Back to the Bells: Maroon Peak 14,156’

22 Aug

Maroon

The summer has steadily moved along and finding a weekend where my good friends, John Kivlan (Kivlan) and John O’Connor, were both free to climb peaks has been a challenge. Luckily, the weekend of August 15th lined up for all three of us to get outside and enjoy some time in the mountains!

Kivlan planned to take the week of the 10th off so that he could solo climb some mountains (San Luis, Handies, Uncompahgre and Sneffles) which John and I had already summited. John and I planned to meet Kivlan outside of Telluride on Friday to attempt the Wilson group which includes Mt. Wilson, Wilson Peak and El Diente Peak. With the weekend quickly approaching, we watched the weather and worked on putting a plan together for tackling all three peaks in just two days.

Thursday arrived and the weather was looking questionable. Our biggest challenge was the approach to reach Mt. Wilson and El Diente Peak. Our route would take us up El Diente and across the connecting ridge to Mt. Wilson. From the trailhead, the distance we would need to cover would be about 13-15 miles. We needed a near-perfect weather forecast to justify the 6 hour trip from Breckenridge to Telluride. Unfortunately, the weather around the state looked questionable at best, so we started to discuss alternatives.

We ultimately decided that Kivlan should head north towards Aspen and we would meet him there on Friday, in order to attempt to summit Maroon Peak on Saturday, with an early start to avoid any possible afternoon weather. We discussed backpacking into the Crater Lake area in an effort to shorten the 12 miles we would need to cover to reach the summit and return to Maroon Lake. Unfortunately, the bears, as Kivlan and I experienced in the summer of 2014, were overly active in the area and so the forest service had closed all camping in the area. We decided we’d camp at the trailhead, with the goal of being on the trail by 3am in order to done by noon.

In what has become a tradition, John and I met Kivlan at Little Annie’s in Aspen for burgers and beers before heading up to the trailhead to grab a few hours of rest before the big day.

I’ve mentioned this before, but when you stand and look at the Bells (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak), they look impassible. Steep, loose and unforgiving. There is no arrow pointing to the top, no solid trail leading you to each peak’s summit. It takes time, good weather, careful route finding and good judgment to achieve the top. And then, you still have to get down!

We set our alarms for 2:30am and attempted to get some rest. Having been up North Maroon back in July, I had some understanding of the challenge facing us the next day, but I still felt anxious about what was in store for us in just a few short hours.
Our alarms sounded, and we struggled to get some breakfast made before heading up the trail by 3am. The first 3 miles of trail took us through the basin that divides Pyramid Peak and the Bells. A new moon created extreme darkness and the sky was filled with stars. This hiking was a good warm up for what was ahead.

Overall, the first 3 miles were uneventful, until something large moved in the brush to our right as we were walking through the willows above the lake. True to form, I pushed Kivlan towards the danger and moved quickly towards John who was ahead of us. In reality, it was probably a bunny but my imagination can get the best of me from time to time!

We quickly exited the basin to the right to head straight towards the south ridge of Maroon Peak. We’d read that the next mile was rough. It would cover 2,800 vertical feet in just under 1 mile. Rough was right, we all agreed that the darkness was good as we could not see what the route held for us. With heads down, we charged on up the slope towards the ridge.

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From the trailhead, it took us roughly 3 hours to reach the top of the ridge. Once there, the sun was coming up and we got our first look of the difficulties that lie ahead. The next 1,000 feet would require careful route finding and a lot of scrambling up rocks to reach the summit. We put our helmets on and headed out onto the ridge.

The ridge would take us just over an hour to complete and provided amazing views as the sun came up. We were fortunate to be alone on the ridge, as this lessened our concerns of falling rock.

We worked our way up towards the summit, and after a few incorrect turns, we finally found ourselves on top! We were fortunate to share a few moments alone on the summit before a group came up behind us around 8am. We stayed at the summit a little while in order to enjoy our surroundings and the sense of accomplishment, before beginning our descent.

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The climb off the ridge was enjoyable, but we all knew that the east slope, with its 2,800 vertical feet, stood between us and valley floor.

We reached the ridge and took a few minutes to regroup and prepare before spending the next few hours down-climbing on a horribly loose slope, which would prove to be mentally draining for all of us. The valley floor never seemed to get any closer as we made our way down. Each time we believed we’d reach more gradual ground, we’d be met by more steep, loose and challenging terrain. Conversation was limited as we were all focused on the valley floor.

After what seemed to be an eternity, we found the main trail at the floor of the basin! We quickly headed towards Crater Lake and then Maroon Lake, reaching the end of the trail shortly after noon. It proved to be a long day, and it was only 12:45pm!

The view of the Bells from Maroon Lake is amazing. Even more amazing was the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment for reaching the summits of these notorious mountains. Looking up towards the Bells, I remembered a trip that Kimberly and I made to Aspen a few years ago. We drove our 1966 Mustang to Maroon Lake to take in the view of the Bells during late spring. I remember looking up at these mountains, realizing that one day I would need to concur them to achieve my goal of climbing all of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000’.

Back at the trailhead, we celebrated with a beer and soaking our worn feet in Maroon Creek before piling in our cars and heading towards Breckenridge. The overwhelming feeling of accomplishment kept us awake as we drove over Independence Pass and back into Breckenridge. The trip was not our intended adventure, but it certainly proved to be an amazing adventure all the same!

