Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Humboldt Peak - 14,064

The Crestone group from State Highway 69, Labor Day 2009 (Humboldt on the right).

May I just sing a brief ode of praise to my hammock? Ever since a frigid January bivouac on the shores of a frozen Williams Lake below Wheeler Peak in the late 90s I have sworn never again to lay out my pad on bare snow. Hennessey has helped me make good on this vow with its neat little pod that can be strung anywhere there are two trees (so far I have never lacked for any). Mine is one of the early models, in forest green and packable to about the size of the sleeping pad you will not need (because there is no conductive heat loss, a mere space blanket slung underneath will serve to reflect body heat). Newer models weigh even less and come in more vibrant colors, but all have the slit in the bottom where you climb in and, once inside, your body weight closes the gap behind you. It has its drawbacks. You can't cook inside it, for example, nor really eat. But with a little preparation you can spend a cozy night anywhere. Here is my hammock stretched across the South Crest Trail in the Sandias back in March of 2001. (Hennessey should pay me for the endorsement).

A bright full moon lit my making camp on the shore of Lower South Colony Lake on Saturday of this Labor Day weekend. Stringing my hammock between two stout pines brought a pleasant solitude in contrast to the packed parking lot below, until dawn cracked and a line formed threading through the upper meadows toward the West Ridge of Humboldt. A quantity of rock cairns mark the trail to the summit.

On the way down I passed the turnoff leading to the high saddle between Kit Carson and Crestone Peak that is known as the Bear's Playground. It had been in the back of my mind to take in the Peak as well on this outing, but given the poor visibility this option seemed better left for later.

A socked-in Crestone Peak and Needle that Saturday, September 6, 2009

Some people manage to bag all four Crestone 14ers, if not in one day then at least in two. I, on the other hand, seem destined to spread them out over thirty-odd years. Back down at South Colony Lakes I moved my hammock to a more congenial spot for the night, and the following morning headed back down the road to my truck. What lies ahead? More tidying up of loose ends: Crestone Peak, of course, via the NW Buttress. I'll get to it sooner or later....

Uncompaghre Peak - 14,309

Uncompaghre's West Face from Matterhorn Creek Basin, June 2009 - orange up, black down (click to enlarge).

Unlike Democrat it was too late in the season to approach Uncompaghre on skis. Neither west face couloir went all the way to the top, as can be seen in the photo above. Even the right-hand, most direct one wasn't continuously covered. This was nevertheless the route I chose, armed with a Raven ax, Gore-tex Asolos and aluminum crampons.

June 27, 2009, was one of those bizarre early summer mornings - not quite cold but not that warm, either - as I set out from my camp high in Matterhorn Creek Basin. A couple of early-birds were making their way down the rib between Uncompaghre's two west-facing couloirs as I cramponed up the initial ice field toward the rock band that appeared at about one-third height. This 30-foot step running with water posed the day's greatest challenge, glazed as it was by ice, but above it I rejoined the main snowfield (below).

The snow ended near the intersection with the Nellie Creek approach. Several hikers could already be seen above as I fell into this well-worn track to the summit. Uncompaghre presents a fortress-like isolation from all angles except this meandering line from the south. The shot below looks down the West Face from the summit.

Descending I took the more northerly couloir, remembering the iced-up band of the other way. Skis would have been very nice here - although humping them up would not have been - because if glissade is the second best option to a ski descent, a distant third has to be the quick and dirty butt-slide that my edgeless Asolos forced me into. After retrieving my ski poles from the base of the other gully I was schlepping back over the pass to my camp. I'd been resisting getting a set of trekking poles, but seeing how well my poles kept me balanced on the hike down, I may have to break down and buy some. Fourteener number 16! On to Humboldt.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mount Democrat - 14,148

Mount Democrat from just below Kite Lake - May 30, 2009, Lake Emma Chutes in the left center - orange up, black down (click to enlarge).

Five inches of fresh snow on Saturday morning, May 30, 2009, made the prospects good for a ski ascent and descent of Mount Democrat. I'd already done Mounts Lincoln and Bross by mountain bike. But as there is no MB track to Democrat and I wasn't willing to leave my bike behind, I'd resolved to visit Democrat later. When later came along, the road in to Kite Lake was barred by a formidable snowdrift. Better vehicles than mine tried and failed to cross it during the night, so the dawn found me humping up all of a quarter mile to the start of the South Ridge.

What looks to be Democrat's main summit in the photo above is in fact a false summit. The chill air promised to hold the snow for a while, but this too was false. Especially in the concavity of the South Face I kicked off numerous sloughs on my long switchbacking traverse first right, then back left to intersect the ridge again. Here I met up with two guys who had availed themselves of my broken trail and the more direct line of the ridge to catch up with me. The photo below shows them heading off on the summit stretch.

Set of tracks to the left (click to enlarge): I don't know whose these were - I never saw them. Just at the summit those other guys were hucking off a wicked cornice (below). I hucked off it, too, but it wasn't very impressive.

The temptation was to linger on the summit, where the sun basked everything in warmth even as all around the sky stayed dark. But with the snow going quickly mushy I decided to follow their lead down this side of the mountain instead of the South Face, though I wasn't sure where it would end up. If nothing else, going this way showed a clear line of descent practically back to my truck. Soon I was adding my own S-turns to those already there, down a wide bowl that ended in a line of chutes. Lake Emma Chutes, they call them, and I dealt with them handily using my best side-slip technique.

