| Perseverance, Ambition and more than a little "Luck"
Dallas Peak (13,809): 100th highest
Lizard Head (13,113): 556th highest
Chicago Transplant (Mike), Shanahan96 (Jamie), Sanjuaneer (Aaron)
Introduction - Getting there is half the fun
It was an ambitious project from the start, back to back climbs of two of Colorado's hardest 13ers: Dallas and Lizard Head. The seed was planted during a recent phone conversation with my good friend Jamie (shanahan96). He was heading to the Tetons for some technical climbs, and a tune up on Dallas was just what he needed. Our friend Aaron (sanjuaneer) happens to live in Telluride, and happens to be a confident alpine leader who has previously led Lizard Head. He agreed to go back for a repeat and all of the sudden the weekend of July 31-August 1 was looking like it was going to be a huge milestone in my mountaineering career, and a huge corner to turn in my quest to complete all of the 13ers in Colorado.
There were still a lot of questions; of course at this time of year weather is by far the biggest question of them all. You don't want to be on either one of these peaks in a lightning storm! Recently the weather across the state has shifted into a heavy monsoon pattern. Normally the weather is clear all morning and then the clouds start to build until early afternoon when we get some brief thunderstorms, and then a few hours later things start to clear again. This pattern is easy to plan around, leave early, and be off the summits before the clouds get too organized. There isn't necessarily a time frame for this, it can be 11am some days, and 2pm others, you just watch the skies and figure it out as the day unfolds. This was not the case over the past week or so.
The recent pattern has been more of overcast all day, then heavy downpours all afternoon and in some cases late into the evening. It has resulted in mudslides and rockslides that have wrecked havoc on the mountains - closing roads, closing train lines, and even contributing to a tragic husband and wife fatality in the Crestones. I am sure many are reading this report and wondering what the heck we were thinking by taking on these peaks in this weather pattern. Believe me, we evaluated our decision at every step and were always willing to turn back when necessary.
The weather may have been awful, but it was not wholly unpredictable. Despite the overcast mornings, rain had been holding off until later in the day, and the severe weather was actually largely absent (i.e. lightning). It's not like the forecast was any better in any other part of the state, and at least if we all met up in Telluride we could hang out together – a better proposition than just sitting around my house by myself moping about how crappy the weather was. But I have to admit, every evening during the week I had thoughts of calling up to cancel.
The cards seemed stacked against me, Friday morning I got into work and had an email from my client in China that they needed our revised rendering by Monday morning. Beijing time. They are 14 hours ahead, so that meant 6pm Sunday. Of course the rendering company is also in Beijing, and we communicate by email. I have a laptop, McDonalds has Wi-Fi, Aaron has internet… I can review these renderings from the road, this can work. Okay, trip is still on. I leave my house Friday after work and hit the road; just to the east of Eagle I see smoke. At first it looks like it's on the side of the road, a grass fire? Then as I get closer it becomes apparent that it is ON the road. On come the brake lights, and now I am at a stand still in a parade of cars. An ambulance goes by, a fire truck. The car goes into park, a book comes out. Maybe I am not supposed to go to Telluride this weekend, the forecast didn't give me the hint, work didn't keep me home, but now I can't physically get there. Some folks are turning around on the highway by driving through the grass, I consider it, but think maybe it's a bad idea. A couple of seconds later a Sheriff in the opposite direction comes by lights a flashing and busts 2 vehicles mid median. I guess I got something right today, could this be a change in my luck?
8pm the highway opens, I am still only 20 minutes into a 5 hour drive. So long sleep, we have a 2am wake up call! I still manage to be the good employee and stop at a couple of McDonald's along the way to check email. No messages, so I keep driving. 12.45am I roll into Aaron's driveway, it's a bit cloudy, but hasn't rained on me since Glenwood Canyon. I crash on the sofa.
Telluride from Dallas
Dallas Peak - Perseverance and Luck
I awake to expletives coming from Jamie as he realizes it is now 4am. The alarm that was set for 2am did not go off. I guess we are lucky he woke up even that early, I am certain I would have been asleep until the sun through the windows woke me. We check the skies and see a few stars between bands of thin clouds, organize our packs and off we go. The trailhead is only 10 minutes away and we are on trail by quarter to five.
