us to the crux pitch. After I had caught my breath we swapped gear and I started out on our fourth pitch. This was much easier climbing on nicely featured rock. I enjoyed this a lot because even though it was easy at 5.4ish, it was very steep. Most of the climbing I'd found that was so easy was low-angled, slabby stuff so it was nice to find steep, juggy stuff (almost like gym climbing).
After about 60 feet I reached a huge ledge. This would have been a good place to belay but I hadn't even used up half the rope yet. Above me was the obvious off-width crack I'd read about. Atop it I saw what looked like another nice belay stance. I decided to give the crack a go. There were a couple of nice chockstones in the lower portion which provided some good holds and I grunted my way up the first 10 feet or so utilizing the chockstones and some awkward foot jamming and arm-bar type maneuvers. (Did I mention that I suck at crack climbing?) Had anyone been watching they surely would have laughed at my ugly technique. Never-the-less it worked, and soon I reached more face climbing on either side of the crack. I climbed another 20 feet or so up to the belay ledge and brought Fabio up.
The terrain above the off-width crack eased up in difficulty - probably in the 5.2 range. Fabio made quick work of the next pitch, though to avoid horrendous rope drag he ended it at less than half the length of the rope at an obvious notch in the ridge. I followed and we hurried to swap gear for the final pitch up to the summit which had finally come into view.
The weather was closing in fast so I really hurried the final pitch. Had I more time, I would have liked to stay on the ridge proper which was fantastically exposed to the north. However, it appeared difficult to protect and I didn't want to waste any time screwing around on it. Instead I found much easier climbing (5.0 and 4th class) on climbers left of the ridge proper. I raced up the pitch and set up the final belay 50 feet short of the summit. As I brought Fabio up it began to rain and sleet in earnest.
Once Fabio reached me, I broke down the anchor as quickly as possible and we rushed over to the rappel station above the East Gully. When we got there the other party on the route (Paul and Victor) was just about done with the first rap. They yelled up to us to ask if we wanted to use their ropes. Hell yeah we did! I strapped our rope to my back and zipped down the line. By this time the rain seemed to be easing a bit but a much more significant danger began to take its place - thunder and lighting!
We used our rope to set up the second rappel while Fabio descended the first. By the time Fabio made it to the rap station Victor was well down the second rappel. We weren't sure if the 70 meter rope would reach the next rap station until Victor triumphantly yelled back that it did. I pulled down the ropes from the first rappel as thunder crashed all around. We frantically coiled the ropes and made our way down the second rappel.
By the time I made it down to the final rappel station Victor and Paul were almost down to the bottom of the East Gully. They had tied one of their 60 meter ropes to rap anchor to make the final rappel and we untied it for 'em and tossed it down. Fabio and I rigged up our 70 meter rope and I made my way down the final rappel. This 35 meter rappel wasn't quite enough to make it to the bottom of the gully so when I reached the end of the rope I had about a 40-foot, class-4 downclimb.
By the time I reached the bottom of the East Gully the rain had all but stopped but the thunder continued to boom all around. I gave Paul and Victor their second rope back and thanked 'em for letting us use it. They hurried down to the relative safety of tree line while I waited for Fabio to catch up so we could re-arrange the gear for our own retreat.
After we got everything situated we made swift progress down The Gash and back to the trail. During the descent we passed the hidden bivouac site that we had missed on the way up. It was pretty cool and nicely sheltered by some giant boulders.
Once on the trail we knew we were pretty much out of danger of being struck by lightning so we allowed ourselves to celebrate another successful climb. The death march back to the car was uneventful but it rained pretty steadily on us between The Loch and the trailhead. Luckily it wasn't too heavy and with the help of the sheltering trees was just enough to feel refreshing.
We arrived back at the trailhead about 12 hours after leaving it. We said our goodbyes and headed home. Another great day in the hills!