Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What If We Used Meters Instead of Feet? -- Colorado 2011 Wrap-Up

We did a couple of other climbs this year. We climbed Traver Peak, a fine 10 mile round trip day out – and also climbed Fletcher Mountain, an enjoyable short hike/scramble close to Breckenridge. Traver checks in at 13,852’ while Fletcher rises to an elevation of 13,951’. They are very solitary hike/climbs, both of them, just for the fact that they fall ever so short of the magical 14,000’ mark. Many places you must search out the route, or just go by your senses – (that high point over there is the summit, let’s head that way).

But they don’t count, do they?

For the last 5 summers Gina and I have been going to Colorado in order to achieve a goal of climbing all 58 of the Colorado 14ers, mountains over 14,000’. Well, some people say there are 58. By most lists, 54 of the peaks are considered “official” 14ers, and the other 4 are considered unofficial. Somebody decided that in order to qualify as an official 14er, a peak must have at least 300 feet of topographical prominence from any adjacent mountains. Otherwise, they are just considered a sub-peak of whatever mountain or peak is the more prominent of the formation. These rules are not always followed, and I’m left wondering how they came up with 300 feet (or 91.44 meters) in the first place. Why not 250 feet? Why not 500 feet? It seems pretty arbitrary, doesn’t it?

I always think about our project to climb these 14ers from my wife’s perspective. Of course, Gina is something of a celebrity in Costa Rica, a country that only recognizes meters. So Gina’s pursuit to climb all these peaks is really a pursuit to climb all the peaks in Colorado over 4267.2 meters high to her country. Is that as difficult to explain as I think it is?

We decided on the list of 58 mostly because of the peak North Maroon. I’m sure you’ve seen North Maroon Peak. In one of the most famous and common shots of Colorado mountains, there is North Maroon Peak as a part of the Maroon Bells towering above Maroon Lake near Aspen, the quintessential Colorado mountain photo. North Maroon Peak, however, is an unofficial Colorado 14er. It has only 234 feet of prominence (or 71 meters). We thought it would be a weird thing to say, though, if we said we had climbed all the 14ers in Colorado, and then have someone point out that photo of the Maroon Bells and go, “This one must have been an amazing climb.” And then have to explain to them that Maroon Peak, the one slightly in the background, is the only real 14 thousand foot peak, and that the peak that is most prominent in the photo (not the most prominent topographical to your mapper friends disappointment, but the most prominent in the photo) is but a sub-summit of the real summit. Seems like a pretty hollow statement.

But let’s get back to Traver Peak and Fletcher Mountain, shall we? They are not 14,000’ high – or 4267.2 meters high. So they are not qualified for this magical club. To the rest of the world, 4000 meters is seen as an important high point. I remember my friend from Australia, Tony, when he climbed Shasta with me. That was an epic day on its own and a completely separate story from this one, but I do remember how happy he was when he passed the 4000 meter mark. To me it was just an obscure random point somewhere on Misery Hill. Traver and Fletcher are well over the 4000 meter level, Traver is 222 meters over it (or 728 feet), and Fletcher 252 meters (or 826 feet). Fletcher is in fact just 49 feet shy of the magic number, or in other words, 15.2 meters.

Colorado has 550 peaks over 4000 meters. So if it weren’t for this thing called feet, which nobody else in the civilized world uses anymore except us, the goal of climbing all the mountains over a certain threshold would be next to impossible. Would Gina and I return again and again to Colorado to keep climbing to finish all 550 peaks? I can safely say there is most likely no possible way we would do this. So this outdated form of measurement is the only reason our goal exists. If not for measuring distance based on some haphazard system based on the size of a long dead King’s foot, we would have never visited every single mountain range in Colorado. We would have never visited almost every little corner and nook in one of the most beautiful states in America. I grew up in Wyoming and spent a great deal of time in Colorado, but I never imagined that some of the incredible sights I’ve seen in Colorado since embarking on our quest to climb the 14ers even existed. It has been an incredible, rewarding, and completely thorough exploration of a gorgeous state that would have never have happened if we were a metric based country. Traver and Fletcher were fun climbs though, and I definitely will cherish the memories we created there. So I guess we are on our way to climbing all the 4000 meter peaks in Colorado. (Oh, but Traver doesn’t have 91.44 meters of topographical prominence so maybe it doesn’t “count”…) Also some people have decided to classify these as “13ers” and make a list to climb all the 13ers. But peaks under 13,123.3 feet are not 4000 meters high… Uh-oh…

