Peaks (in Chronological Order):
Mount Meeker (13,911 ft)
Mount Axtell (12,055 ft)
Wetterhorn Peak (14,015 ft)
South Maroon Peak (14,156 ft)
Mount Elbert (14,433 ft)
Venable Peak (13,334 ft)
Mount Shavano (14,229 ft)
Scarp Ridge (12,212 ft)
Ruby Peak (12,644 ft)
Total Mileage: approx. 75 Total Elevation Gain: approx. 31,200 feet Participants: stevevets689, James for all but Meeker and Venable (he climbed a couple other peaks), Fernando on Elbert and Shavano, Lucas on Elbert, Theron on Wetterhorn, and Tom on Meeker
It all started as a joke. I had had a mildly disappointing summer, only climbing four of Colorado's top 100 peaks, a couple flatiron routes and one couloir (I was hoping for around 8 of those peaks). James, a friend of mine from Western State, had been doing a good deal of hiking and climbing associated with his USGS job and I was getting envious. We were talking on Facebook one day, scheming up what we wanted to do once school started again. I think he said something like, "We should do something completely crazy, like climb a peak every week or something lol." I took him seriously, but didn't really think it would work. Still, I said, "Well, that could be possible, depending..." At least it would be a good goal to shoot for, even if we couldn't do it. As it turned out, he wasn't serious at all, but with me going along with it, joke turned into plan. One peak per week... or the Peak a Week Project as we later started calling it. The only details were that every peak had to be at least 12,000 feet (putting everything above treeline) and we would do at least one every week, or if we couldn't we would have to make up for it later. We planned this to go for eight weeks, bringing us into October, when the school workload and weather would make weekly climbs unfeasible.
Peak One: Mount Meeker, Front Range
Wednesday, August 19th
Loft Route (11.4 miles, 4,500 feet of gain, class 3)
9 hours car to car
While this peak was not actually done as part of the project, it was less than a week before James' and my first hike, so I'm putting it in here.
It had been nearly two years since the last time I had climbed with my friend Tom from Fort Collins, so when I went up to the area to visit some friends we planned another outing. On our last adventure we had braved Longs Peak in an October snowstorm, and for the second time from that summit I had eyed Mount Meeker, wondering just how exposed its infamous summit block actually was. Tom and I talked over the idea of a more difficult and exposed class 3 route and he liked the sound of it. The forecast was one of the most beautiful forecasts I had ever seen so we agreed on a 7:00am (yes, AFTER sunrise) start/5:30am Fort Collins departure. For reasons I won't go into I didn't sleep at all that night, so I was happy to let Tom drive to the trailhead.
Mount Meeker (left) and Longs Peak (right) from Chasm Junction. The Loft is the saddle in between, and the Loft Couloir route goes up the gully towards the snowfield in the center of the photo
We arrived on time and started hiking up the good 'ol Longs Peak trail, Tom leading the way, and even though I had hiked this portion of the trail three times before I didn't really recognize a lot of what I was seeing, since I had never traveled in this direction in daylight hours before. We made very good time up to the Chasm Lake cutoff and hiked down the trail into new territory. Towering views of Longs' east face put a pain in my neck and I would have to periodically check myself to make sure I was watching my feet.
Climbing in the Loft Couloir turns from a steep hike into basic climbing
The trail led us up towards the Loft "couloir" and braided out into many weaker trails through the loose rock. The elevation gain was pretty quick in this area and the views really started to open up as we continued hiking upwards. The route turned into more solid rock and the scrambling started. There were a few sections where we made a few class 4 climbing moves, though this was unnecessary. At last, we found the broad ledge leading off to the left which is supposed to be the key to the route and took it, now hiking above a pretty giant cliff face. We were then supposed to find a narrow ledge leading back to the right. I think I saw it but I felt no desire to traverse it, since the terrain leading straight up was no more than a steep hike. I supposed that if one were heading to Longs Peak from here then the ledge traverse would be more direct. At any rate, we found ourselves on a very windy Loft, the name for the huge saddle between Longs and Meeker, and with a batch of lowish clouds plus the now "late" time of about 11:30, I started to wonder if the summit was still a good idea. Luckily, we encountered a couple climbers coming off the summit who said that everything looked good from up there and that we were not far from the summit. We made the decision to push for it.
