Archive for the ‘13ers’ Category

Solitude Lake Cirque

July 6, 2010

A low altitude illustration of the 'off-trail' ascending and descending required to complete the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'.

It was finally time to do it. After many years of thinking about the various connected pieces, it was time to attempt the entire Solitude Lake Cirque: a climb of Arrowhead (3rd or 4th class) from Solitude Lake, then traversing to and climbing McHenrys’ NE Arete (4th Class) to the summit, then traversing McHenrys’ Notch (5th class downclimb and 2nd class scramble) to reach the summit of Mt Powell, and then traversing and downclimbing Mt Powell’s entire NE Ridge (4th class) to the summit of Thatchtop.

We knew it would be a long day.  Even if everything worked out perfectly, it would be a grueling, body-breaking day: over 13 hours, 11.5 miles, and 5140′ of elevation gain & loss, with much of it being off trail. For illustration purposes, the planned effort is similar to scrambling up and down the 3rd Flatiron five times in a row with a mouth-full of water (to simulate high altitude oxygen availability).  Fun, right?

The Solitude Lake Cirque objective and plan evolved over the last 13 years:

  1. The ‘McHenrys Notch’ piece: I learned of ‘The Notch’ when sitting on top of Flattop during the summer of 1997 and wondering out loud about hiking the Continental Divide to Chiefs Head. Brian notified me that ‘The Notch‘ was a challenging obstacle. I was intrigued.
  2. The ‘NE Arete of McHenrys’ piece:  I still vividly remember looking up the NE Arete of McHenrys while sitting on the summit of Arrowhead in 1999 and thinking that it was the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen; I also thought it looked way too scary to to climb unroped (only 4th class).
  3. The ‘NE Ridge of Powell’ piece: I climbed this ridge almost exactly 11 years earlier in a solo effort; it was a near disastrous day as a late start and rainy weather nearly ended my climbing days (and every other kind as well). While my ability to do it while wet was confidence inspiring, the experience was psychologically traumatic.  Brian and I attempted to repeat it in late 2005 but were turned back by heavy snowfall.
  4. The ‘Do Them All Together’ Goal:  in early 2010, I informed Brian that the ‘Solitude Lake Cirque‘ was a goal for the 2010 summer.
  5. The Plan:  during the last week of June, I decided that we’d do the climb clockwise.  Even though The Notch is easier to climb than descend, I worried that a descent of McHenrys NE Arete would be too hard (since I didn’t know the terrain at all); and I thought we’d could rappel ‘The Notch’ if necessary.  And, I didn’t think a down climb of Powell’s NE Ridge would be much harder than an ascent since the elevation change was small. I was very wrong about this last point.

The 'Solitude Lake Cirque' -- illustrative route

And, throwing a monkey wrench into the works, the weather report was not perfect.  A “20% chance of rain after 1pm” was very worrying since it meant the rain would come while we were on Powell’s NE Ridge.  Given my history with that chunk of rock, I was justifiably worried. In addition, the weekend before a forecast of only 10% chance of rain after 1pm came 100% true on a climb of Spearhead in RMNP; I just couldn’t ignore the threat. However, Brian and I worked it out that we could summit Thatchtop by 1pm, if we started @ 4am and moved at a quick pace. That was somewhat reassuring, but I wondered how long we could keep up such a pace.

For better or worse, the ‘Solitude Lake Cirque‘ was a go!

On the morning of July 3rd, 2010, Brian and I left Boulder@ 2:30am for the Glacier Gorge trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. Unlike the previous week, the sky was mostly clear; it was a good sign on a day when good weather might be required to survive.

Ascending toward Solitude Lake with Arrowhead in background

I was driving, so we arrived at the trailhead a bit earlier than planned.  We started hiking at 3:45am.

Looking back down the steep hike up toward Shelf & Solitude Lakes

We took the ‘Knobs‘ shortcut to save 1/2 mile, and then took the Black Lake fork off the Loch Vale trail.

Position 1 (see references on map)

About 3.5 miles in, we reached the avalanche gully which marked the cutoff for Solitude Lake.  We turned toward Glacier Creek, gingerly walked along fallen logs to avoid sloshing through the marshy terrain.  A quick hop across the creek and then we scrambled up the steep slope to reach the Shelf Lake area, swatting mosquitoes all the way up.  On one of the longest days of the year (daylight-wise), it was light enough that we could have started hiking 30 minutes earlier.

It was Brian’s turn to dunk a boot, this time working across the Shelf Lake outlet.  But Brian was smart enough to wax his boots, so no wet foot for Brian (unlike my experience on Spearhead the week before).

Nearing Arrowhead, our 1st objective

Position 2

We reached the edge of Solitude Lake at 6:15am; I was delighted with our quick pace.  I thought we would be close to my goal of a 7am Arrowhead summit.  But clearly I had forgotten about the long talus-hop needed to reach the base of the Arrowhead climb.

Our route up Arrowhead

It took us another 45 minutes to reach the base of the climb.

Position 3

We started up a 4th class path Brian picked out; he didn’t want to use the 3rd class route we’d used before. I figured it would be a good warm up for climbing to come later in the day.  Rather than angle directly for the Arrowhead summit, I decided to climb to the ridgeline first.  I was rewarded with spectacular views of Glacier Gorge through the clear, early morning air.

Position 4

Joe (me) on Arrowhead summit with McHenrys NE Arete in background

I then joined Brian on the summit of Arrowhead at 8am.  We were already one hour behind schedule. It was time to start going faster, somehow.

The weather looked good, but we could see the winds above McHenry were moving very quickly.

Looking back down the NE Arete toward Arrowhead

We started back down the ridge toward the saddle, and then up the NE Arete. The climbing was not very difficult; there were a few spots of harder climbing below the Gendarmes on the ridge.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the climbing was nearly all 3rd class, with only a spot or two of 4th class. Accordingly, our time was pretty good, even though I was slowing down a bit after over 4300′ of elevation gain in the last 5+ hours.

The finish was remarkably easy and led to within a few yards of the summit.  A great route.

Position 5

Joe (me) on McHenrys summit with Longs and Chiefs Head in the distance.

We reached McHenrys summit at 9:30am; still one hour behind schedule, but at least no further time was lost. And the wind was cold and strong.

After a short break, we started toward The Notch.

Brian hiking toward 'The Notch' with Powell in background

Progress was easy for a while, but then became confusing. It was unclear which ledge was the correct ledge to take to the downclimb.  We decided to stay on the ridge crest as long as possible, which forced us to make an exposed move or two to reach the end.  From that position, we could see that the ledge below us had been the correct ledge; we downclimbed to it and then traversed over to the gully that led directly to the top of ‘The Notch‘.

Brian put on his rock shoes (removing Makalus); this says it all.  It was steep.  Plus, the freezing wind rushing up the gully was enough to unnerve anyone.

Brian descending the last few feet of the gully toward 'The Notch'

At first, the downclimb felt very hard; but that was just me getting used to the awkward nature of downclimbing steep terrain. The holds were good and we made good time for a bit. After about 100 feet, Brian found a rappel anchor and thought we should do a belayed downclimb. I was thinking we were past the hard part, but I rarely argue for less protection.  Brian was right. The next 150 feet was harder.

A view of the ascent path out of 'The Notch' to reach the summit of Mt Powell

We had brought a small rack, so it took some doing to put in gear for Brian’s protection.  And we were both freezing in the wind.

Position 6

I reached the bottom of the gully at 10:45am and worked my way into the sunshine before stopping to give Brian a belay. He came down quickly and joined me in the sunshine to warm up. The downclimbing was good due to the solid hand holds; it was a luxury we would miss later in the day while downclimbing slabs.

A view of the spectacular Mt Alice seen from 'The Notch'

We wandered over to the edge of The Notch to have a look and also gathered in some great views of Powell Lake and Mt Alice.

We also marveled at the great looking rock marking the Powell edge of The Notch; still, we were happy to have an alternative to escape The Notch.

Brian led the way down The Notch to reach the gully we could ascend to reach the top of Mt Powell.

Brian taking the final few steps to Mt Powell's summit

On the way up, I was delighted to find a trickle of snow-melt running over a rock that I could use to refill my empty water bottle.  I was very worried about not having more water for the rest of the day; it was only 11am. I silently wished for 2 bottles to fill.

Brian moved ahead and I followed as soon as my full bottle was put away. The gully was a bit loose, but not too bad; a mere 2nd class scramble.

Position 7

Looking back at McHenry from the summit of Powell, with Longs and Chiefs Head in the background.

We reached the summit of Mt Powell at 11:30am; we had picked up 30 minutes against our schedule and were now only 30 minutes behind schedule.  And 3 peaks down; only 1 more to go!

I realized that I had never been on the summit before.  The time I thought I had summited, on my trip up the NE Ridge from Thatchtop in the rain, I must have stopped at the false summit some yards to the north.  Well, better late than never.

And, now I was feeling very confident.  While the weather was getting worse, it looked like it would hold out until 1pm….just a few dark clouds so far. We didn’t even have to discuss our plan B of descending Andrews Glacier. I was thinking, ‘how long could it take to complete the NE Ridge’?  The reports of the ridge taking 4 hours seemed ridiculous.

Position 8

A view of the Cathedral Peaks and Sky Pond

We hiked toward Mt Taylor for about 200 feet and found a keyhole to slide through to get onto Powell’s NE Ridge. We then had to navigate a few feet of snow to reach the climbing, but that was the only snow we had to contend with all day.

Position 9

Finally, the only real hurdle remaining was the crux section of the NE Ridge; the section that I struggled so terribly with all those years ago. If we got past that section of the ridge, we would certainly make it. If the rain came before, we’d have to rope up if not turn back for Andrews Glacier. But the remaining hour before 1pm would surely be enough, wouldn’t it?

Brian working down the steep slabs on Powell's NE Ridge

I had budgeted 2 hours to do the entire NE Ridge; it took us 2 hours to just to finish the hard section.

Brian working past the crux

I was utterly wrong about how long it would take to complete the ridge. Descending 4th class slabs is much harder than ascending them.  Much harder….even when the altitude loss is minor. My mistake was due to my lack of understanding or appreciation of 2 factors:

  1. Descending 4th class slabs is complicated by the complexity of route-finding as holds are obscured when viewed from above
  2. Descending 4th class slabs is much harder at the end of a long day than seems possible at the beginning of the day

Brian nearing the end of the hard part of Powell's NE Ridge

Fortunately, the weather stayed dry.  The wind was unnerving as it tossed us around while we smeared our way across and down the slabs, but at least the rock was good for sticky rubber.