So now we have climbed 40 of the 58 peaks in Colorado over 14,000’ – at least on our list. This year we did 4 more peaks – Blanca, Challenger, Castle and Conundrum. Not as many as we have done in past years, but to our defense the climbs are getting harder, and to do them as quickly as we have done the others is not as realistic. Weather, also, played a trickier than usual part in our itinerary. Still, I am happy with what we accomplished this year. Blanca was a difficult climb that we did as a day-climb, something that very few people can say they have done. We dipped our toes in the Elk Mountain range, perhaps the range with the most difficult to climb mountains in all of Colorado. Challenger Point left me slightly disappointed, mostly because I have the knowledge we will have to return there in future years to climb Kit Carson, and Challenger itself, well, is not a very enjoyable climb, honestly. Yet to climb KC, we will have to re-climb Challenger… yuck.

We hope to climb the remaining 18 in either the next 2 or 3 years, depending on how ambitious we get about finishing. When you get close to finishing a big project like this, you do get anxious to complete it. The obstacle in our way though is that now the peaks left are either – A. More tough to climb – B. Harder to access, requiring camping/backpacking in - or C. Both. So while we would like to get this thing wrapped up in the next 2 years, time may dictate a different timeline for our ending of the story. We talked about next year possibly flying out a couple of times in the summer, instead of one long driving vacation like we did this year. Hopefully we can make it work.

So here are the mountains we have left, and the ranges they belong to. I list the mountains left because the list is shorter than the ones we have already climbed and the ranges we are finished with, and I do this due to pride, because I’m really proud of what we have accomplished so far. So here are the ones we have remaining to do:

Front Range (0 peaks remaining) – Done. We have climbed all the peaks in the Front Range.

Tenmile Range (0 peaks remaining) – Done. Granted, Quandary Peak is the only 14er in the Tenmile Range, and we did that in the first year.

Sawatch Range (0 peaks remaining) – Done. The place of the highest and most numerous 14ers in Colorado, we have climbed all of these mountains.

Elk Range (5 peaks remain) – We still have yet to climb Maroon Peak, North Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Pyramid Peak. So there are 5 mountains left to climb here, and with the exception of Snowmass all of them are class 4 climbs. So we will be visiting this range frequently in the next few years.

San Juan Range (7 peaks remain) – We have climbed many of the peaks in this range, but there are still many left. Four of them are only accessible via the Durango –Silverton train ride, and the other three are near Mt. Sneffels, my least favorite 14er so far. They are mostly class 3 climbs, with a couple of class 4 climbs thrown in. It will be a challenge to get them climbed. We have left Mt. Wilson, El Diente Peak, Mt. Eolus, Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, North Eolus and Wilson Peak (which is different than Mt. Wilson).

Sangre de Cristo Range (6 peaks remain) – A really rugged range of mountains, I think they might be my favorites, even though they are mountains who don't lend themselves to easy climbs. Unfortunately for Gina, there also seem to be many bear problems in this area. The peaks we have left are Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle – probably the 2 peaks I am looking forward to climbing the most – and also the aforementioned Kit Carson Peak. We also need to climb Ellingwood Point, (a very do-able climb we could have done instead of Blanca this year) and Little Bear Peak (a peak that with it’s icy covering looked very technical from our viewpoint at the summit of Blanca). There is finally Culebra Peak, the only privately owned 14er in Colorado, but one we will climb anyway, no matter if we have to pay or not. Culebra excepted, I expect our final climbs in this range to be some of the most exciting (and photogenic). Definitely something that will be fun to write about next year - or the year after.

That’s where we stand this year. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Castle & Conundrum Peaks - Introduction to Climbing The Elks

The mid-September storms in Colorado left our intended targets, Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, highly technical rock/ice climbs, so we decided to change our plans and visit the Aspen area. We had passed through Aspen a couple of times, but never had really spent a good deal of time there. So we made a plan to visit for 3 nights, and explore, climb and reconnoiter the Elk mountain range, a range with some of the most magnificent (and hardest to climb) peaks in Colorado.

