Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Incident Report

Date of Incident - July 7-8, 2013 1:20am

Location - North Half Moon Creek, Mount Massive Colorado. 11,800'

Victim - Michael Guastella, Male 25, 6.0' 145lb.

Major Injury - Stage II Hypothermia

Summary of Incident - In the early morning of Monday July 8th a low pressure system passed over the ridge of Oklahoma Mountain to the North West. The stable night time conditions deteriorated leaving the victim exposed allowing the victim to fall into hyothermia.

Detail - The evening of July 7th ended with stable air conditions over the valley of Halfmoon. An improvised bivy was set up on a rock slab about 50 meters from the tree line. The bivy set up consisted of a closed cell foam and inflatable air mattress, a 0 degree down sleeping bag, and an extra large tarp. There was no stable shelter provided by the victim prior to sleeping. At around 1:20am on the morning of the 8th the low pressure system moved in. Initially, Guastella assessed the danger as minor and took no immediate action to protect himself. The only precaution taken was to wrap the sleeping bag with his rain jacket and the excess tarp. By 1:40 am the situation had become more  serious as wind speed increased and hail began to fall with the light rain. The decision was made at this point to retreat to the tree line. Guastella had failed to check his headlamp battery  prior to the outing and was unaware that it was dead. Without a light source lightning strikes were the only guide to the tree line. On the descent to the tree line the victim slipped and fell on a number of rocks, on one of these falls the rain jacket was lost. The rain began to fall heavily further complicating the already dangerous situation. Having initiated the retreat hastily, Guastella failed to properly secure his gear from moisture. Although in possession of a water proof dry sack and a back pack with a rain cover, neither of these articles were used to keep his clothing or sleeping bag dry. As a consequence once he arrived at the relative safety of the treeline all of his clothing and insulation were saturated. At the treeline the victim was shivering intensely and eventually reached the point where shivering ceased. Reaching for his emergency blanket in his hiking pants and wrapping himself with the blanket, the victim rested on his closed cell sleeping pad. Guastella managed to find and light his stove in the darkness and beginning drinking warm water and consuming food. The sleeping bag proved to have some redeeming value as the thermal liner inside the bag was almost entirely dry. The victim used this for insulation and continuing to snack on food and consuming warm liquid made it through three hours of darkness until sunrise. At sunrise Guastella dried out his sleeping bag and proceeded to rest. Once awake the victim had major flu symptoms and was running a significant fever. After a few hours of recovery, Guastella hiked out to his vehicle.

Analysis and Conclusion - The issue of hypothermia arose from a failure to properly assess the danger in the weather conditions and once the danger was realized Guastella failed to properly use his current gear for his safety. In possession of a tarp that could have made applicable shelter, Guastella failed to even use it once at the treeline. Had he assessed the danger earlier and not waited 20 min to make his decision it is possible he could have pitched the tarp at the treeline and spent the night comfortably dry in his down bag. Where Guastella was successful was being able to identify hypothermia and treat it properly.

Friday, July 26, 2013


It is almost 1am and I have been reading poetry for the past three hours. I eventually ended up regressing through history and making it back to the Greeks. Pulling out my  Edith Hamilton texts to research something on Homer, I came across a reference to the Orphic Hymns. There was a time in my life when I joked around about my religion being Orphic. My memory of these works had faded and I have forgotten some of the things I learned.

"To Thanatos, Fumigation from Manna.

 Hear me, O Death, whose empire unconfin'd
 extends to mortal tribes of ev'ry kind.
 On thee, the portion of our time depends,
whose absence lengthens life, whose presence ends.

 Thy sleep perpetual bursts the vivid folds
 by which the soul, attracting body holds :
 common to all, of ev'ry sex and age,
 for nought escapes thy all-destructive rage.

 Not youth itself thy clemency can gain,
 vigorous and strong, by thee untimely slain.
 In thee the end of nature’s works is known,
 in thee all judgment is absolved alone.
 No suppliant arts thy dreadful rage control,
 no vows revoke the purpose of thy soul.
 O blessed power, regard my ardent prayer,
 and human life to age abundant spare"

                                                         - Hymns to Orpheus, Trans: Thomas Taylor.


p.s - Incident report still coming.

Friday, July 19, 2013


The past weeks chronicled here have been a steady campaign against my favorite adversary: Nature. A plan had been laid out once the goals of the expedition were established and I marched to my fate. My initial hopes for the trip were quickly stripped apart as I began to understand more about my situation. In the field, the battle was one of give and take. I had found myself in a war of attrition. In the mountains you never gain any territory, you only hold the land that is under your feet. Know where you stand, remember your training and hold fast. Endurance became a key element, both physical and mental. By the last week  I had become tired, I had become weak. In the end, I fought the wilderness one last time. Entering the arena, with a  lack of respect and an overall condition of "hubris", I was thoroughly beaten down. In the morning I would send for terms and an agreement of armistice would be reached. The status quo would be restored. I would understand that in these lands, governed by the Mother of Mountains, I am neither friend nor foe. That when I step into Her domain, I am only as strong as who and what I bring. She looks upon none with a kind eye, a blind justice, equality for all.

