A friend asked for a glossary at the time.

Sykes Sickle

Where: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA
When: Independence weekend 1996
Route: Sykes Sickle on the east face of SpearHead, 5.9+ (E1 5B), 8 pitches, 275m

Spearhead is located in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National park at the back side of the famous Long's peak and is an incredible formation and location. Our route was a 5.9+ (E1 5B for you Irish) called Sykes Sickle and scaled the entire East wall in 8 pitches (275m), going through an A-shaped roof near the top.

Matt flew down from Chicago for the occasion. We hiked in Thursday evening July 4th, Independence Day, we could have been at the opening of the alien invasion movie of the same name but no we were taking on this alpine face. But first a decent, mostly mellow 5.5 mile hike, the worst was trying to fight of the mosies - when I got home I counted 45 bites and then stopped - stopping for a rest wasn't an option as that was their favoured time of attack. With us for hike where Melissa and Ed, a firefigther from Chicago. 3 hours later we got to the base of the SpearHead formation at dusk, where we bivied at 3600m.

It was a gorgeous night, I fell asleep looking at the big dipper. Awoke later on with raindrops falling on my bivy bag. Woke the 3 others, they tried to set up the tent which they were sprawled on (we later found out that it's illegal to use erect a tent with poles in the park as it's officially a bivy site not a campsite) and ended up getting inside the thing and wrapping it around them.

Up at dawn, my winter bag had not let me down, the rest of them were freezing, Matt hadn't much kip as he spent much of the night consoling his girlfriend Melissa from the cold.

We hiked up the glacier at the base of the climb, which covered much of the starting 5.7 crack. We changed into our climbing shoes and tossed our boots and fleeces down the glacier, making retrieval easier later. We started up the face at 07.30.

Climbing went well, faster than we expected, it was 8 pitches (275m) to the top, which we reached at 3pm. Luckily the expected early afternoon thunderstorms never happened. We ran out the first couple of pitches past the Mother Earth ledge traversing the SpearHead. I felt in good form and was glad I had got out 3 days earlier in the week to get back into the swing of things. The first 5.7 pitch went easily. I was really enjoying the climbing and didn't want to interrupt it to stop and place too much gear. The blue sky lay overhead and here we were at 8am in out T-shirts at 12k climbing this incredible route. Things couldn't have been better I thought.

The sickle and following roof loomed overhead, looking close, but in actuality 4 long pitches away. We continued to swap the leads upwards. My third lead was on a 5.6/7 flaky loose meandering pitch. Later I suspected this is where the rockfall occurred.

Matt had the bold lead to the belay under the roof. This was a steep 5.7, which started with awkward jamming in a right-facing dihedral. Seconding up I was glad I hadn't had the lead. The I came to the part that had stumped Matt and had lead him to ask me to lower him across this blank section to get to the crack that lead to the belay. Gear forced me to this position also, I had no alternative but to swing into the crack, we must have come too high before traversing.

From a perfect belay the 9+ roof above loomed. The guide book described a lot of stemming or bridging and I fancied it having generally had success on climbs of that nature. Still it was very imposing. It started with a left trending wet mossy crack, The beginning of the roof on the wall over the crack offered a parallel set of flaring cracks following on top the wet one underneath. The roof split in chimney form and the wall behind me was initially just too far way to offer solace. I made the crack moves up quickly as I hadn't the strength to wait around on them, getting decent foot friction and balancing from the parallel cracks. I happily clipped a piton and looked down, relived, at Matt.

A big eye bolt was overhead, I wondered how to reach it and before I even realized I made a bridging move up and clipped it committed now to the bridge. I gradually realized that I had moved to quick as I went into the bridge facing into the roof rather than out and the bridge widen not allowing a turn to me made. I blew my legs trying to make it happen, I got a #3 Camelot in across from the eyebolt in the crack over my head at the outside of the roof and frustrated had to let swing. It was just a matter of setting the bridge up facing out, as it got higher you had to bridge out parallel to the gear, however the stem narrowed and it wasn't bad at all. It was clear that now it was time to grab the crack which came around the outside part of the roof, I reached over not knowing what to expect. Jug city man, I dropped out of the bridge and pulled easily over the roof and out onto the exposed stance bringing the full gorge below into view.

The climb continued up a perfect 5.7 hand left upwards traversing hand crack to a well positioned belay in an alcove. With the euphoria of the (slightly blemished) lead behind me I looked across and up at the 5.7 mostly unprotected slab which was the last pitch that we had termed the death pitch (after climbers we had met in the parking lot told us that the initial piton was gone and you had to make 5.10! moves with a 30 foot swinger potential) and said no worries. When we were deciding who would take the first lead, I pussied out of this pitch, saying I'd much prefer to take up through the crux and let Matt worry about the last pitch. Happily that was fine with him!

