Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Another 14er Frenzy

On the approach to Mt. Lindsey...

Every time I head out to Colorado, be it for a race or for work at the National Ice Core Lab, I always try to squeeze in a handful of 14ers. As I've written about before, you'd think the answer to the question of "How many 14ers are there in Colorado?" would be a simple one....but unfortunately it really depends on who you ask.

There are rules to what defines a 14er...rules like: 1) Is it named? 2) Does it rise at least 300 feet from a saddle (and have 300 feet of prominence), 3) is it recognized as an 'official' 14er historically, etc. According to the website, there are generally accepted to be 58 mountains of over 14,000 feet that "make the list".  Within this list, 53 are considered "ranked" and 5 are considered "unranked".  Those 5 mountains that are unranked are named mountains, however they don't meet rule number 2 above, as they don't rise at least 300 feet from their saddle. So why are they included then?  Well the short answer is they have historical significance in the 14er community.  So, when tackling the 14er list for completion, almost all climbers will set their lists at 58 peaks.  There are over a dozen other peaks that people often try to hit that are both unranked AND unnamed...peaks like "West Evans" or "North Massive", that are simply points above 14,000 near a parent peak that have no official USGS name. The problem is that once you start including peaks like this, what's to stop you from including every single bump over 14,000 feet on a ridge line?

It gets even more complicated when you start asking people what is considered a proper summit attempt of a 14er. Some will say that in order to be official, you have to climb at least 3000 feet from a trailhead. Others will say that all that matters is making the summit...meaning if you drive up Mt. Evans or Pike's Peak, you've checked it off. I generally fall into the latter category. The key is to make the summit, and hopefully have as much fun as possible making it there.  I feel like this leaves more room to get creative on the ascents.  There are really only 2 summits that you can drive up anyway, and one of them I've both driven and climbed. Only Pike's Peak (which you'll read about shortly) have I made it up without climbing. For me, I am content making my list include the 58 peaks.  

Rewind almost 10 years when I was visiting Colorado for the first time while working at the Ice Core Lab as a first year graduate student. On the day I arrived, the very first thing I did was to drive up Mt. Evans. Essentially I went from sea level to 14,000 feet without any acclimatization. I realized quickly this wasn't especially smart as I got a nose bleed within minutes.

My very first time at 14,000 in 2008 (my altimeter was slightly off)

My first view from 14,000

Falling in love with Colorado immediately...

Fast forward to today and I've had countless adventures in Colorado, and tackled many 14ers.  Last year after nearly 2 months working in Denver, I wrote a detailed post about all of the 14ers I was able to go after, significantly shrinking my list. I started last year with 18 total named peaks, and ended with 28, knocking out 10 total peaks.  Here was the posting where I detailed all of the specifics: 

You'll notice if you read through that post, that I talk in more detail about the "rules" of 14ers and how my list actually contains 60 peaks and that I actually had 29 peaks. I chose to include 2 of the unnamed and unranked peaks to put the list at an even 60, but have since focussed on just the 58. I have actually done one of those those 2 unnamed peaks anyway (West Evans), so really I guess my list is at 59.  Blah blah...I'm rambling I know. Very long story short: There are 58 peaks on my 14er list, and starting this year I had 28 total. 

This summer I knew I'd again be spending over a month in Colorado and I wanted to try to tackle as many additional peaks as I could. I had some unfinished business in the Sawatch Range with Mt. Antero (see last year's post), but otherwise, my goal was to attack the Sangre de Cristo range as aggressively as possible. There are 10 total peaks in the Sangre's, including Culebra (the privately owned peak). My goal was to try to hit at least 6 of the 10. Then, in between trips to the Sangres, I was hoping to possibly knock out a peak or two in the San Juans while spending time working out at the Hardrock 100 in Silverton.

The end result of my adventures is that I was able to knock out 10 additional peaks, effectively putting my list at 38/58. I was hoping to crack 40 on this trip, but am quite content with 38. I did have an opportunity to hit 2 more peaks on my last summit in the San Juans, but decided it just didn't feel right. Hiking 14ers is not something you do if you are not 100% committed and invested. If you have ANY doubt whatsoever, you abort your attempt. Over a dozen people die every year on 14ers because of falls, getting hit by rocks from above, or various other reasons.  I may be adventurous, but I'm not reckless/stupid.

This year was also the first year that I graduated to my first Class 4 ascents and this was the first year where I actually had to wear a helmet on some of the climbs. I managed to summit what most consider either the 2nd or 3rd most difficult 14er in Colorado without any issue and all while having fun! (Little Bear Peak).  I learned that my issue with climbing is not route difficulty (in fact I really like working my way up a class 4 or even easy class 5 route)...but rather with exposure. I have a lot of difficulty with high exposure and get vertigo quite badly. I know there are a few peaks left on my list that have some of the highest exposure out there and I'm respectfully nervous for those peaks. I know when the day comes to do them that I cannot go into them scared. I have to be confident, assertive, but highly respectful. Traversing a class 4 exposed ridgeline is no place to get nervous. I know of real people within the ultrarunning community who have perished on some of these climbs, so I know just how dangerous they can be.  This means when the day comes that I have 57/58 peaks, and I decide that that last peak is just too uncomfortable for me, that I will call it at 57 with a smile. No summit is worth putting myself in real danger of a fatal fall.

