Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Colorado 2015... 57 down

Our story didn’t really begin until day 3. Day 1 was just leaving Shasta Lake Friday night and driving to Reno. Day 2  was a marathon driving session. We had never before driven Highway 50 through Nevada, instead always opting for the easier, faster, I-80 route. But since this was probably (hopefully?) our last trip, I knew we had to do it. It was certainly worth it. 50 is a much more scenic route, a route much more filled with life - although not human life. I don’t think I would drive it again really, but I’m glad we did it at least once. It was beautiful.

Scenes from Highway 50

Our plan was to get there on Sunday and acclimatize by re-climbing Mt Elbert. Nice plan, but not very realistic. After driving 16 hours the day before, and arriving close to 11 pm at our hotel, neither one of us felt like waking up at 4am and driving another hour and a half to the trailhead to climb a mountain we’ve already climbed. So a backup plan was quickly hatched.

Instead, we decided to go to the Capitol Peak trailhead and hike part way up to the lake. It turned out to be a very good idea. Of all the mountains we’ve planned to climb this trip, the only trailhead we’d never been to before was Capitol. After a short but fun 4 wheel section we were there and hiking along the Ditch Trail, deftly dodging all the cow droppings and flicking away the many mosquitoes. We huffed and puffed our way about 5 miles in before agreeing that our lungs had had enough. I did get an opportunity to display my bridge building skills to my wife, as at the creek crossing just  before the ditch trail hits the main Capitol Creek trail we found no suitable crossings. I went up over a very makeshift and poorly constructed couple of twigs bridge someone else had hastily thrown together, and Gineth followed. She gave her foot a good soaking and was not happy. So in order to make our return trip a drier one, I foraged through the nearby forest and found a couple of medium sized branches and logs for a more proper bridge. Coloradons are so lazy! It took 5 minutes to make a better bridge. Less time than it would take to take your shoes and socks off and wade the creek for sure. All in all, it was just the right amount of hike, and we returned to rest for the remainder of the day.

Monday was another planned rest day. We woke up and hit the Snowmass Mall where we found some tasty breakfast burritos and coffee at a store aptly named Fuel. We returned to our room for the big gear breakout. We had packed 3 large duffles one full of food and two full of everything we might need in almost any weather circumstance in Colorado. Our previous Colorado experiences have always taught us to be prepared for anything - absolutely any kind of weather can happen at any time of year. This also was a big advantage of driving out over flying. It would have cost us a fortune in baggage fees. After a couple hours of sorting through everything, we pretty much had our packs for the following day - our first climb, Pyramid Peak, ready.

We wanted to get to the Maroon Bells to once again find the turn off point on the Crater Lake trail that goes to Pyramid Peak. It isn’t signed, there’s just a big cairn there. Problem was, in the hours between 8am and 5pm there is no personal vehicle access up to Maroon Lake, where the trailhead is. So we were forced to buy tickets for the shuttle bus, just like all the other typical tourists. At first this kind of irked me, but after looking at the massive amounts of cars in the parking lot of all the people taking the shuttles, it made sense. If all these people were driving up to the trailhead on the own, it would have been madness up there. Plus, once again I was able to use the logic that this will probably be our last trip here (at least for some time) and the shuttle was an experience we’d never had.

Holy crap it took forever though. And the bikers, and the roller bladers and roller skiers - don’t they know to get out of the way of a big old bus? I guess not. Although the narration the bus driver provided did educate me a little on the history of Aspen, the shuttle experience was not one I’d wish to repeat. Better to get up there early with your own car and enjoy on your own schedule, as we had always done before.

We hiked up a mile and a half and found the Pyramid turnoff. Knowing that either the following day or Thursday we were planning to try our luck on North Maroon, I thought it would be a good idea to hike up a little farther to where that trail deviates from the Crater Lake trail and then also find the point it goes off from the Maroon-Snowmass Pass trail, a little bit further up. Once again, our lungs cried out that we weren’t quite in our best mountain breathing shape yet, but we slogged up as far as the Minnehaha creek crossing. Realizing that now we needed to catch the shuttle to get back, and that the hour was getting late, we broke into a full on trail run to get back down to the pick up point. 45 minutes later we were waiting in line, and 20 long minutes after that the shuttle finally came.