I was happy to see Matt emerge around the roof, he had a little trouble following and I'm sure the bag he was carying didn't help. The storm that threatened and that had provided a handful of drops was well gone and the day was back to perfection. Matt was exhausted he said as we rested at the belay. Initially I let him no know my 'no worries' response to the next pitch. It was his lead, but he didn't fancy it. With every growing minute I didn't either, I just wanted to be lead off the mountain happy with what I had done. Matt wasn't looking like he was up for it and I felt he was waiting for me to say I'd go for it! I said that if he was definitely not up for it, I'd go for it as we had to get off. I knew he was more than able to do it and I wasn't going to give in easily. mat reluctantly shook off his tiredness and expected the responsibility of the sharp end. I looked on as he slowly made his way up the face and knew he would be fine. He looked around the bulge and spotted a bolt 10 feet above and was instantly a happy man. When I was in the same position with a rope guiding my way I wonder how he smiled at that point with some difficult moves to the bolt left. After the bolt there were ballsy moves again, small pebbly stuff for the feet, the sloping hand 'holds' providing little more than balance. Another big fall loomed before the got a solid piece of pro in and the route lead less ominously to the top.

It was 15.00 at the top and I scrambled to the spectacular summit and savoured a few minutes of this amazing summit block, providing views all round, to Longs and the gorges below and Black and Frozen Lakes respectively on either side of Spearhead.

Then we started down. Matt said the descent was NW, I didn't read the guide and just said OK, following his pointed finger down. As what usually happens we did the descent at our own pace, splitting up, I just kept climbing down, registering that it was a pretty hairy descent and hoping Matt would have no problems with it. I heard him calling behind as to what was the way down and shouted instructions with not much confidence. I waited for him but there was no sign. I should have known that he would have problems with the decent and for the life of me I don't know why I continued down bringing the rope with me. So what transpired should have never happened and was largely my fault.

I got down and looked at the route I had just downclimbed. Wondering how when you are doing it can seem not so bad and then when you look back you wonder what was I thinking. I chilled out waiting for Matt, taking in the elate afternoon rays. An hour later he hadn't showed and from a serious of shouts it was clear that he was stuck. Communication was terrible, I couldn't make out where he was or what was happening and I was screaming up at the top of my voice.

I hiked to base camp to tell the others what was going on and read about the descent. First of all I crossed the glacier at the base to get our gear. I was about 10m from our stuff when I heard a rock avalanche coming from above. I quickly struggled up to the face and lay against it, moments later about 5 pieces of rock landed about our gear. Turns out 2 header balls started the climb in the mid afternoon and were racing up it and had kicked of these rock chunks.

I told the lads what was up and also 2 other climbers who had arrived and set up basecamp at a perfect bivy under a kind of doldrum, that we had missed in the twilight, it being that much nearer the face then we had stopped. Perhaps that bivy could have made a difference to the climb's outcome but that was neither here or there.

I headed back up to the area where Matt was stuck. The lad was panicking, get me a rope he was screaming. It was clear now that he wouldn't be able to get down himself, that day anyway. I went back down to see if one of the climbers would climb up with me. Melissa (she was pretty emotional) and Ed, the 2 others wanted to hike out, neither had heard Matt in such a state before. I reckoned he was OK (he had his Gortex stuff and mine, if it was out for the night) but I wasn't 100% sure. Then we realized that the keys of the car were in Matt's bag that we climbed with, nice going lads. They started hiking out anyway, going to talk to a ranger.

I was angry with myself for letting all this time pass and doing nothing. I had already let the lad down and now what was I doing? I geared up, climbing gear, bivy gear, headtorches, Matt's shoes, any dry clothes we had (which wasn't much) and filled water bottles from the gargling stream nearby (throwing in a few iodine tablets for good measure). I then started hiking back up with the other 2 climbers, however, a thunderstorm came in real quick and we were dodged for cover. There was no way the lad would climb up with me in lightning, fair enough.

I was getting pissed on, Matt had all my Gortex, I hiked up around with the intention of hiking up the descent route which turned out was up to the saddle between SpearHead and the neighbouring ChiefsHead. I called out to Matt, this time there was no sound, I wasn't sure if he had moved or if he was so covered in gear that he couldn't even hear a vague shout. The plan was that once up to the saddle I would then traverse across and try and locate Matt.

The storm had stopped to a constant very miserable drizzle and I was well wet at this stage. I started shivering and the boulders were getting greasy and I was slipping. I had to stop, unfortunately I reckoned, and pulled out my bivy gear when I bumped into a pretty perfect bivy spot (people climbing Chiefshead probably use it) overlooking Frozen lake (a lot of it was still frozen around the edges and it was the first week in July). I pulled off all the wet clothes and dived into the bag, never getting too cozy but having some decent kip.

