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...


Jamie Anderson said...

Sweet! Quite a journey and amazing pics. I've never seen a mountain goat and would love to see one.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! That is really an impressive accomplishment.

Olga said...

Sue, thank you so much for taking us along your wonderful life of adventures. I glanced at it last night and decided it'll require more reading - and was correct:) This quest is amazing and gives me an urge to do something like that. After all, I keep telling Larry I want to keep running and exercising so that when I am finally semi-retired, I can "afford" physically to do all these great through-hikes and backpacking trips. That's the real goal, not another race, which simply gives me incentive to be in shape:) Wonderful memory trip, Miss Goddess!

SteveQ said...

As great as the scenery is (and I love "some peak...somewhere"), it's most interesting to see how you've changed in 18 years! You might get a kick out of my third easy "MN 2000 footer" report:
[I have yet to add the lat., long., elev. data or photo to it.]
Two weeks from today, I'm bagging 3-4 easy peaks on my list and scouting several others.

Steve Pero said...

Congratulations, Sue! That's quite an accomplishment, but nothing for the goddess ;-)
Hey, I have around 15, so many to go...but I live only several hours from those great peaks :-)

Bruce Grant said...

Congrats, my old friend! That is a heck of an accomplishment, ranking up there among your many MANY other ones. But I know your quest will not be over, your adventurous heart will take you to many other peaks in the future. If I know you, the plans are already in the works :-)

RunSueRun said...

Thank you all for the kind words. :) Finishing these peak lists is always a tad bittersweet, especially one that I had been working on for so long! Fortunately, there are so many other peak lists, including California which I have still barely scratched the surface of...

Bozobreath Gewurtzerberger said...

Bruce: Sue already has the CO 13'er book (which only lists those over 13,800 out of all 600+ over just 13K), so yes, the adventure just morphs into a different set of rocks. Go get 'em, Sue!!