|The most challenging summit in Colorado|
In June 2014 Laura Zaruba and I went on a peakbagging jaunt along 149 between Del Norte and Pagosa Springs. One of our objectives on that trip was to investigate and hopefully climb 9854, an obscure peak in SE Hinsdale County. The peak had come to my attention when noodling around in Listsofjohn where I noticed it was the only peak in Hinsdale that Mike Garret had not climbed which seemed odd since it was the second lowest of the county's 189 peaks and he had climbed all the nearby peaks. The little information available about the peak, all on LOJ where no ascents of it were logged, indicated that its summit was a formidable rock pinnacle of unstated height. (Subsequent LOJ research led to the conclusion that 9854 was in all likelihood the highest unclimbed ranked summit in Colorado.) Laura had done lots of climbing with Mike G 20+ years ago and was still in contact with him so she sent him a note asking if he'd like to join us and, with luck, finish off the county. His reply was that the peak was essentially unclimbable; beyond that he seemed to imply that an attempt would be so hazardous and such a long-shot that it wasn't even worth trying. This naysaying made the peak all that more intriguing to me though I hedged our bets by packing, in addition to aid and free rock climbing gear, a bow and arrow, thinking that in the worse case, I could shoot an arrow trailing fishing line over the summit pinnacle and use that to get a rope over which we could jumar.
When Laura and I finally made it to the base of the tower it was readily apparent that MG hadn't been blowing smoke. The tower was taller than I'd expected, it faces ranging from about 50 to 80 feet high and overhung on all sides. It offered virtually nothing in the way of natural protection and while the rock seemed more solid than we'd been led to believe, the matrix of the conglomerate composing the bottom 15 to 30 feet resembled dirt more than rock. The tower was on a steep, loose hillside which made even walking around the base a challenge. It was clear that without a major bolting effort the tower was not going to climbed using conventional rock climbing techniques, free or aid. Even our backup plan with the bow and arrow seemed very low percentage for a variety of reasons, foremost among which was that the summit came steeply to a true point, requiring a more accurate shot than I was likely capable of. The one respect in which conditions were more favorable than by dint of wishful thinking I'd convinced myself they would be, was that there was another pinnacle about 30 feet to the east of the summit and about 10 feet lower which seemed to provide a much better position for the arrow shot than the ground. Though the sub summit only required 3rd class climbing to ascend, the stance its top provided was far less steady than an rookie archer like myself needed and the attempt to shoot the fishing line over the main summit was an utter failure as the line snarled, its spool went airborne and the arrow fell into the gap between the two summits. Our morale followed the path of the arrow. With weather looming, we retreated to the car and other objectives. Even though we'd been totally shut down, I was somewhat relieved that the B&A attempt had been a failure since even if it had succeeded and allowed us to fix a rope over the top, I would have have been very unhappy jumaring the 8.8mm dynamic rope I'd brought; I'd once sawed halfway through a rope while jumaring in the Fisher Towers and the dismay I felt on that occasion twenty years ago is still fresh. That experience made me a convert to the far more abrasion resistant static ropes for jumaring. It was now clear that an up-and-over fixed rope on the rough basalt of 9854 would be subject to high abrasion and that at the very least, a sturdy static line would be required for the job.
Thus 9854 became a high priority vendetta, but there was not a straightforward means of settling the score. The peak was more than I could manage as a solo, too technical for peakbaggers and too much effort / terrible for rock climbers. The most straightforward means of ascent would be drilling a bolt ladder but this would require a lot of hard work and it seemed kind of pointless to go to that much trouble for a route rock climbers would shun. Alternatively another attempt with bow and arrow seemed to have little chance of success; throwing a stone attached to fishing line seemed more promising but still unlikely to result in success. Then sometime during the winter it occurred to me that a drone might be the ticket for getting a line across the tower. While I had no personal experience with drones, it seemed a powerful unit with a capable pilot would be able to more accurately position the line and eliminate concern about an attached projectile snagging in downrange trees.
Nearly a year had passed when my friend Randy told me that he and his son teenage son Kastan had a few free days before he started summer school. Randy and I have had many climbing adventures over the years from El Cap to Alpamayo. A few years ago Kastan joined us for one of these adventures, bagging young ascents of Rio Grande Pyramid, Twin Peaks (C) and Sharkstooth. Kastan had recently built a custom drone to support his video production projects and I was sure he would have the skills and confidence required to pilot the drone on this project. So asked them if they'd be interested in this project and soon enough I was picking them up at DIA.
Rather than heading directly to Hinsdale County, we decided to spend the afternoon in Boulder, practicing drone operations. This time was well spent as we learned a lot of lessons about working with a drone trailing a line some of which required modifications to the drone and all of which were essential to the eventual success of the expedition. We also happily learned that Kastan's drone was powerful enough to lift parachute cord which eliminated the very fraught fishing line phase. This TR will be long enough without drone related technical notes so I'll omit them, but if anyone else is interested in this activity, contact me through this site and I'll share our beta.
We left for Pagosa early the next morning, planning for an armed reconnaissance of the tower. The last of Colorado's extended wet spring manifested itself as we drove up the final dirt roads and made camp. The drone with its exposed electronics cannot operate in rain so with a solid forecast for the next day we decided not to push our luck, left the drone in the truck and carried loads up muddy cow trails to the base of the pinnacle.
The tower looked even more formidable than I'd remembered but at least we'd found a considerably easier approach than the one Laura and I had used a year earlier. The steep dirt slopes around the tower were now steep mud slopes which would make the landing and recovery phase of the drone flights that much more challenging. Having not learned too much we headed back to the truck and camp.
The next morning we headed back to the tower (about a 40 minute walk with loads by the optimal route) well before sunrise.
