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.

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