Posted by: joshrduncan | August 25, 2012

2012-07-21 Pyramid Peak

“It is to conquer fear that one becomes a climber. The climber experiences life to its extreme limits. A climber is not a crazy man. He is not trying to get himself killed. He knows what life is worth. He is in love with living.”  – Walter Bonatti

  • SUMMIT ELEVATION(s): 14,018 feet
  • TRAILHEAD: Maroon Lake
  • ROUTE: Northeast Ridge
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 4,500 feet
  • ROUND-TRIP LENGTH: 8.5 miles
  • ROUND-TRIP TIME:  9.0 hours

Pyramid Peak is a truly formidable mountain.  The treacherous mountain is considered the 3rd most difficult 14er to climb.  It is a deceptive peak known for its unforgiving loose rock, its rotten nature, its high exposure, its vertical steepness and its introductory technical moves.  Pyramid Peak demands preparation, experience and respect.  A sign, classic to the climbing community, situated at the beginning of the trail reminds us of the danger that truly lies ahead. This mountain was my greatest undertaking to date.

Situated in the Elk Mountains of Colorado, Pyramid Peak rises slightly above fourteen thousand feet to an elevation of 14,018 feet.  Of Colorado’s 58 14ers, it is ranked as the 51st highest.  What this mountain lacks in its height ranking, it makes up for in its attitude and boldness.  The peak derives its name from the distinguishing profile.

The planned accent to the summit was the Northeast Route, which is the standard route.  To successfully reach the summit, the standard route would require us to travel four miles (eight miles roundtrip) and overcome approximately 4,500 vertical feet of elevation gain.  This was a short, steep hike and climb.  In fact, the peak’s summit rises 4,000 feet above Crater Lake to the northwest in only 1.2 miles, and 4,400 feet above East Maroon Creek to the east of the peak in the same horizontal distance.

The standard route is also given a Class IV designation.  The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) describes Class IV as a climb that involves short steep sections where the use of a rope is recommended, and un-roped falls could be fatal.  There was no avoiding the Class IV route on Pyramid Peak.

Considering Pyramid Peak was the most technical mountain I was about to attempt, I had deep anxiety going into this climb.  I know I have previously talked about the stress of a climb, but this mountain was different.  I was fearful for my safety and ultimately my life.  I state it boldly and bluntly because that was the honest feeling I had.  This mountain was straight up frightening in comparison to my other climbs.  When researching this mountain, my hands would sweat as I looked at the pictures and read the description of the climb.  I don’t know if other climbers feel this emotion before entering into a grueling climb; but I can’t imagine that I am alone.

Now with the worry also came excitement.  It was amazing how polar opposite those emotions were but for some reason I felt them both so strongly going into this climb.  I was excited at the thought of even attempting Pyramid Peak.  I was excited to challenge myself on the most technical and difficult mountain to date. I was excited at the idea of being successful.  The enthusiasm and excitement I felt provided a good countermeasure to the anxiety.

I have known friends and other climbers that have found this peak to be very difficult to overcome because all of the factors have to be just right.  Good weather, good conditioning, good mental preparedness, good experience and a little bit of good luck make this peak attainable.  I went into this climb telling myself that the most important thing was returning to the car safely.  If I didn’t feel comfortable or confident to continue on, I would be willing to call it a day.  I hoped that all the factors would align.

I recruited my friend Britton for this climb.  To be honest, climbing with Britton gave me a greater level of comfort.  He had sound technical climbing experience, was methodical, safe and considerate.  He was the ideal climbing partner.  I had previously climbed the Northwest Ridge of Mount Lindsey with Britton and his amazing wife Jax.  This was a picture from our climb of Mt. Lindsey.

Without going into too much detail, this climb was for Jax.  She taught me how to live, and I mean live, while going through great tribulation.  She exemplified love, perseverance, strength, humor and hope.  She was an example of what it meant to fight and to maintain all of those characteristics so strongly while fighting.  I highly recommend one read about her beautiful life at  I was grateful to set foot on another mountain with Britton.

Britton and I headed up to Aspen after work on Friday.  We spent more time focused on planning for the climb and studying the route that neither of us really knew what we were going to do once we got to the trailhead. We figured we were going to be spontaneous since we didn’t have a plan.  We just assumed that we would figure out the details once we got there.

We arrived at the trailhead around 10:00 pm.  The lower parking lot available for overnight parking was full due to all of the backpackers who were camping; therefore, the gate was closed.  We drove up to the upper parking lot, which is  available for day parking, and found approximately five other vehicles with climbers.  Each set of climbers were either preparing for the next day ahead of them or getting ready to car camp.   With no other options, we decided to join the party and car camp.  Britton and I assembled our backpacks for the following morning and prepared to car camp.  After my last experience at Castle and Conundrum Peaks, I was hoping for no porcupines!

We woke up at 3:00 am to begin our day.  I actually slept well throughout the entire night. I was pleasantly surprised.  Britton unfortunately didn’t have the same fortunes.  Nonetheless, we began to mobilize for the day ahead.

