CASTLE PEAK 14,265' AND CONUNDRUM PEAK 14,060'

CASTLE PEAK 14,265' AND CONUNDRUM PEAK 14,060'

15 October 2015

Climbing 14ers is less about conquering the landscape and more about knowing myself. It’s about facing my fears and doubts, my disappointments and failures. It’s about stepping into and embracing the qualities that define me as a person. The high country is a medium, a canvas on which I can explore the depths of my heart, and my soul. That I do so alone with such regularity is the natural parallel to the life I live- and love. While I value my many communities, those whom I love and who love me, when the setting sun dips below the amber horizon, we walk alone, each of us. We have to begin there. If I can’t be alone with myself, if I can’t forgive myself my inadequacies, if I can’t say at the end of the day “I’m a badass, and I love myself,” then all else is without meaning. A facade. I am the only person who can’t walk away from me. The relationship we maintain with ourselves is the most important one. I am the seed of my own life, and you the seed of yours. To live a healthy, meaningful life, we must cultivate our seed. Deep, raw relationship is both tantamount and secondary to the human experience. Only once we have found that in ourselves can we find it with others.


I was feeling summit fever all the way from Durango yesterday. Since I was down to just 14 peaks left of the 58 fourteeners here in Colorado, it was slim pickings for a route that I could tackle with a little snow and no ice axe. Of the ones I hadn’t yet climbed, there were really only two that I was comfortable even considering. I waffled back and forth most of the day yesterday before finally committing to Castle and Conundrum around 9p. Given the 6-hour drive from Durango to Aspen, I gave myself enough time for a 2-hour cat nap before my alarm buzzed. Typical. But I hadn’t driven 250 miles for nothing, so I got moving.

The weather was projected to be a clear, beautiful 60*. (And it was.) I left the car around 545a. No rush, especially with such a positive outlook. I could’ve left earlier, but I just would’ve been colder for longer. What kinda sense does that make? Besides, I wanted to give the snow a chance to soften a little bit.

While there were definitely some dicy sections where I was stoked to have my microspikes, the vast majority of the 15-mile route was quite straightforward, and even pleasant. What an unexpected gift to be able to bag two more before calling it quits this season.

I stood atop Castle Peak alone, taking in the warm sun, clear sky and endless mountain views. I feel so much love and gratitude for this wild, untamed landscape. And for the privilege to be able to enjoy it in the way that I have. I sat up there longer than I have on any other summit. I balked at the thought of leaving, not knowing when I might next visit the high country, trying desperately to experience every view and aspect, every distant peak, the reds, greens and yellows- trying desperately to experience the beat of my own bursting heart. And as I enjoyed that sense of fullness, I also felt the weight of my own mortality, my own insignificance, as I looked out over a landscape that will be here long after I’m gone. I don’t know where that heightened awareness came from, but I know that I loved it. And then Creed (yes, everyone’s favorite band to hate) burst into song on my iPod. Hearing “Higher” begin to play in that moment, I felt stoked, inspired even. And I’m not ashamed to admit it. Judge away, folks. Judge away.

Well, two more down means just 12 to go. Of those dozen high peaks, almost all of them are classified Class III+ and characterized by shisty rock. (Little Bear, Culebra, Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson, El Diente, Snowmass, Maroon, North Maroon, Windom, Sunlight, Eolus, North Eolus.) Should be a fun couple months next summer. Can’t wait.

I’ll finish with something a good friend recently said when I described my plans for the week: “Ah!!!! You are continuing to live the coolest life!” So true, though certainly not without its own challenges and inconveniences. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m livin’ the dream.

SAN LUIS PEAK 14,014'

San Luis Peak 14,014'

20 September 2015

Not too much to say about this one. We got started at 8a, maybe my latest start ever on a 14er. The hike was an easy 13.5 miles, and the weather was gorgeous. Couldn’t have asked for a better day. Couldn’t have asked for better company. To be honest, the drive out to the trailhead was my favorite part. Aspens lined the road much of the way, a yellow tunnel illuminated by the early-morning light. It was glowing, beautiful. I feel tremendous gratitude to have shared that experience with such a dear friend.

I expect this will be my last climb of the season, which leaves me 14 for next summer, most of them sketchy. Should be a good time. In the interim, I’ll have to keep myself in shape, so I can be ready to get after it when the snow melts.

