CHIEFS HEAD Peak - NW Face
Route: Birds of Fire (5.11a R, 9p)

JULY
11
2020
TR #: 433

Category: Colorado       Summit Elev: 13,579 ft (Chiefs Head summit; top of route is lower)       Rock Type: Granite

Partner: Nate Arganbright

Nine pitches of sustained face and friction on superb rock up the center of the NW Face of Chiefs Head.


INTRO

The broad north face of Chiefs Head Peak spans more than a mile and rivals the Diamond in terms of size. The great wall is divided by a rib that separates the Northeast Face from the Northwest Face. Both routes have some superb long and challenging routes on them. These routes have a reputation of being hard and heady, due to the steepness of the wall coupled with the distinct lack of crack systems. The first route I climbed on Chiefs Head was Cowboys and Indians (11c, 11p) on the NE Face in August 2019. I thought it was awesome.

I had become intrigued by a route called Birds of Fire on the NW Face, which ascends the center of the face to its zenith, on superb rock. The climbing is mostly sustained face and friction and has reputation of being sort of runnout. The climb is mostly bolt-protected (except for a few sections mainly on Pitches 1 and 9, requiring that you bright a small trad rack). All but two pitches (tops of Pitches 1 and 8) have bolted belays and the descent is rapping the route. This sounded like an amazing route, but I knew I would not be comfortable leading the slabby runnout. Fortunately, Nate (who had been my partner for Cowboys and Indians the previous summer and had become my primary climbing partner at this point) was happy to take his fourth lap on the route and do the leading. (Thanks Nate.)

Chiefs Head is approached via the spectacular Glacier Gorge basin. So Nate and I decided to combine a climb of Birds of Fire with another climb up in Glacier Gorge, and bivy in this spectacular area. So we hiked up Friday afternoon (it was a hot day so we jumped into a couple of lakes along the way), climbed Birds of Fire on Saturday, spent the rest of the day reading/studying/relaxing at camp, climbed Airhead on Arrowhead on Sunday, and then hiked out. What a great way to spend a hot weekend.

As planned, Nate led the entire route. Under Nate's confident flawless leads and our combined efficient style, we climbed the entire 9-pitch route in just under 3 hours (note: I am not counting in our climbing time the half an hour we hung out at a belay to allow Alex and Tommy to pass us). The entire camp-to-camp climb was about 5 hours, which was quicker than we expected. It was a beautiful day and the route was entirely in the sun this time of year, so we climbed in t-shirts. 

The following page gives an overlay and pitch-by-pitch photos for the climb. Enjoy!


TIME STATS

Glacier Gorge Trailhead to bivy in Glacier Gorge (includes stopping to jump in Mills Lake and Black Lake): ~3 hours
Bivy to base of route: ~30 minutes
Climb route: ~3 hours
Pitch breakdown (start of one pitch to start of next, includes leader and follower and changeover time): 
P1: 0:23; P2: 0:29; P3: 0:25; P4: 0:21; P5: 0:26; P6+P7: 0:21; P8-P9: 0:28
Rappel route: 44 minutes


OVERLAY



PITCH BY PITCH PHOTOS 

Photos:
Photo descriptions:
Approach
Hike to the base of Spearhead, and continue past Frozen Lake to the base of the northwest face of Chiefs Head. About 7 miles from Glacier Gorge trailhead.
Time: About 2.5-3.5 hours from Glacier Gorge trailhead to the base of the route, depending on how heavy the pack is and how many lakes you jump in along the way (it took us 3.5 hours with overnight loads and jumping in two lakes).
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1. Our packs full of overnight gear, food for two nights and two days of climbing, and climbing gear weighed just under 40 lbs.
2. We left Glacier Gorge Trailhead mid-afternoon on a Friday.
3. Mills Lake sure looks inviting on this hot afternoon...
4. ....so we jumped in.
5. We also cooled off in Ribbon Falls just below Black Lake.
6. We stopped to cool off n Black Lake as well.
7. Hiking in the Glacier Gorge Basin. This is a spectacular place.
8. Elk in Glacier Gorge Basin.
9. Some stonecrop.
10. Primrose.
11. Elephant's Head.

12. Columbine.
13. Columbine.
14. Approaching the base of the NW Face the next morning. To give an idea of when the sun hits the face in mid-July, this photo was taken at 7:30am.
15. Crossing the snowfield to the base of the route. It was useful to have lightweight ice axes to chop steps in the hard steep snow.


