MT. MASSIVE 14,421'

Mt. Massive 14,421'

06 August 2012

Well, I meant to tackle the non-standard southeast ridge on the ascent, then take the standard east slopes on the descent, but I missed my turn on the way up, so I took the standard route out and back. The southeast ridge didn't really offer any interesting problems; I just thought it'd be fun to get off the beaten path. Maybe next time. As it turned out, I only saw about a dozen folks all day anyways. And besides, I had the summit all to myself during my brief stay at 14,421 feet. Fourteen 14ers down; I'm on my way now! 

QUANDARY PEAK 14,265'

QUANDARY PEAK 14,265'

07 August 2012

I’ve definitely progressed beyond the standard routes for most of the easy walk-up peaks. For Quandary, I opted for the west ridge, which included some route-finding, a few class III walls, and some pretty substantial exposure. Now that’s fun! 

I slept in this morning, because I wanted to get a good look at what the weather was going to do before I got going. Besides, I only had two miles to the summit along the ridge, then about 6.5 miles down the standard route and along the road back to my trailhead of origin. Easy. Ok, not that easy. It took me about three hours to reach the summit. I pushed my limits a little bit by managing all of the route-finding solo without using my references. (Yes, they were in my pocket in case I got myself into trouble.) Much of the trail wasn’t very well-marked, but that’s what I was expecting. It was a great experience, if a bit tedious and sketchy at times. The funny part? It took me less than three hours to cover the 6.5 miles back to my car from the summit. That’s the standard route for ya.

On the final (big) class III wall before the summit, I chose the class IV line for the upper half. I wanted to get a taste of the class IV action while I still had the option to skip it. It felt good, really good. One step a time, one move at a time, one wall at a time. I’m really lovin’ pushing my limits out here. It makes me feel like I’m living better, harder, faster than before. I can feel myself growing physically, mentally, and emotionally with each new experience, each new place, each new job.

When I finally got back to my car, right at 12p, I was greeted by a few other hikers and a clan of mountain goats, three babies and an adolescent among them. I’d seen the same group in the basin below the ridge on the way up this morning, and again from the summit ridge on my descent (I could barely make out their white coats in the parking lot, and I didn’t expect them to still be there when I finally arrived a few hours later). Over the course of the day, I’d snapped over 200 photos of them, many of those in poor light in the morning, so I was pleased they were still in the mood for pictures this afternoon. Well, pleased until I found out from another hiker that one of the little ones had hopped up onto my car just before I arrived. Apparently he was checking out the rocket box; must’ve expected some sort of treats. I went over to inspect. Sure enough, I could see the scuff marks from his little hooves. He’d been on the hood, the roof, and even a little on the trunk. At least he didn’t pee on it. Well, at least I don’t think he did. I can’t be too upset. There don’t seem to be any serious dents or other damage, just some scuff marks. It’s about time she got a little beat up anyways; it’s been four years! Besides, it’s worth it just for the story. And one of the bystanders offered to email me a photo, so I’m obviously looking forward to that!

CAPITOL PEAK 14,130'

Capitol Peak 14,130'

12 August 2012

I’ve been very deliberately working my way up in class and exposure all summer (Kelso Ridge on Torreys, the southwest ridge on Quandary, and more). Well, really since my first hike on Angel’s Landing during my road trip back in 2008. It’s incredible how far I’ve come in terms of confidence, coolness, and general comfort with some of the technical stuff on these peaks, but always with an attentive, cautious eye, and never without a twinge of anxiety. I’m not trying to die up here, but I can’t say I wasn’t absolutely psyched on the possibility of standing on that summit, or maybe it was the opportunity to traverse the knife edge. Either way, I was all about it.

The weather has been crappy the last two days leading into my bid, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a clear sky at 330a this morning. That was all I needed; I grabbed my gear and hit the trail. Of course, it was still pretty dark. I was camped at Capitol Lake, just below the peak, because we were leading a volunteer trail crew on the switchbacks just above the lake. I was taking a day off to visit a friend in Denver and figured I’d just tag the summit “on my way” out. I conquered the steep switchbacks and made the ridge in under 30 minutes. I was rolling but maybe too fast. I dropped onto the southwest slopes and started making my way to the base of K2.