Position 10

Once past the hard section, I told Brian that I had followed the ridgeline all those years ago (which is also Roach’s instructions; I checked).  Brian said he liked the look of  the talus below the ridgeline. I wondered if there was a reason for Roach’s advice and so I angled up to the ridge near Point 12836 to see if the ridgeline was a better path.  Instead, I found the ridge was much harder than the talus below, so I descend to match Brian’s path.

A tired Brian sitting below the summit of Thatchtop

At a little before 2pm (and the weather still holding), I found Brian resting below the summit of Thatchtop. In his green jacket, I couldn’t see him until I was within rock throwing distance. He looked so comfortable, I couldn’t resist the temptation, and so I stretched out on a grassy patch.  It turned out that he wasn’t comfortable so much as sleepy.

Resting my feet on Powell's NE Ridge while enjoying the flowers

I finished my water and ate a snack, and I remarked to Brian that I would be willing to pay a lot to have the truck close-by.  The thought of descending thousands of feet and multiple miles just shriveled my morale.

All I had left to comfort me were my own words of advice: the greater the suffering, the greater the feeling of accomplishment.

Misery Axiom: never turn back because of mental misery.  More mental suffering (e.g., boredom, frustration, irritation) leads to more personal rewards, which can only be harvested through perseverance (corollary to Reward Rule).

Reward Rule: personal rewards are maximized by seeking an aggressive goal that matches the most optimistic assessment of your willingness to suffer; the right goal allows both success and satisfaction

Position 11

But we had many miles to go, as it has been said before.  We trudged up to the summit of Thatchtop, and I stopped for a photo of our day’s route.

The 'Solitude Lake Cirque' route overview

Brian hadn’t stopped, so I hurried after him, working my way down the endless talus field.  It was another mile of talus hoping to reach the bottom of Thatchtop. And at the end of such a long day, it was an endless misery.

Brian later pointed out:

Thatchtop’s name is appropriate from a long distance, but becomes supremely aggravating when one is actually on it and trying to hike over the ‘thatch’.

So true, Brian.

Brian heading down Thatchtop

And that wasn’t the end.  We still had to find the descent gully, which somehow eluded us.  After wandering through the peculiar stunted forested area at the end of the ridge, we finally stumbled upon the gully.  The gully turned out to be far more loose than I recalled; we slipped and slid down and around the corner before finally escaping.

And that wasn’t the end either.  We still had to work our way down the mixed forest/talus field to reach the creek flowing from Loch Vale.

Statistics for the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'

It was a level of effort I was not prepared to expend.  I was really beat.

I don’t think I’ve ever done so much off-trail descending.  To get down, we had to descend over 4000′ down talus and technical rock.  Try hiking down Longs Peak without using any trails..

And still we had to hike another 30 minutes to reach the car.

What a day!  I’m glad we did it. I’m glad it’s over.

Our route on the 'Solitude Lake Cirque'

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Interesting info regarding ‘Cirque de la Solitude’ on the ‘toughest long distance trail in Europe’


A Shocking Day on Arapahoe Peak

May 7, 2010




The scene of the crime: a view of South Arapahoe Peak from just below the saddle shared with Mount Baldy.


It was early June 2006, and we thought the conditions were good enough for another traverse of the Arapahoe Peaks, but we didn’t get the chance to find out when the weather took a shocking turn for the worse. We should have been more careful.

Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth.  Once generally feared as a weapon of the gods or God, scientists now tell us lightning is just a gigantic spark of static electricity. People once avoided lightning above all threats to life due to the heavenly implications of being a target.  Now we are too casual about the low odds of a strike.

It was the late spring season, and that meant the conditions were highly variable. We considered doing the SkyWalker Couloir, but thought the weather might be too warm for a safe ascent. We resolved to take the easy way up the South Arapahoe Peak and then traverse to the North summit to make an interesting day of it. What we didn’t think about was the possibility of lightning, but that is what we got.

We got our interesting day.

Lightning starts with clouds. The sun heats up the spinning earth in an irregular fashion which results in wind. Air rises when it is warmer than the air above it or is pushed up by winds passing over mountains.  When the air & water vapor mixture rises, it can cool enough to turn water vapor into water droplets (or ice crystals) which becomes visible as clouds.

We started up just before first light from the 4th of July trailhead and quickly made our way up the familiar trail. We turned up the trail to the saddle between South Arapahoe and Baldy, pausing only long enough to longingly examine the Sky Walker route. We assured each other that we’d come back another day to do it.

As we made our way up the south ridge below the summit, we could see fast moving storm clouds north and east of us. But it was very early in the day and cold, and nothing was coming from the west.  We didn’t see any risk to us.

Thunderstorms are a special type of cloud that occur when warm, moist air rises high into the atmosphere, reaching to the freezing temperatures at very high altitudes.  The rising warm air and sinking cool air push around the ice crystal and heavier chunks of ice, which bang into each other creating static electricity.  The lighter-weight, positively charged ice crystals are blown to the top of the cloud while the heavier, negatively charged clumps of ice cluster at the bottom of the cloud. The opposite charges attract each other, and the lightning we see in the clouds is them finding each other.


Mountain Finder plate on summit of South Arapahoe Peak


Once on the summit, we started to notice lightning in those storm clouds.  And then we saw something unusual: those clouds off to the east seemed to be nearer to us than before.  Where they flowing east-to-west?  We didn’t know what to make of it. We wondered aloud to each other concerns about possible risk.

We were tempted to continue since we had come so far and were close to our goal; but our mountaineering ambition had dulled enough over the years to allow for reason to prevail. We decided to bail. While we didn’t understand what was happening, we were smart enough to realize that starting a technical traverse in such conditions would be foolish.

Lightning hitting the ground makes for all the excitement. The negatively charged cloud bottom causes electrons in the ground five thousand feet below to flee (like charges repel each other), resulting in an electric field that we can hear, feel and smell. The electric field is strongest on ground-connected objects whose tops are closest to the base of the thundercloud. If the electric field is strong enough, a conductive discharge (called an upward lightning streamer) can develop from these points and the surrounding air component atoms become separated into positive ions and electrons — the air becomes ionized. This ionized air (also known as plasma) is much more conductive allowing for electric current to flow from the cloud to the positively charged streamer or ground that is seeking electrons. We see this as lightning.

But we still didn’t see any immediate risk, so we didn’t take immediate action. We took a break on the South Arapahoe summit to enjoy more of the day before starting back down the trail at a moderate pace.

Familiarity breeds contempt.  While the rarity of lightning incidents makes it easy to become complacent, sometimes lightning doesn’t miss.  Being hit by lightning is a serious event comparable to a bear or lion attack, resulting in death and life altering injuries. See NOAA’s Medical Aspects of Lightning for more information

I kept looking over my shoulder as I worked my way down the ridge. I could see the storm was getting closer much faster than expected. We were losing the race. I told Brian we needed to go faster.

Then the thunder started to boom.

Once we hear the thunder or feel the cold wind or the sting of crashing hail, the thunderstorm is upon us. Our chance to be safe is lost. We are limited to looking for ways to reduce the risk that we can no longer avoid. And, reacting to lightning once caught out is an uncertain art.

Properly motivated, we started moving as fast as we could as the thunder became louder and louder. And then it was right on top of us. Boom, Boom, BOOM!

The flash-bang separation was very short, one second or less.

When we reached the saddle and good ground, we started running to get to the descent trail that would get us off the exposed ridge.


Our route up South Arapahoe Peak


About 1/2 way across the saddle, it happened.

An explosion went off as I felt a sharp, stinging shock hit the top of my head. Stunned by the noise and the sense that I had been hit by lightning, I stopped running. I didn’t know what to think. I wondered if I was dead.

I turned around to see if Brian would have a look of horror on his face. He merely hollered, “Run!”

I paused for an instant to ponder the problem of my metal hiking poles sticking out of my pack, but seeing Brian disappear down the mountain, I decided to just run like scared cat. I caught Brian in an instant and we flew down 1000 feet in about 10 seconds (felt like); and then the storm was gone.

Once we see or decide that the weather environment is unsafe, our goal for the day must change immediately and permanently to getting to a “safe” shelter.  In the high peaks, that almost always means getting to the vehicle, and the path to safety will often force us to traverse dangerous ground.  Our goal of getting to safety will be achieved by using three strategies:

  1. Move quickly to the vehicle to minimize our exposure to the dangerous environment and
  2. Avoid high lightning risk spots on the trail to reduce exposure to risk and be able to stop and
  3. Become a small target with a single point of ground contact when a lightning strike is imminent.

Going as fast as possible to safety is the most important thing, but it isn’t enough. Avoiding high risk locations means to minimize the chance of injury while moving while allowing us to safely get small when necessary.  Our ability to make fast, correct decisions in juggling these strategies is the key to our continuing health. (See more info about dealing with Imminent Lighting Threats)

We slowed and then stopped to gather our wits and remove our rain gear. I asked Brian if he saw the lightning bolt hit me. He said ‘no’ and I couldn’t find any evidence of burns on my hat or head. But none of that mattered; in the instant I thought I’d been hit by lightning, I was sorry for my casual attitude that allowed me to accept such a risk.  My life was changed forever.

I was hit by a low-power ‘upward lightning streamer

Upward lightning streamers that do not connect with the downward leader to complete a lightning channel are estimated to cause approximately 30% of lightning related injuries.  High-current pulses are launched from the ground (often tall, pointy, isolated objects) near the lightning bolt as it initially approaches the ground. These “streamer currents” are much less powerful than the full lightning strike but can be strong enough to cause injury or death to humans. (more)

I felt lucky to be alive.

And I have dedicated myself to understanding lightning and staying safe in a lightning filled environment like the high peaks of Colorado. In the time since, I’ve identified for my own use five levels of lightning danger for Colorado high peaks: low danger, approaching danger, high danger, extreme danger, and imminent strike.