So, without any further delay, allow me to walk my way through my 2017 14er adventure:

Pikes Peak (14,110'):

My 2017 14er season started off quite differently, but also quite memorably. C was out with me and we decided after many years, to finally drive up Pike's Peak. We've tended to eschew this trip as it is known to be very crowded on the summit, and quite "touristy". This year though, we finally decided to go for it. We contemplated taking the train up, but in the end paid the 25 bucks to just drive the road. There weren't really any other summits I could attempt this early in the season (early June) without an ice axe and crampons either. For reference, the Mt. Evans road wasn't even open yet due to the recent high snow fall (it usually opens Memorial Day). As touristy as it was to drive Pikes, we both had a blast and embraced the "cheesy-ness". It kind of felt like visiting Wall Drug or some other tourist trap.

Arriving at the A LOT of cars

A cold and snowy summit

The railway loading up for the descent

A view from the top

Number 29/58!

On the drive down, we played around on some roadside boulders

Hitting the Manitou Incline before heading out of town!

It would be two weeks before I'd attempt my first real 14er. In the mean time I managed to run a Boston-Qualifying fast marathon outside of Denver and eeked my way up to the #1 wait list spot for Western States.  On Saturday June 17th, I finally headed out to tackle my first mountain...and one that I had a score to settle with. Last year I managed to completely finish out the Sawatch Range (or as some may know, the "Nolan's Route").....EXCEPT for Mt. Antero. I had wanted to do it last year, but bad weather had me abort the attempt. So, I wanted it to be my first summit this year so that I could cross the Sawatch Range off my list.

Mt. Antero (14,269', ~12 miles RT, 5400' of Ascent):

Mt. Antero is an interesting 14er to climb. The standard approach is actually an ATV road and isn't really the most exciting nor scenic of climbs. Eventually the route does split off from the road, and allow for some fun scrambling up to the summit, but during peak summer, you could essentially "drive" all the way to the summit on a 4x4 ATV.  Thankfully, it was early enough in the season, with enough snow on the route, that vehicles couldn't drive up past about 12,000 feet. Unfortunately, this also meant a lot more traversing across snow fields. The nice part is that on the descent, I was able to drop almost 1000 feet of vert by sitting on my butt and glissading down a snow chute. It was a BLAST.

Here is my Strava Track: Mt. Antero

My route up and down Antero.

At the Trailhead

On the Summit!

View of Shavano and Tabeguache in the distance

Snow viewing looking Southwest

GPS Summit dot

Differing routes up and down from summit.
Notice the descent glissade straight down the chute.

Sangre de Cristos:

Next up on my list of peaks to tackle were the Sangre de Cristos.  This range of mountains contains ten total 14ers (including the privately owned Culebra Peak). Most people talk of the Sangre de Cristos in terms of the "Crestone Group" and the "Blanca Group", with Culebra usually considered on its own due to its isolation and issues with permitting.  The Crestone group is the northern cluster of 14ers that includes Challenger Point, Kit Carson Peak, Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, and Humboldt Peak. Techincally, Challenger Point is one of those goofy "unofficial" 14ers as it lacks the 300 feet of prominence, but it is included on every official list of 14ers. In addition, you can't really summit Kit Carson without going right past the summit of Challenger, so everyone hits it "on the way" to Kit Carson. For me, I was most interested in tackling Humboldt Peak as well as the Kit Carson/Challenger combo. Crestone and Crestone Needle are notoriously difficult and with the high snow pack this year, I opted to hold off on attempting them. These two peaks consistently rank as the "most deadly" from year to year and I was in no hurry to tempt fate.

The Northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains

The five peaks in the Crestone Group

Mt. Humboldt (14,064', ~14 miles RT, 4200' of Ascent):

On July 4th, I knew that the lab would be shut down, so I decided to make it an early day and aim for the approach to Humboldt on the Eastern flank of the Sangre's. Humboldt is the only peak in the Crestone group that has its standard approach is from the Eastern side, so I figured it made for a nice peak to get me introduced to the mountains. In addition, the standard approach doesn't go past class 2, so it would be a nice-n-easy least on paper.

The standard approach from the upper trailhead (South Colony Lakes) features a modest 11-12 mile roundtrip route. I wasn't sure if my rental Nissan would make the upper trailhead, so I assumed it might be more like 15-16. I left the Denver area well before sunrise and made the approximate 3-hour drive to the lower trailhead. I arrived, fully caffeinated, at about 7:30 am and decided to see just how high up the rough road I could make it towards the upper trailhead.  I figured if it got too bad, I could always just pull over and hike it in, thereby shaving at least a little time and mileage off of the route.  Several bumpy miles later, my car did manage to make it almost the entire way up to the upper trailhead, but I was forced to stop about 1/2 mile short due to some very large and unavoidable rocks in the road. I started from the car right at about 8:15 and was at the upper trailhead by 8:30. This game me several hours to make the summit without fear of thunderstorms. The forecast was calling for some scattered nastiness by I did not want to dawdle.

I ended up having one of the most perfect days imaginable for this lovely hike and summit, and was presented with one of the most stunning first introductions of any of the Colorado mountains yet. 

