Posts Tagged ‘Mark’

First Alpine Adventure

January 28, 2012

The Sharkstooth taken on approach in July 1992

 It sounded like just the thing (i.e., far away, complete different, somewhat stupid, brag-able material) and so I signed up. 

On July 10, 1992, the Sharkstooth was the very first alpine climb I ever did, using the Northeast Ridge (II, 5.6) route.  The Sharkstooth is the highest (12,630′) and farthest west in the Cathedral Spires and has the most elevation gain above any col. This adventure was an unexpected part of my week-long rock climbing course at Colorado Mountain School (CMS), which in itself was a last minute, spur-of-the-moment decision made while sitting comfortably in my air conditioned office in tropical Miami, Florida.

I had lived my entire adult life (albeit I was only 30) and my entire childhood since the age of 4 in Florida.  I loved the ocean and the adventures I found therein, but I had a sudden craving for some new kind of adventure. A co-worker, Bill, who had taken me to a climbing wall in the recent past suggested I take a class at CMS in Estes Park, Colorado. It sounded like just the thing (i.e., far away, complete different, somewhat stupid, brag-able material) and so I signed up. And, two weeks later, I was in Colorado and relying on every ounce of my Triathlon training fitness to survive the daily onslaught of hiking and climbing exertion.

It was a serious grind complicated by high altitude (I lived at 16′ elevation in Coconut Grove, Florida) and overwhelming fear (see Scared to Death on Pear Buttress).

Approach to the Sharkstooth

At the time, the 5 mile approach in darkness and 6 pitches of technical climbing for a total of 3350’ in elevation gain over snowy rock were far beyond anything I had ever experienced to that point in my life. Adding to the allure, I was told that Sharkstooth was the only officially named peak (i.e., name is on map) in RMNP that required a technical climb to stand on the summit. It seemed the perfect candidate to be the only peak I would ever summit, and I planned to brag about it for the rest of my life. It was too bad that I was wholly unprepared for such an adventure.

CMS 'Bunk House' 1992 (photo by Mark)

I had been told that the weather forecast was poor, and to expect chilly conditions in the low 30’s. Now that doesn’t sound so bad today, but 20 years ago, to a life-long Floridian, 30F sounded deadly. In fact, my biggest concern about the climb was the possibility of freezing to death. I brought extra food so I would have enough energy to stay warm, but I didn’t bring any hiking boots, long pants, hat or gloves. I didn’t even bring a flashlight.  But unlike every other moment of unpreparedness I’ve faced in the years since, I just didn’t know better. Twenty years later, I cannot recall if the equipment list provided to me was incomplete or I merely stubborn (all suspicions indicate my guilt), but I did not bring anything useful besides a rain suit and a ridiculous ski sweater I bought the night before in panic. Naturally, I did have the rock shoes (the newly introduced Five Ten), harness, stitch plate (an old fashioned belay/rappel device) and pack (think: rucksack) I rented at the beginning of the class.

My classmates, Mark and Jim (both from Chicago), and I slept badly in the CMS lodge until awoken by Mike Caldwell, our guide, at some ungodly hour.  It was so far before dawn that I wasn’t fully awake until after we started hiking. I didn’t have any idea why we’d start so early, but my only serious concern was a lack of light since I had no flashlight or headlamp. I asked what I should do, hoping someone had a spare light; I was told to follow behind someone and step where they did.

On the hike in, Mike Caldwell in the lead position

That sounded like a dumb idea to me, but what choice did I have. The trail turned out to be rather flat, so I was able to keep up without mishap for the first 1/2 mile.  About 100 feet past the first creek crossing, Mike abruptly stepped off the trail and headed uphill into the even darker forest.  He announced that this was a great climbers’ shortcut that would shave 1/2 mile from our hike, which was somehow our top priority.  Oh, it was a stumblefest for me. I had to resort to asking for the kindness of a light a number of times, but by the grace of youthfulness I survived with only minor ankle and knee twisting. What a great shortcut!

Our shortcut eventually reconnected with the main trail and then quickly took a fork to the right toward something called ‘Loch Vale’. It was still pitch dark, and the Sharkstooth was apparently still so far away that it didn’t seem manly to ask how much farther.

We continued to and then around Loch Vale, which turned out to be a very interesting, oblong lake that we couldn’t see very well.

Loch (/ˈlɒx/ or /ˈlɒk/) is the Irish and Scottish Gaelic (cognate with the Welsh llwch) word for a lake or a sea inlet.

Once

Loch Vale on approach to the Sharkstooth.

past the far side of the lake, we continued along the trail until we reached a small creek with a log bridge crossing. We crossed the slippery log carefully and then turned right to leave the path (again) and head toward Andrews Glacier. After a bit of steeper hiking through the forest on a faint path that quickly diverged from the creek, we emerged into a rocky and snowy valley that was the source of the creek water. At this point, the morning was dawning and I could finally see the impressive panorama. In the distance was Andrews Glacier bracketed by Mt. Taylor to the left and Mt Otis to the right. Below Otis and directly to our right was Zowie, a scary-looking tower that was described as similar to the Petit Grepon. To our left was a rocky buttress that we were told held the ‘Cathedral Peaks’ on the far side, including the Petit Grepon.  The Sharkstooth was not yet visible, but it was supposedly close.

The snow cover seemed truly Arctic to a Floridian, but no one else seemed to care so I didn’t mention it. And while the temperature and my feet (clad in running socks and shoes) were cold, it did dawn on me that I might not freeze to death. If the weather was not so socked in, I might have even felt happy. As it was, I was still afraid.  But I was not a quitter.  And think of the stories I would tell!

To tell the truth, I was willing to take a serious chance on death to finish this goal. My first climb, Pear Buttress, frightened me so badly that I was willing to quit climbing forever, but after another week of learning and overcoming fear, I was ready for ‘something massive’ (to quote The Eiger Sanction) … something that would really scratch the itch that led me to seek an adventure in the first place.

