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The Spiral Route (III; 5.4) on Notchtop Mountain, does just that. It completely spirals around the entire spire that is Notchtop. This is a mountain that is easily visible from many places in the area and is recognized by its characteristic notch near the summit. The nature of the mountain makes it one of the more difficult to summit. The easiest route is a 4 th class route by way of either the southwest gully or the west ridge. But the majority of the routs to this mountain tiny, exposed summit require climbing at least 5.4 rock.
Andy and Notchtop had my attention and we were all set for giving it a shot on Sunday, June 25 th. He came up the day before and we played around on McGregor Slab, had a good dinner and then went to bed early with a 2:00 wake up call.
We were hiking at 3:40 or so and making good time up the Odessa Lake Trail. We timed it just about perfect and started gaining the upper basin of Odessa Gorge as it was getting light enough to see. Notchtop loomed high above just calling to us. The nervous energy was high and we were ready to start climbing. After taking some shots of reflections in the tarns of this basin we began heading up into the southwest gully in search of a good place to begin climbing. Andy found a great spot only a little way up the gully so we roped up and started to climb!
The first pitch was relatively easy, with mostly 3 rd and 4 th class terrain with a couple of 5.4ish moves thrown in the mix. Andy was soon anchored above and I was making my way up toward the summit of Notchtop. This first pitch was pretty easy and went pretty quickly. The following pitch was a little more fun with a bit harder climbing and a little more exposure.
From the ledge that Andy was belaying on, there were a couple of options. I could go straight up from there, traversing slightly to climbers right on some sketchy looking terrain, in my opinion at least, or I make my way to the left up some more featured rock that looked to be a little bit more in my comfort zone. It was solid 5.4 rock and was very enjoyable to climb. I made my way up this cliff with little trouble to gain a grassy shelf that led me to another steeper cliff that took little protection. I went to my left once again and traversed to my right as I climbed. This cliff was a solid mass and had no cracks at all to set any protection until about 2/3 rds of the way up the 50+ foot face where I was able to get a bomber #3 Camelot in. While this section of the pitch was run out and the climbing was a little more difficult, it provided the perfect amount of challenge mixed with pure enjoyment. I made it up and over this cliff and had a tough time searching for a good place to set up an anchor on the grassy ramp above. Once I was set, I belayed Andy up and we were through the first challenge of the day.
We now had to make the 100 yard traverse of a grassy ledge that led to the East Meadow below the infamous notch of Notchtop Mountain. The East Meadow is nothing more than steep grassy ledges that help make up the mini-cirque on the upper reaches of the mountain. We carefully scrambled up the grass and were soon faced with some options. We could see the 5.7 crack that made up a route called “Mournin’” There was also a 5.7ish flake system that Andy had his eyes on but I was relieved when we both settled for the 5.4 ledges to climbers left of the cirque.
Andy made quick work of this final pitch but had a little trouble finding solid placements for a good anchor. So with a warning to climb carefully as one of the anchor points was suspect, I cautiously made my way up the grassy ledge system. It wasn’t overly difficult climbing, but the grass did make you pay attention as it was a tad bit slick in climbing shoes. Andy was anchored about 50 feet below the notch so I quickly passed him by and made my way up the 3 rd/4 th class terrain to the other side of the Notch where I belayed him up these final feet.
From here we packed the rope away and made the very exposed 4 th class scramble to the fantastic summit of this great mountain. This was the scariest part of the day for me. While the exposure was considerable, the climbing was fairly easy, I just tend to let my mind get in my way and get myself all worked up. We stayed on the summit for a few minutes. With extreme drops on all side I would guess that this is one of the cooler summits in the park (or in CO for that matter). Next time I am there, I hope to spend a few more minutes soaking it in. But I was ready for the down climb to be over. I slowly made my way down the summit block as Andy filmed me huffing and puffing as I inched my way down to the relative safety of the notch. As I waited for Andy, I heard him whistling as he down climbed toward me. Another stroll in the park.
We rested a few minutes in the sun as we re-read info about the descent. We put back on our approach shoes and made our way up the ridge to the west and soon found the correct descent gully to gain the ledge system that would lead us to the large gully that would take us back to the base of the mountain. These ledges were quite exposed at times and there were consistently placed rap anchors before these exposed moves as some people opted to rappel down the south face. I’m sure these rap anchors were evidence of some of the epic horror stories we have heard about. After a little time along this ridge we were nearing the descent gully. We had heard horror stories of this gully so we were a little apprehensive about even trying it and were thinking about climbing up to the divide and returning via Flattop Mountain. But the weather was turning on us and we committed to losing elevation as soon as we could. The gully ended up being a piece of cake with one small section of down climbing 4 th class terrain at the base.
As the clouds moved in, the air cooled off and it threatened to rain on us, we made our way back down the valley after a fantastic climb! We congratulated ourselves on another great day in the hills and talked about future plans. We went back to the lodge, took a few minutes to enjoy the couches, then Andy packed up and headed down the hill. We'll have to figure out another exciting adventure in the weeks to come!
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