The hike up the South Colony Lakes approach trail was mostly uneventful; a someone monotonous and protracted forest road. I passed a few other hikers and well all noted that it "...wasn't a bad way to spend a holiday". Eventually I made it to some single-track and passed through tree-line. When I entered the South Colony Lakes basin area, I was absolutely floored by the view of the Crestones in front of me. Definitely one of the most majestic mountain views I've seen to date. The trail took me up several moderate switchbacks toward the final western saddle (12,850') of Humboldt. From there, it was a pleasant hike up to the final summit (past one decent false summit). In total, I was on the summit in just over 2 and a half hours, topping out around 11:00 am, with a total of about 6.5 miles. I spent some time up there snacking and relaxing and noticed that very quickly, the skies were beginning to turn sour. I gathered my gear up and immediately began the hike back down. On the descent I met a fellow summit bagger who was attempting to knock out over a dozen peaks in the coming week. We chatted for a bit on the brisk descent, and before making it down to the saddle, experienced a wonderful flash hail storm. Nothing too scary, but certainly enough to make me remember that anything can happen up on a 14er, and to take nothing for granted. Also...always know that as prepared and eager as you might be to make a summit, there's ALWAYS a chance you may have to abort the attempt. High mountain weather can be absolutely life-threatening. Once back in the  basin, the skies cleared again, and just like that I was getting my share of sunny Vitamin D. I continued my quickened hiking pace consistently back to my car as it just felt comfortable to keep it up. I was back to my car from my first successful experience in the Sangre de Cristos after just 4 and a half hours of hiking (and before 1:00 pm).

Before making the drive home, I still felt like I had some fire left in me, so I swung by the Manitou Incline again to give an honest quick "up-n-down". I wasn't going for any kind of speed record, but still, I wanted to see what sort of time I could record giving it an honest push at a level of what I would consider a "hard workout".  Nothing like a little 1700 feet of gain in less than a mile to get your heart pumping. I made it up and down the incline in a smidge under an hour...and was quite content with that.

I ended up still making it all the way back in Denver by 6:00 pm. A great Holiday, and back by supper. Awesome.

Here is my Strava Track: Mt. Humboldt

Here is my Strava Track: Manitou Incline

Route up and down Humboldt

Lower trailhead signage

First view of the Crestones from the South Colony Lakes basin

My Pika friend

Nearing the summit on the final ridgeline

View over to Crestone, Crestone Needled (left), 
and Kit Carson / Challenger (right)

Summit Pano

Always the sneaky food finder...

Another view of the Crestones and Kit Carson (looking West)

Summit selfie

Looking down the adjacent valley (North Colony Creek Valley)

Summit Tag

Amazing conglomerate unit near the summit

Track from my incline push.

Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak (14,081', 14,165', ~15 Miles RT, 6,100' of Ascent)

It was after my successful ascent of Humboldt, that thing began to get serious with regards to my summit pushes. Just a few days later I made a very bold plan to attempt to knock out 5 additional peaks in the Sangre's over just two days. This was an incredibly optimistic, and some might say foolish goal, but I wanted to at least make a best-case scenario plan. On paper my plan was to set up camp on Thursday night in the town of Crestone (on the Western flank of the mountains). Bright and early Friday, I would then attempt to summit both Challenger and Kit Carson Peaks. The nice thing about this combo, is that the standard approach for Kit Carson essentially crosses over the summit of Challenger (just a few tens of meters to the East). In other words, it seems ridiculous to go for Kit Carson, and not take the extra 15 minutes to pop over to Challenger and tag it. As a reminder, technically Challenger does not "count" as a 14er as it lacks the 300 feet of prominence and is actually considered a shoulder of Kit Carson. Still, it is included on almost every list of 14ers, including mine. At any rate....following this combo summit of Kit Carson and Challenger, I would then drive south to the town of Alamosa in order to stage myself for an even more incredibly bold Saturday Plan...

Last year I started an ascent of Challenger (Strava Track: Challenger), but had to abort due to impassable snow. I had made it most of the way up to Willow Lake before having to turn around. This year, things went much better, and I was able to cruise the entire way up and down the route. What was different this year though was adding on the Kit Carson attempt. I was admittedly nervous about this as it is listed as Class 3, and involves walking along a rather dangerous looking ledge affectionately titled: "The Avenue". If it was anything like the "Narrows" on Longs Peak, I knew I was in for a nerve-wracking experience. Following the "Avenue" is a noteworthy class 3+ gully scramble up to the summit that has a reputation for being extremely dangerous both for falls, and for loose rock hazards. I spent a lot of time reading about this approach to make sure I knew all of the visual markers and key decision points. I wanted to be well prepared. While nervous at the trailhead, I was also confident and felt comfortable enough in having to abort if necessary...especially if the weather turned foul.

I was fortunate that not only was the weather perfect for both summits, but that I had absolutely zero issues with route finding and navigation, or with the difficulty or climbing itself. There were a few places where I noted an elevated heart rate brought on by nerves, but all in all I was very careful with my moves, and took caution with every elevated class section. This climb is actually very manageable and much less difficult than I had expected. The class three scramble was not as difficult as Long's final approach, and the "Avenue" most certainly looked worse in pictures than it was in reality. There was never a section of the "Avenue" that wasn't at least 3 feet wide, and in no place was there an immediate drop off. I never experienced that oh-so-unpleasant vertigo that comes on when I feel to close to a life-threatening precipice.

Here is my Strava Track: Challenger Point and Kit Carson Peak

I began the climb at a very early 5:30 am from the same Willow Creek Trailhead that I had started from last year. The difference is that this year I was in the dark. Another difference, and one that ended up costing me, was the indescribable hordes of mosquitos that began attacking me from the moment I stepped out of my car. I moved with such haste and purpose to get on the trail as fast as I could, that I left my phone (and therefore camera) in my car. I didn't realize this until I went to take my first picture about 3 miles up trail and couldn't find my phone. So...unfortunately I have no photos from my summits of Challenger and Kit Carson. I screen-capped a few pictures from the website for reference below, so I don't take credit for those pics.

