Uncompahgre Peak, 2023

  • Date: August 12, 2023
  • Partner: Randy Weaver
  • Height: 14,318 feet
  • Range: San Juan
  • Route: South Ridge (Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 7.50 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 45 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 8
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: Out of Lake City, you will head west on the Alpine Loop for about 5 miles. You will then make a right and head north on the Nellie Creek Road. It is roughly 4 miles of rough 4W driving to the trailhead. I had a tricked-out Jeep Wrangler and had no problems crawling along (about 30 minutes). There are a couple of creek crossings and a few sharp and steep hairpin turns, along with some rocky stretches. A typical 2WD automobile would not be able to drive this road.  

Last December, Dr. Thomas Gross resurfaced my right hip in Columbia, South Carolina. All those years of running long-distance races finally caught up to me, the osteoarthritis was too far gone, and it was clear that I had reached the end of the line. When I climbed Handies Peak last year, I was in some pain; there was no cartilage left in the joint. I decided it was better to act now, and continue to have an active lifestyle, rather than to be stubborn and likely create even worse health problems.

To make a long story short, the surgery went well and I took my recovery and my physical therapy very seriously. After six months, all restrictions were lifted and I began to try to get myself into “mountain shape”.  This included doings lots of swimming, walking, stair workouts, weightlifting, and plyometrics. Even going into August, I had my doubts about whether I could do a 14er this year, but I seemed to turn a corner, both mentally and physically, and decided to give it a go.

My brother-in-law Randy Weaver had been training for a considerable time to go with me. We flew into Denver and took a leisurely two days to drive to Lake City. On Friday, August 10th, we arrived at the Nellie Creek Trailhead. The standard South Ridge Route is well-travelled and easy to follow. The first mile climbs up through the trees and keeps Nellie Creek off to the left. The summit itself, a monolithic block of rock, soon came into view as the trail broke out into a large sweeping valley. We got up to about 12,500′ and set up camp near a spring around 1 PM. A steady rain began to fall and turned into hail at times. I stayed underneath my tarp curled up in my quilt until dinner, when the rain stopped and the sun came out. Randy and I chatted a bit, I did some stretching, ate a little bit, and then went to bed. 

Around 6:30 AM, Randy and I set off for the summit. Again, the route was very obvious as the trail headed back to the southwest and made its way to the top of the South Ridge. We headed north along the spine. Near 13,300, the trail became quite steep, but it was a comfortable ascent. The crux of the climb is near 13,800′. There’s a steep Class 2 chute with loose rock you need to scramble up for about 200′. However, if you pick your line carefully, it will not represent a big challenge. Once through the chute, it is an easy ramble for about 0.25 mile to get to the summit plateau. I will confess I was a little misty-eyed as I got to the summit. Last December, I honestly could not say for certain that I would be able to ever climb a 14er again …

The views of the San Juans, including the neighboring 14er Wetterhorn Peak, are spectacular (see the pictures below). Randy did a very good job in his second 14er and my right hip held up just fine. Since the route is an out-and-back, we just retraced our steps, paying close attention to down climbing the chute. It was a beautiful, cool, sunny day and we made it back to the car just after lunch time.

It looks like this will be my only 14er of the year, but given the circumstances, I am grateful I had the opportunity. Climbing Uncompahgre Peak using the standard approach is straightforward; I’d have no reservations taking someone on this trip for their first 14er if they were trained and in shape. I am going to give it about a 2.5 on a 1-to-10 scale of 14er difficulty. Hope to see you out in the Colorado mountains next year.

Handies Peak, 2022

  • Date: September 3, 2022
  • Partner: Randy Weaver
  • Height: 14,058 feet
  • Range: San Juan
  • Route: East Slopes (Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 8 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,650 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 44 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 9
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: Please see Redcloud Peak, 2020.

My second (and final) 14er of the year happened over Labor Day weekend. Joining me for this climb was my brother-in-law Randy Weaver from northeastern Ohio. This was to be his first try at a 14er and he had spent a considerable amount of time over the course of 2022 training for the attempt.

Randy flew into Albuquerque on Thursday, September 1. Unfortunately, my flight the same day was canceled and I didn’t arrive until the next day; welcome to flying in the year 2022. We immediately rented a 2-wheel drive pickup truck and set off for the long drive up to Silverton, Colorado. Because of the flight cancellation, our “perfect plans” were already off-kilter. There would be no camping nor staged climb. Instead, it would have to be a one-day push from the trailhead. We arrived in Silverton and crashed for the night at the no-frills Kendall Mountain Lodge.

