Challenger Point, 2020

  • Date: July 3, 2020
  • Partner: Matt Odierna, Kylee Drugan-Eppich (down)
  • Height: 14,081 feet
  • Range: Sangre de Cristo
  • Route: North Slope (Difficult Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 12.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,400 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 38 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 15
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: Willow Creek Trailhead is 2 miles outside of the artsy town of Crestone. A 2WD vehicle can make it if you take your time.

Having moved to North Carolina at the end of 2019, I was missing the Colorado mountains and made an abrupt decision to fly back to resume my 14er quest, the presence of the pandemic notwithstanding. I flew into Denver on Thursday afternoon (July 2), grabbed a rental car, and drove south several hours to the gorgeous Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Matt Odierna and his girlfriend Kylee Drugan-Eppich met me at the trailhead. It was around 8:00 PM before we geared up and headed off up the trail. I’d say it was around 11:00 before we decided to call it quits. We were slightly below Willow Lake and had hiked roughly 4 miles, gaining 3,000′ of elevation in the process. Now living at sea level, and not being in “mountain shape”, I was slightly tired as I set up my tent in the dark and prepared my sleeping bag. Unfortunately, I was nauseous for a few hours and lucky to grab 3-to-4 hours of sleep.

Around 4:30 AM, I woke up, packed up my gear, and set off for the summit alone. The flat trail wove around Willow Lake and with the sun coming up, it was simply beautiful, especially with the waterfall coming into the lake on its east side. Once to the other side of the lake, the real work began. The ill-defined trail climbs about 2,000′ in the space of one mile across crumbly dirt, lose rock, and is steep as Hell. I took my sweet old time, drank water, and paused regularly when I felt sick from the altitude.

This trail is a bit deceiving. Challenger Point, and its neighbor Kit Carson Peak, have claimed several lives over the past few years. It is not hard to see why. If you were tired and your feet slipped out from underneath you on the smoother areas, you could potentially break out into a long, tumbling fall for 100s of feet. If you do this climb, take it slow, and wear your helmet!

There was one nervous crossing I had of a snow field, but I simply followed gingerly in some well kicked-in steps. Finally, I crested the headwall and could see the summit closely; maybe another 500′ of elevation gain and a quarter-mile away. It was then that I knew I had a great chance to summit. Proceeding east along the spine of the ridge, and with a little boulder hopping, I reached the pinnacle around 11:00 AM. What with the constant daily reminders of COVID-19, and my move away from Colorado, this summit was a bit more special for me than usual, and so I stayed on top for awhile.

Matt and Kylee came up around 11:30 and, after a little celebration and picture taking, we proceeded back down the mountain together. All three of us “sat down” falls, but the bruises to our egos were worse than the bruises to our bodies 😏 After reclaiming our sleeping bags and tents, we hightailed it back to the trailhead, arriving at ~ 3:00 PM. We said our goodbyes, and then I drove to a comfy Holiday Inn up near Denver where I dead for the night 🤪 The next morning, back to the Denver airport I went for a July 4th return to North Carolina.

I feel lucky to have grabbed this summit, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. I’ll give Challenger Point a 4 on a 1-to-10 scale of 14er difficulty. Be sure to load up with water at the lake (bring a pump) before tackling the lion’s share of the route. Safe climbing to all of you.

 

Castle Peak, 2019

  • Date: September 30, 2019
  • Partner: Meng Zhang; Quichen Li partway
  • Height: 14,265 feet
  • Range: Elk
  • Route: Northeast Ridge (Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 7.00 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,100 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 37 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 16
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: The Castle Creek Trailhead is just over 12.5 miles south of Aspen.  You will hang a right on Pearl Pass Road.  A 2WD vehicle can make it about a mile before the bomb drops.  From here on out, you’ll need a good high-clearance 4WD for the next 2.5 miles or so until you get to about 11,100′. There is a semi-serious river crossing you will have to navigate along the way (take it slow).

Finally, I have caught up with blogging about my last climb of 2019 just before we turn the page to a new year.  I am glad to say this one was a doozy.  My former graduate student Qiuchen Li and her husband flew in from China and stopped by Denver to join me in the fun.  The day of the climb was about as fine a Colorado fall day as you could imagine.  Funny thing is that the weather turned cold and snowy after this climb and the gate closed on any additional summer-type climbs.  So I am glad to have snuck this one in.