Day 33 - 07/07/13: North Halfmoon

Mount Massive is the second highest peak in Colorado and, right next to it is  Mount Elbert, the highest peak. This time of year the area is swollen with hikers climbing both mountains. Even worse the trail head for both is in the same spot. Just about a 1/4 mile down the road separates them. Both Massive and Elbert have undergone transformations in their ecosystems as a result of the traffic and there have been numerous attempts to re-route certain popular trails to diminish impact. On the road in I encountered tons of people. Looking at the map I decided to take a lesser used approach to Mount Massive. The standard route up massive is with the Colorado Trail and then the connection to the Massive summit trail. I settled on taking North Halfmoon Creek to the base of the alpine. At the trail intersection for the North Halfmoon Lakes, a shorter 2.5mile trail gains 3,200' vertical feet for Massive's summit. My plan was to loop hike the mountain by taking the standard route down and back to my Jeep. I planned for an overnight and packed light. I carried my 28L pack with one 10x12 tarp, a big agnes air core sleeping pad, Z lite sol SM therma-rest, 850fill 0 degree down sleeping bag, water proof dry bag for the sleeping bag, one set of wool baselayers, 1 extra pair of wool socks, one down jacket, rain jacket, para-chord for bear hang, x2 1Lwater bottles and filter,  esbit pocket stove with 4 solid fuel cubes, 1 dehydrated meal, granola, beff jerky, oatmeal, recovery and whey powder,  and gummy bears. Attached to the pack was my climbing helmet and Ice-Axe. I was wearing a poly, quick dry short sleeve shirt light weight quick dry pants, poly underwear, wool socks, GoreT Boots. Carrying one small medic kit and emergency mylar blanket, and wearing a lanyard with a whistle and compass. Pockets also contained my head lamp (that was dead), and my Kestrel weather tracker.(I have detailed this because it is actually important information if you want to understand what happened more than just know what happened) Halfmoon Creek and North Halfmoon Creek had some of the purest looking water I have seen in the mountains. The scenery cooperated also, I guess...

I reached the trail intersection of Halfmoon lakes trail and the summit trail for Massive. It was a nice meadow and close enough to the tree line to keep me safe through the afternoon storms. It was about 3pm and I was rather tired so I ate a bit and slept under a nice grove of pines with very thick cover. As the storms started to clear in the afternoon I found a place to pitch my set up on a nice flat rock in the meadow. The sky cleared and I watched the milky way appear. Deneb, Vega and Altair of the summer triangle gave me something to fall asleep to.

Day 34 - 07/08/13: Bring em' Home

I awoke at 1am to flashes of light, and a sky with no stars. It doesn't rain out here at night during the summer, so I thought. It made no sense. A series of poor decisions over the next few minutes and equipment failure leave me exposed while retreating to the tree line 50m away in the darkness. Mid retreat the rain and hail unleash and all of Zeus' fury. I made my way to the place where I had lunch and dinner. I was soaked and so was all of my gear. Shivering, I realize I was becoming hypothermic. Wrapping myself in my emergency blanket, lighting my solid fuel stove, drinking warm water and eating food, for the next 3 1/2 hours until I could see the slightest light in the sky, I made it through the night. Once I could see the ground I began pacing. The sun rose, I dried out my sleeping bag, and tried to get some actual rest in the meadow. It was good to get warm but once I awoke I was in full blown flu symptoms. I was already planning on one more week  for the trip and I knew it would take a few days to get healthy and a couple hundred dollars in a hotel room. It was better to just head home. I kept it as easy as possible descending back to the jeep and drove straight back. By Tuesday at 5pm I was home.

North Halfmoon from mumblefords on Vimeo.

* * * 

3,700 miles of driving, 35 days of travel outside of New Orleans, 11 summits attempted, 7 bagged, 2 rivers paddled. Falling short of a number of my initial goals it is easy to become "upset" but the above list is respectable. Looking at what I actually did and not what I wanted to do; it was a great trip. I am able to come home with a few thousand dollars that can go towards a new truck that could make these kinds of trips more comfortable. As unfortunate as the final circumstance was, overall I was ready to come home prior to this incident. I shot high, admittedly, and it was hard work to get what I did accomplished. In the next post I will offer a detailed Incident Report for what happened at North Halfmoon on Mt. Massive.That is why I was vague in the details above In truth I almost died, I made some bad decisions but knew enough to make it out. Knowing that deep down inside I have the will to survive and the ability to look beyond the peril of the current situation so that I may act, and not hesitate; that is the treasure I found in the Dragon's lair.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Week Five: Dirt-Bag Diaries.

