Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Challenging Day Out

It was really just a continuation of my “day-hike is better than overnight backpack hike” theory - that we would attempt to summit both Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak in our quest to climb all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000’ peaks. Although my theory had suffered a hard blow 2 days before, climbing Blanca Peak but abandoning an attempt at Ellingwood Point, I still felt that we could ascend the 14 miles round trip required to do both Challenger and Kit Carson. By the end of this day, however, the realization of why an overnight base camp at Willow Lake is necessary would be all too apparent.

We left our hotel in Alamosa at 3am, and arrived at the trailhead shortly after 4am. The road to the Willow Lake/South Crestone trailhead is a piece of cake compared to Lake Como, but there are more than a few unmarked side roads that make the journey a bit of a maze. I just stayed to the right the whole way, on what I was thinking was the main road, and luckily I turned out to be right. By 4:40 we were hiking the well-defined trail.

Just like the road to Blanca, the elevation gain is pretty extreme on this trail, starting out at the floor of the San Luis Valley and rising to 14er height. This trail is not a road like that one is, though, and the switchbacks start right away and sharply. We were feeling a little bit drained from the marathon up Blanca just 2 days earlier, and our progress was somewhat slow to Willow Lake, arriving there after approximately 3 1/2 hours of hiking. We were treated to an appearance by some bighorn sheep, but thankfully no bears.

The sun was shining straight onto the lake, making photo taking a little problematic – too much brightness, but the lake is surely a strikingly beautiful spot. We made the short hike up to above the waterfall, where we stopped and had a snack and surveyed the route ahead. The route calls to ascend to the right of the obvious couloir on Challenger – but sitting there we were shocked just how much more steep the couloir was in real life than in the route photos. The upper part of the slope was also enveloped in a good deal of snow still, from the storm a few days before.

Through the lower half of the slope, we could still follow the trail and cairns fairly well, but as we gained altitude, the snow obscured what signs of a trail we could find, and the puzzle solving began. Most route descriptions I’ve read rate this route as “difficult class 2” but we found the climbing we were doing as solid class 3 climbing. The going was slow – from Willow Lake to the summit is about 3,000’, and the steepness was much more than I expected. Were we off route? I’m not sure. We did see footprints here and there, what looked like a party of two that had probably climbed the day before. We could follow them for a few minutes, than rock outcropping s would appear and the steps we were following would seem to disintegrate before our eyes. The maze of the 4wd road this morning had carried over to the climb, and the enigma had our feet crawling through molasses.

Finally, we popped up on the top of the couloir. From here, the actual summit could finally be seen. Gina remarked to me that it was still far away. Ever the optimist, I told her “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s closer than it appears”. We got ourselves up onto the ridge and began the rock hop to the top. As I was all too much lately, my instinct was completely off. The summit did not get any closer very fast. Just after 12:35pm, we reached the summit of Challenger Point, our 38th Colorado 14er summit.

The summit of Challenger is one of the most emotional summits I’ve ever been on. I still remember walking into Mrs. Bartley’s 11th grade journalism class, as she told us the news that the space shuttle Challenger had just blown up. Challenger Point, which was once considered a “non-official” 14er, was only given its name in 1987 in honor of the fallen shuttle crew. In that same year, a climbing party placed the plaque on top. The Latin phrase included translates to "To the stars through adversity."

We surveyed the scene in front of us. To climb Kit Carson, we would have to descend to the sac between the two mountains, walk up then down the section known as Kit Carson Avenue before reaching the gully we could ascend to the summit, which is class 3 climbing. (This gully cannot be seen from the summit of Challenger) By the time we had finished our summit photos, the time was well past 1pm. After much discussion, we reluctantly reached the conclusion that a summit attempt at Kit Carson would be unwise, considering we still had to descend back to the truck today. I had wanted to push on, to avoid returning someday to re-climb Challenger. It turned out that Gina overruling me was the best decision we could make that day.

The weather soon turned windy and cold as we descended. Coming down that couloir a few hours later, as we would have had we continued, would have been a nightmare. It was bad enough with the energy reserves we still had, and a class 3 climb to the top of Carson would have exacerbated our condition to the point of danger. Exhausted, we trudged down the trail back to our truck. On the way down, we passed a group of 4 with loaded backpacks. Definitely they had the right idea, to camp overnight at the splendid Willow Lake, then climb the peaks in the morning. I did think they were headed up to the lake rather late, if it were me I’d want to get up earlier in the day and set up, giving us enough time to recuperate before the climbing begins. Maybe 20 minutes after we passed them, we also discovered a major problem for them. We found their cord for hanging food away from bears and marmots, left carelessly along the trail. We could only imagine the trouble this must have caused them.

And so we arrived back at the 4-Runner just before dark, about an hour less than what it took us to climb Blanca. My day-hike theory in ruins, we will return to Willow Lake in years to come, so that we may check Kit Carson off our list. With just a few exceptions, most of the climbs left on our list require camping, and in the future we will come more prepared for this contingency. Our original plan had been to climb these peaks, then round the Sangre de Cristo range to climb Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. After viewing the Crestones from the summit of Challenger, and seeing the significant snow and ice still on the summits, we had to change our plans and head to Aspen. Definitely we will end up with less summit climbs this year than previous years, but we still had Castle Peak and Conundrum left to climb, as well as some valuable reconnaissance for future years and future climbs in the Elks. Chalk some of this year up to experience, I guess.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Blanca Day on Blanca

Most of the stuff I had read about Blanca Peak had people climbing it in a multi-day adventure, setting up camp at Lake Como. There were a couple of reasons I wasn't really too into this. The biggest was that I have been reading all summer about bear problems at Lake Como. I'm not big into camping in bear country, and neither is my wife, Gina. I also couldn't get over that the entire hike is about 15 miles. Although there is almost 6,000' elevation gain, that didn't strike me as an impossible task, to do the climb as a day-climb.

