With five deaths in six weeks on Capitol Peak, mountain safety takes on greater urgency

Capitol Peak, Colo. (Wikipedia commons photo)

Anytime someone dies in the mountains, it gets attention. Landslides, avalanches, falls, or otherwise, the terror of finding your end on a high peak garners headlines.

People speculate how it happened. They express grief and sympathy for the fallen climber’s family and friends. A few may even throw barbs toward the victim, though that is, thankfully, rare.

This is repeated every year, especially in the summer when hordes of hikers and climbers take advantage of longer days and more favorable weather to get their summit fix.

But this summer feels a bit different, in that the volume of deaths seems to be on the rise. And more than that, the number of fatalities on one particular mountain, Colorado’s Capitol Peak.

I’ve never climbed it, but I know some people who have. There is bountiful information about the peak and its challenges available online and in books. From these sources, I can tell you a few things about the mountain: It’s exposed, with large drop-offs and a number of “no-fall zones.” Like the rest of the Elk Range where it resides, it’s notoriously loose, with rotten rock in all the wrong places. It doesn’t take much for toaster-sized rocks – or boulders far larger – to tear loose from the mountainside and careen down its steep slopes, and God help you if you’re in the fall line. One friend of mine survived a rockfall incident, but deals with traumatic brain injury symptoms years later after having two loose rocks smash into her head during a climb in 2013. Thank God for climbing helmets, or she’d be dead.

More recent news has solidified the mountain’s reputation. Over the past six weeks, Capitol Peak has claimed five lives.

That’s an extraordinary number, given the fact that the mountain hasn’t had more deaths than that over the previous several years combined. And for more perspective, it’s just two fewer than Mount Everest recorded during its spring climbing season this year. I don’t want to equate the two mountains, but the numbers are what they are.

So what do we know of the 2017 fatalities? The first two seem to be cases of falls associated with loose rock. But the last three indicate something else.

The third and fourth deaths on Capitol Peak, Carly Brightwell and Ryan Marcil, were a couple who had climbed the mountain, then fell on a steep section below the summit but before the solid yet very exposed knife-edge ridge.

The fifth death, Zackaria White, was a climber who fell in the same area.

What separates these two incidents is the experience of the climbers. The couple in question had some time in the mountains under their belts. White did not. In fact, Capitol Peak was his first 14er (a mountain that meets or exceeds 14,000 feet above sea level).

The knife-edge ridge on Capitol Peak. (Wikipedia commons photo)

What they have in common is it appears all three people tried to find another route down the mountain to avoid traversing the knife edge, according to local search-and-rescue team reports. They cliffed out, got to a point where they could not ascend or descend, and fell to their deaths.

Those similarities would, at least, point toward some obvious lessons: Stay on the route, especially on challenging mountains like Capitol. But this is no cure-all, as evidenced by the other fatalities on Capitol, as well as two more deaths on the nearby Maroon Bells, a pair of striking but dangerous mountains in the same range.* The “Deadly Bells,” as they are known, are like the rest of the Elk Range: steep, exposed and littered with loose rock that can break off under you at any moment. Deaths on the Bells, as well as a number of mountains in this range and many others throughout Colorado (10 fatalities so far this year), come with a wide variety of causes.

In fact, if you were to make a list of causes of death (and preventative measures to minimize risks for each situation), it would be so broad as to nullify any attempt at standard, one-size-fits-all practices to curtail mountain tragedies. To wit: bring the 10 essentials; eat and hydrate; get an early start; watch the weather; study the route; bring an emergency locator beacon; be in top shape; don’t wear cotton; bring the proper footwear; don’t try a mountain beyond your abilities; hike with a partner; and so on. Even if you did all these things – and most people do – there is a chance that you could still die on a mountain by pure blind chance. That, too, has happened often enough, claiming newbies and veteran climbers alike.

It should be noted that the ratio of people who have safely summited Capitol Peak, and any number of other Colorado mountains, to those who have died on them is starkly in favor of survival. For every death, thousands have successfully climbed and come home intact.

But rescue and recovery missions are expensive, taxing and at times risky endeavors. Given that, and the growing number of people who try their luck in the high country (to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year) mean that the myriad of ways people can get into trouble will only ensnare more, which will mean more rescues, more risk on the part of the rescuers, and to those who can’t be saved, more deaths.

An exasperated Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told the Aspen Times his office would more aggressively educate people on the risks of climbing mountains, especially the ones in his jurisdiction. Mountain Rescue Aspen is drawing up plans to do just that.

But here is where we are: We exist in a time where outdoor adventure is more popular than ever. Social media, especially channels like Instagram and Facebook, drive people to do more, push harder and otherwise ply their skills for the sake of not just enjoying the high country, but to pursue “likes,” audience growth, and potential sponsorships from gear companies, retailers and others who seek out social media influencers to market their brands. They may not be the only drivers, but they are potent. And they will only grow more powerful as populations in Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, among others, swell.

