Posts Tagged ‘traverse’

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

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For Whom the Bells Toll

February 28, 2010

Due to a rare alignment of coincidences, Brian and I were able to join up again for a hard 14er traverse; our last big traverse effort together was the successful Crestone traverse just over 1 year ago done to celebrate my 40th birthday.  We both wanted to do the Maroon Bell traverse, but for different reasons.  Brian had attempted the Maroon Bells traverse seven years prior (summited on North Maroon Bell, but not on South Maroon Bell) while I climbed South Maroon Bell (SMB) in 2002 but had not attempted North Maroon Bell (NMB) yet; a successful traverse would check-off a peak for both of us.  Plus, it is one of Roach’s “Great Traverses.”  We had to do it.

A view of the Bells from Pyramid, taken a few days earlier

Our planning discussions led us to plan on a N-S-N traverse with a N-S option if the weather was bad or we were too slow.  I had done the standard SMB route and felt confident I remembered the trail.  Brian felt that the double traverse and descent via NMB would be faster and easier, if we could finish the traverses before the weather came.

Day One

On Thursday night I made my dutiful check on the weather forecast; and it was bad.  The forecast called for “morning thunderstorms and rain and afternoon thunderstorms and rain; chance of precipitation 50%.”  It was the worst forecast I’ve headed into yet; and this effort would have the longest exposure to weather problems of any climb we’d done to date.  Still, we’ve done enough climbing over the years to know just how unpredictable the weather can be…we decided to proceed and hope for luck.

We started toward Aspen on Friday, August 1, 2003, in the late afternoon with a plan to hike up to a campsite near the starting point for NMB.  Our driving speed was good the entire way and we arrived at 8:00pm.  Anxious to make progress before dark, we quickly hiked up from the Maroon Lake Trailhead west before the fading daylight forced us to pull out the headlamps prior to the cutoff for Pyramid.  Now hiking more carefully, we continued up in the dark, past Crater Lake, and watched carefully for the turnoff for Maroon-Snowmass Trail. We found it and took it for approximately 0.5 mile to where we found a previously used campsite, 20 feet off the trail and buried in the trees. We setup camp and turned in with hopes of a restful nights sleep (position #1 on map).

Our N-S-N route up North & South Maroon Bells

Day Two

I didn’t sleep well and so the pre-dawn alarm was not welcome. But with our bad weather forecast, we both jumped up and got ready for our big day on August 2nd in 2003.

The Climb of North Maroon Bell

A beautiful field of flowers below the North Maroon Bell north face

We quickly found the cut-off a short way above our campsite.  We crossed the Minnehaha Creek before we wandered up through trees and rocks to reach a grassy area and then a rock glacier below North Maroon’s North Face as the daylight started to pick up.

Brian had been more of a speed devil than ever; and I kept up until I was ready to puke.  Oddly, I really felt bad and needed a 15 minute rest in the talus field in the basin below NMB’s north face to recollect myself (position #2). I felt bad enough to go home.

Hiking Pace Maxim: Hike at your own pace or slower

Each of us has a sustainable pace based on our conditioning, our physical mechanics, and the situation; going too fast means to risk illness (mountain sickness, deydration, bonking), injury (falls, twisted ankle) and loss of situational awareness (concentrating too much on footing).

Joe heading toward the grassy gully from the rock glacier (Brian says sorry for taking too long to get film developed)

Starting to feel better and anxious not to lose the weather, I started up again.  We completed the traverse of the rock field and found a trail at “a point below the lowest cliffs on the NE ridge”. We used that trail to do an ascending traverse below the cliffs to get to a broad grassy gully.

It was a very cool setting: a thin trail cut into side of the mountain and a magnificent drop down to the valley floor.

The grassy gully that we took to begin our ascent of North Maroon Bell

We followed the trail south under the grassy gully, and then we started up the left side of the gully following a worn trail (position #3).  We climbed about 600’  before exiting on the left side below some white cliffs.  After we exited the grassy gully, we turned a corner and traversed across ledges to reach a 2nd gully (position #4).

Just like South Maroon Bell, the North is a steep pile of rocks just barely hanging on before committing to a suicide plunge to the bottom. Every rock we stepped on was a potential death missile for any below us.

In the 2nd gully, we worked our way higher to reach some challenging ledges below the ridge crest.  We then hiked up the remaining distance to reach the ridge at approximately 13,100’ (position #5). We stayed approximately on the ridge the rest of the way.

The first major obstacle we found on the ridge was the infamous “rock band” at around 13,600’ where we took our first break.

We found some water run-off and stopped to take advantage. I finished my 1st liter to free up some space, and then refilled with the questionable water.  Brian recalls:

When I filled my water bottle at the rock band, it was full of moss specks, and some had six legs.  I used two iodine pills.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be my only refill opportunity up high….I would have to survive on 3 liters until returning to Minnehaha Creek.

Joe on the climb to NMB (photo by Brian)

We passed the rock band using a short Class 4 chimney, and then we navigated around numerous obstacles to stay near the ridge crest all the way to the NMB summit (position #6).

