Chiefshead - Birds of Fire


In 1961, a year before he was to do the second ascent of the Diamond, Layton Kor and Bob Culp climbed what is known as the Northwest Face of Chiefshead. It was "one of the bolder brush strokes in Colorado climbing." Kor used only three bolts and only for belay anchors. Pitons were used for protection and a few of points of aid. Fourteen years later, Yosemite big wall master Billy Westbay and Dan McClure made the second ascent of the Kor/Culp route and confirmed the grade at 5.10.

Now, thirty three years later, the route is rarely climbed because it is too serious, too dangerous, too committing, too difficult. Climbers much prefer the harder, but much safer, rap-bolted Birds of Fire put by Rossiter. When Mr. Slime asked me to climb Chiefshead with him, he wanted to do Birds of Fire and was worried about a party being ahead of us. When I suggested the Kor/Culp route as an alternative, he balked. He didn't want anything to do with it. A modern day, 5.11+ climber with modern, sticky rubber shoes, high-tech protection, and a topo of the route, wouldn't follow the path of a 1960's climber in clunky boots and only pitons to protect himself. Kor was simply an amazing climber. His reputation has grown into a legend and certainly with good cause. Apparently he not only was a tremendous climber for his time, but his past achievements still command tremendous respect. Bob Culp described Kor's unique, ethereal abilities best:

"Layton Kor was a unique phenomenon. It has been my pleasure to climb with many superbly talented rock climbers but never, I think, with any who possessed the qualities of Kor. To be sure, some may have been technically better but none had the animal energy that would come bursting out to see him through the worst situations."

Royal Robbins, with whom Kor made the second ascent of D1 on the Diamond, wrote this about Kor's speed on their fast one day ascent:

"He was fast. Kor, in fact, had never developed the knack of climbing at any speed other than flat out. He was always in a hurry, and climbed every route, even the most trivial, as if he were racing a storm to the summit."

In Gillet's guidebook to the Rocky Mountain National Park, Path of Elders, as the Kor/Culp route is now named, is rated 5.10a R. The R meaning the climbing is runout. Birds of Fire is rated 5.10d with no R. Birds of Fire is runout in my book. You are required to make 5.9 moves at least 20 feet out from gear and some runouts on easier terrain are much longer. Apparently, compared to Kor's route, Birds of Fire is well protected. Culp's description implies that some pitches have only one piece of protection.

Richard Rossiter rap bolted Birds of Fire in 1988 and in doing so he denigrated Kor's face. He brought the mountain down to his level instead of rising up to meet the challenge. Birds of Fire, put in from the ground up today, still wouldn't match the Kor effort of '61 yet that approach wasn't used. Kor forged a line up this face with only three bolts used for belay anchors and none for intermediate protection.

Rossiter's line is fun, exciting climbing, but the upper pitches don't follow the natural line. A badly placed rap-bolted route on a big alpine wall. A definite step backwards in climbing. "Total bullshit," says Mark Wilford, a longtime RMNP climber. Having said that, and I know it was a bit harsh, I must say that Mr. Slime does not agree. He thought the route was a much greater achievement than I did and that it wasn't so badly placed.

Birds of Fire wasn't the second route on the face, either. It is the fourth and most recent route. Charlie Fowler, in the style of Layton Kor, put up two routes on this face. In 1980 with John Harlin, he put up Seven Arrows (5.10b R) and in 1987 with Dan Magee, Screaming Eagle (5.10d X.) The latter route was established with a 300 foot rope to avoid drilling.

John and I met at his friend Mike's house in Estes Park on Friday night. The next morning we were up at 3:30 a.m. and hiking into Glacier Gorge by 4:30 a.m. The approach is a beautiful (when the sun is up and you can see) six mile and 3000 vertical feet hike past Black Lake into the upper basin. From here we traversed west past Spearhead to the base of the Northwest Face. Much to our surprise, the wall had sun on it and we would be climbing in the sun most of the day.

We geared up and then kicked steps up the short snowfield to the base of the wall. Johnny Slime had the first pitch and immediately got off route. This would be a theme for him throughout the climb. "Where the hell does this thing go?" would be his mantra.

The first pitch is rated 5.10a, but seems easier. I don't even know where I did any 5.9 climbing on this pitch, but this may be due to our circuituous Less than a hundred feet up, John belayed from friends below a roof. This was the only belay that didn't have a two bolt anchor.

On the second pitch I continued up the dihedral to the roof. I clipped into a fixed wired and moved my feet up as I reached over the roof for some small holds. I could now reach up and clip a shiny bolt. Two difficult moves later and I was past the crux (10b) and moving up on easier ground. The rest of the pitch works up and right with some long runouts on moderate (5.8) climbing for a full rope length to a good stance. The protection consisted of the widely spaced bolts with an occasional stopper placement.

The 11a crux of the route was next and John's lead. Moderate climbing leads up for fifteen feet where the first crux (10+) is encountered. John patiently deciphered this section and moved up quite a ways to clip a bolt and come to grips with the crux. Here John made a fateful route finding mistake and started off to the right. A few feet out he realized his mistake and painstakingly reversed his moves before he could try the crux out left. Fatigued from the extra effort and baffled by the delicate sequence, he came off and hung from the bolt. After a brief shakeout, he worked out the combination and continued up to a nice belay ledge.

