Archive for the ‘14ers’ Category

Sometimes two is one too many

April 17, 2010

With only 13 of 58 fourteeners done, I cherished any opportunity to bag more than one in a trip.  We were going to do a snow climb on Belford and then traverse over to Oxford.  I loved the plan; but, sometimes, two is one too many.

For these intermediate distant peaks, we generally prefer to camp at the trail head the night before to avoid having to get up at 1am.  But my travel plans ruined it.  I didn’t get home from a week in Detroit until 10pm on April 24, 1998; so, we couldn’t get to the Missouri Gulch until 3am.  With a wake up call coming at 5am, I wouldn’t get much sleep or acclimatization for my first 14er of 1998.

And then it snowed hard all night.  We awoke to a fluffy start, and a quick elevation gain.  The trail gets steep immediately as it switch-backs up through the trees (position #1 on map).

The mountain was ours.  No sign of humanity as far as the eye could see.  It was a spectacular setting; almost enough to make me forget how tired I was.  Almost.

Our route up from Missouri Gulch trailhead to Mt Belford

We took the northwest ridge route:  2000 feet straight up.  It was sort of boring, really.  And that was the last thing my sleep deprived mind could tolerate.  I felt terrible (position #2).

I was tired and dizzy, and the higher I climbed, the worse it got.  Brian moved ahead while I struggled up the slope.  Twice I nearly fell over backward and one time I fell asleep while taking a break.  It was my worst performance ever (I mean ‘ever’ as in before or since).

Since Brian wasn’t around, I couldn’t stop without telling him. So I kept plugging along, a few inches at a time.  By the time I reached the summit, Brian had been sleeping on the large boulder for an hour.

I felt badly about being so slow, but Brian’s first comment was “never give up, huh?”.  It was too late to push onto Oxford; hell, I was lucky to get Belford (position #3).

We started down, and I felt better immediately.  With all the snow, I was glissading down the entire mountain.  The first glissade was a real howler….snow flying up all around me as I flew down the slope.  I came to a stop just before a steep couloir (position #4).

Brian caught up to me and said he didn’t like the look of the snow.  I said, “let’s find out”, and push myself down the chute.  About 15 seconds in, the snow in the chute let go.

But rather than throw my stupid bones down the mountain, the snow just ran out from under me and dumped me on the crusty snow layer underneath. It was a strange feeling watching the snow crash down the mountain; it could have been me with it.  And with the good snow gone, the good glissades were over.

Three hours of postholing (position #5) got me to the trees, and a short time later we reached the truck.

We had taken 10 hours to climb 4,500′ of elevation in only 4 miles one-way (8 miles round trip).  My feet of elevation per hour of sleep was at the high end of the human potential scale, in my opinion.

Thank God that Brian drove.  I couldn’t stay awake to save my life.  We packed up our camp and piled into the truck.  I fell asleep immediately, and slept for 2 hours while Brian drove.

He woke me around Eisenhower Tunnel to help him navigate the whiteout he was driving in down I-70. The snow was falling so hard that we couldn’t see more than 10 feet, which is bad when driving at 30 miles per hour.  My job was to watch the guard rail to warn Brian when he was drifting too far to the side of the road; he couldn’t afford to take his attention from the faint lights in front of him. Every 15 minutes or so, he’d pull off the road so I could run out and wipe the snow off the headlights.  I don’t know how we avoided getting crushed by a blinded truck driver.

It was completely insane, but at least I had a nap before hand.  And with the success of this trip, Brian and I would go on a tear, bagging 5 14ers during the Spring of 1998.

Unfortunately, Oxford wouldn’t fall until September 2000 on a trip with my wife.  We didn’t have snow problems, but the wind was historic.

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Long’s Southwest Ridge

April 15, 2010

For my 9th summit of Longs Peak, I wanted to do something new.  I had already done an iced-over Keyhole (late fall), a winter Cable Route, a spring Notch and Kieners, a summer Stettners and Diamond, and had even done a Keyhole Ridge and a traverse from Meeker via Gorrells and a climb out of the Notch to the Longs summit ridge.  This time we’d do the Southwest Ridge route pioneered by J. Alexander in 1924.

We got an early start (4:30am) but still had to park 1/2 mile down the road due to a full parking lot.  I have never been able to get right with the notion that the safest way to climb Longs Peak is to do it in the dark to avoid the lightning.  Shit; I like to see what I’m doing.  And I’ve not been chased off Longs by lightning yet.

We passed a hundred people on the way to the Boulderfield which we reached at 7am.  We needed to let the rock warm up a bit, so we lounged in the Boulderfield for a while and speculated on new routes we could put up.  Big talkers.

Longs Peak from Taylor with our route marked in red

Position #1

Then we continued along the Keyhole route until we reached the top of the Tough, from which we scrambled up 40 feet to reach the start of the Southwest Ridge Route climb.  We started the rock climb at 9am.

The rock was freezing.  I was freezing.  The rock was covered in lichen.  It must not get much traffic.

Brian took the first pitch.  The guide book says traverse left and up ledges until a steep gully leads back to a belay on the ridge, but I don’t remember what Brian did.

For the second pitch, the guide book says to pass an overhang, then work up to an exposed belay.  All I can remember is crawling up licheny, cold rock with numb toes and frozen fingers, and then not being able to find a belay spot until I ran out of rope.  Calling down 175′ in high altitude winds is impossible, so I put in the best belay I could.  You should imagine a very terrible belay.

Brian finished up by climbing over some ledges and moving somewhat right.

Position #2

At noon, as we sat on the summit block just above the Southwest Ridge, we both suffered a bit from the altitude and were really huffing and puffing. Brian dared me to hold my breath for a minute, but I feared at least a stroke and at most my head exploding, so I declined.

Position #3

We then wandered over to the summit proper to enjoy the views and receive our honors.

After a short disappointing wait, we descended via the Cable Route.

Position #4

We descended past Chasm View and into the Boulderfield to get more water and then becgan the long march home.

That last 1/2 mile down the road always feels like a bit of insult on top of injury from a day of pounding. At the end, we’d used 10.5 hours and hiked 15 miles to get 3 pitches of 5.4 climbing.  We must love Longs Peak, eh?

Once back at the truck, all that was left was to imagine a new way to reach the Longs Peak summit.

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5 14ers in 4 Hours

April 12, 2010

Okay, the title is not quite right, as you’ll see.  But this was the name of the trip report I came up with when I had only climbed 8 14ers, so think of it as an early step along my path in learning about the Colorado High Peaks.

Day One

I couldn’t find anyone to do anything for the weekend of July 20-21, 1997.  I decided I would use the time to bag the 4 of the 14ers in the Mosquito Range after flying back into town friday night.

Unfortunately, flying in from Chicago during the summer months can be tricky business.  An hour of local thunderstorms threw O’Hare airport into such disarray that my 5:45pm flight didn’t leave until 11:30pm.  As I sat in the terminal stewing, I worried that the lack of acclimatization might kill my plans for a fast-paced 4-banger.  The loss of sleep was something I was used to.

The flight arrived at DIA at 1:30am.  Desperate to get home quickly, I powered to my car, loaded my bags into the trunk, buckled my seatbelt, and turned the ignition key to no effect.  Nothing; the batter was dead.  I sat for a moment and did some clever late night thinking. Not wanting to deal with a bad battery while off in the wilderness, I decided I’d leave my car at the airport to deal with later.  I grabbed all my bags and hauled over to the rental counter to pick up a rental car for the weekend.  With the walking and shuttle busing and the driving, I got home and in bed by 2:45am.

Determined to proceed with my plans, I set two alarms for 4am.  How’s that for some unrealistic determination?

I woke with a start at 7am.  I bolted for my gear closet to find that my rain gear was in my car at the airport. I threw a sweater in the day pack with a liter of water and ran for the car.  Then I drove like a bat out of hell to reach Kite Lake at 9:30am.

After figuring out the unclear parking regulations, I grabbed my small pack and took off running.  The skies looked okay, but it wasn’t going to be one of those clear sky days.  I figured it’d just go as fast as I could and see what I could get done.

Mt Democrat fell quickly, but the weather was starting to look bad.  Two hours in the lightning started blasting around my ears and forced me to seek shelter under some rocks along the ridge connecting Democrat and Cameron.  I put on my fleece sweater  and waited for 20 minutes before I got too cold to stay put.  I waited for a lightning blast and then ran for the car.

When I reached the car, I stood in the rain while I hunted through my pack and pockets for my car keys but couldn’t find them.  No!  My mind raced to see where they fell out of my pack or my pocket, with the faint hope that I might retrace my steps to find them.  But then I knew.  I checked everything again before looking where I knew they were.  The driver door was locked, of course, so I had to lean over the hood to look down at the dashboard to confirm that the keys were still in the ignition.  And no other cars around. I’m scrrrrrrrreeeeeewwwwwweeeed!

