Posts Tagged ‘14ers’

Flying Blind: Wetterhorn & Uncompahgre

April 25, 2009
Me and Isabella @ 4 years old

Me and Isabella @ 4 years old

I was going to be a dad.

My wife and I were going to have our first child, a girl whom we would name Isabella.   It was going to be the most exciting day of our lives.  But the big event was 5 days away; surely I had time to bag some Colorado 14ers beforehand.

Yet, having time and having consensus for such an adventure were two very different things.  I carefully worked out and then very carefully delivered my thinking to my wife.  I argued that it would be far, far better that I go adventuring right before rather than right after our first child is born. Right?  The Assumptive Close (changing the question about going from whether to when) was a long shot, but it was all I had.

She agreed! My wife is a very understanding and generous person. I always take credit for picking her.

With a family consensus in hand,  I made plans to leave for Lake City on July 26, 2002 to collect Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre, and possibly also San Luis.  These were three of the few unclimbed 14ers on my list of 58 Colorado peaks over fourteen thousand feet. And with the rest of the world having better things to do than climb 14ers on the far side of the state, I would go alone.

By the morning of, I had everything ready except my navigational planning.  I still didn’t have confirmation on the current information for the drive to the trailhead or the approach hike from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead.  And in the few remaining hours prior to departure, I stupidly wasted my time on unimportant and unrelated tasks, forcing me to leave unprepared and behind schedule.  Reduced to relying on the guidebooks printed years ago, I grabbed my Dawson and my Roach books and headed out into rush hour traffic; my punishment would be the trauma of  being “lost and flying blind” in the Heart of Darkness.

“Flying Blind” is an aviation term that describes a navigation scenario where the pilot/navigator cannot see the ground and must navigate by instrument alone to find a place to land before the fuel runs out (and the aircraft crashes into the ground).   When through error or mishap the aviator becomes “lost and flying blind,” he rides a ticking time-bomb while desperately gathering information to save himself.

As expected, I arrived in Lake City after dark:  no one to ask for directions and nothing to see but roadsigns.  Heck, I didn’t even have a map, just the guidebook directions that were printed years before. And yet, it might have even worked, but I was in too much of a hurry to stop for 5 minutes and read the dang directions carefully.

My simul-drive-read concluded with a simple set of instructions for me to follow:  drive into Lake City via CO-149 and turn right at the sign for Engineer Pass that I’d find near the middle of town, and then take that road to a junction near Capital City to find a sign for Matterhorn Creek.  It wouldn’t be hard, but flying blind, without any normal visual clues or basic spatial orientation, I could not afford to lose my way.  I might not find it again in time.

I had been to Lake City before, so that wasn’t hard.  Then I found the sign for Engineer Pass and made that turn; so far so good.  After 2 blocks the road ended in a T-junction with a sign that said, “Alpine Loop — 18 miles.”  Crap.  I looked down the road each way, but couldn’t see anything in the pitch dark.  I turned around and went back to the main drag to see if I could find additional clues.  Nothing. I was screwed; 5.5 hours invested (and just as much to get home) and my narrow time window quickly closing.  I couldn’t believe I had let myself get into this situation.  So stupid.

Full of dread, I went back to the T-junction and guessed left.  I followed the Alpine Loop that I feared would take me on a tour of the utterly dark mountains and deposit me back in Lake City after an hour of anxious self-loathing, and leave me with nothing to do but go home empty handed.

Now I was lost and flying blind.

It is a battle between confidence and fear.  Confidence of success desperately hangs on while pulled down by the weight of the rapidly growing fear of failure.  The driver, lost and flying blind must go on and on as long as possible, afraid to turn around because the goal might be just ahead, but afraid of being wrong and losing irreplaceable time. Desperately seeking a clear confirming clue, the driver continues until exhausting his reservoir of hope.  With his confidence broken, the driver turns around without knowing if he is actually lost. And, in the worst case, the driver returns to search for additional information, only to find that he was almost at his destination, and now does not have enough time.

A mistake of this magnitude could ruin the trip (if not a life!), and such a terrible conclusion is worthy of great fear.

Desperate to figure out where I was in the pitch dark, my solution was to go faster.  Driving at top speed with my nose in the guidebooks; I looked up periodically to stay on the road while trying to find some information in the books about the “Alpine Loop” or some clue that would confirm I was on the right road.  Heck, I’d have been delighted with indisputable evidence that I was on the wrong road.  The uncertainty was killing me.

Eventually I read that the Nellie Creek trailhead was found off the road I hoped I was on. It was only supposed to be 5 miles up the road, but when I didn’t find it (started looking too late) or any other indication of where I was, I lost hope.  I turned around.  I figured I should get back to Lake City before I forgot how.

When I got back to Lake City, I looked again for any road signs that I missed in the darkness; but found nothing.  It was time to go home; but before spending another 5.5 hours on that long, lonely drive, I thought I’d invest 5 minutes in careful, non-driving study of the directions.  I pulled over and started reading carefully; it took only one minute to find my mistake.  I was on the right road the whole time and must have been within minutes of finding the sign to Matterhorn Creek.

So, I went back up the road to Capitol City (noticing the Nellie Creek trailhead along the way), and then turned right onto North Henson Creek Road to head up to Matterhorn Creek trailhead. The road roughened significantly at this point, but still wasn’t too bad for a 4×4. After a couple miles, I entered a full parking area for the trailhead at 10,400 feet. I continued up the “four wheel drive road” for another 300 feet to reach the high parking lot below the Forest Service Gate at 10,720 feet. I continued up, taking the right fork at the end of the camping area, to an empty parking lot next to the trailhead register. I made it. It was 11pm; the drive to Lake City was 280 miles long and had taken 5.5 hours (51 miles per hour), while the drive from Lake City to the trailhead was an additional 12 miles in 2 hours.  I was so happy to still be in the game that I wasn’t even mad.

I set up camp quickly and spent the early morning studying the guidebooks. The weather had been rainy lately and was forecast to thunder in the afternoon; I would need to move quickly and without additional mistakes.  And to minimize the chance of weather interruption, I planned to start hiking at 5am.  Starting even earlier was a problem because I needed to be able to see well enough to find a switchback leaving the main trail less than 1 miles into the hike.

My route from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead to Wetterhorn Peak

My route from the Matterhorn Creek trailhead to Wetterhorn Peak

My guidebook study resulted in a plan what would start with five sections:

  1. Wake up and leave camp
  2. Find the place to leave the main trail and switchback up to a higher trail
  3. Find the cut-off point to leave the main trail and head toward Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge
  4. Ascend the tricky steep finish to reach the Wetterhorn summit; decide if a traverse to the Matterhorn summit was a good idea (it wasn’t)
  5. Return to the main trail heading toward Uncompahgre
  6. With a close up view of the peak, decide which route to take to the summit of Uncompahgre

The alarm went off at 4:30am. I packed my gear, my copy of Roach’s 14er book, and put on my trusty old Makalus that I had resoled after several futile attempts to break in my new Eigers. I had not seen any tents the night before and was worried that somehow I was camping in an illegal spot, so I decided to pack up the tent before leaving. This and other distractions cost me an extra 30 minutes.  I began hiking at 5:30am; yet, I was the first on the trail, somehow.  And with a near full moon, I could see the sky was already threatening.

About the time I started worrying about having missed the “switchback” I found it. Basically, the main trail is blocked off.  The only way to proceed is to follow the switchback. I continued up the trail, slowly gaining ground on the mountains until I could see the Matterhorn Peak in the early light; oh, what a misuse of a great name.

I was tempted to follow Roaches advice regarding the Wetterhorn / Uncompahgre combination, and do Uncompahgre first. But since the weather was threatening, and the most difficult climbing was on Wetterhorn, I decided to reverse that order.

Roach says to “leave the main trail at 12,040 feet”…a rather precise instruction to use with an altimeter that is never more reliable than +/- 200 feet (a variance of approximately 1/2 mile along this hiking trail). Without some sort of landmark. I tried to get my bearings by looking to the Wetterhorn Peak and its Southeast Ridge but couldn’t see much from beneath the ridge. I decided to  mimic the route drawn on the map by veering 45 degrees left (northwest) toward the saddle between Matterhorn and Wetterhorn peaks once the main trail turned toward Uncompahgre.  Of course, knowing when the trail makes a permanent turn in direction vs. just a temporary one isn’t easy.  But it was a plan.

A view of Wetterhorn and my early-day route, seen from the summit of Uncompahgre

A view of Wetterhorn and my early-day route, seen from the summit of Uncompahgre. The marmot in the lower left is waiting for me to leave my food unattended.

I had a moderate amount of altitude loss and wandering.  After proceeding northeast approx. 0.25 miles, I found a well-beaten trail which I would follow up to the southeast ridge.  Looking down, I noticed a single set of fresh footprints in the mud.  I was surprised because I hadn’t seen or heard anyone on the trail. I wondered if the climber was from the bivy site I passed on a grassy slope below. I looked up toward the ridge to look for him/her when movement on the summit caught my eye – a climber! This person had summited before 7am; that’s commitment.

I had made good time (1,500 feet per hour) so far and wanted to manage my energy level. In my life-long battle to bring-enough-but-not-too-much-water, I had decided to bring four liters (I can hear Brian groaning at this admission). I just didn’t know for certain that I’d be able to find any and I had a long day of hiking. To avoid dragging nearly 10 lbs of water up Wetterhorn, I decided I would stash two liters down low.  All I had to do was remember to reclaim it.

The Middle Notch

The Middle Notch

I continued up to the saddle between Point 13,117 and Wetterhorn and then up the southeast ridge. The hiking included a significant amount of scrambling, but all easily within 2nd class difficulty. Numerous cairns revealed numerous paths; I took the path closest to the ridge and passed underneath and left of the initial towers and eventually reached a flat area to the right and beneath the peak of the “Ships Prow” tower.

From this point I could see 3 notches, which didn’t match the descriptions of my guidebooks (they mentioned either one or two notches). Fortunately, the middle notch (see photo) had a big cairn near it, so I climbed it first and found the impressive finish to the climb.

The last 100 foot stretch was very impressive:  steep and airy. In slippery conditions, I could see it would be troublesome.

And the sky looked like rain.

The final stretch beneath low clouds

The final stretch beneath low clouds

I traversed the down angle ledge to the east for 15 feet to reach the bottom of the finish. I paused to test holds a couple times, but the handholds were good enough to catch my weight if a foothold broke. I reached the tiny summit at 8am.

I looked down the ridge toward Matterhorn to see if I might bag it as well, but the ridge looked loose and steep. After a moment, I retreated back to the summit having silently agreed to leave the Matterhorn for another day. As I looked for a comfy rock to sit on, a cloud rolled over the summit obscuring my vision.

I wanted to see the footholds as I down climbed; so I descended as soon as visibility returned. Naturally, the down climb was harder than the climb up; but I only needed a few  “face-the-rock” moves to make it back to the ledge, and then the Middle Notch.

After a quick break below the “Ships Prow”, I was ready to start back down the southeast ridge. That is when I realized that I hadn’t again seen the person whom I had spied on the summit at 7am…hmmmmm. Where did he/she go? Perhaps I should name my trip report, “The Ghost of Wetterhorn”?

The descent went quickly. Once reaching the saddle with Point 13,117 on the southeast ridge, I turned left (north) off the ridge and headed toward Matterhorn. I backtracked my original route and discovered that the trail I had used earlier in the morning was a good traversing route between Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre; I didn’t lose any altitude and was able to take a nearly straight shot west to the saddle between the two 14ers at 12,380 feet. Oh, and I collected my stashed water.

Once I connected with the main trail, I followed it over to where I could see Uncompahgre where I began to consider how to climb it.

My early morning study revealed three basic options:

  1. Go the long way around to the using the Southwest Slopes route which connects with the East Slope route taking approximately 2 extra miles than the shortest route
  2. Take the shortest path, 2000 feet directly up the West Face (steep scree slope) to join the East Slope route near the summit
  3. Take a compromise path that Roach calls V1 of the Southwest slopes route, which takes a mile off the long approach and only goes up 1,000 feet of rock to the ridge line.
A view of Uncompahgre from the south, while hiking around to the east

A view of Uncompahgre from the south, while hiking around to the east

I was in a hurry to beat the weather, but I wasn’t willing to churn up the scree and cause significant erosion; I took the third option.