Nearing Andrews Glacier on approach to the Sharkstooth

As we approached Andrews Glacier, moving past the Cathedral Peaks buttress to our left, a massive, toothy pinnacle appeared in the gloom. Holy shit! We were going to climb that? Of all the unlikely things I had done during this past week as a part of my rock climbing class, this was the most unlikely.  But since everything seemed to go without a hitch, I had no reason to doubt the word of our excellent guide, Mike Caldwell.

We turned left and hiked directly toward the Sharkstooth, moving over massive boulders when possible and consolidated snow when necessary. I was carrying a ice axe that Mike had forced me to carry because I didn’t know how to do a self-arrest on snow. Hell, I didn’t know how to use an ice axe either, except as a hiking pole.  And on talus that demanded a 2 handed assist, the ice axe seemed more like a prank designed to get me skewered.

We made good speed, but we seemed to be ‘almost there’ for quite a while before we actually reached the base of the climb. It was hard to judge the scale of the Sharkstooth; but you can trust me, it’s big.

As we prepared to climb, the weather worsened. The sky started spitting hail and a snow/hail mix called graupel which quickly covered the ground.

Graupel forms when snow in the atmosphere encounters supercooled water. The size of graupel is typically under 5 millimeters, but some graupel can be the size of a quarter (coin). Graupel pellets typically fall apart when touched or when they hit the ground.  Also Known As: snow pellets, soft hail, small hail, tapioca snow, rimed snow, ice balls.

We put on our rain gear and then Mike started up the rock belayed by Mark.  My Florida conditioning (heat management) did not prepare me for the cold I began to feel as I cooled down from the morning exertions. I was not only lacking a tolerance for cold, I didn’t have any idea what to do to conserve heat or whether the symptoms I was feeling meant approaching death or merely discomfort.  You can believe that I was once again feeling stressed about the situation.  The intermittent thunder and lightning exacerbated my pervading sense of doom.

The belaying technique that Mike used to belay 3 climbers was to bring up Mark and I at the same time, and then I would belay Jim while Mike started up the next pitch, belayed by Mark.  I always tried to watch Mike carefully, to know where to climb; but inevitably, once I touched the rock I couldn’t remember a thing.  Mark started up a path of his choosing, but I didn’t like the look of it; I followed my nose. I couldn’t believe the amount of vegetation on the rock; it felt like my hand went into wet moss on every hold.  My hands were numb in a matter of minutes. And, I had climbed myself into a box I couldn’t get out of.

I yelled down to Jim, “Don’t follow me, I’m screwed. Take Mark’s route.”

Mark recalls:

I had just turned 30 and was looking for some adventure.  [Nearly 20 years later,] I remember one scary hanging belay, the fear and the lightning. The lightning was made worse by Mike’s story of the static electricity catching his wool hat on fire. I remember thinking “great, one more way to die up here”

Somehow I made it to the first belay.  As my hands thawed and gave me my first thawing agonies, I thought I was in trouble.  I worriedly asked Mark if such terrible pain was normal….he just looked at me without comment as if I had requested permission to mumble dogfish to the banana patch (Steve Martin, anyone?).  I soon found that I would live.

In the cold, the body reduces blood flow to the extremities to keep the vital organs — heart, lungs and brain — warm.  Reduced blood flow starves the extremities of oxygen, forcing them to use a less efficient type of metabolism, and in effect causing a mild injury. All of these factors together cause the release of a chemical soup that triggers inflammation and pain.  Cold can block the transmission of nerve signals, so you may feel no pain in your cold, numb fingers, but when you thaw out, the blood vessels dilate, increasing the blood flow. More oxygen gets delivered, and you get that throbbing feeling as the blood pulses into the oxygen-hungry areas. Oxygen wakes up the nerves, and you feel pain.  These changes are normal, and not harmful so long as the cold exposure is brief.

~from Wisconsin State Journal, Kristine Kwekkeboom, an assistant professor at the UW-Madison School of Nursing

Slowly the sky cleared as we progressed up the rock following the narrow buttress at the right edge of the east face.  Aside from the conditions and the exposure blowing my body and my mind, the climbing was easy (in the 5.5 to 5.6 range) and ended in a short scramble to the airy summit.

Me and my classmates on the Sharkstooth summit in 1992. From left to right, Mark, Jim, Joe

We did it!  We had reached the summit of the Sharkstooth. It was a supreme moment of achievement. We were all beaming.  And I was satisfied that my climbing career had reached a fitting pinnacle.

After a summit photo and a quick lunch we started down.  The rappel route we took seems different in my memory from the presently accepted rappel route even though the present route seems nearly the same as described in Fricke’s 1971 guide book.  I think the route we took was the route described in Rossiter’s 1997 guide book RMNP Rock & Ice Climbing:  The High Peaks.

Fricke (1971):  From the southeast corner rappel from one of several old pitons or a bolt into the “meadow”. Walk down to the very bottom of the meadow and find the lowest possible anchor on the left (north) side. Rappel (150′ plus a bit of fourth class) to the belay ledge which constitutes the top of the lead one of the Left Gully route.  From a spike of rock rappel 150′ down the gully.  Then scramble onto the small ridge to the left (north) and down it to the notch. 

Rossiter (1997):  Rappel down the east side from fixed anchors (pitons with slings). Rappel 150 feet to a grassy ledge, then walk north along the ledge about 100 feet to another anchor.  Rappel 150 feet to grassy ledge where an easy 300′ scramble (cl3) leads down to the East Col. 

On descent from the Sharkstooth, a view of The Saber with Thatchtop in the distance.

