Posts Tagged ‘lightning’

A Shocking Day on Arapahoe Peak

May 7, 2010




The scene of the crime: a view of South Arapahoe Peak from just below the saddle shared with Mount Baldy.


It was early June 2006, and we thought the conditions were good enough for another traverse of the Arapahoe Peaks, but we didn’t get the chance to find out when the weather took a shocking turn for the worse. We should have been more careful.

Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth.  Once generally feared as a weapon of the gods or God, scientists now tell us lightning is just a gigantic spark of static electricity. People once avoided lightning above all threats to life due to the heavenly implications of being a target.  Now we are too casual about the low odds of a strike.

It was the late spring season, and that meant the conditions were highly variable. We considered doing the SkyWalker Couloir, but thought the weather might be too warm for a safe ascent. We resolved to take the easy way up the South Arapahoe Peak and then traverse to the North summit to make an interesting day of it. What we didn’t think about was the possibility of lightning, but that is what we got.

We got our interesting day.

Lightning starts with clouds. The sun heats up the spinning earth in an irregular fashion which results in wind. Air rises when it is warmer than the air above it or is pushed up by winds passing over mountains.  When the air & water vapor mixture rises, it can cool enough to turn water vapor into water droplets (or ice crystals) which becomes visible as clouds.

We started up just before first light from the 4th of July trailhead and quickly made our way up the familiar trail. We turned up the trail to the saddle between South Arapahoe and Baldy, pausing only long enough to longingly examine the Sky Walker route. We assured each other that we’d come back another day to do it.

As we made our way up the south ridge below the summit, we could see fast moving storm clouds north and east of us. But it was very early in the day and cold, and nothing was coming from the west.  We didn’t see any risk to us.

Thunderstorms are a special type of cloud that occur when warm, moist air rises high into the atmosphere, reaching to the freezing temperatures at very high altitudes.  The rising warm air and sinking cool air push around the ice crystal and heavier chunks of ice, which bang into each other creating static electricity.  The lighter-weight, positively charged ice crystals are blown to the top of the cloud while the heavier, negatively charged clumps of ice cluster at the bottom of the cloud. The opposite charges attract each other, and the lightning we see in the clouds is them finding each other.


Mountain Finder plate on summit of South Arapahoe Peak


Once on the summit, we started to notice lightning in those storm clouds.  And then we saw something unusual: those clouds off to the east seemed to be nearer to us than before.  Where they flowing east-to-west?  We didn’t know what to make of it. We wondered aloud to each other concerns about possible risk.

We were tempted to continue since we had come so far and were close to our goal; but our mountaineering ambition had dulled enough over the years to allow for reason to prevail. We decided to bail. While we didn’t understand what was happening, we were smart enough to realize that starting a technical traverse in such conditions would be foolish.

Lightning hitting the ground makes for all the excitement. The negatively charged cloud bottom causes electrons in the ground five thousand feet below to flee (like charges repel each other), resulting in an electric field that we can hear, feel and smell. The electric field is strongest on ground-connected objects whose tops are closest to the base of the thundercloud. If the electric field is strong enough, a conductive discharge (called an upward lightning streamer) can develop from these points and the surrounding air component atoms become separated into positive ions and electrons — the air becomes ionized. This ionized air (also known as plasma) is much more conductive allowing for electric current to flow from the cloud to the positively charged streamer or ground that is seeking electrons. We see this as lightning.

But we still didn’t see any immediate risk, so we didn’t take immediate action. We took a break on the South Arapahoe summit to enjoy more of the day before starting back down the trail at a moderate pace.

Familiarity breeds contempt.  While the rarity of lightning incidents makes it easy to become complacent, sometimes lightning doesn’t miss.  Being hit by lightning is a serious event comparable to a bear or lion attack, resulting in death and life altering injuries. See NOAA’s Medical Aspects of Lightning for more information

I kept looking over my shoulder as I worked my way down the ridge. I could see the storm was getting closer much faster than expected. We were losing the race. I told Brian we needed to go faster.

Then the thunder started to boom.

Once we hear the thunder or feel the cold wind or the sting of crashing hail, the thunderstorm is upon us. Our chance to be safe is lost. We are limited to looking for ways to reduce the risk that we can no longer avoid. And, reacting to lightning once caught out is an uncertain art.

Properly motivated, we started moving as fast as we could as the thunder became louder and louder. And then it was right on top of us. Boom, Boom, BOOM!

The flash-bang separation was very short, one second or less.

When we reached the saddle and good ground, we started running to get to the descent trail that would get us off the exposed ridge.


Our route up South Arapahoe Peak


About 1/2 way across the saddle, it happened.

An explosion went off as I felt a sharp, stinging shock hit the top of my head. Stunned by the noise and the sense that I had been hit by lightning, I stopped running. I didn’t know what to think. I wondered if I was dead.

I turned around to see if Brian would have a look of horror on his face. He merely hollered, “Run!”

I paused for an instant to ponder the problem of my metal hiking poles sticking out of my pack, but seeing Brian disappear down the mountain, I decided to just run like scared cat. I caught Brian in an instant and we flew down 1000 feet in about 10 seconds (felt like); and then the storm was gone.

Once we see or decide that the weather environment is unsafe, our goal for the day must change immediately and permanently to getting to a “safe” shelter.  In the high peaks, that almost always means getting to the vehicle, and the path to safety will often force us to traverse dangerous ground.  Our goal of getting to safety will be achieved by using three strategies:

  1. Move quickly to the vehicle to minimize our exposure to the dangerous environment and
  2. Avoid high lightning risk spots on the trail to reduce exposure to risk and be able to stop and
  3. Become a small target with a single point of ground contact when a lightning strike is imminent.