I was blind beyond 100′ and operating primarily on instinct as I navigated a few gullies and a large boulder field. There were some cairns, but not enough to rely on them via headlamp. The crescent moon shining above me was stunning, but useless for all practical purposes. Is that a cairn or a pointed rock?? It was always reassuring to pass a legit cairn. Ok, at least I haven’t screwed up yet. I knew I was supposed to be running below and parallel to the ridge, but I could hardly see the silhouette rising above me, so it was difficult to gauge how much elevation I’d lost or when I needed to turn right and angle up towards the K2 summit. There was very little exposure on this portion of the route, but the loose gullies, shifting boulders, and sketchy rock kept things interesting. Awesome hike.

By far the scariest part all morning was the down climb off of K2. Down climbing is intimidating anyways, but doing a class III/IV down climb in the dark is…well, uncomfortable for me. It was still (kinda) fun. I had bright twilight by the time I made the knife edge and the rest of the technical ridge sections. It was an incredible climb, my favorite so far. It’ll be tough to top, but I have some cool stuff on the to do list, so anything is possible.

LA PLATA PEAK 14,336'

La Plata Peak 14,336'

16 August 2012

Sketch city. The Ellingwood Ridge alternate looked totally sweet, but it ended up being miserable. One wrong turn, that’s all it takes. Shortly after making the ridge, it was apparent that it was going to be a slow, tedious traverse filled with moderate-to-difficult route-finding (no trail and very few cairns). I’m not easily discouraged, so my spirits were still high.

Before I made it halfway through the first crux area, I was willing it to be over. I say “area,” because there isn’t just one wall and a nice suggested route; it’s a whole mess of stuff with little-to-no guidance at all. The crumbling rock was hardly reassuring.

I was rapidly becoming frustrated with the whole thing, but especially the route-finding. It wasn’t long before I became keenly aware that I was off route. I was on good ground, so I took a moment to look around. I could see a system of ledges above me. It looked like my exit, so I climbed a short, easy class V section to gain the ledges. Now I don’t mind a little free-soloing of a class IV or even V, but I genuinely dislike down climbing that stuff. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have to, so I pressed on. About 25 feet up, I could see my intended route more clearly and could tell with certainty that that wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I took a deep breath, explored a bit, then bit the bullet. I was gonna be down climbing. But where was I heading? Then I spotted it: purple webbing wrapped around a chockstone and secured with a locking carabiner. It was quite a bit lower and clearly indicated that the gully was my exit. Not the solution for which I was hoping but certainly better than being lost. The line down to the gully was unclear, since I wasn’t where I was supposed to be to begin with. I found a direct class IV/V down climb that looked acceptable. There was an easy class V traverse standing between me and the proposed down climb. The traverse looked pretty straightforward, but the ledge was narrow (maybe 4″) and there was some overhanging rock rising above it. We’ll call it suboptimal. Still- I was optimistic, so I went for it.

Sure-ok-yeah, I went for it. It was that simple, but it wasn’t. The traverse wasn’t too bad until the line ran out just above the down climb. I lowered my left leg and gave my foot hold a solid kick to make sure it could hold my weight. My heart shot into my throat, then steadily sank to the pit of my stomach as the rock cantilevered out of the slope (quite literally) in slow motion. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Given the approximate dimensions, I’d be willing to bet it weighed about what I do. I listened attentively while it crashed clumsily down the steep gully for a few long seconds before a still silence ultimately prevailed. As you might imagine, my heart was pounding. You wanna talk adrenaline? Ok, let’s talk. I was physically shaking and could actually feel terror taking hold. I knew I was in trouble when a fleeting thought came to mind: What would it feel like to follow that rock down the gully? Would I live? God, I hope not. That’s how I knew I was in deep. I noticed I was gripping my hand holds unnecessarily tightly and all of my muscles were getting pumped. I needed to calm down; I needed to consider my options; I needed to make a decision.

For the first time – on this, my 17th fourteener – I would’ve preferred to have had someone up there with me. Too late. No sense getting lost in that fantasy.