It had become clear that the snow was gumming up underfoot, sticking to glue residue from the skins on my bases. Only by pointing straight down could I make any speed at all, opting for a wide traverse left rather than a plumb line straight into frozen Lake Emma, where that previous party had had to pop out and walk. Another bench of cliffs lay below the lake, where I carved some more turns before heading for the Buckskin Creek drainage that led down to the road. I only had to pop out once for a short distance before making it to within about 20 yards of my truck. As I packed up to leave I gave the line one last look: my first 14er ski descent.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

San Luis Peak - 14,014

The Southwest Face of San Luis Peak and the Yawner Gullies - September 13, 2008

They call San Luis Peak the 'shy fourteener' for good reason. Only from certain anlges can it be seen at all, there just a few miles up the Willow Creek drainage outside Creede, Colorado. It took Jake Hunner to call it out of hiding.

Jake is a man who likes to come prepared. From the cooler full of beer for the end of the day to his massive Army surplus mummy bag to the sack of flour tortillas he produced on the summit, I can safely say that if I had carried half of what he brought along I never would have made it to the top. Jake was in his final semester in the Mechanical Engineering Department at UNM where I work. For him I expect San Luis was a welcome break from studying. For me it was my first chance to have a partner on a 14er since Crestone Needle with Jay Evans. We motored up past the Equity Mine trailhead late one night in mid-September 2008, two weeks after my bike ride up Bross and Lincoln, in the darkness driving right past the trailhead. After attempting to navigate a steep rubbly hill in my 2-wheel-drive Ranger, and finding this was not possible, we camped where we parked which happened to be right at the trailhead.

The breezy night gave way to a brisk dawn. Another vehicle pulling in woke us up, their clamor and headlamps forbidding any further sleep so we were up and on the trail behind them right at 6 AM. We wore every piece of warm clothing we'd brought following the trail that crossed the wide basin of Willow Creek before heading up to a saddle at 12,300 feet, from where we had our first view of San Luis to the east.

Jake and San Luis Peak from near the first saddle.

A drop-down of several hundred feet is unavoidable here, leading to a contouring traverse through two basins before attaining the South Ridge of San Luis. It was quite populated by now. The ridge climb seemed endless with one false summit after another.

Jake on the South Ridge of San Luis.

But the summit was well worth it. A leisurely lunch was eaten at midday in the company of perhaps a dozen other climbers, one of whom was kind enough to take our picture.

Jake and me on the summit.

On the hike out Jake shot out ahead while I gingerly picked along with my damaged feet and knees. The beers back at the truck gave me the hiccups, but a cup of coffee in Creede made for a welcome end to the trip before heading back to Albuquerque that night.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mount Bross - 14,172 and Mount Lincoln - 14,286

Lincoln from just below the summit of Mount Bross

Eager for a change of scenery after Lake City, I turned my attention in August 2008 to the trio of 14ers in the Mosquito Range near Fairplay. Hearing that Mounts Bross and Lincoln could be done on mountain bike I decided to give it a shot. I'm always a fan of coasting wherever possible, even if it meant postponing Mount Democrat, which had no MB track to its summit. I'd wanted to do it on skis, anyway, and did, finally.

On a Saturday dawn after sleeping in my truck parked at the Windy Ridge Bristlecone Pine Scenic Area, featuring some of the oldest trees on the planet, I set off up this steeply switchbacking mining road up the east flank of Mount Bross. Though early on I had the road to myself, later on the descent I would be dodging SUVs. I stopped to take some photos of a bunch of ptarmigans cruising behind a mining shack, but the birds blended so well they can hardly be picked out of the talus. The road ended within a hundred yards of Bross's expansive summit, where I touched base and turned without delay toward my second goal of the day. The trail to Mount Lincoln proved more passable than I'd dared hope, though both summits now thronged with the Kite Lake hikers whom I also had to dodge upon occasion. They had a tendency to pop up unexpectedly on Cameron Point midway between the two peaks before heading off in their chosen direction.

Bross from midway to Mount Lincoln

Several hundred yards shy of the summit I dropped my bike and went on foot. After topping out I remounted for the ride back to Bross, then down the road again. I practically wore out my brake shoes on the descent but made it down in one piece. A girl who saw me loading up my bike asked the obvious question, and seemed duly impressed to hear that I'd indeed biked to the top of Bross and Lincoln.

Not a bristlecone and not a ptarmigan, but pretty gnarly nonetheless.

Wetterhorn - 14,015

Wetterhorn - August 16, 2008

Five years was certainly long enough for me to recover from my foot surgery (as described in the previous entry), not to mention the recently repaired acromio-clavicular separation (shoulder blade detached from collarbone in MB mishap) I'd carried with me up Redcloud and Sunshine. It was just over a year ago, in fact, that I'd turned my attention back to the Wetterhorn. Leaving my truck at the high parking I headed up the Matterhorn Creek trail at daybreak. A hail storm discouraged many that day, such that I arrived at the shoulder of the Southwest Ridge without seeing anyone, but it was not to last. By the time I began the ridge a virtual river of humanity streamed nonstop up behind, dogs and children included. The 400-foot summit buttress gave some pause, but nearly everyone summited and then came back down, some heading off to Uncompaghre making for a more energetic day than I had planned. I would get to Uncompaghre eventually - though not before Bross, Lincoln, San Luis and Democrat.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Redcloud - 14,034, and Sunshine - 14,001

It seems strange to me beginning this entry that I have no photos to show of Redcloud or Sunshine. Saying why means remembering how in 2003 I was still clinging to analog - to my 35 mm Pentax, that is, until a malfunction forced me into the digital age, at the very cusp of which transition Redcloud and Sunshine came.

Not that photos are needed to enhance the experience. Nor would pictures taken early on have shown much of anything. It was pitch black when I set out from the Silver Creek parking lot. I saw only one other person that brisk late August morning. A guy came along as the sky began to lighten over Redcloud and passed me midway along the connecting ridge to Sunshine. After we'd both summited I watched with interest as he bailed down the west shoulder of that peak, a route that with decent snow cover would make a fine ski descent. As for myself, I backtracked north to the low point in the ridge before dropping down to the South Fork drainage and eventually back to my truck.

