Peak(s):  Ypsilon Mtn  -  13,514 feet
Date Posted:  09/09/2019
Modified:  09/14/2019
Date Climbed:   07/20/2019
Author:  OldTrad
Additional Members:   handonbroward
 Blitzen: Senior Ridge Curriculum 401  

Forward:

A year ago, technical alpine climbing in my 60s was something I had not planned to be doing at this point in my life. However, with inspiration and a growing awareness of beautiful alpine routes such as Blitzen, Gash Ridge, McHenry’s Arrowhead Arête, etc., that quickly changed. Ultimately, it only took a couple of months of trad climbing through the spring of 2019 and my old confidence, developed through 25+ years’ experience during my younger life, came roaring back. Before I knew it, I’d leapt headlong from “standard” 14er hikes into 5th class mountain terrain. Though my partner, 14ers member HandonBroward (HB), is already providing more “traditional” trip reports on our adventures (e.g., Blitzen Ridge - Ypsilon, There and Back Again, etc), I felt my atypical path would provide an unusual perspective and might even inspire others during their own mountain journeys. So although there will be some overlap between HB’s and my TRs, mine come from a guy who has returned to climbing after over 20 years away.

Blitzen: Senior Ridge Curriculum 401

I was about 80 feet up the 200 foot headwall on vertical terrain, looking up the huge, overhanging corner on the
left side of the headwall’s prow. This was fifth class terrain, and there was a big void under my heels –
hundreds of feet of empty air down to the cirque below the Y Couloir and Spectacle Lakes. The rock was
highly featured, but the overhanging part of the corner was full of sinister, loose looking blocks.
HandonBroward, my partner, was about 70 feet below me searching for alternatives. Although in my
early 60s, close to retirement and never, ever a soloist, here I was, ropeless, on my first fifth class alpine
route in decades. At this point, it would be natural for most people to wonder how I could possibly have
wound up in that situation. As might be expected, the real explanation goes back to my roots as a
climber.

19804_01
First view of Blitzen's technical crux at dawn

INSPIRATION

I am certainly not a peer of accomplished mountaineers who frequent this site, but I am a climber. I have always been a climber. I’ve been a climber for as far back as my memory goes. When I was four years old, I recall our family visiting friends who had a rock retaining wall along their driveway. I’m sure that wall was no more than six feet tall and less than vertical, but I remember loving every visit there because I would become a “mountain climber” while scaling that wall – my very first mountain.

At 17, I arrived in Boulder with technical basics learned during an Outward Bound-like course I had previously attended in the high Sierras. I could rappel, belay, owned a Goldline and rudimentary hardware, and had practiced extensively at Castle Rock State Park above Saratoga in the California Bay Area. Camming units did not yet exist, nor did sticky rubber (EBs being the modern footwear of choice, though I was unaware of their existence at that point and still climbed in Vibram-soled boots). Upon arrival, my aunt enrolled me in a CMC rock climbing class where I continued to build on my skills. I climbed along the Front Range whenever I could, but it was while bouldering up on Flagstaff Mountain that I experienced the first of three climbing epiphanies, which collectively would define the climbing curriculum I would follow throughout my life.

My friend John and I were as high as kites, and walked up from Tree Slab toward the Pratt Mantle, but there were three good climbers already there. They were Jim Holloway, Jim Michaels and another person we did not know. In fact, at that moment, we didn’t know who any of these guys were, though I later became aware that Jim Holloway was the best boulderer in all of Colorado at the time. John and I stood there at a comfortable distance, agape, as these three gods effortlessly walked up Smith Overhang as if they were giant insects, using a variety of microscopic and useless holds to do so. That was the moment, my first climbing epiphany, when I realized what was possible. The impression they left on me was so sharp that - although I didn’t know if I could ever reach the level of excellence I had just witnessed - by god, I was going to try. And try I did, eventually graduating from the Flatirons to Eldorado Springs, Boulder Canyon, Estes Park and serious trad climbing.

