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Another beautiful Fall day was expected as I headed for the Flattop Mountain Trail. It was a dark and breezy morning and there was about 30 minutes until sunrise, so I was anxious to get moving and get up above tree line. It was an uneventful trek up to the summit of Flattop Mountain. I stopped here to take a little break and have a bite to eat. The wind was really whipping across the divide so I started to get a little cold just sitting there, and I was soon heading around Ptarmigan Point and starting the 5 mile tundra jaunt across the Bighorn Flats, up and over Sprague Mountain and onto my final goal of the day, Hayden Spire.

The Bighorn Flats are deceptively huge. They just keep going and going. There is some mixed terrain as well. I pointed right for Sprague Pass and walked over hard and frozen tundra, through overgrown shrubs and tip toed around around some very marshy areas with some larger boulder filled areas mixed in as well.

About an hour after leaving Flattop's summit I was at Sprague Pass, where I took another little break. The pass was especially windy, so I quickly downed some food, chugged a bit of water and was headed up the nice tundra slopes of Sprague Mountain. I stayed on the northeast ridge of the mountain taking advantage of the amazing views into Spruce Canyon. It was one of those days where you are just thankful to be in the mountains. The day was so beautiful, there was no one else around and I had this entire section of the park to myself. The views in all directions were amazing on such a clear day. This part of the hike took me a little bit because I stopped a lot to check my map to see what lakes were what and basically to get familiar with this part of the park that I had never visited. But, before too long, I was on the nice broad summit of this great mountain. Again, great views everywhere. I also got my first heart pounding view of Hayden Spire, to the west. It was so close now and something I have always wanted to climb.

I have been told that there is a third class route to the summit, but nothing about this thing looked third class to me. Gerry Roach lists the easiest route as a 5.0-5.2. I was starting to believe that Roach's estimate was on target. But, nothing left to do than head that way and see for myself. Just a few minutes later I had dropped my hiking poles and was scrambling along the south ridge of Hayden Spire. Soon, things began to get a little tricky.

First, I made my way around the southern most bump in the ridge and was heading up the second bump. This was some fun 3rd class scrambling that led to some 3rd class down climbing of broken slabs and the exposure began to increase here as well. The terrain was pretty choppy and random, so I kept taking pictures behind me making note of which rock formations to climb up and over on my way back to the divide.

I came upon a class 3+ slab that looked like it may be a shortcut to the summit. I scampered up this and realized that it would top out at an over hang on the summit block. So, back down I went. I made my way down some steep slabs that were covered in loose rock to the east of the spire. Here, I gained some grass ramps that would take me to the north side of the spire. These ramps were fairly exposed but offered solid footing and hand holds when needed. Then there was another 3rd class section to climb up in order to get around the north side of the spire. This is where the exposure started to grab my attention, but the rock was very solid so with a little care there was nothing to worry about.

The traverse to the west side of the spire was cake. But here, the terrain steepened quite a bit and I was moving on nothing but solid slabs. I found a narrow gully, about 3 feet or so wide. To cross this rib would take me out onto some more exposed slabs that didn't look like they led anywhere. So I made my way up this steep "gully" that was about 3.5 feet deep. It had loose rocks and scree contained through the length of it, and got steeper as I went up, so it wasn't too much fun. The top gave me no other choice but to climb straight up about 30 feet. So I carefully made my way down the "gully" and crossed it to the steeper exposed slabs. The rock was solid so I felt comfortable going on. There was a large rock in the middle of the natural feature that I was using as a trail (just a rib in the slab). I was going to step on the top of this rock but figured I should push on it a little first just to make sure it was stable. Well, it was pretty loose and would have been easy to push off of the cliff below. I carefully, but quickly, made my way below this rock and was soon above about a 4 foot drop to some more steep slabs. Here the exposure was considerable. A fall would do a lot more than hurt.

I contemplated this move (a careful easing down this drop onto the slab) and figured I would give it a shot and just pull out of it if I felt even a little uncomfortable. So I sat on the edge and started lowering myself down. The only thing wrong was that my pack was in the way. I turned around and tried to down climb it, but didn't feel comfortable in that position either. So I took the pack off for one last try, and made down with ease. This wouldn't have even been a slight problem if the drop-off to my right wasn't so extreme. I would have just hopped off. But, even one little slip or trip would be bad news.

I was immediately faced with my next challenge. There was a wall of rock about 12 feet high that was near vertical. It had plenty off great hand and footholds so I was willing to give it a shot. This wall was tucked into the cliff band a bit, so exposure was something I was comfortable with. There was a nice level spot that I could work on. I climbed up about halfway, then down climbed, just to make sure I would be able to. The I climbed up the rest of the way, where there was another wall, this time with an awkward crack and with considerably more exposure. I got up next to this obstacle, gave it a half hearted attempt and decided that this was the end of the road for me. I know I could have climbed it, but the down climb, with the exposure is what scared me. SO CLOSE! It was pretty hard to turn away, but it had been a fun day. I could see the summit. I was only 20 vertical feet from the last little push. That one move got me. But I know it was the right decision. Now I can get more experience under my belt, get back there, set protection if I need to and get to the top!

Now I had to meticulously make my way back through the maze of rock I had just negotiated. This didn't take nearly as long, as I knew the route and made fairly quick work of it and was soon eating my last piece of pizza on the broad slopes of the Continental Divide. I loaded up and was soon making the 10 mile walk back to the trail head. whew!

It was a pretty walk back around Sprague and through the Bighorn Flats, where I spent a little time watching a family of elk enjoy the afternoon. I was soon nearing Flattop Mountain and decided to make a quick trip over to visit an old friend, Hallett Peak. This was the first mountain I ever climbed and holds a special place in my first summit experience. I spent about 20 minutes on top, just looking around. I layed down on the summit and nearly fell asleep. I'm glad I didn't because I would have probably slept through the night!

So, after sucking down some gatorade, a little beef jerky and some cheese, I made my way back to the trail head and home!

It was a great day out and, even though disappointed I didn't summit Hayden, was a day that I will remember for a long long time.

until next time...
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