Archive for the ‘14ers’ Category

Pikes Peak Hill Climb Shiverfest

August 31, 2014

shiv·er  \ˈshiv-ər\
: to undergo trembling : experience rapid involuntary muscular twitching especially in response to cold

After completing in the Mount Evans Hill Climb in late July 2014, I knew that I had to ride the only other paved road to the top of a Colorado 14er:  Pikes Peak (14,110;).  After a bit of a search, I found the Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb was scheduled for August 26, 2014; I signed up as soon as I could figure out how (it’s a long story).  Little did I know that the Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb would be an epic adventure rivaling my most extreme mountaineering adventures.  Three hours worth, anyway.


A view of much of the Pikes Peak Tollway, including the Crystal Resevoir (the start of the race), the lower switchbacks lead to Glen Cove (the 1/2-way point of the race), the treeline, and the start of the infamous “Switchbacks” above treeline.

I had done a lot of riding since my first organized ride, The Triple Bypass in July 2014.  The road cycling thing had begun to feel like old-hat: I was no longer consumed with attention to every variable or stressing over potential disasters.  For the Pikes Peak ride, I really only had two major concerns:

  1. What would the weather be like at 14k?
  2. Would my lingering illness-related breathing issues (asthma?) be resolved by race day?

Both questions would be slow to resolve, and the answers would reveal themselves rather dramatically.

On Saturday the night before the race, as I lay feeling sorry for myself in my Manitou Springs motel bed, I wondered why I put myself into such a miserable place.  I wondered how I could leave my family so early on a Saturday evening to live alone for a night in a dirty hotel room attempting to watch Bronco football on a TV with reception so poor as to be unmatched since my teen years watching Benny Hill reruns on a UHF station.  The uncertainty of my health and the weather, and the dread of waking up at 3am was making me feel stressed and unhappy; and I wondered out loud why I did this to myself.

But almost immediately, the answer came.  I did it because I loved it.  The feeling of stress and misery vanished, replaced by a feeling of anticipation and excitement.  Although I did retain a hope that I wouldn’t catch anything serious in the nasty room which had not been adequately cleaned since the previous night’s occupant.

I awoke before my alarm and made ready for a hard morning workout.  My first task was to check the weather for the morning. I was surprised at the low temperatures for the early hours (high 40’s), which suggested very cold temps nearly a mile higher, on the summit.  At the least the question of whether to wear my arm and leg warmers was resolved.  I ate, dressed, packed up my car, and left for Pikes Peak at 4:15am to pick up my packet at the tollway entrance, and then drive another 7 miles to the starting line.

Climate data for Pikes Peak summit
Month May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °F 28.4 38.5 47.6 48.1 39.2 28.4 16.0 10.7 25.8
Average low °F 14.3 24.6 33.7 32.9 24.3 14.2 3.9 −2.7 11.9
Snowfall inches 31.5 25.0 11.3 11.0 13.5 20.9 33.1 36.3 337.6

I didn’t know what sort of speed I could sustain over the 12+ mile, nearly 7% grade course, so I didn’t have much to go by in predicting a finish time. I understood that I had to finish within 3 hours to get a medal, so ‘better than 3 hours’ was my original goal. As always, I hoped to do better than the minimum, and I planned to go as hard as I could. I definitely would not stop, give up, quit, or die before reaching the summit, as per usual.

Official map

Official map

The day before the ride I discovered that the course pro records were only about 10 minutes over an hour (~10 mph), I decided I would do much better than 3 hours but still could not guess at a time. On the Mt Evans ride, I averaged just under 10 mph, but that route is not nearly as steep on average. I just didn’t dare hope for under 2 hours.

After dropping off my summit gear bag (I would not make that mistake again), I arrived at the start line with my jacket in my pocket and 5 minutes to wait.  I managed to secure a spot close to the front, near mile marker 7; the ride would take me to the Pikes Peak summit, just past mile maker 19, for a 12.4 mile ride gaining over 4,700 feet of elevation.

As we waited, the riders around me worried aloud about the wind we all could hear blowing through the tops of the trees. High winds plus cold temps would make for a very difficult day.  I was pleased that I had put on my arm and leg warmers.

“More than 300 riders took part in The Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb in the early hours, braving it through bone-chilling temperatures, low visibility, steep cliffs and furious winds at their head.

And the higher they climbed, the tougher the conditions became.

‘Just being a part of this climb this year is an incredible achievement. The times don’t matter,’ elite rider LeRoy Popowski said.”

~ The Gazette

Mile Markers 7-9 (2 miles)

The race started at 6am, and I took off very fast to maintain my near front starting position. The first mile was a mild incline and was behind us very quickly.  The second mile was a bit steeper, but also went by quickly.  The 3rd mile began at mile marker 9, and that was also the start of the hard climbing.  The wind was occasionally strong but didn’t seem life changing, unlike previous mountain rides.

Mile Marker 9-11 (2 miles)

I stayed with my group for about 1.5 miles of steep climbing, but I could not catch enough air to sustain it. I lost contact with the group as I focused on getting enough air.  As feared, my lungs were not working well, and I was suffocating.  It was tremendously disappointing, but finishing was the priority.

Mile Marker 11-13 (2 miles)

Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb Route copyI stayed with the effort, though, concentrating on fully exhaling and inhaling. And, slowly my breathing improved. I was able to pick my pace back up and keep my breathing under control. And I stopped losing ground to the other riders that I could see.  I also started drinking my water to prepare for a stop at the 1/2 point at Glen Cove.

At 6:50am, when I reached the half way point (near mile marker 13), I checked my watch and was amazed to discover only 50 minutes had gone by; I was under a 2 hour pace.  I hadn’t finished my 1st bottle of water, so I decided to skip the aid station.  I’d stop at the next station further up the mountain.

Mile Marker 13-16 (3 miles)

Emboldened, I pushed harder. I started passing the people who had earlier crept by me. And the wind started getting worse.

I started up the switchbacks as I left the trees, and the wind transformed into an opponent.

pikes metalWatching the riders ahead of me fight uphill like salmon swimming up waterfalls, the experience was surreal. The buffeting of the wind felt like some of the worst mountaineering experiences I’d suffered through. There were times when I was moving <1 mph, so slowly that I could only barely go faster than the riders who had gotten off their bikes to walk up the road. And, the wind-chill was deadly.  The real fear of death or injury combined with the extreme effort made for a powerful feeling of adventure.

In a weird part of my mind, I loved it.  It was a thrill to be a part of it, right up to the point that I couldn’t feel my hands anymore.

While I knew I should do it to protect my core, I hadn’t put on my jacket yet; I kept thinking I could finish without it due to the massive calorie burn. I didn’t want to lose the time.  I did have on arm and leg warmers, but my well-ventilated, full-fingered gloves were not nearly enough. My hands were so cold I had to keep looking down at my hands to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently pulling on the brake levers.