TYPE-2 FUN

My first 14er was Longs peak at age 19 --- via the Casual Route on the Diamond. Several years later, I finished an undergrad at CU and moved to New York City. By that time, I was an experienced leader and had a high level of endurance on difficult climbing. While in New York I bouldered in Central Park during the week, and spent time in the Gunks on the weekends. Then, after a two-year stint upstate attending graduate school, I moved back to California for a job at a Silicon Valley startup.

I started to go to Yosemite Valley. A lot. I began to develop skills and an affinity for crack climbing -- techniques I hadn’t had a chance to learn during my Eldo and Gunks courses. The better I got at climbing in the Valley, the more physical and masochistic the routes became: hand cracks, fist cracks, flared cracks, flared chimneys, squeeze chimneys. The harder, the steeper, the more strenuous and the more nausea-inducing, the better. This was Type-2 rock-climbing “fun” in pure form. The pitches were long, typically a full rope length, requiring a level of commitment on lead that I’d not experienced before, since once you had led out more than half the rope it was impossible to bail out and lower off. Instead, as they say in the military, you needed to “embrace the suck” and deal with it, regardless of whether you were gassed, scared, wanted to barf, your hands and knees were raw, or you were strung out in any way. There was rarely any way to turn around and go running back to mommy.

I got to the point where I saw absolutely no point in attempting anything that wouldn’t push me to my absolute limits. I was not interested in climbing for fun, but rather in discovering the hardest leads I was capable of. Though I couldn’t possibly have known it at the time, the high pain threshold and commitment levels I had developed - and my predisposition for Type-2 fun – would serve me well when I eventually took up other mountain activities later in my life.

It was while leading the Hollow Flake pitch on the Salathe Wall on El Cap that I experienced my second climbing epiphany. I was in the thick of it, run out more than 100 feet on a continuously uniform 8-inch, 5.9 offwidth crack. My back was against the main wall, my right side wedged in the right-facing corner so that I had no choice but to look straight out into the valley and down the rope which ran down and down and out of sight around a corner waaaaaaaaay below. I had no gear that fit the crack and couldn’t see where I’d end up if I came off. As I gazed down the rope and out at El Cap Meadows in front of me a thousand feet below I realized that the rope, though useless to me, would at least assist in the retrieval of my body if I were to fall. Yet, despite my predicament and fear, I felt a sense of calm determination. I decided that I would NOT fall. I would carefully complete the lead, and afterwards advance my masochistic development by focusing exclusively on offwidth crack climbing, the most notorious style of vomit-inducing crack-climbing that Yosemite Valley had to offer. Epiphany #2 would ultimately direct the next five years of my life far, far deeper into the depths of Type-2 fun.

19804_11
The 3rd of 4 Offwidth Crack Pitches on Blind Faith. I mean, who smiles while climbing flared #4-Camalot sized cracks??
19804_10
The Wedge gradually tapers to finger-width down below, so whatever your least favorite crack width is, you'll find it here
19804_12
More typical offwidth grimace (photo credit: John Sherman)
19804_13
Did you know that offwidth crack climbing is available on Mt. Evans?

Eventually my wife and I moved back to Colorado. I climbed for several more years in Eldo, the South Platte, the Sequoia Needles, Yosemite, etc., and finally hit middle age. My wife and I had two daughters. I dedicated myself to my family and my daughters became two beautiful young women. I was a dad and husband during those 20 years, but no longer a climber. My daughters left for college in New York and my wife and I became Colorado empty nesters. It was at that time that a miracle happened. In the summer of 2016, my older daughter came home after her first year of college and said, “Dad, can we go hiking?” I said “sure!” thinking we could get out and hike eventually. A couple of days later she asked me the same question again and I realized that she didn’t want to hike eventually, rather she wanted to hike now. It turns out that being in New York for a year made her want to experience as much as she could of Colorado during her summer vacation, before her inevitable return to school when the summer wound down.