Going as fast as possible to safety is the most important thing, but it isn’t enough. Avoiding high risk locations means to minimize the chance of injury while moving while allowing us to safely get small when necessary.  Our ability to make fast, correct decisions in juggling these strategies is the key to our continuing health. (See more info about dealing with Imminent Lighting Threats)

We slowed and then stopped to gather our wits and remove our rain gear. I asked Brian if he saw the lightning bolt hit me. He said ‘no’ and I couldn’t find any evidence of burns on my hat or head. But none of that mattered; in the instant I thought I’d been hit by lightning, I was sorry for my casual attitude that allowed me to accept such a risk.  My life was changed forever.

I was hit by a low-power ‘upward lightning streamer

Upward lightning streamers that do not connect with the downward leader to complete a lightning channel are estimated to cause approximately 30% of lightning related injuries.  High-current pulses are launched from the ground (often tall, pointy, isolated objects) near the lightning bolt as it initially approaches the ground. These “streamer currents” are much less powerful than the full lightning strike but can be strong enough to cause injury or death to humans. (more)

I felt lucky to be alive.

And I have dedicated myself to understanding lightning and staying safe in a lightning filled environment like the high peaks of Colorado. In the time since, I’ve identified for my own use five levels of lightning danger for Colorado high peaks: low danger, approaching danger, high danger, extreme danger, and imminent strike.

Below, each category is described with conditions that may be observable or audible, depending on the presence of terrain or wind noise obstructions:

For any of us High Peaks Adventurers, our rational reaction to these levels of danger depend on our willingness to assume lightning risk. The only way to be “safe” is to stay home. But if we insist on proceeding with our risky venture, we can break down the situation into four questions that must be answered; and because we are dealing with uncertainly about deadly risk, the answers will be different for each person:

  1. What risk level am I willing to assume? There is a continuum of reactions we each can take in the face of lightning danger.  On the extreme conservative end, we could choose to never go outside when clouds are in the sky.  On the extreme aggressive end, we could choose to never worry about lightning since it doesn’t seem to hit many people.  The right strategy for most of us is between the two extremes.  (more)
  2. How to plan to avoid lightning? There is no safe haven from lightning atop the high peaks; the only way to be safe is to avoid lightning all together.  Either we stay home on a bad weather day or we start early enough that we can get less exposed before the lightning shows up. (more)
  3. How to read the sky for early warnings? Sometimes the lightning threatens to show up when we are vulnerable, despite our best efforts to avoid it.  But we can only hear thunder 10 miles away or less.  Since an air mass thunderstorm will travel over ground at 15-25 mph, we may have only 20-30 minutes before the storm is overhead (and the worst lightning risk begins).  We need more lead-time; we need to be able to get an early, even if imperfect, indication of when to turn around. (more)
  4. How to reduce the risk when the chance to be safe is lost? If we accept some lightning risk, we should expect to eventually get caught away from safe shelter when the lightning arrives.  Too often, the mountains obscure our view of the horizon and oncoming storms, and the wind noise keeps us from hearing thunder.  When we’ve been caught in a vulnerable position, we need to know what to do reduce the likelihood of being hit or injured by a lightning strike. (more)

The chart below that I’ve created for my own use is based on the advice provided by experts for minimizing lightning risks; the ‘moderate’ level of risk is the only usable information for me. The high-risk option is merely behaviors I have observed and even used before I knew better. I include this level and the low-risk level to provide contrast.


My personal lightning risk management cheatsheet


But please do not take my word for it. Do your own research and make your own decisions; it is your life.

My sources:

(1) NOAA:  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (  NOAA includes the National Weather Service (, JetStream ( and National Severe Storms Laboratory (

(2) NLSI:  National Lightning Safety Institute is a non-profit, non-product advocacy of lightning safety for both people and structures, founded and run by Richard Kithil (

(3) Lightning Safety Group, American Meteorological Society Conference

(4) Mary Ann Cooper, MD, Associate Head of Academic Affairs, Professor, Departments of Emergency Medicine, Neurology and Bioengineering, University of Illinois at Chicago

(5) NOLS:  National Outdoor Leadership School, Backcountry Lightning Safety Guidelines (

To see more more details of what I found for myself, see the following:

Managing Lightning Risk

See all trip reports


A Rainy Capitol

July 13, 2009

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our ascent route for Capitol Peak

Our ascent route for Capitol Peak

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

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

Capitol Peak elements

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

A view from route noted in red

A view from route noted in red

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

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

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

I reached the summit at 10am.

A view of Snowmass from Capitol

A view of Snowmass from Capitol

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

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

Our campsite seen from Capitol summit

Our campsite seen from Capitol summit

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

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

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

Mark getting a headstart on his nap at camp

Mark getting a headstart on his nap at camp

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

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

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

It was a great trip.

See all Trip Reports

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

Go to Index of all essays

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

Lightning Safety

December 1, 2008

It is vain to look for a defense against lightning.”

~~ Publilius Syrus, Maxims, 1st century B.C.


Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. Once generally feared as a weapon of the gods or God, scientists now tell us lightning is just a gigantic spark of static electricity that will kill or maim us just the same. People once avoided lightning above all threats to life due to the heavenly implications of being a target. When we play in high, exposes places where lightning lives most often, we should still trespass with trepidation and calculated respect. We manage the risk of lightning death or injury by exercising restraint to control exposure and using safety practices to minimize vulnerability when exposed.

Click to see full essay, “On Lightning Alert

%d bloggers like this: