The weather had been pretty nasty the week before - cool and rainy with a big snowstorm the previous weekend - so I wasn't sure if we were going to be able to pull this climb off. To top it off another big cold front roared through Colorado the afternoon before our climb. I was prepared to get up to the Keyhole, find snow all over the ridge, and have to pull the plug on the climb. Nevertheless Fabio and I were willing to give it a shot so we met at the trailhead at 2:30.
We geared up and were on the trail by 2:40. As we were departing we ran into Brian whom we planned to climb Blitzen Ridge with in a couple of weeks. He told us he would catch up with us and we could hike the approach together.
By the time we turned off for the Jim's Grove shortcut we were all synched up with Brian and hiking together. The shortcut is now completely unsigned and it took us one wrong turn before finding it. Once we were on the correct trail though it was relatively easy to follow in the dark. We cruised up through Jim's Grove and then along the open tundra toward Granite Pass. The skies were cloudless and starry - a good sign for our prospects on the climb. When we passed over Granite Pass the breeze picked up slightly and it was quite cool. I put on my softshell jacket, wool cap, and heavy fleece gloves. These kept me mostly warm as we trudged past the campsites in the Boulder Field. It was still pretty dark so we decided to take a break before the scrambly part of the Boulder Field and have a snack while we waited for the skies to lighten a bit.
After our break we continued up toward the Keyhole. About halfway there Brian bid us adieu and cut off toward the North Face. If conditions permitted he planned to free-solo it and then meet us on the summit. Fabio and I continued up toward the Keyhole and arrived just as the sun was beginning to come up from behind Mount Lady Washington. We had another snack and took a break - waiting for the sun to come up a little more and warm things up. The weather was looking good and to my surprise the ridge was bone dry. While we waited a couple of parties passed us on their way through the Keyhole.
With alpine glow bathing Keyhole Ridge we set off up the ramp that leads to the False Keyhole. This was class-2 until the last little bit up to the False Keyhole where we encountered a move or two of class-3 plus. Following this ramp got us around the first of three major towers in the ridge. At the False Keyhole we found the warning plaque that says, "DANGER DO NOT DESCEND FALSE KEYHOLE."
From the False Keyhole we had our first real route finding decision. We decided to scramble along the east side of the ridge until we found a cool looking chimney system. We scrambled up this to the ridge crest. From there we had another route finding dilemma. At this point some beta says stay on the east side of the second tower; other beta says to stay on the west side. I spied an easy looking ledge system about 15' below us on the west side so we decided to go with this. We found easy scrambling along this ledge system which brought us back up to the ridge crest between the second and third towers.
We scrambled across this notch to the base of the crux of the route. For the crux we had several options to get up past the third tower. There were a couple of sick looking offwidth cracks, then a couple of leaning flakes systems, then an interesting dihedral that started as a squeeze chimney and then narrowed to an offwidth crack about 20' up from our ledge, then some easier looking face climbing. I offered the lead to Fabio since I'd gotten the spectacular second pitch of The Great Dihedral. Fabio was tempted by one of the leaning flake systems but in the end decided not to push it and go with the straightforward face climbing instead. This turned out to be about 20' of 5.5 climbing before easing up to class-4 terrain. Fabio placed one nut and slung two horns for the entire pitch as he ran nearly all the 70m rope up to the ridge crest. I followed easily and that was it for the technical climbing!
While we had been gearing up for the crux pitch Brian had completed the North Face and had scrambled over to this end of the ridge. He shouted a hello and took a few photos of us on the crux.
Atop the ridge crest we unroped and continued the class-3 scrambling along the ridge. We passed the small notch and then met up with Brian. The remainder of the ridge was class-2 plus and afforded good views down either side. The traffic in The Trough was steadily building but still flowing pretty smoothly. We were on the summit by 9:00.
Surprisingly there were only a handful of other parties on the summit. We signed the summit register and took a nice snack break and rest. The sky was cloudless above us and the weather was as nice as we could have hoped for. The rock had been bone dry, the wind had been minimal, and the temps were reasonable. There were low-lying clouds down in the valley with their tops at about 10,500'. Twin Sisters looked like a little island in a sea of clouds and Mount Meeker had clouds all around it.
We enjoyed the views and snacks for about an hour before deciding it was time to head down. Unlike the last time I descending the North Face this time we found a nice cairned trail down to the eyebolts. We downclimbed past some of the upper eyebolts and set up on one just above the dihedral and slabby section. This time we had Fabio's 70m rope and were optimistic that we could get down with just one 35m rappel. Fabio went first but came up about 15' short. He decided to downclimb it and said that it was doable, although not trivial. I followed and made it down unscathed, so did Brian - though all three of us downclimbed the tricky section using a different strategy.
We scrambled down to Chasm View and took a break to admire the Diamond. We were able to spot a party on The Yellow Wall (V 5.10c) and another party down below Broadway. We sat watching the climbers and admiring the impressive, 1000', sheer rock wall for quite a while before resuming the descent.
The deathmarch back to the car was uneventful and we arrived back at the trailhead a little more than 12 hours after leaving it. After that we headed to Ed's Cantina for the traditional after climb meal. Then it was back home for a shower and a rest. For some reason this climb totally wiped me out and after a second dinner I went to bed and didn't wake up until the following morning. I felt fine during the climb, and even during the return hike, but afterward I was just destroyed. I dunno if it was the altitude (I hadn't been up above 14,000' in a long time) or what. It hadn't been a very long day (just 12 hours) and I had gotten some pretty good sleep the night before. It was kinda disconcerting actually.
Anyway, the climb was fun, though I was a little disappointed that the 5th class stuff wasn't more sustained. Maybe if we'd passed the second tower on the east we would have found more 5th class terrain. It was still a fun climb in a spectacular setting - and now my curiosity is satisfied.