In the outdoor industry and through outdoor culture no class is as coveted or as despised as the "dirtbags". They are an essential part of they system but also a complete tax on it. They hold deep wisdom of the area you find them but never seem to contribute to the actual economy that keeps it all running. Dirt-bag, an overly affectionate term, is a way to describe an outdoor vagabond."I heard the call, and within two weeks I had sold everything I didn't need, grabbed my (insert gear for climbing, mountains, paddling...) put it in my (insert subaru, turck, jeep, antique camper that is kept running only by hope, SUV...) , grabbed (insert animal companion) and headed for (Colorado, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, Washington...)." It is a formula, a refined equation, that when all the variables are correct can create a situation of absolute bliss. It won't be pure bliss for others around you though until you figure out the variable of "paid showers". It is a homeless life perusing "the dream". Beautiful in its own right, freeing and highly rewarding. The skills of the dirt bag are in exploiting resources, and hence why they are not always loved. That $1.50 cup of coffee gives me three hrs of WiFi access? right? and I can sit in this really sweet leather wing chair? Maybe they will even light my cigar.

Day 27 - 07/01/13: Buena Vista

Poncha pass, going from the San Luis Valley into the Arkansas River Valley, was the only real obstacle I had to cross today. I was thankful that was the case. The past few weeks are starting to take their toll on me. I feel exhausted at times, mentally and physically. Sometimes its not just a psyche up before the hike, its actually on the hike. I am increasingly becoming concerned about my Jeep's ability to preform at altitude while hauling so much gear and it getting safely through this trip. In short I need a break; a vacation. In Buena Vista I have a good friend whom I used to work with at Masseys and seeing a familiar face for the first time in a month would be nice. Meeting up with Lilly after she got off work was great time to catch up and just relax. For a southerner I have a hard time accepting hospitality and, although, offered a bed to sleep in, I knew there were free camp sites just a few miles out of town. Free camp sites on the Arkansas River at that. 

It was all about the view all along though.

Day 28 - 07/02/13: Go Exploring

The Arkansas provided a great drone for a good night of sleep but I awoke in the morning to screams and shouts. After a while I got the idea of what was going on. "ON BELAY!" Just above the cliff on the other side of the road was a small trail head and a really nice rock face. A group of two instructors were teaching a summer camp group top-roping. It was about a 50 ft pitch. Nothing serious. Great holds and a very clear route. It looked like fun. After a quick breakfast and packing camp I drove up there and spoke with the instructors for a moment, not distracting them of course. They were with the local Noahs Ark, a Christian youth camp organization. Overall the kids seemed to be having a great time and everyone seemed to give great encouragement in the most harrowing moments of beginner climber apprehension. As I started my little hike down the small wash I could hear the echoes for quite some time.

If there was a trail out here I lost it immediately. I cant imagine ever getting lost out here honestly. The Collegiate Peaks are the most prominent land mark, being in excess of 14,000" and over 50 miles long, make for a great indicator of direction.

There were two major hills that dominated the topography of where I was and neither of them seemed to be more than 500ft in elevation from the floor. I decided to go for the highest of them. 

...and up!

At the top I was rewarded with views of the valley. I could see all of Buena Vista and the entire Collegiate Peaks range. From the small summit I could see what had been obscured by the ridge but on the other side was something to be excited about. Jeep Roads. 

Miles and miles of them. I could see group after group of jeep tours running through the area and I knew there must be something good back there. If I was really trying to relax and recover for a while due to exhaustion, going off trail and climbing hills was not the way to do it. Riding around in 1st gear at 5mph for a few hours on a back country road... now that sounds like relaxing.  Hell, while im at it lets go into town and get a killer lunch.  Coming back into town, I find the holy grail: A laundromat/paw shower with free WiFi and this was the point my enlightenment into the dirt-bag began.

Driving out there on the Four-mile Jeep Roads it hit me. I had already been dirt bagging it. I have been freeloading internet, living out of my car, lost all ambition for anything but outdoor pursuit, and was constantly looking for hot shower access. Contrary to common belief it is not very "rewarding" to regularly fetch snow melt river water in a container and sponge bathe with it in the morning. I would say... it builds character though. I wondered, what has happened to that clean young boy I used to know. 

Pitching camp for the night deep on the Four mile roads I found the trailhead to Buffalo Peaks, the highest points in the southern mosquito range. 

Day 29 - 07/03/13 

The Buffalo peaks are below 14,000 at about 13,500 and I figured it might be a good place to just hike and stay in shape for next weeks climbs of the the Collegiate peaks. I got out and on the trail early. 