At 7:35am, the small group I was with finished the switch back section just after mile marker 16, and sped up to capitalize on the temporarily easier terrain before the last 1.5 miles of climbing.  I had 25 minutes to finish under 2 hours; surely 25 minutes was enough to ride 3 remaining miles to the summit.

My legs were still strong, especially when standing on the bike.  While I could no longer stay with the group while I sat in the saddle; I could close the gaps whenever I would stand up and brave the brutal wind.  I decided to pass by the final water station as I hadn’t even started on my 2nd bottle due to an inability to take a hand off the handlebars; I just didn’t dare lose any control while under attack by the wind.

“High winds that forced the windchill factor below 20 degrees thrashed the riders who attempted the 12.4-mile climb to the peak’s 14,115-foot summit.”

Mile Marker 16-19 (3 miles)

I couldn’t find mile markers anymore but the ride organizers put up kilometer remaining signs starting with 5k (3 miles).

At 3k (1.86 miles), the final climb was on.  But this final stretch averaged 10% grade.  It would be very painful.

I was feeling strong despite getting progressively hypothermic.  I wasn’t even feeling cold anymore, just numb, as the wind-chill was finally penetrating my core. The thought to put on my jacket was never out of my mind, but I just couldn’t give up the time. I really wanted to beat 2 hours, and it looked like I would be just a couple minutes slow already.

Riders were stopping left and right, and I was determined to stay with this group, and I would sprint to the finish, so help me God.

1 km to go.

I was going to make it for certain; but ‘under 2 hours’ was getting away from me. I couldn’t afford the distraction of calculating an estimated ETA…I just pushed as hard as I could.  The group was bunching up and continued to drop jacket-less guys who were too cold to keep up the pace. We went by another couple guys who had accelerated away from my group a few miles before.

The visibility was bad as we were finishing in a fast-moving cloud. Through the haze, I could see the finish line. This was my time.

I accelerated, finding speed I didn’t think I still had to pass the entire remaining group, ‘counting coup’ as I went by each one.

Results for Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb   Fun Ride   USA CyclingI finished at approximately 10:05 am.  I did not finish in under 2 hours.

My finish time was 2:05:55, yet, I still felt I had recaptured that portion of my pride lost during my weak finish to the Mt Evans Hill Climb.

“With bone chilling temperatures, 40 mile per hour winds and a dense fog limiting visibility at the summit this year’s event was a true challenge to every rider!”

~Pat McDonough, Event Director

The race was over for me, but the adventure was still on. I had to get out of the freezing wind NOW.  The thought of taking summit photos never entered my mind.  I was focused on survival, which meant escape the wind, get on more clothes, and get the hell down.

And as I scanned the mostly blank summit area, I realized I had no idea where to find my gear bag or find shelter. There were a couple parked vehicles next to a building in the distance; I rode over to the parked vehicles hoping one of them had my gear bag. A guy in a down parka rolled down his window and told me to put my bike in the van if I wanted a ride down. I asked where I could find the gear bags.  He said to look in the Cog Railway building, and pointed to the other side of the summit. I walked my bike as quickly as I could over broken, sloping ground where I found a door in what appeared to be an abandoned building.  I tried the door and was surprised it opened.

I went inside the abandoned building to escape the wind; I would at least be able to put on my jacket.  But when I entered I found a dozen people milling around or sitting on the floor amid a sea of gear bags. I had found it!

It wasn’t a warm room, but it had my gear.  Unfortunately one-half of the bags looked exactly like my own, which I eventually found at the far end of the room. By this time, I was shivering violently and struggling with stiff fingers to open the bag and put on my fleece sweater. I finally got the fleece on and my rain jacket over the top. My hands were starting to thaw and hurt, so I decided to accelerate the process to end the pain. I put my hands on the skin of my torso, which didn’t feel much warmer but still worked. Absolute agony. The thawing pain was severe; I hurt so badly I was afraid I’d throw up. It subsided after 5 minutes that seemed to last an hour.

I looked in the gear bag to see what else I had managed to pack; I found a balaclava and a pair of socks. I did not find the hand warmer packs which I had expected and counted on to keep my hands warm on the ride down. (I later found the hand warmers in the front seat of my car).  But it was enough; I would definitely ride down.

I put on the balaclava, which prompted another rider asked me if I was riding down. I replied “I had to”; I just couldn’t come all this way and then ride the bus down. Still, he had a point. It was cold, the wind was dangerous, and I was not starting from a warm base.

I consumed the 2nd bottle of water I had carried from the parking lot, and then filled it again out of habit.  There was zero chance I would take a hand off the handlebars on the descent.  Then I left the building and started down the road.

Almost immediately, I started shivering.  But I was making decent progress down the winding road, also weaving between the riders and walkers who did not look up from their misery and efforts. Occasionally, the wind was too strong and I slowed to nearly a stop to keep from crashing.

I was shivering so badly my arms were pulling on the handle bars, twisting my front wheel as I was trying to stay upright despite the blowing wind. The combination of uncontrollable arm twitching and violent gusts of wind made for some of the least well controlled riding of my life…all while riding along-side a steep cliff.

But I made it.  A few hours later I was home and pulling myself together to join my wife at her company picnic.

A couple of days later I found I had finished 17th of 96 finishers of the “Citizen’s Ride”. Not too bad for an old dude.

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Poor Teamwork on Mt Columbia

September 23, 2010

“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

~~Ralph Waldo Emerson

When we play atop the high peak alone, we have only our own interests to consider.  It is a simple matter to set a goal and build a plan to accommodate our interests, skills, fitness and tolerance for risk.  When we are alone, we can enjoy the high peaks the way we want without any compromise.  But it is simply more fun to adventure with people we like and trust.  And as an added bonus for team-based adventuring, a collective effort can minimize the risks inherent to playing in a dangerous environment.

But a team is not a group of individuals acting in their own best interest.  Members of a “team” demonstrate cooperative and supportive behavior in a common effort to accomplish hard goals.  Good team members value a relationship built over time and expressed in mutual understanding, honesty, sympathy, empathy, and loyalty.  And, the knowledge of one-another within a team allows complementary abilities and coordinated efforts to generate synergy, which enables a “team” to be greater than the sum of the individuals.

A good team offers safety by being supportive and trustworthy.  A bad team doesn’t.

This trip report is about a bad team, of which some of the members successfully summited on Mt. Columbia on May 5, 2000.

Trip Report

On Saturday, May 5th, Brian, Susan (my girlfriend of 4 months and future wife), and I set off from the N. Cottonwood Creek trailhead to climb Mt. Columbia.

Brian (Climbing Partner) and Susan (girlfriend of 4 months) preparing for early start on Mt. Columbia (Colorado)

Brian and I had hiked past the full length of Columbia two years prior when we climbed Mt. Harvard via its South Ridge starting from the N. Cottonwood Creek trailhead; we felt we knew the area well enough to skip a full-on planning effort to climb Columbia’s West Flank and South Ridge. We were right to be confident that the two of us could figure out a way.

But we were wrong to remain confident once we added an inexperienced member to the group.