The memorable part came near the end of my trip. About a half mile from the parking lot I dropped to my knees unable to keep walking, my right foot hurt so bad. When I finally did make it back to my truck sandals were a welcome relief, while back in Albuquerque I arranged to see a radiologist. I remember the look on his face as he came back into the room after viewing my X-ray, and his strange first words:

'Did you hurt your foot recently?'

You'd think this would be an easy question to answer. I was at a loss to explain it except for a time in the Wind Rivers 23 years ago when I'd gone down heavily on the outside of my foot. What I had was a peroneus brevis avulsion, the peroneus brevis being a tendon that runs down the leg to connect with the outside of the foot just where it's bulbous, which had somehow yanked off (avulsed) a part of that bony protrusion and thus was causing me pain. The piece was too small for screws so I was advised to have it removed, which it was later that fall. And now I have three big words to think of every time I remember Redcloud and Sunshine. Oh, and this, the Aftermath:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wilson Peak - 14,017

Looking up SW Ridge of Wilson Peak from the Gladstone saddle

From the Navajo Lake side Wilson Peak is not all that impressive. It even seems vaguely antisocial, slouching alone off to the north and having precious little to do with Gladstone - scrappy baby brother at almost 14 thousand feet - through a low and lengthy connecting ridge. Wilson itself makes the grade only barely, being seventh lowest of all the 14ers (Sunshine is the lowest, my next project). Yet while Wilson from the south may look nondescript, a wearisome slog up sheets of rubble, you underestimate it at your own peril. It has its sinister side.

That's going overboard - better to say it has its "serious side." They all do. Seeing that side nearly always requires patience and ambition, and so those sides are rarely visited. Taking a more recent case, I never knew the Wetterhorn even had a North Face until I saw it from the summit of neighboring Uncompaghre: 800 or so feet of vertical rock, getting to which involves a healthy hump up the East Fork of the Cimmarron River carrying all the gear necessary for six pitches of 5.7. Yet if this side of the Wetterhorn is hard to spot at a distance, not so the Northeast Face of Wilson Peak. It dominates the view from Telluride, towers over the trophy homes west of the San Miguel, and provides a stark backdrop for postcard pictures of turning aspens shot from State Road 145. It is not that hard to get to, or at least it didn't used to be, by striking eastward from the mining road below Silver Pick Basin towards the base of the Northeast Face. I know this from a previous reconnaissance. Since that time the owners of the surrounding land have closed off this approach. Until such time as private interests give way to the public demand, therefore, a springtime ascent and ski descent of the Northeast Face, having long been on my wish list, will have to stay there a little while longer. And until such time as you have visited all sides of a peak, never assume you have seen it all.

I slept in my truck at the Burro Bridge trailhead in July of 2002 - the same trailhead that Kim and I had reached in near total darkness 23 years before - and started hiking around 4 AM. Knowing this to be a gentle two-and-a-half hour hike through lush meadows, I expected to be putting away my headlamp about the time I entered the higher basin. Sunrise at Navajo Lake found folks stirring in all the scattered camps. I had the jump on them all and proceeded up-basin towards the Rock of Ages Mine that lies just below the saddle with Silver Pick Basin. The saddle itself was a virtual logjam of humanity, all from the high-reaching road on the north side. A little farther up from here the North Ridge of Gladstone (13,913) took off and from then on the route followed the ridge proper, past a deep notch about halfway to make the heart pump a little, after which the summit arrives promptly.

Above, looking down on a party at the notch

Below, me and a couple of guys I teamed up with on the summit (their partner took the shot)

These guys had just come from Sneffels the day before and I told them I was heading that way myself tomorrow, to climb it a third time via the Southwest Ridge.

It is obscene how close you can drive to Sneffels from Yankee Boy Basin. And if I thought Wilson was crowded, I hadn't seen anything yet. But if you can't lick 'em, join 'em they say. My next two 14ers the following year were chosen expressly for their quick approach.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Crestone Needle - 14,197

Crestone Needle - June 9, 2002 (Broken Hand Pass to the left)

After Longs it was 22 years before my next fourteener, Crestone Needle with Jay Evans in 2002. Can that be?

I know. If you'd asked me back then if I thought more than two decades would go by before my next fourteener, I would have to say no. But then if you'd asked if I thought I would still be alive at the turn of the century, again I would have to say no. Anyone who knew me then would have to say the same thing. It was as if I had the sleeping sickness, making me drowsy doing anything in less than the hardest way. I sought treatment for this disorder but to no avail. One can imagine, then, that the decade of 80s was a sleepy time for me. Graduate school was in there, followed by odd jobs in Farmington. I perked up a some in the 90s when, back in Albuquerque, being self employed allowed for impromptu trips into the Sandia range east of town, where I contented myself mainly with repeating previous routes. Who knows how long this sleepwalking would have lasted had a mutual friend not reintroduced me to Jay Evans?

Jay had been part of a group I'd fallen in with almost immediately my first semester at the University of New Mexico in 1974. We did some top-roping together around White Rock and made a memorable assault on the West Face of the Prow in the Sandias. But then he'd dropped out of circulation, or I did, and we traded letters for a while before losing touch completely until around 2001 when that mutual friend brought us back together. Ellingwood Arête came up almost instantly. It seems Jay had dreamed of doing it for years, primarily on the strength of its listing in Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, a classic text in its own right. Thus, were it not for Jay, in my somnambulistic state I would probably not have given Crestone Needle a second thought.

