Posts Tagged ‘14ers’

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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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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Snow Massive

January 7, 2010

Out of the blue, Brian wanted to do a full weekend trip to collect something hard and fun; apparently, his girlfriend went out of town on short notice.  Now this is a good thing, but caught off guard, I couldn’t think of anything besides Longs Peak.  Brian says, “How about Snowmass?”

Of course, I known for a while that Brian is always interested in a few extra ski turns and my brain locked onto the obvious ski connection; “The ski resort?” I blurted out while thinking that June is way too late for that.  Brian says, “No, but close.” And that is how our “Snow Massive” adventure got started.

I had done a few 14ers that year and had a exertion-level in my mind that I thought roughly fit the requirements of a 14er.  And it was an investment that I was willing to make without any thought.  I agreed quickly while also registering with great excitement that Snowmass Mountain was a 14er I hadn’t done yet; I’m always up for checking another off that long list.

When I got off the phone, I pulled out my Dawson guidebook to check it out.  Boy, was I in for a shock!

14ers done already in 1999

  • Huron Peak on 4/24 (10 miles, 11.5 hours)
  • Mt Yale on 5/1 (10 miles, 13 hours)
  • Mt Evans on 5/30 (3 miles, 6 hours)

….compared to…

  • Snowmass Mountain (23 miles, 2 days)

Yikes!  An eight mile approach with gear for a snow climb & a cold weather bivy and then a 7 mile round trip to the summit plus an eight mile retreat to the trailhead.  Well, it sure sounded like an adventure.

I couldn’t imagine hauling an entire campsite 8 miles up 2600 feet; I’m just not in to backpacking.  I told Brian I was bringing a bivy sack and lightweight sleeping bag; I’d just have to sleep in my clothes to stay warm.  And I’d gamble on the rain.  I also decided to live on cold food to avoid bringing a stove and fuel. Even still I had to bring a ton of stuff, e.g., snowshoes, poles, crampons, ice axe, food, extra base layer, fleece, gore-tex upper and lower, water bottles, small rock rack (Brian had rope) and helmet.  Let’s just say I had to bring my big pack.

On June 19, 1999, we started the long drive up to Aspen in the early morning to allow plenty of time to reach the bivy site.  We followed Dawson’s directions to the trailhead on Snowmass Falls Ranch, and then began our very long hike to Snowmass Lake.

Snowmassive route map

Around 1/2 way up the trail, we came to a creek crossing.  I mean the trail led up to the creek and another trail started on the other side of the creek, so the evidence pointed to us needing to cross.  But there was no kind of footbridge or any sort of solid structure for us to use to cross the 90-foot wide & up to several foot deep creek; the only thing to use was a pile of dead logs that had accumulated in that spot.

Some of the logs where piled high enough to be non-floating, but they were still unstable as they tended to move and roll.  Many others were simply floating on the creek but trapped by the other stuck logs.

….and with a heavy pack on my back?  No way!.

But it was true, we had to balance our way across without a fall or lose the entire trip, or worse.  I did have my snowshoe poles with me, so I used them to help balance my pack as my feet shifted around with the unstable footing.

A failed adventure due to a creek crossing would be all the harder to live with because it wouldn’t just be a failure, it would be a stupid failure.  But we made it.

Joe posing in front of Hagerman Peak....I thought it was Snowmass at the time.

Continuing on we eventually started to get close enough to see the nearby peaks.  We posed with Hagerman’s Peak in the background thinking it was Snowmass Mountain, only to find Snowmass was still around the corner.  And then we were there; it was one of the nicest bivy spots I’ve ever seen.

Snowmass Lake is very large for its 11,000′ elevation and ringed by cliffs on one side with the peaks in the background.  It looked like a nice place to spend a couple weeks, as long as the cold temps kept away the bugs.

The first thing we did was scout the entire area to find the best spot for a tentless bivy; we didn’t want to wake up in a puddle if the rain came.  Nothing was quite perfect, but we each settled on our own “best” spot and then took care of some chores, such as getting water & hanging our food.

Sunset was around 8:30pm, which accelerated the cooling trend for the day.  I put on all my clothes and crawled into my sack to warm up.  It luxurious until the snowy rain started.  But the precipitation didn’t last long and I drifted off.

With only a 3.5 mile hike remaining, we didn’t feel the need for a pre-light start.  Plus, there was another log crossing at the start of the day, and I wanted to be able to see it. So, at rather late-ish 4:30am the alarm went off and we scurried to be ready for a 5am start.

Summit day route map

The first thing we had to do was cross that one last log bridge.  I was relieved to see it was much shorter and we started across.  About midway, I tried to plant my pole in the creek bed, but found it was too deep.  In the process, I lost my balance and had to put my foot down blindly to catch my self before toppling into the creek.  Once I caught my balance, I looked down to see that my left boot was submerged.  With my boots water proofed and my gaiters on, I wondered if I would get away with that mistake.  And in that same instant, my foot felt the flood of freezing water.

Our view of Snowmass from the bivy site.

Oh, great.

Once on the other side, it was the dreaded, yet familiar,  squish, squish, squish sound and sensation as I walked.  After 100 yards, I told Brian I needed to sort out a problem and sat down for some work.  I got the boot off and poured out a 1/2 liter of water and then wrung another pint out of my sock.  I hoped a fresh sock would do the trick but the inside of the boot soaked up too much water for that.  Twenty socks might have done the trick.