Below, each category is described with conditions that may be observable or audible, depending on the presence of terrain or wind noise obstructions:

For any of us High Peaks Adventurers, our rational reaction to these levels of danger depend on our willingness to assume lightning risk. The only way to be “safe” is to stay home. But if we insist on proceeding with our risky venture, we can break down the situation into four questions that must be answered; and because we are dealing with uncertainly about deadly risk, the answers will be different for each person:

  1. What risk level am I willing to assume? There is a continuum of reactions we each can take in the face of lightning danger.  On the extreme conservative end, we could choose to never go outside when clouds are in the sky.  On the extreme aggressive end, we could choose to never worry about lightning since it doesn’t seem to hit many people.  The right strategy for most of us is between the two extremes.  (more)
  2. How to plan to avoid lightning? There is no safe haven from lightning atop the high peaks; the only way to be safe is to avoid lightning all together.  Either we stay home on a bad weather day or we start early enough that we can get less exposed before the lightning shows up. (more)
  3. How to read the sky for early warnings? Sometimes the lightning threatens to show up when we are vulnerable, despite our best efforts to avoid it.  But we can only hear thunder 10 miles away or less.  Since an air mass thunderstorm will travel over ground at 15-25 mph, we may have only 20-30 minutes before the storm is overhead (and the worst lightning risk begins).  We need more lead-time; we need to be able to get an early, even if imperfect, indication of when to turn around. (more)
  4. How to reduce the risk when the chance to be safe is lost? If we accept some lightning risk, we should expect to eventually get caught away from safe shelter when the lightning arrives.  Too often, the mountains obscure our view of the horizon and oncoming storms, and the wind noise keeps us from hearing thunder.  When we’ve been caught in a vulnerable position, we need to know what to do reduce the likelihood of being hit or injured by a lightning strike. (more)

The chart below that I’ve created for my own use is based on the advice provided by experts for minimizing lightning risks; the ‘moderate’ level of risk is the only usable information for me. The high-risk option is merely behaviors I have observed and even used before I knew better. I include this level and the low-risk level to provide contrast.


My personal lightning risk management cheatsheet


But please do not take my word for it. Do your own research and make your own decisions; it is your life.

My sources:

(1) NOAA:  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (  NOAA includes the National Weather Service (, JetStream ( and National Severe Storms Laboratory (

(2) NLSI:  National Lightning Safety Institute is a non-profit, non-product advocacy of lightning safety for both people and structures, founded and run by Richard Kithil (

(3) Lightning Safety Group, American Meteorological Society Conference

(4) Mary Ann Cooper, MD, Associate Head of Academic Affairs, Professor, Departments of Emergency Medicine, Neurology and Bioengineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

(5) NOLS:  National Outdoor Leadership School, Backcountry Lightning Safety Guidelines (

To see more more details of what I found for myself, see the following:

Managing Lightning Risk

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The Monte Cristo Creek Cirque

April 28, 2010

On September 1, 2001, I hiked Quandary with my wife, Susan.  We were looking for something easy and I had never done the standard route on Quandary, so we chose it and had a nice hike up.  My only previous visit to Quandary had been up the Monte Cristo couloir and was the scene of the longest sustained glissade I ever had, at least in the 13 years since. Let’s just say I’ve liked Quandary ever since.

While on the summit, I decided to spice things up a bit. I asked Susan if she’d be okay descending alone so I could climb down the west ridge to bag Fletcher Mountain, a Colorado Centennial.  She agreed to meet me in the parking below the Blue Lakes dam, and I started down the ridge.

Almost immediately I was thinking I’d have to bail. The ridge was significantly harder than I expected with a series of ledges with loose rock covered by snow.  And with my non-collapsible ski poles sticking out of my pack trying to push me off the mountain every time I bent down, I had to work hard to avoid the many opportunities for long and short falls along the way. But in between my chances for fame, I was able to notice the beautiful cirque surrounding the Monte Cristo Creek (that fills the Blue Lakes below Quandary).  Since I was about to finish my 2nd peak in the area, I made a mental note to come back and tag all the remaining summits in the Monte Cristo Creek cirque.

I finished the hike to Fletcher and returned down a very pretty valley below Quandary to reach the Blue Lakes dam and my wife.

Two peaks done; four more to go.

My routes up the various peaks in the Monte Cristo Cirque

Monte Cristo Creek Cirque Peaks and Dates Climbed

  1. Quandry Peak (14,265′) – June 14, 1997
  2. Fletcher Mountain (13,951′) – September 1, 2001
  3. North Star Mountain (13,614′) – April 7, 2002
  4. “The Drift” (13,860′) – May 4, 2002
  5. ‘Ol No Name (13,698’) – May 11, 2002
  6. Wheeler Mountain (13,690′) – May 17, 2003

Brian thought it was a fine idea and signed on. Following the 2002 ski season, we decided to get started right away. We figured we’d get it done in 3 weeks, assuming everything went well.

North Star Mountain – April 7, 2002

No Name summit looking toward Wheeler with Lincoln off in the distance

We started with North Star primarily because it is a ridge route.  The idea was to avoid postholing in the early season, unconsolidated snow.  It didn’t work.

We started from Hooser Pass with a plan to stay on the ridge-line which was also the Continental Divide. Fairly quickly that plan proved unviable, and we modified it to simply stay as close to the ridgeline as practicable (and moving left when necessary).  The repeated gaining and losing altitude made the climb more arduous that would be suggested by the short 3 mile approach starting from 11,542′  and only climbing to 13,614.

The descent included a rather poor ski effort over rather poor snow.  I managed to nearly fall off a cornice and tweak my knee, in separate incidents.

The effort took 7.5 hours to cover 6 miles.


A Blowout – April 27, 2002

Brian bundled up for the brutal windstorm. Fletcher in the background.

We returned to the Monte Cristo Creek Cirque in late April after a 2 week detour to bag the nearby Atlantic & Pacific and to make an attempt on Longs. It was a classic case of mountaineering ADD.

Our target for the day was “The Drift”.

We started up Blue Lakes Road around 7am only to find the road blocked about 1/2 way up and hurricane winds in our faces. We pushed on hoping for a break in the winds.

Joe bundled up against the windstorm

Visibility varied between zero and 50 feet, but I knew the way and we made good progress over firm snow. Unfortunately, the higher we got, the stronger the winds got.  The winds would gust up every few minutes and push us to the ground. We made it to the base of Fletcher (13,400′) before we decided to call it off and save our noses.

“The Drift” – May 4, 2002

We came back the following week to settle up with “The Drift”. This time the weather was perfect. The only problem we faced was the many “summits” in the vicinity.  Our approach wandered a bit and took us around to touch the various points that might have been “The Drift”. The descent was worth the trip.  Brian recalls:

We struggled to guess which couloir to take, since all the bumps on the ridge looked the same from below.  There were some places near the top where we were scrambling over nearly dry rock and loose scree

Brian looking for another adventure near the Blue Lakes dam

‘Ol No Name – May 11, 2002

While it wasn’t really on the original list and we were way behind schedule, Brian thought we should the climb the peak we saw just to the south of “The Drift”, in-between Drift and Wheeler. Even though we couldn’t find a name for the thing, it looked higher than Wheeler; I agreed.

On the next trip, this time in May, we took the southern route into the Monte Cristo Creek Basin.  The descent down the dam added an interesting element to the adventure.  Since we approached from the south, we took the southern couloir to the summit to save us from hiking around the east rib.  This led to some interesting scrambling as the snow at the top was soft and melted out in key spots; I had to do some exposed scrambling over loose rocks. Brian recalls:

We hiked up to a minor ridge, then crossed over it into another bowl.  We put on crampons at a point of avalanche debris.  The final part before the summit was extremely steep snow (to me), and I only stayed on it because it was soft enough to punch my arms into it.

Brian admiring an old mining shack below Quandary

But the descent was magnificently steep!

To avoid the willows along the creek on the warmer hike out, we used the central rocky area to travel as far east as we could before descending to complete the hike out on the snow.  But the willows take their toll.  Just the short distance I had to cross was a nightmarish mind and body breaking exercise.  If there is one thing worse than hiking on soft snow, it is hiking on snow covered willows. My sanity was only retained by thoughts of how great the descent had been from the peak.

Unfortunately, this also signaled the end of the Spring snow climbing season for 2002.  The last chunk of rock (and snow), Wheeler, would have to wait until 2003.

Brian standing on a chunk of cornice that had fallen

Wheeler Mountain – May 17, 2003

A year later we remembered to come back.  We chose the NE Couloir to finish off the last peak in the Monte Cristo area, Wheeler.  Starting again on the snow-blocked Blue Lakes road, we again took the southern route. The willows were buried deep and so the hike in and climb started well but soon degraded into a snow-over-loose-rocks misery and then a scary semi-technical rock climb. Brian recalls:

Wheeler was steeper and drier than the others.  We had worked our way around the back side, and went up a 40-ft low-angle dihedral, stemming ski boots on rock edges, and hooking the self-arrest poles on holds.

The tiny summit and great views tipped the scales back to the good.  The fun, scary descent down the NW couloir solidified the day into a great experience.

And we were done.  We’d climbed all the peaks in the Monte Cristo Creek Cirque. And it only took 2 years.

Overall, bagging the peaks in the Monte Cristo Creek Cirque was an enjoyable experience. The unexpected pleasure was our getting to know the terrain so well that it felt like a backyard: the terrain, trails, and, to a lesser extent, the weather became less wild and even friendly.

It still reminds me of what Edward Whymper said about preferring to climb favorite mountains again and again because they become like old friends. I couldn’t agree more.

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The UnTolled Story

March 15, 2010

It has been many years, but I can still remember my first visit to the summit of Green Mountain in the Boulder foothills in 1996 when I discovered the “mountain finder” placed at the summit by the Colorado Mountain Club in 1926.  At the time, I only knew Longs Peak and Mt. Meeker, and learning the names of the visible peaks inspired a longing to explore them all.  I was so happy to have moved to Colorado.

One peak was noteworthy for not being listed.  It had a marker aimed at it, but did not have a name listed; I wondered why and vowed to find out. Unfortunately, my energy for the quest did not last, but, at least, the question did not fade from my memory.

Indian Peaks Wilderness (most of it anyway).

In December, 2003, I was led by the nose to discover that the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area was a wonderful playground even closer to my home than my beloved RMNP. Naturally, I had heard of the Indian Peak and even noticed that many peaks in that area had Indian tribe names, but I was too busy with RMNP and other pursuits to worry about a bunch of 13ers.  But when Brian and I were looking for some new terrain after 7 years of RMNP fun, Brian suggested Mt Audubon for a moderate hike we could do in winter.

