Posts Tagged ‘dehydration’

Lost Again on Hallett Peak (Hesse-Ferguson)

March 1, 2011

Our Route

I wanted that big, giant roof.  You know, that imposing structure jutting out to the right of the Englishman’s Route. And, since that roof was on the last of the major routes on my tick list for the 2nd buttress of Hallett Peak:  Hesse-Ferguson (5.9).

I HAD to do it.

Brian was game, naturally, but even more so having failed to get past the 3rd pitch on his earlier effort due to route finding difficulties.

“I’ve never NOT been lost on this rock!”

~ Joe, shouted at no one in particular while on Hallett’s 2nd buttress in the vicinity of the Hesse-Ferguson route

On August 29, 1998, we arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot at 5am and, after a brisk 2.5 mile hike in darkness, started climbing at 7am.

The climbing promised to be hard, so I left my food and water at the base to save on weight. It was good to not have a pack weighing me down and trying to pull me off the mountain, but I just didn’t think about how long it might be before getting a drink of water.  Think 2,000 year old mummy, when I later describe how dehydrated I became on this long, long climb.

Our Climb

1st Pitch (5.6)

I took the first lead and began as for the Love Route, climbing through a pink band of rock left of a big, right-facing dihedral. I continued up a dirty, right facing dihedral to reach a good ledge with a good anchor after ~160′.  The entire pitch was very easy with good pro (5.6).

2nd Pitch (5.7)

Brian took the second pitch in which he went straight up the dihedral from the belay ledge to reach a left facing dihedral below a white roof that blocked the way above. Brian climbed to just below the roof where he set an uncomfortable belay.

As I watched, I thought the correct dihedral for Hesse-Ferguson was further to the left, to allow for the roof above us to be defeated to the left (per Rossiter). But the party ahead of us blazed a path past the roof to the right and, I suppose, Brian was still smarting from his recent route-finding challenges. So, with a long day ahead of us, I just had to hope the guys ahead of us knew the way.

3rd Pitch (5.8s)

To my great relief, I turned the white roof to the right rather easily.  But, having lost sight of the group ahead, I decided to pick my way left to get to the large left-facing dihedral capped by the big, giant roof, which was, after all, the goal for the day.  But that was easier said than done.

To get to the large left-facing dihedral below the big, giant roof, I would have to climb up and over some seriously run-out, slabby, dirty 5.8 rock.  Yuck. I proceeded slowly, checking out every hopeful indentation.  I got stuck in a spot where I was sure I could get in some protection only to abandon the effort after burning 30 minutes in the attempt.  I then found the courage to proceed after spying another ‘certain’ placement that turned out to be good only for ‘psychological‘ protection (read: almost certainly worthless).

Brian recalls:

You were stuck forever (it seemed) on that section.  When I followed, I could see why:  it was thin, slabby, and the only relief that could be seen ahead was thin, slabby, and covered with grass.  The one piece of pro that I cleaned was absurd.”

After the longest 50-foot climb of my life, I reached the dihedral and safety, at the cost of burning up my reserves of energy and courage for the day.  I finished the pitch by ascending the dihedral to near the roof where I set my anchor, leaving the terrible-looking crux for Brian (the best climber on our team).

Note: many years later I figured out that we’d gotten onto the ‘Right Dihedral‘ route that would skip the big, giant roof. It was fortunate that I lost sight of the party who’d led us astray.

4th Pitch (5.9)

With all due excitement, Brian took off to figure out how to escape that big, giant roof…which turned out to be a fiendishly hard trap we’d been so careful to get into.

Brian recalls:

“From the distant ground, the giant roof appeared to have a hand-jam crack slicing through it along the right wall.  But after reaching it, I saw that the hand jam was much larger:  more like a bomb-bay chimney – just wide and deep enough that one could scrunch into it and inch toward the roof’s edge, with good placements in the narrower crack above and the vast Tyndal gorge below.  Turning the roof edge to regain the face was stunning.

I watched with amazement and dread as he crawled up into the bomb-bay chimney and shimmied his body further and further out over Tyndal gorge.

