The Final 14er: Longs Peak 14,255′

12 Oct


Eleven years ago, I completed my first Colorado 14er by hiking to the top of Quandary Peak, which is near my home in Breckenridge, CO. Over the next few summers that followed, I managed to reach the summit of a few more 14,000 foot mountains in Colorado. 

But it wasn’t until after I’d climbed more than a dozen 14ers that I started seriously considering setting a goal to climb them all. What had started as a fun hobby soon became the challenge of a lifetime, and one that would take me to the summits of 58 mountains in a span of 11 years. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to have friends join me for every climb. Our good friends who now live in Maryland, Roger and Courtney Mecca, were with me for my first handful of Colorado 14ers. John O’Conner, John Kivlan, Jeb Marsh, Will Kruger and his wife Kirsten, are also a few of the names you’ve seen in the pages of my blog, Summits for MS, over the last several years. They, and many others, have created and shared numerous memories with me during our adventures in the mountains of Colorado. 

John O’Connor and I were fortunate enough to complete the majority of our list of 58 summits together, and as this summer approached, we were down to just seven mountains left to go. Unable to get our hiking and climbing season underway until mid-July due to busy schedules, we set a lofty goal to finish the 14ers before the end of summer. 

While seven doesn’t seem like a large number, the challenge ahead of us was going to be a tough one as we had saved some of the most difficult and far away mountains for last. Little Bear, Wilson Peak, Mt. Wilson, El Diente Peak, Capitol Peak and Longs Peak were all waiting for us, along with a hard to obtain permit to climb the privately owned Culebra Peak.

With John Kivlan joining us for Culebra and Little Bear, and John O’Connor and I managing to reach the summits of both Wilson peaks, El Diente and Capitol, only Longs Peak remained as our final summit to reach. We were determined to find a way to accomplish our goal before snow would cause us to wait until next summer. 

Longs Peak is an iconic mountain. It sits in Rocky Mountain National Park and the peak is climbed by hundreds, if not thousands, every summer. Because of this, John and I were both excited at the prospect of finishing with Longs, and daunted by the possibility that we’d be sharing our success with a hundred others once reaching the summit.

Sadly, our weekend plans to climb Longs were derailed by rain and snow in the High Country. It was late September and with limited opportunities left, John and I took a Tuesday off of work and headed towards the Longs Peak trailhead on Monday evening. 

We arrived where we planned to camp for the night shortly after 10pm and quickly headed off to sleep. The roundtrip distance to complete Longs was over 14 miles and we estimated anywhere from 10 to 14 hours to complete the peak. Because of this, our alarms were set for 2:15am!

My eyes felt like they had just closed when the muffled sound of my alarm, buried in my sleeping bag, woke me up. We wasted no time in packing up and heading the few miles down the road to the trailhead. With headlamps in full glow, we set out upward along the trail and above tree line. 

With the sun not expected to rise for at least three hours, we would be hiking in the dark for the first portion of the morning. Thankfully, the trail is well traveled and we were easily able to make our way to the first junction where we would head left toward the Loft route. 

There are several routes up Longs and the most popular route, the Keyhole, can be quite crowded. John and I had decided to ascend the less popular Loft route in the hope that we’d have the climb to ourselves. As we passed the intersection and worked our way up towards the Loft Couloir, we were happy to find ourselves alone on the route. 

The only real challenge we were contending with was the dark. We were above tree line now and off the well traveled trail, but we were fairly confident we were headed in the right direction. We continued to work our way up and across boulders to the base of the couloir. As the sun began to rise, we entered the Loft Couloir and quickly encountered more challenging terrain. The route was mostly free of snow and ice, but we took extra care as we worked our way up the steep slope. 

Soon, we reached a point where there was no where to go. In front of us was a vertical wall covered in ice. We searched and soon found the exit ramp out of the couloir. The ledge led us out across the terrain to easier ground. We were now on the south side of Longs. To reach the summit, we would drop down to the west face of the mountain and traverse north across the peak to connect with the Keyhole route, just below the final pitch to the summit. 


