Settling old scores on Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from Matterhorn Creek Basin.

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from Matterhorn Creek Basin.

Four years ago, things were different for me.

I’d had a goal of trying to climb Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak, an airy, dramatic 14,015-foot mountain inside the northeastern San Juan Range.

But life being as it was, the two times I’d planned to try it fell through. So for the past four years, I’ve groused about not getting this summit under my belt.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in wanting another crack at it. A friend of mine, Noel, had likewise made a run at Wetterhorn, but at the time looked at the conditions and the verticality of the peak and called it a day a few hundred feet of topping out.

Noel is a different hiker and climber now than she was then, but Wetterhorn remained the bully on her peak list that continued to stand in her way.

So when she set a date to give it another shot and invited me to tag along, I jumped at it: Two people looking to expel a mountain demon that mocked us from higher up.

We wouldn’t be alone on this one. It would be a reunion of sorts with the same cast of characters from last June’s Mount Sneffels group: Dave, who had already climbed Wetterhorn twice, would be leading the way, and Chuck, another stalwart whose peak list is growing bigger by the week, joined in as well.

Coming along were folks I hadn’t met yet: Brady, a younger guy who is starting out on his peak-bagging journey; Michael and Tarra, a married couple finding a common interest in the high country; Durant, our elder statesman who we joined on a climb of Torreys Peak’s Kelso Ridge two years ago; and Dan, a friend of Michael and Tarra visiting from Minnesota.

Our campsite. Pretty awesome!

Our campsite. Pretty awesome!

Our group was a big one, but all were pretty laid back and easy to get along with. We shared some pretty sweet grub — bratwursts, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, bacon and a whole bunch of cookies (Noel is kinda famous as the 14ers’ “cookie hiker” for her habit of bringing and sharing carefully crafted cookies with folks on the summit).

Not so awesome. I guess "leave no trace" does not apply to gun nuts. Pick up your empties!

Not so awesome. I guess “leave no trace” does not apply to gun nuts. Pick up your empties!

Hot food, a warm fire, good company and a bright, starry night was a dang good way to end the day. But the real fun was yet to come.

The ascent

It’s hard to put into words what makes Wetterhorn Peak such an appealing mountain, but I’ll try. First, just look at it. The long sweep of its southeast ridge (the most common route to the top) shoots up toward the top, promising some verticality at the end of the climb. It connects with neighboring Matterhorn Peak with a spiky, dragon’s-tail-like ridge. The other ridges and faces of the mountain are nearly sheer. Tectonic uplift, ice-age glacial carving and volcanic violence give the San Juans the most dramatic alpine skyline in the state, and Wetterhorn’s graceful sweep and sheer cliffs are emblematic of everything that makes the range what it is.

The gang greets our first sight of the basin, Matterhorn Peak.

The gang greets our first sight of the basin, Matterhorn Peak.

Aside from all of that, the peak is a gateway of sorts. People who have done the “walk-up” mountains in the state and are looking to tackle something more challenging often make the drive into southwestern Colorado to give Wetterhorn a try. The route isn’t prohibitively long, and the toughest parts — the steep, west-facing cliffs that culminate the climb — are airy yet solid. You get the excitement of big drop-offs and verticality without having to fret over loose rock.

The hike up Matterhorn Creek Basin is mostly what I remember from the last time I was here. A confusing sign at the first trail junction (go right, or you’ll add four miles to the route), a roaring creek, and of course, the welcoming vista that is Matterhorn Peak. The basin opens up and frames the peak beautifully. Gerry Roach, who wrote the famous guide to Colorado’s 14ers, described the peak as “stately,” and seeing that mountain staring down at you, you pretty much get his meaning.

This sign is confusing. When you see it, go right.

This sign is confusing. When you see it, go right.

What was different than last time was the snow. The mountains are beautiful and powerful places without snow, but something greater with it.

They’re also a little trickier. Postholing for a few miles takes a lot more time and energy than it does in dry conditions. Snow and ice also offer other challenges on steeper slopes. None of this was present the last time I was here, and we were warned to expect to cross more than a few snowfields on our way up.

The next trail junction. Go left. Matterhorn Peak in the background.

The next trail junction. Go left. Matterhorn Peak in the background.

Truth is, it wasn’t that bad. Yeah, there was some postholing, and if you’re unlucky, punching through a weak layer of snow might cut up your leg a little if you’re not wearing gaiters. But we got through all that OK.

In any case, it took some hiking for Matterhorn’s big brothers to appear. To the right, Uncompahgre Peak — the undisputed king of the San Juans, and Colorado’s sixth-highest mountain — emerged. And then to the left, we got our first full look at Wetterhorn.

Tarra, Dan and Michael pause for some photos. Wetterhorn can be seen in the background.