I’ll have more stories to share as I continue to hike and climb for Summits for MS! If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS

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Back at it! North Maroon Peak and Snowmass Mountain

25 Jul

 North Maroon Summit

When I truly became interested in summiting all of Colorado’s 14ers, I picked up a copy of Gerry Roach’s book “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs”. As I read through each page I learned about places like Chicago Basin and the Maroon Bells Wilderness area. I remember thinking that these mountains seemed beyond reach. My recollection of this moment remains ever present in my mind as I embark on the final stretch towards completing my goal – to summit all 58 of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000 feet. This past weekend, I took another step closer to the end of what has been an incredible and challenging journey as John and I set out towards Aspen with the goal of hiking both North Maroon Peak and Snowmass Mountain.

John and I arrived in Aspen early enough to grab a quick burger at Little Annie’s before heading up towards Maroon Lake. We planned to spend the night in the parking area in order to be up early enough to begin our adventure. Sleep was scarce as my mind kept wondering what challenges the mountain held for us the next day.

Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak lie just outside of Aspen in the Maroon Bells Wilderness area. The mountains’ perfect shape and structure fully live up to their famous name; the Maroon Bells. The Bells are known for their steep, loose and rugged terrain. From a distance, their summits look inaccessible.

Our alarm clocks sounded at 4am sharp and we managed to start up the trail around 4:30am. The first three miles were uneventful, other than stumbling around in the dark using headlamps to navigate the trail.

After reaching the base of the peak, the trail quickly became more challenging. To reach the peak’s summit, we had to navigate two steep gullies in order to gain access to the northeast ridge that leads to the summit.

John crossing a cliff ban on North Maroon

John crossing a cliff ban on North Maroon

We entered the first gully and began our sleep climb. We gained roughly 800 vertical feet in elevation before working our way into the lower part of the second gully that would lead to the northeast ridge. The second gully was steeper than the first and presented plenty of loose rock and steep ledges that we carefully worked our way though as we approached the ridge.

North Maroon’s “crux” (or most difficult section) is considered to be a large rock band at the top of the second gully, right before beginning the ascent of the northwest ridge. The crux of the route entails climbing up a vertical chimney in order to reach the top of the rock band. In true “route finding Rick” fashion, I didn’t believe we’d reached this point when we actually came to it. John ascended the chimney successfully, as I worked my way around the rock band to ascend a less exposed section to reach the ridge.

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John working his way up the “crux” on North Maroon!

Once we were through this area, the remaining route also proved to be challenging. We took some time to consider the safest access through the upper cliff bands that would lead to the summit. We’d climb up a section only to retreat and start over in an effort to find safer passage.

After many attempts to navigate our way to the top, we succeeded! John and I stood atop one of the most iconic mountains in the U.S. We were the only two on the summit that morning, and the views in all directions amazed us. We took time to enjoy our accomplishment, but realized that our adventure was only half over; the descent to the valley floor still lay ahead of us.

The descent entailed many of the same obstacles that our ascent held. We took time to discuss options that would lead us safely down the mountain. And, as it turns out, as we approached the rock band of which John ascended the vertical chimney, another party of climbers was coming up the mountain. After a short discussion we learned that this was in fact the “crux” of the mountain. We decided to both down climb this area and we shortly found ourselves at the top of the second gully.

The weather was holding and we took our time as we worked our way down both gullies to more gradual terrain. When we reached a large meadow, below the first gully, we took a break to rest a bit before making our final trek back to the trailhead.

Reaching this peak’s summit was certainly a challenge. Quite honestly, it was the most challenging 14er I’ve tackled thus far on my journey. It would prove to be a solid warm up for the following day on Snowmass Mountain.

On to Snowmass:

John and I packed up and headed towards the trailhead that we would use to access the summit of Snowmass Mountain. The route we decided on is not the standard route used by most hikers. Instead, we both agreed that climbing the “S Ridge” on the west side would prove to be a fun challenge, and we were right. The ridge is aptly named for the perfect “S” shape that it makes as the ridge weaves its way to the summit.

The access to Lead King Basin, where our trailhead began, requires a 5 mile drive up rough road that takes just over an hour to navigate. We decided we’d grab a bite to eat before heading to camp and figured we check out our only option in the small town of Marble, known as Slow Groovin’ BBQ.

Oddly enough, they were closed for a private wedding event. But because they are the only restaurant in town, they hired a band and put on a small venue with live music and tasty BBQ in the middle of town for locals and visitors to enjoy who were not part of the wedding. After enjoying some food and music, John and I headed towards the trailhead.

John and I planned on our climb taking anywhere from 8 to 10 hours the next day. With this in mind, we set our alarm clocks for another early start and went to bed.

We were on the trail at 4:50am and made our way up towards the top of the basin. Our goal was to reach a set of gullies on the west face of the mountain. Once there, we would choose the best gully to ascend to reach the S Ridge.

It took just under three hours for John and I to reach the gullies. We ascended the northern gully, based on some research we’d done prior to our climb. The gully proved to be much steeper than we’d anticipated, but we soon reached the ridge and were rewarded with an amazing view of the terrain that would challenge us for the next two hours.

The remaining route in view on Snowmass Mountain.

The remaining route in view on Snowmass Mountain.

John working his way up the S Ridge on Snowmass Mountain.

John working his way up the S Ridge on Snowmass Mountain.

The ridge held dramatic exposure, mostly solid rock and several sections that took time and focus to navigate. John and I both quietly eyed the weather as we had no easy exit off of the mountain from the ridge, if the weather changed.

Luckily, the weather held and we reached the top, where we were again the only two people on the summit. We took a little extra time to rest before discussing our descent.

