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Monday, December 3, 2012

Triple summit in the Sawatch range

Date:   October 7th, 2012
Mission:  Finally summit Tabeguache Peak (elevation 14,155 ft.)
Who:  With several others from 14ers.com and the Colorado Scramblers group, but I might as well have been alone.
Length:  12 miles
Elevation gain: 5900 ft.

Several years ago I climbed Mt. Shavano (elevation 14,229 ft.) and upon making the summit, I had to bail on traversing to Tabeguache Peak because of looming thunderstorms.  Today, I had my eyes set on only Tabeguache Peak.  Climbing Mt. Shavano's summit was merely a means of getting to Tabeguache Peak.

Still in the forest, but already above the clouds.
I had committed to climbing on a Sunday morning with a few members of 14ers.com.  The plan was to start at 5:30am.  On Saturday 10/6/2012, I drove to the trailhead and arrived at a fog filled valley around 10pm.  I couldn't even see other cars due to the fog, so I just parked and went to sleep. 

I began my hike at 5:15am and I quickly met up with other members of the group.  It's not that I am anti-social, but one of the reasons I hike is for solitude.  The conversation of the group was friendly enough, but I just wanted silence.  So, while hiking through the forest, I decided to just sit down and watch the sunrise and let a large portion of the 14ers.com group pass me.  I'm guess I am just not a huge fan of crowds of people.

Sunrise in the Sawatch range.

It was a cold and windy morning once I reached the treeline.  I kept a steady pace, with most of the group now ahead of me.

The view behind you as you climb Mt. Shavano.

How many other hikers do you see?  There's at least 8 other hikers in this picutre.
  
Mt Shavano shares a saddle at 13,400 ft. with Esprit Point (elevation 13,630 ft.).  Once I reached this saddle, the wind was blowing pretty good, probably close to 35 mph.  Add that to the early morning temps in the upper 20s or low 30s and it was down right cold.  So I just layered up with the new Montbell softshell jacket I had bought, my insulating layer, and my heavy Black Diamond Mercury mitts over the gloves.  With all the layers, I was toasty warm.  A few others in the group were having some trouble with the cold and turned back shy of the summit of Mt. Shavano. 

Enjoying the summit of Mt. Shavano.

I didn't stay long on the summit of Shavano.  I was determined to get Tabeguache today, and it would require another 2 miles with 1200 ft. of elevation gain.  The climb down the ridge that separates the two mountains was enjoyable.  As I reached the saddle, part of me was a bit sad that I was missing was appeared to be a pretty good party on top of Tabeguache from the 14ers.com group in front of me.  I crossed paths with this group during my ascent of Tabeguache, during their descent.

Finally around midday, I reached the summit of Tabeguache.  It had warmed a bit, and the wind had calmed slightly.  I had the summit all to myself.  This is the moment.  When your body is so tired you feel like crawling under a rock and going to sleep combined with the warming sun, the mild breeze in the mountain air, the sense of accomplishment of making it to the summit, and complete solitude.  Combine all this and this is the reason I climb mountains.  So I just chill on the summit of Tabeguache for about 20 minutes, just loving the moment and the clear blue sky.

Just loving life on Tabeguache Peak, Colorado's 25th highest mountain.

All good things must come to an end, and boy did my good day turn quickly.  Altitude sickness starts with headaches and proceed to much worse symptoms.  It should also be taken very seriously, since it can be very dangerous.  About 70% of the time, I get headaches when climbing.  It's commonplace for me.  Today however was slightly different.  The headache that began on descent of Tabeguache and worsened on re-ascent of Shavano was pounding in my head with every step I took.  Upon my re-ascent of Shavano I ran into two women who asked me if I was okay, because it was apparently very clear that I was not feeling well.  I joked that I might just lie down and hit the SOS on my SPOT and wait for search and rescue.  I then assured them I'd be fine, I was just exhausted and having headaches.

Two hikers on the ridge back to Mt. Shavano from Tabeguache Peak
I plodded along slowly back up Shavano.  Finally and painfully I reached the summit for the second time today.  I was completely spent.  The views were simply amazing nonetheless.

Views from Shavano's summit.

More views!

