Posts Tagged ‘Brian’

Mount Evans Hill Climb Done Right

July 31, 2014
Photo by Footwarrior

Mt Evans parking lot seen from summit. Photo by Footwarrior

I first stood atop Mt Evans in 1997, after an amazing car ride up the highest paved road in the United States.  The Mt Evans road first opened in 1931, and was planned as a segment of a 150-mile road linking Longs Peak (14,259′) to Pikes Peak (14,114′). Alas, the road yet extends only 14.5 miles to just below the Mt Evans summit at 14,130′, fulfilling a 100-year-old prophecy to become, “…a road that starts nowhere, ends nowhere, and never gets there” (W.F.R. Mills, Commissioner of Improvements, 1915).

But as far as cycling is concerned, it is certainly enough.

Official course map

Official course map

Prior to 2014, I had returned to the Mt Evans summit four times to hike or climb some snowy aspect of the mountain. The last time I did so was 10 years ago, in May 2004, when my good friend Brian tricked me into riding my old mountain bike from the parking lot at Echo Lake (10,500′).  The excuse was the Forest Service road would be closed to car traffic for the day due to recent snow fall, and we could have the road to ourselves for once.

The affair was total misery for me (and a funny story) as I was not nearly in shape for powering an old, heavy bicycle up 7 miles of steep road carrying an extra 50 lbs of blubber and snow climbing gear (click to see and laugh about my Mt Evans Climb and Bike Ride trip report).  I have long desired to return to do it right, and reclaim a bit of my dignity.

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

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

~ excerpt from Mt Evans Climb and Bike Ride trip report

Mt Evans summit on the left with Summit Lake and the highest paved road in the USA below

Mt Evans summit on the left with Summit Lake and the highest paved road in the USA below (taken in 2002).

On July 26, 2014, full of cycling confidence after successfully completing the Triple Bypass Ride (120 miles; 11,000′ climbing) two weeks before, I started riding up toward the summit of Mt Evans once again, this time from Idaho Springs, a little over 27 miles away and nearly 7,000 feet below. The 49th Annual Bob Cook Memorial Mt. Evans Hill Climb would keep the cars away and bring my dignity within reach.

Awaiting the start of the Mt Evans HIll Climb Gran Fondo

Awaiting the start of the Mt Evans HIll Climb Gran Fondo

The Gran Fondo didn’t start until 7:20am, but I needed to arrive before 6am to carry out a number of tasks:

  1. avoid long delays for I-70 tunnel blasting (did it)
  2. secure a reasonably close-in parking spot (did it)
  3. have enough time to get my race packet containing my race numbers which had to be pasted/pinned to the various parts of my body and bike (did it)
  4. send some clothes to the summit to wear on the ride down (decided I didn’t need to do it; big mistake)
  5. secure a good placement in the Gran Fondo mass start (did it)

The Mt Evans Hill Climb came highly recommended.  It is advertised as one of the great cycling climbs in North America; not only a test of physical fitness, but also a means to measure a rider’s mental toughness. Heck, I guess there just aren’t many places where riders can climb for hours on end without a rest, which must be the definition of ‘awesome’ in cycling climber-speak. Starting in Idaho Springs, road grades to Echo Lake average 3.5% for 6.7 miles and 5.8% for 5.8 miles. Echo Lake to the summit averages 5.6% for 5.5 miles, then 4.1% for 2.7 miles and finally 5.7% for 4.25 miles through 11 switchbacks to the top.  Still, the experienced riders say the Mt Evans Hill Climb isn’t hard due to the grade.  It’s hard due to (1) length of the climb, (2) the gain in altitude, (3) the high altitude (low oxygen) reducing the ability to produce power, and (4) the challenge of staying hydrated due to drier air.

course stats tableThey also say, half of the challenge is in the mind, and patience is the key:  ‘focus on small victories along the way’, ‘focus on the 10 feet in front of you’, and ‘find a mantra to repeat or sing to yourself for motivation’.  And, lastly, ‘when you reach the summit, take in the splendor and accomplishment of riding up one of the highest peaks in America.’

Anyway, they had me at ‘no cars’.

Heading up on the relatively flat road out of Idaho Springs, I found myself conflicted between my twin objectives:  (1) conserve energy to make sure I could finish (ego preservation) and (2) go fast enough to beat my 3 hour time estimate (ego maximization).  This internal conflict was made more difficult by my lack of bike computer or even a watch; I couldn’t tell how hard I was working or how fast I was going.  I had to go on feel alone.

The pack thinned out pretty well after the initial few miles.  The very fast riders were quickly gone, never to be seen again.  Luckily, I did find a strong rider my age who was pulling a pace just above what I liked; he must have started further back in the pack and passed me a few miles in.

I figured I’d stay on his wheel for as long as I could, which turned out to be quite a while.  He was a chatty fellow out of Grand Junction, having a quick conversation with everyone we passed along the way.  As we approached Echo Lake, I was looking forward to taking a short but needed rest while I refilled my water bottles.  We sprinted along the lake, taking advantage of the short downhill section just before the Ranger Station; I had no problem burning through my energy reserves knowing I had a rest coming.  As we neared the Ranger Station, I could see the aid station was not what I expected. They were handing out filled water bottles as we went by…no stopping.  No rest. I was going to have to do the 27.4 miles and nearly 7,000′ in a single push, doubling the height of any single climb I had ever done.

Mt Evans road above treeline (CDOT photo)

Mt Evans road above treeline (CDOT photo)

As we got above treeline, I was starting to struggle to stay with my ‘rabbit’. We did have a chat along the way where I assured him that I would not have brought my cyclocross bike up Mt Evans if I had a lighter weight bike. He estimated we were on a 3 hour pace, which by then sounded like a very good time.  Around mile marker 5 above the Ranger Station, my rabbit got away from me and my tiring legs; and I picked up another, somewhat slower host.

This point is also about where the riders can see the rest of the ride, and I assure you it is a soul crushing sight to see so many miles of winding, treeless road that must be ridden before a rest.  Fortunately, I had been scarred by this sight 10 years earlier and was psychologically buffered against such a reaction. I followed my new rabbit to about mile market 9 where I passed him on the short descent to Summit Lake (12,830′) over shockingly rough, winter-broken road.

Joe nearing the top of the Mt Evans Rd

Joe nearing the top of the Mt Evans Rd

The 1/4 mile downhill ended at a sharp left bend which led to a final 5-mile, 1,400′ climb along guardrail-less road hanging over cliffs above oblivion. And, for the first time, I was alone, riding up the first of 11 switchbacks all by myself, battling the wind without any help.  I could feel the growing empty spaces in my body that used to contain my vast reserves of energy. And, now, the altitude was getting very high, and my limiting factor was shifting from muscle strength to available oxygen.  Unable to collect enough oxygen to fully power what remained of my muscles, my body temperature plunged.

I kept spinning my legs.  I also kept looking up to catch of glimpse of something familiar, something to give me hope of a near conclusion.  This was an incredible, memorable ride, but I wanted it to be over.

I finally could see the astronomical observatory tower located near the summit, and then I knew the end was near.  I kept spinning my legs.  I knew to look for mile marker 14, the signal for the final half-mile; but, I couldn’t remember to look at the signs as they went by.  I kept spinning my legs.

The money shot.

The money shot.

I came around a final right hand switch back to find a 100 yard sprint finish, but, I had no ‘kick’ to give. I kept spinning my legs, and crossed the  finish line at 10:13am for a ride time of 2 hours & 53 minutes. This time represented an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour, below my hoped for 10 mph which was based on nothing.  I was never so happy to be finished with a ride.

26th of 85 riders in my age group who finished the ride (31st percentile)

78th of 334 gran fondo riders who finished the ride (23rd percentile)

I rode my bike over to the Mt Evans sign to collect a personalized photo.  When I finished (see photo), I looked back toward the parking lot to find the food and water. Instead found a man standing in front of me.  It was Brian!

I nearly had a heart attack over the shock of his presence.  Brian explained that he had climbed Mt Beirstadt and then traversed the Sawtooth Ridge to Mt Evans to say hello.  I am often amazed by my cancer surviving, great friend.

Joe and Brian in front of the ruins of the Crest House (1941–1942) a restaurant and a gift shop that burned down on September 1, 1979

Joe and Brian on Mt Evans, in front of the ruined Crest House, a restaurant and a gift shop that burned down on September 1, 1979

As we chatted about the day, I started shivering.  I realized then that I should have had a jacket brought to the summit for me to wear while riding down at 30-40 mph through the cool air. Later, I found out that the all-time high temperature measured for the Mt Evans summit is 65F.  This wasn’t it (45F). There was little wind on the summit, but flying downhill on my bike was going to be brutal. But Brian saved the day by giving me his fleece jacket to wear on my descent. What a guy.

The descent to Summit Lake was still freezing.  I flew down the steep, twisting road, teeth chattering and hopping the bike over the worst of the cracks in the pavement. The short climb from Summit Lake warmed me enough to stop the shivering, but the road was still a broken and cracked mess. Once past the Ranger Station, the descent into Idaho Springs was a delight. With good roads and minimal traffic, got my speed fix for the day.

And, then it was over.  I had done it right this time.  I had reclaimed my dignity and even captured a bit of pride to call my own.

Now I just need to do the Pikes Peak ride to earn that “14er x 2 Cycling Cap” I’d read about. Who wants to join me?



Kamikaze Overhangs vs. Wits

October 20, 2013

October 19, 2013

For a cold but clear late October Saturday morning, Brian had identified a new route on the 1st Flatiron as a target for our ongoing, weekly search for exercise and adventure.

And he was so right, aided by a bit of poor preparation by the Joe and Brian team.

While it is a Cardinal sin of climbing to fail to prepare due to mere laziness, in this instance our lack of preparation might just have been the flavoring that made the day so good.  Perhaps there is an argument for purposefully leaving without all the information just for the sport of living by your wits.

From my own CliffsNotes: Rules, Laws, etc. 

  1. Climber’s Luck Maxim: luck is not an attribute, but rather a symptom of preparation (with a nod to Branch Rickey); good preparation plus determination = good luck plus success
  2. Silver Lining Maxim: sometimes, good things come from setbacks, if you let them.  “When it gets dark enough, you can see the stars” (Salk). “Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it” (Horace) also known as “Necessity is the mother of invention”.
  3. The ‘Path Less Traveled‘ Axiom: finding your own path or using a seldom used, less well known route adds to the adventure and can get you into some serious trouble.

Below is an annotated photo showing our route (in red) and the well established Kamikaze Overhangs route (in blue), at far as I can tell (but don’t take my word for it).  I believe we correctly started on the Kamikaze Overhangs route, but then spent most of the day climbing between the Kamikaze and Zig Zag routes before finally finishing on the Kamikaze route at the very top, after skipping 2 of the 3 official ‘overhangs’.  Along the way, and in spite of all our errors, we found good climbing and great adventure, and enjoyed the heck out of living by our wits, such as they were.