In the week before the attempt, Susan expressed an interest in joining me on one of my trips. Without thinking, I invited her to join us on the upcoming Mt. Columbia’s climb, and she accepted. If I thought anything, I suppose is was that any difficulties that surpassed her skill set would be at the end of the hike, and so would allow her to simply wait below for a short time if we could not protect her. When I told Brian of the addition to the team, he agreed it would be okay.

We were both wrong in assuming that adding Susan, an inexperienced 14er hiker, to the group would pose no significant problems.  But, I would stand alone in blame for the biggest leadership mistake of all.

We drove up Saturday night for a pre-climb car-camp. It would be a long day (Dawson estimate was 11 hours) so we needed a very early start from a trailhead a long way from home.  It was a beautiful night for sleeping under the stars, with clear skies and moderate temperatures. We enjoyed a couple hours of camaraderie before turning in for a short night’s sleep.

The next morning we hiked in the pitch dark and soft snow.  I had brought snowshoes for Susan, so she was fine; but I had skis, which I put on and took off multiple times as soft snow and exposed rocks competed for my attention. As the trail approached Columbia, snow started to fall and the wind picked up.  It was getting cold.  But going uphill kept the furnace burning hot, and we continued along following Brian who I assumed knew the way to go.

It was hard to see our destination through the trees, but eventually Brian said we should leave the trail. We turned toward Columbia and made our way closer to the West Flank that looked steeper that I expected. He stopped hiking on a pile of talus under a steep, icy gully and took off his pack. I asked if we were taking a break; Brian said this was it.

I couldn’t believe it! I stared at Brian in disbelieve that he would think this route would work for Susan, and then I looked at Susan.  She had a pleasant smile, and was expecting the best of a great day.  Oh shit!

I didn’t bring crampons for either of us, and I didn’t bring an ice axe for Susan; and she didn’t know how to use such equipment, anyway.

“What the heck, Brian? Isn’t there an easier way up?  Susan can’t climb that!” I communicated to Brian in another glance.

“I think this is it,” was all he said.

We stood there, freezing in the wind, for another moment.  Then I told Susan the bad news.  She couldn’t continue and it wouldn’t be smart to wait in a cold wind for 5 hours.  I told her that it would be best if she went back to the trailhead, where she could get protection from the wind (in my 4Runner), and even catchup on a little sleep.

Columbia from Yale: our route vs. standard

Susan was agreeable, as always, but she didn’t know the way back. I assured her that it would be easy to simply follow our tracks in the snow, and if she did get lost she could simply listen to find the river, and then she would keep it on her right and follow it back to the bridge crossing to find the trail. I pointed her in the right direction and she left.

Susan adds…

Joe was always going on some adventure or another on the weekends.  I thought I’d like to go along, and he said yes.  We started hiking so early it was dark, but I just followed behind.  We stopped hiking below a very steep snowfield, and Joe said he hadn’t known it was so steep.  I was a little upset that I couldn’t finish, but more so that I would have to hike back alone.  I was worried about getting lost because I hadn’t paid attention to the trail during the hike in.

Brian put on his crampons and disappeared up the steep, icy gully.  I followed by kicking creases in the ice & frozen snow where Brian had weakened it with his steps, and I hauled on trees wherever possible.

Progress up the slope was slow, for obvious reasons.

Once we reached the South Ridge, I hoped we were close so we’d be able to head back soon.  But no.  We still had a lengthy ridge traverse to reach the summit. And the wind became brutal.  With the skis acting as sails, we were tossed around like toys.  Brian even took a spill into some rocks after a big gust. But we made it.  And, although it was a bit late for snow safety, the cold wind gave us confidence.  We hurried back down the South Ridge past our ascent path to reach the a major gully, which probably would have been a better ascent path. (note: the standard ascent path would have been even better; see route photo.)

The ski descent was excellent. The snow was mostly in good shape, except for an unseen slushy spot that initiated a spectacular tumble by me.  And rocks were falling from above. But it was a wonderful period of joy that allowed no thoughts of what might have gone wrong for Susan on her retreat.

As we started back, I was surprised at the extent the trail had melted out.  It meant we could not ski out very well, and it meant the trail might have been hard to follow. I started wondering about Susan’s fate.

Columbia route map

We trudged on and steadily ate up the trail. Shortly after we crossed the creek, we saw Susan hiking toward us. She was delighted to see us as I was delighted to see that she had made it back.  I figured she had gotten bored and was coming to meet us.

But I was wrong.

Susan explained that she had not yet made it back to the trailhead.  She had been continuously hiking up and down the trails, looking for something that looked familiar. She was actually delighted to see us because finding us meant that she wouldn’t die that day.

Susan adds….

I tried following the tracks, and I nearly made it to the trailhead before getting confused and turning around.  I hiked back and forth on the trail for many hours until I found the Joe and Brian heading back.  I was so relieved that I wasn’t going to die that I wasn’t even too mad.  I had a long day of quality time with myself.

I was amazed that the situation had spun so far out of control.  And I was embarrassed. It was entirely my fault, and it forced me to think hard about the proper behaviors for teams with unequally experienced members.  Very clearly, I had made two serious errors

  1. I failed to understand and/or assume responsibility for Susan, who completely trusted me to keep her safe because she could not fully manage her own safety in that situation
  2. I failed to abandon my personal goal (bag summit of Columbia) when it became incompatible with my responsibility for Susan’s safety

It became clear to me that, for a good team, we need people we know, people we trust not to selfishly, foolishly or ignorantly put us in danger or fail to respond properly to an emergency.  And, finding a group of people is just the first step.  We then need to turn our “group” into a “team” by continually strengthening relationships and learning about each other in the context of shared adventures that we choose for suitability to the current level of trust and experience among the members.  And, most importantly, the experienced members of a team must assume responsibility for the inexperienced members whenever they adventure together, even when it means to give up on the summit to keep a team-member safe.

This must be the first rule of teamwork.

See essays:

And all credit to Susan for finding a happy ending to the story. She stuck with me, after all; our 10-year marriage anniversary is coming up in 2011.

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Unnamed (and Mt Antero)

June 10, 2010

May 27, 2000

With Memorial holiday giving us an extra day I was hoping for a bigger than normal adventure…but Brian couldn’t pull off two nights out. We had to make do with a single day with an early start.

Brian suggested Antero, with the idea that we could get a good ski descent. Since Antero was one of the few unclimbed Northern Colorado 14ers on my list, I loved the idea.

The drive up, which started late due to my tardy arrival, was interrupted by a missed highway turnoff and an accident that closed the highway for an hour. To make use of the time and avoid eating dinner after midnight, we got out the stove and made dinner on the side of the road. And, it still might have turned out okay, except the approach road was very long and slow going. We made it to 11,300′ before stopping to setup camp; we settled in for sleep at 1am. With a 5am wakeup call forthcoming, it would be a short night.