We worked our way up and across the mountain. The climbing and route finding was both fun and challenging. As the sun fully came up, we were greeted with clear skies and calm winds. It was the perfect day to be on the mountain. 

After a few hours we came to the final pitch before reaching the summit, aptly named “Homestretch”. 

While not a technical climb, the last 300 feet to the summit require a good deal of scrambling and therefore, some extra mental fortitude, due to the steepness of the slope and the exposure below. It was hard to believe that we were only a few hundred feet shy of reaching our goal!


We worked our way up and soon enough, we were at the top. I think I was in disbelief that I’d finally achieved my goal. Eleven years and 58 summits later, we’d done it. Even more amazing, there was only one other person on the summit when we arrived. In hindsight, we should have asked him to snap a quick photo of us!


After gathering some information on the condition of the Keyhole route from the other climber, we hung around and enjoyed the summit to ourselves for close to 30 minutes. I know the moment was especially powerful and meaningful for John, who had just lost his father in August. 


The return route down the Keyhole was a special way to complete the mountain. Combining the less traveled Loft route on our way up with the classic Keyhole route on our way down proved to be the perfect tour of Longs Peak. The day couldn’t have been better. 


Believe it or not, the record for completing all 68 of Colorado’s 14ers stands at less than ten days! At 11 years, I wasn’t breaking any records. What I was doing was creating lasting memories with friends in the mountains. Along the way, I started to share my stories via Summits for MS in an effort to build awareness about Multiple Sclerosis and to raise money for research and services to help those battling the disease. As many of you know, Kimberly was diagnosed with MS over eight years ago. She’s the strongest, most passionate person I have ever met. Falling more and more in love with her everyday is effortless. She’s supported me during this adventure and she’s understood the reasons why I’ve been away for so many weekends to climb mountains. 


What’s next? That seems to be the most asked question. I think I’ll take sometime to figure that out and enjoy the moment a little longer.

To learn more about the National MS Society, or to donate to the fight against MS, please visit http://www.nationalmssociety.org/

  

The Knife Edge: Capitol Peak 14,130′

7 Oct

With the summer drawing to a close, and only two 14ers left on our list of 58, John O’Connor and I set out to climb Capitol Peak in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. Capitol Peak is located north of Aspen and is famous for the “Knife Edge” that climbers must cross to gain access to the summit.

I’d started studying this route many years ago when I decided to set a goal of climbing all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers. Reading about the knife edge and its sheer drops of a 1,000′ on either side made my palms sweat. It was an intimidating peak, to say the least. It was the middle of September and a chance of snow was in the forecast. 

John and I monitored the weather closely, hoping the snow would hold off long enough for us to reach the summit. The mountain has been climbed in every month, but our hope was to make an already challenging climb a bit more manageable without snow and ice to contend with.

As the week progressed, snow moved in. I awoke on Thursday morning, drew the blinds and was discouraged by the snow that had fallen on the mountains in Breckenridge the night before. But the forecast indicated that the weather was expected to improve enough to melt the new fallen snow before we arrived at the trailhead on Saturday. In reality, there was only one way to find out; head to Aspen and take a look for ourselves.

Friday afternoon arrived and we loaded up the Jeep for the 2 hour journey south. The approach to reach the base of Capitol is roughy 6 miles. In order to find more enjoyment in the journey, we planned to pack into the lake below Capitol to set up camp for the evening, before the climb to the summit. From there, we would set out the following morning to climb Capitol.

We arrived at the trailhead shortly after 4pm. We shouldered our packs and headed towards Capitol Lake, which was 2,000′ and 6 miles above us. The weather was beautiful and the hike into camp was one of the most enjoyable approaches that I can recall. It was also one of the most intimidating. Capitol Peak was visible for the entire hike. It looked massive, and difficult to climb. It was hard not to wonder what being up there would be like.