We met at the Chautauqua parking lot at 8:30am, which was a bit later than normal to allow the cold morning temperature to reach into the 40’s before we put flesh on stone.  As we navigated the flood damaged trails toward the start of the climb, we talked about the day’s adventure.  I had read the route information Brian emailed but neglected to bring the printout of the Mountain Project page.  Hoping that Brian had prepared better, I inquired as to his readiness. He indicated he had studied the page and memorized the key bits of beta.

I should point out that, at this point, my judgment remained handicapped with the misunderstanding that the route was a new route, found only on easily updated Mountain Project (MP) website.  And, while I failed to recognize the route name on the MP page as a long established route, I had placed great significance on the sparseness of the information and lack of user comments offered.  I interpreted this as evidence of a general lack of information in the climbing community.  It was a poor assumption, yet it explains that my only regret was in the forgetting to bring the hard copy I had taken such care to print out.

I announced that I’d rely on Brian’s memory as I knew almost nothing about the route.

I did happen to recall some mention that the route started “a couple switchbacks above Fandango” and so, without seeking any confirmation from Brian, I headed to that spot, the site of last week’s climb.  When we arrived at Fandango, Brian announced that we had gone too far.  After a bit of back and forth, we agreed to go up a couple switchbacks to check it out.  I thought I could recognize the start based on the photos I had seen the day before. Once we hit the next section up, we both agreed it was the right start.

Pitch 1 – the 1st roof

I thought I should take the 1st pitch since Brian would naturally want the crux roof further up the rock.  Brian agreed and indicated that the route went straight over the lichen covered roof about one rope length overhead and directly below a tree with slings.  I recalled the pitch had an ‘s’ rating indicating run-out. Brian added that there was an alternative route to the right somewhere that  was easier.  I assumed the escape right was near the direct roof, and it was my intention to find it.  As it turned out, I didn’t find it because the alternative route is the Zig Zag route start, which goes right early in the climb and stays far right of the tree with slings.

The potential for a long  leader fall is indicated by an ‘s’ (serious) … after the rating of the climb.  A climb rated ‘s’ will have at least one notable run-out the potential for a scary fall.  ~Rossiter

I slowly worked my way up the rock finding little pro to ease my mind and wandering widely to make use of the few opportunities presented. I tried to make out a path to the right, but nothing looked good.  I continued higher until I was below the thickly lichen covered roof which I  surprisingly found to be quite easy and well protected.  I pulled over the roof and setup a belay at the slung tree.

Brian quickly followed, remarking that the route finding was surprisingly abstruse.

Pitch 2 – which way do we go?

Brian took the second pitch.  He started straight up a gully that didn’t seem to lead anywhere, and then he veered right to setup a belay below the next roof obstacle.  Unfortunately, neither of us knew that the Kamikaze Overhangs route continued straight up from the slung tree past the 2nd roof and again straight up to the 3rd roof and crux.

After Brian called ‘off-belay’ but before I could fully clear the rope from my belay device, Brian started hauling the rope and jerked my belay tool from my hands.  I noted with regret, as I watch my $30 ATC-Guide Belay/Rappel Device tumble down the 1st Flatiron, that I had no backup device and had only an faint memory of tying the Munter Hitch knot that I would need for the remaining belays and for my rappel from the 1st Flatiron summit.

I followed quickly to explain the situation to Brian.  We agreed to switch-off use of Brian’s belay device so the leader would get a proper belay.  Then we took turns trying to remember how to tie a Munter Hitch.  I finally got it right (“you know it when you see it”) and we practiced a few times before I started up.

I inquired about the route.  Brian admitted he wasn’t sure whether we were on route, but he was confident (he saw a photo) we were to aim for the dead tree above the large roof about 200-240 feet up, nearly straight above.

Pitch 3 – aiming for the dead tree

I skipped some interesting looking moves straight up and instead took the path of least resistance, taking a generally up-and-right line.  I worked past the 2nd roof section and then ran out of pro placements.  I spied good pro in the dihedral some 20-30 feet up and to my right, and so I worked over to it.  I placed a perfect cam with great relief and then paused to enjoy the reduction in stress and to examine the remaining route.  At this point, unbeknownst to me, I had joined the Zig Zag route, although I almost immediately moved left of that line as I was aiming for the dead tree which was up and back to the left. Just as I was leaving the Zig Zag route, I I passed an obvious path over the roof that didn’t look very hard.  I didn’t think it could be the crux and continued past to set up the belay.  This path over the roof is also on the Zig Zag route.

I could see that the direct path to the tree was through a chimney-like weakness in the roof.  Since I recalled reading about a chimney, I figured it was the proper path and planned to belay below it if I could place a solid anchor.  Another long run-out section got to just below a section of the 3rd roof with a good horizontal crack that held three bomber pieces for my anchor.

Brian came up quickly but paused at the Zig Zag line through the roof that I passed up.  He said it didn’t look right and besides he didn’t see a fixed pin, which apparently was the key piece of evidence marking the proper route.

I told him I thought the route might go up the chimney since I recalled reading something about a chimney, and besides, I didn’t see anything else.  He said he didn’t remember anything about a chimney (it turned out that the photo with the dead tree was of a guy in the chimney, who was off-route).

  1. Ben Franklin’s Rule of Shared Information:  “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.”  ~Benjamin Franklin

Pitch 4 – the chimney

With no way to know that the Kamikaze Overhang crux was just around a corner further to the left, Brian took off toward the chimney about 20 feet up and slightly left from the belay.  After a fruitless search for the confirming fixed pin, he cruised past the 3rd roof obstacle.  He continued up and out of sight, running out most of the rope before stopping.  After a lengthy Munter Hitch tying session he brought me up.

I found the chimney-like obstacle to be balancy and steep but made moderate with a sold, but painful hold hold half-way up.

The rest of the pitch was rather run-out like most of the earlier pitches ending in the first (and possibly last) place it could, about 150 feet above roof.

Pitch 5 – joining the ridge line

I took the last bit of new route climbing, joining the well-known ridge line at the 2nd to last false summit.  I hoped to reach the true summit, and claim the fun finish for myself, but our 200 foot rope was about 20 feet too short.

Pitch 6 – the finish

Brian led the final bit of climbing and I quickly joined him.  The next challenge was to rappel 90 feet using a Munter Hitch.  I got the knot tied after only two tries and gutted out the free hanging rappel with a tighter than normal grip on the rope.

We stopped for lunch at a rocky outcropping that permitted an inspection of the route. We both spoke of later checking for more information to figure out what we’d really done. I was certain we hadn’t done the entire route properly, but I thought we had done most of it.  I couldn’t imagine we had missed nearly the entire thing after the 1st pitch.

Thinking back, now that I am safely sitting in my home office chair, I don’t know if being better prepared would have added to or detracted from the overall experience.  It certainly would have been a safer day.  Yet it was also have been a significantly less adventurous one.   There is a special stress and thrill that comes of not knowing if the route will work or if we’ll have to bail out or resort to the ultimate ignominy:  wait for rescue.

I suppose I shouldn’t rationalize about being careless, or better said, about being insufficiently prepared.  But I am certain we need to go back and give it Kamikaze Overhangs the respect it deserves.

List of Errors:

  1. Did not know where the climb started
  2. Did not know the options on the 1st pitch:  only to reach the slung tree by climbing straight up through the lichen or off to right
  3. Dropped my belay device
  4. Did not know to go straight up and over the 2nd roof obstacle
  5. Did not know how to find the 3rd and main roof/overhang:  only ‘knew’ (it was bad advice) to aim for a dead tree based on an anonymous photo of the roof route

Post Script – 11/2/2013

We went back to do it right when we had another good weekend of weather only 2 weeks later.

And, now that we’ve had another look at the rock, I would say that there is no clear route for the 2nd pitch, only blank, licheny sections of unprotectable rock that you must find a way through.  Having done so, I claim victory.  I took the 2nd pitch and looked at all options straight up and right (poor pro and slabby climbing over crumbling pancakes barely attached to the rock, and, finally left where I found adequate pro and moderate climbing difficulty.  I angled back right toward the roof separating me from the  rock layer that I correctly assumed would lead me to a belay below the crux roof.  To mount the roof I used the corner where the roof turned upward to form a dihedral.  There I found good protection for a liechen covered, thin high step.  From there I had climb straight up 40′ to reach a lower angle seam that I followed to the dihedral that I followed to just below the crux roof.

The crux roof was much better than the chimney option we took on our earlier errant effort.  Brian led the left hand option and setup a belay after only 50′ to provide a good belay for my move over the crux.

The finish was nearly identical to our previous attempt except for the amazing crowds on the 1st Flatiron ridge and summit.


Sharkstooth Sprint

July 18, 2013

July 13, 2013

The Sharkstooth taken on approach in July 1992

The Sharkstooth taken on approach in July 1992

I did my first rock climb of 2013 on June 30  and was amazed to discover that this latter-day cyclist missed his rock climbing days. It had been over a year since I had done any climbing on non-snowy or icy rock, and afterward I found myself actually moved to happiness simply by thinking of possible climbs to do this summer. And then, after a wonderful day in Eldorado Canyon State Park July 6th, my mind moved immediately to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). I wanted alpine rock, and what better place to start than Sharkstooth (12,630′), the location of my very first alpine climbing adventure 21 years ago this July 10th.

In truth, I suppose I might have gotten ahead of myself a little bit.

The jump from moderate climbs on Eldo’s Wind Tower to RMNP’s Sharkstooth is a rather dramatic one:  a short walk from the car at 5200′ elevation for few 2-3 pitch climbs in the sunshine vs. a 5 mile approach in the pre-dawn dark over rough trail and talus gaining 2700′ to begin a 5-pitch climb that would take 4 hours to ascend another 650′ and 1 hour to descend for a 10-12 hour adventure. But I had done it many times before, and so it did not feel like foolish overconfidence to claim I could do it.

And Brian agreed with only the slightest hesitation.

Sharkstooth seen from Zowie

Sharkstooth seen from Zowie in 2010

With such a plan in hand, due diligence includes checking the weather report to understand whether the climbing window is wide, narrow, or closed for the targeted day.  The month of July is the height of the thunderstorm season for Colorado and its high peaks, and depending on our overall speed we would need 6 to 7.5 hours after first light to do it: a 30-60 minute talus hop through The Gash to the base of Sharkstooth plus a 30 minute climbing prep (including breakfast) plus 5-6 hours of climbing/descending to get off the mountain. And this not counting another 45 minutes would get us below tree-line, and out of the danger zone.