Tarra, Dan and Michael pause for some photos. Wetterhorn can be seen in the background.

Noel, with Wetterhorn behind.

Noel, with Wetterhorn behind.

Looking back at the basin.

Looking back at the basin.

Like Matterhorn, much of the peak was covered in snow. The trail heads northeast, then cuts back west on a somewhat long approach to the mountain’s southeast ridge. We were lucky on the weather so far, though the predicted sunny skies and 60-degree temps never materialized. It stayed mostly cloudy, and I’m not sure the temps breached the 40s the entire time we were higher in the basin.

As per usual, I struggled to keep up with my Colorado friends. They were kind enough to wait up from time to time while we back-of-the-pack folk trudged on. I think I remember hearing one of our crew who is new to this asking, “You guys do this for fun?” Hey man, I relate. Sometimes I wonder. But the payoff comes later. Always does.

We finally reached the ridge and crossed our last easy snowfield before the fun started. As vertical as Wetterhorn looks at first glance, it doesn’t start getting steep until you pass the “yellow dirt” section of the southeast ridge. This is where the peak earns its rugged reputation.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre to the east.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre to the east.

Approaching the southeast ridge, with the summit shown.

Approaching the southeast ridge, with the summit shown.

At the beginning of the yellow dirt, near 13,000 feet.

At the beginning of the yellow dirt, near 13,000 feet.

It was steep hiking at first, and then you hit some gullies that start to take you up toward the mountain’s distinctive prow. We’d been told in the days before the climb that the snow that was left was pretty easy to get around, but what we discovered is you either had to traverse some snow in the gullies or go well off route and up to avoid them. Most of us kicked-stepped into the snow and got across; the snow, while soft, was still firm enough to get solid footing. As with all things related to snow, however, that was temporary.

Steeper Class 2 hiking up the ridge.

Steeper Class 2 hiking up the ridge.

Going up mixed rock and snow in the gullies.

Going up mixed rock and snow in the gullies.

The snowfield below the prow (left) and the summit to the right.

The snowfield below the prow (left) and the summit to the right.

At the top of the snowfield below the prow, looking back. What a view!

At the top of the snowfield below the prow, looking back. What a view!

At the bottom of the ramp, where the final, steep pitch to the  summit begins.

At the bottom of the ramp, where the final, steep pitch to the summit begins.

Past those gullies, we hit one more broader snowfield just below the prow, leading up to a small notch that overlooked a flat piece of angled rock that slopes down before taking you up to the peak’s final pitch. The snowfield wasn’t bad, and the ramp — somewhat scary looking in pictures, if heights aren’t your thing — turned out to be no big deal.

Looking up the final pitch.

Looking up the final pitch.

There was no holding Noel back. While this was one of the few peaks that turned her back, she’s built up quite a resume since then. I looked up at that final pitch, and I have to tell you, it looked pretty steep for a Class 3 route. But the rock was extremely solid, and handholds and footholds were plentiful. Friends of mine who have climbed it before likened it to climbing a ladder. I have to agree. It’s about 75-80 degrees and very airy behind you, but easy climbing nonetheless.

Instead of going straight up, you could also walk this ledge to easier climbing. This is looking back on the ledge.

Instead of going straight up, you could also walk this ledge to easier climbing. This is looking back on the ledge.

Most write-ups of the mountain have you come up to a ledge that goes to your left, then leads you to mellow Class 3 climbing to the summit. Pictures of that look a little spooky, too. I checked out the ledge on the way down, and though it’s thin (no more than 2 feet at its widest) with a big cliff to your left, it’s not nearly as scary as pictures make it out to be.

Dave coming up the final pitch, with the ramp below.

Dave coming up the final pitch, with the ramp below.

Tarra and Michael climbing to the top. (Brady Lee photo)

Tarra and Michael climbing to the top. (Brady Lee photo)

That said, none of us used it. Instead, we opted to keep going straight up. That last 20 feet or so was the steepest, but it was pure fun.

I don’t have a ton of summits under my belt, but I’ve seen some good ones. When I got up there and looked around, I was stunned how gorgeous it all was.

Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn.

Coxcomb, Redcliff, Precipice and Heisshorn.

The view into the basin, as well as the sea of southern San Juans peaks behind it, is dizzying in its scale. Most ranges in the Rockies are slender north-to-south ribbons of peaks, but not the San Juans. It is a massively thick alpine wilderness, with snow-capped mountaintops as far as you can see.

Far to the west, I made out Mount Sneffels and the dramatic 13er peaks that surround it. Further still, the Wilson group guards the range’s far west boundaries, giving way to the broad west slope that spreads far into Utah.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre.

Matterhorn and Uncompahgre.