MT. LINDSEY 14,042'

Mt. Lindsey 14,042'

19 September 2015

I started my day at 330a and began my 22-mile trek on just 2 hours of sleep. As you can imagine, it was tough to drag myself out of bed. But as the season is drawing to a close, I reminded myself that I didn’t make the 6-hour drive for nothing. It was another freezing morning, which was absolutely unforgiving above treeline. I may have pushed it too far these last couple climbs. I’m concerned that I’ve suffered from a non-freezing cold injury in my fingers. I’ve noticed recently that they become completely numb and mostly rigid with little provocation. Oops, I guess I’m not invincible. Who knew?

There was an epic landslide here about a month ago, which has made this 8.5-mile climb a 22-mile climb. The road walk is mellow, and absolutely gorgeous, so I wasn’t complaining. The landslide is truly impressive and totally worth the extra effort. The power of nature is humbling, and I feel grateful to have borne witness.

The climb itself was cold, and windy enough to knock me right off my feet. I skipped the class III ridge in favor of the standard route on the way up. Though the gully was shielded from the wind, it held its own challenges. It was steep and loose, quite unpleasant, all told. To be honest, it sucked. I opted for the wind and exposure of the ridge on the way down. And though it was sketchy, I’m glad I did it. I chose a class IV line on the down climb and dropped in. It was totally scary, totally fun.

I wished so desperately that Megan could’ve been there to share that experience. It was gorgeous up there.

Once I finally landed back on terra firma, I cruised along the trail and then the road. It was a long, hot, lovely road walk back to the car. The aspens are changing, so I couldn’t complain. I felt grateful, actually. The yellows and oranges were stunning. I arrived back at the car 11 hours after I’d left it. Quality work, considering the route. I almost skipped this one, but I’m really glad I didn’t. Another 14er conquered; another notch in the ol’ belt.

San Luis tomorrow, possibly my last of the season. Planning to get a bit of a later start, something more like 7a. I’m car camping with my dear friend tonight, and I’m stoked to share the climb with her.  Should be pretty straightforward. And cold. That’s just the name of the game for fall climbs in the high country.

ELLINGWOOD POINT 14,042' AND BLANCA PEAK 14,345'

ELLINGWOOD POINT 14,042' AND BLANCA PEAK 14,345'

17 September 2015

Today’s climb was fun, sketchy. I’ve been struggling in my personal life the last few weeks, and this was a great opportunity to get out of my head and into my body. My legs were throbbing, my lungs on fire. It was freezing, like actually freezing. My fingers were white and numb. I wasn’t as prepared as I could’ve been. Understandably so; I was distracted, preoccupied.

Today felt like a mini solo, an opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, and more importantly, with my heart. I spent hours thinking and feeling, acknowledging what’s real for me. I reflected on my experience, what I’ve learned, how my perception of myself – my identity – has shifted in the last few weeks. Or has it? I’m still unsure. What’s real? And what’s my pitiable attempt to alter my reality to fit my desire? (We people tend to do such things, you know.) Sometimes I miss engineering, the sterile, detached, formulaic precision of it. People aren’t so straightforward; I’m not so straightforward. How is it that I suddenly get the sense that I don’t know myself as well as I thought I did?

Change. Turmoil. Upheaval. And amidst the chaos, an opportunity to learn and grow, painful as that opportunity is.

Anyways, that’s enough of that. I began my hike at 4a and shortly thereafter was picked up by a truck. Thanks for saving me a few miles, Chris! The road to Lake Como is steep; progress was slow. And beyond the basin, the rock was steep and loose. Nine hours to cover 16 miles. Not my worst work. I saw a few other folks in the upper basin as I made my way down this afternoon, but otherwise, I had the whole place to myself, not a soul in sight. Exactly the kinda climb I needed today. Feeling gratitude for the experience. And looking forward to one or two more before I close out the season.

CHALLENGER POINT 14,081' AND KIT CARSON PEAK 14,165'

CHALLENGER POINT 14,081' AND KIT CARSON PEAK 14,165'

01 September 2015

So my intention was to climb San Luis this morning. I set out last night hoping to car camp at the trailhead. Though the road to the trailhead was rated as “Rough 2WD” on 14ers.com, I found it to be too sketchy for my little Camry. The road was awesome until about 10 miles beyond Dome Lakes. I was cruising along and making great time when I cruised right into a stretch of soft mud. I was already committed before I realized my predicament. I knew I couldn’t take my foot off the gas without getting stuck, so I just kept moving, all the while crossing my fingers that the mud wouldn’t go on for miles.

I had no way of knowing whether it would get worse before it got better or whether I would have an out. I did know that I was miles from cell service or any kind of support, and furthermore that it was a weeknight and that there probably wouldn’t be a ton of people with their eye on San Luis.