At dawn I continued slowly up the boulders and scree to the saddle. Then I started the traverse calling out for Matt, there was no response from him around where I thought he was. I kept hiking around getting a little disorientated, and also the pack and last couple of days and nights were catching up as I grew tireder with every step. I was getting disillusioned and considering trying to make my way down as the mountain seemed to be dead ending into a glacier. Then I spotted a point where I might me able to see over the other side and when I got up there I realized that I was back at the saddle. I started traversing again and it was only a matter of minutes before Matt answered my calls. I never doubted for a second that he would be OK but still waves of relief came over me.

I said I would throw him down a rope but he said no that he was on easy stuff now and he would come up. He looked surprisingly well I thought, considering the night out he had spent. Turns out he had been downclimbing gullies and they all ended up cliffing off, so he'd have to go back up and try again to find a way down. On one such climb down he was coming down this squeeze chimney with his right hand jammed in a wet mossy crack and his feet on a block stuck in the chimney. Sur' didn't the block take off and Matt slipped, he was dead lucky (bad pun I guess) that his hand slipped and then jammed in the crack leaving him hanging.

After that, he was obviously shaken and sat it out on a decent ledge above. He got his Gortex on in the rain and they didn't keep him too dry, it was a while before he realized that mine was also in the bag and he put them on too. He found a space between a block and the face to crawl into providing partial cover and sat out the night. The once or twice that he fell asleep ensured he wouldn't do it again as when he was awake he was moving to stay warm and when he dozed off he would awake minutes later in convulsions. He says that it was such a bad feeling as to stop him thinking about going to sleep at all. He avoided looking at his watch the whole night, Christ, it must have been the longest ever.

Since I knew where the decent was we traversed to the saddle and made our way down the endless scree. If we had read the descent info more comprehensively, if we had taken a compass reading (we left the compass at base camp), if we had aligned the topo with the terrain before picking the descent route. If we had spent a minute doing any of these all this could have been avoided.

After getting the gear together we wearily started the long hike out. Luckily being the time of day it was the midgies were not attacking us as on the way in. By Black lake we stopped to take in the incredible scenery. More snow-melt waterfalls cascaded off the imposing mountain behind and dropped into the lake. A family of trekkers (most of them don't get in that far) sat on a nearby rock, one of them kicking one of a group of elk absently with his feet. Hello! This contrasted sharply to the group of about 15-20 elk we had met as twilight beckoned on the hike in.

Anyways, about halfway out we bumped into the lad Ed hiking in. He was well glad to see us and likewise. He proceeded to relate the events that had transpired. Melissa and he had hiked out the night before, the thunderstorm kicking in just after they left. The hiked out straight without stopping and flagged down this lady on the road who opened her window just a crack. She turned out to be the bestest, giving Melissa a sweater (they were 100% soaked, not having the gear), and driving them to a phone, She chilled out with them until 01:30 as they talked with the rangers incessantly. The rangers had a rescue going on Long's Peak and hadn't the manpower, they reckoned that with our experience everything would be OK, they hoped I guess. The ranger gave Ed a slimjim and he tried both car doors for ages (the spare was well placed in the glovebox!), to no avail (or so he thought). This lady ended up putting up the two of them where she was crashing in the YMCA in Estes Park, dead sound of her it was. They got a lift back up the next morning and discovered that the passenger door was open, Ed had jimmied it at his last try but hadn't realized he had popped it!

We talked with the rangers, they were asking detailed questions about bivy sights, bivy gear, the route, the descent route, did we have helmets (no), etc. Also about those climbers who had kicked off the blocks (it had been reported). Those lads had been stuck at the bottom of the last pitch in the middle of the thunderstorm. I have no idea how on earth the managed that mostly unprotected 5.7 slab in the rain. We concluded that they were a danger to themselves and everyone else.

Then it was off for some large and well deserved pizzas. Matt said when we met on the SpearHead that morning, that he thought that was it for him, but by time we had some pizza in us talk had turned naturally to what was next to tackle.

Anyhow there's plenty of adventures to be had out here. Most of them pale in comparison to a slide show I just saw by Todd Skinner. Along with 3 other climbers from Wyoming Skinner made the first free ascent of the east face of the Nameless Tower at 6250m in the Pakistan's Kurukorum Himalaya last year, a grade VII 5.13. They spent 60 days on the wall above 5600m, 24 of them in portaledges sitting out storms, one of which was the same storm that killed the 7 climbers on K2. Adventure is not the word for that!