I used to work in a nursery, as I mentioned in an earlier post, and the one type of plant I was eccentric about was roses. I loved roses. They demand special care and attention and produce a huge variety of styles. The on thing that I will never forget is the smell of all the wild roses out here. The fragrance carried, believe me.

After my off trail adventure the other day I felt pretty confident that I could navigate off trail in relatively easy areas. Being that I was in a mountain valley I figured I could not get lost again and decided to follow a stream running off the face of West Buffalo Peak to the summit rather than the trail to the summit. This proved to be a really adventurous idea and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge even though I encountered aspen so thick I still have scrapes and scratches I'm still healing from. I made it to the alpine just fine, only to realize I was about 1/4 mile from my intended point. 

Once in the alpine though, I had no desire to actually climb. I could see the summit just about 1000' off and just had no ambition. It was rounded and easy to ascend but I was looking for a "challenge" or at least some bouldering. I was content with the views and decided to descend for my Jeep and to slowly drive back to Buena Vista for lunch and the evening. I found out that at ta local bar, the State Highway, that they were going to be holding an open mic. night. Later I would show up, watch everyone play and by 11:30pm they were done. In New Orleans Open Mic may go till sunrise and you are lucky to even get on the docket. I decided to volunteer my services and play a few tunes on the piana'. It went over very very well.

Day 30 - 07/04/13: The 4th of July

The previous evening I camped at the actual Turtle Rock in the Four-Mile complex and kept camp made for the day. It was so close to town I figured I could just head in for breakfast and the small parade that the town was putting on. More exciting was the 4th of July quilt show. The parade ended up being a bunch of farm equipment, kids, a group of republicans, and tons of Jeeps.

I do have to say, however, that people in Colorado do not understand parades. I won't go into detail but there were some inherent problems. After the cleanest parade I've ever sadly witnessed I met back up with Lilly and Brandon for a paddling adventure on Cottonwood Lake just a few miles out of town. For the first time on the trip I actually saw other canoes.

My companions to the lake decided to bring their companions and it made for quite a few laughs.

This was the first time they had put the dogs on the paddle boards and while they all got situated I got busy doing what I couldn't do at that excuse of a "parade".

I think I could live here. I really do. The dogs ran into a bit of trouble on the boards and we called it short for them. It was still a great afternoon on the water. Once back in town we parted our ways and I went out for dinner.Taking advantage of the pay showers, I called it a day. When I had found my way back to camp I was graced with some of the most sublime lighting and cloud play I had encountered yet. The fire ban in Colorado kept any fire works as a non-existent option for anyone and this show was nothing short of a "fire works" display in its own right.

Day 31 - 07/05/13:  Leadville

Thinking about what the best way to try to climb these peaks in the valley I thought it would be best to go as far North as I could and just work my way down. I decided to head up to Leadville considering I was feeling refreshed and ready to hike again. Leadville is the highest municipality in the United States at 10,052ft. At one time the richest city due to its mining operations and considered for the capital city of the state upon admittance to the Union. I found out that one of the major mines had recently re-opened mining molly (not that kind of molly you dam clubbers and ravers, moly like in cro-moly steel)

After spending the greater part of the day in the town I drove up to Turquoise Lake for the evening so that I might get in some paddling tomorrow.

Day 32 - 07/06/13: Leadville Challenge

Last night I had completed my enlightenment into the dirt-bag by sleeping in my jeep. I never thought I could do it with all the gear in my Jeep but I had to out of necessity. The campground I found myself at on Turquoise Lake had RV sites only. I could have pitched the tent on the cement but I was a bit lazy and apprehensive of that one. I ended up having an incredibly amount of discomfort and started watching crappy westerns on my laptop while drinking the rest of my beer. This was a good idea until I forgot I was above 10,000' and was getting seriously intoxicated.

By 8:30 I was on the lake paddling around. Turquoise has sublime views of Mount Massive, the second highest point in Colorado, and where I was going to start my climbing tomorrow.

The wind had picked up by noon and I knew it was time to pull out the water. I figured that I could break my dirt-bag habits and move to a hotel room in Leadville so I could try my hand at the "Leadville Challenge". The challenge consists of going to the bars on main street and drinking as much as you can. Most break fairly quickly due to the altitude. That is the real challenge, that most of us never drink at ten thousand feet. A hard fought afternoon and night; I had a hell of an adventure. I met a few of the bar owners and one of them from the Scarlet bar told me that my background in New Orleans meant I would be a "train wreck" very soon. I ran into an exciting individual that went by Roger Dogger. A fairly illustrious gentleman that had "run this town". He possessed a number of gang tattoos that he was not in short supply of breath to explain their origins or meaning. Quickly, it became apparent that this was someone I did not want to be in the company of with longer than necessary. After being asked if I wanted to go to Denver with him for the night so we could visit a "gentleman club", I casually and cautiously made my way back to the hotel to rest before heading for mount massive in the morning.