We hiked South Boulder Peak together via Shadow Canyon. We hiked Green Mountain and Bear Peak. Years of Taekwondo had already conditioned my daughter to “embrace the suck”, so she was no stranger to Type-2 fun. We kicked around the idea of climbing some 14ers and wound up graduating to the usual suspects - Decalibron, Quandary, Bierstadt, Elbert, etc. As we hiked together, I realized that I could still get high up in the beautiful Colorado high country without having to incur risks like those I had embraced during my 25-year rock-climbing career. This seemed to make especially good sense given that I was on the backside of my 50s. I could hike, I could hike up into high places, I could experience outdoor beauty and challenge myself on a few high peaks, and it was all good, clean, healthy fun.

Thanks to 14ers.com I had limitless information on the biggest Colorado mountains. I liked the idea of climbing 14ers as they were well-known, well-travelled, and tickled my old tendencies to make things difficult on myself. I met several wonderful partners through 14ers.com including Cygnus X1, Urban Snowshoer, Strayster2 and Hellmanm. Together with these impressive guys I began to work my way through “the list” over the next few summers. Urban Snowshoer dragged my sorry a** back onto the correct route after I had led us astray descending the Crestone Needle. Strayster2 and I discovered the joy of making “day hikes” out of marathons like Harvard+Columbia, where we’d leave Denver around midnight, do the hike and be home by dinner time. Cygnus X1 met me several times in the Sawatch, and of all my partners - though he was closest to me in age, and regardless of how well conditioned I felt I was getting - he always left me in the dust.

REBIRTH

Though I wasn’t especially introspective during the summers of 2016-2018 (I was having such a great time planning hikes and hiking), there were some telltale hints of old behavior. Typically, as one works through “the list” of 14ers, one starts with easier hikes and gradually gets to where the hikes become more difficult - such was the case with me. However, I also found myself interested in hiking less traveled routes instead of standard routes because they were less crowded - and harder . Additionally, when you could turn a monstrosity such as Massive Mania into a “day hike” from Denver - where you were operating on just a few hours of sleep - well, that made it all the more “fun” didn’t it? Hiking any other way would be too easy. Type-2 was alive and well, and my appetite for it was increasing.

In January 2018, I was having dinner with my longtime friend of 35 years and my (since retired from climbing) partner on the most difficult/technical climbing routes I did in my younger years. I told him about my renewed interest in Colorado’s mountains and he suggested Blitzen Ridge on Mt. Ypsilon, an “amazing scramble” he said.

When I got home, I looked up Blitzen. It looked incredible, but I saw it required 5.4 technical climbing across the “Four Aces” and a 200-foot Headwall. My friend had climbed it solo, but he had soloed much harder technical routes and I was no soloist. Moreover, there was no doubt that I could not do the same after a 20+ year layoff from technical climbing. I bought some approach shoes anyway, and discussed the route potential with Cygnus X1, who was immediately interested. We would need a rope. I had kept my old hardware but discarded all my old nylon due to shelf life concerns. On a whim I looked up lightweight lead ropes, wanting to see what the state-of-the-art had become, and discovered that Beal made a single (i.e., lead rope) that only weighed 6.5 pounds for a 60 meter line. Wow, equipment had advanced! Also, it so happened that Cygnus X1 owned a new rope, so we would be good in that respect, but timing and other constraints didn’t allow a trip up to Ypsilon – at least not yet.

COMING HOME

During the fall of 2018 on a trip up the NW Ridge of Mt. Lindsey, I was hit with Climbing Epiphany #3, the result of two different experiences that happened at almost the same time. First, up until then, I had not done much technical climbing on the 14ers. I had been up everything in the Crestones and done the Tour de Abyss, but the bulk of the peaks had been class one or two. I certainly loved those harder routes, but hadn’t been focusing my sights on technical climbing. Thanks to Bill Middlebrook’s route description, I knew that Lindsey offered different technical options around the headwall. I was also aware that the ridge leading up to the headwall was optional fourth class. As I headed up, I immediately gravitated toward the harder climbing, and the more time I spent directly on the fourth class ridge, the more I realized how much fun I was having.