It is wet and muddy, and the grass and plants along the trail dampen our pants legs, but not yet our spirits. We are awake anyway, so the worst case is we get to treeline and decide to turn around. We reach the cut-off for Stan's shortcut and after crossing the meadow head into the trees and manage to find the weak trail. This works good until the creek, which we have to cross to avoid getting cliffed out at a waterfall later. The crossing is high (probably from all the rain) and there isn't much available except a wet log 8 feet above the water upstream near a muddy sidewall. We scramble up onto it and crawl and scooch our way across to the other side. Once across we can't find the trail so we bushwhack, then we find some rocks to follow, then we bushwhack some more, cross a bunch of deadfall, and realize that this is no longer much of a shortcut. We are nearing the cliffs and follow along the base looking for the trail, at last we find it! We work our way through and now have to cross the creek again. It takes a few moments to find a good crossing and we are across. At this point I decide that the descent will be of the Highline Trail.
First light on Dallas from treeline
Ahead of us lies Dallas, it is every bit as intimidating as you would expect it to be. The cliff fortress that makes up the south face is impressive, imposing, and formidable. The reality has sunk in and this may be an "O-for" weekend. (as is zero summits). It is now 6.30am, the early morning sun is just grazing the east side of Dallas, so we decide to keep moving. The thin blanket of clouds is still around, but it has holes and is not threatening. Even the Wilsons look good.
Looking good this morning, Mr Wilson
The going is steep, and the grass is wet. We stop for a brief snack (our first break, and only until the summit pitch), then put our heads down and crank up the steep slope. As the grass transitions to scree, the wet ground becomes a benefit. The hard pan is softened and as we climb we actually get some bite in the earth with our shoes. Soon we are nearing the cliffs, we stick to a grassier ridge segment to maintain better footing and aim for a big boulder at the top of it.
Nearing the cliff bands
Directly ahead the cliffs are too much, but towards the left is a 3rd class break so we continue up the scree on (rain softened) hard pan to the base of the cliff and traverse its base to the weakness that provides access. The earlier creek crossing (at treeline) is now a long way down, but so far the weather has remained stable, albeit overcast.
3rd class through the first cliff band
We continue to work our way through this section towards the bottom of the upper cliffs. There is some route finding through here to find the path of least resistance, but its surprisingly dry on the rocks. There are some cairns, but we don't always follow them.
Progress feels good
A large talus/scree ramp cuts across the base of these cliffs and leads to a point known as "13 corner", at approximately 13,000' it is the point you transition from the south face to the east face. Through the scree is a good climbers trail that is a huge timesaver to find as it keeps the footing more stable. This is by far the easiest terrain on the upper part of Dallas and is a welcome reprieve as we make good time to 13k. We round 13 corner at 8.45 and the weather is still the same. As long as it keeps holding, we will keep going.
Working to 13 corner
The east face looks complicated, but was not as bad as it looked. Initially we headed along the base of some funky rock bands on a ramp, you can see it in the middle of the photo, there is some grass along its edge. This took us to a larger sort of ledge, the right side of which is the bulge to the right of the photo.
First look at the east face
When we got there it wasn't so much a ledge, but a gentler (although still steep) scree slope. Again it was softened by the recent rains, so we were able to ascend it with reasonable footing.
Looking back down from 3rd class rib
We climbed a short 3rd class rib on the right, then traversed across the base of some really funky rocks that just look to be about the loosest thing in Colorado to the far left where we found a 4th class weakness that we could ascent.
Funky crumbly mess you traverse below
Traverse to the 4th class weakness, Jamie downclimbing it
There actually appeared to be cut steps on part of this section. 9.20am. The summit block is getting closer! A couple of minutes up some more of that same dirty scree, through a small gap in the rocks and there it is, the famous "car sized chockstone"!
Dallas' summit tower
Of course it's choked with snow, so we head to the right and ascend what Gerry Roach calls "Chock it up" in his guide book. (At least that is what we think this is). This is the hardest move on the route so far, its quite awkward with a pack full of climbing gear. First I went left (photo) but decided the crack was too narrow with the pack and went around right, then back to the left above the narrow part. There was a move that required stacked feet wedged in a crack and then pulling ourselves up and out. 9.30am. This might actually work out after all!
Chock it up gully
We drop the packs, gear up and walk down the 15 feet or so to the base of the summit pitch (sorry, no photos!). We sling a rock to use for a belay stance and Jamie head up the first section of rock. The hardest part is the first 15 feet, which is rated 5.3. He placed a .75 and a 1 Camalot, but I can't remember which was used where. He used one piece on this first 15 foot section in a small crack just below the crux move. Above that is some loose easy 5 on grubby ledges, then he placed his second piece. A loose 4th class chimney, then the top of the technical difficulties are reached. The summit is only 5 feet away from the top of the chimney on second class terrain. A note on the chimney, flip the rope to the left to avoid rope drag on the loose stuff.
Jamie contemplating the rappel, Sneffels looms
10.15am and we are on top! My 98th centennial peak, only Jagged and Rio Grande Pyramid remain. There is now some light fog whisping around the summit, but plenty of blue skies around to the west as well. Some puffy clouds are starting to form in the east and south. We don't plan on staying long. We clean some old webbing, including Jamie's from last year, but unfortunately leave ourselves short for the standard rappel. This means that currently there is no webbing on the standard rappel, you will have to bring your own, or follow our alternate rappel. We found another block to the side that reached and set up a rappel there. This is not the typical rap, so it has some loose stuff on it, we cleaned some of the loose stuff, but you will want to move to safety after your rappel while waiting for your partners. We landed right at our packs and shoes, this photo looks up the rappel.
Bottom of our summit rappel
We rapped "Chock it up" and then descended the rest of the way on foot. Below the lower cliffs some light drizzle started in but it was sporadic. When we reached the highline trail we looked back and saw the summit encircled in fog and low clouds. It was just before 1pm at this time. We made it back to the split with Stan's shortcut in just under 1 hour on the Highline Trail, then descended the remaining way back to the car. The drizzle became more steady at this point. It rained off and on all afternoon but we never heard any thunder. We enjoyed a nice dinner at Smuggler's in town, and went back to Aaron's.
The upper reaches of Mill Creek Basin
Lizard Head - Building Confidence
Maybe I never really thought Lizard Head would happen in this weather, because for some reason even while organizing gear at Aaron's house, I never got nervous about the climb. We were going to make the hike in and we were going to give it a go, but it didn't bother me. You would think that with its reputation not only as being the hardest 13er in Colorado, but also loose and dangerous, and then add in the recent rains and wet to it, that I would be very apprehensive, but I wasn't. I am not sure how to explain why I felt the way that I did.
Jamie and Aaron head towards Lizard Head
Despite the weather, we didn't feel the need to have too early of a start, so we awoke at 4am. We figured some air-out time for the peak would be to our benefit. We hit the Cross Mountain Trail before 5, and moved steadily though the thick forest. It was a weird feeling being on this trail. There are no mountains around, all you see if the forest and it felt like we weren't getting anywhere. It was of course wet and muddy as well. But the good news was that the sky was relatively clear, much more so than it had been on recent days. Finally we reached the wilderness boundary and we caught our first site of Lizard Head. This is the game changer. This peak does not look like it belongs in Colorado. It's a volcanic plug that towers some 400' into the sky (depending on which side) sitting on top of a cone of scree and talus. It looks like a desert tower from Utah, not an alpine peak in Colorado. To our left was Mount Wilson, looking brilliant in the morning light with some clouds near the top trying to burn off in the early sunlight.
Early light on Mt Wilson (south Wilson to left)
We reached treeline and continued on the trail which now went though some sections that were black dirt and felt like walking on coffee grounds. The trail crests the ridge that connects Lizard Head to Cross Mountain and then takes off for Bilk Basin. We left the trail here, not quite 7.30am. We made our way up the steep slopes of the ridge, initially on grass, but soon it transitioned to the scree cone. A climbers trail makes the going through the scree and talus relatively painless. We now were at the base of the plug, and I touched Lizard Head. I got goose bumps and felt a pit in my stomach, but less of fear, and more of celebrity. This is the hardest 13er in the state, and I touched it! I felt like a teenage girl at a Justin Beiber concert. "OMG, I touched Lizard Head!!", or something like that. For the first time, climbing this beast actually felt like a real possibility. Maybe that is why I never felt nervous the night before. I don't know if I actually believed it was real, it was all just some crazy fantasy. Like a crush on a celebrity, was Lizard Head just something you dream about but don't expect to actually ever do?
The lower part of the first pitch, oh boy, here we go!
We had a snack and put on our harnesses, Aaron racked up, I slung a rock to set up for the belay and soon I was feeding rope through my ATC.
"Climbing". "Climb On".