And so a new habit began.

After Audubon, the ski season intervened to delay our return until April, when we did Apache via the Apache couloir (a Roach “classic” — 1000 feet of 45 degree snow).  Hiking in and on the summit, we were amazed at the incredible climbing opportunities all around.  Driven to do them as soon as possible, we returned the next week to climb Shoshoni via Pawnee Pass.  On Pawnee Pass, we noticed a perfect looking little peak that sat in between Pawnee Pass and Paiute.  It was time to buy a guidebook; and for our next visit, we would target Mt Toll.

Mt. Toll is described as a “classic” alpine route reaching a 13er summit by Roach (author of the Indian Peaks Guidebook).  His opinion has long carried weight with me in his other books.  Plus, there aren’t many of this type of route and we both were excited about some more high altitude climbing.

The next weekend we went up to Blue Lake below Mt Toll with our rock gear and found we couldn’t get to Mt Toll without snow climbing gear. We decided to use the day to go up Paiute instead.  To reach the Paiute summit, Brian had to lead a pitch across steep, hard snow using just his nut tool while kicking marginal creases in the hard snow for footholds. It was spectacularly stupid.  He made it.

As we sat on the Paiute summit and admired the ridge to Audubon and the spectacular North Ridge of Mt Toll, I still didn’t put two and two together.  I still didn’t know how close I was to the answer of my Green Mountain question from 8 years earlier.

Mt. Toll via the North Ridge – A Classic Alpine Rock Route

Sunday, July 11, 2004 was the day we set aside for our 2nd attempt.

We set off at 3am from Boulder, heading up to Nederland and then to the Indian Peaks entrance.  In the pitch dark, we found a parking spot right at the Mitchell Lake TH and began hiking at 4:15am.

The progress was fast, but slippery (icy) and dark.  I took two full out (laying flat on the ground) spills; one fall skinned and bruised my left knee, tore off a part of my right thumbnail, skinned my right forearm, and hurt like hell.  That fall pissed me off so much that I cursed out loud at the dark sky and icy ground.

We arrived at Blue Lake at first light and then scrambled to the ridgeline toward Paiute before hiking back to Toll. We arrived at the base of the climb around 7am.

A view of Mt Toll from Mt Audobon.  Photo from summer visit to Mt Audobon; background removed to highlight Mt Toll.

We had scouted out the route on the earlier trip and continued to study the “go directly up the ridge” instructions provided by Mr. Roach.  We decided to start to the right of the ridge, following a shallow ramp to a narrow ledge. And, since the descent went down the other side of Mt Toll, we couldn’t stash anything. We had to do the rock climbing while carrying our packs full of headlamps, water, food, and anything else we forgot to take out from previous trips. Fun.

Brian led the first pitch.  When I arrived at the belay, he was shivering in the shade and wind.  The start to my pitch was to traverse left along the ledge toward the North Ridge.  Upon reaching the ridge, I found the sun, shelter from the wind, and a great line.  I brought Brian over to save his misery, and then I started straight up the line.


Mt Toll North Ridge close-up

The first portion involved climbing up into a dihedral, and then escaping left before the grade became difficult.  The climbing then followed a vague line with easy but awkward climbing, simply staying with the easiest terrain.  Along the way I found and used (with backup) an old piton.  My pitch did not quite get to the “big ledge”.  I found a secure anchor that allowed me to sit comfortably in the sun on top of a big block to belay Brian.

Brian took us to the big ledge that traverses right (SW) to gullies for a 4th class ascent to the summit.  Brian had other ideas.

Pinnacle on North Ridge (Brian’s Variation). This piece of the ridge can be seen near the top of Mt Toll in the North Ridge close-up photo.

Brian had been thinking that continuing up the ridge line would be the more elegant way to finish.  We found a couple alternatives, one or more even looked do-able.  Brian picked the most unlikely line:  a start on the left side of the ridge (20 feet left) with a traverse under a roof with good pro (small cams) and poor hand-holds (but good feet).  We made it, and continued up the ridge-line (Brian estimated 5.8, but I thought it was harder).

Brian kept his pitch short to stay within earshot of me (the line turned around a corner into the wind).  It looked as though we were near the top, but we weren’t.  I topped out on the ridgeline after about 30 feet and found a rather large gap between the mini-summit I was on and the real summit of Mt. Toll.  I down climbed carefully and then ascended the far side to find a belay at about the same level as the top of the ridge.  Since I had not placed gear during the descent/ascent of the gap, the rope stretched across the gap like we were setting up a Tyrolean traverse.  I was later sorry not to get a photo of Brian as he popped up on top of the false summit….it was a great image.

Brian quickly scrambled up and we climbed the last 30 feet of elevation to the summit.  There we found 6 people lounging in the wind break after having come up the South face (a walk up) after coming over Pawnee Pass.  We reached the summit at 11:30am.res

After a quick break and change of shoes, we scrambled and glissaded down the talus and snow slopes to the area just west of Blue Lake, arriving at 12:15pm.  Here we rested and ate lunch.  An hour later we were in the 4Runner and heading home after another great day in the Rocky Mountain.

And, still, it was not until several weeks later when pointing out to my wife the Indian Peaks off in the distance that I realized that Mt Toll was the unnamed peak.  And years later, I still have a special place in my heart for Mt Toll whenever I spot it on the horizon.

Our passion for the Indian Peaks persisted for two years, during which time most of the remaining Indian Peaks summits would fall beneath our boots.

But until recently, I didn’t know how Mt. Toll got its name among the Indian tribe-named peaks. I’d read that the Ute tribe name was rejected for one of the peaks due to already being used to name many geographic features in Colorado. Perhaps it was the proposed Mt. Ute that was instead named Mt Toll, but I don’t know.  As far the name, Mt. Toll, I originally thought the name came from Henry W. Toll, a Colorado Senator from 1922-1930; then Brian told me one of his books indicates Mt Toll was named after Roger W. Toll, (the brother of Henry) a charter member of the Colorado Mountain Club and superintendent of RMNP (and Yellowstone & Mt Rainer).  It turns out that the Toll family in Colorado goes back to 1875 and produced several prominent leaders who were also mountaineers.

It seems that Mt Toll is well named.

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Dog Star on McHenrys Peak

February 18, 2010

Brian dug deeply into his copy of Rossiter’s High Peaks book of RMNP alpine climbs and found Dog Star (5.8).   When Brian introduced the idea, I was interested right away because I had long wanted to climb McHenrys Peak.  And I love the adventure of climbing up a big alpine wall; Dog Star is recommended in multiple guide books.  But this trip is documented here due to the epic nature of the climb, only partially caused by illness.

“Dog Star:  it’s a bit of both.”  … overall assessment put in writing by me on the following day

We started hiking from the old Glacier Gorge parking lot @ 4am expecting to make our normal fast pace, but I was off.  My body just wouldn’t cooperate with my cerebral wishes and its own best interests; but I suppose losing some of my altitude tolerance (spending 5 of 7 days in Atlanta for the last 3 months) and failing to get a minute of sleep the night before was just too much for my old body.

I hiked as fast as I could (read: slow), and we reached Black Lake a little after sunrise, around 6:30am.  We took our normal shortcut toward Arrowhead from Black Lake and worked our way up to the large triangular buttress that dominates McHenry’s northeast face.  At 7:30am, we stopped a few hundred yards below the face to study the rock and find our bearings.  While Brian studied, I slept.

Dog Star on McHenrys Peak

Once we started, it felt like we were off-route half the time.  And it wasn’t just me (sleepy head). We both seemed to spend much of the day figuring out where we were and trying to get back to the route.  Occasionally, we felt we were doing it right; but in the end, we were just glad to make it to the top.

It was good rock, except for the plant life; we just had to follow our nose and hope we didn’t dead-end.  “Faith” can be hard to come by, but without it, this day would have ended much sooner.

Our route up Dog Star. Pitches correspond to description below. Edited from Gillett original

Pitch 1: I started on a wide crack for 50 feet, then recognized a key feature to my right and traversed to get back on route; climbed up a giant detached flake and belayed on a ledge below a hard dihedral


Pitch 2: Brian climbed the dihedral, requiring a hard pull over the lip without holds. He then turned a bulge on his left (route description seemed to point to right bulge) and belayed at ledge above the bulge.

Pitch 3: It was my turn, but I was feeling nauseated.  Brian climbed up a slabby section to a ledge

Pitch 4: Determined to feel better, I started up a curving ramp and reacquired the correct route (I believe).  I belayed at big flake and felt bad enough to think death would be better.

Pitch 5: Brian climbed up a ramp to the right and continued around the bulge to his right and then up another right leaning ramp.  He belayed beneath a big roof & dihedral

Pitch 6:  Brian took a couple falls trying to free climb the bushy, mossy and, in addition, technically difficult roof.  It was rated 5.8, but I’ll eat my computer if that is accurate. He resorted to aiding it so we didn’t have to spend the rest of our lives there.

Brian recalls:

I angled up to the left on thin moves including a finger crack that held a solid cam.  It looked like there was a ledge above that, but when I pulled my head up over the edge, it was actually sloping quite a bit.  The finger crack was full of dirt and moss at that point.  I fell trying to pull over the edge, and after that we were a bit demoralized.  I stood on the cam to get onto the sloping ledge.  After that were some roof moves.  I remember that they actually had good holds and thinking that we could have free climbed them on a good day.  But after the fall, I just wanted to be done with the pitch.

Pitch 7: Brian led a rope length of hard, steep rock that took a bit of wandering to find the easiest climbing.

Pitch 8: Brian continued up the steep section to reach a left-leaning ledge, which he followed to reach the top of the ridge.  The correct route works straight up from the ledge, but I was ready to use a parachute to get off the rock.

Brian looks up at Dogstar with Longs, Pagoda & Chiefs Head in background

At the top, Brian waited for me to announce a decision on proceeding to the summit.  I hate missing out on a summit when I am so close, but I bailed.  If my leg was off, I would have tried. But nausea is an unfightable affliction. And I must have looked bad, too, because Brian took some of my half of the gear weight.

Heading downhill made me feel better, if only psychologically.  We worked down to Stone Man Pass, and then down the gully to reach the base of the climb.

It was over except for the clean up (the boring hike out).  We had done it, sort of.  I regretted missing out on McHenrys Peak’s summit, but I knew I’d come back eventually (in 2 years, actually: see McHenrys At Last).

