|Chiefshead Northwest Face
I was one of the indignant climbers (see Steve Levin's comments in the introduction) who hoped to remove the bolts on this route (a very early fall snowstorm stopped Mark "Prybar" Wilford and I from the dirty deed itself), I finally climbed this a couple years later, sans prybar, and found it to be not only nothing like the sport route I was expecting, but also one of the best routes I have ever done in the Park, (or anywhere else for that matter). The rock is nothing short of perfect for most of the route. Try to catch this as soon as it dries out, hopefully in early July, as the sun will be on the face for much of the day. A few short weeks later, the sun exposure is considerably less. A recon visit to Spearhead in June will tell you if the face is in condition or not. After two ascents of this climb, I can state with confidence that the crux is actually gaining the cliff, but then I have always had a thing about snow...
P1. Not so great actually, but good, and at least it gets you away from that wet sloppy white stuff. Save a handsize cam or two for the belay.
P2. After some initial thin moves right by the belay there is a thin runout slab with inobvious moves, before a long and unprotected traverse left (5.7X) on a big ledge system. This pitch introduces you to the delights in store above.
P3. The meat! After some thin moves at moderate 5.10 past a couple bolts, traverse left, very thin, to a bolt, from where committing 5.10 moves lead up, up and up into apparent blankness. The ropework on this pitch alone dictates use of double ropes. This pitch also ends up wildy runout toward the top, with many opportunities for getting irreversably stuck offroute.
P4. (5.10) More of the same. By now you should be used to the nature of the climbing. There are just enough bolts to tip the balance in favor of continuing upwards, but vegan-fed neurotic Sport Park regulars will need to bring a change of underwear.
P5. If pitch three is the meat course, this is the dessert, a Creme Brulee delight of face knobs and bullet edges up the White Streak. This maintains a heavenly 5.9 standard for the whole ropelength up this perfect boilerplate face. This pitch is comparatively well-protected, but divide six bolts into 150 feet and you get, um, well you still get a pitch not to be trifled with. By the time you reach the lonely belay foothold at the end of this pitch, it should be more or less raining, so you may be feeling that you can retreat without shame from the end of the fifth pitch. Above here, there are two more good sections, but a lot of filler, so you may be right.
P6. After yet another runout on thin face (surprise!), past a couple more bolts, you gain merely good 5.7 climbing in a dihedral.
P7. A short nondescript pitch
P8. The after-dinner Port. If the rain has not set in yet, this pitch is actually real good, with tenuous 5.10 laybacking up a sharp arete. Plus the bolts seem closer together here than usual.
Unfortunately this section runs out all too soon, and unless you want to lower off a single bolt at this point (the fifth bolt on this pitch), you have to wallow up another one and a-half pitches of mank (at least compared to the rest of the route) to gain another set of rap bolts at the top of the cliff. Worth it for first-timers. Ahhh, roll on next summer. . . .
Pro is mixed, about thirty bolts in all, but this ain't no sport climb. Bring a rack up to maybe 2.5", and expect to run it out somewhat on 5.9 terrain, and to run it out wildly on easier terrain. The belays are all (except at top of first pich) bolted. Rap the route. Double ropes mandatory, as is some routefinding skill and confidence.
|Comments on Birds of Fire
|By George Bell|
From: Boulder, CO
Feb 19, 2002
Tony Bubb and I went up to do this route in early September, and to my surprise there was still quite a bit of snow to get to the route. So an ice axe is recommended to get to the base. After completing what Crusher calls the crux (with no ice axe!), we rapped off (in reality we were freezing our asses off).
|By Steve Levin|
From: Boulder, CO
Jun 17, 2002
As of yesterday this route (and the rest of the NW face of Chiefshead) is bone-dry.
Spearhead is also bone dry, and the NE face on Chiefshead looked as dry as it gets (at least when viewed with binoculars from the Keyboard of the Winds). There is hardly any snow on the trail in, and that's going quick.
I have never seen so little snow in Upper Glacier Gorge this early in the season.
|By David A. Turner|
Jul 5, 2002
Okay, I'll admit right away that slabs are not my favorite type of climbing. However, by the 4th pitch I felt like I was on a treadmill.Excepting the 3rd pitch, tedious was a word voiced by both my partner & me. However, the position of this route made up for any shortcomings the climbing had for me. The sweeping unbroken nature of this shield of rock is magnificent. Its position high in the cirque left me slack jawed. Further, it is amazing how clean and free of lichen this route is given its low angle. We (Henry Lester & I) brought a double shoulder runner and lots of single shoulder runners and never felt a need for double ropes.
|By Kevin Frederick|
Jul 15, 2002
I think is a GREAT route! Referring to the last climber's comments: yes, this could be called tedious in the same way that, say, Indian Creek is tedious: there certainly is a repetition of the same style of climbing, but it's super classic nevertheless!
