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Routes in Notchtop

Direct South Ridge T 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a
Finding Religion on the Spiral T 5.10 6b 20 VII- 19 E2 5b R
Instant Clarification (AKA Rap Route) T 5.9+ 5c 17 VI 17 E1 5a
Laid Back (a.k.a. NE Ridge) T 5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c
Mornin' T 5.7 5a 15 V+ 13 MVS 4b
Optimismus T 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a
Relief Train T 5.7 5a 15 V+ 13 MVS 4b
Religion T 5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c R
Spiral Route T 5.4 4a 12 IV 10 VD 3c
Topnotch T 5.11b 6c 23 VIII- 23 E3 5c
White Room T 5.11 6c+ 23 VIII- 23 E4 5c X
Unsorted Routes:

Description

Notchtop is a spectacular mountain, offering climbing on par with anything in the Park short of Long's Peak. It offers a beautiful, steep South Ridge, an excellent mountaineering route, and some hard 5.11 testpieces. The only thing not to like is the dangerous and confusing descent. The mountain has 2 summits: that of the spire which is separated from the main peak by the namesake notch, and the summit of the main peak. If you value your life, DO NOT summit the spire! It is composed entirely of loose, fractured blocks which could (indeed have) easily give way at any moment. If your route leads to a point very near this summit, then find a 4th class scramble south of it that turns into a ledge, which in turn leads west to the actual notch. From the notch, go 3rd class west to the main summit. Then, find a 4th/5th class ledge SYSTEM which gradually descends below a craggy ridge, near the top of the peak's SW face. This ledge is very exposed in spots and cuts across the top of several very steep gullies (some of which have rappel slings-- DO NOT rappel these gullies, however!). Make your return to the base of the cliff ONLY when an obvious, wide, talus filled third class gully leads to the SE. This descent would be even more treacherous if it was wet or dark. Rope up if you are at all unsure. Richard Rossiter's guidebook (which is usually very good) contains some dangerous misinformation about this descent. NOTE: there is apparently a new rap route (not described in any guidebook) which offers passage down the SW face, but I know nothing about it. Possible beta may be had at climbing shops in Estes Park, et al...or not.

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Getting There

Park at Bear Lake, and follow the signs north of the lake to Odessa Lake. However, do NOT go all the way to Odessa Lake; after about 3 miles, when Notchtop is in full view, the trail begins to descend to Odessa Lake. Find an unmarked spur trail to the left which leads to shallow Lake Helene, then scramble through slabs and krummholtz west of the lake to treeline and some small tarns. The cliff is obvious from there.

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Classic Climbing Routes at Notchtop

Mountain Project's determination of the classic, most popular, highest rated climbing routes in this area.
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brucelacroix
Portland, OR.
brucelacroix   Portland, OR.
My 2 cents:
I thought the descent was pretty straightforward, mostly class 3 with a few class 4 moves.

BETA: from the notch, head north over the summit. Once there, you will see cairns and a use trail (kind of) on the west side. Follow it a couple hundred yards, at most, without losing much elevation, to the 3rd class gully (maybe a couple 4th class moves). You will see the lake from here. Go down from here. I can't imagine rappelling could be faster. Jul 4, 2016
William Thiry
Lakewood, CO
William Thiry   Lakewood, CO
I give this adventure 3-stars for several reasons, even if the rock climbing alone isn't 3-stars:
1. The position. Notchtop is a spectacular formation that rises straight up for over a thousand feet above the valley. While no hanging belays are needed on this route, you certainly feel high and exposed at all times.
2. The navigation/adventure. Getting started on this route isn't easily made clear, so you need a little 'mountain sense' to get on route or find a way that works for you. Figuring out this little puzzle is part of the fun.
3. Do the Mornin' pitch(es) at the top of the cirque. It is pretty good climbing, and it may feel a bit hard for 5.7 - especially if you're climbing with a backpack.
4. The walkoff descent. It is loose and exposed and dangerous (and even a little confusing), but it was also very exciting and a key part of the overall adventure for me and the members of my team. This is really one of the most exciting descents you'll encounter anywhere - just be careful and avoid doing it in a storm. Jun 27, 2016
Charles Vernon
Tucson, AZ
Charles Vernon   Tucson, AZ
I am not sure, since it's been ~14 years since I wrote the above description, but I think the "grassy ramp" descriptor may have confused us a bit, as I recall it being more of a narrow, exposed ledge system. In the context of a class 2/3 descent, I suppose I anticipated a "grassy ramp" being something a bit more broad and mellow. (On that note, I have to agree with most others that class 3 underscores the difficulties of this descent, but I'm decidedly new school!)