I managed to follow without falling, but had paid close attention to the crux sequence and barely scrapped on by. Of course, this effort wasn't remotely close to the mental stamina required to lead the pitch. Because he came off on the previous pitch, John wanted the next pitch also. It was rated 10c and the next hardest lead on the climb. I was climbing well but deferred the lead to him.

The next pitch was typical of the route where hard route finding presented itself on almost a per move basis. Many lines looked possible to climb and even led to the next bolt, but the right decision was essential to find the easiest climbing. The silver bolts were extremely hard to find against the silver/white granite and almost impossible to see when viewed on edge. Small edges and friction climbing led upwards and it was reminiscent of climbing on Glacier Point Apron in Yosemite. The granite was of the same impeccable quality; the climbing of the same consistent moves with large runouts between protection. The differences were that this wall was steeper and more featured.

The fifth pitch was up an amazing white streak and was rated 5.9+. We thought that all the 5.10 pitches were behind us now and hoped to climb a bit faster and we did. The sixth pitch was rated 5.9 but considerably harder if you varied just a little bit off the easiest path. John varied.

I led a very short 5.8 pitch up to a small ledge and brought John up. At this point we had three choices for the final lead: up the original dihedral system (supposedly 5.9), face climbing up and right (supposedly 5.9), or up the bolted arete just left of the corner (10b). This latter option was added by Rossiter in 1992 as an alternate finish to the often wet corner.

It was my lead and I elected to do the corner since it was the original finish, the most natural line and appeared to be dry. This last observation was proved wrong thirty feet up. The crack in the corner was soaked and made the climbing very desperate. I wanted out. Right at this point was a chalked up hold where I could lead straight out and onto the arete to my left. I could even clip one of the bolts out there and did. The moves out of the dihedral and onto the face were solid 5.10 and I was thankful to have a shiny bolt right at my nose.

Once established on the face I worked even further left to a crack and some protection before coming back right to the arete. I worked a serpentine path up the face on bad and deteriorating rock that was covered in lichen and occasionally wet. The climbing was uncharacteristic of the route and a very serious lead. My winding path also brought tremendous rope drag and things got a bit desperate 150 feet into the lead with no site of the anchors. John wanted to know what was going on. "Desperate shit," I yelled down. Ten feet later when I ran out of rope I could see the anchors still 15 feet above me. We had to simul-climb the next 15 feet and did so without incident. When John arrived at the belay there were no questions of what took me so long. His comments: "I was terrified seconding."

It was a little after 1 p.m. and time to descend. The weather had moved in as I led the last pitch and it was raining or snowing all around us, but not on us as yet. We wanted to be off this wall before that happened and had seven double rope rappels to get off. The first three rappels went smoothly, but when we tried to pull down the ropes after the third one a curious thing happened.

The end of our tiny 7mm line receded above us toward the rappel anchors as we pulled down the 11mm lead rope that was tied to it. When the end of the 7mm line (traveling upwards) passed the knot attaching the two ropes (traveling downwards) it somehow got wound around the knot and got caught. With a storm moving in and it just starting to snow, we find ourselves stranded 400 feet up an alpine rock wall holding one end of our rope.

At first we couldn't believe it was stuck. "How could it be stuck?" we thought. We tugged and pulled for all we were worth, but our rope wasn't budging. With little hesitation John turns to me and says, "Get your jumar out and get up there and fix the problem!" Yikes! Jumar up a stuck line. What if it popped? Thinking for a moment about the possibilities I devised a plan. I tied into the length of rope we were holding and had John put me on belay. I would then batman/jug up the line, with a growing loop of rope extending below me, and clip the bolts on the pitch like I was leading. That way if the rope became unstuck I would just be taking a normal leader fall...except for two things: the runouts were large and I would likely topple over backwards because I was jugging up the line.

Fearfully, but quickly, I ascended the rope and found, much to my amazement, that the 7mm rope had tied itself in a complete knot around the knot tying the ropes together, forming a giant lasso. Now I couldn't just untie the knot since then the rope I was hanging onto would be free and come screaming down. I stood on some footholds and clipped into a loop of the 7mm line, untied the knot and lowered myself back to the last bolt I had clipped. Here I clipped into the bolt, untied from both ropes, evened them out to rappel back to the belay station where John waited, and rappelled back to join, cleaning the quickdraws as I went. The whole process took about 5 minutes and we continued the descent.

The rest of the rappels went smoothly and soon I was gratefully taking off my tight shoes. We re-crossed the snowfield back to our packs and refueled on food and water. After changing into shorts and T-shirts for the hike out, we repacked our packs and were on our way.

As we started our hike out, we heard some yelling from up on Chiefshead. It was my friend, Tom Gooch, saying "hi." He told me would be in here today. We waved back and hiked on. As we dropped down into the valley, we saw elk. Lots of them. Big, mature ones and cute, little ones. Fifteen to twenty big, beautiful, reddish-brown elk standing in the deep green bushes and on the alpine grasses munching away. There dark brown set them off nicely against the deep, bright green of the foliage. Gorgeous. So far we had seen two people today and twenty elk. Not a bad ratio. What a day!

John set a blistering pace on the hike out, running sections of the trail. I stumbled along behind him and desperately tried to keep up. My new Makalu boots were were having quite a meal chewing on my heels and I had the bloody blisters to prove it. We honestly reached John's car 30 seconds before a violent, extended downpour. Honest!

I still don't know how I feel about climbing it. I thoroughly enjoyed the day and the climbing, but also noticed how it obviously was placed on rappel. Someday, I want to go back and do the real route: Kor/Culp. To see if I measure up.