To be frank, I don’t know if there’s an answer here. I can’t say if this summer in Colorado is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend. But it does bring me back to a couple truths.

First, the ultimate responsibility has and always will lie with the individual. No one forces anyone to climb mountains. For those who do, the burden of preparedness and safety is squarely on their shoulders. Given the massive volume of information out there on mountain safety, there is no excuse for being uneducated on the topic or on the peaks people climb.

Second, it’s important for people to have each other’s backs. Teach those with less experience than you. Be the one to give guidance on the trail to your partners, and take charge when needed. Know when it’s time to call it a day and turn around. Those lower on the pecking order need to pay attention to those with more experience. And those with the experience need to get a good read on their partners and understand their limitations, or any other problems that may arise. Teams should not split up unless absolutely necessary, and believe me, that’s rare.

We know people will have problems in the high country. We know people will die. And we’ll analyze these incidents, looking for answers. But don’t expect a cure-all solution. As lame as this might sound, we must do the best we can at taking care of ourselves, doing the things we love in the places we cherish, knowing that these marvels of nature can snuff us out at any time, with total indifference, even if we do everything right. It’s the nature of mountains, and one none of us should ever forget.

Bob Doucette

*An earlier version of this post said there were four deaths in the Maroon Bells this year. There have been two.

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Exploring Cimarron, New Mexico, and the Valle Vidal

Woodlands in the Valle Vidal, near Cimarron, N.M.

My affection for New Mexico goes back years. Almost two decades, actually. Long before the cultural touchstones of “Breaking Bad”, but long after Georgia O’Keeffe worked her magic, I drove to this state’s northern reaches and saw something that reminded me of childhood adventures in the Rockies west of Denver.

The Sangre de Cristo Range has all the alpine wonder you’d expect farther north, even if most of this state has a more arid character. But where it differs from its northern neighbor is its ability to maintain its character, a mosaic of the West mostly untainted by rampant development that is clogging Colorado’s Front Range and Eastern Slope.

Yes, the state has its tourist draws. But beneath the veneer of tourism lies the state’s older character, a history steeped in Spanish settlements dating back five centuries, of rich Native American heritage, and of Old West vocations rooted in ranching.

The mountains attract people for a lot of reasons, but the main difference I see here and in the state where I grew up is that enjoying them in Colorado often involves extended stays on clogged highways filled with people afflicted by the same high country lust I have. In New Mexico, you can bask in the high country and feel a part of the landscape without having to endure the gridlock farther north.

I make a pilgrimage west at least once a year, and this time gave me a little more time to wander, and in this case, take a trip down south. It’s been 11 years since I spent any time here, and upon my return I found that New Mexico has lost none of its flavor.

CIMARRON

As luck would have it, I’ve got friends here. A married couple I know from my local outdoor community had recently packed up and moved to the tiny burg of Cimmaron with a combination of longstanding dreams meeting at a confluence in New Mexico’s eastern slope. Colin Tawney has long wanted to move West, and his wife, Erin Tawney, had been intrigued at the idea of running a bed and breakfast.

They found one in Cimarron, and the Blue Dragonfly Inn was born.

When we pulled in, I was surprised how big the place was. It’s got enough room for a couple of families at a time, and sports a large indoor swimming pool, exercise equipment, commons areas and a sweet back porch where you can take in the sweeping views of the nearby mountains and hummingbirds feasting on flowers and nectar feeders hung from a nearby tree. The porch ended up a favorite spot for me to catch up on some reading while watching the afternoon monsoon storms bloom to the west.

The Tawneys have a large van that can pick people up from nearby airports or take groups on excursions. There’s plenty to do here, and Colin sees his enterprise and the town of Cimarron itself as a great base for hikers, mountain bikers, anglers and hunters. Eagle Nest Lake is not far, so kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are also good summer options.

Also helping the cause: Erin can cook. Three fantastic breakfasts in a row, and she has recipes to account for people on special diets, be they vegan, gluten-free, or just about anything else.

Back porch view at the Blue Dragonfly Inn.

Breakfast is served: Egg fritatta with Italian sausage and marinara, sweet potato fries and a choice of fruit. Holy cow, this was good.

The Blue Dragonfly Inn.

The Inn has other amenities as well, including free Wi-Fi and complimentary Netflix. (If you want to know more, look up the Blue Dragonfly Inn on Facebook.)

The town itself punches above its weight, considering its size and relative distance from larger cities or ski resorts. We found excellent food at the St. James Hotel, and The Porch is also highly recommended. East of town there is a place called the Colfax Tavern, but most people here know it simply as “Cold Beer.” That moniker, derived from the sign advertising its wares, even gave birth to a craft brew lager they have specially made and shipped in from Oregon. It’s great on draft and goes well with the fresh pizzas or short rib pork.

For those looking for a bit of history, there are antique stores in town as well as a sawmill museum.