Back east, mighty Matterhorn suddenly looks humbly small. And past that, broad-shouldered Uncompahgre Peak hunches down like a lion surveying its own private savannah.

In front of us to the north are some of wildest 13,000-foot peaks I’ve seen. Coxcomb and Redcliff, joined by a ridge, Precipice jutting out further still, and the spiny, fin-like edge of rock that is the Heisshorn.

Taken together, this is one heck of a panorama. I figured it would be tough to beat the summit views from Matterhorn’s summit, and indeed, Wetterhorn as seen from its eastern neighbor is striking. But aside from what I saw on Sneffels a year ago, there’s simply no beating Wetterhorn’s views for me.

Chuck, Dave,Noel and Brady, with some random dude kneeling.

Chuck, Dave, Noel and Brady, with some random dude kneeling.

When we all topped out, several things crossed my mind. For Noel, this was a redemption achievement. Unnerved last time, she plowed through with no trouble now.

It was also cool to see Michael and Tarra doing this together. Michael has a lot of summits under his belt, but not Tarra. And seeing that his was her first Class 3, well, we were all impressed. She didn’t freak out at all. It’s awesome to see couples doing this together. I know that not every couple is going to share this interest, and that’s fine. It ain’t for everyone. But it’s pretty great to see a couple getting after it on the mountain as a team.

The gang: From left, Chuck, Dave, Noel, Brady, me, Tarra, Michael and Durant. (Brady Lee photo)

The gang: From left, Chuck, Dave, Noel, Brady, me, Tarra, Michael and Durant. (Brady Lee photo)

The cookie hiker with her own custom cookie. (Brady Lee photo)

The cookie hiker with her own custom cookie. (Brady Lee photo)

As for me, it was a score that had been settled. Past plans for Wetterhorn fell apart, and I could not stop thinking about this mountain for four freakin’ years. As it turned out, it was a pretty great host. At least, up to that point.

Getting down

Anyone with a little experience will tell you getting down a mountain is often more difficult than going up. Gravity makes ascending hard; it makes it tricky going down. His is particularly troublesome on steep rock, but we found our real issues on those snowfields.

The big snowfield below the prow wasn’t too bad, as it’s not very steep. Even with the warming temperatures, it held up OK.

At the end of that snowfield is where those gullies, some of which were still filled with snow.

This is where things got interesting.

Michael and Tarra heading down.

Michael and Tarra heading down.

The snow conditions had deteriorated since the morning. Whereas before they were somewhat soft, now things were getting downright mushy. Kicksteps that held firm an hour before were falling apart now.

Dave slipped, but quickly caught himself. On another snow gully, I slipped and skidded about four feet before halting my slide, and it’s a good thing, too. I’m not sure where things ended, but there are sizable cliffs on that side of the mountain. The thought of skittering off the edge into that oblivion is pretty sobering.

After catching myself and standing back up, I saw something no one ever wants to see high on a peak.

Me crossing a snow-filled gully. This was taken on the way up. On the way down, it was pretty sketchy. (Noel Johnson photo)

Me crossing a snow-filled gully. This was taken on the way up. On the way down, it was pretty sketchy. (Noel Johnson photo)

In an adjacent snow gully, Durant also had his feet go out from under him. Unfortunately, he didn’t catch himself as quickly as Dave and I. He slid for about 100 feet before slowing himself down and eventually hitting a large rock, which brought him to a stop. Durant got up OK, a little bruised from where he hit that boulder, but able to continue down. I’m fairly certain that had he not hit that rock, he would have stopped at a dirt section where the snow ran out. But there is a sickening, helpless feeling of watching someone slide down a snow slope at increasing speeds, where you can do nothing but hope that he finds a way to halt the skid before disaster strikes. Had he been in another snow gully, this could have gone from being a scary story to something tragic.

I’d add that when the mountain is free of snow, these gullies are pretty mellow, especially compared to the steeper pitches higher up. Snow just changes things. But to everyone’s credit, no one panicked. We just took our time getting across the dicey sections and moved on. But all that is a good reminder to learn about current peak conditions, make sure you have the right gear, properly weigh your skills against those conditions and trust your instincts.

These were the snow slopes we glissaded down. Pure fun!

These were the snow slopes we glissaded down. Pure fun!

Not every encounter with snow was bad, however. A little further down the trail we came up on a long snow slope that looked pretty inviting. A lot of us have pondered the fantasy of taking a zip line down from a summit after a tough hike or climb up. The next best thing: a glissade.

The term “glissade” is a fancy word for sliding down a snow slope on your butt. It’s pretty simple. You sit down and launch yourself downhill, using your ice axe or whatever tool you have available (a climbing helmet or trekking pole will work) as a brake and a rudder. Gravity does the rest.

