High in Colorado

High in Colorado
Photo: Mandy Lea Photo

Monday, September 2, 2013

Week in Review: August 26 – September 1—The Joys of Route Finding

Monday, August 26th
AM—13 Miles—10:42—9,000’—Nolan’s 14 Pacing
My pacing duties were tentatively scheduled to start at 8:30 last night, but Ben was running a few hours late due to weather on La Plata. I tried taking a nap before Ben rolled into Clohesy Lake, but it just wasn’t happening. So, Ben and I rolled out at 1am and made our way up Missouri Mountain. After some initial problems finding the trail, we made quick progress up the mountain and tagged the summit in 2:47 (including our 30 minutes of lost time from route finding). I remember Ben making a comment to look back towards the city lights of Leadville shortly after gaining Missouri’s northwest ridge. Somewhere between that comment and reaching the summit visibility became non-existent. Ben finished sending his “we’re OK” message and we began a seemingly endless series of route finding errors in our fruitless attempt to get off the damn mountain. Initially, we headed south towards Iowa Peak. Then we re-ascended Missouri at 4:25 from Clohesy Lake. In zero visibility (we could barely see our feet), 50+ mph winds, and insanely cold temperatures (I had on five layers and was still cold) we desperately trudged up-and-down the ridgelines seeking a familiar land mark to assure us of our location. It never happened…

Eventually day broke and so did the clouds—temporarily anyways—and we caught a glimpse of something familiar that allowed us to finally get our bearings for the descent. At about 6:12 into the segment we finally began our descent into Missouri Gulch—spirits were temporarily lifted. The march up Belford seemed to go fairly well with Ben keeping his thoughts optimistic. We summited around 7:54 from Clohesy. Somewhere between Belford and Oxford Ben started making his first serious comments about calling it a day; I always responded with a “don’t be thinking about shit like that right after our little debacle on Missouri…we’ll get down to camp at Pine Creek, get some food, and some fucking sleep for Christ sakes then we’ll discuss where to go from there.” The great thing was that Ben was only considering calling it a day because of time constraints—his body and mind felt great. A short while later we summited Oxford at 8:47 from our Clohesy Lake departure. The only thing that separated us from food and sleep was a 3,000’ off-trail descent over two miles capped off with some jungle-style bushwhacking to join the main trail into camp. Goddamnit…

Ben and I eventually reached treeline where we met with Jon for a quick rest and moment of contemplation before the bushwhacking began. About 35 minutes of slipping and tripping, getting scratched and poked, and barging our way through anything that dare act as an obstruction, we hit the main trail and cruised into camp. Shoes were quick to come off and I was shedding clothes like crazy since I still had on 2-3 layers. Ben hit the sack for 30’ish minutes, while I stayed up and chatted with Jon and M’lin about what Ben and I had just endured. At this point, both Ben and I had been awake for 32 hours straight—the main difference being he was on his feet for 31 of those hours and I was only on my feet for 11 of them. My body and mind were in that state of exhaustion where you’re almost too tired to sleep, but if your head hit a pillow you’d be out cold for countless hours. So, I could only imagine the state of exhaustion Ben was experiencing. 

When Ben woke up the four of us began discussing where to go from there. Our two options were for Ben and I to continue up-and-over Harvard, traverse to Columbia, then descend into a crew spot at North Cottonwood or for the four of us to take an easy hike out from Pine Creek and call it a day. By this point Ben had already mentioned several times how his body (legs specifically) felt great and that he thought he would be able to return and give it another go in a few weeks. With these two things in mind I voiced my opinion…

If Ben wanted to keep going I’d be in it for the long haul, no doubt—I was prepared to sleeplessly join Ben from Pine Creek, over Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton (if needed). However, if Ben wanted to reattempt Nolan’s in a few weeks then we should just hike out of Pine Creek without even thinking about Harvard and Columbia. Ben’s legs still felt great, but who knows what two more summits and the additional stress of more ascent/descent/time-on-feet/lack-of-sleep would do to affect how his body felt and his chances at a reattempt? After some deliberation, Ben decided to call it a day and come back to retry Nolan’s in September. 

To be honest, any call Ben made that day would have been the “right” call. Nolan’s is a fucking ridiculous line that requires the alignment of so many factors beyond control of the person attempting it. In a way I’m sort of glad he decided to call it a day because I’m confident Ben will go under 60 hours when he does his second attempt…And I can’t wait to join him for another night of 14ers in the beautiful Sawatch Mountain Range!
PM—8 Miles—2:29—150’—Hike out from Pine Creek crew point
After sitting at camp for a while we finally hit the trail for the hike out. The hike was gorgeous and mellow. Not the end that we wanted, but not a bad way to end the day either. 