I left the main trail and did a bit wandering to find the start of the V1 route. It looked a bit looser than I expected, but only the first 400 feet were very steep and loose.  The rest of the route was straightforward, and I reached the ridgeline (13,260 ft) at 10:45.

The view from the ridge was impressive (see photo). A massive cliff band stood before me guarding the large, flat summit area.

My initial reaction was…”wow!…do I get to climb that cliff?”

The forbidding cliffband protecting the Uncompahgre summit

The forbidding cliffband protecting the Uncompahgre summit

But it wasn’t to be so.  The trail angled up to the south corner of the broad summit where it turned the corner and reached the south face. The trail switch backed and scrambled to the summit area, then traversed north and, finally, headed to the western edge. I reached the summit at 11:30am.

The wind was hard and cold; I was only able to remain on the summit at all by wearing my jacket, balaclava, and gloves. I enjoyed most of the rest of my dwindling water supply and a couple Balance Bars while examining my route up Wetterhorn.  I also enjoyed the views of Sunlight, Redcloud, and Handies which I had climbed a few weeks earlier (see trip report).

After a fast, enjoyable 20 minutes on top, it was time to get down.

I had climbed 5800′ and was running out of steam.  I was sorely tempted to go down the West Face route to shave some effort.  But with the weather cooperating, I still couldn’t justify the trail erosion.

I resolved to return using the trail I had ascended.

Once back down to the Matterhorn Creek trail, I took a short break near a creek to clear my boots of gravel and replenish my water supply.  I also needed another rest.

The weather was still holding; but to be prudent, I kept up a good downhill pace to reach treeline. I reached camp by 2:30pm despite another brief rest below treeline.

I was tempted to stay another day to collect San Luis Peak since I was so close to it, but I felt anxious to get home. Better late than never, my wife was probably thinking when I explained my early return.

It would take me 4 years to return to collect San Luis.

Despite a rough start, I got my 14ers:  approximately 15 miles and 5,800 feet of elevation gain in 8 hours.

My route map for summiting Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre

My route map for summiting Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre

The day included 10 sections:

  1. Wake up and leave camp
  2. Find the place to leave the main trail and switchback up to a higher trail
  3. Find the cut-off point to leave the main trail and head toward Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge
  4. Ascend the tricky steep finish to reach the Wetterhorn summit; decide if a traverse to the Matterhorn summit was a good idea (it wasn’t)
  5. Return to the main trail heading toward Uncompahgre
  6. With a close up view of the peak, decide which route to take to the summit of Uncompahgre
  7. Find the start to the V1 route to join the East Slopes finish on Uncompahgre
  8. Complete the ascent of Uncompahgre
  9. Enjoy the summit of the 6th highest mountain in Colorado and the  highest on Colorado’s Western Slope
  10. Go home and be a good husband and father
My observation of mountain name appropriateness

My observation of mountain name appropriateness

Six and one-half hours and three liters of Diet Coke (for caffeine) later, I was home. It was a great trip designed to scratch my 14er itch, but it didn’t work; two weeks later I used my in-laws visit to excuse another trip to collect Castle and Conundrum.  But, don’t worry; I would get my “just desserts.”

The Castle-Conundrum trip would be my last for a while as another “lost and flying blind” scenario conspired with errors in judgment to give me an injury.  It was time to start being a better husband, and to get serious about this father thing.

See all trip reports

See blog introduction, rules, laws, etc.


Brian’s Lucky Day: Longs via Kieners

March 27, 2009

Neither Brian or I had ever successfully completed the classic “Kiener’s Route” on Longs Peak (I had failed on an earlier effort in June of 1996). Making this effort all the more unavoidable, this route is also called, “The Mountaineers Route.” Ensnared by the gravity of such inspiration, the limits of our so called “free will” were all too apparent.

And while this adventure shared many attributes with many other adventures, this one would be characterized by the lucky breaks Brian used to survive the day. For that reason, I call our ascent of Longs Peak via Kieners Route on July 3rd, 1998, “Brian’s Lucky Day.”


We started at 4:20am and hiked up the trail toward Chasm Lake beneath the North Face of Longs Peak. It was a beautiful clear night with millions of stars filling the black sky. We took a left at the Y-Junction (right goes to Boulderfield) and arrived at Chasm Lake at 7:30am.

A preview of our plan to summit Longs Peak via the Kiener's Route

A preview of our plan to summit Longs Peak via the Kiener's Route

(1) Chasm Lake

As we approached the lake’s dam, we were hoping the lake would still be frozen over so we could hike over instead of around it. Going around is a significant bother as there is no “shore”; it requires a scramble over talus. And worse, the southern shore (the direct line to Lamb’s Slide) is blocked by cliffs, so we’d have to take a big detour to our right, around the northern side of the lake. But no; the ice was melted through in the center. We had to go around.

As I moved across the talus, I lost sight of Brian. I assumed he found a path lower down the talus, closer to the lake. Once I was about ½ way around the lake, I was surprised for a moment to see Brian walking on the ice about 20-30 feet from shore. But my surprise didn’t last as Brian frequently likes to push it when it comes to walking on lake ice.

Then I noticed he was shiny. He looked wet!

(2) Brian’s Self Rescue

Brian noticed me looking at him, and he motioned for me to approach. I moved down to the lake to join him, and found that the ice did not reach back to shore. Brian asked me to extend a hiking pole to pull him as he jumped the gap from the ice to the shore. He made it without adding significantly to his moisture level, so I asked how he came to be dripping wet. He explained that he had fallen through the ice, but had managed to escape a watery grave by crawling back onto it. I guess the ice was thin enough that when he went through, it broke up all around him into small floes: small enough to not trap him; big enough for him to get on.

He hadn’t yelled for help or even let me know he was on the ice. I would never have found him. He was lucky to be able to save himself.

(3) Complete the trek to Lamb’s Slide

After a short break to let Brian pour water out of his boots and wring out his socks, we continued around the lake and then up to the foot of Lamb’s Slide.

(4) Climb Lamb’s Slide

We reached the bottom of Lamb Slide and stopped to put on crampons and get out the ice axes. Then, we turned left to head up towards the Loft and Mt Meeker. We climbed about 800′ of elevation and exited at the first place it looked possible onto snowy ledges. We would traverse these ledges to the right until we reached the Broadway ledge proper. Along this thin ledge, we knew we would encounter snow & ice and at least one exposed technical section.

And, Brian needed to drain his boots again so we took another short break.

(5) Traverse Broadway Ledges to Horsby Direct Dihedral

The first corner we reached was covered in snow; I think it was the dihedral used by the Hornsby Direct finish to Stettner’s Ledges route. Brian headed across to check the conditions, to see if we needed a belay. He was planting his axe and kicking steps until about half-way across, he hit rocks just under the snow. Unable to gain secure footing on the main path, and with a large bulge of rock above him partially blocking his way, he moved lower to find solid footing on some exposed rocks below

I yelled out that the rocks looked unstable, and that we should setup a belay. Brian said he thought it would be okay. Just as he stepped down and put his full weight on a large boulder, it rolled over and fell out from under him.  It careened down onto Lamb’s Slide, hundreds of feet below. In that instant, I knew he was a goner. I stared blankly and screamed “rock” as a warning to anyone below.

By pure chance, Brian dropped straight down and landed squarely on another boulder only a foot or so lower that stopped his rapid descent into the afterlife. Brian looked back at me and offered up a profound, “whoa.” He then took the last step to reach the far ledge. We paused for a moment to listen for voices, but heard nothing but our own hearts pounding in our ears.

No one had been hurt, and we wanted to keep it that way.  Brian set up a belay anchor, and then I threw his end of the rope to him so I could get a belay past the airy bulge.

(6) Complete Broadway Traverse

We continued the traverse past several loose, snowy slopes to reach the far side of the notch couloir.  The route directions in Rossiter’s “High Peaks” guide book indicated a start within the Notch, but once again (as in 1996 see my Kieners’ …er, Notch Route trip report) I could not spot a likely start.  We decided to stop beneath a broken rock face leading up toward some fins of rocks. This looked to be a way to get into the Kiener’s Route.

We stopped for a snack and to change gear. Brian took his boots off and poured out a combined pint of fluid.  I didn’t think to see if it was just water, or if he’d peed himself a short while earlier.

Sitting squarely in the center of the “East Face” of Longs Peak, I felt that I was in the best spot on the greatest Colorado mountain. The combination of spectacular views, modest danger of dying at the moment, and the thrill of expected excitement to come felt unmatched.

(7) Climb Kiener’s Route to the Summit of Longs Peak

The upper portion of the Kiener's Route

The upper portion of the Kiener's Route

Brian took the first lead up the broken rock and over a chockstone; it was low 5th class climbing. I took the second lead up a narrowing chimney (about 3 feet across) to its end, and then up a waterfall to a big, grassy ledge. This pitch was 4th to low 5th class, and was the end of the technical portion of the route.

To speed things up without completely throwing caution to the wind, we simul-climbed up the broad ledges at the margin of the face (above the Diamond) for about 500′.  Once the terrain became gully-like with good hand and footholds, we unroped.  From this point on, the climbing difficulty was never harder than 3rd class.

At the end of this section, we stood in front of a massive cliff that separated us from the summit. It was very imposing and looked impossible to overcome.  I remember that my heart sank the first time I stood on that spot and looked at the impassable obstacle until I remembered the escape used by my guide to finish a climb on The Diamond.

Brian and I headed up and right, toward the Diamond face, and looked for large blocky rocks on the right. We climbed over the blocks and around the corner on a ledge to mount the north face of Longs.

From here, it was a 10-minute, 2nd class hike to the summit.  We reached the summit at 2pm; naturally the weather was deteriorating.  In addition, the summit was covered by flies and gnats, so we got ready to leave quickly.

(8) Descend the Cables Route

Just as we rose to head toward the Cable Route raps, a cloud rolled in and obscured visibility beyond 50 feet. Fortunately, we were able to feel our way down, having made the descent a couple times before. In a short time, we completed the second rappel and were looking over the impressive “Chasm View” to admire our path.

The hike down from the Boulderfield was a long one, as always. But, in the end, we had suffered and persevered 14.5 hours to ascend approximately 4800 feet and accomplish a classic mountaineering goal. And Brian had a very lucky day.

Our "lucky day" route up and down Longs Peak. The "X's" mark the spots of Brian's found luck.

Our "lucky day" route up and down Longs Peak. The "X's" mark the spots of Brian's found luck.

Our route had 8 major sections

  1. Hike to Chasm Lake
  2. Traverse around lake and Brian’s self rescue
  3. Completion of traverse to foot of Lamb’s Slide
  4. Ascent of Lamb’s Slide to Broadway Ledges
  5. Traverse to top of Hornsby Direct dihedral and Brian’s second lucky break
  6. Completion of traverse to start of Kiener’s Route
  7. Ascent of Kiener’s Route to Longs Peak summit
  8. Descent of Cables Route to Chasm View and back to car

See all Trip Reports

The East Face of Pyramid

March 18, 2009

Nearing the end of my 14er list, I finally had to face my fears about Pyramid Peak.  I wanted to fit in an attempt between my previous weekend’s climb of Capitol (with Mark) and my planned North/South Maroon traverse for the up-coming weekend (with Brian).  By “fit in” I mean, squeeze in with enough time to recover from the first and to recover for the second.  The weather report and my schedule cooperated; Wednesday was selected for a Pyramid attempt using the NorthEast Ridge route.

To alleviate my fears of this peak, and to respond to my poor route finding effort on South Maroon Bell 12 months earlier, I prepared a well researched route finding guide with photos, topos and route descriptions from multiple sources….all covered in packing tape.  What could go wrong this time?