As we prepared for the hike, I thought I observed lightning to the west of the Maroon Bells.  The weather forecast for the day was not ideal as it predicted a 60% chance of thunderstorms after noon.  The sky above us was clear and so my first inclination was that I was seeing things.  But I witnessed at least three different lightning strikes.  The lightning creating a silhouette of the Bells was amazing; however, freakish.  I knew that it was lightning because all of a sudden the Maroon Bells had clouds over the summit.  Seeing this didn’t instill a lot of hope for success that day.  I figured we would be forced off the mountain before 8:00 am due to the weather.  Although not too far away, it wasn’t going to keep us from at least trying!

We began our ascent at 4:00 am.  The initial portion of the trail was along the Crater Lake trail.  It was a well-defined path.  The beginning portion passes along the right bank of Maroon Lake.  During daylight, this location provide the signature view of the Maroon Bells; it delivers the most photographed view of Colorado.  Britton and I focused on the signs at the beginning of the trail because on a previous climb of the Maroon Bells, Britton accidently found himself on the “Scenic Trail Loop” instead of the “Crater Lake Trail” and he didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.  After a little searching, we found the trail marker and were on our way.

Finding the right trail was the easy part of our start.  Soon we were traveling along the Crater Lake Trail.  According to the trip reports, a large cairn at approximately 10,200 feet identified the trail junction for Pyramid Peak.  Because Pyramid Peak was not climbed as often as the other mountains, the trail leading to it was not as easy to locate in the basin.  Like so many climbers before us, we unknowingly passed the cairn for Pyramid Peak along the trail from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake.  We observed some headlights on our left heading up the trail from the valley but we thought it was too soon.  It wasn’t until we reached the junction with Snowmass Trail that we had realized our mistake and that we had missed the turnoff.  We  had to retrace our path and the mistake cost us about 20 minutes.  Coming from the other way, the cairn was easy to locate.

Now that we were on the path, we headed towards Pyramid Peak along the flat, rocky valley floor of Maroon Creek. We quickly ran into the next common issue on this climb and that was finding the route.  The trail was really difficult to follow in the dark of the night.  At points, it would seem as though there were two or three separate trails.  We would begin down one and then realize it wasn’t a trail.  It took a little bit of patience and perseverance to find the correct path.

Once through the valley floor, the trail again became easy to follow and the need for route finding was eliminated (for now).  The next section was to ascend from the Maroon Creek valley towards the amphitheater and the base of Pyramid Peak.  This segment was a 1,000 feet of vertical elevation gain and the location of where we had seen the two headlights earlier in the morning.  This portion of trail was well intact and traversed back and forth.  According to, this area was where the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) made improvements.  They did an awesome job.  In areas of talus, CFI had strategically placed boulders as steps, almost like a staircase.  Nice work and thank you for your continued protection of the trails we all love.

We arrived at the entrance of the amphitheater (11,400 feet) at approximately 5:45 am.  Light was beginning to awake the valley floor and mountains.  We were starting to see Pyramid Peak come to life.

From the cairns, we continued into the amphitheater along the right side of a large rock glacier.  There really wasn’t a trail along the lower portion of this segment.  We could hear the sound of water flowing underground as we made our way towards the North Face of Pyramid Peak.


At the base of Pyramid Peaks North Face and within the amphitheater, the mountain was truly menacing.  It literally felt as though it was towering over me.  There was a large snow field still present at the base of Pyramid Peak.  It was littered with rocks that had fallen from the steep North Face.  Later in the day on our descent, we observed rock slides as the mountain thawed in the summer heat.  The rocks would impact the snow and the snow would erupt from the impact.

We headed east over the talus field of sharp rocks below the snow field.  We were now approaching the two climbers whose headlights we observed earlier in the distance.  They were taking a short break at the based on the steep slope that leads up to Pyramid’s Northeast Ridge.  As we approached near them, they continued their ascent.

We also took a short break at the base of the steep slope.  This was a logical place because from this point forward, it was going to be very steep and extremely loose.  We fueled up and strapped on our helmets.

At 6:30 am and approximately an elevation of 11,950 feet we began our ascent up the steep slope towards the Northeast Ridge. There was a trail the entire way up this steep slope.  However, there are areas that were loose and covered with scree.   I felt the beginning portion of this climb to be the worse because it was covered with loose scree.  It appeared that all of the small boulders that have come down the mountain congregated at the base.  I lead us up the left side along some cliff bands because I found this to be the better hiking terrain.  It didn’t take long to ascend the 1,000 vertical feet and reach the saddle of the Northeast Ridge.

From the saddle, portions of the remaining climb were visible, including the terrain near the summit.  From this vantage point, Pyramid Peak was beautiful and intimidating.  I was also delighted in the breathtaking views of the Maroon Bells, Snowmass Peak and Capitol Peak.  The view up high in the Elk Mountains continues to be one of my favorite views.

By the way, the weather was holding.  I had previously mentioned that the weather did not appear to be optimistic.  At this point I found myself pleasantly relieved that the clouds and lightning I witnessed at 3:00 am never affected us and never materialized into something greater.  The skies currently had some small clouds in it and I felt as though the weather was likely going to cooperate for a summit bid. However, although it appeared to be holding, I felt like the weather could eventually materialize into some thunderstorms.

In my opinion, the saddle was the location where one needs to fully assess all of the conditions prior to moving forward.  The summit felt within reaching distance at this point but the remaining portion was arduous and slow moving.  Bill Middlebrooks on states “From this point, the route has plenty of Class 3 and Class 4 climbing.  The hiking is over.”