In the first week in June of 2002 we drove my truck up I-25 into Colorado, reaching the trailhead just before dusk. Our plan had been to sleep in my truck then get an early start the next day. Eager to hit the trail, though, I talked Jay into starting right away by headlamp, offering the compromise of hiking until midnight and then camping wherever that caught us. It so happened the stroke of midnight found as about a half-mile below the South Colony Lakes trailhead. This would be the parking area for persons with four-wheel drive vehicles versus the spot four miles below where we'd left my pickup truck hours ago. South Colony Lakes from the higher parking is about a one-mile hike, one of the shorter 14er approaches in Colorado. I never have managed to drive to this upper trailhead. Even over the spring break many years ago when with partners Paul Horak and Dave Baltz I skied in to the lakes, we'd had to park low - not just because of the rough road but also the snow, conditions at the time being as wintry as I'd ever seen. The unceasing snowfall, in fact, is primarily the reason why we bailed out of the Crestones after three days, never having seen a single peak.

The east-facing rib descending straight from the Needle's summit has been recently renamed Ellingwood Ledges. Alan Steck and Steve Roper employ the word arête. In all fairness, though, rib, buttress, arête, ledges - all characterize portions of the overall route first climbed by Albert Ellingwood and three partners in 1925. Only a climber will appreciate it when I term Albert Ellingwood the American Reinhold Messner of the early 20th century. His route stands as one of the hardest up any 14er, and it remains popular today primarily due to Steck and Roper's Fifty Classics citation. I mainly knew the route as a formative, sans pareil early conquest by my regular climbing partner Paul Horak. I can still hear Paul saying: You haven't climbed 5.7 until you've climbed 5.7 at 14 thousand feet. Jay and I were about to weigh the truth of that assertion. For now, after crashing at the magic hour, we finished with a dawn hike to the upper trailhead.

If there was a low point to this day it would have to be as we passed through the silent parking lot & roused a sleeping dog that raised such holy hell that it woke everybody in the parking area. At South Colony Lakes we cached our packs & filtered some water and heading up-valley. Jay had a 2-liter Camelback his sister had given him. I had a 1-liter flask strapped to my harness. It seems odd today that I thought I could get by on so little, and thirst was to become an issue later but in the end things worked out. Higher in the basin we paused to scope out the route. A couple of guys on the trail to Humboldt offered their best wishes before heading out on their own projected grand slam of Humboldt, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. We could use their good will. Already a team was on the Arete. They were a young boy and girl from California, wearing dancing shoes and carrying a light rack, as we found out once we'd passed them. We didn't pass them because we were fast. We passed them because they were on the Direct Start of Ellingwood Arête.

Unwittingly Jay and I had commenced our climb of Ellingwood Arête on the Direct Start, completing two pitches before realizing our mistake and bailing left in a blind traverse.

(above) Jay following the first pitch of the Direct Start
(below) Following Jay's lead out of the Direct Start

Our traverse indeed led back to the original route, an endless series of stairstep ledges going up to the two crux pitches. This was where we passed the Californians, though they caught up to us again while I was belaying Jay up the first crux pitch. I chatted them up while paying out rope to my partner out of sight above, and when it came time to follow I found an exhilaratingly exposed crack system going up through embedded cobblestones: like a dry riverbed tilted vertically. The gut tells you not to trust this kind of formation, as if the stones might pull out unexpectedly, yet the enjoyment lies in discovering just how fixed they really are - these sedimentary layers so well heat treated in the long long ago as to fuse into a solid conglomerate. The photo below shows the geologic and vertical nature of this pitch.

Jay had belayed midway up the first crux. I took the next half-pitch up to the base of the second crux, a fine straight-in hand and finger crack over minimal exposure. I have no qualms over calling Jay's pitch the harder.

That Californian couple passed us during the summit scramble and we let them as they had been climbing patiently behind us for some time. Just after one o'clock we stood on the summit, meeting up with those same guys from below who were finishing their grand slam. They seemed enthusiastic about our success and that was nice, as in 2002 Jay and I were both pushing 50. Here is a shot they were kind enough to take of us on the summit:

We stayed as long as we dared then started down & promptly got lost. Much like on Longs as mentioned in my last TR, not knowing the way we quickly and found ourselves picking down a loose gully that kept cliffing off obliging a quick rappel before pulling the rope and scrambling farther down, all the time looking for an escape left to where the proper descent route lay & wondering whether the next rappel would overstretch our lone 50-meter rope. Finally I found the escape, hollered to Jay & began wending a tortuous course finally to cross the South Ridge just below the South Couloir.

We'd wasted a lot of daylight. At Broken Hand Pass it seemed as though darkness would overtake us and we'd not brought our headlamps because we weren't expecting to need them. I have bad knees but Jay has worse, so as the sun sank over the San Luis Valley I left him guarding the gear while I ran down for our headlamps, returning in pitch black to give Jay his headlamp so we could complete the descent.

We had lain out our bivvy sacks under the brilliantly starred sky and settled in for a well deserved rest when something strange happened. I'd eaten a spicy meal and was sitting up hiccuping in the dead of night when it seemed as though something white were gliding down the trail. Still half-asleep I took in the apparition dumbly, not knowing exactly what to make of it until dawn came and we overheard some people talking in a nearby camp, mentioning something about a mountain goat. I turned to Jay and said:

'Did you see something white on the trail last night?'

Like confessing a guilty secret he allowed that he, too, had seen the apparition. It seems there is a resident mountain goat in the vicinity of South Colony Lakes who pays visits to sleeping campers at night. How often is it that a mystery gets perceived and explained all at the same time?

And so, despite a few missteps, Jay and I could lay claim to to having climbed Ellingwood Ledges on Crestone Needle. On our third day we packed up and headed down to a celebratory meal of hamburgers in Walsenburg to seal the overall deal.