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On July 29, 2003, I left Boulder at 12:45pm for Aspen and Maroon Lake.  I arrived at 4:30pm (30 minutes before the Rangers leave) and took a minute to consider my options.  Basically, I could either enter the park now to see if the park had any available camping sites (and pay for the privilege of sleeping and parking) or wait until the Rangers left and find a place to park the 4Runner for a short sleep in the back.  I was not sure of the risks associated with an unauthorized overnight park and decided that if I could sleep and park legally, I would do so.   I ended up paying $20 for a noisy night in Silver Bell campground, but did have the use of a comfortable toilet.

Don’t laugh.  A toilet may seem like a small thing in this reading, but let me be clear about the comforting reassurance that a well-stocked bathroom can bring to a civilized person who enjoys playing at being a backcountry adventurer – it is a tremendous luxury. Perhaps one cannot be a “real” mountaineer until toilets mean nothing.  If so, I will never be a real mountaineer.

I woke up at 4am, packed up and drove to the Maroon Lake parking area.  I was hiking at 5am in total darkness (no moon).  My last trip to Maroon Lake a year ago had prepared me to find the proper trail without signage or other visual clues.  Unfortunately, I had a case of the “Slows” and could not get my speed up past moderate, but I continued to make acceptable progress given my early start.

I found the climber’s trail turnoff in a rocky area at about 10,100’ and turned left up and through the short rocky slope toward the Pyramid hanging basin.  The trail wound around the easy terrain in an absurd fashion like the desperate attempt of 2-inch tall men following the line of least resistence through a range of 2-foot tall mountains.  The trail was at least easy to follow in the morning light, and, once across the moraine, the trail turned upward and made a steep ascent of the slope directly below the Pyramid Hanging Basin.

The approach to Pyramid's hanging basin

The approach to Pyramid's hanging basin (photo taken on the descent)

At 11,600 feet I entered the hanging basin and began a boulder hopping exercise toward the North Face of Pyramid, using a narrow tongue of snow at the centerline whenever possible.

The basin was like a wild sea frozen in time. The cliffs of Pyramid and subsidiary ridges on either side have been depositing tons of rocks atop an ancient glacier, which had settled into ridges and depressions across which I climbed a circuitous route to avoid elevation loss.  I passed by an ice cliff that appeared to be the edge of the glacier that had partially melted leaving a massive depression in the rock area beneath it.  It was an amazing feature for Colorado.

From the ice cliff, I could see my route up to the eastern shoulder of Pyramid.

The climb to Pyramid's shoulder

The climb to Pyramid's eastern shoulder

At 8:30am, I reached the Northeastern ridge of Pyramid using a side gully angling right a few hundred feet from the top of the shoulder.  I took a moment to rest and eat, and I pulled out my climbing notes for a quick refresher.  I had two basic instructions gleaned from guidebooks and trip reports to guide me:  (1) stay on the ridge and go left when necessary and (2) follow the cairns.  It soon became apparent that these instructions were incompatible.

The cairned route stayed near the ridge for a short while working initially to the right side of the ridge and then back to the ridge.  Within a hundred yards, I came to a gully on the left that had cairns 30 feet below me.  I figured this was the “go left when necessary” part, but it was not so.  By leaving the ridge to follow these cairns, I would not again attain the ridge until reaching the summit.

The cairns led to a narrow walking ledge that was reminiscent of the Narrows on Long’s Peak but without the exposure.  At this point, I simply gave up on the NE Ridge and decided to place my trust in the cairns and my “nose” to guide me to the summit.  Faith comes hard, but I have learned some hard lessons.

Looking up at the East Face of Pyramid (The official name for a roughly pyramidal shaped pile of rubble near Aspen)

Looking up at the Upper East Face of Pyramid

The East face of Pyramid can be generally described as a steep rocky incline split down the middle by a great gully.  The climbing occurs on the right hand side of the gully, and eventually exits into the gully near the summit to avoid steep cliffs that cap the top of the right hand portion of the face.   The cairns generally led from the right side of the face upward and left, toward the middle of the face without entering the great gully.

The cairns marked ledges (where else can you stack a pile of rocks), between which any number of climbing options existed for ascent to the next ledge.  I simply followed my nose and found mostly 3rd class climbing.  There were two more difficult sections that required me to use a “face in” down climb method later in the day.  Overall, I was delighted to find the climbing to be straight forward.

I didn't expect to find this atop this pile of rubble

I didn't expect to find this atop this pile of rubble

I reached the summit at 9:45am.  I took a break to rest and locate the 14ers in the area.  In particular, I studied the the approach to N. Maroon Bell and the Maroon Bells ridge and that I planned to do a few days hence.  I did not find a register to sign, but I did find the survey marker.

I also saw a trail coming up from the NE ridge, which I abandoned earlier in the ascent. After my break, I walked over to inspect it and see if it would make a good descent route.  I was torn, but decided I would descend using what I knew to minimize the chance of delays on this cloudy day.  I left the summit at 10:15.

My first good look at the Maroon Bells, seen from the summit of Pyramid

My first good look at the Maroon Bells, seen from the summit of Pyramid

The descent was a bit trickier than the ascent.  Climbing up over gravel covered ledges can be done safely by controlling the weighting of each step.  However, down climbing is more difficult due to lesser control over weight shifts.  By going slowly and taking care to follow my original ascent route, I made it to the saddle without incident.

One of the unique aspects of Pyramid, shared by the Maroon Bells, is how the climbing is still strenuous even after the climb is emotionally done.  I was ready to claim victory after reaching the saddle, but still had to descend much steep and difficult terrain before returning home to my family.  I moved deliberately but purposefully and reached the Crater Lake trail by 1pm, and reached the car by 1:30pm.

It was an enjoyable adventure, but I was glad it was behind me.  Forty-seven down; eleven to go.

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Longs Peak Keyhole Route

March 14, 2009


Brian invited me to join him and some friends on a late Fall Longs Peak ascent via the Keyhole.  I had never done that route, so I was glad for the chance.

I met the group in the parking lot, and we started from the Ranger Station at 5am.  We passed the Goblins Forest and a frozen alpine brook a couple of times as we switch backed up a hill before finally crossing the brook on some log bridges approximately 1 hour and 1.5 miles from TH.  It was a cold day, but I was sweating like a boxer.  I needed to lose some layers, but I didn’t want to stop the group to shift my clothing. 

The trail left the heavy forest shortly after the log bridge crossing and continued up to tree line near 11,000′ (approximately 2.5 miles from the TH).  We stayed on the main trail through Mills Moraine heading toward Chasm Lake trail junction (11,550′) because Jim’s Grove trail was in poor shape.  We reached the Chasm Lake junction (11,550′), 3 miles from TH, and then turned toward Granite Pass.  Underneath Mt. Lady Washington, just before Granite Pass, we stopped for a water break.

My wet clothes had me shivering like a vibrating bed. The group said, “wearing cotton, eh?”…nope, just wet.  Now that I was cold and wet, I couldn’t stop wearing the clothes that got me wet in the first place.  I was dreaming of a dry base layer; I was destined for misery, but I was going to finish off the Keyhole route.

We then hiked past Granite Pass and then on to the Boulder Field. We continue through the Keyhole, then over The Ledges until we reached the Trough (~13,300′).  The Trough was full of soft snow and was very slow going for the 600′ ascent.  Once we scrambled over the top of the Trough, we started the icy Narrows, a wildly exposed ledge.  Transitioning between ice/snow and rock was nearly fatal for me twice as my crampons were as much a hazard as a lifesaver.

We reached the final pitch, called the Homestretch. It is a steep section of rock about 300′ tall that is often reported to be icy and treacherous.  However, this time it was covered in somewhat soft, but still rather stable snow.  We reached the summit quickly and took a long break.  The weather was fine, but it was getting late in the day.  I started wondering about how long before it got dark; I didn’t have a headlamp.

After our water and food break, we hurried down the Keyhole route and reached the Boulder Field when it occurred to me that we had about 1 hour of light remaining.  I decided to hurry ahead to get as far as I could with the remaining light.  I got as far as the Chasm Lake trail junction before I was hiking in the shadows.  The sky remained light for a while longer, but the icy trail was in the shadows and I couldn’t see the icy spots anymore.  I slowed to a crawl after two separate head-over-heals sliding tumbles on the ice.  I made it to the car by 7pm and drove home thinking about being better prepared.



  • Late fall meant a short day
  • Cold weather plus fast pace makes for difficult body temperature management
  • I was the guest and just went along with the existing plans



(1) Managed by body temperature badly

  • Didn’t remove layers to avoid sweating


(2) Prepared badly

  1. Didn’t bring extra dry base layers
  2. Didn’t bring a headlamp
  3. Didn’t anticipate that it would be dark well before getting back to the car


(3) Made several bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.

  • Denial Bias:  I just didn’t think about the trip very much; I trusted that the group I was with would have planned well.  I also didn’t think about going ahead without the rest of the group; if I had hurt myself there was a chance I could be stranded out overnight.  Besides, I could have walked more safely with them guiding the way (they had headlamps)


How I Got Lucky

  1. The weather stayed safe all day
  2. I was able to avoid hypothermia despite being wet on a cold day
  3. I managed to avoid getting injured in the dark while hiking alone 


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The Confidence Trap: Castle-Conundrum

March 14, 2009


I had originally hoped to climb Castle & Conundrum on my July trip to do South Maroon Bell, but that barely successful effort was so exhausting that I had to go home without even an attempt.

My plan was to return in August to do Castle and Conundrum via the Montezuma Basin after an early morning drive from Boulder. Everything went perfectly, and I arrived at the Castle Creek trailhead right at 7am, as planned.

The rest of the day would not be so cooperative.

The guidebook said to drive up the 4WD road for 2.3 miles to a fork and take the right fork to Montezuma Mine.  At 7:30am, I was over 3 miles up the road with no sign of a fork.  Some bad advice, too much faith in a guidebook, and a couple turnarounds left me 1.5 hours behind schedule before I started hiking from 11,000 feet at 9am.  I found the Montezuma fork 200 yards beyond my first turnaround.

I finished the 1,800′ and 2 miles to the 4WD parking lot at 10:30pm, when I met a couple that had just finished Conundrum.  They said they used the snowfield for a “traverse and climb to the saddle between the summits.”  Since I didn’t have an ice axe, I decided to continue with the Northeast Ridge route; but I made a mental note to consider a snowy descent.  Later, when I could see the snowfield clearly, I saw tracks along the right side of the field skirting the two giant parallel crevasses that spanned the snowfield.

The route finding went easily as cairns were plentiful and the route followed the path of least resistance.  I reached the summit of Castle at 11:45am.  And after a 30-minute break, I left for Conundrum, reaching the northern summit at 1pm.

Castle Peak seen from Conundrum

Castle Peak seen from Conundrum

As I descended from Conundrum, I looked down into the snowfield and considered how much faster it would go than a return to Castle.  I was tempted into taking a look.  As I descended from the saddle, I found the slope steep and loose; I dreaded reclimbing it.  When I reached the “snow” field, I discovered solid ice, and the “tracks” I had seen from the Northeast ridge of Castle were watermarks (grooves) from water running down the face of the snowfield.  At that moment, I considered backing off, but thought I would at least see if I could figure out where the couple had gone.

The only possibility for a “traverse” was via the flat bottom of the upper giant crevasse. As I neared the end of the crevasse, I could see it ended 40 feet short of the rocks. So that wouldn’t work, but I then found another option.  Directly below me was a half-pipe, gouged by water running over the ice, which dropped into the lower crevasse that did reach the rocks.  With too little thought, I decided to give it a try instead of going back up the steep, loose dirt to the saddle.

Since the ice slope was moderate, I figured I could lower myself using rocks like axes to chop holds for my hands and by jamming my feet into the rocky, narrow bottom.  Chopping holds in ice was hard work; and, at first, my concern was the time expenditure, but that soon changed.  The lower I got, the steeper the slope became.  If I slipped, I would be dashed on the rocks in the lower crevasse or I would bounce out of the crevasse and accelerate into the talus 200 feet further below.   And to make matters worse, I could now see that the crevasse bottom was far below the bottom of the half-pipe.  At this point, I finally realized that I had made a terrible mistake.  But I was still alive and was determined to stay that way.  I became even more deliberate in my hold chopping.