Easier terrain leading up to the summit ridge from the Loft
Longs Peak from near the summit
A brief hike up talus slopes left us at the sharp, solid summit ridge. The wind from the saddle had mostly disappeared, and it was sunny. Nothing like a nice, exposed summit on a day like this! Tom took a quick video of me on the last 100 feet to the summit, and I tried to make it look death-defying at first but it was taking too long so I just walked the rest of the way.
The exposed summit ridge
Gaining the summit
We ate some lunch and admired the views. There was a second block which might be about as high as (or higher than) the first, so I hoisted myself onto that one as well, just to make sure I did actually arrive on the highest point, and then returned to Tom. We then started a Peak a Week tradition which James would adopt but I would later abandon of doing 10 push-ups on the summit with your pack on. Tom hammered out all 10 at once, but I had to do a couple sets... it's so much harder at altitude!
Looking down over the Loft Couloir back towards the Chasm Lake trail
At last we made the descent off the mountain, and most of the time I was thinking about the following 8 weeks and what they might bring. I still couldn't fully comprehend that I had committed to climbing every single weekend for two months... but it didn't matter. That was the plan and it's what would happen. In the meantime, we had a beautiful hike back to the car, where we arrived at around 4:00pm.
Peak Two: Mount Axtell, Elk Mountains
Sunday, August 23rd
South Slopes (8 miles, 2,600 feet of gain, class 2)
3.5 hours car to car
James is a very fast hiker; we got this half on-trail half off-trail route done in about three and a half hours, and I'm sure he could've done it faster. This was the real wakeup call for me which yelled, "Yes! You really are doing this every week until October!" and somehow I felt more sure about being able to accomplish that.
What little terrain above treeline that exists on this peak
It was still mostly dark when we started hiking along the trail leading east from the Ohio Creek road, north of Gunnison, but our headlamps came off after only a little bit. James started the hike at good speed and I was fairly able to keep up at first. We made fantastic time hiking on the trail and soon arrived at a small drainage coming off Mount Axtell. This was our key to ditch the trail and start whacking our way up the slope. We kept to the left side of the drainage, and as we hiked through the forest we chatted about hiking, how our summers had been, and generally joking around... that is, in between breaths, at least in my case.
"You smell that?" James asked.
"Smell what?" I replied. He sniffed the air loudly and then grinned at me.
"Smells like calf burning." My legs could certainly attest to that. This would become one of our slogans.
Ruby Peak, Mount Owen, and Purple Peak from the summit. We didn't know it yet, but we were looking at our Peak a Week finishers
At any rate, we topped out and admired several peaks that either one or both of us had climbed already, hammered out 10 push-ups apiece, and started down. The descent went ridiculously quick and we were back at my parked Volvo in no time. I think James had a lunch date to make that day... he would have no problem.
The spot on the trail where we had cut off to head for the summit
James, looking back down the trail
Peak Three: Wetterhorn Peak, San Juan Mountains
Sunday, August 30th
Southeast Ridge (6.8 miles, 3,300 feet of gain, class 3)
5 hours car to car
Our friend Theron would join us for this one. The forecast didn't look particularly great so we had a pre-climb meeting the day before to talk about our plan and logistics, and then we hopped in Theron's truck and took off for the trailhead outside Lake City. James elected to sit in the bed of the truck so he could do calculus homework... and perhaps sleep like a rock. He did get in the cab before the rough road to the trailhead, which was probably a good decision. Theron's truck is pretty big, and was not really ideal for this road, but of course we didn't realize that until we had already started up it. Nonetheless, we made it to the trailhead and got Theron's big tent set up before dark.
5:00am and some chocolate donuts saw us on the trail with a plan to beat the rain that was forecasted for around 11am. We made excellent time once again and didn't see light until we were entering the basin under Wetterhorn's east face. Our early start awarded us an incredible sunrise over Uncompahgre Peak.
Sunrise over Uncompahgre Peak
Looking towards the summit of Wetterhorn in the early morning
Terrain as we approached the Prow and the summit pitch. James is up there waiting
Last time I climbed Wetterhorn was about a year earlier via the class 4 East Ridge route, and I remembered the Southeast Ridge as being a cakewalk in comparison on the downclimb. Well, it was just about as easy on the way up as it had been on the way down. This was both Theron's and James' first official class 3 route and neither of them were having issues at all. I was almost shocked when we arrived at the summit cone, thinking that we still had a lot more scrambling to do. Up to this point, James had been climbing a ways ahead of Theron and I, but as the only one who knew this terrain it was my turn to get in front. I led the way through a notch and down a ramp to the very aesthetic and airy summit pitch, which took us a matter of a few minutes to climb. We were the first up for the day had the summit to ourselves.
