I met up with Adam at the Morrison Park-and-Ride at 19:30 Saturday evening. He volunteered to drive, so I piled my kit into his car and we headed to the McCullough Gulch Trailhead on the north side of Quandary Peak. We got there a little after 21:00, sorted out our rack, rolled out our bivy sacks, and went to sleep (or at least tried to). Adam said he didn't really sleep at all, and I slept a little, but I was awake when the alarm went off at 04:30 Sunday morning.
We groggily got dressed, put away our bivy stuff, had a bite for breakfast, and headed up the trail. It took us a lot longer than I thought it would to cover the mile of trail up to the unnamed lake below Inwood Arete but we made it just in time to enjoy the alpine glow on Quandary Peak's north face. We crossed the outlet stream and headed up to the initial headwall.
Adam is by far a lot better rock climber than I am, so I told him that I would follow the 5.7 variation if he wanted to lead it. Otherwise I was cool with the standard 5.4ish start. From afar the face with the 5.7 start looked like a glassy-smooth slab. Up close it was only slightly more featured with four or so crack systems running through it. Several tempted Adam but we eventually settled on the rightmost crack system. It looked to me like the easiest, most easy to protect, and the most continuous of the options. Some of the crack systems to the left looked like they petered out midway up the face, and also looked tricky to protect the first 20' when a ground fall was most likely. Besides, the summitpost.org beta we had with us seemed to indicate the rightmost was the way to go. We sorted out our kit and Adam set out at about 07:15.
The pitch seemed to go pretty easy for him and in no time Adam was at the top of the face. He set up a belay and prepared to bring me up. I set off up the crack and found it a little more challenging than Adam let on. I think the thing that got to me was the wetness. Because the whole thing was a little wet and grubby I didn't trust my feet very much. Nevertheless I made my way cautiously and slowly up the pitch and eventually joined Adam without drama.
We cleaned the anchor and divide the rope between us. I'd never used a mountaineers coil before but Adam showed me how to set it up and we were off. The next hundred vertical feet were easy with a 10' section of easy 5th class to contend with.
Soon we were on the "slab mongering" terrain Roach described. 99% of this was 3rd or 4th class with one or two 5th class moves thrown in. We made short work of it and began to approach the towers. All the beta had said to pass the towers on the left so I made my way to the left of the first tower and found a gully between the first and second tower. As I made my way up the gully I looked for interesting lines to the top of the second tower but didn't find anything that looked particularly fun. We made it to a sort of saddle between the first and second tower and sat down for a snack and a rest.
The going looked easy for a while so we decide to change out of our climbing shoes into our boots. The last several hundred vertical feet had been 3rd class and not that much fun in our climbing shoes.
After our break we continues on. There was a bunch more 2nd and 3rd class scramble along the ridge until we came upon a rib. To the left of the rib was more of the same but I was seduced into going around the rib to see what I could find to its right. I had a sneaking suspicion we would find the fun dihedral we'd read about on mountainproject.com. I rounded the rib and indeed there was a fun looking dihedral. I asked Adam to wait for me at the bottom of the dihedral while I scoped it out.
The dihedral was pretty easy but at the top was a challenging looking roof. Adam and I were still wearing our mountaineers coils so I asked Adam to put me on a real belay. The hand holds above the roof looked very thin, and the feet below the roof were poor. It was wet and slimy and I was still wearing my approach shoes from the scramble.
I knew the moves were sketchy so I protected the crap out of it. I got a fairly good #1 C4 into a crack. It fit great, but the crack was pretty mossy so I wasn't 100% satisfied with it. About two feet above my cam placement I also found a great crack for a #6 or so stopper. This placement was totally bomber and I sorta equalized the two pieces so I was very confident they would hold a fall.
Right above my great protection I went for it. I got my fingers into super-thin, fingertip crack and moved my feet up as high as I could - smearing on wet, mossy slabs. I got my feet up as high as I dared and searched around for my next hand holds. I couldn't find them. I searched and searched in vain but I just couldn't find anything.
Adam was encouraging me to move my right foot up higher to what he thought was a bomber foot hold, but I just couldn't bring myself to move my right foot, thus weighting my left foot even more. I quivered there for a few moments as my arms began to pump out. Eventually I had to shout down to Adam, "I'm falling, I'm falling!"