I found the climb itself went slowly since I'm pretty conservative/timid and thus I took time to study the wall above as I moved up -- there seemed to be plenty of routefinding to do.
Some beta: From the base of the dihedral you can climb the arete (which I thought was awesome and easier than it looked, and I typically flail on aretes) and get all the way to the top with 200' of rope (pitch 8+ in Crusher's description). You might also be able to link pitches 6+7 to get to the base of the dihedral, but we didn't. When rapping from the top, it's about 61+ meters to the belay at the top of the white streak (pitch 6) -- we had to reach *down* and clip the anchor while dangling at the very end of our stretchy 8.5x60m ropes. It's far less scary to rap to the bottom of the dihedral instead, unless your rope is just a couple feet longer. The rest of the raps just go pitch by pitch -- a 60m rope didn't help us in this regard. Watch the flakes on the final pull.
All in all, a great day out! I'll second the last climber's comments about the magnificent setting. We were lucky to have gorgeous weather all day. For me, it was an unforgettable day: great climbing and a great position!
On 7-14-02, we didn't even touch snow getting to the base of the route. The perspective from Crusher's picture below was completely dry. (But the final dihedral was still wet!)
|By Chris Dawson|
From: Denver, CO
Jul 28, 2002
Attempted this route today. The approach took us about 4 hours, but take into account that my partner (Ben Bruckner) and I are severely out of shape, Ben because he chain-smokes Marlboros and myself because I am a lazy bastard who needs to get out of Eldorado Canyon more often. As everyone has already stated, there is no snow field at the base this year and the face is in prime (dry) condition. The real purpose of my post is to let everyone know that it's possible to combine the first two pitches without too much rope drag if you have double ropes. It is a full 200 ft. pitch however. This we did, then as I led up the third pitch reaching the second bolt, it started to rain and hail. I clipped the bolt and it started coming down harder, so I hung from the bolt, hoping it would pass, but the hail lasted for about 5 or 10 min. coating my partner and I in icy slush and rendering the route wet and unclimbable. Then as we rapped off in disappointment, the sky cleared and the sun shone brightly for the rest of the afternoon. What a bummer! Quite an amazing place though.
|By Joe Collins|
Jul 29, 2002
I was up there last weekend (7/21). My partner and I are in pretty good shape and it still took us almost 4 hours to approach. It had rained all night so the wall was sopping wet when we got there at dawn. We slept (and shivered) at the base for a couple hours to let the wall dry and actually got to climb the first 5 pitches. It meant we were on the wall during the middle of T-storm time but we got lucky as we never got hit by the "big-one." We did get rained on though, but a little bit of patience in the mountains usually pays off. In any case, pitch 6 was still wet and unclimbable but as Steve says above, you pretty much can feel like you've accomplished something after pitch 5.Since it is not quite vertical, the wall is in the sun all day in mid-summer (when on the wall, the sun tracks the intersection of the sky and wall) and can dry fairly quickly.
I was expecting a "Prince of Darkness" experience (at Red Rocks- the most overrated, monotonous climb I've ever done) but the climbing on this route is great and the runouts keep the excitement-level high.
|By Tony B|
From: Around Boulder, CO
Jul 11, 2003
rating: 5.11a 6c 22 VII+ E3 5c
Pretty good route. I guess I could look at it as a repetitive treadmill, but then I'd have to say the same of Indian Creek. It depends on what you are after. The route is similar climbing throughout most of the length, on a continuous off-vertical face. with differences in the top 2 pitches. The entire experience is unique among the climbs I have done in the park.
There are only a few hard moves, but by the time you get to that top arete, you are tired and worn, and the moves are not easy. 5.12 climbers will say "still only 5.11a", but I think it's a pretty hard 11a, because it was closer to my limit at 13,000 feet.
This climb will someday become a death-route if the bolts are not watched carefully- they are thin and aging. Someday they will need to be carefully replaced.... I'm not trying to say that they are bad now, but they won't last forever in that environment, and keep in mind the 50' fall potential this route has for many of them.
P.S. With a 70m rope, you can send the whole arete on P8 clean to the top of the cliff, then rap back down from there in broken-up pitches.
|By David Benson|
Jul 14, 2003
Just repeated this route this past weekend, cementing the vivid memories of why this is my all-time favorite alpine route and a contender for my overall favorite route.
Crossing the snow field in running shoes definitely puts you in the right frame of mind for the rest of the route! Run out and not looking forward to a fall. Unlike Crusher, I really like the first pitch, the face climbing being more interesting than the crack climbing on this pitch.