Aaron began his ascent. The route is split basically into three parts, and works up the southwest side of the peak. For one, that means it gets absolutely zero morning sun. Wet rock was a serious concern for our team, especially deep in the main chimney system used for the ascent. The first pitch is about 110' and uses a southwest facing chimney. About halfway up is a belay ledge with an anchor of two pitons. The crack is a consensus 5.7 with maybe one 5.8 move near the very top of the 110', although not all people agree on that move's rating. The second pitch is a steep loose third class slope, this is generally thought of as the most dangerous part of the climb. A fall would sail you over the 110' lower wall and most certainly result in death. Protection is not viable because rope drag would most certainly result in pummeling people below you, most likely your own party-mates, with loose rock. The third pitch has two options. Most people go for the off-width crack, that is said to be easier to protect, but has a good 10-15 foot bulge in it that elevates the rating to 5.8. There is an alternate ramp/ledge to the right that is 5.7, but run out. It starts with a wide rounded flake with little to no options for placement of gear, then turns a corner and ascends a thin ledge with a tapering crack before topping out directly below the chains at the anchor below the summit. From there it's a loose walk to a very exposed summit. I know this from research, reading trip reports, route descriptions, and of course talking to Aaron who led the 5.7 summit pitch on his first ascent.
Summit tower from the trail out
This is real "rock climbing". The feel is not so much one of being at a peak, it didn't even really feel alpine to me the way Dallas and Teakettle did. It felt like being at a local crag, to your left and right is just a big cliff, below you a steep scree slope to an approach trail. You can look across valley to distant mountains, or behind you to Mount Wilson, but it didn't feel so much like being on a mountain.
The start of the climbing route
Aaron continued his ascent, about halfway up to the intermediate ledge he tells us that the crack is "dirty and wet". His climbing technique is inspiring to watch, however, as he scissors his legs and uses each side of the crack wall to stem the chimney. He continues on and reaches point where the chimney narrows. The right side is a large bulge, the left a fact that looks quite smooth from my vantage point 40 feet below. This is the crux of the climb so far, he is deep in the chimney now and trying to get to a nice ledge on the left above him. Working his right leg up, he gets high enough to reach the left side ledge and he successfully pulls himself up and over the top. From here the climbing eases a bit to the ledge and he sets up on anchor. I take him off belay as Jamie ties in to second the route. Here I change mode to photographer, and these are the only climbing "action" photos I have of Lizard Head.
Jamie on the edge of the Chimney, I went this way too
Jamie starts up the chimney and the initial climbing goes well. He cleans the first two pieces of protection and continues on his way. He is now nearing the crux, and clearly is finding it difficult. He starts out trying to mimic Aaron's route, but backs off, and tries to go around. He traverses under the bulge on the right more on to the face and starts to ascend. Oops, there is a piece of protection at the top of the crack. He can't go his chosen way and get back to it. If he keeps going he will create an "N" shape to the rope and risk pendulum action if he falls. He goes back, traverses under the bulge, and back to the crack. He fights his way into it, and again tries to find his way through. It takes some finesse but he manages to get his left leg up and pulls out of the chimney.
Jamie working up the crux of the day
Exiting the crux, I climbed the bulge by his right leg
With his right arm he grabs at a knob and I head "ROCK". Luckily I am off to the left playing shutterbug and am nowhere near the rocks that tumble onto my earlier belay stance! He is able to collect himself and pull to the safety of the belay stance.
Successfully up to the first belay
Now it's my turn. At this point the Wilsons are in fog and are likely going to stay there the rest of the day. Its 10.15am. This is taking too long, and the climbing only is going to get tougher. It's probably 3 more hours to summit. It is at this point that I know the summit is not going to happen today. I know I can get up to the belay ledge and we can all rap down from here, although I am a little apprehensive that the weather will hold out for the necessary time even to accomplish this much. Despite the clouds, there is no precipitation. The clouds are similar to what we had on Dallas, and it didn't rain until almost 11.30. I think the first hand practice on the rock itself will do me good for when I come back, so I tie in.
"Climbing". "Climb On".
Remember to breathe. Okay, here it goes. I step up the face and start up the chimney. Yep, its wet, but I can stem it okay. I make my first climbing moves on Lizard Head. There are good holds through here, and the rock is solid if you stay out of the recesses of the chimney. The climbing is fairly sustained, but has pockets where you can stand for a moment to catch your breath and figure out the next moves. (see image 23) I move a little to the right, out of the chimney and more on to the face, but along the chimney's edge. (see image 22) This is more familiar climbing for me and I make good progress. Halfway there. A little more and I am at the base of the crux section. Pause. Hmm, this is interesting. I am told from above that the best way is to face left and reach my right arm into the crack. (see image 24) I try it. Okay, now I see what "dirty and wet" means. I can't gain confidence that my hands will hold in that crud. The ledge on the left is far to high, but there are some small foot holds below the bulge that might work.