Dan was first to go, and he did it with style, running downhill before flinging himself down the hill. The rest of us followed suit.

It was bumpy in spots, and there were a few times where it seemed like I’d lose control. But I won’t lie, it was a ton of fun. It also helped us lose about 1,000 feet of elevation and saved somewhere around 45 minutes of hiking through some rough stuff. My knees are forever grateful.

The rest of the hike down was pleasant. It stayed cool, but not unbearably so. Though taxed, I still felt pretty good. I’d eaten and drank enough to stave off the headaches I usually get from this stuff. We ended the day snarfing down some pretty good barbecue in Lake City before heading back to camp.

Having spent so much time studying this mountain, thinking about it, even obsessing a little, I can say it was worth the wait. I love the San Juans. Their wildness embodies adventure, and Wetterhorn Peak exemplifies that spirit in just about every way. The peak threw a lot at us – great views, steep inclines, pleasant climbing, even a little danger. It gave Noel a second shot at exercising an old demon. It gave Tarra a gateway of newfound confidence to do more in the mountains. I got to settle an old score. All but Dave got to see this peak’s summit for the first time. And all of us got to do this together.

That’s the beautiful thing about the mountains. You build bonds that are unlike anything else. Those common struggles, the victory of topping out, the shared experience of a common peril – all of these things are indelible. And in this group’s case, they are shared. It would be hard to find a better place to do it than on Wetterhorn Peak.

GETTING THERE: In Lake City, take Second Street to Henson Creek Road and turn left. This is also called the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Drive 11 miles to the Matterhorn Creek trail road, turn right. If you have a car with good clearance and preferably four-wheel drive, go 0.7 miles to the trailhead. There are dispersed campsites along the road all the way to the trailhead, though filtering water from the streams is not advised. Too much spoilage from mine tailings.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: Hike a good trail up Matterhorn Creek Basin until your reach your first sign at 0.75 mile. At that junction, go right. Continue up the trail to the next junction, then go left. The trail will take you toward the base of Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. At the base of that ridge, hike northeast through a yellow dirt section before the trail gives way to rockier terrain. Climb the rocky gullies leading up to a prominent rock formation called the prow. There is a notch to the right or the prow; go over that and work your way down to an angled rock slab ramp that goes down to the base of the final pitch. Climb up solid rock until you reach one last ledge. From here, you have two choices. Turn left and walk along a narrow, exposed ledge before going up easy Class 3 climbing to the summit. If you don’t want to walk the ledge, just keep climbing straight up on steep but solid rock until you reach the top. Hiking is Class 1 until you get past the yellow dirt, where it turns into Class 2. Climbing can get steep, but the handholds and footholds are solid and plentiful and do not exceed Class 3.

EXTRA CREDIT: Plan a bigger trip out of it and climb neighboring Matterhorn Peak (13,590 feet, Class 3) and Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet, Class 2).  Matterhorn is accessible by the same trail as Wetterhorn. Uncompahgre can be reached from there as well, or by driving up Nellie Creek Road further east.

Last bit: A fun video Dave made of the climb. Enjoy!

Bob Doucette

Preview of what’s to come: A Wetterhorn Peak trip report and a gear review

Heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

Heading up Wetterhorn Peak.

Been away for a bit, but plenty of good stuff to come. A quick trip to Colorado gave me the opportunity to climb a peak I’ve been eyeing for quite some time — Wetterhorn Peak. Best yet, I got to do it with a very cool group of people. What do you think of that view? They only get better the higher you go.

I’ll post a full trip report later (complete with video!) — today is going to be a travel day. Needless to say, the weekend’s hike and climb had its share of hard work, fun, and some adventuresome moments. I’ll also be posting a gear review related to a pair of hiking pants that I was able to test over the weekend.

Have a great start to your week! We’ll talk soon.

– Bob Doucette

The Weekly Stoke: Mount Shasta, vanlife, why we climb mountains and the baddest ultramarathon around

Mount Shasta (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Mount Shasta (Wikipedia Commons photo)

It’s Friday the 13th, and a full moon is gonna be out. But that won’t deter me from getting out there, and giving you some reading material before I go. So let’s get started!

Ever thought about climbing Mount Shasta? Blogger and outdoor enthusiast Landon Faulkner walks you through it via this trip report.

The Coast Guard released its report on the sinking of the Bounty during Hurricane Sandy. Can’t say I’m surprised with its conclusions.

Living on the road, driving to new adventures: Sounds like the life, right? But this writer puts some perspective on vanlife.

Another one from the Adventure Journal: A musician stuck in a rut takes some time in India to find a little inspiration. Travel has a way of doing that, right?

With all the bad news from the mountains this spring, world-class mountaineer Conrad Anker writes this opinion piece about why he climbs dangerous mountains.

