On Saturday, Andy Grauch and Chris Sheridan completed a wild line on the south face of Mt. Otis in Rocky Mountain National Park—almost certainly a new route. Chockstones of Unusual Size (C.O.U.S.) is a three-pitch route (plus snow slogging) that surmounts two stupendous blocks by tricky dry tooling: III M6/7. We asked Andy Grauch to write up a first-person account of this crazy-looking climb:
“Chockstones of unusual size? I don’t think they exist….”
A few years ago, Eli Helmuth at Climbing Life Guides mentioned a surprising fact in one of his regular posts about Rocky Mountain National Park snow and ice conditions: The south side of Mt. Otis had no recorded winter routes. After learning this, Chris Sheridan and I quickly developed a fascination with the gullies around Wham and Zowie spires. In 2008, he and I climbed the improbable-looking Brain Freeze to the west of Zowie. In 2009, Chris climbed the more moderate Wham Couloir. With an increasingly rare two days off and a dubious weather forecast, we decided it was a perfect time to check out the third of these gullies: the one right up the middle, splitting Wham and Zowie. In pictures from previous trips, it looked easy enough except for big, troubling chockstones at the start and finish.
After a leisurely 6:15 a.m. start, a couple of hours skinning along well-packed trails delivered us to the snowfield below the route. From down in the trees, the chockstone guarding the start looked insurmountable. Chris mentioned that ice occasionally forms on the right side of the gully, allowing access to the easy snow climbing above. As we began to kick steps up to a massive, dark cave, we couldn’t see any ice, but I kept hoping a pillar would appear. It didn’t.
Staring at the giant chockstone 30 feet up, a route looked unlikely; the walls of the cave were vertical to overhanging and too far apart for stemming. Shuffling around in the snow, we started to see possibilities: edges, flakes, thin cracks, potential gear here and there. With the standard RMNP motto of “It doesn’t have to be in to be in,” Chris ventured up the vertical wall on the right side of the cave. Dicey pro, fantastic steep climbing up thin corners, and a few hangs to warm numb fingers got Chris to the lip of the chockstone. A committing hook move led to some good ice, thick enough for a 10cm screw, and ultimately the easy snow above the chockstone. With a 70m rope, we had just enough extra cord for Chris to lower his end and haul the packs. In late winter, an ice pillar often forms here that might allow you to bypass much of the dry tooling on this pitch.
About 400 feet of step kicking and trenching brought us to the cave below the second chockstone. The rock immediately below it looked relatively smooth and clean, without much chance of climbing. But at the back of the cave, we again saw a possible line: Chimney up, spin around to get good feet, a dark slot that might take a cam, an exit through a hole between the wall and the chockstone.
Since there was no way to climb with a pack, I tied into the middle of the rope, clipping one side into pro as I went so I could haul with the other. I set off without any real confidence that I would be able to exit the cave. To my surprise, edges kept appearing for my front points, and blocks wedged overhead provided more than ample protection. Without too much difficulty, I was able to chimney horizontally below the roof. Yelling with the fun and amazement of it, I hooked and manteled my way out of the hole and onto the snow below yet another large chockstone.
Chris quickly climbed the next pitch, torquing tools in an enjoyable crack around a refrigerator-size chockstone that seemed small compared to the monsters below. Another hundred feet of Styrofoam snow brought us to the east ridge of Otis an hour before dark.
Despite the late hour and heavy snowfall, the descent went smoothly: only a few rappels in the dark and the usual of amount of slipping over talus. A victory shot of bad Tequila warmed us up for the ski out.
See Mountain Project for pitch grades, gear list, etc.