We decided to move forward.  The time was now 7:25 am and we began our final push.  This was the moment.  This was where the fears and excitement that lead into the climb would come together on the mountain.  Amazingly, I was experiencing both feelings but the excitement was overcoming the fear.

The initial part of the ascent took us along a trail that led around the right side of a gendarme and over to another saddle.  Throughout most of the year a snow cornice tends to exist here but it was completely dry during our climb. At this point we caught up to the two climbers ahead of us and a third climber that we hadn’t seen up to this point (we were not sure where he came from).  The two in front of us were moving a little slower as they navigated the route attempting to discover the correct path.  We had the benefit of following their lead but now we were all together and there didn’t appear to be a clear route.  At this point, I pulled out the printout from and we used it for navigation.  Despite how thorough and complete the description and pictures were, it still was a struggle.  Pyramid Peak and its partners in crime, the Maroon Bells, were well known for how difficult the route finding was.  I was getting a real dosage of it now.

We ended up finding some helpful cairns to now guide us up the mountain.  The standard route actually takes one off of the ridge proper.  Below the ridge, we followed the cairns over a couple of small rock ribs and reached a narrow ledge.  Prior to entering onto the narrow ledge, we had to overcome the “Leap of Faith”.  The “Leap of Faith” consisted of a 3 to 4 foot jump over a gulley and from one ledge to another.  I would describe it as jumping across a crevasse.  To be honest, one could bypass the “Leap of Faith” but what would be the fun in that.  In addition, I am all about faith.  I tend to leap into it head first.  So, Britton lead us across this as I wanted to get a good action shoot.  I estimated the vertical height of a fall was approximately 30 feet.   However, a fall here would not have been good because after the initial 30 vertical feet was an extremely steep slope that one wouldn’t stop for hundreds of additional feet.  I wasn’t planning on testing if my assessment was correct.  We both made it successfully across it and I liked my action shot of Britton jumping it.  The “Leap of Faith” can definitely be overstated but I enjoyed this component of the mountain as it was unlike anything I had ever had to overcome on a mountain.

Successfully crossing the “Leap of Faith”, we now tackled the narrow ledge, often called the “cliff traverse”.  It continues above the steep terrain.  The ledge narrows to only about a foot wide with the rock protruding.  It was not difficult but required caution.

From the ledge, we followed cairns and a defined path.  This was the one segment of the final ascent where route finding didn’t seem to be an issue.  It wasn’t long before we encountered the first major pitch called “The Green Wall”.

The Green Wall was a steep wall of light-colored rock.  The Green Wall was a distinguishable layer of rock leading up the mountain.  Britton and I waited for the two rock climbers that were slightly ahead of us to get the majority of the way up the Green Wall because rock-fall was a concern.  They had actually sent a couple baseball size rocks down the Green Wall so we were thankful that we decided to be patient.

Britton lead the way up the Green Wall. However, I found myself discovering my route and enjoying it.  At first, I was very comfortable with Britton leading us safely up the mountain. Now, I discovered I was confident in my climbing capabilities and enjoying my own route.  We ended up climbing adjacent to one another up the Green Wall.  I found this also to be a safe ascent method in the event we dislodged any rocks.  We avoided sending really anything down the Green Wall.  I really enjoyed this portion of the climb.

We exited the Green Wall once we saw a cairn to our left.  Don’t be deceived by this first cairn.  We actually discovered following this cairn lead us up a more difficult route.  We should have stayed along the Green Wall for about another 50 vertical feet before exiting.

After following the first cairn, the mountain just felt deceiving with all of its trails and what I felt were random cairns.  We would climb from one ledge to the next ledge.  The climb up required careful, methodical steps.  I would test each hold a couple different times before committing. This rock was rotten and required it. Once on the next ledge, we would have to assess it and collectively we would make a decision as to how to keep moving up the mountain.  With each ledge, it felt like we had to do another assessment.



This portion of the climb also had a tremendous amount of exposure.  To go from one ledge up to the next ledge required solid Class IV climbing.  About 200 vertical feet from the summit I actually stated to worry.  I wasn’t worried about our ascent, I was worried about the descent.  I thought about how difficult it would be going down. The exposure was substantial.  To me, going down had always been harder; especially on steep material.  I vocalized my concern to Britton and he agreed that going down was going to be tough.

Despite the concern, we pushed forward towards the summit because going up was easier in my mind. Once we approached 13,900 feet, the slope eased near the summit.  At this point, we connected with a more defined route.  This was the first indication that we had gotten off track from the standard route.  Nonetheless, the summit was truly within our grasp.  As always, we were going to summit this together.

MAGNIFICENT and GLORIOUS! Those are the two words that I can find to best describe the summit.  We arrived at 8:45 am; approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes after we reached the saddle.  The view from this summit was like no other.  The feeling of this summit was like no other.   I had a sense of accomplishment like no other.  I was so grateful to God for a safe journey.  I once again thanked Him for a successful journey up, praised Him for the beauty He has created, and continued to ask for His protection down the mountain.

Britton and I shared this summit with the two other climbers who were just ahead of us.  This small summit was beautiful.  We were at the point of the pyramid where all the edges come to one point; the summit.  It was incredible.  The view of the Maroon Bells was awe-inspiring.