The thursday forecast was for ‘showers and storms starting at 9am’, but the friday forecast would rule for a saturday climb.  While waiting for friday’s report, below is a ranking of possible weather forecasts, from worst to best that I carried in my mind:

Storms starting:

  1. at or before 10am, meaning less than 6 hours to finish (nope; reschedule)
  2. at 11am, meaning about 6 hours to finish (everything goes perfectly plus we hike out in storm; take a chance?)
  3. at noon, meaning about 7 hours to finish (everything goes perfectly; go for it)
  4. at 1pm, meaning about 8 hours to finish (probably safe; definitely)
  5. at 2pm, meaning about 9 hours to finish (very safe; a no brainer)
  6. at or after 3pm, meaning 10 or more hours to finish (no weather risk at all)

On friday afternoon, the forecast improved to ‘storms starting mostly after noon’.  We decided to proceed and make every effort to start fast, maintain speed and finish safely.

This ‘go fast’ strategy required three tactics:

  1. get up very early to start hiking very early
  2. hike as fast as possible (i.e., hiking fast as possible in the dark)
  3. reach the trail-less talus right at first light (daylight needed for navigation) to avoid lost daylight
  4. be first on the rock to avoid having to wait for other climbing parties

Just to be safe, we decided on an extra early start to give ourselves some extra margin for age-related slowness now that we are both over 50.  We decided to meet in Boulder at 2:15am and drive together to the Glacier Gorge trailhead in RMNP for a 4am targeted hiking start. The only obstacle to starting even earlier was the need to have some daylight to navigate the giant talus field in The Gash below Sharkstooth; if we got there too early we would have to wait for the sun to catch up.

The Day

I got up at 1am and met Brian at 2:15am. After throwing my gear into his truck, we started from Boulder right on schedule and arrived at the trailhead (9,240′) a bit after 3:30am to find only 1 or 2 cars. We assumed they were left the day before by bivying parties since no one could be crazy or worried enough to arrive even earlier than us. After an bit of last minute dumping of extra gear and water to save weight (and needless suffering), we started up the star and moonless trail at 4am.

We made great time in part by not stopping to rest. It was about 5:15am as we approached Andrews glacier in the dark. Brian said, “headlights,” and my heart fell. Damn. As I looked to where he pointed, Brian said, “I wonder what they are doing up there?” They were way off the hiking route to Sharkstooth and seemingly headed toward nothing that we knew. “Perhaps they are planning a climb up that way,” Brian said hopefully, but without conviction.

Approach to the Sharkstooth via the Loch Vale trail and junction to Andrews Glacier & Pass

Approach to the Sharkstooth via the Loch Vale trail and junction to Andrews Glacier & Pass

The sky was lightening quickly and was sufficient to start across the talus when we arrived at 5:30am. The lightening sky also revealed a cloud filled sky.

It wasn’t long until we could see that they were headed toward Sharkstooth.  I said, “Let’s go faster.” And we did.

We used a patch of snow to gain a chunk of ground on the other party, and a short distance later, we passed them. They didn’t know the area, but they were not slow.  And now that we were showing them the way, we had to keep up the brutal pace. We did it. We arrived at 6am, about 15 minutes before they did, ensuring a clear path to the top.  When they arrived, we discovered they had started hiking at 2am and simply got lost in the dark.  One of the cars at the trailhead was theirs!

It is worth noting here that we only took 2 hours to hike 5 miles and ascend 2,700′ to reach the base of Sharkstooth. That is 2.5 mph and 1,350 feet per hour, with 20 lbs of iron in the pack.  That pace is off my personal speed chart and a full 50% faster than we managed almost 17 years ago as 34 year old men. With such evidence in hand, I am pleased to report that Brian has regained nearly all of his pre-illness strength, and that my increased cardio fitness (and lower weight) has held off the ravages of age for a bit longer than expected.

Pitch 1:

After changing into dry, warm clothes and consuming a bit of breakfast and 1 of 2 liters of water I brought for the day, I started up the rock at 6:30am, taking the most obvious dihedral.  My fingers quickly froze as I slowly worked past the wet vegetation, straight up to a large ledge directly below the slot marking the start of the 2nd pitch.  They key for us was to stick to the route we knew to minimize any lost time.  The sky was not yet threatening, but did look like it could rain in the next few hours.

Pitch 2:

Brian continued straight up until reaching a ledge at the top of the prominent left facing flake.  I followed the rope without much thought for route finding until I reached the flake.  I paused to decide whether to face climb the rock to the left (as I had done before) or simply layback up the flake.  I decided to do the classic layback to reach the belay in style.

Pitch 3:

View of Estes Park from top of 3rd pitch

View of Estes Park from top of 3rd pitch

I continued straight up the steep but bucket-filled terrain to reach a big flat ledge that marked the start of a recognizable arete. Every variation of the NW Ridge route must hit this ledge, as it is the first part of peak that actually forms a ridge.  The views are spectacular off both sides.  This was the longest pitch of the day, taking nearly the entire 200′ rope.

At this point, the clouds seemed to be thinning.  It seemed that we would get lucky with the weather, as we have so many times when we show proper respect.  Still, it looked to be raining in parts of RMNP, so we stayed alert.

Pitch 4:

Brian climbed up the off-width crack and belayed at the next large ledge below the white face.  I followed after taking many photos in a foolish attempt to capture the majesty of the views from that spot.

Pitch 5:

I took the last pitch, starting by moving left of the white face and climbing the rough rock toward the summit.  I stayed left to avoid rope drag, continuing past the next big ledge to belay a few feet below the summit level.

We untied and scrambled to reach the summit at 10:30am.  We enjoyed the views for a moment before heading down to get some water; it had been 4 hours since our last drop of water.  And, while the weather had held, we were still at least 1.25 hours from treeline.

Panorama from Sharkstooth summit July 2013

Panorama from Sharkstooth summit July 2013

The Sharkstooth rappels are always interesting for the questionable anchors; we sacrificed a sling on on the middle anchor where the slings looked particularly aged.  After downclimbing the final 70 feet, we scrambled down few hundred feet over blocky talus to reach our packs.  I found that the marmots had knocked my pack down from a ledge in a vain attempt to get my food (I had carried it with me).

View of Petit Grepon and Sky Pond from Sharkstooth rappels

View of Petit Grepon and Sky Pond from Sharkstooth rappels

We got back to the packs right at 11:30am.  With the improvement in the weather, we stopped to rehydrate and eat lunch before starting the long walk to the trailhead.  I finished my last liter of water and a couple Larabars.

The steep descent was brutal on my aging knees, but we kept up a good pace to get to treeline before any late arriving weather spoiled the day.  We continued back down the way we came up; I was dreaming of ice for my knees.

We arrived at the trailhead at 2pm for a 10 hour truck-to-truck roundtrip.

Not bad for two 51 year olds.


  • 1:00am – I wake up before alarm goes off after 3.5 hours sleep
  • 2:00am – leave the house for Boulder
  • 2:15am – meet Brian at 29th street mall and leave together for RMNP
  • 3:30am – arrive at Glacier Gorge Trailhead parking lot
  • 4:00am – start hiking toward Sharkstooth
  • 5:15am – see headlights ahead of us
  • 5:30am – arrive at turnoff for The Gash and The Sharkstooth; first light
  • 6:00am – arrive at base of Sharkstooth (15 minutes ahead of other party)
  • 6:30am – start climbing
  • 7:15am – finish 1st pitch
  • 8:00am – finish 2nd pitch
  • 9:15am – finish 3rd pitch
  • 9:45am – finish 4th pitch
  • 10:30am – finish 5th pitch; arrive at summit
  • 11:30am – descend to base; eat lunch
  • noon – packup and leave for trailhead
  • 1:00pm – arrive at Loch Vale
  • 2:00pm – arrive at trailhead and leave for home
  • 2:30pm – stop in Estes for ice
  • 3:30pm – arrive in boulder
  • 4:00pm – arrive home 14 hours after departure to hike 10 miles, ascend (and desend) 4000′ of elevation, burn 4000 kcal
  • 4:05pm – soak in hot bath until cooked and pruned

An Arctic Sky Pond

March 20, 2013

March 17, 2013

It was one of those days.  The weather was warming and clear in Boulder, and I was suffering from a strained bicep tendon (from the previous week’s Tangen Tunnel adventure) and an Achilles tendon (that started complaining the day before for no discernible reason).  I wanted to do a bike ride to protect my sore bits.  Brian was determined to get to the high country, and while he preferred skiing, he would settle for a hike in RMNP to Black Lake or Sky Pond.

As the more reasonable of the two, I agreed to go to RMNP.  And, it was a great adventure, even if it was a bit on the quick side.

We left my house at 8:30am, after waiting for Susan to return from her predawn hike.  On the drive in, the clear skies allowed us to see that the mountains were socked in above treeline.  We started hiking at 10am and made quick time to the Black Lake – Loch Vale junction (Glacier Junction?).  Based on a previous day review of the RMNP weather report, I was worried about how solid the lakes would be for hiking on.  I wanted to head to Sky Pond to minimize the hassle of thawing lakes.  Brian thought we might be getting into bad weather at Sky Pond, but I convinced him we would be fine so far below the Continental Divide (where we have experienced numerous freezing hurricanes).


The Cathedral Spires seen from Loch Vale

We made quick work of the trail to Loch Vale, and discovered the lake as frozen as we’ve ever seen.  We continued up over and then past the lake, following a well-beaten trail in the snow.  The trail was surprising populated with a dozen or so of hikers, skiers, and ice climbers, but still empty compared to a summer day.

As we approached the waterfall below Glass Lake, the weather began to reveal its unfriendly nature.  We worked up to the right of the waterfall area and then back left to avoid the rocky summer scramble which was covered in ice and snow.  We found 3 fellow adventurers doing an ice climb on some beautiful waterfall ice, in the bitterly cold wind and blowing snow;  the belayer must have been suffering in the seriously cold and strong wind.

Brian climbing past the sign pointing to Sky Pond

Brian climbing past the sign pointing to Sky Pond

We crossed the frozen pond beneath the climbers despite their warnings of  falling ice, and then we started up the steep snow covering the frozen waterfall.  There were enough firm patches for us to make it up the 30 foot slope, albeit with some difficulty.  When we crested over the top, we were greeted by a blast of constant 50 mph wind.  I hid behind a boulder as I endured a bit of suffering to add a down layer to my clothing.  It was either that or just go home.

Properly insulated, I could focus all my energies on route finding and stable footing over the icy boulders and frozen standing water.  As we crossed Glass Lake, we encountered a 2-man party heading toward safety.  The lead fellow looked official (read:  guide) while the fellow behind looked frozen and afraid.  The official looking fellow asked if we were okay, and admonished us to “make good decisions”.  He then told us roughly the location of a snow cave he had built and then left for better conditions.