Pitch 
1
5.10a. Move up and right past two bolts. Belay under the right side of a roof. This is one of two gear belays on the route, or the only gear belay if you link Pitches 8 and 9.
Time: 23 minutes (from starting up Pitch 1 to starting up Pitch 2)
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16. Nate starting up Pitch 1.
17. Looking up Pitch 1.
18. Bolt. These are Mammut bolts from the original bolting in 1988.
19. The corner near the top of Pitch 1.
20. Rope management.

Pitch 
2
5.10b. Climb over the roof and climb straight up to a narrow ledge. Traverse the ledge left and then climb up again to another good ledge with a two-bolt anchor.
Time: 29 minutes (from starting up Pitch 2 to starting up Pitch 3)
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21. Nate nearing the finish of Pitch 2.


Pitch 
3
5.11a. This is the crux pitch. Have fun.
Time: 25 minutes (from starting up Pitch 3 to starting up Pitch 4)
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22. We were surprised to see another party get on the route when we were a couple of pitches up. This party turned out to be Alex and Tommy simulclimbing Birds of Fire, so we hung out at the belay below Pitch 3 to let them pass. (We learned later that Alex and Tommy were on a training run for an upcoming 36-hour 17-peak adventure which they ended up calling the Continental Divide Ultimate Linkup.) This is the only time to date I can recall that Nate and I have been passed on a route.
23. Alex moving through the crux.
24. Tommy cruising by.
25. Nate starting up the pitch. Nate cruised up this crux pitch in about 10 minutes.

Pitch 
4
5.10b. Climb up the sea of granite, clipping a few bolts along the way.
Time: 21 minutes (from starting up Pitch 4 to starting up Pitch 5)
26.    26. Nate starting up Pitch 4. 

Pitch 
5
5.10a. Climb straight up the white streak on awesome rock past bolts.
Time: 26 minutes (from starting up Pitch 5 to starting up Pitch 6)
27.    27. Nate starting up Pitch 5.


Pitch 
6
5.9. Continue up. This pitch can be linked with Pitch 7 for a 60m lead.
Time: 21 minutes (from starting up Pitch 6 to starting up Pitch 8)
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28. Looking up the sea of granite ahead.
29. Nate starting up Pitch 6.

Pitch 
7
(easily linked with Pitch 6)
5.7. A short pitch trending left to the base of a right-arcing dihedral.
Time: Included in Pitch 6 time given above.
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31.   
30. Pitch 7. We linked this short pitch with Pitch 6.
31. Bolted anchors.


Pitch 
8
5.10b. The original line took the dihedral (wet 5.9), turned a roof at its top, and jammed a crack to the descent ledge. The standard (and better) way to go is to step left and climb the other edge of the dihedral, rejoining the original line at the crack above the roof. Belay in the crack, or stretch the rope out to bolts on the descent ledge.
Time: 28 minutes (from starting up Pitch 8 to both being at top of route)
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32. Nate starting up Pitch 8. Yet another quick and flawless lead.
33. Pitch 8.

Pitch 
9
(easily linked with Pitch 8)
5.6. Climb straight up to a two-bolt anchor at the top of the wall. This pitch is easily linked with Pitch 8.
Time: Included in Pitch 8 time given above.
34.    34. The final 50 foot stretch to the top rap anchor. We linked this short pitch with Pitch 8.

Top!
The route ends at the top of Pitch 9. You can scramble to the top of Chiefs Head from here, or just start the descent.


Descent
Make 7 long rappels (2 ropes) from the top of the route. These rappels are from the tops of Pitch 9, Pitch 7, Pitch 5, Pitch 4, Pitch 3, Pitch 2, and Pitch 0.
Time: 44 minutes
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35. Beginning the rappels.
36. The highest rappel anchor at the top of the route.
37. A sea of granite.
38. Rappelling.
39. The final rappel (from a slung block at the base of the route) to get over the steep snowfield at the base of the climb.
40. The slung block for the rappel over the snowfield. This also marks the start of the route.




PHOTOS FOR BIVYING IN GLACIER GORGE

Photos:
Photo descriptions:
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1. Our bivy about 30 minutes from the base of the NW Face of Chiefs Head.
2. My dinner: Mashed potatoes, cheese, salmon, and mini tomatoes.
3. Nate added Fritos and wrapped his in a tortilla.
4. Evening light on Arrowhead.
5. Morning light on McHenrys, as seen from our bivy boulder.
6. We were back at camp by 1:30pm. I spent the afternoon studying some probability and statistics for my upcoming preliminary exams.
7. What a place to study.
8. Nate enjoying a good book.
9. Evening light above McHenrys and Arrowhead.
10. Frozen Lake. The NW Face of Chiefs Head towers above.