Mt. Massive - 14,421 feet
Castle Peak - 14,265 feet
Conundrum Peak - 14,060 feet
Mt. Oxford - 14,153 feet
Mt. Belford - 14,197 feet
Mt. Massive - 14,421 feet
Castle Peak - 14,265 feet
Conundrum Peak - 14,060 feet
Mt. Oxford - 14,153 feet
Mt. Belford - 14,197 feet
All the trip reports I am writing for the summer is simply a byproduct of my thoughts, reactions, and experiences from my summer mountaineering project of climbing the 58 CO 14ers before I head back to CU in August. I hope that these trip reports help me to learn from mistakes, to document my experiences as beta for others, and to help me to think and become a better person and mountaineer. Thank you for reading and for your support!
48/58 in 2020
Elk Range Complete
^^Looking at the weather and conundrum from near the summit of Castle.^^
By now, many of you have read at least one of my trip reports. Yes, I am behind, but this is because of how busy I've been climbing during the prime hiking season. I've been very fortunate this summer to not have any other demands in my life blocking me from reaching my goal. I've been trying to get a job most of the summer but it's been sorta hard, though this also freed up my time for climbing. This past week, I started getting the first hints of victory. I've been hopeful but decidedly realistic this entire summer about the feasibility of completing my project by the difficult deadline I set for myself (essentially August 23, since the 24th is my first day back in classes at CU). After this week, I am sitting at 48/58 and the Elk range is complete. I am rather proud of myself, but I keep reminding myself that it is not over. There is still one more difficult trip yet to come- the Chicago Basin.
I am nearly finished with the Sawatch range. Antero has been getting put off and delayed this whole summer, and I'm going to have to find time to do it soon. This week, I climbed for only 2 days, but summited 5 14ers in 2 different ranges.
I drove up on Monday night to the Mt. Massive trailhead and met up with a buddy from high school that I ran track with. He had never done a 14er before, and was in more than good enough shape for one. The 2 biggest things that most people new to 14er's don't understand is logistics and altitude. Most of the time (for CO natives, anyways), people are in decent shape but have never gotten around to climbing one. Neither pieces of the mountaineering game are too complicated, but can indeed be quite overwhelming to someone who has no experience with it. This is my 2nd time leading someone brand new up a 14er this summer (both are excellent runners), and it's quite interesting to watch them lose their 14er virginity, to have many of the same thoughts I had when I first began climbing these peaks, and to see how altitude impacts a person that is in excellent running shape differently from a person like me who has been lucky enough to spend a majority of my time this summer exploring high altitude areas. It was very rewarding to see my friend through this whole process.
We were going to climb Mt Massive from the Southwest slopes route, because of the significantly shorter distance the round trip is compared to the standard route up Massive. We got up at 5, drove the last bit up to the actual trailhead, and were hiking not too long after.
We made it to treeline in like an hour and a half I think, and it was my friend's first time above treeline. He was struck by the beauty and the uniqueness of this landscape, and thankful that I brought him out there for the first time in his life, even if he was a CO native. I was very surprised when he texted me and asked me to take him up his first 14er, because he seemed like someone who should be doing them all the time, just for training (he runs track and cross country at Metro State University). He remarked at how different the terrain was from down lower, he noticed many little things about it, like how erosion looked to be a problem and how rockfall could be dangerous. These are things that I never really thought about on my first few 14er's, which surprised me because he was able to notice human-related destruction and dangers, even up here in this isolated environment. I was impressed.
We summitted. Strange enough, a guy I work with at CU also happened to be at the summit at the same time. We talked for a good ten minutes, super stoked that we met each other for the first time in months at the top of a 14er. Small world!
My friend was pretty tired by the summit, while I felt like I had barely started the day (this would turn out to be very true). We relaxed a little bit at the summit, and I watched the weather. I was sort of planning on doing Oxford-Belford later that day if weather held up, but based on what it was looking like at 9 in the morning, I resigned this idea to the back of my head. It seemed like the day would be over when we got back to the car.
We hiked down in less than 3 hours to the car, and drove out to Leadville for some food.