We’d reached Snowmass’s summit via the S Ridge, but our descent was going to take us directly down the mountain’s west face, which features steep terrain and loose rock. The east face, rather than the west face, is the standard route on the mountain as it offers more gradual terrain and can be done as an enjoyable overnight backpacking trip due to the fact that it is 21 miles round trip in length. John and I would soon find out why the west face is much more seldom climbed.

After discussing our plan for descending the mountain, we slowly made our way off the summit. The next two hours would be filled with careful route finding, much discussion and a great deal of attention on the weather.

John taking a breather on the summit of Snowmass.

John taking a breather on the summit of Snowmass.

In one of the major gullies on the descent, we took a great deal of care to ensure that we did not create rockfall. The terrain was steep and any dislodged boulders would careen down the gully to the valley floor 2,000 feet below. We moved as quickly as possible, while taking time to ensure we descended the safest route possible.

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the bottom of the gully! The weather was rapidly changing for the worse and John and I decided to hustle up and work our way quickly back to the trailhead. The stormy weather moved in and we both got drenched, but we were soon back at our camp.

These mountains definitely lived up to what I had imagined them to be like after first reading Roach’s book on the 14ers. They were challenging, to say the least, but I’ve also come to find out that much can be learned from these experiences, as well. I believe that John and I would both agree that we pushed ourselves both mentally and psychically but in the end, we were both rewarded by our hard work and perseverance.

Hiking and climbing can be a rather funny, even contradictory, experience. While doing it, you often wonder what the hell you were thinking when you set out to concur the mountain you’re struggling to summit. But once you stand on top of a massive peak and take in the surrounding views, you are overcome by an incredibly strong sense of accomplishment, which makes it all worthwhile!

I’ll have more stories to share as I continue to hike and climb for Summits for MS! If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS

Bears in Maroon Creek Wilderness

14 Aug

Black Bear

As some of you know, I am scheduled for shoulder surgery next week, as the result of an injury I sustained while skiing this past winter. I chose to delay the surgery long enough for Kimberly and me to move into our new home, and for us to enjoy some of the beautiful summer season that is so short in Breckenridge.

So with surgery in my near future, I planned to climb the Maroon Bells outside of Aspen over the weekend of August 9th. My good friend, John Kivlan, planned to hike two miles into the Maroon Creek Wilderness on Thursday night to set up camp at Crater Lake. He would climb Pyramid Peak on Friday and then I, along with two of Kivlan’s friends, Jake and Evan, would meet in Aspen on Friday evening and hike into Crater Lake together to meet Kivlan.

I must pause here to state that since Summits for MS started, the stories that I have shared have all ended with me and my friends successfully reaching the summit of each 14er. It’s no secret that each adventure has also come with its own challenges. Even the less difficult mountains present hardships that must be overcome in order to reach the peak. Long approaches, weather, hiking partners, and route finding can all play a role in the success of reaching the summit of any mountain. Well, as I found out this past weekend, animals can also play a role in regards to whether or not the summit is achieved!

Here’s what happened. I met Jake and Evan at Aspen Highlands and we took the bus to Maroon Lake, where we would follow the trail towards Crater Lake to meet Kivlan. The hike went quickly and we easily found Kivlan, all set up in the second marked campsite around the lake. We took a few minutes to rest before setting up our own camping gear for the weekend.

Shortly after we finished setting up, a Forest Service Ranger came into our camp to let us know that they have had some recent problems with a few bears entering our campsite in search of food. He explained that a few parties before us had not taken care with their food and that the bears had gotten into their supplies and are now associating our campsite and the one next to us, with food. As a result, the bears have been coming back to these campsites in search of food. He looked over our gear, and saw that we had bear proof bins for storing our food. So the ranger let us know we should put everything in our bins before bed, move the bins away from camp, and hopefully, we’d be fine.

Naturally, we gave Kivlan a hard time for picking the “bear infested camp”, followed with kudos for surviving the previous night alone. Ultimately, we decided we’d take care with our supplies and stay put, versus moving to another camp.

We cooked dinner down by the lake, away from camp, and chatted with the couple that was staying in the camp next to ours before setting the alarms for 3:00am and heading off to bed. After a long week of work, the hike in, and the drive to Aspen, I fell asleep quickly.

Shortly after nodding off, I was startled awake by people screaming “bear!” I quickly looked for my bear whistle, which I normally sleep with in my tent because I’m afraid of bears, but sadly realized I didn’t have it.

Kivlan awoke quickly, and we tried to figure out what the hell was going on from inside the confinement of our tent walls. Kivlan had bear spray with him (think of mace for bears.) We shouted towards Jake and Evan who were camped a few yards away. They yelled back that the bear was between our camps and that we needed to get out of our tent.

Not knowing where exactly the bear was, Kivlan opened the tent fly and proceeded to unleash bear spray on the large stump that resembled a bear in the darkness. The wind blew the spray right back into our tent, and almost instantly our eyes began watering and we could not breathe. We moved quickly to exit the tent and were soon looking in all directions for the bear.

We got our bearings (pun intended) and discovered that the bear was only a short distance from us. Apparently, all of the yelling and noise we had created had done nothing to scare the bear away. We also learned there was a second bear on the edge of our campsite that was also unbothered by all of the noise we were making.

Not knowing what else to do, we yelled at the bears, banged on trees and sprayed more bear spray, only to get the bears to retreat a short distance away. So we decided to head downhill a few hundred yards away from camp, towards the lake.

When we arrived, we joined the other couple that had been camped next to us and who first yelled out about the bear. We learned they had been cooking dinner and that the larger of the two bears had walked up to within 6 feet of them before they looked up and were eye to eye with the bear. Yikes!

At this point, it was time to make a decision. The bears were obviously not afraid of us and we needed to either move camp or hike out towards the cars, which were a few miles below.

Realization was quickly setting in that waking up in a few hours to hike and climb two of the hardest 14ers in Colorado was not going to happen. We decided to grab our gear from camp, move it to the lake, repack, and start the hike out towards the cars.

We stuffed our backpacks as quickly as possible and were soon on the trail. We arrived back at the cars around 1am, still in disbelief of what had occurred over the last few hours.

We managed to get to sleep around 2am and after much discussion the next morning, Kivlan and I decided to spend the rest of the weekend staying in a hotel and checking out Aspen.

It’s hard to walk away from something you really want. Especially when you are limited by time, weather, and the many other factors that life holds. But, in the end, we are all safe and still had an adventure together that we’ll talk about for years to come.

I’ll be back to share more stories next summer as I continue to hike and climb for Summits for MS!

If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS

Adventures on the Crestones! Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle – 7/13/14

14 Jul

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My good friends Will, Kirsten, Henry (the Golden Retriever) and I had a chance to see the Crestones from South Colony Lakes in June of 2013 when we hiked Humbolt Peak. I clearly remember looking up at Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle and wondering how you would even begin to climb those mountains. Upon my return from Humbolt, I immediately started to look at route descriptions for the two peaks in order to determine the best way to reach their summits. Some of these descriptions included what is considered by some as “one of Colorado’s four great 14ers’ traverses”; traveling from Crestone Peak to Crestone Needle via a ridge that connects the two mountains. After looking over some of the photos of the route that other hikers posted online, I can tell you that I’d immediately written off ever trying the traverse and told myself that I would return to the mountains to climb them separately sometime in the future.

Fast forward to June of 2014. While trying to plan a few weekends to get out and enjoy some hiking and climbing in the mountains, the discussion of climbing Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle began between me and my friends John and Jeb, who have joined me on previous adventures for Summits for MS. Jeb finished his quest to climb all of Colorado’s 14ers’ in August of last year during our trip to Chicago Basin, but was interested in returning to the Crestones to give the traverse a try. My immediate thought was “no thanks guys”, but after some reassuring, I was convinced we could do it.

The weekend we settled on, July 12th, was soon upon us and we gathered at John’s house to load up our gear and head towards the tiny town of Crestone, Colorado in the Sangre De Cristo mountain range. Each of us had assessed the area we would be hiking and climbing in via the eastern side of the range (South Colony Lakes), and we decided to try a less traveled route know as the Cottonwood Lake approach. This approach accesses the base of the Crestones from the west side of the mountain range and was previously closed for several years, so route finding was a bit of a challenge due to overgrowth and limited trail maintenance.

As we arrived at the trailhead, the clouds were already building. True to form, it seems that the rain always comes when John, Jeb and I head for the mountains. The forecast for the weekend was questionable at best with a high chance for thunderstorms, rain and hail. We knew we would need to make quick time of our trip to the lake and would need an early start in the morning to make a successful attempt at climbing the mountains.

Our goal was to reach the lake where we would meet two of Jeb’s friends, Brian and Heather, who were hiking into the lake from the other side of the range. They would be coming up the South Colony Lake trailhead and over Broken Hand Pass to reach the lake. Brian and Heather planned to join us for our ascent of Crestone Peak, but would hike back down to the lake before we planned to head towards Crestone Needle via the traverse.

Overall, the weather held and after some interesting route finding, a.k.a. making our own route, we arrived at the north end of the lake to find that Brian and Heather had arrived and set up camp for the night. The skies were still looking ominous, so we wasted no time getting our tent up and our gear stored away.

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We took time to enjoy the amazing setting we were now in while preparing dinner and discussing our plan for the adventure that lay ahead. Our campsite offered a perfect view of the entire route we would be taking in the morning. To say it was intimidating would be an understatement. I had to keep telling myself that these mountains always look more challenging from a distance. I would soon find out first hand that that is only partially true.

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As we finished up dinner, the rain moved in and we were soon “tent bound” for the rest of the night. John, Jeb and I started to have flashbacks to the 17 hours we spent together in a tent in Chicago Basin last summer when the rain simply wouldn’t let up. We set our alarms for 4:30am in hopes that the skies would clear and offer a window for us to complete our climb and get back to camp before more weather moved in.

The alarm sounded and I could see the moon shinning through the tent wall. This was a welcome sign and when we opened the fly on the tent we were welcomed with a star filled sky and only a few lingering clouds. It was a struggle to get moving, but we grabbed a quick breakfast bar and hit the trail at 5:30am.

Our first goal of the day would be Crestone Peak. To reach the summit of Crestone Peak, we would assent the infamous Red Gulley on the peak’s south face. The gully is steep, has water running down the entire face and was still holding a few snow fields that we would have to maneuver our way over and around. As we worked our way up the gully, we were careful not to dislodge any rocks that would easily pinwheel down the gully directly towards climbers below.

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We made good time working our way up to the top of Red Gully and were soon on the saddle with the final summit pitch ahead of us. This involved another 300 feet of scrambling up more solid rock and was much more enjoyable than the Red Gully.

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A few more moves to negotiate and the entire group was on top! We were the only ones on the Peak that day and the weather was still holding. The views in all directions were amazing. To our south, our journey to the Crestone Needle was laid out before us. We grabbed a few photos and gathered our gear for our next goal of the day – the traverse.