The drone was soon assembled, calibrated, test-flown, attached to 200' of pcord and we ready for showtime.
Kastan piloted from a platform on the south side of the sub summit, I was stationed atop the sub peak to direct positioning across the summit and Randy waited at the west side of the main tower, to direct the drone away from trees and catch it as it was landing.
At the last minute we rearranged the pcord that had been carefully flaked, a thoughtless act that nearly had catastrophic consequences. The drone lifted off and flew about 30' until the cord which had snagged around a protrusion went tight, catapulting the drone into the hillside in a full-on yard sale crash. Gasp! While I had visions of driving back to Pagosa and acquiring a hammer drill, Kastan and Randy picked up the wreckage. The battery ($100, surprisingly delicate) had rolled well down the hill side and couldn't be relied on but we had spares. More pressing were broken landing gear and missing bushings from the drone's GoPro's gimbal. The GoPro wasn't essential to getting the line across but we dearly wanted it functional to document later phases of the operation. Randy and Kastan set to work with duct tape and a leatherman and soon had repaired the landing gear and fabricated adequate bushings and we were back in business.
For the next flight we took the same positions except that Randy started next to Kastan so he could manually feed out the pcord with the plan that Randy once the cord was deployed,
Kastan would hover the drone while Randy scuttled down the hillside to the landing spot. This flight went much better. The site of the drone buzzing away in the blue sky at twice the height of the tower with the cord trailing back down to us inspired awe in this baby boomer. Randy made good time down to the west side and the drone was recovered without incident.
The pcord was draped over the pinnacle, near its top but on a steep face, a couple of feet to the south of where it needed to be. Randy held on to the downhill end of the pcord while from atop the sub peak I gingerly flipped it until it sat it a small notch just to the north of the summit. I then tied one end of a 100 meter piece of 5mm perlon to the pcord and Randy started slowly hauling the pcord towards him. The pull went unexpectedly smoothly and soon we had 5mm running from the sub peak across the summit and down to the base of the west side.
It was still early in the morning and we had passed the logistical crux -- this might actually happen! (This moment of elation was somewhat attenuated by an incident moments earlier when a big chunk of the sub summit broke off and fell into the tree that my dog was tied to; the dog was unscathed but the water jug leaning against the tree was crushed.) A 60 meter static 9mm rope was then tied to the middle of the 5mm and Randy resumed hauling. Again the pull went smoothly with the last major hurdle, the knot clearing the summit, cleared without a hitch. We now had a rope we could jumar running over the summit.-- events were progressing rapidly. We used the remainder of the 5mm to haul an 8.8 mm lead rope over the summit; this rope would serve as a backup to allay fears of the jumar line sawing.
I then joined Randy at the base of the west side and rigged an anchor for the ropes. There was one decent crack in the dirt which accommodated a #6 Camalot, a #4 Camalot and a brown TriCam. The placements were pretty good the quality of rock they were in notwithstanding. Careful equalizing and and backup sling around a cobble made us reasonably confident of this anchor.
On the east side, where the jumaring would occur, the natural fall of the ropes was north of where we had envisioned them going which meant both a longer and free hanging jumar and having to pass a large roof at about 40'.
After some test jumaring near the ground to make sure the rope wouldn't slip off the steep sided spire, I launched for the top on the static rope. I ran the backup rope through a GriGri as a self belay and rap device in case the static rope sawed.
Soon the roof was passed and I was on the slabby last 15 feet. Then I was on top of 9854. The plan had been that at that point I'd rig some kind of more traditional anchor which I would rap from and which Randy and Kastan would jumar on but the ropes were so well situated -- set in a small notch which kept them from sliding -- that I concluded any adjustments were likely to make the system less solid so instead I tied to lengths of 5mm around the summit, hauled up our 6mm rope (we'd brought about 1000' of line) and rigged a slingshot anchor which could be used to belay Randy and Kastan while they jumared.
After I rappelled to the ground and a short lesson in mechanical ascending, Kastan was embarked on his first jumar. He did great, having no problems with getting the rhythm of efficient movement, clearing the roof or rigging the rappel.
Clouds had been building and it was raining by the time Randy started jumaring.
He was willing to take his time, hanging below the roof until the clouds passed so that Kastan could relaunch the drone and film him at the top. Some of the video that came out of those flybys was more than worth waiting for, game-changing stuff.
The unwinding went quickly and we were back at the car in time to hike up Trail Ridge, Hinsdale's lowest, and drive into town for dinner before heading back up Piedra road to make camp near the start of the Pagosa Peak trail which we intended to hike the next day.
During these activities we rehashed the ascent of 9854 which in the summit register we named Drone Home. Our ascent was impossible to rate using the traditional system. Since we'd done no free climbing and no aid climbing, the default would be class two though that would be the all-time sandbag. A new rating system seemed in order so we called it D3 (on the D5 scale). A higher tower and/or more trees would have increased the difficulty. A more level base, fewer trees and less vertical would have made it easier. Strong winds might have completely shut down the operation.
I feel fairly confident asserting that of ranked Colorado 8ers and higher, 9854 is the hardest to get to the top of. (There are some lower formations near Four Corners and Dinosaur National Monument for which no known beta exists and which could potentially be even more challenging.) Expertise in at least two disparate disciplines was required for our ascent. If someone got busy with drill and bolts, 9854's difficulty would be greatly diminished, so maybe it's best we didn't chose that approach. (Side note: the SE face has a line which could be done without using bolts exclusively. 15' of the dirt band would have to be freed, followed by about 20' of bolts in better rock at which point naturally protectable features seem to exist and free climbing might even be possible.)
Will this peak ever see another ascent?
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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