Thursday, August 25, 2011

Colorado 14er Fini

Snowmass Mtn., August 1996
On July 22 I completed what turned out to be a project lasting almost two decades, that of climbing all of Colorado's ranked peaks over 14,000 feet.  Using Gerry Roach's Colorado's Fourteeners, from Hikes to Climbs almost exclusively, I picked away at the list over the years, initially not attempting to climb them all.   My 14er quest was inexorably tied to running the Hardrock 100.  Were it not for the annual Tour de San Juans, I likely would never have climbed all the 14ers.  This post is on the long side, but it covers 54 peaks and 18 years! 
My first 14er was Quandary Peak in 1993.  Mostly a mountain biking trip to Moab, Telluride, and Crested Butte, Mike and I threw in a hike up Quandary, one of the easiest 14ers, on our way back to Denver's Stapleton International Airport (before DIA even!).  Thrilled to have reached a new elevation PR by around 8,000 feet on this easier peak, I had absolutely no aspirations of climbing them all, especially after reading some of Roach's intimidating route descriptions:  "A fall here would be fatal."  "The rock is loose, rotten, and dangerous."  "Some parties choose to rope up here."  And other scary stuff like that.
Quandary Peak - my first 14er (1993)
In 1996 I ran the Leadville 100 for the first and only time.  Hiker friends Andy and Tom joined me on some acclimatization hikes and introduced me to my first Class 3 peaks:  Longs, Snowmass, and Kelso Ridge on Torreys.  Perhaps a brief description of classification is in order.  A recent issue of Backpacker magazine offered the following explanation:
Class 1:  Walking easily navigable trails
Class 2:  Hiking cross-country across rough terrain, occasionally using hands for balance
Class 3:  Scrambling steep terrain (roughly 35 degrees and higher), using hands for support
Class 4:  Simple climbing (think ladder) with potentially significant exposure.  A fall would result in serious injury or even death; many parties use a rope to belay the toughest sections.
Class 5:  Technical rock climbing requiring a rope and safety hardware
As with gear and tech talk, classification of routes can be overanalyzed, discussed and argued ad nauseum.  Ultimately what became patently clear to me is that the classification of the route was a general guideline and didn't mean much until I was actually ON the route.  To say, I've been freaked out on Class 2+ and felt totally comfortable on Class 4.  Also, the more I was "exposed to exposure," the more comfortable I was with it.
Kelso Ridge freaked me out back in 1996.  On the more exposed sections I remember my legs shaking uncontrollably, coincident with my stomach churning uncomfortably.  Just as I thought I would certainly throw up, we skittered across the last narrow catwalk and stood atop Torrey's summit, huge smiles all around.   Encountering mountain goats on the descent of Grays Peak was the icing on the cake.
Descending Grays Peak and encountering my first mountain goats (1996)
We also bagged the foursome of Democrat, Lincoln, Bross, and Cameron that summer, along with Longs Peak, a repeat of Quandary, and a one-day Snowmass epic.  Since it is well over 20 miles round trip, most people do Snowmass as an overnighter, but Tom and I somehow talked Andy into starting very early and doing it as a dayhike.  I remember our argument going something like "We'll actually expend less energy because we won't have to carry in all that gear" (tents, sleeping bags, pads, food, stove, etc.).  Andy finally gave in, and Snowmass ended up being one of my favorite 14ers.  In a bookstore a few days later, the three of us cracked up when we read in another guidebook something along the lines of  "Only the hiking gods and goddesses attempt Snowmass in a day." 
A hiking goddess??  (Hah!)
Again I waited three years before returning to Colorado in 1999.  This time it was for my first crack at the Hardrock 100 and the first of many ascents of Handies Peak -- the HRH course goes right over the summit.  Since I spent most of the pre-race days acclimatizing on the course, the only other 14ers I climbed that year were Sunshine and Redcloud.  Hardrock went well:   I finished 2nd woman, top 10, and broke the previous women's course record by 5 hours.
