By Mason Earle /
Notch Peak, January 2015. My 5am alarm woke me up inside the van. Frosty windows. I really didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag. I especially didn’t want to go and climb a 2000-foot chossy bigwall. All was silent outside. Maybe Niels forgot to set his alarm? I fantasized about sleeping in by ‘accident’ and being ‘forced’ to climb at Ibex instead.
“YEEEEEOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!” A primal call echoed thru the desert, the Mad Captain was awake.
The state of Utah is usually buried in snow in the middle of January, but this year it was dry and sunny. My friend Niels and I passed around ideas for a quick climbing getaway. Moab? VRG? Joes? Ibex? Notch Peak? Um… Notch Peak? At the mention of this notorious wall, Niels’ gaze shifted windward, into the distance, like a mad ship captain pointing the boat towards a storm. “Yeah” Niels said, “We should go climb Notch Peak.” The north facing, two-thousand foot wall of crumbling choss didn’t really fit in with the other areas, and I thought it seemed a bit silly to pass up 4 star rock for a frigid, limestone adventure. Niels, who was scheduled for knee surgery that same week pleaded with me, “C’mon man, think of it as my going-in-for-knee- surgery-party.” Surely, that went against the Doc’s orders, but I gave in. Ill never understand why, but the ever-present thirst for ‘type-2’ fun will often outweigh the guaranteed good time.
We loaded up the van and headed south out of SLC. Slowly, the city lights faded. We passed thru Delta, the last “major” town before entering the vast, and empty west desert. I cringed as we passed the turn for Ibex- some of the highest quality rock in the state. Our mad captain Niels had no desire for smooth sailing, so he kept our heading towards the great choss castle. Snowdrifts covered much of the road up to Sawtooth Canyon at the base of Notch, and it was quite late by the time we reached the trailhead. Travel weary, we stepped out of the van. Here there was only silence and stars. With the massive dark wall looming above us, we went to sleep.
Niels’ wake up call set us in motion. We trudged the mile and a half thru powder snow to the base. Niels, wisely, had brought boot gaiters. I only had my skate shoes, so I carefully followed his steps the entire way. Dawn approached slowly and the great, two-tiered wall took form. The face appeared devoid of snow, thankfully, however it was well below freezing. The north face of Notch Peak is separated into two distinct tiers, both around 1000 feet tall. On the first tier we planned on climbing Western Hardman 5.11, 12 pitches. Niels tied in for the first pitch and started up. He had to stop every couple moves to warm his fingers, which didn’t bode well for me. If Hercules and the Viking God Thor combined their powers to create a being, that would be Niels. If he were cold at all, my skinny frame would almost certainly be hypothermic. I followed his lead with numb fingers and toes, and racked up for the next pitch. As we climbed higher, our engines warmed up, and we managed to stay warm the rest of the day. The climbing turned out to be really fun. I expected a lot more choss, but the route was super clean. I only dislodged one microwave-sized bloc all day! The pitches went by, and we eventually made it to the top of the first tier and into the sun. The short winter days meant we had no time to waste; the headwall of Notch Peak still towered above us. 30 minutes later we stood below the prow of the upper tier, a route called La Fin du Monde 5.10. I stared around left at the massive steep wall.
“Wow” I said, “That looks horrendous.”
“That’s what we rap down” Niels informed me.
Gulp. We were already slated to rap Western Hardman, since the walk off was too snowy. If we went all the way to the top, we would be going in to extra innings with the rappels. I started getting cold feet. Did we really want to go to the top of the mountain, and rappel all night long? I did not, Niels did. Again, I was persuaded.
“Ok, dammit, lets go. But I’m leading!”
Niels graciously allowed me the sharp end. I tried to put the endless rappels out of my mind as we simul-climbed the route. The day was eerily calm, and I could have mistaken it for September. We un-roped for the final few hundred feet, and a quick stroll up the ridge put us on the top. Empty desert, and ancient dry lakebeds stretch towards the horizon in the afternoon sun.
After a contemplative moment, we set off to find the start of the rappels. La Fin du Monde is too wandering and low angle to rappel, so the descent is down Book of Saturday. The rappels went smoothly, with minimal rope stuckage. The sun set just as we made it back to the top of Western Hardman. Everything continued smoothly as we entered night-ops. Confined to the glowing bubble of our headlamps, we lost track of the rappels. Eventually the rope landed on the ground. We stumbled back to the Van in the darkness. This time I made no effort to keep my feet dry. Despite being such a big and foreboding objective, the day ended up being pretty mellow. We were later told that we made the first complete winter ascent of Notch Peak’s north face. With the good temps and dry rock, the smooth sailing we experienced can hardly be called winter climbing. A true winter conditions ascent still awaits… and I want no part of it!
As if a dream had passed, we headed back towards SLC. I glanced at the turn for Ibex. A day of blocs and cragging would have been fun, but there is nothing else in this world like an adventure to warm the soul. I’m sure glad captain Niels was there to keep us on heading.