With no choice but to continue, it was squish, squish, squish all day as my softened skin eroded away.  At least the temperature was moderate, so I wouldn’t have to worry about frostbite.

Me on the summit....enjoying a well earned rest. And wondering why I didn't get a haircut.

We traversed around the lake to the terminal moraine of the Snowmass snowfield which we scrambled up to reach the giant, low-angle snowfield that must have been the source of the peak name, “snowmass”.  There wasn’t any trail, it was a loose, muddy mess.  But it went.

Once we reached the peak, we broke out the harnesses and climbing gear for the climb up the side of the ridge.  It was a steep snow climb that ended with a few mixed climbing moves to reach the summit ridge.  Brian was right to insist on the gear.

After a brief rest, we then scrambled up the long rocky ridge to stand on a spectacular summit.  It had only taken 3.5 hours; but with the sun burning down on the snow, we didn’t want to get caught in a giant puddle of soft and melting snow.  We quickly went back down the way we came up, ending with a rappel off the ridge.

Brian had carried his skis a long way for these turns.  I had my mind set on the longest glissade of my life. My record glissade to-date was almost 2/3rds of the Cristo couloir on Quandary in a single run (a 1600′ descent over 0.8 miles), only missing the top 750-1000 feet of rocky & overly steep terrain at the top. The Snowmass Big Bowl promised to be even better.

I started off slowly, to get the feel of the snow.  The snow was softening quickly and grabbing at me so I let my speed pickup to get me over any soft spots; it worked.  I was hauling ass down the snowfield, shifting my weight to steer between the rocks, and hollering all the way.  I made it almost to the terminal moraine before I lost my nerve and slowed down.  The soft snow then ended my fast paced adventure.  When Brian finally arrived sometime later, he said, “You were going very fast; that was pretty dangerous.”  It was true, but it was fun.

Brian showing off his Snowmass pride

And for the 10 years since, I have been proclaiming Snowmass Mountain as my longest glissade. But my calculations done in writing this report tell me that the glissade was a similar 1600′ over 0.8 miles…not a new record.  But I’ll still say it was the most exhilarating due to the speed I used to make it so far over soft, lower angled snow.  And, yes, I promise not to do that again.

The hike back to camp went quickly on painless adrenaline. Even the short log crossing offered little resistance.  It wasn’t until after sitting in camp for a rest while trying to dry my socks in the sun that my body started to stiffen.  The pain of pulling on that big pack and the cold, wet sock foreshadowed the agony of that hike out.

Another death march.  It went on and on.  I was so bored that I even enjoyed the 90-foot log crossing on the way back.

And then it was done.  23 miles and 5800′ over 2 days, and another 14er done.  It was a great weekend.

And only 36 more to go; I wouldn’t finish for another 8 years.

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My First 14er: Longs Peak via The Diamond

December 30, 2009

…being too smart is no excuse for missing out on the chance of a lifetime.

~ me

It was the summer of 1994, and I was desperately looking for an adventure to fill the long July 4th weekend. I was new and late to the rock climbing obsession having started only two years earlier at the age of 30, but I had it bad. And, as far as obsessions go, this was more like an addiction.  Sure I liked it, but more to the point, I had to have it.

I was living in the Lincoln Park area on the north side of Chicago and was earning my climbing stripes in Baraboo, WI at the Devil’s Lake Bluffs and at the Mississippi Palisades State Park near Savana, IL. These climbing areas were 3 hours away from Chicago, so rock climbing was a weekend-only affair. And with wet weather haunting so many of the warm-enough days in that part of the country, I averaged only a few days a month. Constantly suffering from withdrawals, I regularly resorted to bouldering on the stone structures in Lincoln Park just to take the edge off.  My favorite was the black (dirty?) stone structure  housing the statue of Ulysses S. Grant (see more recent photo); it had a few surprisingly good routes, all about twice my height.

For the 4th of July, the obvious answer to the question of “what to do?” was to go to Colorado again. And the hardest, biggest, baddest climb I’d heard of in Colorado was The Diamond.

The Diamond is the sheer and prominent east face of Longs Peak and named for the shape of the cliff. The face has a veritcal gain of more than 900 feet all above an elevation of 13,000 feet. It is a world famous "big wall". The easiest route on the face, the Casual Route (5.10-), was first climbed in 1977.

I learned about The Diamond during my two previous visits to the Colorado Mountain School (CMC) in Estes Park, CO. My instructors/ guides (Mike Caldwell, the dad of the famous climbing Caldwell, Tommy, and Topher Donahue, the son of the CMC Founder) led me & my pals up graduation climbs in RMNP (Sharktooth [5.6], Petite Grepon [5.8]), which always had that wonderful sense of being the absolute limit of human capability.

These fantastic “near death experiences” always led to discussions of “what was the hardest” RMNP rock to climb; the answer was always The Diamond on Longs Peak.

My Midwest climbing pals, whom I’d met at the Colorado Mountain School, would scare each other regularly with threats of “signing up for The Diamond”. We had a shared sense that The Diamond was just out of our reach where failure felt deadly. Looking back, I think  “The Diamond” served as our inspiration for improving our skills, both physical and mental.  We didn’t dare do easy (for us) climbs when we might be forced, through peer pressure, to climb the Diamond at some point in our near future.

