05 September 2016
Day 1 :: Purgatory to Chicago Basin + Eolus and North Eolus :: 21 Miles / 7,000′ Gain
Day 2 :: Windom and Sunlight + Chicago Basin to Purgatory :: 22 Miles / 5,000′ Gain
Chicago Basin, my capstone 14er project.
I packed up and started to walk away from the car yesterday morning at 10a. Then it started raining, so I threw my pack in the car and went back to sleep. I figured there was no sense getting wet first thing when it was forecasted to clear up after 3p, which I hoped would allow for some late summits. I finally left at 9a.
The approach to Needleton from Purgatory – including the Animas River Trail – was nice, but I’ll take the train when I go back. Expensive, yes. But I think worth the money to save the miles. Including the approach, I packed in 16 miles to reach Chicago Basin. I beat most of the folks who had taken the train and managed to score a wicked campsite, a wonderful compromise between protection from the elements and an incredible view of the surrounding high country. Oh, how I love a site with a view! Contrary to my usual ultralight backpacking methodology, I brought my Hubba-Hubba tent and a hammock with me expecting that I’d have some down time. Instead, I got back to camp following the Eolus and North Eolus climbs, went straight to bed, and got up early to tag Windom and Sunlight before packing out today. Happy to have the tent, but the hammock was a bit much.
The climb up Windom this morning was freezing. My alarm went off at 235a, as I was originally planning an unnecessarily early alpine start. (I forgot how close I was. This is only the second time I’ve camped rather than climbing peaks from the lower trailheads.) The wind against my tent sounded like smatterings of rain, so I hit snooze for an hour. Good thing, too, since the only layer I brought with me on the climb was a light rain jacket. My hands were numb and I was shivering uncontrollably on the Windom summit for half an hour waiting for the warm sun to crest the distant ridge. Cursing myself for leaving my puffy behind, and at the same time feeling tremendous gratitude that I’d slept in. Coulda been worse.
That’s the thing about this, and many of the “fun” adventures I write about and post photos from, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes, many times actually, I’m uncomfortable. But there is never anywhere else I’d rather be. That’s love. So glad I saved these four incredible climbs for last. Eolus and North Eolus were among my absolute favorite of the fourteeners. Class I approach all the way to the saddle, no loose gullies, just solid Class III climbing to the summit. So fun. And Windom and Sunlight were phenomenal as well.
The climb up Sunlight was relatively quick. Tougher than Windom and Eolus, I thought. The summit block is terrifying. In my opinion, the hype isn’t overstated at all. It seems to me that lots of climbers are unfazed by exposure. Not me. I feel loads of fear and anxiety; I just push myself beyond my comfort zone. I was grateful I’d had the foresight to bring my climbing shoes with me. Appreciated the extra grip and probably wouldn’t have topped out without them. Phew, stoked I went for it and glad I’m done.
The weather worked out perfectly for my overnight trip. It was stormy early yesterday, then cleared later in the evening, allowing for my 7p summit of Eolus and North Eolus last night. And today was gorgeous, if cold and a bit windy this morning. Actually, it was windy the whole time I was up there. The windy basin, if you will. The hike out this afternoon was tedious. Gah, shoulda taken the train. I was making great time and decided to stop at the Animas and soak my feet for the better part of half an hour before the last five-ish mile climb to the car. Again, contrary to my usual style. Clutch move, though. Sweet relief.
Four summits in two days, and I had each of them all to myself. Just the way I like it. Feels like a fitting way to end my fourteener project. Thirty two and a half hours, all told. Twenty-five and a half moving time. And much of that with a full pack. With the right weather system, coulda been a 24-hr challenge hike. Ah well, maybe another time. For now, there are other adventures I’d rather pursue.
Maroon Peak 14,156'
01 September 2016
I left Durango last night at 9p following a company celebration. After four and a half hours of driving – and with just 30 minutes between me and my destination – I got pulled over by a police officer in Basalt. Apparently he clocked me at 64 in a 45. Oops. He gave me a quick, easy verbal warning. Start to finish was under 10 minutes, so that was a pleasant surprise too. “Just slow it down for me.” Well, yessir!