The start of the traverse was 300 feet below us as and is marked with a climber’s carian (basically a pile of rocks marking an undefined trail) that identified the start of the route. We reached this point, said our goodbyes to Brian and Heather and watched as they descended the Red Gully towards our camp below. The next two hours ahead of us would involve careful route finding, a watchful eye to the sky for changing weather, and a few moments of frazzled nerves.

The first half of the traverse is fairly straightforward. We worked our way over several series of ledges and followed small carians left by previous climbers. We were all mindful of listening to one another and stopping frequently to access our progress and discuss our next move for the route ahead. We had read several descriptions on the route that offered varying options for tackling the traverse. The most promising route involved a short steep wall to gain entrance to the steep gully below the summit. In this area, we dropped our packs as it would be difficult to maneuver the wall with this extra gear. John successfully climbed the wall first and we were able to pass our packs up to him. I was next, and then Jeb followed. Old rope and rappel gear left by climbers who had come from the other direction (Needle to Peak) and repelled this area were still visible on the wall and in the gully. We were careful to avoid using any of this gear while making our way up this section. It was a good test for what was ahead!

With packs back on, we headed up the short gully to a small knife shaped ridge that connected our gully with the next series of ledges we would tackle before reaching the final summit pitch. While short, the knife ridge was extremely narrow with a dramatic drop on both sides. After crossing this area, and working our way across the next several series of ledges, we were soon at the base of the final pitch to the summit – a steep, exposed 100 foot wall with some vertical climbing. I had been thinking about this moment ever since we decided to give this route a try several weeks before hand. I wondered what it would be like to actually be there and if I would have the nerves to get up that wall.

With excitement and caution, we started up the final pitch. The hand and foot holds were solid and halfway through the 100 foot climb; I started to feel very comfortable with my abilities and progress. As we neared the top of the Needle, an amazing rush came over me. We had done it! Thinking back, it was hard to believe where we were and where we had come from. We only took a few minutes to enjoy the summit before heading down. Clouds were starting to build and we knew time was no longer on our side.

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The down climb was no easy feat. The Needle is a hard climb with many different routes. Thankfully, Jeb remembered some of his previous climb on the Needle and we were able to find lower ground without many difficulties.

We were soon back at camp, about six hours after we had departed that morning. It was a great feeling to have completed the route that we just did, but we also knew we needed to pack up our gear as quickly as possible and head towards tree line, before the stormy weather moved in. We grabbed a few quick bites to eat, loaded up our gear and were soon headed down.
Our camp at Cottonwood Lake was at an elevation of 12,300’ and the trailhead where we had started our journey is at an elevation of 8,700’, so needless to say we had a good amount of ground to cover.

The rain set in almost immediately as we departed camp. We had taken a higher route into the camp to avoid the willows that clogged the main trail below us, but we opted to try and drop off the ridge, to get out of the weather. This proved to be a mistake as we were soon on top of a huge cliff ban with nowhere to go, but back up. We decided we would head back up the ridge and follow the route we used to access the lake. This added some extra time to our descent, but was definitely the wiser choice.

We were soon back to tree line and while we were happy to be lower in elevation, we were soaking wet from the heavy rain and small hail that was still coming down. Thankfully, we had not heard any thunder.

Three hours later, and after some more route finding, and we were back at the trailhead. The only casualty of the weekend ended up being the back of John’s calves, which had been eaten alive by the overwhelming number of mosquitoes that we encountered in the woods on our way down the trail.

This was truly an adventure. I have Kimberly and my friends to thank for accomplishing this goal. Going out and climbing and hiking in these mountains is not something I would be able to do without Kimberly’s support and the adventurous spirit of all our friends that have joined me on these mountains. Thank you, everyone, for another amazing experience!

If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS

Warming Up! Mt. Lindsey and Tabeguache Peak – 6/21 & 6/22/14

23 Jun

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Summer has finally arrived in the High Country! The wildflowers have started to bloom and the days are certainly getting warmer. For those of you who don’t know, Breckenridge and other surrounding mountain regions received over 500 inches of snow this winter. While this significant snowfall equated to an amazing ski season, the consequence is that many of the mountains and trails still have some snow and therefore, are more difficult to access.

Given the warmer weather over the last few weeks, I decided it was time to kick off my hiking season. My friend, John Kivlan, was also available to explore a few of the high peaks of Colorado. We decided our goal for the weekend would be Mt. Lindsey, in the Sangre de Cristo Range, and Tabeguache Peak (I still have no idea how to pronounce it) in the Sawatch Range. I actually hiked Tabeguache several years ago and Kivlan had previously climbed Lindsey, but in our quest to climb all of Colorado’s mountains over 14’000 feet, we decided to help each other out and return to these mountains that we had each climbed once before, but separately.

I met Kivlan in Fairplay, CO after work on Friday. We loaded up my Jeep and set out for Mt. Lindsey.

Mt. Lindsey is located in southern Colorado, outside of the small town of Westcliffe. Access to the Lilly Lake trailhead includes a twenty mile dirt road. After a bouncy ride, we arrived shortly after 11:00pm. We quickly found a spot to set up camp and worked on getting to sleep as soon as we could.

The alarm sounded at 5:30am, and shortly thereafter, we gathered our gear and hit the trail. Reaching Lindsey’s summit entails an 8.5 mile round trip journey with 3,500 feet in elevation gain. Our goal was to access to summit via Lindsey’s northwest ridge, which would require some extra time for route finding and navigating some more challenging terrain.