I think your original description was adequate (we did find the descent correctly, after all), and the proposed new description is an improvement. Maybe I would throw in the word "exposed" before the words "grassy ramp and ledge system." Nov 12, 2014
Hello Charles. Thanks for responding. Here is the text from my 1997 guide to RMNP, High Peaks.

Descent. From the top of the Notch Spire, downclimb 30 feet west (cl3), gain a scree-covered ledge, and follow it north to the notch between the Notch Spire and the main summit. Scramble north up the east side of the crest and gain the true summit of Notchtop Mountain. From the summit, follow a grassy ramp down along the west side of the crest to the top of the West Gully, then hike down the gully (cl2) and return to the Fern Lake Trail.

This is pretty much the same. The main difference is that I have caved in to the notion that almost everyone thinks this descent is Class 4. Maybe I should stay with the original rating. Nov 10, 2014
Charles Vernon
Tucson, AZ
Charles Vernon   Tucson, AZ
Hi Richard, I no longer have your book (my brother and I jointly owned a copy, but now he has full custody), and I'm sorry to say I don't recall what, specifically I found to be "misleading" in your 1997 description. The last time I did the walk-off was in 2006, but your new description in your comment above sounds like what I did. However, my memory is a bit hazy. Is your new description the same as that in your 1997 book?

I've done that descent several times now, and "dangerous" probably isn't the best word to describe it, although it is a little more involved than some other high peaks descents. I've done the rappel too, and would agree that I prefer the walk-off. I should probably clean up the description on this page.... Nov 8, 2014
I am curious about Charles Vernon's comment, that the descent described in my 1997 guide to the High Peaks, is "dangerous." I am currently writing a new guidebook the High Peaks of RMNP, so it is important for me to know if I have written something misleading. Here is the descent description for the new book:

Descent. From the top of Notch Spire, downclimb 30 feet west (Class 4) to a scree-covered ledge. Follow the ledge north to the notch between Notch Spire and the main summit. Scramble north and gain the true summit of Notchtop Mountain. From the summit, follow a grassy ramp and ledge system down along the west side of the crest to the top of the West Gully, then go down the gully (Class 4) to the tarns below the South Ridge.

Input from anyone who has made this descent is appreciated. I have done it several times, myself. BTW, I am aware of the rappel route down Instant Clarification, and it will be described in the the book. Personally, I prefer the down-climb. Nov 3, 2014
Sean Dormer
Boulder, CO
Sean Dormer   Boulder, CO
Maybe I can clarify the rap route a bit. It does in fact avoid the 4th class from the summit block to the notch. It's a lot safer and a lot easier than a down-climbing. That said, you'll have two concerns: first, knocking loose rocks onto parties below you. Rope management prevents this. Second, getting your rope stuck. Use the "Euro Death Knot" to tie your ropes together, don't tie knots in the ends of your ropes, and pull fast and smooth. Hope this helps!

