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.