Sunday, April 29, 2012

Good climbs to follow the 1st and 3rd Flatirons: Seal Rock profile

Many climbers experience the 3rd Flatiron's East Face and the 1st Flatiron's Direct East Face or Fandango and look for further experiences like those. While those routes are stellar, much of the Flatirons could feel anti-climatic if you don't pick and choose the best follow-up routes. Mediocre rock quality, challenging routefinding, unplanned runouts, bushwhacking, missing anchors, and raptor closures can easily ruin a day. Don't fear. There are routes offering the same quality as the 1st and 3rd at similar climbing difficulty, and Seal Rock is a great pick that offers a couple of excellent easy routes.
Panorama View from Seal Rock summit shortly after sunrise
Seal Rock is less than 2 miles hiking from the parking on Bear Mountain Drive or NCAR on Table Mesa. From Bear Mountain Drive to the base of Seal Rock's East Face North Side route, it is about 1100ft of elevation gain and 1.8 miles. It's only 700ft and 1.7 miles from NCAR, but you will have 275ft of uphill on the return after your climb, versus a "coast" down the Bear Canyon trail to Bear Mountain Drive. Consider these details when choosing where you want to park.
This extra mile on the approach, plus a little more elevation (250ft for the 1st Flatiron, 100ft for the 3rd Flatiron) keeps the crowds to a minimum on Seal Rock. Most of the approach is on maintained trail, with the final approach on well-established climbers trail starting just after the Mesa trail branches off of the Bear Canyon trail. Look for the climbers trail on the steep embankment on the right in about 100yds from the trail split. After heading up the climbers trail for a few hundred feet, you can see the Harmon Cave on the right. The trail branches left, it can become a little more challenging to follow from this point. Make sure to follow the trail to the Seal, and don't get on the Pup, a dirty flatironette immediately east of the Seal.
Click on the photo for more detail
The Routes and the Rock:

Seal Rock generally gets climbed by it's two East Face routes, the North Side and the South Side - a natural split that occurs because of the Flatironette, the "Pup", that rests against the
lower East Face. Most people tend to think of the North Side route first, and recall the gigantic 165ft rappel down the gently overhanging North Face. This is the more approachable of the two routes.
In addition to the two East Face routes, the rock also has a three pitch .13a Rossiter sport route - Sea of Joy, directly underneath the rappel line, and an Achey/Briggs route - Archeopteryx, .11d R/X, which lies just to the right of Sea of Joy. Also, there is a mediocre moderate route on the Southwest side, and a solid collection of serious "headpoints" on the South Face. One of these, Primate, is a very proud statement at .13+ vs.
The summit is an awesome place to spend some time. Incredible 360 views. It has a lot of room to lounge around, and a lot of "retaining walls" so you won't lose a stray water bottle or a dropped orange if you are a junk show.


The East Face Routes:
The East Face North Side route gets climbed quite a bit more than the South Side. Why? The trail runs right into it. The climb works up gently in difficulty from 4th class challenges to real 5th class climbing above the elbow (unless you start with the 5.6 friction climbing from the toe of the formation). Early on in the climb, there are numerous trees available if you are having difficulty finding suitable belay options. The hardest climbing is fairly well protected, at least for the Flatirons (although it probably protects better than routes of similar difficulty in Eldorado Canyon). The climb can be done at very low 5th class with some very good routefinding, but above the elbow, the protection on the easiest route isn't as good as the 5.4 crack above the elbow. The climb has a reasonable downclimb from the halfway point on the route (see Roach's downclimb description, NOT the "Shortcut" description given in the Rossiter and Haas guidebooks). It is a mellow route for the grade in the Flatirons and has awesome rock with just a few pine needles at the start. Lots of beta is available for this route.


