| Mistakes to Learn From
The following describes several mistakes that were made on a recent 14er ascent, mostly consciously, and although afterward we were worst for the wear, no one in our party were injured or lost and thus the trip ended successfully. A simple double 14er, turned into an exhausting single fourteener that only two of five had the stamina, will, or desire to summit.
Overconfidence can be the number one reason most climbing/hiking mistakes occur. The second might be failure to adequately prepare. The third and closely related to number one is pride. I would say in this post that I am guilty of all three, due largely to recent experience gained while hiking 14ers and the fact that as a leader of the group, I did not want to appear less than prepared, capable, or not as much a leader. I suppose it takes a leader to identify mistakes and learn from them and as a military officer, I know better, or at least should know better. I post this as a warning to others, a reminder to yet others, and a form of venting for myself. In this particular hike, there were no injuries and no bad weather, but it could have been much different, even disastrous.
Training in the military teaches most the value of being prepared and never underestimating an enemy or in this case, a difficult task. I failed for several reasons, although I luckily was able to pull together some semblance of an achievement without loss of life or limb. Although the joy I feel on a 14er is rather intense, even that felt on those most difficult of ascents, it was likely lost on most of our group. The ease with which my most recent 14er summits were achieved likely got to me. After all, this one too should have been too easy.
Some mistakes I made that could have been avoided or at least limited are listed here, again as a warning to others who've been there done that and to those just starting out.
- Failure to properly pack the night / days before (no GPS, map, or guidebook; no rain jacket; no layering; not enough water and food)
- Failure to get enough sleep the days up to and night before (several nights before I had only received maybe 5-6 hours of sleep and sleep the night of was a broken three hours)
- Failure to eat and drink enough the day before and morning of the hike (I failed to properly hydrate days before, limited my meals to low calorie foods, did not eat my normal breakfast, failed to eat what was in my pack, and even took a physical fitness test the night before which further dehydrated me)
- Failure to adequately read the directions and verify the instructions of others (I inherently knew we were making a mistake, yet trusted another with less experience and I failed to just go back to the planned starting point which would have only added about 30 minutes – 30 more minutes of driving would have saved us hours of hiking broken ground)
- Failure to bring the map(s) on the trip and the hike (I assumed it would be too easy to find the trail and correct path, never once assuming we would be off trail or be required to begin at another trail head)
- Failure to bring enough water for me and the dog (I have mulled over whether to purchase a carrier for the Labrador, who is more then capable of carrying his own supplies and as of yet have had only cool weather which left us both with plenty of supplies. It was pretty warm this day and we paid for it)
- Failure to remain on the trail (we left the known trail not only just after the starting point, but also at the higher elevation seeking speed over distance and relative ease. The first departure cost us valuable time and took us over very broken steep terrain which fatigued us much faster then we had planned. The second cost us energy and ultimately a second peak, which now must be climbed separately. Had someone broken or severely sprained a leg in the thick forest, it would have nearly impossible to get them out safely)
The trip began only minutes past 0400 after a sleepless night, tossing and turning on the living room floor in an effort to not wake my family and keep the dog from whimpering all night in anticipation of the next day's adventure. I would not start packing until around 2200, at which point I felt tired and cared little for ensuring I had what I needed. I had food in the fridge and looked directly at my cold weather equipment (jacket, rain parka, turtleneck, etc.), all of which I decided to leave in the laziness of my early morning slumber. I normally make a list several days in advance and pack incrementally as I mentally prepare for an upcoming hike. Usually by Tuesday, I only need to pack my water and food items that require refrigeration. Although I typically celebrate each hike's ascent with a toast of a very dirty martini, even this small item was left at home.
Making good time, we arrived in Buena Vista just after 0600 and headed south towards Highway 50. Although the directions indicated a turn to the west one mile north of HWY 50, the navigator told me to turn west on HWY 50. Although I could see the turn just before HWY 50 and even slowed down, I did not verify the route and kept going. After traveling west for 3-4 miles I turned north on CR 240 taking our group on the road to what we thought should only be 6.7 miles to the trailhead. After about 6 miles we passed a sign for a trailhead but kept going. After another two to three miles I stopped and checked the directions. Irritated to discover we were on the wrong road, I turned around and found the sign with an indication of a trailhead, which was 2 miles away.
Instead of going to the desired trailhead, I parked the van and decided it was here we would start from. Since we had only lost an hour or so looking for the proper trailhead another two miles would be no big deal. Since I did not pack one of my two GPS's, guidebook, or map, I had to trust the sign and go for it. There was a trailhead sign that told us we were at the Angel of Shavano Trail, although I trusted a climbing member who'd stopped to read it to determine if it took us up or was just information and was told he wasn't sure. We hiked up a steep incline for what seemed like at least a mile on the Colorado Trail, at which point we began a quick descent taking us due east and away from our goal. We came upon an unmarked forest road that headed towards the mountain. Assuming this took us to the trailhead, I lead the group WNW up the road. This road unfortunately ended with no visible trail anywhere in sight. We searched the surrounding forest and found nothing that would take us to the trail we desired or to our goal. I did not want to beat the bush and go straight up so I asked if anyone had brought the 14er.com directions and fuzzy map image (another item I forgot to bring). Someone had and we quickly determined our miscalculation and location.