John and I made good time and were soon at the lake 2 1/2 hours after setting out from the trailhead. Capitol Lake is a popular day hike, as well as an overnight backpacking trip. While remote, the area can become very busy at times. Due to this, the forest service only allows for camping in designated areas. Backpackers, hikers and climbers who wish to spend the night are also required to travel with bear bins (re-read Bears in Maroon Creek Wilderness) to store food and anything else that can attract bears.

John and I were eager to get camp set up before dark so we took the first available tent spot. The temperatures had dipped into the 30’s the night before and at 11,400 feet in elevation, we were expecting it to drop into the 20’s. 

As we unloaded our gear and set the tent up, I asked John where the tent’s fly was. His response, “you have it”. I quickly responded that he was supposed to have it. After bickering for a few minutes, and re-thinking our last trip, we realized the fly to the tent was sadly back in Breckenridge. 

The tent fly, while only a thin piece of fabric, keeps wet weather out, as well as warm temperatures in. Without the fly, we were basically sleeping outside with only our sleeping bags and clothes for warmth. Knowing the weather was forecasted to be dry and clear we weren’t worried about rain or snow. We were, however, worried about the cold temperatures. 

Realizing we were in for a cold night, we filtered water, made dinner and crawled into our sleeping bags shortly before 9pm. John, being prepared, had a space blanket we could use if it got to cold. John’s sleeping bag was not rated for temperatures as low as mine, so thinking quickly he boiled water, filled his bottle and placed the warm cylinder at the foot of his sleeping bag before drifting off to sleep.

Rest didn’t come easy for me. I tossed and turned, feeling so cold and thinking about the climb ahead of us in the morning. The moon was full and bright. At certain points, throughout the night, the moon was so bright that it felt as if a spotlight was shinning down right on us. 

After what felt like 10 minutes of sleep, the alarm sounded at 5am. My watch displayed a temperature of 34 degrees in the tent. After a brief discussion, John and I decided to wait until the sun started to come up before heading out. 

At 6:30am we woke, gathered our gear and quickly began hiking up the trail towards the saddle between Mt. Daly and Capitol. The rapid gain in elevation, over a short distance, would warm us up quickly. We briefly stopped to shed layers before making the final push to the saddle.

Upon reaching the saddle we dropped to the east side of the ridge and traveled towards the summit of K2.

K2, a 13er that shares the ridge that leads to Capitol, was our first challenge of the day. We scrambled up the ridge to the summit and took a few minutes to determine our next move. From the summit of K2 we would drop down the west side of the mountain for a short distance before angling back up the slope to regain the ridge. 

As we dropped off the summit, we quickly found ourselves in challenging terrain. Some snow and ice covered the route so we carefully chose our path.

As we made our way back towards the ridge, the remaining route came into view. While the distance standing between us and the summit was not great, it would require concentration and time. John and I headed out across the ridge toward the summit.We quickly found ourselves at the start of the “Knife Edge”. It was difficult to imagine being here. I had no interest in hanging around to discuss “how neat” this was, and quickly set out across the ridge. 

The climbing, while not overly technical, is made challenging by the simple fact that you are crossing a tiny edge of rock with a 1,000′ drop on either side. John was graceful as he crossed the ridge. I, on the other hand, was using every limb to cling to the rock.Soon enough we were past the knife edge. From everything we’d read, the remaining terrain to the summit was equally challenging and steep. After being here, I would agree! We spent the next hour working our way across and up the mountain. After a few obstacles, and discussions about the best route to take, we found ourselves on top. 

The summit, and the views in every direction were amazing. The Maroon Bells, Snowmass, and Pyramid Peak surrounded us.I was excited about our accomplishment, but also well aware that we’d be crossing the exact terrain that led to the summit on our way back down the mountain. 

There were several parties of climbers coming up the mountain behind us, so we gathered our gear and headed down. 

John and I moved efficiently across the terrain and soon the biggest challenges were behind us. We enjoyed a relatively straightforward hike back to our camp by Capitol Lake. 