Brian on final approach to Mt Antero summit

We started moving at 5:30am and took 3 hours to ascend from camp at 11,300′ to the Mt Antero summit at 14,269′. We followed the winding road up, but didn’t trust where it led after passing the summit ridge; we followed the ridge to the summit. Unfortunately, we also discovered that there wasn’t any snow left on Antero except for a thin strip about 50 feet wide and 500 feet tall on the southern ridge leading to the summit.

We enjoyed the summit for a short time and discussed our options for the day.

My rapture on the summit of Mt Antero

Since we couldn’t get our ski descent, we decided we’d head over to a tall peak across Baldwin Gulch that had a very nice snow covered eastern slope. But we had to hurry since the snow had been in the sun since dawn.

We descended Antero following the old mining road which turned out to lead to the final stretch of the summit ridge.  Once at the start of the switchbacks, we left the mining road and headed around the cirque toward the unnamed peak.

Where's the snow? On the way to some snow on 'Ol Unnamed (North Carbonate?) from Mt Antero (in background).

The progress was good until we got to the exposed scree & talus on the SE ridge of the unnamed peak.  It was murder for tired legs.

We found the summit to be protected by a weird cornice that required crawling over to get to the top of the peak. I needed a rest, but with the sun burning on the snow, we stopped only momentarily before setting off for the steep descent slope.

As we feared, the snow was soft, and possibly dangerous. After a short pow-wow, we decided we’d proceed…with the extra precaution of staying on opposite sides of the face and only skiing one at a time. The snow turned out to be great, and we had a great time descending 1800′ in only a few minutes.

Our route from Baldwin Gulch to Mt Antero and North Carbonate(?)

The hike out was mercifully short; we made it back to camp at 1:30pm for an 8 hour, 8 mile, and 4000′  day.

And sometimes, one day is enough.

In the years afterward, I came to believe that the peak had an unofficial name, “North Carbonate”.  And, just recently, I discovered that the officially unnamed peak got an official name in 2005…it is now called Cronin Peak.

Formerly known as “North Carbonate”, this mountain now has an official name, approved by the Department of Interior in May 2005. Cronin Peak is named in honor of Mary Cronin (1893-1982) who in 1921 became the first woman to climb all the fourteen-thousand foot peaks in Colorado.  ~summitpost

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Mt Evans Extreme

June 2, 2010

It was the end of May, 1999, and I had just returned from my Great Bolivian Adventure. I didn’t have time for a full day of mountain fun, and, naturally, Brian wanted to ski; we picked Mt Evans as a good, close-by solution, with the thought of seeking the route less travelled to spice things up. And, I was anxious to see how much better my performance would be with my Bolivian, high-altitude acclimatization.

A view of Mt Evans and the rocky ridge separating Mt Evans from Mt Spalding

We drove up early to get good snow conditions and parked in the parking lot beside Summit Lake. We started working our way forward, postholing our way to the top of the bowl rim so we could get a good view of the options. We decided to angle right toward the rocky face dividing Mt Evans from Mt Spalding, aiming for the snow slope that reached nearly to the top of the ridge.

Brian nearing the exposed rock portion of the climb. The hard snow climbing occurred just before this spot.

Brian picked it, and I went along; I thought it looked interesting and possibly climbable. I forgot that we didn’t bring a rope; read: no belay.

The climb started like any other moderate snow climb, but about 2/3rds of the way up it got hard; the route became steep over mixed terrain.  And I was huffing and puffing with poorly functioning lungs. I whined to Brian that my allergies were acting up and trying to suffocate me.

The last 50 feet was thinly covered rocks; very little for the crampons and nothing for the axe to grab onto. On two separate occasions I had to commit to moves that I expected to fail, when failure meant some very bad outcomes. My alternative was to stay there for the rest of my life. The worst was at the very top, which turned into a moderate rock climb with crampons and ice axe making every effort to kill me.

I didn’t get a belay, but I recall Brian was generous with his words of encouragement.

But we made it to the top of the rim.  Thanks, Pal!

Then we hiked to the summit and enjoyed the well earned views. My breathing was so labored that I swore to Brian that if Colorado made my allergies this bad again, I was moving!  The skies had quickly changed from beautiful blue to looking like rain or snow soon, but we didn’t start down for the North Face until the axes started singing their dreaded electrical song.

We got down well enough. My glissade wasn’t very good due to operator error; I guess I just forget how to do it, having been skiing instead for the last year. Some additional huffing and puffing while postholing had me really annoyed with my physical performance. I had looked forward to kicking Brian’s butt for a change, but my 20,000′ plus acclimatization just didn’t pay off the way I expected.

Brian about to descend the North Face to escape the electrical field around us.

Twenty-four hours later, I knew why:  I had the flu. Isn’t air travel just lovely? At least I could continue living in Colorado with a clean health conscience.

It was my 3rd summit of Mt Evans, and the most interesting so far.

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Huron, Bloody Huron

May 28, 2010

Our drive, hike & climb to Huron Peak summit

One more time. Brian and I thought we’d back to the Clear Creek Reservoir Road, this time to collect Mt Huron. We knew going in that it would be a 10+ mile hike in the snow with a 4000′ elevation gain due to the winter road closure, but we were on a roll and Huron was next on the list. The only problem would be the inevitable snow storm; the previous week it snowed all the night before. And, it did so again.

It was Brian’s turn to drive; we left his place in Golden @ 7:45pm on Friday (April, 23, 1999) heading toward Leadville.  The Bronco is a slow beast, but it works wonders on poor backcountry roads. Along the way, we were pleasantly surprised to find the roads in better shape than the previous week (when we did Missouri Mountain) despite the heavy new snow in the front range. We figured we’d gotten lucky on the snow distribution.

Brian picked the East Slopes route. At the time I figured it was the worst thing he could find, but in hindsight I suppose it might have been because Dawson wrote that the East Slopes generally have more snow. Well, we did have plenty of snow.

Aiming for the Clohesy Lake trailhead, we pulled off US Highway 24 onto Clear Creek Reservoir (dirt) Road. We immediately knew we had been mistaken about getting lucky with the snow; the accumulation was much worse than the previous week.  We drove past our previous camp at Vicksburg and to the Rockdale townsite where we turned onto the 4×4 road heading toward Clohesy Lake trailhead, but only managed to get 1/3 mile up the 3-mile road before the snow was too deep to drive even for the Bronco.  And, believe me, that means something. A determined Brian forced his way cross Clear Creek before giving up on the drive; that crossing was much more interesting than I like at 11:30pm.

We setup camp as quickly as frozen fingers allowed. And then sleep came quickly, and so did 5am.

The first thing we noticed was the temperature.  It was way too warm.  Crap, it was going to be a hellish, soft snow day.

The initial hiking over the 2.7 miles remaining of the 4×4 road was rather flat; we started at 10,000′ and took 1.5 hours to gain 800′ of elevation. I hoped in vain that it would be a nice downhill glide 10 hours hence. Still, it was an easy start, for me anyway. Brian broke trail; and for a change, he actually made a trail I could use instead of gliding across the surface like a modern day Legolas. It was odd to hear him grumble.