The next morning, long before the sun came up, we set off for the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trailhead. The first time I tried this drive was last year on my Redcloud Peak climb. As previously described, it is a terrible road and I harbored serious doubts as to whether Randy and I would be able to get there in a 2-wheel drive pickup truck. However, what saved us was the high clearance and dry roads and we were able to make it with only a few tense moments. Had there been rain, we would not have been able to make it. 

Having arrived at the trailhead, we set off up the trail. By “up”, I truly mean “up” … you climb a lot of stairs in the first half-hour. It’s good trail that continuously climbs and meanders through woods. Not long after we started, we could see Handies Peak come into view. Starting at about 11,500′, the trail broke out into an extensive basin (Grizzly Gulch) and followed alongside a creek. Most people who attempt to climb Handies Peak come in on the standard route from American Basin, which is substantially shorter and easier. If you are looking for more solitude and scenic views with some beautiful wildflowers thrown in, then you will love the East Slopes route. It is reputed to be one of the most beautiful hikes in southwestern Colorado and I now know why 🙂

Around 12,400′ is where things start to get a little tougher. Randy and I took one last breather, pumped some water, and began an ascent up a small hill leading to a rock moraine. From here, once past the moraine, it was a steep and steady sidehill traverse of about 0.5 mile toward the summit. Again, there is nothing terribly difficult about the climb to this point … you’re just punching the clock. As we got past 13,300′, we had to ascend a small stretch of steeper and scoured terrain to get onto the North Ridge.  Once on this ridge, you will be faced with what is clearly the steepest part of the hike. You do have to be careful here as the trail becomes rockier and more fragmented. While a fall wouldn’t kill you, you could really hurt yourself. 

Once we got past this crux of the route, the trail leveled off and I am proud to say Randy took us the remaining few hundred yards to the summit. He did a great job training for this climb and fighting through the effects of the high altitude, and it paid off. There were a few swollen afternoon clouds floating around blue skies, but for the most part the weather was pleasantly warm with no wind up top. We hung out and chatted with a few other climbers who had come up the standard Southwest Slopes route, had some snacks, and set off for a relatively uneventful return trip.

On the way back down the mountain, I had a chance to reflect on the San Juan Mountains. This has become my favorite part of Colorado and I could easily see myself settling down in a small mountain town out here some day. Beautiful views of rocky crags and wildlife, friendly people who love the environment, and lots of opportunities to recreate in the great outdoors. Every time I come here I feel at home and I depart feeling recharged.

Let’s give Handies Peak a 2.5 on a 1-to-10 scale of 14er difficulty. It is by no means technical, but has enough length and some scrambling up toward the summit to let you know that you’ve accomplished something by the time you get back to the car. Here’s hoping all of you got out at least a few times to enjoy the beautiful autumn colors while the leaves still clung to the trees. Take care …       

Kit Carson Peak, 2022

  • Date: August 21, 2022
  • Partner: Ross Bricklemyer
  • Height: 14,167 feet
  • Range: Sangre de Cristo
  • Route: Via Challenger Point (Easy Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 13 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 6,250 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 43 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 10
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: Please see Challenger Point, 2020.

I had a late start for 14ers this year due to a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, I was able to make a trip out to Colorado and head into the mountains with my good friend Ross Bricklemyer. Ross and I hiked the Appalachian Trail together (Class of 2005) and the last several years we had talked many times about joining forces again to do a 14er. This was to be his first one. Fortunately, our calendars aligned and we decided to just do it. After going back and forth for several days about which one to do, we ultimately settled on Kit Carson Peak.

We separately flew to Denver on Friday, August 19 and met at the airport late afternoon. We rented an SUV and headed out on our drive. By the time we got groceries and had dinner, it was late into the evening before we got to our motel in Poncha Springs. The next morning, after some terrific coffee and muffins at The FlaminGo truck, we continued south to Crestone. I’d say we pulled into the Willow Creek Trailhead slightly before lunch.

This hike retraces the one I did a couple of years ago for Challenger Point. Hence, I will dispense with going over it a second time. Suffice it say that the battle plan was exactly the same; that is, get to Willow Lake via the Willow Creek approach and camp for the night. Ross and I did really well for a couple of flatlanders and arrived at the lake with plenty of daylight to spare. By then, lots of dark clouds had rolled in with a few occasional sprinkles. We chatted a bit after dinner and then I settled into my quilt in my tarp tent to get some sleep.