Last one: This link takes you to a video which describes what might be the toughest, wildest ultramarathon on the U.S., the Barkley 100. This ain’t your average trail race!

The Weekly Stoke: Cheating on Everest, a really young climber, trail running tips and a new run streak record

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Mount Everest. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Happy Friday everyone! National Trails Day is tomorrow, so I hope you all get out there and enjoy some outside time. Until then, here are some links to get you going.

It seems that beyond tales of heroism and tragedy, Mount Everest also cannot escape controversy. A Chinese climber who stayed behind after everyone left Everest’s south side is taking some heat after her successful summit, with allegations that she “cheated” to get to the top.

More from Everest: A 13-year-old girl from India became the youngest female to climb the mountain.

Thinking about making the switch from road to trail running? Here is a list of 21 tips for beginner trail runners.

And finally, here is a story about a California man who set a run streak record — he ran every day for 45 years. And change.

Let’s take a deep breath about that rescue on Longs Peak

Longs Peak, Colo., and it's sheer east face. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Longs Peak, Colo., and it’s sheer east face. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

With the summer hiking season getting ready to launch within days, we’ve already been given a reminder of how unforgiving the mountains can be.

On Tuesday, authorities in northern Colorado got word that a hiker had gotten himself stranded on a ledge on Longs Peak’s sheer east face. The hiker, a 19-year-old Canadian named Samuel Frappier, was climbing the peak with a friend when he got separated on the descent. Described as fit but not very experienced, he found himself stuck on a series of ledges called Broadway on the mountain’s east side.

Fortunately, his cellphone had service and battery power and he was able to call for help. A day later, with help from a sizable and very capable rescue team, he was airlifted safely off the mountain. You can read a full story about it here.

As you can imagine, reaction to this story has been the typical mix of the following:

“Thank goodness he made it alive. He’s so lucky!”

“What an idiot. Only fools climb mountains.”

“Please tell me my tax dollars weren’t wasted on this. Send him the bill.”

And so forth. There has also been a lot of speculating about the route he and his buddy chose, the gear — or lack thereof — they had and so on.

So here are some thoughts on this…

Longs Peak is a popular mountain to hike and climb, but it’s not for “beginners.” In terms of Colorado mountains, it is big, complicated and challenging. Though one of the most visited mountains in the state, it’s easiest route is Class 3 and is exposed. Harder routes abound, and the area where Frappier got stranded is on the mountain’s most difficult terrain. Broadway is a ledge on an otherwise vertical face, and the dropoffs are dramatic. It would be easy to see how someone could get cliffed out there, unable to go anywhere without significant climbing gear and experience. The mountain is even more challenging in snowy conditions, which are currently present. So, in short, just because a lot of people hike and climb Longs does not mean it’s an easy endeavor. Act and plan accordingly.

The snowy, exposed and dangerous terrain where this week's rescue took place. (NPS photo)

The snowy, exposed and dangerous terrain where this week’s rescue took place. (NPS photo)

That said, people who climb Longs, or hike and climb other mountains, are not idiots on a march toward their own personal death wish. We’re just folks who like to get outside, challenge ourselves, and eventually reward ourselves with awesome views and incredible experiences that the high country offers. Plenty of people have used hiking and climbing as a way to get fit, and many of us learn a lot about goal setting, meeting challenges, conquering fears and more from the mountains we climb. And here’s the kicker — the vast majority of us are careful, well-prepared, and adequately equipped. We know how to watch the weather. We listen to our bodies. We know when to turn around. And even though we enjoy pushing our limits, we know when to back off. That’s why almost all of us return from our mountain adventures alive and in one piece. You don’t hear about us, because our day hikes up Mount Biesrstadt or climbs up much more serious peaks don’t end up on the news. Why? Because we got home safe and happy, without need of Search and Rescue, expenditure of your precious tax dollars or your condescension.

And let’s put away all that talk about billing people for rescues. Yes, they’re expensive. Rescuers put their lives at risk. And some people get too much false confidence in their gadgets when they go outside. We’ve grown up in an age where we expect someone will help us when we get in danger. But the last thing I want someone in Frappier’s situation is to be thinking, just before dialing for help, is, “Can I afford to be rescued?” A life saved is worth every dime, especially to that person’s loved ones. I think most SAR types would agree.

It should be noted that even the “easy” mountains can be quite dangerous. Bad weather on a walk-up route like Quandary Peak’s east ridge can zap you just as easily as it could on more challenging terrain like what’s seen on Longs Peak. Personal health issues can surface in a bad way when you’re topping 13,000 feet. Rockfall and avalanches happen on all of these mountains. The peaks aren’t Disneyland, so  proper consideration of these factors should be given before venturing out on their slopes. Showing up in jeans, a T-shirt and the kicks you bought at Foot Locker is the opposite of that. If you’re new to this sort of thing, do your homework and ask questions of those who have been there and done that.