THE VALLE VIDAL

At Ring Camp in the Valle Vidal.

Logging and ranching built Cimarron, but the town butters its bread on its proximity to the Philmont Scout Ranch, a huge facility that hosts tens of thousands of Boy Scouts every year. Scouts take off from the camp and into an extensive trail system weaving its way through evergreen forests and mountains that top 12,000 feet.

The land surrounding the camp is the Valle Vidal, 101,794 acres of alpine forests, meadows and hills that lie at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Range. It was once owned by wealthy landowner, then Pennzoil Corporation before being donated as an addition to the Carson National Forest. It’s now protected public land, and being surrounded in part by Philmont and a sprawling ranch owned by Ted Turner, encroachment via commercial development is a nearly nonexistent threat. Ranchers can graze cattle here, but other than that, the Valle Vidal is allowed to remain wild.

As I mentioned before, Colin and Erin are serious trail enthusiasts. Both are avid mountain bikers, and they’ve already found some sweet places to ride. But they’re always looking for more, and hope to one day perhaps create mountain bike events that traverse the ample trail system in the Valle Vidal.

We picked a day to scout out some of those trails, driving to a trailhead where we could do a simple out-and-back hike to a logging ghost town called Ring Town.

Out first stop took us to Ring Camp, an active facility run by Philmont. “Welcome to Ring Camp!” was the greeting we got from four young folk employed by Philmont and charged with looking after the place while also seeing to the needs of Boy Scout groups that passed through in the middle of backpacking trips that spanned two weeks at a time.

They hailed anywhere from Maryland to Texas and many places in between. I never had a summer job that looked as good as they gig these four had.

Taking off from there, we followed jeep paths through a pasture and some very wary cows. My wife, Becca, noticed that one horned bovine watched us intently the entire time while calves bellowed for their mothers as we passed. Not quite a wildlife experience, but it’s worth noting to be cool and calm as to not upset creatures that are much bigger than you.

Colin checks out the remains of a fallen windmill at Ring Town.

About 2.5 miles in, we ran into Ring Town. Or at least what’s left of it. My guess is this was a timber community for a time, but had long since gone under. We found the remains of windmills and water tanks scattered across the banks of a stream nearby. Colin went looking for a cemetery that was supposed to be close by, but building storm clouds cut that search short.

On the return trip, those clouds unleashed on us. Lightning was a concern — New Mexico has the highest death rate by lightning in the country. And when the rain started dumping on us, we were right in the middle of a wide pasture without any cover in sight. Fortunately, there were no close calls, just a good bit of sogginess. It was one of the faster — and wetter — mile-long stretches I’ve hiked.

Wrinkles like that can make a hike that much more memorable. The Tawneys got to stretch their legs and explore new places for their bikes. Bec got to test out her new kicks. And with the bulk of the hike between 8,200 and 8,400 feet above sea level, I got some badly needed activity at elevation just prior to some summit hikes I’d planned later in the week.

Looking back, the time we spent in the Valle Vidal reminded me why I like New Mexico so much: Random points of interest and people mixed in with unspoiled mountain scenery, the quiet sounds of nature, and the slowed pace of a land mostly free from the machinery of civilization. Who knows how long that will last. But for now, it’s still there, far from the busy interstates and busy metropolises that dominate elsewhere.

Bob Doucette

A smattering of state high points

At the top of a state.

It’s about that time when I get out of the Southern Plains and head into the high country. On tap: Some quality time in New Mexico and Colorado.

Thoughts of summits are racing through my mind. And that got me to thinking about the high places. More specifically, the high points of every state.

Some are dramatic: Denali in Alaska, Mount Rainier in Washington, or Mount Whitney in California. Others, well, not so much. “Mount Sunflower” in Kansas is just a high point on a flat plain. Florida’s high point is a place you can walk to from the road.

For some people, reaching every state high point is a goal they chase over many years. That’s not really me, but I’ve made five of the country’s 50 state high points. Some are dramatic. Others are not. But all of them have been memorable for me.

Here’s mine…

MOUNT ELBERT, COLORADO

Summit view from Mount Elbert.

Colorado’s highest mountain stands at 14,433 feet above sea level, making it the second-highest point in the lower 48 states. It’s a gentle giant, a walk-up peak on a good trail that tests your lungs and legs. The false summits near the top can be disheartening, but like the rest of its cousins in the Sawatch Range, Mount Elbert can be head with the right amount of fitness and determination. The views of nearby Mount Massive (Colorado’s second-highest peak) and Twin Lakes are memorable.

WHEELER PEAK, NEW MEXICO

Looking south from the summit of Wheeler Peak.

The monarch of New Mexico’s high places, Wheeler Peak (13,153 feet) is a massive mountain in the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Whether you hike it via Taos or Red River, expect a big day: Routes to the summit are anywhere from 16 to 21 miles long round-trip. It can be done in a day, but many choose to backpack this mountain over a couple of days. Like Mount Elbert, Wheeler Peak is strictly a hike, and one that takes you through some amazing scenery in the Carson National Forest. This was my first “big mountain” summit and my first state high point.