I was up to Willow Lake and around to the bottom of the steep chute climb up to Challenger in exactly 2 hours. I took a decent break at the bottom of this notoriously scree-filled talus ascent, in order to plan out my route. There were still a lot of substantial snow drifts that I was hoping to avoid since I did not have an axe. Thankfully, I did plan ahead enough to bring my micro-spikes though, so wasn't too worried. It was very hot and sunny out, so I know also the snow that was there, would be soft and mushy. About 45 minutes after starting up from the base of the talus climb at 12,000 feet, I was already topping out on the Challenger Summit (Total time, just under 3 hours). I spent very little time on the summit and immediately headed over to the small saddle on the way to the Kit Carson Avenue. The total descent down to the the saddle is very close to 300 feet (leading many to think that Challenger may actually just barely meet the requirement...although it's still debated). I was over to the Avenue in just a few minutes and my heart-rate came down quickly when I realized just how wide it would. I was expecting a nerve-wracking experience along a cliff-side ledge...but it was nothing like this at all (despite the pictures you might see online). It was a pleasant walk up and down a nice grassy path alongside the mountain. I never felt in danger. 

At the bottom of the gully scramble I calculated my route up and began calling loudly to see if anyone was above me. I did not want to be struck by falling rock. I finally busted out my new climbing helmet and began slowly navigating my way up to the top. I was amazed at how fast it all went by and within just minutes I was topping out. In total it only took me about 25 minutes to get from the summit of Challenger to the top of Kit Carson. It felt good to have conquered another class 3 ascent, although I would argue it's more like difficult class 2. I sat up at the top for a while and watched as diminutive hikers made there way up the Challenger Summit. I waved but I don't think anyone ever saw me. The summit of Kit Carson is a bit vertigo inducing when you are sitting on it. The westside of the mountain that faces Challenger is a vertical drop off of several hundred feet. It was the most unsettled I felt the entire day. I had to move myself inward a bit in order to enjoy my lunch break. I tested myself a few times to see how long I could sit at the edge before getting too uncomfortable, but never lasted more than a few minutes. I know when the day comes for the Capitol Peak traverse, I'm gonna have to fight butterflies for sure. 

Total time to the Kit Carson Summit: 3 hrs 15 minutes. I rested for about 10, and then made the long journey back to my car. It was much quicker going down (as it always is) and I was already past Willow Lake and back on easy single-track in less than an hour. I was back in my car in about 2hrs 15 min from leaving the summit, making my entire day 5 and a half hours long. Because I started at 5:30 am, I was back at my car and leaving by 11:00 am. I had plenty of time to make my way to Alamosa and even enjoy a stop at a local coffee house in Crestone. Another fantastic and successful day, all completed before any hints of bad weather moved in....

Route up and down Kit Carson (and Challenger)

Absolutely terrifying view the "Avenue" and "Gully" from Challenger Point to Kit Carson
It looks way worse that it actually was ;-) -

On Challenger Summit, Looking over to the "Avenue" -

Starting up the "Avenue" -

Back half of the "Avenue", w/ hiker visible in middle -

Class 3 scramble up to the summit of Kit Carson -

Blanca, Ellingwood, and Little Bear
(14,345', 14,042', 14,037, ~23 Miles RT, 8,600' of Ascent)

Being a weekend, I thought for sure the mountains near Blanca would by busy, but apparently the thunderstorms late on Friday and the forecast for Saturday had spooked a lot of people. This worked to my advantage, particularly when I would go after Little Bear later in the day, as there was no one else near the summit when I ascended and descended the infamous hourglass. I was nervous about many portions of this trip...mostly with the difficult class 3 and class 4 terrain. I have never done a class 4 section before in my life.  The most difficult climb I've done thus far was moderate the class 3 on Longs, and even Friday's climb up Kit Carson was really only difficult class 2. I was also nervous about having to do a long road walk approach and just how much it would de-motivate me. The thought of a 5+ mile road walk just to get to a trailhead can be discouraging. I made this bold plan to tackle all three peaks in one go and honestly wasn't sure that doing all three was feasibly possible while still having fun. As you'll read, it most definitely was, and the key to doing all three was really just to keep moving. I wouldn't be going particularly fast at any point in the day...I just kept moving.

Here is my Strava Track: Blanca, Ellingwood, Little Bear

I stayed in Alamosa over night and was at the Lake Como trailhead starting my hike at exactly 5:00 AM. When I say trailhead, I really mean well below the trailhead, as my car just couldn't go any further up the road. The Lake Como Road is one of the gnarliest and most well-known in Colorado. I was driving a Nissan Juke rental with "AWD", but I wouldn't really call it an SUV. Even though I was able to drive it up to the upper trailhead for Humboldt a few days ago, I didn't want to risk it on Lake Como Rd. I ended up parking at about 8500' elevation (just about 2 miles from main road). After hiking the road though, I can say that I probably could have easily made it higher. The road isn't too bad all the way up to almost 10,000 feet. Honestly, if you have high clearance, I'd say you can easily make it to one of the pull offs between 9000 and 10,000 feet. Where I parked was just a hair over 5 miles from Lake Como itself up near the basin area of the three summits..