Tuesday, August 27th
OFF—After being awake for 38 straight hours I finally crashed in the most epic of fashions in the driver’s seat of the Taco. I woke up to realize I was still in the parking lot of the burger joint the Nolan’s crew ate at Monday night. I decided to take the day off and enjoy the drive over Independence Pass. I also indulged a little and had a huge dinner at a very vegan friendly restaurant called Pyramid Bistro in Aspen.  

Wednesday, August 28th  
AM—13 Miles—4:33—4,700’—Castle Peak (14,265’) and Conundrum Peak (14,060’)
I knocked out the first five miles or so fairly quick then fell into a power hike once I hit the huge talus field leading to the trail that gains Castle’s northeast ridge. Nothing was particularly special about getting to the summit of Castle—2nd Class the entire way, but I did manage to find one or two sections of very brief 3rd Class that I ventured onto. While chatting with a few hikers on the summit I was reminded how subjective exposure in the mountains really can be. One of the hikers mentioned that the route up was a little more than she had anticipated with the exposure and what-not. I searched through my memory of the route I had just covered trying to recall any such exposure—I couldn’t. With that thought I started the quick traverse over to Conundrum and was on the summit in no time. I didn’t really want to re-ascend Castle to get back down so I kept peering over the side of the mountain during the traverse to spot a descent route. I settled on what I think is the Conundrum Couloir, but I’m not sure. Regardless, it went without much effort—quickly turning into a nice scree slope that I could just dig my heels into. There were three others who began the descent before me who weren’t so fortunate with their route finding. For some reason they opted to veer way to the climber's left towards some nice cliff outs versus heading down the not-so-steep scree slope to the right. They started yelling at me for help with guiding them on their route down. Great…I asked how comfortable they are with downclimbing to which they said 4th Class. Perfect! I guided them down to the cliffs to some easy high 3rd/low 4th class downclimbing, but it left them seemingly sketched out. Finally, one of the guys was standing beside me so I left him to guide the other two down. Once I got out of the talus I began running the jeep road back towards the trailhead reaching a section of ankle breakers a mile or so down, which I walked. Just so happened a guy was hiking down right there too. So, I joined him as we headed down—chatting about 14ers, climbing, climbing books, and other things I can’t really remember. I was enjoying the conversation and the casual walk down so even when the terrain turned runnable again I kept walking with him. He had driven up about three miles from where I parked the Taco and offered me a beer when we got to his SUV. After 30 minutes of chatting over beers I took off to finish the descent and get the thing I really needed—water. The road/trail down to the Taco was nice and smooth so I cruised along, getting a little wet from the afternoon showers, and finally reached the trailhead to end a longer-than-expected day in the mountains. 

Thursday, August 29th
AM—9 Miles—4:42—4,400’—Pyramid Peak (14,018’)
After starting a little late I had an initial mishap of missing the turn for the trail to Crater Lake. Instead I did a loop around Maroon Lake and lost some time there. I took the ascent towards Crater Lake pretty slow once I neared 10k feet elevation since I didn’t want to miss the unmarked trail to Pyramid Peak. From the unmarked trail junction I hiked every step of the way unless I was climbing/scrambling. Most of the route was talus/boulder hopping, which made for slow going anyways. I gained the northeast ridge of Pyramid rather quickly once I got out of the talus. From the ridge the route gets more engaging and stays that way pretty much until you reach the summit (especially if you opt to go off-route in favor of more 4th/5th Class terrain versus staying on the primarily 2nd/3rd Class route). Close to the summit I noticed two climbers above me and gave them notice that “there’s a helmet-less climber below you guys.” They informed me of a group of three others on the summit, but I didn’t see this group until I had descended back from the northeast ridge all the way to the talus field. Must have missed them somehow when I veered off route for a more interesting way up to the summit? I used the perfect weather as an opportunity to dick around on the descent and practice some downclimbing, etc. After hiking back down to the main Crater Lake trail I was finally able to get back to a running pace and cruise to the Taco. 