“How was he going to get out of there and onto the face?”, was my big question, as I looked at the blank wall below him.  He threw down a lay-back to reach past the blank wall and grab the face climbing holds that took him out of my line of sight.  It was beautiful.

I followed and found the moves to not be too technical or strenuous, but wildly awkward.

2nd Buttress of Hallett Peak, Hesse-Ferguson route


5th Pitch (5.8)

The next pitch was described as 5.7 serious…it was both.  And I was tired.  But since it was only 5.7, I figured I could manage.

I started by climbing straight up from the belay, aiming for a small roof.  I was able to find pro until I reached the roof, but then the pro ran out.  My choices were to continue up over completely run out face climbing to a belay on a flake (official route) or traverse 40 feet, up and right, to join a left facing dihedral on the Culp-Bossier route.  The Culp-Bossier route had good pro.  As I was completely exhausted and had already burned through my entire supply of courage, it wasn’t a hard choice.

I climbed as far as the rope let me, not quite reaching the top of the Culp-Bossier dihedral.

We were off route again, but I was alive. It was a good trade.

6th Pitch (5.8)

When Brian came up, I mentioned that I was tempted to stay on Culp-Bossier, since we knew the route and the day was old.  But Brian wanted to get back to Hesse-Ferguson, and it was his lead.  So, he traversed left to reach the flake belay atop the run-out section before realizing that the Hesse Ferguson route then moved up and right to a point directly above my belay. We could have just gone straight up to get back on route, but all we lost was a little more time.

7th Pitch (5.8)

After bringing me up to get a full rope, Brian continued climbing up to the base of a white band (face climbing) and belayed on a nice ledge we shared with a couple of guys who insisted they were on Culp-Bossier.  I couldn’t swear I was actually on Hesse-Ferguson, but I sure I wasn’t on Culp-Bossier route, at least not the route I’d climbed twice. But they were nice guys and Halletts can be forgiving for that sort of error, if you’re willing to work for it.

8th Pitch (5.9)

My lack of water (and courage) was taking a toll. I was too tired to lead anymore, so I let Brian finish the route. He climbed up the left side of the white band through some small, fun roofs and a shallow right-facing dihedral. It was a great pitch; it started hard (steep with good holds) and then became harder (move under roof without feet) and then ended with a thin, blank traverse to reach the top at 5pm.  It had taken 4 hours longer than expected.  Ouch!

Since we’d left our packs at the base, there was no reason to stop for a rest.  It took us another hour before I could have my first drink of water since 7am. I’ll just say that I was seriously dehydrated.  Brian went without a drink as long as I did, but he is unnaturally immune to dehydration.

After a long rest, we packed up at got back to the parking lot at 8pm.

What a day! Despite my fatigue, I thought Hesse-Ferguson was a great route:  far better than merely a way to climb that big, giant roof.  It was a classic Hallett climb.

Hallett Peak, 2nd Buttress

And, now, 14 years later, I’m amazed that that was the last time I did a rock climb on Hallett’s 2nd Buttress.  At least it was a good one.

“This is my favorite route on Hallett Peak. It is demanding both physically and mentally. The run-outs epitomize what climbing on Hallett Peak is all about, and it has some burly, physical cruxes.”

Mountain Project (Hallett Peak, Hesse-Ferguson Route)


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The Double Crown: Chiefs Head & Mt Alice

March 19, 2009

Time after time, I find that an ambitious goal combined with an equal willingness to suffer optimizes personal reward.  I’ll admit this statement doesn’t feel true during my adventures, but is clear afterwards.  Of course, larger goals lead to larger rewards; but, overly large goals, exceeding my willingness to suffer, lead to bitter disappointment.   And, naturally, small goals accomplished easily mean nothing.

To find situations where I must try as hard as I can to just barely succeed, I look to harmonize aggressive goals with an optimistic assessment of my willingness to suffer.  This mental model helps me to imprint two attributes on my adventure plans:

  1. My goals are probably attainable; high success rates
  2. I’ll have to suffer more than I wanted, but be rewarded more than I expected

My trip to RMNP to collect the summits of Chief Head (13,579′) and Mt Alice (13,310′) was aggressive for obvious and non-obvious reasons.  In success, I found tremendous satisfaction, even if some of the suffering was self induced.