With water running down my face and once again shivering with the cold water penetrating my fleece sweater, I dreaded the ordeal that lay ahead of me.  I was going to have to walk 6 miles in a thunderstorm and talk someone in Alma into letting me use their phone (no cell phone) to call a tow-truck, who I would have to convince that I really had money locked in my car 6 miles up a dirt road.  Oh, what a terrible, terrible mistake.

My mind replayed the events that led to such an error…I had re-parked the car to get into a legal parking spot after I had already gotten out to re-filled my water bottle.  Somehow, the confusion of re-parking the car had let me make a mistake I had consciously avoided since 1976. I had managed to leave the keys in the ignition after re-parking the car.  Then it occurred to me; if I forgot to get the keys, perhaps I forgot to lock the back seat door that I used to get my pack after the re-park.  I tried the door, AND IT OPENED!

It was a blessing from above.  I drove home at legal speeds to show my respect for my good fortune.

But I was determined to bag those peaks.  On the way home I resolved to return the next day to finish the other peaks if not do all 4. It was still a misery to drive  100 miles each way only to have to return the following day to finish what I was too stupid to complete the first time.

I was not going to fail again!

Day Two

On July 21, I left my house at 4:30am to redrive back to Alma and climb Mt Democrat, Mt Lincoln, Mt Bross, and Mt Cameron.

I was an expert in Kite Lake parking and wasted no time in finding a legal spot and carefully locking the doors using the car keys I held carefully in my hand.  Then I took off for Mt Cameron and the rest.  My plan was to do the other peaks first, and then, if the weather held, reclimb Mt Democrat so I could say I did them all in a day.

And, I was new to the 14er game and didn’t understand why Cameron wasn’t really a 14er when it was clearly higher than 14k feet. So, I decided, to hell with the establishment that can rule a 14er is not a 14er.  I would hit it twice before the day was done, and I would count it both times.  And, henceforth, I would measure my progress using the 58 14er list which included 4 peaks over 14k that do not measure up to the standards set by the 14er accountants.

Mosquito Range 14ers route map from Kite Lake

1) Mt. Cameron:

From the parking area, I followed the road past the lake and began the boring hike up the pile of rubble to the Democrat/Cameron saddle. From the saddle, I hiked northeast along the right side of Mt. Cameron’s west ridge. Near 13,500, I regained the ridge and continued until reaching the flat summit area.  A short hike took me to the Cameron summit (#1).

2) Mt. Lincoln:

Without stopping, I left Cameron and descend northeast toward Lincoln; the path was easy to see. The last little bit was rougher but still easy, and then I was standing on the Lincoln summit (#2).  There was another fellow there who left shortly after my arrival.  I took my time to enjoy the good views I had from Lincoln, but then I remembered how quickly the weather can change.  I took off after my new acquaintance, since he seemed to be heading toward Bross, about 1.5 miles away.

3) Mt. Bross:

I hiked southwest back to the Cameron-Lincoln saddle, and then turned south and followed a nice trail towards Mt. Bross. My pace was good and I was steadily gaining ground on my “rabbit.”  I reached the Cameron-Bross saddle (~13,800)’ and headed southeast heading straight for the summit.  I caught up with my “rabbit” just before the summit of Bross (#3).  We chatted and laughed a bit about our “race” before I said my farewells and got up to leave.  I still wanted to do Democrat before the weather hit.

4) Mt. Cameron:

From the Bross summit, I tried to contour around Cameron to reach the Cameron/Democrat saddle, but the terrain was too loose and too steep, so I went only a little out of the way to pass over the Cameron summit once again (#4) on my way to Democrat.

5) Mt. Democrat:

From the saddle I continued west up the ridge. After climbing about 200’ along the ridge, the trail turned left and traversed southwest across the slope. I followed a few small switchbacks that lead to the top of the slope. I was starting to feel tired at this point, and apparently looked tired too.  Some hikers descending from Democrat consoled me with the news that the summit was near.

I couldn’t think of what to say so I just said “thanks” and continued to the Democrat summit where I had been the day before (#5).  I stood on the summit for only a minute because I wanted to do the circuit in under 4 hours.

A fast run/walk down the talus and dirt got me past the friendly hikers and back to my car at 11:15.  It took me exactly 4 hours and 15 minutes to hike 7.5 miles and ascend 3,700 feet.  And it even sounded like a magnificent accomplishment until I did some real climbs in the years hence.  But even today, I feel like it was a good effort, especially the part where I drove to Alma from Boulder twice in the same weekend.

To this day, my only mountaineering paranoia is the fear of losing my car keys.

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Crucified on Mount of the Holy Cross

April 11, 2010

What a way to end the snow climbing season!  It was so hard that I was at once beaming with pride over the accomplishment and too exhausted to think I could do another 14er any time soon.  What a peak!

Brian and I decided the conditions were ideal for Mount of the Holy Cross.  In the evening of June 5, 1998, we drove up I-70, past Vail, and past the White River National Forest Ranger Station in Minturn to reach the Tigiwon (dirt) Road (Forest Service Road 707), which was supposed to take us to the Halfmoon trailhead 8+ miles up the road.  But 2.5 miles before the trailhead (at approx. 9,500′), the road was blocked by a snow drift at a creek crossing.

We tried to power over it, but only succeeded in getting stuck.  We spent the next 30 minutes digging out so we could at least go home after the climb.  Defeated by a snow drift, we decided we’d just add the 5 miles to the hiking round trip, and turned in for a night on the side of the road.

It was a cold night, and then we overslept.  Brian’s alarm was muffled by his sleeping bag and we didn’t hear the tiny beep, beep, beep offered by his watch as an alarm.  At 5:30am I heard Brian say “shit!”, and we were up.  We hit the road at 5:50am and followed it up and down and around the knoll ending at the trailhead at 10,300′ about 50 minutes later.

We logged in and continued up the trail, which was soft and muddy, reflecting the recent rain & snow but not the very cold temperatures of the night a few hours prior.

Our route up Mount of the Holy Cross

I could feel a growing nausea in my body; I pushed on hoping it would grow bored and leave me alone.

We crossed the Halfmoon pass (11,640′) and then started to traverse the side slope of Point 12,743.  The trail was cut into this slope and thus had an angle perpendicular to its direction.  Since it was also partially covered with alternating patches of soft and hard snow, anytime I managed to avoid post-holing, I was tearing my groin muscles as I did the splits whiles slipping and sliding off the side of the trail.

Once past the SW ridge of Point 12,743 Brian, I, and my remaining intact muscles could see the poor condition of the Cross Couloir before we descended to East Cross Creek at 10,670.  After hiking a short distance past the creek, we turned south to skirt around the peak to reach the SE corner; but not before stashing our snow flotation gear which was useless in the patchy snow.

Three hours in and we had only gained a net 900′. And that last 1000′ descent we’d have to reclimb on the way out.  I knew this was going to be a hard day.

“Where’s the trail?”…”this seems too close to the creek.”  After 10 minutes, we gave up and just started bushwhacking and boulder hopping (to avoid the soft snow).  The bushwhacking turned into scrambling, and at one point, into a technical free solo up an icy chimney.  “I don’t think this is the trail,” I offered. We eventually found our way to the talus field along the west ridge which we followed south toward the Cross Couloir.  We had already decided that the Cross Couloir looked too hard (too much exposed rock); so we were on our way to the Teardrop Couloir (actually the name “Teardrop” showed up some years after we did the climb using Dawson’s guidebook published in 1995 which said it was a “hidden cirque”).

After a while, I was thinking that the effort to hike past the Cross Couloir and the Lake of Tears to reach the Teardrop Couloir was the crux of day.  Our late start, the soft snow, and the missing trail conspired to threaten our summit.  Six hours in and we were still postholing by the Lake of Tear around the corner from the start of the couloir on the SE corner.  At least I knew how the lake received its name.

While I couldn’t imagine what new variable could be added to the soup to make it even harder, a short while later I’d find out that fear would do the trick.

We finally reached the base of the couloir around 1pm (7 hours after starting) where we stopped to put on crampons before starting up. My nausea had long since passed and Brian and I made good time up the couloir.  As we neared the top, the cornice started looking bigger and bigger; and, finally, it was undeniably huge.

The Teardrop Couloir (Brian's route in green)

Brian and I stopped to consider our options.  There were only two obvious paths:

  1. go through a cleft in the middle of the cornice , reached by traversing left over some steep snow directly underneath the bulk of the cornice, or
  2. traverse right toward some rocks and what appeared to be easier ground

Brian proclaimed that tunneling up through the cornice via the cleft would be fun; I announced I would head toward the easy ground.

My path actually did start off pretty easy, but soon became wickedly steep.  But I was able to get a solid grip on the snow with my axe and crampons, so I continued with the plan still feeling it was the best path.

Then the snow got hard, and I got scared.  I was on 60 degree rock-hard snow with nothing but the tips of my crampons on the snow and air below me for 1000 feet.