Instead I mounted my tenuous perch, relaxed my muscles, and took a slow, deep breath. How did I get here? Nevermind, it doesn’t matter. How do I get down without jumping 200 feet? I looked back the way I’d come, but suddenly those exposed, overhanging holds didn’t look so inviting. I checked and re-checked options on my proposed line, but that was the only foot hold. And now it was gone, long gone. I didn’t want to be on the perch; I didn’t wanna be on that ridge; I didn’t even wanna be on that peak anymore. But I didn’t regret one single decision that had brought me there, even as badly as I wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

That was the fear working its way into my psyche. My lifestyle carries with it inherent dangers. Sure I could change the way I live, the hobbies I love, but all that would get me is a life full of unfulfilled dreams. I know it’s morbid, but I need my family and loved ones to be mentally prepared for the terrible possibility that they’ll have to bury me. I don’t have a death wish, but dying young because I’m pursuing my dreams is far less tragic than the alternative. I celebrate the life I’m living every single day. And should it end prematurely, I want all of you that I love to do the same. I’ve experienced more in 26 years than many folks do in a lifetime, but that’s because I’m chasing my dreams. It’s not that I’m not afraid of dying; it’s that I’m more afraid of missing the wonderful opportunity to really live.

And for my trouble, I know myself as well as anyone else, and better than most. When you’re standing on the brink – real or imagined – more afraid of surviving the fall than of dying, that’s when you meet yourself. That’s when you see your naked heart. And you can’t know that part of you until you’re on the edge. Thank you for putting it so eloquently, Grandma. I had no idea how to say it.

Of course, I worked my way out of it. I had to very cautiously retrace my moves. It was unpleasant but not long before I was back on stable ground. The rest of the traverse was even slower and more tedious; I wasn’t looking for a repeat offense. I looked up shortly after exiting the crux area, and my heart filled with anxiety when I saw the clouds had been building during my ordeal. Fortunately they abated over the coming hours. This wasn’t the place to get trapped in a lightning storm.

Once my mind and body settled, I realized that part of my trouble today was that I hadn’t been properly hydrated to begin with, and I couldn’t catch up. I had a light but persistent headache (extremely rare for me), I hadn’t peed very many times over the previous few hours, my lips were dry and cracking, and my tongue was swollen. Classic signs. But it’s not like I could simply chug a few liters; I had to budget my precious lifeblood. Normally 3 liters would’ve been more than enough, but it took me seven hours to make the summit. I’ve never been on a mountain that long when I wasn’t working. I’m generally up and down in considerably less time than that. I’d underestimated my route. It wasn’t a critical mistake, but the descent was more unpleasant than it needed to be.

Ten hours and as many miles after leaving my car, I returned safely, none the worse for wear. And maybe a bit better. Sure the experience was terrifying, but it was also reassuring. Yes, reassuring. Most of us like to think that we’d be calm, cool, and collected if we found ourselves in a position where one ill-advised move could mean the difference between walking away and not. But the truth is that we can’t know who we are in that situation until we live it. I’d be willing to bet that all of us would struggle to keep a level head and our wits about us the first time we face that risk. Most of us can do it, but it’s unnatural. If you don’t make a call – and own it – then terror can take hold and paralyze you.

As you can imagine, decisions become more difficult to make when you have no safety net, no opportunity to correct an error. You must be fully committed. I had to trust myself completely and accept the nature of the predicament. Today I found my limit, my terror, and I know what’s in my heart. Tomorrow my limit will be a half step further, and then another the day after that. Let’s be real, this isn’t the only time I’ll find myself in this kind of situation. Now I know with certainty that I possess the self-control and confidence to keep making decisions. I’m not going to actively seek out terrifying situations, but I’m not going to surrender to them either. Remember that at that critical moment, engulfed in terror, I wasn’t psyched about it, but I didn’t regret one decision that brought me there either. How many people get to say that?

May we all find our limit; may we all meet our naked hearts. 

There are many fourteeners on my list that I will likely return to one day, most of them the more challenging and exciting. La Plata is not one of those. It left a disturbingly sour taste in my mouth. I’d put myself in a position with few outs, though this outcome is hardly the mountain’s fault. Regardless, the experience has taken the wind out of my sails…but I doubt the damage is permanent. More summits to come in the next few days.

The Peak draws some people like a siren but rejects others.
If it draws you, approach with respect and caution.