I was keenly aware that every foot I drove was a foot I’d have to drive again on my way out, whether I bagged San Luis this trip or not. I was sliding all over the road as traction came and went sporadically. More than once, I almost slipped off the road. I felt like a freakin’ stunt driver. At one point, I was drifting toward the right-side ditch and had the wheel turned all the way to the left fighting the car’s momentum. As soon as I felt the tires start to gain traction, I had to start straightening out the wheel to avoid over-correcting and ending up in the left-side ditch. And on like that for about a half mile. Talk about an anxiety-provoking experience. I was shocked and relieved when I finally made it through, so much so that I had to stop and get out of the car. My heart was racing; I was shaking.

Despite having 10 miles to go – and knowing that a lot could happen in 10 miles – I resolved to go on. Turning around and leaving right then wouldn’t have made re-crossing that section any easier. May as well see what lay ahead. The next few miles were pretty easy, then I came to a creek crossing. It wasn’t that deep, but the opposite bank was a little steep, and I wasn’t sure that I could keep the exhaust pipe out of the water. At that point, I just figured it wasn’t meant to be, so I called it. Driving back through the mud was unpleasant, but it was my only option, so there was no way around it. I was either gonna make it, or I wasn’t. Thankfully, I did.

It was getting late, and I seriously considered just driving back to Durango and calling it a day. Instead, I convinced myself to go and have a look at the Challenger / Kit Carson trailhead. The road is rated “Easy 4WD,” but it was only a mile of rough road, so even if I couldn’t make it, I’d just add the extra two miles to my climb. In reality, the road was actually pretty manageable. I got to within a quarter mile of the trailhead before playing it safe and parking along the road, though I probably could’ve made it the whole way.

I finally arrived at midnight and got three hours of sleep before my alarm went off. For a moment, I was tempted to turn it off and roll over. But I was already there, so I willed myself up. Exhausted and excited, I was finally inching toward the summit around 330a, the start of a 9-hour day.

The approach to Willow Lake was awesome, a total cruiser. And the lake, beautiful. I began carefully picking my way up the steep gully on Challenger’s north slope around 530a. Progress was slow, tedious. Though it’s only class II, it would’ve been easy to slip and twist an ankle or break a wrist.

I rolled right over Challenger and as I began the traverse along The Avenue toward Kit Carson, I ran into a few gentlemen who greeted me and said, “Boy, if you had been here about 20 minutes earlier, we would’ve been calling for help.” Turns out these guys had missed a turn when they were descending Kit Carson yesterday. They ended up way down below The Avenue and tried to climb up an adjacent gully to regain the route. Apparently they cliffed out on the ascent and had to spend the night up there. Geez, I wasn’t the only one who had a rough time last night.

I’m already careful when I’m on a route that involves exiting a gully at a specific point, but after hearing their story, I was on high alert. I turned around frequently and even took photos as I climbed toward Kit Carson. On the way down, despite my careful attention to detail, I made the same mistake. Fortunately, I was more aware and realized after only a few hundred feet. Rather than try to short-cut back to the route, I simply took a few moments to orient myself, then turned back the way I’d come. There were multiple features that looked almost identical. It was easy to get turned around coming back. To make things more complicated, there are cairns marking a route all the way down the gully, probably an alternate of some kind or the route up neighboring Columbia point. Who knows. If I hadn’t run into those guys this morning, I probably wouldn’t have realized my mistake as quickly as I did.

The climb took a lot longer than I expected. I had budgeted seven hours for the nearly 15 mile roundtrip, an ambitious itin, especially given the 6,200+ feet of elevation gain. I lost a lot of time in the loose gully, both on the way up and on the way down. That and getting lost put me way behind “schedule” – like there is such a thing in the wilderness. When I finally reached Willow Lake, I picked up the pace. I was barreling down the trail clumsily and awkwardly in a hopeless attempt to make up lost time. I imagine it was quite a sight; glad no one saw me.

With a mile or two to go, I mis-stepped and rolled my ankle onto a pointed rock. Gah, that hurt. My ankle is fine, but I have a big lump and substantial bruising about midway up the outside of my right foot. Each step from there to the trailhead was labored and painful. That’s what I get for hurrying.

My experience the last 24 hours, while stressful, hasn’t been a bust by any stretch. In addition to tagging both Challenger and Kit Carson, both beautiful, I got to see some pretty rad wildlife: 3 dozen bighorn sheep, 2 owls, and a dozen ptarmigans. As if any experience in the outdoors could be a total bust. What a life I’m livin’.