I started walking at 5:00 am and hiked with steady pace of about 2.5 miles/hr. At this pace, it's entirely possible to make it to Lake Como in about 2 hours. I headlamped for the first 30 minutes, but then it was bright enough to go without it. The mosquitos were awful again. I packed some DEET at the last minute and was glad I had it. I was surprised at the lack of cars on the road and there were at least a dozen good open parking spots that I could have made it too in my Juke.

The road is fairly easy walking and progresses through a series of switchbacks on the front of the mountain. Every now and then I'd look down to the road and see my car getting smaller and smaller in the distance. It's amazing how fast you gain elevation on the road. Eventually at about 10,000 feet, I finally got into the wooded area and began hitting the fun "JAWS" road obstacles that you can learn about in many a youtube video. They really are quite ridiculous and completely impassable by any stock vehicle. You either need an ATV, or a lifted 4x4 of some kind. At any rate, I walked steadily and was at the lake exactly 2 hours later at 7:00 AM. I took a break to eat something, and then continued on up to the Crater Lake area. I had originally planned to do Ellingwood first to "avoid the crowds", but I really couldn't see many people up on the mountains. I spotted a handful climbers on the ascent of Blanca, but no big crowds, so I decided to just do Blanca first to get the highest climb done before tackling Ellingwood. My plan would be to do the two, and if early enough, and no sign off bad weather, I'd consider attacking Little Bear on my way back to the Lake Como. Again...a pretty bold plan.

There were a few lingering snow drifts to walk along, but all very minor. The remaining portion of the trail from Lake Como up to Crater Lake progressed rather quickly. I climbed some switchbacks by the main waterfall, and then very quickly was at the bottom of the "bowl" looking up at he connecting ridge between Blanca and Ellingwood. Again, I was surprised at the complete lack of people on the mountain. The ascent up to the ridgeline requires navigating through a few rocky sections, but nothing past class 2. I found myself on the ridge by about 8:30 or so, and decided to take a short break there. There was one group of about 6 climbers all just ahead of me, and then a couple of groups of 2 at various sections along the final climb. There appeared to be no one over on Ellingwood. When I talked to the other climbers, they were all extremely worried about the forecast. Supposedly it was going to open up with extreme thunderstorms at noon. They had all abondoned the idea of doing Ellingwood after Blanca, even though it was still only 8:30 am and they had plenty of time.

I chose to ride close to the ridgeline on the final ascent up to the summit as I simply found it to be more fun. It had a few class 3 spots, but I really enjoyed the boulder scrambling. I passed the big group of 6 while they were taking a snack break, and then near the summit, I cut over onto an obvious trail. I arrived on top at right around 8:50 AM. The timing worked out that I was the only one on the summit. There was one climber who was just leaving when I got there and snapped a picture of me before heading down. I also took pics of both Ellingwood and Little well as snapping a panorama. There was no snow anywhere on the climb.

The long route for the day

On Blanca at 8:50 AM

Looking over to Little Bear

A look over to Ellingwood (you can see the group of 6 coming up the final climb to Blanca in lower right of pic)

A look back to Mt. Lindsey

Panorama from Blanca with Little Bear and Ellingwood in view

Summit Tag Screen-Cap

I took a 10 minute break on top and the made my way down. I again chose to ride close to the ridge line as I found it more fun and actually more stable despite the slightly increased difficulty. I am not a fan of loose rock. On the way down, my original plan was to do the standard down/up to Ellingwood. In other words, I didn't want to attempt the published higher traverse route. But, when I made it back to the saddle, I looked down and could not find the trail that cuts over. The high traverse trail was clearly visible from the large cairn at the top of the saddle I just decided I'd give it a try. lists the traverse as class 3, so I figured why not. I remember from reading the info on the route, to stay just below the ridge to avoid any difficult climbing near the gullies. 

This pic on the site shows the exact high-route I took (pink): 

There were definitely a few class 3 sections, but it really wasn't bad at all. There are fairly visible cairns along the entire lower part of the traverse until you clear the final "gully". Once you begin the final climb, I found it to be somewhat of a "choose your own adventure" I just took a line that looked easiest and was up on top fairly quickly. I ended up cresting on the false summit, so had to pop over to the short hike to the real summit. I was again the only climber on the summit and took about 15 minutes to refuel, take some pictures and videos, and simply admire the gorgeous day. I thought what a shame that so many of the other hikers were abandoning the hike over to Ellingwood since I thought the view was actually slightly better and the weather was still perfect.

From the time I left Blanca, to the time I arrived on Ellingwood, I clocked about 45 minutes. I was shocked at how short the entire trip was. Again, I wasn't moving fast at all...I was just picking decent lines, and kept moving. I left the summit exactly at 10:00 am with the goal of just making it back to Lake Como to see how I was feeling, and if the weather was still cooperating. I knew even at Lake Como, I'd still have a 5 mile road walk back to my car and I was already at something like 10 miles on the day.

Looking over to Blanca with just a couple of tiny clouds starting to form (you can actually see climbers on the summit if you zoom in)

Looking over to Little Bear from Ellingwood

Selfie on Ellingwood...