– Gerry Roach

WETTERHORN PEAK 14,015'

WETTERHORN PEAK 14,015'

19 August 2012

I knew I had to get up on the peaks again – and quick – after the La Plata fiasco. I drove over four hours to Wetterhorn’s lower 2WD trailhead last night and slept in my car. My alarm went off too early this morning, and I woke grumpily, dawned my gear, grabbed my pack, and set out for the dramatic and beautiful Wetterhorn Peak. La Plata had rattled me, but I’m not ready to triage my beloved Colorado high country. I wanted to ease back into it with a straightforward, well-marked class III scramble with some good ol’ class IV exposure. Enter Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak.

The crux was tucked neatly away just below the summit. After a long morning of hiking and easy scrambling, I finally reached the base of the final 100-foot pitch. It was a class III wall with pretty solid rock and ledges, plenty of good holds for both hands and feet. The exposure was dramatic, falling away sharply for hundreds of feet beneath me. I was anxious and excited. And here’s the kicker: the down climb was every ounce as wonderful as the up. This was the fourteener experience which I treasure. It was one of my favorite peaks: the hike was fun, the climb was challenging, and the view was stunning.

The crux was fun. My least favorite part was by far the loose, steep, fine sediment scramble just above the saddle. That’s the crap I hate ascending/descending. There are no footholds on the way up, and no foot brakes on the way down. It’s not really dangerous; there’s no exposure. It’s just tenuous and annoying. Rather than slide down on my butt, I ran for it. I figured why fight gravity when I can let it do the work. I clumsily raced to the wide, firm saddle below.

The rest of the descent was a total breeze. I even got a well-deserved ride for the last quarter mile(ish) to the lower trailhead. Jamie – a cool guy I met at the summit – stopped and offered. I’m not too proud to accept, so that was that. He mentioned that I should think about Pyramid Peak. He’s not the first to recommend that climb, but I’ll have to find a climbing buddy if I decide to tackle it. I think that route is just a hint out of my league for a solo bid, at least for now.

I’d thought about tagging the Matterhorn while I was up there, but on my way down, I decided that it wasn’t worth regaining all of that elevation for a summit that wasn’t a Centennial. Man, that sounds snotty, but that’s how I felt. Besides I didn’t have any route information, so the top section would likely require some route-finding. It was probably marked by cairns, but I didn’t care enough to go find out. Plus I’m behind on some stuff, not the least of which is sleep. And I have a few hours of driving ahead to get over to the lower 2WD Sneffels trailhead for tomorrow’s summit bid. It just wasn’t gonna happen. No regrets; it was certainly for the best.

MT. SNEFFELS 14,158'

MT. SNEFFELS 14,158'

20 August 2012

This one was pretty quick. Most of the hike was along the 4WD road, which I obviously wasn’t going to attempt to drive in my little Corolla. Once I arrived at the trailhead, I only had a mile to the summit. I’d started early under starlight, but when I looked up at the trailhead, it looked darker. I realized I couldn’t see stars. I couldn’t tell how ominous the clouds were, since the sun hadn’t risen yet. It had sprinkled intermittently, but nothing serious. I decided to press on and keep an eye on it. I’d stop and re-evaluate the situation at the base of the lower gully, since that would be the first tough part of my morning. The weather continued to play peak-a-boo, but it looked reasonable when I started up the first (of two) gullies. It was loose, not my favorite, and my progress was pretty slow. Fortunately I had a much better view at the saddle; unfortunately it had started sprinkling again. The weather persisted for a short bit, so I waited patiently at the saddle to see what it was going to do, all the while keenly aware that it would do exactly what it wanted to do, that it wouldn’t ask permission and might not give much warning.

I knew I was on the edge, as I often am above treeline, so I committed to do the best I could with the information I had. All I could reasonably do was evaluate, re-evaluate, and re-evaluate again. So that’s what I did. I’d chosen control points along my route since leaving the trailhead. I watched the sky vigilantly, but took extra care to stop and re-evaluate at each of those control points. I decided that thunder was my “no questions asked” turn around point regardless of how close I was to the summit, but it never came.

From the saddle, it looked like the lighter, nicer clouds were moving towards me. I had a decision to make. I wasn’t opposed to turning back if the situation demanded it, but I recognized the pull of what some call “summit fever.” I very consciously looked at my situation, expelling emotion from the equation. When the rain stopped and the sun revealed reasonably mellow clouds, I decided quite decisively to go for it. The upper gully was steeper, but the rocks were a little more solid, so I managed it a little quicker than the lower one. Still it took me longer than I’d hoped to make the summit, all the while with a watchful eye on the weather.