When the alarm went off at 4:30am I was reminded of the Cardinal Rule of sleep:

“It doesn’t matter how badly you’ve slept the night, the sleep you were getting when the alarm went off was great.”

Still, I managed to get ready to meet Brian and then drive to the Glacier Gorge trailhead before 6am.   As I tied into my new La Sportiva Eigers, which just replaced my old Makalus, I silently hoped wearing them around the house for a couple days the previous week was enough to break them in.

It wasn’t.

We started hiking right at 6am and made good time until the battle between my feet and my new boots began to resolve itself into a win for the boots. By 8:45am I reached Black Lake where I performed my second boot/sock refit of the day.  Afterward, we left Black Lake for the shortcut to Stone Man Pass, aiming directly for Arrowhead.

We scrambled up the steep grass and cliffy slope, and reached the bench above Black Lake just in time for a boot pit stop.  In a blatant escalation of hostilities, I dug out the moleskin and athletic tape, and hoped for a stalemate.  We then turned south to head underneath McHenry and to Stone Man Pass.

Below McHenry, we stopped at a waterfall to refill our bottles.  This would be our last water source until returning to the spot hours hence.  Brian had his usual thimble-sized container, while I brought a surprisingly modest two 1-liter bottles.  To compensate for a dry future, I finished and refilled both liters before heading up the partially snow-clogged couloir to Stone Man Pass.

A view back down the ridge toward Stone Man Pass

A view back down the ridge toward Stone Man Pass. The route starts from the top of Stone Man Pass.

We reached Stone Man pass around 10:30am and examined the ridge leading up to Chief’s Head for clues about the route.  The available guidebooks were not very clear about the exact route to Chiefs Head.  I have found that this can mean the route is obvious or, alternatively, it could mean nothing at all.

We took another 2 minutes to study the Stone Man himself for possible future climbing; Brian assessed it a “five-easy” while I thought it looked hard to protect.  Brian is often right about these things and we made a mental note to give it a try another time.

Note:  a later trip confirmed the climbing is easy but awkward; however, a safe escape from the Stoneman’s head required the sacrifice of a long cordelette.

The Chiefs Head Keyhole

The Chiefs Head Keyhole

The route finding quickly became very interesting.  I spied a lonely cairn 90 degrees west (right) from where the route looked to go up a couloir to the ridgeline.  Brian went to investigate while I resorted my boots again.

I feared for torrents of blood pouring out of my boots each time I took them off.

We continued scrambling below the ridgeline on the west side along a ledge until we reached the end of the ledge.  Then we took a hard left through a “keyhole” of sorts, and climbed up to the summit ridge of Chief’s Head.  It was very good rock and a pleasant scramble (3rd class).  We reached the summit ridge at 11:15am and took another 30 minutes to ascend the remaining 700 feet of elevation to the Chiefs Head summit.

This last 700 feet consumed the last of my “still feel strong” status.  We stopped for lunch, during which I consumed ½ of the water that would have to sustain me until I return to the bottom of Stone Man Pass.  I was 1.75 hours into a 5-hour circuit and my water was ½ gone.   I also made another futile attempt to save my feet, and resolved to go barefoot if the pain got worse.

A view of Pagota, Keyboard of the Winds, Longs, and Meeker, taken from Chiefs Head summit

A view of Pagota, Keyboard of the Winds, Longs, and Meeker, taken from Chiefs Head summit

The views from Chief’s Head are worth the trip.  The line from Meeker to Longs to Pagoda to Chiefs Head is spectacular. The thought of doing the entire traverse appealed to my ego, but I concluded it would require too much suffering.

As I looked over toward McHenry, I joked that if we felt like it we could climb McHenry again to claim the Triple Crown (Gerry Roach’s title for bagging McHenry, Chief’s Head, and Mt. Alice in a day).  Brian just grumbled as he had done every other time I mentioned the possibility in the previous 24 hours.