Pitch 4 - When I first lead this, I went slightly right after the last bolt. Don't recommend this at all -- yes, it's the shortest way to the ledge system, but very runout and scary (more so than the rest of the pitch). Watch the opening moves on this pitch, I think reaching the first bolt is about 10b. This time my partner (Josh Janes) made a hard left after the last bolt and traversed a fair bit left into obvious (this time) flake systems which kept both the grade and runouts reasonable. This places you right at the belay.
Pitch 6 & 7 can be combined w/ a 60m rope pretty easily. Just don't use up too much rope at the belay.
Pitch 8 - Gear belay, not a super obvious belay spot. I'd suggest (having gone too far this time) belaying right before the roof after the bolted arete (which can be purely face climbed).
Pitch 9 - Mostly a grovel and detracts from the otherwise high quality of the route. Bolts at the end of pitch 8 would make this route even better. Both times I've lead this route the last pitch was wet (both in early July) and has a fair bit of lichen.
|By Andy Johnson|
Aug 7, 2003
I just did this route yesterday and must say that it is one of my all time favorites. There are some fairly significant runouts on this climb, but all the hard spots are relatively well protected. Still, I would not recommend attempting this climb if you are not a very confident .10+ leader.
|By Leo Paik|
From: Westminster, Colorado
Aug 11, 2003
Some beeeta: The snow is minimal as of 8/9/3 for all you snow-fearers. Let this not keep you from your objective. 2 steps on nearly flat snow crossing the lower bit L->R and 6 chopped steps R of the start lead you to a 3rd/4th class ledge system to the base of the route! Rack: wires BD #4-10, 6 Aliens (black thru orange), #1,2,3 Camalots, & 8 QDs are more than enough. #3 Camalot (for the belay under the 1st roof) can be left at the 2nd belay to get as you rap. Sun arrives about 9a. You can get fair opposed wires before 1st bolt. You can definitely get gear above 2nd bolt. Rest easy, you get 2 Aliens placements above last bolt on P4. Oh yeah, the 7th belay station could use some new slings or links for the bolts. P8 dihedral version is wet still. Features top of P8 are deceptive. Don't forget your chalkbag! You don't have to be a 10+ leader to do the route. Thanks for a great route, Richard!
|By Richard Rossiter|
Oct 19, 2003
I would like to comment on the bolts, since they have come up as a point of concern. All the bolts on this route are 3/8 inch. There are no 1/4 inch bolts anywhere. All the bolts with threads showing are stainless steel. Those with only a nut showing are Rawls and will eventually rust. All of the fixed gear is probably good for another decade, at least.
Some of the bolts are in strange positions, such as the third bolt on the third pitch. This is because it was placed on the lead. I think it should be about 8 feet to the right and at the same level. We tried very hard to do this as a trad route, but a few of the placements just could not be done on the lead, not even hanging from a Skyhook. The route was simply so compelling, that I was willing to do whatever it took to complete it. The first, second, third, fifth and sixth pitches were drilled entirely by hand on the lead. Try to imagine doing this next time you climb it.
It took the whole month of August 1988 to complete the fixed pro. This comprised at least eight approaches and work days, at least three of which I did alone. You could say I was committed. I free soloed the first half of Center Route with full gear, then traversed left across the wall into the line.
Joyce, Rob Woolfe and myself climbed Center Route at the end of July, 1988, and I saw the whole route, Birds of Fire, out to the left. I had to do it. The name is from the second album by John McLaughlin/Maha Vishnu Orchestra, circa 1971. Check it out.
I am pleased and humbled that people enjoy and love this climb.
Have fun and be safe.
|By Willie Mein|
Oct 21, 2003
rating: 5.2 3 8 II D 2c
Great position, great climbing, good gear, with a little spice. Thanks for establishing an excellent route, Richard.
|By Scott Hudson|
Oct 22, 2003
Yeah, Thanks Richard for establishing this route. It is definitely one of my all-time favorite alpine climbs. I know it was a lot of hard work to equip a route like this, and it was done tastefully. I climbed the first 6 pitches on Labor Day 1996 before getting stormed off. Hopefully I'll get to go back and finish the route some day.
|By Anonymous Coward|
Dec 25, 2003
One of the BEST routes I've ever done. Great rock, great climbing, commiting moves, and it's in a magnificent alpine setting!!!
|By Bosier Parsons|
From: Colorado Springs, CO
Aug 14, 2004
I hiked in with my partner on the morning that we climbed the route, carrying full bivy gear to spend the weekend. We started up Birds at about 10:30 or 11am on a totally splitter day around the 3rd week of June (2003? or 2002?). The fun part was that the sun/shadow line followed us up the wall just below us all day. We literally climbed in the sun all day. If it's a dry year, don't be shy to get on this early.