When I reached the last 5 feet (after which the half-pipe became too steep), I stopped to consider my situation.  I could see down into the crevasse; it was a 4-foot wide crack filled with large and small rocks with a 2-foot tall lip on the lower side.  I could not lower myself out of the bottom because there was no way to hold on.  If I let myself simply slide out, I would fall into the section of the crevasse that held the largest rocks.  If I jumped out too far, I might miss the crevasse and continue at speed down the ice slope to the rocks.  The only solution was to jump out of the half-pipe to section filled with smaller rocks, somehow land squarely, and then roll over to absorb some of the energy of my body falling 15 feet traveling 7 feet per second per second.

The last problem I considered was the jump takeoff.  I was concerned about my ability to control the jump, since I was jumping from inclined ice.  I figured that if I slipped as I jumped, I might hit headfirst.  I decided to take a few extra seconds and chop out the best holds of the day, and then use my rock hand axes as stabilizers to jump using arms and legs simultaneously (like some giant, crazy inverted crab) out of the half-pipe and down into the crevasse.

At this point, my mind had gone into some kind of detached state.  I felt no fear, but was rather mechanical about the situation.  Some part of my mind knew what to do and set about to do it, while some other part of me was watching.  When the holds were ready, I jumped without another moments thought.  I didn’t think about how to jump or even run through it once in my mind to see myself doing it well.  No power of positive thinking; no worrying; I just jumped.

I seemed to hit instantly, but once I landed everything seemed to go into super slow motion.  As I landed, I realized that I had made it, and I was pleased.  In the next instant I was rolling over to the left, just as I had thought to finish the landing.  This also pleased me, as I wasn’t thinking about what I was supposed to do nor was I in control of anything.  As I started coming back into real time, I was consumed with a wave of adrenaline sickness.  I was surprised by its presence since I had only ever felt it after extreme exertions, and I started to think about how it could have happened but lost the train of thought.  I began to suspect I didn’t get hurt.  All of this was in the first 2 seconds after landing.

As my consciousness hit real-time, I started noticing more pain and blood.  My hands and forearms were hurting and bleeding, probably from hitting the ground on the initial hard landing.  As I lay on my side trying not to vomit, I got out my bandages out of my pack and taped my bleeding fingers.  The nausea feeling subsided after about 5 minutes, and then I stood up to see how well my legs worked.  I had made it.

My improbable route down the snowfield

My improbable route down the snowfield

The hike out and the drive home went slowly due to a sprained ankle, and gave me a lot of time to thing about the mistakes I had made.  I felt I had been given another chance to become a smarter climber.  I promised to take full advantage of the opportunity.


  • A late start, due to problems finding the correct road, created a lasting sense of urgency
  • Received route information from unreliable sources
  • I was alone


(1) Prepared badly

  • Didn’t have any knowledge of the snowfield prior to starting the hike.

(2) Made several bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.

  1. Confirming Evidence Trap:  By heading down to the snowfield from the saddle, I had implicitly decided to descend that way.  I kept finding reasons to continue and discounting reasons to go back.
  2. Optimism Bias:  I felt optimistic about being able to overcome any unknown obstacles.  As a result, I felt that moving ahead was less risky than retreating back over the known difficulties.  Even as progress became harder, I felt the difficulties would end, and the difficulties I continued to pass reinforced the notion of a dangerous retreat.
  3. Denial Bias:  I failed to consider what might happen if I slipped until I was fully committed to the half-pipe.  If I had paused for a moment of consideration, I would have gone back to the saddle.

How I Got Lucky

  1. Against all odds, I didn’t slip down the half-pipe
  2. Against all odds, I didn’t get badly injured jumping 15 feet into a pile of rocks

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The Great Cirque: Meeker to Longs traverse

March 10, 2009

The idea for the Mt. Meeker to Long’s Peak traverse came to me last December after climbing Mt. Meeker on a clear, cool morning.  Sitting on the Meeker summit rock, I looked over the Loft to Longs Peak and saw the potential for a beautiful traverse.  At that moment, I decided I would come back to bag the two-summit traverse.  The idea eventually grew into a quest to bag “Colorado’s greatest mountain cirque” (Roach).

Of course it is a long bit of hiking, but there is also a short technical obstacle to overcome:  Mt Meeker and Longs Peak are separated by “The Notch”.  The Notch is a gap in the rock approximately 75′ deep at the ridgeline and which continues as a deep and steep gully down each side of the mountain.

Nevertheless, where there’s a will . . .


The Great Circ Route

The Great Circ Route


Brian and I were recovering from a full summer of rock climbing and related injuries, so I was able to convince Brian to do an alpine hike.  To do the entire cirque, we chose to start the loop at the Longs Peak  cut-off to Chasm Lake, which we would take toward the Mt. Meeker East Ridge, and after summiting on Meeker and then Longs, we’d return via the Boulderfield (about a 5 mile loop).

In total, the Great Cirque trek would take approximately 12 hours including the hike from and to the parking lot and would cover approximately 15 miles and an elevation gain of approximately 5700′.

Our plan had eight steps:

  1. Hike from Longs Ranger station toward Longs to Chasm Lake cutoff
  2. Hike past Chasm Lake and up through Iron Gates (class 2) approach to Mt. Meeker East Ridge
  3. Traverse Mt. Meeker ridge (class 3) to summit
  4. Descend to Loft & hike (class 2) to high point on Loft north side
  5. Descend Gorrells Traverse route (4th Class crack system) to Notch gully and ascend to Notch high point (class 4), and then climb to Longs ridge and summit using the 5th class rock finish to the Notch Coulior route
  6. Descend Longs North face via Cables route (two single rope rappels) to Chasm View
  7. Hike to Boulder Field
  8. Hike around Lady Mount Washington to complete circuit at Chasm Lake cutoff

Alternatives to avoid carrying ropes and difficult scrambling:

  1. Take Clark’s Arrow from Loft to join Keyhole route – avoid 4th class chimney and technical pitch
  2. Take Keyhole route from Long’s summit back to Boulderfield – avoid rappels

Time table:

  • Start hiking – 4am
  • Reach bottom of Iron Gates – 7am (first light)
  • Mt. Meeker summit – 9am
  • Long’s Peak summit – Noon
  • Reach car – 4pm


Brian picked me up at 3am.  I was ready to go when he arrived, for a change, and we immediately headed out of Boulder for Lyons, and then the Long’s Peak Ranger Station parking lot.  We arrived just before 4am to find a parking space right in front.  A good omen.  The cold weather a week earlier must have suspended the weekend cattle drive for Longs Peak.

We powered up the trail needing only long underwear to stay warm despite the high winds and temperatures in the 30’s.  Around 5:30, still an hour or so before dawn, we reached a popular rest stop, the fork to Chasm Lake (left) or the Boulderfield (right).  The frigid winds eliminated any thought of a rest and we hurried onward toward  Chasm Lake to find some shelter.  We found a suitable rock formation approximately 300 yards further where we could stop to put on fleece and wind jackets.  My numb fingers made me regret leaving my regular gloves at home, and I would later find another reason to regret bringing only fingerless gloves.

The trail from the Ranger Hut below the Ship’s Prow (rock formation which separates the canyons below Mt. Meeker to the left and Long’s Peak & Chasm Lake to the right) to the Iron Gates is indistinct and generally over talus.  We knew the Iron Gates gully ran up the left of the buttress which is to the left of Cathedral Buttress (the awe inspiring buttress which runs down from the Mt. Meeker summit to the canyon floor), but of course this is difficult to see in the twilight.  Fortunately, a moment of hesitation allowed the sunrise to show us the path.

The Iron Gates gully proved to be a wonderful route to the Mt. Meeker East Ridge.  At the top of the 2nd class gully, a short 3rd class scramble brought us to the ridge and the endless vistas of the Eastern and Southern horizons. More importantly, an eastern view brought us exposure to the sun on a cold windy morning.

We paused to enjoy the radiation, eat a quick snack and apply sunscreen. After a few minutes, we continued on our quest.  This leg of the cirque led us west up the ridge toward the Mt. Meeker summit.  The easiest path was the ridgeline itself, which slopes about 20 degrees to the south (left) and 90 degrees to the north (right).  With the wind gusting up to 40 mph, we took care to avoid becoming a cliff diver and wasting all our efforts.


Our route from Meeker

Our route from Meeker


In a couple places, the traverse exhibited a common 4th class difficulty: it was 5th class without good route finding instincts.  We reached the summit at 9am with increased respect for the smaller sister of the mighty Longs Peak.  The summit itself is an unlikely square block sitting about 4 feet higher than the surrounding rock.  Underneath the block is an alcove that provided shelter from the wind and a nice spot for another snack.


The approach to and descent into the hidden Notch (dotted portion), then the ascent to the summit

The approach to and descent into the hidden Notch (dotted portion), then the ascent to the summit


We continued the traverse across the ridge and then down to the Loft, following the natural line.  In order to find Gorrells Traverse route on the far side of the Loft, we angled toward the high point (North end) of the Loft that forms one side of the Notch.  The Notch separates the Loft from Long’s Peak and prevents the easy hike to Long’s summit.

Gorrells Traverse route is a 4th class crack system  that descends into the Notch gully, SW side.

Per Rossiter’s guide book, RMNP: The High Peaks:

Hike NW to the highpoint of the SE ridge above The Notch. Descend to the west and locate cairns that mark the tops of two chimneys.  Downclimb the north chimney for about 200 feet to a broken platform that is about 100 feet above the gully leading up to The Notch.  Rappel into the gully from the north end of the platform or traverse up and left toward The Notch until it is possible to scramble down into the gully.


Gorrells Traverse

Gorrells Traverse. Photo from a later trip.


As in all guide book ratings, the rating is right if your technique and route finding is up to snuff.  There is also well-used rappel anchor for the unsure. We jammed down the cracks:  blind feet and bomber hands.   I got a tear in my wind jacket for the effort.  At the bottom of the first downclimb, we traversed right and slightly uphill to reach another gully which we downclimbed.  It was quite exposed but went rather easily as well.  From the bottom of the downclimb, we turned right and scrambled up to reach the top of the Notch.


Our route from the Notch to Longs Peak summit

Our route from the Notch to Longs Peak summit. Photo from earlier trip.


From the top of the Notch, we could see down the Notch Couloir toward the Broadway Ledge.  We also speculated on the feasibility of a tyrrolian traverse across the Notch without conclusion.  Since the rock was still non-technical at that point, we continued scrambling and moved out of the Notch toward the summit ridge.  We got to within 90 feet of the ridge before we ran out of scrambling terrain.

Since we brought rock gear, we didn’t feel compelled to stay with the Notch Couloir route (rated 5.2); in fact, we specifically wanted to find something more interesting…more memorable.  Brian spotted a rappel anchor at the top of the Long’s side of the Notch, approximately 90 feet above us; we agreed to climb toward it over the moderate looking moves.


A view of the technical climb to reach the summit ridge

A view of the technical climb to reach the summit ridge


We roped up and Brian took off for the ridge, his hiking boots scraping on clean 5.5  rock.  Our “mini-rack” of climbing gear was sparse enough to fit in a coat pocket, but it turned out to be ideal for a short pitch at 14,000 ft. elevation.   Near the top, Brian decided to pull a roof directly above rather than take the obvious ramp to the left.  When I questioned his intentions (with a yell from below), he explained, “you’ll thank me.”  Later, after pulling over the top on monstrous buckets, I did.

All that was left was the short but interesting ridge scramble and then a walk to the summit marker, which we reached at 11:54am.  We rested in luxurious bivy site and congratulated ourselves for a great trek.  It was, after all, quite literally all downhill from there.


Our descent route to the Boulderfield

Our descent route to the Boulderfield. Photo from later trip.


The descent through the Cable Route was interesting as a result of snow and ice adding frictionless treachery to the loose rocks in our path.  I lost my concentration on a relatively flat section and slipped on the ice.  My fall on the rock sheared off the front half of my right thumbnail.  This shockingly painful and bloody injury would cause me considerable grief during the rappels to come.  We scrambled down to the lower rappel anchors and made it to the Boulderfield in good time.