To our delight, the weather was holding. But we didn’t trust it; so we only dared stop for a quick snack before starting the traverse.

Scrambling down an obstacle on the traverse (photo by Brian)

The Traverse to South Maroon Bell

From the NMB summit, we started by following Roach’s instructions to descend southwest from the summit.  It was a surprisingly exposed first move for a 14er, but it was an effective foreshadowing of things to come.  We scrambled down a loose talus slope and then climbed up, over and around various obstacles to reach a 20-foot cliff that we downclimbed without much difficulty.

We continued the obstacle course until above a 35 foot cliff we couldn’t figure out how to downclimb safely (position #7).  We rappelled to the bottom and continued.

This was the only very difficult part of traverse, other than for the constant exposure to terrifically long falls that would provide the victim enough time to regret the error.

We had to downclimb two short cliff sections to reach the low point of the traverse, which was also the top of the Bell Cord Couloir.

From there, we began our ascent to SMB. We started up some ledges and then climbed up a gully to reach additional ledges which led to the east end of the summit ridge.

The last scrambling section was disappearing beneath our hands and feet pretty well when a big commotion behind us caused us to stop and look. It was a group of college-age men who were running up the route and racing each other to the SMB summit.  We stood aside to avoid being trampled.  Once on the summit (position #8), we learned they had run up NMB and over the entire traverse.  As I was breathing hard from my own modest efforts, I was impressed with their physical ability to do it….even as I was annoyed at the lack of courtesy involved in the process.

Brian & Joe on the summit of South Maroon Bell

The weather was holding, but just barely.  We decided we could make it back across the traverse to NMB based on the hope that our familiarity with the terrain would compensate for the slowing of our tired bodies.  We just needed the weather to hold out a couple more hours.

The Traverse Back to North Maroon Bell

North Maroon Bell from the summit of South Maroon Bell

From South Maroon‘s summit, we returned to the north along the summit ridge to the northeast corner of the peak and started for home.

We descended to the west through a series of small cliff bands and then down a loose gully. Once down the gully, we turned to the north and traversed a series of small ledges to reach the top of the Bell Cord couloir.

From the low point in the traverse, we climbed up the first 20 feet of the cliff to a small ledge, from which we scrambled another 20 feet to mount the cliff band.

From the top of this cliff band the ridge flattened out and narrowed to only a few feet (with a big drop-off to either side). We scrambled for a while along the ridge toward a 20 foot tall bump on the ridge.  We climbed up and over the spire and then down climbed another small cliff band.

More scrambling led us to the cliff that forced a rappel earlier; this time we were able to find a climbing route to get past. We continued staying mostly to the ridge until we returned to the last section below the summit.

We climbed up some talus and then some ledges to reach the summit ridge, and finally the summit where we had been a few hour earlier.

I’d have to say that I preferred the South-to-North pattern due to the predominance of climbing up vs. downclimbing.

The Descent from North Maroon Bell

Looking down at the start of the upper gully from the ridge

Everything had gone better than we had a right to expect.  The only real discomfort was my increasing dehydration.  Of course Brian was satisfied with his thimble-full; but I needed more than 3 liters for such work. Plus, I still had a touch of the mountain sickness I caught early in the day, and I was very anxious to begin losing some serious altitude.

I’ll admit to being irritated that nothing looked the same on the descent of the gully. North Maroon Bell is not a friendly mountain. I tried to follow the cairns but once again found myself lost in a sea of loose rocks.  I managed to avoid knocking anything loose, but it was a serious mental strain.

Brian and a fellow we met on the climb of NMB and SMB

About 1/2 way down the gully, it started raining and then stopped.  And that was the last of the weather. We had really gotten lucky in two ways.  One, the weather was good despite a bad forecast, and, two, the bad forecast had kept the crowd to a manageable level.  I would hate to do NMB or the traverse on a good weather forecast weekend day; the rockfall would be deadly.

Exhausted, we slowly made our way to the Minnehaha creek.  While approaching the creek, the idea formed in my mind to soak my feet in the freezing water to cure my “fire toes.”  I had been thinking about this for a long time, but never took the time to try it.  With the willing sacrifice of a few minutes, it felt so good to freeze my feet after filling my water bottles.

But then Brian reminded me that we need to get to camp to break it down and hike back to the car (Brian’s Mustang, “The Mach”) before starting the long drive home. Reluctantly, I put on my socks and boots and starting hiking, only to find that my feet hurt worse than ever!  The cold water treatment had turned on every nerve ending in my feet and turned every callus into soft cheese. Oh, the misery! The 2 mile hike back to Brian’s car was an ordeal….like hiking with broken glass in my boots.

But, once off my feet and with Brian driving home, I was able to reflect on a great trip.  I was pleased to have completed another of Roach’s Great Traverses and bag my 48th 14er.  This trip was one of the great ones:  full of strenuous effort, difficult problem-solving, and mortal danger; and our betting against the weather forecast and winning made the victory all the sweeter.  The church bells need not toll for us, except in celebration.