We returned to our room, hit the hot tub, and then after another steep 5 minute walk to the mall had a fantastic meal at my favorite Snowmass restaurant, The Stew Pot. Back to the room it was and just enough time to watch a few more Youtube videos of what we had in store for our climb tomorrow before calling it a night. The weather was looking clear but windy - 15 to 25mph winds with gusts to 40. Wind kind of sucks, but there was no chance of thunderstorms. A July day in Colorado mountains with no chance of lightning? We could hardly believe it. Knowing that we made the decision to move our wake up time back a half hour to 2:30, meaning we planned to be on the trail hiking by 4:30.

We ended up in the parking lot earlier than expected, and were immediately greeted by Richard, a 56-year old power plant worker from Alabama. He asked what we were climbing and when we told him Pyramid he asked if he could tag along. We warned him we were slow (I expected us to be with our lack of acclimatization) but that it was fine for him to climb with us. Three heads routefinding is always better than two. So our now group of tres amigos hit the trail at 4:15am, a bit ahead of the planned schedule.

We hiked up through the darkness and found the turnoff. There we encountered the first other climber coming up behind us, but he was headed for Thunderbolt. Quickly we were huffing up the hill towards the amphitheatre. We arrived there just as the sun came up and stopped for a break. The wind was blowing pretty good and it was a little cold. Judging from some trip reports I had read on 14ers, I thought the snowfield would be soft enough for us to climb it without micro spikes. I was partly wrong, it was pretty icy still. Richard was lucky (or smarter than us) and had brought his. Nevertheless we were able to climb the snow up aways before returning to talus hopping.

Next up was the “thousand feet of suck”. It sucked just as much as it did in 2014, when icy conditions had forced us to turn around just a little beyond the sac, so close yet so far away. This time there was no ice on the suck slope, but it still wasn’t any fun. We reached the top of the suck at just about 8:00am, where a slew of other climbers who had started later than us caught up and passed us slow folks. We rested, ate and rehydrated for about a half hour here before continuing.

With Gina leading the way, we made it back up to the “leap of faith” where we had turned around the year before. This year with dry conditions and a beautiful cloud free sky we pressed on. The climbing was a little exposed in areas but nothing major at this point. At the green wall, we held back as the group ahead of us was slowed down and knocking a bunch of rocks down. Part of their crew seemed a little more inexperienced than the rest. We headed up the green wall finally and whew - it was some hard work. I didn’t feel the exposure - which it has - because I was just concentrating on the work my arms and legs were doing while climbing. Eventually we made it up the green wall and then it would be just a few short moves to get to the top, right?

Wrong. There was still a lot of hard climbing ahead after the wall. Gina led us through chimneys and steppes of solid class 4 climbing, with only the occasional need for a spotter. At one point I peered around a ledge and looked up towards the summit. It was so far away still! We kept on keeping on though, and after 1:40 of climbing past the sac, we were on the summit at 10:10am.

View of the Maroon Bells from the summit of Pyramid Peak

After our summit photos and videos we headed down. Far from an afterthought, the downclimb was almost as adventurous as the climb up. Several times we had to stop and reconnoitre the correct passages down, even though we had marked our route up with small pieces of bright green duct tape. (Which we tried to clean up every piece on the way down, leaving no trace to the best of our abilities.) It took us 1:15 to get back to the sac, almost as long as it took to get up.

The rest of the down climb was just a sufferfest. No real excitement and just the brutal pounding of the feet against talus that occasionally wobbled over or pinched a toe. We finally reached back to the parking lot just after 3, and finally the climb was done. Although we had originally planned to climb North Maroon the next day, it was certain when it was all over that a rest day was in order. jAfter talking with Richard he was keen on joining us for North Maroon as well. We spent the remainder of the day relaxing and relishing our 54th of the 58 Colorado summits and when it was time for bed we were asleep within seconds of our heads hitting the pillows.

Wednesday was a rest day. We did our best to do nothing and mostly succeeded. I went to the grocery store and got a few supplies - all these years of visiting Snowmass I never knew before they have a grocery store right there - we had always gone all the way into Aspen. We let our sore muscles recover and tried our best to hydrate and allow our lungs to get used to the new normal altitude.