The visibility was very poor, with the snow fall and blowing snow, but the air cleared periodically to allow us to find our way.  We hoped to find the snow cave for some shelter while we ate our lunch, but the directions were a bit vague, the area large, and the conditions did not encourage exploration.  After reaching Sky Pond and hiking along the Petite side for about 1/2 the length of the lake, we turned back to avoid freezing to death.  Brian said he was shivering already.

The Cathedral Spires seen in a brief moment of visibility. Taken from Sky Pond.

The Cathedral Spires seen in a brief moment of visibility. Taken from Sky Pond.

We backtracked to a hollow between the two lake where we’d found some windless air on the way in.  The wind was again muted in the low-lying hollow, and we found further shelter in a snow well beside a large boulder.  There, we stopped for lunch around 1pm, which also allowed us to enjoy the accomplishment of the day while extending the sense of adventure.

I quickly ate my frozen food and finished my water (in an insulated bottle holder).  And, before long, even my down layer wasn’t enough.

We started back and quickly lost our bearings in the near whiteout.  But we knew the area and a 15 degree adjustment put us back on our old tracks.

Crossing Glass Lake was challenging as the wind turned our bodies into sails, pushing us while we had near zero friction on the ground.  I managed to find my way and maintain my footing by traversing the lake perimeter.  The waterfall area descent was a fun glissade after I was able to catch a glimpse of the bottom and know that I wouldn’t hit rocks or go over a cliff.


Self portrait taken during a lull in the wind.

And then it was just a matter of slogging back to the parking lot.  Before heading for Boulder, I stopped to use the latrine and looking down into the pit, with immediate regret, I was reminded of the quote from the movie, Wall Street:

… if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.  ~Friedrich Nietzsche

It is an exhilarating experience, the living for a while so close to the edge where the slightest miscalculation could result in death.  It is even fun when you know you can get out whenever you want to go home and get warm.

The news headline the next day about the fatal avalanche on Ypsilon Peak, several miles to the north of Sky Pond, was a grim reminder of the risks we all take when we venture onto dangerous ground.

Estes Park man presumed dead, hiking guide author rescued after avalanche in RMNP – Boulder Daily Camera

Bear Peak Loop and Two Noodles

December 1, 2012

December 1, 2012

The Bear Peak Loop route map - 12/1/2012

The Bear Peak Loop route map – 12/1/2012

Oh, the joy of a warm December day stolen from a frozen Winter season.  On a 70F December 1st,  Brian wanted to shift from cycling to hiking.  While I was reluctant to abandon a fantastic cycling season, I agreed to be agreeable.  My only proviso was to start small and gradually build up our fitness level, since I hadn’t done a serious hike in over a year.  In fact, it has been two years.  Brian agreed and we chose South Boulder Mountain with an option on Bear Peak.  It was a good plan.

Brian and The Maiden

Brian and The Maiden

We started up the Mesa Trail (TH at 5,641′)at 8:45am trying to remember how to hike and remember what we used to bring.  Before we could get too far into the laughing about how long it had been, we noticed a sign that indicated that the trails to South Boulder Peak were closed and there was no access to Bear Peak without hiking over to NCAR (about 5 miles) to ascend the Fern Canyon trail.

It is always a challenge navigating the arbitrary rules of the Boulder Open Space Tyrants.  I have come to feel that their rules should be broken out of principle.

I asked Brian if he wanted to drive over to NCAR or just head out to see if we could find enough adventure despite the closed trails.  He hated the thought of getting back in the vehicle and wanted to proceed.  The main idea would be to hike to The Maiden, with an option on climbing the ridge to Bear Peak (8,461′).

Brian below the Devil's Thumb

Brian below the Devil’s Thumb

We took the standard route toward Shadow Canyon only to find that  the Homestead trail was also closed.  Brian’s comment was ‘I’m glad I don’t live here.’  I couldn’t blame him.  We backtracked and took the Towhee trail to link up to the Mesa trail, hoping that it would lead to Shadow Canyon but prepared to simply scramble up the front side of The Maiden.

It all worked out and we eventually came to the bottom of The Maiden, I believe near the present end of the Shadow Canyon trail.  We turned uphill and enjoyed reliving the scramble that we’d done so many times before.  We arrived at the ridge line near Jamcrack Spire flatiron and traversed over to the start of The Maiden’s Standard route at around 10:30am.  We stopped for a drink and for a change of clothes to combat the suddenly brutal wind.

The great Flying Flatiron seen on a scramble from The Maiden to the Bear Peak summit

The great Flying Flatiron seen on a scramble from The Maiden to the Bear Peak summit

Brian was feeling strong, apparently, and wanted to opt for the ridge bushwhack to the summit of Bear Peak.  We’d done it a couple times before, so we knew it went without too much technical difficulty, but with significant physical exertion.  We weren’t in shape for such an effort, but the thrill of high places and the thought of one last day of good weather allowed us to ignore the damned consequences….and there would be consequences.

Up we went.  The first thing was to scramble back up to the ridge line.

Then, carefully creeping along the ridge line with serious falls awaiting the ‘Uncareful’ (read: other people), we progressed toward the Bear Peak summit.

The initial going was easy and allowed us to stay on the ridge to pass over the top of the Fat Iron (a very good climb, by the way, which has a spectacular view of The Maiden).

We then approached the Devil’s Thumb which is merely the highest of several impassable pinnacles on the ridge.  We dropped down to the east to traverse the low angle, east-facing rock face.  The route-finding became tricky for a short section due to exposure.  I told Brian that I didn’t know where it would lead us, but at least it was going somewhere.  Brian replied, “Good enough.”  It did in fact feel familiar; it was probably the route we’d taken to climb the Devil’s Thumb some years ago.

South Boulder Mountain burn damage from June 2012 fire, seen from near Devil's Thumb

South Boulder Mountain burn damage from June 2012 fire, seen from near Devil’s Thumb

We exited the steep face into the less steep rock below the Devil’s Thumb  (a good but short climb).  The ridge was still impassable, so we continued traversing the eastern rocks until we could enter the gully below the Devil’s Thumb and the Flying Flatiron.  Aiming for the junction of the Flying Flatiron and the primary ridge line was a good route that worked and also allowed us to reminisce about the impressive and terrifying Flying Flatiron summit.  The ‘terrifying’ aspect related to the temporary nature of the pile of rock comprising the arch summit.  When it goes down someday, you don’t want to be on it.

At that point, we were able to scramble back to the ridge where we could see the an impressive view of the Devil’s Thumb, and we could also begin to see the fire damage from the June 2012 “Flagstaff fire”.

Then we hit a section of ridge that we had some memory about…it was a bad memory.

Looking back down the ridge toward Devil's Thumb and the Plains below

Looking back down the ridge toward Devil’s Thumb and the Plains below

The ridge line looked impassable  but we recalled it was just barely passable for the distance required to reach the next milestone, the Angle Wings.  And ‘barely passable’ was good enough as there was no other way to proceed, either via the east face or by descending to the west.  We slowly crept along the cliff face just west of the ridge line, taking care not to fall to our deaths or get into a jam that would require serious risk-taking to escape

Brian was back in his old form, moving without hesitation and finding the least risky path.  By the time we reached the Angel Wings, we were able to descend to the ground to hike up to the north end of the Angel Wings Flatiron.

We stopped for a drink on the crest of the south end of the Bear Peak ridge.  It was a wonderful 50’x50′ spot that was begging for a tent.  And, it was 11:45am…and I was getting very hungry.  I said out loud that we had 15 minutes to reach the summit.

After the enjoyable pause, we started back up toward the summit, but now we were on the edge of the burn area.  We moved even more carefully as we tried to avoid becoming covered in charcoal   After about 50′ Brian said, “I’ve been wondering about the orange color that seems to only be on the tops of the branches and logs…do you think it is fire retardant?”  Of course that was the answer.  Heck, I hadn’t even noticed.  With now another thing to avoid, we were happy to leave the edge of the burn area after only a few minutes.

Brian resting on the edge of the burn zone from the 'Flagstaff Fire' of 6/2012. Bear Peak is visible in the distance.

Brian resting on the edge of the burn zone from the ‘Flagstaff Fire’ of 6/2012. Bear Peak is visible in the distance.

The rest of the way was uneventful except for the increasing hunger.  I managed to get us lost again on the final climb up to the summit block.  We ended up taking the exact same path as we did in 8/2011 when I crawled through a tree infested with ladybugs and inadvertently carried away one million of the little gals.

We reached the summit at 12:30pm.

It is always true, the hungrier I am, the better my food tastes.  My two peanut butter Cliff’s Bars were the best food I’d eaten in months.

After such a hard effort to reach the summit, we are always reluctant to leave.  I suppose there are many reasons.  But the cold and wind was persistent and I was losing the body temperature battle, so we left after 30 minutes.

Joe insists on a summit shot...Bear Peak

Joe insists on a summit shot…Bear Peak

And now we would pay the price of stubbornness   Since Shadow Canyon was closed from the top and we didn’t move the vehicle to NCAR, we’d have to hike down the Fern Canyon trail and then hike 5 miles back to the South Mesa trail head   Yuck.  At least our biking fitness was holding up to the hiking/scrambling effort.

We quickly worked our way down the exposed summit ridge, like two mountain goats who had never taken a break from hiking.  I felt true pleasure from the overdue exercise of skills long in the making.

And then, down the Fern Canyon trail.  Down, down, down.

After about 0.25 mile, I could feel that my legs were getting tired.  It was a bad feeling, since I was so many miles from my 4-Runner…and had so many feet of elevation yet to lose.

After another 0.25 mile, I begged for a rest.  I hoped that a short reprieve would revitalize my muscles…but no.  It was then that I knew I was in trouble.

A look back at the ridge line we traversed to reach Bear Peak.

A look back at the ridge line we traversed (left to right) to reach Bear Peak and then descend the opposite direction to complete the Bear Peak Loop.

Heck, I knew I’d make it home, but I KNEW I was going to suffer for days for my brazen disregard for the laws of physics.

Down, down, down.  My legs were mere noodles.  I was just trying to control the fall as I resisted gravity with every muscle, ligament and bone at my disposal.

After an eternity, we reached the cut-off for Shanahan Trail, which we took to reach the Mesa Trail.  And then only another 4 miles to reach the car.  We made it, naturally, and, I only twisted my ankle twice in the process.

6.25 hours, 8.5 miles RT and 2951′ of elevation gained (and lost!).  What happened to the ‘start small and gradually build up our fitness level’ plan?  My legs were getting stiff before I got into my 4-Runner.  I was in for a rough recovery.

Post-Script (12/3/12):  I have barely moved in the last 36 hours, and have little hope of improvement for another 36.  (12/5/12):  I am still too sore to move correctly but am now certain that I have not permanently crippled myself.  I expect to be ready to go again by the weekend, but no sooner.