The East Face South Side route is considered a "classic" in the Roach guidebook, and it certainly is a cool outing. Each pitch is unique and has it's own qualities. This has a different "feel" than the North Side route, even though they both receive the same mellow rating. This route is more serious, because of runouts, traverses, and a little funky, less-traveled rock. While this route is a little shorter than the North Side, I think that it is more interesting and engaging than the more popular route. It has a nice, varied collection of pitches with character, better than many other "classic" east face routes in the Flatirons like the Fourth Flatiron or the "Fatiron".
The opening pitch has some 5.4 slab climbing about 25 or 30 feet above the ground, and can be protected by a tricky, solitary thin cam once committed to the slab. Honestly, it compares to the difficulty of the first pitch of the Direct East Face on the 1st Flatiron, but isn't as sustained. Whether you leave the Pup/Seal crack early or late, the crux seems to be the initial climbing to leave the Pup. The slab is higher quality climbing with only a few loose holds and fairly clean rock. Once committed to the slab, the remainder of the pitch is less difficult, but very runout. Some wandering will reveal a few placements, but it seems difficult to really eliminate the runouts. Once you are up 50 feet or so, the smooth edges develop some nice texture and friction. There is a little moss and lichen in a watercourse below the ledge.
The second pitch is 4th class if you look very closely. It is more traversing than climbing upwards, and protection comes from creative slings on horns and a few hidden placements. A fall from either the leader or second on this pitch would have serious consequences without the appropriate placements. However, the rock quality is great, and the holds are incut if you follow the easiest route. This pitch traditionally ends at a massive chickenhead (visible in Google Earth - it is casting a shadow) and a small stance.
The third pitch is pretty continuous, easy fifth class climbing. It can go in a number of directions, but trending up and slightly left provides some great climbing with very little protection. The next belay described by Gerry Roach can be skipped, and most of the cracks in the area are pretty grungy. If you skip it, you will have a short bit of steeper climbing about 120 feet from the chickenhead that will probably raise your attention. The climbing that follows offers a little more protection, and there are great anchor possibilities between 200 and 215 feet from the chickenhead. This comes at a cost - there is no visibility between leader and second, and communication is likely to be difficult if there is any wind at all. Honestly, there are some questions about whether the chickenhead is an appropriate belay - it seems like it won't be attached to the face forever. And there are alternative belays nearby. Use your best judgment out there and decide for yourself what is a reasonable belay and what isn't. This is a standard Flatiron situation - putting more attention into anchors than the specific routefinding.
The fourth and fifth pitches are short, easy, and fun, and can be combined if you have a method for communicating. They quickly transition from 4th, to 3rd, and eventually, to walking, so there is a lot of rock blocking visual and audible communication.
View of Dinosaur Mountain's maze of rocks and routes, from the summit of Seal Rock
People have climbed all over this face, and many people don't realize how hard you have to traverse to get to the monster chickenhead and the far south edge of the face. It's a really fun and exposed traversing pitch and puts you just above the steepening edge of the South Face. Many climbers trend much more upward after the first belay, and the rock is similar - low 5th class with lots of incut holds. There are random spots of looser/thinner holds, but it seems like there is generally enough good rock nearby. Protection seems limited, but slinging horns seems like more of a possibility on this section than elsewhere in the Flatirons. In the topo image, visible above and to the South of this section, is a slick, red rock stratum that seems suspect in many spots. It generally forms the watercourse for the upper East Face, which somehow lures climbers who are having trouble routefinding (see the 1st Flatiron gully). While it's actually really good climbing movement, it doesn't offer a lot of opportunities for protection, and the suspect rock is a liability. Climbing straight upward from the chickenhead seems to cross this stratum where it is quite solid. Moving immediately to the left edge of the face is a little looser with more lichen, and moving up and right seems a little loose, too. The route engages this red rock a little higher, at the upper bulge/crux, but the rock band protects well at this point, at least after the crux. Alternatively, from the first belay, if you climb straight up and trend left, you will definitely climb over the red band, and the rock quality may vary. Roughly following the second variation in the topo image, you can cross the band (crux?) with only about 20 feet of climbing, and there is the possibility of good gear before and after.
Boulder viewed from Seal Rock - about peak time in Boulder's morning traffic
Descent: Getting down off of Seal Rock is a little bit more committing than the 3rd Flatiron, and certainly more committing than the 1st Flatiron. It involves heading east/down about 50/60 feet, finishing with downclimbing about 30ft of 5th class rock to reach two bolts with chain (the top belay bolts for Sea of Joy) in a notch that is about one foot wide. If you look for it near the east edge of the summit, there is a small thread on a thinner blade of rock that can be used to set up a "top rope" for the second downclimber to have some sort of top rope on the down climb to the rappel anchor. If you anticipate being uncomfortable with any of these scenarios, and don't have a solution that you are comfortable with, you can opt out of the true summit when doing the North Side route and stop at the anchors (Convenient belay!), and you can look for a short tricky northward traverse to reach the stratum with the notch while finishing the South Side route. The rappel requires (2) 50m ropes minimum, or one 70m rope if you do a short rappel to the upper Sea of Joy anchors and rap to the ground from this hanging belay. The hanging belay doesn't really have much of a stance, but you would probably only be a party of two with one rope... Watch the ends of your ropes, regardless. Also note: strong west winds can blow the ropes back up onto the Seal's heavily featured East Face, so make sure that you don't throw big tangles down the rappel on a really windy day.
Downclimbing all the way down to the elbow to get off the Seal feels a little more challenging than the downclimb off of the 3rd Flatiron, since there are numerous little bulges, a wider variety of movement, and some wandering. Reversing Desolation Flats and downclimbing the SW Chimney on the 3rd Flatiron feels more straightforward. On Seal Rock, it's about 300 feet down to the elbow, with about half of that being continuous 5th class. Descend past the "Shortcut" right at the elbow, about 75 feet, and work over a few ribs below a break in the lip and you can see a short 15 foot downclimb. It's described as 4th class, but you need a good wingspan, some stemming skills, and dry rock to keep it 4th class. It's actually really fun. The "Shortcut" crux is 5th class, and occurs very close to the elbow with about 30 feet of very steep broken slab below. It has a decent coat of lichen, and a little funky movement rocking over your feet, and isn't recommended unless you know the moves. This is not nearly as fun as the other alternative.
The hike down after the rappel is steep and covered with needles for the first few hundred feet. It would probably be pretty nasty in the snow in winter, but I'm unsure how it holds snow compared to the talus stretch that always seems snow-covered on the 3rd Flatiron's descent.


Summary: Seal Rock has two awesome East Face routes that are a great follow-up to climbs on the 3rd and 1st Flatirons, and could be a great introduction to easy Flatirons climbing. Seal Rock is also a great alternative to the 3rd Flatiron when the latter has annual raptor closures (generally Feb 1 through July 31.)
The East Face North Side is an excellent 800ft 5.3/5.4 that works up in difficulty. The East Face South Side is a very interesting and somewhat serious 650ft 5.4. Both climbs lead to an incredible summit and culminate with a dramatic descent, regardless of which option you choose.

1 comments:

Geiss said...

Hi Nate, thanks for the great beta! BTW, I was looking at the Seal route picture and did not find the "N" for the rap anchors... I presume it's close to the "M" somewhere off to the north?

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