Joe, Mark & Jim at the Mississippi Palisades and on the summit of The Sharkstooth.

The Spring of 1994 had been especially rainy, particularly on weekends (it seemed). My climbing-withdrawal induced insanity lead me to think the unthinkable.  And, after a few days of hard self deception, I had myself believing that I could handle the 5.10- climbing and 14,000 feet of altitude.  To do so, I had to put two disturbing facts out of my mind:

  1. I had never climbed anything harder than 5.9, and nothing harder than 5.8 since the previous summer
  2. I had never rock climbed above 12,600′ and had not been above 600′ (plus a few floors) in many months

I suppose I didn’t really think I was ready. I just couldn’t think of anything else to do that would be hard and scary enough to feel like an adventure, even just in the attempt. Not knowing very much was part of the problem, or, perhaps, the key to the solution.

Perhaps it was unreasonable, but I was going to do it and I wanted my buddies to join me. I put the word out, but each had the plausible yet lame excuse of having July 4th plans already. Shocked and amazed into poor debate form, my feable attempts at guy-reason got me nowhere. Looking back, I suppose they were a bit smarter than me; but I’ll still argue that being too smart is no excuse for missing out on the chance of a lifetime.

Nothing was going to keep me from taking that step, even if I had to do it alone.  So, determined to proceed and with credit card in hand, I placed a call to the CMC to hire a guide to take me up. I was really going to do it.

Or not.  After all that buildup, no guides were available for the only weekend of the year I could make work. Noooooo!

What a bummer!

Maybe I should have been happy to spend a few uninterrupted days of romance with my girlfriend; maybe I should have been satisfied for the opportunity for 72 hours of personal growth.  But I wasn’t.  I couldn’t.  I was going to miss my chance.  And that is how the greatest adventure in my life would end…

…that is, unless something changed.

And a couple weeks later, the situation changed.  It was about noon on Thursday, June 29th, the 2nd to last day of work before the start of the long holiday weekend, when my cell phone buzzed.  It was Topher Donahue, one of the guides I knew at CMC, with some unexpected news; he’d come available for Saturday, July 1st if I still wanted to climb the Diamond.


Now all I had to do was get there in time.  I had to meet Topher at 1pm on Friday, June 30th, which was only 24 hours hence.  The easy thing to do was fly, but I had a company car with paid gas.  It didn’t feel like I had a choice.

From a previous trip, I knew the 1100 mile drive from Lincoln Park to Estes Park, CO would take approx. 17 hours driving straight through. And I still needed to get home and pack.  Well, don’t tell my boss, but my 1994 July 4th holiday started about 30 hours early.

The long drive from Lincoln Park to Estes Park.

As I drove home, I knew the plan would come off much better with a co-pilot. I prepared my case by getting a reservation for a tiny bed and breakfast in Boulder called The Briar Rose.  My pitch was that trip was going to be a wonderfully romantic Colorado getaway, during which time I would do only one climb.  My girlfriend bought it.

By 7pm, we were heading out I-290 west.  At first, the excitement of the adventure made the driving fun.  But, seventeen hours is a long time when waiting for each of 61,200 seconds to pass.  I really did try to sleep in the back seat for a few of those hours.  But no way; my racing mind never let me doze off for a moment.

As I tried to sleep, my mind hit on the biggest problem of all:  I was not going to get much acclimatization. During the initial 24 hour period, I would ascend from Chicago (600′) to Estes Park (7500′), and, then would continue the ascent, first to the Longs Peak Ranger Station (9500′), then to The Camel (~13000′).  Then, after another opportunity for sleep, we would climb to the Longs Peak summit (14259′) for a total of nearly 14k feet of elevation gain in 48 hours … not what the experts recommend.  I figured all I could do is try; I’d go up as far as I could and feel proud for daring much and trying hard.

The more I thought about how badly I needed sleep, the further away the chance for sleep ran.

It is terrible to not be able to fall asleep, but it is agony to have to stay awake.  I just hoped I could make it to dawn; I figured sunlight would ease the struggle.  But when the sun came up, I was in Nebraska, which is not what you’d call an interesting place to view from the highway.

“Hell, I even thought I was dead ’til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska.”

~Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven (1992)

But after a few more hours of suffering, I could see the mountains.  And the blood started to flow again. And then we were in the mountains.  And the adrenaline started to pump.  And then we were there, driving up Big Thompson Ave and then turning south onto Moraine Ave and then north onto Davis Street and, finally, pulling into the dirt parking lot of the Colorado Mountain School.   And it was done:  1100 miles and 5 bathroom stops in seventeen hours.

I signed in at the Colorado Mountain School and then went through my gear with Topher to make sure I had what I needed…I had enough gear to attempt Everest. After dumping most of what I brought, we set off for the Longs Peak Ranger Station.  Since Topher was planning to stay at the Boulderfield for an extra day of climbing, the plan was for my girlfriend to pick me up at the trailhead after the climb on Sunday.

And this is where things really started to fall apart.

