| Graduation Day
It is no surprise that I am easily satisfied with the very best of weather. Aren’t we all? However, Mother Nature clearly has her own agenda. She is a thief of dreams, a real genius of unrest, immersing herself in it. Grab a Kleenex, a tear jerker ensues. Just like today, September 13, 2013, Colorado’s July weather also made headlines, “Fog is unusual in Denver, which boasts of having more than 300 sunny days a year…” July 28th, 2013 was a day where Mother Nature shacked up with the Gates of Mordor and its Towers of Teeth in a rampant fury.
On this infamous day I was to have a Fourteener Graduation with my very best friends. Some old friends, some new, I borrowed some gear and even had the blue skies; the day before. My good ol’ pal Jill has a spark for adventure that is hardly containable and was the igniter in my pursuit of Colorado’s fourteeners. She has summited everything but Lindsey, and the mighty mighty Crestones and so we planned to finish our summits together. She flew from Boise on Friday and that night we drove to the Lindsey trailhead to car camp. On a blue bird Saturday we had a nonchalant uneventful climb up Lindsey, a mountain I climbed with my husband the previous winter but it was nice to catch up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in two years. Jill brought a beautiful hand painted drawing that her husband John created with her name on it, the date and her finishing Peak; Crestone Needle. My husband Marc, who thinks we’re all completely insane climbing these unforgiving mountains, packed up Saturday afternoon with summit celebratory champagne and met Jill and I in Westcliff so we three could drive to Colony Lakes together where we would meet up with new climbing hotshot buddy Joe and his friend Tom to camp for the evening for a Sunday grand finale. And if successful, Joe and I would have completed all four great traverses together after meeting just a little over a month ago.
At the upper trailhead, Jill, Marc and I ran into the guy I nicknamed “Brandy” because the weekend prior, Joe and I summited Culebra, where no arrow heads were found but this Brandy guy brought a rather large flask with some decadent peach flavored brandy wine to share. I could not resist the offer. So Brandy and his crew, party of five and my crew, soon to be party of five all hiked toward the lake together. Heigh-Ho, Heigh- Ho, it’s off to Peaks we go….toot, toot! We finally found Joe in a primo camping spot and set up camp, while Brandy and his crew chose to camp a little higher so we bid him adieu and wished them all the best of luck. A little camp fire, dinner and tea, laughter and a plethora of climbing stories soon it was time for rest. The clouds were plump but forgiving for the evening. But by 11pm, the first water droplets fell and fell and never let up. At 3am, the wake up and go time, rain smashed down harder, turning the ground beneath me to a pool of thick muck. Tom, a brave soul put on some rain gear and ran over toward our tent and asked what I thought. I suggested that we give the weather another hour to make a go/no-go decision. At precisely 0401, the rain lashed out harder and harder, and as the wind whipped about with moisture dancing around in heavy spirals around us; in silent consensus we all drifted off in a slumber.
When I awoke at 6am, Marc and I slowly emerged from the tent to an eerie silence. Not a whisper of rustling grass, not one singing bird, just heavy wet branches, the air thick with moisture and the surrounding saturated summits hiding behind low lingering clouds. For now, the rain subsided but was predicted to return by noon. Our day thwarted since these peaks do not play nice when wet. With heavy hearts and heads hung low, we all packed up and hiked down. This beauty school dropout graduation was not meant to be…Or was it?
The weather can be cruel, but I am not one to wallow in pity however, I pondered long and hard over my next decision. So with Jill back home in Boise and Joe back to Chicago I thought, sure I’ll postpone my dream to complete the fourteeners ‘til next summer. Now I am quite certain my good friends have similar thoughts; the only thing worse than being pensive for not accomplishing ones goals, is for others to know of your sadness. Although I can’t fully explain, after several conversations with disappointed friends and family I came to a conclusion where I got tired of thinking and regretting. The first time I stood atop Quandary Peak last summer, it was love at first hike. The very next weekend I completed the outrageous DeCaLiBro then drove over and hiked Sherman for five peaks in one day. This new found obsession possessed me and 14ers.com was to blame. The website, the community and 300 days of Colorado sunshine, the only thing getting in my way was a five day work week and a concerned husband.