CLINGMAN’S DOME, TENNESSEE

View from the observation tower on Clingman’s Dome.

The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina are breathtaking, carpeted with broadleaf and evergreen forests for as far as the eye can see. Tennessee has a number of big Appalachian peaks, but none as high as Clingman’s Dome (6,644 feet). The mountain is the highest point of the Appalachian Trail (and you can hike it from there as a day hike). If a lengthy hike is not your thing, you can drive near the top and walk the last half mile to the top on a paved walkway. Clingman’s Dome has an observation tower that gives you incredible views of the Smokies, something other Appalachian summits in the South lack (usually, you’re surrounded by trees). If you’re hiking it, you’ll pass through a few ecosystems as the elevation changes. And you might see bears.

BLACK MESA, OKLAHOMA

Summit marker at Black Mesa.

This Southern Plains state is more than just prairie — hills and mountains in the south and east, dunes in the northwest, and plenty of wild grasslands in between. In the far western corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle, the High Plains meet volcanic remains at Black Mesa. The mesa is the hardened lava from past eruptions in the region, rising to an elevation of 4,975 feet. Black Mesa is remote, so you’re almost guaranteed some solitude on an 8-mile round-trip hike to the top. Once there, a monolith marks Oklahoma’s high place, but be sure to hike to the mesa’s cliffs and enjoy sweeping views into New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Colorado.

MAGAZINE MOUNTAIN, ARKANSAS

Summit sign at Magazine Mountain.

Arkansas is not a high-elevation state, but it is a mountain state. The Ozarks and the Ouachitas dominate the scenery of the northwest portion of the state, and none rise higher than Magazine Mountain (2,753 feet). The mountain is a lengthy, broad ridge covered in broadleaf and pine forests. Gaining its summit at Signal Hill can be had via a short walk from established campground at the top, or you can earn it via the 9-mile (one-way) hike on the Magazine Mountain Trail. That trail, which starts in National Forest land and ends in Mount Magazine State Park, winds through thick forests, multiple stream crossings and real wilderness. Hike it on a weekday and you might have the trail to yourself until you get to the top. The summit itself is surrounded by trees and is indicated by a sign, a register and a USGS marker.

So there you have it. My extensive list of five (count ’em, five!) state high points. While only 10 percent of the list, these are some good ones that are worth a visit.

Bob Doucette

 

When adventure happens: Things don’t go as planned on Crestone Peak

David at the top of Broken Hand Pass, contemplating the storm and the descent.

David at the top of Broken Hand Pass, contemplating the storm and the descent.

The term “adventure” means different things to different people. For some, it could be something as benign as checking out a farmer’s market in a town where you’ve never been. For others, a day of climbing on a new crag or backpacking to a place in which you’re unfamiliar. And for the rare souls, maybe traversing foreign lands solo on a motorcycle, where the language is not your own, the food is strange and the risk of harm from wildlife, weather or other humans is real.

Perspective is everything here. But in my conversations with people about adventure, there is a common thread that surfaces just about every time: Adventure often exists in realms where the unplanned happens. If the success of your plans for a trip or an outing is guaranteed, it’s not an adventure.

This is something I keep in mind every time I head to the mountains. The interaction of elevation, weather and will can make or break your goals in the high country.

I found that out on Longs Peak last summer, when poor weather turned me and my friends back a mile and a thousand feet short of the summit. All that effort, only to walk away with disappointment. That was in the back of my mind when my friend David and I headed into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to tackle Crestone Peak and Humboldt Peak.

I felt confident that I could handle the challenges of these mountains. But I also know that all mountains – from the benign walk-ups to their burlier, steeper cousins – have the potential to humble the most seasoned among us.

THE PEAKS

The plan was to attempt a climb of Crestone Peak, a rugged spire that shares the skyline with its more elegant kin, Crestone Needle, above South Colony Lakes. We’d considered climbing the Needle, but neither of us had been on that mountain before, and we’d read reports of people having route-finding problems in the way down. About a month ago, a climber died from a fall after going down the wrong gully, and just last week, another fall on the Needle required an extraction from a local search and rescue team. Crestone Peak is much more straightforward, so we opted for that mountain instead.

Crestone Peak is no piece of cake. The bulk of the ascent involves a good amount of exposed, sustained climbing on good, knobby rock. That has a special appeal, but the quality of the rock does not mean this is an easy mountain to climb. It has its challenges, too, and if you’re caught high on the peak with weather moving in, it’s a dangerous place to be. It’s considered the ninth-most-difficult of the 58 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado for a reason.