* * *

I spent the majority of this week doing "nothing". I relaxed when I could and achieved no real notable outdoor accomplishments. I learned something important though. Sometimes it is best to just look at mountains and that you don't have to be on top one to enjoy them. Sadly, and completely unknown to me at the time, tomorrow night would be my final night of the trip. By the end of next week I would be home, and partying in my home town, at some of my old haunts.


Buffalo Peak from mumblefords on Vimeo.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Week Four: Days of Rock and Ice

Fear, being deeply instinctual, is an odd feeling; one of those powerful emotional experiences, the kind that grab hold of multiple layers of our being and potentially shake us to our core. Literary history is filled with sublime, romantic verses to fear. Heroes have been raised up and brought to their end by it. Endless odes written to its impact on the psychological faculties of mankind. Through it all one thing about fear is clear and transmitted through the ages: fear is something that we all fight. Fear is one of the few experiences that we have all shared and unites us in the human experience. It has been often noted that people show their truest qualities in times of fear, that times of fear make or break our perceived personality.For some fear can be a source of motivation and for others an immobilizing force. This week I experienced a level of fear that I rarely experience. Through it all the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that, philosophically, the necessary precondition for Courage is Fear.

Day 21 - 6/24/13

A "work day and rest day" was in progress. Still at Great Sand Dunes National Park, I took the opportunity to visit the ranger station again and thoroughly check out their selection of literature. For the next hour and a half I scoured the library and found a number of books on western history. A fantastic biography on General Zebulon Pike and his expeditions out West (Pikes Peak was named after this man). Pike was also the first recorder westerner to see Great Sand Dunes. He marveled at them saying there were "like the waves of the sea" The map selection proved to be much better than I had expected and I picked up a few for places in the Sangre De Cristo. The debate on the history books was heavy and I eventually settled on an overview text of westward expansion and early expeditions by the Europeans, published by the National Park Service. It has proved to be a great text. After picking out a few post cards and one general guide book for flora and fauna in the Southern Rockies, I settled down for a short ranger program in the lobby on the formation of the dunes. Even though I had intended to head down to Blanca Peak later in the day, I settled on going exploring the dunes while I was here after such an encouraging lecture.

The dunes were created, as you probably guessed, by wind. The wind out here is incredibly strong; as a number of visitors found out when it picked back up to 30 mph blasting sand grains at families boarding down the massive dunes. (you might ask "why such a boring picture?" I had to hike to a remote section of the dunes just to get away from the hordes and it wasn't the most scenic) Wind is only half the story though. The San Luis valley is bordered on the West by the San Juan mountains and on the East by the Sangre De Cristos and running through the middle is the Rio Grande. The valley is exceptionally flat compared to the surrounding country and the river broadens and makes large sand banks. Over the years the force of the predominant west wind picked up these grains and deposited them on the Sangre's foot.

The remainder of the day was spent reading, washing dishes and cleaning up my jeep. Today I relaxed tomorrow; I would begin to realize just exactly what I have committed to.

Day 22: 6/25/13: Perceived Peril

Starting my day back at the ranger station, I got to speaking with a ranger who was familiar with Blanca Peak. He warned me that it was a dangerous and challenging mountain, he recommended not to do it alone and to make sure that I had ample time. Blanca is the third most prominent mountain in Colorado, which means it has a hell of a lot of elevation gain. 6,500'+ of gain. Some people even back out on the approach climb, he said. I generally take what the rangers say about "danger" and "challenges" with a few grains of salt. These are people who cater to every type of person in America, they can't be too casual about this kind of stuff. Seriously, the last thing we need is rangers telling people that 14er's are easy. That being said, upon arrival at the parking lot, I spent a good bit of time looking and contemplating if I was going to be up to this as that strange feeling in my gut started churning. Fear? nah, this is "being concerned".

The good news was that the weather should hold for the next few days. The wind was supposed to die and dry air was going to keep the afternoon storms away. I figured I could go very light with my pack and do the same bivy set up I did on Lobo once I got to Como Lake at 12,600'. I think for the three days and two nights I was going to spend I had only a 17 pd pack, water included. I bottled up my "concern" and got moving up.

Of course it was going to be a long hike! I was starting off on the desert floor and going up to the alpine. 

On the way up I passed a number of markers, this one was cool but the other were memorials for someone. All seemed to be mountain related. Had these people died on this mountain? *gulp*

Yes! Made it to the aspen! And then to Como lake and the world of rock. 