On the 2nd rappel, I set up my rappel device with the brake rope on the opposite side from all 3 other times in my life.  I didn’t think much of the situation and felt rushed, so I proceeded anyway with my right hand holding the brake rope instead of my left.  About 10′ down, the wind blew hard and my foot slipped, causing me to swing into the rock.  To protect myself I reached out with my hand to slow my impact speed.  Unfortunately I instinctively used my right hand, releasing my hold on my rappel brake….my life line.

But nothing happened.

Fortunately, the ropes we were using were worn 11mm ropes that were actually 13-15mm thick due to the frayed sheathing.  The stitch plate I was using just barely fit such ropes and did not require any friction from my brake hand to stay static.  At that moment I looked up at Mike Caldwell who was watching me rappel.  He shook his head and looked away.

At the bottom of the 2nd rappel, we were standing atop a large steeply sloping grassy area waiting for Mike to set up the next anchor.  When he arrived he told us to simply walk down the rest of the way.  We all looked at each other as the apparent death sentence worked its way into our mutual understanding.  No one moved.  Mike then offered to belay us if we felt unsecure; we all accepted.

Once at the base, I begged anyone to take the ice axe down…I pleaded that it was going to kill me to carry it. Jim took pity and carried it out, and let me enjoy the rest of the day.

I was delighted to have survived my adventure and be able to tell my Florida family and friends about it.  I had no intention of ever doing another climb….ever. I was so beat up afterward that while I was waiting for my flight home at the airport the next day, a man and his young son who were waiting nearby asked me if I was a boxer.

Such was the start to my Alpine climbing career and the beginning of my love for the Sharkstooth and RMNP.

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Lake City Gas Shortage

February 8, 2010

I had just restarted my 14er quest after a 3 year break with a great 40th birthday present from my wife (see 5 14ers for my 40th).  When Mark announced he was coming to town a month later (in July, 2002) for a bit of mountain adventure, I thought his timing was perfect.

Day 1

The long drive from DIA to Lake City, CO

I had originally picked Wetterhorn & Uncompahagre Peak, but rain on the drive down convinced us to go for easier routes on Redcloud & Sunshine. I had Roach’s 14er book with me, so we were able to adjust quickly on the fly.

The drive to Lake City (8658′) from DIA was an interminable 300 miles taking over 5 hours, which put us into town after everyone’s bedtime.  I had never heard of a gas station closing and didn’t think to check on hours; and my gas gauge needle was already on “Empty”.

We couldn’t wait ’til morning without blowing the trip, so we had to take a chance.  I just hoped the road to Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch Trailhead (10400′) didn’t require more gas than available; otherwise, our approach hike might be a bit longer than expected.

Burning fumes on the uphill crawl from Lake City

We drove south out of town and made the turn toward Cinnamon Pass after 2.5 miles.  It was a total of 18.5 miles before we found the Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch trailhead. At mile 10, I started swearing at every loss of elevation; by mile 15 I was cursing a mile a minute.  The bright bulb on my dashboard’s “low gas” indicator was burning out my retinas.

I was certain we didn’t have enough gas to get back to town; I seriously wondered if I had enough gas to restart the engine.

All I could do was hope we could get some gas from another hiker somehow; and I put the issue out of my mind for 12 hours.

We set up the tent on the most luxuriously soft ground I had ever felt, and slept amazingly well until the alarm went off at 5am.

Day 2

Route map for Redcloud, Sunshine & Handies from Silver Creek-Grizzly Gulch Trailhead. The numbers correspond to the "Step" details below.

Step 1

The hike toward Redcloud hardly felt like a backcountry experience.  The trail quality was too good.  But heck, the peaks were on the list.  Plus, it was a more gentle adventure for Mark, having come from 500′ elevation only 12 hours before.

I was disappointed to see the white color in the creek water; I hoped I wouldn’t need to refill my bottles before reaching camp and my filter.  Iodine tablets just wouldn’t be enough this time.

We used the Silver Creek trail to reach the NE ridge of Redcloud. And then followed the ridge trail to the summit.  The lower part of the ridge trail was not in good shape, but we made the summit easily enough.  We stopped for a snack and enjoyed the views.  I was able to point out Wetterhorn and Uncompahagre because the latter peak is rather distinctive.  But I couldn’t spot Handies in the sea of peaks.

Our view north from the Redcloud summit

We didn’t stay long since Sunshine was so close (1.5 miles).

Step 2

We followed the trail which tended to stay to the right side of any slopes.  The weather was good so we took our time moving to the Sunshine summit.

Step 3

On the Sunshine summit, we stopped for an early lunch and enjoyed the views.  I was able to point out Wetterhorn and Uncompahagre because the latter peak is rather distinctive.  But I couldn’t spot Handies in the sea of peaks.

Step 4

I asked Mark if he was up for a bit of adventure which would also avoid the long looping route over and around Redcloud.  He was game and we found a faint trail that descended from the bottom of the initial saddle below Sunshine on the way toward Redcloud.  The initial scree was a bit loose, but otherwise it was a nice trail through an old growth forest.

Step 5

We joined up with the Silver Creek trail and turned left (SW) toward camp.  We reached camp at 1pm for a round trip of 3650′ and 8.1 miles in 7.5 hours.  An easy effort for bagging 2 14ers.

I immediately started bumming gas.  Mark sacrificed his water bladder tube which we tried on two different vehicles, but we just couldn’t make it work.  All I got was a couple mouthfuls of gasoline; I don’t recommend it.

When Mark said he was done for the day, I asked if he was up to driving/coasting/walking/hitchiking to Lake City to get gas.  I said I was thinking of going for Handies since it was so close. He said he’d take care of it.

Step 6

At 1:45pm, I walked across the road and found a sign for Grizzly Gulch near the bathroom structure; I crossed the bridge and headed toward Handies.  I hadn’t prepared anything for an attempt on Handies, so I quickly read the route description in Roach’s 13er book before heading out.  I didn’t really know the route, but the trail was quite clear during the initial miles.

My only real problem so far was stamina.  I was starting to slow down; so I just concentrated on keeping my feet moving.