Friday, August 30th
AM—9 Miles—4:46—3,700’—Maroon Bells Bailout
Well, veering up the side of the mountain 0.07 miles too early led me to cliff outs, traversing narrow exposed ledges, shimmying up steep gullies filled with rotten rock, and consistent 3rd Class terrain with plenty of 4th Class and the occasional 5th Class move. Early on a good portion of this 3rd Class terrain was in water drainages, which left me soaking wet, covered in mud, and beyond thankful that I didn’t slip and fall down one of those steep-as-hell sections. After a few hours of poking my head around I was finally confronted with two options for upward travel: a 30’ish feet tall vertical wall (almost certain death from a fall since I’m not that confident in my free soloing yet) or a super steep, insanely narrow (5-10 feet wide) gully that looked like the perfect funnel for rock fall from climbers above (decent possibility of death from rock fall from above). Neither of these options appealed to me so I retreated back down the mountain—frustrated at my impatience and at the few thousand feet of shitty descent that remained. Eventually I ran into the actual trail that gains Maroon Peak’s south ridge and fought off the urge to head right back up the damn mountain for instant redemption. The trail seemed to be brand-new—a nice, cushy way to gain the ridge, for sure. I continued down and soon realized that I was only 0.07 miles from the nice, cushy trail when I erroneously decided to charge up the mountain instead. Tired, dehydrated, and starving I ran the 3-4 miles back to the Taco and called it a day. I’ll get the Bells after the holiday weekend…

Saturday, August 31st  
AM—13 Miles—4:19—4,500’—Mount Sopris East Summit (12,966’)
Got a late 11am start on this one. I quickly made my way up to Thomas Lakes, which were just as awesome as I remember. The short series of switchbacks from the lakes up to treeline was more runnable than I remember. I guess not having them covered in snow up to my mid-calf helps. Once above treeline I power hiked through ankle breaking talus to the east summit of Mount Sopris with a storm building the entire time. I decided to tempt fate, brave the thunderstorm, and venture over to the west summit. Well, five minutes and a few flashes of lightning later and I was retreating back down to treeline yelling “fuckkkkkkk thissssss.” Over a mile of exposed ridgeline isn’t really where I want to be during a thunderstorm, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. On the way down I stopped at Thomas Lakes for a bit to enjoy the scenery then continued slowly down to the trailhead. My footwork seemed way off today so I walked pretty much anything that was covered in rocks on the way down. 

Sunday, September 1st
AM—4 Miles—0:56—1,700’—Mushroom Rock in Carbondale, CO
I started out with the intent of chasing numbers and trying to get 30k feet of vert for the week. However, it was hot as hell outside so I decided two laps up-and-down Mushroom Rock was enough. This was a pretty nice little route—short and sweet—that reminded me of the Utah/Arizona desert. It’s about one mile and 850 feet of ascent up to Mushroom Rock, which I casually ran in about 14 minutes. I tried to minimize the effort due to the heat. The views of Mount Sopris and Carbondale from Mushroom Rock are pretty amazing. I forgot to take my camera this time, but I’ll be back for a quick run up in a few days. I’ll have some photos then…

Time—32 hours 31 minutes
Elevation Gain—28,150 feet

Well, lack of route finding seemed to be a common theme in most of my outings this week. When faced with problems like the Missouri Mountain descent debacle or the Maroon Bells bailout you learn quickly that the mountains aren’t always fun, easy-to-navigate, walks in the park; sometimes they’re sources of continual frustration that leave you faced with difficult decisions. The mountain will always be there; it’s just important to make sure you’ll be there for another go at it. 

This week really didn’t seem like a 32 hour week and that’s likely because nearly all of my efforts this week were relaxed without ever pushing too hard. It’s amazing how much of a governing effect talus fields have on your speed/effort when you’re in constant fear of rolling an ankle. 

August ended up being a particularly satisfying month with 42 trips up to 14k+ feet. Here’s some other stats for the month:
Miles: 297
Time: 113 hours 40 minutes
Vertical: 115,550 feet

Not too shabby…

So, my plan is to finish off the Elks 14ers this week and hopefully even sneak in a run on the Four Pass Loop afterwards. We’ll see what happens. 

Ben and I on the summit of Missouri Mountain with no idea of shit show of a descent we're in for...

Ben looking strong near the summit of Belford

Some of our bushwhack down into camp at Pine Creek

This gives a little perspective on Nolan's 14. This is one 14er. Nolan's links up fourteen of these things...

The Taco heading up Independence Pass

View of La Plata from Independence Pass

Independence Pass

Independence Pass

Sweet waterfall on the Aspen side of Independence Pass

View of the traverse over to Conundrum from the summit of Castle

Talus hopping on the descent from Castle/Conundrum

A daunting look at the route up to Pyramid

The route up Pyramid after gaining the NE ridge

Getting closer to the summit of Pyramid

View of the Maroon Bells from the summit of Pyramid

Me on the summit of Pyramid

A short, fun section of 3rd Class terrain near the summit of Pyramid

Some fun downclimbing on the descent of Pyramid

King of the Mountain

Nice view while descending Pyramid

Very spooky looking with the massive rock cairns. This is the beginning of the endless talus/boulder hopping to the beginning of the climb up Pyramid

My escape route from the failed ascent of Maroon Peak. It sucked...