Coming up to Como Lake the first thing you see is Little Bear Mountain: a 14er. Its ridge line jagged and rough. The rock everywhere looked loose, steep and sharp. I couldn't even see Blanca, it was hidden behind the ridge to the north of the lake. On the way up as I was questioning my motives here (it was fairly rugged country) I met a guy named Steve. Was Steve sent to me by the gods so that my way may be made clear? possibly. Regardless of why, I was happy to hike with him. On the hike up to Como he told me about the three 14ers around the lake. I was only aware of one. He was planning on climbing Blanca and Ellingwood tomorrow and I asked if I could join. We agreed
on a 6am start time and hashed out the route over dinner.

Bivy under Alpen glow? yes! Worried about how I would preform at 14,300"+? YES!

Day 23 - 6/26/13

6am is not that bad of a wake up for a mountaineer. By 630 Steve and myself had left camp and were already past the last line of trees. 

Yesterday I had been so overwhelmed with the hike up and learning a bit more about the area I was in from Steve, I didn't quite have any time to get to know the guy. Turns out for the past few years he has been working on the 14er quest. Bag em' all in the Rado'. He had done just around 30 of them. Currently he worked for a map company in D.C. and was quite well traveled. Having been to Everest base camp and was working on the 7 Summits, already having bagged Kili and Elburus in Russia. He had visited the Galapagos, climbed Rainier with Dave Hann and a host of other adventures that I could only enjoy hearing retold as the sun gently rose in the valley. We came around a bend in the valley and my fixation on tales of adventure abruptly ended as I was confronted with my morning view of Blanca: 

We passed a number of small lakes in the valley and came to Crater Lake. Which was still frozen (partially). 

I took my eyes off the scenery and looked up to the ridge line. Knife edge. Very soon the trail all but disappeared and was marked only by carins. Carins are useful when there is something other than rock. When the only thing you can see is rock it is fairly hard to find the route. We climbed, using our hands, screaming out loose rocks that were not safe to hold. A miss step, a slight fall, failure to check a rock for stability all would have been a tragic mistake. 

We reached the saddle between Ellingwood and Blanca. I had to "take a break" at this point and gain my composure. Sure the rock scrambling made me nervous. It is tedious and dangerous but when you approach it with confidence and caution it can be a good bit of fun. But the ridge gave me an experience I have never had in mountaineering: Major Exposure. 

Maybe this was a bad time to mention to Steve that I was afraid of sheer drop offs. So I didn't. Scared to the point that I could have built a house with the bricks I shat I pushed on. Watching my feet, checking my hand holds, care and caution, step by step.

If the altitude caused me problems it was not something I was aware of in my state of apprehension. For the first time in my mountaineering career I was actually asking myself if this was "the right thing to be doing?" Should this bayou boy be here?

We finally make the summit and I regain my composure, even though the summit could only sit about 6 people at max and death awaited you no more than five feet to any side.

I was happy. To overcome the level of fear I had and to make it to the summit of my first 14er (one Steve said is one of the more challenging ones) took some serious effort. Starting at 7,500' and hiking/climbing all the way to 14,345'  it was one hell of a ride. But was it enough of a confidence boost? We could see Ellingwood on the other side and the plan was to hit it next. Looking at it all I could think was "too steep", "no way" , "im not dealing with that again today!" Just look at it:

Before we descended to the saddle between Ellingwood and Blanca I noticed a hiker coming up the ridge. 

Can't find him? probally because of the scale. Yeah mountains are big. 

For as steep as Ellingwood looked from Blanca it was not that bad. I was still a bit scared but I had a good bit more confidence after descending Blanca. In mountaineering people often get injured on the descent more so than the actual climb. Gravity just adds a bit more to you momentum. When you climb mountains you gain energy you know? Potentially. 

Blanca seen from the summit of Ellingwood at 14,035', the ridge on the left of the photo was the route: 

Mt. Lindsey (14,048') to the north east.

The late morning sun illuminated the whole valley that was covered in shadows on the way down. 