Humboldt Peak has a completely different nature than the Crestones. It’s a straightforward hike up it’s cool, windswept west ridge, and its appearance – described by mountaineer and author Gerry Roach as “a shapeless hump” – makes it seem like far less of a challenge than its South Colony Lakes neighbors. Objectively speaking, this is true. But even Humboldt has its surprises, particularly when snow and ice is present. Cliff bands on the middle and lower flanks of its slopes have proven to be quite dangerous to the unwary who have attempted glissades and ski descents. Humboldt has been known to kill. Snow and ice were nearly absent in the area when we arrived, but stories of mishaps on all these peaks were good reminders not to take any of them lightly.

ALTITUDE, RAIN AND CHILLED TO THE BONE

When I go to the mountains, one of my biggest obstacles is altitude. I live far away, at 800 feet above sea level. Even when I’m in shape, the challenge of altitude is high. No amount of running, hill climbs or heat training has adequately prepared me for hiking uphill with a loaded pack at 10,000 feet or higher.

So backpacking into South Colony Lakes was laborious. A road that led higher up the route had since been closed, so it’s a few miles from the new four-wheel-drive trailhead to the campsites near the lakes. It’s not steep, but it feels that way when your lungs and heart are still operating as if they were at sea level. Past the old upper trailhead, the route gets a little steeper and more rugged.

Rain began to intermittently fall on us as we hiked higher. Temperatures dropped. The level of work my body was putting in had already made me sweat through my shirt, so a little rain wasn’t going to make any difference. But things changed once we got to our campsite and stopped hiking. With the activity that kept my core temperature up now over, the whole “cold and wet” thing took over.

“Man, I need to get myself going,” I told David as I tried to get the tent out of my pack and get it set up, shivering.

“Yeah, can barely get my fingers to work right,” he said.

We fumbled around with the tent poles and the stakes until we finally got our shelter in place. There was still some campsite work to be done, but as my shivering grew more extreme, I decided I needed to get in my sleeping bag immediately. I had to warm up.

So I crawled into my bag and shook for about 40 minutes as the sun continued to set. I felt a little bad about it, partially because of the aforementioned camp chores that still awaited, but also because I felt like the weak link. Something that’s always in the back of my mind is a hope that my own deficiencies do not hinder my friends from achieving their goals. David has more than 60 summits under his belt, and from past experiences (we’ve climbed Mount Sneffels and Wetterhorn Peak together) I knew that he was the senior partner on this venture. I wondered if the sight of me huffing and puffing up to camp, and now shivering in my sleeping bag was bringing him down. It certainly didn’t look like a good omen to me.

After a bit, I rallied enough to get out of the tent and help out a little before we called it a night. Neither of us slept much, but consolation came as the clouds cleared and the stars came out. One of the benefits of having to take a leak in the middle of the night is getting a quiet moment to look at the night sky, and the tens of thousands of stars that shine overhead in ways you cannot appreciate inside a city or at lower altitudes.

I tucked in again and listened to high winds build through the pre-dawn hours. Sleep never came as I wondered what those winds would be like going over Broken Hand Pass, and then higher on the peak. Thankfully, the winds subsided by dawn, but the pass had its own obstacles.

A THOUSAND FEET OF YUCK

Alpenglow on Crestone Needle.

Alpenglow on Crestone Needle.

By morning, I was surprisingly energetic. Maybe it was the fact that the winds died down, or that bright sunshine seemed to indicate favorable conditions for the day. Our first sight was alpenglow hitting Crestone Needle – one of the most beautiful alpine scenes you could ever ask for. The Needle is a lot of things, but first and foremost, it’s one of the most striking peaks I’ve ever seen.

The hike toward the pass is pleasant enough. But the pass is anything but. Broken Hand Pass is just shy of 1,000 feet above South Colony Lakes and is gained by hiking and scrambling up a loose, rubble-filled mess of a gully before ending with a short, grassy slope near the top.

We burned a lot of energy going up this pass, and David wondered aloud what it would be like descending it on our way back.

Looking up toward Broken Hand Pass.

Looking up toward Broken Hand Pass.

The pass wasn’t a total bust – it had a short section of scrambling that was sort of fun, and a taste of what we hoped to see later when we reached the peak. But our progress was slow, and rockfall a concern. We both agreed that the gully and the pass would not be a good place to be if the weather turned.

Topping out at just shy of 13,000 feet, we looked down into mellower slopes leading toward Cottonwood Lake, and later, to the base of Crestone Peak.

Low clouds were beginning to blow in from the west, but it was still mostly sunny and the temps began to warm. Sunshine seemed to bring life into the valley, and by that, I mean the bugs. Once things warmed, mosquitoes and flies rose from the marshes and set upon us almost immediately. It was great motivation to get moving, get higher and get away from the swarm that sought to feast on us that morning.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake.

At the top of Broken Hand Pass, looking down at Cottonwood Lake.