It seemed Ellingwood Arête had managed to keep me awake. The South Ridge of Mount Sneffels later in the summer would enhance my state of wakefulness, though not before Wilson Peak, the third and last of the San Miguel fourteeners I had yet to climb, confirming my commitment to climb them all.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Longs Peak - 14,255

Self portrait, summit of Longs, June 7, 1980

As mentioned in my trip report on Blanca my first attempt on Longs Peak was a climb that had every reason to succeed, yet did not. This made returning to it three years later something of a completion of that previous effort with my three Blanca partners. Even more, climbing Longs this time around was a self reward for my past year of construction work earning money for college, as well as one last hurrah before I left for graduate school in early August.

Considering how naturally the two trips blend in my mind, bear with me as I sort them out below by leaping forward and backward in time from January 1977 to June 1980.

The summer of 1980 was my 'salad days,' according to the hitchhiker I picked up just north of Del Norte, citing a phrase from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra that would have insulted me had I only known the meaning, namely a time of youthful exuberance and inexperience. I may have been young, just turned 24 by my reckoning, but in climbing years, which are rather like dog years, by 1980 I was an old old man with two creaky knees, a pair of burnt hands, a missing front tooth and a year-old foot surgery to show for my time on the crags. Yet I was at least exuberant enough back then to spill my guts over my impending adventure to this portly stranger with a tiny knapsack smelling mildly of road sweat.

I left him in Denver before heading up to Fort Collins, having a social call to make before tackling Longs. After two days spent cheering up my sister's boyfriend, who had recently broken his leg playing soccer, the time came to pick up a permit at the ranger station in RMNP before parking at the trailhead that afternoon and starting the approach to Chasm Lake.

On my first trip into Chasm Lake with Karl and Ed and Cliff there had been precious little to see of this approach, let alone the peak itself, all of it shrouded with snow falling thick and hard. Then once in the lake basin the snow had given way to frigid winds. On the lake I can remember all of us falling to our knees and sinking our axe tips just to keep from being blown skipping across the frozen surface like stones. By contrast in early June of 1980 the boulderfield could be seen over its entire length, the weather was mild and Chasm Lake had only spotty late spring icebergs when I traversed around to the north side where I meant to camp, passing on the way the legendary Chasm Lake cabin where through a mishap we had spent two nights in 1977. It was supposed to be locked & was, but a mere push on the door by Ed made the door gape wide. A closer examination revealed that the flimsy padlock had indeed slipped through the massive hasp. There was no debate, we hustled inside to where rows of berths along the wall were insulated by pads of four-inch foam rubber - a cozy nest while the wind raged outside.

It was probably wrong of us to break into this cabin. And it was probably wrong of me again to camp where I did in 1980, at the so-called cave on the north side of Chasm Lake. But my complaint to the ranger issuing the camping permit that he had me too far from the climb had fallen on deaf ears. That evening I bivouacked on a flat rock at the entrance to the so-called cave, alone in the entire basin as I cooked my evening meal & watched the sun dip below Lamb's Slide.

The story behind Lamb's Slide goes that in 1871, fire-breathing United Brethren minister Elkanah Lamb climbed the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak for about the umpteenth time, & then did something reckless, dropping over toward Chasm Lake Basin to accomplish the first recorded descent of the East Face. As the feature named after him suggests all did not go smoothly, even if he did live to tell the tale, though I hoped for better luck.

Next morning the sun was just a glow on the eastern horizon as I set off up Lamb's Slide which was found to be a pleasant neve that took my tools to the hilt, whereas in January of 1977 it had been a sheet of glare ice. Here is a photo from when Ed and Cliff just arrived at the base of this feature, mere specks at the bottom left of the imposing East Face.

The water streaks on the wall behind are due to melt-off from the Notch Couloir

Beyond Lamb's Slide lay Broadway along with the particular snow ramp I remembered from when Cliff belayed Ed up it, as shown in the photo below. I remembered as well having all the time in the world to take this shot as my partner Karl seemed to be taking an awfully long time. When he arrived at last he showed me the reason for his pace. It seems his crampons were a size too large such that his toes overlapping his front points kept them from biting. We were still debating the implications of this problem for our summit plans when a rope flew down from above & suddenly Cliff & Ed were rappeling towards us.

At our stance Cliff was looking sickly & his shoulder drooped from what Ed said was a rock kicked off by the Texan climbers above us. It was the last straw. Those damn Texans had crashed into the shelter cabin late last evening, had beaten us out the door this morning & now were kicking rocks down on us. Though I was willing enough to proceed on with Ed leaving Karl with the defective crampons to escort Cliff back down, this proposal met with unanimous rejection. I wasn't ready to solo the thing so we had bailed, electing to fail as a team rather than succeed as a pair.

This failure was much on my mind when I reached the base of the Notch Couloir alone three years later, but so was the memory of how far we had gotten. I knew how the void below deepened with every step along Broadway, such that by the Notch Couloir it is a thousand-foot drop down to Mills Glacier, and so had coached myself in advance not to loiter here but to keep moving. With head down and placing one foot in front of the other, swinging axe in one hand and alpine hammer in the other, I went five hundred feet before finally stopping to kick a platform for my feet and stand taking in my surroundings.

It was an airy position no doubt that soon had me winding through the mixed rock & mush snow of Kieners to the summit block where a short chimney gave way to the summit ridge.