Back at base camp around Como lake we met Travis and Al who had also been climbing that day. Travis had done Ellingwood  and Blanca in the opposite order we did. I saw Travis on our way up Blanca as he ascended Ellingwood. Both Steve and Travis were fitness nuts and endurance athletes in cycling. both also over 35. Travis told me about his mountaineering adventures in South America and on them big guys outside Mexico City. For all the great stories that Travis, Steve and myself shared, our experience was dwarfed by what Al brought to the table. Al was 73. Al was working on climbing all of Colorado's 14er's. Al started the quest at 68. Al had climbed 48 as of today when he descended Little Bear, solo. All of us were stunned by this accomplishment. Mostly the last one. Little Bear is a hard mountain. Travis and Steve were going to try it tomorrow and both had their climbing helmets and were noticeably nervous talking about the mountain. Little Bear is ranked up there as one of the hardest summits in CO because of a dangerous rock gully called "the hourglass". It is a point on the ridge line where for about 200ft of gain there is a narrow funnel that can drop rocks on you and consequently knock you off the mountain a few thousand feet to your death. Al pointed out a plaque near by our dinner site and explained a story about a youg 18yr old climber, Kevin, who had attempted Little Bear in the winter. At the crux point, in the Hourglass, he fell. A sobering story about the reality of this activity. Needless to say, when Travis and Steve asked if I wanted to stay another day to do Bear, I backed out. I didn't have my climbing helmet with me and considering the close calls I had with Steve earlier with rock fall, it was a no brainier. The slightly macabre conversation was further reinforced by the blood red display of Alpen Glow on Little Bear itself.

Day 23 - 6/26/13: Recovery

Looking through my photos, I found I have nothing for today! Not much happened though. I hiked back down to the Jeep from Como Lake and drove to Alamosa CO. I grabbed a huge breakfast at a local diner, a special called "the lumberjack" and got me a hotel room for the night. The rest of my day was spent eating gratuitous amounts of food and getting everything ready for last weeks update. The one event that day that has stuck with me was my adventure to Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa. They had the cutest girl working the register. 

Day 24 - 6/27/13: Trepidation

My next stop was just to the north of Alamoso. I was heading to Crestone CO and the Crestone trail network. My plan for the day was to set up base camp at 11,600ft, at Willow Lake and hope to meet someone to climb with. The trail head was empty and a fierce storm was blowing in. As I packed my gear it began to rain heavily at times and this was on the desert floor! 

My climb up Blanca and Ellingwood had been done with a light pack. This whole trip I had carried light packs and I felt like hauling today. I loaded up four days and three nights of food, and a number of luxury items. I threw in my bear canister,  as opposed to using a bear hang and in total came to a 35 pd pack. Just what I wanted for a rainy hike up 3,000+ feet. I regretted this decision quickly. Considering it took me five hours to hike the eight miles to Willow Lake, I wasn't exactly ready for that climb with that pack. Passing no evidence of people on the way up I grew concerned that I might be summiting alone. The climb... well... 

The rain in the tree canopy, or to be scientific the "Sub Alpine" gave off to this nice perfume like aroma. Once I got into the alpine though the fragrance changed to this earthy smell, much like when hot concrete gets abruptly soaked, except a bit more "natural". It was a very unique odor. Below is the "wall" that separates the two main valleys of this mountain. (there are actually three) 

Are you sure we are not in the Italian Dolomites? Seriously though, the roughness of these spires and the weather creeped me out and had me very concerned about how technical the climbing would be. I still had yet to see anyone and the thought of doing anything technical solo was a bit nerving.

And finally after a grueling hike I make it to Willow Lake and what was easily the most magnificent hanging valley I have been in. Coming over a gentle rise Willow greets you first with this sight: 

The waterfall was about 80ft high and came off this sheer cliff that created the second hanging valley. Hanging valleys are points on a mountain were a cliff drops abruptly dividing a section of a valley. They are generally created by a convergence of Glaciers, although I don't think that was the process for their formation in the Rocky Mountains. Regardless of how they formed here, I was happy they were there. 

Did I find it yet?

The climb up to this valley was so long that I didn't have my tent set up or dinner made until past 9pm.

Day 25 - 6/28/13: Slowly Solo

Considering that I was the only one around, how late I made it to camp, and how exhausted I was after the hike, I made the decision to spend today scouting the route in the hopes that someone would show up. It was Saturday so I expected people to filter in. 

The third valley was just as fantastic as the others.

Honestly I would have gone with Travis and Steve to do Little Bear if only I had my climbing helmet. I made a point to bring it this time regardless, and I will begin bringing it on every climb. It can't hurt. 

The route was an incredibly steep and rocky gully. The rocks, even larger ones, were not "set" in. The recent snow melt may have contributed this. I would go to grab a hand hold on a 300+ pound rock only to have it come tumbling over when I applied any amount of force. Safety was a major issue here due to how steep the route was. I got to 13,000' and another threat arose as soon as I could see over the ridge line to the north west. It didn't look too bad yet but my back country weather skills have grown significantly through this trip. I knew that that "anvil" was about to billow.

And billow it did. Within 20 min of coming down I see this over that same ridge. 

I ate lunch just above the waterfall and watched this guy grow. A few hikers actually filtered in, a bit late though. It was just about 2pm and I warned the hikers they werent going to get anywhere with the weather. Disregarding my warnings the couple continued up the same gully I descended only to run down in a few min later at the strike of lightning and thunder. 

I settled into camp and enjoyed the evening. Too bad it literally rained for 5 hours into the night. 