We got back to the parking lot at 6:30pm for a 14.5 hour effort.

I cannot say I recommend Dog Star or mountain sickness.  But if only for the great memories, I do recommend aiming high.  A bit of suffering seems to make all the difference.

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Much Ado About Nothing on Chiefs Head

February 16, 2010

For eight years, one of the most significant rock formation in RNMP had stared us in the face every time we’ve ventured into Glacier Gorge, and yet, we’d never thought to venture onto its features.  Primarily, our lack of attention was due to the very long approach, but in some important way, its forbidding and committing look was also a deterrent.

The guidebooks didn’t paint a rosy picture, either.  Rossiter’s guidebook says…

The Northwest Face of Chiefs Head is one of the finest alpine walls in the contiguous United States.  The immense and unusally smooth oval face rises a thousand feet…and is home to some very aesthetic and very hairy routes.  All of the routes have long runouts and no fixed anchors[.] In the event of storm…it is very difficult to escape.

Plus, all the routes seemed to be 5.11X or 5.12R, so our attention was rightly elsewhere.  But one day, Brian sends me an email:


How about “Much Ado About Nothing”.  This is about the only climb on Chiefshead that isn’t 5.10 or above.  It’s way right of the big wall, and has five pitches, with the last one 5.8.


My thoughts were along the lines of: Heck yeah!  Only 5.8, really?  Why haven’t we done it before now?  And we can bag another Chiefs Head summit! I responded via email with agreement and a question about the descent.  Brian replied:


Descent may be most interesting part.  Stoneman could be done, but it would be a long way back to pick up packs.  Rositer recommends rapping down his Birds of Prey route, but first you have to find it.  And find it empty.  The third choice is a third class route much closer than Stoneman. Finding that route could be valuable knowledge.

Forgot to mention:  this climb gets no star in the book.  But I thought it would be worth it to do something on that mountain.


I wondered about the “no star” thing, but was already enthusiastic about the climb. They say, ignorance is bliss, at least for a while.  Soon, we’d find out just how wise it is to be afraid of Chiefs Head’s Northwest Face.  We find out just how hard Chiefs Head climbs really are, even a mere 5.8 route.

The Story

On the morning of August 23, 2003, we caught the 5am shuttle bus (earliest available) to travel up Bear Lake road as we set out for the far end of Glacier Gorge. We had to hike approximately 7 miles and over 3,000 vertical feet just to reach the start of the climb:  we hiked up past Black Lake, over the north shoulder of Spearhead, past Frozen Lake and beneath the west face of Spearhead, and then we scrambled up a rocky shelf before crawling up the snowy talus to reach the northwest face of Chiefs Head.  Then, we turned west and climbed up the snowy ramp to reach the base of the climb.  It was a brutal 3.5 hours; and we hadn’t even started the climb.

Our route plus alternative descent routes from Chiefs Head

Prior to reaching the base of the climb, we stopped for a moment of study while we could still see the entire wall.  The key was the figure of a head that would guide us to know where to start and where to aim during the initial pitches.  We were looking at shadowy patches trying to find one that looked like a head; Brian claimed to be able to see an “Indian’s head” but I could not.  But with a target in hand, we finished the approach.  Just before 9am, we started up the Much Ado About Nothing route on Chiefs Head’s Northwest Face.

Pitch 1

I took the first pitch and climbed over steep, broken ground that was supposed to end at the base of a “head” I could not see.  I could do no more than take out as much rope as I could and find a good spot to belay.

Pitch 2

Brian took the second pitch, following huge broken flakes that provided small left-facing dihedrals on their left side.  He finished over some easy ledges and belayed at the base of a left leaning ramp.  At this time we noticed that the weather was worsening; our view west was blocked, but the sky above was clouding up and darkening.  We knew we had to hurry since the crux was still ahead.

Pitch 3

I took the third pitch which was to climb the ramp leading up and left angling toward a big dark roof that stretched for more than a pitch as it arched left.  To save some time on an easier section, we decided to simul-climb. Using the ramp to travel diagonally under the  roof started out easy, but then steepened.

And then the rain started.  It was a only a drizzle, but now we were in it.  It was approximately 12pm.

The crux of the climb was still ahead; I knew we had to get past the slabby crux before the lichen turned into grease.  I put in a quick belay with about 1/2 a pitch of the roof remaining so Brian and I could put on our rain jackets. We then moved the belay to below the crux pitch so Brian could race the weather past the crux.

Pitch 4

Just as Brian arrived at the end of the ramp, the rain began again in earnest.  We could see the next ramp approximately 30 feet above us; Brian had to get there before the rock became unclimbable as well as unprotectable (a slab).  He started quickly but soon slowed as the  rock was quickly getting slick.

As I sat in the freezing rain, I could feel the water soak thorugh my rain jacket.  As I watched Brian slowly working his way up, hoping he wouldn’t take a long fall, and as I got colder and colder as my clothes became more and more wet, I came to understand just how important it is to have proper gear when venturing into hard to escape terrain.  Apparently, my windproof, water resistant, insulated and wonderfully packable North Face jacket was not up to the challenge of a real Alpine adventure.  I was going to suffer terribly as a result.

Brian decided to stop before the ramp, but after the hard section, to allow me to get past the crux before it became too wet.  But it was too late, the rock was completely drenched, and I was certain I could not climb the rock.  I was mentally prepared to “fall up” over the slick rock.

And it was like climbing a greased slope, but 3 points of contact allowed me to cling to the rock like a spider in the shower.  Once I reached Brian, we quickly moved the belay up to the ramp so we could figure out where we were.

Pitch 5

We were very confused because, according to the information we had collected, we should be at the summit ridge already.  But there was no summit ridge in sight.  It turned out that Rossiter’s topo only showed the unbroken portion of rock that was set into and below the full NW face.  We didn’t have any certain knowledge or clue as to how to get to the summit ridge.

All we could do was follow the ramp we were on and then follow our noses to try to find the rappel anchors or at worst take the summit ridge down to either Stone Man Pass or find the mysterious “broken ramp” that Rossiter described as an ascent route to the right of the Much Ado About Nothing route.  But first things first.

I took the lead for a simul-climb of the ramp.  After a couple hundred feet with no rap anchors or anything else looking promising, I found a right leaning ramp that promised to intercept the ridge as it sloped down. Desperate for any escape, I abandoned the search for rap anchors and took the right leaning ramp.  It went, and I was able to piece together a climb off the face.

Yes!  We made it.

While I was sopping wet and freezing cold, I now had control over my fate; I knew that I knew how to get home.  I just needed to escape Glacier Gorge before it got dark; it was approximately 3pm.

Much Ado About Nothing route plus descent. Photo from Longs Peak of Chiefs Head edited to highlight Chiefs Head features by removing other peaks (e,g,m Mt. Alice) from the background.



Shivering with no hope of getting warm, I had no intention of continuing to the Chiefs Head summit.  I wouldn’t have done it even if I had never stood on top of Chiefs Head.  I felt that my life was in play and wanted to take no unnecessary chances.

Brian thought he could find the gully that Rossiter described as an ascent route; from a safety, time & energy management perspective, we desperately wanted to avoid going all the way around to and down Stone Man pass.  We hiked down the much of the NW Ridge to find a likely big gully to descend.  It was more like a series of steep gullies that would work for 40 feet, then we would have to find ledge that would allow us to traverse to another gully.

We kept trying to turn back to the east where the climb started, but each time all we could see was a difficult ledge heading east and then a rock rib would prevent us from seeing whether the ledge continued.  Brian said it reminded him of Pyramid Peak.

Eventually Brian found a ledge that led out to the biggest rib, and from there he could see the start of the climb, and sloping, rubble-covered ramps leading down to it.  We scrambled down and followed it until the terrain started to break up; a path to the right appeared and we took it, hoping it would lead to the snowy ramp we started on.

We had to retrace our steps a couple times as we’d cliff out, and then we split up to double our chances of finding an escape path.  Eventually Brian found a path through tumble that worked.

It was approximately 5pm.  Three hours of light left.

We packed up our gear and headed down as fast as we could manage.  We were going to get caught out by darkness; it was only a question of how much hard hiking we had to do in the dark without headlamps.

We retraced our steps so not to introduce any new variables, and we made it to within a quarter mile of the Bear Lake road before it became too dark to see what we were doing.  Since the buses ran until 10pm, we took our time creeping in the dark to find the Bear Lake road.  Once there, we started downhill and found a small group of people standing by the road.  We confirmed that it was the bus stop and then we layed down on the pavement to wait for its arrival.  We had spent our last ounce of energy.

We made it.  We had hiked 15 miles, and climbed nearly 4,000′ in over 15.5 hours.  And this time we had overcome serious route finding problems, freezing rain, and one serious case of rain gear stupidity to make it home once again.

It was a glorious adventure.

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McHenrys At Last!

February 10, 2010

I had been looking at McHenrys Peak with great desire for many years and had been close twice, but had never quite set out to bag it.  And McHenrys is not a peak to climb on a whim, or is it?


Close but no cigar on McHenry


Close but no cigar:

  1. Spring Climb of Stone Man Pass; no thought of trying for summit
  2. Rock climb of Dog Star route (climbs the center of triangular buttress on McHenrys NE face); ran out of time for attempt on summit

On June 2, 2002, Brian and I decided to visit Stone Man Pass for a bit of exercise.  We didn’t think we’d move fast enough or weather would stay good long enough to do more.  But we were mistaken.

We left the parking lot at 6am and hiked 5 miles to Black Lake by 8am.  The trail was in good shape even though it was mostly snow covered.


Looking toward Chiefs Head from above Black Lake


We decide to take a shortcut to the pass by heading directly toward Arrowhead, and by 10am we reached the bottom of the snowfield reaching toward Stone Man Pass.  This snow was also in good shape and we reach the top of the pass at 11am.

The conditions had allowed us to finish early; and the weather was too good to think about going home.  While resting at the pass we looked around for something interesting.

I looked to the summit of McHenrys, but hesitated.  I thought it looked hard, even technical.  But it was on the top of my wish list, so eventually I suggested we give it a go; Brian agreed.


Looking back down toward the Stoneman from McHenrys


We didn’t have any route info aside from a vague memory Brian held of a descent of the route some years before (after climbing NE ridge), and snow covered anything that might look like a trail or a trail marker. We figured we’d just wander on up and see what we can see.  I didn’t have any concerns, at least not at first.