After a moment, I steeled myself to the task of surviving and found a rhythm of repeatedly kicking each foot to gain some friction on the hard snow to take a step and repeatedly pounding my axe into the snow every 2-3 steps.  This action was exhausting but successful in safely taking me to the Holy Cross Ridge line between the summits of Holy Cross and Point 13,831.  And, oh what a beautiful feeling it was to pull over the crest to safety.  It was like a rebirth.  Brian had waited until he saw I would make it, then he took off for the summit.

The wind was really blowing on the ridge, and almost immediately after my arrival, it started snowing.  The visibility was poor and I couldn’t see the summit.  I figured I had to be close.  But as I sat there finding my breath, I saw it:  still a quarter mile to go.  Shit.

I pushed as hard as I could and reached the summit at 2:30pm (8.5 hours after starting).  Brian and I enjoyed the view for a short time and then left to descend via the North Ridge.  But we couldn’t find it.  It is always amazing how easy it is to lose something so massive.  But we didn’t come up that way and the visibility was once again poor.

After studying the map a bit, we decided to head west and then north to find the proper ridge.  It worked. We found the North Ridge but also found it was covered in a powdery snow which concealed loose rocks beneath.  On separate occasions, I hyper-extended my left knee, over-extended my right Achilles tendon, and smashed my right knee cap after slipping on loose rocks.  I would have paid a lot of money to be able to glissade any part of the descent, but I couldn’t find a decent patch of snow to save my life (or my legs).

At the bottom of the ridge, we aimed ourselves north to try to intersect the lost trail as it angled toward Cross Creek.  It worked.

At 5pm, I was sitting on the ground and Brian was laying in the grass near Cross Creek; we rested and pondered our completion time. We were sorry to conclude that we had 2-3 hours of hiking left, and that would get us home by 11pm if we didn’t stop for dinner. It would be a hungry night.

Coming back up the other side of the canyon was as exhausting as anything I’ve done. We made good time (at one point, we ascended 500 feet in 30 minutes), but I felt like I was going to either puke or die, and I didn’t want to puke.

Somehow continuing to live with my stomach intact, the mountain threw a curve.  We had to recross the angled-snowfield-of-torn-muscles beneath Point 12,743, and now the snow was all very soft. I was quickly out of energy but had to continue to fight for every step. I needed snowshoes the size of pickup trucks to avoid postholing in that air that looked like snow.

By the time we reached the pass, I was spent. Panting heavily despite no apparent need, I looked like I’d been crucified.  Brian took pity on me and offered me a piece of candy.  In the past, I had always rejected such as junk food; but I was desperate.  So I took it, and that made all the difference.

Almost immediately I felt better and was able to haul ass back to the truck.  We reached the truck just before 8pm, leaving plenty of light to find our way back to Minturn.  But with a late night already locked in, we couldn’t stop for dinner before jumping on I-70 for the long drive home.

We had taken 14 hours to climb 6,500′ feet and hike 17 miles on our successful quest to bag Mount of the Holy Cross via the Teardrop Couloir, contributing only a few tears to the stash.

No more soft snow!

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A Winter Longs

April 2, 2010

I had long wanted to do Longs Peak in winter, but it didn’t seem likely due to the requirement to give up a downhill ski weekend, which was the source of all joy.  Fortunately, good climbing partners are good for all sorts of things.

The Weekend Before

Driving back from one of the best ski days of all time, Brian says, “Are you interested in doing Longs Peak over President’s Day weekend?”

Stunned into silence, my mind grasped for a handle on the situation. What could he be thinking about? Why would we even consider giving up the complete joy of downhill skiing to seek pain & misery for the sake of mere accomplishment?

But I had never done Longs Peak or any high peak in winter, and my passion to bag many different types of Longs Peak ascents won out in a high vs. low brain wrestling contest using a rapid take-down maneuver.  I don’t think I managed to squeeze out a “huh?” until I announced that “I’m in” a few moments later.

The thought that Vail was closed on President’s Day weekend for Colorado Pass holders was a serious handicap for the ski contingent.

The Night Before

Brian called to confirm our meet up schedule and reported that the Boulderfield had winds of 80 mph.  I was unnerved to say the least.  I had made a bargain with my Maker 10 months earlier that I would take better care of my nose after getting frostbite on an wickedly windy Mt. Silverheels.  That was a serious bargain that had worked out very well so far; it didn’t seem right to push it. But, I reasoned, if I brought a facemask and extra wind protection, that would qualify as “taking better care” of my nose. I threw my facemask and an extra balaclava into the pack and put the issue behind me.

The First Day

We left Boulder at 7:30am on Saturday, February 19, 2000.  The Longs Peak Ranger Station Parking lot was empty, of course. But it still felt weird, like in Vanilla Sky when Tom Cruise finds himself in an empty Times Square. That said, it is still better to park right up front and avoid the extra 1/4 mile of hiking to reach the trail head.

The trail was completely obscured and invisible in many spots; it made for very slow going. About 1/2 way to tree line, we lost the trail all together and had to break trail the rest of the way. Still, we had all day to make it to our planned camp in the Boulderfield, so we just endured the struggle.

Just above treeline with Mt Lady Washington & Longs in background. The hurricane winds would start at the Boulderfield.

Once at the Boulderfield, my poor condition began to demand a price.  A price paid in pain. I hadn’t been over 11,600′ (Vail Mountain) in 6 months, had spent a good part of the last month in Atlanta (elevation 750′), and hadn’t carried a full pack since my trip to the Tetons 2 years earlier. It was all I could do to keep moving.

For motivation, the mountain offered blasting, freezing winds. My Gorilla Mask was the only thing between my nose and my reckoning with the Maker. And, I had no idea how we could keep the tent from being destroyed in the hurricane winds, but that was a problem for later.  It was going to be an interesting trip.

I arrived at camp enough time after Brian to find him chest deep in a hole he was shoveling, in the only patch of snow in the boulderfield that looked deep enough for such an pit. He informed me that we needed to build an igloo for shelter from the wind. And, he just happened to have his snow saw handy.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing.  I think I’ll start saying that if you’re not an ex-Boy Scout, it’s good to bring one with you.

And, it was a good idea except that neither one of us knew how to build an igloo. We started with Brian cutting and me placing the blocks.  But my back was spent from the hike in, so after a short time, my back started cramping.   It turns out that compacted snow is heavy, especially when cut into massive blocks.

To give my back a break, I went to dig the entrance tunnel while Brian cut and placed blocks.  By the time I was done with my fabulous tunnel, the igloo looked like it needed some scaffolding to keep from falling in on itself.  We understood the theory of arches (and domes) but didn’t know any safe way to keep the blocks from falling down while we placed the remaining blocks, including the capstone or keystone or whatever you call the last block that transfers the weight of the dome down to the ground.  We resolved that someone was going to have to get into the pit beneath the blocks and hold them up.

Brian offered to go into the “pit of crushing death” to act as the scaffolding, but I couldn’t place the blocks with my back issues. So, standing beneath and holding up 500 pounds of snow blocks was my pleasure while Brian layed on block after block until he placed the final block on top. And in a gift from the heavens, the wind disappeared during the time the igloo was in its most unstable condition.

Somehow it worked.  It took 4 hours to build, but it was magnificent. And huge. Apparently, making the igloo too big is a common beginner mistake. The inside was big enough to hold 4-5 people.

Me standing behind the ugliest igloo ever made on purpose. On the other hand, the entrance tunnel was the epitome of functional elegance.

We found the igloo had many cracks between the uneven blocks.  To avoid a nasty draft during the night, we packed loose snow into the cracks. And to get some idea on whether the structure was sturdy at all, we pounded on the sides with the shovel.  Every time we hit it the sides moved inward but held; we both thought the pounding made it stronger.

As I ate my dinner, I expressed some concern to Brian that if the igloo did collapse while we slept, however unlikely that was, we might not get out.  We decided that we could at least avoid being knocked senseless or crushed by moving out from directly underneath the blocks.  To accomplish this, we dug alcoves into the sides of the igloo pit (which was dug into the raw, compacted snow) to create a roof of compacted natural snow as protection.

We exited the igloo to watch the sun set and then ran for for shelter.  The temperature was dropping very fast, and the wind was picking back up.  But, that sunset was a sight I’ll never forget.

Then it was time for sleep, which came surprisingly easy despite lingering worries about the stability of the igloo.

The Second Day

We awoke around 7am to find ourselves alive and the interior of the igloo covered in a light layer of snow. Apparently, the wind had been bad enough during the night to blast out our snow plaster and begin to eat away at the blocks themselves.

After a light breakfast, we emerged to find a clear day with light winds.  A serious good luck move.  But it was cold.

Of course those initial winter morning moments are agony, as the body temperature struggles to catch up.  But the hike to Chasm View was a nice warm up.  I warmed up enough to think it wasn’t all that cold, so I put on fleece instead of down.  But that foolishness lasted only a short while and cost me some frozen fingers most of the way up.

