Notch Top Mountain — South Ridge (III 5.8)Though smaller than other walls in the Park, Notch Top has played an important role in RMNP history. The Diamond legend Roger Briggs considers his first free ascent of White Room (freed at 5.11 R/X) to be the touchstone for a new style, one that led to Diamond masterpieces like Ariana (IV 5.12a) and King of Swords (V 5.12a R). Previous to his Notch Top ascent, he’d approached peaks with bivy gear and a sack full of pitons. In 1973, Briggs climbed White Room with only a rack of nuts; it was a perfect place to start his new “fast-and-light” ethic. Climbers today use Notch Top as a similar stepping-stone. But don’t be fooled: the six-pitch South Ridge is committing and has no fixed anchors.
For a long time, the descent was one of the more storied in the Park, with countless climbers attempting the “mountaineering” walk-off only to get cliffed out and benighted. Local climbers and guides, tired of heading into the hills for rescues, bolted a rappel line off the west face. Use it.
Notch Top is not as airy as the Petit, as remote as Blizten, or as storied as Spearhead, but it does have damn good stone. The South Ridge is the highest-quality moderate line up the face, offering plenty of variations from 5.9 to 5.10+. If you keep to the true route, flip-flopping between golden arêtes and sinker cracks, you won’t be disappointed.
Longs Peak's Keyhole proper: climbers go left, hikers go right.Photo by Topher Donahue.
Longs Peak — Keyhole Ridge (III 5.5)Longs Peak towers 14,255 feet above sea level. Most climbers think of Longs in extremes — as a 15-mile roundtrip walk-up, via the Keyhole, or as the steepest and hardest technical rock face in the state, via the Diamond. At 5.5, the Keyhole Ridge splits the difference. The super-fine granite is just like that of the Diamond, and the large towers and corners impart an otherworldly feel.
On a busy day, the Longs Peak trailhead can feel more like Disney World than the mountains, replete with Donald and Goofy wearing jeans and sweatshirts, carrying canteens and three-pound Maglites, and sporting fanny packs crammed with trusty plastic-poncho/human-kite set-ups. Google the Keyhole route and you’ll understand why — more than 19,000 sites give tree-by-boulder-by-bush descriptions of Longs’ trade route. Interspersed in the madness (and contributing to it) stride climbers sheathed in black Schoeller, making their Diamond pilgrimages. Fortunately, on the Keyhole Ridge, you ditch the crowds at the Keyhole itself, a giant window between the mountain’s east and west facets.
Photo by Topher Donahue.
Options abound on the Keyhole Ridge. Start by finding the cleanest line from the Keyhole to the ridge proper — depending on where you ascend, you’ll face 100 to 200 feet of fifth class. Once on top, it’s worth a quick drop over the other side to grab a bird’s-eye view of Pagoda Peak’s rocky ridgeline and Chief’s Head’s sheer walls.
As the altitude jumps, a few technical steps and cracks keep things interesting. Steer up and left along the northeast face, keeping the climbing at 5.5. Breathe steadily along as the climbing eases, and follow fourth-class terrain to the football-field-sized summit. Prepare a good “war story” to share with the hikers on the way back. Remember: from where they sit, you’ve walked in from the edge of the world, which, I suppose, is exactly right.
Guide Services• Colorado Mountain School: totalclimbing.com, 800.836.4008
Shops• Trail Ridge Outfitters: 888.586.4595
• Estes Park Mountain Shop: 866.303.6548
Guidebooks and Web Resources• Rocky Mountain National Park, the Climbers Guide, High Peaks, by Bernard Gillett
• Rocky Mountain National Park: The High Peaks, by Richard Rossiter
Estes Park Hot Spots• Ed’s Cantina — local bar and favorite climber hangout: 970.586.2919
• Climber’s Lodge — bunkhouse and showers: 800.836.4008
Senior Contributing Editor Majka Burhardt has guided and climbed most of the routes in this article more times than she can remember. Still, she gladly does them whenever the chance arises.