We were up well before dawn the next morning and followed the standard route up Challenger Point, i.e., the North Slope. Kit Carson Peak is actually only 1.5 miles across a saddle from Challenger Point. However, because I am climbing each 14er separately by the the 3,000′ rule and not shortcutting ascents, and the standard route for Kit Carson Peak goes up and over Challenger Point, I had to climb the latter a second time. It was just as steep and filled with loose rocks as I remembered it 🙂 Near the gully up toward the notch, we ran into two nice guys — Logan Brannigan and Jean Cote. So nice, in fact, that we ended up hiking with them the entire day.

What I will describe here starts from Challenger Point. From here, the trail dropped down a few hundred feet to a saddle. [Caution: it is easy to get off route in this terrain so be careful; there have been fatalities here, including an experienced climber the month before our climb. Pay attention and note your surroundings so that you can exactly retrace your steps for the return trip to Challenger Point.] The goal is to get onto a famous Class 2 ledge known as Kit Carson Avenue.  The ledge wraps itself around the south side of the mountain, with a few ups and downs, before stopping at a large rock rib. At this point, you’ll make a hard left and head up the crux of the climb, steep Class 3 terrain for roughly 400-to-500 feet, before topping out on a narrow band of a summit.

I was so happy to see Ross, my “brother from another mother”, get to the top of this mountain. The views of Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak across the cloud-drenched valley, two serious 14ers I have yet to do, were world-class. The experience was made all the better enjoying the day with Logan and Jean. Ross and I were pushed and pleasantly tired, but not wiped out by the time we made it back to the car (n.b., I breathed a sigh of relief because I had promised Ross’ wife Alicia prior to the trip that her husband would return to St. Louis alive and in one piece 😀). In fact, we drove to just south of Denver (4 hours away) and got a hotel that night so that we would have an easy trip back to our homes the next morning.

Kit Carson Peak is a solid 5 on a 1-to-10 scale of 14er difficulty due to the length of the route and total vertical ascent. It will be either a long day of climbing from the trailhead or two days with a night of camping. Be sure to load up with water at Willow Lake (bring a pump) before tackling the lion’s share of the route. Safe climbing to all of you and I will hopefully see YOU out in the mountains sometime soon.

Sunshine Peak, 2021

  • Date: September 17, 2021
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,001 feet
  • Range: San Juan
  • Route: Northwest Peak (Difficult Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 10 miles (returned over Redcloud Peak)
  • Elevation Gain: 4,200 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 42 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 11
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: From Silverton, you must traverse Cinnamon Pass via the Alpine Loop. This is a very rough, if not dangerous, road that will require 4WD with a high clearance. You will be crawling along a plethora of rocks, steep drop-offs, and washouts. The scenery is spectacular (at least for the passenger 😆). It is roughly 20 miles to get to the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trailhead and it will take you every bit of 1.5 hours or more to get there (seriously).

After climbing Redcloud Peak the previous day, and catching dinner and some sleep back in Silverton, I returned to the San Juans bright and early the next morning. I felt pretty refreshed, fueled up with coffee, and ready to hit the trail around 8 AM. Once again, you could not have asked for better weather to climb a 14er.

Once again, back up the Silver Creek drainage I went for 1.5 or 2 miles. I then cut across Silver Creek and began to head south into the South Fork of Silver Creek. This turnoff is easy to miss, so pay attention for the cairns and have a map up and loaded on Gaia GPS. Because this route is not the standard route (for good reason), you will have to hike on periodically faint trail that meanders through trees and shrubs.

Around 12,000′ the trail breaks out into a very large bowl. You will enter into fields of rocks, cross over a small rock glacier, and continue over fields of larger rocks and gullies toward the end of the basin. It will be slow going here. In some places, there is no trail.

Now, here is where things get tricky. At the back end of this basin, you will see a series of steep chutes that radiate up the back of the basin. It will be almost impossible to find the right chute unless you have the pictures of the route downloaded on your phone from 14ers.com. You must “stick the landing” here; that is, you must ascend up the correct chute. The chute is a hellacious, steep slot canyon filled with loose rock and talus. If you stay in the middle of the chute, you risk triggering a rock avalanche. As best as you can, stay to the wall on climber’s right and try to find some good handholds among the flaky, rotten rock to secure your position. Test every handhold you use and every rock you are thinking about putting your weight on with your foot. This is a steep piece of terrain and a fall could be dangerous. 14ers.com had this route rated as Difficult Class 2. Truth be told, this section of the route is at least Class 3 territory. Bring your climbing helmet. I knew before I was halfway up the chute that there was zero chance I was returning the same way 😀

At the top of the gully (13,000′), it is fairly smooth sailing across easy terrain to the northwest face.  Staying to the right, I accessed the West Ridge. I stayed up on the spine, and pivoted to the northeast. Avoiding the exposed, massive drop to my right, I slowly and carefully picked an obvious line across the rocks leading right to the summit.