We used the rope only on the initial pitch where the rock was exposed and we could use rock protection .  Above that, the snow was perfectly firm and had excellent depth over the rock in most of the steep sections.  Still, those few spots with crampons and ice tools scratching for purchase on hard rock with my ass hanging over a 1000 foot drop down the North Face with no protection made a lasting impression.  If that sentence was too long, let me summarize:  it was scary in spots.

Me on the summit of Longs Peak on February 20, 2000.

We lounged on the summit for only 15 minutes.  The sky was still clear and the views were magnificent, but we had many miles to go before we sleep, as it were.

The Descent

The downclimb was utterly unnerving.  In my mental preparations for the trip, I had visions of glissading; but there was no way:  too steep. And just like in rock climbing, downclimbing is much harder than up-climbing because you lead with your feet while your eyes are on the other end.  Plus we made the mistake of following our ascent path, which meant the snow coverage was now poor since we knocked much of it off on the way up. Somehow, I managed to avoid a long dive back to the igloo.

On the way down, we bumped into a couple fellows coming up who told us their tent blew down during the night winds.  Hurray for Brian, his snow saw, and his igloo!

We arrived at the igloo around 2pm and started packing and refueling.  Sunset would be around 5:40pm, so we needed to hurry to avoid the headlamps; but, it just wasn’t in the cards.  At 3pm we started down toward the Ranger Station.

Despite a high misery factor, the hike out went quickly.  The more tired I am the more effective my hiking trance.  Brian tried out his new skis with new-fangled bindings that fit his plastic climbing boots.  I asked him if the setup was tight enough to control his skis; he said we find out. His poor binding combined with a massive pack caused him to crash enough times that I was able to stay with him just by hiking fast.

We got to the car in the twilight around 6pm.

It was another great one! And my nose survived!

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One-day Lindsey

March 1, 2010

To kick-off the 2003 Summer 14er season, I picked Mt. Lindsey from the dwindling list of remaining 14ers for reasons of proximity and difficulty: Mt Lindsey is only 5 hours away and has a maximum difficulty of 3rd class.  I figured on a late afternoon drive down to Redwing followed by an early morning ascent and return home by the evening of the next day.  However, as I am apt to do, I got a brainstorm at the last minute and decided the night before the trip to leave a bit earlier to add the option of completing the climb on the same day if the weather was good.

And one more time I found a way to turn an easy 14er into a thrilling, and unnecessarily dangerous, adventure.

Adding additional indignity, the first 14er of the season is always a logistical hassle since everything is put away (thanks, Susan) and my feeble mind can barely remember what to bring even with visual clues.  In a futile effort to prepare, I spent a few hours the day before to plan the drive and hike (using both Dawson and Roach), and then I packed the gear I thought I might need.

Naturally, no plan is perfect, but the first plan of a season is particularly flaw-prone.  I ended up bringing a ton of stuff I didn’t need and forgetting a few key items, but it all added to the flavor of the stew.

On July 7, 2003, I left Boulder at 6am.  My drive plan was to take Hwy 93 to Golden, C-470 (south) to I-25 which I would take south to exit 52 (Walsenburg), and then take hwy 69 to Redwing and continue on to the Huerfano River Trail.

The drive down went well, and included getting by with only a warning from our friendly Highway Patrol for doing 85 in a 75 zone (thanks, CHP!).  The drive took approx. 5 hours to do 230 miles for an average of 46 mph.  I found the directions in Roach to be completely accurate and sufficient to answer all questions that can up along the way.  Even the off-road portion was short and moderate.

As I drove, first at very fast and later at legal speeds, I was admiring the blue skies and thinking that I should be hiking (read:  wondering why the hell I didn’t leave earlier).  The weather reports indicated a chance of afternoon thunderstorms and then clear for several days; I figured I had a fighting chance to avoid a storm but to maximize my probability of success I needed to move quickly.  So, once I hit the trailhead at 11am, I lit-off down the down the Huerfano trail lickety-split.

All day long I kept saying to myself, “I can always turn around if the weather changes.”  I knew this was dangerous rationalization…I was taking a risk, but I was going to make myself feel better about it by giving the 1-day attempt a full measure of effort.  Unfortunately, I was buried in the trees and could not see any part of the sky that was not directly overhead.

Mt Lindsey NW Ridge route

So off I went armed with a full head of steam and nearly everything a climber could want, e.g., a compass, an altimeter, four liters of water, four Zone Bars, and my 5.10 sticky rubber approach shoes size 12.  What I didn’t have was a clue…it was several hours before it occurred to me that I was missing my rain gear. Duh!

I guess my mind didn’t want to consider the possibility of rain and so I didn’t even think about the rain gear.  Well, I’d have to get lucky, again.

Step 1

I reached the Huerfano river (a creek, really) crossing at 11:30am and worked across easily.  I was a little disappointed with the quality of the log used for the crossing, but could not find an alternative crossing or any method for upgrading the log.  I made do.

Once across the stream, I looked for a trail heading East (per Dawson), but the obvious trail continuing along the creek and now heading South (per Roach) was too compelling.  In fact, once past the creek crossing, the trail was obvious and no choices seemed to clutter the way.

Step 2

I continued along the creek and then upward passing a talus field (including the remains of some recent significant rock fall that rained large green rocks into the trail and surrounding trees), a moth swarm, and an old mine entrance (a square hole in the rock face that looks like an entrance to the Hyperion labyrinth).  I reached the crossing of Nipple Creek (per Dawson; Roach says “unnamed”) at 12:30pm.

At this point I finished my first liter of water, and then refilled the bottle from the stream and stashed it for the return trip.

Step 3

Just above the creek crossing was treeline and a beautifully flat basin that ended at a ridge connecting Lindsey, Iron Nipple and Blanca.

The ridge was accessible via a grassy ledge which I finished at 1:30pm.  From this position, looking West, I could finally see the weather fairly well.

My route up Mt Lindsey's NW Ridge. Note: photo taken from Blanca Peak on a later trip.

Step 4

The clouds were darkening and moving easterly from positions north and south of me and Mt. Lindsey;  but it was still clear overhead.  I figured all of my huffing and puffing created a high pressure zone that pushed away the clouds.  I decided to push onward while capturing for future use a vision (but no photo for reasons I cannot fathom) of the Flying Buttress-like ramp leading to the summit of Blanca Peak.

My route up the Mt Lindsey Northwest ridge. I stayed on the ridge nearly the entire way up, but used an easier path on the descent.

Step 5

I reached the NW ridge quickly and decided to stayed on it for the aesthetic pleasure of exposure; I didn’t think it would cost me too much time.

Looking ahead, I could see the notch in the ridge-line would be interesting.  I finished my second liter of water and stashed another to lighten my load before starting again.

Step 6

Surprisingly, the hardest move with the most exposure was just before the notch.  It was a ridiculous spot to take a chance just to stay on the ridge, and it was a move I avoided on the descent.  Once at the notch, the solution was not obvious; a line to the left looked a bit easier but the route description said to stay on the ridgeline…so I did.  It went, but felt harder than necessary (I took the left route on the descent and found it to be very solid and straightforward).  I continued up the ridge while thinking that I needed to hurry back; the descent past the notch would be much harder if wet.

Step 7

I approached the summit with a sense of relief and then dread.  I decided that all false summits would be outlawed in Joe’s National Forest.  I pushed past the extra 200 feet to reach the summit at 2:30pm.  I signed the register and noted that Mt. Lindsey must get thousands of climbers each year.

As I was relaxing and marveling at my weather-luck (and finishing my 3rd liter of water), a shadow passed overhead as dark clouds finally reached me.  I was up quickly and moving again with a hope to at least get down the ridge before the rain came.  I’d worry about avoiding freezing to death after I avoided falling to my death.

The wind was cold and hard, but no rain before I worked my way past the notch. I used a different, safer route to reach good ground, and then took the fastest path to my stashed water which I consumed (my 4th) before continuing on my to safety.  I was amazed to notice that a marmot had chewed on my Nalgene bottle!

I made fast time as I faced for treeline.  Without rain gear, the trees were my best bet against cold wind, rain and lightning.  I reached the Nipple Creek crossing (and my stashed 5th liter of water) at approximately 5pm, and that’s when big clumpy snow flakes started falling amid thunder. I grabbed my water and streaked for the heavy trees; by the time I reached them, the snow and thunder had gone.  Lucky again!

I took a moment to finish 1/2 of my last liter of water and dig out a package of Mentos that I happened to bring along on a whim. Delicious!  They were like little energy packets powering me home.

I reached the car at 6:30pm, finished my water, and headed home.  Consuming 5 liters of water in 7.5 hours meant that dehydration would not be a problem.  However, I had to stop at gas stations far more often than my 4Runner required.

As I was driving, I realized that I had missed climbing Iron Nipple in my haste.  I doubted I’d ever make it back again and regretted not taking more care to get that peak. After a total of 5 hours of driving, I reached home at 10:30pm.  My wife asked me what I was doing back home so soon.  I told her I took a chance and managed to finish the climb, so I came home early.