The hike out of the Boulderfield is always a death march, but this time I felt so good about the climb that I didn’t mind it at all. We reached the car at 4pm and drove into Lyons for some Mexican food.

It was all good, I just shouldn’t have ordered fajitas. They’re too hard to roll with just one hand!

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A Long Day in The Wilsons

March 9, 2009

On August 5, 2003 I made the long drive to Telluride for an attempt on Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson and El Diente, as a group commonly known as “The Wilsons”.  These peaks potentially represented numbers 49, 50 & 51 of my personal count of climbed official and unofficial Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation (58 in total, according to my tally).

The drive down via Grand Junction was a long, tedious effort.  I listened to Paul Simon’s greatest hits 3 times for a total of 30 times so far this summer, all the while thinking that I really must get another CD.  I got so desperate for distraction that I even listened to a bit of talk radio.  But once the novelty wore off, I preferred silence to the noise of thin, simplistic opinions based on nothing.

In another part of my mind, I was amazed at the varied terrain of Colorado with water, sand and rock mixed in various proportions to create a multitude of settings.  This thinking helped me to settle into my adventure.  Once I hit Rifle, my overall mood shifted away from the stress of preparing for and executing the trip and toward the enjoyment of my freedom and adventure.  I had wonderful sense of total freedom that I have been lucky enough to feel a few times in my life.  While collecting all the Colorado Fourteeners had begun to feel like work, the adventure of exploring different parts of Colorado and being on my own won out.

Seven hours to reach the Silver Pick TH from Boulder left me a couple hours of daylight to prepare for the early morning climb and to eat my delicious two-Whopper dinner.  I was a bit disappointed not to find water at the trailhead;  I could see a dehydrated night coming 24 hours hence if I stayed a second night.

In planning for the climbs, I was mostly concerned about the 0.8 mile ridge connecting Mt. Wilson and El Diente.  I figured I could do the climbing bits, but was worried about the route-finding necessary to find those easy sections.  I initially considered not doing El Diente (not an official 14er), but quickly discarded that rationalization as a weakness that would not survive the trip home.  I ended up concluding that I would climb the two Wilsons and then move camp to Navajo Lake to allow a direct ascent of El Diente on the second day.

Still, I wanted to give myself the flexibility to do all three peaks in a day should the weather and my stamina remain good, so I left camp at 4:15am on the morning of August 6th.  And so a long day in the Wilsons began.

My route to collect "The Wilsons"

My route to collect "The Wilsons"

The 4×4 road to Silver Pick Mine was in excellent condition as it had been newly grated.  There was a mention of a “scenic shortcut” in Roach’s guidebook, but I decided that a hike in total darkness (no moon) needed an obvious trail and I elected to stay on the 4×4 road to its end.  Just after the 4×4 road ended (at the ruined stone building), I began hiking over talus, approximately aimed at the Rock of Ages Saddle (I could just barely make out a silhouette in the pre-dawn).

Roach makes mention of a trail switch-backing up the ridge west of the saddle, but I could not see any evidence of such a trail.  I crossed an old snow patch (no foot prints) and began moving over scree when I encountered dirt.  Looking up hill with the flashlight, I could see a 20-foot line of dirt aiming straight up the slope…no switchbacks, but some hope for a trail.  I ascended this line for approximately 300 feet to a beautiful trail aimed directly for the Rock of Ages saddle.

Leaving the Saddle, the trail stayed flat and moved quickly to the south side of the ridge.  After about 200 feet, the trail became indistinct (not quite light yet), but I could see the Wilson Peak – Gladstone Saddle and aimed for it over some large talus.

A view from Mt Wilson of my route to Wilson Peak

A view from Mt Wilson of my route to Wilson Peak

From the Gladstone saddle, the route moved left (northwest) through a class 3 cliff band (not hard, just some exposure) to reach a nice trail.  The trail moved quickly to the ridgeline and remains easy to follow.  A few scrambling moves in the 3rd class area added a bit of adventure to this short hike and I reached the summit at 7:30am.

Once on the summit (and not moving), I became aware of a sensation not felt in many months. My body started making uncontrolled, rapid, jerky movements just when I was trying to rest and enjoy the view.  It was cold and I was shivering in August.  I exchanged a dry shirt and fresh socks and put on my long pants and rain jacket; still I still could not tolerate it for long and shortly escaped back down the ridge.

My route to Mt Wilson, as seen from the Rock of Ages mine.  Can also see the remaining storm clouds.

My route to Mt Wilson, as seen from the Rock of Ages mine.

Once I reached the Gladstone saddle, I looked around for a shortcut to Mt. Wilson; I didn’t want to go down 700-800 feet to the basin.  I decided I would contour around the eastern end of the basin underneath Gladstone to save the elevation.

In doing so, I believe I did save some effort, but the climbing was nasty; the talus/scree felt like a thousand refrigerators loosely piled atop each other on a foundation of broken dinner plates.  At each step, I felt as if the entire slope would come down on top of me.  Taking slow, balanced, and deliberate steps to avoid slides and be prepared for a quick lunge to avoid rolling refrigerators was mentally exhausting.  But moving slowly was physically restful, and I did eventually reach the Navajo glacier just below Mt. Wilsons north shoulder.

Oddly, the Navajo glacier really looks like a glacier:  ice with water running over the top.  I have only seen this once before, in an old snowfield between Castle and Conundrum that tried to kill me.  The water was clear and I was able to refill my water bottles with pleasant tasting water.  For future reference, the water I had gathered near the mine building ruins on the north side of Rock of Ages saddle (and taken up and down Wilson peak) tasted like a dead marmot’s guts were leaching into the water.  I couldn’t drink it.

With another 2 liters of water, I scrambled up the North shoulder of Mt. Wilson.  It was an excellent climb:  good exposure, solid rock, and easy route finding combined to create a true pleasure.   The last 50 feet was the icing on the cake:  a long reach and high step over a short knife-edge with my butt hanging over a 1000-foot drop.  The experience was good for warming my cold blood; yes, it was still cold at 11:30am.

I reached the summit and had to make a decision regarding El Diente.   I had made a pact with myself while climbing Mt. Wilson:  if I got good weather, I would use it to do the traverse.  I figured the cold temperatures would lower the chance of thunderstorms.  I ate my lunch while studing the weather for signs that the weather would hold long enough.

A view of El Diente and the traverse from Mt Wilson

A view of El Diente and the traverse from Mt Wilson

Unfortunately, the clouds were darkening and moving in my direction.  I gambled that the storm would miss the Wilson Group to the southeast and decided to go for it.  Exiting the summit around noon, I began the ridge with a full sense of thrill.

Ah, the sweet feeling of life fully perceived only when death is near.  An extended stay within the reach of death will bring a low-brain awareness of life’s preciousness and an increase in the capabilities of the mind and body.  As has happened so many times, my mind became clearer and better focused on the work at hand; my body became more coordinated…better balance, higher pain tolerance, more confident movement over difficult moves.  It was the easiest climbing of the day.  Adrenaline is a wonderful thing.

I stayed on the ridge whenever possible and moved a bit lower to the south when necessary to avoid difficulties such as drop-offs or gendarmes.  The first few hundred feet were well described by Roach and the last 2/3rds of the route was well cairned; I didn’t have any route finding difficulties.  But to spice things up a bit, the weather started worsening just after I passed the crux.

The "Organ Pipes"

The "Organ Pipes"

The thunderheads, which I thought would miss me, only did so by one mile.  Since lightning can hit from 15 miles away, it wasn’t enough.  The lightning (when I took a moment to look) and thunder were quite spectacular; I managed to get a count of 30 (between flash and thunder) early in the ridge crossing, but was down to 5 at one point.  With additional dark clouds forming up-wind and likely rain moving my way, I was flat-out running across parts of the ridge that permitted such behavior.   All the while I was listening for my axe to start humming.

I would have made the traverse in approximately 1.5 hours except for the numerous delays I took to study the weather and look for signs of improvement.   Near the summit ridge of El Diente, I finally decided that the weather was not going to get better before it got worse and I took off for the summit at top speed.  I reached the summit just after 2pm and stayed only to sign the register.

My descent from El Diente

My descent from El Diente, seen from Wilson Peak

The fasted way down was the El Diente north slopes route.  I’d heard it was dirty, but it was in the guidebook.  How bad could it be?  It was a nightmare.  Whoever said it was a summer route should be shot.  It might be possible to ascend the route with your sanity intact, but a descent is intolerable.  The descent took forever as I reversed the natural order of things and descended through hell into heaven (the basin).  I finally reached the bottom, and more water, at 4pm.

The creek running though the basin was fed by the Navajo glacier and continued to be of good quality.   And the storms were gone, so I could take a few minutes to rest and recover my sanity.

By the time I was rested, hydrated and ready to continue it was nearing 5pm and I still had to get over the Rock of Ages pass.  It felt like I was climbing a 4th peak.  Stop to rest every 10-20 steps; sit down every 100-150 steps.  It was clear that I was going to spend another night at Silver Pick and only with the water I had collected at 4:30pm.

My mood was initially poor due to being agitated by the nasty down climb and the interminable hike over loose talus to reach the creek bed, but soon I felt privileged to have another challenge; I was dead tired, but I was going to win.

I reached camp at 8pm, ending a nearly 16-hour day.  I had climbed 3 Fourteeners, done 1 great traverse, hiked 13 miles, ascended nearly 6,000 feet, and fully stress-tested my courage and stamina.  A good, long day in the Wilsons.

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Location Altitude Altitude Chg Mileage Time Cumul. Hours
Camp 10,600 4:15am
Rock of Ages Saddle 13,000 +2,400 2.5 6:00am 1:45
Wilson Peak 14,017 +1,017 1.0 7:30am 3:15
Navajo Glacier 12,800 -1,217 2.0 10:00am 5:45
Mt. Wilson 14,246 +1,446 1.0 11:30am 7:15
El Diente 14,159 -446


1.0 2:00pm 9:15
Basin 12,300 -1,859 1.0 4:30pm 11:45
Rock of Ages Saddle 13,000 +700 2.0 6:30pm 13:45
Camp 10,600 -2,400 2.5 8:00pm 15:15
Totals 5,922 13 15:15

The Chicago Basin Quadruple Banger

March 7, 2009

As I closed in on the few remaining Colorado Fourteeners, my wife and I decided to visit Durango for a vacation during which I would grab the only remaining cluster of Fourteeners, including Windom (14,082), Sunlight (14,059), N. Eolus (14,039) and S. Eolus (14,083).

On August 12, 2003 Susan, Isabella and I made the extraordinarily long drive to Durango.  We arrived late afternoon on Tuesday with enough time to scout out the train situation and a decent dinner at Francisco’s.  An early night facilitated by sharing a single room with a 1 year-old served my purposes well.


The Double Tree hotel was only 1 block from the train station, so I had time for quick, but good breakfast and a short walk to the train station after a 6:30am wakeup call.  I boarded the train (open gondola #6, seat 11) at 7:30am as instructed and awaited the scheduled departure at 8:15am.  The train actually left at 8:15am and I sat puzzled over my uneaten bacon as I watched the last few people crawl onboard at 8:10am; I decided for the hundredth time to never again follow the instructions of the “system” too carefully.  With a whistle blast and a cloud of coal soot, we rolled out of town.

It was a surreal way to begin a climbing effort.  As I waved to the crowds of people who are compelled to wave at departing trains, I was thinking that I had added a new mode of climbing transportation to my experience sheet.  I used donkeys and a boat in Bolivia, a bus in Ecuador, chairlifts in Switzerland, a funicular in France, and now a coal-burning, steam-powered train in Durango (and, yes, I did get cinders in my eyes).

The train ride was enjoyable, but a bit long.  We arrived at the Needleton TH at 10:47am (right on time) and I began hiking at 11am.  The trail to the Chicago Basin was excellent and used the distance efficiently to eat up the altitude.

