In the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park, a granite spindle called Zowie protrudes from the convoluted south face of Mt. Otis. Just to Zowie’s left is a zigzagging chimney and gully system that holds an unlikely mixed-climbing gem. Brain Freeze was discovered very recently (early 2008) by Andy Grauch and Chris Sheridan. Several parties quickly repeated the route and confirmed its neoclassic status—it’s perhaps the best of the Park’s recent “it doesn’t have to be in to be in” climbs.
What makes Brain Freeze so good? First is variety: The route climbs face, chimneys, and giant chockstones, and it even has a nearly pure ice pitch (rare for long alpine routes in the Park). The difficulty is continuous but never extreme, protection is adequate, and the views are memorable: intimidating from under the crux chockstone, and simply lovely from the top, down past a snow arête and over Zowie’s summit blade. And Brain Freeze has a surprisingly long season. It’s south-facing, so melt-freeze often keeps the ice pitch in good shape from January through April, and yet much of the route is shaded by Zowie and the deep chimneys. Spindrift is a frequent hazard, however. (The route is called Brain Freeze after the intense ice cream headaches caused by spindrift during the first ascent.) And beware wet-snow avalanches and rockfall on warm spring days.
Keep in mind that “good” is relative—this is a route that only will appeal to fans of scratching on snowed-up granite, and such climbers are fairly uncommon. The climbing can feel grovelly and insecure. But it is guaranteed to be memorable.
Length: 5 to 7 pitches
Difficulty: WI3 M5+
Season: January to April
Approach: Snowshoe or ski from the Glacier Gorge trailhead to the Loch, then follow the Andrews Glacier Trail until it’s obvious to head up right toward the Zowie spire. Skirt the base far to the left, past the first big chimney system, to reach a gully that dead-ends in a steep headwall. 2–3 hours.
Gear: 2 or 3 short screws, several pitons, and a healthy rack of nuts and cams up to #3. A #10 or #11 hexentric protects the big roof on pitch 5. Don’t leave home without it.
1. Diagonal up and right under a large roof (M4) to the foot of a snow gully. Or start about 50 feet to the right, climb a short snowy wall, and traverse left on a ledge system to the snow (M3).
2. Easy snow for more than a rope length. Belay at the mouth of an ice-filled slot/gully that diagonals left.
3. Climb the icy slot, the superb Changing Gullies Pitch, to reach a hidden chimney system. Continue up, passing the foot of a vertical ice pillar, to a stance. WI3 M4+.
4. Continue up the narrow, sketchy chimney to a great cave belay below the big chockstone. M5.
5. Climb the right wall of the cave (looking in), find good gear near the top, and pull the wild lip. Continue up the steep gully slot to a stance below another chockstone. M5+
6. Bridge up over the chockstone and continue straight up to a rock band with a slot that can be climbed on its left or right; the right side is steep but has good pro. M5+
Some pitches might be combined. The first-ascent party angled left above the upper chockstone and climbed a bigger headwall (M5+), but subsequent teams have climbed straight up as described.
Rappel the route with double ropes, starting from a boulder above the final rock band.