All peaks aside, the last twelve months have been filled with many adventures! In August of 2015, Kimberly and I made a last minute decision to be host parents, or “billet parents” in the hockey world, to Milou Lofstrom, a 20-year-old junior hockey player from Stockholm, Sweden. Knowing nothing about hockey, and not a single word in Swedish, the next 8 months would prove to be an amazing adventure filled with discovery, excitement and a new understanding of what friendship and family truly mean.
Milou lived with us until this past April before heading back to his family and friends in Stockholm. Shortly before we had to say goodbye, the three of us – Kimberly, Milou and I – decided that Kimberly and I would need to travel to Sweden sooner rather than later in order to experience Milou’s world first hand.
So in June, we made our way across the pond for several days of fun, family and memory-making. I could honestly write for hours about our experience in Sweden and how amazing it was to be hosted by Milou, his family and his friends. This experience was truly a gift for Kimberly and me.
During Milou’s last few months with us, and while continuing to learn about hockey and all things Swedish, I started to look towards summer and began to consider what goals I would set for hiking and climbing the rest of Colorado’s 14ers. My first goal was to get a trip scheduled to hike Culebra Mountain. Culebra is a unique mountain in that the access to the summit is only granted through a reservation system, due to the mountain’s location on private property. The only 14er of its kind, those who wish to hike to the top are required to make a reservation and pay $150 to the rancher who owns the mountain. While the thought of paying to hike a mountain in the middle of the Colorado Rockies is a bit hard to grasp, the reservation process is even harder. The ranch opens the reservation window randomly in the spring and there are less than 30 spots available each Friday and Saturday from late June through July.
With a stroke of luck, I happened to be checking the ranch’s website when the reservation window opened. I quickly reached out to John O’Connor and John Kivlan, good friends who share in my goal to climb all 58 of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000’. As it turned out, the only date available fell on Saturday, July 9 – one day after returning from our trip to Sweden and Iceland. Knowing this was our only shot, I decided not to worry about being jet-lagged and made a reservation for the 3 of us to hike Culebra.
Fast-forward 6 weeks. Kimberly and I made it back to Breckenridge from Iceland late on Thursday, July 7. The plan was to leave the following afternoon to travel to southern Colorado towards Culebra. Culebra is the southernmost 14er in Colorado. It is also in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, where another peak we still had yet to climb, Little Bear Peak, could also be accessed. Our plan was the hike Culebra on Saturday morning, then head to Little Bear that afternoon in order to set up camp at the base, and then hike the traverse between Little Bear and Blanca Peak on Sunday.
John picked me up Friday afternoon and we made the 4-hour journey south to the ranch where we would camp the night before hiking Culebra. Kivlan came down from Boulder and met us at camp shortly after we arrived. We caught up for a bit and headed off to bed fairly early. One of the ranch hands would be meeting us at 6:30am the next morning to give us access to the trailhead, and to go over the “rules” for hiking the mountain.
Our alarms sounded shortly after 5:45am and we gathered our gear and awaited the arrival of the ranch hand. Shortly before 6:30am, we were greeted by a nice enough gentleman who opened the gate and lead us in our cars towards the ranch. Upon arriving, he went over a few do’s and don’ts, then sent us on our way.
The hike to Culebra’s summit is not technical. However, after spending almost two weeks at sea level in Europe, I was quickly sucking wind and my head was pounding. John and Kivlan were well ahead of me and I decided to slow my pace – the weather was good and what was the rush?
Our journey to the summit was fairly straight forward, other than the headache and my inability to catch my breath. Within 3 hours, we reached the top. The summit was fairly uneventful and we decided to head towards Red Mountain A.
Red Mountain A is a considered a Centennial Peak as it falls in the one hundred highest summits in Colorado. If we ever decide to hike and climb Colorado’s hundred highest peaks, it would be worth checking Red off the list, since we were here.
Our journey to Red was also uneventful and soon we were headed down. We arrived back at the trailhead roughly 6 hours after our departure. Next up, our journey to Little Bear Peak and Blanca Peak.
While the drive was only an hour north, the access to the mountains requires a 6 mile hike up a rough 4-wheel drive road into the Lake Como Basin. To shorten the approach a bit, we took John’s Jeep up the road about 3 miles to the point where we did not feel comfortable going any higher with the rocky condition of the dirt road.
After finding a suitable parking spot for the Jeep, we gathered our gear and headed towards the lake. The hike, while fairly straight forward, takes its toll due to the uneven, rocky nature of the road. And, once again, I found myself far behind my friends as I struggled to catch my breath and fight the persistent and relentless headache. With my head down, and my mind focused on the lake ahead, I made my way towards where we planned to camp for the night.
Upon my arrival at the lake, we decided to hike up a bit higher to position ourselves close to the access point for our climb in the morning. Soon, we found a good spot and set up camp for the evening. We were all exhausted so after filtering water and making dinner, we nodded off to sleep.
With the sound of the alarm at 4am, it was time for the real challenge to begin. Little Bear is considered one of Colorado’s 14ers most dangerous standard climbing routes. The “hourglass”, a steep gully on the southwest face, holds this name for good reason. The gully’s steepness and shape create a perfect shooting gallery for rocks dislodged above the gully. Climbing in the gully with anyone above you is not recommended and was also the reason we were up early and hiking well before dawn.
Our goal was to reach the hourglass before any other climbers, ascend the gully to reach the summit and head across the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse to reach the summit of Blanca Peak.
The Little Bear/Blanca Traverse is considered one of the hardest connecting ridges to climb between two Colorado 14ers. The dramatic ridge stretches 1.5 miles from peak to peak and requires concentration as you move over, across and around the ridge that narrows to less than 2 feet wide at times, with hundreds of feet of nothing on either side of you.
As we began our ascent towards the summit of Little Bear, I wondered what was ahead of us. Both the hourglass and the traverse were two routes that I had read about to a great extent. We worked our way up the west ridge of Little Bear with only the light from our headlamps to guide us, and we soon found ourselves at the base of the hourglass. Two other climbers had come up behind us, and for safety, we chose to wait for them to reach us in an effort to climb the hourglass together to limit rock fall from above.
All 5 of us worked our way towards the summit. The climb was both challenging and exciting. We moved at a steady pace, and had to keep up good communication with one another as we neared the top of the hourglass. Soon, we reached the summit and took a few minutes to assess the weather and enjoy a quick snack before deciding to push on over the ridge to Blanca Peak.
As we stood at the start of the ridge, I recalled standing on the summit of Blanca Peak years ago, looking at this exact ridge and thinking I would never have the nerve to cross this terrain. Now, I was here and it was time to tackle this challenge.
Reflecting back, it is still hard to determine exactly where my mind was that morning. I remember trying to keep my mind from wondering what I had gotten myself into, and the only way I could control my thoughts was to keep moving across the ridge. I could see my goal – the summit of Blanca Peak – and focused every move on getting one step closer.
Three hours later, we reached the summit of Blanca Peak. Instantly, mixed feelings of relief, accomplishment and utter mental exhaustion set in.
We took time to savor the summit, to rest and enjoy the view. After two hours of descending, we found ourselves back at our high camp above Lake Como. We packed up our camp gear, shouldered our packs and headed back down the road toward the Jeep which was 3 miles below us.
We were soon headed down the 4-wheel drive road and towards home. 3 ½ hours later we would find ourselves back in Breckenridge, the whirlwind of the weekend behind us, and a feeling of big accomplishments in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
With only a few more 14ers left to climb, I am finding that the time I’ve spent in these special places of Colorado has become even more extraordinary to me. Onward!
This is my 4th summer adventuring in Colorado’s high peaks, and sharing my stories, to support the fight against Multiple Sclerosis. Kimberly has been doing wonderfully and she is truly an inspiration. Her positive, can do attitude is contagious and helps motivate me to reach my goals. If you are interested in supporting the fight against MS, please visit http://www.nationalmssociety.org/