Once we cleared the treeline, we could see heavy snow covering the ridges descending from Huron.  It was still early and already a slide had occurred, nearly reaching our ascent path.  We kept our distance from the snowy slopes as best we could, and we tried to hurry to minimize our exposure.  But it was a long curving path to reach the couloir ascent to the summit ridge.

Detail on the final stretch to the summit

The final couloir was very steep and icy. So, we didn’t have to fear an avalanche, but the skins were only marginally up to the task of ascending such a steep, slick surface. We slowly worked our way up until about 3/4ths of the way up we had to exit into the rocks on the right to make the saddle.  The climb certainly would have been better with crampons and an axe.

The weather had looked bad all day and continued to do so.  We tried to hurry to the summit, but the snow on the ridge was too soft. I literally had to swim across the sections without rocks to step on. This misery was compounded by my agreeing to bring the skis to the summit, where we sat for only as long as it took to eat a quick snack.

I carried the skis up to the summit and then carried them back down to just above the saddle.  When I dared put them back on, the snow stuck to the base like tar.

Fortunately, by the time we reached the top of the couloir, the skiing returned to a normal state for the day…merely terrible. A few turns into the descent, I hit a rough, icy section and lost it. I hit face first and cartwheeled down the slope, bashing my brains in on every flip. My self-arrest ski poles allowed me to stop after a few flips, but not before mutilating my nose. And this only 2 weeks since making a pact with God to take better care of my nose after allowing me to keep most of it after some frostbite on a cold, windy day on Mt Silverheels.

I bled continually and fell frequently as I attempted to escape Huron with my life and the remainder of my health (and nose).

Once we made it past the lake and reached the 4×4 parking area, the snow had softened enough to become impossible. In the last 3 miles, I fell through the snow 6 times. One time I could not get back up; it was a sort of quicksnow. I finally had to resort to rolling to escape the pit I dug for myself.

We made it back to camp at 6pm for an 11.5 hour day covering 4000′ of elevation gain and 10+ miles of soft snow slogging.  And, I was a bloody mess.

Some trips it is hard to remember that I do this because I love it; but it is important that I remember it.

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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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Tying Up Loose Ends

April 23, 2010

It was time.  Finally, it was time that I finished up the list of Colorado 14ers.  I had done all but a few as of three years ago. I didn’t do the last ones in part because they are on the far corner of the state. But the larger part of it was my dying enthusiasm for the list.

My most recent big push was in July/August of 2003; that year I did 14 Fourteeners in July and August. After doing the four in the Sange de Cristo range, I had invited Brian to participate as desired in my plan to finish the 14er list that year:


I am looking to finish the 14ers this summer.  My approx. plan for 14ers is follows:

  • Capitol (7/26)
  • Sneffels/San Lois (approx. 7/30-31)
  • Chicago Basin Peaks (during vaca?)
  • Telluride Area Peaks (during vaca?)
  • Pyramid/N.Maroon (?)
Interested in any?

Brian could only join me on N. Maroon during a N-S-N traverse of the Bells. But, by the end of that August, Brian asked about my 14er “mania” when I indicated I was interested in a non-14er  adventure.  I responded via email with a telling lack of enthusiasm:


The mania has dimmed a little:  only 1 trip left and I cannot finish without Culebra (next year at earliest).  I’ll get in the last trip in the next few weeks.

What do you want to do this weekend?


It didn’t happen.

Three years later, I had worked up another head of steam and was ready to bag Mt Sneffels & San Luis Peak.  The two represented an odd combination of peaks:  one very well regarded among climbers and the other not so much; on average, I hoped it would be a good trip.

I picked August 9-11, 2006 to do it.

My driving route to collect Sneffels and San Luis covering 770 miles and taking 16.5 hours.

It would be a solo adventure, once again.  It turns out nobody wants to spend 16.5 hours driving 770 miles to climb 2 14ers on the far side of the state, and almost no one will do it.

But that’s okay. While I prefer to climb with friends, I also enjoy the added stress and thrill of climbing alone. I also sleep better.

Day 1 – August 9

As I packed for my trip I realized I couldn’t stand to listen to Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits CD another time.  I decided it was time to pickup a Beatles Greatest Hits, like I had when I was a kid.  I love the Beatles. Heck, I was even looking forward to some free hours to just listen to my old music favorites.

I also threw in a couple of gallons of water, a box of food bars, and a book about Abraham Lincoln. And then I was off.

First on the list was Sneffels. It was the good one, plus I wanted to return home from San Luis via 160 & 285 (a very fast trip home I discovered during a return from Durango).

I left Boulder at midday for South Denver, and then 285 south to 50 heading west toward Montrose.

Climbing two peaks 100 miles apart presents pleasant logistical challenges.  Being sequential, any failure in timing would likely cause the plan to fail.  I had to include sufficient cushions and avoid as many unknowns as possible in my planning to avoid the disaster of going home without both peaks (horrors).  My plan was to plan on the easiest route and then op for more interesting climbing, if any, if my speed and the weather were good.

The two standard options for climbing Mt. Sneffels start from the Yankee Boy basin just outside of Ouray.  There is a class 2+ Lavendar Col scramble and a Class 3 ridge climb.  I decided to aim for Lavender Col but take the ridge, if possible, in order to bag the Tour de Sneffels.

Six hours later, I hated the Beatles.  I couldn’t listen again for over 24 hours.  But I needed to concentrate on my driving anyway once past Montrose.

An overview of the approach to Yankee Boy Basin and climb of Mt Sneffels

The access to Yankee Boy Basin was surprisingly easy.  And the shelf road along the way is definitely something to see. I drove up the County Road 361 until I reached County Road 26 which I took to around 11,200′ to preserve a solid approach effort. I had to hunt a bit for a good place to park & camp.  I couldn’t find anything solid, so I decided to sleep in the back of the truck.

Per my usual method, I wanted to explore the road a bit to be sure I knew where to go when hiking in the dark, but I ran out of daylight. I’d just have to wing it.

Then I went old school.  I ate my luxurious Burger King meal and turned in about 30 minutes after dark.  I don’t think I’ve fallen asleep that early since kindergarten.  But then I woke up at 1am.  I dug out my Abraham Lincoln book and read until 3am when I fell asleep until the alarm went off at 5am.

Day 2 – August 10

So there I was, hiking up County Road 26 in the pitch dark and the only person alive on the planet as far as I could tell.  It added a special thrill to an exciting, stressful situation. I loved it!  It also made me think hard about staying safe (position #1 on map). No one would be looking for my body for several days.

The road led to a big looping trail that I followed to Wrights Lake at 12,200′ (position #2).  The daylight was creeping in and I could see Sneffels and the Blue Lakes Pass. My prep work had indicated that the SW Ridge route was far more interesting than the standard cattle path, so I followed the trail around the lake and aimed myself for the pass.

As I stood atop the pass (position #3), I looked around and saw that I was still all alone. It was an awesome feeling. I looked to the north at the confusing mass of ridges that made up the SW Ridge and thought to myself, ‘this could take some figuring.’  I was right.