A view toward the Twin Lakes from my campsite

A view toward the Twin Lakes from my campsite

I reached the relatively flat Chicago Basin before 2pm and selected a secluded spot for my tent at about 11,000′ right at 2pm.  The guidebook indicated I could have gone further (to approx. 11,200), but I was feeling tired and wanted to dump the heavy pack to give myself a chance to bag the Eolus’ (Eoli?) North and South later if the weather held.

I took a bit of extra time to set up camp with a bit of forethought regarding rainfall pooling and runoff; I was told by descending climbers that rain was the regular feature of the preceding week, and lots of it.  I set the tent on the crest of the slight hill in the camp area and used rocks to keep the tent footprint from being swamped by water (no water between footprint and tent floor!).  I also built an excellent vestibule rock floor and a drainage gully to augment the natural runoff flow that would divert any rogue rivers trying to find a path under my tent.  Then I hung my food and set off for Twin Lakes.

Hiking up the nice trail toward the extraordinary basin beneath Peak 18, I unexpectedly found a fork in the trail around 11,100 (after an open meadow) marked by two cairns; I guessed and luckily took the upper (left) fork which led to the steep ascent up the creeks and falls to Twin Lakes.  During the ascent, the weather continued to worsen (i.e., thickening, darkening clouds to the south and east); but blue skies to the north and west, as well as overhead kept me in the game.  I figured that if the weather held, I’d bag a couple peaks before dark and then finish on Thursday, and if not, my knowledge of the start would help in my predawn route finding of the Twin Lakes.

Of course I also had the option of rising very early Friday morning to do any remaining peaks before my early afternoon train ride.  But that was my last resort, so I kept it out of my plans.

I reached Twin Lakes around 5pm, just when the blue-sky patches finally disappeared; I decided I would forgo the summit attempt and just gather beta on the climbs for Thursday.  After about 10 minutes, the thunder began.  It was some miles distant, but I didn’t want to be so high when it got closer.  I made excellent time back down to camp, and got drenched by a moderate rain.  The rain abated for 45 minutes as I gathered water for the evening and sorted out my sleeping arrangements, but then it restarted in earnest.

I fell asleep quickly and was gone from this world until artillery began falling about me.  It was a war zone, as best I can tell.  I began thinking about the chance of rock fall from lightning strikes in the peaks above me and wondering if I should move my tent…but then my alarm went off at 3:55am.


At 4:30am, I was moving up the trail once again.  Everything was wet, but the sky was clear.  In fact, it was a brilliant full moon and everything was lit up magnificently…. I was thinking that I could probably find my way without a flashlight.

About 5:00am, my flashlight died and the spare died immediately thereafter, and I found that I could hike by moonlight alone.  My late afternoon reconnoiter proved invaluable during this moonwalk…except for a few steps in water (invisible in the shadows), I had no mishaps.

The morning light became useful about 6am, which was about the time I was mounting the saddle between Windom and Peak 18; I scrambled up the good talus to be greeted by a cold morning wind.  My spare socks served me well as mittens and I continued up the ridge.  The heavy rain had made the lichen especially slippery, resulting in a few unfortunate episodes with me sliding over rocks with sock-covered fingers grasping for purchase…nothing serious, fortunately.

A view of Sunlight from Windom

A view of Sunlight from Windom

I reach the summit at 7:30am after sorting out the summit block puzzle, and just in time for the sun rise.  It was a glorious sight.  I received my first rays of sun for the day and greedily soaked up the radiation it provided.  Looking north, the Sunlight summit did not look as advertised, which I chalked up to another over-rated climb; and Eolus looked very far away.  I didn’t stay but a few minutes and then headed back down the ridge to a midway point that looked good for traversing into the gully between Windom and Sunlight Spire.

From the gully, I headed up the Red Couloir.  It was loose and worn, but it served my purposes well.  I reached the saddle between Peak and Spire and followed a cairned route beneath the ridge (Twin Lake side) toward the Sunlight summit.  I reached a spot with a hole in the ridge that looked like the “window”, but wasn’t.  I took it and found some of the hardest climbing of the day…as I neared the summit, I still thought the summit block didn’t look hard and figured my off-route climbing was the crux.

From the Sunlight summit marker

From Sunlight Peak area

I reached the summit marker at 9am, and dropped my pack before walking over to study the summit block.  I worked my way up the sloping block via the crack and found the standard way up which I took up to the block before the block before the block (you’ll understand when you see it).  I could see the moves up would be easy, but could also see that the down climb would be dynamic.  Me no like.  I spent the next 15 minutes looking for an alternative route only to find that, like thousands before me, “The Step” was the only way.

My route to the true summit

My route to the true summit

I decided I could not go home without standing on the block.  I steeled myself to the task, climbed up to the secondary block via a knob and then stepped up to the summit block.  I immediately turned around and stepped down and squatted to ponder the next move; after a moment’s consideration, I did a sideways jump step as practiced so many nights watching Rocky Horror Picture Show as a kid (i.e., “a jump to your left”).

I packed up and left the summit around 9:30am.  I did not like the down climbing reversal of my approach and looked around for an alternative; I found the real “window”.  It was an easy descent; I used the East slopes route (marginal) to gain a better angle toward Twin Lakes, which I reached at 10:30am.

Looking back to Windom & Sunlight; my route

Looking back to Windom & Sunlight; my route

I was making good use of my time, but the weather was not cooperating.  I should have had plenty of time to summit before afternoon weather, but the clouds were forming up already and I doubted I had much time left.  I allowed myself enough time to refill my water bottles and then I headed up the well-marked trail to Eolous.  I was feeling quite tired and could not do it in a single push; I kept pushing myself to stretch-out the runs between rests so I could beat the weather.

I followed a set of cairns to the saddle between North and South Eolus.  The trail ascended directly up toward the summit of Eolus and underneath the “Catwalk” ridge.  Just below the Catwalk face, a gully-like feature to the right allowed an ascent to the basin beneath North Eolus and the Saddle between North and South Eolus.  The ascent up the 50-foot cliff to reach the saddle was a surprising 4th class effort, but I probably didn’t find the easiest way.

Looking at Eolus; my route

Looking at Eolus; my route

Once on the Catwalk, I jogged toward Eolus, finding it to be an admirable feature but of limited risk.  Looking at the weather, I could see that the clouds were worsening somewhat, but I felt I had enough time to do North and South Eolus…. getting down would be considered later.

When I reached the east face of Eolus, I was surprised at the steepness of the face.  Multiple routes were marked by cairns, and a fairly easy path to the summit was found.  I spent a few minutes on the summit with a couple of fellows from California and then left so as to not show too much disrespect to the weather gods.  I found an even easier descent route and was running back across the Catwalk after only a few minutes.

The ascent of North Eolus was a pleasure.  I’d call it a 3rd class scramble up crumbly granite.  The summit had a marker but no register.  I didn’t stay long, again out of respect, and reached the saddle 15 minutes after leaving it for the second time.

Once again, I found the down climb from the saddle via a large crack to be a solid 4th class effort.  This time I took care to use the best holds and still felt that only the final pitch on Crestone Needle (via the traverse from Crestone Peak) surpassed it (and even then only due to length).  A family of goats was my only audience as I quickly hustled down the trail to Twin Lakes.

I was probably off route, but I didn’t see a better way.

About 2pm I passed an older couple ascending toward Eolus; they were 1 hour from the summit at my pace.  They said they were going to see how far they could get before the weather came.  I offered a “good luck” and then continued downward. The next group I met was going to stay in the Twin Lakes area to celebrate their summits.  I was going to get the hell out of harm’s way and get below tree line.  This I did.

Once near camp, I decided I would use the free time I had to soak my used feet in cold water.  I cannot recommend anything better to rejuvenate the body and the spirit.  I refilled my water bottles (up-stream from my feet), put on my spare socks (it wouldn’t do to put the wet, nasty socks back on my clean, fresh feet), and headed to camp about 100 yards away.

Resting in my tent after a hard day

Resting in my tent after a hard day

I was trying to decide what to do until dark when the rain started.  No thunder, but a steady rain.  I decided I would take a nap.  Around 7pm, I woke up to a pleasant evening, and finished dinner.  I tried to read a bit more of Asimov’s Foundation and Empire, but I drifted off to sleep even as I wondered about the people frolicking above tree line.


I tried to go back to sleep enough times to wait for my 9am alarm, but I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t sleep longer than 13 hours.  I didn’t have anything warm except my sleeping bag, so I laid in it whilst I pondered my amazingly empty day ahead of me:  pack up (1 hour), hike to trailhead (2 hours), wait for train (3 hours), ride train (3 hours), and finally be able to enjoy an evening with my family.  Eventually I stirred and began step one.  With approximately 13 hours of sleep, I felt completely fresh.

Finally, the train arrives

Finally, the train arrives

The hike down was uneventful while the wait for the train was interminable.  Waiting for the train, I passed the time by throwing rocks into the river until my arm hurt.  Then I threw lefty.  It didn’t work; three hours with nothing to do still felt like three hours with nothing to do.

I did chat with the California fellows (from Eolus summit) for a short while.  They told me they met a very wet, older couple coming down from Twin Lakes after reaching the summit of Eolus, their 54th Fourteener.

Once on the train and moving without effort toward Durango, I felt privileged to be able to ride such a train.  I even bought a cold Coors Light to celebrate my adventure.  Even still, 3 hours is a long time to look out a window.  I was delighted to return to my family and enjoy their company in Durango one final evening.



Altitude Change



Time of Day

Hiking Hours


Needleton TH










An unsafe spot in a clump of trees
Twin Lakes






Lightning and rain; running for treeline







Wicked 6 hr storm in evening
Windom Summit







Nice finish
Sunlight Summit








A scary jump!
Twin Lakes






Weather turning; need to hurry
Eolus Summit







Harder than expected; loose ledges
N. Eolus Summit






10 minutes from saddle; 3rd class







13 hours of sleep is good for what ails you
Needleton TH






A long wait for the 3pm train




Each of the three main peaks had admirable attributes, such that it would be hard to say any one was better than the others.  I’d have to rank the final summit move on Sunlight as the single scariest move I ever made on a 14er.

And all that remained to finish the full list of 14ers was Sneffels (7/2006), San Luis (7/2006), and Culebra (8/2007)

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The Long Bell

January 12, 2009

My pace was off.  I had done 8 fourteeners in June and none in July.  Determined to reverse the trend, I set out to climb South Maroon Bell and Castle on July 19-20, 2002.

My original plan was to climb Castle (and Conundrum) as a warm up before climbing my real goal, South Maroon Bell (SMB).  However, the weather forecast was looking questionable, so I decided to go for SMB first to give myself a second day to complete the SMB climb if storms chased me off on the first attempt.

I briefly considered doing the traverse between the two Bells and bagging both summits.  However, I felt wary of the steep, exposed, loose conditions I had heard and read would be encountered, so I settled on an attempt on SMB alone.  Hell, it would be a full day’s work at approximately 10 miles and 4600 feet of elevation gain, according to the guidebook.

Since this would be a solo effort, I prepared better than I normally do.  I studied two guidebooks (Dawson & Roach) and tried to reconcil the information into a single, consistent set of directions.  I copied the topo from Dawson since it was more detailed, transcribed a single set of route directions, and even brought a picture of the southern exposure of SMB with Roach’s route roughly sketched out.  I did everything I could think to prepare for day long day of route-finding.  It wasn’t enough.

I started early, leaving the Maroon Lake trailhead at 5:15am in complete darkness, and headed toward Crater Lake.  On the way out, I met a fellow who was going to climb both peaks – he said it wouldn’t be too difficult.  With a weakened resolve to do only SMB, I started hiking with a fast pace.  I suppose I had a little extra adrenaline as a result of climbing without a partner.  Hell, even my boots felt good at first.  My water planning was also coming off well.  I had had several water shortage mishaps in recent weeks and was determined to drink enough water without carrying too much at any one time.  I brought 3 liter bottles:  one full and two empty.  I drank one liter on the hike in and was able to fill all 3 bottles at the creek just before heading up toward the South Ridge.  This was the last of my overwhelmingly good performances.

