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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:  " 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.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wetterhorn - beauty and fun all in one

Date:   September 1st, 2012
Mission:  Climb Wetterhorn Peak (elevation 14,015 ft.)

Who:  Joel Snow and myself
Length:  7 miles

Elevation gain: 3300 ft.

Wetterhorn peak was no question the most fun I have had on any of the 28 fourteeners I have done thus far. 

There is significant exposure along the route that will cause death if you fall.  (photo by Greg)

Joel and I left Boulder at 2pm on Friday and drove for 6+ hours with a stop in Gunnison for some dinner and to put the top up on the Jeep since it had started to spit rain on us.

During our drive through the Curecanti Recreaction Area near the junction of Hwy 50 and 149, Joel snapped a great pic of the sunset (below).

Sunset on Curecanti. (photo by Joel Snow)

I've driven hwy 149 a few times and have always seen a ton of deer.  This time, driving at twilight, I saw none.  However, arriving in Lake City and doing 25 mph through town, I saw a spotted fawn.  It was barely taller than one of my 33 inch tires on the Jeep.  I saw it when it jumped right in front of the Jeep.  I locked up the brakes and stopped 5 ft. short.  It stopped and starred at us for about 5 seconds, and then took off.

We made our way up the Henson Creek Rd. and the 4-wheel drive trail.  We were parked at the trail head by 9pm and set up our tents in the dark.

Moon setting over the ridge.
By 4:30am we were awake and on the trail after a quick breakfast. 

I love the mountain prankster that did this....
About a 1/2 mile up the trail in the dark, we saw green eyes to our left.  I readied my knife in case it was a mountain lion, and was happy to see as we got closer that it was only a pair of bucks.   

Joel again manged to snap a great picture, even with the complete lack of light at 5:15am.

Couple of bucks crossed our path.  (photo by Joel Snow)

We moved steadily up the class 1 trail to a couple of stream crossings.  As we hit 12,600 the trail turned into a class 2 trail through some rocks.  It's here that morning started to arrive.

Alpine morning light.

As we moved up the trail the sunrise gave us fuel for the route that was about to get much more difficult.

Sunrise over Uncompaghre Peak. (photo by Joel Snow)

We continued up a steep section of dirt/scree to reach the class 3 section on Wetterhorn at about 13,300 ft.  It's right about here that it started to rain on us, albeit only briefly.

The lighting here with the broken clouds was truly amazing!
Joel with the beautiful San Juan range behind him

Wetterhorn's shadow looking west towards some questionable clouds.

It's here, just before the route gets more difficult that Joel and I had the "to continue or not" discussion.  We both decided that we didn't care about rain, but as soon as we saw lightning or heard thunder, we were going to bail on this summit attempt.  So far, the clouds looked rain worthy, but not lightning worthy.  

Now, the route becomes class 3 and the real exposure begins.  The rock is mostly very solid, which is a high contrast to the loose, and rotten rock I climbed on Castle Peak two weeks ago with Joel and our buddy Tim.

Joel climbing up some class 3 rock.

The views were just unbelievable along this route.  I was stopping for pictures often.  I cannot even begin to communicate via words and pictures how downright fun this route was.

Me climbing thru a notch which is not seen on photo left.  (photo by Joel Snow)
Joel making his way along the route ignoring the exposure to his left.

"The Ledge" as we called it.

A look back at me from "The Ledge" (photo by Joel Snow)
 This video gives an idea of what the exposure is along this route.  

It's shortly after "The Ledge" that the exposure really kicks in.  I'll let the photos do the talking.  

Joel rocking the class 3 route.

One of the many ledges along this route.
Me approaching the top.  (photo by Joel Snow)

Then, the saddest part of my day.  The climbing ends all of a sudden and you are on the summit.

Me taking it all in on the summit. (photo by Joel Snow)

I am a truly happy guy.

Joel looks pretty damn happy on the summit too.

A bad handstand at 14,015' to celebrate 14er number 28 for me.

Uncompaghre Peak as seen from Wetterhorn.

We met a couple of cool guys (Mark and Steve) on the summit.  Mark we had actually met at the trail head the night before and later on Saturday we would share burgers and a couple of beers in Lake City with him.  One of the many things I love about mountaineering is meeting people with the same passion for the mountains that I have.  

The down climb off Wetterhorn was uneventful.  Solid rock, remarkable views, good company pretty much describes it all.

Me down climbing off the summit.  (photo by Joel Snow)

On our down climb, we also ran into a guy named Greg that grabbed some cool pictures of us.

Joel rounding a corner on one of the ledges.

Here is where I realized that I am truly in love with the San Juan mountain range (photo by Joel Snow)

Our buddy Greg with the exposure below.

On our hike down, right around 12,800'  where the route goes from class 3 back to class 2, it started to pour rain on us.  I felt bad for the folks still on the upper part of this route.  The rain turned to sleet.  Ice pellets rang off my helmet for about 15 minutes. As expected in the Colorado mountains, it was sunny and beautiful about 15 minutes later.

A stream crossing on the way down.

A view of the remaining route into the trees.
Once at the trail head, we broke down our tents, joined Mark for a burger in Lake City and began the long 6 hour drive back to Boulder.  On the way home we had rain for a lot of it and rainbows were following us around like we were leprechauns.

Rainbow near the town of Fairplay.  (photo by Joel Snow)

I can honestly say the Wetterhorn Peak adventure Joel and I had was one of the most fun filled, and most beautiful adventures I have ever been on.  I can't wait to climb Wetterhorn again.  I may go back in winter.