The three of us arrived at dawn and started an easy, but ever-ascending walk of the old Montezuma Mine Road.  Really, this is an easy walk of about 2 miles until you get to a lake.  We were stopping occasionally to snap some pictures and enjoying some light conversation.  However, once we got to the lake, the story changed substantially.

There was so much snow from the previous year that the traditional route was obscured.  Yikes!  Hence, we had to sidehill to the east of the lake over a large boulder field with no visible trail.  We crawled along until we came to a steep slope of loose scree.  Then we had to scramble up the slope about a quarter-mile to the top of saddle.

Once at the top, Qiuchen decided she had had enough and would wait for Meng and I to continue the journey.  At this point, Meng and I ascended a series of very steep switchbacks to gain the so-called Northeast Ridge.  At the very top of the ridge, the climbing now became truly Class 3.  Staying to the right, we took our time and finally arrived at a pronounced dip in the ridgeline.  We could plainly see the summit above us a couple hundred yards in the distance.  Meng, who is not even used to this altitude, did a super job of pacing and leading us up the final, and most technical, slope.  

This was Meng’s first 14er and we were both really happy.  On the top, you can see all the other 14ers in the Elk Mountains.  Because we knew his wife was waiting for us below, we did not dilly-dally too long after snapping a few celebratory pictures.  

Meng and I made relatively quick work of the descent to Qiuchen.  The three of us decided to try to avoid the expansive boulder field we encountered on the way up, so we took a different way back to a point above the lake.  There was a long slope of hard snow, about 100, 150 yards long, at about a 30-degree plus angle.  We decided to do an impromptu glissade, maybe not the smartest and safest choice, but certainly the quickest choice and fun (see the picture album below).  

From here it was a simple retrace of the walk of the Montezuma Mine Road.  We arrived back at the Jeep mid-afternoon and started wolfing down snacks … lol.  On a scale of 1-to-10, I would give Castle Peak something in the 4-to-5 range in terms of difficulty.  From the lake to the summit will catch your attention.  

And so my 2019 climbing season comes to a close.  I couldn’t have asked for a better ending.  I have moved to North Carolina now so the quest to separately climb all 53 of the Colorado 14ers will become more difficult, but that’s ok.  I’ll just continue to gratefully do my best and enjoy the process.  If anything, striving for this dream will become more meaningful.  I wish anyone who is reading a great Happy New Year.   

 

Snowmass Mountain, 2019

  • Date: September 21, 2019
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,092 feet
  • Range: Elk
  • Route: East Slopes (Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 22.00 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,800 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 36 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 17
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: This is any easy drive from either Aspen or Glenwood Springs.  It’s paved roads and then an easy 4 miles on dirt; a 2WD vehicle can easily make this.   

I don’t know what it was about this mountain that made me feel nervous before embarking on this climb.  Perhaps it was the stories I had heard about people getting lost.  Or maybe it was the distance involved and doing the climb solo.  Regardless, I set off from Denver on a beautiful fall Friday afternoon and arrived at the trailhead in the afternoon.  There were few cars in the parking lot.

I set off for a 9-mile journey due south in some of the most gorgeous country in the Elk Mountains.  All the aspen trees were fully golden in color.  It was turning chilly and a bit overcast as the trail meandered alongside Snowmass Creek for a few miles.  I momentarily got turned around at a confusing intersection of trails but was able to figure things out; be careful here.  After a couple of hours, I was treated to a stunning view of Snowmass Mountain off in the distance from an impressive overlook (see the first picture in my album below).

It was approaching evening as I made a crossing of Snowmass Creek via a huge logjam.  I turned on the afterburners because I was loosing light and still had a few miles to go.  You will gain about 2,600′ of elevation just on this approach hike, so do not underestimate it 🙂  Once again, you will come across a confusing intersection of trails just before Snowmass Lake; be careful here and head straight ahead.  Once I arrived at the lake, it was pitch black.  I found a spot to pitch my tarptent by headlamp, jumped in, got underneath my quilt shivering and tired, and could barely finish a sandwich before falling fast asleep. 

I slept straight through until about an hour before dawn.  I cached all unnecessary gear, trimmed down to my alpine kit, and set off to make my way around the lake.  Regrettably, I never found any trail.  After crashing through dwarf willow thickets and muddy bog for an hour in the dark on the south side of the lake, I finally arrived to where the real climbing began.  

There was a very steep ascent coming up from the lake, with poorly defined trail, over fine powder and loose, small scree.  My mistake was that I stayed too far to the left, when I should have stayed to the right and hiked up an obvious creek bed with more structure for footing.  It got so steep that with the poor footing, there was a point where I started to feel the first waves of panic.  My fall last year on Maroon Peak definitely has made me more conservative in my approach to mountain climbing and it also reminded me of the fact that I am human.  I had to calm myself down for a few minutes and was able to gingerly make my way laterally into the creek drainage and continue the ascent.

Once at the top of the first rise, there was a vast, gently ascending, grassy plateau heading into a large boulder field with snow drifts.  I could plainly see the summit ridge and, in the absence of any trail, decided to gain it to the left (to the south).  Taking my time, it took the better part of an hour to get to base of the summit ridge.  Thank goodness I had my Kahtoola microspikes with me.  This was a recurring theme in all my trips this year as there literally was snow in the mountains all summer long.         

At the base of a rocky knob, now the climbing became Class 3.  I made my way to a notch on the spine and was greeted with a stout, cold wind.  Looking to the northwest, there was a long, moderate ascent to the summit with plenty of exposure and steep places to take a fall.  There were no other climbers around.  In fact, I had not seen anyone since yesterday afternoon.  Very carefully, testing every ledge, foothold, and handhold, I crawled along the west side of the spine of the summit ridge and took all the time in the world.  There were cairns here and there and places where you could see a trail that frustratingly vanished into a dozen braids.  It was slow going.  The summit block itself was an interesting problem and took me a few tries to find a route.  I summited just around noon and hunkered down in the boulders up top to rest for a few minutes, eating some chocolate and drinking my usual celebratory Mountain Dew for energy.

You can well-imagine how much time it took me to get back to my camp site.  I pumped a few more bottles of water, packed up the rest of my gear, put in my ear buds for some music and podcasts, and headed off at a quick pace down the trail.  It was nice and sunny and pleasantly warm.  I arrived at my car early evening and prepared myself for the long drive back to Denver.

To be honest, I am really glad this climb is behind me.  It is a long, serious commitment best done over two full days if you are in shape.  I am going to give this a solid 7-to-8 on my Colorado 14er scale of difficulty.  If you are going try this, especially as a solo endeavor, then you need to take it seriously.  The good news is that it is exquisitely beautiful and you will be able to say you truly accomplished something.         

 

Mount Harvard, 2019

  • Date: September 2, 2019
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,420 feet
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Route: South Slopes (Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 14.00 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 4,600 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 35 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 18
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: The North Cottonwood Creek trailhead is a relatively easy find from the town of Buena Vista.  The road has a couple of rough spots but the trailhead is accessible with a 2WD vehicle.

Surprisingly, Mount Harvard is the fourth highest summit in the contiguous United States.  In other words, it’s very tall 🙂  After the Capitol Peak climb, I was in the mood for something a little bit more tame.  Its height notwithstanding, Mount Harvard is a straightforward climb.  It also represents the last of the Sawatch Range I had to do, since I am saving Mount Elbert for last.

I decided to sleep at home in Denver for this one and get a late start.  To be honest, I didn’t arrive at the trailhead until an hour at least after sunrise.  The parking lot had plenty of cars for Mount Harvard and other surrounding hikes.

The trail, which was in excellent shape, steadily chugged upward alongside a creek for 4 miles until it hit timberline (~ 11,500′).   Even though it was Labor Day, I surprisingly only saw a few other people.  It was sunny and pleasantly mild; perfect conditions for a climb.

Once at the timberline, I was able to look across a vast basin of grass and dwarf willow and see Mount Harvard.  I walked roughly 1-to-1.5 miles until I arrived at a distinct rocky slope near Bear Lake (~12,500′).  Once at the top of the slope after a short 500′ climb, I could plainly see the remaining route on the south shoulder of the summit block.  I crossed a well-marked trail across a grass field and to an obvious ridge.

On this so-called South Ridge, things became much more steep and rocky and I had to stop a few times to do a standing rest.  You will put in some work here, a sharp departure from the relatively tame hike in that you’ve had so far.  Mount Harvard does not have the classic conical summit you might envision.  In fact, I was never quite sure what my target was.  I followed somewhat defined trail to the right of the ridge, under the crest of the south shoulder of the summit block, towards the ridgeline.  That was as much as I knew, so I relied on Gaia GPS.