A signature part of this summit was the “diving board”.  It was a very small rock outcrop that overlooked the Maroon Creek valley.  The overlook is like no other. Although intimidating for someone who fears falling, the diving board was a must see and feel experience.  I happily placed my Fat Tire can on the edge of the diving board for this summit.  I also brought the newly released 16oz Fat Tire can (no the picture was not stretched).  I felt the bigger mountain in difficulty deserved the bigger Fat Tire can.

Since I am typically the one behind the camera, I also was lucky to have Britton photograph me on the diving board as proof of my summit success.  Thanks Britton for capturing this.

Here are a few more photos from the summit:

Although it would have been nice to spend hours on the summit, Britton and I wanted to keep moving as we were only halfway there.  We were still a little unsure of the weather and continued to question the likelihood that it may change soon.  We knew that it would be a slow, methodical descent and so we at least wanted to be back to the saddle.  We also wanted to begin the descent before the two guys we were sharing the summit with so that we didn’t have to worry about rockfall.  We spent less than 15 minutes on the summit and started the descent just before 9:00 am.

Shortly into our descent and just a little below the summit, we found a more defined path on the ridge that was different than the way we ascended.  We decided to take this path in lieu of our ascent route.  It proved to be a good decision. We found this route to be less technical than our ascent route.  There were fewer Class IV downclimb moves and I was able to complete the majority of them facing out.

We ended up arriving back to the saddle at approximately 10:10 am.   We spoke to a couple of climbers getting ready to make a summit push.  They told us of two climbers behind them that were slow moving and struggling.  They discussed how they felt as though the two other climbers may be overconfident in their abilities and not fully prepared for what was to come.  They encouraged us to just be honest with them regarding our experience.  If the two climbers appeared to be struggling as described, we figured we would talk with them.  We decided that we would at least just communicate our knowledge.  It wouldn’t be to dissuade them or tell them they weren’t capable.  I would want someone to just be honest with me.  I wouldn’t want someone to tell me whether I could or couldn’t do it.  Honestly, that decision was one that I would make.  I believe it was being responsible to a fellow climber.

When we ran into the two climbers, they were moving slow just as the other climbers had described.  They were wearing jeans and didn’t have helmets.  Britton and I were just honest with them.  We told them about the difficulty of the climb and the danger that lied ahead.  We also mentioned how thankful we were to have a helmet.  They mentioned they had decided to forgo the summit and just get up to the saddle.  I think they made a wise decision.

From there, the rest of the trip down was uneventful.  We made it back to the trailhead at 1:00 pm, 9 hours after we started from the exact location.  Although we were at the same spot, I had the memories of over 4,500 feet of vertical gain and the view from the summit of Pyramid Peak.  I had felt like I had conquered something great.  To be honest, I wanted more.

On our way home Britton and I had a great conversation.  I won’t recount all of the personal information but I did tell Britton that I was grateful to have climbed with him.  I was thankful he had joined me in the mountains.  I told him I felt Jax’s presence with him and I on the summit.  She was with him.  He told me that Jax was always with him.  He said, there was not a moment on that mountain where she was not the first thought on his mind.  When there was a difficult move that requires his complete focus, he would focus on the task for his safety; however, she was always in his heart.

There is so much more to climbing than just the climb….

The lessons learned from Pyramid Peak:

  • Climbing gives one an emotional complex.  There are not too many experiences in my life where I have felt both fear and excitement, panic and happiness, anxiety and complete exhilaration at the same time.  It was truly a rush.
  • I really enjoyed Class IV climbing.  The fear I had entering the climb was quickly overcome by the pleasure and fun I was having.  I quickly found myself leading us up the mountain and overwhelmed by what I was overcoming.

Posted by: joshrduncan | August 20, 2012

2012-06-22 Castle and Conundrum Peaks

In time of trouble . . . He shall set me upon a rock.  Psalms 27:5

  • SUMMIT ELEVATION(s): 14,265 feet and
  • TRAILHEAD: Castle Creek, Approximately 0.4 miles from junction with Pearl Pass at @ 10,900 feet
  • ROUTE: Northeast Ridge
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 3,650 feet
  • ROUND-TRIP LENGTH: 9.5 miles
  • ROUND-TRIP TIME:  8.0 hours
  • CLIMBING PARTNER(S):  Matt and Betsy


Oh, climbing new 14ers… how I had missed you.  It had been awhile since you and I had spent some time together.  In fact, it was August of last year since we truly spent some quality time together.  I had actually forgotten what you look like!  “We need you.  Heck, I need you.  I’m a mess without you.  I miss you so dang much!  I miss being with you.  I miss being near you. I miss your laugh!  I miss your scent.   I miss your musk…When this all gets sorted out, I think you and me should get an apartment together!”  I love Anchorman and felt this quote was perfect.

I had not climbed a new 14er in some time.  The last peak I had the pleasure of summitting was Mount Sneffels.  It was with my little sister and that was last August. Since then I had ventured to above 14,000 feet on peaks I previously summitted and that I am familiar with; however, I have missed the adventure of new terrain, the thrill of a new mountain, and the exhilaration of a fresh summit.

This last year had flown by like a no other one that I can remember.  It had been filled with so many great memories.  I was married last September to the most beautiful woman, on the inside and out, that I know.  My wife and I purchased our first house together, which added an exciting component to our first year together.  I started a photography business as a side project from my daily life as a water resource engineer.  The photography fulfills the creative side of my mind that isn’t always accessed as an engineer.  The list goes on even further.  God has blessed me with some amazing, positive moments and memories.

With the good sometimes comes the bad though.  That very idea is represented in the physical component of climbing; peaks and valley.  There are easy portions and then there are difficult segments.  In my mind, the good and the bad are blessings from God as well; that is if we allow them to be and our perspective is in the right place.  I will be rigorously honest though, I don’t always view them that way.  It is especially hard for me to view them that way as I am going through them.  I imagine I am not alone in that way of thinking and feeling.

With all of the amazing blessings this last year had bestowed upon me, this has also been a difficult and trying year with work.  Unfortunately, I let those difficult times bleed into my personal life.  I guess I had a hard time letting work be work; a hard time of letting go of things.  The challenge at work caused me to question who I am.  Am I a honest man with integrity? Am I a man willing to fight for what I believe is right?  Do I have the strength to persevere?  This year has answered a lot of those questions for me.  To be honest, I am thankful for my climbing experiences because it had provided me firsthand experiences that I relied upon immensely.  It’s given a valuable perspective. Without them, I am not sure I would truly know what being courageous, persevering, and overcoming obstacles may require.

As it had been some time since my previous climb, I had doubts regarding my ability.  I belive this was one of the side effects from my last year.  Unfair and unyielding attacks from external sources made me begin to question myself which lead me to question my ability.  I guess I would say that I lacked confidence and thus it made me doubt who I was.  Honestly, I was fearful that I had lost my physical and mental capability to climb.  I didn’t trust in myself enough to believe that I could accomplish climbing another 14er.  This feeling had happened to me before, typically at the beginning of each climbing summer; but this year was different.  There were several factors for this; work being the obvious one.  But I also had some of the most difficult peaks remaining.  That was frightening in itself.   Peaks like Capitol, Little Bear, Pyramid, the Wilson Group, the Maroon Bells and the Crestone’s are all summits that I pray to enjoy.  But these peaks are not easy and deserve respect.  Oh, it should be an interesting summer.

Through the struggle I found myself rereading the scripture Psalms 27:5 – “In the time of trouble…He shall set me upon a rock.”  To get to the point, this trip to Castle and Conundrum was to revive the desire, squash the doubt, and to feel alive in a way that only the thrill of a climb can give me.  My climb of Castle and Conundrum accomplished all that and more…

The Climb…

Castle Peak and Conundrum Peak are situated in the Elk Mountains.  The Elk Mountains are rugged, rotten mountains comprised of some of the most spectacular peaks in the United States.  Castle and Conundrum Peak are the southernmost peaks within the Elk Mountains.  Castle Peak rises to 14,265 feet in elevation and Conundrum Peak is situated 14,060 feet.

For this hike, I easily recruited my co-worker Matt and his fiancée Betsy.  Neither of them had ever climbed a 14er but were excited for the opportunity.  Furthermore, they didn’t appear to be fearful of the Difficult Class II designation.

Our plan was to take off from work on Thursday and head up Castle Creek.  We would take my Jeep Liberty as far as I felt comfortable, camp, and then climb Castle and Conundrum on Friday.  We planned on taking the Northeast Ridge route, which is the standard route.  This would take us up Castle Peak first and then we would traverse along the ridgeline to Conundrum Peak.  From Conundrum Peak, we would descend the saddle between the two peaks.  The Difficult Class II hike would require approximately 3,600 feet of vertical elevation gain and 9.5 miles of hiking.  This hike would also require us to navigate through snowfields in order to achieve these mountains.

We successfully left Denver at 4:30 pm on Thursday and made our way up the mountains. We drove over one of my favorite passes in Colorado, Independence Pass.  As always, it was such a beautiful place and made the drive fun.  We arrived in Aspen around 7:00 pm and attempted to find a decent and inexpensive place to eat.  Although Aspen is significantly wealthy, I thought it would still have some places meeting our expectations.  However, this was Aspen…everything just seems to be a little nicer, a lot more expensive, and it is not your typical mountain town.  I should have known better.  After searching, we finally asked a local and he told us of a pizza joint in the middle of town.  It was perfect and had incredible New York style pizza.  We ended up leaving Aspen around 8 pm and began our journey up towards Castle Creek.

We arrived at the Castle Creek lower trailhead shortly after 8:30 pm.  We then began the journey up the 4WD trail (FR102) that parallels the drainageway. Approximately 1.3 miles up the road we encountered a creek crossing.  The stream widens out at the crossing so the flow depth was approximately 4 to 6 inches in depth.  The difficult piece to the crossing was the entrance and exit.  There was a small rock ledge on both sides that confined the creek.  This required a slow drop down into the creek to avoid bottoming out the Jeep.  It wasn’t horrible but just required caution.  Nonetheless, the Liberty handled it and we continued up.

As we continued driving up the trail, I told Matt and Betsy about stories I have read regarding porcupines. I had explained to them that I previously read on that porcupines were known for ransacking cars and sometimes peoples gear.  I explained that for some reason porcupines are attracted to brake lines and salt.  I read firsthand stories of people who had their brake lines cut by porcupines and they had to either have their vehicle towed (if even possible) or pay for a mechanic to fix their vehicle where it was.  Either option was not cheap.  Telling the story made me realize I had forgot to bring the chicken wire I had purchased as a perimeter defense for the Jeep.  What I didn’t realize was what was in store for me later in the evening.

We ended up driving approximately 2.6 miles up the 4WD road.  It was approximately 0.4 miles from the Pearl Pass junction and an estimated elevation of 10,900 feet.  We arrived later than anticipated as it was now approximately 10:00 pm.  Because it was late in the evening, I decided to car camp in the Liberty in lieu of setting up my tent for a short sleep.  I had never car camped before.  What can I say, it was late and I was lazy.  I barely fit in the Liberty and actually had to keep my legs on the center console if I wanted to be fully extended.  My 6-2 height was really not conducive to car camping, especially in a Jeep.  Although not the most comfortable as I am too tall, I was thankful I did.

I went to bed at about 11:00 pm.  It took a little while to get comfortable. As I entered into sleep-you know the point where you are technically sleeping and your mind functions at 5% awake-I heard a unique sound.  The sound was like a “click, click”.  That is the best description I have.   At first, I thought my mind was imagining things.  I thought I was dreaming.  Then I heard it again…”click, click”.  Now, the mind games really began.  I started to wake up now and I really disliked being woken from sleep so quickly.  I knew I heard something.   At first I thought it was maybe a chipmunk outside the car.  I shined my headlamp towards the window and was blinded by the reflecting light.  I thought to myself “nice work smarty”.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to see outside the vehicle so I waited to see if it happened again.

“Click, click”…ok, at this point I realized it was likely coming from under the vehicle.  “Click, click, click…”  I started to shake the car and it stopped for about 3 minutes.  Then it began again… “click, click!”  At this point I knew there was something under the vehicle, that my mind was not hearing things and that I  needed to find out what it was.  So, I mobilized and went into action.

Prior to exiting the Jeep, I got my knife out, my trekking fully extended and grab athletic tape in the event I needed to create a make-shift spear.  I was ready for war.  I figured if it was  between me, the Jeep, and a porcupine; the porcupine was going down.  I opened the door to the Jeep (and this is a little embarrassing to admit) and jumped as far as I could away from the Jeep.  I wanted to be safe in case a porcupine attacked.  Please remember, at this point I still didn’t know what I was dealing with!

After jumping to safety, I slowly and bravely looked under the Jeep.  To my amazement and complete displeasure, I saw a tail and only a tail.  A porcupine had literally climbed up and decided to snuggle with the undercarriage of my Jeep.  It was getting ready to comfortably rest while using my brake line as a pacifier.  At this point, I decided to wake up Matt just in case I needed some reinforcements for what was about to go down!  Matt awoke to my voice and was surprised when I told him there was a porcupine under the Jeep.  He said “Seriously?”.

As Matt examined the situation, he actually thought that what we were seeing was a small pine branch that somehow got stuck in the undercarriage of the Jeep.  I thought sarcastically, “we didn’t drive over any trees to get here!”  At that point, I took my trekking pole and hit the metal plate adjacent to the tail.  All of a sudden, the tail came alive.   Slowly the porcupine revealed itself by climbing down from the undercarriage of the Jeep.  I never realized how big porcupines are until I had this showdown with one.  They are big, at least this one was big.  The porcupine just looked at me, turned and then slowly walked away.  It didn’t run.  It didn’t appeared scared.  It looked mad that I had inconvenienced his warmth and ability to chew on my the wires of my vehicle.  Sorry for inconveniencing you porcupine!

After the porcupine casually strolled away, I completed a post porcupine encounter inspection of the vehicle.  Luckily I didn’t see any car fluids beneath the vehicle.  So I fired up the vehicle to make sure it ran okay.   I figured I would complete a more comprehensive inspection during the daylight but I at least wanted a little peace of mind knowing the car may be ok.  I then hunkered down and hoped to get some sleep before my 5:00 am wakeup call… It was wishful thinking.

Approximately 2 hours later I awoke to a familiar sound… “click, click!”.  I thought to myself “you have got to be kidding me, again!”  I decided not to mess around.  I grabbed my trekking pole, my knife and my keys.  Sorry porcupine, but I was done with your shenanigans!  First I fired up the Jeep hoping it would scare it off.  Then I got out of the Jeep and investigated under the Jeep.  By this time, it was long gone; turning on the Jeep had worked.  I then pillaged the forest looking for down tree branches and logs to pile around the vehicle.  I realized that it probably wasn’t going to be effective if the porcupine came back but I decided it was better than nothing.  I then attempted to go back to sleep; however, sleep was hard to come by when I was constantly on edge.

The rest of the night, I guess now morning, went without further incident.

I easily awoke to my alarm at 5:00 am.  I actually was already awake and just biding my time until it went off so that we could begin our day.  The three of us quickly assembled and we began our journey towards the summits of Castle Peak and Conundrum at 6:00 am.

The beginning of this hike was very simple and along an old mining road.  Debris and remnants of mining lay along the roads edge in places.  What amazed me was the wild Columbine flowers.  They were abundant and flourishing.  I do not recall ever seeing so many Columbines before. I also realized how beautiful the basin and valley were.  There were numerous waterfalls and the mountains provided a spectacular backdrop.

As we hiked along the road, we still could not see Castle Peak as it was hidden behind its own ridgeline and its smaller siblings.  We hiked along the defined abandoned mining road from 10,900 feet to approximately 12,800 feet before we hit our first obstacle of the day, a large snow field headwall.  The headwall often remains covered by snow throughout much of the year.  This headwall has a moderate to high avalanche condition depending on the conditions so care should be exercised when navigating this terrain.  It is also moderately steep but the snow makes it concerning, especially without the proper equipment.

We exercised a lot of caution when we started up this portion of the hike as we did not have crampons or microspikes.  This was also the first time Matt and Betsy had climbed a snow field.  I was feeling nervous for them as I considered it a fairly intense snow climb for a beginner and a fall could send them sliding quite some distance and into a boulder field.  I taught Matt and Betsy how to methodically overcome the snow, that it was important to dig your feet in and test your foothold before shifting your entire weight.  I was not sure I was helpful but I figured I would let them know.  I didn’t want to spend more time on the snow field than necessary so we navigated to our climbers left where talus awaited.  This was the short, more direct route off the snow.  Because we didn’t have microspikes, we traversed back and forth in order to acquire the rock.  Microspikes would have been nice and I regret not bringing mine but we were able to safely acquire the talus.

It unfortunately was loose and moderately steep once on the talus and off the snow.  We used additional caution up the headwall to avoid rockfall.  This path felt more secure than the snow.

We reached the top of the headwall at approximately 13,300 feet at 8:05 am.  We decided to take a short break and fuel up.  We were greeted to the breathtaking view of Castle and Conundrum Peaks accompanied by its intriguing ridgeline and unique sinkhole. The basin felt like an enormous amphitheater.  I also obtained my initial view of our descent route from the saddle of Castle and Conundrum Peaks into the large snowfield and sinkhole beneath it.  Approximately 75% of the route was covered by snow, which provided an opportunity to glissade, but it looked steep; in my mind it looked really steep for when I considered Matt and Betsy and the limited (I think actually zero) experience they had glissading.  I questioned if I was going to feel comfortable going down this and so I put myself in their shoes in order to gain perspective.   I would have been extremely fearful looking at the descent route of this mountain thinking of it as my first and second 14er.  I would have also asked myself, what did I get myself into and why did I decide to follow this guy!  From our vantage point, I wasn’t sure if we were going to stick to our original plan.  I knew we needed to get closer and wait to fully assess it from the saddle.

After our short break, we began our ascent from the basin to the Northeast Ridge of Castle Peak.  A formal trail was carved into the rocky side of the mountain and clearly guided our way up the mountain.  This engraved trail was pronounced and I personally thought it was visually intriguing.  We ascended from 13,300 feet and acquired the Northeast Ridge at elevation 13,700 feet.  From there, the remainder of the hike was along the ridgeline to the summit.

The ridge of Castle Peak is actually quite fun.  It is considered Difficult Class II terrain, but I felt as though there were definitely some Class III scrambling moves.  I am no expert and that is just my opinion.  Nonetheless, it was fun.  I also think Matt and Betsy were really enjoying this part of the climb and now embracing the experience of climbing a 14er.

As we ascended Castle Peak, I was truly treated to the most beautiful views of the Elk Mountains I have ever had.  From the ridge, I could see the spectacular Maroon Bells, the formidable Pyramid Peak, the massive Snowmass Mountain, and the daunting and intimidating Capitol Peak.  They were all grouped together so perfectly.  It motivated me to reach the summit even more.

Along the ridge, we reached the small false summit approximately 250 feet below the summit.  From here we could see the remaining route to the summit.  We were almost there.  We descended from the small false summit and began our ascent.

We hiked the final pitch to acquire the summit of Castle Peak at approximately 9:20 am.  This was my 41st 14er and my first 14er in the Elk Mountain range.  It was a beautiful, perfect morning.  This was also Matt and Betsy’s first 14er.  Congratulations to the two of you.  I am lucky to have shared in your first 14er.  Thank you for letting me be a part of that.

We enjoyed the summit together with 5 other people.  They were introduced to my typical celebration of a Fat Tire, pictures and a little prayer to myself.  They were also treated to a common celebration of 14er summiteers with the Which Wich sandwich bag.  You may not know this, I didn’t until I started seeing people do this on summit, but if you take a picture on the summit of a 14er holding a Which Wich sandwich bag, they will give you a free sub.  One of our fellow 14er climbers had a Which Wich bag and gave our group one to photograph with.  Matt, Betsy and I all took our individual shots with the bag.  This was the first and likely the last time I will do that.  I still have yet to claim my free sub.

After approximately 20 minutes on the summit, we decided to leave.  We had another peak to reach…  ConundrumPeak, here we come.

We began the traverse towards Conundrum by descending Castle Peak along the ridgeline.  The ridge was definitely loose but manageable.  It was similar to the headwall we had previously climbed but this portion at least had a more defined route.  In particular areas, I choose to stay on some of the rock outcrops for the enjoyment of climbing.  Matt and Betsy followed suit.  They were troopers and I was impressed by their resolve and the enjoyment they were having on these mountains.

I arrived in the saddle, which was at an elevation of 13,790 feet, ahead of Matt and Betsy.  I wanted to get there and scope out our possible descent route.  From the saddle, it looked better than my initial view.  It is amazing how perspectives can change one’s assessment of a situation.  It was still steep and we would have to exercise care, but I thought it would be achievable.  I wanted to get Matt and Betsy’s opinion of it first before we collectively made a decision.  The alternative would be to reascend approximately 450 vertical feet to the summit of Castle.