Brian heading toward Minihaha Creek

And as I thought about having only ten more 14ers to go, I discovered that I was both happy and sad. I had become addicted to the mental, physical and emotional challenges found on the Colorado 14ers.  Before the month’s end, I’d planned for another seven 14ers to fall beneath my Makalus:  Chicago Basin Group (8/14/03) & Wilson Group (8/6/03).  The list of remaining 14ers would soon be very short indeed.

And a big ‘thank-you’ to Brian for thinking of a great trip report title.

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Odessa Gorge Circuit

February 14, 2010

In preparation for my upcoming 40th birthday 14er trip to bag the Crestone Traverse, I wanted to get in some snow climbing and some rock scrambling.  I suggested we try one of the cols in Odessa Gorge for a start; Brian agreed.

We left the Bear Lake parking lot at 7am and headed up toward Lake Helene.

Our route with sequence numbers corresponding to route description below

Step 1

I had originally liked the look of the East Couloir, but a team got into it ahead of us.  We didn’t want to eat rolling snow for 1000’ so we turned up the “Hourglass” (class II W14 per Rossiter); it is the middle couloir of the three Flattop Northface couloirs.

The snow was in good shape but the temperature was very warm, so we hurried to finish before the snow turned problematic.  We made good time until reaching the overhanging cornice blocking our access to Flattop.

We worried about the cornice falling on us and about us falling off the cornice, so we setup a belay behind some big boulders near the top on the left side.  Brian found/made a path over the cornice involving some tunneling and some mantling; my position off to the left provided good protection from the massive snow chunks raining down the slope.  He then brought me up and we moved a few yards east to reach the Tonahutu Creek trail.

Step 2

For the next portion of the day, the plan was to follow the Continental Divide in a traverse of the top edge of the gorge and then descend via a traverse to the summit of the Little Matterhorn.

After a short break, we headed west and then turned the north at Ptarmigan Pass to follow the Continental Divide.  A short bit of hiking led us to the back of Notchtop Mountain (12160’), which we studied for a short time, reminiscing about the climbs we’d done on that rock.

Cool view of Flattop and our snow route from Notchtop, with Longs, Hallett & Taylor in background

Step 3

Continuing roughly north along the Continental Divide, we made it to Knobtop Mountain (12.331’) where we stopped to look for a route to the Little Matterhorn.  I gazed over at Gabletop Mountain, thinking this might be my only chance to bag it, but I needed to get some rock scrambling practice in advance of the upcoming Crestone Traverse.   I stuck with the plan.

Step 4

We started down the Knobtop ridge and found the terrain, while a bit loose, was sufficient for a proper ridge traverse.  We stayed on the ridge much of the time until we reached the end of the ridge and the Little Matterhorn (11586’).  To get onto the summit of the Little Matterhorn, we had to negotiate some challenging, but with a bit of route-finding, not overly difficult terrain.  I’d call it 4th class, just to be conservative.

Joe on Little Matterhorn summit with Notchtop in distance

We scrambled up to the summit of the Little Matterhorn and found it to be a worthy summit with great views into the Odessa Lake area.  We also found a cool chimney on the north side that we descended a bit just to play around on nice rock.  I later read in Roach’s RMNP book that the Little Matterhorn is the lowest elevation peak in his book.

Little Matterhorn

Step 5

Out of water and dried up likes prunes in the hot sun, we scrambled down to Grace Falls.  At the bottom, I turned around to look at the Little Matterhorn.  I could see why it made it into Roach’s book.  It is a spectacular little peak.  And I could even see how it got the name of Little Matterhorn…it sort of looks like the real thing, just on a smaller scale.

Then we bushwhacked up to the Fern Lake trail, which we hiked to cover the 3+ miles back to the Bear Lake parking lot.  Sunburned and dehydrated, we didn’t make any attempt to make a fast escape; we were just glad to be under tree cover and heading back to the parking lot.

We arrived at the parking lot at 4:30pm for a 9.5-hour round trip covering approximately 12 miles.

Come on Crestones! (see 5 14ers for my 40th)

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The Casco Fiasco

February 5, 2010


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 Long Day in The Wilsons

March 9, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

My route to collect "The Wilsons"

My route to collect "The Wilsons"

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

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

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

A view from Mt Wilson of my route to Wilson Peak

A view from Mt Wilson of my route to Wilson Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of El Diente and the traverse from Mt Wilson

A view of El Diente and the traverse from Mt Wilson

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

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

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

The "Organ Pipes"

The "Organ Pipes"

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

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

My descent from El Diente

My descent from El Diente, seen from Wilson Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Five 14ers for my 40th birthday

December 12, 2008


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

Route Map

Route Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Studying the map for a clue

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from Challenger Peak

The view from Challenger Peak

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

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

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

The Crestone Peaks seen during the Humboldt descent

The Crestone Peaks seen during the Humboldt descent

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

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

Consuming every last calorie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River rocks imbedded in weak cement

River rocks imbedded in weak cement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the descent was endless.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

How we got lucky:

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

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