Approaching the final summit pitch, I had to scramble up large boulders to the summit (be a little careful here).  The summit itself was a tangled pile of large boulders jutting up into the air.  Several people were lounging about when I arrived and we exchanged pleasantries.  After 15 minutes of munching on beef jerky, soaking up the sun, and admiring distant views of the surrounding Collegiate Peaks (e.g., Mount Yale), I headed back down at a brisk pace.

I could tell that I was in good shape on this hike, and certainly should have been at this time of the season.  Altogether, the trip took me about 6-to-6.5 hours.  This is not a difficult climb.  This would be a good one for someone who has already done one or two 14ers in the Class 1 category.  I would give Mount Harvard a 2-to-3 out of 10 in terms of Colorado 14er difficulty.  It is tall enough that you will get a real sense of accomplishment once you are finished.  Enjoy!

 

Capitol Peak, 2019

  • Date: August 25, 2019
  • Partner: Michael Levy
  • Height: 14,130 feet
  • Range: Elk
  • Route: Northeast Ridge (Class 4)
  • Overall Distance: 17.00 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,300 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 34 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 19
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: Getting to the Capitol Creek trailhead is a fairly benign 4WD journey.  From CO 82, it’s about 10 miles to the trailhead.  Drive ~2 miles miles to a junction and turn right on Capitol Creek road.  Then drive ~ 6.5 miles where the road turns to dirt.  Continue to reach the trailhead.

Let me just state from the beginning that this has been the toughest 14er I have done, and it’s not close.  It gets a 10 out of 10 on the scale of Colorado 14er difficulty.  This climb requires complete focus.  Danger due to rockfall, route-finding, and exposure are all high.  Novice and experienced mountaineers have died on this mountain, including 5 alone in 2017.  In addition to the rockfall and exposure, I believe there are a couple of other reasons for this.    First, I believe that some people, seduced by the siren calls of social media, take this mountain too lightly and are not prepared.  Second, I believe that other people exert so much effort to get to the summit that they make some poor choices getting back down due to exhaustion.  These are just my personal opinions.

My climbing partner for this journey was Michael Levy, fresh in from Seattle, Washington, a great guy who is in tip-top shape and experienced in mountaineering and long-distance hiking.  I’ve climbed with Michael before so I knew he had the great judgment and even mental keel to attempt to do Capitol Peak.

We arrived mid Saturday afternoon to the trailhead and had a sunny and pleasant 6.5-mile hike alongside Capitol Creek to get to Capitol Lake (11,600′).  I wouldn’t say this was too taxing but there was some elevation gain.  We were impressed with the amount of wildflowers in full bloom along the way.  It took us a little while to find a suitable campsite once we got to the lake.  After setting up our tents, we nibbled on some dinner, watched a great sunset, and settled in to catch some sleep.

The next morning, we were up and after it well before dawn.  From the lake, there was a very steep climb east for about 0.5 mile to gain the main ridge.  Once there, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise along with some wind.  From here, we headed about another 0.5 mile on the east side of the ridge.  Several times we had to cross expansive snow fields and I was glad I had brought along my spikes.

The trail made a right and headed up a boulder field to K2.  From this point forward, there would be nothing ahead but serious climbing, or as Michael said, “the no mistake zone”.  We elected to go up and over K2 and had some Class 4 down climbing off the back side.  This put us right above the infamous Knife’s Edge.

The Knife’s Edge is a sharp ridge line roughly 200 yards long with extremely steep drop offs on either side.  Any fall here would certainly be fatal.  Michael went across first so I had the opportunity to study his line.  I decided to do a combination of “pommel horse” moves and a bit of sidehill moves where I had any footholds at all and could trust grabbing the ridge top.  It felt like time was suspended and I used mindfulness to suppress any panic — I did not look down at any time and I counted from 1-to-10-to-1 over and over again to keep my focus.

So much is made of the Knife’s Edge that it is easy to not anticipate what came next.  What came next was two solid intense hours of true Class 4 climbing of ascending exposed traverse and route finding over crumbly rock and boulders, often unstable, to gain the northwest ridge.  Man, I was so glad to have Michael as a partner, the two of us putting our heads together to solve problems and find the route.  Both of us agreed that this part of the climb was actually harder than the Knife’s Edge.  It was certainly somewhat of an emotional moment for me when we summited.

I hope if you are reading this post that you take a moment to check out the pictures below I took from the top — they are truly spectacular 360 views of the Elks.  This time, Michael and I lingered a little bit longer to savor this magnificent mountain.