PIKES PEAK 14,110'

Pikes Peak 14,110'

31 August 2015

Stayed with a friend in Denver last night, figuring the drive is plenty short enough to just get up early and head down to the Springs. Of course, I missed my alarm and got up about 30 minutes late, then the drive took a little longer than I expected, then I wasn’t sure exactly which trailhead (everything is harder in the dark!). Long story, short: I hit the trail at about a quarter to six. Not my best start. And with an 80% chance of thunderstorms by noon. Even at a below-typical pace, I was still sure I could do it in 6 hours. It’s only 14 miles and a total walk-up. It sprinkled here and there, and it was cold and windy, but nothing too crazy.

To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to this one. It was more a box that needed to be checked than a climb that I was stoked on. I mean, you can drive right to the top on a paved road. (And indeed, I have.) To be fair, that accessibility has its perks. I was able to use the bathroom in the gift shop (yes, gift shop) at the summit. Mine would’ve been an unfortunate predicament on most other 14ers, so today was the day to have an emergency, if I was gonna have one at all. Instead, I made it back to the car a little before noon. I’m surprised that my legs were sore during the descent; it was a pretty easy climb.

At any rate, heading to San Luis tomorrow for a sunrise summit. It being a Tuesday, I imagine I’ll have the remote peak – and maybe even the whole trail – all to myself. Soaking up the solitude after an overwhelming couple days.

MOSQUITO RANGE

Mosquito Range

31 July 2015

I think I liked Sherman better than Antero, but only just. At least the old, broken down mine buildings were cool. They were my favorite part of this peak. That and being able to drive all the way to 12,000 feet in my little rig; that was sweet. I knew today would be easier than yesterday, so I opted to sleep in a bit this morning since I’d only gotten two hours the night before Huron and four hours last night. My body has had trouble keeping up the last few days; I figured a few extra hours of sleep couldn’t hurt my cause. I was almost wrong. I didn’t make great time today, despite the short, easy climb. It took me an hour and a half to cover just 2.75 miles. I was well-behind schedule when I topped out, but I wasn’t really worried so much as I was annoyed at my own complacency.

When I checked the weather en route to Kite Lake, the thunderstorms – which had been projected last night to roll in around 2pm today – were now projected to roll in at noon. Between being nearly an hour later than I would’ve liked and having my window cut by two hours, I was seriously considering skipping the Democrat-Cameron-Lincoln-Bross circuit. As I drove by the split, I figured I could at least head up to the trailhead and have a look.

When I arrived, the skies were a brilliant, clear blue. It was a promising sight, though I know how quickly things can change in the high country. And they did, quite quickly. As the trail switchbacked up toward Democrat, I kept a keen eye on the sky and watched the clouds build overhead. I figured I’d at least get one peak, then re-evaluate as I went along.

The photo above shows what I hiked into as I neared the summit. It was patchy but dark, thick. It took me 80 minutes to reach the summit from the trailhead. The time was 1040a. With the weather building, I doubted my chances. Still, I figured I could at least get Cameron before I’d have to turn around. Democrat was by far the toughest climb today. Cameron was quite a bit easier, Lincoln even easier, and Bross was damn-near a gimme. The traverse just got easier as I went along.

The Cameron summit was unimpressive. I didn’t even stop; I just hiked right over it. Lincoln loomed so close I thought I might be able to jump it without so much as a running start, so I just allowed my already moving legs to carry me that way. And there was a bonus: the elevation drop was negligible. It was very nearly flat by fourteener standards until a short summit pitch.

There were clouds in all directions as far as I could see, but they were patchy and I hadn’t seen any lightning, so I cruised along to Lincoln, then Bross in rapid succession. Boom, four peaks before the first drop of rain. It was noon, and the weather had reported a 100% chance of rain by that time. Could the weather have been wrong in my favor for once? Nope. As I departed the final summit of the Mosquito Range, I felt a drop. Ok, here we go. Slow is smooth; smooth is fast. No rush. I picked my way down the long, steep – though fairly straightforward – ridge leading to the parking lot. It sprinkled for like ten minutes, and that was it. I guess the weather report wasn’t technically wrong, though it was a thankfully pitiable showing. I’ll count that as a win.

It took me four hours to climb as many peaks, though it’s really not all that impressive considering the 7.25 mile route. That’s fewer than two miles per hour. Ah well, I made it. That’ll do. Anyways, I just climbed 8 peaks in three days. I can take pride in that, regardless of pace.