At approximately 7am, I reached the climbers trail for the South Ridge of SMB.  It was about twenty yard before the spot where the trail crossed the West Maroon Creek for the first time (there was an earlier crossing of a tributary about 0.5 mile before), and was marked by two cairns.  Since I couldn’t see the Bells from my position, I tried to figure out where I was and where I was going before heading up.  It was very confusing.

My Bell routes seen from Pyramid

My Bell routes seen from Pyramid

Overhead was a steep ridge, while to the left was a broad slope with small gullies, and further to the left was another ridge.  I could see what might be the South Ridge at the very top of the visible mountain, but I could not be sure where the SMB summit was located. More importantly, I could not make out the “SE ridge dropping from the South Ridge” which I was supposed to aim for, at least according to Dawson.  On the other hand, Roach just said to “climb west for 1.0 mile to reach the South Ridge.”  At that point I sure was sorry I wasn’t better prepared.


Rule of Multiple Sources:
always use at least two independent sources of route information;
and if two disagree, then use three


The topo map I had taken from the Dawson guidebook (scale:  1:50,000) displayed a route line that went left and then right up a broad slope between two ridges.  Perhaps it meant between the ridge above me and the ridge I could see to the left.  Roach’s description to “climb west for 1.0 mile to reach South Ridge” seemed to confirm this idea.  So, my best guess was to go to the left a bit and then straight up (west) between the major ridges.  While I did not know exactly what I needed to do, I had no way to gather more information.  I was happy to have a trail to follow that headed in the direction I wanted.

Then the damned trail took hard left and continued due south for an indeterminate distance at the 10,700′ level.  I couldn’t believe that was the way to go.  The key was the “SE Ridge coming down from the South ridge.”  Dawson’s directions said to go to the south side of the SE ridge, and I couldn’t believe that I was supposed to go to the far side of the ridge to my far left; it just didn’t jive with Roach’s “climb west for 1.0 mile to reach South Ridge”. And I was in a hurry to beat the weather, so I didn’t have much time to think.

In my rush to make progress, I decided that the ridge that had been above me at the start of the climbers trail and was now to my right, had to be the SE Ridge (even though it aimed in a northeasterly direction).  This allowed me to follow Dawson’s directions to climb along the south side of the SE Ridge and follow Roach’s “climb west for 1.0 mile….”.  Too bad it was wrong.


Rule of Small Errors:
a small wayfinding mistake
can go a long way in the mountains


So I left the trail and continued westward.  I climbed a 2nd class rocky gully and came though a thicket of willows to a lower angle slope where I studied my positions once again.  The route continued to check out.  I figured that SMB was to my right, but out of sight, and that by climbing the gully to the south of the ridge that was now to my right, I would reach the South Ridge of SMB .

A view from North Maroon Bell of my detour end point

A view from North Maroon Bell of my detour end point

About 2 hours later, at 9:30am, I mounted the crest of the ridge at 12,500 ft that I figured was the Southeast Ridge of SMB and found myself looking across a gulf to North Maroon Bell.  My eyes followed the ridgeline between the Bells to find SMB summit.  My line to SMB summit was blocked by many nasty-looking towers.  It wasn’t impossible, but very improbable that I would find a survivable path.  Crap.


Possibility Razor:
everything is possible,
the question is whether we should risk it


I decided it wasn’t worth the risk, and I had that infrequent, but terrible sinking feeling that I didn’t have time to finish. My original plan was to summit at noon, now I would be lucky to summit by 3pm on a day with a bad weather forecast.  I wondered if I should just call it a day.  But at least I knew where I was, and all I had to do was figure out how to get from where I was to the summit, and quickly.


Law of Disintegration:
large problems are made up of many little questions;
solve large problems by resolving easy questions


I finally had to admit that the original trail that I discarded at the 10,700 ft level was the right trail. But I didn’t think I could go back down 2,000 feet, traverse south to the next ridge (the SE Ridge!), and climb 3,200 feet in loose rock and “obscure route” finding in time to beat the weather.  So my next task was to find a way to get to the SE Ridge, to the south of me, without losing too much altitude.

I descended the steep gully to the 12,000 ft level where I crossed to the crest of a smaller ridge a short way to the south of my current position.  I hoped I could traverse south at this level to reach the proper route, but there were many small ridges and probable steep drop-offs along the way.  And I was still determined to not try to force anything and get myself killed, so I backed off.  But I did managed to spot a trail far below of some quality that led over to the ridge further south which I decided would be my target.   So, I backtracked the route I had come up earlier in the day down to the 11,000 ft level and found a faint traverse that worked.  I managed to save 300 feet.

As the traverse ended and the climb began, my body began to reject the entire notion of mountain climbing.  I felt sick to my stomach and my feet were suffering a preordained tragedy in the Greek tradition.

The various paths

The various paths; developed during analysis of "what went wrong"

Ever since buying a pair of La Sportiva Eigers to replace my aged Makalus, I have suffered terribly.  The boots will not break-in, attempting to force my feet to do so instead, and the excessive rubber in the boot design causes my feet to sweat profusely and skin to chaff like soft cheese.  I performed a bit of foot repair with moleskin and athletic tape, changed my socks for the third time in the day, and made the decided that I would relegate my new boots to winter and spring climbing.

The upper section of Maroon Bell Peak with my approximate route drawn in red

Once I again reached the 12,500 ft level, my highest progress previously, my ability to move returned and was sustained for several hours.  I reached the South Ridge at 12:30pm and drank ½ liter of water leaving me with only 1 liter of water.  At that point it occurred to me that my 3-hour excursion was going to cost me a serious case of dehydration.  After a few hundred feet, I started thinking again about the best way to go; the trail of cairns seemed to go higher than necessary.  (I know, you’re thinking, “uh, oh!”)


Evidence Axiom:
when you know you don’t know how to proceed,
follow the evidence of previous human passage


Fortunately, I had learned my lesson and realized that I didn’t really have any reason to think I knew a better way to go.  I resigned myself to simply follow the cairns and hope they led me to the summit.

A view toward Crater Lake from Maroon Bell. The end of my earlier route finding error is visible.

The South Ridge trail quickly became flat and easy until reaching the slopes of Point 13,753.  At this point, the route seemed to disappear.  Instead of continuing in a traverse, the route seemed to ascend Point 13,753, against the commands of the guidebook know-it-alls.  Still humbled, I simply followed the cairns, linking them together in the most reasonable path.  With a sharp eye for cairns, the route finding went easily.  I was careful to examine and weigh alternatives at each juncture and make no mistakes.  The trail was exposed and terribly loose in several places, but it worked.  It felt like climbing over a pile of land mines; a misstep would be fatal.

Along this path, I met up with the fellow from the Trailhead who was going to do the traverse.  When asked how it went, he indicated that he shouldn’t have attempted it and wouldn’t do it again without a rope.  He seemed a fellow not humbled easily; I was at once glad of my decision to be conservative.

I scrambled up the SW Couloir and up the South Face and further left along the ridgeline to the summit.  I sat down at 2:15pm and drank my last ½ liter of water.  As I rested on the tiny summit among the rocks and swarming flies, I studied the weather.  The clouds had been increasing during the last couple of hours with the wind appearing to be moving west.  From the summit, I could see a massive rain to the North (turned out to be a violent and newsworthy thunderstorm in Glenwood and Basalt), but I couldn’t determine the storm’s path.  The sound of thunder sufficiently settled the question and got me up and moving.  I had to descend a long way over slow terrain to get to tree line; I hoped I’d be lucky with the weather.

But I was in trouble regarding my own water.  I was already dehydrated and had nearly 4,000 feet to descend to the West Maroon Creek.  Despite my need to escape, I scrambled over to a melting snow patch in the SW Couloir to see if I could scrounge some water.  It was dripping, but slowly.  I only waited long enough to fill two liters with cloudy water.  And I needed water right away, so I put them both in my pants pockets to warm them and continually shake them to dissolve the iodine tablets.  I must have been a sight to see.

My view from the summit of Maroon Bell Peak. The stormy weather to the north is clearly visible.

The descent to the creek was endless.  Down SMB, down and across Point 13,753, down the South Ridge, down the SE Ridge, over and down the grassy slope . . . it went on and on and on.  I was so tired that I took to sitting in the dirt every 20 minutes or so.  I finally reached the creek (10,400 ft) at 6pm, nearly 3.5 hours after leaving the summit.  I immediately went to the creek and refilled two liters while finishing the last of the melted snow I carried down from 13,500ft.   The weather had held out for me again.

On the hike out, I started cramping.  A foreshadowing of the difficult night I would have due to electrolyte loss.  I reached the car at 7:15pm and immediately drank a liter I had stashed there.  I drank nine liters of water during the day, including 1 at the car at each end of the trip.  It wasn’t enough; I urinated only once on the hike and not again until after midnight at home.

I had hiked approximately 12 miles and climbed 6,100 feet in 14.5 hours.  I was extremely pleased that I was able to overcome my route finding mishap and finish the South Maroon Bell; but I knew I had to figure out a better way to prepare better for my adventures.

And Castle would have to wait until the next trip.


  • I was alone; no one to help think it through or go for help in case of injury
  • The available route information was indefinite and limited; just the guidebooks, which were inconsistent
  • The weather forecast was iffy and the mountain was hard to escape from; I was in an extra hurry
  • The approach didn’t provide any visibility to the climb; once I could see the route, I was too close to have any perspective


(1) Prepared badly

  • Didn’t bring a detailed topographical map; only brought a copy of map in guidebook
  • Didn’t resolve all discrepancies between the two route descriptions I used; just thought I’d be able to figure it out as I had done many times before

(2) Made bad decisions along the way due to flaws & biases in my thinking.

  • Confirming Evidence Trap:  Based on my study of Roach’s directions, I was convinced that the route went straight west; when the trail turned south, I convinced myself that the ridge above me was the SE Ridge, rather than accept evidence of a different route path
  • Denial Bias:  I refused to think I could be wrong about the path to the South Ridge, despite not finding any trails or cairns and having some evidence to the contrary
  • Optimism Bias:  I was foolishly optimistic about being able to finish before the weather turned dangerous; I figured I could just retreat if the lightning came, but it took 3.5 hours to descend to the trees from the summit.

How I Got Lucky

  • The weather stayed good during the long day
  • My body stayed together long enough to reach water and easy terrain
  • I managed to find water on the trail
  • The cairns I followed actually lead to the summit

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Five 14ers for my 40th birthday

December 12, 2008


Susan decided that my 40th birthday should be a special one.  She worked with my climbing partner, Brian to setup a weekend trip to do something “special.”  Brian thought that the Crestone Peak – Crestone Needle traverse would be a suitably exiting adventure.

Route Map

Route Map

I was delighted with the idea beyond all reason, but still I couldn’t help but think about doing more.  I kept thinking about the other Fourteeners in the area and about how this would be the ideal time to bag them.  The Kit Carson, Challenger and Humboldt mountains were within a few miles of each other and the Crestone massif; I developed what I would later call my “Crazy Plan” to get them all.  5 Fourteeners in 2 days.

To be honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced we could do it.  I just knew that if we thought big, we could accomplish a lot.  This was my argument to Brian.  He was dubious, but was convinced that, logistically speaking, we had a chance to do 4 in a day, leaving Humboldt for a short second day (he needed to head back early).  It was a slim chance, but it was a chance.   The “Crazy Plan” was a go.

Brian got off work around 6pm on Friday, which is in itself a miracle.  I met him at his place at 6:30pm and packed my stuff into his truck. We left Golden toward C-470 and eventually hooked up with I-25 South toward Colorado Springs.  We then took Hwy 115 South to Florence, from which we took Hwy 96 to Westcliffe.  We then took Hwy 69 south for 4.5 miles to Colfax Lane, which we took (right turn) to a T-junction.  We made a right turn onto county road 120 which led directly to the passenger car trailhead.

Of course Brian wouldn’t dream of walking the 5 miles to the 4X4 parking lot.  I think the opportunity to take “one of Colorado’s toughest” roads was the primary reason for his interest in the trip.  The drive did beat walking, but just barely.  The 5-mile drive in took 1.5 hours.

