| Revisting Old Friends, and Making New Ones
Note the muddy Animas
After much planning and anticipation, the time had arrived for our annual summer gathering to climb more 14ers. The trip this time, however promised to have a different feel to it for a number of reasons. We decided to revisit the same mountains in the area I started climbing 14ers with in 1996: Chicago Basin.
So why return a 3rd time, after I'd already summited all of the 14ers there?
This also happened to be the week I hoped to gain my 58th 14er, Culebra Peak. So, I thought why not start the week with my first peak, Windom? It was also a reunion trip since we met up with an old friend and onetime climbing partner, John, who I had climbed Oxford and Belford with years ago with, those being his first and only 14ers. After unexpectedly running into him recently, he foolishly asked if I was still climbing. That was all I needed to bring him back to climbing. He also wanted to bring a friend he'd known since college, Dan, who had never climbed a 14er before, but loved the outdoors. Now, these guys are 60 years old (I'm almost 59) but are in good shape and quite motivated, so they're excited to be coming along. Also joining us were my good friends from previous climbs: Keller, Cody (Clanton), and JD. Keller's 20 year old relative, Austin, also joined our group, who is another newbie to 14ers (and backpacking). Again, what better way to introduce newcomers than a train ride/backpack to Chicago Basin? Train tickets were reserved and the dates set.
First, I had to make the 900 mile drive from central California to Durango, solo. Checking the map, it looked like Flagstaff was a good midway stopping point. Flagstaff happens to be situated at the foot of Humphreys Peak, which at 12,635' is Arizona's high point and seemed to be a good acclimatizing climb. Staying at the rustic small cabins located at the base of the ski area, I quickly hiked up to the summit early the next morning.
This is a pretty neat hike and a good work up for what laid ahead. About halfway up I met 2 bears right on the trail, a mother and it's rather large cub, staring straight at me. Oh man, here we go! As I slowly backed off, they took off up the trail. So I waited about 10-15 minutes, then continued (a bit slower) whistling and saying “hey bear” along the way. Fortunately, that was the last I saw of them. Whew!
Humphreys Peak Summit
Now, plenty has been written about the Basin and it's 4 iconic peaks, so there is no need to rehash the basics of those climbs. There are, however, some observations that I'd like to share:
1. Mountain goats. There are more of these animals here than I ever remembered. Herds of them, just hanging around waiting for someone to pee. They have become quite a nuisance. We even had a herd run through our camp during the night and one slammed into my tent while I was trying to sleep, almost knocking it down. As I understand it, they were introduced to this area in the early 1900's, mainly to allow for hunting. Bad decision.
2. The CFI has done a remarkable job of reworking the trail up to Twin Lakes. We had warned the people who had never climbed this area of the brutal, straight up trail leading to the lakes, but those have been filled in with rocks and now there are plenty of stairs and switchbacks. I almost have mixed feelings about this, in a way. It's kind of cheating, really, as it has become so much easier than before. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the improvement, but as one who likes non-traditional routes with few, if any trails, this seemed to take away from the “mountaineering” experience, whatever that is. I do understand how this work maintains the integrity of the mountain and prevents erosion, but it sure made it almost too easy! Almost.
Note the rock filled former path to the right of the stream.
3. It wasn't just about the summits any more. This was a totally new concept for me. Before, my focus was always on gaining the summit, with the journey as something that had to be endured, if not enjoyed. Not any more. Since they had already been climbed, the pressure was no longer there to summit them. Oh sure, I resummited Windom and North Eolus and thoroughly enjoyed them. It was even a bit of a surprise how challenging the summit of Windom was, as I had recalled it being an easier scramble (this was noted by John and Dan, who also expected it to be easier due to, ahem, my description of it).
Keep it coming, John
No, the summit fever really wasn't there. It was now about savoring the moment, the place, the friendships. It was now about the journey. So, when Austin got separated from the younger guys sprinting up Sunlight, and the 3 older guys were no longer interested in trying for Sunlight after climbing Windom, I decided to reroute around to intercept Austin, as the weather was deteriorating and I didn't want him attempting it alone in those conditions. Once we met up together, we chose not to make the summit. There was a heavy downpour of graupel (no lightning, however) going on at the time, but with more dark clouds coming our way. While this disappointed Austin somewhat, I felt it was for the best, under the circumstances. For me, the summit called, but it was no longer screaming.
Similarly, during the next day, we all summited N. Eolus on our way to Eolus proper.