I returned to Silverton the following year.  Unlike today's entry process with its huge number of applicants, this was back in the good 'ol days of Hardrock, when nearly everyone who applied and qualified got in.  That year -- some solo, some with friends -- I climbed Sherman, Massive, La Plata, Huron, Shavano, Tabeguache, San Luis, and Colorado's highest peak, Mt. Elbert.  A friend and I also reclimbed Democrat, Lincoln, Bross, and Cameron.  At Hardrock I struggled through some very rough patches but prevailed in the end:  I was first woman!
Marmot sighting #4,327
Alas, any Hardrock fun came to an abrupt end in 2001 as I DNF'd at Grouse Gulch after barfing my way up Engineer Pass, the one and only time in over 100 ultras that this has ever happened.   However, it was another good year for picking away at the 14ers as I stood atop the remaining Sawatch (and the crazy Nolan's 14 [RIP]) peaks:  Missouri, Oxford, Belford, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Antero, and Holy Cross, as well as Uncompahgre in the San Juans and Challenger Peak in the Sangres.  A fast approaching storm prevented the traverse from Challenger to Kit Carson that year, and I also got turned back on Ellingwood/Blanca after hiking all the way up the horrible Lake Como Road on a hot day -- ugh.  No worries, the mountains weren't going anywhere in my lifetime.
Chicago Basin (2006)
Four years passed before I decided to give Hardrock another shot.  With successful hikes of Bierstadt, Evans, and Pikes Peak, the Front Range was now complete.  Memorable were sightings of a nude male hiker on Bierstadt (!) and a requisite mountain goat and her kid on Evans -- apparently not seeing goats on Evans is the exception.  Pikes Peak was a blast:  I did the "marathon," the entire Barr Trail up and down from Manitou Springs, and enjoyed a freshly made donut on the summit before running back down the easy 13-mile trail.  I finished off acclimatizing for the race by climbing Wetterhorn (marmot PR on the approach) and Sneffels back in the San Juans.  One unfortunate memory of Sneffels was meeting a trio from Texas -- two guys and a teenage boy -- on the final Class 2+ snow-filled chute to the summit, the boy visibly scared.  I passed the group again on my way down, they making very slow progress.  Laughing out loud, I did a controlled glissade about 1000 feet down the mountain.  It wasn't until the next day that I learned the teenager had taken a terrible fall in the upper chute, sustaining compound fractures of his femur and requiring a complicated rescue and helicopter ride out.  As for Hardrock, I had a great time that year and was thrilled to win for a second time.  :)
Some peak... somewhere
Back for my fifth and final Hardrock 100 in 2006, I'd allowed myself to think that maybe, just maybe, I could climb all but the hardest of 14ers.  That year I schlepped my overnight gear back up the horrible Lake Como Road and, with enough time to do so, successfully climbed Ellingwood and Blanca.  I decided to go as far as I was comfortable on Little Bear, my first Class 4 peak (!), but before I knew it, was standing on the summit.  It seemed easy!  Little Bear is one of those peaks with a lot of loose rock, but since I was the only person on the peak that day, rockfall was not of huge concern.  I did repeats of Grays, Torreys, Elbert and Holy Cross that year, literally running off the latter due to some sneaky weather accompanied by a scary degree of electricity.  I heard a strange pinging, sort of a "zzzzztt..." sound and the hair sticking out from underneath my hat was standing on end!  Still early in the season and without an ice ax, a half-hearted Capitol attempt was thwarted at Daly Saddle:  there was just too much steep snow.  However, with growing confidence for climbing the harder peaks, I backpacked to South Colony Lakes and nabbed Humboldt and Crestone Peak.  Alas, mental fatigue prevented getting Crestone Needle safely on this day, so a straggler was left behind.  My Hardrock run royally sucked this year and I DNF'd at Grouse Gulch, but I "redeemed" myself by thru-hiking the entire fantastic 480-mile Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango in 14 days.  That year's Colorado trip finally came to a close with a three-day backpack into Chicago Basin, dodging mountain goats as pesky as squirrels and summitting Windom, Sunlight, and Eolus.
Capitol attempt (2006)
Atop Humboldt w/Crestone Needle and Peak in background