MT. ANTERO 14,269' AND MT. PRINCETON 14,197'

MT. ANTERO 14,269' AND MT. PRINCETON 14,197'

30 July 2015

While gorgeous and impressive in absolute terms, I can say with certainty that Antero was not my favorite 14er. (Understatement; it’s my least favorite so far.) There is a mine about 500 vertical feet from the summit, and the “trail” is a road walk all the way to that point. Gah, it would be so convenient to have a little 4×4 rig. My Camry is a far cry from what a road like that demands, and it means longer summit bids on many, many of the 14er peaks. Antero is one of the most egregious offenders. This peak was definitely more about checking a box than it was about enjoying the climb. Check; done. 

I was excited to see a large band of about 20 mountain goats as I neared the final summit pitch. They’re quite intimidating in the dark, especially seeing that there were many yearlings among them. I imagine they couldn’t see very well with the bright beam of my headlamp in their eyes. I didn’t wanna spook them, so I gave a wide berth and climbed on to the summit.

When I finally got back to my car around 830a, I zipped over to the Mt. Princeton trailhead. Two independent peaks in a day, my most ambitious 14er conquest yet. And I’m feeling it, hard. My legs were burning as I ascended the standard route on Princeton. I was stopping every 15-20 paces just to rest my weary body. When I reached the saddle, I even laid down for a 30-minute power nap. During that same break, with nearly a thousand vertical remaining, I ate my last bar. I then proceeded to bonk the worst I ever have on a 14er. My body was simply running on empty, and I was out of gas, so I did something that I loathe doing. I’m an inherently independent person, so it was difficult for me to stop three perfect strangers and ask for food. I was elated when they generously parted with a pack of crackers, a bag of M&Ms, a handful of GORP and a granola bar. I’m filled with gratitude even now. Folks who hike and backpack collectively make up one of the most generous communities I’ve ever experienced. And playful. As I passed them later on my way down, one of them jokingly asked if I could spare some water. “I could,” I replied with a smile and wished them well as I carried on.

Princeton was my last peak in the Sawatch Range, and to mark that accomplishment, I topped out at 130p, the latest I ever have on a fourteener. It was plain good fortune that the weather held out so long today. Lovely trek, despite my struggles. Not my best performance, though to be fair it was quite an itinerary, especially considering how far out of shape I am. Nevertheless: check, done.

All told, I hiked from 230a-330p, including a less than stellar 4.5 hour, 6.5 mile ascent on Princeton. For my effort, I covered almost 30 miles and over 10,500 vertical feet. I’m spent; my legs are shot. And tomorrow, I aim to do 5 more, a one and done of the entire Mosquito Range. Guess I better get some sleep. Sherman first thing to kick it off.

HURON PEAK 14,003'

HURON PEAK 14,003'

29 July 2015

Huron, like the next few on my last, was a total walk-up, nothing too impressive. Don’t get me wrong, it was quite pretty. And though it didn’t blow my hair back, there is a lot to be said for summiting early and having the whole of a 14er all to myself, which was the case today. Gah, there is nothing like it. I woke up at 4a after just two hours of sleep – late night driving from Durango – and topped out around 630a. Not a lot of folks getting those kinda starts. I hate getting up that early, especially on such little sleep, but I love being out there while the stars still shine overhead and all is quiet and still. During those hours, I feel even smaller, all alone in the world.

HANDIES PEAK 14,048'

HANDIES PEAK 14,048'

26 July 2015

Two words: American Basin. It’s gorgeous.

Megan and I got a late start this morning. We weren’t hiking until nearly 730a, having left Durango at the unreasonable hour of 230a. When we parked, the cloud cover was already considerable, but the hike is short and straightforward, so we sauntered on up into the basin. I would’ve preferred to have crushed it, but Megan wasn’t there to crush. Instead, we moseyed more-or-less together up the southwest slopes. “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” she reminded me in her characteristically sassy tone.

As we watched the rain race toward us up the valley, I became increasingly more anxious at the thought of an impending thunderstorm. I hated the thought that today might have been a wasted trip. As we neared the saddle, the rain started. But it wasn’t rain at all; it was hail. Joy. At least their was no lightning. We topped out and the hail gave way to piercing wind, which consumed us. My hands were numb as we picked our way down. The weather relented before we dropped back into the basin below – we even got a few fleeting moments of sun and blue skies on the way down. Watching the skies while we climbed this morning, I never would’ve expected the scene depicted above.

If I had climbed Handies the way I intended, I would’ve been long gone before the clouds broke. Thanks for the company, Megan. And for setting the perfect pace. All in all, a wonderful success.