That night we got a call from Andy, our petsitter. There was a problem with the oven at home, looked like it had lost power. After troubleshooting him through the fuse panel, I realized it was probably just the GFI plug tripped. “Hit the reset button” I told him, and yep that was the fix.

The weather forecasts for the Aspen/Snowmass area had all changed. Although Thursday still looked good, the rest of the week saw some increase clouds and rain moving in. We had planned to go for Capitol after North Maroon, but the weather was dictating that it would be time to hit the reset button for our schedule.

We hit the trailhead for North Maroon almost exactly the same time as we had for Pyramid, maybe 5 minutes earlier. With Richard joining us once again we made good progress and hit the rock glacier just at sunrise. The views were immediately spectacular. The meadows and fields on the flanks of North Maroon are some of the prettiest Colorado has to offer. As we rounded the corner to the first gully, we cached our trekking poles and headlamps.

The first gully was steep but fairly solid. The second gully was steeper and looser. We continued up and up, solving a few routefinding problems along the way. Already we were encountering some pretty tough sections, but although a little slow we moved steady. At the top of the second gully we came upon the infamous class 4 chimney, just as another climber was returning from the summit and downclimbing it.

My first remark was that it might not be the chimney, because it didn’t look that hard. It only took me trying to wedge myself into the first step up to realize that I had assessed the situation completely wrong, and that this was pretty darn difficult pitch. The three of us all managed to get up the obstacle though, but it was definitely not easy.

Just 500 feet below the summit now, the difficulties were not yet over. There were still several rather tough sections we had to climb over, including one rather nasty class 4 section just before the final 150’ walk-up to the summit.

The summit of North Maroon is spectacular. I really found myself in awe of the beauty of the top and the vista that could be seen from there, plus just the fact that we had just climbed North Maroon. Wow! What a climb.

The downclimb turned out to be no picnic though. We lost our route which we had marked with green tape (suspecting that some other climbers may have cleaned it before we could) and spent quite a few minutes in the second gully trying to find our way down. It’s easy to tell how disorienting a Deadly Bell might be, luckily we held our wits and were able to eventually reclaim the way we had come up. Even after we thought we were all safe, after exiting the first gully, we once again momentarily lost the route. This time we got it back quicker, but not after burning some more precious energy. As we hit the rock glacier area I was running on fumes. Finally just before 4pm we reached the parking lot. We had taken 6 hours to ascend the peak, spent 45 minutes on top, and it had taken 5 hours to return. It was a pretty long day.

So Friday was a big decision day. It was time for us to leave our hotel in Snowmass, and as the weekend Aspen crowds built up, I felt it was a good idea to get out of Dodge. The forecasts were calling for 50% chances of thunderstorms in the area, not good odds for South Maroon or Capitol, the only two peaks in the area we had left. The forecast for Little Bear Peak, the only other remaining 14er on our list, were not promising either.

We made the decision to drive to Alamosa anyway, and make Little Bear the next objective. Although chances for thunderstorms and rain were  good, I felt like we could sneak up early on Little Bear. From Lake Como the Little Bear summit is just 3.5 miles, and if we headed up early I felt like we could summit and get off before anything moved in. I knew we wouldn’t be able to do that on Maroon or Capitol. Gina wanted to go for Little Bear Saturday morning, with no extra day rest. As we woke up Saturday morning and saw few clouds over the southern Sangre de Cristos, I worried she might have been right and we should have gone Saturday. I hoped for similar conditions on the next morning, Sunday, as about the same time we would be going for the summit the next day Saturday morning conditions looked great up there.

We need a little luck and a blessing from the weather Gods. The NWS point forecast for Sunday called for 60% chance of  thunderstorms “mainly” after noon for Little Bear. This would be the worst forecast we have ever made the decision to climb into. I was just banking on things being clear in the morning hours. With only 3 peaks left to bag, we were taking what I felt like was our biggest gamble.

We awoke at 11:30pm on Saturday night.OMG I was so tired.