Once I was on the summit, I took a break to grab some food and coffee, and to reconfigure my return route. The views from this summit are spectacular; you will see several other 14ers close by. Studying the map, I decided to cross over a saddle to Redcloud Peak and head back to the car via the route I had trod the day before. While it was going to cost me an extra 1.5 miles and tack on another 500′ of ascent to my hike, I was willing to pay that price for a safer experience. The irony of this was that I met a man (Jay) on Redcloud Peak who had come up the same chute I had in the morning and, like me, had decided not to attempt to downclimb it! We hiked out together and enjoyed each other’s company for several hours.

I will give this route a 3.5 out of 10 due to the chute, length of the hike, and route finding. This would not be a route I could suggest to other climbers, unless you replicate the loop route I did and do not care about climbing each of these two 14ers by the 3,000 foot rule. Happy autumn climbing to all of you.


Redcloud Peak, 2021

  • Date: September 16, 2021
  • Partner: Mike Todt
  • Height: 14,034 feet
  • Range: San Juan
  • Route: Northeast Ridge (Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,700 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 41 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 12
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: From Silverton, you must traverse Cinnamon Pass via the Alpine Loop. This is a very rough, if not dangerous, road that will require 4WD with a high clearance. You will be crawling along a plethora of rocks, steep drop-offs, and washouts. The scenery is spectacular (at least for the passenger 😆). It is roughly 20 miles to get to the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch trailhead and it will take you every bit of 1.5 hours or more to get there (seriously).

Since I was losing the summer fast due to the heavy burden the pandemic was placing on my workplace, I was approaching the point of “now or never” if I wanted to get some 14ers under my belt in the year 2021. Similar to last year, I decided to fly to Albuquerque, NM (instead of Denver). I arrived late Tuesday night and crashed at a local hotel. The next morning, I grabbed a Toyota Tacoma and made the 4.5-hour drive up to Silverton, CO. Around dinner, my friend Mike Todt came up from Durango to join me.

We did not arrive at the trailhead the next morning until around 8:30 (see Road Condition to Trailhead above). The weather was crisp and sunny; perfect conditions for bagging a 14er. From the trailhead, you will be hiking for a couple of miles alongside Silver Creek to your right. It’s good trail that steadily and gently climbs upward.

Around 12,000′, the trail breaks out into a beautiful, vast basin and you will see the saddle to the northeast ridge in front of you. Continue for another relatively easy mile and ascend good trail up to the saddle (~ 13,000′).

Here is where the work begins. Head west along the saddle on obvious trail until you get into the steepest section you will encounter on your journey, with loose rock and patches of sandy ground. Mike and I decided to swing out to climber’s right to avoid the worst part of this area before heading back towards the ridgeline. The goal is to vector towards an obvious false summit.

Once at the false summit, things will flatten out a bit, and you will see obvious, good trail leading you to the summit roughly 0.5 mile away. Mike and I took our time and made it to the summit with no problems. This was Mike’s first 14er and he honestly did an excellent job of polishing this off. Redcloud Peak has wonderful views of the San Juans and other neighboring 14ers; it might be one of the prettier 14er summits.

With two nights of sleeping at altitude, a few Diamox, and taking in only Gatorade for sustenance, I had no problems with altitude sickness. I was in better shape this year than in 2020 due to increasing my running volume and intensity while back in Charlotte.

We had no problems or anything eventful to report retracing our steps back to the trailhead; it might have taken us 2.5 hours to get back? If you are an ultra runner, getting ready to run the local Hardrock 100, say, then this route would be a great choice for a training run.

Let’s give this about a 2.5 out of 10 on a scale of difficulty. If you are inclined to make a weekend out of it, then this would be a good choice for someone looking to bag their first 14er. Happy trails to you …


Mount Sneffels, 2020

  • Date: October 2, 2020
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,150 feet
  • Range: San Juan
  • Route: South Slopes (Easy Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 7 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,000 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 40 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 13
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: A 2WD car can make it about 6.5 miles up a reasonable dirt road from Ouray. Beyond that, a stock 4WD can make it an additional mile to the “lower” Yankee Boy Basin Trailhead.

My third and final 2020 trip back West occurred last weekend. I decided to mix things up and tackle a mountain in the San Juan Mountains, my favorite range in Colorado. Hence, I left Charlotte, NC early Thursday morning and, after a brief Dallas, TX layover, arrived in Albuquerque, NM around noon. Getting a rental car was a snap and I settled in for the 3.5-hour drive up to Durango, CO. In my opinion, getting into the San Juans is logistically much easier doing it this way, then coming in from Denver.

After picking up some food supplies in Durango, I then had another 2.5-hour drive to Ouray. While it’s only ~75 miles as the crow flies, you’ll have lots of twists and turns along the beautiful Million Dollar Highway to slow you down.

I finally arrived in the vicinity of the lower trailhead around 7 PM and I parked alongside the road at roughly 11,100′ to make sure I was abiding by “the 3,000 foot rule”. By the time I rummaged through my things to get packed for the next day, it was already dark. I decided to just sleep in the rental car; I’m glad I did because it got down into the mid-20s F that night.

After tossing and turning for several hours of light sleep, I decided to get after the climb. There was a beautiful harvest moon out, so bright that I didn’t even need to use my headlamp. The first mile consisted of simply trudging along an old mining road that ended at the upper Yankee Boy Basin Trailhead (~12,500′).

Since I was short on time this trip, and was therefore once again adopting “run-and-stun” mountaineering, my strategy for this climb consisted of several layers. First, after a recent MRI, I had been informed by my orthopedic doctor that the reason why I had been experiencing pain in my left knee was because I’ve had a torn meniscus and a strained lateral collateral ligament the last couple of months. Hence, I was determined to take it slow. Second, to fight off the nausea from the 24-hour sea level-to-14,000′ ascent, I would not eat solid food. My diet would consist of candied ginger and regular Gatorade. Third, I had taken Diamox the past few days. I’m happy to say this strategy appears to have dialed me in 😂

I made my way into Yankee Boy Basin and onto true trail whereupon I took one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken in all my years out in the mountains (see above). As I reached the base of the South Slopes, the first rays of the sun finally began to appear in the east. This trail goes straight up the slope at about a 40 (?) degree angle. The middle of the slope is scoured and sandy, perfect for a slip-and-fall. My advice would be to stay to climber’s left and try to gain what purchase you can in the loose rocks.

At the top of the South Slopes was a saddle. At this point, I had probably walked about 3 miles and was at about 13,500′. To my left was a notch known as the Lavender Col. By eyeball, it appeared to be steeper yet, maybe 50, 60 degrees, and filled with larger rocks and boulders. Interestingly, even though this was tougher Class 3 terrain, I’d say it was easier to climb because of more stable and sure footing. After a few hundred yards of this, I saw the crux of the climb.

The crux of the climb is a V notch formed by two slabs of rock raised at over waist level. One of my favorite mountaineering websites (14ers.com) has this rated as an “easy Class 3” move. I cannot agree with this assessment (also, see here) and I personally found this move to be sketchy. There is no easy way to get into the notch. You will have a very small toehold to plant your foot midway up the entrance wall and a couple of smaller rocks wedged between the slabs to grab onto (smaller people could have trouble with this move). To your immediate left is exposure where a fall would be almost certainly serious. In one motion, I was able to get my right knee up and into the notch to secure myself before pulling myself through. On the way back down from the summit, it is best to slowly downclimb this notch backwards; you will not be able to see where to put your feet if you do not have a spotter. Word to the wise: if you are inexperienced in the mountains or uncomfortable with exposure, do not trivialize this crux move.

After I was through this, it was about 100 yards of Class 2+ scrambling up to the summit. Luckily, I met a very nice couple (Amy and Kevin) up there and we decided we’d join forces to get back down through the V notch together. Thanks for the spot, Kevin. And happy 47th birthday, Amy. I took my time to get back to the car, not only to watch my knee, but because it was so much fun to be out in the great Colorado outdoors.