The second thing that happened was that I noticed Blanca’s East Ridge. Although I had climbed Blanca via the standard route earlier that year, I hadn’t paid attention to much beyond getting up and down in one piece. From my vantage point on Lindsey, the ridge looked aesthetic and beautiful. I thought to myself, “What is that thing? That looks amazing!” I had previously read Roach’s description of Gash Ridge, of course, but had not yet made the connection to what I was seeing.

I had a great time on Lindsey, and when I got home I immediately picked up Roach’s guide to learn more about Blanca’s East Ridge. The Gash Ridge! So that’s what I was looking at! Here I was at the end of the 14er season, but my curiosity was piqued, the desire for more technical climbing had returned, and the seeds of obsession had taken root. As I thought about my day on Lindsey, Climbing Epiphany #3 began to crystalize, and I realized that I that I suddenly cared a bit less about “the list” of 14ers. There were 14ers I still wanted to do, but I decided that I would start to focus on routes that were the most appealing to me, regardless of where they were, as opposed to the peak-bagging mindset I had held earlier.

19804_15
Gash Ridge from Mt. Lindsey

Blitzen and now Gash were suddenly objectives. However, if I really wanted to do those I would have to face what I felt would be the biggest challenge of all – finding a partner who was willing to head down this road with me, a geezer in my 60s who “used to be able to climb hard”.

First off, it’s hard enough finding partners with compatible goals when you are young. It’s even harder to do when the routes you have in mind are more difficult. My situation was worse yet. I mean, who on earth would agree to hook up with me for some technical mountaineering routes?

As luck would have it, I found a possible candidate while searching the 14er forums for information on Gash Ridge. HandonBroward (HB) had posted a couple of things indicating a general interest, but it was obvious that HB was a high-powered guy. As I looked at his posts, I discovered he’d climbed four of the five peaks in the Crestone group in one day, solo. He’d done all the hardest Elks routes multiple times. Again solo, he had done the LB-Blanca traverse starting with LB’s NW Face!

Knowing it was probably a long shot, I contacted him anyway, asking him whether he’d ever managed to climb Gash. It turned out he had made plans, but those plans had somehow fallen through. I explained that I was also interested in Blitzen, but knew I would have to sell myself as best I could in order to get past our age difference. I told him about my rock-climbing background. About the Diamond and all the nasty stuff I could think of from my younger years. I told him about the harder marathon “day hikes” that I’d done over the last few summers. And I told him we could get acquainted climbing a few trad routes in Eldo. It turned out that it was that last thing that interested him the most, as he had lots of technical rock climbing experience too, but not in the world of traditional technical climbing, and he wanted to learn more.

HB and I climbed in Eldo together through the ill-tempered spring of 2019. I had since bought two Beal Opera ropes, rationalizing that I could use them as doubles while rock-climbing, teach a partner to rappel on one while belaying them on the other, and carry one of them up on Blitzen and Gash if and when the time came. I also felt that, as an older climber, I had a responsibility to teach and mentor as much as I could since I had so much rock climbing experience. If nothing else, I felt I owed it to younger-generation climbers who were interested in learning.

With the cooler spring weather of 2019 and the heavy snowpack inhibiting trips to the high country, we spent our time working our way up in technical difficulty. My first couple of times back on lead were rough around the edges, but starting at 5.6 we advanced until we were consistent on 5.8 and even 5.9. Perhaps more importantly, we were becoming faster and more efficient, especially juggling the complexities of climbing with double ropes. Of course, as we climbed together we got to know each other better and better. HB reminded me of my younger self and despite our age difference, we became fast friends – ideal for the inevitable tough spells that we would surely encounter if we started to do hard climbs together in the high country.

19804_16
The Unstoppable HandonBroward - relaxed even while airing it out in Eldorado Springs

BLITZEN RIDGE

It was mid-July and I had already hiked a couple of Sawatch 14ers earlier in the month, so I floated the idea of Blitzen to HB for Saturday, 7/20/19. Though I had originally suggested this route to Cignus X1, I had been training with HB all spring and felt that Cygnus would understand why I was heading up there without him. My rationale for suggesting Blitzen over Gash was its lower elevation and shorter drive - we could maximize our chance of success if we started early and moved fast. I also felt that Gash would require a better weather window, and HB agreed.

