The NW Face of Chiefshead retains an aura of mystery and commitment to this day, even though it is now possible to rap down the center of the face. Still, an ascent of any route on the wall is a worthy achievement since "fuzzy" runout climbing is the norm. The combination of a significant approach, remote setting, northeast aspect, and challenging climbing provides a perfect diversion from the same old ho-hum climbing on neighboring Spearhead. Rich in history, the wall was first climbed in 1961 by Layton Kor and Bob Culp - quite an impressive achievement for the time. A classic account of their ascent can be found in the Godfrey and Chelton book "CLIMB!", now out of print. Free climbed with minor variations almost fifteen years later by Billy Westbay and Dan McClure (and dubbed "The Path of the Elders", 5.10a R), this route is certainly the most accessible of the trad routes on the wall.
The second route to be established on the wall, 7 Arrows (5.10b R, FA Charlie Fowler and John Harlin Jr., 1980), was a statement of commitment to the principals of ground-up adventure climbing, offering wandering yet difficult climbing, marginal protection (no bolts), and poor prospects for retreat. The quality of this climb is generally highly regarded, and it may be considered one of the Park's true gems - although one prolific local has descibed it as a "trough".
Fowler returned in 1987 with Dan McGee to up the ante into the realm of insanity with their "Screaming Eagles" (5.10 X), a route characterized by 100 foot runouts, nonexistent belay anchors, and insecure face climbing.
In 1988 Richard Rossiter, with Joyce Rossiter and Rob Woolf, introduced a new approach in style, when, after many days of both onsight and rap-bolted progress, they established the directissima on the wall, "Birds of Fire" (5.11a R). This hybrid sport-trad route climbed the cleanest, blankest section of rock on the wall (one the finest sweep of granite in RMNP). Awash in controversy after it was first climbed (some locals came very close to chopping the roughly 30 bolts used), Birds of Fire is now regarded as a Park classic, and during high season weekends may have several parties on it. Perhaps 95% of the people who climb on this wall do Birds of Fire, so if this is your plan get there early. Even so, prepare for close encounters since the climbing route is also the rap route. And don't expect bolts everywhere you need them- it is still a somewhat runout route.
Even at prime season (late July and early August) it can be a cold, wet place, so try to catch it on a hot day in the lowlands. Early season be prepared for wet rock, and often the upper sections of the routes will be unclimbable at that time due to seeping. Expect some hassles crossing the snow to get to the base, and often a sizeable moat protecting the rock. There is a small, awkward staging area on the flakey ledge system at the base of 7 Arrows, but racking up in the meadow before the snow crossing may be easier.
Two ropes are required for the rappels, otherwise you need to walk and scramble off to the right from the (at times snowy) prominent ledge where the technical routes end. Consider bivying in Upper Glacier Gorge for a couple of days, and climbing on Spearhead or the NE Face of Chiefshead after your NW Face tick. Or sample some of the bouldering potential this high glacial valley provides. Most of the routes will take a good part of the day to complete. Bring lots of tech rock gear, and watch food in your pack if you leave it at the base- the ravens up there know how to open a fastex buckle.
Upper Glacier Gorge. From Spearhead head right into the picturesque Frozen Lake cirque. Allow a good 3 hours or more for the approach.
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 mo...[more]Browse More Classics in CO
Thanks to Steve for the great description. The rock quality is superb. As I mentioned in the notes on Birds, we climbed in mid-June, and the route was dry, and we started late in the morning after hiking in, and the sun/shadow line followed us up the face all day, but we were in the sun the entire time. Also, there was a party above us, who rapped down past us while we were on Birds, and we felt pretty safe, considering the soundness of the rock. Even Birds was quite mentally taxing, but the overall setting and experience on this wall is worth five stars.