The cellphone can save your life, but remember that rescue could be several hours away. Mr. Frappier may have been unwise, but having that phone, swallowing his pride and calling for help was an expert move. Same deal for a couple of New England women who got in over their heads on the same mountain last fall during Colorado’s epic deluge. But the scale of these mountains, and the difficulty of getting anywhere quickly, is something to keep in mind. Even with helicopters and more than two dozen people assisting in the rescue, it took a day to get Frappier off the mountain. Now imagine you’re in an area with no cellphone service, and you’re 200 or more miles away from a major city. That’s the sort of scenario you need to be thinking of, especially if your adventure takes you into, say, the San Juans of Colorado, or the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Educating and training yourself for maximum self-sufficiency can be the thing that prepares you for self-rescue, or at least buying time so you can be found.

There is so much more that can be said on these topics, but I’ll include this helpful link for high country safety instead.

For now, I’d leave you with this: Let’s be thankful this young man made it off the mountain in one piece, and that he learned some lessons. Let’s not forget that we all have likely made similar mistakes, just maybe not as severe and definitely not as publicized. And let’s be careful out there, enjoy ourselves, and keep spreading the word that the outdoors is awesome.

Bob Doucette 

The Weekly Stoke: Deadly avalanche in the Himalayas, a new kind of trail running, pot growing consequences and flying off the top of Everest

Kanchenjunga. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Kanchenjunga. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Summer is just about here! May your plans for the coming months include a whole lot of outdoor adventure. Let’s get started on this edition of the Weekly Stoke…

Mountaineering in the Himalayas goes beyond Mount Everest, and the other peaks are as dangerous or more than the world’s highest peak. Such is the case when an avalanche killed three climbers on Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain.

Trail and road races are great, but a new trend called “fastest known time” on solo trail runs is now a growing trend. Something that may appeal to the hardcore trail runners who prefer blazing a trail in solitude.

Illegal pot growing isn’t just creating crime issues. Illegal grows on public lands are also causing significant ecological problems.

And finally, check out this story about Nepali Sherpas who paraglided off the summit of Mount Everest in 2011.

Proof that my friends are pretty rad: Mountaineering in China

Just in case I needed a reminder, I have some pretty rad friends. A couple of them live in China. And a couple more are visiting them.

The fellas decided to go on a little outing, up the slopes of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The mountain stands more than 18300 feet above sea level, and hasn’t been climbed since 1987, when an American team saw the top.

My friends, Johnny and Ben (I’ve climbed more than a few peaks with these guys), got to about 15,000 feet before high winds and cold turned them back.

rad1

Around that point, this was the view as conditions began to deteriorate.

rad2

No successful summit, but one heck of an adventure, and in an amazing part of the world. I think about China quite a bit: the parts that I’ve seen, the many more that I have yet to see, and the people I know who live and work there.

Maybe one of these days I’ll get to go back and see this scene of glaciated awesomeness for myself. More certain is that someday soon I’ll get to hear more details about this trip, and all that these guys experienced.

In the meantime, I’ll make do with finding adventure a little closer to home and find some inspiration in what my buddies did. Hopefully, you will too. Have a great week everyone!

Bob Doucette

 

 

Everest, ethics, and dying in the name of adventure tourism

Part of a line of hundreds of climbers make their way up Mount Everest. (Guardian photo)

Part of a line of hundreds of climbers make their way up Mount Everest. (Guardian photo)

I’ve intentionally laid off from writing about what happened on Mount Everest a couple of weeks ago, when 16 Sherpa guides were killed by a massive avalanche while hauling loads up the Khumbu Icefall.

To get a couple of preliminaries out of the way, the icefall is considered the most dangerous part of the mountain on the Nepalese side, and those going up the southern standard route are required to go through this treacherous place multiple times.

This is even moreso the case for Sherpa guides and Western outfitters — they’re the ones hauling loads, setting fixed lines and establishing camps higher up the mountain. In particular, the risk undertaken by Nepalese guides is the highest, as they go up and down the peak much more frequently than their Western partners and their high-paying clientele.

Certainly, there is a lot about the Everest scene that is different from what most of us know as “mountaineering.” Maybe it’s time to have an honest discussion about that.

If you look at the photograph below, I don’t think any of us would mistake what going on there as “mountaineering.”

A conga line of hikers going up the cables on Half Dome. (NPS photo)

A conga line of hikers going up the cables on Half Dome. (NPS photo)

That’s Half Dome, one of the iconic peaks of Yosemite National Park. Cables attached to bolted-in rails assist hikers up its steep, bare summit pitch, making it possible to ascend what would otherwise be a very difficult and dangerous climb. Thanks to the cables, any hiker with the mettle to hike to that spot and the nerve to finish the task here can stand atop Half Dome and enjoy some pretty amazing summit views.