Summit Tag Screen-Cap

On my way down, I chose to look for a shortcut back to the main trail. I descended from the summit headed back towards the ridge traverse, but about half-way down, I found a faint trail that cut across. I assumed this was the trail I was looking for before, and snuck across it back to the main trail. It avoided the main snow patches and was a much faster shortcut. I entered back into the primary trail a few hundred feet down from the ridge line cairn. From there I clicked into my main hiking gear and just walked continuously back towards the Lake. I told myself that if I could make it to the start of the Little Bear climb by 11:00 am, and if the clouds still looked unthreatening, that I'd at least start the climb. I have had one too many close calls on mountains with lightning, so I was prepared to abort the attempt should the weather turn.

I hit the bottom of the the main gully and talus pile for the Little Bear climb at 11:05. Close enough I thought. I gave a long and thoughtful look up to the sky and made the decision to go for it. I was getting tired, but figured I at least had to give it an honest try. I also thought about having to do the long road walk again some day in the future, just to do Little Bear if I didn't do it now. Not a big deal, but definitely food for thought. There was also the issue of the infamous hourglass. I have never done a route with class 4 components, nor a route considered so dangerous. I knew very well that should I get to the bottom of the hourglass, if it appeared "busy" with other climbers, I would simply turn back. I had a hunch though because it was already 11, and everyone I spoke to had no interest in Little Bear...that there wasn't anyone else on the mountain. Ultimately, this proved to be correct. There was no other person anywhere on the route during my entire climb/descent. I would not only have the summit to myself, but the entire route.

The climb up the first gully is somewhat of a nuisance. The ground is very loose and I was constantly sliding. I found a route along the right side that had more stable rock and followed that most of the way. On the way up there were a few lingering snow patches that were melting fast and provided a nice spot to refill my water bottles. Nothing like good/clean snow melt water. Despite the gully looking like a ridiculously long climb, it's actually less than 1000 feet of ascent. I was getting tired and had to take many short breaks on the climb as the constant sliding was exhausting. Still though, at this slower pace I was up on top in less than 30 minutes.

I rounded the corner and began the long and relatively flat (some slight gain) hike along the backside of the ridge to near the base of the hour glass. This section goes by fairly quickly until you get within a 1/4 mile of the hourglass. The cairns were sporadic and I was often just eyeballing it to where I needed to go. The hourglass is very clearly visible from afar, so as long as you "aim" for it, you'll get right to it. I approached the hourglass several hundred feet below the actual entrance so had to climb quite a bit of loose and slippy rock first. I aimed for the bottom of the rigged rope.

As I neared the rope I very loudly started calling up the mountain. I wanted to make my presence known and see if there was anyone above me. I called several times and never heard a response. I suspected there was no one up there, but I was still nervous. I stood at the base of the rope about to start my first class 4 ascent. I looked up at the sky heeding the warning on that states "this is a good place to turn around if the weather is turning". I looked up at the sky and there were some more noteworthy clouds brewing, but still, nothing ominous. I did the climbing math in my was right about noon as I reached the rope. I figured if it took my 45-60 minutes to reach the summit, I wouldn't get back Lake Como until after 2:00. I would like get wet on my hike down to the car, but I'd be well below tree line and had rain gear. So...I chose to push on. If you look at my last picture you can see that the cumulous clouds were increasing in numbers, but still not ominous. What WAS ominous though, were some of the clouds a little further away...but approaching. I knew I'd have no time to dawdle.

I began the hourglass climb doing my best to find the most stable places to climb. I found this to be incredibly satisfying. I was nervous about the class 4, but found it to be really fun. I used the rope a few times to help pull myself up, but I wasn't wearing a harness and was not clipping in at all. There were definitely a few times I felt like a true rock climber having to find holds, and plant my feet to pull myself up...but I never felt truly scared or in extreme danger. Every few minutes I'd call out my presence and listen for replies. Still no answers. By this point I was sure I was alone on the mountain. I looked back several times at the route I came from too, and never saw any other hikers coming behind me. I assumed anyone else figured it to be too late in the day.  

After making my way through the hourglass. I began the final pitch up to the top. I chose to go left at the top and found myself a couple of times looking up at a gnarly section (bordering on class 5). I was sure I was just having bad luck picking good lines. This is where I wish I had read the final pitch info on Little Bear a little closer the night before. I looked at my GPS and sure enough I was headed a little off course so had to correct. I had to downhike a slight bit and shift over to a better ascent line, but once on it, I realized it was probably the correct route I was supposed to be in. This was confirmed when I spotted a couple of smaller cairns near the top. I topped out on the summit at about 12:45 and the sky was starting to look a little less friendly. I took a few pictures, had a quick snack, and immediately began heading down. I knew the down climbs through the hourglass and the gully back down to the Lake would take a long time so I didn't want to waste precious minutes. As long as I was back down to the lake before any storms hit, I'd knew I'd be ok.

Looking up the "Hourglass"

On Little Bear looking towards Blanca and Ellingwood

Little Bear Selfie - Ellingwood (left) and Blanca (right) in distance

Storms are moving in...

Summit Tag Screen-Cap

The down climb through the hourglass was slow but consistent. I called out many times just to make sure anyone below would hear me, but there was never any response. I used the rope a couple of times to help with a few sections, but mostly just kept it slow and looked for good places to plant my feet. I definitely sat down a few times to get down some sections. On two occasions I did have some nice slips and wound up on my ass...but nothing scary. Needless to say, my hands got a little cut up.