The basin that Lindsey sits in offers impressive views in all directions. I find that walking can be tricky at times due to my strong desire to look up and take in the scenery instead of paying attention to the trail. So of course, I tripped and stumbled a few dozen times along the way.

We made good time making our way up to Lindsey’s north face and soon arrived at our main obstacle; a sharp ridge line that gained 1,000 feet in elevation and led directly to Lindsey’s summit. In the middle of the ridge loomed a short wall that would require some careful route finding and cautious rock climbing.

The wall, also know as the “crux” of the route, definitely looks more daunting from a distance. As we worked our way up to the wall, we picked our line and made it through this area without encountering any trouble. We were soon just a few hundred feet from the top. After making our way over a few more challenging spots, we finally reached the summit! We were fortunate enough to be the first group on the mountain that day, and we were able to enjoy the summit by ourselves before heading down.

Our next goal was to head towards Salida, where we would access the trailhead for Tabeguache Peak. Kivlan and I decided to approach the mountain from the south via the Jennings Creek trailhead. This route offers a short 3 mile approach to the summit, but you are required to gain over 3,700 feet in elevation over that short distance.

Kivlan and I hit the trail just before 6:30am, and we were immediately met with a grueling, steep climb that quickly left me winded and wondering, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” Mountaineering can stir up mixed feelings of both love and hate for the sport, and I was experiencing the more difficult of the two sets of emotions as I hefted myself up the trail.

Over an hour later and 2’000 feet higher, we reached the long, flowing saddle that would take us to the base of Tabeguache. We worked our way across the saddle to the face of the mountain and after crossing over a few false summits (those are always fun) we eventually reached the top. We took our time to enjoy the perfect weather at the summit, and we drank in the surrounding views before making the steep, loose rock laden journey back to the trailhead.

Despite my moments of doubt and frustration, the weekend was extremely fun on many levels. We were able to hike and climb in two separate mountain ranges, each offering their own unique experiences. I also discovered that by going back to hike Tabeguache for a second time, the love of hiking and climbing is not always about a list or an agenda. It’s simply about getting out and enjoying the amazing landscape while raising awareness for MS, something that holds a great deal of meaning to me and so many others.

Thank you for your support and I hope to have more experiences to share soon!

If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS.

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Summits for MS Meets and Beats Climbing Goal!

26 Aug

I wanted to start this post by first taking a moment to thank all of our friends and family for all of the support that you have given to Kimberly and me. I started Summits for MS with the goal of creating more awareness about MS and to raise much needed funding to keep fighting this incredibly challenging disease. As many of you know, MS is a disease that can deprive someone of the ability to move. With the thought of movement and momentum in mind, climbing 14ers to show my support of those living with MS made sense to me. While climbing these mountains has been fun, it has been far from easy. On every hike and climb, Kimberly has been with me in spirit as an inspirational force – an ever present motivation in my mind that truly helped me to reach each of these summits. Every single day, I bear witness to someone who battles this disease head on. Kimberly helps me be a better person each and every day, and her strength has given me the strength to meet and exceed my goals for Summits for MS. I hope you’ve all enjoyed the stories that I’ve shared. It has truly been an adventure!

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Chicago Basin is home to the most remote 14ers in Colorado. To reach the basin, you are faced with either a 14 mile hike into the basin, or a 2 hour train ride followed by a 6 mile hike. The Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers hikers and climbers a scenic, and dare I say authentic, ride to Needleton, CO on their coal-powered steam engine train. The four mountains we planned to climb included Mt. Eolus, North Eolus, Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak.

The journey to reach Chicago Basin began on Thursday, August 22nd. Our good friends, John and Jeb, joined me for this multi-purpose adventure. Not only was I focused on reaching my goal for Summits for MS, but Jeb was just 4 mountains away from climbing all of Colorado’s 58 mountains over 14,000 feet by his 40th birthday, which was on Sunday, August 25th. Needless to say, not reaching these peaks was not really an option.

As we left Breckenridge, the forecast was less then desirable with a 60%-80% chance of rain and thunderstorms. With train tickets purchased, we opted to hope for the best and prepared ourselves for a weekend that could potentially be extremely wet. As we headed towards Durango, we closely watched the forecast in hope that the outlook would improve. Unfortunately, as we would find first hand, it would not.

We booked a last minute hotel close to the train station for Thursday night, in preparation for our 8:45am departure on Friday morning. After a five hour drive from Breckenridge on Thursday, we arrived in Durango shortly before midnight. We took a few minutes to reorganize our gear before grabbing a few hours of sleep. As I drifted off, my mind was filled with both excitement and some uncertainty about the trip ahead of us.

Our alarms rang loudly at 6:45am, and we each took our last shower for a couple of days before heading to the train. Our goal was to ride the train into Needleton on Friday, summit Mt. Eolus and North Eolus on Saturday, summit Sunlight Peak and Windom on Sunday, and catch the train back to Durango Monday afternoon, as the train only comes once a day. With the forecast looking unfavorable, we weren’t sure what to expect.

The train’s steam-powered whistle sounded loudly as we grinded to a start. John, Jeb and I were excited for the two hour ride ahead, but we were also eager to get on the trail as soon as possible. The train would drop us off at 11:30am, and with a 6 mile hike into the basin ahead of us, the thought of getting caught in the rain was on all of our minds.

We were soon distracted by dramatic views of the Animas River, as well as close encounters with the narrow rock walls that lined the railroad tracks.

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The trip went by quickly and before we knew it, one of the conductors was gathering us to head to the front of the train to offload at Needleton. The train came to rest, we gathered our packs and before we knew it, the train departed towards Silverton, leaving us to face the journey ahead.

