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.