Day 26 - 6/29/13: Summit Safely!

After scouting the route the previous day I felt confident that I could tackle the peak solo. There was one issue though. Steve and Travis warned me about "the avenue". I looked it up while in Alamoso and it didn't see that bad. It was a section just 300ft shy of the summit on Carson that had serious exposure on one side. Basically it was a narrow cliff ledge you had to traverse with minimal elevation gain. I was concerned but I got on with my morning.

This literally felt like "climbing". I used my arms as much as my legs to get up to the ridge. I crossed a snow gully, off the main route, and found myself ascending an incredibly steep section. I looked back once and hugged back into the mountain side. I knew that going down the route I came up was a nonexistent option. I found myself even more scared than on Blanca or Ellingwood and this time I was all alone. Push, push, push and it finally made sense, what they say in all those movies: "Don't look down". I would say that the angle of the slope was easily  in excess of 60 degrees.

Even though the ridge was fairly narrow I was happy to be on something "flat".

I discovered this wonderful reminder on the saddle between Challenger Point and Carson Peak. Its always great to be reminded that the section you are about to hit has killed people, especially when you are already a bit scared.

Crestone Peak from "the Avenue"

At the avenue I encountered a level of fear that had yet been unmatched this week. I almost didn't go. There were snow patches on the narrow ledge that kept you less than 2 feet from the edge at points and it narrowed. The drop off was fairly sheer and I remembered something Travis said at Como Lake "just hope you hit your head on the way down". I set out on the ledge. crawling, keeping my center of gravity as low as possible and all the time muttering "courage, courage, courage, courage". I made it through only to find a second section on the other end of the batholith. This section was different though. It had all the same threats, plus one more. An inescapable, unavoidable crossing of a snow drift at the crux of the section.

I refused to risk the crossing. I had already gone over one snow field earlier and slipped once. A slip here meant death. I decided to go back and just climb up Challenger Point, named after the space shuttle Challenger. Near by is also Columbia point which I would also assume is named for the shuttle disaster. In the video below I mention Challenger as "my 3rd 14er", this is not the case. Challenger is a point on the Kit Carson Ridge that happens to be over 14,000' and is considered a "sub summit" for lack of prominence.

Crestone from Challenger:

It was really cool how you could see the Great Sand Dunes from here. 

On Challenger I began to realize just how important the decision I made at the avenue was. In my mind it was an exercise in good judgment and proper mountaineering. If I had bypassed my concerned and went for it, I would have taken an unnecessary risk and reinforced bad behavior. The best mountaineers know when to turn around. They know the mountain will still be there. In my opinion the experience of turning around was much more valuable then the experience of the summit. I stopped above the water fall again to eat lunch and I met with two guys who were Search and Rescue  for the area. Talking to them about my summit bid they congratulated me on my decision. Apparently they had five people die on Carson last year alone.

Not too long after a group of 6 college kids came by. They all seemed under prepared. the four girls and two guys had two backpacks between them. One guy had a muscle shirt and all were in shorts and tennis shoes. They wanted to go up challenger and I warned them about the weather. It was already 11:30 and I could see the Cumulus clouds growing. They also paid little attention to it and within an hour it was raining. Soon it was thundering and then it was hailing. I grew deeply concerned about them but I refused to risk my own safety to go find them. At a break in the storm I went to look for the SAR guys to ask for their help. They had already packed up and left because of the weather. I waited and waited for the rain weather to break. Eventually around 6:30pm it did and I rushed up the mountain to the base of the route. (not an easy task about 700ft of gain and a mile and half of a hike) During the storm I had packed up emergency blankets, my sleeping bag, tarps, my down jacket, all my thermals and my stove to boil water. If they were still up there hypothermia was their real danger. At the base of the route I looked and could see no one. I blew my whistle and shouted a number of times for the next half hour. Nothing. I assumed they had snuck out at some point and I missed them. My rescue mission, though noble and valiant, was without victims and actually I couldn't have been more happy. I descended to a great evening at the lake and enjoyed it the way anyone would.

Tomorrow I would head out for Buena Vista and leave the Sangre De Cristo behind. I would enter into the Arkansas river valley and the ranges of the Sawatch and Mosquito. I guess the mountain gods knew this too and blessed me with the richest display of alpen glow yet.

* * *

Yes, fear was a fairly pervasive element of this week. It challenged me and made me question my motives in this activity. The dangers both, real and perceived, were made explicit. My faith though, has not been shaken. The fear has actually reinforced my conviction that I have what it takes to excel in the mountains. Fear keeps you in check. It causes you to stop and analyze the situation so that you make an intelligent decision. A person that runs into peril without fear is called reckless.



Safety on Kit Carson from mumblefords on Vimeo.