I made the summit with just enough time to take in the view and snap a quick photo before the light rain began to fall again. It was time to go, no reason to be up there anymore, no decision left to make. There was one move left: down. The rain continued for the duration of my descent of the two gullies, then it really started falling at the base of the lower gully, as if on cue. Since I was on solid ground, and there was no lightning or thunder, the rest of my trek back to the car was actually just a different kind of fun. I simply enjoyed the new experience. No regrets. Money, time, and effort well-spent.

CRESTONE NEEDLE 14,197'

CRESTONE NEEDLE 14,197'

21 August 2012

On my way over to the trailhead yesterday, I drove under a full rainbow as I passed through Salida. If that’s not a good omen, I dunno what is.

Crestone Needle is another peak and route that ranks up there among my very favorites so far. The class III segment was long, but the knobs were solid and there were plenty of them from which to choose. I’d gotten another alpine start, departing the trailhead just after 330a, so I was climbing up the east-switch-west gully just below the summit pretty early this morning. In fact, the rock was still just a little slick. I even saw snow and ice in some sections. Can you believe that?!

The climb was awesome, and the route was well-marked, including the challenging section where I traversed a rib to leave the east gully and enter the west gully for the final push to the summit ridge. That’s the part where people tend to get turned around.

The weather was still holding beautifully when I gained the summit, right around 10a (I think). I enjoyed the wonderful view. It was nice to have that kind of summit to myself. I could see three fourteeners, so close I could almost reach out and touch ’em: Humbolt Peak, Crestone Peak, and Kit Carson Peak. The drops were drastic on all sides, save the one I’d come up, which was only slightly less so. I took a traditional summit photo, then hit the proverbial road. It was a long climb/hike down. (The total round trip route to the lower trailhead is over 18 miles.) Much to my surprise, the down climb was far more fun than the up on this one. Yippikiyay.

My knees had been talking to me for most of the weekend, but they were screaming as I made my way back to the car. Let’s be honest, I’ve just wrapped up a tough (but equally fun!) weekend. Tomorrow will be a welcomed easy day. We’re prepping for our next Capitol hitch, which won’t even really get underway until Thursday afternoon. I’m looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow…and Thursday? I’m not doing any summits next weekend; it’ll be my first real weekend off pretty much since I got here. Work hard; play hard.

MT. OF THE HOLY CROSS 14,005'

MT. OF THE HOLY CROSS 14,005'

26 August 2012

This was an impromptu trek. I was at REI in Denver yesterday after we finished up at Evans when I realized that I had enough gear for a summit bid on Mt. of the Holy Cross. It was kind of a big realization, since I’d triaged that peak because I didn’t wanna drive my car 8 miles down a 2WD dirt road that was “passable for most passenger cars.” I had the rig yesterday and the trailhead was on the way back to the yurt (within reason), so I drove in late last night, got a few hours of sleep, and tagged the summit first thing this morning. It was another early, cold morning. The hike itself was straightforward; it’s a total walk-up, very minimal class II scrambling. Fortunately I was up early enough to have the summit to myself. I saw a whole lot of people on their way up as I came down. Per usual, it was nice to be down with most of the day to spare. This one didn’t really blow my hair back, but I figured I’d get it while the gettin’ was convenient. Glad I did.

CRESTONE PEAK 14,294' AND HUMBOLDT PEAK 14,064'

CRESTONE PEAK 14,294' AND HUMBOLDT PEAK 14,064'

03 September 2012

Ok, so my most recent summit was an improv. More on that later. I was hoping to tackle Pyramid Peak with Guinn today, but he bailed to prep for his next project. He’s promised to join me on the 10th, so that’s the goal, weather permitting. I hastily packed my car and headed for the Crestone Peak trailhead, arriving just before 11p. It was gonna be another short night followed immediately by another long day, but I was totally in.