I had a copy of Roach’s photo and description, but it didn’t matter.  Neither the photo or description resembled like the mountain I was looking at once I was nose-to-nose with the peak.

I stayed to the left side to avoid some early pinnacles, per the guidebook, and then didn’t know what to do.  I continued to the left of the main features to see if I could see anything useful.  I couldn’t, so I returned and found cairns marking a gully.  I climbed the gully to its dead-end and paused to look around.  I could see back down to where I had hiked earlier, and I could see that I could ascend to the ridge if I had rock gear and a belay.

I decided I’d have to backtrack to the beginning to try another way and started down.  But after a short distance, I found a weakness in the rock that looked promising so I gambled on it.  It led to a notch in the ridge and another gully heading down the other side of the ridge.  I climbed into the new gully and saw that I could scramble up to reach some steep climbing just to the west of the ridge that might lead to the top of the ridge.  I was tempted but was afraid I couldn’t reverse those moves if the path dead ended.  So, instead, I descended the gully to the east to see if I might strike gold.  But no.

Left with only two choices, go all the way back to the bottom or try the hard moves (4th class), I took a chance on the hard moves.  It worked (position #4). The hard climbing lasted only 15 feet and then it was easy scrambling to the top of the ridge.

Once on the ridge, I was able to stay on top the rest of the way to the summit (position #5).  There was some terrific exposure that kept the pressure on even after I was past the route-finding difficulties, but the rock was good enough to be safe.

It was a very good route; one of the best among the 14ers.

The Sneffels summit was a good one.  Clearly it was the tip of a mountain, and the views were awe-inspiring. I sat down for my first break for the day and enjoyed an early lunch and a relaxing few minutes. I figured this was the high point of the trip (literally and figuratively) and should be sure to appreciate it.  I didn’t think San Luis would be so nice.

When I heard voices approaching, I started thinking about my need to get to San Luis before dark. It was time to go.

I scrambled down into the standard route and maneuvered around the snow patches and loose rock to reach the saddle.  I then followed a well beaten cattle trail down under the SW Ridge where I found some Colorado Fourteeners Initiative people working hard on a new trail. I stopped to chat briefly and then continued down to the 4×4 parking lot. I thought I would use the nice lot on any return trips, and then followed the road down to my truck (position #7).

I figured I needed 4 hours to drive back up to Montrose and then over to and down CO-149 to Lake City and then to Creede.  As an alternative, I had a vague notion of the possibility of using back country roads to cut across to Lake City.  I figured it might save several hours; but since I didn’t know the roads and didn’t have any way to figure it out quickly, I decided to simply take the way I knew.  Heck, I was even thinking I might be able to tolerate listening to the Beatles again.

My route up Mt Sneffels

As I drove over to Lake City, I realized that I had not done as much prep work for San Luis since the plan was to do Sneffels first.  The route-finding for the climb was supposed to be easy, but the route-finding on the drive in started to feel confusing as I read and drove.  My drive through Lake City reminded me of an earlier reading-while-driving error (see Flying Blind) and I committed to finding a place in Creede to stop and figure it out.

Yet, I already decided I would use the West Willow Creek trailhead because the drive was shorter and the trailhead was higher and closer to San Luis summit.  Also I decided I would take the longer but more gentle drive offered by Roach.  So I knew to look for 3 dirt roads heading west just south of Creede.  But the directions assumed I was coming from the south (from Creede), while I was coming from the north (from Lake City), so I couldn’t follow the mileage instructions. I hoped it would be obvious.

As I approached Creede, I looked for the three dirt roads on my left.  I could only see 2 dirt roads. Shit.

I continued into town and then back out, staying on CO-149, without learning anything useful.  I turned around and started measuring mileage heading south after crossing the bridge over what I hoped was Willow Creek.  The mileage told me that the turnoff for Bachelor Rd was the right one, assuming that I was measuring from the right bridge.  I thought it was my best bet, so I started up the road to see if the remaining directions would confirm I was on the right road.  The first couple turns did seem to work, even if the road signs were wildly confusing. I continued up the road.

About 1/2 way up the road, I became confident I was in the right place. I eventually found a parking lot near a large mine complex, just like Roach said I would. I parked and started getting ready for the night.

I was worried about how I would hike through the mining area, so I decided to use the 30 minutes before dark to figure it out. I found a passage about the approach that said, “…or continue up a 4×4 road 100 yards before parking lot for 1.6 miles to reach 4×4 parking”.  I looked back down the road I’d driven and saw a dirt road heading up a steep hill.  I thought I should give that a try before dark.

I took off just as another vehicle pulled into the lot.  I made the turn and powered up the steep dirt road.  It was a wandering road through some very isolated terrain and crossing the creek a couple times. I wasn’t certain I was in the right place, so I wanted to hurry to drive the 1.6 miles described by Roach to see it would end in a place that looked promising.

The road abruptly turned up another hill, just as Roach’s book described.  I stopped and walked up the road, and found an old road just as Roach described; I concluded that I had found the 4×4 parking, except that I didn’t see anywhere to park.  I pulled off as well as I could at an old campsite and turned in for the night just as darkness fell upon me.

Below is the sequence I used to find the upper trailhead; numbers noted on map:

  1. Turned west off CO-149 County Rd 505 which becomes Bachelor Rd which becomes County Rd 504
  2. Turned left onto West Willow Creek Road (Google says it is USFS 503) after crossing West Willow Creek and continued end of road (4×2 Parking)
  3. Went 100 yards back up West Willow Creek Road
  4. Turned right (northwest) onto unmarked 4×4 road (Google says it is USFS 503) heading up a steep hill and proceeding north 1.5 miles past Equity Creek Mine and to end of road before it turns uphill again to leave the valley

Day 3 – August 11

I set my alarm for first light.  I needed some daylight to figure out where to go since I wasn’t really sure about where I was.

I started up the old road that led to a ridge and a small bump of a hill.  The road stayed to the right of the hill; once on top I could see a nice trail below me that turned out to be the Colorado Trail. I had found it!

Now it was just a matter of time and weather.

I hurried down to meet the trail and then toward San Luis; I wanted to minimize the chance of getting thwarted by weather after coming so far.  My initial thought was, ‘why is the trail going downhill?’

My campsite was at about 11,500′  Then I hiked to the small bump on the ridge at about 12,500′.  Now I was descending toward the low point in the trail at 11,900′. And that is how the day would go: up and down and up and down, etc. I tried to get my mind right and just hike, but it continued to bother me; somehow knowing that the elevation gain/loss would get me my 3k elevation gain just didn’t help.

The trail also had to contour around two basins to avoid losing even more altitude, so it also gave me a “longer-then-necessary” feeling which added to the boredom. And then the South Ridge route was also boring. I plodded up the ridge to the summit and decided that I would not be back.  San Luis was only worth doing once.