Again, I didn't stay long on the summit of Mt. Shavano.  I quickly descended and popped a couple of Advil.  My headache was easing with every step.  By the time I reached the saddle that is shared with Espirit Point, I was feeling great again.  So great, that I decided to just go summit Espirit Point too.  I walked over 1/4 mile or so with 250 ft. of elevation and summited my first 13er in the Sawatch range. 

After my 3rd mountain of the day, I began my descent back to the trailhead.  I quickly felt like I was being watched. 

Some mountain goats trying to figure out who or what I am.
I only wish I could move as fast as these guys on this talus.

I made it back to the trailhead by 5pm.  I changed out of my boots and was getting in the Jeep to leave when 4 or 5 vehicles come flying into the trailhead, some with trailers.  Everyone jumped out, and I quickly realized it was the county's Search and Rescue team.  I asked what was going on. They said that a small group (not with 14ers.com) had descended the wrong gully, and ended up stranded.  They also did not have the proper gear to sustain them through the night either.  Fortunately for them, they happened to have cell coverage and called 911.  I later found out the following day that all parties were rescued successfully albeit cold and tired.

As I was driving out of the area on the dirt road, I encountered my own roadblock while trying to get home.  So ends another adventure in the Colorado mountains.


Seriously, it took 5 minutes for me to get past these guys.  I love cows, but man they can be stubborn.



Monday, October 8, 2012

Crestone Needle Sucks!

Date: September 22nd, 2012
Mission: Climb Crestone Needle
Who: Solo
Length: 11.5 miles
Elevation gain: 4400 ft.

Climbing Crestone Needle is not fun.  It's not even challenging.  If you are looking for a fun mountain, this is not it.  I hated this climb from the moment I started at the trailhead and it just gets worse as you go. 


Crestone Needle as seen in the afternoon after descending back to South Colony Lakes.


Good morning!

Ok, hopefully many people just read the title and the first few sentences of my blog and decided to never climb Crestone Needle.  GOOD!  I want this mountain to remain a secret.  It just pains me to think that someday Crestone Needle will be overcrowded like so many 14ers are lately.

The Needle is easily the favorite mountain I've climbed.  I just love class 3 and class 4 climbs.  The longer the class 3 and 4 sections the better in my opinion.  Exposure just makes it more fun. 

After sleeping in the Jeep, I awoke about 4:45am and began my hike up the old 4-wheel drive road from the current South Colony Lakes 4-wheel drive trailhead in the dark. 

It's a peaceful and quite enjoyable stroll through the forest, with little sign of the challenges ahead.  On the way back through here in the daylight I would be shocked by how much bettle-killed evergreens there are.  




Now I immediately have back to back adrenaline rushes.  First this sign (below), which just tells me the rest of this hike/climb is going to be massively fun.

After 2.7 miles of a forest hike, you are greeted by this sign.

Then I see this...

Fresh mountain lion tracks in the mud at about 11,700'
EDIT:  See comment below

After briefly strategizing on how I'd beat the fuck out of a mountain lion if it attacked me, I continue on my way with a knife in hand for a bit.  I quickly realize that I am more likely to hurt myself with a knife in hand while hiking; so I put it away and then tell myself that a mountain lion would have plenty of other choices of critters to eat in this area and would likely not choose to munch on a 37 year old bad-ass mother fucker like myself.  We all know mountain lions don't like the taste of a Patagonia R1 Hoody.


Sunlight on Humboldt.

As I pass some campsites, I set my eyes on Broken Hand Pass, just as the sun is lighting up Humboldt.  I still haven't been up Humboldt after two failed attempts in the winter of 2011, I vowed to not go back until this coming winter.  Humboldt, you are on notice.... I am coming for you in a few months. 


Snow on Broken Hand Pass, looking back at South Colony Lakes.

Broken Hand Pass was uneventful with careful route finding in the snow.  After reaching the top of Broken Hand Pass it's a short walk over to where Crestone Needle's east gully begins. 

Looking up the east gully, climber pictured in center.
 
The route on 14ers.com mentions one should switch from the east gully to the west gully about halfway up to keep the route at class 3.  Apparently you can reach the summit by taking the east gully the whole way, but it becomes a more difficult class 4 route.  

I was solo and decided to do the switch to the west gully, and even found the correct switch over spot (I thought).  I thought it was before the dihedral seen in the picture below.  In fact, this picture was taken from where I thought the cross over was. 