Brian’s comment via email on 12/3/12:

Our basement staircase took on a malevolent side yesterday, bringing fear every time I went down.  Like the Amityville Horror.  The stair rail got more use than it had all year.


4th Flatiron Revisted

March 24, 2012

Holy Cow!  How long has it been since I did the complete 4th Flatiron east face.  I could barely remember the 3rd piece of rock and I couldn’t find any record of an ascent since 1998.  Now, it couldn’t have been that long, but I’ll bet its been at least 10 years.  I am learning to hate how time slips by.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that Brian and I failed on an attempt on the 4th earlier this year (see 4th Flatiron Slowfest).  Now, climbing the 4th in March is plain crazy, but in January is flat out stupid; let’s just say I didn’t feel too badly about not finishing on the earlier effort.  But now, since the weather has been in the 70’s for 2 weeks and the snow is essentially gone,  we had to finish it.  We just had to.

We started up at 8am, which was strange since that was the plan (I was on time).  We hiked up the trail at a brisk pace and made ready to climb at the base of the 4th by 9am.

Brian announced that he’d like to do the ‘chimney pitch’ which required me to take the first pitch. I accepted.

Pitch 1

I scrambled up the 1st pitch, which is only 75 feet long to a nice ledge.  I remembered to bring my rock shoes, and I enjoyed the security at every step.

The squeeze chimney at the back of the 4th Flatiron cave

Pitch 2

Brian took off toward the cave with a grim determination to crawl out the hole in the top.  He pulled through and setup an awkward belay to bring me up.  I scrambled up to the opening of the cave, handed up the packs, and then barely fit through.  And, I mean barely.  It was a near thing, and I nearly had my harness pulled off as I ssssqqqqquuuuueeeeezzzzeeeeddddd through.  I most certainly would not have fit through 20 lbs ago.

Brian put it well:  the chimney was worth doing…once.  He named it the Commoner’s Cave (a corollary to the Royal Arch)

Joe pulling his body through the narrow slot on the 4th Flatiron chimney

Pitch 3

I stretched out the 200 foot rope to make a nice ledge.  I even got in a few pieces of pro.

Pitch 4

Brian took the entire rope length to reach the only nice ledge in the vicinity.

Pitch 5

I took the finish to the 1st piece and continued on to the start of the next pitch on the 2nd piece of the flatiron.  We stopped for a brief snack at approximately 11am. We paused long enough to fully appreciate what a beautiful day we had to enjoy….and once again appreciate how lucky we are to live in Colorado.

Pitch 6

4th Flatiron East Face Route

Brian took the sharp end into the gully and stopped quickly after finding a good belay spot.  He had learned a hard lesson the last time, when he couldn’t find a belay and had to simulclimb over terribly exposed and slippery rock to reach the hanging garden.  I didn’t blame him one bit.

Pitch 7

I could not find much pro along this entire stretch that nearly reached to the Hanging Garden.  It was a bit unnerving.  I was forced to setup a belay in a a sea of thorn bushes.  I got a hundred tiny thorns imbedded in my flesh for my trouble.  I also froze to death as the wind picked up in the natural wind tunnel.  I luckily remembered to bring a jacket, which I wore for the rest of the day.

8 – Scramble to Garden

Brian finished the scramble to the garden and then we walked to the backend of the garden…. and then out to the 3rd and final piece of the 4th Flatiron. Unfortunately, neither of us could remember how to finish this damned route.  I remembered descending a bit and then taking a right curving line to get back into the big gully.  Brian remembered nothing. Note:  I read later that the ‘official’ route is to walk directly across from the Hanging Garden and head up and left.  I’ll try to remember that.

Pitch 9

But Brian doesn’t scare off; he accepted the challenge and took off.  He didn’t get any pro for a while, but eventually made it to the base of the wide portion of the big gully.

Pitch 10

This was hard, for a mere 5.4 route.  Water polished rock with no pro.  I didn’t let myself think about it too much and just kept moving up.  Eventually I did start finding pro, but the slick difficulty did not relent until I reached a nice ledge below the exit to the final crack.  A part of the problem was the wet mess leftover from the snowpack in the center of the gully where otherwise there might be better footing.

Brian on the summit of the 4th Flatiron

Pitch 11

Brian flew up the final pitch.  I remembered thinking that this was the crux pitch on previous climbs, but not this time.  It was 3rd hardest, at most.  We arrived at 3pm.


The descent off the overhanging ledge is always tricky.  I didn’t hesitate this time and just downclimnbed until I could jump.  Brian remarked, “always anticlimactic”.  I responded, “it felt climactic to me”.  It really did.  Be ready.

We then followed our line from our earlier Tangen Tunnel climb (see Winter Tangen Tunnel), staying on the ridge line as we climbed and passed a series of ribs to reach the descent trail from Green mountain.

Joe on the 4th Flatiron summit with Bear Peak in the background

At 5pm, we arrived at the parking lot.  I was surprised that we managed to do a 9-hour day without much difficulty.  Not too old, I guess.

Keys to climb:

  1. Do the chimney once, then not again
  2. Watch the rope drag on the 3rd pitch
  3. The 2nd piece of the 4th is only 40 feet from the top of the 1st piece
  4. Be prepared for stemming in the big gullies
  5. Go straight across from the Handing Garden to start the 3rd piece
  6. From the summit of the 4th, it’s just under 2 hours to the car
  7. On the hike to Green Mountain trails, stay on the ridge crest and find the line of least resistance

See all Trip Reports

Green Mountain Wander

March 22, 2012

March 17, 2012

On St. Patrick’s Day 2012, the day before my 11th wedding anniversary, I had only a short time slot available for adventure.  Brian and I eventually decided to spend it bushwacking up the northeastern slope of Green Mountain with a twofold goal:  (1) stay out of the raptor closure area and (2) work our way up and around the 5th Flatiron from the Skunk Canyon area.  These were actually Brian’s goals that seemed strange to me, but I agreed to be agreeable.  And, I was pleasantly surprised how well it worked out despite a lengthy work-related phone delay, some of the worst terrain I’ve ever traversed, and a tricky (icy) descent from the backside of the 5th Flatiron.  In fact, aside from innumerable cuts and scratches that will haunt me for the next two weeks, it was quite fun.

I’m delighted that a bit of open-mindedness allowed me to participate in Brian’s screwball idea that was only partially ruined by a bit of poor mental mapping on my part (the local expert!), which I’ll explain later.

Green Mountain Wander Route Map

The Setup

Due to my insane work schedule, Sunday was ruled out and I couldn’t start on Saturday until 11am…oh, and I had to be home by 4:30pm.  At least the ski conditions continued to be poor enough for me to avoid feeling miserable about missing another day of skiing.  We planned to start at the Mesa trail parking lot near Eldo for a scramble up the East side of the Maiden followed by a ridge climb to the Bear Mountain summit, but we couldn’t find parking.  We then backtracked to highway 93 and then moved south a few miles to NCAR, which always has parking, and started hiking around 11:30am.

Once we hiked to where we could see the rocks, the Maiden looked too far away for such a time constrained day.  Brian then suggested Skunk Canyon where we’d take one of the gullies near Satan’s Slab toward the top of Hippo Head and a descent past the 5th Flatiron.  It was a very ambitious idea, but I had committed to being agreeable on this day since my restricted schedule had limited Brian’s options severely.

Step 1

We started east toward the green water tank and then down and north toward the Mesa trail which we followed a north short distance to Skunk Canyon.  At the cutoff for Skunk Canyon, Brian paused to look at the stupid Raptor Closure sign posted on the fence I had stepped over.  He noted aloud that our route would trespass on the closure area.  I paused for a moment and then asked if he wanted to do something else merely because of a sign nailed to a split rail fence.  Brian said he had a new idea.

Step 2

Brian’s new idea was to hike up to and then along the raptor closure and work our way around to the 5th Flatiron.  Then we’d hike up the south side of the 5th and descend to north side down to the Royal Arch trail.  I contributed the idea of going north on the Mesa trail for a 100 yards or so to get a better view of our options.  This turned out to be a waste of hiking unless you count the extra exercise as a bonus, which I did.

Step 3

We worked our way up the grassy slope to the first slight ridge before the rocky ridges within the Raptor Closure.  At approximately 12:30pm my phone rang, and I had to stop for a work related phone call for 30 minutes.  I called it a lunch break.  I actually ate a bit while I chatted on the phone; Brian just sat quietly in the shade, probably thinking that I was either an ass or an idiot.

Step 4

The Royal Arch, from the south side. The City of Boulder is in the distance.

We followed the ridge north and then east as it disappeared into the rim of a basin with the Royal Arch on the other side.  This was some of the worst scramble/hiking terrain I’ve ever encountered.  I remarked that it looked haunted, as it was full of dead, twisted trees and logs with large and small lichen covered boulders everywhere.  And dark!

We also found a new flatiron to climb someday…I’ll have to figure out what it is called at some point that has not yet come to pass.

Step 5

Weaving through and around the various bits of Flatironettes sprinkled across the slope, we eventually reached the climbers trail connecting the Royal Arch trail to the south end of the 5th Flatiron, which we followed to the base of the 5th.

Continuing with Brian’s plan, we ascended the improbable line up the south side of the 5th that seems to be impassable at every step except for a single, improbable escape that allowed us to continue until, finally, we reached the top.

Step 6 

Brian was finally ready for his lunch and so we stopped at the top of the 5th to eat a snack and change into our snow gear (long pants and gaiters)

After a short rest, we descended the always steep and treacherous climbers trail down the north side of the 5th Flatiron.  I managed to bruise my ass by falling on a sharp rock when a dead branch I trusted broke; it still pains me as I write this trip report 2 & 5 days later.

The descent from the 5th Flatiron and our escape down the Tangen Tunnel Route

Step 7

We were stopped by the most tricky part of the 5th descent, a delicate downclimb which was made worse by the remaining snow and ice.  I believe many people rappel this part, but we didn’t bring any ropes.  After watching Brian struggle to wriggle down a rabbit hole, I announced that I was going to look for a way to move further north for easier descent ground.  Brian said that sounded like ‘Chickening out’…I replied that I’m all over that.  ‘Discretion’ is the hallmark of my personal climbing philosophy.

Step 8

Brian starting down Tangen Tunnel #2 (numbering from #1 at bottom of route)

Brian agreed and found a slot in the northern rock (Tangen Tower) that we could slither through.  It was a genius maneuver that took us directly to the Tangen Tunnel route.

The snow cover was still sufficient to protect our descent of the generally impossible, without ice gear, section above the 2nd cave, and then both caves were essentially free of snow and ice.  It was perfect!

Brian posing in front of Tangen Tunnel #1. With the snow gone, the Tangen Tunnels are no longer dangerous, just pure fun.