One encouraging text from Jill and another from Joe to “Go for it…I would” is all it took for me to pack up my trusty steed Roobie and my stud muffin Ocho for a solo Blazintoe Adventure of a lifetime. If successful, I will have completed all 58 Colorado Fourteeners in one year’s time. So, August 16, 2013 on a clear warm summer night after work, I took the long familiar drive up to Westcliff. The lower lot was already packed and since I had my mountain bike, “El Ocho”, I decided to car camp and launch from there. At 0400 Saturday morning with toes ablaze I was pedaling my way up to Colony Lakes. On this day it was surprisingly clear, the moon high in the sky and a gentle breeze causing a rustling of tree leaves. By sunrise I found a nice hiding spot for Ocho and made my way toward Broken Hand pass with my dancing boots, fully prepared for a conga line. The place was packed.
On the front side, Broken Hand Pass is steep and loose, which is a fleeting concern for the returning descent. Once on top, I was surrounded by fellow hikers when I had my first conversation of the day. I am almost always reluctant to boast of my grand plan to strangers in fear of that great bastard Murphy but my mouth couldn’t help but flap in the breeze. Broken Hand Pass on the backside is not as dreadful as I’ve read about perhaps because of the views. The eyes make the legs forget. The grand San Luis Valley leading its way up this cirque of the bouldery beloved Sangre de Cristo’s is stunning. With my little Miss Sunshine self-fulfilling prophetic aura, I stomped my way down to Cottonwood Lake and although beautiful, was skeeter infested so I couldn’t linger as long as I’d liked.
From Cottonwood Lake, the Red Gully is obvious. My excitement led the way. Here the conga line began and the common theme was, “Rock” as quite a few were sent careening downward. The center of the gully was not where I wanted to be so I jutted climbers’ right and was surprised to scramble my way to the gully notch at 14,100 in so little time. With just under 200 feet to summit, the final conglomerate rock ledges were a welcomed known quantity. The scramble to the top was delightful. Once on the summit I was not alone as ten or so other summiteers celebrated with me on #57, yippie! My cel phone worked long enough for me to call Marc and tell him, one down, one to go!
I felt amazing and was too excited to dillydally long. The original plan was to summit Crestone Peak via the South face and red gully, down climb all the way to Cottonwood Lake, back up Broken Hand Pass and climb my final peak, Crestone Needle via the South face. But the buzz was out amongst all other climbers and a group of four that I caught on my down climb of the Red gully enticed me to attempt the traverse with them. Oh boy, I’d promised Joe and Jill that I’d save the traverse for them next year and made sure not to bring any beta so that I wouldn’t be tempted. At first I appreciated the offer and turned it down but then one guy made an interesting point, that if successful today I’d feel proud to know I climbed 58 fourteeners with all great traverses in one year. My buddies understand my conundrum and would’ve been as easily tempted. Instantly what little oxygen I had left in my head remembered every aspect of the traverse; first, down climb 300 feet to the first grassy ledge to begin the traverse. The group of four had good beta with descriptions and pictures but they were moving slower than I wanted. Besides, the longer I ponder the more I suffer from what I call chickenitis and now that I was committed to this traverse, I wanted to keep these fancy feet moving so, solo I went.
Now I was standing on the first open ridge, the next goal was to find the gully that lead to the next ridge. There were dispersed cairns along the way that lead me to another gully but this one didn’t feel right. About half-way up the gully, a couple started coming down towards me with info that the top cliffed out. We three turned back toward the ledge and studied their traverse description, which was wildly different than the original group I started climbing with. Hmmm. The info the couple had depicted a long route right of the second open ridge then descend the wide gully however, the maps I remembered were to climb directly toward the black gendarme to find the one technical obstacle, once up and above, take a quick right turn. Despite my instinct to go find this obstacle, I climbed with them to check out the wide gully, which eventually cliffed out. They decided to turn around, descend then continue pursuing the open ridge while I chose to head toward the black gendarme. Once there I could see a rappel tied to a boulder stuck in the wide crack. The rope was solid but I also studied the right and left sides of this obstacle. The original group of four that I started the traverse with was finally at the second ledge and had a good view directly at me. The leader of their band shouted from afar, “hey, Amy, that’s a 5.2 pitch that will lead you to the summit ridge!” I shouted back, “alright, thanks, I see a good line up!” I studied the rock once more then attempted the left side without the rope. At first the rock is up close and personal right smack in your face, my heart pounds and I tell myself I can do this. All it took was one solid hand hold while my feet followed and voila, there I stood on top.