Step 7

When I finally broke out of the trees, the trail disappeared.  My recollection of the route desciptions didn’t match what I saw, but I could see Handies and its impressive cirque; so I just followed my nose.

I wandered right to reach the next level, and then followed a trail I found up a left angled, broad ramp to reach the summit ridge. I made a mental note to stay on that trail on the way down while I continued working my way up one level at a time. A short time later I had just a short, fairly steep, dirt ridge to cover.  While slowly covering the final 100 feet (I was tired), I could see down to the American Basin Trailhead; it was so close, I figured it had to be one of the easiest routes up a 14er.

Step 8

On the summit, I finished my water and then started back for camp.  My feet were killing me and the day was getting old.  I didn’t have a headlamp with me and absolutely did not want to get caught out after dark.

Step 9

I tried to stay on the trail on the descent, but it petered out.  I went back to following my nose and took a more southerly path that worked a little better (as best as I could tell).

I was feeling used up and wasn’t paying attention on a section of the trail that had a steep drop-off.  My boot slipped off the ledge and I went over, hanging onto the trail ledge with my arms.  I had enough strength left to crawl back up, but only just.

Later, I crawled into camp after another 3650′ and 7.6 miles over 5.25 hours; and I could still taste the gasoline.  But the 4Runner was there, so I knew he either couldn’t start the vehicle or he’d made it. It was the only remaining issue on my mind; I was so tired that I wasn’t hungry.

It was a giant relief when Mark told me he’d made it to town and filled up the tank.

Now able to relax, we made dinner and enjoyed another comfortable night sleep on the soft ground.

It had been a full day:

  • 16 miles of hiking
  • 7300′ elevation gain
  • 12.75 hours of hiking

Despite my exhaustion, I concluded that these three 14ers were the easiest I could remember.  Not just good trails and easy terrain, but a near impossibility of getting lost.  These are very good starter 14ers for those just wanting to measure their fitness.

Day 3

We slept in and then made our way back to Lake City for our traditional post-climb breakfast. Enjoying the small town (pop. 380) feel, we stayed until forced to leave by Mark’s impending flight.

Another 300 miles to DIA and then an hour back to Boulder to spend the rest of the day with my 8-month pregnant wife.

I was glad to make some progress on the 14er list while I could; I figured my days of multi-day adventure might be coming to an end soon. And another lesson learned:  never let the gas tank get close to empty without certain knowledge of a resupply.

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The Casco Fiasco

February 5, 2010

Summary

On October 12, 2002, Mark Muto and I attempted Casco (13908′), Frasco BM (13876′) and French (13940′) via the Casco-French Mountain Ridge Traverse.  We succeeded in summiting on Casco and Frasco BM but had to retreat just 300 feet below the French Mountain summit.  We hiked a total of 11 miles and gained approximately 4,400 feet in 14 hours.

The hours lost route-finding in the snow ate too deeply into the season-shortened day-light, forcing us to not only miss out on French, but also to hike back to camp in the dark for 1.5 hours on icy trails with only our wits and the fading yellow light of a single dying headlamp to guide us.

Our plan was too aggressive, given the poor conditions.  And I made a rash decision that cost me the French Mountain summit.

The Story

On a rare bonus trip, Mark returned to Colorado from Chicago after only 3 months for more mountain abuse (earlier that year we did the 14ers:  Sunshine, Redcloud & Handies).  I wanted to bag more 14ers, but eventually chose French Mountain due to proximity, knowledge about trail access, and sweet revenge (see explanation below).

How I failed to climb French Mountain on my first attempt

Failed Attempt #1 on French Mountain.

During Labor Day weekend in 2001, my wife and I set out to climb French Mountain.  Using a Dawson’s 14er guidebook info for Elbert & Massive, I pieced together a driving and hiking route for French Mountain. This poor base of information combined with missing signs and early morning thinking to mislead me into driving to the North Halfmoon Trailhead instead of stopping at the South Halfmoon Trailhead.

Despite the features not quite matching what I expected, they were close enough to allow me to believe I was in the right place (e.g., larger peak off to the SE, trail running SW following a creek, a mine at the end of the road) until it was too late. While I suspected I was not in the right place, it was not until I reached the summit of ‘Ol Unnamed 400’ short of the proper altitude that I knew for certain that I had screwed up.

I was angry at myself for not being more careful, and I vowed to atone for that error.

With Roach’s new (2001) 13er book in hand, I was able to quickly identify all the high 13er peaks in the area, and my desire to be efficient in collecting all the high 13ers led me to expand the day’s peak bagging goals. I broadened the plan to also include summiting on the Casco and Frasco BM on a traverse of the Casco-French ridge. But I should have been more focused on needs of the entire team.

Mark was a knowledgeable, but lightly experienced mountain climber; he was not in a position to know what set of goals/plans were possible & safe for him. He counted on me, as the more experienced climber, to pick a good & safe route.  In the past, when Mark couldn’t finish due to illness or exhaustion, the “out and back” route plan allowed for him to simply wait for me to return.  But on a “lollipop” route (stem with a loop on the end) with no escape routes, he HAD to finish the loop part of the route or retreat back to the start of the loop on his own if we were to separate.

It was a bad plan, especially in light of the variable conditions of the post-summer.

Leader Rule

In groups with unequal levels of experience, the most experienced person leads the group and is responsible for the safety of everyone in the group.

Day 1

I picked up Mark at DIA at 3pm on Friday, October 11 and we set off toward Leadville.  We arrived at the Halfmoon campground around 5:30pm. Using Roach’s 13ers guidebook and a bit of deductive reasoning led us to the Halfmoon Creek Trailhead. The mileages didn’t seem to work and the signage was a bit different; but with my past (painful) experience in the area, we worked it out.