As July 20 approached the weather outlook deteriorated. Monsoon weather had seemingly arrived and it was certain that Saturday afternoon would bring punishing weather. We would have to get up Blitzen and off as fast as possible to avoid the predicted storms. However, Saturday morning was going to be clear, so we decided to sack up and push our start to the earliest possible hour, using the trick of a staged vehicle at the Chapin Pass trailhead to shorten the descent. Although we would not be descending via Donner ridge, we would be doing this as a “day hike”, which meant operating on very little sleep. These logistics and forecast meant that Type-2 fun was almost assured.

Our plan was to wear approach shoes, carry a slimmed-down rack, harnesses and one of the Beal singles. We met at the Lawn Lake parking lot early, drove HB’s car up to the staging spot, and were back to the trailhead and walking by 2:30 AM, the reason being that we would see sunrise around the time we arrived at the Four Aces, the start of the technical climbing.

19804_02
Pregame Faces

Despite HB’s pack giving him trouble (big trouble, I later learned) and some brief confusion at Ypsilon Lake when deciding how to navigate the darkness in order to reach the ridge, we arrived at the Four Aces on schedule. As we donned our harnesses, two climbers caught up to us and immediately passed the First Ace on the left without roping up. Now, when I said previously that I was no soloist, I meant it, though I later realized that my aversion to soloing developed during my hard technical climbing years, as opposed to fourth and low-fifth class terrain. Hence, watching these guys waltz casually past was a psychological boost and advantage that would benefit me from that point forward. I mean, we saw where they went and it didn’t look sketchy, hard, or insecure, so why should it be hard for us? As HB and I headed out onto the exposed fourth class terrain past the First and Second Aces I became focused and relaxed. Everything felt surprisingly easy, secure, and best of all – fun! Despite the exposure and technical nature of the route, we were climbing unroped on this unbelievable ridge, and I did not feel at risk in the slightest. I felt as if it were all simply a matter of concentration and deliberate movement across very sound rock, and not committing to anything that looked too difficult or insecure. My old rock climbing instincts and skills were serving me well, much better than expected, even. Within a matter of the few short minutes that it took us to cross that initial section, my 40+ year aversion to soloing had been squelched just like that.

When we arrived at the Third Ace we again had a decision to make – to rope up or not. What we had just soloed was fourth class, whereas this next section was supposed to be 5.4. The two climbers who had passed us earlier were out of sight, so we were on our own. The decision turned out to be simple. We knew we needed to move fast, we were feeling confident, and we could always start out solo, but pull the rope out if we felt we needed to.

I climbed straight up into a smooth corner mid-face, paused a minute to make sure I could navigate a more difficult move securely, and before I knew it, was on a ledge above the corner. My new approach shoes (NOT my first time climbing in them) worked almost as well as climbing shoes – a pair of Scarpa Zen Pros, just big enough for my massive feet.

Once HB reached the ledge there was another choice to make: left, right, or up? I quickly spied a line of holds left and down around the south side - perhaps not the optimal route given the exposure, but the handholds looked great, so down I went. Another quick step left and I was suddenly at the rap anchor used by climbers who rap the backside of the Third Ace. A shortcut! A shortcut that required down climbing exposed 5.5, but a shortcut nonetheless. We were feeling great, moving fast, and a few minutes later had already soloed all the way to the bottom of the Third Ace. We were on a roll!

Now at the bottom of the Fourth Ace, we leapfrogged the party who had passed us earlier -- they had stopped there to rope up. They graciously allowed us to pass, enabling us to quickly navigate the fourth class ledges up and around to the right, circumnavigating the Ace to the base of the headwall.