I was originally going to give this short, steep hike a 3 out of 10 on a scale of difficulty, but the crux move causes me to move up to a 4. This might be one of the best 14ers for summit viewing I’ve been lucky enough to stand on to date. This was made even more spectacular by the 360 views of all the aspen changing color and the blue lakes off in the distance. Go get this one as soon as you can before winter comes …


Blanca Peak, 2020

  • Date: August 21, 2020
  • Partner: Neil Flowers
  • Height: 14,345 feet
  • Range: Sangre de Cristo
  • Route: Northwest Ridge (Difficult Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 14 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,700 feet (car to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 39 separate climbs
  • 14ers remaining: 14
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: I will spare you all the dramatic details about the Lake Como Road because the Internet is full of (dis?)information about it. With a standard off-road Ford Ranger 4×4, I was able to easily make it to 8,000′. At this point, you will need to kick it into 4WD. In my opinion, from 8,000′ to 8,800′ (where the trailhead sign is on the left) is a true, rough stretch of road. If you have made it this far, keep driving! I made the mistake of bailing out at 8,800′, when the fact of the matter is that I could have easily driven up to 10,000′, where there were several pullouts. There is a large parking area at about 10,250′, however, it would require a smaller truck to get there. You aren’t missing anything or “cheating” by driving to 10,000′; you’re just avoiding walking up a rocky road.

Back to Colorado I went last week to try my luck again. I flew into Denver on Thursday afternoon, rented a pickup truck, and made the 4-hour drive down to Alamosa. By the time I arrived, it was dusk, so I decided to not repeat the night hike from the trip before and bunk down instead in a hotel.

In the morning, I headed up the fearsome, molar-jarring Lake Como Road. After parking the truck, I’d say I departed at around 8:30 AM and it was already getting hot. Thirty minutes of trudging later, I came across a trio of people. There was a middle-aged couple from Aspen (Greg and Karen) and a young guy from Arkansas (Neil Flowers). Together, we chatted and swapped war stories along the way. Usually, I prefer to hike solo, but in this case, the hiking was atypically boring, so I enjoyed the company.

Around 11 AM or so, we arrived at Lake Como (~ 11,800′). All of us quickly set up our camps. My original plan was to chill and acclimatize, but when the rest of the group suggested continuing on up to Blanca Peak, I wholeheartedly agreed. Big mistake. Note to self: hike your own hike.

The two Aspen natives were in great shape and quickly left Neil and I in their wake. Neil and I seemed to be hiking at the same pace, so we decided to pair up and stay together. The trail gradually climbed up a valley and side-skirted some beautiful lakes. However, I did not pay too much attention because once again, I was not enjoying the effects of the altitude.

At around 12,500′, Neil and I were slowing considerably, pausing frequently to rest and sip water. Had it not been for his presence, I would have surely turned around and headed back to camp to rest up as I had originally intended. In a strange sort of synchronistic way, I think the two of us were somehow destined to be there together, pulling each other to the top.

The now ill-defined trail went up a saddle at what felt like 13,000′. Waves of nausea come over me as I continued to put my head down and not look at the summit. Over and over … take 10 steps … have heart rate soar into Zone 4 and 5 … lean against boulder or sit down … gulp water and rest for 30 seconds … rinse and repeat. This continued until we reached the top of the saddle; we now had the toughest 500′ of ascent left.

Taking a sharp right and heading up the final ridgeline, we encountered rockier Class 2 terrain. This actually helped because it forced us to slow down. Around 5 PM, we summited. This was the latest in the day that I have ever stood on top of a Colorado 14er and I felt uncomfortable. I was rubber-legged, gassed, and could not eat. Neil and I rested for a few minutes while I chugged a Red Bull to get the jolt of caffeine.

We then retraced our steps. For those that intend on doing this climb, this trail is unrelenting in terms of rocks. You actually do have to pay attention to what you are doing and there are few clear stretches where you can “cut it loose” for long. Neil and I made good time and were back in camp just as the sun was beginning to set. Greg and Karen were there eating their dinner. Greg kindheartedly congratulated me for pushing through my suffer fest. Karen asked how I felt, to which I replied, “Humbled.” With that said, I decided to skip any attempt at eating food, and heading straight for my quilt. I did not wake up until 11 hours later.

So what in the world do I give Blanca Peak on my 14er scale, given the confounding influence of my own personal experience? I had to step back and take a few days to think about this. I will give Blanca Peak a 5 out of 10. The reason is due to the length, the 6,000′ of ascent, and the amount of rocks.

When I regaled Adam, my old friend from Alaska, with this story, he said something along the lines, “Phil, you are now entering into a new reality.” He’s right. Over the course of the fall and winter, I am going to write a series of posts about a.) aging, b.) injury, c.) exercising at high-altitude, d.) training, and e.) a surprise. My goal is to explore this “new reality”, and to offer a few thoughts to those that might need it … and to myself.

One last thing … when obstacles and hurdles arise in the quest for you to reach your dreams, you do not change your decision to get there, only the direction to reach them.


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, loose 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 died 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.         


Move forward … have faith