As you might anticipate, getting down back to camp was also very slow going.  Michael and I took great care to exactly retrace our steps.  We were in no hurry anyway, stopping frequently to take in some snacks and water.  To make a long story short, it was quite sometime after lunch before we arrived back at our tents.  We had just spent ~ 8 hours on a two-mile out-and-back route!  After packing up our portable homes, we sauntered back to the trailhead, arriving late in the afternoon with smiles on our faces …

What can I say?  This mountain is my favorite 14er so far, not because I am an adrenaline junkie (I’m not), but because it truly tested me and I have so much respect for it.  I will not soon forget this climb.

 

Mount Eolus, 2019

  • Date: August 7, 2019
  • Partner: Mike Todt partway
  • Height: 14,083 feet
  • Range: San Juan
  • Route: Northeast Ridge (Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 5.00 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet (Chicago Basin to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 33 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 20
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: Not applicable.

I am quite behind in updating this blog from my summer mountaineering.  In any case, this post picks up from the previous day (see Windom Peak).  In the morning, once out of my tent, I was moving around gingerly from the previous day’s climb.  My friend Mike Todt and I had a light “mountain” breakfast and once again proceeded to head up the steep slope to Twin Lakes.

Once at Twin Lakes, we stopped to admire a beautiful mountain goat (see the pictures below).  The trail made a hard left, went across a grassy plain at the base of a bluff, and climbed up towards a rugged valley.  Once into the valley, we begin to encounter some snow and the trail entered into a boulder field.  It was here that Mike decided he had enough and would wait for me.

The trail started to become steep and eventually I found myself at the base of a large ramp that cut into the face of a cliff.  Once up the ramp, I pushed north until I came to a steep, long snowfield.  This looked rather serious (and dangerous) so I made sure my helmet was on, put on my spikes, and used my ice axe as a running picket.  Eventually, I reached a steep, narrow slot of rocks that led up to a notch about 200 yards off in the distance.

Once I went through the notch, I looked to my left and could see the infamous “Catwalk”, a narrow sidewalk of rock with very steep exposed drop-offs on either side.  I focused on my breathing and feet, not daring to look to either side as I mindfully proceeded across.

Here is where things became much more serious.  When I climb alone, I am much more deliberate and careful in my choices.  I took my time inspecting the route going up and forward, but it looked dangerously exposed with Class 4 and 5 moves.  Therefore, I decided to stay to climber’s left, skirt the rocky summit tower, and come at the summit directly below it from the south.  (This would be my recommendation for anyone reading this who is going to attempt this climb.)  The going was tough, and several times I got turned around in a maze of cairns, dead-ends, drop-offs, and chimneys.  I put on my elk skin gloves and began pulling myself up and over ledges, carefully testing each hand and foot hold before loading my weight onto it.  I’ll confess that there was one time where I had this feeling of hopelessness, that I wasn’t going to be able to solve the puzzle.  However, ignoring the brief presence of the negative thought, I found a narrow passage that seemed to be leading towards where I thought the summit was.  All of a sudden, the terrain seemed to ease up a bit and I popped out on flat rock no more than ten paces from the summit!

I did not stay up on the summit for long; just enough time for a small snack, a small can of coffee to regain my energy, and a gentle and grateful “thanks” to the Universe for delivering me up there safely.  Rain was beginning to build to the west and I would not have lots of time to get back down to safety.  It was hard to leave because the views of the surrounding San Juan Mountains and the wildflower-filled Chicago Basin were just so gorgeous.

There were two trouble spots on the trip back.  First, the steep snowfield I had climbed  in the late morning on the way had softened in the sun.  I elected to down climb this backwards, facing in towards the slope, making sure my spikes and ice ax were firmly in 3-point contact with the slippery snow at all times.  It took me awhile, but safety comes first.  Second, it is easy to blow right on by the ramp I mentioned previously.  If you do, then you will not be able to safely get back to Twin Lakes since it “cliffs out”, and will have to retrace your route to find the ramp.  Please take great care to waypoint the location of where you exit the ramp on your way in (there is a very large cairn that marks the spot).

This mountain tested and humbled me a bit.  I am going to give Mount Eolus a solid 7 out of 10 in terms of difficulty among the Colorado 14ers.  It’s very remote and requires a disciplined and determined effort to gain its summit.  I was once again reminded that I have never “conquered” any mountain; the mountain granted me a wish and chose to allow me to step foot on the summit.

