De Jarnette begins his ascent of the Petit Grepon.
A week ago, my friend Grant and I met in Colorado with an alpine climbing objective in mind: the Petit Grepon. Grant was in Colorado because of a conference; I was there to celebrate a family anniversary. This fortuitous alignment was too good an opportunity to pass up, and we quickly made plans to get into the mountains for a day. Both of us are competent, experienced climbers, so we were looking for something accessible but “full value.” We got it.
Made famous by its inclusion in the book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, the Petit Grepon is a stunning blade of rock ascending 1,000 vertical feet within the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s summit, perhaps the width of an economy-sized car, tops out just over 12,000’ elevation, which is essentially two vertical miles above Richmond. At this altitude, the air’s effective oxygen is reduced from 20% to 13%. While 13% is a far cry from the diminished oxygen experienced by those who climb a mountain like Denali (~9%) or Everest (~7%), the difference is still palpable.
Aware of altitude’s effect, we planned to hike up, climb the spire, and hike back down in the same day.
Accordingly, we woke at 3:30 a.m. in Boulder, Colorado and immediately drove to Rocky Mountain
National Park. Our excitement was muted. While John Muir famously stated, “The mountains are calling and I must go,” I prefer the slightly revised version: “The mountains are calling…but first coffee.”
We started our approach just before 5 a.m. and made swift progress up the Glacier Gorge trail. Limited to the light of our headlamps, we were treated to a spectacular array of stars, including a stunning view of my favorite constellation, Orion, whom I have counted as a friend and guide, albeit it an impersonal one, for many years.
I admit, I didn’t think it would feel so cold. The weather forecast called for a high in the mid 50’s, slowly ascending from the low 30’s early in the morning. But the wind! It blew almost continuously, whipping each lake we passed with fury. At one point, next to Timberland Falls, I watched a powerful gust of wind drive the waterfall upwards, before the stream returned to its natural trajectory. Grant and I shared an unspoken thought: would it be safe to climb an alpine tower in these conditions?
Our concern was justified. In the late 90’s, a climber was blown off the summit ridge on the Petit Grepon
by a powerful gust of wind. With inadequate incremental points of protection in place, he fell 70 feet
and instantly died on impact. We were determined not to share a similar fate and joked about how
much fun it would be to go bouldering in the canyon instead of climbing our objective. As at many other
times, humor is a wonderful counter to stress. It’s a useful tool to diffuse tension and make decisions
with a bit more objectivity.
On the way up.
The sun rose and with it emerged a magnificent alpine cirque. Massive rock walls surrounded us with mountain faces containing snow from the previous winter plus a dusting from a few days prior. Fortunately, our climb was situated on the south face, leaving it snow free and exposed to the first rays of sunlight.
Encouraged both by the wind patterns closer to the rock wall and the sun’s appearance, we agreed to head up the first few pitches (rope lengths) of the tower, “keeping the conversation open.” The first pitch was an easy semi-scramble up varied terrain to a grassy, exposed terrace. Grant led (i.e., was the
first to climb, belayed by the second climber) the next pitch up a wide chimney with easy climbing that put us level with some of the surrounding mountain faces. They were smiling, and we smiled back.
Encouraged by our easy progress, we agreed to continue the journey. I led the next pitch up and around a large chock-stone at the top of the chimney. The rock quality improved as Grant led the first semi- strenuous pitch, a left-slanting crack that required a strange mix of climbing techniques, all complicated by the added burden of wearing multiple layers of clothes, backpacks, and the need to place our own incremental points of protection in the rock to guard against lengthy falls.
Above this point, finding the right route became slightly more complicated. Grant led the next pitch as
well because we had misestimated the length of the previous pitch. This positioned me well to lead the
“crux” (i.e., the hardest) pitch of the climb. While not particularly difficult, climbing this pitch required
perfection. The first 30 feet or so afforded few opportunities to place protection against falls. This,
when combined with the wind, meant I had to climb at my best.
It’s popular nowadays for athletes and business people alike to talk about the “flow state.” I personally think the term is over-hyped and rarely achieved; yet, in this moment I experienced it’s equivalent. My mind was 100-percent focused. There was no fear. Only complete engagement with the task at hand. People have described an experience where it feels as though you are objectively observing yourself from the outside. This was similar.
I’d love to say this incredible sensation continued. Unfortunately, it didn’t. In fact, I think it’s fair to say the whole experience went downhill from there! The remaining pitches transitioned to the east face,
which was completely shaded from the sun. The wind was relentless, with occasional gusts that left you shivering against the anchor hoping for a brief reprieve.
At this point, I was deeply cold and our energy lessened. The external motivators of the climb basically disappeared. What was left? The imperative to reach the summit, for the fastest way to reach the bottom was, ironically, a path over the top.
Accordingly, both Grant and I dug deep and continued our ascent as an exercise of will. I took over
leading a pitch when our direction became muddled. In a similar exchange, Grant took over the ascent
of the final ridgeline, carefully placing protection to guard against falls in such an exposed and windy
We reached the summit three hours later than anticipated. Deeply grateful to be back in the sunlight,
we took a few minutes to take pictures and relish the warm, sunbaked granite. Only a few minutes later,
we began the first of six rappels down the shaded east face. Given the wind, we took appropriate
precautions and loosely coiled the ropes to our harnesses during the rappels to mitigate the risk of them
blowing uncontrolled in the wind, potentially snagging rock outcroppings and getting stuck, a hassle for
every tired climber that can quickly become a nightmare of effort.
De Jarnette surveys the Petit Gripon.
Fortunately for us, no such complications arose. Approximately two hours after leaving the summit, we completed the final rappel to the base of the tower. Back on the ground, a sense of relief and accomplishment flooded over me. The uncertainty was over. All that was left was the hike back down the canyon to the car.
Our ascent certainly did not break any speed records! It was a 15 hour day that started in the dark and ended in the dark. It required our best energy and complete engagement, which is exactly the reason I climb. During these moments, partnerships that are forged and lessons are learned that pay forward into other relationships and areas of life.
One of my favorite quotes is from Rene Daumal, who wrote, “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
We have descended and are back in Virginia. But we have seen, and we still know.
Rick is the owner of CapRock Venture Guides, a management consultant at
CapTech, and an athlete-ambassador for Väsen Brewing Company. He chairs the Richmond Chapter of
the American Alpine Club and serves on the board of the Blue Sky Fund.
Grant Price is the owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Guides, which
provides rock climbing courses, instruction, and guiding in Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia.