Month: December 2012

Climbing the 14ers – Gray’s Peak

There is a lot of training value in climbing the 14ers of Colorado. Especially in the Winter season, when conditions are much like they would be in Alaska or other cold windy places. My friend Todd came up from the Front Range to spend the night. Saturday December 29 we woke up to below zero temperatures, but sunny skies. The forecast called for high winds near evening.

Prepared to climb one of the 14ers in Winter
In the hall, dressed and ready for the climb of Gray’s Peak in Winter

To climb the 14ers in Winter you have to consider cold and wind. You should think about protecting all exposed skin surfaces from wind as well as sun. Reflected sun off snow can give you severe sunburn before you realize it. I’m wearing a Powerstretch Fleece base layer shirt and bibs. Mammut soft shell ski bibs. A pile jacket and thin windbreaker on top. For boots I’m wearing Scarpa Phantom 6000 Mountaineering Boots, since I want to be sure my toes stay warm. These are double boots and were very warm last year for ice climbing. In my pack I have a GoLite Bitterroot jacket.

I normally wear a Buff, a thin cloth tube, around my neck, because it’s very versatile. You can wear it around your neck, up over your ears and nose, or even as a thin beanie. I have a thin Pearl iZumi beanie, and in the pack I have a Columbia Omni-Heat knit cap. For gloves I like the older model OR Extravert glove. It’s really warm, fits well, and has great feel with the leather palm and fingers for managing my trekking poles. In the pack I have a pair of MH Medusa gloves. I used this combination of gloves when I was in Alaska, and it kept me pretty warm.

Winter access for any of the 14ers can be difficult without 4wd
Second parking area for the Gray’s Peak Steven’s Gulch Trailhead

Climbing the 14ers in Winter has many obstacles, one of which is trailhead parking. For Gray’s Peak there is a large parking area near the I-70 Bakerville exit. Unfortunately this parking area is about 3 miles from the actual trailhead. This extra 6 miles added to your round trip hike might make a big difference. If you have a low clearance vehicle you might want to park here anyway. We decided to see if we could make it to the second parking area, about a mile up the road. The snow was packed pretty good, and it was obvious we weren’t the first to try. Todd has a four wheel drive vehicle with good tall tires, so we made it to the parking area with no problems. We didn’t want to try to go further though. We parked the SUV and started up the road around 10:00 AM.

About a half mile from this parking area the road passes through private land. It’s very narrow with not too many places to turn around. There are deep ruts and large rocks in the path. As we hiked up the road we found the snow wasn’t too deep, fairly well packed down, and there were quite a few bare spots. It’s just barely possible a motivated, experienced driver of a jeep style vehicle with high clearance, knobby tires, chains, and hopefully a winch, to make the Summer Trailhead today. We were hiking in our boots, without snowshoes or Kahtoola MICROspikes, unlike almost everyone else we ran into that day.

Hiking the 14ers in Winter with snow and ice on the trails
Our first glimpse of both Gray’s and Torrey’s on the trail

We got to the official trailhead by the bridge and parking area in an hour. We hung out for a few minutes to eat and drink and take pictures. The temperature was very cold, but the sun made it feel pretty good. Besides, there was no wind. Yet. The trail was pretty well packed down by snowshoes and skis so it was easy enough to do in just boots. After nearly a mile we passed over a small tree-covered hill to where we could see both Gray’s and Torrey’s, two of the 14ers most easily accessible from Denver and the Front Range of Colorado. Two snowshoers and two hikers in microspikes passed us coming down. Neither had gone on to the summits and wished us well. One suggested we hurry to beat sunset. A great idea actually.

Climbing Gray's Peak, one of the 14ers of Colorado on the switchbacks about 13,000'
On the switchbacks up to the summit of Gray’s Peak

Shortly after the fork to Kelso Ridge, one of the more difficult trails to the summit of Torrey’s, we began the more steep and rugged portion of the trail. It alternated between rock and snow, some packed and some loose. Overall the going was still pretty quick considering we were in boots. We passed over a few long icy stretches and were glad we both had trekking poles. Other climbers above us were now visible on the summit and on the faces of both of the 14ers here. The wandering zig-zag switchbacks on Gray’s were like a spiderweb maze.

trails near the top of Gray's, one of the 14ers on the front range
Zig-zag switchbacks full of snow are a spiderweb maze on the face of Gray’s Peak

At 13,000′ we ran into a large group of climbers descending. They had bailed just a hundred feet further along, and looked pretty miserable. The wind was picking up quite briskly. I pulled the Buff up over my nose to protect it from the cold. We lost the path a few times and I broke trail straight up some snowy chutes to try to intersect the correct switchbacks. This added quite a bit of time to our ascent, and we were both out of breath and had to rest a lot. There were two climbers struggling above us. They didn’t seem to be getting any further ahead of us, so we figured we were having about as much trouble as they.

We watched a climber coming across to us from the Gray’s-Torrey’s Saddle sinking in up to his waist across the wide snowfield. Then I sank in to my waist. Karma? I retraced my steps and stayed closer to the rocks then. Suddenly we were on the correct switchback trail and it was pretty quick going from then on. It was very cold and windy so I stopped to quickly put my puffy down jacket on. I normally wait until the summit if I can, but it was too severe out. One of the hazards of doing the 14ers in Winter. Be prepared for cold and wind. Finally we arrived at the summit of Gray’s Peak.

Winter ascent of one of the 14ers – Gray’s Peak

Gray's Peak Summit - one of the 14ers of Colorado
Todd at the summit of Gray’s Peak – Torrey’s behind

The two guys we were following up the last thousand feet were clearly cold and in a hurry to descend. They advised us not to remove our gloves. They had and were very sorry for it. We stopped to take a few pictures, eat, and drink. Todd set up a tripod and took some pictures. I crouched behind one of the few piles of rocks set up as wind breaks, common on some of the 14ers, and quick stuffed food into my mouth and pockets and guzzled the rest of my first bottle of now slushy water. We had hit the summit at 3:00 PM, five hours after starting. Four hours from the bridge.

summit of one of the 14ers, Gray's Peak
Todd and I at the summit of Gray’s Peak. Torrey’s in the background

Sunset was less than two hours away, so we needed to be very fast in descending. Todd had a headlamp, but I had managed to forget mine in my ice skating bag. We did some ice skating in the dark the night before on Keystone Lake. I also only had my sunglasses with. They’re prescription. When it gets dark I’ll have to remove them. If I can make it to the snow covered gravel road before dark I should be just fine.

We booked it down the switchbacks, following the path of the two guys ahead of us. It was a much shorter and much better path, following what seemed to be the right switchbacks all the way down to the Kelso Ridge fork. We boot-skied a lot of it, slipping and sliding and using our poles for support. We paused for a minute to snarf down some quick food, take a few pics, then continue. It was getting much darker now. Daylight is an important consideration when doing the 14ers in Winter. I need to get a headlamp to keep in my bag. Remind me …

Sunset behind Gray's Peak - one of the 14ers of Colorado
Sunset behind Gray’s Peak

We made good time down the rest of the trail. As we passed the stand of trees on the little intersecting ridge we got a good view of the sunset over Gray’s and the reflected pink sky from the East. I love the 14ers for the pretty views. The view from the summit was magnificent. I wish it wasn’t so cold and windy. It was dark enough now for me to remove my sunglasses, and the going became much rougher. I could make out dark and light patches, so I could avoid holes in the trail. Fortunately the large group we had passed on the way up had beat the trail down pretty good.

Beautiful views like a pink sunset from the 14ers
Sunset reflected in the Eastern Sky

At the bridge we stopped to eat and chug water again. I finished half of my second bottle of water. As cold as it was I was pretty glad I didn’t try to wear a bladder. It would have frozen for sure. It was a little after 5:00 PM. We had descended to here in two hours. We made good time on the road out, even in the dark sharing the light of a little headlamp. Even without my prescription glasses. We got to the car a little before 6:00 PM. We were so glad we had parked at the middle parking area. Driving out was really quick and easy and after meeting up with the rest of my family we went to Kenosha in Breck to eat.

I love doing the 14ers, and have enjoyed my winter climbs quite a bit. In spite of some wind and snow and cold. If you can, try one of the 14ers in Winter. Be safe, be prepared, and enjoy.

Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing

On Thursday December 27 I took my friend Todd up to Hoosier Pass for Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing. He’d never been ice climbing before and had been curious to try for a while. In his real life, Todd is a figure skater and coach. He’s my wife’s choreographer for her upcoming competitive ice skating program. That’s how we met.

Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing by figure skater
Todd is an ice skater and coach when he’s not climbing

I’d never been to the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing area before, so a few days before our scheduled climb I took the family out for an adventurous drive. We crossed over Hoosier Pass from Breckenridge to the fork of HWY 4, about a mile South of the Pass. We stayed on the main road all the way to Montgomery Reservoir. There we took the right fork and found the parking area just after a wooden bridge crossing.

Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing area from the parking
Lincoln Falls – ribbons of ice to the right, as seen from the parking area

The Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing area was pretty obvious, ribbons and fangs of ice on the cliffs below Mount Lincoln, a Colorado Fourteener. We let the kids run for a bit in the parking area then returned home to send Todd the pics and directions to the trailhead parking. Hwy 4 is essentially a private road with no parking. It’s important to avoid conflict with local homeowners so reduce your impact if you climb here. In the winter the road isn’t guaranteed to be plowed or accessible to smaller vehicles, just FYI.

Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing area above Montgomery Reservoir
On the trail to the Ice Climb above Montgomery Reservoir

We met at the parking area and I passed out the rope, crampons, harness, tools and helmet I was loaning him. He had some Goretex hiking boots without a welt. I loaned him a pair of glacier crampons with straps to fit them [Black Diamond Contact Strap Crampons]. We wouldn’t be doing any WI4 anyway, since it’s his first day.

Scottish Gullies at Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing Area
Close to the climbing area. Scottish Gullies prominent thick ribbon of ice on the left.

The morning was cold, windy and cloudy. The car thermometer read zero. Occasional icy flakes blew from the clouds. We packed, then hiked around the lake on the gravel road and then crossed the concrete and steel canal gate. After that you head uphill through the trees on a steep trail. With a foot of loose new snow on the trail it was a bit slick in spots with loose footing. I had trekking poles, but Todd did not. The last 500′ or so of uphill was in a boulder field with very loose footing in the snow. Hard to see the holes between the rocks. Finally we were at the base of the Scottish Gullies, on the left side of the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing area.

Strapping on crampons at the foot of the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing area
Strapping on the crampons at the bottom of the climb

Climbing at the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing Area

There were a few parties ahead of us, so we got in line. I spotted a good looking WI3 band about 60′ tall to the right side. I told the other parties our intention to top rope that, and they said it would be no problem to them. This part of the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing Area has an obvious good belay spot near a tree to the right of the base. After the last belayer took off up the left side of the route we got our gear on. Seems like the normal way of doing this climb is the left side. We’re just toproping so we want to stay out of their way as much as possible. I set up our belay above and left of the tree, to allow other groups to pass us as they climb.

Approach from end of road above Montgomery Reservoir. Parking is at a gate at Northwest Corner of the lake.

Todd doesn’t climb much, so I set him up with a Petzl GriGri Belay Device and demonstrated the auto-lock by yanking it hard. I told him:

“If I fall, just let go of the rope…”

I led up the right curtain at the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing Area called Scottish Gullies and had Todd just feed me rope as I needed it. I set two screws for just in case. At the top of this bulge at about 50′ was a wide shelf of broken crust over deep powder. I was walking on talus and hoping it wouldn’t shift and slide. I set three screws vertically on a thick solid ice flow over a boulder. There were hollow sheets of ice on the surface all over the route. Todd unhooked the GriGri and I lowered myself through the top anchor to the bottom.

Topping out to the right side of Scottish Gullies at Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing Area
Todd tops out on his first climb of the ice falls

Todd made it up with a little coaching. The crampons flexed quite a bit and the boot heels barely stayed in. I lowered him and had him adjust the straps tighter then sent him up again. I had enough fun on my lead, first one in a couple years. I let him go up five or so times, giving him more and more refined instruction as he improved. There were a handful of other first-timers we ran into that day at the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing Area. It’s a great place to take them.

Learning is great at Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing Area
Todd got better with each lap of our route. Here keeping his butt out over his heels on a bulge.

Finally we ran out of time and had to leave. There was no decent way to lower myself from the right hand side and keep all my gear. I had considered doing a V-Thread with the rope and rapping off that. I’ve done that before. Fortunately just as I tied in, a couple came up and the guy offered to go up and bring our gear down. He was teaching a friend to climb, and wanted to toprope a bit and our rope looked just perfect to him. As he ascended our little route at the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing area, his friend started asking questions about the failure rate of ice screws. Good luck.

Great day at the Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing Area
Happy after a great day ice climbing

We packed up our gear while he climbed, and then the rope when he tossed it down. I retrieved my pro from him and we said our good byes. The hike down was a bit slick and treacherous on the way down. We slipped and slid, doing some boot skiing in the ruts between the boulders. Be careful anyone who follows in our footsteps. At the canal gate the route became just a gravel road walk. We returned to our cars, and sorted and stowed our gear. We decided to go out to eat, and Todd had a taste for Mexican.

After our Lincoln Falls Ice Climbing adventure we eat at Fiesta Jalisco in Dillon CO
Fiesta Jalisco in Dillon had good Mexican Food

We stopped at Ready Paint Fire in Breckenridge to pick up my wife and her friend, then we went to Fiesta Jalisco in Dillon for a long evening of eating and sharing stories. Great day. Yes, a great day.

Climbing Aconcagua – Summary

I have come home from my attempt at climbing Aconcagua, one of the Seven Summits, and highest peak outside the Himalaya. I’m working on transcribing my notes now from my phone and little notebook into a document to prepare as another book. In the meantime, here are a few interesting key points.

Climbing Aconcagua - view from Horcones Lagoon
Aconcagua from Horcones Lagoon

Climbing Aconcagua: Failure?

I left the Horcones Ranger Station, 9,185′ elevation on my attempt at climbing Aconcagua on the morning of November 26. I spent a cold night at Confluencia, and barely passed the medical check to permit me to ascend to base camp. I left the next morning for Plaza de Mulas base camp at 14,110′ elevation early on the 27th of November. I took a very long time to arrive. The ranger in attendance told me to go to my hut and rest for the night. I was to check in on the 28th and do my Medical Check then.

The next day I checked in and did the Med Check. My results were poor enough that the doctor suggested I wait another day and do a second check. Climbing Aconcagua with the blessing of the doctor at base camp is a requirement now. My original plan was that I would already be carrying loads for my camps. I would be behind by two days waiting for the second check.

Climbing Aconcagua - loading the mules
Loading up the mules to descend after storms.

Others had bailed on their attempt at climbing Aconcagua, primarily due to poor weather conditions above Nido (Camp 2) . They loaded their gear onto the mules and descended before the weather got worse. A large lenticular cloud cap on the mountain brought winds in excess of 100 km/hr (about 60 mph) to basecamp. Conditions were bad enough above Camp Canada (Camp 1) that the rangers “closed the mountain”. They insisted no one go above Canada until Sunday or Monday (four more days).

That would put me about 5 days behind on my schedule, leaving me only 3 days to accomplish the gargantuan task of climbing Aconcagua. I had calculated about 8 days to acclimatize, a very short time actually. I was pretty sure I could not do it in 3, but I hung out for the next Med Check. Finally I went in, and my numbers were even lower. The doctor thought maybe it was the storm system messing me up. She recommended I go another day and decide then. If I’m weaker or sicker, I should descend. If I feel better it was just the weather.

Climbing Aconcagua - 100km/hr winds above base camp
100 Km/Hr Winds above Plaza de Mulas base camp on Aconcagua

Climbing Aconcagua: Grim Reality

I had not mentioned something to the doctor, primarily because I do not want it documented. I was having symptoms very similar to those I had on Denali. With the weather this bad there was no chance of a helicopter evacuation. I had to decide quickly if it was going to get better or not. On Denali I was out of action for 3 days with my team taking care of me. Here no one could take care of me. I called Angie, upset that I was going to let down all those offering Skate For Hope donations. She pointed out that I’d also let them down if I died.

Overnight the symptoms became worse, so I decided to load up my gear for the mules and descend while I was still strong enough. I had to quit on this attempt at climbing Aconcagua. I made it down in time to check out after hours at the ranger station, amid blowing snow and sand with high winds almost knocking me over at times. Others descending were hiding among the scarce boulders large enough to block the wind. I did not see them again.

Climbing Aconcagua - grim reminder of death
A grim reminder along the trail that in this remote environment rescue would be difficult. Mule skull.

I spent a couple days recovering in Penitentes then flew home. I am still very weak, and still having symptoms. But here I know I am among family, and am being taken care of.

Climbing Aconcagua and Skate For Hope

I had asked people to challenge themselves to donate for my attempt at climbing Aconcagua. I did not succeed in the whole project, but I was able to ascend 4,925′ from Horcones to Plaza de Mulas. If you pledged a penny a foot, that’s $49.25. If you pledged for any section of trail other than Horcones to Plaza de Mulas, then of course I did not go there.

For anyone that already donated, or will go ahead and donate anyway in recognition of the attempt I made at climbing Aconcagua in spite of several serious setbacks, I have an offer.

Angie’s Donation Page at Skate for Hope: Click Here

I will be publishing a paper version of the journal I kept, and photos I took from this trip. I will send a signed copy of my book about climbing Aconcagua to anyone who has already, or will before the end of the month, donate $50 or more to Angie’s page on Skate For Hope. Leave your name on your donation, and we’ll get in touch to send you the book when it’s published in the next 60 days.

Thanks, and I sincerely apologize.