Our ascent (red) and descent (green) routes. Photo taken from climb of Chiefs Head.


We wandered low to get around the first major buttress, and then went straight up the gully toward the summit.  This path worked fine until near the top where the climbing got hard.  It was big blocks and pillars that we had to climb up and around; I’d call it 4th class in spots.  It was 5th class if not careful; I was not careful.

I got stuck on a ledge with no good way off.  I had made hard-to-reverse moves to gain the ledge thinking that I could escape it; but the only move I found was a dynamic one that would be fatal if I missed the mark.  I just didn’t like it in my Makalus, so I just kept looking for anything else; and perhaps just delaying the inevitable.

To my delight (and relief), I found a less risky move and took it.  A short while later, I joined Brian on the summit.


Brian atop McHenrys enjoying the spectacular views of Longs, Pagoda & Chiefs Head


It is far better than any summit in RMNP; completely awe-inspiring. The valley floor drops away dramatically from all sides.  It is a must climb.


Our routes on McHenrys Peak; Red for ascent, Green for descent.


The decent was easier and exhilarating.  We found a better path on the way down (isn’t it always so?) to Stone Man Pass and then glissaded down from Stone Man Pass and later down the bench below Arrowhead to reach the Black Lake area.

Another 2 hours of hiking got us back to the car for an 11 mile, 11 hour round trip.

It was a great day!

But I don’t recommend climbing McHenrys Peak on a whim.  It is a peak that deserves respect, and some preparation.


The long trek to Stone Man Pass & McHenrys Peak


See Solitude Lake Cirque for another route up McHenrys

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The Casco Fiasco

February 5, 2010


On October 12, 2002, Mark Muto and I attempted Casco (13908′), Frasco BM (13876′) and French (13940′) via the Casco-French Mountain Ridge Traverse.  We succeeded in summiting on Casco and Frasco BM but had to retreat just 300 feet below the French Mountain summit.  We hiked a total of 11 miles and gained approximately 4,400 feet in 14 hours.

The hours lost route-finding in the snow ate too deeply into the season-shortened day-light, forcing us to not only miss out on French, but also to hike back to camp in the dark for 1.5 hours on icy trails with only our wits and the fading yellow light of a single dying headlamp to guide us.

Our plan was too aggressive, given the poor conditions.  And I made a rash decision that cost me the French Mountain summit.

The Story

On a rare bonus trip, Mark returned to Colorado from Chicago after only 3 months for more mountain abuse (earlier that year we did the 14ers:  Sunshine, Redcloud & Handies).  I wanted to bag more 14ers, but eventually chose French Mountain due to proximity, knowledge about trail access, and sweet revenge (see explanation below).

How I failed to climb French Mountain on my first attempt

Failed Attempt #1 on French Mountain.

During Labor Day weekend in 2001, my wife and I set out to climb French Mountain.  Using a Dawson’s 14er guidebook info for Elbert & Massive, I pieced together a driving and hiking route for French Mountain. This poor base of information combined with missing signs and early morning thinking to mislead me into driving to the North Halfmoon Trailhead instead of stopping at the South Halfmoon Trailhead.

Despite the features not quite matching what I expected, they were close enough to allow me to believe I was in the right place (e.g., larger peak off to the SE, trail running SW following a creek, a mine at the end of the road) until it was too late. While I suspected I was not in the right place, it was not until I reached the summit of ‘Ol Unnamed 400’ short of the proper altitude that I knew for certain that I had screwed up.

I was angry at myself for not being more careful, and I vowed to atone for that error.

With Roach’s new (2001) 13er book in hand, I was able to quickly identify all the high 13er peaks in the area, and my desire to be efficient in collecting all the high 13ers led me to expand the day’s peak bagging goals. I broadened the plan to also include summiting on the Casco and Frasco BM on a traverse of the Casco-French ridge. But I should have been more focused on needs of the entire team.

Mark was a knowledgeable, but lightly experienced mountain climber; he was not in a position to know what set of goals/plans were possible & safe for him. He counted on me, as the more experienced climber, to pick a good & safe route.  In the past, when Mark couldn’t finish due to illness or exhaustion, the “out and back” route plan allowed for him to simply wait for me to return.  But on a “lollipop” route (stem with a loop on the end) with no escape routes, he HAD to finish the loop part of the route or retreat back to the start of the loop on his own if we were to separate.

It was a bad plan, especially in light of the variable conditions of the post-summer.

Leader Rule

In groups with unequal levels of experience, the most experienced person leads the group and is responsible for the safety of everyone in the group.

Day 1

I picked up Mark at DIA at 3pm on Friday, October 11 and we set off toward Leadville.  We arrived at the Halfmoon campground around 5:30pm. Using Roach’s 13ers guidebook and a bit of deductive reasoning led us to the Halfmoon Creek Trailhead. The mileages didn’t seem to work and the signage was a bit different; but with my past (painful) experience in the area, we worked it out.

The creek water level was low enough for us to drive across the creek.  We made camp 100 feet up the road on a nice flat area with ample parking.  With just enough daylight to finish, we set up camp, prepared and ate dinner, and packed for the morning’s activities.  Once in the tent, Mark and I played a few hands of gin (5-0 for Joe) and then turned in for the inevitable terrible night’s sleep.

Day 2

Alarms buzzing at 5:45am, we crawled out into the cold darkness.  I asked Mark to save me a little hot water to warm my stomach as a chaser to my food bar.  After a cup of hot water (did I say “a little”?) and a ½ liter of nearly frozen water, I was as ready as I was going to be and we set off toward the Iron Mike Mine. It was approximately 6:40pm.

We set a fairly brisk pace up South Halfmoon road.  I am always surprised how fast Mark can hike during the initial hours of our adventures, since he lives at a 500 foot elevation and, as usual, had only 12 hours to acclimate; but, there would be a price to pay later.  The road slides up between the north ridges of French and Elbert (only 2 miles apart), but darkness and trees limited the views.  We arrived at the end of the driveable road (1/4 mile from the Iron Mike Mine ruins) at 8am, and could see that there was a lot more snow than we hoped. But at least the weather of the day, while cold, was perfectly clear and windless; Project French Mountain was a go!

The normal route (what Roach calls the “Francisco Classic”) begins

  1. North to the saddle (“Friscol”) below the South slopes of French Mountain, summits on French and returns to the saddle
  2. Traverses WSW to Frasco BM, where it turns SW toward “Fiascol” (the saddle between Frasco and Casco)(descent possible below Frasco BM)
  3. Follow the ridge south to Casco staying on or near the ridge line (no descent options)
  4. From Casco, turn SE and again follow the ridge to a descent via the NE slopes
  5. Complete the circle with a hike back to the road

But given the snow conditions and Mark’s probable level of fitness, I didn’t think this was the way for us to go. The standard route felt risky due to limited escape options on the 2nd half of the ridge traverse.   Although I was late to being thoughtful, I reasoned it would be smarter to reverse the route and do the part with available escape option last, which would coincide with the time of day we’d need options for retreat due to darkness or exhaustion.

Our route sequence. Each numbered step corresponds to the description below.

Step 1

We turned south to mount the Casco ridge.  Since we could not tell where the “NE Slopes” route was beneath the snow, we just headed straight up the slope.

The new snow was soft and deep enough to cause miserable hiking over unseen, loose scree.  We stumbled over the increasingly steep terrain and climbed to the ridge with far more difficulty that expected.  But Mark was continuing to move well; he even beat me to the ridge.

Step 2

Once on the ridge, we turned toward Casco.  The hike up to the Casco summit was fairly easy as the snow was mostly clear of that part of the ridge (there was sharp contrast between the snow covered northerly facing slopes and the nearly snow-less southerly facing slopes).  Arriving at the summit around noon, we stopped for lunch and a view.

From our rock bench, we could see La Plata to the south so clearly that we reminisced about a trip on La Plata a few years back.  One that day, the very deep and soft snow made for an exhausting effort just to reach the peak.  Mark made it to just below the north ridge when he began a vomiting and limb-jerking fit that cost him the summit.  We could see the precise spot on the ridge where he waited for Brian, Larry and me to return down the ridge.  He tells me on every visit how he wants to go back to La Plata and erase that defeat.

The memory of that experience reminded me to mentioned to Mark that if we had any doubt about finishing the traverse, we should retreat now; there would be no escape for many hours otherwise.  He wouldn’t hear of it.

Step 3

As we started down toward Frasco BM, the generally northern facing ridge was as bad as I feared.  Since the ridge is the only option, we hesitated only momentarily. And, almost as quickly, we were stopped.  Sixty feet from the summit, we could not find a good line down the ridge.

We hunted around for cairns (none) or routes below the ridge (none).  I told Mark that I would proceed ahead to try to force my way down the ridge.  I started carefully (and slowly) working my way down over icy rock and into a snow-filled, narrow gully.  A slip on this sequence of moves meant an 800′ tumble into the basin; I moved as carefully as a barefoot person escaping the kitchen after breaking a glass.  Once in the gully, I scooted down on my butt for 25 feet to a steep 5-foot drop, over which I executed a controlled fall to reach the bottom.  It led to a flat area and good terrain for a good ways ahead.

I called back to Mark that the route worked, but required his full attention; he followed and we had just spent 30 minutes to gain 150 feet. And, at that point, I didn’t think we could go back safely anymore; my exact thought was , “We cannot go back now; if we have to retreat we’re screwed.”

And then, after only another 100 feet, we were stopped again.  The icy conditions on the ridge proper made for a slip-n-slide to death.  We checked out every option twice and concluded that we had no choice but to descend down the east side of the ridge to skirt the dangerous section. We donned our crampons and traversed the steep east slope for 100 feet.  The snow was unconsolidated, but we were able to feel around with our feet to find rock holds under the snow. With axes nearly useless in 6 inches of loose snow over loose rock, we used our hands to dig beneath the snow for holds.

This process got us to another good part of the ridge where could make good time with hand-free hiking.  After a couple hundred feet of good ground, the ridge sloped downward dramatically toward what appeared to be a drop-off.  My heart sank.