The creek water level was low enough for us to drive across the creek.  We made camp 100 feet up the road on a nice flat area with ample parking.  With just enough daylight to finish, we set up camp, prepared and ate dinner, and packed for the morning’s activities.  Once in the tent, Mark and I played a few hands of gin (5-0 for Joe) and then turned in for the inevitable terrible night’s sleep.

Day 2

Alarms buzzing at 5:45am, we crawled out into the cold darkness.  I asked Mark to save me a little hot water to warm my stomach as a chaser to my food bar.  After a cup of hot water (did I say “a little”?) and a ½ liter of nearly frozen water, I was as ready as I was going to be and we set off toward the Iron Mike Mine. It was approximately 6:40pm.

We set a fairly brisk pace up South Halfmoon road.  I am always surprised how fast Mark can hike during the initial hours of our adventures, since he lives at a 500 foot elevation and, as usual, had only 12 hours to acclimate; but, there would be a price to pay later.  The road slides up between the north ridges of French and Elbert (only 2 miles apart), but darkness and trees limited the views.  We arrived at the end of the driveable road (1/4 mile from the Iron Mike Mine ruins) at 8am, and could see that there was a lot more snow than we hoped. But at least the weather of the day, while cold, was perfectly clear and windless; Project French Mountain was a go!

The normal route (what Roach calls the “Francisco Classic”) begins

  1. North to the saddle (“Friscol”) below the South slopes of French Mountain, summits on French and returns to the saddle
  2. Traverses WSW to Frasco BM, where it turns SW toward “Fiascol” (the saddle between Frasco and Casco)(descent possible below Frasco BM)
  3. Follow the ridge south to Casco staying on or near the ridge line (no descent options)
  4. From Casco, turn SE and again follow the ridge to a descent via the NE slopes
  5. Complete the circle with a hike back to the road

But given the snow conditions and Mark’s probable level of fitness, I didn’t think this was the way for us to go. The standard route felt risky due to limited escape options on the 2nd half of the ridge traverse.   Although I was late to being thoughtful, I reasoned it would be smarter to reverse the route and do the part with available escape option last, which would coincide with the time of day we’d need options for retreat due to darkness or exhaustion.

Our route sequence. Each numbered step corresponds to the description below.

Step 1

We turned south to mount the Casco ridge.  Since we could not tell where the “NE Slopes” route was beneath the snow, we just headed straight up the slope.

The new snow was soft and deep enough to cause miserable hiking over unseen, loose scree.  We stumbled over the increasingly steep terrain and climbed to the ridge with far more difficulty that expected.  But Mark was continuing to move well; he even beat me to the ridge.

Step 2

Once on the ridge, we turned toward Casco.  The hike up to the Casco summit was fairly easy as the snow was mostly clear of that part of the ridge (there was sharp contrast between the snow covered northerly facing slopes and the nearly snow-less southerly facing slopes).  Arriving at the summit around noon, we stopped for lunch and a view.

From our rock bench, we could see La Plata to the south so clearly that we reminisced about a trip on La Plata a few years back.  One that day, the very deep and soft snow made for an exhausting effort just to reach the peak.  Mark made it to just below the north ridge when he began a vomiting and limb-jerking fit that cost him the summit.  We could see the precise spot on the ridge where he waited for Brian, Larry and me to return down the ridge.  He tells me on every visit how he wants to go back to La Plata and erase that defeat.

The memory of that experience reminded me to mentioned to Mark that if we had any doubt about finishing the traverse, we should retreat now; there would be no escape for many hours otherwise.  He wouldn’t hear of it.

Step 3

As we started down toward Frasco BM, the generally northern facing ridge was as bad as I feared.  Since the ridge is the only option, we hesitated only momentarily. And, almost as quickly, we were stopped.  Sixty feet from the summit, we could not find a good line down the ridge.

We hunted around for cairns (none) or routes below the ridge (none).  I told Mark that I would proceed ahead to try to force my way down the ridge.  I started carefully (and slowly) working my way down over icy rock and into a snow-filled, narrow gully.  A slip on this sequence of moves meant an 800′ tumble into the basin; I moved as carefully as a barefoot person escaping the kitchen after breaking a glass.  Once in the gully, I scooted down on my butt for 25 feet to a steep 5-foot drop, over which I executed a controlled fall to reach the bottom.  It led to a flat area and good terrain for a good ways ahead.

I called back to Mark that the route worked, but required his full attention; he followed and we had just spent 30 minutes to gain 150 feet. And, at that point, I didn’t think we could go back safely anymore; my exact thought was , “We cannot go back now; if we have to retreat we’re screwed.”

And then, after only another 100 feet, we were stopped again.  The icy conditions on the ridge proper made for a slip-n-slide to death.  We checked out every option twice and concluded that we had no choice but to descend down the east side of the ridge to skirt the dangerous section. We donned our crampons and traversed the steep east slope for 100 feet.  The snow was unconsolidated, but we were able to feel around with our feet to find rock holds under the snow. With axes nearly useless in 6 inches of loose snow over loose rock, we used our hands to dig beneath the snow for holds.

This process got us to another good part of the ridge where could make good time with hand-free hiking.  After a couple hundred feet of good ground, the ridge sloped downward dramatically toward what appeared to be a drop-off.  My heart sank.

Step 4

With the pattern of increasingly dangerous terrain and conditions, I couldn’t imagine how we could work our way down the ridge this time.  And since daylight was running short, I felt a strong urgency to just do something…so I made a rash decision.  Rather than go as far as I could to see what was really possible, I just decided to assume it wouldn’t go and instead just work down one of the western rock & snow gullies and find a way over to the west side of the Fiasco Col (“Fiascol”).  I knew it would be a significant detour that would certainly eat up most of the remaining daylight, but I was at least certain that it would work; I wouldn’t waste any time gathering information and thinking about what to do.