Oct 10, 2004
I did the route a couple of months ago with Stefan and had a fantastic time. Thanks Rich for all of the time and effort. Here's my question:
So... The route was almost chopped because it had 31 bolts or so (I don't remember exactly). But, since it was such a fantastic route and it wasn't a total clipfest, it was barely decided that it was *okay* to leave the route intact. Suppose it had 34 bolts instead of 31, would the choppers have erased the entire route, or just the 3 offending bolts?
Jun 13, 2005
A spectacular route on one of the most majestic alpine faces in the Park. Indeed it is a "bolted" route but not a "sport" route. There is always good pro fairly close by at the hard parts, but on easier ground (up to 5.9) be prepared to take it out 'quite' a ways.... Kudos to the authors of this route for not putting in a fatty every 6 feet.
Jun 13, 2005
But I guess that would have been awfully expensive....
|By Mike b.|
Aug 7, 2005
Awesome, simply awesome. No need for doubles. First two pitches link fine with a single 60. Really cool, just heady enough to be exhilarating but not terrifying. Mantles!!!
|By Greg Sievers|
From: Estes Park, CO
Jul 31, 2006
I had a grand time yesterday on this route, albeit, extremely focused. Paul Foster did a great job keeping cool leading the 3rd pitch. The approach, as well as the route, are completely dry. A masterpiece of a slab route. I was thinking that Chiefshead is to slab climbing what the Diamond is to crack climbing....
I replaced the taddy slings on the station atop pitch 6 with threaded links. If you go up, do the route a favor, replace the single aluminum rap rings on both bolts at station's 2 & 4 with threaded links. All SS hangers have quick links on them already, I think they just need the scrawny AL rings replaced.
I'm still puzzled about the vertical offset of the two rap hangers on station 4 - all the other stations are two hanger side-by-side, but this one has the 2 hangers about 10" above one another. Perhaps a short section of chain is needed? It's not real comforting to be rapping on one single aluminum ring. :)
|By Greg D|
Aug 12, 2009
rating: 5.11a 6c 22 VII+ E3 5c R
Great and very exciting route. Don't want to sound inappreciative cause I like creme brulee and after dinner ports, but the route description here is more of a commentary than a route description. I'm not as adventurous as some. So, when I look up into a sea of granite with no crack, corner or other feature to follow, knowing I'm going to be runout, I like to have an idea of where I'm heading. At the start of some pitches, locating the first bolt took some effort. Locating the second bolt was almost impossible (from the belay), at least for me. Fortunately, my partner brought a topo from Rossiter's (or maybe Gillet's) guide book which was excellent. If you are adventurous and solid at the grade, just go with Crusher's description. It will be more fun.
+1 for Greg Sievers' comment about the unequalized pitch 2 belay/rappel bolts. A ten inch piece of chain would solve this problem. The aluminum rap rings found throughout this climb seemed fine.
|By Jeff Bevan|
Jul 27, 2010
rating: 5.11a 6c 22 VII+ E3 5c R
Wow, I've had this rte on my list for quite a while now and finally made the trek in to do it. Is it a good rte? Without question. Is it a serious undertaking? Absolutely, and be ready for some bold climbing at what many would call a moderate grade. Nonetheless impeccable rock on a magnificent face. Slabbies, rejoice because the cup runneth over here! As of 7/24/10, the route is dry the snow is intimidating but doable, and sun still hits the face for a large portion of the day. Don't expect steps across the snow, daily melt eliminates most all evidence of previous traffic.
|By Kevin Landolt|
From: Fort Collins, Wyoming
Aug 1, 2011
Excellent climbing in a superb setting. The climbing is serious in several spots but not really scary due to the great quality of rock.
|By Drew McLean|
Sep 15, 2012
rating: 5.11a 6c 22 VII+ E3 5c R
If you can keep it together on 9+/10- slab run-outs, then get on this gem of a rock climb.
|By Christian Mason|
From: Arvada, CO
Jul 14, 2013
rating: 5.11a 6c 22 VII+ E3 5c R
Amazing climb. Super high quality rock - some of the best I've ever encountered on an alpine route.
Having done routes on Spearhead before, I underestimated the approach. I've made it into Spearhead in 2.5 hours before, but it still took us 4 hours to get to the base of this one. The talus wallow past Spearhead takes a good bit of time.
I'd also be prepared for 30' runouts on 10a climbing.
|By Mitch Musci|
Jan 21, 2014
Can anyone compare the climbing on this route to Climb of the Ancient Mariner? Similar feel when grades are equal?