Once back on the traverse over to the top of the gully, I picked up my pace a little. The sky was now grey and beginning to look like rain was coming. I just had to make it down the gully to the lake though and my lightning worries would much more subdued. The weather was certainly odd. It seemed like every 10 minutes it was different. First it would dark and ominous, then sunny again. I just couldn't figure out where it was going...I just knew I wanted to be off the exposed ridge. In less than 30 minutes I was back at the top of the gully ready to make my scree-filled descent back to the lake. As expected it went slow and I was on my ass quite a few times. This was probably the most frustrating descent of the day. I stayed to the side I climbed on as much as possible to avoid the loosest of the rock, but still slid a lot. The sun was back out on this descent as well, so every foot in elevation I dropped, the safer I felt. When I did finally make it back down to the creek at the bottom of the gully's talus, I sat for a long while and refilled my bottles. A successful day...but man, what a long day. My GPS watch was reading something like 16 miles, and I still had the 5+ mile hike back to my car. I hiked over to some trees and took a long shady break eating the rest of my food. The sky was partially sunny again, so I was completely relaxed about the road hike. I knew I'd probably get wet though. I couldn't believe there wasn't a single other person on the entire Little Bear route, but I was actually quite glad. This way, there was no stress on/around the hourglass. If I had a real life-threatening emergency, I did have my SPOT with it's emergency beacon. Thankfully other than a few cuts/scrapes, I completed the day issue-free.

The walk down to the car was actually quite pleasant. I put on my ipod shuffle and listened to some good tunes and the miles just ticked away. Every time the sky looked like it would rain on me, the sun would come back out. When I made it back down to about 9000 feet (about 1.5 miles from my car) I finally heard thunder rumblings over the mountains. As I walked up to my car about 30 minutes later at the end of my very long 22+ mile day, I felt the first rain drop. I laughed at the perfect timing of it all. As I drove down the road, my car got a much needed car wash, and I got a good laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I was back in my car a little after 4:00 PM...with a total trip time of just over 11 hours.

So is entirely possible to do all three peaks in one day from the lower parking lot. means doing over 20 miles, with about 9000 feet of elevation gain. If I had to do it again, I would probably start the hike at 4:00 am or even earlier just to make sure to avoid thunderstorms. The hike up the road is very moderate and would be quite fun with a headlamp. I was actually quite surprised that with starting at 5:00 am and arriving at Lake Como by 7:00 am, that campers were still sitting around eating breakfast and hadn't started their ascents yet. Shoot, if I was camping at the Lake, I'd have been up on Blanca before 6:00 am...but then again, I like to start these types of hikes as early as possible.

Mt. Lindsey (14,042', ~12 Miles RT, 4,000' of Ascent)

Following my monster weekend, I had just two days of work left in the lab, before having to close up shop and head out to Silverton for the Hardrock. I opted to leave a day early and try to knock out one last mountain in the Sangre's "on the way". On paper, Lindsey seems like a pretty straight forward 14er: A six-mile class 2 approach with some slight scrambly stuff near the summit. I figured I could knock the entire thing out in less than 6 hours if I could make it up to near the upper trailhead. 

So once again, I made my way down to the Southern tip of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and aimed for the the only remaining East side summit and the Lily Lake trailhead. I ended up making a fundamental mistake with Lindsey. After doing so well with my previous big weekend, and my confidence brimming, I overestimated my skill, and underprepared for the climb. What I came to find on the route was that I was that despite the route never going officially over "difficult class 3", I found myself in some of the most dangerous situations I've ever been in. It was a really humbling experience, and one that made me realize I needed some humility.

I made it to 1 mile short of upper trailhead in the Nisaan, and the only thing that stopped me was a very deep puddle in the road (~2 feet deep). I didn't want to risk it. I began my hike at 7:30 am on the road and was at the upper trailhead in less than 15 minutes. The initial part of the route was lovely and very smooth hiking. I took some of my best Colorado pictures of my entire summer along this section. The one tough river crossing has a log in place that was walkable which meant I would keep my dry feet for the hike. 

Once the route began to climb in earnest, it came quickly. It was steeper than I expected below tree line. When I cleared the treeline into the basin area, I very quickly noticed that the tops of the mountains had an obvious white appearance. It had recently snowed. With my confidence brimming and my fitness well maxed, I was cruising at a quick pace. I began the climb up the rocky trail to the ~13,000' major saddle. As I worked my way up the trail I noted two things: The winds were howling, and the "snow" was actually small balls of pea-sized hail. I was getting good views of Lindsey's peak and feeling great that I'd be up in down in now time.  There are two official routes up from the saddle to the summit. One follows the ridge and is a little more technical, and the other follows a gulley/chute that is often filled with snow. The snow route is supposedly easier even with the snow. 

 Once on the saddle, I chose to go the ridge route as the gulley looked very loose with talus/scree and no snow (other than the light dusting from the hail). The ridge route was surprisingly fiesty with a couple of class 4 bits...but definitely fun. I was sure to wear my helmet, gloves, and hat, to avoid any hazards and cold wind, and worked my way to the summit quickly and confidently. I topped out in about 2 hours and 25 minutes from my start, right at 10:00 AM. After a few pics and a snack, I retraced my steps along the ridge and began to setup for my descent down to the saddle. This is where I messed up. I decided it would be "fun" to descend via the chute. Try something different I thought. Bad idea.