Climbers on the class 4 east gully.

What I realized later, is I didn't go far enough through the cross over.  Instead I just took a different route up the east gully.  I ended up meeting back up with these climbers maybe 100 ft. up.  Either way I was having fun, a TON of fun.  The holds were good, I was fearless, and I could have climbed another 3000 ft. like this.  I never once stopped when climbing like this for fatigue, only to study the route ahead, look for the next handhold or foothold.  I didn't even take many pictures through here, because it was just way too fun to stop.

Me loving life on the east gully.
One picture I took along the east gully with my newly met climbing buddy pictured.

I was having a blast making climbing moves, wondering why anyone would ever dislike anything about this mountain.  My mind was in a zone similar to how all random thoughts stop when I am riding my motorcycle through the canyons at speeds fast enough to get me arrested.  I was seriously wishing this climb would never end.  Then suddenly, the fun is over and I am on the summit. 

Upon the summit, I realize that others apparently had been coming up the west gully, because a few people just started appearing on the summit from a spot that I did not come up from. 

My new friends arriving on the summit.

Summit panorama.

On the summit, I discover my new climbing buddies I met in the east gully are a pair of brothers that are climbing the top 7 of Colorado's hardest 14ers.  This was 6 of 7.  Pretty awesome stuff.  Anyhow, I fuel up and decide to descend the west gully.  It was on my way down that I discovered my mistake on the gully switch on the way up.  Whatever, I wouldn't change anything about this day if I could.

Token summit photo of yours truly.


Looking down the west gully.


On descent, looking back up the west gully.  Two climbers seen top center of the photo.

After getting out of the gullies and back on the trail towards Broken Hand Pass, I decide to just lay down on a rock and take a 15-20 minute nap.  I am awoken around 1pm when 5 or 6 hikers ascending are coming up the trail.  It's pretty late for an ascent, considering they haven't even got to the class 3 or 4 part yet, and they look ill equipped, but I kindly answer questions about the route, and then I am on my way again. 

Down Broken Hand Pass I go.

Looking back up Broken Hand Pass (left side of photo).
 
Tired now, the adrenaline has worn off.  I decide to just take my time and enjoy the lonely stroll through the changing aspens.
 
Colorado beauty.


 
Winter is on the way.










Monday, September 10, 2012

Oh Sheep! There are mice in my jeep!

Date:   September 8th & 9th, 2012
Mission:  Climb Challenger Point (elevation 14,081 ft.) and Kit Carson Peak (elevation 14,165 ft)

Who:  Solo
Length:  15.5 miles

Elevation gain: 6500 ft.


The climb up Kit Carson is a tough physical challenge, at least it is for this 37 year old with bad knees.  Apparently there are people capable of climbing Challenger Point and Kit Carson in 1 day.  I am not one of those people.  Doing this climb in 2 days is challenge enough.  Day 2 alone was a 13 hour day for me, with little time for breaks.


For those that know me, they know I like to play many variations of the game of poker.  Poker is a game of incomplete information where the object of the game is to make the best decisions based on this incomplete information.  Mountaineering is not much different.  

I think Gerry Roach references decision making at one of the key points in his "Colorado's Fourteeners" book when he wrote:  "...so make your own best microdecisions."  This is a story of my microdecisions and the grade I give myself for those decisions in hindsight.

Decision # 1


I left my house in the Jeep around 7:45am, and arrived at the Willow Creek trailhead around 12:15pm.  I had made the decision to skip the short detour to Salida in hopes that there would be somewhere to eat in the town of Crestone.  There was a small cafe, but at this point it looked like clouds were beginning to build, and I knew I had a 5 mile hike with all my camping gear up 3000 ft. or so ahead of me.  So, I made the decision to skip lunch.  Skipping a lunch is normally not such a big deal, but it is a very poor choice on a day before a 2 day grueling hike.  Grade = D



Once you drive through the tiny town of Crestone, you navigate a dirt road to within about a 1/2 mile of the trail head.  Here the road has a nasty section which is probably the only section that 4-wheel drive and decent clearance is needed.  A mere .5 miles after this section you are at the trailhead.  