So the story goes. Well, except maybe for getting off-route on the way down. As Reverend Lamb undoubtedly discovered it can be tricky descending a different way than you came up. If you don't believe me just see my next climb, Crestone Needle with Jay Evans 22 year later. But I was at least as lucky as the good reverend. After virtually circumnavigating the bald summit of Longs I eventually located the proper descent through the Keyhole & scrambled from The Camel directly down to my camp below Mt Lady Washington. Here I found an unpleasant surprise. Marmots had excavated the cairn of rocks & chewed through the tarp I'd used to cover my camp gear. I can understand their devouring my pepperoni but did they have chew off the tongues of my hiking boots? The fat bastards were still eating when I came upon them, shouting & throwing rocks to scare them away. One of them had the nerve to bare his teeth at me as he shambled away, more hungry than frightened I guess after seven months of hibernation. In my floppy boots I tromped down & drove south, dropping my boots off for repair at the Cobbler in Colorado Springs, leaving for deposit an amusing story if nothing else.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Mount Wilson - 14,264 (via El Diente connecting ridge)

Mount Wilson - the North Face virtually bare of snow as it looked in July 2002 from Wilson Peak

Scant weeks after my climb of Sneffels with Ken Trout (in early fall of 1979) I was heading up into Navajo Lake Basin with sister Kim for another climb of El Diente. Kim was looking to tweak her resume for working with Outward Bound and felt this connecting ridge between El Diente and Mount Wilson would make a strong addition. So we found ourselves waking on a Saturday morning to climb the North Face of El Diente, heading up the steep buttress just to the right of the main face.

Nothing remarkable occurred on the ascent. Nor did the ridge traverse pose any problems. The weather was a little sketchy, with the summits often socked in, but we handled the difficult step on the ridge without incident and we soon made the summit of Mount Wilson.

It was on the descent that things got out of hand. I had planned a straight glissade down the North Face of Wilson, but the slush snow over glare ice looked a little sketchy, so I made a quick foray to test it. Unbeknownst to me Kim thought I was lauching into my glissade and came right behind. I realized this only after arresting my pell-mell slide and looking up to see her shoot past, legs first on her belly. "Dig in!" I shouted, whereupon she swung and seated her axe point, which promptly ripped out dislocating her shoulder. I could only watch helplessly while she slid down until the gully swerved and she ran into some talus.

Upon reaching her I found Kim seated on a rock with her legs gashed and rashed and her shoulder drooping. She looked dazed but professed she was able to make the walk back down to our tent. This took longer than expected. Kim kept having to sit down, feeling nauseous as in compensated shock. If I could just get her in her sleeping back back down in the meadow, I felt we could assess the situation and see if I needed to run out for a rescue. When we got to the tent she fell asleep and I cooked us a meal while rain fell outside. The storm passed she insisted she felt well enough to make the 4-mile hike out to Burro Bridge.

We returned to the car in total darkness, and back in Durango headed straight for Mercy ER where she was treated for gashes and what was essentially 2nd degree burns on her legs caused by the friction of the snow. We managed to keep the mishap a secret from our mother for a while, but word eventually got out, leading to sobering lessons. I had supplied her with an axe and briefed her, though not drilled her on its use in self-arrest. Then of course I might have told her I was testing the slope first, not just assumed she would know. As ever, communication is key.

'The Wilsons' thus appear to have been jinxed as far as my climbing in them is concerned. Then again, the third 14er in that range - Wilson Peak - was summited without incident 20 years later in 2002.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mount Sneffels - 14,150

Mount Sneffels from the north (Dallas Divide)

Two years after Blanca I was out of college and living in Durango. Circumstances brought me into contact with one Ken Trout, who had been a friend of many of my climbing partners in Albuquerque. With this connection established he proposed doing the Dogleg Couloir on the North Face of Mount Sneffels.

Sneffels I certainly knew about - it had always carried a kind of mythic ring for me, even before knowing the reference to Jules Verne. But the route was unfamiliar so Ken filled me in as we drove his VW van one late September evening over a Red Mountain Pass freshly dusted with snow. He was convinced that we could do it in and out in a day, and after a night spent at the Blue Lakes trailhead we set out in the predawn up into Blaine Basin.

The sun peeked over Cirque Mountain just as we arrived in the basin, where a lone tent was pitched. Beyond there was a fine view of the fan of snow spilling out of the couloir in the middle of the North Face, up which a pair of specks could be seen crawling. The couloir itself was mostly hidden, and somewhere up above Ken assured me it made a sudden jog left, hence the name dogleg.

Another hour and we were trading hiking for mountaineering boots before stepping onto the snowfield. The pair above were out of sight but we caught up to them where they had stopped to rope the chute of glare ice just below the dogleg. Ken knew one of these two climbers as it happened, and while they chatted I clambered up the right side of the chute until a large snow bank marked the col of the couloir that descended to the Blue Lakes Basin. I didn't know it at the time but this was to be our descent route. Meanwhile Ken and I met up and now as a team of four we covered the last portion of the route to where the final headwall lay between us and the summit.

This is one of the most amazing finishes to a fourteener that I have ever encountered. One last mantelshelf literally brings you to the summit. I would do this same route again solo in May of 2002, when the late spring snow was soft and bucket-stepped all the way to the summit block. Then I would have the summit all to myself, though even this time it was surprisingly bare of people considering Sneffels has one of the shortest approaches in all Colorado via Yankee Boy Basin, from which a pair of scramblers had nevertheless come and now occupied the summit, eyeing us suspiciously in their shorts and t-shirts: we four lethally armed, bundled climbers from the shadowy north.

Back at the junction we left Ken's friends to rap down the chute and back to their camp in Blaine while we dove off into that other basin. This worked out fairly well considering the thousands of feet of scree to be skated before we hit the meadows below the Blue Lakes. The sun was down and twilight in the air when we arrived back at Ken's van. That left only a late night drive back over the two passes followed by a lazy Sunday in Durango.

Note: I summited Sneffels yet a third time, this in July of 2002 with an approach via Yankee Boy followed by a climb of the SW Ridge. The photo below shows the sawtooth gendarmes that appear to guard the lower half of this route.