ON THE PEAK

For awhile, it appeared the clouds coming from the west were only going to amount to fog. They’d obscured Crestone Peak for much of the morning, but cleared just long enough for us to get a good look at the route. Some steeper hiking led to a signature feature in the middle of the mountain, the Red Gully, a water-worn strip of red rock that splits the center of the mountain’s south face. Above it were rockier, steeper pitches of conglomerate rock that were said to make for enjoyable, sustained climbing all the way to the peak’s summit.

Going up the Red Gully on Crestone Peak.

Going up the Red Gully on Crestone Peak.

It’s important to note that the type of rock in the Red Gully is different than what is higher up. Runoff from the mountain flows down the face and has worn much of the gully smooth. It’s not that steep, but it is slick in spots, even more so when wet. You need good traction from your footwear at this point, something David was having trouble finding.

His boots were only a year old, but the tread, for whatever reason, wasn’t allowing him to smear the face of the gully without slipping. As the gully steepened, the problems only got worse.

“I think I’m getting past my comfort zone here,” he said, while also saying he wished he had has trail runners on at that point. “I can’t get any grip.”

We stopped for a few minutes to assess the situation. We figured getting up the gully could be managed, but getting down could get difficult. Water continued to flow down the gully’s center, reminding us what had made the rock so slick, and foretelling what it might be like should we get caught in rain. I looked up and saw the route ahead, with still another 1,000 feet or more of climbing yet to do. Crestone’s summit was again hidden by clouds, and over a couple of ridges, those clouds appeared to build. The forecast for the day predicted a chance of storms early that afternoon, but it was clear that those storms were arriving early. With well over an hour of climbing ahead of us just to summit and the other problems now at hand it wasn’t looking good. Halfway up the Red Gully, we pulled the plug.

Gathering clouds around the ridge between Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.

Gathering clouds around the ridge between Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle.

David was feeling pretty bad about it, noting that I’d come a long way to do this particular peak. But if there is one thing I appreciate about him is his respect for risk, and his experience in determining what those risks are. I’m positive we could have summitted. I’m not so sure how safe the downclimb would have been, especially considering how the skies were beginning to look. As they day wore on, his boot problems might have been providential, giving us pause at the correct moment to turn around before we became overcommitted going up as the weather worsened.

RETREAT OVER THE PASS

Wildflowers galore.

Wildflowers galore.

While it was a bummer to bail on the summit, it did allow for more time to enjoy the scenery around Cottonwood Lake. The monsoons had given the lake plenty of water, fed by runoff from the surrounding peaks and a busy little stream that split the valley. By early August, many of the wildflower blooms were long over, but not here. The banks of the stream were carpeted by tall plants with golden blooms, a great contrast to the green grasses and stony brown and gray walls surrounding the lake. Above us, clouds continued to move in like freight trains, quickly and steadily rushing across the skies and in between the spires high above. The interplay between the sun and the clouds, of bright light and dark shadows, gave the entire valley an ethereal feel. I stopped frequently to look up and around, taking pictures and enjoying the wild scenery before the real work of reascending Broken Hand Pass began.

Both of us had talked about the possibility of hiking Humboldt Peak the next morning. It’s a less demanding ascent, but we were pretty beat. But after getting turned back on Crestone Peak, there was more determination to salvage what we could out of the trip.

That thought had us looking ahead, perhaps a bit too far. The skies reminded us to pay attention to the now.

Ominous optics at Cottonwood Lake.

Ominous optics at Cottonwood Lake.

About two-thirds of the way up the pass, a loud and prolonged peal of thunder sounded off. The best I could tell, it came from the east, and the weather patterns indicated that anything going east of us would be heading away. Even then, I knew lightning strikes could travel in any direction. But no matter what, we’d be forced to keep climbing. It didn’t matter what the storm was doing – we still had to go up and over the pass in order to get into camp and relative safety. There was no good place to shelter where we were, or back down at Cottonwood Lake. We’d have to take our chances high on the pass and in the trickier parts of the descent on the other side and hope for the best.

Near the top of the pass, another peal of thunder, this time louder, bouncing off the walls of the mountains in a fast-moving explosion of echoes, like timed dynamite charges. The clouds darkened. Again, it was east of us. But it was a sign to get moving and get down quickly.

When we topped out, we could see the storm and its handiwork. Large volumes of rain were falling, and traces of hail or grauppel – we weren’t sure which – frosted the rugged cliff bands of Humboldt Peak. It was quite a sight, dark and forbidding. But it also confirmed to us that the storm was moving on and had not dumped much of anything on the pass. A good sign, seeing that the descent would be tricky enough as it was.

It took awhile to get down. We descended in choreographed segments, making sure whoever was downslope was clear of the fall line in case the person above accidentally kicked something loose. Rockfall is a real issue on the east side of Broken Hand Pass.

As time passed, the weather improved. We were tired and cursed the difficulties of the pass (“If I never see Broken Hand Pass again, it will be too soon,” I muttered more than once), but optimistic about what we could do the next day.