 

Windom Peak, 2019

  • Date: August 6, 2019
  • Partner: Mike Todt partway
  • Height: 14,082 feet
  • Range: San Juan
  • Route: West Ridge (Difficult Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 5.00 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet (Chicago Basin to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 32 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 21
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: Not applicable.

The constellation of the three different 14ers in the Chicago Basin of the Weminuche Wilderness comprise a unique challenge because of their remoteness.  Fortunately, the San Juan Mountains are arguably the most beautiful part of Colorado.

In order to access this area, my friend Mike Todt and I elected to take the Durango & Silverton steam locomotive railroad train to access the area.  From Durango, it is about a 2.5-hour trip north paralleling the Animus River to the drop-off alongside the tracks.  Then, one has roughly a six-mile hike up the Needle Creek Trail, with 3,000′ of ascent, to the Chicago Basin.  Essentially, this whole process will take most of an entire day.  Mike and I were able to do this in a relatively easy fashion and find a nice campsite that would serve as our basecamp for the next couple of days.

The weather was pleasantly warm and sunny our first morning heading out towards Windom Peak from the basecamp.  Right away, there was a steep climb out of the basin on good trail up to Twin Lakes.  It felt good not to be carrying our full backpacks like the previous day.  From here, we could plainly see all three 14ers.  Because of the previous tough winter, broad snowfields were still present all around the bowl.  After taking a few pictures of the area and the resident mountain goats, we continued heading east and then did a right turn up a steep snowfield to access the West Ridge of Windom Peak.  At this point, it was all Class 1 climbing.

Once on top of the ridge, things became a bit more serious.  The trail became steeper and entered into a semi-serious boulder field.  I somehow got off course and veered too far to my left.  The reason I knew this was because what was supposed to be a “difficult Class 2” route was clearly turning into something far more of the Class 3 territory.  Mike decided to turn around and I continued towards the summit.  After about 45-minutes of scrambling and boulder hopping, I was able to find the trail and carefully make my way to the summit.  Word of caution to whoever is reading this: watch for the cairns and when in doubt, stay to your right 🙂

This is a fun and very beautiful climb, but do not take it lightly.  Bring a helmet and GPS capability with a downloaded GPX track.  This felt like a solid 5 on a 1-to-10 scale of 14er difficulty.

I did not stay at the summit for too long and came down the correct way this time.  Mike was waiting for me where we had topped out on the ridge and together we had a pleasant journey back down to our tents.  By then, it was approaching early afternoon and the monsoon rains were getting ready to make their guest appearance.

 

Yellowstone, 2019

I finally had the chance to do a backpacking trip that I have wanted to do for a long, long time.  This was a 75-mile long trip across the wildest part of Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and joining me for the adventure was my friend Aman.  Regrettably, I am behind posting to this blog, so I will keep the prose brief and let the pictures below do all the talking.

Day 1,  Sunday, July 21: Aman and I arrived at the south entrance of YNP to pick up our backcountry permit at the ranger’s station. We drove a considerable distance to the northeast corner of Yellowstone Lake to the Nine Mile Trailhead and dropped off the car.  It was already late into the morning when we donned our backpacks and set off on the Thorofare Trail heading south alongside the lake.  The weather was hot, sunny, and dry.  The good news was that the terrain was flat so the two of us were able to reel off easy miles, save for the occasional creeks and downfalls to cross.  On towards late afternoon, the mosquitos became almost unbearable … the worst concentration of them I have seen outside of Alaska.  We camped just beyond the south end of the lake and were actually visited by a friendly park ranger as the sun was going down.

Day 2,  Monday, July 22:  The weather was a carbon copy of the day before, and so were the mosquitos 😂  The Thorofare Trail continued to head south through the vastness of the Two Ocean Plateau, which has the distinction (literally) of being the most geographically remote location of the Lower 48.  This was a lush, flat valley with mountains to the west and east and was very beautiful.  Once again, Aman and I were able to make quick work of the easy miles throughout the day.  What was so remarkable was that we still had yet to see another backpacker.  Towards the end of the day, as we neared our targeted campsite , we had to ford the Thorofare River, an unsettling, yet fairly easy, crossing.  The picture you see up top in the banner is the picture taken from our campsite that night.  Not a bad view, ‘eh?!