It was agreed that we should walk to the intersection of the Colorado Trail and the service road and try to find the trail. If we were unable to summit, we would chalk the day up to a good hike and go drink some beer and eat pizza. As we retraced our steps and headed back down the road, we noticed a sharp curve in the road. The map indicated that if we headed due north, it would take us to our desired trail and there just happened to be an older service road leading the way. Hoping it would lead to our destination, we moved quickly north. At the end of the road, I surveyed the map again and determined only about six to seven hundred meters separated us from our desired trail. We hiked a rather steep ravine until we entered a dried out stream bed that continued north and acted as a much easier trail we could follow. It was not too long until we actually found our desired trail.
For a few minutes our group was alone on the trail until we ran into a couple from Kansas visiting Colorado and deciding to do a 14er. Apparently they had better navigation skills when looking for the trailhead. Ironically, I was mildly concerned that the couple was poorly equipped with minimal gear and very little water, as well as being unaccustomed to the altitude. Happily finding the trail and after a brief chat, we pushed on and broke tree line just before 1030, well passed my desired time by at least two hours. Two of us moved very quickly and separated from the remaining three, fortunately maintaining radio contact with two of them.
As we moved up the trail, we came to a steep ascent that lead straight up to the summit bypassing the trail and shortening our destination by at least a kilometer. Although a later review of Gerry Roach's book Colorado's Fourteeners would show this route as a dashed blue line (Class II) it was much steeper then the trail and became incredibly taxing on me and my partner. I had packed over one gallon of water, yet my supply was becoming severely depleted as I gave water to Charlie, my nieghbor's chocolate lab, every other stop. As we crested a boulder field, we completely lost site of our remaining group members but could at least maintain radio contact. Determining they were OK, I touched the summit exhausted, dehydrated, and feeling extraordinarily hungry. I felt like I had the flu or was fighting off some oncoming cold that was zapping my body of strength and will. My head pounded and I felt a peculiar off-balance not experienced on previous climbs. I looked at Tabeguache and what appeared to be a boulder obstacle and said "Hell no, some other day!" I fired up my stove and cooked up two packs of ramen noodles, quickly downed it, and gave Charlie over half of my remaining water. Although I thought the ramen would provide some relief, the expanding noodles only made my stomach feel bloated and made it cramp fiercely. We rested for over 30 minutes, but felt no better then when we ascended. I got a call from the trail party that they would not summit and decided to turn back to tree line. I instructed them to stop at tree line in the shade and wait for us.
We descended quickly and maintained radio contact the entire way; well sort of. As we descended and instructions were given to remain in groups, so link up could be made at tree line, this quickly failed to happen. Although there were four radios for the group of five, two members quickly outpaced the third. The two lead members had one radio between them, with the other wearing I-Pod headphones. I contacted the lead group to determine their location and found out that they too had been separated while the radio holder stopped to void his bladder and the other kept going, not hearing the call to stop. When we reached the lead radio man he explained what happened and that he could not hear a response to his calls. We called out and I began to feel a bit panicked when there was no response. I called the now "leader's" cell phone, but got no response. My fears were quickly allayed by a return call to my cell phone. He was instructed to stop and did so. It would be only minutes before we linked up and the group would move almost as one toward the trailhead.
I moved quickly to the front of the pack, often stopping to check on slower members and it was not long we were again separated. I got to the van with the faster member of the team about fifteen minutes prior to the remainder of the group. We were glad to be done and after getting a refill on water from the cooler, we headed back home to recover. I would spend the remaining weekend mulling over my mistakes, rethinking what I should have done instead, and promising never to repeat my lack of respect for Colorado's biggest mountains, its vast wilderness, and its sometimes unpredictable weather.
You may read the above and think to yourself that I am making a mountain out of a mole hill, but I feel very frustrated with myself, ashamed that the immense joy I feel hiking may have been lost on the others, and absolutely lucky as hell. Although I had just ordered Colorado 14er Disasters, I had not read it until the days following our hike, whereby many of my mistakes spoke so clearly to me that I felt I must get them out; I must help others to avoid them, even if at the expense of my own pride. I was lucky because the group had working communications, we actually found the trail, and the weather was fantastic. Given poor weather, poor or failing communications, someone getting hurt while off trail, and any other poor decisions, a true emergency could have been a real possibility; something I would rather not have to deal or live with. On the two plus hour ride home, I was convinced my remaining hikes this season needed either a demarche or a serious reflection on correcting errors. I chose the latter, remembering that we truly learn from failure, not from success.
Hike prepared, hike smart, and hike to enjoy the wilderness, not to overcome it – because ultimately you won't.