After a quick 30 minute power nap, we packed up our camp and headed down the trail.

Capitol Peak was one of the mountains I read the most about. I felt both a sense of accomplishment and relief to have completed it.

With Capitol behind us, Longs Peak was the only 14er we had left to climb. John and I were both eager to summit this peak before winter would begin to blanket the mountains in snow. 

With time running out, we made plans to summit our final 14er the following weekend. 

To learn more about the National MS Society, or to donate to the fight against MS, please visit http://www.nationalmssociety.org/

Adventures in the San Juan Mountains: El Diente Peak 14,159’, Mt. Wilson 14,246’ and Wilson Peak 14,017’

29 Sep

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With only 5 of the 58 mountains above 14,000’ in Colorado remaining, my friend John O’Connor and I set our sights on the Wilson group in southern Colorado to summit over Labor Day weekend.

Just outside the ski town of Telluride, the Wilson’s are an iconic group of mountains that while visible from Telluride, are surprisingly remote peaks. There are several ways you can approach the mountains and based on our desire to climb all three peaks over the weekend, we opted to hike into Navajo Basin via the Willow Lakes trailhead.

Our goal was to backpack into the basin on Saturday night, set up camp and spend the next two days climbing the peaks. El Diente Peak and Mt. Wilson share a connecting ridge and because this traverse is considered 1 of the “4 great 14ers traverses”, we decided to climb to the summit of El Diente via the north buttress route, setting out across the traverse to the summit of Mt. Wilson, and then descending Mt. Wilson’s north slope back into the basin where we planned to camp. We’d then head back up the basin and over the “Rock of Ages” saddle to reach the summit of Wilson Peak the next day, before packing out and heading home.

The weather for the weekend was questionable at best. By Sunday, the rather soggy conditions we’d been experiencing for several weeks were forecasted to move out of Colorado and the weather for the later part of the weekend was looking promising.

Facing a 6-hour drive to the trailhead, John and I packed up the car and headed south early on Saturday morning. With a 5-mile hike into camp, our goal was to be on the trail no later than 4pm that day. These plans quickly changed as we were greeted by pouring rain at the trailhead. Rather than starting the hike in the rain, we hunkered down in the car for an hour to wait out the weather. With luck, the rain passed and we decided to give it a go. We shouldered our packs and headed up the trail towards Navajo Basin.

The hike was fairly uneventful and as we crested the ridge towards what would be the beginning of our descent into Navajo Basin, El Diente came into view. From our approach, the mountain looked intimidating. I kept telling myself that it always looks more rugged and challenging from below.

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John and I made our way into Navajo Basin and towards the lake at the upper part of the basin. To our surprise, we were greeted by several other hikers and climbers who were camped out and trying to give the surrounding summits a try the next day. Suitable sites for setting up our tent were limited and it was starting to get dark, so we chose the first flat piece of ground we could find. We took some time to filter water and make dinner. The wind was howling and we opted to eat in the tent where there was some protection from the cold gusts outside.

As night fell, we discussed our plan for the morning and watched the sky in hope that the weather would blow out. The last forecast we were able to view, before losing cell service, showed the weather being worse in the morning and then improving by mid-morning and throughout the afternoon. We set our alarms for 5am and headed off to bed.

Sure enough, the forecast was right! We woke to the sound of rain and a clap of thunder at 5am. We decided to sleep in and see if the weather improved as the morning went on. This is generally the opposite of how you approach peaks in Colorado during the summer. The usual routine requires waking up as early as possible to be up and off the summit before afternoon storms start to build.

John and I were hopeful that the weather would improve. At 8:30am, the rain had stopped, but the mountain was still shrouded in clouds and the wind was fierce. We mustered up the energy to pack up our gear and make our way into the basin to the base of the north buttress. When we arrived, the weather had not improved, so we found some shelter and decided to wait a half hour before ascending further.