I pulled into the parking lot at about 230a. There were just three other cars there, quite different than the nearly full lot when I arrived at about the same time a few weekends ago. Mid-week and a gloomy weather forecast have their advantages. I climbed into the back of the car for an hour long power nap and ultimately set out beneath an unbroken blanket of brilliantly shining stars. The forecast had originally called for mostly sunny skies with afternoon thunderstorms between 1 and 4p, but upon checking the forecast again while waiting on the officer to finish in Basalt, the update was calling for storms as early as 9a. Hard to imagine with such clear skies at 4a. Ah well, I figured, worth a shot.
I had heard horror stories about route finding on Maroon Peak, but I found the process to be quite manageable. Last time I was up there, I lost the route in the braided trails below the south ridge. This time, though, I skipped the trail and headed directly for the notch in the ridge. Once there, I found some trail segments and cairns, which I was able to piece together to reach the west face. From there, I just took it slow. I never left a cairn or trail segment until I had eyes on the next. There are definitely erroneous cairns and trail markings up there, so I recommend just following the route that feels safe and makes sense to you. Worked for me.
I reached the summit after four and a half hours. It was 830a and to my surprise, the weather was only just beginning to slowly build. I was liking my chances of making it down before things got sketchy. The rain didn’t start until I got back to the car at about 123op, so it all worked out. And even better, lots of folks retreated from the lake to their cars when the sprinkling started. Had Maroon Lake to myself for a few precious moments. And the mountain, I had that to myself today as well save the fleeting company of various wildlife. Between the ptarmigan, the half dozen pikas, the howling and yipping coyotes whose cries filled the valley below, and the four foxes I saw during the drive last night- it’s been a pretty rich 12 hours.
Ticking Maroon off the list means that I only have four left, and all of those in Chicago Basin. Should just be one trip. We’ll see what the weather does these next couple weeks. I really wanna finish the 14ers this season, but it’s not looking too promising. If I understand correctly, there is already snow accumulating in Chicago Basin. Hard to imagine.
North Maroon Peak 14,014'
21 August 2016
I pulled into the parking lot at about 330a this morning and began my climb around 4a among what felt like a horde. That’s a weekend at Maroon Lake for ya. From the trail of headlamps, it looked to me like Pyramid was a more popular destination today. Still, I was hardly the only one on North Maroon. I was feeling the toll from yesterday’s climb, so I wasn’t exactly crushing today. Took me five hours to gain the summit, and a handful of climbers passed me in the gully. Shared the summit with like 10 other folks and watched longingly as a pair headed for the traverse route. I left the summit with hopes of dropping all the way down to Crater Lake and then tagging Maroon Peak separately.
The oft-feared crux pitch on North Maroon is actually really straightforward, and fun. It’s a couple class IV moves on an exposed face, but the rock is solid. I’m just a little guy, and I was able to hoist myself up a broad crack. Opted for the class III downclimb on the way back, though. That was also fun. I was leading a half dozen climbers when I hit the mouth of the gully. Not wanting to be below so many climbers, I diverted away from the standard route and tried to find an alternate through an adjacent gully. That turned out to be a waste of time and energy. Ah well, c’est la vie. I backtracked and carefully followed the other climbers down.
I didn’t get back down to Crater Lake until 1p, and weather had started to build overhead. Even so, I hated to leave without trying. There was only a 20% chance of precip, so it was hardly a foregone conclusion. I reached the Maroon Peak split by 2p still with over 4,000 feet of vertical to cover. My legs were feeling the burn, but the weather didn’t look too ominous, so I pressed on with an ever-watchful eye on the sky.