James checking out the summit pitch
The summit pitch!
Looking back at the Southeast Ridge and the Prow from the cliff edge of the summit
On the way down, James and I scrambled to the top of the Prow, a tower of rock near the summit cone, and either James or Theron began a series of pictures featuring what we called "The Arm of God" pose. Back at the truck at 10:00am, it just started to spit some rain and we quickly bagged up the tent and got out of there before the road would turn wet and nasty. James was so fast asleep in the back of the truck that he didn't even notice when Theron purposefully drove off the shoulder on the way back from Lake City.
Me messing around near the Prow on the way down
Theron's "Arm of God" pose with Uncompahgre Peak in the background
Peak Four: South Maroon Peak, Elk Mountains
Saturday, September 5th
South Ridge (10 miles, 4,600 feet of gain, loose, difficult, complex class 3)
10.5 hours car to car
Most of the week after our Wetterhorn climb, James and I had been going back and forth over what to do next. We agreed that we wanted to step up the difficulty, since James was extremely happy with his first high altitude scramble. The Bells had lured us both and the only thing that was holding us back was the driving distance, but once I worked out the cost per person for gas we decided to go for it. In the meantime, James had something going on Friday night as well as Sunday, so our climb would have to be made on Saturday and we would have to drive through the night to get there.
Somehow I actually managed to fall asleep at 7:00pm Friday night, catch some good Zs, and wake up again at 12:30am. I grabbed my stuff and threw everything into the Volvo, picked up James around 1:00, and we headed for Aspen and the Maroon Lake Trailhead. We got on the trail at around 4:30am and zoomed up the trail. A little more than an hour and 3.2 miles further, I located the cairn which marked the spot to leave the valley floor and start heading upwards. It was still dark. Right away we were met with a quick scramble, as if to say "if you can't do this part then you shouldn't go any further." The climbers' trail then led us across the slope and up again, starting a steep, 2,800 vertical foot hike to reach the south ridge.
Looking down the huge slope from, oh, maybe halfway up
The view ahead from the top of the slope
The sun rose. The pungent smell of burnt calf was in the air. A couple hours from leaving the valley floor (after leapfrogging with a couple parties much to James' disappointment) we finally arrived at the ridge. I felt like I had just climbed to the top of something already, but the view ahead reminded us that we were far from done. I will be the first to say that I'm not always the best route finder, so as far as I'm concerned the route from that point was a "pick your own adventure" sort of thing, but that attitude definitely put us on some class 4 or maybe low 5 rock. This more than pushed James' comfort level but he was very good at pushing out the fear and powering through it.
Looking back at the terrain after the big slope. Lots of winding around on ledges
A spectator hanging out on a ledge
Maroon sandstone climbing
James make a dyno! (That's climbing lingo for "carelessly leaping towards the next hold")
The terrain slowed us down more than either of us anticipated but we still arrived on top at around 9:30am. This was one of the few summits we would share with another group during the project, but at least we were also joined by a mountain goat doe.
James near the summit
North Maroon Peak. Now that see it, I've decided that it deserves a title as its own peak. That traverse looks like fun!
The rocky mountain goat who was watching us earlier
Maroon Peak summit panorama. WARNING: some foul language. Turn off the sound if you would like, the audio is not important
We rested for about 45 minutes and then noticed some weather brewing around us. The downclimb and traverse back to the big slope took nearly two hours to accomplish, putting us still over 13,000 feet at noon with rain and snow starting to fall nearby. It was snowing a little by the time we reached the valley floor an hour and a half later and we heard some thunder, but luckily the weather was fairly dry on the trail, though definitely not surrounding it. We made quick business of the trail back to the car and felt a royal feeling of satisfaction when we got there. Maroon Peak remains one of the most difficult peaks either of us have ever done.
Starting back down... it's a long ways
James downclimbing on terrain we probably didn't need to bother with
The end of Len Shoemaker Ridge in some afternoon rain
We stopped for dinner in Buena Vista and decided to drive over the lesser taken Cottonwood Pass to return to Gunnison. We got there after dark. I did all the driving (not that James didn't offer.) That Monday was Labor Day and James managed to go hike Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks with his girlfriend, which would make up for two missed weekends later on.
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