I throw the advice of the two people above me aside, despite the fact they were successful by doing so, and turn myself 90 degrees. Now I am facing the bulge and reaching up to some reasonable handholds. Too much weight on my right foot, which I need to move up. I am nervous, I don't trust my handhold. Its damp and I don't want to fall. I weight it, and pull myself up. It works, the right foot is on a small step, now the left on a step above it, I reach over the bulge and turn to face it. (see image 25, I climbed the bulge by his right leg, them stepped back across to the ledge on the left) This is not 5.7, but despite being technically harder than the crack, it is more mentally comforting. I have climbed 5.8 like this before. I pull up and now I am high enough to step left to the same ledge Aaron and Jamie used. I cross the crack. Remember to breathe.
Above me to the left is a good hook, I extend my fingers and scooch my feet up and I can reach it. I pull myself up – avoiding the holds on the right Jamie knocked loose earlier – and am now past the crux. Just some loose junk in the chimney and I reach the belay stance. Anchor in and we discuss our plans. The climbing is only going to get harder, the weather only going to get worse. It seems no one wanted to say it, but we all know it: We are turning around.
I'll say it. Aaron and Jamie concur. They set up the rappel while I catch my breath, Aaron is in the best position to rappel first and does. From below is takes a couple of pictures of Jamie and I. Lizard Head rookies 50' off the ground. We have climbed maybe 1/5 of the plug, but I don't feel disappointed. I feel proud. That is 50' higher than I thought I would get when I first heard of this mountain, 50' higher than I thought I would get when I first saw a picture of it. 50' higher than I thought when I first saw it from Wilson Peak, and 50' higher than I thought I would get when I went to sleep last night. I call that success.
I reach the ground and look back at Jamie coming down. We changed shoes, and sit down to have a snack. After a few minutes discussing our techniques and what we thought of our Lizard Head experience, Jamie says "Did you feel that?" Drizzle pelts us while we snack, then fades and a brief spot of sun shines through. It was like the mountain's way of telling us we made the right call, and it was going to reward us by letting us get back to the car safely. We took the cue and put on the packs and hiked out. We moved quick, at noon we were on the trail, at 1.15 we were at the car. Lizard Head was half choked in a black cloud. We would have been just about on the summit, right in the middle of it.
Glad we turned around!!
We didn't summit, but we got to climb ON Lizard Head. It was tough, the wet sections didn't make it any easier, but I know HOW to climb Lizard Head, at least for 50'. Sure the looming 3rd class section still weighs on my mind, the exposure of the summit, but I have a new confidence about the technical pitches. I'll come back, most definitely not in monsoon season, but maybe even this year still after it passes. I'll think about this climb next time I am at the local climbing walls, as I further train and condition myself physically for the challenges that await. But you learn quickly that a peak like Lizard Head is not just a physical challenge. Some mountains are as much (if not more!) a mental game as they are a physical one, and that mental preparation is hard to come by until you are there. Until you touch Lizard Head, until you tie in. Until you make that first climbing move.
I don't like to turn around; I try and plan my ascents for the maximum success. When the weather is crappy I try and find where the weather is better and go there, or I go for something lower in elevation, or a shorter route. I wake up early; I move fast, I don't take breaks. I have a pretty good success rate, Lizard Head is only the sixth time I left the trailhead and didn't get at least one summit. Normally this is not what I would have done on a weekend like this, but in all honesty the weather wasn't any better anywhere else, aside from staying home the only other option would have been some tree covered 11er off the Last Dollar Road or Lizard Head Pass.
There have been a lot of forum discussions about weather this week, and some people probably think we never should have left the house, especially for these peaks. We left with the notion that we would be making our go-no go decisions as we went, from the trail, in the field. We don't armchair quarterback our ascents, we go out and we observe and we evaluate as we go. We could have been forced to turn around at 6am, or 7, or 9.45. But we managed to get into the 10 o'clock hour both days before having to turn around. If we weren't already off Dallas' summit, we would have turned around when the fog and drizzle rolled in. Our timing worked out, not necessarily because of anything we did or didn't do, but just out of a willingness and acceptance we had that we would go until the mountain told us otherwise. Lizard Head told us to go home, we listened. There is risk in everything in this chosen sport; I don't add these notes to justify myself or my partners' decisions to others, nor to encourage people to go out when their brain tells them to stay home. Weather can be scary and unpredictable, but sometimes you just have to leave the house and give it a try, there is no shame in turning around. Success is not measured in ticking summits on a list. Between reaching the summit of Dallas the day before, and the invaluable experience of being on rope on Lizard Head, this was a monumentally successful weekend.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):