Taking the DandSNGR to Needleton

Chicago Basin Welcoming Committee
By August 2009 I had climbed Denali (most of it) as well as Rainier, Hood, Granite and Gannett Peaks, the high points of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Wyoming respectively.  To say, I did some pretty gnarly, scrambly sh*t, making the rest of the Colorado 14ers now seem reasonably attainable.  Since Chris wasn't keen on anything beyond Class 2, I tackled the notoriously "loose and rotten" Elk Range mostly solo, Chris accompanying me on some of the approaches.  First up was Castle and Conundrum, the easiest of the Elks.  They, however, weren't going to give up their summits so easily.  We were about halfway up Castle when a torrential downpour forced us to postpone the summits until the next day.  I wasn't so sure about Capitol.  What I'd read -- and, stupidly, You-Tubed (yikes) -- had me pretty sketched out, but I took the same "I'll see how far I can get" approach that I'd taken on Little Bear 3 years earlier.  Chris and I were almost to Capitol Lake when we came across a dead cow... with FIVE bears surrounding it.  THAT was scary but not as scary as traversing "K2" and straddling the infamous Capitol Knife Edge.  I met about a half dozen climbers that day, including one being short roped by his Aspen guide!  (How much did that cost?? I wondered...)  After the Knife Edge, it wasn't so bad...  although, of course, I still had to go back down the same way! 
Capitol Peak in early morning light (2009)
Capitol peak summit register!  (That's sunscreen embedded in my ring.)
Next up were Pyramid and the Maroon Bells which I did separately.  All three peaks were indeed loose and rotten, but I took it slow and found the best and safest ways to go.  The mountain goats on Pyramid and Maroon were unbelievable as they nonchalantly hopped from exposed rock to exposed rock.
Maroon Peak (2009)
The Pharaoh of Pyramid (2009)
I finished off the 2009 trip in the Sangre de Cristo Range by reclimbing Challenger and finally making it across the awesome "Kit Carson Avenue" and up to the summit of Kit Carson.  Repeatedly weathered out atop Challenger Peak, it took four tries to finally get Kit Carson!

Chris and I had attempted to get to the Mt. Lindsey trailhead a few years previously, but our 2WD vehicle couldn't quite make it up the long, very wet and rutted-out road.  In July 2011 the road was in better condition, and we were able to make it all the way to the 2WD trailhead, where we set up camp for the next two nights.  As with many 14ers, Lindsey seemed more difficult than advertised:  the route I took was definitely not Class 2+  (I think the earth has moved quite a bit since Gerry Roach last climbed Mt. Lindsey), but I made it to the top, the only one to do so that day.  (On my descent I crossed paths with a woman and her husband, both surprised by the difficulty of the peak and, disappointed, that they opted to turn around.)   I tagged the summit of easy Huerfano Peak on the way back down and the next day climbed California Peak, both peaks being Centennial 13ers.  (A wise sage once advised *Leave no Stragglers* and since I may end up attempting Colorado's 100 Highest eventually...).  Crestone Needle the next day was a blast!  Doing the peak as a day hike via South Colony 2WD Trailhead, I got a very early start and was lucky enough to hook up with three very enjoyable and funny guys from Arkansas.  Together, the four of us found the correct route both up and down (people often get screwed up on the Needle's descent), nervously laughing at the "death falls" surrounding us as we clambered up the conglomerate knobsThe summit was spectacular, and we were greeted by a fat marmot yogi'ing for handouts.

All that was left were the Wilsons, the Mt. and the Peak, and they proved to be the most technical of all the 14ers for me.  Chip, a running friend from back East who now lives in the Four Corners area, agreed to accompany me.  We got a 4 a.m. start and made it all the way to Navajo Lake by headlamp.  With significant exposure and constant use of handholds on the final stretch, Wilson Peak was fun but a tad sketchy to me, but it was only a warmup for Mt. Wilson, the latter being very steep and very, very loose.  Probably two out of every three rocks moved under our feet, and I couldn't shake the feeling that the whole mountain was going to come down!  After what seemed like a long, long time, diverting around a steep snowfield and picking our way up through the rocks, we finally made it to the gnarly summit ridge.  I was a little taken aback by what we had to climb over to get there -- a couple of extreme Class 4 moves with significant exposure, where a slip would really ruin the day -- but Chip talked me over them.  And just like that, I was done!

A compulsive peakbagger, of course, is never really done climbing mountains.  There will always be more mountains to climb and different seasons in which to climb the same mountains.  Colorado alone has more 13,000 foot mountains than I will ever have the time or inclination to climb; however, I did pick up the Roaches' Colorado Thirteener book, sooo...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Woad Twip - Summer 2011

Chris and I are back in CA after 6 fun-filled weeks on the road.  We left home June 20, en route to the Black Hills of South Dakota, via Tonopah (home of world-famous Clown Motel...  and yes, we actually stayed there a few years back!) and other weird but cool places in the land of basin and range.  Most nights were spent camping out in the middle of nowhere in the back of the Honda Element.  Chris has an obsession with photodocumenting each and every campsite, but they all kinda looked like this:

Key is keeping most stuff in plastic tubs, the contents of which stay dry even if it rains.
We speed toured through Yellowstone, the Bighorn Mtns., and Devil's Tower...
...and did a cool little trail with super views of the Tower but no other tourists.  They were all hiking around the Tower.
We tried to eat well.  (Please disregard dirty fingernails.)
On June 25 we both ran in the inaugural Black Hills ultras, both rather happily DNF'ing.  I made it to the halfway point (52-53 miles) and, at this stage in my ultra "career" and since the course was an out-and-back, I honestly couldn't think of a good enough reason to continue.  The Centennial Trail was beautiful and challenging, however, and I was content getting in my 50 trail miles for South Dakota.
Next up, I somehow talked Chris into indulging my 50 Project goal further by completing Nebraska on our way to Colorado.  Finding 50 honest trail miles in Nebraska was the first challenge.  Procuring maps of Pine Ridge, Chadron State Park, and historic Fort Robinson, all in the northwestern corner of the state, I found enough "trails" that enabled me to traverse a grand total of 50:  7 in Chadron, 12 on Pine Ridge, 18 at Fort Robinson, and the rest at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument and Scott's Bluff.  The word "trails" is in quotation marks because a few of them existed only as lines on the map, seemingly not maintained for many years.  For the last few miles I cheated a bit as the trails at Scott's Bluff were paved (!), but hey, I was desperate.  With temps in the upper 90s, rattlesnakes lurking in the tall grass along with ticks and poison ivy, I recalled again and again an excerpt from the excellent dust-bowl tome The Worst Hard Time:  "WHEN YOU LIVE IN NEBRASKA, YOU DON'T HAVE TO DIE TO GO TO HELL."
With 50 miles in "Hell" behind us, we made a beeline for the mtns. of Colorado.  Yippee!  Our first night in Colorado was spent near a deserted farmhouse in the flat plains east of Denver, and we were treated to a spectacular sunrise the next morning.
Next on the agenda was a 5-day backpack of the Hardrock course in the days leading up to the race.  Since we carried full packs, including tent, sleeping bags, pads, stove, food, etc., etc., we dubbed our little adventure "HardWalk" (as opposed to "SoftRock" which some others were doing).  I had been wanting to do this backpack for years (ever since running the race 5 times and always being in such a damn hurry!).  Chris got to see the course, really, for the first time.  Starting at the Bear Creek Trail outside of Ouray on July 1, we were able to take our time and enjoy the course and scenery all the way to Silverton, arriving in time for the awesome fireworks display (and party at the Avon) on the 4th.  First trail marker...!
There was quite a bit of snow still, making for high water crossings and a coupla sketchy traverses.  This is the view from Engineer Pass.
Our first night's camp (below) was at a small lake near American-Grouse Pass, elevation 12,600 ft.  As my not-at-all acclimated head throbbed, I tried to remember everything I'd ever read about high-altitude cerebral edema.  Fortunately, a couple of aspirin took care of the headache.
The second night we spent with a herd of 100+ elk at the site of the Pole Creek aid station.  We'd intended to take the new, improved, almost entirely above treeline (12-13,000 ft.) Colorado Trail that parallels the lower elevation Pole Creek section of the Hardrock course, but afternoon storms squelched that idea.  (We ended up doing that CT section a few weeks later.)