I had thought about bagging Stewart Peak while I was close by, but I did not have the proper attitude.  I knew it meant I would probably not be able to complete the Colorado Highest 100 list, but it just didn’t feel worth it after such a boring day.

I started back toward home. I got back to the truck after hiking 10.5 miles and 3500 feet without a single drop of adrenaline. It might as well have been a Stairmaster Machine.  But at least it was done.  But what an anti-climactic finish!

At least Sneffels was a good one.

Six more hours to get home, and I was done with all the Colorado 14ers I could legally climb. I could almost feel good about it except for the nagging in my mind over Culebra. I had tried the CMC lottery to get a permit, but gave up after not getting selected two years in a row.

Perhaps, someday, I’ll really finish: 57 down and one to go.

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Last Gasp Mountain

April 19, 2010

The thought of recording the glorious horror of this trip helped to sustain me during the many hours of this largely miserable experience that ended well.

And that is the makings of a great adventure:

Great Adventure (my personal definition)

A dangerous undertaking demanding a higher than expected level of physical, emotional, and intellectual effort that ends well.

A trip like this is an unexpected but secretly hoped for blessing.  In fact, if we dare expect it, then the possibility evaporates.  Such opportunities only come from pushing the envelope of capability by selecting adventures that match our most optimistic opinion of our willingness to suffer. This was such a trip.

It was the first trip of the season; I was not yet in shape, but figured I could pull it off by trying harder.

The trip started bad:  driving in the dark with bad visibility and roads from falling snow, not sure how to find the turnoff to the trailhead in a whiteout, setting up camp in a snow storm.

But we persevered.  And by morning, our day was perfect:  single digit temperature with no wind.

My friend, Joe, had joined us for some prep work for a trip to Bolivia that he and I were taking 30 days hence.  The three of us started off from the Missouri Gulch trailhead at 7am.  We managed a good pace early on — the first 2000′ of elevation fell in 1 hour and 45 minutes. Then our luck turn against us.

The Joes in Missouri Gulch on the way to Mt Missouri

We made a route finding error.  Rather than continue closer to the end of the Gulch, we turned up about 1 mile too soon (position #1 on map) to climb a couloir to reach the ridgeline above us on our right. Dawson’s guidebook said, “crest the ridge at the obvious saddle.”  I guess we should have been more careful than assume anything is obvious once surrounded by peaks on 3 sides. This mistake would cost us by putting us in steeper and looser

Our route up and down Mt Missouri from Missouri Gulch trailhead. The correct route is our descent route.

terrain and force us to traverse a long, rocky ridge instead of a smooth valley floor.  And the snow was loose; it felt like climbing a pile of sugar:  three steps up and two slides back. This more challenging terrain kicked my ass and depleted my main fuel tank; I had not yet gotten into high peak climbing shape since the end of downhill ski season.

About 1/2 way up the to the ridge, Joe yelled up that he was turning back to wait at the truck.  I wasn’t tempted to retreat, but I sure could understand the decision.

I reached the ridge line at 12:20pm. It had taken me nearly 3 hours to climb to the ridge. The spot we reached was a pleasant spot with a wide flat area and a view of the entire Rockies, and we were perfectly happy to enjoy the wonderful views because we didn’t yet know that we had climbed up the wrong place.

It took over an hour of carrying skis while stumbling across thinly snow-covered rocky slopes for over a mile to figure out we had done it wrong; and that conclusion only known for certain after we reached the top of the correct couloir.

We had burned precious time and energy, but now we were close.

From the saddle above the correct couloir (where we left our skis), we climbed up a steep, icy slope. As I struggled up the slope toward the summit gasping for air and resting every 5 steps, I had the dread of a false summit. I willed myself into hoping it was the summit.  I needed it to be the summit.

It wasn’t the summit.  I looked left and three-quarters of a mile down the ridge was a peak apparently 100-200 feet higher.  It was 2pm; Brian said, “let’s hurry, we have a long way to go!”  I was too tired to say what I was thinking.

Cleaned up a bit, my thoughts went along the lines of:  “Hurry?  I don’t know if I can keep going!”

I put one foot in front of the other and slowly made progress.  Time was ticking away, but I could do little more than shorten the length of my frequent rests.

About 300 feet from the summit, a steep cornice blocked the ridge. To continue, we had to descend a short distance and make a technical traverse above a steep slope on Missouri’s SW corner; I made it across by kicking steps and desperately using the self arrest handle on my ski poles to find some purchase on the loose snow.  As I stepped out of danger, I immediately dreaded the return trip.

We reached the summit @ 3pm; it took 8 hours to reach the summit. After taking a few minutes to collect my breath, I remarked to Brian that this was such a terrible climb that it will be remembered fondly. He agreed; always, the glory is in the struggle.

I ate and drank the rest of my supplies and hoped for a second wind; I couldn’t afford to save anything for the trip back.  I had to hope a ski descent would be fast enough to get me back to civilization before running completely out of fuel.

With 4 hours of light left, we started back across the summit ridge, hoping for good luck.

The traverse back to the descent saddle was legal murder, so no one filed a police report.  And then it was time for another change in luck.

Once the skis went on the feet, the trip took on a flavor of wonder which only comes of the best possible backcountry skiing conditions.

The snow was perfect.  We skied down the couloir and on down to within 100 yards of the truck.  It was miraculous: pure joy.  We got back to the car at 6pm.

When asked, Joe said he turned around because he couldn’t stand the slow pace of the climb to the ridge: it was too boring. I said it was true that I suffered for much of the day, but that having reached the summit and returned safely, the day felt like a great day.

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).

Fourteener #20 in the bag.

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How I Spent $150 Well

April 18, 2010

Culebra means snake in Spanish, at least according to an old boss of mine who grew up in Mexico.  I couldn’t help but make a connection to the name and the behavior of the owners to restrict access.

But I had reached the summit of 57 Colorado 14ers and every time I tried to tell someone that I had climbed the 14ers, I’d have to explain my rationale for NOT climbing Culebra. After a while, it sounded like whining.  When I learned that I could climb it by merely paying a $100 fee, I signed up and put the 14er list behind me forever.

I registered for Culebra & Red (for an extra $50) and made plans to drive down to the Cielo Vista Ranch the morning of August 18, 2007.  It was a 5.5 hour drive and I had to be at the gate at or before 6am; if I was late, I would miss the gate opening for the morning.  I decided to leave Boulder at midnight to give myself a 30 minute margin for error.  It was a long way to drive by myself, but somehow it felt appropriate that I completed the list alone.

Culebra would be my 22nd solo summit of the 23 14ers completed over the past 5 years.  While I don’t prefer to climb alone, I find that doing these adventures alone adds a thrill that cannot be duplicated when climbing with partners.  Going solo doesn’t make the trip more fun, but does make the adventure more adventurous.

The Long Drive

Oh my God, it was a long drive.  All alone and in the dark.  It felt surreal while I was driving south on I-25.  The highway was so empty, all I had to do was not fall asleep behind the wheel. I couldn’t even call anyone to talk on the phone…everyone was asleep!  I had the strange sense of being alone in space with the capsule window pointed in the wrong direction:  exciting because I was doing something big, but also terribly boring as I was trapped in my seat with nothing to do for a long time before I could do more exciting bits.