Once we reached the Royal Arch trail, we changed back into our dry, hot weather gear.  Brian wanted to go up to the Royal Arch and then bushwack down to the Mesa Trail directly.  I was worried about the time and assured him that the Royal Arch trail would descend must faster as it was a very well established trail and would not take us too far out of the way.  I was even so bold as to proclaim that he’d be surprised to see how far south the Bluebell shelter actually was…it was beneath the Royal Arch more than beneath the 3rd Flatiron.  He agreed and we made very fast time down the great trail.

And since the chance of getting lost was zero, I could just enjoy the great outdoors and views as I got a last bit of exercise.

Step 9

Once we reached the Bluebell shelter, I turned to show Brian what I meant about the direct descent path only to find that I was completely wrong.  We were actually on the north side of the 3rd Flatiron.  The Royal Arch trail wanders all over hell and back.


The Finish

Oh well.  It was only 1.5 miles back to the turnoff to NCAR, just a short bit of walking.  But we should have tried Brian’s idea for the finish, especially since now looking at the map, I believe we descended in that general vicinity last year when descending, a bit lost, from Angel’s Way (approximate path noted on map).

Heck, we didn’t even break any laws, but it was fun anyway.

And, it was the start to a great St. Patrick’s Day / Anniversary celebration that my wife and I finished off with an evening at the Boulderado for its St. Patrick’s Day party.  I couldn’t get the Irish beer I wanted and was forced to discover that a Black & Tan is one of the great pleasures in life.

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Winter Tangen Tunnel

February 18, 2012

February 12, 2012

Ah, sweet success.  After many years of trying the Tangen Tunnel route in winter, Brian and I finally succeeded.  And it came on a day when neither of us expected to succeed due to a late start (my fault) and the highest amount of snow we’d ever seen in the Flatirons.  But once we neared the top, the prospect of retreating down that snowing, icy hell hole was so horrifying that we continued to push on and finally made it.  Heck, we got back to the parking lot with over 30 minutes of daylight.  What a great day!

We came, we saw, we tried like hell, we barely made it.

The start to the Tangel Tunnel route in winter

We started planning the weekend to be our first ski day of the season despite the continuing poor ski conditions (historically low snowbase).  But I had a problem with a toe and couldn’t risk death by ski boot. So I left the choice to Brian with a suggestion of the Tangen Tunnel as an “aggressive” alternative.  I also indicated, unhelpfully, that I could not do an early start due to a commitment.  I suppose I knew that this ruled out success on the Tangen Tunnel route which takes a long time even in good conditions, but that is what came to my mind at that moment. The real problem is that the Flatirons have had so much snow that I just didn’t know what to suggest.

Brian picked Tangen Tunnel route.  (Me and my big mouth, eh?… at least we’d get some exercise, and be outside).


I spent much of my time-constrained morning digging around for my snow gear not seen since the previous spring, and I just couldn’t get to Chautauqua park before 10:15am; but I was better prepared than usual.

We set a good pace up toward the Royal Arch and reached the bottom of the Tangen Tunnel route a bit after 11am.  We could see that we’d be swimming up the route, so we took time to get on all the gear:  insulating liner jacket, gators, warm hat, helmet, and harness, and then we set off.

Snowless images of the initial cave entrance and exit (photo from Fall)I made it 10 feet before being stopped by a 6 foot tall boulder covered by soft snow.  Slipping and sliding, and failing to find purchase on snow flavored air, I eventually resorted to stemming on the icy rock face of Tangen Tower and hooking rock overhead with my ice axe to inch my way over the first obstacle.  During the summer, this obstacle represents a barely noticeable, small scramble; on this day it was a 15 minute puzzle.

Now we knew for certain it was going to be at least an adventure (but hopefully not an epic one).

Epic (climbing slang word)

A climber’s slang term that refers to a big climbing adventure and all the bad stuff that happens on it, like ropes getting stuck, being benighted on a ledge, getting caught in a bad storm, or wandering off route.


(1) The 1st Cave/Tunnel

Rabbit Hole #1: the escape hole from tunnel #1 on the Tangen Tunnel route

The rest of the swim to the 1st cave / tunnel was easier, but once inside the cave it was not clear if we would get through it.  When I stopped to look around to remember the path upward, Brian started climbing.  From 10 feet up, he announced that the obvious path didn’t go all the way; but he did think he could wriggle through a slot to get out.  As I watched, he slithered like a snake and was gone.  My turn.

I followed his path and found I could just squeeze under a hanging boulder to reach the exit hole, but once through I could not safely turn around to crawl out.  As I layed there pondering my next move, a rope with a loop tied on the end fell down into the hole.  Good ‘ol Brian to the rescue!

With a secure belay, I managed to maneuver my body around to get a grip on the rock above.  I pulled up and then risked weighting a dead branch wedged in the hole.  The last required move was a high step onto a packed snow cornice that was supported by naught but air.  It held.

I glanced at my watch at saw that it was 12:15pm; we had already burned 45 minutes…to travel about 100 feet.

Joe contemplating his future while looking at the next section of snowy, icy rock.

I then turned and followed Brian uphill, losing a step in the knee to thigh deep soft snow for every two taken.

We quickly learned to stay near the 4th Flatiron rock face where the snow was firmer, perhaps due to snow melt dripping down during the sunny days since the big dump.  Of course, this was also where we faced the risk of falling icicles, which were falling more and more as the sunshine did its work high above us.

As a side note, I always have a mental image of the Tangen Tunnel route as a narrow gully with rocky obstacles.  But somehow I am always surprised on each visit of the wide possible path and the myriad of choices that must be made correctly to stay on route.  At least I remembered that the key was to ‘bear left’…a lesson learned by trial and error over the years.

Post Script:  having just returned to the Tangen Tunnel route (2 months later) I can report that it is a narrow gully with rocky obstacles that appears to be a wide open space when all the rocky obstacles are covered by a thick blanket of white, white snow.  There are few options for completing the Tangen Tunnel route; perseverance is required in all cases.

The entrance to tunnel #2

Just past the start of the 2nd piece of the 4th Flatiron, we came upon a tiny cave entrance.

(2) The 2nd Cave/Tunnel

Brian ducked into the small entrance as I approached.  By the time I crawled to the back of the cave, Brian had crawled out of the 2nd rabbit hole, leaving his pack behind to make his escape.  I handed up his pack and then mine, and then it was my turn to slither skyward.

I found that a layer of clear ice covered much of the rock, and snow falling from above covered the rest.  I got Brian to give me another belay and then made the slippery moves to crawl out.

Looking up at Brian from inside tunnel #2

As I pulled my head above the snow surface, I saw a block of ice the size of a soccer ball plunged from the rock above into the snow 4 feet from Brian. It was an off-target kill shot.  All Brian heard was a muffled but insistent, ‘WHOMP’, as the deep snow cushioned the impact.

The sun was warming and now sufficiently loosened the ice on the exposed rock above; it was time for extreme caution.  And, not wanting to stand in any one place too long, we quickly packed everything away and then continued our ascent.  It was 1pm, and time for a lunch break…if only we could find a safe & dryish place to stop.

We continued up the soft snow, overcoming many snow-covered rock obstacles along the way.  Before long we could see another cave in the distance, in a section of rock that seemed to block our path.

From a distance, the 3rd cave looked much better than the 2nd cave, but we didn’t recall crawling out the back of this one before.  As we got close, it became clear that the cave was not a part of the path as it wasn’t a ‘tunnel’.  But we could skirt it by taking a steep ramp to the left, and it did look like a dry place to sit without fear of falling icicles.  After a bit of deft icy rock scrambling and rock hooking, we settled down for a rest and lunch.  It was 1:30pm.

Brian approaching ‘Lunch Cave’…a surprisingly dry and safe spot to rest and refuel.

(3) The ‘Lunch Cave’ 

Finally, we could add some fuel to the fire.  I had purposely brought no more food than I thought I needed to keep from eating extra for no reason.  Unfortunately, I didn’t leave room for a ‘need more food’ scenario.  I ate my 2 bars and drank a liter.  Now it was just a race to the top (and then bottom) with the sun, hoping not to bonk along the way.

I mentioned that I hoped we could make it to the top to avoid the ugly series of rappels we were doomed to take on the retreat.  Brian reluctantly admitted a lack of confidence in our chances.  I had to admit that the late start didn’t help.

And, just at that moment, as I was looking out of the cave entrance, facing down the mountain, a 100 lbs collection of icicles I had admired (and photographed) over my head a few minutes earlier came crashing down…right onto our tracks in the snow.  Wow.

100 lbs chandelier hanging above the Tangen Tunnel trail

Despite the excitement, sitting on a cold rock, even a dry one with overhead shelter, doesn’t work for long on a cold day.  We left after 10 minutes.

Crawling up and over the escape ramp turned out to be very hard.  We succeeded only by discovering that we could sink our ice axes into the rotting wood of fallen trees and then pull up to gain a bit of altitude. Thunk, thunk, thunk, and then we were past the ‘Lunch Cave’.  I think it is fair to say that this technique plus the ability to hook rocks beyond arm’s reach made all the difference between success and slippery futility.

The next milestone would be the end of the 2nd piece of the 4th Flatiron.

Old Bivy Cave

As we approached the end of the 2nd piece of the 4th Flatiron, I recognized another cave that Brian and I had used several years ago on a failed winter attempt.  We used the cave to rest and light a small campfire for a bit of warmth while we ate our lunch.  At that time we had been lost and decided to turn around to avoid a disaster (‘epic’ adventures make for great stories, but no rational person purposely seeks to experience such days).  It was interesting to discover that we were right on route except for the last decision to head right, which we eventually abandoned before returning to the cave.  This was also the day when we learned to ‘bear left’ on earlier decisions.  It was also the correct choice on this particular route-finding decision.

The objective: Green Mountain summit.

Passing underneath the start of the 3rd piece of the 4th Flatiron was a challenge.  The open space beneath contained thigh deep snow that was too soft to stand on.  I suppose it collected all the snow rolling off the steep section of the Flatiron.  Whatever the reason, it was the worst struggle of the day; but at least we were safe from falling ice or slipping off icy rock.

We could tell that we were nearing the top, but it was after 2pm and daylight was expiring (2-3 hours remaining, at best).  Our current plan was to get to the top and see if we could tell where we were, and figure out the best and fastest way down.  I mentioned that we had several options if we couldn’t find a path to Green Mountain.  I said we could drop down into Skunk Canyon or we could head down toward the 3rd Flatiron.  I felt that we could make it down those paths easier than we could our ascent path; but it was clear that the best way was to prevail in finding a way to Green Mountain’s Greenman trail just below its summit, and then follow that trail down to take the Saddle Rock trail to the bottom.