Based on Topher’s advice, I told my girlfriend that she should ask someone “official” for directions and then pick me up at 6pm on Saturday.  What could go wrong?

The Approach

Without another thought, Topher and I took off for the trailhead and then we were quickly making our way up the trail.  I had no sleep and no acclimatization. But I was scared to death, and that made all the difference.

We used the standard trail, as best I could tell until we reached a junction to “Jim’s Grove”. Topher suggested we go that way to save some distance.  I continued following and hoped we’d also save some elevation somehow; my pack felt like 100 pounds.

Topher sitting in The Camel bivy shortly after arrival. Note the shelter provided by the overhanging rock.

We reached the Boulderfield around 5pm, just as I was running out of steam. I was thankful to be done for the day, but Topher looked up toward a peak above us (Mt. Lady Washington) and pointed to a rock formation on the ridge line called “The Camel”.  He indicated that we would sleep on the far side of that formation, in a comfortable and dry bivy spot.

Topher had been talking about the importance of doing everything quickly and efficiently on the Diamond. My plodding approach made me worry about Topher thinking I couldn’t do the climb, and leading him to bail on the effort. I tried to look strong.

Another 30 minutes and we were there; 3.5 hours from the Ranger Station.

It was as nice as Topher promised.  I chugged down a 1/2 liter of Gatorade (1/4 of my water supply), then felt ill for about 10 seconds before spraying my guts all over the rocks in front of me. At first glance, I could see my vomit was blood, and that made sense given how badly I felt.  But on second glance, I could see that it was just my red colored Gatorade.

Topher asked if I had ever had Mountain Sickness before; I went with the ignorance angle and responded with a “what is Mountain Sickness?”  Now I was really worried that Topher might bail on me, so I put on my best brave-face and busied myself soaking up (and photographing) my first up-close view of the Diamond.  It looked like nothing I had ever climbed.  Heck, it looked like nothing I’d ever seen.

My first up-close view of The Diamond, seen from "The Camel" bivy area

A bit later, Topher asked with a knowing look if I could eat some dinner.  I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to be hungry; all I knew was that I was starting to feel better and I was very, very hungry. There is nothing like starvation for making a meal taste delicious, even a freeze dried one.

At last light on Friday, Topher mentioned that the weather wasn’t looking good, but hoped it would clear by dawn.  I didn’t know what to think, but didn’t struggle long.  I was exhausted.  My brain pulled the plug and I was unconscious for the next 8 hours.  It was my first bivy above 12,000′, and only my second bivy anywhere without a tent.

At first light on Saturday, around 5:00am, Topher woke me with a “the weather is bad” announcement.  I open my eyes and see wet rock and fast moving, low-level clouds not too far above.  Topher suggested we call it quits and head down to climb at Lumpy Ridge.  He promised to make it an interesting day still.

I explained that I had worked pretty hard to get to the Diamond and wanted to take every chance to climb on it.  I declared I want to stay.

Topher went on to explain that The Diamond is a particularly bad place from which to bail.  He explained that climbers have to rappel down two pitches more than they climbed (if starting from Chasm View), and then they have to climb back up to the Boulderfield to collect their gear.  He asked if I was certain I wanted to pass on a sure thing. I did not waiver.

Topher then indicated that our only hope was to wait an hour and let the bad weather clear, if it would.  In my entire life to that point, I had never argued against another hour of sleep.  I rolled over and took it.

Two seconds later (it feels like), Topher woke me again.  The sky looked the same.  He announced that the weather hadn’t improved, but we could head over to the Chasm View and see if the weather had improved at all by the time we had to commit.  I agreed.

I ate a Powerbar and finished my water supply.  Then we packed the rock gear and started over to the Chasm View.  I told Topher that I needed to get some water; he said we can “get some in the Boulderfield”.  I didn’t know where that was but felt reassured that getting water would not be a problem.

The slightly downhill traverse to the Chase View went by quickly.  And, in that brief period of time, the weather started looking a bit better.  Topher futilely gave me one last opportunity to bail, and then we started down the rappels to Broadway ledge.

The climb had begun.

The Climb

We started late enough that everything was well lit, and the poor weather had chased off all the other climbers. We quickly finished the rappels down Chasm View to the Broadway Ledge and completed the traverse over to the start of the Casual Route.

Pitch 1

The climb started up some easy terrain which let me continue to believe (read: hope) that the 5.10 rating was intended to scare beginners away even though the climber is really easy.

Pitch 2 & 3 together

Climbers doing a hard route and showing the steepness of The Diamond face.

My illusions were shattered by a hard crack followed by a horrifying traverse.  The fantasy of easy climbing was utterly destroyed. I’d done one traverse before in my life (final pitch of Pear Buttress), and that one scared the fool out of me as well.  The lack of overhead protection meant I would take a long whipper if I fell. My increasing fear pushed me into some sort of zone where I don’t notice anything except the climbing.  My climbing skills became preternaturally sharp; I climbed better than I ever did in my life.  I had to.

Pitch 4

I was introduced to the joys (do not fail to note the sarcasm here) of squeeze chimneys 1000′ off the deck. The climbing moderated enough to keep me from vomiting as I made my way to the belay in a snowy inset.  By the time I reach the top of the 4th pitch, I was relaxed enough to notice some details beyond mere rock and climbing technique.  One detail I noticed was Topher’s rather thin anchor: a tricam and 2 nuts.  I was used to top-rope anchors with 6-8 solid pieces using several feet of webbing that could hold a falling Boeing 747.  While I was confidentTopher knew his stuff, my stress-level moved back up another notch.