Mt Sopris. I love this mountain--it stands proud, fully comfortable with not being a 14er or even a 13er.

Summit of East Sopris with Carbondale in the background

On the summit of East Sopris with West Sopris over my shoulder

Some nice trail near treeline on Sopris
Wildflowers :)

Thomas Lakes at the base of Mt Sopris

One of the Thomas Lakes

A different one of the Thomas Lakes

Some Sedona'esque running in Carbondale, Colorado


  1. Damn, those are some great outings and photos. Good times.

    The Elks in general scare the crap out of me. Not even sure I'm up to it.

    Castle: I had not problem with the ridge, which was fun, but I hate scree so much that instead of descending from the Conundrum-Castle saddle (a nasty scree slope at the time), I chose to ascend back over Castle and down the ridge. To each their own I guess.

    Actually I was more worried about the wolf howls I heard at the trailhead when I started (that was a couple of years ago). Stereotypical howls right out of a nature documentary. Never verified it, and even emailed the local ranger, but I think I know coyotes at this point and those were not coyotes. No idea. I ran like a cave man, with a sharpened pine bough. And bear spray.

    Thomas Lakes Tr. is great, great variety and rarely too crowded. I was hoping to finally summit the Sopris-es this fall.

  2. Thanks. It certainly was a good week in the mountains. I've been thoroughly enjoying my little 14er project.

    In my opinion, the Elks weren't that bad...I think all you need to approach the Elks and come out unscathed is confidence in your climbing/scrambling abilities and the mental strength to stay within those abilities. The rock really isn't as bad as everyone makes it out to be...I've been on far, far worse rotten rock when ascending South Wilson (unranked 14er).

    -Capitol is solid rock on all of the difficult climbing (which you can keep at 3rd class if you want). The knife edge isn't as horrible as it's made out to be and it's only 100 feet long. The worst part was a boulder field that you use to skirt around some technical portions of the ridge from the saddle to K2, which was terribly loose.
    -Snowmass is apparently not that bad from the standard route. I approached from the west side, which was loose as can be, but you can keep it all 3rd class with little to no exposure to the summit.
    -Maroon Peak was by far the worst in terms of route finding, but it's all 3rd class with minimal exposure to the summit. You basically just skirt around some ledges. There is one semi-steep and loose gulley that I used on the ascent, but somehow managed to skirt around it during the descent. Don't ask me how I did that because I have no idea.
    -North Maroon was surprisingly easy and straightforward. You can bypass all 4th Class moves and keep the entire route 3rd class should you choose. This is great for the downclimb. Roach and 14ers.com refer to the exposure on North Maroon, but I never felt or noticed it until I decided to go off route and approach the summit from the east side.
    -Pyramid was pretty straightforward as well in terms of route finding, but I would call it more difficult technically than any other peak I did in the Elks. The 3rd class terrain is pretty sustained from the saddle to the summit. I'm not sure what the actual route contains since I went off route most of the way to the summit and tried to get in 4th/low-5th class terrain. To me, it seems that Pyramid presented the most opportunities for likely fatal falls, but the likelihood of that happening should still be near zero.
    -Castle and Conundrum...Well, sounds like you know these already. My least favorite part was the talus/boulder field leading to the trail that gains the ridge leading to the summit of Castle. Talus fields are still uncomfortable on my ankle. Definitely "to each their own" on routes up/down mountains. What sketches one out is totally within the comfort zone of another. I'm learning this more and more with every trip up a mountain.

    I was actually just chatting with a friend last night who told me a story about seeing a wolf somewhere in the Elks. He had a similar comment about the howling versus the typical yipping of a coyote. Fortunately, I haven't experienced any of that yet, but I did hear several coyotes while descending Castle/Conundrum. I've been known to run with rocks and/or sticks in my hands in case of a mountain lion sighting.

    I was surprised at how uncrowded Thomas Lakes was for it being Labor Day weekend. Once I got above treeline I only saw a handful of people who were all descending. I tried to get up Sopris last fall, but an early season snow storm left me post holing up to my knees. So I turned around shortly after getting above treeline. I still need to get back on West Sopris since the lightning made me bail...