She said, “Why?”  And then she added, “I would have thought you’d have stayed the night just for the pleasure of it.”

What could I say.  She was right.  Sometimes faster isn’t better.  I just cannot help myself.

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For Whom the Bells Toll

February 28, 2010

Due to a rare alignment of coincidences, Brian and I were able to join up again for a hard 14er traverse; our last big traverse effort together was the successful Crestone traverse just over 1 year ago done to celebrate my 40th birthday.  We both wanted to do the Maroon Bell traverse, but for different reasons.  Brian had attempted the Maroon Bells traverse seven years prior (summited on North Maroon Bell, but not on South Maroon Bell) while I climbed South Maroon Bell (SMB) in 2002 but had not attempted North Maroon Bell (NMB) yet; a successful traverse would check-off a peak for both of us.  Plus, it is one of Roach’s “Great Traverses.”  We had to do it.

A view of the Bells from Pyramid, taken a few days earlier

Our planning discussions led us to plan on a N-S-N traverse with a N-S option if the weather was bad or we were too slow.  I had done the standard SMB route and felt confident I remembered the trail.  Brian felt that the double traverse and descent via NMB would be faster and easier, if we could finish the traverses before the weather came.

Day One

On Thursday night I made my dutiful check on the weather forecast; and it was bad.  The forecast called for “morning thunderstorms and rain and afternoon thunderstorms and rain; chance of precipitation 50%.”  It was the worst forecast I’ve headed into yet; and this effort would have the longest exposure to weather problems of any climb we’d done to date.  Still, we’ve done enough climbing over the years to know just how unpredictable the weather can be…we decided to proceed and hope for luck.

We started toward Aspen on Friday, August 1, 2003, in the late afternoon with a plan to hike up to a campsite near the starting point for NMB.  Our driving speed was good the entire way and we arrived at 8:00pm.  Anxious to make progress before dark, we quickly hiked up from the Maroon Lake Trailhead west before the fading daylight forced us to pull out the headlamps prior to the cutoff for Pyramid.  Now hiking more carefully, we continued up in the dark, past Crater Lake, and watched carefully for the turnoff for Maroon-Snowmass Trail. We found it and took it for approximately 0.5 mile to where we found a previously used campsite, 20 feet off the trail and buried in the trees. We setup camp and turned in with hopes of a restful nights sleep (position #1 on map).

Our N-S-N route up North & South Maroon Bells

Day Two

I didn’t sleep well and so the pre-dawn alarm was not welcome. But with our bad weather forecast, we both jumped up and got ready for our big day on August 2nd in 2003.

The Climb of North Maroon Bell

A beautiful field of flowers below the North Maroon Bell north face

We quickly found the cut-off a short way above our campsite.  We crossed the Minnehaha Creek before we wandered up through trees and rocks to reach a grassy area and then a rock glacier below North Maroon’s North Face as the daylight started to pick up.

Brian had been more of a speed devil than ever; and I kept up until I was ready to puke.  Oddly, I really felt bad and needed a 15 minute rest in the talus field in the basin below NMB’s north face to recollect myself (position #2). I felt bad enough to go home.

Hiking Pace Maxim: Hike at your own pace or slower

Each of us has a sustainable pace based on our conditioning, our physical mechanics, and the situation; going too fast means to risk illness (mountain sickness, deydration, bonking), injury (falls, twisted ankle) and loss of situational awareness (concentrating too much on footing).

Joe heading toward the grassy gully from the rock glacier (Brian says sorry for taking too long to get film developed)

Starting to feel better and anxious not to lose the weather, I started up again.  We completed the traverse of the rock field and found a trail at “a point below the lowest cliffs on the NE ridge”. We used that trail to do an ascending traverse below the cliffs to get to a broad grassy gully.

It was a very cool setting: a thin trail cut into side of the mountain and a magnificent drop down to the valley floor.

The grassy gully that we took to begin our ascent of North Maroon Bell

We followed the trail south under the grassy gully, and then we started up the left side of the gully following a worn trail (position #3).  We climbed about 600’  before exiting on the left side below some white cliffs.  After we exited the grassy gully, we turned a corner and traversed across ledges to reach a 2nd gully (position #4).

Just like South Maroon Bell, the North is a steep pile of rocks just barely hanging on before committing to a suicide plunge to the bottom. Every rock we stepped on was a potential death missile for any below us.

In the 2nd gully, we worked our way higher to reach some challenging ledges below the ridge crest.  We then hiked up the remaining distance to reach the ridge at approximately 13,100’ (position #5). We stayed approximately on the ridge the rest of the way.

The first major obstacle we found on the ridge was the infamous “rock band” at around 13,600’ where we took our first break.

We found some water run-off and stopped to take advantage. I finished my 1st liter to free up some space, and then refilled with the questionable water.  Brian recalls:

When I filled my water bottle at the rock band, it was full of moss specks, and some had six legs.  I used two iodine pills.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be my only refill opportunity up high….I would have to survive on 3 liters until returning to Minnehaha Creek.

Joe on the climb to NMB (photo by Brian)

We passed the rock band using a short Class 4 chimney, and then we navigated around numerous obstacles to stay near the ridge crest all the way to the NMB summit (position #6).

To our delight, the weather was holding. But we didn’t trust it; so we only dared stop for a quick snack before starting the traverse.

Scrambling down an obstacle on the traverse (photo by Brian)

The Traverse to South Maroon Bell

From the NMB summit, we started by following Roach’s instructions to descend southwest from the summit.  It was a surprisingly exposed first move for a 14er, but it was an effective foreshadowing of things to come.  We scrambled down a loose talus slope and then climbed up, over and around various obstacles to reach a 20-foot cliff that we downclimbed without much difficulty.

We continued the obstacle course until above a 35 foot cliff we couldn’t figure out how to downclimb safely (position #7).  We rappelled to the bottom and continued.

This was the only very difficult part of traverse, other than for the constant exposure to terrifically long falls that would provide the victim enough time to regret the error.

We had to downclimb two short cliff sections to reach the low point of the traverse, which was also the top of the Bell Cord Couloir.

From there, we began our ascent to SMB. We started up some ledges and then climbed up a gully to reach additional ledges which led to the east end of the summit ridge.

The last scrambling section was disappearing beneath our hands and feet pretty well when a big commotion behind us caused us to stop and look. It was a group of college-age men who were running up the route and racing each other to the SMB summit.  We stood aside to avoid being trampled.  Once on the summit (position #8), we learned they had run up NMB and over the entire traverse.  As I was breathing hard from my own modest efforts, I was impressed with their physical ability to do it….even as I was annoyed at the lack of courtesy involved in the process.

Brian & Joe on the summit of South Maroon Bell

The weather was holding, but just barely.  We decided we could make it back across the traverse to NMB based on the hope that our familiarity with the terrain would compensate for the slowing of our tired bodies.  We just needed the weather to hold out a couple more hours.

The Traverse Back to North Maroon Bell

North Maroon Bell from the summit of South Maroon Bell

From South Maroon‘s summit, we returned to the north along the summit ridge to the northeast corner of the peak and started for home.

We descended to the west through a series of small cliff bands and then down a loose gully. Once down the gully, we turned to the north and traversed a series of small ledges to reach the top of the Bell Cord couloir.

From the low point in the traverse, we climbed up the first 20 feet of the cliff to a small ledge, from which we scrambled another 20 feet to mount the cliff band.

From the top of this cliff band the ridge flattened out and narrowed to only a few feet (with a big drop-off to either side). We scrambled for a while along the ridge toward a 20 foot tall bump on the ridge.  We climbed up and over the spire and then down climbed another small cliff band.

More scrambling led us to the cliff that forced a rappel earlier; this time we were able to find a climbing route to get past. We continued staying mostly to the ridge until we returned to the last section below the summit.

We climbed up some talus and then some ledges to reach the summit ridge, and finally the summit where we had been a few hour earlier.

I’d have to say that I preferred the South-to-North pattern due to the predominance of climbing up vs. downclimbing.

The Descent from North Maroon Bell

Looking down at the start of the upper gully from the ridge

Everything had gone better than we had a right to expect.  The only real discomfort was my increasing dehydration.  Of course Brian was satisfied with his thimble-full; but I needed more than 3 liters for such work. Plus, I still had a touch of the mountain sickness I caught early in the day, and I was very anxious to begin losing some serious altitude.

I’ll admit to being irritated that nothing looked the same on the descent of the gully. North Maroon Bell is not a friendly mountain. I tried to follow the cairns but once again found myself lost in a sea of loose rocks.  I managed to avoid knocking anything loose, but it was a serious mental strain.

Brian and a fellow we met on the climb of NMB and SMB

About 1/2 way down the gully, it started raining and then stopped.  And that was the last of the weather. We had really gotten lucky in two ways.  One, the weather was good despite a bad forecast, and, two, the bad forecast had kept the crowd to a manageable level.  I would hate to do NMB or the traverse on a good weather forecast weekend day; the rockfall would be deadly.

Exhausted, we slowly made our way to the Minnehaha creek.  While approaching the creek, the idea formed in my mind to soak my feet in the freezing water to cure my “fire toes.”  I had been thinking about this for a long time, but never took the time to try it.  With the willing sacrifice of a few minutes, it felt so good to freeze my feet after filling my water bottles.

But then Brian reminded me that we need to get to camp to break it down and hike back to the car (Brian’s Mustang, “The Mach”) before starting the long drive home. Reluctantly, I put on my socks and boots and starting hiking, only to find that my feet hurt worse than ever!  The cold water treatment had turned on every nerve ending in my feet and turned every callus into soft cheese. Oh, the misery! The 2 mile hike back to Brian’s car was an ordeal….like hiking with broken glass in my boots.

But, once off my feet and with Brian driving home, I was able to reflect on a great trip.  I was pleased to have completed another of Roach’s Great Traverses and bag my 48th 14er.  This trip was one of the great ones:  full of strenuous effort, difficult problem-solving, and mortal danger; and our betting against the weather forecast and winning made the victory all the sweeter.  The church bells need not toll for us, except in celebration.

Brian heading toward Minihaha Creek

And as I thought about having only ten more 14ers to go, I discovered that I was both happy and sad. I had become addicted to the mental, physical and emotional challenges found on the Colorado 14ers.  Before the month’s end, I’d planned for another seven 14ers to fall beneath my Makalus:  Chicago Basin Group (8/14/03) & Wilson Group (8/6/03).  The list of remaining 14ers would soon be very short indeed.

And a big ‘thank-you’ to Brian for thinking of a great trip report title.

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Mt Evans Bike Ride (and Climb)

February 22, 2010

In early June, 2004, Brian says, “How about a snowclimb on Mt. Evans?”

“Need a short day?” I inquired.

“No,” he replied, “I just read that the road to the summit is closed because of heavy snow; we can enjoy a rare restoration of wilderness solitude on Mount Evans while we ride our bikes up the road.”

We had taken to riding our bikes in the Brainard Lake area during the Spring climbing season when the road is closed, so the idea wasn’t completely out of the blue.  But there isn’t a lot of altitude gain on the Brainard Lake road, which makes bike riding an ideal way to shorten a boring & time-consuming approach.

“So, how hard will it be to ride up the Mount Evans road?  I seem to recall it is a long, steep drive,” I asked while thinking that I am not capable of a hard bike ride.

“I don’t think so,” Brian reassured me, “I think it will be only be a little harder than the Brainard Lake road. Probably the distance is around 4 miles, but the extra distance will help spread the extra altitude.”

On the morning of June 5, 2004, we loaded Brian’s truck with gear and bikes and set off for Mt. Evans.  We arrived at the gate to find it closed, as expected. Then I noticed the sign that read, “7 miles to Mt Evans”!

“What the….,” I exclaim. Slowly turning to glare at Brian, my tormentor, I see the Snow Plow Truck pulling up to the gate.  I’m saved!

We ask if we can follow him up the road in Brian’s truck, but he says no can do.  And he also said the road will probably open today, but he didn’t know for certain or, if so, when.

Not one for waiting around, Brian says, “Let’s just ride up; it will be fun.”.  I really wanted to wait for the gate to open, but sensed a tragedy in the making (what if it doesn’t open?).  So, I agreed to try; I’d just have to go slow and rest on the flat parts.

Brian recalls:

I remember feeling fortunate that I got Joe on the bike before he had a chance to think about how far it was.

Per our Brainard Lake method, we strap the packs and other gear onto the bikes, and then start up the hill.

The Bike Ride

My bike is an old Schwinn made of solid cast iron with lead wheels (feels like, anyway), and with my personal 220 lbs plus an additional 20 pounds of gear (axe, crampons, water, boots) on the bike, I immediately know I am in trouble.

I down shift into my lowest gear and manage to go just fast enough to keep from toppling over.

Bike & Climb up Mount Evans

The following thoughts [and emotions] occurred to me along the long Mount Evans road (follow number sequence on map):

  1. My lungs are bursting and my mind racings….what am I going to do?…how can I possibly finish this road? [panic]
  2. But after a bit, my body settles into a rhythm and I start to think that I’ll make it.  But I am going very slowly  [relief and embarrassment]
  3. Brian is up ahead waiting for me to catch up; he probably is worried I cannot make it.  I try standing up to go faster, but my back wheel spins on the snowy road.  I cannot go any faster.  And I cannot stop or I’ll never get going again.  Hell, I cannot even stop pedaling for a moment’s rest; there are no flat sections! [resignation plus determination]
  4. The Plow truck comes barreling back down the road, coming around a corner…we swerve violently to dodge out of the way; the shot of adrenaline helps me for a while [amazement]
  5. Now my hands are freezing. I guess they are not getting enough blood flow due to my death grip on the handlebars; but for now, my need to squeeze the brakes is not paramount.  Still, I do not want frozen hands, so I desperately try to keep my balance with with only one hand on the handlebars at a time while letting the other warm up [fear and irritation]
  6. Brian is long gone. I approach a big curve and think I am close to the end.  I have just enough energy to make it as long as I can weave across both lanes to reduce the angle.  I wonder if the road has opened up and let cars through, but I cannot afford to look back  [desperation]
  7. As I turn the corner, I can see I am only half-way and I have 3+ miles to go to reach Summit Lake.  I keep spinning my legs and concentrating on my breathing.  Every time I look up it looks further away. I stop looking and keep pedaling  [determination]
  8. After battling cramps for the final mile or so, I finally make it to Summit Lake and pull off where Brian is sleeping on a rock.  I get off my bike and find I cannot walk, which reminds me of the first triathlon I did many years ago on Key Biscayne [surprise]

Once at the end of my pedaling madness, I also noticed that the upper part of the road was closed by a gate across the road (and the road covered in snow).  It was a tremendous relief; I was not physically capable of riding up the steep road to the summit after the climb, and now I could save face.

After a few minutes of rest and serious contemplation of just going to sleep instead of climbing, I decided to pull myself together (man-up, as it were) and persevere. The summit wasn’t far away, and I could rest at every step if necessary.

The Climb

The snow was soft and getting softer; it was going to be miserable later in the day.  Of course, Elfin-like Brian, floating on his skis, moved effortlessly ahead, gliding across the snow like Legolas crossing the Misty Mountains Pass (think:  Frodo Lives!).  I stumbled along like an elephant in ballet slippers since I left my snowshoes home to avoid carrying them on the bike ride.

Luckily, I found enough rocks and firm patches of snow to keep going to reach the base of the North Face route without too much misery or burning energy I couldn’t afford.  There had been a massive slide recently…the snow was very chunked-up.  Yet, the conditions turned out to be okay…no sun yet…, and we successfully navigated through the avalanche debris and around the rocks to reach the summit ridge.

We sauntered over to the summit to enjoy the views.  But not wanting the snow to get too soft, we decided to leave after a short stay.

The Snow Descent

The snow had softened as predicted, but still yielded some good ski turns for Brian and a nice glissade for me down the steep couloir.  I managed to slide down most of the way before the snow ate my momentum.  Then I had to walk / wade through the snow at the bottom of the couloir which was like wet glue.

The Postholing

Oh, I hate soft snow.  I cannot decide which hell would be worse, but at that moment #3 was the leading candidate between the following:

  1. An eternity of driving in rush hour traffic where other lanes move faster, especially the one you just moved out of.
  2. An eternity of watching TV with a broken remote that can display all the great sporting event and science fiction options available but cannot switch the channel away from All My Children
  3. An eternity of hiking in soft snow

I waded and crawled, I rolled and hopped, I cursed and yelled.  And then I finally lost my cool completely and swore out loud that I’d never do another snow climb.

With my last drop of energy, I crawled onto the road; and then I stood up, collected myself once more, and thought, “that was a good bit of exercise.”

I always tell Brian that I get more exercise than he does with his shamefully fun and easy skiing, but he never changes his ways.

I started walking toward the bikes, and that’s when I saw the cars start coming up the road. And there were lots of them.

The Downhill Ride

Cars were everywhere, including those going back down the road after the family’s annual 5-minute adventure [sure, my attitude is poor, but wait ’til you do it before you judge too harshly].

I tried but could not keep from flying down the road, as I desperately squeezed my brakes as hard as frozen fingers would allow.  The downhill cars were whizzing by me as they tried to time the instant they could get around me without hitting an oncoming car or knocking me off the cliff  (I would lose either way). I was so consumed with staying close-but-not-too-close to the edge of the road that I couldn’t afford a moment’s thought for how my life was utterly at the mercy of drivers I’ve spent thousands of hours (so far) dodging in my daily driving routine.

It was a helpless feeling.  A drop-off, only 1 foot to my right, was at least 500 feet to the bottom, and the cars blazed by only inches to my left, going by so fast that my left ear would have caught fire if it wasn’t frozen.  I kept thinking that if I hit a rock or if my front wheel comes loose or if I get into the gravel, I was a dead man.  I felt real regret for not doing some sort of inspection on my antique mechanical beast before trusting my life to it on this roller coaster adventure.

But by the mid-way point, I had grown accustomed to the speed and began to enjoy it.  I felt increased confidence in my bike and my skills, so I eased up on the brakes a bit as I tried to weigh my rate of progress toward the parking lot against the rate at which my hands were becoming frozen blocks of ice:  would I reach the truck first or die when my hands broke off during the descent?

Brian’s recalls:

The biggest problem was that the road did open up, after we summitted, and we had to dodge cars all the way down.  I also remember the usual peculiar handling of a bike with skis and boots tied to it.  Seeing those skis protrude past the bike stem always makes me wonder if something will bind up and the handle bar will refuse to turn.  By the time I got to the bottom I was getting enough of a feel for half-assed road biking that I was starting to really lean into the turns.

And then it was over.  I sure didn’t feel short changed on exercise or thrills.  And, I even thought I might like to take up cycling again [p.s.: it would take 10 years to buy a road bike; click on Mount Evans Hill Climb Done Right (2014) to see my Mt Evans redemption ] or even look into mountain biking [note: it would take 5 years to start mountain biking].

I was especially pleased to be able to say I rode my bike up America’s highest paved automobile road.  So, ignore my whining, bring a good bike, and enjoy a nice ride.  And, perhaps, have a friend follow in a car.

If you plan to ride from the Entrance Station [to the summit, it is a] 15-mile route [and] an elevation gain of 3,530 feet. Allow 2 to 3 hours to complete the trip to the summit.

Mount Evans – Bicycling the Mount Evans Scenic Byway

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Lake City Gas Shortage

February 8, 2010

I had just restarted my 14er quest after a 3 year break with a great 40th birthday present from my wife (see 5 14ers for my 40th).  When Mark announced he was coming to town a month later (in July, 2002) for a bit of mountain adventure, I thought his timing was perfect.

Day 1

The long drive from DIA to Lake City, CO

I had originally picked Wetterhorn & Uncompahagre Peak, but rain on the drive down convinced us to go for easier routes on Redcloud & Sunshine. I had Roach’s 14er book with me, so we were able to adjust quickly on the fly.

The drive to Lake City (8658′) from DIA was an interminable 300 miles taking over 5 hours, which put us into town after everyone’s bedtime.  I had never heard of a gas station closing and didn’t think to check on hours; and my gas gauge needle was already on “Empty”.

We couldn’t wait ’til morning without blowing the trip, so we had to take a chance.  I just hoped the road to Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch Trailhead (10400′) didn’t require more gas than available; otherwise, our approach hike might be a bit longer than expected.

Burning fumes on the uphill crawl from Lake City

We drove south out of town and made the turn toward Cinnamon Pass after 2.5 miles.  It was a total of 18.5 miles before we found the Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch trailhead. At mile 10, I started swearing at every loss of elevation; by mile 15 I was cursing a mile a minute.  The bright bulb on my dashboard’s “low gas” indicator was burning out my retinas.

I was certain we didn’t have enough gas to get back to town; I seriously wondered if I had enough gas to restart the engine.

All I could do was hope we could get some gas from another hiker somehow; and I put the issue out of my mind for 12 hours.

We set up the tent on the most luxuriously soft ground I had ever felt, and slept amazingly well until the alarm went off at 5am.

Day 2

Route map for Redcloud, Sunshine & Handies from Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch Trailhead. The numbers correspond to the "Step" details below.

Step 1

The hike toward Redcloud hardly felt like a backcountry experience.  The trail quality was too good.  But heck, the peaks were on the list.  Plus, it was a more gentle adventure for Mark, having come from 500′ elevation only 12 hours before.

I was disappointed to see the white color in the creek water; I hoped I wouldn’t need to refill my bottles before reaching camp and my filter.  Iodine tablets just wouldn’t be enough this time.

We used the Silver Creek trail to reach the NE ridge of Redcloud. And then followed the ridge trail to the summit.  The lower part of the ridge trail was not in good shape, but we made the summit easily enough.  We stopped for a snack and enjoyed the views.  I was able to point out Wetterhorn and Uncompahagre because the latter peak is rather distinctive.  But I couldn’t spot Handies in the sea of peaks.

Our view north from the Redcloud summit

We didn’t stay long since Sunshine was so close (1.5 miles).

Step 2

We followed the trail which tended to stay to the right side of any slopes.  The weather was good so we took our time moving to the Sunshine summit.

Step 3

On the Sunshine summit, we stopped for an early lunch and enjoyed the views.  I was able to point out Wetterhorn and Uncompahagre because the latter peak is rather distinctive.  But I couldn’t spot Handies in the sea of peaks.

Step 4

I asked Mark if he was up for a bit of adventure which would also avoid the long looping route over and around Redcloud.  He was game and we found a faint trail that descended from the bottom of the initial saddle below Sunshine on the way toward Redcloud.  The initial scree was a bit loose, but otherwise it was a nice trail through an old growth forest.

Step 5

We joined up with the Silver Creek trail and turned left (SW) toward camp.  We reached camp at 1pm for a round trip of 3650′ and 8.1 miles in 7.5 hours.  An easy effort for bagging 2 14ers.

I immediately started bumming gas.  Mark sacrificed his water bladder tube which we tried on two different vehicles, but we just couldn’t make it work.  All I got was a couple mouthfuls of gasoline; I don’t recommend it.

When Mark said he was done for the day, I asked if he was up to driving/coasting/walking/hitchiking to Lake City to get gas.  I said I was thinking of going for Handies since it was so close. He said he’d take care of it.

Step 6

At 1:45pm, I walked across the road and found a sign for Grizzly Gulch near the bathroom structure; I crossed the bridge and headed toward Handies.  I hadn’t prepared anything for an attempt on Handies, so I quickly read the route description in Roach’s 13er book before heading out.  I didn’t really know the route, but the trail was quite clear during the initial miles.

My only real problem so far was stamina.  I was starting to slow down; so I just concentrated on keeping my feet moving.

Step 7

When I finally broke out of the trees, the trail disappeared.  My recollection of the route desciptions didn’t match what I saw, but I could see Handies and its impressive cirque; so I just followed my nose.

I wandered right to reach the next level, and then followed a trail I found up a left angled, broad ramp to reach the summit ridge. I made a mental note to stay on that trail on the way down while I continued working my way up one level at a time. A short time later I had just a short, fairly steep, dirt ridge to cover.  While slowly covering the final 100 feet (I was tired), I could see down to the American Basin Trailhead; it was so close, I figured it had to be one of the easiest routes up a 14er.

Step 8

On the summit, I finished my water and then started back for camp.  My feet were killing me and the day was getting old.  I didn’t have a headlamp with me and absolutely did not want to get caught out after dark.

Step 9

I tried to stay on the trail on the descent, but it petered out.  I went back to following my nose and took a more southerly path that worked a little better (as best as I could tell).

I was feeling used up and wasn’t paying attention on a section of the trail that had a steep drop-off.  My boot slipped off the ledge and I went over, hanging onto the trail ledge with my arms.  I had enough strength left to crawl back up, but only just.

Later, I crawled into camp after another 3650′ and 7.6 miles over 5.25 hours; and I could still taste the gasoline.  But the 4Runner was there, so I knew he either couldn’t start the vehicle or he’d made it. It was the only remaining issue on my mind; I was so tired that I wasn’t hungry.

It was a giant relief when Mark told me he’d made it to town and filled up the tank.

Now able to relax, we made dinner and enjoyed another comfortable night sleep on the soft ground.

It had been a full day:

  • 16 miles of hiking
  • 7300′ elevation gain
  • 12.75 hours of hiking

Despite my exhaustion, I concluded that these three 14ers were the easiest I could remember.  Not just good trails and easy terrain, but a near impossibility of getting lost.  These are very good starter 14ers for those just wanting to measure their fitness.

Day 3

We slept in and then made our way back to Lake City for our traditional post-climb breakfast. Enjoying the small town (pop. 380) feel, we stayed until forced to leave by Mark’s impending flight.

Another 300 miles to DIA and then an hour back to Boulder to spend the rest of the day with my 8-month pregnant wife.

I was glad to make some progress on the 14er list while I could; I figured my days of multi-day adventure might be coming to an end soon. And another lesson learned:  never let the gas tank get close to empty without certain knowledge of a resupply.

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The Long Way Up Longs Peak (Stettners-Kieners)

February 3, 2010

I love Longs Peak, and one of my unofficial missions is to climb a different route/season combination nearly every time I reach for the summit.