It was a poor decision born of stress.  I should have gathered the easily available information that would have made a better decision possible. I should have gone as far as possible along the ridge to be sure we really needed a dramatically different course of action.

Jumping to Conclusions Fallacy

“Dicto Simpliciter” (jumping to conclusions) is an inductive reasoning fallacy defined by making sweeping statements or not bothering to gather sufficient data to validate conclusions.

The long detour involved a down climb of several hundred feet through steep, loose rock and snow, a traverse of several hundred feet and a re-climb (via snow and rock) to the top of Fiasco Col, which we reached around 4pm.  The ridge might have been even harder, but I didn’t bother to find out before committing to an irreversible and time-consuming course of action. It took us 4 hours to travel 0.3 miles from the summit of Casco to the top of Fiasco Col.

Step 5

Looking back to toward Casco Peak and Fiascol

After regaining the ridge at the top of Fiascol, we stopped for a rest and to finish the rest of our water. I also took a moment to look up at the ridge line we just avoided.  With our crampons and axes, we could have descended in about 30 minutes. But thinking about past mistakes was a task for later.

We were still in harm’s way, and the daylight was running out.  We needed to summit Frasco-Benchmark since it was on the way to the only safe retreat route, and, if it was possible, I still wanted to bag French.

I was still feeling good, and was in fact fairly energized by the need to move quickly. Unfortunately, Mark was running out of steam.

Mark announced that he wasn’t sure he could continue; after a brief pause, I mentioned that we had to get to Frasco BM to get to a safe descent.  I also reminded him that we only had a couple hours of light left and our headlamps were stashed by the road.  Mark dug deep and we started up the ridge toward Frasco BM.

There was little snow on this part of the climb, but we still had to pick our way through the rocks and around the towers along the ridge.  To save time and Mark’s energy, I moved ahead to find the best path, signalling to Mark which way to go.  This process allowed us to make decent time reaching the Frasco BM summit and access to the Frascol escape route.  My plan at this point was to let Mark descend the route below Frasco BM while I continued over to French before joining Mark at the Iron Mike Mine.

Step 6

From the summit of Frasco BM, I thought the escape route looked too steep for a tired climber to descend safely.  I told Mark that I thought continuing along the ridge would be better for him.  I was thinking that the remaining bit of ridge was an easy hike, and, if we moved fast enough, I could still bag French before dark.

But he insisted with the plan to descend immediately; I suppose he was feeling worse than he looked. Before he started down, I bargained with him by saying we’d stay together on the easy terrain to reach Friscol which would be a safe descent. At this point, I really was expecting the remaining traverse to be easy (I had spied it from Casco’s ridge).  And I continued to hold a faint hope for having time to run up & down French before dark.

He paused and asked me how I knew the terrain was easy.  I said I viewed it earlier in the day and that I would confirm it.  I climbed the tower blocking our view of the ridge and could see that I was wrong.  The remaining ridge was a rocky and snowy scramble involving a fair amount of route finding and the occasional hard move – not an easy walk.  I felt my opportunity to bag French Mountain disappear like a hamburger left within reach of a Basset hound named Bella.

For some reason, Mark stilled agreed to go with me; and we moved together toward Friscol & French Mountain.  In a comical sort of way, it was a tortoise race: the sun crept toward the horizon while we slowly worked over the ridge.  We reached Friscol at 6pm; with a 6:30pm sunset, we had only minutes of daylight remaining.

Nearing the end of our traverse, a view back toward Casco Peak. Our route is marked in red.

Step 7

I looked up the 300 feet to the French summit in frustration, but knew I had no choice.  We used the tongues of snow in the col to glissade most of the way to the basin.  Glissading in October is a pleasant surprise, but the low temperature and late hour left the snow a bit rough on the pants.  The day’s “butt work” left holes in my britches.  After a fair bit of postholing to get through the basin, we reached the road and our stashed gear & water at 7pm, eleven hours after we left it.

The water had been blessed by the Sun during the day, and it was still fairly warm.  It tasted like liquid gold (read:  good).  All that was left was for us to make it back to camp.

Step 8

After a short break, we set off down the road to the feeble glow of a 3/8’s waxing moon and dying embers of the sun. As we neared the trees we could no longer see our footing, so we stopped to pull out our headlamps, only to find that mine was DOA and Mark’s was dying.

What a day!

Lightless, I was a slave to Mark’s weak headlamp, which bobbed around like it was attached to a bobblehead doll.  And shortly after, watching Mark sit on the ground suddenly and then performing my own twisting-and-jerking-like-a-bee-swarm-victim dance to avoid the same fate, I came to understand that the trail was icy.

After a bit of learning, we discovered how to spot ice in dim light; it was my best performance of the day.

Another 1.5 hours and it was over. Tired as we were, we still needed to change into dry clothing, prepare and consume food and water, and pack for the morning drive to the airport.  We completed our duties by 9:30pm and turned in to enjoy being warm and still and, on occasion, being unconscious.

Day 3

Sunday morning was a cold 15 degrees.  We packed and cleaned and blew on frozen fingers before finally heading into Leadville for some breakfast.  It was a quiet crowd and, by comparison to Mark and I, a clean one.  My first priority was the bathroom, as I had not enjoyed one for the last 48 hours.  Winding my way through the crowded restaurant, I found the door and went in.  It was so quiet, it felt like I was at the back of the church during a moment of prayer.  It was the crux of the trip.

A few hours later, Mark and I made our dutiful visit to the downtown Denver REI shop, and then on to the airport. I always get a chuckle thinking of Mark getting on a packed plane, him sans shower for 2-3 days.  It’s gotta be funny to see.

Sure, it was a fiasco, but another adventure was in the books.  We bagged Casco & Frasco BM, but I failed to bag French Mountain once again. Yet, I learned an important lesson from the mistake I made of “jumping to the conclusion” to leave the ridge; I should have collected more information before committing to an irreversible course of action.  I also learned new respect for the responsibilities of a trip leader.