ONE MORE SURPRISE

The steepness of the trail eased once we reached the lakes. The day was ending well, and the upside to the hike was clearly seeing the route on Humboldt. David said the trail work done there recently was excellent, and its length wasn’t that much, so a good night’s sleep and some hot food should have had us ready to roll the next morning.

David near the bottom of Broken Hand Pass.

David near the bottom of Broken Hand Pass.

We entered the woods just below the lakes and neared camp. About then David stopped and walked up to a partially uprooted tree, then pointed it out to me.

Looking around a bit, he said, “It’s gone.”

By “it,” he meant his bear canister. He’d stashed it there, about a hundred feet away from our tent, as per the instructions that came with it. All of our food was in that canister, with the exception of what we had in our summit packs: half a summer sausage, a couple of cheese sticks, some apple sauce, trail mix and some dried fruit. Barely enough for one person’s single meal.

We looked around camp. No sign of it. One of two things happened: There is currently a bear around South Colony Lakes playing soccer with David’s canister, or someone saw where it was stashed and made off with it.

I’m thinking it was people rather than wildlife. There had been no reports of bear activity in the area that we’d heard of, and no signs of bear tracks or scat. A brand new canister loaded with food might have been tempting to campers lacking a conscience.

What this meant for us: Humboldt was now a no-go. That choice had been made for us by others. The only question remaining was whether we stayed the night and hiked out in the morning or packed out that afternoon.

We chose the latter. But not before chowing down on what we had left and getting a good snooze. We earned that much. Once that was done and we started packing out, David said something that summed up the last two days:

“Well, you could definitely say we had an adventure.”

I thought about that for a bit, and it stuck with me. Yes, we did have an adventure. It wasn’t a Mallory-on-Everest adventure, or Amundsen-Scott in Antarctica, but it was an adventure. We had some hardships, like the beginnings of hypothermia. There were challenges, like getting over Broken Hand Pass. Threats from the skies, like high winds in the middle of the night and storms the next day. And in some cases, too much of the wrong things to make the trip “a success,” when weather, gear and human morality all failed.

But it wasn’t a total loss. In between all those misfortunes were grand scenes of some of the most dramatic places in the Colorado high country: the rays of the rising sun bathing Crestone Needle, for example. The lush greenery around Cottonwood Lake. The fierce ramparts of Crestone Peak, shrouded in clouds, glowering at us from a couple of thousand feet above. Those sights are seared into my memory, as is the knowledge gained from being there. If there’s a next time, I have a good idea what to expect.

I also had good company. That matters when you’re out in the backcountry. A good, strong partner who can hold a conversation is valuable, especially when it’s someone you know you can trust and who will put up with your own flaws.

So we did have an adventure, one that didn’t go as planned. But it was worthwhile nonetheless.

Hiking out.

Hiking out.

Bob Doucette

A flatlander’s guide to high country adventure

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As spring takes hold, a bunch of us from the flatlands are having dreams of alpine vistas and Rocky Mountain summits. But we often forget that there is a lot that goes into being ready for the challenges that come with altitude.

I live at less than 800 feet. So every time I think about heading west, I know there are things I need to do before marching to the top of a high peak.

So that’s what this is about. It’s not like I’m a pro or anything, but I’ve spent the last 13 years bagging peaks in the Colorado and New Mexico high country from late spring to early fall. I’ve learned a bit — mostly through trial and error, and from my mistakes. So that’s what I want to pass along to you.

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BEFORE THE TRIP

People who live at higher elevations have an advantage over the rest of us because they have more red blood cells — the agents that carry oxygen to the rest of the body — flowing through their bodies than us. And unless you plan on spending several weeks at altitude, your body won’t be able to match that red blood cell production in time to fit inside your vacation plans. You can acclimate some, but not that fast. So extra care has to be taken in terms of physical preparation. With that in mind…

Get yourself in shape. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I’d suggest a few basics. Plan and complete some big hikes, preferably in hilly areas. On some of these hikes, carry a backpack that will be the same size and weight as the one you plan to use in the mountains. Break in those boots if they’re new. Plan on hikes that will last as long (in number of hours) as you think it will take on your trip. I’d also recommend doing some regular cardio at least four times a week — running, cycling, swimming, stairmaster — yes to any or all of that. And sprinkle in some strength training. A rugged frame and a strong heart/set of lungs will go a long way toward helping you enjoy your alpine adventures rather than just suffer through them. Ideally, these are things you should be doing at least a few  months out from your planned trip. If you want more information on that, check out this post I wrote last year.

Test your gear. Wear and use the clothes, footwear and backpack you plan to use, and make sure the fit is good. Same goes with any tents, stoves, electronics or anything else you might use or depend on. Be familiar with how everything works, and adjust accordingly if something’s not right. Having a gear failure on the trail because of your unfamiliarity with it is a potential disaster that is entirely preventable.

Ask for advice. Got any friends who are knowledgeable about the high country? Hit ’em up. You can also find good information in online forums and through social media. People are willing to help. A question you have that goes unasked is a mystery you might not be able to afford when you’re in the backcountry.