On the way up, I saw a herd of mountain goats, including a couple kiddos. One of the adults kicked a few rocks down, maybe on purpose…? Good thing I’m quick. Dodge, dip, dive, duck, and dodge. I suppose I could've taken that as a sign. Instead, I pressed on. After gaining about 2,500 feet, I finally called it. I was moving at a snail’s pace, and the sky was only getting darker. Verdict: too ambitious. Route finding is especially difficult on this peak, and I found myself off route somewhere just below the south ridge. That in and of itself is hardly a deal-breaker, but there were a lot of contributing factors which clearly indicated that it was time to turn around. So, begrudgingly, I did.
I had hoped to bag ’em both today, but I’ll have to come back for Maroon Peak. This is only the second time in 53 summits that I’ve been turned back. The other was on Pyramid, another Elk Range peak whose route begins at this same trailhead. Bad luck, perhaps. For Maroon, there is a nasty weather front moving in over the next week. Snow likely in the high country. So, that’s that. For now. Maybe a blessing in disguise, as I’m hoping to share the climb in a couple weeks with my dear friend, Kate. All things for a reason.
In 14 hours, I had one peak to show for my time and effort. Bummed I didn’t tag Maroon, and psyched I didn’t get a ticket for failing to display my park pass on my dash. Little victories amidst defeat. Good things happen all around us all the time. I try to notice and have found that feeling gratitude for little things has significantly increased my quality of life. That pattern holds here today. Another reason to be grateful: two climbers were rescued after getting themselves stranded below the summit on the North Maroon standard route today. Another reminder to be conservative in the high country. Having a climbing partner isn’t enough; taking the standard route isn’t enough. The 14ers, popular as they are, are still wilderness. Lots of bad things can happen up there. And rescue can take many hours.
Wilson - El Diente Traverse
20 August 2016
Though I had planned to tag this wicked traverse with my good friend, he got held up at work last night, so I was on my own. As I departed the trailhead this morning, I figured I’d just do the two peaks separate sans traverse, but when I got to the top of El Diente, there were a number of folks up there who were doing the traverse ahead of me. I figured I’d at least have a look.
So often in the high country, I turn a corner and see the next pitch of a route- and the dang thing looks impossible. I get totally freaked. Then I will myself forward, force myself to make the first move, and the next. And once I’m doing it, it’s not so bad. The exposure, the crumbling rock, whatever it is- it’s not so bad. For all the hype, this traverse is just another of the same. It’s actually really straightforward. And so freakin’ fun! Plenty of exposure and a couple tricky moves, but nothing that required a rope. Another risk that I’m glad I took.
I ultimately caught up to the group ahead of me. We alternated route-finding the rest of the way to Wilson. It was a long day, even with the traverse: 18 miles, 13 hours. I was feeling absolutely shredded when I finally got back to my car. Still, I wanna tag both the Bells tmw. Definitely skipping the traverse, though. Class V moves with a few rappels? Not without a partner.
Lost my phone on the descent off of Mt. Wilson today. I tried backtracking, but there is no clear route down the gully, and I couldn’t figure out which way I’d come. It could’ve been anywhere. Ah well, better my phone than my wallet, I guess. The big hiccup was that I’d asked Alex to “get worried” if he didn’t hear from me by 8p. Fortunately I have an old phone, so I was able to switch out my plan, but not until I finally made it to Montrose en route to Aspen (and the Bells). I finally got in touch with Alex at about 755p. Just in time.
Snowmass Mountain 14,092'
23 July 2016
I met my friend, Lynsey, in Denver. We spent yesterday together exploring the city, then got a few hours of sleep before driving the four hours out to the trailhead. The parking lot was totally packed this morning. We had to park down the road in a pull off. Loads of people camping up there this weekend. Including the approach, Snowmass is a 22-mile climb. We were hiking by 330a, another alpine start. I didn’t see anyone else who climbed it out and back from the trailhead. That’s my signature move. Guess I have some interesting ideas about what fun looks like.
We hiked all the way to Snowmass Lake, up the lower gully and into the gorgeous upper basin together. There, Lynsey decided she needed a nap. I was feeling good to press on, so I did. I made it up the crux, down the ridge to the summit and back in 3 hours. Not bad considering the route is exposed, loose, sketchy- especially gaining the saddle.