Looking back toward McHenry and Stone Man Pass from Mt Alice

Looking back toward McHenry and Stone Man Pass from Mt Alice

Somewhat refreshed, we started down the talus boulders making very good time to reach the grassy field that lies between Chief’s Head and Mt. Alice.  We were approaching Mt. Alice when, looking back, we noticed a couple of people behind us about ½ way across the grassy field coming toward Mt. Alice as well.  We were surprised and wondered how they had gotten so close without us noticing. Looking back a few moments later, Brian noted they had gained a lot of distance on us.  I reasoned that they were traveling downhill while we where doing a bit of scrambling and climbing.  It seemed like a reasonable conclusion.

A view of Mt Alice from below the summit of Chiefs Head

A view of Mt Alice and the narrow ramp summit route from below the summit of Chiefs Head.

Over the next 30 minutes, these fellows proved that people are not all the same.

They must be young, I thought.  The first to pass me was a young fellow, but his partner right behind him looked like my father.   Brian strained to beat the old guy to the summit, marginally holding up the honor of the team.

When I arrived at 1:30pm, they were gone.  As I looked around, Brian indicated that they had gone on to grab more peaks before heading back to Wild Basin.  They had done Meeker, Longs, Pagoda, Chief’s Head, and Mt. Alice (so far) in shorts and sneakers.  The older guy had said he was tired, while the younger guy said he was running out of food because he didn’t have bread to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that morning.  Poor guy.

Our route map to (1) Black Lake, (2) Stone Man Pass, (3) Chiefs Head, and (4) Mt Alice

Our route map to: (1) Black Lake, (2) Stone Man Pass, (3) Chiefs Head, and (4) Mt Alice

After a short snack and another boot repair, I was out of water.  I was tired and 9 miles from the car, but at least I was turning around.

I managed to get back to the grassy field in decent time; downhill is always okay.  But climbing back up to the Chief’s Head ridge was murder.  And my body didn’t work that well anymore, forcing me to think carefully about moves that I did unconsciously a few hours earlier.  I really needed some water.

We reached Stone Man pass at around 4:30pm, which left us 4 hours of light to get down the snow/talus slope below Stone Man Pass, get over to and down the steep trail west and above Black lake, and then hike 4+ miles to get to the car.  We didn’t even talk about McHenry.

We descended the snowy Pass with a bit of heel plunging and a bit of scrambling to reach the bottom by 5pm.  I found a nice fountain of melted snow to refill my long-empty bottles; but I had to wait 30 minutes before drinking to allow the iodine to work its magic.  I was very tempted to throw caution to the wind and just drink it.

Thirty minutes later, I yelled to Brian to stop.  I was going to have that damned water right then.  As I was pulling my water out of the pack, I nearly trembled with fear as I lifted the 1st bottle up to the light . . . It was not dissolved.  The damned thing looked just like it did when I put it in there. As I was losing my composure, Brian reminded me that hiking equals shaking, in the world of iodine tablets.  I started hiking without taking a drink.

We scrambled down the steep slopes above Black lake with a bit of rock scrambling and steep grass maneuvering.  The plan was to stop at Black lake for a break, but once I was past the hard part of the descent, I just sat in the dirt and drank a liter of water.  That was good water; even the iodine tasted good.  I then joined Brian at Black lake where I finished off another liter and a bar, and then I refilled one of the bottles for the ride home.

I didn’t even bother with the boots any more.  I was just stumps below the ankles.

On flat terrain and using good trails, we took less than 1.5 hours to cover the 5 miles to the car, arriving at 8pm.  I finally was able to get those miserable boots off my feet.  I didn’t have the courage to examine the damaged tissues so I just put on my sneakers, drank my iodine water and started driving.

Driving home, it started to feel like a day well spent.  The pleasure of our successful 14 hour effort to hike 18 miles and climb 5,300 feet to reach the summits of two new 13ers spread throughout my body like a slow, warm wave.  My feet almost didn’t hurt anymore.  Almost.

Our trek to bag Chiefs Head and Mt. Alice in RMNP was another of those harder-than-expected- but-glorious-in-its-successful-completion efforts. It was perfect.

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Thatchtop Traverse

March 14, 2009


While reading Rossiter’s High Peaks guidebook, I found a passage that said, “…or you can descend via Thatchtop – it’s only 4th class…” I love traverses and so I decided I would use the traverse to the Continental Divide to bag Mt. Powell (13,208′) after summiting Thatchtop Mountain (12,668′) and then use it again to get home.