Joe posing at the high point along the 4th Flatiron ridge below the summit of Green Mountain…our escape is assured

The feeling of desperation was evident in our continuing high energy output. Higher and higher, and by finally by 2:30pm we could see down into Skunk Canyon.  We had made it to the top of the 4th Flatiron.  Naturally, nothing looked familiar. But we reasoned that all we needed to do was hike west, but from every past experience on this section of rock we knew it would be hard.  And with the amazing snow cover, it might be impossible.  Let’s just say that a high stress level was a reasonable reaction.

Now we had to bear to the right, just slightly.  And every break in the trees would lead to an examination of the possible paths down.  If we couldn’t find our way to the Green Mountain trails, it was going to be a hard night.

We kept getting cliff-ed out, and then barely finding a scramble down, we continued making progress toward our goal.

Post Script:  the key is to stay on the ridgeline and find a line of least resistance (which is sometimes the only possible path forward)

(4) The Top (of the ridge)

And suddenly, everything seemed to be below us.  One final outcropping of rock and then it would be an easy stroll to Green Mountain’s Greenman trail.  It was only 3pm!  And we could see the Green Mountain summit!

We were going to make it and with time to spare.  There would be no stumbling down in the dark this time.  I felt so good that I insisted that I get a ‘summit’ photo.

The rest of the route finding was merely an exercise in not losing much elevation, and not gaining much either.  I knew that if we looked to the right while we stayed near the ridge line, we’d see a split rail fence marking the trail.  And, at 3:15pm, we found it.

(5) The Green Mountain Trail

Brian pausing on the trek back to the parking lot for a posed shot behind the 1st Flatiron

The Greenman trail was in beautiful condition for an easy, snow cushioned descent.  We decided to skip the Green Mountain summit, discretion being the better part of valor.

I predicted a 4:15pm arrival at the parking lot and was only off by 5 minutes.  It was a 6 hour round trip.

I can remember when 6 hours was one-third of the hard day, but I was glad to be driving home.

10,000 high steps had taken their toll on an old man.  Carpe diem memento mori

P.S. – I was sore for 4 days.

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4th Flatiron Slowfest

January 27, 2012

….or, ‘How to make a mountain out of the 4th Flatiron (molehill).’

On January 21, 2012, Brian and I chose to take advantage of an amazingly warm late January saturday by climbing the 4th Flatiron. While the mountain snowbase has recovered sufficiently to begin the ski season (just barely), circumstances beyond our control precluded that alternative.  Besides, I like climbing the Flatirons, and the 4th Flatiron with a finish over the top to the summit of Green Mountain is a favorite not done for 4-5 years.

4th Flatiron East Face route to Green Mountain summit

It had been warm long enough since the last snow fall that we simply assumed the conditions would be fine; we should have known better, especially on the 4th Flatiron East Face route (which could have been named, ‘the east face gully route’).

We started from the Chautauqua parking lot at 8:30am and hustled up the road toward the 4th Flatiron, enjoying our sunny, 30F morning. The temperature forecast was for a high of 61F much later in the day, but we had some sort of Chinook where the higher we got the warmer the breeze became.  About 1/2 way up, I had to stop to take off my jacket; I hiked the rest of the way in my t-shirt.

Chinook: A type of foehn wind. Refers to the warm downslope wind in the Rocky Mountains that may occur after an intense cold spell when the temperature could rise by 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of minutes. Also known as the Snow Eater. 

Foehn Wind: A warm dry wind on the lee side of a mountain range, whose temperature is increased as the wind descends down the slope. It is created when air flows downhill from a high elevation, raising the temperature by adiabatic compression. Examples include the Chinook wind and the Santa Ana wind. Classified as a katabatic wind. (Weather Channel Glossary)

At the bottom of the route, we found snow covering the base of the climb. But the bottom pitch on the 4th Flatiron is such a non-event, even though protection-less, that we didn’t even discuss it. I asked Brian if he wanted me to take the first lead, since it was such a short, easy pitch. He hesitated to accept my offer since he likes to start fast, but after a few moments consideration he decided to let me take it so he could do the more interesting 2nd pitch. He handed me the gear and I took off.

1st Pitch (9:30am)

With a plan to head up to the summit of Green Mountain afterward, I was wearing my approach shoes instead of climbing shoes so that I didn’t have to carry 2 pairs.  To keep them dry, I chose to start up a snow-less, shallow gully 10 feet left of the normal start. I didn’t think about it much but figured I could traverse over after climbing up a few feet. I was so unconcerned about the climb that I didn’t even bother to remove my liner gloves.  And, for the first couple minutes, I climbed while finishing a work story that I had been telling Brian for the past 15 minutes.

Normal Start (left) vs. 'Dry' Start Taken (right). Photo taken on rappel.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I had forgotten to do the traverse. Instead of quickly getting onto easy ground, the climbing was getting steep and wet (from snow melt above).  I looked across to the proper gully and saw that the intervening rock was too steep to traverse in my approach shoes.  My only options were to continue up and hope for the best or down climb to a better spot for a traverse. Since I didn’t have any protection in the rock and it didn’t look like I would find anything for another 25′, I decided to attempt the dreaded and always difficult down climb.

I managed to descend about 7′ but could go no further without a high chance of falling.

I decided to try the traverse, but couldn’t figure out how to make it work.  It just seemed too likely that I would end up sliding (or bouncing?) 10′ down the rock to the ground.  I looked back up the line I was on and could see that the holds got better as the rock got steeper.  I didn’t want to take a chance on falling just yet and so I figured my best bet was to climb up and hope to find a way out of my jamb.

Delayed Risk Preference Fallacy: the tendency to prefer solutions that eliminate a perceived likelihood of a bad outcome now in exchange for a likely worse outcome later.

This tendency is related to Wishful Thinking (making decisions based on what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality or reality) and Irrational Escalation (justifying an increased investment in a decision, based on the cumulative prior investment, despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong.)…this tendency leads to the pattern of behavior so commonly referred to as “it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up” made notorious by Watergate.

Let me stop here and point out to myself and the world that this decision was horrendous.  It goes against everything I have learned over the last 15 years.  And this fact reveals just how treacherous the slippery slope of delayed risk preference is to human nature.  Clearly the primary mistake was not paying attention to the need to traverse.  But, once I realized that I couldn’t traverse without serious risk, I should have downclimbed as far as I could…even if I would eventually slip and fall to the ground.  It would only have been a 7′ fall.  But instead, I decided to continue up a path that was steep, wet, snow covered, never climbed (loose rock and a ton of lichen & moss), and with no chance for protection until after a fall would be fatal.  By not wanting to face the serious but non life-threatening consequences of my initial mistake, I forced a bad situation and created a strong opportunity to die that I only survived by luck.

Damn it!

I even said out loud after giving up on the traverse that I sure did screw up.  Brian shouted up that if I was really worried, I’d take off my gloves.  Right.  Where was my head?

I finally removed my gloves after reaching a set of bomber footholds and then continued up, one agonizingly slow move after another. I was able to reach the bottom of the snow cover without too much difficulty, but that ended any easy moves.  I tried to dig out the snow and ice to find a crack for a cam, but the ice was too strong and went too deep.  In the few minutes I invested in the effort, I only managed to tire myself out.

Brian recalls:

About 10 feet into the first pitch, I woke up and started paying attention to the rock.  I think Joe did, too, at that point, which was unfortunate for him because he was leading while I was just holding a useless rope.  I watched him try once or twice, then abandon traversing right to the standard groove. The face he was on had just a hint of northern exposure and the accompanying lichen.  But it was dry and the slope seemed to level off just above.  Another 10 feet, still no pro, and chunks of snow start getting tossed down. Lots of snow.  Where is he getting all that from?  At least it is adding to the crusty drift at the base, which is Joe’s sole protection if he slips. I guess I’ll drop the rope in that case and try to “spot” him into the drift.

I looked up to see that the rock above steeped significantly and the improved holds which tempted me from below were now clearly wet. And, I could see for certain that there was absolutely zero protection until I reached the top of the snow cover where a large boulder was wedged. At this point, a sense of doom came over me.  In my mind’s eye, and for the first time in my climbing life, I could foresee my failure and my body bouncing down the rock to my death. I would have given anything to be out of that situation, but there would be no rescue. Lacking alternatives to merely jumping to get it over with, I kept moving up.

Despite not have any issues with my approach shoes, I had to continue to bear in mind that I wasn’t wearing rock shoes that would give me enough sensitivity to the rock to feel the beginning of a slip.  I had to rely on my handholds to give me a 2nd chance if I had a slip; this caused me to grip extra hard and my fingers to get cold even faster than normal. And, the increasing lack of finger sensitivity forced me to grip even harder. I had to continue moving up by smearing the wet rock and could only stop to look around once more when I found two good footholds together.

A view of the Royal Arch from the top of the 1st pitch

Slowly I crept toward the large boulder at the top of the snow cover and marking the easing of the rock angle (and protection, I hoped).  Two more moves, and then only one more move to reach it. I was desperate to reach a bomber hold to save me…to let me recover.  Finally, I was there and I jammed my hand into the crack between the boulder and the rock face….but no joy. The shadows contained only icy, sloping spaces.

Tenuously perched upon cramping legs on one good but wet foothold and one poor foothold, I had only moments left to save myself.  I decided to place some rock gear in the icy shadows, hoping that something would catch somewhere, somehow.  That done, I noticed a small detached flake above my head to the left; surely I was saved.  And with a burst of adrenaline to energize my final effort to live, I placed a small Friend in the perfect crack.  Before clipping, I pulled on the piece, and nearly fell when the piece pulled out easily.  The flake was wobbly and would not hold gear.

I was down to my last chance.  I was tempted to pull on the loose flake, trusting to luck that it would hold just long enough.  But, I could not bring myself to risk it breaking off and sending me tumbling. Out of options, I stepped up onto the ice and reached high, above the big boulder and found a hole in which I jammed my now bleeding and numb hand. It was solid. I stepped up with my second foot and then both feet blew out, slipping out from under me on the ice.  But the hand jam held and I was able to haul my body higher to reach better holds and my escape.

I called back to Brian and apologized for forcing him to follow my terrible path in order to clear the gear.

A short time later I reached the top of the 1st pitch and brought Brian up.  It took him 10 minutes to climb the pitch that I had agonized on for 45 minutes.

2nd Pitch (10:30am)

Joe examining the route and decompressing from a close call

Brian took the 2nd pitch with a promise to check out the fun possibility of escaping from the back of the shallow cave along the way.  The cave route would only work without packs in Brian’s judgement, and so would have to wait for another day.

When Brian reached the 2nd belay, he yelled down to see if I had both cordalettes.  I announced that I had none (I had given no thought to the matter since I was used to not having one in recent days).  Brian then announced that both cordalettes were down at the base.