So take a look at the next picture below.

The Everest conga line. (eightsummits.com photo)

The Everest conga line. (eightsummits.com photo)

What you’re looking at is just part of a line of hundreds of climbers — all attached to fixed line — heading up Mount Everest. To be sure, the air is thin, the pitch is steep and they are all carrying the gear needed to ascend (though most of these folks will go up and down the peak without ever having to use the ice axe affixed to their packs).

But is what they are doing really mountaineering? Are they using any of the required skills of mountain climbing? What percentage of them would know what their ice axe is for, and how/when to use it? Surely a lot of them would, but I’ll bet there are others who would not.

In any case, the overwhelming majority of the people who make a summit attempt on Everest are not the folks we’d normally associate with the term “mountaineer.” They may have mountaineering experience, but more likely they are people with a lot of money who pay others to do the bulk of the work to make a summit attempt successful. What’s left for the paying client is the task of 1) doing what you’re told by your guides; 2) getting dressed and geared up each morning; and 3) physically willing yourself to the top.

I want to stop here to note that for these climbers, a successful Everest summit is a real accomplishment. It takes a lot of heart, toughness and discipline to make that trek.

But I’d also say that if not for the huge levels of support they receive, almost none of them would ever sniff the summit. Instead, Everest would be left to the Ed Viesturses and Simone Moros of the mountaineering world — the people who could actually plan and execute a climb by way of their own skills and experience.

So that leads me back to where I started. What would you call the Everest climbing scene, if it is not really mountaineering?

In a word, tourism. Very expensive ($60,000 per person and up) and very dangerous tourism.

Paying clients risk their lives doing this. All of them could be injured or killed by avalanches, pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, hypothermia, a fall or any number of other pitfalls that come with scaling the world’s highest peaks. But they keep signing up, in bigger numbers, paying handsomely for the privilege.

Guide services in the U.S, Europe, Australia and Asia reap the rewards of this, and the guides they employ find work doing what they love as well as opportunities to advance their careers. Those guys also risk their lives, and as we saw in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” sometimes they die.

But the biggest risks fall on the Nepalese and Tibetan guides. They haul more loads, fix more ropes and cross dangerous terrain more times than anyone else. They’re also paid the least, and unlike the paying clients, they don’t get to go home to lives of affluence. Sherpa guides earn far more money than their non-climbing countrymen, but their wages are significantly less than what you see in the developed world.

And now we have 16 dead Sherpas, buried by snow and ice as they were hauling loads and fixing ropes while traversing the nastiest part of the mountain last month.

These guys left behind families who, despite the insurance they may have had, are facing difficult times without the main wage earner around anymore. And lest we forget, economic opportunities for surviving family members in Nepal are far, far fewer than what we experience here.

The morality of this system looks a little questionable. Never mind the semi-imperialistic feel of it all — wealthy Westerners hiring locals to do the heavy lifting for small wages, all for the sake of earning a shot of personal glory before returning home. People are making their livelihoods — and risking their lives — all for the sake of what is really just tourism.

Read that again: Sixteen Sherpa guides died trying to satisfy the personal goals of tourists.

I don’t know what the answer is. Certainly, I’d like to see people continue to climb the world’s biggest peaks. I’d like to see folks who make those dreams happen get compensated fairly for what they do. But maybe the money involved in Himalayan adventure tourism is pushing people to take risks that are unfairly costing those who can least afford it.

A lot of high-paying clients on the south side of Everest went home disappointed this month when Nepalese guides shut down operations for the season. No doubt, many of them are wishing they had signed on to climb from the north side, where expeditions are still going on.

But at least they got to go home. Sixteen Nepalese men did not.

I’m going to keep climbing mountains, but it’s going to be with my friends, on much lower-profile peaks here in the U.S. Funds, time and limitations in my own experience/skills dictate that. If I had the ability and resources to try one of the Himalayan giants, I’d sure be tempted to go.

But I’m just not sure I’d feel right about going to Everest in light of what we know of that scene today.

Bob Doucette

In Ice Axe We Trust: Check out this mountaineering and hiking website

Starting out on Mount Sneffels' southwest ridge, here's a view down into Yankee Boy Basin.

Starting out on Mount Sneffels’ southwest ridge, here’s a view down into Yankee Boy Basin.

Some of you may be familiar with In Ice Axe We Trust, but for those of you who are not, let me give this website a little plug.

The site’s origins come from a cool podcast in which the hosts talk to outdoor enthusiasts about some of their high country adventures. I’ve been a guest on the podcast a couple of times, and I’ve enjoyed the show quite a bit.