A large dark cloud loomed in the direction we were headed. We took a couple of minutes to stash a few beers between some rocks in the river that we planned to enjoy while waiting for the train to pick us up for the ride home in a few days. We made good time heading into the basin and were greeted by some excellent views of the surrounding Needle Mountains. John managed to find us a great spot to set up camp just across Needle Creek that provided adequate shelter and easy access to water that we could filter for drinking.

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We were all pretty excited that the weather was holding, and we managed to get set up and get organized quickly. Before long, we were visited by a few friendly mountain goats who were obviously far from scared of humans, and who were most likely looking for food.

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After cooking up dinner, we decided to turn in early with the intention of getting an early start the next morning. As we discussed our plan for approaching the mountains we decided that if we could hike and climb all 4 mountains in one day, we would. The thought of missing a small window of opportunity with the weather was weighing heavily on our minds. We set the alarm for 3:30am so that we could be on the trail by 4:00am. The sky was clear and sleep came easy after the long hike into the basin.

As our alarm sounded, I immediately noticed the faint pitter patter of rain drops on the tent. As we gathered our gear and emerged from the tent, we were met with a light drizzle of rain and the skies were completely clouded over. John and I discussed whether to wait it out a bit to see if the weather would pass. We consulted with Jeb who simply replied, “Let’s start walking.” We started up the trail just shy of 4:30am.

With the moon still mostly full we could see breaks in the sky and it appeared that the weather could be improving. No sooner did that thought cross our minds and the rain set in. At first the rain was light, but it grew more steady. We tried to ignore the obvious and continued our way further into the basin.

As we worked our way above tree line, the light was just starting to break on the horizon. With the miserable weather, we were all hiking with our heads down and, you guessed it, completely missed where the trail turned sharply to our right up towards the saddle between Mt. Eolus and North Eolus. We approached a steep gully that looked completely unfamiliar and upon further exploration, we opted to retreat lower down the mountain to find the correct route. It didn’t take us long to find where we went wrong, and we were soon back on the right track.

As we worked our way towards the ridge that connected the two mountains we would climb first, the weather really started to improve and our spirits were rising. That window of clearing skies was short lived and we were soon back in the clouds.

It was a good thing John managed to keep his sense of direction because Jeb and I were both under the impression that we’d reach the summit of Mt. Eolus first. Upon further discussion, John clarified that we’d be climbing North Eolus first before traversing the”Catwalk” towards Mt. Eolus. We should have trusted the kid from Yonkers, as we soon found ourselves looking at a summit marker that matched the elevation of North Eolus!

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With the weather continuing to look grim, we didn’t hang out on the summit long before heading south towards Mt. Eolus. The connecting ridge between the two peaks offered some “fun” views of dramatic drops on both sides of us. As John worked his way across the ridge, I managed to get a good shot of him in the clouds.

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Mt. Eolus offered some fun climbing and we soon found ourselves on the summit. Even though there was quite a few people camped out in the basin below, we found that the weather had kept most people inside the comfort of their dry tents. This allowed us to enjoy this summit all by ourselves.

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The skies cleared for a few moments which allowed us a view of some of the surrounding area. We took a few moments to enjoy the views and to catch our breath.

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We were each feeling good and it was still relatively early in the day, so we decided that we would work our way back down to Twin Lakes where the trail would split to gain the basin between Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak. We decided we’d stop here for a bite to eat, and to assess the weather before deciding if we’d give the other two peaks a shot, or if we’d save them for the next day.

When we arrived at Twin Lakes, the weather was still the same. We opted to take a short break and after some discussion, we decided to continue on. Sunlight Peak offered some of the more challenging climbing of the day, so we decided that we should head towards that mountain first and save Windom Peak for last. We worked our way into a steep gully that would lead us towards Sunlight’s summit. As we reached the top of the gully, the climbing became more difficult and demanded all of our focus.

We navigated a few more tricky sections of rock and were soon near the summit. Sunlight is famous for it’s “Summit Block” that offers an “airy” perch with hundred foot drops on either side. Jeb went up first and John followed once he was safely down. My palms were sweating just watching them, and I opted for a lower, less exposed perch. Below is a picture of Jeb on top and me trying to muster up the courage to take one more leap!

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We wasted no time working our way down from Sunlight towards Windom Peak. The excitement of getting all 4 peaks in one day was driving us forward. Jeb was also overcome with excitement that the prospect of completing his goal of climbing all the 58 mountains in Colorado over 14,000 feet was now just a few thousand vertical feet away.

Windom Peak’s West Ridge offered some fun scrambling on solid rock. Jeb’s excitement gave him an energy that pushed him quickly up the mountain. He was soon well ahead of John and I. As we neared the summit, we could see Jeb reaching the highest point of the mountain. He climbed on top of the small rock block that was Windom’s highest point and threw his arms into the air with excitement. Seeing this image from less than just a hundred feet below made me move quickly towards the summit to share in Jeb’s accomplishment. I was soon on top and Jeb, John and I all reveled in the victory.

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Deciding that we’d already pushed our luck with the weather, we opted to move quickly off the summit. As we returned to the trail junction at Twin Lakes, we could see the skies darkening to our west. We hiked as fast as we could towards the lower portion of Chicago Basin, hopeful that we’d make it to our camp before the skies opened up.