A few seconds later I peeled off. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I think I made the rookie mistake of trying to hold on while I was falling instead of letting go and enjoying the ride. The result was me cutting the crap out my finger. It was just a minor flesh wound in the grand scheme of things, but it bled all over the place!
While I sat there collecting myself and bleeding all over a boulder let loose.
I'm still not sure if I set it off by landing on it and standing on it after my fall, or if it just came loose by itself, but either way the monster slid down the dihedral. It was big - perhaps the size of a dorm fridge or a big television set. It was so big and solid appearing that I hadn't even noticed it was loose as I climbed over it on my way up the dihedral. The boulder picked up speed slowly as it slid and rolled down the dihedral. It didn't have enough time to pick up enough speed to start bouncing up into the air but it did have enough time to pick up enough momentum to do some serious damage. I had enough time to think to myself, "Adam is dead, and I am dead." Or, in the best case scenario, that boulder is going to totally shatter Adam's legs.
I believe I was just hanging there and Adam was holding my on the belay. I watched in horror as the boulder drew closer and closer to Adam. He calmly watched it tumble toward him and at the last moment he made a miraculous, Carl Lewis style hurdle over the huge rock. He used the rope for balance, putting all his weight on it, and jumped for all he was worth. He cleared the boulder by a mere inch and it hurtled under him and down the face.
We looked at each other in amazement and relief.
At that moment I wanted nothing more than to be out of that dihedral. I found an easier exit down and to my left and Adam belayed me on a tension traverse as I made my way out of the dihedral and up to a reasonable belay stance. My finger was still bleeding like there was no tomorrow and I left a smear of blood in my wake. My first couple of attempts to find a belay anchor were thwarted by disgustingly loose rock but I eventually found a suitable anchor.
Once I had Adam on belay he gave it a go. Noticing the blood all over the place, he asked with concern if I was okay. I reassured him that it was just a little cut. Adam took his time, but he pulled through the roof without falling. Adam agreed that the feet were pretty worthless and didn't think having rock climbing shoes on instead of our boots would have helped much. He was able to find the hand holds that had eluded me and had just yarded up on them - totally losing his feet (i.e. forgoing the foot hold he had encouraged me to go with).
At the belay we collected ourselves and laughed off our respective dramas. By this time my finger had more or less stopped bleeding. We swapped gear and Adam set off to lead the next pitch. The first 50' were some fun 5.2ish then it eased off to 3rd class. Before he had half the rope out Adam set up a belay and brought me up. From the belay stance we could see that we had passed all the difficulties so we packed up our kit and began the long trudge to the summit.
The next 1000' or so were nasty, loose, manky choss. We trudged our way up it and eventually topped out of the arete. Before us lay another several hundred vertical feet of mellow talus and tundra to the summit. Adam asked if I wanted to go for the summit and without hesitation I replied, "Of course." Fifteen minutes later I was second guessing this decision. Why the hell was I plodding up this meaningless slope for a summit I'd already been to twice? Beats me, but the more progress we made the harder it was to pull the plug and turn back.
At 11:30 we made the summit. We felt oddly out of place among the cottoneers - what with Adam carrying the rack on his harness and me with the rope strapped to my pack. We had a snack and took a brief rest on the summit as we watched the clouds build around us. The clouds had been building pretty much all day, but we'd never heard a hint of thunder or seen a sign of lightning. Nevertheless we didn't want to stay up there too long. After we'd caught our breath we packed up and headed down the trail.
We descended the trail down off the summit to the first flattish section. Towards the end of this we left the trail to head over to the north side of the ridge to look for a good place to descend back down to McCullough Gulch. This was a mistake and we should have stayed on the trail until tree line. Instead we ended up paralleling the trail as we made our way down a mixture of talus and tundra. We descend a long ways down the ridge until we found a gully that looked like it would go down to the road. The first bit of this was okay until we reached a very steep talus slope. This had very steep, cliffy portions and it took a good deal of care for us to pick our way through it. Toward the bottom we had some seriously steep bushwhacking down muddy gullies but we eventually made it down to the road not more than a couple hundred feet from the car.
We trudged the last few feet to the car and gratefully plopped our stuff down at the car at about 14:30. We sorted out our kit, changed out of our climbing garb, and began the drive back home.
I can see why Inwood Arete isn't that popular. It provides very little interesting climbing combined with great quantities of manky choss. I certainly won't be back any time soon. Nevertheless it was a great adventure with a new friend - which of course it what it's all about for me. Good times!