Pitches 5 & 6

More hard climbing went by in a blur. When we reached the Yellow Wall Bivy ledge at the top of pitch 6, Topher suggested a quick break for lunch. And that’s when it dawned on me that I never refilled my water bottle.  With my desiccated mummy-mouth, there was no way to eat a Powerbar and live (remind me to tell you about an attempt to do so during a triathlon).  Fortunately, I also brought an orange, which I ate with such relish I didn’t waste a drop of fluid; and, I thought hard about eating the skin as well.

And, for whatever reason, despite every negative influence, I felt good.  I actually started to think I would really make it.

Pitch 7

More hard climbing led to another squeeze chimney near the top.  This one was a killer squeeze, as I had a pack on. I had to work my way out of the chimney and face face the remain few feet to reach the final move:  a bulge with a single finger-lock hold.  I pulled up on the finger-lock and found nothing above to haul on and no feet; I lowered myself back down.  Topher, at the anchor only 2 feet away, tells me this is the crux.

After trying in vain using a few different holds, I finally broke down and asked Topher for advice.  He said “you figure it out,” and then went on to say that he could not believe that I made it the entire climb without a fall only to fail here. But after a moment, he took pity on me and offered a nugget:  “use the knob on the right to stem”.

But I couldn’t make it work so I decide to summon my remaining strength and did a lay-back using the crack on the left.

I made it.  I actually stole a moment to be proud of myself for getting past the crux.

Pitch 8

But we weren’t done yet.  One last pitch; a traverse, crap.  Topher told me to lead as it would be safer in case I fell.  (Assuming I know how to place gear!)  I’d never led anything in my life; my first lead would be on The Diamond!  It turned out that I only had to clip a couple pins, but the sharp end of the rope felt electric.

And then I was on easy ground.  I’d made it.  I had actually climbed the Diamond.  I felt my life would never be the same (it wasn’t).

I belayed Topher to my ledge and then we scrambled a short distance up and left and then up and right a longer distance to reach and step around a corner that led to talus above the Diamond but below the summit. After a couple hundred feet of scrambling we were sitting on the summit of Longs Peak…my first Colorado 14er summit.

Post Climb

Sitting on the summit of Longs Peak, I thanked Topher for a great climb.  To my great surprise, he told me that I was his first guided client on The Diamond. It was yet another first for me, in an odd way.

Six Firsts for Joe:

  1. First bivy above 12,000 (a rare great night of sleep @ 13k)
  2. First (and second) squeeze chimney climbed
  3. First lead: the final pitch of The Casual Route on The Diamond
  4. First high altitude rock climb over 13000′ (up to 13,900′)
  5. First Colorado 14er summit
  6. First client of Topher Donahue on The Diamond (I lived; good job, Topher)

As the adrenaline started to wear off, I started to feel tired.  We sat to organize the gear, but since I had no water and only an orange to eat since dawn, a long stay wasn’t in the cards.  Topher led me down to the Cable Route area where we descended via rappel to the Chasm View area to complete a circuit begun 8 hours before.  On the way down I took a photo of some climbers that showed the steepness of the climbing.  I intended to make full use of my bragging rights.

Once we arrived at Chasm View, I insisted on some photos including posed shots before we scrambled back to The Camel to collect gear. I thanked Topher again and asked for directions to the water supply.  He pointed down to the Boulderfield and said to ‘follow my ears’ to find access to the water running beneath the big blocks of rock.  Then we parted ways.

Joe and Topher posing with The Diamond in the background. Thanks to Topher for indulging me.

The Hike Out

The lack of food and water (and altitude?) started to hit me pretty hard.  I hadn’t had any water or food aside from an orange in 9 hours, and I had only consumed 2 liters of water in the last 28 hours.  And all of this on top of gaining 14k feet in elevation in a short time, vomiting, and climbing 1000′ of hard rock. (Thankfully I was still young). After a bit of following water noises, I finally found a gap in the rocks and collected a liter of the wet stuff, which I had to put away to let the iodine pills dissolve. Using and waiting for iodine pills was another first for me; it was not the last time I’d have to suffer and wait.

Once I started hiking down the trail, I felt strangely exhilarated.  Even though I was around other people and walking on or near a well established trail, it was the first time I had ever been in the “backcountry” without other people I knew.  I felt very isolated, and I liked it. Taking in the sights, snapping photos, and watching with real interest the exploits of the local marmots, I just floated down the trail.  I felt great once more.  Everything was good.

The Casual Route and descent from Longs Peak

I followed the trail signs until I reached the trail junction for Chasm Lake. I couldn’t wait any longer for water, so I stopped and ate my last Powerbar and finished my water while admiring the spectacular views of Longs Peak. I decided it was the greatest peak in the world and that I really needed to come back someday to climb it without a guide (I did so in 1998; see The Casual Route?).

I continued down the trail and reached the Ranger Station ahead of schedule. I was going to have to wait an hour for my 6pm ride, but that was okay. Nothing could spoil my great mood, I thought.