The site is expanding, and includes trip reports from various peaks across the United States and around the world. It’s turning into quite the resource. There aren’t many places where you can find solid beta on places as diverse as, say, Gannett Peak, Wyoming, or Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. We’re talking about trip reports and route information from the Cascades, Sierras, Rockies, Appalachians and more.

I’m also happy to say that the guys who run the site, Matt (@thepeakseeker) and Chris (@last_adventurer), have asked me to be a contributor. If you go on there, you’ll see some of my stuff on Colorado’s Mount Sneffels, and more will come later. It’s definitely an honor to be publishing stuff alongside some hikers and climbers who are far more seasoned than me.

So check out their site here, and tune in to the podcasts. If you’re into mountaineering, you’ll dig it.

Bob Doucette

Couch to 14K, Part 4: Ascending your first 14,000-foot peak

From the summit of Missouri Mountain, looking 3,000 feet into this incredible view of Missouri Gulch Basin.

From the summit of Missouri Mountain, looking 3,000 feet into this incredible view of Missouri Gulch Basin.

In Parts 1, 2 and 3 of Couch to 14K, we went over fitness, gear and selecting a mountain for your first 14er climb. In our last installment, we’re going to go over how you actually go about getting up to the top of that mountain. Hiking and climbing a 14,000-foot mountain is not the same as your typical day hike, as weather, altitude and remoteness all play a factor. So let’s go over some things you’ll want to think about as you’re heading into the high country.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

You need to have enough food and water to last the trip. Water is especially important, as the dry, thin air and exertion of even the mildest of 14er trails quickly saps the body of moisture. Dehydration can lead to altitude sickness.

Bring about three liters of water, and drink fairly often. Eat periodically, even if you’re not hungry. You’ll need the energy.

And be sure to pace yourself. As you ascend, it’s not unlikely that you’ll be heading up at a 1 mph pace. You read that right. Going down, you’ll be faster, but going up is slow going. Listen to your body, and if your body is seriously telling you to stop and pull the plug, it’s better to obey than push yourself beyond your means. Even if you can will yourself to a summit, your journey is only half done – you still have to get back down safe.

Keep in mind, if you get sick or injured, rescue could be several hours away, and there is a good chance you will not have cellphone reception on the trail. So be sure to tell some where you’re going and when, and when you expect to return.

WATCH THE WEATHER

Summer afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence, and late summer/early fall snows aren’t uncommon. No summit experience is worth being hit by lightning or getting caught in a freak high-altitude snowstorm.

One way you can mitigate weather issues is to get an early start, preferably before dawn. Give yourself enough time to reach the summit by late morning and be off the summit by noon.

Keep an eye on the skies, as some storms start earlier. Small puffy clouds coalesce to form larger clouds quickly. And any clouds with gray bottoms are the beginning of storms. Lightning can travel for miles, and when you’re above treeline, you might be the highest point on a ridgeline or summit.

If the weather is not cooperating (thunderstorms or driving snow), turn around and head back down. Just because you can beat a storm to the summit does not mean you can beat it entirely. Remember, the mountain will be always be there, and you can come back to try again another day.

For your best chance of success, watch weather forecasts beforehand and plan accordingly.

TAKE CARE OF THE PEAK

The ecosystems of high country are fragile. The higher you go, the more delicate they become.

Pack out any trash. If you don’t need a camp fire, don’t make one. Don’t pick flowers, especially in high altitude areas, where any environmental damage can take decades to repair. And stay on the trail.

Also, be careful with your dogs. If you bring your dog, keep it on a leash. Dogs love to chase wildlife. But animals living in the mountains use the summer to fatten up for the harsh winter months. The energy needed to escape your playful pup could be the difference between life and death for a marmot or mountain goat in the months that follow.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Doing a little research on the mountain you plan to conquer is a smart thing. If you’ve never climbed, look for one of the many “walk-up” peaks that don’t require climbing skills. There are numerous print, online and smartphone app resources that have trail maps, gear lists and safety tips.

One last word, this one coming from veteran mountaineer Bill Middlebrook via his Web site, 14ers.com:

“Mountaineering in Colorado can be very dangerous,” he says. “Many people have died on the 14ers. Weather, terrain and other people can put you in a situation where your knowledge and experience will be vital.

“Just because a crowd of people can march to the summit of Quandary Peak on a summer Saturday, it doesn’t mean that they are all safe. Altitude sickness, dehydration and fast-building storms are the most common problems. Get in shape and start early for each trip. I can’t tell you how many times I have been half way down a 14er and passed hikers that were determined to get to the summit — even with huge thunderclouds brewing above.”

Bob Doucette