Step 4

With the pattern of increasingly dangerous terrain and conditions, I couldn’t imagine how we could work our way down the ridge this time.  And since daylight was running short, I felt a strong urgency to just do something…so I made a rash decision.  Rather than go as far as I could to see what was really possible, I just decided to assume it wouldn’t go and instead just work down one of the western rock & snow gullies and find a way over to the west side of the Fiasco Col (“Fiascol”).  I knew it would be a significant detour that would certainly eat up most of the remaining daylight, but I was at least certain that it would work; I wouldn’t waste any time gathering information and thinking about what to do.

It was a poor decision born of stress.  I should have gathered the easily available information that would have made a better decision possible. I should have gone as far as possible along the ridge to be sure we really needed a dramatically different course of action.

Jumping to Conclusions Fallacy

“Dicto Simpliciter” (jumping to conclusions) is an inductive reasoning fallacy defined by making sweeping statements or not bothering to gather sufficient data to validate conclusions.

The long detour involved a down climb of several hundred feet through steep, loose rock and snow, a traverse of several hundred feet and a re-climb (via snow and rock) to the top of Fiasco Col, which we reached around 4pm.  The ridge might have been even harder, but I didn’t bother to find out before committing to an irreversible and time-consuming course of action. It took us 4 hours to travel 0.3 miles from the summit of Casco to the top of Fiasco Col.

Step 5

Looking back to toward Casco Peak and Fiascol

After regaining the ridge at the top of Fiascol, we stopped for a rest and to finish the rest of our water. I also took a moment to look up at the ridge line we just avoided.  With our crampons and axes, we could have descended in about 30 minutes. But thinking about past mistakes was a task for later.

We were still in harm’s way, and the daylight was running out.  We needed to summit Frasco-Benchmark since it was on the way to the only safe retreat route, and, if it was possible, I still wanted to bag French.

I was still feeling good, and was in fact fairly energized by the need to move quickly. Unfortunately, Mark was running out of steam.

Mark announced that he wasn’t sure he could continue; after a brief pause, I mentioned that we had to get to Frasco BM to get to a safe descent.  I also reminded him that we only had a couple hours of light left and our headlamps were stashed by the road.  Mark dug deep and we started up the ridge toward Frasco BM.

There was little snow on this part of the climb, but we still had to pick our way through the rocks and around the towers along the ridge.  To save time and Mark’s energy, I moved ahead to find the best path, signalling to Mark which way to go.  This process allowed us to make decent time reaching the Frasco BM summit and access to the Frascol escape route.  My plan at this point was to let Mark descend the route below Frasco BM while I continued over to French before joining Mark at the Iron Mike Mine.

Step 6

From the summit of Frasco BM, I thought the escape route looked too steep for a tired climber to descend safely.  I told Mark that I thought continuing along the ridge would be better for him.  I was thinking that the remaining bit of ridge was an easy hike, and, if we moved fast enough, I could still bag French before dark.

But he insisted with the plan to descend immediately; I suppose he was feeling worse than he looked. Before he started down, I bargained with him by saying we’d stay together on the easy terrain to reach Friscol which would be a safe descent. At this point, I really was expecting the remaining traverse to be easy (I had spied it from Casco’s ridge).  And I continued to hold a faint hope for having time to run up & down French before dark.

He paused and asked me how I knew the terrain was easy.  I said I viewed it earlier in the day and that I would confirm it.  I climbed the tower blocking our view of the ridge and could see that I was wrong.  The remaining ridge was a rocky and snowy scramble involving a fair amount of route finding and the occasional hard move – not an easy walk.  I felt my opportunity to bag French Mountain disappear like a hamburger left within reach of a Basset hound named Bella.

For some reason, Mark stilled agreed to go with me; and we moved together toward Friscol & French Mountain.  In a comical sort of way, it was a tortoise race: the sun crept toward the horizon while we slowly worked over the ridge.  We reached Friscol at 6pm; with a 6:30pm sunset, we had only minutes of daylight remaining.

Nearing the end of our traverse, a view back toward Casco Peak. Our route is marked in red.

Step 7

I looked up the 300 feet to the French summit in frustration, but knew I had no choice.  We used the tongues of snow in the col to glissade most of the way to the basin.  Glissading in October is a pleasant surprise, but the low temperature and late hour left the snow a bit rough on the pants.  The day’s “butt work” left holes in my britches.  After a fair bit of postholing to get through the basin, we reached the road and our stashed gear & water at 7pm, eleven hours after we left it.

The water had been blessed by the Sun during the day, and it was still fairly warm.  It tasted like liquid gold (read:  good).  All that was left was for us to make it back to camp.

Step 8

After a short break, we set off down the road to the feeble glow of a 3/8’s waxing moon and dying embers of the sun. As we neared the trees we could no longer see our footing, so we stopped to pull out our headlamps, only to find that mine was DOA and Mark’s was dying.

What a day!

Lightless, I was a slave to Mark’s weak headlamp, which bobbed around like it was attached to a bobblehead doll.  And shortly after, watching Mark sit on the ground suddenly and then performing my own twisting-and-jerking-like-a-bee-swarm-victim dance to avoid the same fate, I came to understand that the trail was icy.

After a bit of learning, we discovered how to spot ice in dim light; it was my best performance of the day.

Another 1.5 hours and it was over. Tired as we were, we still needed to change into dry clothing, prepare and consume food and water, and pack for the morning drive to the airport.  We completed our duties by 9:30pm and turned in to enjoy being warm and still and, on occasion, being unconscious.

Day 3

Sunday morning was a cold 15 degrees.  We packed and cleaned and blew on frozen fingers before finally heading into Leadville for some breakfast.  It was a quiet crowd and, by comparison to Mark and I, a clean one.  My first priority was the bathroom, as I had not enjoyed one for the last 48 hours.  Winding my way through the crowded restaurant, I found the door and went in.  It was so quiet, it felt like I was at the back of the church during a moment of prayer.  It was the crux of the trip.

A few hours later, Mark and I made our dutiful visit to the downtown Denver REI shop, and then on to the airport. I always get a chuckle thinking of Mark getting on a packed plane, him sans shower for 2-3 days.  It’s gotta be funny to see.

Sure, it was a fiasco, but another adventure was in the books.  We bagged Casco & Frasco BM, but I failed to bag French Mountain once again. Yet, I learned an important lesson from the mistake I made of “jumping to the conclusion” to leave the ridge; I should have collected more information before committing to an irreversible course of action.  I also learned new respect for the responsibilities of a trip leader.

And regarding French Mountain, I swore I wouldn’t fail again; and while it took 3 more years, when I got my 3rd chance, I didn’t fail (see 3rd Times a Charm).  But truth be told, I did nearly fail again due to a continuing tendency to try to pack too much into a trip.

Casco - French Traverse Attempt Data

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Swimming Atlantic & Pacific Peaks

August 3, 2009

I had 14ers on the brain, but the unchecked peaks were too far for a day trip, and Brian couldn’t get away for an overnighter. Brian suggested we do “Atlantic” as it is nearby (near Copper Mountain) and would provide a good ski descent.  We could also add in Pacific if we made good time. I agreed.

Our plan for April 13, 2002 had 4 easy steps:

  1. Follow the mining road until we could cross the streambed to pass between Mayflower Hill and “Atlantic Peak”
  2. Ascend the West (summit) Ridge to “Atlantic” and proceed east to the summit of “Atlantic”
  3. Traverse to Pacific Peak, if time, conditions, and fitness permit
  4. Descend back to the trailhead and reach home alive
Our route from the Mayflower Gulch TH to Atlantic and Pacific Peaks

Our route from the Mayflower Gulch TH to Atlantic and Pacific Peaks

And everything started off so well….

We left the Mayflower TH parking lot around 7am and made good time along an old mining road.  After about 1 mile we turned to head NE up a stream bed headed between “Atlantic” and Mayflower Hill toward Pacific Mt.  Before leaving the road, I put on my snowshoes for floatation, which I brought instead of skis to give my aching knees a rest.  My optimism was not well founded, but at least I could blame this one on Brian.

Fletcher (right) and Atlantic (left) on the way to the Atlantic & Pacific peaks

Oh, the soft snow misery!  If only I was postholing…but I was drowning.  I needed snowshoes the size of freight trains.  The snow was at least 5 feet deep and soft as far down as I dared during my tank-less deep dives.  I had fallen into a giant bowl of sugar and had move through it to find an escape.  It took us 1.5 hours to travel ½ mile.  It sucked, big time.

Finally, we reached the Atlantic-Pacific cirque and mounted the Atlantic West Ridge.  I was ready for better conditions, but I wouldn’t find it.  The ascent required a steep climb up a wall of loose rocks covered by thin layer of fresh snow.  It was a slog.  But at least the ridge proper was much easier, with a lower angle and exposed rocks for footing.  We reached the Atlantic summit around 1pm.

The wind was stiff and cold, but I needed a rest as well as some water and food.  I sat on the eastern slope and ate my lunch despite a rather uncomfortable sitting position.  We decided to keep going to descend into the valley below from Pacific’s summit ridge.

The ¾ mile traverse (and 400 foot altitude gain/loss) went quickly.  The Pacific summit rose to a point, 2 feet by 2 feet…just as a summit should.  Without a pause, we immediately turned down the west ridge toward a tongue of snow which would lead us to the foot of the mountain.

Pacific is a twin-peak with no easy way to get down the west ridge.  As we skirted the west (lower) town, I had to down climb a loose rock chimney. I stepped into the chimney putting my left foot on a questionable foothold.  I proceeded only because I had good holds for both hands, although, my left hand also held my collapsed trekking poles.  My right hand held a jug on a large detached block. As I lowered myself to the next foothold, my only foothold failed…the rock broke off!  As my weight suddenly shifted to my hands, my right hand hold failed.  The detached block shifted and pulled out of its slot.  My mind raced for options and a quick glance revealed no other holds.  To buy a few milliseconds, I continued holding the detached block as it toppeled out and down toward my head.  As I twisted to avoid the rock, I shifted my right hand from the falling rock up to the ledge where the detached block once rested.  In the meantime (all 1.2 seconds of it), I traded a wrenched left shoulder and chest muscle for my life.

As I explained to Brian afterward, “it was a good trade.”

Fairly quickly we reached the tongue of snow that reached to the valley below.  The snow was a bit soft, but still allowed for a fun descent.  I had a fantastic glissade off the summit ridge.