Around 5:30pm, the weather turned ugly.  The wind picked up and rain and hail/snow started beating on me. I tried to get into the Ranger Station, but it was locked.  I put on all my clothes and huddled in the roofed map alcove to hide as well as I could. I was freezing.

And, then, my ride was late.

By 8pm, I was truly miserable.  Wet & cold with only poor shelter from the wind, I knew that my girlfriend was lost and that I was screwed. As I played out the scenarios in my head, I couldn’t see a good outcome. If she couldn’t find me in the daylight with whatever directions she had gotten, how was she going to figure it out before morning? No more light to see by and no one to ask for help; oh, I was definitely screwed.

Our route up Longs Peak (red) and my descent variation used (green)

Out of the gloom, a couple walked past me, on the way to their car.  After a polite WTF question, I explained my reasons for riding out the storm.  They offered to give me a ride to town, but I declined.  I didn’t have any place to go in Estes Park.  I needed to get to Boulder, but I couldn’t even go there without getting word to my girlfriend. And I had no way to get any word to her; I was royally screwed.

A few minutes later, as the couple drove past, they paused to make one last offer before abandoning me to the elements.  I decided I would be better served by having no where to go in Estes Park than being stuck out in the open in the middle of nowhere.  I accepted. I piled my stuff and body into the couple’s car and buckled my seatbelt, and then a pair of headlights approached.  It was my ride.

And was she pissed.  While we drove to Boulder, she explained how mad she was about having to drive all over creation, etc., etc. I said that I was sorry for her troubles, but that since I had to sit for 3 hours in wind, rain & hail I probably had the worst of it, and my vote was that we should call it even and drop it.  Uncharacteristically, she agreed.  I must have looked pretty bad.

While sitting in the car and thawing out, I wondered what my climbing buddies would think and how they’d react.  I wondered when they would decide to climb The Diamond.  But as I feared for myself, sometimes the chance to take a particular road less traveled only comes once, and an opportunity missed is an opportunity lost.

“Jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

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See all Longs Peak Massif Trip Reports

Brian’s Fork: Attempt on Yale

July 13, 2009

We were pushing it hard.  I was trying to get my body ready for a trip to Bolivia (to do Illimani & Huayna Potosi) while Brian was happy just to suffer at altitude.  Following the end of ski season in March (we always end resort skiing at the beginning of April to start the snow climbing season), we had done Mummy Mountain (13,425’), Mt. Silverheels (13,829’), Huron Peak (14,003’), and Missouri Mountain (14,067’).  The last peak on my prep list for Bolivia was Mt. Columbia (14,077’).  We scheduled Friday, May 1, 1999 for this ascent.

Unfortunately, the weatherman wasn’t cooperating.  In the 3 days prior to the climb, it snowed 24 inches.  We didn’t know what to expect, but we were just dumb enough to just go for it.

Friday after work, we drove south toward Buena Vista and found the access road to Columbia covered in soft snow up to the fenders.  I managed to get my 4Runner about 0.5 mile up the road before we decided that the chance for disaster was too high; then I got to enjoy backing up in the dark for a 0.5 mile.

Using a flashlight, Brian quickly rifled through the guidebook to find an alternative; we couldn’t let the weekend go to waste.  He found that Avalanche Gulch trailhead (9300’) for Mt. Yale was only 10 miles away via paved roads.  In a rush to get going, we settled on it quickly and started driving.  Looking back and considering the conditions, I can say the route selection was foolish; between the 2 winter accessible routes on Mt Yale  (Avalanche Gulch and Denny Creek), we picked the longer and more technical path.

Brian’s Fork:  if there are two ways to go and one of them is much harder and more dangerous, somebody will want to go that way (corollary to Murphy’s Law, and named in honor of my climbing partner, Brian, who is always looking to make life interesting).

As we drove down US 24, it started snowing again.  We drove through a white, ghostly Buena Vista before finding the turnoff and, eventually, the large parking lot at the trailhead.  We setup camp in front of the truck just after midnight and settled in to collect 4 hours of sleep.

Morning came quickly and we awoke to an ocean of snow.  It was only 5 miles to the summit, but 5 miles is a long way to swim and crawl while navigating via compass and dead reckoning.  The one good thing about the route selected was simple navigation…we just needed to head north until we could see the summit ridge to our left (west); and hope that the visibility would be good.

We took down the camp and set off @ 5:30am into the white hell.  And then it started snowing. The visibility during the climb was generally about 100 feet, with occasional ½ mile views.

Brian ponders the use of a map in a whiteout

Brian ponders the use of a map in a whiteout

The snow was very soft and our path was a bit meandering to overcome the terrain; the result was our progress was very slow.  It took 6 hours to travel 3 miles and ascend 2600’ to reach the 11,900’ saddle linking our route to the summit ridge.  And then it took us another 2 hours to reach approx. 13,000’.  We could barely make out that we were below a steep section of the ridge (how we gauged altitude) before fog rolled in and limited visibility to 10 feet.  We stopped at 2pm for lunch and to assess the situation.  It would be 2:30pm before we started again…5.5 hours of daylight left.  If we took 2 more hours to reach the summit, we’d only have 3.5 hours to find our way out before dark.  And we’d probably already lost our tracks to snowfall.  It was a bad bet; it was time to bail.