From here I took a right turn, hopped over a couple cracks and arrived at the base of the second gendarme. The remaining route is a climbing zig-zag pattern on knobby good, firm rock. All-of-a-sudden I found myself on a very airy ridge and thought, no way this can’t be it. To be honest, the final ridge, for me presented the biggest mental challenge because although not steep, the rock smooths out limiting hand and foot traction with nothing but air on both sides. I heard the chatter of other summiteers and thought, alright, that couple made it too and poof, there I was on top of the Crestone Needle, #58 my final mountain. Waaaahooooooo! Once on top I bellowed with joy. “I can’t believe I did it!”
However, the folks on top were not the couple, they asked, where did you come from? Well, that’s a loaded question but my flappy gums proudly professed my day’s accomplishments. Oh, if only I had a megaphone. They congratulated me then made their way back down the Needle. I sent Marc a final summit SPOT message knowing he was tracking my progress for the day. The next thirty minutes was a God send. How lucky am I to have my final summit all to myself with nil wind, nothing but lazy puffy clouds and 360 degree views of my all favorite peaks? I was a chirpy bird perched on a ledge made only for me…well not really but I felt compelled to do a little celebratory summit dance. Eventually I sat on my perch, and touched the summit rocks feeling the life in them. I tipped my head back, eyes shut for just a moment of silence. Complete solitude is rare on such a popular mountain. The calm overwhelmed me with loving serenity. Tears of joy befell my eyes. After some considerable alone time I started to worry about that couple. Not wanting to leave, I slowly packed away all my goodies, donned my day pack and glanced once more back at the traverse where they finally peaked their exhausted heads. They said the Gerry Roach traverse description eventually served them well. We all took a few quick photos but they were both ready to get down the mountain and wondered if I knew the way. Well, no, but I do know there are deadly ways down the mountain however, I had a GPS track and PDF file of the route.
Climbing up a mountain is the easy part, the summit optional, but getting off the mountain is often where most accidents occur. The mountains will allow safe passage however; complacency and impatience will be punished. Patience is the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year. Descending a mountain takes time and must be appreciated. I was delighted to oblige. At first we descended to the right of the summit and quickly the gully got steeper and looser. The GPS track pointed to my left, so I climbed back up to a small ledge; from here I could see the West gully and shouted back, “hey, we have to go this way”. I waited, then led the way down the steep stable gully. I scrambled laterally across a rib to see the class 4 variation of the West gully. This rock is tricky and will lead you astray, while most of it is conglomerate with good hand and foot placement opportunities, the long glaciation process causes a softness to the clasts. Climbing this rock wet would be nearly impossible. While descending together, I found time to check out multiple options then report back to the couple making sure they were okay. Finally, we found the East gully, from the top I could see the good trail heading toward Broken Hand Pass. From here we parted ways and I swiftly disappeared from view.
At Broken Hand Pass now, I crossed paths with the band leader of team OMG and picked his brain about Denali. The equipment and experience needed is exhausting. I enjoyed his stories so much, I forgot all about the steep and slippery Broken Hand Pass. Finally, I found Ocho unscathed and blasted down the hill. The ride down was my reward for a job well done. With cel reception now, I had a message from Marc that said, “you made it…you just couldn’t resist the traverse could you? Congratulations, you did it!” Yes, Graduation day was a success and a proper celebration was in order. Although sharing this journey seemed the perfect romantic ending, solo I began this quest, and solo is how it ends. My heart sinks like the setting sun, I tip my hat and ride away.
A summit celebration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=II9me_vqPPI
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):