The young guns flew across the catwalk and on to the summit, while Keller and I were following behind somewhat slower (John and Dan made the choice to relax in camp that day and not hike up). Keller, having climbed Eolus as his first summit years ago, also didn't feel the pressure of summit fever, but remembered the anxiety of walking (actually crawling) across the “sidewalk in the sky”. He was also having a bit of trouble with the altitude, which slowed him down. Once we reached the catwalk, I encouraged him to try to relax, focus on the rock directly in front of him, and walk (not crawl) the entire way across. I also put him in the lead: Before, he was always trying to keep up with everyone and at their pace. This had caused additional stress in him and, while he did summit at the time, it didn't make for an enjoyable experience. This time was different. We took our time. I told him we didn't have to try to summit, once across, if he wasn't feeling up to it. So we took lots of pictures, standing halfway across the “sidewalk”.
On top of North Eolus
We soaked up the views, which are incredible. We watched the others summit and return. The weather was perfect, there was no wind, a bluebird day in the Basin. It was as enjoyable place as any summit could be (well, except for maybe Capital Peak). But we didn't summit that day.
Sidewalk in the Sky
We left the area and broke camp, heading back to the train at Needleton. The weather really held for us while there. We had heard that the entire week before had gotten slammed by tons of rain. We noted the Animas had looked like chocolate milk on our ride up earlier, so it was apparent there had been lots of rain. We took the next day “off”, some visiting the Great Sand Dunes and Zapata Falls, while I drove to Cuchara and enjoyed a couple of margaritas at the Dog Bar, one of my favorite places.
Then it was off to the gate at Cielo Vista Ranch. There were already 3 cars parked at the gate. Inside them were 3 ladies preparing for tomorrows climb. One of them, she admitted, was 72, and she's been climbing 14ers for 36 years! Quite an accomplishment. Also joining us was Doug Goforth, a friend who was with me on my first 14er experience in '96. It would also be his 58th 14er as well (actually, I think it was his 57th as he doesn't count Conundrum, yet). His dad (now deceased) was also with us in 1996 and was responsible for getting me hooked on climbing 14ers, so it meant a lot to have him there. Cody's 19 year old friend, Taylor, also showed up that night. He really had no intention of climbing Culebra, as he hadn't registered and didn't have the $100, being a somewhat poor college student. He had previously attempted Lindsey with Cody, but had to turn around due to deep snow, so he'd never completely climbed a 14er. We just so happened to have an extra position reserved for our climb, as someone had to cancel at the last minute. So, I sprang for the $100 to allow Taylor to climb with us, feeling it was a good investment in getting a newbie off to a good start. He seemed to enjoy himself, and I was happy he was there. About half of us started at Four Way, the lower trailhead.
Taylor on a long, snaking ridge alright
It was another stellar day, no wind or clouds, so we spent a full hour on top of Culebra, soaking it in. Some of the others went on to Red, but everyone in our group stayed on the summit. Turns out there was another person there also completing her 14er list that day, but I didn't catch her name, unfortunately. Lots of high 5's that day! It also happened to be my wife's birthday, but that's another story...
After returning to the cars, we all enjoyed a cold beer (Sierra Nevada Torpedoes), some Korbel Extra Dry champagne, and, for our underage and non-alcohol drinkers, Henry Weinhard's Root Beer (the best root beer in the world, by the way). Some of the group gave me a book they had signed, 14,000 Feet as a very nice gesture. Then it was time to part ways. Cody, JD and Taylor were heading for Redcloud and Sunshine (and maybe more) while the rest of us made our way home, which for me was 1250 miles away. Ugh.
So is Culebra worth $100 (or, in my case, $200)? While I'm not a fan of charging people to climb a mountain, I realize it is private property and they could make it almost impossible to access the area (like is done on the east side of the mountain). They are also very nice people and manage the place well. They even asked us what they could do to improve the gate area for those who camp there, and a few suggestions were made. For me, yes, it was worth the money. It was worth seeing the enthusiasm of Taylor getting to the top of his first 14er. Some might question saving Culebra for the last 14er to summit, as it doesn't seem like much of a mountain. I originally saved it because of the $100 fee, as well as the need to make a reservation to climb, plus I had pondered the “Dark Snake” approach at one time (if you don't know what that is, you can find it on the internet). But it made for a nice finisher as I got to gather with friends, old and new, some of whom might otherwise had a difficult time reaching a different summit.
People ask “what's next?” or “are you finished climbing?”, questions I'm sure other so-called “finishers” receive. I don't like that word, finisher, either. Now it's about the journey, about introducing others to the sport, about sharing the approaches, the vistas, and yes, the summits with others. I hope to continue to be blessed with the health and stamina to keep visiting the mountains. Now in our new home at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s, there are even more possibilities waiting, including some amazing 14ers. I can't wait!
Dedicated to Preston Goforth and Craig Clanton
“Endeavor to Persevere"
Culebra, Number 58!
Very Happy Climbers!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):