Our route up Mt. Yale's Avalaunche Gulch route

Our route up Mt. Yale's Avalanche Gulch route

I turned to retrace my steps and found that I couldn’t see the ground.  I could see my boots, but not the ground I was standing on.  The ground, the sky, the skyline…everything was white…I was floating in white air.  It was very disorienting to my sense of balance and direction to not be able to see anything for reference to my body.  And the real problem was that I was standing on a cornice.

On the ascent of the summit ridge, we were not able to stay on the ridge proper due to a cornice.  We skirted the ridge along the north side before mounting the cornice just below the steep portion of the ridge where I turned around.  And I couldn’t venture more than a foot to the south side as the angle steeped quickly and the hard-packed snow very slippery even with crampons on.   So now I had to walk along the edge of the cornice with my eyes closed!

I tried to stay toward the south side to avoid stepping too close and falling over the edge of the cornice on the north side.  But the only way I could tell if I was too far to the south side was by slipping down and self arresting.  So I tried to shift my balance carefully to avoid stepping on naught but thin air.  Twice I stepped through the cornice edge and barely caught myself with my axe.  After recovering from the initial fall, I just stood there and marveled at the absurdity of the situation.

It was a long retreat.  We couldn’t find our tracks due to the additional snowfall, but we recognized the terrain well enough to find our way back before dark.   We had taken 13 hours to climb and descend 7 miles (RT) & 3700 feet of elevation.  Some might call it pigheadedness, but we called it good exercise.

Joe catching a rest in the soft snow

Joe catching a rest in the soft snow

It was our first retreat on a 14er first attempt; I was sorry to see our record go by the boards.  But it would also be the only failure to summit on an intial 14er attempt…57 out of 58 ain’t bad.

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A Rainy Capitol

July 13, 2009

Capitol Peak had been highlighted on my list for some time.  I dreaded the “knife edge” but yet craved the chance to face my fears.  When my friend, Mark was coming back from Chicago for more high-altitude abuse, we decided on Capitol Peak outside of Aspen, CO to make it interesting (hard) and meaningful (tick off another 14er).  Our plan was to:

  1. Drive up Friday afternoon from Denver International Airport and make camp at Capital Lake,
  2. Get an early climbing start to beat potential weather for a Saturday summit,
  3. Spend a care-free night overlooking the Capitol Lake and Peak area, and
  4. Make an early march out to Mark’s plane for Chicago on Sunday afternoon.

What we didn’t plan on was the incredible stormy weather.


On July 25, 2003, I left Boulder at 9:45am to pick up Mark at DIA.  Maneuvering through unusually heavy traffic, I managed to pickup Mark at 10:45am and we set off toward Snowmass immediately. The drive went quickly as we caught up on recent events, and we hit the Snowmass turnoff of CO-82 at approx. 2:45pm.  The road to the Capitol TH was direct, short and of good quality; and after a bit of packing we were hiking at 3:30pm.

Early in our approach...Mark posing in front of Capitol Peak

Early in our approach...Mark posing in front of Capitol Peak

We selected the longer, gentler cow path starting at the far end of the parking area , and reached Capitol Lake at 6pm.  Along the way, we had to hide from a moderate rainfall occurring between 4 and 5pm.  It was a sign of things to come.

The campsite on the knoll nearest to Capitol Lake looked the best and we set up camp on a mid-level spot overlooking the valley north of Capitol Lake.  In selecting a specific site, I couldn’t find an idea location.  I had to choose between a site with bad exposure to wind and lightning but good drainage, or a site with better shelter but a strong likelihood of pooling of water in the tent area. In a decision to be debated over the years, I elected to risk the pooling water vs. the lightning and wind.  To compensate, I spent an hour collecting and placing rocks to use as a vestibule platform and to keep the edges of the waterproof flooring off the ground.  With my enhancements, I figured I could survive a puddle as deep as 2 inches.

Our first close-up view of Capitol, as seen from near our campsite

Our first close-up view of Capitol, as seen from near our campsite

We had plenty of daylight for water bottle filling, dinner preparation and card playing before turning in for an attempt at sleep.  It was one of those silent nights where every rubbing of nylon over nylon roared in the ears. We spent most of the night listening to each other’s noises, with rare, unknown moments of unconsciousness.  But time is relentless, and the alarm went off as planned at 5am.  We rose and made ready for our climb.  Another bottle filling exercise and other duties later, we were hiking up the Daley Pass at 6am.