The weather to our south was just starting to improve and we could see patches of blue sky beyond the swiftly moving clouds. John and I started up the talus field towards the north buttress. We soon found ourselves mid-way up the slope and still dealing with heavy winds and thick clouds. At this point, we both felt committed to the route and fairly confident in the weather forecast. We pushed on towards the summit.

The majority of the route requires “hand-over-feet” climbing, but no significant steep slopes or exposure. The last two hundred feet of the route would prove much more challenging and require us to be careful with our route finding.

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As we approached this area, we worked our way right, towards what we hoped would be an easier passage to the final steep wall below the summit. Our route proved to be challenging and we took great care while working our way up and over the rock. Some sleet started to fall from the sky and we did not want to be on the rock if it were to become wet. We moved efficiently through the difficulties and soon enough, we found ourselves alone on the summit!

For most of the climb, I had been anxious to reach the summit in an effort to get a view to the south and west, which would provide a better understanding of the weather. Upon arriving, the weather looked threatening in most directions. We took a few minutes to eat and hydrate. We were also able to get enough cell service to pull up the weather radar. The worst of the storm had moved past us while we were en route to the summit. The weather to the southwest looked like it was clearing up, so we made the call to push onto the traverse towards Mt. Wilson.

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The traverse was fun and challenging. There was only one other person a good distance ahead of us and we enjoyed having the ridge line to ourselves. We took our time and chose our route carefully. The wind was sill howling, but this was the only inclement weather by this point.

The scramble across the ridge took us just over two hours. We were soon faced with our last major difficulty of the day; a huge block of rock that obstructed easy access to the summit of Mt. Wilson. There were a few options for tackling this difficulty and we decided the best way was right up and over the block. After a few awkward moves, we were greeted by a rather calm summit.

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With the weather vastly improving, we took our time on the summit and enjoyed our accomplishment before deciding to descend towards our camp in the basin.

The descent, while a bit long, was pleasantly uneventful. We did take our time as we had not come up this route and we wanted to make sure we descended it correctly. As we went lower into the basin and closer to our camp, the wind was powerful and relentless. I watched John almost get blown right off his feet at one point! I also started to wonder if our tent would still be there when we got back to our camp.

Upon arriving back at camp shortly after 3pm, we decided to move our tent to a more sheltered area in the woods. This only helped slightly and John and I would spend the night getting little sleep. The wind would come up the basin and violently shake the tent back and forth. Being blown away was a small concern compared to the thought of a tree being blown down on top of us.

With the arrival of the morning, the wind was still relentless, but blowing out the weather front that had caused the rain and thunder the previous morning. The skies were clear and at 7am, we decided to head back up into the basin and towards Mount Wilson.

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This proved to be a very fun mountain to climb! The only major difficulties were in the last three hundred feet of the climb. Here, John and I took time to find the best route to the summit. The long weekend had brought many people to the mountain and we were greeted by several others as we reached the summit. While cold, the summit was somehow out of the wind. The skies were clear and we took time to enjoy our accomplishment. The views of Telluride and the surrounding mountains were amazing!

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Our descent back to camp took roughly 3 hours and we were soon packing up our gear and heading back up the trailhead and out of Navajo Basin.

The Wilson’s and El Diente definitely proved challenging. They were not easy peaks to climb. However, John and I were persistent in our pursuit to reach their summits and found great success that weekend.

With the summer quickly coming to end in the High Country, John and I were in a race against time to summit our final two mountains; Capitol Peak and Longs Peak. Both mountains are well known and challenging. We looked forward to planning our next trip and to taking one more step towards our ultimate goal of climbing all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers!

To learn more about the National MS Society, or to donate to the fight against MS, please visit http://www.nationalmssociety.org/

Onward and Upward: Culebra Peak 14,047’, Red Mountain A 13,908’, Little Bear Peak 14,037’, Blanca Peak 14,345’

14 Sep

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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.

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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.

img_0337As 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.

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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/

Back to the Bells: Maroon Peak 14,156’

22 Aug

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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.

John working his way up the

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