As we arrived at our camp, the rain came. We were both giddy with our accomplishments and a bit delirious after an 11 hour journey that took us over 8 miles and included almost 6,000 vertical feet of climbing. We hunkered down under the trees in camp and enjoyed some 12 year old Scotch we’d packed in with us to celebrate the day’s accomplishments, reaching the Summits for MS goal and Jeb’s 40th birthday.

The rains let up just long enough for us to enjoy dinner. It was still early, but with the weather being less than desirable, we opted to pile into our tent for a bit to see if the rain would let up. Unfortunately, it did not. It ended up raining steadily through the night so we decided to catch the train out of Needleton the next day and spend Sunday night in Durango at a hotel before heading home to Breckenridge.

We spent the evening reliving the day’s events and looking through each other’s photos. We’d end up spending the next 15 hours in that tent together, waiting relentlessly for the rains to subside. Finally, at 11:30am the next day, we opted to make a mad dash to get our gear packed up and to make the long, 6 mile trek towards Needleton to catch the 3:30pm train to Durango. We were unpleasantly surprised to find that all the rain had caused the Needle Creek to rise enough to submerge the rocks we’d used to cross the creek. We bushwhacked up stream a bit before Jeb found an area he could jump across. John and I threw his pack across the creek to him, and then our packs, before jumping over the water.

Back on the trail, we worked our way through the rain towards Needleton. The rain subsided as we neared the halfway point, but the skies remained overcast and threatening. We arrived at the Needleton trailhead shortly after 2:00pm and were pleasantly surprised to find the beers that we’d stashed in the river two days earlier had not washed away!

The train arrived right on time and we were eager to stow our gear and dry out for a bit.

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We enjoyed a few more cold beers from the bar car before being dropped back in Durango.

This was an amazing trip with great friends! Yes, the weather could have been better, but the challenges presented by the weather made the trip that much more memorable. Jeb, being able to share your 58th 14er summit on your 40th birthday was a huge bonus on this journey and this is an accomplishment to be proud of. Thank you, Jeb and John, for a trip that will not be forgotten. Kimberly and I appreciate all your support for Summits for MS. It has been a wonderful journey!

If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS.

Thank you again for everyone’s support!

Rick

Pyramid Peak 14,018 Feet – Summits for MS #9

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Almost there! Summits for MS reached the 9th mountain over 14,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies on Thursday, August 15th when my good friend Jeb and I reached the summit of Pyramid Peak.

Jeb and I headed for the trailhead just outside Aspen, CO shortly after work on Wednesday evening with the plan in place to sleep at the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area trailhead, rise early Thursday morning, climb Pyramid and be back at the car before any afternoon storms moved in.

We managed to get parked and set up for the night just after 11pm. We set the alarms for 4am with the goal of being on the trail by 4:30am. The next morning, we would hike just over 8 miles and we estimated the climb would take us between 7 to 8 hours, as there was quite a bit of route finding and some rather technical terrain to be encountered on this mountain. Pyramid Peak is one of the more challenging 14ers in Colorado, due to the mountain’s steep and rocky terrain, and with the challenges that lay ahead in mind, I struggled to grab a few hours of sleep before the alarm rang loudly at 4am sharp!

Jeb and I managed to collect our gear quickly and we were on the trail shortly before our 4:30am goal. The sky was still dark, so we made our way up the trail by just the light from our headlamps toward the junction where the Maroon Creek Trail would intersect the Pyramid Trail. But, guess what? We had somehow mistakenly gotten off the main trail, and after traveling along for a little bit, we agreed we were going the wrong way. So we decided to head directly down through the woods towards where we believed the correct trail would be. Thankfully, after much discussion, we noticed the light from two other headlamps up above us and decided it would be best to head directly towards them. After some minor bushwhacking and boulder hopping, we managed to find the right trail.

Back on track, we moved quickly up the slope towards the mountain. Our first obstacle would be a steep, loose 1,000 foot gulley that we would need to climb to reach the saddle of Pyramid. The gully was definitely a workout, but we made good time and soon found ourselves on the saddle where the remaining route came into view. The view of the remaining route was definitely intimidating. Jeb and I took a few minutes to get our helmets on and grab a snack.

The upper section of the mountain required that we take our time and pay close attention to where we were headed. There are several ledges that seem like well worn trails that ultimately lead to steep loose gullies that descend about 4,000 feet to the valley floor.

As we worked our way to the summit, the views surrounding us were amazing. The weather was perfect and there was no sign of storms moving in, which allowed us to focus more clearly on the task at hand. A few more hundred feet and we were on top!

The weather was perfect and the winds were light, which can be rare at 14,000 feet, so we took our time and enjoyed the summit. The peaks surrounding Pyramid include the often photographed Maroon Bells, Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain, so the awe inspiring views did not disappoint!

After taking 30 minutes on top of Pyramid, we decided it was time to begin the careful journey back down the mountain. Pyramid is also well know for the white mountain goats that live high on its upper slopes. As we ascended the mountain, I was honestly a little disappointed that we had not encountered any. That being said, our descent did not disappoint when we were greeted by a family of goats as we worked our way across one of the mountain’s many ledges. These goats are far from intimidated by humans and I honestly got a little spooked when they seemed to move right toward Jeb and me before they swiftly jumped to the ridge above us.

Once we reached the main Maroon Creek Trail, we were able to move quickly down the well defined trail towards the car. We arrived shortly after noon and were delighted to discover that the celebratory beers we had stashed under the car were still cold!

Thank you, Jeb, for a great day in the mountains and for your support for Summits for MS!

If you haven’t donated yet and would like to, please visit my donation page at http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/SummitsforMS.

Thank you again for everyone’s support!

Rick

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