Foolishly, I got a late start – only hiking by 8:15am.  And I had to start from Bear Lake, since the close lot was already full, adding 15 minutes to the hike in.  I reached the foot of Thatchtop Mountain around 10am, and hoped I had four hours before any bad weather might start.

I started up the wooded east slope toward a gully I hoped would lead past the cliff band that separated me from the flatter summit slope above.  The climbing was ugly and dirty as is typical for an unpopular hike, and for a slope enduring a recent avalanche; scrambling over fallen logs and avoiding sharp, broken branches added to the delays.  (Note:  on a subsequent trip in 2010, I discovered I was badly off-route.)  Finally, I was able to look up the gully and confirm that only a few moderate moves would take me past the cliff.  And by 11:30am, I was enjoying my barely earned but desperately needed water on the Thatchtop summit.  I was also enjoying the great Glacier Gorge view, lined with my favorite RMNP peaks:  Longs Peak, Pagoda Peak, Chiefs Head, and McHenry.

From the summit, I noticed the western sky was blocked by McHenry Peak and the nearby Continental Divide (both close and above me).  I was worried that I would not have any advance notice of approaching weather; but I figured I could turn around later.  And I hoped my long-standing good weather luck would continue.

Leaving the summit, I began the traverse with a full sense of thrill.  With a shot of adrenaline, my mind became clearer and better focused on the work at hand, my body became more coordinated and better balanced, and my mind adopted a higher pain tolerance.  It was the easiest climbing of the day.

I stayed on the ridge whenever possible and moved a bit lower to the south when necessary to avoid difficulties such as cliff-outs or gendarmes.  I was still making excellent progress when the rain and lightning started.  It only lasted a minute, but the lichen-covered rock was now slick; the further I went, the more difficult the climbing became.  I thought about going back, but felt that the climbing I had done would be too hard to do again when slick, so I kept going.  Besides, I was very close to achieving my goal. (Note:  on my 2010 return visit to the area, I discovered that my ‘stay on the ridge’ strategy was unnecessarily hard; a much flatter, safer path was mere yards down the slope)

I kept thinking the hard part must be behind me, as it was “only 4th class.”  But then I reached what must have been the normal crux.  In dry conditions, it would have been a difficult climb over a knife edged ridge, but wet, it was impossible.  I couldn’t even climb up the sloping rock to start the knife-edge due to the slick conditions.  I hunted around and found a passage around to the north side:  atop a 1,500 foot cliff hanging over Sky Pond, there was 1 foot wide ledge that would lead back to the ridge beyond the crux; but the start of the ledge was six feet away with only a 2 x 1 inch sized foot hold protruding from a sheer rock face with no hand holds between me at the ledge.  During the 2-second move, I would have only the toe of my boot on the mossy hold with nothing else holding me up as I long-stepped through to the ledge six feet away.  This was not the sort of fun I was hoping to have.


In a state of denial, I went back to look for something else and to consider retreating over the difficult ground that I had passed to get here; but I once again decided I had no choice but to proceed.  And I couldn’t wait as the rain and lightning had started again.  I was able to hang on to a rock while I stuck my foot out to kick the horrible foothold to see if it was strong (it was) and to clean it off.  And then I put my boot toe on the hold, weighted it, and stepped through.  Fortunately, I was able to stay focused on the move and not be distracted by the potential fall or the lightning.  After the relief of not dying wore off, it hit me that there was no way I could go back now.  I simply had to find a way to the Continental Divide and then find another way home.

Fortunately, the rest of the Thatchtop ridge was much easier, and I was even able to get some shelter below Mt. Powell when another fast-moving lightning storm blew in.  With a brief bit of good weather, I was able to get the Mt. Powell summit (Note:  on a later trip, I discovered that I missed the actual, and obvious, summit by 40 feet) and begin my long trek home.  I figured that the only safe way back down was to traverse north beneath Mt. Taylor and then on to Flattop (~4 miles away) and then down the established trail to Bear Lake (another 4.4 miles).  This way I would stay beneath the high points and avoid steep descents on snow, but I would still be exposed to lightning for a long time as I worked my way to the treeline near Bear Lake.  The only reasonable alternative was Andrews Glacier between Mt Taylor and Mt Otis, but I just didn’t think it would be safe to attempt without an ice axe.