We drove up Lake Como road and arrived at our pre-determined meet up spot with Richard at just about 3.2 miles up the road. We starting walking at 1:30am, probably 2 hours earlier than we had ever started on our Ellingwood Point or Blanca Peak attempts from the same trailhead. The Lake Como road was just as miserable as I had remembered, and I barely thought about this might be the last time I would have to hike it.

The route description mentions the 3.2 mark as being approximately 4 miles from the lake. We were hoping that it was closer to 4 miles than what it turned out to be, which was more like 4.5 miles. By the time we finally reached the lake we were all feeling pretty exhausted already. It was still dark when we were passed by a group of 4 guys who had camped the night at the lake. Worried that they too  might be headed for Little Bear, we asked where they were headed. But they had climbed LB the day before and were headed for Ellingwood and Blanca today. We questioned them for a little beta on the route condition, and then we realized we had stopped almost right at the Little Bear turnoff. Up into the darkness we went, still 30 minutes before light and stumbling through a talus field.

The gully that begins the Little Bear climb is described as “barely more than Difficult class 2”, but it sucks completely. In the darkness, we picked a route up that was full of sand, loose rocks, and general crappiness. Finally as daylight broke, we reached the top for what we thought would be a somewhat easy traverse over to the hourglass and the crux of the route.

The traverse however just continued the torture. It was very long, and sometimes involved tricky route finding. As we kept walking closer we looked for the hourglass with much trepidation and anxiety. Nothing looked good about this mountain.

Finally we reached the hourglass and started up slowly. The going was slow and difficult. I was going to try not to touch the rope, but rounding one corner I grabbed it as a handhold. We still managed to climb even higher without it, but by the time we reached the skinniest part of the hourglass it seemed there was no other option. With the spell broken and no other viable options, I grabbed onto the rope which seemed new and secure and climbed up through the trouble spot. Give me an asterisk for my climb if you want to, I care not. I used the rope and I’m completely ok with it.

The top of the rope was not even close to the end though. We still had to negotiate some tricky terrain before we topped out. I momentarily felt the familiar summit euphoria, but it almost immediately faded on this mountain. Just 20 minutes later, a very short summit stay in our book, we were headed back down towards the nightmare hourglass.

Back at the rope, once again I went first. Although Gina had recommended I descend backwards, I felt like I needed to see where I was going and repelled in kind of a sideways fashion. The farther down I went, the more the rushing water that runs through the hourglass soaked me. I was focusing on not letting go of the rope, and hoping that my feet held their holds. Just before reaching the same point where we had taken off from on the ascent however, my feet let me down. I slipped and  my elbow (and hip I would later wake up in the middle of the night and realize) slammed into the side of the mountain. I screamed in pain, but fortunately I was very close from a great stopping point. I got off the rope and helped the others down, but Little Bear had exacted it’s revenge on me for gaining it’s summit. It seemed like we all paid a price, a marmot ate and severely damaged Gina’s backpack which she had cached before the hourglass, and as we finally descended the gully a thunderstorm chased us down the talus field, with Richard falling a couple of times, ankles turning and knees bending in all the most painful ways.

Afterwards I managed to drive as far as Salida before the exhaustion of the day took its toll. I’d hope to drive back to Snowmass, so that we might be in position for a Tuesday climb of South Maroon, but it was not to be. Instead we arrived back in Snowmass on Monday evening, and it seemed to much rush to try for a climb the following morning. So Tuesday instead became a rest and recovery day, laundry done and gear sorted and organized for the next two objectives. The plan would be to climb South Maroon Wednesday, then hit up the Capitol trail on Thursday for a Friday morning summit.

The forecast for Wednesday looked great, but the Friday forecast proved finicky. It was looking like a good chance for afternoon thunderstorms on Friday, a pretty negative prognostication for a peak as difficult and dangerous as Capitol. We needed to concentrate on Maroon for now though, and hope that Friday works itself it. Knowing that our vacation was ending and a drive home would need to begin Saturday at the latest didn’t help. But the first order of business was still Maroon on Wednesday, as if one of the “Deadly Bells” was somehow not worthy of 100% of our attention.