Decision # 2 

Put the top up on the Jeep, but let's leave the windows off since there's nothing for anyone to steal inside anyway.  Upon returning to my Jeep on Sunday I realized I had left a sealed container of cereal on my passenger seat, which it appears that some critter had a field day trying to open.  Racoons?  Either way, no damage to the Jeep.  Grade = C-

The trail starts from an elevation of 8800'.  I throw the 30 lb pack on my back and get on my way at about 12:40pm on Saturday.  The views along this slog up through the forest are beautiful.  



A meadow off to the right about 1.25 miles in.

Above the meadow, looking west.

Gaining elevation, the meadow seen before is now much smaller.

Decision # 3 

Reviewing the map, I realize that the camping area is around 11,400 which is just prior to Willow Lake.  I decide that I am going to stop at the stream at 11,250 about a 1/2 a mile short of the camping area to filter some water with my brand new Sawyer water filter.  When I purchased this filter the guy at REI told me that the bags that come with the filter were weak and I should by a platypus bag for it instead, so I did.  I fill up the bag with the water from the stream, go to screw the filter onto the top of the platypus bag and it won't seal.  In order for this filter to work, a seal is crucial.  So I spend about 20 minutes messing around with it and realize it's just not going to work.  I am reciting my rant for the REI folks when I return this piece of crap filter as I briefly think I am going to have to just turn around and go home.  It's then I realize that I do still have iodine tablets in my backpack and I decide to treat the water with those.  This was a decision I made on Friday night during preparation, to keep the iodine tablets in my gear even though I had a new water filter.  Without these tablets, my hike would've ended at 11,250'.  Grade = A+

I continue along the trail and as I am entering the camping area, I look up expecting to see a person, and instead I am greeted by some big horn sheep.



Hello sheep.

First time I've ever seen these guys up close.

There was about 8 of them here, but the cameraman is only so fast.

You could actually see the waterfall from the front door of the tent.
It's about 4pm or so, as I pick an isolated spot for my small tent.  I am convinced I had the best campsite nestled in the trees with the sound of a nearby waterfall to lull me to sleep.


After I set up camp, I decide to hike up Willow Lake to take a look at the route I have ahead of me tomorrow.  I figured I'd also cook myself dinner while I am away from camp.


As soon as I reach Willow Lake, I am in awe.  The pictures will not do this place justice.  It literally looks like paradise.



Paradise - a.k.a Willow Lake


Just done eating dinner above Willow Lake.

Decision # 4 

I hiked all the way around the lake and decided that going solo up the steep class 4 north ridge might be a bit risky, so I decided in the morning I would take the class 3 standard route which goes to the summit of Challenger Point first, and then onto Kit Carson.  Although not taking the class 4 north ridge might've been safer, I'm pretty sure I missed a fun route with this decision.  But in mountaineering safety > fun, but only barely in this adrenaline junkie's mind.  Grade = B-

Returning to camp, I was truly in awe at the beauty in this area.  I had visions of Willow Lake floating around in my head as I fell asleep by 9pm.



Decision # 5

Morning light above Willow Lake.
Sunday is summit day.

I awoke at 4:25am when my alarm went off.  I promptly decided another hour is needed due to the awesome weather forecast tomorrow.  I set the alarm for 5:25am and fell back asleep.  Grade = A-

I made my way around the lake in the dark, navigating talus and dense willows.  Around the back side of the lake I started to see the morning light.
 

Kit Carson Peak looming in the morning sun.
Here's where the real mountaineering begins.  The route up Challenger Point is relentlessly steep, and there's a ton of scree, loose rock and it's somewhat easy to get off route as I learned.

It's here on the ascent that I was making a pretty slow pace utilizing the rest step a lot.

I made my way up to about 12,500 or so, and the higher I went the more breathtaking the views below became.




Views of the valley.

Decision # 6

It's right about here that I realize I am off route.  Since I seem to be surrounded on 3 sides by walls.  I see about 200 ft. in elevation below me the place I was supposed to cross this gully.  I take a look at the wall next to me and decide that I can free climb it.  This not only saves myself some backtracking but it'll be fun too.  Here's a video of where I was and where I went.  I cannot give myself an A here even though I obviously made it up this 25 ft of climbing.  It proved to be more difficult than it looked from below.  Therefore I underestimated the short climb, even though I did make it.  Grade = B

Only about 15ft. above the ground below.
More amazing views.
 Kept climbing the loose scree for what seemed like forever until I finally reached the notch at 13,800'.  From here it's an easy talus hoping / broken trail of a ridge line over to the summit of Challenger Point.  From the summit of Challenger Point, the views are many.