^^Left and right: pics from the hike up Massive.^^
^^Left: another picture of the area. Right: approaching the top of the ridge.^^
^^Left: the view. Right: looking back at South Massive.^^
^^Left and right: you can tell how weather was making me question whether I would be able to climb that afternoon.^^
^^Left: chilling at the summit. Right: looking through a notch.^^
^^My worst summit picture.^^
It was around 1, 1:30 when we split off. My friend drove home to Denver, but I had 2 more days of hiking I needed to do. I wanted to finish the Elks and the Sawatches, and I had 5 more peaks to check off. I only had Castle Conundrum left, and OxBel and Antero to do. To make it easier, I decided to go for Castle Conundrum the next day. I drove out to Aspen, up the Castle Creek road, and up as far as I could get my car up the rough dirt road after the lower trailhead.
That morning on Massive, I thought the weather wasn't gonna hold out great for the afternoon, so I was ok with just chilling and reading for the rest of the afternoon. However, I checked the weather while I was in Leadville, and it looked to be holding out pretty great. Almost no chance of rain, good temps, and low winds. Perfect for climbing.
I got my car up to the Pearl Pass junction, which I was pleasantly surprised at, given that I was driving my Ford Escape. I've done a lot of off-roading this summer, I guess I'm pretty good at it now because I was able to get it up this GNARRly road. I don't recommend it for most regular vehicles. Definitely don't drive it without at least an AWD vehicle.
I was a little tired from the morning 14er, but knew that once I got moving, my legs would forget about this. I packed up, made my summit sign, and got going. I began this 14er at 5:15 PM, which is something that I know some of you will disagree with, but as long as you have the proper gear (headlamp, enough food/water, warm layers, etc.), a good weather window, and willingness to both brave the dark and to turn back for any reason, this is not necessarily a terrible decision. I was equipped with all of these, so it was a lovely time to climb.
Until you reach the first lakes, it's a basic road walk up the basin. This took me a good while to do, and there were a couple places where I wasn't quite sure if it was a hiking trail breaking off from the road or not. Do not be fooled. Stay on the obvious road the whole time.
Next, you gotta get over the headwalls. At this point in the summer, there wasn't too much snow left, so it was a bunch of talus and loose dirt on a semi-steep slope that I had to climb up. This was probably my least favorite part of this hike, because it was not very fun trying to pick your way up this section without having the peak in view, and not much of a real trail to follow (I couldn't find one, anyway). Because of this section and the descent off the saddle between the 2 peaks (read further), this pair of mountains would be much more fun to climb earlier in the season when there is still sufficient snow cover.
Finally, I popped up over the headwall, and got a terrific view of the 2 peaks and the uppermost section of the basin I was in. The trail on the standard route up Castle cuts left up some switchbacks, then hitches right and merges up to the ridge. Then it's simple ridge-following from here to the summit of Castle.
While I say 'simple', this actually had a few spots that were a little confusing to get up. To solve this puzzle of finding your way up this ridge, keep in mind that it is considered a 'difficult class 2' hike, which means that if you find yourself needing to do any actual scrambling, you're probably off route and there is an easier way around the obstacle you're facing. There were only like 2 or 3 spots that weren't totally obvious at first glance of the correct way up the ridge.
I summited Castle and watched the sun go behind the clouds on the horizon, and enjoyed the sunset. I set off down to the saddle, then went up to Conundrum. After seeing Conundrum Couloir from above and noticing the slope angle and width of the couloir, I am making it a goal to ski this couloir in a few years because it is an awesome line to ski. So many goals!
I got back to the saddle right in the last minutes of light. I pulled out my headlight and set out down the saddle.
Now, in all the pictures I had seen in my research of this climb, there had been snow covering the entire stretch between the pond and the top of the couloir. Nowhere had I heard any mention of how loose and steep this is when it is not covered in snow. By now, there was snow covering the slope up perhaps a little more than a third of the way, which means that it was mostly downclimbing on some crazy loose stuff of some extra steep rocks.
In fact, let me detail out the entire situation:
A lot of these factors are a result of my own negligence/forgetfulness about gear and research. I understand this, and hope to not make this mistake again. However, some of these factors are also things that I took into consideration when I began this climb, and thus I was ready to contend with.
I had 2 options: descend the incredibly loose, now highly dangerous slope, or hike back up Castle and retrace my steps all the way back down the ridge in the dark. Neither of these seemed appealing to me. However, I had something in my favor. All summer, I have been carrying with me on every 14er a large coil of paracord. This is one of the things I bring as a 'just in case', super helpful disaster scenario (in addition to athletic tape, a small first aid kit, a swiss army knife, my headlight, and a bag of ibuprofen). I also had 2 locking carabiners and a sling that I use to secure my helmet to my backpack.