Day 3, Tuesday, July 23:  Things became much more serious in terms of the hiking.  We had to switch over to the South Boundary Trail and had to cover 20 + miles over much more aggressive terrain in order to keep to our schedule.  Now the fun was transitioning into work.  First, we had to cross the Yellowstone River.  This crossing was legitimately dangerous because the current was swift, the water up to our waists, and the river bottom filled with unstable cobblestone.  One slip here in such a remote part of the world could have had very unpleasant consequences.  We carefully made it though and breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Next, the trail climbed steeply into the mountains stacked up to the west.  Grizzly bear hair, poop, and tracks were frequently observed, so we made sure we did lots of clapping and yelling to make our presence known (I also had a bear bell attached to my hiking pole).  The trail kept climbing all through the day, as the weather began to take a turn for the worse.  We passed alpine lakes and through mountain valleys sprinkled with beautiful wildflowers.  Towards evening, Aman and I were tired and it began to rain.  Quickly, we set up our tent (our mosquito-free refuge!), ate dinner, pumped water, hung our food in our bear bag, and went straight to sleep.

Day 4, Wednesday, July 24: Since we had to cover a lot of miles today, we set off on our backpack relatively early.  I think both Aman and I agreed that this day was the most spectacular in terms of the scenery.  Shortly after embarking, we reached the apex of the trail and had a world-class, breathtaking view of the Grand Tetons.  After taking some pictures, we continued on.  The trail began a gradual all-day descent for many miles and we began to see a few other parties of hikers and backpackers.  By now, we were stopping a little bit more for water and food because it had been a long, tough 4 days of backpacking.  The trail started to parallel the Snake River all the way to the south entrance of the park.  Here, we had one last major river crossing late in the afternoon before we could say we were done.  Luckily, once out on the main road, we were able to hitch a ride with a lovely, retired couple the whole way back to our car.

If you like truly wild adventures with a sprinkle of some unknowns, then this is the trip for you.  Be aware that it does require some careful, advance planning.  However, the payoff is a trip of a lifetime.  Enjoy and let me know how you liked it.

 

Mount Oxford, 2019

  • Date: July 5, 2019
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,153 feet
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Route: Via Pine Creek (Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 19.5 + miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,800 feet + (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 31 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 22
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: From Leadville, drive 22 miles south on U.S. 24 and turn right on the Chaffee County 388 road.  On this twisting road, drive about 0.75 mile on a washboard dirt road to a fork.  The trailhead is a couple hundred yards up the branch of the road that goes to the right.  A 2WD car can carefully make this.  At the trailhead, be aware that you will be briefly crossing private property and they ask for a donation — $1/person, $2/pet.

This is one of the more interesting routes I have done for Colorado 14ers.  The standard route for Mount Oxford is to do it at the same time you climb Mount Belford.  However, because I am climbing each of the fifty-three 14ers separately, I am not allowed to “saddle jump”.  I had climbed Mount Belford a few weeks prior and had no interest in retracing the same route in order to do Mount Oxford.  Therefore, after studying a map, I decided to try an off-trail bushwhack coming in from the east.

I arrived at the entrance to Pine Creek late in the day on July 4th.  It was sunny and hot.  The first 4.5 miles parallel the south side of Pine Creek and the walking, is pretty, flat, and easy.  I ran into a small party camping for the night, but other than that, there were no other people. That’s the nice thing about using a non-standard route on a 14er — less people.  From here, you access the Colorado Trail, which veers due north on a beautiful layout, and steeply climbs about 1,500′ out of the Pine Creek valley.  After roughly a mile, you crest out on top of a ridge.         

It was getting dark and the temperature was starting to drop.  I cut off the Colorado Trail and headed due west.  Following the route on my Garmin Instinct GPS, I meandered through a series of rolling parks and ascended to a vast ridgeline at about 12,000′.  The wind was picking up and I unfortunately tore a hole in my tent in my haste to get it up.  I was unmercifully battered by the wind all night and might have been lucky to get two hours of sleep (even with some tissue paper shoved in my ears).  Finally, I was finished with tossing and turning, and decided at around 4:30 a.m. to get ready and head for the summit.

If you decide to try this route, the key to remember is to stay to the right on the ascent.  I think it is sheer habit for mountaineers to always ascend, but in this case, I would climb up a rise for several hundred feet, only to discover I could have gone around it if I had stayed to the right (the north).  The route headed over to Waverly Mountain along a series of alpine parks and these undulating rises.  There were little fields of snow here and there, but I was able to avoid all of them.  Once on the top of Waverly Mountain, I encountered a fairly long stretch of talus (1/2 a mile), that I had to carefully pick my way through.  It slowed down my progress considerably.  Finally, I gained the main ridge and hit the summit at around 7:00 a.m.  The weather was still sunny and had warmed considerably.  There was not a soul around, even looking over across the saddle towards Mount Belford.  I snapped some pictures, snacked for a few minutes, and then headed back to my campsite to pick up my gear I had left behind.  