On the way out, I had two near misses. Signs? Nah. I nearly hit an adolescent bear that was chilling (quite literally) in the middle of my lane around a tight bend. I slammed on the brakes, coming to a stop almost before he made a move. I reacted immediately upon seeing his dark silhouette. I thought it was a shaggy dog until I was nearly on top of him…nope, definitely a bear. It’s gotta be my spirit animal, lucky little bugger. Less than a half hour later, a young deer (who hadn’t even lost his spots yet) trotted out into the road as I approached. Again, I slammed on the brakes and rapped the horn. He turned – almost on a dime – and jetted back into the night.

After a restless night, my alarm buzzed, rattled, and sang far too early…3a, to be exact. I was instantly filled with adrenaline; I’ve been looking forward to the Red Gully for weeks. The weather was crappy, but not threatening, so I figured I’d hike the 6.5 miles to Lower South Colony Lake and re-evaluate. I reached treeline after a 5-mile approach and about an hour before the sun crested the ridge. I found a big tree and took shelter to see what the weather was gonna do before proceeding. I was keenly aware that turning around would mean a wasted trip, but that wasn’t gonna stop me from doing so. The mountain isn’t nearly as fragile as I am; I can always come back.

Red sky at morning, hikers take warning. And the sky was bright red after my 30-minute power nap.

It wasn’t encouraging, but the sky was behind me. Besides the clouds were moving fast and conditions seemed to be improving in the short term. I pressed on, watching the sky vigilantly as I made my way to the saddle. I planned to stop and re-evaluate at that point. The clouds persisted throughout the morning, but my view from the saddle revealed patchy rain at worst. I pressed on and re-evaluated conditions yet again at the base of the Red Gully. This was the point at which my climb became more technical, and consequently where retreat would be more tedious.

At the Red Gully, I could see the summit. Well actually, I couldn’t. The summit proper was shrouded in fog and low clouds. Much of the sky was blanketed in them, but they weren’t threatening. After a water break – and a few patches of blue breaking through the cloud cover – I decided once more to press on. The climb from here was long (about 1,300 feet to the saddle just below the summit), but it was straightforward.

My greatest regrets were two-fold: (1) the light was terrible during both my ascent and my descent, so my photos of the impressive Red Gully don’t even begin to do the climb justice; and (2) it was a total whiteout at the summit, meaning I could hardly see ten feet in front of me. Yes the weather held sufficiently for me to bag my peak, but the experience was bitter-sweet. I still loved the climb, but I think the view beyond the clouds was breathtaking, and I would’ve liked to have seen it. To be fair, the climb into the clouds was one-of-a-kind.

After descending the gully, I still had to climb up and over Broken Hand Pass to get back to South Colony Lakes. It doesn’t sound like much, but I loathe unnecessary elevation gain/loss. It takes a lot out of me, and it’s mentally taxing to boot. If that’s my greatest challenge out here, I’m doing ok.

I arrived at the lakes just before noon and contemplated a quick jaunt up Humboldt Peak. It was an unchartered stop, but Humboldt is a total walk-up. Besides it’s a pretty peak. At this point, the clouds were still hovering menacingly above me. I knew there was a small chance of storms after 4p, but treeline wasn’t far from where I stood at that moment, and a hasty descent from Humboldt would be perfectly manageable. Sure I would’ve preferred clear skies, but the clouds were thin and fragmented, which was good enough for me. I figured I could knock it out in three hours, tops. I was actually hoping to be ahead of that time, but the season has taken a toll. I’m still cruising, but not the way I was. It took me three hours flat, and the weather held. It was totally worth every (painful) step.

I hiked out ahead of the weather and turned back from my car to see storm clouds gathered decisively over the Sangre de Cristo Range. Win.

MT. SHAVANO 14,229' AND TABEGUACHE PEAK 14,155'

MT. SHAVANO 14,229' AND TABEGUACHE PEAK 14,155'

18 September 2012

Not too much to say about these guys. The whole 12 mile route was quite straightforward but still fun. The wind was brutal at the summit of Shavano, but fortunately it calmed significantly as I traversed to Tabeguache. Seeing snow in the high country in September was a bit surreal for a Georgia boy, but it was cool…and a good sign for the winter! That said, the conditions made the class II scrambling a little slower and more tedious than usual. Small price to pay, if you ask me. Shav-Tab was more a hike than a climb, and more a jaunt than a hike, anyways. Lovely.