Plan and study your routes. Again, there is a lot of information online about trails, forests, peaks, etc. Plenty of guide books, too. You don’t have to kill all spontaneity, but you should be familiar with the places you’re going, the distances you’ll travel, and the type of terrain, obstacles and hazards you’ll face. And let someone know where you are going and when you intend to return.

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WHEN YOU’RE THERE

Give yourself some time. I’ve done the thing where you drive in one day, and then a day later go hit a 14,000-foot peak. It can be done, but I don’t advise it. Rather, spend a few days at a lower elevation town or city and do some practice hikes on smaller hills. After a couple of days, head into the high country, and give yourself another day or so, embarking in acclimatization hikes. After a few days, your body will be more prepared for the task at hand.

Drink plenty of water. The Rockies are fairly dry, and because your respiration will be at an increased rate, you’ll dehydrate much faster — even in a city like Denver, at 5,280 feet — than you do at home. It’s subtle at first, and you won’t realize you’re drying out… until it’s too late. So it’s not a bad thing to be sipping water regularly throughout the day, even if you’re just chilling out. When you’re on the trail, your hydration needs will increase. A 4-8 hour day hike might mean you take 2-3 liters of water with you, and try to drink as much of that as you can. Otherwise, you’ll get nasty headaches, and possibly the beginnings of altitude sickness.

Pack right. Make sure you have enough food for your hike, and then a little more. Bring the right supplies and tools in your pack, with special detail on what you might need in an emergency. If you’re wondering what that looks like, check this link for the 10 essentials. Make sure your clothing is designed to handle a variety of weather conditions your might face.

Even if you’re from another mountain state, do not underestimate what elevation does to a hike or climb. Plenty of peak baggers and hikers hail from states with mountains that have serious elevation profiles, but aren’t as high as the Rockies. An example: I hiked Mount LeConte in Tennessee, which at various trailheads will give you 3,000 feet of elevation gain or more. Many of the peaks in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are similar in their base-to-summit profile. But I found the going much easier in the Appalachians than in the Rockies, even when approaching LeConte’s summit, solely because of how much thinner the air is in the Rockies. Remember that the trailheads at most peaks in the Rockies start at elevations higher the tops of any mountain on the East Coast, as well as most mountains in every western state except California (the Sierras pose their own challenges, as do some of the big ones in the Cascades). The level of exertion and complications from altitude will be much different than they are in the Smokies, the White Mountains, or just about anywhere else in the Lower 48.

Watch the weather. A bluebird day in the summer can turn into a nightmare of lighting, hail and wind in a hurry. Storms can form right over your head with little warning. Start your hikes early (pre-dawn is good, and even earlier if the route is long) and be heading down the mountain well before noon. Check forecasts closely, and don’t be surprised to see snowfall on the bookend weeks of the summer. Fall and spring hikes and climbs can be even more touch-and-go when it comes to snowstorms. Perfect conditions one day can give way to blizzards. On my early July attempt of Longs Peak last summer, snow high on the mountain fell the night before our ascent and turned route conditions into a mess of sloppy snow and ice, forcing us to abort the climb. Now imagine getting caught in the middle of that, while on exposed, steep terrain. Respect for high country weather changes is a must.

Respect the land and its permanent residents. Stay on the trail and don’t stomp all over delicate alpine tundra. If you bring a dog, keep it under control and don’t let it chase after wildlife. Camp 100 feet or more away from streams. If established fire pits are available, camp fires are fine — provided the conditions are not prone to forest fires and camp fires are allowed by park and/or forestry officials. Haul out your trash, and don’t burn it. Only use deadfall wood for fires, make sure all fires are completely extinguished before you leave a fire pit unattended. If you have any doubts at all about whether you are allowed (established wilderness areas do not permit camp fires) or should build a camp fire, skip it. Leave the trail and your campsite in as good or better condition than how you found it. And do not feed wildlife. Our food is not good for them, and feeding wild animals conditions them to see humans as a food source.

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So those are some ideas. Good advice can be found at this link. And most of all, enjoy your time in the high country.

Bob Doucette

Video: Cheating death on Colorado’s Maroon Bells

This video caught my attention. Anyone who has spent time in the mountains knows that rockfall and loose rock underfoot is scary stuff, particularly when you’re in highly exposed places.

Setting up: The climbers here are doing what is called the Bells Traverse — they’ve climbed Maroon Peak, and are traversing the airy ridge connecting Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. Both are 14,000-foot peaks, and are considered two of the toughest in the state. This is a short but difficult and risky route between the peaks. Seeing this video, taken at the aptly named Leap of Faith, you’ll see why…

If that dude were a cat, he’d be down to eight lives or so. The Elk Range has been described as “red, rugged and rotten.” Now you know why. One fall there, and we’re reading about that fella the next day.

Happy Monday!

Bob Doucette

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