On the way down, I was able to see how much time and effort I would have saved if I had stayed to the right on the ascent.  I was able to quickly retrace my steps back to retrieve my gear and then headed back down to find the Colorado Trail.  I ran into a few other people on the Colorado Trail and some that were hiking and running along Pine Creek, but it was still minimal traffic given it was a long holiday weekend.  The weather was now much warmer as I made it back to my car around lunchtime.

This is a long climb relative to other 14ers I have done.  While not terribly technical, the distance and the ascent will let you know it’s there, especially considering a big chunk of the route (7.5 miles total) is not on trail.  Therefore, I am going to give it a 4 out of 10, 5 out of 10 if the weather is bad, in terms of 14er difficulty.  It’s certainly possible to do this as a one-day adventure, but consider doing it over two days to maximize the fun and comfort.  Enjoy and be safe whenever you do something off of the standard routes.    

 

Mount Belford, 2019

  • Date: June 15, 2019
  • Partner: Matt Odierna
  • Height: 14,197 feet
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Route: Northwest Ridge (Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 8.00 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 4,500 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 30 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 23
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: From Leadville, drive 20 miles south on U.S. 24 and turn right on the Chaffee County 390 road.  On the 390 road, drive 7.5 miles on a washboard dirt road to a sign for the Missouri Gulch trailhead. Turn left and drive down into the large parking area.  A 2WD car can easily make this.

My mountain climbing partner Matt Odierna invoked our usual “lean and quick” strategy for the first time this year.  We arrived at the trailhead on early Friday evening, gathered our gear, and quickly set off in pleasantly cool weather.  Since the first part of this trail is identical to Missouri Mountain, I will refer you to my 2018 post detailing that climb. 

About less than one mile in, we passed a huge debris field from a serious avalanche.  Right afterward, we encountered snow heading up to the valley.  We had to pick and choose our spots where we crossed the patches of snow.  For the most part, it was firm, but we occasionally broke through.  Once into the valley, we were able to veer to the east and stay out of the snow for most part.  We made quick work of the first two miles, heading up the valley, and positioned ourselves where the route started to gain the Northwest Ridge, just under 12,000′.

Night came quickly and the temperature dropped.  This was the first time I had used my new Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo tent and so it took me awhile to get it up.  The wind blew for a couple of hours and once it subsided, then I was able to get some sleep.

At 5 AM, I was excited and awake 🙂  The nice thing about climbing with Matt is that he doesn’t like to waste time, either.  We were setting off by 5:30 and immediately started ascending a steep ridge line, as the sun was coming up.  The weather was again pleasantly cool, maybe in the 40s.  It wasn’t until about halfway up the spine that we encountered our first snow field.  Matt was out ahead of me and I decided to stop and put on my microspikes on my Altra Lone Peak 4s.  Microspikes are amazing.  They are much lighter than crampons and give you real Velcro-like purchase on the snow.  I used them to cross two steep snow fields on this climb.  Since I did not have an ice axe, and just one hiking pole, I was unwilling to take the risk of a fall-and-slide.

After about 1.5 miles of steep, defined, and tolerable Class 2 climbing, the trail leveled off to a bench.  By that time, Matt was out of sight and I had to orient myself.  The trail proceed directly to the east past a prominent light-colored knob and it was a relatively short, easy stroll up to the summit block where Matt was waiting.  The time was roughly 7:15 AM.  On the summit on this beautiful morning, we could several other 14ers in the distance.  Notably, across a saddle about one mile in distance, we could see Mount Oxford.  We chugged a couple of Red Bulls and then flew back down the ridge line to our campsites.  Surprisingly, we ran across more climbers than anticipated coming up.  I guess this is a sure sign that summer is almost here.  By the time we gathered up all our gear at the campsites and got back to the trailhead, it was bit past 10:00 AM.  

As you can see, this is not a long, tough climb.  I’d give it a 3 out of 10 on a scale of 14er difficulty.  It is a beautiful climb and, in the summer, would be ideally suited for someone wanting a little more challenge than the 14ers in the Class 1 category.