R1: From the prow, head towards the notch. Anchors will be on your left, at about the same level of the prow topout, maybe slightly lower. They're plainly visible from the prow topouts, regardless whether you take the direct route or the right route. Anchors are made of sections of blue and orange rope tied solidly around several blocks, with good hardware on them. This rap avoids about 15-20m of 4th class descent. This is a single-rope rappel, BUT DON'T LET THAT FOOL YOU. You'll need another rope later. Consider "holstering" your rap rope(s) on this one rather than throwing them, as the next ledge down has lots of loose choss to tangle your rope in.

R2: 15-20m below and out from the first rap anchors are the second anchors. The should be visible from the first rap anchors. They're at the outer edge of a wide ledge with a lot of loose rock. Three solid pitons attach to the rock, with fairly new cords hanging from them. KEEP YOUR ROPE ORGANIZED TO AVOID PULLING ANYTHING OFF the ledge. We dropped our rope a bit past this anchor and pulled off a softball-sized rock getting it up to thread it. No one below us, but scary anyway. The rap from here is short again, and is the last single-rope.

R3: You likely cannot see these anchors from the previous anchors. That could be because they're bolted hangers about the same color as the rock. You'll pass a wider ledge getting to them, and stand on a smaller ledge at them. From here, it's a DOUBLE-ROPE rap to a ledge in a vertical gully. Two 60m ropes definitely get you to the anchors for R4, but two 50m's might work too. I'm not sure, I wouldn't risk it myself, and why are you still climbing on a 50m anyway? =P

R4: These anchors are at a slung block. It's solid, I think. Another double 60m takes you to the "ground" on a wide, grassy ledge. From here, don't ascend along the ledge towards the col, but rather find the faint path (2nd and a tiny bit of 3rd class) leading off the ledge into the gully. Keep your helmet on; the gully is loose. A couple more 3rd class sections separate you from the easy hiking below. Jul 2, 2012
claytown
Boulder, CO
claytown   Boulder, CO
In response to David's comment in 2010, rapping off is quite easy and obvious. Look at the topo picture that Les Moore posted and you are set. From the Spiral Route (or anthing via the meadow), using the 3 pin anchor to reach the bolted raps is fast and easy (single 60m rope on the first rap). Jun 4, 2012
Does anyone have more current info on the descent? Do most people walk off? Rappel? I was up there a few weeks ago and the info here and on the Spiral Route page was not very helpful. We were expecting a confusing, but identifiable walk-off on the west side. We found 3 possible spots for this, but none were convincing. We looked for the cairns, as described, but found none. Found some webbing on some blocks in various places for rappelling, but decided not to use any due to the comments here. Ended up rapping down the way we came up and leaving gear behind. Sep 1, 2010
Les Moore
Port Townsend, WA
Les Moore   Port Townsend, WA
Check out the topo showing the entire bolted rap route from the summit of Notchtop. A topo is worth a thousand words. Just did these raps yesterday with Avery Nelson, and both of us put the topo together. Even with all the comments here, we still got confused and did a bit of looking around to find the first and second set of bolts. Jul 21, 2008
Legs Magillicutty   Durango
To piggyback on top of Tim's comment, is there another set of fixed anchors located above the cold shut and hanger that Tim mentioned? Aug 23, 2005
Stich
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Stich   Colorado Springs, Colorado
Here's what happened to us when we tried the rappel line at the top of Instant Clarification on the Notch saddle. I built an anchor and had my partner lower me to look for the anchors. On the way down the narrow, steep gully, I noticed a slung rock with a webbing handline. Then, just before the gully dropped off into space, I noticed a rusted Chouinard knifeblade and a slung chockstone. I couldn't see the newer cold shuts. I reclimbed the gully and placed gear as I went per Tony's suggestion.

At that point, my footing gave way and a 20lb rock plummetted down the gully. I yelled rock very loudly and continuously as it fell. Fortunately, no one below was hit. By then it was snowing.