We hit the 4X4 parking lot at midnight, and then hiked in the dark for 1.6 miles (1 hour) to reach the upper lake where we found a nice spot directly below the approach trail to Humboldt.  A quick camp setup, including a jury-rigged food hang using a couple sticks and a few rocks to overcome the lack of trees,  and we could rest.  And at 2am, we turned in for a few precious minutes of sleep.

A view of the Crestone Peak and the rim to the Bear's Playground.  Our route took us directly to and over the rim.

A view of Crestone Peak and the rim to the Bear's Playground. Our route took us directly to and over the rim.

The alarm went off at 5am.  I felt certain that I had slept at least some of the time.  With a full day of adventure and effort ahead of us, we began by unpacking everything we could possibly do without to save weight on a long day.

By 5:30am we were hiking NW to exit the South Colony Lakes basin into the Bear’s Playground.  We mounted the rim around 7:30am and decided to stash our ice gear for the return to the Crestones.

We continued NW to reach the ridgeline on which summit Point 13799, Kat Carson/Columbia Point (13,980), Kit Carson (14,165), and Challenger (14,081) stood in sequence.

While planning the trip, I had figured on 2-3 hours to cover the 4 mile round trip from the Bear’s Playground.  Instead, it would take us 5.5 hours of hard hiking and scrambling.


Studying the map for a clue

Some stretches of 4 miles are harder than others. The ridge line was straight and easy to follow, but had a wild degree of elevation gain and loss: 13,140 (Bear’s Playground) up to 13,799 (Point 13799) down to 13,460 (saddle) up to 13,980 (“Kat Carson” or “Columbia Point”) down to 13,620 (saddle) up to 14,165 (Kit Carson) down to 13,780 (saddle) up to 14,081 (Challenger Peak) – a total of 3,109 feet gained (and lost) on the round trip from the Bear’s Playground and Challenger Peak.

After a short break on the Kit Carson summit, we couldn’t find a route west toward Challenger Peak.  In our haste, we decided to just start downclimbing; we figured we find a way.  It turned out that the downclimb to the west of Kit Carson is 4th class plus (I found a piton on my decent) and the proper route descends to the east (back to the Kit Carson-Kat Carson saddle) and then skirts the southern flank of Kit Carson.  Sitting on the Challenger summit and wondering out loud about the unexpected difficulty, we noticed the correct route.  Better late than never!

Brian posing on Kit Carson with Crestone Peak and Needle in distance

Brian posing on Kit Carson with Crestone Peak and Needle in distance

We took the standard route back to the Kit Carson-Kat Carson (or Columbia Point) saddle, and continued toward the Bear’s Playground, shaving a few feet here and there.  We made it back to our stashed gear by 1pm, and we were tired and dehydrated.  Still, I had the “crazy plan” to complete and the weather was holding. I wanted to push on to do the Crestones as we planned.  Brian thought it would be risky, but would proceed if I insisted.

I was thinking we needed to do the Crestones immediately to get all 5 Fourteeners before leaving for home.  On the drive out from Golden, we figured it would take 6 hours to do the Crestones.  Sitting beneath Crestone Peak at 1pm, we reassessed to 8 hours, which would allow us to just finish before dark, assuming we didn’t get tired (and slow) or have route finding issues or lose our good weather.  I could see it was a bad bet; but I really wanted it.  Then it occurred to me that if we finished Humboldt today instead, we could do the Crestones on the final day if Brian could stay long enough.

The view from Challenger Peak

The view from Challenger Peak

We settled on a new plan that included an extra early start on day 2 and a promise to go fast, and we headed north for the Humboldt saddle.  When we reached the saddle at 2:30pm, Brian decided to head to camp to rest his legs (he had already climbed Humboldt on an earlier trip) while I pushed on to bag the summit.  With the thrill of a new peak, I started up with a strong pace… that didn’t last.  This speed transition marked the arrival of Toadman.

After the initial few minutes, my pace resembled the motions of a toad; I made short bursts of distance followed by serious resting in a bent-over or squatting position.  I feared my lungs would wear out from overuse.  I only needed to gain 0.7 miles and 1,200 feet in elevation, but I had not had a drink since 1pm and was already dehydrated at that point.  I was bonking big time.  And, my feet were two giant hot spots.

Anxious not to use up my sleep and resting time, I hobble up the peak as hard as I could.  A short rest on the summit without water didn’t do any good, so my slow pace continued all the way back to camp.  I arrived at 5:30pm – totally spent.

The Crestone Peaks seen during the Humboldt descent

The Crestone Peaks seen during the Humboldt descent

Upon my arrival, Brian stirred from the tent.  We arranged dinner while I drank the water Brian had thoughtfully filtered.  He asked me how much water I was going to drink; I told him I was going to drink it all.  My word was good on this point.

We drank and ate and enjoyed the entertainment of the resident Marmot community.  They were amazingly lively in their barking and shrieking at each other.  A few even engaged in wrestling.  One weathered fellow, with two serious bite scars on his face, was determined to join our dinner party and sat next to me for a short time.

Consuming every last calorie

At 7pm, I hit the bag and was gone to the world of the living.  Compared to the 1-2 hours of actual sleep I got the night before, the 9 hours promised seemed to good to be true.  It was.  I managed about 7 hours, losing the other 2 to various physical issues and necessities.  But 7 hours is pretty good.

The alarm went off at 4am and we exited the tent into a dark world.  I stumbled around while eating, drinking and packing, and managed to spill my water like the careless fools I’d judged harshly  in the past.

Rule of Uncapped Inevitability:  a bottle set down with the opening unsecured will spill

Desperately wanting lighter packs, our views of the NW Couloir the day before convinced us we could leave the ice gear behind.  And by 4:30am, we were heading back up to Crestone Peak’s NW couloir…with a short stop to collect water at the lake.  I felt like a somewhat rested toad, a toad with sore feet and leaden legs.  But that was good enough.

We took a somewhat different route out of the South Colony Lakes basin this time, aiming to come out nearer to the Crestone Peak.  After a bit of extended 3rd class scrambling, we exited the basin near our objective.

Once out of the basin, we oriented ourselves with a map and compass, and followed a set of cairns that seemed to head in the right direction.  Fairly quickly we found the NW coulior.  Up we went into the wet, crumbly rock couloir that was mostly devoid of ice.   The rock was so unreliable that I felt that I was taking significant chances throughout the morning; the risk felt greater here anywhere on the trip.

We reached the summit with with injury only to my wits around 9am.  Success for the day depended on completing the traverse on time, so we took a break to study the terrain.  I couldn’t make any sense of it other than the start, which was to descend the 3rd class south facing couloir.  Hoping to find clues along the way, we returned to the top of the NW couloir (which was also the top of the south facing couloir as well) and began the “traverse”.  We descended 250-300 feet per the instructions, and then we were completely confused.  We wandered up and down the left side of the couloir looking for a trail of breadcrumbs or big red footprints or some other clue as to the route of “one of the four great Colorado traverses”.

River rocks imbedded in weak cement

River rocks imbedded in weak cement

During this fun, I discovered the perils of crestone conglomerate rock; I was stepping around a corner, standing on a beautifully rounded river boulder protruding from the rock face when “crack” and I was on my way to the bottom of the couloir and the afterlife.  Somehow I managed to claw my way back onto the ledge with injury only to my left shin and knee, and again to my wits.

While I was playing on the rocks, Brian followed some cairns, which seemed to mark a trail distinctly different than the one the guidebook suggested.  I was too far away to make much protest, so I hurried to catch up climbing up some nameless couloir off to the left (north) of the south facing couloir.  Eventually, we found ourselves too high, but within reach of a recognizable portion of the route.  We scrambled down to the 13,740 foot saddle between Peak and Needle and descended a well worn trail down another south facing couloir looking for the traverse beneath the 13,940 peak along the ridge (“go well below this summit on a good ledge system on the south side of the ridge.”).  We didn’t find it; instead, we descended to the bottom of the couloir and crossed over to the west facing couloir beside the Needle and ascended until we could reacquire the traverse route.

We had additional difficulties finding the proper rock to climb up to the ridge, and simply climbed up a 5th class face using the rock gear we had carried with us for two days.  Once we were 200 feet above the couloir, we were able to find the route again and wind our way toward the final 100 feet of 4th class climbing to the summit.

We had brought the rock gear just for this final push, but the rock did not appear to provide any opportunities for protection.  So we put it away and just scrambled up. The climbing was easy but wickedly exposed. A fall from this stretch could give you a long time to regret the mistake.  On the way up, I kept looking at the empty sockets (where stones had fallen out) and thinking about the river stone that came loose from the conglomerate earlier in the day in an attempt to throw me down the south facing couloir of Crestone Peak.  It took a considerable effort to stay focused.

We reached the summit at 12:15pm.  It had taken us just over 7 hours and we still had 3 hours to go.   We were running late.  Still, if we had started the traverse at 1pm the previous day, it would have been a disaster.

On summit of Crestone Needle noting the completion of the 5th 14er

On summit of Crestone Needle noting the completion of the 5th 14er

I was tired, but it sure felt good to finish the 5th 14er.  We had done it; we had completed the technical portions of the “Crazy Plan”.  All that was left was the descent.

And the descent was endless.

These Crestones were hard to get to, hard to get up and hard to get off.  We followed the cairns with only a single wrong turn.  Eventually we made our way to the top of the gully that led back to the South Colony Lakes basin.  The trail seemed to want us to go the east end of the Lower South Colony Lake…a significant detour.  So we headed west to find a way down the cliffs that guarded the approach to the Upper lake.  Eventually we found a goat or sheep trail that allowed us to traverse the scree beneath the Needle and minimize any elevation loss before reascending to the upper lake.  I reached the camp at 3:30pm after refilling one of my water bottles at the lake to let the iodine tablet dissolve while I packed up the camp.

I was so tired that I packed my gear while lying down.  Think about how hard that is…well, sitting up was harder.  And I kept checking that damned iodine tablet, hoping to find that it had dissolved.  But it would not.

The Watched Iodine Tablet Rule:  the watched tablet will not dissolve

Finally I mustered the courage to start hiking again. We left for the car around 4pm, about 3 hours later than planned.  The hike out felt better than expected, but was another in a long line of endless marches (“death marches” is what I call it when in one).  I dispelled some of the boredom by counting.  First I made sure that the trail markers (I don’t know what they were marking) were all exactly 42 steps apart (and all 45 markers were exactly 42 steps apart).  When the markers ended, I took to counting the steps from the last marker to the car.  I guessed, based on nothing but hope, that the car was one thousand steps away (a nice large round number).  I figured that the car would actually be closer, but by “hoping” to be right about the step count, I would be somewhat distracted from the long hike out.  It didn’t work out; there were one thousand, eight hundred, seventy-two steps to the car.  But at least the hike was over.

All we had left to do was survive the 5-mile drive out to moderate roads and then the drive home.  The 5-mile offroad portion took another 1.5 hours, but the truck survived, and the remaining four-hours drive back to town seemed to go quickly.  We arrived at Brian’s place around 10pm; I arrived home 30 minutes later to thank Susan for a great birthday.


All in all, we achieved 5 Fourteeners and 2 high Thirteeners, 15 miles of hiking and 8,000 feet of elevation gain in two great days.  I’m glad I didn’t wait until my 50th birthday.


  • No water to be found away from camp; had to bring it all
  • Undulating terrain made for poor route-finding and difficult speed estimating
  • Multiple day trip; enhanced compounding of errors related to time & energy
  • Brian wanted to leave early on day 2; couldn’t plan on a full 2nd day


  • Overestimated energy capacity in desire to reach goal (denial bias)
  • Didn’t research route from Kit Carson to Challenger (optimism bias)
  • Underestimated the time required to complete the Crestone traverse (optimism bias)
  • Didn’t drink enough water when it was easily available (optimism bias)

How we got lucky:

  • The weather stayed great for 2 days
  • Didn’t trust the wrong conglomerate rock with our lives
  • Brian survived getting home a few hours later than planned

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