Garrett and Martin's description of Coxcomb includes: "A difficult climb, with rope recommended, that should be attempted only by experienced climbers." Sr. BMS Instructor Commander John Streeter extended his success record on Coxcomb to 4 for 4, four successful summits for four attempts. This trip was the High Peak graduation climb for the BMS 2000 students Sheri Brisbois, Peg Emery, Paul Ernst, Pawel Kaliszan, Doug Laures, Bob Pearson, and Tony Hartman (BMS 1999). The seven students and Bob Thompson (guest), assistant instructors Doug Cook and Kevin Craig, and John left Friday morning from Denver at 6 AM and arrived at the trailhead beyond Owl Creek Pass about 1 PM (with a lunch stop in Gunnison). Near the end of the 30 mile dirt road, there was one wash with fairly steep banks that was easily but slowly crossed with 4WD. After about a 2 mile hike, we found great campsites in a stand of Pines close to treeline. (With the exception that there were dried up cow pies everywhere. Luckily we didn't have to compete with the cows for the campsites. The trail was well worn, which seemed odd since this area provides access only to two Bicentennials and no Fourteeners. However, as evident from the horse and cow prints, it was obvious that the well worn trails and erosion, up to two feet deep in places, was primarily due to animals. The marshy meadow areas, which are prevalent along this approach to Coxcomb, were extensively damaged by cow prints in the soil and vegetation. So much for the wilderness designation.)
We left camp Saturday morning at 6 AM with full moonlight and headlamps and, after a traverse along the horrible loose scree/talus on the South Face around to near the East side of Coxcomb and then a backtracking tour close to the base of the coxcomb block (solid footing here), we arrived at the base of the chimneys on the SW corner of Coxcomb. As we discovered at the end of the day, we had missed a couple of large, should-have-been obvious cairns on our hike in. The cairns, one at the bottom of the trail and one about half way up, mark a route up a steep, grass and scree mixed slope about 900 feet to the base of a short couloir which leads into the bottom of the chimneys.
There are two chimneys. From the bottom, the chimney on the left was the easier to climb, but the chimney on the right was the best to rappel down since it is straighter and there is a large rock at the top with 6-8 slings (each about 25 feet long) threaded through two rap rings. We carried two 50 meter climbing ropes and two 25 meter lengths of 5 mm high-strength static Tech Cord for belays and setting up anchors (which reduced the weight and bulk of rope). At the top of a short 4th class couloir climb, we set up a belay for the students with the Tech Cord. Kevin Craig led the climb up the steep 5.2-5.3 chimney, about 80 feet. The first half of the chimney was chossy (crumbly) with lots of loose rock and very difficult to protect. The crux had good cracks for placing pro and provided relatively solid climbing until the very top. The alpine rack should include a full set of nuts, a selection of cams to #1 Camalot, several small cams (00 - 1 TCUs or the black/blue/green Aliens), and 6-7 shoulder length slings with biners. A large #9 Rockcentric hex was also placed on the ascent. #2-4 Camalots might be useful, but we got by without the extra weight. Kevin set up a belay anchor and top belayed the other ten of us up the chimney. While ascending the chimney, it was difficult not to kick stuff loose or push it off with the rope. Loose rock and scree in the chimney became missiles as they ricocheted down the smooth, hard rock. People at the base of the chimney waited off to the side in an alcove where they were protected. The first few people up the chimney moved on across the wide ridge to the edge of a steep notch.
We set up anchors above the notch and rappelled about 40 feet down the near-vertical cracked face to a narrow rock saddle. Anchor points were nearly non-existent here. We slung a couple of rock horns and ran Tech Cord about 30 feet across the ridge to extend the anchor to the edge of the notch. From the saddle at the bottom of the notch, the climbing is very exposed in some sections, but the summit is only about 300 feet away along the fairly flat ridge of broken rock. The narrowest section that had to be crossed was a series of steps about 6 feet long and 12-18 inches wide. The exposure here is extreme and the traverse seemed much harder (but shorter) than the Sidewalk in the Sky on Eolus or the Knife Edge on Capital Peak. With the absence of good anchor points, it would be difficult to set up a secure safety line. Six climbers from another group had patiently waited while we belayed our group up the chimney, so we waited while they rapped down the notch on our rope. A top belay for climbers ascending the crack at the notch would cause a lot of rope drag and damage to the sheath. To belay climbers back up the notch, we set up belay anchors at the rock saddle and top roped them (after extending the top anchor over the edge of the rock). Eventually our group summited, reclimbed the notch on top rope, and headed back to the top of the other chimney.
With two 50 meter ropes tied together, we were able to rap down through both the chimney and to the bottom of the couloir below it. This expedited our descent and helped the group safely exit the chimney and couloir. To assure the existing slings were safe, we backed up them up with our own sling tied from two 16-foot lengths of webbing with a locking carabiner through the rope. (One 30 foot length of webbing would work.) Doug Cook pulled the backup sling when he was last to rap down. When we pulled the double rope rappel, a lot of loose rocks were dislodged and rained down the chimney. The last two hours we hiked in the dark with the last of us arriving back in camp around 8:30 PM. It had been a long, hot 14.5 hour day. But, with 11 people in our party, waiting while six others rapped down the notch on our rope, and helping two other guys reclimb the notch (including instructing them on how to tie a retraced Figure 8), a long day was expected. Coxcomb is truly a challenging peak with real alpine climbing mixed with technical rock climbing. We were blessed with a warm, nearly cloud-free and windless day, which permitted us to spend 9-10 hours on the mountain with a large group of people working through a series of climbs and rappels. You would not want to be exposed on Coxcomb with wind, hail, rain, or the threat of lightning. With any threatening clouds, it would be very difficult to commit to even climbing the chimney, least of all attempting to cross the notch and final ridge traverse. We felt very fortunate for the perfect day which allowed our successful summits. After a late dinner in the dark and sleeping through a second very warm, breeze-free night, we awoke around sunrise on Sunday, broke camp, hiked out around 9 AM, and arrived back in Denver around 5 PM. As we drove away from Coxcomb, we watched dark clouds forming and speculated on how it would be extremely difficult to complete the climb with even a hint of threatening weather. We ogled and drooled over Chimney Rock and Courthouse, two majestic rock formations. Although looking impossible to climb, the guidebooks show them within our ability. We will certainly return to climb them another day.