Tag Archives: Philip Turk

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 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 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, 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.