With the paracord, carabiners, and sling combined, I would be able to set up an emergency rappel. I was pretty tired from Mt Massive that morning and didn't want to climb back up Castle again, so I decided to go with the rappel.
In full disclosure, I think I usually would've just down climbed this wall normally, if it was still daytime, I wasn't solo, and I wasn't tired. But I needed the extra (mostly psychological) support that the rappel would provide me. The slope wasn't so steep that I was ever hanging all my weight on the paracord. It was just there to give me a little peace of mind.
There were plenty of problems I dealt with in this rappel. I was kicking lots of gravel and rocks down, the paracord was much harder to deal with than I anticipated because it kept twisting itself, and the slope wasn't quite steep enough to simply throw the paracord down- it would just land/snag on the slope rather than unravel itself and hang free. But I kept at it, untwisting the paracord as I went.
I ended up rappelling 3 pitches, the last of which I ended in the snow. The rappelling was over!
But now I had a different problem I had to face: the snow. Or should I say, ice. The surface of the snow was almost rock hard, just soft enough for me to kick steps in in most places. I wish I had crampons and an ice axe, because then this would've been an extremely fun snow walk. Instead of an ice axe, I used my Ka-bar knife that I had decided to bring with me up the mountain. I never carry this, but for some reason today, I felt like taking it. I can't remember if I brought it consciously planning to use it like an ice axe, but I am extremely grateful that I had it with me, or I might've slid right down the snow into the icy pond. Slipping wasn't even the biggest problem, though. It was dark, and I wasn't sure where exactly the footsteps were that I had planned on following across the slope. I had to search around the edge of the snow for a good 10-15 minutes, trying to hunt out the footsteps in the snowfield that I had seen earlier when it was still daylight.
At long last, I found them, which wasn't easy because of my headlight. While my headlight is excellent, they can only do so much. When you're on a steep slope at night and peer down the slope, the headlamp doesn't seem to shine most than 10-20 feet down, which can be a problem if you're trying to route-find down the slope. This is a situation I've never thought of before, and I'm glad that I'm now aware of the strange effect that a steep slope can have on a headlight's abilities.
I traversed across the snow, ka-bar in hand, following the vague footsteps. It is late in the summer, and the snowfields in Colorado that are still left often have in strange effect happen to them. They develop runnels, which are basically gutters, running vertically down the snow field. This snow was luckily just shallow enough of a slope angle that I could step on small textures on the runnels and traverse across the snow. It was not easy. I had to remain balanced the whole time to not slip on the icy runnels. I was also very conscious of the fact that I was also holding a large, 5-6 inch knife in my hand while doing this. I am glad that I had the mental armor built up to be able to focus enough to do all of this.
I finally made it to the edge of the snow, took a second to take a breath and relax, and be glad to have made it through that almost nightmare situation I had put myself in. I survived, and the experience of doing what I had just done was quite scary, but I am thankful for it. It taught me a lot.
I picked my way through the talus, down the headwall, down the road, and made it back to my car. It was 11:40 PM when I strolled up to my car. I wasn't super hungry, somehow, and decided to just go to sleep. I rolled out my thermarest and sleeping bag next to my car and went to sleep under the stars.
Additional little information: from about 20 minutes before I summited Castle till I got back to my car, I had my classic rock playlist playing. I did this because as a solo hiker, I find that listening to music helps me to not get psyched out and stay focused on the task at hand. I had it playing even while I was tackling the tough problems I faced on this climb. If I didn't have it playing, I think my nerves might've been acting a little bit differently.
^^Left: Castle from Conundrum. Right: Conundrum from Castle.^^
^^A view of the surrounding area while hiking up the road.^^
^^You can see where the end of the snow is and how there is a long stretch between the saddle and the snow that I had to descend.^^
^^Left: looking up at Castle Peak just after reaching the top of the headwall. Right: the headwall.^^
^^Left: looking at the road going up the basin. Right: looking back down at the end of the road from somewhere on the headwall.^^
^^Left: the sunset from Castle. Right: taken from treeline.^^
^^Left: looking back at the Castle Peak ridge I ascended. Right: looking down at the basing.^^
^^Left: looking back at the Castle Peak ridge I ascended. Right: hiking at night on a (nearly) full moon.^^
The next morning, I got up at 6. I didn't have any breakfast with me, but that was ok since I was driving to the next trailhead right then anyways. It took me 2 seconds to throw on my clothes and toss my mat and bag in the car. That's the main reason I've slept under the stars so much this summer- it's extremely convenient. I started down the road, and driving down these crazy roads is often harder than driving up them, because you're riding the brakes the entire time rather than crawling up the difficult sections. I passed a good number of cars driving up, and I was glad I had climbed in the evening because it meant that I had the entire mountain to myself, which is quite rare.
I made it back to the trailhead without bottoming out or scratching (as far as I know) and took off down the sweet paved road. It's always a big relief to finally make it to paved road after driving some crazy dirt road. I zipped through Aspen, stopping at the city market to grab some breakfast. I went straight for the Oxford Belford trailhead. The lot was pretty packed and a sizable number of cars had parked out on the road, but miraculously I found a parking spot in the lot. I got ready to climb, once again, feeling quite tired now, with many miles and a lot of gain already completed the day before. I told myself, 'You have a goal, and this is what achieving it will look like.' I was trying to get myself pumped up. I knew that I only had to do the climb today and tomorrow and I could go home and recover for a few days.
I set off from my car at around 10:30 AM. Again, you're probably all thinking, 'thats way too late to begin. Weather is gonna roll in.' And again, I say to you, I checked the forecasts, and it looks to be quite clear for the rest of the day. As long as you're willing to turn around and try again later and you have a good weather window, you shouldn't be super against a late start like this.
This pair of 14ers is just a basic slog up the trail to the summit, not much special about the hike itself. All I had to do was grind it out. This became more of a challenge the further in I got, because my legs were not happy with me at this point. Before I even got up to Mt Massive the day before, my legs were already rather tired out from the sheer volume of climbing I had done this summer. I think I would need like at least 2 weeks of no activity for my body to go back to 100%. It's just super worn out. By this point on the climb up Belford, I was hurting a lot, and moving much slower than I have in a long time. People coming down the trail and passing me mostly were expressionless, but a few seemed to be silently questioning my decision to keep climbing, even though it was the middle of the day and I was moving super slow.
I made it up Belford, looked over at Oxford, and decided it wasn't that far. But first I decided to take a nap. For nearly an hour, I slept on the sharp rocks at the summit of Belford. I've lost count of how many times I've taken a nap at the top of 14ers. This was not new to me, and quite often, they slap.
I continued on down the connecting ridge, reached the saddle, and began the hike up Oxford. I passed a trail-runner coming down from Oxford, and this was the last person I saw on the mountain that day. The weather was still holding up, and I was ecstatic to once again be hiking by myself. I turned on my music again, and made it to the summit of Oxford. After a snack and a few pictures, I began the long slog back down, then up, then down to the car. I only had one more 14er left in the Sawatch range!
^^Left: looking up at Mt Belford. Right: looking back at the lower portion of Elkhead Basin.^^
^^Left: looking at Oxford from the bottom of the saddle. Right: again, looking at Belford.^^
^^Left: Looking at Belford from somewhere on Oxford. Right: GOAT.^^
^^Left: Belford from the top of Oxford. Right: Belford benchmark, the only kind of acceptable summit marker.^^
I was planning on driving to the Baldwin Gulch trailhead that evening. I took off out of the Missouri Gulch trailhead and out of that area. I had been up that road 4 times in the last year and was glad to be finished going up there for the summer. I got to Buena Vista and got some food. I knew that I needed to get to the next trailhead, but by now my ability to motivate myself and push through the pain that I was in was waning. The self determination I had used to force myself climb that day was powerful, but now I was at a point where it would take an outside voice of encouragement to keep me up here and climbing for one more day.
I called my mom, hoping that she would be that person. Instead, she told me to come home! Of course, in a moment of weakness, I crumbled and went home. Oh well. I'll get Antero soon. It's been delayed for long enough, and I hated having it sit in the back of my mind as the 1 more peak that I have to grind out.
I had completed the Elk range, and was nearly finished with the Sawatch range. I am sitting at 48/58 in 2020 after this trip, and I am getting closer and closer to victory. So close that I can taste it in my mouth. Close enough that I can almost reach out and grasp it in my hands. It is just around the corner!
Risk is for managing, not for chance.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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