After celebrating the 4th in Silverton, our friend Robert, now a 5-time HRH finisher!, gave us a ride up to the Ice Lake Trail.  We wanted to complete our hike on the 6th and didn't want to kill ourselves getting there so skipped the Putnam Basin Section.
With two big climbs this day, Grant-Swamp and Oscar's Passes, we hoped to make it to Telluride for the night.  There was LOTS of snow going up to Grant-Swamp and, uh, no swimming in Island Lake today...
The aspens were SO beautiful coming into Chapman...
On our way up Oscar's, we opted to wait out a nasty little storm for about an hour.  As the rain let up,  down came HRH's very own Charlie Thorn, the main person in charge of marking the course (who had just hiked through the lightning, hail, and cold rain).  Charlie had marked La Junta Basin, one of two proposed substitutes for the Wasatch Trail which was closed this year due to some landowner conflict.
The La Junta route was spectacular... and challenging!  Alas, the powers that be decided to go with the longer--and more roadie--Bridal Veil Basin.  We felt privileged to have been able to see the LJ route.  It was way cool.  That's Telluride visible in the background.
The markers had been up only a couple of hours, and some of the ribbons had already been chewed off by curious marmots!
We made it to Telluride just before dark and just as it began to rain, so opted to spend the night on the performing stage in the city park (heehee).  There is a bit more to the story--and it is a good one!--involving a drunken, raving lunatic, but it is better told in person as I cannot possibly do it justice here.  We finished our HardWalk adventure the next day, spent the night at Rick and Nancy's (first women's winner of HRH back in the early 90s) in Ouray, then drove to Silverton to meet our friend Jay, whom we crewed in the race.
Jay is from the SoCal lowlands and had arrived only a couple of days before.  He had also never stepped foot on the course!  I paced a bit, from Ouray to Telluride, the highlight being a 7:30 a.m. margarita atop Virginius Pass.  What a fun crew up there!
The weather was testy this year, with 3-4 nasty thunderstorms with which to contend.  Jay did great and finished what perennial finisher Kirk Apt proclaimed to be "the hardest Hardrock."  
Do these two have the same smile, or what?  That's Dale Garland, the RD, and Jay at the finish.
After another coupla days hanging, hiking, and soaking in the hot springs in Ouray, we headed off to climb remaining Colorado 14ers, Lindsey and Crestone Needle.  Since they are so close to Lindsey and such a PITA to access, I snagged Centennial 13ers Huerfano and California Peaks as well.  Crestone Needle was fun, exciting, and kinda freaking scary--I am not a rock climber!--but I hooked up with three young guys from Arkansas and together we found the correct route.  The conglomerate knobs were a blast to climb... as long as I continued to look at where I wanted to go as opposed to where I didn't want to go!  What an awesome summit!!!
We took a breather (ha) in Leadville and visited our good friends Eddie, who rents a house there every summer, and Chris M.  It was Silver Rush 50 weekend--the mtn. bike race on Saturday, the run on Sunday.  Chris M. finished the mtn. bike race for the 5th time.
The next day we hiked Mt. Massive, the 2nd highest peak in Colorado.  Someday I want to traverse the whole ridge, but weather didn't allow such fun on this day.
On July 19 we did the Four Passes Loop near Aspen, what a friend of mine has called the most beautiful trail run he's ever done.  It is 28 miles of spectacular mountains, snow-filled basins, rushing streams, and wildfllowers (over 30 varieties in bloom by my count).  Below are the Maroon Bells at dawn, which the loop circumvents.
With the previous night's downpour, in addition to the snowpack, this stream crossing was a bit tricky.
We had some rain on our way up the third pass, but it was short lived and without lightning.  (Yes Goofball, it was coming from up there.)
The final pass, Buckskin, was our favorite!
On our way down the second pass, Frigid Air, AND down Buckskin, we met our friends from Georgia, Liz and Scott, who were out for a 5-day backpack and incorporated the Four Passes Loop in reverse.  Wicked cool and completely unexpected.  This shot was taken just below Buckskin Pass, below a HUGE cornice.
We made our way back to Telluride so I could climb my last 14ers, the Wilsons, and were again pleasantly surprised to meet some of our "Coyote" friends in the town park, Liz and Rick Hodges and my idol, the amazing  and beautiful Pat DeVita.
Unfortunately, I did not bring the camera (doh!) so have no photos of my last 14er, Mt. Wilson, but I was so very grateful that an old running buddy, Chip Tuthill, was able to accompany me on the Wilsons.  They, too, were freaking scary, especially the Class 4 crux moves near the summit of Mt. Wilson.  Holy schnikees!  To give some indication of technicality/difficulty, we covered 19 miles in 14 hours...
Our final days in Colorado were spent back in Silverton, where our friend Tom allowed us complete run of the groovy Avon, a hotel he opens up only for Hardrock runners nowadays.  As it was packed full the days leading up to Hardrock, it felt strange--but nice and quiet--to be the only ones there for 3 nights.
We finally did the new Cataract Ridge section of the Colorado/Continental Divide Trail, and man, was it ever spectacular... I'd have to say even more beautiful than the Four Passes Loop.  Wildflowers everywhere!
Domestic sheep, too!
Rosy lupines...
Purples, pinks, yellows, reds, blues...
This area is awesome!  The lakes below are located on a bench just before the CT drops into the Elk Creek drainage.  A person could run for  many, many miles above treeline here.
I am always sad to leave Silverton, but it was time to head home.  :(
We picked a now favorite route through the canyonlands of Utah via Natural Bridges National Monument, Escalante NM, Kodachrome State Park, Bryce Canyon (more speed touring due to density of tourists), Zion, and St. George.
Kodachrome formations...
Descending to Sipapu Bridge...
Last campsite near Lake Mead.  It was HOT!