Naturally, once we got down to the streambed, it was worse than before.  The snow was hell.  I tried to stay in my old tracks to find any purchase, but the snow had turned into quicksand.  The snowshoes provided no floatation, but instead became anchors that would hook under any vegetation beneath the snow.  I ended up taking off the snowshoes and just crawling back to the road….I didn’t know if I’d drown or go crazy first.  When I finally reached the road, I just rolled onto it out of the snow…and then let loose a blue streak of curses until my remaining energy was exhausted. It was the worst experience of my life.

But once I got back to the truck, it had turned into a great day!  And after all these years, I finally started to get an inkling of what that Dickens fellow had been talking about.

A Mummy Range Weekend

March 21, 2009

I had a free weekend on July 10-11, 1999 and decided I’d go after the seven 13ers in the Mummy Range.  

I had recently hiked to Mummy Mountain, and from the summit had seen how close and accessible were Fairchild and Hagues.  I decided then that I would return to get them all in a day.  Reading Roach’s 1988 RMNP book for planning information, I learned that the Mummy Range included Ypsilon, Chiquita and Chapin as well.  I figured I could get them all in 2 days:  

  1. Starting from the Lawn Lake trailhead (8530′), use the Lawn Lake trail to reach Lawn Lake (10900′), and then climb the cirque bagging in order, Fairchild (13502′), Hagues (13560′), Rowe Peak (13,400′), Rowe Mtn (13184′) & Mummy (13425′).
  2. Start further up Old Fall River Road at the Chapin Pass trailhead (11020′) and use Chapin Creek Trail to get access to the west side of the Mummy Range to bag in order, Chapin (12454′), Chiquita (13069′) & Ypsilon (13514′).

Day 1

It was going to be a long day.  I was going to hike 21 miles and 6,800 feet of elevation gain, if my body and the weather held out.  I decided to gamble a bit on the weather and water availability to reduce weight; I only packed a rain jacket, two 1-liter bottles of water, and iodine pills.  The  “plan” was for the rain and related cold wind to stay away, and for me to be able to find enough water to drink an estimated 6 liters (13.2 lbs) without having to carry more than 2 liters in my pack at any one time (4.4 lbs).  With such a small load, I figured I could do it. 

I started hiking at 6am along the Roaring River, and was amazed at the wild river bed that looked like it contained a wild amount of runoff in some years. Later, I found out that the dam on Lawn Lake had failed in 1982, and the water carved out the river bed as it roared into the town of Estes Park.

The trail was completely empty of humans.  Walking on an excellent trail didn’t exactly feel wild, but the sense of adventure was certainly heightened by my isolation.  My adrenaline was running high; I was feeling very good.

I broke out of the trees just after reaching Lawn Lake.  I could finally see the peaks I was attempting; I could see the entire cirque.  Based on my trip planning, I was thinking that I needed to cross over to the SE slope of Fairchild, but the route didn’t seem obvious.  I decided to head over to Crystal Lake and use “The Saddle” approach.  But first, I finished the last of my initial 2 liters and refilled both bottles.

A view of Cystal Lake with Fairchild Mtn beyond.  My route followed the right skyline to the summit.

A view of Cystal Lake with Fairchild Mtn beyond. My route followed the right skyline to the summit.

Unlike all other Colorado lakes I’ve seen, Crystal Lake has perfectly clear water.  I suppose that is where the name came from.  It reminded me of spring-fed lakes I had played in as a kid in Florida.  I was tempted to go swimming, but managed to stay focused on making progess; I had a long way to go.   I did make a mental note to return someday for a swim.

To get a good view of Crystal Lake, I had come in too close to take a direct route up the slope toward “The Saddle” (actual name on map).  Rather than take the detour to get around the cliffs surrounding the lake, I decided to climb up one of the steep gullies. As is almost always the case, I regretting my casual acceptance of unnecessary risk about half-way up the loose, steep rock.  But I made it, and then worked my way up along the rim to the summit of Fairchild where I took my first break.


A view of Fairchild (and Ypsilon) from Mummy. I ascended the cliff band to the right of Crystal Lake and then to the summit. Then I traversed right to The Saddle and further right to Hagues Peak.

I didn’t know the Mummy Range well so I didn’t know that right behind me was Ypsilon, less than 2 miles away.  I thought it was an impressive looking peak and took a picture, but I had no idea about the possibility of linking all the peaks together.  

I started down to The Saddle after only a few minutes, and enjoyed the beautiful flowers.  It was the biggest collection of mountain flowers I had ever seen;  I made my second mental note of the day:  to return to this incredible spot with others to share it with them.

Beautiful flowers on "The Saddle".  My route ascended the slope to the left to Hagues, and then followed the skyline to Mummy on the right.

Beautiful flowers on The Saddle. My route ascended the slope to the left to Hagues, and then followed the skyline to Mummy on the right.

Approaching Hagues, the hiking turned into scambling and then to climbing. Near the summit level, the difficulty felt 4th class; but I was insisting on the direct path.

 As I was climbing up a crack leading to the summit level, a roaring sound from above got my attention.  As I heaved my bulk over the top, I quickly looked up to see a B1 bomber doing a low-altitude, tight turn; he looked like he was having some fun before heading off over the Continental Divide. It was a strange feeling. All alone deep in the mountains and watching an air show.  

At this point, I could feel the mileage of the day.  I was tired, and I was out of water.  As I looked over at Rowe Peak and beyond it to Rowe Mountain, I was thinking that I was moving too slowly (and getting slower), had a long way to go, and was far above treeline.  I thought I’d be taking too big of a chance by doing the 2 mile round trip over that tricky terrain.  I was disappointed to skip the Rowes, but I needed to start heading back down very soon.

I tagged the Hagues summit and took off for Mummy with an eye for water. On the Hagues side of the saddle between Hagues and Mummy, I found a mossy puddle.  It was nasty water with lots of floating and suspended matter.  Worried that I wouldn’t find anything better, I filled one of my empty bottles.  I reasoned that one liter of bad water might keep me alive, but that two liters of that nastiness would definitely kill me.    

Looking back at Hagues from the summit of Mummy.

Looking back at Hagues from the summit of Mummy.

I pushed my body to keep going with some speed.  I was tired, but I could make hard 20-30 step pushes followed by a bent over, hands on knees rest. And, the ascent to Mummy was mercifully short.  On the Mummy summit, I decided I needed to thin my blood with some of my water supply.  

To my mind, it was like drinking a liter of loogey, chewing to keep from choking.  

Loogey (lōō-gē)

  1. A chewy substance that is difficult to swallow. 
  2. An unidentifiable mass of goo of probably disgusting origins.
  3. A blob of snot. lung butter.

With a queazy stomach and somewhat less tired legs, I started down the south slope toward the Black Canyon trail.  The thunder in the distance encouraged me to take advantage of the downhill terrain.  I always feel stronger going downhill for some reason; it’s a mystery.

Near the bottom, I cut the corner to reduce the distance to the Black Canyon trail and get below treeline.  The Black Canyon trail quickly led to the Lawn Lake trail and the Roaring River.

The hike out along the Roaring River was an unending death march.  But water was nearby and I was below treeline.  I managed to get my 6 liters of water on the day, and I was very happy to reach the car and end my suffering.  I had hiked just over 19 miles and accumulated just over 6,500 feet of elevation gain in 12 hours.  That was enough; I figured I’d do the rest of the Mummy Range some other weekend.  

When I got home, I found a message from my friend, Joe.  He wanted to join me on my final day in the Mummy Range.  Now I had to continue with my Mummy Range weekend.   At least the suffering was so high that I knew I’d be proud of myself when it was all done.

My route through the Mummy Range

My route through the Mummy Range

Day Two

I picked up Joe and we drove to RMNP and up the Old Fall River Road to Chapin Pass trailhead.  

The first mile or so was through the trees, but it thinned out quickly as we approached Chapin.  As we broke above treeline, we saw two big bull elks giving us the eye.  They both had massive racks, and we had none. We gave them room by doing a rising traverse of the Chapin flank.

A view of our route taken on the drive out

A view of our route taken on the drive out. Ypsilon is further to the left of Chiquita.

We continued on to the northern most of the two Chapin summits. Once there, I admitted to Joe that I was tired.  He expressed some surprise at my slow pace.  I didn’t feel like explaining.

My tiredness was not going to be resolved or even aided by a break on the summit of Chapin, so we continued hiking, now heading to the Chapin-Chiquita saddle.  My morale was boosted by the impressive views down to Chiquita Creek.

We continued hiking, now heading up the long ascent to the Chiquita summit. When I could afford to take my attention from my footing, I enjoyed a spectacular view of the areas I had investigated in great detail the day before. Oddly, it still didn’t occur to me how those peaks could be linked to my current location.  From the Chiquita summit, Joe and I enjoyed the great view of Ypsilon’s Donner Ridge before heading down Chiquita’s northern slopes to the Chiquita-Ypsilon saddle. 

The climb up Ypsilon Mountain was another grind for my tired body.  Joe kept looking back at me, wishing I’d move faster as we hiked up boulder-filled terrain. Once we could see down into the basin, we were lost in wonder. The Spectacle Lakes basin is very impressively boxed in by the the Donner and Blitzen ridges. 

Sitting on the summit of Ypsilon, the pieces of the puzzle came together in a rush.  My eyes followed the line from Fairchild to Ypsilon, and I thought, that looks doable.  Suddenly, it hit me…I should have gone that way!  

Looking for excuses anywhere, I complained that Roach didn’t say anything about the possibility of linking all of these peaks together.  I wondered out loud if perhaps no one had done it before.  The prospect of being a trail blazer burned in my mind and powered my failing body as we hiked back to the Chapin Pass trailhead.  We managed to get lost for a short time and had to take a detour around a giant Porcupine, but we made it.  We had taken 7 hours to climb almost 7 miles and approximately 3,200 feet of elevation gain; the weekend total was nearly 26 miles and 9,800 feet in 19 hours.

When I got home, I quickly dug out Roach’s RMNP book to confirm my assertion that he makes no mention of the linkup.  Of course, I quickly found his “Mummy Mania” description and regretted not being more careful in my research.  Using this route would have saved me 11 miles and 3700 feet.

Mileage and elevation gain for my Mummy Range weekend

Mileage and elevation gain for my Mummy Range weekend

Wow, what a lesson!  Even though I wasn’t very smart, I still retained a measure of pride for the effort to reach 6 Mummy Range summits in a weekend.

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