I still remember that day.


Views NW.


View looking east.  Crestone Peak (left of center) is begging me to come visit.


Views SE


A view looking west where if you look close enough you can see the shape of the Earth on the horizon.


Chilling on the summit of Challenger before heading over to Kit Carson Peak (left).

On Kit Carson Avenue looking back north.
Time to go get my 30th fourteener on Kit Carson Peak.  I make my way off Challenger and onto "Kit Carson Avenue".  This ledge system circles all the way around the back of the mountain where there's a class 3 scramble up a couple hundred feet to the top.

As I am making my way up the last 100 ft. towards Kit Carson's summit, I see a familiar face.  I quickly recognize Natalie from our climb together back in March when I injured my knee.

Who would've thought that at 14,000' and 15 miles from the nearest vehicle and probably 50 miles from the nearest pizza joint (yes I was thinking about food a lot at this point) that I'd run into a person I knew.

Natalie and I exchanged brief conversation as she was on her way over to a 13er Columbia Point after having ascended the north ridge of Kit Carson with her climbing partner.

I continued to the summit and took it all in.


Looking back on the summit of Challenger Point from Kit Carson Peak.  There are people on the summit if you look close.



Leaving the summit of Kit Carson and my last awesome view of Crestone Peak.

Once back down the class 3 route and onto Kit Carson Avenue again, I look towards Columbia Point and see Natalie (at least I think it's her) in action with a couple others.



3 climbers are seen ascending Columbia Point.  Looks pretty bad-ass from here.
  
Back to where Kit Carson Avenue and Challenger Point meet, I ask myself how it is ever possible to "miss" this.  But apparently there are reports of people missing this exit back over to Challenger.  I find this hard to believe.  It's 100% obvious.  

This means re-ascend Challenger!
I think it's likely that people get here and decide not to re-ascend Challenger, but to just miss it is impossible.  A blind marmot could find this.  I think this is the reason for this sign (right).


Decision # 7

So, I decide to re-ascend Challenger, since doing anything else is stupid in my opinion.  Grade = A+

Upon the summit, I offer encouragement to people on top who are contemplating a Kit Carson attempt.

I then move down to the notch at 13,800 and here's where hell begins.  The descent from 13,800 to 12,000 or so is ridiculous.  The scree and loose rock is horrid.  I think it's worse that the cursed Columbia descent in the Sawatch range.  I fell on my ass at least 3 times, I heard people descending far above me yell "ROCK!" at least 4 times each time causing me to stop in my tracks and look up to see if I need to take cover.


Once back down to Willow Lake, I again am just overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this place.  Willow lake is a destination by itself in my opinion.

 


Willow Lake in all it's glory.

Once back at camp, it was already 3pm and I still had a 5 mile hike back to the trailhead.  I pack quickly and make my way down the trail as fast as my old knees will take me.

Somewhere around 10,500' or so along some rocky switchbacks I plant my left leg and trekking pole at the same time only to have a portion of the hillside give way and I promptly end up on my face.  In the process, I sent a ton of rocks down to the switchback below (about 20ft).  Thankfully nobody was below.  I was maybe 6 inches away from tumbling down this 20' myself. 

I gathered myself and realized my right hand was bleeding from some minor cuts.  I then looked at where I fell and realized the trail there is eroded from people short-cutting the switchbacks.  This is why you don't shortcut switchbacks people.  

The next 3 miles to the trailhead, all I could think of was beer and pizza.  By 8pm I was sitting in Amica's Pizza in Salida with my vision come true a microbrew and a 12 inch pizza.

Kit Carson offers a taste of Colorado 14ers all in one.  It's got the things we love like great views, fun class 3 scrambles, beautiful waterfalls, a gorgeous alpine lake, beautiful meadows, wildlife, and even challenging class 4 and 5 routes.  It's also got the things we don't like as much like long approaches, a ton of elevation gain, dense willows, loose scree, loose rock, a dangerous descent, and a ton of time above the treeline leaving one exposed to lightning and weather for that much longer.  That being said, I wouldn't go back in time and change anything about this trip, except for the mice eating my sunflower seeds in the trunk of my Jeep.