I began down what I thought was the upper part of the chute (which again was mostly melted out now) and had quite a bit of trouble entering it from above. I ended up scrambling across the mountain for a decent bit and eventually came to a section that I couldn't down climb. The chute was very loose and slippy as well with lots of rocks getting into shoes. At one point, I actually lost my footing and had a very quick moment of panic as I grabbed for rock. I was fine and likely would not have fallen dangerously, but still, it forced me to stop and sit for a while. I took a long break on the rock and re-assessed my plan. I ended up slowly back tracking my route to a safer spot and carefully navigated my way over to the original ridgeline. I wasn't on any real route though and even though I was slow and careful, was still breaking a cardinal rule by traversing on an unknown section and taking a serious risk. At one point I even had to "hop down" from the top of a rock perch and I realized after doing it that had it gone wrong, things would have ended not so nicely. Once I did finally make it safely to the saddle I sat for a long time and thought about things. I realized all the classic "traps" I fell into and it reenforced my naiveté and inexperience with climbing. It was a very long, sobering, and thought-filled hike back to my car.

Here is my Strava Track: Mt. Lindsey

My route up Lindsey

Feeling good, taking some lovely photos along the early trail

Starting up the climb to the saddle (Lindsey peak is in center, recessed)

Nearing the saddle, fresh hail and snow on the ground

On the saddle, looking over my routes...
(red = ridge route, blue = gulley/chute route)

View of Blanca group across the valley


Happy summit pic (Little Bear, Blanca, Ellingwood in background)

Another view of Blanca (right) with Little Bear (center)

Summit tag screen cap

Wilson Peak (14,016', ~9.5 Miles RT, 3,800' of Ascent)

Similar to last year, my 14 frenzy ended with one last climb and summit on the evening before the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run. After a long drive from Lindsey over to the town of Montrose (near the San Juans), I decided to make a short detour into the Lizard Head Wilderness and go for Wilson Peak. It can be confusing as there are two "Wilson" mountains right next to each other: Wilson Peak and Mt. Wilson. Here, I would be going for Wilson Peak.

Most peak-baggers and 14er hikers will come to the Wilson Group in via the Navajo Lakes approach from the south. This way, they can stage in the Navajo Lake basin and knock out all three peaks in the group: Wilson Peak, El Diente, and Mt. Wilson (with many also hitting the "almost 14er" Gladstone Peak). I chose to come in from the Northern "Rock of Ages" approach as it was shorter, relatively straight forward/easy approach, and could be done before noon. Forecasts weren't too promising. 

From the start of this hike, things proved much more difficult than I had anticipated. There was a lot of snow in the San Juans, which meant the entire hike up to the primary saddle below Wilson Peak was up a steep snow field. Thankfully I had my micro-spikes so wasn't worried (although an axe probably would have been prudent). I forced my self to go slow and take a lot of breaks so as not to make mistakes like had the day before. 

After cresting the "Rock of Ages" saddle, the route follows a contour around to a secondary saddle. From there, the route's difficulty increases significantly. I had a lot of trouble finding the best lines and found myself many times cliffing out or reach a point beyond my skill. In each case, I took extra time to retrace my steps and find a better route. I was proud of myself for being cautious and careful. The weather wasn't looking to promising, so when I made it through the climb up to the first false summit, I was relieved. describes the final and most difficult crux section over to the summit as such: "Your next challenge is to descend from the false summit, cross below the connecting ridge, and gain the summit". They label this section as "difficult class 3". It is definitely class 4, and even has some honest palm-sweating exposure. Making my way up and down this section had my heart-rate very elevated, but I never once panicked. I took it slow, picked the best lines carefully, and navigated my way over to the summit without issue.  Still, there were few times when I realized that I was literally hanging on to rock, and stepping over places where a fall would not end well. The exposure threat was palpable. I didn't take many of my own photos, so am including some photos from below for reference.

I made the summit (4.7 miles) in just over 2 hours from my start. Once there,  I took a long break and watched as a thick fog cover came in. The winds picked up and I felt an honest chill in my bones. Needless to say, I began my descent fairly quickly. I took the same route down, carefully navigating all of the tricky spots. Before I made it back to my car, it was raining on the mountain top. I was glad I wasn't up there.  Back at my car, I could tell my body was sore from all the hikes. I needed a rest. The entire hike took my just over 4 hours and I ended up arriving in Silverton after lunch, just in time for the volunteer in-brief meeting.

Here is my Strava Track: Wilson Peak

I spent the next two days enjoying myself at the Hardrock 100 and captaining the finish line aid station again. It was a blast and perfect way to end out my Colorado Season.

Final 14er Tally: 38/58

My route up/down Wilson Peak

Route looking up from "Rock of Ages" Saddle -

Starting up difficult climb from secondary saddle -

Full route up from secondary saddle as seen from across the valley -

Looking down from top of climb to false summit

Same view on a sunny day -

Lots of snow in the Wilson Group

Final crux move over to the true summit

Climber navigating through the crux

Final pitch out of the crux to the summit -

My view up of final pitch

On summit-side of crux, looking back


Happily on summit, despite the fog

View from descent (Wilson Peak in clouds at top left).
Rock of Ages Saddle is center-right.

Fog rolling on on the summit


Some fun pics from Hardrock:

Still waiting for my chance to touch this rock...maybe next year?

The 2017 Hardrock field of runners just starting off.

Hanging out with one of my personal heroes and fellow Barkley alum - Blake Wood

Participating in the first annual Post-Hardrock Depletion Mile or (PhD Mile), 
alongside Blake Wood, Michael Wardian, and Ellie Hacker. (photo E. Hacker).