Weather rolled in as we made it back to the lake. The skies opened up and the hail started. It dumped for about 20 minutes, then the sun came out and everything melted almost immediately. Then the bugs came out, which made the hike back pretty gnarly. That was a shame, because the hike in this morning was lovely. Captured some really great reflection photos in the still water of Snowmass Lake on the way up, and some great photos of the building storm on the way down. Gorgeous climb, altogether.
Now all that remain are The Bells, Wilson – El Diente, and Chicago Basin. Eight. So psyched.
Little Bear Peak 14,037'
12 July 2016
I arrived last night to find a half dozen cars and an RV at the lower 2wd trailhead. I crashed for about three hours and was hiking by 4a. Another short night followed by an early morning. I passed a half dozen more rigs on the road walk, then a tent city at Lake Como. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I didn’t see another soul on Little Bear the whole day. Guess all those folks were there to climb Ellingwood-Blanca. It’s surreal to think that I was the only person to stand atop Little Bear today. On any given day, it seems like there are loads of people on the high peaks. Guess that mid-week climb paid off.
While I was mostly grateful to be alone up there, I was overcome with anxiety and a strong desire to have a climbing partner as soon as the Hourglass came into view. Still, I figured I’d at least go up and have a look before I tucked tail and ran away. Once I got to the bottom, I figured I may as well climb a little, then a little more, then a little more. It wasn’t too bad until I got above the Hourglass. That’s when it got steeper and looser. I didn’t know I was up there alone, so I was careful and meticulous to avoid kicking any rocks down into the Hourglass. Route finding was difficult too, which meant that I ended up on a couple short, easy Class V pitches. Nothing too sketchy. Just scary enough to keep me honest.
It was hard to enjoy the summit knowing that I had to downclimb a thousand feet of steep, loose terrain and Class III/IV rock. My heart was filled with anxiety, again questioning my judgment to summit alone. I just wanted to be done. This climb really pushed me. It was awesome, and terrifying. I forced myself to capture a few photos, knowing I’ll never be back. I don’t even know how to describe the steep descent. Looking over the edge from the summit was like looking over a cliff. Couldn’t stay up there scared forever, so I started down. “One step at a time, just slow it down,” I kept reminding myself during the descent.
I’d hit the summit by 10a, a six-hour trek. Managed to clear the Hourglass by noon and the lower gully by 130p. The descent was far easier than I’d expected; much easier to see the route on the way down. No style points, though. Just the good ol’ butt scoot. Finally made it back to the car at 4p. That’s a 12 hour venture to cover just 14 miles, a far cry from my usual pace. Don’t underestimate this one, folks.
Wilson Peak 14,017'
09 July 2016
I was shooting for a 2a start, because I was under the impression that my little Camry wouldn’t be able to get very far up the dirt road. To my great surprise, I was able to carefully maneuver all the way to Little Bear Creek, turning what I’d thought would be a 26 mile day into a much shorter 12 mile day. Started hiking at 310a. Good thing, too, because I struggled on the route.
En route to Silver Pick Basin this morning, I encountered some rich animal medicine, including a coyote (the trickster), an owl (the grandfather), and a porcupine (the innocent).
There were a couple lingering snowfields along the route leading up to Silver Pick Basin. Traction was helpful, though certainly not required. Once in the basin, I started following a couple who were ahead of me. I didn’t realize that they were shortcutting up the slope until I saw them cutting steps and making a b-line for the saddle. By that point, I felt reluctant to turn around. Cutting steps is tedious, so I tried to bypass them by working my way up the adjacent talus slope but ultimately decided that it was too risky to be above them, as the slope was perpetually sliding. I sat for a while and mirrored their progress, though I hated just sitting there. It felt like the whole slope might slide at any moment. And I bet I looked like a goof. Instead, I swallowed my pride, abandoned my line and backtracked to follow their lead up a firm snow finger that took us virtually to the saddle. It was a little bit sketchy with microspikes rather than crampons, but still wicked-fun. It would be so rad to get into winter mountaineering next season.
