| First Fourteener, Northwest Ridge on Mt. Lindsay.
From a distance, Mt. Lindsay looks just a bit like Everest; a symmetric, half-steep pyramid. To further the comparison, the northwest ridge includes one steep headwall in the midst of easier terrain, not completely unlike the Hillary step on Everest. From the cirque at tree line where Mt. Lindsay first becomes visible, she sits at some distance, and on this morning, she resided behind several layers of early morning mist, giving it the appearance of a much taller mountain. Perhaps I was in over my head?
A view of Mt. Lindsay, taken on the descent.
Although I had more than a decade of climbing experience, Mt. Lindsay would be my first fourteener. I knew the Northwest Ridge was challenging, so I kept my plan simple- start early, move fast, and be willing to turn around if things got too sketchy. To accommodate this plan, I borrowed a mountain bike, knowing my poor little Civic wouldn't make it far up the rough road to the Lilly Lake trailhead.
I crashed in the back of my car, and at 3:45, fifteen minutes before my alarm, I was up and chugging cold coffee from a tupperware bowl. The cold morning meant that packing my bag was easy enough- I'd already layered up with every piece of clothing I had. Soon, I was sprinting up the steep forrest road on the borrowed bike, feeling good at first, shedding layers and covering distance. Within just a few minutes though, I realized I might be in trouble. With no warm up, I had boosted my heart rate as high as it'd gone in months. I was soaked in sweat, yet my hands were freezing. To make things worse, the fire road kept going, and although I was expecting the trailhead around each corner, it appeared only after much worry and second guessing. I nearly turned around a couple of times. Stashing the borrowed mountain bike in some bushes, I realized I was exhausted after just half an hour, and I was only now at the point where most people started the climb. Again, was I in over my head?
There are few things more frustrating when trying to gain altitude than, well, losing it. Of course the Lilly Lake Trail begins just this way- dropping back towards the valley floor. In the moonlight I could tell the difference between forrest and meadow, and that was about it. Only later would I see just how magnificent this trail is, crossing a couple of large grassy meadows with jagged, soaring, grey and red peaks overhead.
This was my first time hiking by headlamp, and I found it easiest to just hold the damn thing. Creek crossings were more difficult, and I lost the trail numerous times, but mostly I worried about the bears lurking in the shadows and the mountain lions I absolutely knew were stalking me. I kept myself occupied by singing made up songs as loud as I could. I hope there weren't too many fishermen camping in that valley.
After losing the trail several more times, I was again getting nervous that I had missed the turn I needed to take to begin climbing towards Mt. Lindsay. In desperation and hard headedness, I nearly decided to begin scrambling up the talus just above the valley floor, hoping to at least gain elevation. Fortunately, a few cairns appeared and I managed to find the proper gully to begin climbing.
This is where the suffering really began. I felt like I was making good time, but was I pushing myself too hard? In the steep gully, lit only by moonlight and my headlamp, I was often doubled over catching my breath. With more than two and a half thousand vertical feet to go, I wondered if I'd have the stamina to be clear headed and strong when I reached the steep terrain above 13,000 feet.
First view of Mt. Lindsay. on the right.
Just when as I came to treeline, a little bit of dawn began to make my situation clear- I stood on a rib of rock and talus separating two halves of a large cirque, with enormous cliffs looming over me a few hundred yards to the north and east, while Blanca and Ellingwood caught bits of alpenglow a half mile or more to the south. Frustratingly, I would once again have to descend, this time from the rib down into the sub-cirque to my left, before gaining significant altitude to join a series of saddles which formed the prologue to Mt. Lindsay's two main routes. And it was from here that I could first see Mt. Lindsay, still quite a distance to my south-east, and looking even more intimidating than in pictures.
Crossing the cirque was enjoyable and mild, until I reached the far end, where the steepness returned. Again, I found myself doubled over every few minutes, in pretty bad shape. A few clouds hanging above Blanca, however, kept my pace as high as I could manage. When I reached the first of two saddles, I took my first real break of the day to enjoy some M&Ms. I left a green one on top of the large cairn in the saddle, wondering if it'd be there on the descent.