We arrived at the trailhead at 3:40 and Richard soon followed. As I walked to the bathroom another climber greeted me with a “top of the morning. Where ya headed?” Turns out they were also headed to South Maroon, and I felt glad that we would probably not be the only ones on the mountain today. Even though the forecast was good, you never know.

We hit the trail and soon met up again with the parking lot duo, who we learned were named Richard (also) and Loren. They seemed like friendly guys who also traveled about the same pace as us, so we all decided to join forces and become a team of 5. Such quick teams are often made on Colorado 14ers, as folks who share this same hobby often join forces for the mutual advantage. Richard #2 - we also learned - was going for his #58.

Gina led the way through the early morning dark of the Crater Lake trail. We were looking for the “bent tree” which supposedly signaled the turn off that goes to Maroon Peak. We finally found the tree, but did not seem to find the trail. We found “a” trail, but it quickly turned into a bushwhack. Richard #2 had a gps, and we somehow slogged and stumbled our way up to where the real trail was. But the trail was hardly a relief. It went up and up, sharply and steeply, and very soon we realized the “2800’ of suck” reputation of this section was well earned.

I actually wondered if I would make it. I had read about the route, but I didn’t quite realize how tough it really was. Unlike Pyramid’s “1000’ of suck” which was loose and crappy on it’s own, Maroon’s 2800’ was loose, crappy, and full of giant blocks that teetered and tipped and threatened to tumble down on anyone below. It was a real struggle, and looking back maybe the hardest part of the climb. But at last we reached the top of the ridge and the remaining route stood before us.

I found the first chimney to be a superb climb up. Full of holds, unlike the rest of the mountain the parts that required class 3 climbing all seemed to me solid and secure. Maybe that was just because we had come from Little Bear, where everything seemed to suck and be exposed, but it was definitely welcome after so much crumbly messes. We contoured around to the “2nd gully” as the route description told it, and even the gullies didn’t seem to be such a loose mess as they were advertised to be, although they certainly still qualified as “loose messes”.

The real trick of South Maroon to me is the route finding. Quite a few times we thought the summit was soon to be in reach, only to be disappointed with more contouring and crumbly climbing. Although I didn’t think the climbing super hard, it did seem to take unreasonably long before we finally topped out. But then at last there it was, and we climbed up pretty good rock to the top and our 57 summit was finally in the books.

Well there was the business of the downclimb. The part from the summit to the saddle went quickly, as we had green taped our route up. *We leave no trace and pick it up on our way back. But once we got to the saddle, the pace slowed again to a crawl. Downclimbing the 2800’ of suck was just as sucky as the climb up.

But finally we were down. E-mails were exchanged and we said our goodbyes to our new friend Richard. Many of the mountains he had climbed with us this year had been on his “never climb” list just a couple of years prior, and he had been a welcome addition to our climbs with his southern humor and solid climbing skill.

Now it was time to turn our attention to Capitol Peak, and the weather forecast wasn’t really cooperating. We had the thought before climbing South Maroon that maybe we could hit the Capitol trail the next day to the lake and climb on Friday. It was pretty clear even without seeing the forecast though that this plan was not feasible. We were tired. We needed at least a rest day. The forecast for Saturday was very bad - thundershowers and rain very likely. Both of us were due back at home for work on Monday, so Saturday was really the last day we could leave without juggling a whole bunch of plans - me contacting my boss, Gina contacting her Monday customers, and finally contacting our pet sitter - all for the maybe chance to climb Capitol.

The forecast for Sunday was ok - just ok. So we had a big decision to make. Hike to the lake Saturday, in the rain most likely, and go for Capitol summit on Sunday. It would probably mean we wouldn’t be back in California until Tuesday morning at the earliest, and all the problems of scheduling that would entail. The alternative was to head home on Saturday, and then make a plan to return in a few weeks - this time by air - rent a 4-wheel drive from my Dad in Littleton (the road up to Capitol requires a short four wheel drive section) and climb it in hopefully better weather.

Back and forth we went with our decision. We want to finish the Colorado 14ers. The trip back out would be expensive. The trip so far had already been expensive. We took a walk and made a decision. Then we changed our minds. Then we changed our minds back again. At last we came to a final judgement.

We decided to head home on Saturday.

We have a plan to go back in August 2016. We will finish on Capitol then.