We really weren’t expecting much. The guidebooks say that Castle and Conundrum are the easiest of the Elk climbs. While this may be true, however, much to our enjoyment the snow left on their flanks by the September storms surely made these peaks a little more difficult and a lot more FUN.

We didn’t hit the road quite as early for this one. Our Aspen hotel’s central location had us just a short drive from the “trailhead”. Sometimes in Colorado, the trailhead isn’t a true trailhead, it’s just the spot in the 4wd road where there is a little more parking, just before the road becomes unmanageable for stock vehicles. This “trailhead” was meant to start at 3 miles up the rough road. We managed to make it 2.8 miles up before the obstacle in our way convinced us our trailhead was right where we were. It always amazes me, later in the day after the hike, the kind of jagged, jumbled, chaotic mess of a “road” that we are able to overcome with our trusty 4-Runner in the early morning hours. Maybe it’s a lack of coffee that I don’t realize how severe of four wheel driving we are doing. This was a good spot though, and left us a short hike shy of where the recognized “route” starts.

The road continues up to 12,800’, but our starting point was right around 11,000’. I like our truck too much to take it up “roads” like this, plus getting at least 3,000’ of elevation gain makes a climb feel more like a climb. We followed the road until it petered out at the old mining site in the Montezuma basin. From there we spied one of the few permanent snowfields in Colorado. Perfect. Since we spend so much time on Mt. Shasta, snowfields are second nature to us, and we were prepared, Gina with crampons and me with Yak Trax. We made good progress up the snowfield, much easier to climb than the talus and scree on either side of us.

Reaching the large basin at 13,300’, we saw to the south of us the steep trail up to reach the northeast ridge. It didn’t look good, at first glance. We’ve been on plenty of these scree tragedies that Coloradans call trails, and they aren’t very pleasurable. Much to our delight, though, we found this one frozen solid. Where there was scree, it was hard as concrete, and a good deal of frozen snow and ice still covering the rest. We made steady progress up the slope in these great climbing conditions.

The top of the ridge afforded us awesome views all the way around. The recent snow had decorated all the surrounding peaks and ridgelines splendidly. Below us, a saw first one, then another vehicle crawling up the road we had hiked. “Cheaters!” We said to each other jokingly. Oh well, if they wanted to abuse their trucks like that then so be it. It did feel a little better to know we would not be the only ones on the mountain today. Just in case - you never know. The snow and ice had the climb before us feeling a little more serious than the “difficult class 2” the guidebooks described the climb as being.

Almost immediately after gaining the ridge we ran into some class 3 hand over hand scrambling. Although this slowed our progress somewhat, it worried us not at all as the weather for the day was perfect and we had plenty of time. Very shortly we started having a great time, filming videos of each other and solving the puzzle of the ridge. Once, while I was leading, I followed a line out to a sheer drop-off. “This is NOT the way!” I shouted to Gina, and I retreated to scramble up a class 3 obstacle instead – just plain good times.

We reached the white-capped summit of Castle Peak and all around us was snowy goodness. To the north of us were the Maroon Bells, jutting out of the rest the surrounding mountains with their jagged tops and reddish colors. We took our summit photos on a picture perfect day.

Soon we made our way down the ridge to Con undrum Peak. We got a good look at the sac between the two mountains and decided we could indeed descend here, it certainly looked better than re-summitting Castle and going back down some of the 3rd class rocks on the ridge. After a little elevation gain, loss, then gain again, we summited Conundrum Peak, the 40th Colorado 14er out of 58 that we have now climbed.

Just before reaching the sac for our descent we ran into two other climbers behind us. They were nice guys and we wished them well on their climb, as they continued up Conundrum. Downclimbing the sac was very steep and loose at first. I kicked a few rocks down, had there been other climbers below this would have been a problem. Soon we were high-stepping down the slope, and a little while later I went for a nice, enjoyable glissade.

We reached the 4wd road and started walking the long walk back to our 4Runner. After about 45 minutes or so, the other two climbers caught up with us – already driving their 4Runner. They offered us a ride, and since the climbing part was really done we accepted. Talking to them, we learned that the other group (of two) who had been slightly ahead of them in the morning, had turned around. At the point where the climb started getting 3rd class, one of them had gotten a little freaked out and told them that it was “not worth it”. Well, it had been surely worth it to us. A great, fun climb that was a great way to end our 14er climbs for 2011.