Yet the entire array can be easily bypassed by a trail on the other side. There is some low 5th class scrambling over sketchy rock to be navigated at midpoint on the ridge. But after that the ridge is solid and nicely exposed. Descend via Lavender Col.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Blanca Peak - 14,345

Kit Carson had been exactly one year before as, in January of 1977, four of us skied into the Como Lake basin for an ascent of Blanca's North Ridge.

Blanca is the fourth highest peak in Colorado and from the way it dominates its neighbors, that is easy to believe. I once had a picture of Karl Kiser standing in front of Ruby, my old girlfriend's red 1965 VW beetle, parked at the mouth of the Como Lake road, her front bumper packed with snow from our recent effort to take her farther up that road than she was willing to go - the second time on this trip when Ruby's front bumper had been so encrusted. The first time had been a week or so earlier when myself and Karl and Ed Ward, two friends from Las Cruces, had tried to ram her through a snow drift in the Coulter Bay campground below the Grand Teton. We wound up spending one long night in this abandoned campground, beating the snow from our tent's sagging canopy, before deciding the Grand was a no-go. Leaving word at his home (as was done in the Olde Days) for Cliff Naveaux, Ed's pal from Canada, to meet us in Denver, we high-tailed it back down I-25.

Here the meeting here took place as scheduled and the four of us embarked on our secondary goal of the Notch Couloir of Long's Peak, a project that had every reason to succeed and yet did not, for reasons to be elaborated in my trip report on that successful climb three years hence. For now suffice it to say the collapse at Long's led directly to our tertiary goal of Blanca Peak.

In that photo mentioned above, Karl and I are waiting for Cliff and Ed to show in hopes that Cliff's Jeep will have better luck with the road. It did. Despite being packed to the gills with four sets of skis and winter packs, it took us all the way up to where the jeep road enters the canyon of Holbrook Creek. It was already late in the day so we made camp after little more than a mile among some abandoned mining structures. The next day saw us easily into Como Lake, where we lounged away the afternoon, boiling water and making plans.

Our skis took us quite a distance into the upper basin below Ellingwood, Blanca and Little Bear. But then they had to come off for the trudge up the West Face to meet with the North Ridge (see Karl in picture below).

The tortured weather of previous days was gone - the day could not have been nicer, a true halcyon winter. The summit came and went and we had a good time glissading down the West Face (see photo below) before skiing back down to camp and then out the next day.

This trip went exactly as planned, as will the Dogleg Couloir of Mount Sneffels two years later.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Kit Carson Mountain - 14,165

Nearly three years elapsed between the time I climbed El Diente with Jeff Blagg and my ascent of Kit Carson Peak. That's not very efficient peak-bagging from the current project's perspective. All the same, that is not as long as between some 14ers I have climbed.

It was Wayne Taylor who alerted me, at the end of the first semester of my junior year, to a possible trip into the Crestones before the spring term began at the University of New Mexico. I can remember skiing Pandemonium at Purgatory just around New Year's when I heard my name called from the lift. It was my mom. She had a message for me from Wayne, and as she dug it out of her pocket the lift kept carrying her farther away. At last the scrap of paper came fluttering down, I skied over to it, saw Wayne's phone number, and back in Farmington made the call.

It was arranged for them to meet me in Farmington and then head up into Colorado. I had a pair of skinny skis I'd rented at Johnson Gym prior to the winter break which pretty well matched what everyone else had, and proved a priceless piece of equipment in any case. Crammed into Doug Bridgers' VW Type III Fastback, the four of us reached the trailhead that evening, camping in the snow above the Baca Grande subdivision before heading out at first light. Our goal was Willow Lake high above the San Luis plain, all new territory for me. I was nursing a head cold that got worse over the two days it took to reach the lake where, after pitching out two tents just below, we spent the next day digging a combination igloo/snow cave in a huge drift on the east side of the lake. We were planning to move in to it, but the igloo proved to be too small. It was only large enough, in fact, for the four of us to squat inside and smoke a doobie. (In those days smoking dope was almost a pre-requisite, or at least a co-requisite to climbing).

On day four we finally began climbing. There were some spectacular frozen falls dropping from the 150-foot bench above straight into Willow Lake which were bypassed on the left. I know this height is accurate because, two days later, we would be top-roping these waterfalls using two tied-together 150-foot goldline ropes. For now, though, Challenger was the goal and here is as good a place as any to talk a bit about what makes a fourteener a fourteener as opposed to, say, a mere satellite or sub-peak, such as Challenger is. It all comes down to horizontal and/or vertical separation. Only the Colorado Mountain Club knows for sure, but there is a kind of "golden mean" whereby closely adjacent peaks may still count separately as long as the drop between them is substantial enough. Conversely, two peaks with no significant drop between them may still stand as individual 14ers provided there is enough horizontal distance between them. As usual, though, there is a good deal of subjectivity involved. In the case of the Crestone Peak and Needle, for example, two peaks in very close proximity, it is not so much the vertical drop between them as their "incommunicability" that qualifies them as individuals: getting from one point to the other is quite an undertaking. While ongoing debate over these standards has resulted in Ellingwood Peak, formerly regarded as a satellite of Blanca, being upgraded to an official 14er, Challenger for whatever reason has remained a sub-peak of Kit Carson.

We did not climb it because it was a sub-peak. On our fourth day out we climbed Challenger because we thought it was Kit Carson. Be that as it may, we enjoyed a nice climb of the frozen neve of the Kirk Couloir before topping out on Challenger, from which Kit Carson could be plainly seen rearing its blocky head to the south. An attempt by Davey Hammack to find a way over from Challenger ended in failure (although the current Dawson guidebook indicates such a traverse is indeed possible), so we slid down the northeast face of Challenger on our butts and made our way back to camp, our sights set on the real peak tomorrow.