19804_03
HB Circumnavigating the 4th Ace. Third Ace downclimb is the shaded face to the left

I won’t try to speak for how HB was feeling up to this point - though he seemed fine with the exposed technical climbing - but I will say that I was in a zone. The rope had been unnecessary so far, so why break it out on the headwall? I headed left of the prow, up some ledges and into the huge corner on the left side of the obvious pillar which formed the prow itself. I paused to scan what was above, which finally brings me back to where this trip report started.

Above me the corner was dark, it began to overhang, and was full of ominous looking loose blocks. I wasn’t worried, however; instead I was concentrating on remaining secure. I began scanning for a way to bypass the dangerous section, knowing I needed to avoid climbing directly up the corner, and started to consider alternatives. The highly featured granite showed some potential on the left wall of the corner, but then I spotted a large foothold on the arête out to the right. I stepped out onto it and then, suddenly clear of the corner, found a line of holds allowing secure passage to the comfortable ledge at the top of the prow. I yelled down to HB and described what I had done, and in no time he joined me on the ledge. After a brief pause, snack and discussion, I followed HB up another 100 feet to where the angle of the ridge finally eased. There was one move near the top of the upper section where we both paused briefly (maybe 5.4), but otherwise everything still felt solid. We were past the crux of the technical climbing and we were having a blast!

19804_04
Above the Headwall - a look at the upper ridge with the ever-present void on the left side
19804_05
Incredible view of Donner Ridge across the cirque
19804_06
A better look at what climbing on the upper ridge is like
19804_07
Taking a welcome break

As others have reported, Blitzen is not a route to take lightly. Although we were past the most technical section, the ridge is quite long, and the section above the headwall requires continuous navigation of mostly third and fourth class terrain while gaining another 1,000 in elevation. I was moving slower than HB by then, who kindly kept me in his sights whenever he was up ahead. I was tired and I realized I was more comfortable when I could use my hands, so second class sections, because everything was so exposed, slowed me down considerably. My pace allowed our leapfrogging friends to pass us yet again, though our conditioning, preparation, and persistence in “embracing the suck” saw us to the summit by around 10:15 AM. Incredibly, I can’t say it ever really reached Type-2 fun levels.

19804_08
Skirting a tower up high - there was no escaping the exposure even on the north side of the ridge

19804_09
Looking down the Y-Couloir at Spectacle Lakes

I was exhausted and elated, and we stopped to chat with our new pals before they headed down. Upon realizing my senior status one of them said he hoped he would still be climbing stuff like this when he was my age! How, in that brief moment, could I possibly have described the road that brought me to Blitzen that day? I was a climber, then I wasn’t, and yet now I was again, and I had managed this serious and difficult route with relative ease. His statement made me feel even better than I already did, and I basked in that feeling as HB and I snacked, took a few photos, and prepared for the slog back to Chapin Pass. The weather held during the descent, only dropping a few sprinkles before we were safely back in HB’s truck sometime after noon.

I had passed the exam, and Blitzen: Senior Ridge Curriculum 401 was in the books. I had completed my first technical alpine route in ages, had carried technical gear but happily not used or needed it, and was enjoying the ride down Trail Ridge Road, marveling at the sights out the window of HB’s truck. As we passed a spot where Ypsilon came into view HB pointed it out to me. From the road it looked like an absolute monster – way steeper than it had felt while we were up there just a few short hours ago. I was home, though the path was long, winding, unusual, and most of all, so very unexpected .

HB dropped me off at my car and we drove separately back to Denver. When I hit the canyon about 15 minutes out of Estes Park the weather UNLOADED with rain and hail, but I didn’t care, because I was thinking about the title of the Grateful Dead album.

What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
BillWright

Dr. Offwidth is Back!
11/15/2019 17:40
So awesome to see this great report from my rock climbing mentor! I never did match the master, but it sure was fun following in your wake for the times we climbed together. If you ever want to get out for an alpine climb/hike/rock climb, let me know, as I'd love it!

Welcome back, buddy.

Bill


OldTrad

Thanks Bill!
11/15/2019 17:47
You would kick "the master's" a** today - no ifs, ands, or butts. Just sent you an email/PM. Good to see you those times in Eldo this spring too!



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