Our ascent route for Capitol Peak

Our ascent route for Capitol Peak

The general plan was to follow the obvious north-south (as the compass reads) ridgeline of Capitol Peak that you see from the Capitol Lake in four phases (some details added based on my own experience):

  1. Hike up the grassy slope directly east of Capitol Lake, turn right, and within a 100 yards descend a rocky gully to reach the low angle terrain below the cliffs on Capitol Peaks ridgeline on the east side of Capitol Peak
  2. Make a right turn and take a direct line south-ish toward a notch in an east-west ridge connecting Clark’s Peak and K2 … aim generally for the right side of the notch and the snowfield below it.  When K2 comes into view on the right (if you are not sure, keep going…when you see K2 you will be sure of it), head directly towards it.  Summit K2 either by circling left just below the summit and then climbing up or by going directly up to the summit.
  3. Take care but move quickly through the knife-edge area.  The rock is excellent on the hardest looking sections; simply straddle the rock to eliminate any chance of falling.  Use the good footholds.  Take care in the easier-looking sections, as obvious rock holds are often loose.  Trust nothing; test all holds before weighting them.  Follow the cairns to the east below the ridgeline.
  4. Work up and generally left through the grit-covered ledges.  Step carefully and do not push off with your toes when climbing through the loose rocks as it will cause rocks to fall on climbers below you.  When possible, get to the rocky edge (left side of face) of the east face below the main ridgeline and climb the bulging rocks (test every one you use).  This ridge will curve back toward the main ridge; once at the main ridge of Capitol Peak, head left (south) for 100 feet to the summit area.
  5. The descent back to the knife-edge is the hardest part; take care to test all holds and step on solid ground.  Return the ascent path; look for cairns lower than you may remember to stay on the correct path.
Capitol Peak elements

Capitol Peak elements

The route was fairly clear, from the plan gathered from multiple sources.  From the top of Daley Pass, we followed cairns and footprints in the snowfields down toward the valley floor.  We stopped descending at about 100 feet of elevation above the valley floor, and headed south toward the obvious notch at the backend of the valley.  There was more snow than expected, but the conditions were excellent for foot travel; the snow was soft enough for secure steps, but firm enough to support our weight.  Once we could see K2, we made a hard right and began a gradual ascent toward it.  We summitted K2 by angling to the left (as you approach K2) and then ascending to the summit from that side; the route was obvious, but loose.  I believe climbing straight on to the summit would be the easiest and safest.

A view from route noted in red

A view from route noted in red

We took a break on the summit of K2 and took in Capitol’s features; the view of the ridge to the summit was very impressive.  It was also intimidating;  Mark felt it was too difficult for a Flatlander and announced his intention to wait on K2 while I completed our plan.

Respecting his wishes, I continued, working my way down from the K2 summit via the only way I could find:  a hard class 4 move down the North face.  This difficult move turned out to be unnecessary, as I later found a much easier route via a ridge a bit further toward the right edge of the north face.  The knife-edge was a unique and pleasing climbing experience, but did not have the exposure I had expected.  I had “knife-edge” on the brain.  Still, it was exposed enough that I used a straddling position with my weight on my hands to move quickly through this section.

The next section was the worst.  I’ve heard it called “ledge madness” and “loose, awful climbing” and it is all of that and more.  Rocks falling from other climbers, loose rocks, and pebbles on small ledges made for many minutes of intense concentration.  I found that working up and left and then staying left as long as possible made the ascent the least dreadful.  When it was necessary, I moved right back toward the Capitol ridgeline.  Once at the ridge, I moved south (left) approximately 100 feet to the summit.

I reached the summit at 10am.

A view of Snowmass from Capitol

A view of Snowmass from Capitol

From the Capitol Peak summit, the view of Snowmass was spectacular.  I noted the melt-out of the massive snowfield I had glissaded a few years before.  I also took note of the cool view of our campsite…this is an incredible place.

I signed the register after a quick snack and headed back down to meet Mark on K2.

Our campsite seen from Capitol summit

Our campsite seen from Capitol summit

The descent through ledge madness and loose, awful rocks was worse on the way down.  Controlling rock fall and avoiding a personal fall on this loose junk was taxing on my mental stamina.  Getting to the knife-edge was a relief; I was tired of the stress.

Mark and I returned via our approach route and reached camp at 2pm.  Due to the worsening weather, we briefly discussed changing our plan to hike out immediately.  I successfully argued that a night spent outdoors would be far better than any other alternative.  We filled our water bottles and crawled in the tent for a quick nap.

I awoke from my post summit nap at 6ish to find it storming; Mark told me it started at 3pm.  The lightning was amazing and we were glad to have a sheltered campsite.  The tent and ground were holding up well to the rainfall so far, but we hoped the flow would stop soon.  About 8pm, the storm abated and we were able to exit the tent to make some dinner.  The sky did not look good, so we hurriedly finished and repacked the food and gear so we could eat undercover if it became necessary.  It did.  The rain and lightning resumed and lasted until 10:30pm.

Mark getting a headstart on his nap at camp

Mark getting a headstart on his nap at camp

Me and my big mouth; we should have gone home.  Or, if I had been warned by God, I would have built an ark. Approximately 7 hours of rain had overwhelmed the soil and created a wading pool upon which our tent sat.  My tent and my preparations were overwhelmed, and we floated the last few hours before rising at 4am to pack up.   On the good side, the continuing noisy weather drowned out Mark’s noises and I slept well for a soggy 5 hours.

We moved slowly and carefully around our mud hole campsite, and took an hour to get ready.  The miserable long hike out was punctuated by the massive trail damage and fecal matter from the herd of black cattle roaming Capitol Creek.  We reached the car, changed clothes and repacked in time to meet our deadline of  “driving by 8am.”

Several hours later, I dropped Mark off at DIA for his long stinky flight home.  I arrived at my home at 2pm to enjoy a few final hours of weekend that started with laying out all my gear in the sun to dry out.

It was a great trip.

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