To say that I enjoyed the Kirk Couloir is surely exaggerating a bit. I was fighting that cold, remember. It being all I could do to keep standing, I was secretly glad Davey had not managed to forge a route to the true summit. Back at camp I fell exhausted into my bag. By next morning, however, I awoke feeling stronger than I had in days. My cold having vanished, I found myself in the lead most of that day, second only to Davey Hammack whose energy no one could beat. I followed his bucket steps up the Outward Bound Couloir, donning crampons at midway to finish at the col in the south ridge which was followed to the summit. The photo above taken by Wayne Taylor shows me standing on this ridge somewhere near the summit of Kit Carson, against a backdrop of Crestone Peak and Needle. Yes, and the picture I took of him looking back hung for years in the Wilderness Centre in Albuquerque.

My energy continued through the fifth day which was spent, as I mentioned, top-roping the frozen falls above the lake, and on the sixth day we skied out. To this day our Willow Lake trip remains my longest time spent out-of-doors in winter. Youth is not wasted on the young, after all, as evidenced by the fact that when we got down, Doug's VW had a flat tire. He had a spare but no lug wrench, as I recall, and I was elected to go door to door among the widely spaced cabins of the Baca Grande in quest of one, it being the consensus of my partners that I looked the most "presentable." I can remember being vaguely puzzled by this, maybe even insulted, and I'm still not sure what they meant, unless the photo above provides any clues.

Incidentally, this photograph is a kind of time capsule of its own. It started out as Wayne Taylor's Ektachrome transparency. This was duplicated and the duplicate transparency made into a print. The image above, a digital scan of this print, is thus thrice removed from the original. Visible in the far right distance is Mount Blanca, my third fourteener which I will be climbing one year later, in the halcyon winter of 1977.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

El Diente - 14,159

Sunrise over Navajo Lake, July 5, 2002 (El Diente rising above to the right, Gladstone hazy in the distance)


In the summer of 1973 I climbed the North Face of El Diente with Jeff Blagg.

How many of these trip reports are going to begin like this? The thought leads me to some conclusions.

First, I like seeing someone else's name along with mine. Not that it makes the climb better in any way. Sometimes it helps having a partner, sometimes it doesn't. But climbing has always been a way of getting outside yourself, and that's usually more noticeable when there's somebody else in the picture.

Second, someone will notice that the photo above was taken at a later date - 29 years later, in fact. In this case the reason is simply that I didn't bring my camera along. In others it is because I lost all my photos a while back. For years I tried for years to reconcile myself to this unfortunate loss. At last I think I have found a way.

I used the words trip report above. The trip report (or TR) is an established way of narrating a climb while focusing on those practical details that might interest anyone planning to be in the area soon, observations on weather, rock quality, snow conditions, etc. The snow conditions on El Diente 36 years ago, however, are barely of consequence today. The focus in these TRs lies elsewhere, namely on the dynamics making these particular outings memorable. Memory is in charge, and as long as that is the case there's no telling where these anecdotes, accounts, stories may wind up. It will be hard to talk about one without reference to another and thus, if there be any upside to the sad fate of my earlier photographs, it is in how this hodgepodge of images mirrors the way memory arranges things.

I'd known Jeff since elementary school. We'd skied together several times at Hesperus before parting ways going to different Junior Highs. But we met up again in high school to rekindle our mutual interest in the out-of-doors. Deciding to climb El Diente was Jeff's and my way of confirming our commitment to climbing. He made good on this commitment in his years at New Mexico Tech and I did the same while at UNM. But always there was this first.

We were in fact two of six high school buddies who, in varying combinations, headed north from Farmington on every possible occasion into the Southern San Juans. Some of us had been into the Navajo Lake Basin below this trio of 14ers - El Diente, Mount Wilson, Wilson Peak - a year or so earlier but without climbing anything. You couldn't call us unprepared this time out, as I seem to recall bringing along my brand new rack of hexcentrics, which we spent our first evening placing in boulders around camp, though I'd like to believe - as blatant overkill - that it was left behind on the actual day of the ascent. Certainly not left behind was my ice axe: a Stubai Nanga Parbat with an ash shaft in the preposterous length of 90 cm. I would remember this because that axe is going to be very important to Jeff and me.

Some six years later with sister Kim our route would be the prominent buttress falling straight from the summit (visible rising to the right in the photgraph above). In 1973, though, Jeff and I opted for the snowfields of the North Face proper. Fair weather attended our ascent, our friends being often visible in the basin below. But suddenly they were gone as the mists moved in. Spending little time on the summit but beginning the descent promptly, we lost our way in the clouds and wound up in a gully below and left of the summit. Feeling our way blindly, we kept going until a sudden clearing of mist revealed the massive drop. A few more feet and there would have been no going back. It was the stuff of nightmares. Turning back, me in the lead because Jeff had been ahead on the descent, I had just mounted the safety of a large pillar where, seated, I watched Jeff follow from below. To this day I don't know why, just as he came in reach, he asked for the end of my ice axe. But he had no sooner grasped the handle than the pile of rocks he was standing on gave way. I closed my eyes against the dust but the noise was deafeaning as I clutched the axe in both hands, vaguely aware of Jeff climbing hand-over-hand up the shaft of my axe, like it was a baseball bat we were using to decide who batted first, or better, like that scene in The Swiss Family Robinson when one savage is clambering over the other savages to escape the burning end of a rope. All I know is Jeff was below me and next he was above me, looking down while I checked my forehead for Vibram tracks.

El Diente's fairly bare North Face with part of Mt Wilson connecting ridge.

It's a good story now, but I shudder to think what would have happened had he not asked for my axe. The rest of the descent is not memorable - which is how it should be. We climbed no more 14ers together. None of us did again until college, which for me included winter ascents of Kit Carson Peak, Blanca Peak, and an abortive attempt on Long's.