I lingered back to give them space, not in too much of a hurry this morning. When I made the saddle, I got turned around and ended up on the class IV ridge heading out toward Gladstone Peak. I didn’t realize immediately that I’d made a wrong turn, but I knew that I wasn’t on the route. My line was just a little too technical, a little too exposed. There is something especially unnerving about being off route, totally reliant on my own judgment, which today had already failed me a couple times. This time, I zigged when I shoulda zagged. I checked my map, and it clicked. I was very clearly headed in the total opposite direction of Wilson Peak. After internalizing some self-deprecating remarks about foolishly wasting valuable time and energy, I took a deep breath and turned to retrace my steps.
I had a rough day up there. Definitely didn’t score any points for style. I felt shaky on the class III sections, partly due to fatigue and partly due to general discomfort. I don’t think I have anything left for fourteeners that is less technical than class III. I feel pretty anxious, but I know it’ll get better. I’ll get more comfortable.
The summit was awesome, incredible views of the surrounding mountains and down into Telluride. The couple who had been ahead of me all day topped out before I did, but I had the place to myself for a little bit between climbing parties. Downclimbing actually restored some of my confidence. It’s a pretty technical couple hundred feet just below the summit. And one advantage to my slow progress was that the snow was soft enough to glissade on the way back down- enjoyed three different pitches. For me, the second half of the climb was a great improvement over the first.
As I neared the saddle, I dropped my phone on some steep ledges and had to downclimb to it. Sheesh. Early season jitters!
All told, it took me 11 hours to do 12 miles (with a couple bonus). Not my best work, but Wilson was a challenging climb. And a reminder that my last dozen fourteeners are going to be tedious. No cruisers left. I really need to set myself up better for these climbs. I just climbed two fourteeners in as many days on a grand total of about fives hours of sleep. No bueno.
Culebra Peak 14,047'
08 July 2016
On the way out to Ceilo Vista Ranch this morning, I caught an awesome lightning show over Little Bear Peak. Per usual, I didn’t get much sleep last night. I always start out with good intentions, then I just get caught up in this or that. Yesterday, I just spent too much time with the Bike & Build crew that road through town. I didn’t even leave Cortez until 10p last night. After a couple hours, I was exhausted, so I pulled off about an hour and a half short of the trailhead. Caught about two hours of sleep and finished out the drive. There was no way I was gonna waste a $150 permit and my only chance to climb Culebra this summer. (Culebra Peak is part of a private ranch, so access is restricted.)
The ranch gate opened at 6a, and all 25 of us drove on in, a pack. I parked at the ranch headquarters and caught a ride to the upper trailhead. I would’ve road walked the extra miles, but Ron, the proctor, was concerned about me making it down in time. If everyone isn’t signed out by 6p, then Ron has to go make sure everyone is accounted for. He encouraged me to catch a ride, so I did. Anyways, I didn’t mind saving a few miles. I’ve got nothing to prove.
We were among the first to reach the upper trailhead. (Thanks, Scott!) The climb itself was pretty pristine. No trail, all cross-country. Trail miles are easy; cross-country is another story. This was my first climb above 14,000 feet since last October. I’m freakin’ beat. So outta shape by comparison. Still, I led the charge. (Guess it’s early season for all of us.) Probably a good thing that I got in a few bonus miles on the ascent when I came up too far east on the ridge. I was orienting on what looked like a cairn, the cairn I assumed was the one that Ron had told us we couldn’t miss. Turns out, you can’t miss it on the way down. You can’t really see it at all on the way up. I made up for it on the descent by catching a ride the last mile or so of the road walk back to my car. Probably broke even.
The price of admission was pretty steep, but I think worth it. Cruised over and tagged Red Mountain as well, one of the Colorado Centennials, my first among them that’s not a 14er.