What a day!

In order to avoid losing both of our cordalettes, Brian untied from one of our double ropes so I could pull it down.  I then untied from the rope Brian retained and used the 2nd rope to setup a rappel that I used to return to the base of the climb. I found the cordelettes hanging on a tree near where the gear was hanging when Brian handed it to me 1.5 hours earlier.  I should have taken at least one of the cordalettes at that time, but it was that sort of day.  I grabbed them both and then used the rappel rope to batman my way back up, this time using the proper path…snow patch be damned. When I got back to the 1st belay, it was 11am. I put the rope away and tied back into the rope anchored to Brian.  I then followed the pitch quickly to join Brian at the 2nd belay.

3rd Pitch (11:30am)

I was my turn, and I needed to shake off the lack of confidence that hung on me like a bad smell. I mostly followed the ridge line as I worked up and right. I managed to not be too stressed despite not finding much gear. I reached the normal belay spot in a small alcove that separates the upper two pieces of the 1st section of the 4th Flatiron. Brian followed quickly.

Brian climbing above the 3rd pitch, on the 1st section of the 4th Flatiron

4th Pitch (12:00pm)

Brian didn’t think he could reach the end of the 1st section of the 4th Flatiron and enquired about the possibility of a simulclimb.  I told him that I had not felt secure all day in my approach shoes and not to push it.  As a result, Brian stopped on a good ledge with a nice big puddle.  I followed without incident.

5th Pitch (12:15pm)

I finished the last bit of the 1st section with a short sprint to the top and then a downclimb to the dirt and rocks between the 1st and 2nd sections of the 4th Flatiron.  Brian followed and then agreed to take a break for a late lunch.  Afterward, we speculated about where the 2nd section started.  We’d done the 4th several times over the years, but the memory wasn’t clear.  Several place looked right, but I thought we had to scramble up a ways to get to a ledge system that I saw from the top of the 1st section.  But after wandering around for 10 minutes, it finally dawned on me that the proper spot was only a few feet from where we ate lunch.

6th Pitch (1:00pm)

The traverse and climb to the Hanging Garden

Since it was my poor memory that resulted in us not being sure about the start, it was rightfully my risk to check it out. But Brian was chomping at the bit and grabbed the sharp end. It was his turn, after all.

Brian took off and I fed out the rope until it was gone.  I knew something must have gone wrong…we hadn’t simul-climbed here before. But I hurried to ready myself to give Brian more rope and was ready just as Brian yelled out for more rope.  I started the traverse with the knowledge that I must not fall.

Brian’s point of view:

The trench really didn’t seem wet at first.  Flaring, and deep enough to isolate climbers, it was dry except for the few slimy inches of parallel off-width in the center that normally would be the best feet.  Still, I thought I that with the low angle, I could stem across the flare on slopers while pinching the edges.  There was a little snow up above at the first chockstone, but surely it would be drier after that.  But it wasn’t.  The chockstone made a platform ideal for holding snow, and soon I was trying to jam soggy shoes, wishing the pro placements weren’t 15-20 feet apart.

I started looking for a belay perch, figuring that Joe would soon be simul-climbing in the wet stuff.  More snow patches came and went with no relief.  A lone scrawny tree passed by.  It had no backup and gave no hope that a belayer might keep the rope dry.   I reached the base of the crux section, got in a good cam, and knew that Joe must be standing in slime.  I was standing in postholes.  Another 8 feet of rock and I was actually sliding, just breaking even between forward and backward movement.  I could back off to the last cam, but then what?  Ask Joe to lead in his approach shoes with no pro until the next chockstone?

I leaned a shoulder into the flaring groove and stretched the opposite foot way out to some holds, then chimneyed and groveled my way for 15 dripping feet, hollering for rope slack.  That got me to the last chockstone where the grade eased up and the snow reappeared.  A dry, side-sloping ramp on the left was the final remaining section of the 4th’s middle tier.  It promised some cam placements, but it was all lies.   Its dry nature wilted under my wet feet.  When I finally sunk my fingers around a lip that formed a threshold to the hanging garden, I was beat and extremely thankful that Joe had remembered the classic climber’s mantra:  “the belayer must not fall”.

Back at the bottom of the pitch on simul-climb, I found at first that the climbing was no big deal; the traverse was barely technical.  Once I dropped into the gully, the situation became more interesting.

I made every effort to keep my approach shoes out of the snow and water; I didn’t want a slip.  Fortunately, once the conditions deteriorated to the point of ridiculousness, I could see Brian had setup a secure belay; a slip would no longer mean a permanent end to the Brian and Joe show.  The last section was so slippery I said out loud to Brian, “well, this couldn’t have been fun on simul-climb.”  Brian merely grunted in agreement.

4th Flatiron route taken vs. official

Decision to Bail (1:45pm)

Once in the Hanging Garden, it was clear we were done.  We only had 3 hours of light remaining to do 4 more pitches plus a long slog to the summit of Green Mountain and a 30 minute descent.  No way.  We’ve been down that path on this exact rock before; we wouldn’t do it again.  It just wasn’t our day.

The descent was nasty but at least non death-defying. I was glad to be alive.

I’ll do better.  I promise.  And I think I’ll be bring my rock shoes when I go rock climbing from now on.

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Alpine Flatiron

October 9, 2011

The first day of the snow season brings a double-sharp sword:  the body’s ability to cope with cold is at a low point which combines with the mind’s poor memory of (and ability to prepare for) the cold. Such a day can cut clean through the self-deception of a risk-less rock climb.

Brian and I knew the weather would be colder, as in the 40F area, and rainy. But Saturday was the only day we could get out, and since we’ve climbed the flatirons in the rain before, we decided it was no big deal. I remarked to Brian that the cooler weather would keep away the lightning, so we shouldn’t have any problems.

We met at the Chautauqua parking lot at 8:30am, both of us wisely with full waterproof shell gear.  I even had a light sweater and liner gloves, just in case.  I thought about bringing a heavier jacket but couldn’t fit it in my pack and didn’t want to wear anything hot on the hike in.  I also could not find any waterproof gloves, but I figured I would be okay with wet hands for only a few hours.

We started up toward the 3rd Flatiron (39.98760, -105.29163) in a light drizzle.  Along the way, we could see the snow dusting that had fallen and stuck to the trees up high on Green Mountain.  We didn’t think it would be too bad.

We were wrong.

A view of Chautauqua Park from the 3rd Flatiron on a snowy rock climb

Naturally, we were alone on the rock. We started up, taking the easiest possible path along the East Face of the 3rd Flatiron.  On a normal day, it would be easy enough to skip a rope (only a few spots as hard as 5.4).  But lichen-covered rock dripping wet in a steady light snow, we knew it wouldn’t take much bad luck to create serious problems. Let’s just say that our progress was justifiably slow.

Within the first 10 minutes, I was very sorry not to have brought more clothes. I was thinking, what kind of idiot goes out to climb in a snow shower without waterproof gloves or even a warm hat, for the love of God.

With my core getting cold, my exposed hands were doomed, and they got worse and worse until they refused to function properly. The climbing gear was nearly impossible to manipulate with immovable fingers.

Fortunately, the climbing required few hand holds.

At first, I stopped every 20 feet to warm my hands on my legs; it helped well enough to get me to the first belay. I told Brian to continue leading if he was able; I was too cold and needed some time to warm up.

He said he was okay and so organized the rope and gear as I jammed my hands inside my clothes to warm them against my belly skin.  My core was warm, but I swear my hands won the temp battle and cooled my core instead of the planned opposite impact.

A view of the First and Second Flatiron from low on the 3rd Flatiron, as the weather worsened

After 2-3 minutes, I accepted failure and put my liner gloves on and made ready to belay Brian.  He took off just as the sky started snowing harder, throwing large clumps of snowflakes. Within a few minutes, my gloves were wet and worse than useless.

We repeated this process 3 times, with the weather getting worse and worse.  On the 4th pitch, my hands were completely gone and my feet were starting to get numb.  I knew I had to get off the rock quickly before I lost the ability to get down at all.

When I reached Brian in the notch below the final pitch, I told him I had to skip the final pitch and scramble to the rappel anchors from there.  He agreed as he had finally succumbed to the elements as well and was shivering like a wet rat.

Brian climbing through a wet, heavy snowfall on the 3rd Flatiron

It was my job to move the belay through the escape gully, but first I had to get some functionality back into my hands.  Once again I jammed my claws down my pants to find warm skin.  This time, I had to endure the thawing agonies that we all know so well.  I was yelling out loud to disrupt my mind’s focus on the pain.  After five minutes, my hands started working again, and in addition, the adrenaline from the pain had warmed up my entire body and mind!  I’m sure it helped that I was sheltered from the wind throughout the process.

I moved the belay and setup the rappel.  I quickly rapped down to the rap ledge and then traversed west to the second anchor where I clipped in before taking myself off rappel.

While I waited for Brian, I could see that the wind blowing south was fierce.  On a south-facing ledge, we were protected for the moment; but soon we’d have to step and rappel into that freezing hurricane.  I was thankful for not facing it all the way to the summit.

Brian quickly followed.  He pulled the rope and handed me an end that I used to setup the 2nd rappel. I clipped in and stepped over the edge.  Only 75 feet from the ground, I was almost safe. Almost.

Brian escaping the brutally cold wind after the descent

About 1/3 of the way down, I noticed that the rope dangling below me had been blown around the corner of the arête and been tangled on rock features seemly designed with deadly intent.  While hanging in a freezing wind, clawing my way toward the snagged rope, the thought ran through my mind:  if I cannot clear the rope quickly, I’ll die here today.

I attempted to clear the tangle as my brake hand (holding my weight on the rope) slowly lost feeling. I couldn’t quite get far enough around the corner to see what the rope was caught on, so I kept flipping the rope in hopes of clearing whatever it had gotten hooked on. After 4 attempts, the rope fell clear.

Then the wind blew again and the rope below me swung around the corner to get caught again. Once again I clawed my way to get as close as I could, and finally was able to clear it.  Before heading down I looked to see if any more tangles would impede my retreat, and could see a massive knot in the ropes well below me, blowing far out to my left in the wind.  My heart sank for a moment until I realized that I could reach the ground before needing to clear the knot. I was safe!

After reaching the ground, I cleared the knot and then scrambled to find some shelter from the hurricane winds while I waited for Brian, who soon joined me for a snowy scramble back to civilization and warmth.

I know it sounds rather pathetic, my near brush with disaster while doing a 5.4 rock climb in the Boulder Flatirons.  But I have to say that Brian and I both felt that we could both be pleased that we found an adventure and persevered on a day when a self-inflicted adventure was all we had time for.

I suppose it is true, adventure is where you find it. And, twenty-four hours later, my fingertips are just starting to regain feeling.

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