Next on the list was to reclimb the route used by the Stettner brothers (Joe & Paul) to climb Longs Peak on September 14, 1927, including the Stettner’s Ledges (5.8) route to climb from Mills Glacier to Broadway Ledge.  As they did, we’d also use the Kiener’s Route (5.3) to skirt the difficulties of the Diamond and reach the summit. Stettner’s Ledges represented the hardest multi-pitch alpine route in Colorado (and perhaps in North America) for the subsequent 20 years.

“We were familiar with two established climbing routes on the East Wall — Kieners and Alexanders. We studied them. But we wanted to find a new route. We searched for a route by starting at Alexanders Chimney and working our way to the right with the binoculars. With the help of these field glasses, we found a line of broken plates, ledges, and cracks that we could eventually use as a route. It looked challenging enough for us.”

~ Joe Stettner’s Journal, recounting the events of September 14, 1927

On the morning of July 17, 1999, Brian and I started up the the trail towards Long Peak, passing the Longs Peak Ranger Station @ 4:15am.  It would be my 6th different route to the summit of Longs Peak, if everything worked out.  The only thing I worried about was the weather report; we’d have to get lucky to reach the summit on this day.

My Routes (prior to 7/99) to the Longs Peak Summit

  1. The Diamond, Casual Route (7/94)
  2. Notch Route (6/96)
  3. Keyhole Route (11/96)
  4. Kiener’s Route (7/98)
  5. Gorrell’s Traverse with a direct finish of The Notch (9/98)

The hike in went as so many have gone before it….long but tolerable.  And, despite a serious attempt by a slippery trail to destroy my knee, we maintained a good pace and reached the foot of the climb by 7am.  I somehow managed to forget that Mills Glacier would be hard snow and didn’t bring anything to aid my ascent of the glacier/snow field to reach the start of the Stettner’s Ledges climb.

Stettner Brothers 1927 (dashed) & Joe/Brian 1999 (solid) Summit Routes

Aiming for the bottom of the obvious left leaning flake system, I used my nut tool as a make-shift ice axe and kicked steps when I could and otherwise crawled to ascend the shockingly steep Mills Glacier.  During this ridiculous episode, I stole a moment every now and again to think how this was a really stupid way to ruin a day, a season, or worse.  My relief was palpable when I finally reached solid protection from a long slide to the bottom of  Mills Glacier.

Looking back on our approach around Chasm View Lake

Stettner’s Ledges

1st Pitch

Brian took the first pitch.  It was a 140-150′ long climb angling somewhat left over many flakes and cracks with a few pitons to guide the way.  He found a nice ledge for our belay.

2nd Pitch

I took the second pitch that started with a step around a corner and involved easy climbing over some blocks to reach a good belay at a right facing large flake (5.5).

3rd Pitch

Looking up, we could see a series of pitons jammed into an overhanging dihedral protecting a steep climb over thin holds navigating a robust layer of slime.  The water trickling down from The Notch was feeding an aquatic ecosystem that looked like it would be protected by Boulder’s Open Space & Mountain Parks organization if located a few miles further east.  I tried to help Brian’s psyche by suggesting he could aid the climb if it was as bad as it looked.  Right.

Brian on Stettner's Ledges

Not one for delaying the inevitable or waiting for government intervention, Brian took off to figure it out (in proper Paul Stettner fashion).  After a moment of sitting, I noticed that the sun was gone; I was stuck in the shadows and my body temperature was dropping quickly.

I got small to preserve my body heat while I waited for Brian to swim up to the next belay and free me from my static duties.  The conditions demanded a slow climb, but my suffering was all out of proportion to the hour it took for Brian to finish.

Climbers Rule of Variable Time Passage

“The rate at which time passes for a climber is directly proportional to the level of preoccupation for the climber and inversely proportional to the level of suffering and pain endured by the climber. “

And to make matter harder to endure, it was during this pitch that the rockfall barrage begain.  I don’t know if it was climbers (I think it was although no one yelled, “rock” ) or merely natural falling rock from freeze/thaw action (the Stettner brother wrote of rock fall here in 1927), but it was damned unnerving to have such volume of rock crashing down the rock within 10 – 20 feet of my head.

When it was my turn to climb, I was so stiff and my hands so useless I didn’t think I could climb the 3rd Flatiron.  But the body can warm up quickly when the stress is right.  I followed Brian’s path through the slimy ecosystem, taking huge sections of it with me on my clothing.  When I reached Brian, I could see he had taken a hit to his nose somehow.  It was now a “blood” adventure.

4th Pitch

I traversed left onto the Lunch Ledge after mounting a steep flake system which felt harder than the rated 5.5.  When I reached the end of the “Lunch Ledge”, it was obvious that we needed to make a team decision about how to proceed.

5th Pitch

I brought Brian up and then we took a few minutes to look for the direct line (Hornsby Direct variation).  The rock was very confusing, and we just couldn’t spot the correct path out of the many options above us.  We reasoned that we needed to hurry given the weather report and our plan to continue to the summit. We decided to find the easiest, quickest path to Broadway Ledge: The Alexander Chimney route. (Note:  we also thought that this was the original line of the Stettner brothers, but that has since been refuted; the original line took a direct path, probably the Hornsby variation).

Even still, the path wasn’t obvious.  Brian followed his nose, generally left and up over ledges and around corners.

6th Pitch

The final pitch was mine.  I couldn’t figure out what I was looking for and eventually tried to climb a dihedral that didn’t quite work.  After a downclimb I finally found something that looked like the Alexander’s Chimney finish, but ran out of rope without a belay spot in sight. I waited for Brian to take down the belay and then we simuclimbed the last 40 feet to Broadway Ledge.

It was a struggle, but we made it.  And we did it without falls, but it took us 6.5 hours compared to the Stettner brothers 5 hours.

“With great trouble, we fought our way upwards. Time-wise, it appeared that we would have to retreat.  The wall was approximately 1,600 feet high and, besides being steep, it had many overhanging sections.”

Yet, despite multiple falls held by a hemp rope (static) they bought at the Estes Park General Store (“Though not the best, it ought to fulfill the purpose”) that was merely tied around their waists, the Stettner brothers reached Broadway Ledge after 5 hours of climbing.

~ Joe Stettner’s Journal, recounting the events of September 14, 1927

Traverse to Kieners

We followed the Broadway Ledge to the Notch Couloir, and then to the far edge where we knew at least one variation of the Kiener’s Route that worked.  We were on terrain we knew, but it was late on a day with a threatening weather forecast.  But, with the weather still holding up well, we figured it was better to run up terrain we knew than to try to rappel down to Mills Glacier without a known rap route.  And descending via Lambs Slide was completely out of the questions without crampons and axes.

Kiener’s Route

“Walter Kiener, a climbing guide, pieced together this route in 1924, looking for the easiest way up the east face with an eye toward future clients. Very little new ground was covered on the ascent. It’s possible he did this over several visits, with help from Agnes Vaille and Carl Blaurock. Another guide from this era, Guy C. Caldwell, installed cairns all the way up the route and advertised his services in the Aug 7, 1925 issue of the Estes Park paper”

~ Bernard Gillett, The Climbers Guide: High Peaks, 2nd edition (2001)

Our Upper Kiener's Route

To save some time, we decided to simul-climb the low 5th class section.

We started straight up through the broken rock and over a chockstone, and then into a narrowing chimney which we took to its end, and, then, up a waterfall to a big, grassy ledge.

Past the 5th class climbing, we unroped to make fast time up the 700 feet of talus and gullies.

We knew from previous experience to aim for the edge of the face and look for the “Black Bands” of rock.  When we finished climbing over the long section of giant steps, we moved to the edge of the Diamond to turn the corner and reach the east talus slopes.

And after scrambling the final 200 feet of talus, we reached the summit at 3:45pm; my 6th Longs Peak summit was in the bag.  We had climbed the 1600′ of elevation between Broadway Ledge and the summit in 1 3/4 hours; its good to see we can pickup the speed if we have to do so.

Our weather luck had held out, but we still had to get down.


We chose the Cables Route, as always, for its direct approach to the Boulderfield.  The path is easy to follow since we’d done several time before, except this time the path was blocked by a large snow patch covering the last 100 feet above the rappel anchors.


Fortunately, this snow had been in the sun all day.  But the terrain was steep enough that it wouldn’t take much of a slip to generate the speed needed for air travel.  We carefully kicked steps and jammed exposed fingers into the snow…anything to get a little friction.  By the time we found the first rap anchor, my fingers were frozen stiff.

Then it started to rain.

Combined with the approaching darkness, we didn’t need any additional encouragement to hurry once again. A quick pace down that death-march trail got us to the Ranger Station by 7:45pm for a 15.5 hour round trip.

The best adventures always include some amount of overcoming or dodging serious setback, such as:

  • A smashed knee
  • Missing ice gear
  • Rock fall
  • A bloody nose
  • A route finding error
  • Threatening weather

And this trip was a great one.

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