I saw an emergency rap station a little below consisting of a blue Mammut sling, a nut, and some other webbing slung around a pinnacle. I missed the second cold shuts and ended up on a ledge 60ft above the third cold shuts. To our considerable dismay, the ropes would not pull through the anchor with the piton and chockstone at the top. Perhaps it was because they are around a corner. We have no idea what was going on with the snag, but after fully weighting the rope with Tiblocs, we got them to pull. Two 60m ropes will get you to the ground from the last anchors. These are a chrome plated cold shut and a regular hanger with a rap ring. They are very easy to spot, fortunately. Aug 22, 2005
none  
A good alternative to the nasty [descent] is to top out and climb to the left. Head along the [Continental Divide] toward Flattop. (only of course if you feel comfortable bringing all of your gear). [Descend] Flattop and this will make for an awesome photo opp or two. Jul 21, 2005
Martin le Roux
Superior, CO
Martin le Roux   Superior, CO
The regular descent gully leads down to the SW, not SE as stated above.

As of July 10 2003 there was still some snow in the gully, but not so much that we needed an ice-axe. Earlier in the season an ice-axe might be advisable. Jul 23, 2003
Matt Juth
Evergreen
Matt Juth   Evergreen
I did a line above the spiral ledge system that starts at the belay to continue on [Religion]. Instead of traversing left and then right, you head straight up the flake crack to a left facing dihedral. At the end of the dihedral you end up in the [Religion] gully. There was a piton with a rusted biner on the route, so It's been done before. It was loose dirty and had bad Pro. It didn't look like anyone had climbed in in years.Does anyone know what that was? May 16, 2003
This route was awesome to start. I did get off route and end up on Pessimisimus, but it was great too. Some scary run out pitches for sure, but really cool. Dec 23, 2002
Tony B
Around Boulder, CO
Tony B   Around Boulder, CO
The new rap route goes like this...Get into the saddle between the spire and the main peak. Go down a loose and potentially hazardous gully for a brief scramble. If you want to rope up, have the first person belayed down on TR set gear behaind them, and the second is now "down leading." If you have a skittish partner, let them go first on TR. From the bottom most point of the [gully], before it drops away to the void, out to the right there are 2 large rap hangars on good bolts, but one of them spins a little. No big deal. These are located near the top of a boiler-plate that is just to the right of the rock-gully. Keep your eyes open.

This rap REQUIRES 2 ropes (my single 70M fell short) to rap as intended.

  • IF* you rap on a single 70 you can accomplish the task by...

1) Rapping to the climber's left left from the first one to a fixed belay (needs another sling added for margin) and then 2) back right to hit the next intended set of shuts. These two raps combined get you down the first rap.3) Down to a good crack and dihedral system 15' above the next rap. You will have to make easy moves to reach the next rap. Watch out for bad rock, because you will die or be as good as dead if you fall between. To solve for this potential problem, in the absence of any knowledge of what was below... I rapped, installed a gear belay 30' up and left of the station, lead down (placing gear) and my parner followed, pulling gear- essentially down-leading. We found the moves to be 5.4-ish with minimal suspect rock.4) A 70M rope hits the ground from the last rap station- with a few feet to spare.I'll reiterate my primary point- It would be best to just have two ropes. Sep 16, 2002
Charles Vernon
Tucson, AZ
Charles Vernon   Tucson, AZ
Dan, There is a rap route from the notch (see my description above). I don't know the details, however they may be described in the new [Gillett] guide. I really don't think the standard descent is that bad (you can always rope up!), but for a "walk-off" it is definitely more involved and exposed than Spearhead, [Hallett], and several others. Aug 6, 2002
Dan St. John
Castle Rock
Dan St. John   Castle Rock
A very dangerous [descent]. Did the [South Ridge Direct]. Found the climbing [unsustained]. It would be a great introduction to RMNP if the [descent] was not so convoluted. I found the crux climbing disappointedly short, yet this 5.9 crack was excellent.

Question-Would anybody complain is a installed a rap [route] from the notch? This would allow one to get off [safely] and climb another [route] since we toped [out before] noon and were moving at normal pace. Aug 5, 2002

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