My circuitous route back to the Bear Lake parking lot, to avoid the return traverse of Thatchtop

My circuitous route back to the Bear Lake parking lot, to avoid the return traverse over Thatchtop

Much rained on, badly dehydrated, and having hiking through a large herd of Elk, I arrived at Bear Lake and my car at 7:15pm. I hiked and climbed a 12.5-mile circuit in 11 hours, and felt lucky to be alive.  But at least I got my 15 minutes back as I didn’t have to hike any farther than Bear Lake.

The next two nights I slept badly with dreams of falling down a cliff toward Sky Pond.


  • The route was not well known (not described in detail).
  • “4th Class” is a subjective rating
  • It wasn’t clear if it was one difficult section or several difficult sections
  • The route did not have a good “retreat” option (as is typically true of ridge traverse climbs)
  • The weather was poor
  • I was hiking/climbing alone


(1) Prepared Badly

  1. Didn’t think about the ramifications of being late when driving into a popular destination:  traffic, parking, etc.
  2. Didn’t imagine “what if I cannot return via the ascent route” (didn’t bring an ice axe)
  3. Didn’t consider the impact of possible rain on the “4th class” rating (I brought rock shoes, but wasn’t prepared to react aggressively to initial rain)
  4. Assumed my turnaround time was 2pm instead of noon.

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

  1. Justify-Past-Actions Trap:  I didn’t want to waste my efforts, so I resisted turning around when the initial rain fell and the conditions became much worse than I expected.
  2. Optimism Bias:  Felt overconfident about unknown terrain; I consistently thought the climbing ahead of me would be easier than the terrain I had passed even though I had no facts available. This kept me from retreating when I could have done so.
  3. Gamblers Fallacy:  Felt I could count on being lucky with the weather since I had been fortunate many times in a row.

How I Got Lucky

  1. The weather was only periodically stormy; most of the time I was on the Continental Divide the sky was just sprinkling.
  2. I made it past a move with a 50% chance of success, when failure meant death
  3. I found a puddle of clean rain water to drink on the long descent hike
  4. I knew the area well enough to figure out a completely different route to descend without a map

Note:  After my later trip to bag the Solitude Lake Cirque, and my discoveries of even more stupid mistakes I made on my Thatchtop Traverse, I am even more amazed at how my carelessness  magnified the overall challenge and forced me into needless risk-taking.  Wow, what a lesson!

Go to “Learning from Mistakes” index

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A Long Day in The Wilsons

March 9, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

My route to collect "The Wilsons"

My route to collect "The Wilsons"

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

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

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

A view from Mt Wilson of my route to Wilson Peak

A view from Mt Wilson of my route to Wilson Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of El Diente and the traverse from Mt Wilson

A view of El Diente and the traverse from Mt Wilson

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

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

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

The "Organ Pipes"

The "Organ Pipes"

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

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

My descent from El Diente

My descent from El Diente, seen from Wilson Peak

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

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

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

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

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

See all trip reports

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


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

The Long Bell

January 12, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Bell routes seen from Pyramid

My Bell routes seen from Pyramid

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

A view from North Maroon Bell of my detour end point

A view from North Maroon Bell of my detour end point

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

The various paths

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Castle would have to wait until the next trip.


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


(1) Prepared badly

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

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

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

How I Got Lucky

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

See all trip reports

Longs Peak: Keyhole Ridge

December 3, 2008


With a long break coming up, Brian and I looked for a long, high-altitude climb to keep us sore for a few extra days.  We settled on Longs Peak Keyhole Ridge: a moderate ridge climb with spectacular views and a direct route to the summit.  I also had a private agenda; I was going to see if I could avoid dehydration rather than tolerate it.

The route included a 7.25 mile one-way hike with a 3,600 foot elevation gain (ranger station to false keyhole) plus 5 mostly adventurous pitches of 4th class to 5.5 climbing. We thought we’d start early despite a perfect Summer weather forecast.