Then it got stressful in a hurry.

After not making more than one turn per hour, once I reached an area that looked absolutely 3rd world I had to make a series of intricate maneuvers to find the ranch gate.  And this in the dark; I couldn’t find the road signs keeping a focus on staying on the road. If I made a wrong turn without realizing the error quickly, I would lose the entire effort. But I made it with only one wrong turn quickly corrected.  I arrived to find a few cars already waiting, and I had about 30 minutes to kill while we waited for the ranch staff to arrive.

I used the time to refill my water bottles and get my pack ready to go.  And still I waited.  It was another unreal experience to let the precious morning minutes tick away unused; I sure hoped the weather would let me bag both Culebra & Red.

Just to be clear:  I was not coming back.

The ranch guys showed up and led us up to the Ranch house where we lined to pay and sign our liability waivers in the slowest process invented by Mankind.  I’m not sure they really wanted our money.  It was one more injustice: please take my money and let me go!

Finally I was allowed to hand over my $150 in cash.  I quickly hustled to the truck to drive up to the high parking area so I could finally get started.  However, with people milling about like they had nothing to do that day, I had to carefully maneuver out of the parking lot. Once I was really free, I hauled ass up a very nice dirt road.  I will give them credit for a fine dirt road.

I reached the place that looked like the upper parking lot.  I couldn’t be sure since there weren’t any signs. And then I took off for the ridge line using the “Talus Route”.

The standard Culebra map; I paid $150 for a copy. DO NOT LOOK AT IT UNLESS YOU HAVE BEEN AUTHORIZED BY CIELO VISTA RANCH

The Hike

I hiked east up a trail on the left (north) side of the drainage.  My pace was good while I worked my way around various obstacles and reached the ridge at approx. 13,400′. The long ridge curved east (like a snake?) toward the summit. I hurried south along the ridge crest and past the biggest cairn I ever saw in my life.

Everything was going well except my boots. I had brought some lightweight Timberland boots that turned out to have the slickest tread I have ever had on my feet. They were comfortable, but they were trying to kill me anytime I stepped on lichen. Running shoes would have been better.

I reached Culebra’s summit (14,047’) rather quickly for a 14er; it felt much like Quandary.  On the summit, I stopped for a drink of water and a look around.  It was a beautiful place.

I started down the ridge toward Red.  The terrain was more broken but still easy.  I reached the summit of Red and stopped to watch the people on the summit of Culebra.  I wondered if anyone would make the trek to my position, but none did.  I figured I should head back over to Culebra to say hello.  Besides, I was ready to go home.

When I reached the Culebra summit, everyone was gone.  All that was left was some prayer flags and other miscellaneous trash left behind.  So, I continued toward the trailhead, thinking about the long, long drive home.  I decided to use the “Roach Route” on the way down, just to see if it was any better.  It was.

After working my way back to the dirt road on the far side of the creek, I walked back up to the parking lot where a group of people were chatting.  They asked me what I had climbed, since they hadn’t seen me on Culebra.  I’m not sure they believed me when I told them I did Culebra and then Red before returning to Culebra after everyone had left.  Still, it was as nice a bunch of people as I’ve ever met on a 14er.

Then it was time to go home.  But first I needed to get myself ready for the launch.  I stopped at the Phillips 66 and stocked up on gasoline and caffeinated beverages and used the bathroom with great relish.  Then it was time for blast-off.

And six hours later it was over.  I had finished the Colorado 14ers. It was $150 well spent. Still, it was a muted celebration; it felt bittersweet, like saying good-bye to a good friend who was moving away for a great job.  Good bye, Colorado 14ers list.

So, now what?

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Oxford Windstorm

April 17, 2010

I was trying to make some progress on my 14er list, and my wife, Susan, wanted to do 14ers as well. Earlier in the summer of 2000, we had collected two of the three that had gotten away from me during the big push made in the last few years:

  • July 1 – Massive (somehow went untried)
  • July 8 – Yale (Brian and I failed to summit in a Spring whiteout)

The only one left was Oxford, which had gotten away when I was too slow on trip to collect Belford and Oxford with Brian.  When Susan and I had a free weekend in early September, project Oxford was a go.

Rather than repeat the camping exercise, we just got up super early and left Boulder @ 2:45pm to drive back to the Missouri Gulch trailhead outside of Vicksburg (the non-existent town up county road 390).

Our route from Missouri Gulch trailhead to Belford and Oxford

Everything started well.  We got started at 6am and made a steady but moderate pace up the treed switch-backs.  When we stepped out of the trees around 11,500′, a powerful wind turned the experience into a cold Spring climb.  And we were wearing Summer clothes (position #1 on map).

The trail had been worked on since my last visit; it was a great trail.  But since it was covered with snow and ice, it made for adventurous hiking:  slipping and sliding everywhere.  We persevered to reach the start of the NW corner of Mt Belford (position #2), and then we started up.

We were freezing, but could continue as long as we kept burning calories.  The wind was brutally cold and strong enough to push us around.  Susan was worried about the possibility of being blown off the mountain.  I was able to demonstrate that was not possible by jumping into the air during a strong gust; it could only move me a few inches.  Still, we had to stay low and balanced to avoid being blown down (position #3).

We hit the summit at 9am (position #4) and were met by the strongest winds so far (I estimated it was up to 60 mph). We sought some shelter on the backside of the summit where we found a couple fellows planning to head back down to Missouri Gulch trailhead.

Susan said she needed to get out of the wind and would descend with our new friends.  We said our farewells and I headed SE from Belford.

As I looked down the ridge at the peak a few miles distant, I suddenly regretted not bringing a map.  I thought Oxford was so close as to be obvious, but I could only see a peak that looked several miles away. Resigned to a long trek, I started toward the peak (it was Harvard).

After a short distance (position #5), I decided that something was wrong.  I could see that I would have to descend too far to reach the peak I was aimed at.  I stopped to look around and found a big peak behind my left shoulder.  It didn’t look high enough to be a 14er, but it was the only thing that made sense.  I did a u-turn and worked across the saddle to the bland looking peak that I hoped was Oxford.

I stayed on the Oxford summit (position #6) for a minute to snap a photo and then headed back to Belford, where I arrived at 12:20pm.

Looking back toward Belford from the summit of Oxford

The trek back from Belford was made very easy by the brand new trail; I tried to go fast to catch up to Susan.  But, they were already at the trailhead when I left Belford’s summit; they had not lingered in the wind. I found Susan waiting at the truck when I arrived at 2:20pm.

It was a good day; my effort included 5800′ of elevation in 11 miles of hiking over 8.5 hours to bag my 28th 14er.  Susan’s day was a bit shorter, but she’s a beginner who hung when cold and afraid of the conditions; she’s a trooper with six 14ers to her credit.

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