And regarding French Mountain, I swore I wouldn’t fail again; and while it took 3 more years, when I got my 3rd chance, I didn’t fail (see 3rd Times a Charm).  But truth be told, I did nearly fail again due to a continuing tendency to try to pack too much into a trip.

Casco - French Traverse Attempt Data

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A Rainy Capitol

July 13, 2009

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

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

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

Story

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 K2...my route noted in red

A view from K2...my route noted in red

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

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

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

I reached the summit at 10am.

A view of Snowmass from Capitol

A view of Snowmass from Capitol

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

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

Our campsite seen from Capitol summit

Our campsite seen from Capitol summit

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

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

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

Mark getting a headstart on his nap at camp

Mark getting a headstart on his nap at camp

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

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

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

It was a great trip.

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3rd Time’s a Charm: French Mt (& Mt. Ok)

December 7, 2008

Story

It was time for Chicago Mark’s annual mountain adventure, and this time Brian was available to join us.  This time, we decided to pick off a couple of high 13ers in the Sawatch Mountains:  Mt. Oklahoma and French Mountain.

French Mountain had eluded me twice before, so I considered this a grudge match.

In 2001, Susan (my wife) and I climbed the wrong mountain (unnamed 13,400) by starting from the wrong TH (we drove past the Halfmoon TH to the North Halfmoon TH, and then hiked South with French on our left instead of right).  We only realized our mistake after we ran out of mountain and sat down to figure out why.

In 2003, Mark and I attempted to climb the French-Frasco-Casco circ, but failing light kept us from finishing French; we completed Casco & Frasco and were standing at the top of the Frascol, 400 feet from the French summit when we abandoned the attempt so we could minimize the hiking on an icy road in the dark.   And I still nearly broke my neck & skull several times on the hike out.

This time I was not leaving the area without leaving my footprints on the French summit.

We decided to camp near the two trailheads to facilitate bagging both in a weekend.   I picked up Mark at DIA at 12:30pm on Friday, June 17, 2005; we headed to REI in Denver to resupply Mark and then to the Halfmoon Campground and beyond.  At 5pm, we had the place to ourselves and took 30 minutes to select a prime campsite approximately 100 yards from the North Halfmoon Trailhead.  Brian showed up at about 11pm after a failed attempt to leave work early.

At this point, I should go ahead and accept blame for any climbing logistics difficulties.  I decided that we’d do Oklahoma first to allow for route finding errors that we could not survive on Sunday, when Mark had to be at DIA at 3:30pm.  Since we knew the way to French (see failed attempt #2 above) and Oklahoma had a difficult bushwhacking section, I still claim the sequencing was correct.  However, I’ll admit to bringing too little brainpower to the consideration of difficulties in a 10-mile, 3700 ft ascent of a high 13er plus a 100-mile drive to DIA by 3:30pm.  Most would agree.

On Saturday, we got up early and started hiking right at 6am north toward Mt. Oklahoma.  The scuttlebutt about Mt. Oklahoma was that the route was off-trail and hard to find.  During my climb planning, I was able to identify on the map 3 signs that would allow us to know when we should leave the main trail and begin bushwhacking West toward Mt. Oklahoma:

(1) when the southern most Massive peak was due East,

(2) when we hit a creek after not crossing a creek for 0.5 miles, and

(3) when we were at 11,600 ft.

While these clues were devilishly difficult to identify on site, I still claim that these were good clues and they probably helped us find a good cutoff by heightening our attention level at about the right time.  Others may disagree.

At approximately 11,600 we left the trail heading west (I’d describe the point as the first place where you could imagine starting to bushwhack once you were at approx. 11,600).  We crossed two tributary creeks (one via log walk, the other via rock hop) and climbed to the top of the tree-covered ridge, heading approximately west-northwest.  We were far enough south to avoid dropping down into the drainage, as some route descriptions indicate, and simply followed the ridge to tree line, and then into the basin beneath Oklahoma.  In the basin, we had a short walk over soft snow to the most moderate couloir available to mount the summit slopes.  The elvin-like among our party and another party on the climb seemed to be able to hike & climb on top of the snow much of the way to the summit, while the heavier of the group climbed in it.  It took a considerable effort to swim up the couloir, and then to slog up the soft summit slope in snowshoes.  If it was an hour later in the day, I would have drowned.

After a lengthy respite on the summit, we started down at 11:30am with high hopes for a fun ride.  Anticipating soft snow, I brought my old rain pants (what they call “death pants” – no friction while glissading) just in case.  They worked wonders.  I was able to glissade from the summit to the couloir and then down to the basin with only a few aiming steps.  A great ride.

Route drawn in red; actual snow coverage was much greater

Route drawn in red; photo taken a few weeks after climb which had much greater snow coverage

We retraced our steps as best as we could back to the main trail.  About halfway down we lost our old trail and ended up about 100 yards further up the main trail than where we left it.  All in, I’d say the higher route was preferable.

We hiked the remaining 2 miles back to camp in rapid fashion, arriving at approx. 2pm.

We spent the next 4 hours drying gear in the hot sun and discussing the plans for Sunday.  It was during this time that it became clear that we had a long climb ahead of us on a shortened day.  Mark had to be at DIA by 3:30pm, which meant we needed to be back at the car by noon.  After close inspection of the map, we determined that French would be comparable to Oklahoma, but possibly longer: 10 miles on road vs. 8 on trail/in bush and similar elevation gain.  Since Oklahoma took 8 hours we scheduled 9 hours and set the alarm for 2am, planning on a quick camp breakdown and relocation to the Halfmoon trailhead for a 3am start.  Yikes!

We turned in at 7pm after dinner for what would prove to be a largely successful attempt to get a good “night before” sleep of about 6 hours.

