On Thursday night I left Fort Collins after working a full day, and made the long drive through the middle of the Rockies, my destination: Ouray Colorado. I had been climbing there only 3 days earlier, but had to make a trip home to get some work done. The drive didn’t seem too long and the road was full of music and podcasts to keep me company. I arrived in Ouray at 1:00 am Friday morning.
The day was to start early when my partner, Buster, woke me up at 5:00 am. We ate a quick breakfast and geared up. We went back and forth about specific gear to bring including a prolonged discussion regarding how many belay parkas to bring. Buster wanted to bring one thinking that only one of us would belay at a time , while I wanted us each to have one in case of emergency or the decent was cold. We counted pitons and every last piece of gear to ensure we were climbing as light as possible.
After driving and hiking we arrived at the base of Bird Brain at 7:30. We put on our harnesses and crampons quickly and gazed up at the 1200’ route and tied in to the sharp end. I took off knowing that I wasn’t on belay and that I had better start looking for gear placements because Buster would soon be simul climbing behind me. I couldn’t find a single placement. I reached a giant chock stone where I placed one very poor cam and equalized it to my ice tools. I put my partner on belay for the remainder of the pitch. When I brought him up, we placed his ice tools in and removed mine so I could continue climbing. As I left the belay Buster muttered something to me about the rope being the “alpine single”. What I realized was that I was lead climbing on just one half rope (a rope that is skinny and light and meant to be used in conjunction with another rope making it a two part system. Half ropes are not meant to lead on as a single). Surprisingly I wasn’t phased by this revelation and I continued upwards feeling calm and cool. Carefully placing my tools and stepping gingerly on the abundant loose rock I was making relatively fast movement higher and higher.
Without notice, the small ledge supporting my left foot gave way to gravity and grapefruit sized choss plummeted towards Buster. Dust and debris filled my gaze as he got pelted by the rockfall. Fortunately he was wearing our shared pack and along with the pack, his helmet caught the majority of the blows. Later I found out that he had been knocked off of his stance and that the poor cam placement pulled as he fell on to his tools (which were anchored in just a small patch of snow). We may have had one piece of gear in between us at this point and after assuring he was ok, I pressed on.
The 3rd pitch began with an alarmingly thin column of ice. The bottom was largely rotted out and unsupported. I managed to get a good cam in behind the pillar and felt relatively safe as I tip toed around to the front of the pillar; hugging the pillar I realized that it was skinnier than me! Gingerly I stemmed my feet and tapped my tools higher. Finally I got high enough to where the ice was thick enough to kick a front point. Now above my single cam and well on my way to alpine glory, my partner yelled up to me “you might want to place a screw”. Buster was right, and I whirled it in.
The next three pitches were mine to follow. The bulky pack stuffed with puffy coats and pepperoni proved to be quite the sow. Pushing through the chimney we finally made it to pitch five. Looking up was dead vertical ice and Buster made short work of getting up past the chock stone. I didn’t notice until I started to get cold that my parter slowed down tremendously. I grew curious, but I never worry about Buster. When he finally brought me up I realized that he had led an unprotectable section of smooth slopey rock. The best holds were thin patches of frozen moss. Buster brought me up after a proud lead and we did the sketchy traverse. A fall would’ve sent either of us for a long and dangerous pendulum, but we both moved across the slopey rock calmly and smooth. So far the route seemed pretty casual despite the hype that surrounds it. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but with only one pitch to go and being well ahead of schedule, we were both feeling strong!
A decision to no longer carry the pack put me back on the sharp end for the remaining pitch. More than halfway through the pitch I still hadn’t found a single gear placement. Eventually I hammered in a knife blade piton and started to chimmeny. I had to chuckle when the blue TCU didn’t like its placement and zipped down the rope to meet the piton below. Looking up I saw a large chock stone with an offwidth roof. I placed one more piton hammering upwards at it before grunting up with my crampons scratching away and my tools clipped to my harness, I mounted the giant boulder that choked the chimmeny and continued to the top out.
Five and a half hours from when we set out at the base we were both at the top of Bird Brain! Opening the pack, Buster pulled out the lone pepperoni stick and broke it in half. Congratulating each other, we toasted our respective halves of the meat stick to which Buster pointed out how gay that was (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
The decent proved tricky as we made multiple rappels onto a nearby route: The Ribbon. With our half rope tied to six millimeter Pro Cord, I rapped well above the route and onto soft snow. Buster came down and with a hip belay that I did not want to test in soft snow, I down climbed to the anchor which was quite a ways below the ice bulge. Carefully moving down…”look well to each step”, the famous Edward Whymper quote kept scrolling through my head, I gracefully clipped into the anchors. Belaying Buster in a lead down climbing manner he joined me and took off on the next rappel.Not finding another anchor, he secured himself to the vertical ice with a two screw anchor that looked like it was right out of a textbook.
Making a V-thread and backing it up with a screw Buster again rappelled first taking the pack. He yelled up that he was off rappel and that he had reached the bottom. Weighting the rope and removing the back up screw, I knew that if it had held my parter who was heavier, then the ice anchor would surely hold me. Arriving at the bottom, our route was complete. A safe round trip up and down is paramount. We celebrated with a dip in the hot springs and late night of brews, live music, and reveling in a feeling and knowledge that few before us had ever shared.
Two knife blades
One lost arrow 3.5”
Single rack up to BD #4 with double orange TCU’s
8 runners tops
- Each climber should always have a cordelette, one long screw, and a v-thread tool. In case of an accident you would need that minimum equipment to escape the belay and make an anchor. Also, if you were the one to rappel first and find that you had to make an anchor, this gear would prove necessary. Fortunately we did not have to learn this the hard way.
- This time we brought 2 belay parkas, but we don’t always. The prolonged time it took to rappel could’ve made us dangerously cold if we hadn’t come prepared.
- 20oz of water is plenty for two people on a 7 pitch grade 4 route in the winter.