A view of Lindsay, the cirque and the preliminary saddles.
Blanca and Ellingwood from the first saddle.
Mt. Lindsay from the first saddle. Second saddle is the low point on the left.
The path from the first saddle to the second is an enjoyable talus field (at least I enjoyed it), and quickly deposits you on the main NW ridge of Mt. Lindsay. Here, you have your first views to the east, and they're stunning. On this morning, this was the first moment of sunlight for me, and again I rested to take a look at the difficulties ahead. My first thought was- "oh shit, I just hiked all the way here for nothing, because I'm not going to up that ridge without a rope". I was bummed, and at the same time relieved, realizing that at least I had made a good effort, and the sun at this saddle and the views made the trip worth it.
Something nagged at me though; the weather was perfect, it was barely seven o'clock, and I figured I might as well get a better look at the ridge before turning around. So I headed up, with the mindset that I'd take each segment at a time, and not get above anything I couldn't down climb. I covered more ground than I expected, and soon I was atop a small tower just across a notch from the crux headwall of the ridge.
The Northwest Ridge on the right.
From here, things looked considerably more reasonable. In fact, the descent from this tower to the notch was probably the true crux for me, and the headwall suddenly looked not just doable, but easy. Once in the notch, I planned my attack, moved slowly, tested each hold (almost all very solid), and soon I was through the crux! It was here that I finally realized that, in all likelihood, I'd soon be on the summit of my first 14er.
A look back at what I found to be the crux, this had to be down-climbed just below the headwall.
A view down the ridge, from the top of the headwall.
Looking worried at how steep things were getting.
Typical terrain on the ridge, more solid than it looks.
The rest of the ridge to the false summit was easy, fun 3rd class. Reaching the false summit itself was a great moment, being able to relax and take stock of the surroundings- the flat alpine San Luis Valley transitioning quickly up to the rugged Crestones, a little bit of the Sand Dunes visible in between; the Wet Valley and the symmetric Spanish Peaks to the east and south.
Looking north. Crestones and Sand Dunes are visible!
The ridge to the true summit was a blast, with just enough exposure to make it noteworthy. Signing the summit register at just after 7:30, I finally figured out what all this 14er hype is all about! My only worry is that it'll be hard to find another climb so enjoyable.
Me with moon. Awesome morning on Mt. Lindsay.
On the descent, I contemplated taking the standard gully route, but traversing across the top of the false summit I realized just how loose things are up there when not on the ridge. And although I hadn't seen a single other person, it wasn't impossible that there might be climbers below me in the gully, so I settled on descending the ridge. It was easy enough, although my legs were tired and I slipped a few too many times and had to keep reminding myself, out loud no less, "no mistakes".
A lone piece of quartz amongst the talus.
Back at the lower saddle, I ran into a group of three climbers, who were indeed the only others high on the mountain that morning. Their plan was to climb the gully, and I mentioned that the ridge was a great climb and probably the safest route, but they were set on their plans. At least they had helmets. Much lower on the mountain, in the gully near the mineshaft, I met a second group of three headed up to Lindsay, two guys and a girl. It was already after nine and they had a very long way to go. To make things worse, one of the three had forgotten shoes and only had sandals! None had helmets. I mentioned the rockfall danger in the gully and headed on my way. I would have been more worried about them except it was pretty clear they were on the verge of turning around anyhow.
Mt. Lindsay isn't visible, but an okay view none the less!
In the lower valley, I soaked in the scenery a bit and took my time, dreading the climb out to the trail head, which was indeed a grind but deposited me back at my bike. The descent to the car was a final reward for the day. I donned my climbing helmet and bombed the road, catching air on various whoop-de-doos and threading the numerous rock gardens. Now if only I had enough gas to get back to Walsenburg.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):