The alarm rang out right at 2am, and we were in a blind scramble to dress, undo camp and pack the cars.  Our pre-packing the night before proved useful and we left the camp area on schedule, and drove ½ mile East on FS 110 to the turnoff to Iron Mike Mine.  We started hiking right at 3am.

It was a very dark early morning, as the nearly full moon had set some time before.  Mark and I made our way via flashlight to the creek and were first to make the log crossing; the water was high enough to make our “straddle” approach a mildly wet one.  This was the safest way to go, given that the water was rough enough to look deadly in a fall.  We then turned to watch Brian do his promised walk across the log.  He had announced his intentions to do so during dinner the previous day.  As we watched, I said to Mark, “I don’t know what we’ll do if he falls…we’ll never find him!”  Mark agreed.  But after a moment’s consideration, Brian proved once again that smart guys can make smart decisions and decided to do the “straddle” crossing due to the wet conditions.

We were in a hurry; I went as fast as I could to ensure we had enough time to finish the climb.  Each of us seemed to be able to maintain a fast pace, despite a decent effort the day before.  After 1 mile, we came to the second washed out bridge, which we crossed via a set of narrow logs placed across.  I did the “crab walk” on all fours, putting my feet on the largest log and my hands on the highest (by 3 inches) log.  This worked without incident.  Once across I turned to watch Brian attempt to make up for his “lack of courage” on the previous log crossing by doing a no-hands, ski-pole assisted walk.  He made it ½ way before nearly slipping off into the darkness and waterfall below.  He somehow made it across without dying or, even worse, losing a ski pole.

We continued on for another 2.5 miles to just below the Iron Mike Mine.  At 5am, we were still on schedule.  At this point, the snow patches were becoming snowfields, and so I decided to change out of my running shoes into my boots and gaiters.  Brian waited a bit before heading out to avoid freezing.  A few minutes later, Mark came up and indicated he was feeling sick and was going to sit this one out.

After crossing the final wide creek, Brian followed the line (slope) of least resistance and made a broad sweep around to the right to the far side of the Iron Mike Mine area; I took a shortcut through the willows and caught up with him near the foot of Frascol (col beneath the saddle between French & Frasco Benchmark).

Joe's route in red; actual conditions was mostly snow covered

Joe's route in red; photo taken in late Summer, while climb conditions were mostly snow covered

Brian skinned up while I took a grassy/rocky strip between Frascol and French.  When I was at the top of the grass/rock strip at about 6:15am, I decided I didn’t want to stop to put on my crampons.  I had been maintaining a great pace and wanted to keep going.  I decided I would leave the couloir, by moving to the right, and kick steps to reach the steep, rocky slopes of French Mountain that I could climb instead of the snow.  I also like that the new route would allow me to cut the corner once again.  I had, in fact, considered this approach earlier but rejected it as senselessly risky; now I was convinced it was a path to victory.

The further I moved up the snow slope toward the rocks, the steeper the terrain got.  Too late, I was thinking that it would have been useful to have my ice axe instead of my hiking poles in case I slipped down the snow.  This made me work even harder to kick secure steps, the effort for which was exhausting me.  I finally made it to the rocks only to find the terrain was wet grass with imbedded, loose rocks…and it was very steep.  I could see that the angle would ease up about 200 feet up and so I kept move higher, testing every foothold before using it.

I finally reached a more moderate angle slope at about 7:00am, the time I had set as my summit goal and would certainly have achieved had I taken the normal route.  I was also sick to my stomach; the stress/adrenalin/effort had conspired to make me nauseated.   After a long rest, I started upward again.  I made slow progress in 40 foot stages that were comprised of:  25 steps of feeling great, 5 of steps feeling very tired, and a 3-5 minute rest while I tried not to vomit.   I eventually found Brian frozen and complaining on the summit at 7:30am.  All would agree he had a point, but I was not sympathetic.

Brian decided to head over to bag Frasco Benchmark while I finished my second breakfast (I had bagged that peak on my previous attempt on French).  After a few minutes, I hiked down to Frascol and did the most painful glissade since my last glissade down Frascol two year before; the snow was frozen with painful ridges.  As I slide down the slope, I tried to lean my full body weight on my axe point and lift my butt from the surface, but succeeded only in surviving the rapid descent.  I then backtracked across the willows to the road where I met up with Brian again.  He skied ahead to find Mark while I postholed along at a comfortable pace.  We reached Mark about 8:30am and began the long hike home.

Mark was grousing about the evils of “powerbars” which is what he calls all energy/food bars (in this case it was a Balance Bar).  Rather than blame me for an excessive pace (for a low-lander), he generously blamed his food.  I knew better, but accepted his generosity.

The approx. 11% road grade was very good for both uphill and downhill hiking so the road disappeared rather quickly.  When we reached the last log crossing about 1.5 hours ahead of schedule, we knew we had done well.  Mark and I once again did the “straddle” while Brian promised the reclamation of his pride.

Once I was across, I dumped my pack and worked my way down river a bit so I could react if necessary.  Then I watched Brian “The Lost Wallenda” approach the log with his skis in his hands perpendicular to the log as a balancing aid.  He walked gracefully for 3 steps and then paused, skies dipping left and then right.  Then, suddenly, he bolted, running across the log slowly leaning further and further to the left.  At the last moment, he leapt toward shore, landing in the shallows, safe with only wet boots.    We all thought he had done well, even if a bit ungracefully.

Mark and I said our farewells to Brian and headed toward civilization.  The drive out to DIA was interminable but Mark was able to gain enough extra time at the airport that he could take steps to avoid stinking out the other passengers on the 2-hour flight to Chicago.  Whether he did or not, I never found out.

Complications:

  • Mixed skill level group
  • Arbitrarily short timeframe

Mistakes:

How we got lucky:

  • Weather was good both days
  • Nothing happened to less experienced partner left behind
  • Dangerous route selection didn’t result in injury or death
  • Foolish river crossings didn’t result in injury or death

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