We arrived at the full parking lot just before 4am and started out under a clear sky and bright moon right at 4am. Brian and I are still fairly fast hikers, even with a pack full of metal and rope; we reached the first bridge (just before tree line) in 45 minutes, which is a good a speed as we’ve done. We reached the cut-off to Jim’s Grove around 5am and the Boulder Field corral after 2.5 hours. With no small amount of pleasure, we noted that 2.5 hours to the Boulder Field is as fast as we’ve ever done.

We took a short break to enjoy a snack, tank up on water, stash some gear, and be amazed by the crush of people milling around the center of the Boulder Field. Rested and me with a full belly (a bar and 1 ½ liters of water), we started hiking toward the Keyhole. Just before the Keyhole is a NW-facing ramp that leads to the False Keyhole further up the NW Ridge of Longs Peak. From the False Keyhole (between the 1st & 2nd towers along the NW Ridge), we were able to mount the ridge and begin climbing toward the peak with the following pitches / sections of climbing:

  1. 4th Class Scramble: to reach the initial climbing section, we scrambled up along the ridge line for about 50 feet.
  2. Ridge Tiptoe & Climb to Second Tower: a scary, exposed section of blocks create a 4th class scramble along a 3 foot wide staircase with hundred foot drops to either side; we roped up. This scramble leads to the foot of the 2nd tower. From the foot of the tower, we traversed left (5.2) to reach a steep ramp that leads to the top of the tower. The ramp (5.4) led up to a number of options to reach the top of the tower; we went left to a ledge and then up to the top of the tower (5.5).
  3. Downclimb and Ledge Traverse: From the top of the 2nd tower, we descended to the west side of the ridge, down climbing 10 feet to a ledge.
    Longs Peak Keyhole Ridge Tower

    Longs Peak Keyhole Ridge Tower

    The ledge led to a low point between the 2nd tower and the remaining NW Ridge.

  4. Scramble to top of ramp: From the saddle, we moved up a broad, low angle ramp to reach a cliff below the NW Ridge. At the end of this pitch, I had a beautiful sit-on-the-cliff-edge, feet dangling belay overlooking the Boulder Field.
  5. Face Climb to Ridge Top: Finally, we climbed the cliff to get back to the top of the ridge (5.5)
  6. Scramble & Hike to Summit: We unroped and climbed along the ridge crest. Near the end of the ridge, we dropped down 10 feet to the left to pass the last tower (3rd class). We then scrambled to the summit level. Once we reached the summit block, we had a 100 yard hike to the summit and the masses milling and lounging around like on Miami Beach.


On the summit at noon was right on schedule. We rested and I ate a bite of lunch while finishing my 2nd liter of water since the Boulder Field.

After our short break, we descended the Cables Route down the north face without incident.

Once we reached the corral and our stash, we refilled bottles and bellies with water.

As we left the Boulder Field, my toes were already feeling the beginnings of “Fire Toes” syndrome, a very painful friction condition brought on by my newish Makalus. I’ve found that the newer style boots with rubber rands covering the toes will not break in; they insist on breaking in your feet.

The hike out of the Boulder Field and through Jim’s Grove was long and hot, but went without any ankle turns. We took a short break after the bridge that reconnects with the main trail, where I finished my 7th liter of water for the day.

Trudge, trudge, trudge. It is always the same death march back to the car after a Longs Peak summit. The only sign of aging I can discern is a strong preference for going uphill in the morning; the downhill return is always a dread. My toes felt horribly abused.

Still, the time passed relatively quickly due to our use of “Movie Quiz”: a game of guessing movie sources for quotes or naming movies that a particular actor was in. We reached the car at 4pm, where I was pleasantly surprised to find that, once again, the toes were still attached.

And, aside from boot tortures, I felt great, thanks to my water guzzling efforts.

Route Map: Yellow is standard Keyhole route. Our variations are in red.

14.5 miles, ~4,850 ft elevation gain, 12 hours; not bad for two old guys

14.5 miles, ~4,850 ft elevation gain, 12 hours; not bad for two old guys


  • None


  • None

How I Got Lucky

  • The weather was great all day
  • I was able to find a lot of water on the trail to avoid dehydration without carrying more than 2 liters at a time

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