What a crazy long day. Gina had asked me in the morning what I thought it would be like. I told her, “It will be similar to climbing Shasta all in one day.” I was thinking more of the altitude gain, not really the climb. She looked at me rather dejectedly, and said “You didn’t have to tell me that.” We have climbed Shasta all in one day a few times – and it sucks. I really didn’t expect Blanca to be that bad, but I had no idea. Our original idea was to climb both Blanca and Ellingwood Point, but the conditions of the day would have their say so.

We managed to drive 3.4 miles up the Lake Como Road – considered one of the worst roads in Colorado – and started hiking at 4:30am. It was about 4 miles to the actual Lake Como up the road, which is well deserving of its notorious reputation. We had thought about stopping at the lake to eat, but neither of us wanted to stop and get cold, so we just pushed on.

We were following the footsteps of some other climbers through the snow, as the road petered out above the upper, smaller lakes. Soon we could see a party of three on the upper part of Blanca. They must have stayed overnight at the lake, and had left much earlier this morning. They were definitely much colder than we were.

They had broken trail for us though, and we followed their footsteps up the ledges above Crater Lake. There were some fantastic looking icicle formations here. The wind was blowing the snow though, and soon we were breaking our own trail, through some heavy drifts. It was hard, tiring work and my feet were getting very cold. I just had my regular hiking boots, and with no ice axe I felt utterly unprepared for winter conditions climbing. Gina was having more trouble than me, as following my larger footsteps she ended up postholing a lot more. As we reached above the ledges I made a bee-line for the snow that was in the sun. Up to this point, our whole climb had been in either the darkness or the shade, and we were feeling very chilly.

We stopped and rested as the sun finally hit us. Gina was having a big problem with her toes being cold. As we rested, a solo climber from below passed us by. I jealousy noticed he had an ice axe. We also noticed the party of three we had seen had turned around unsuccessful, and were now descending past us. We seriously thought about throwing in the towel. I was quite concerned about Gina’s toes, thinking that only by descending she would be able to warm them up. But my wife is quite a fighter, and didn’t want to give up just yet. We stayed and waited, and soon the sun was hitting us and warming us. There was one small last hill before us, until you get to the point where you have to decide to climb either Ellingwood or Blanca. Gina convinced me to keep going, just to see what it would look like when we got there. She wasn’t ready to quit.

I was thinking it would be nice to climb Ellingwood, because it isn’t as high and we could get done sooner. But the climber in front of us was climbing Blanca, and we didn’t want to break our own trail up Ellingwood, which looked complicated without being able to see the trail. So we followed the steps up Blanca. Soon we were high up Blanca and we knew there would be no turning around until we got to the summit. The weather was tolerable, and although it was getting late in the day we felt safe. It would be just Blanca Peak today, no time for Ellingwood. We will have to return someday for that one.

We hit the ridge leading to Blanca’s summit and were afforded spectacular views. To the east we could see Mt. Lindsey, another 14er we had climbed last year. It too, looked much different covered in snow. We continued up the ridge, being very careful. The rocks were covered in just enough snow to hide openings between the rocks, and we didn’t want to step in a crack and fall through snow, resulting in a twisted ankle or worse. So we just followed our lead climbers steps higher and higher. Soon we saw that he was on the summit.

He passed us on his way down and I thanked him for breaking trail. We asked how much farther and he said it was about 200 more vertical feet. After chatting for a few minutes we wished him well and continued. His steps stayed close to the ridge and we very good. There were a couple of places with a little exposure, but by staying on the right side of the ridge we were able to feel safe. Right up to the very last section, where you must traverse the eastern side of the ridge and ascend the final section.

This was a very steep section, made much more difficult because I didn’t have an ice axe, and didn’t think that the crampons (which I had packed in my backpack) would really do much good. The snow was wispy and sugary, not good for feeling safe. I was using 4 points of contact as I went up the last tricky sections. I’m sure the first section would be pretty hard without snow, on scree, and the last little sections was difficult too, as a fall would have been a little catastrophic as there was a bit of exposure to both sides. We managed to ascend them though, (and captured them on my GoPro helmet cam!) and soon we were standing on the summit. Our 37th Colorado 14er successfully climbed. It was 2pm, the latest we have ever summited a 14er.

On the descent I was having so many problems staying comfortable. The sun would hit me and I would heat up, then a cloud would cover the sun and I would be shivering. It was just a hassle. Parts of the descent went actually a little faster, I was able to use snowclimbing high steps in sections which is much easier than going down scree, but by this point I was exhausted and we went somewhat slowly down. By the time we reached the smaller lakes above Como, the snow had melted off already and we were pounding our feet on rock. I recognized hardly anything from our ascent, everything appeared different without its white covering.

We hoped to reach our truck before sundown, but soon it was apparent that would not be possible. The road seemed like it stretched much longer on our descent than it had on our ascent. It seemed like we would never get back and drink the Pepsi’s we had in the cooler waiting for us. Darkness overtook the mountain and I even had to dig out my headlamp to light the way. Finally, at 8pm, we arrived to where we parked. In total, a 15 ½ hour day – pretty much the same time it takes as climbing Shasta all in one day. I don’t think I’m going to use that as a comparison again.

I do think we could climb Ellingwood Point as a day-climb as well, maybe even on this trip depending on how we are feeling. But to do the combo - definitely this was not possible with the snowy conditions we faced, and maybe even without snow it would have been very difficult. As for Little Bear, forget it. That will definitely require an overnight stay, and to be climbing also with someone experienced with this intimidating route.