Matt arrived at the saddle a little before Betsy.  I asked him how he and Betsy were doing.  He stated good and he was amazed at how difficult climbing a 14er was.  I asked him about Conundrum Peak and he initially stated that they may just wait in the saddle and forgo the summit. Matt was being considerate and I think protective of his fiancée.  You are a good man Matt.  Betsy then approached and we asked her if she wanted to climb Conundrum.  Without any hesitation she said yes!  Sweet!  You are a true trooper Betsy and I appreciate your enthusiasm.

We decided to wait to make a decision on our descent route until we returned to the saddle.  By then, a couple climbers ahead of us were likely going to descend the saddle so we wanted to see how they did.  So, we continued onwards towards Conundrum Peak.

The ascent up Conundrum Peak was fairly obvious as a defined trail guided our way.  Our route continued to progress over loose talus material consistent with everything else on Castle Peak.  We passed the small rock outcrop and made it to the ridgeline of the first false summit.  The ridge was flat, thin and long at approximately 14,000 feet.  It dropped off on both sides so the view from the ridge to the west was dramatic.

The wind made its presence known once on the ridge.  Up till that point I do not recall even a small breeze but once we were on the ridge, it was pretty windy. We continued on the ridge until we reached the false summit.  From the false summit we dropped approximately 50 feet to the notch.  This is where the Conundrum Couloir connects the ridge.  The Conundrum Couloir is a classic snow ascent that one day I would like to attempt.  From the notch, we ascended the remaining portion to the summit of Conundrum Peak.

We arrived to the intense summit of Conundrum Peak at approximately 10:30 am.  It was downright WINDY!  The summit is actually pretty small so it felt like we had to be careful not to get blown off the mountain.  I actually struggled getting my Fat Tire shot because my can kept getting blown over.  Actually, at one point my can fell over and a small puncture hole was created when it hit a rock.  Fat Tire was squirting from the side of the can.  It made for a different and I think interesting Fat Tire shot.  Capturing the Fat Tire spurting from the can is just another memory stored for me!

It appeared as though Matt and Betsy were both intimated by the wind and rightfully so.  They were hovering low to the mountain and were always keeping three points of contact.  We only stayed on the summit for a few minutes so we could take cover from the crazy wind.

We quickly made it back to the saddle at 10:55 am. At this point, three guys were making their way up the route.  They were originally doing a snow climb and were deceived by the mountain into thinking there was a couloir to ascend towards the ridge of Castle that would daylight along the traverse.  However, there was no access but fortunately they were able to make their way along the base of the cliff wall to our descent route.  They had to work hard to ascend the steep, very loose scree.  We waited patiently for them to ascend.  At this point, Matt and Betsy decided they would give this route a go.  I was thankful because I really didn’t care to ascend Castle Peak again unless we had too.

We systematically descended the steep route.  The route required us to spread out and really be focused.  The small material slid beneath your feet so we would have a hard time not creating a rock slide on this material.  As such, I would ride the rock slide slowly down the mountain.  I would then plant my feet and butt in the event it started to move fast.  The material reminded me of the traverse between Harvard and Columbia Peaks.

The most difficult portion of this segment was a small cliff that required us to downclimb.  It wasn’t horrible but a fall here would really hurt.  Once through the cliff, we were basically at the top of the snow field.  Once again, we were really careful as we entered the top of the snow field.  This would not be a place you would want to fall as you would slide, and slide fast for that matter, for approximately 500 feet towards the sinkhole.  Along the way, you would have to avoid the large boulders that have fallen from above and are sporadically positioned throughout.

At this point, I gave Betsy my ice axe and Matt one of my trekking poles.  I was planning on teaching Matt and Betsy how to do a controlled glissade.  As I started my instruction, I unfortunately didn’t have my backpack on correctly so I found myself starting to slide down the mountain as I fought to strap my backpack in place.  Shoot!  I didn’t really give them great instructions.  In fact, I didn’t give them any constructive input.  I guess by showing them how not to do things they can still learn!  Anyways, I stopped below them and yelled back up towards them.  Although I had poor execution, I explained to utilize the axe or pole as a breaking system along with their feet.  Both of them slowly glissaded down successfully and at a pace they felt comfortable with.  We glissaded down in three segments instead of just one really long glissade to be safe.

From here we hiked around the perimeter of the sink hole.  We decided to glissade a little bit and took advantage of the snow on the headwall.  The best part of glissading is how quickly one descends.  For me, it was fun and made life a little easier on my knees.

After the glissade, it was all hiking from there back to the Jeep.  We ended up arriving back at the vehicle at 2:00 pm.  It took us eight hours to cover he 9.5 miles and approximately 3,650 vertical feet. We hit the 4WD trail, crossed the creek and headed home.  With the light now upon us, I once again checked the vehicle to hopefully make sure it was safe to drive.  I didn’t see any fluids on the ground and the brakes seemed to function adequately.  I think we were lucky.

I really enjoyed Castle and Conundrum Peaks.  It provided a great variety of hiking and easy climbing.  The snow fields were entertaining to navigate up and amusing to navigate down and the scenery was awesome!  I really enjoyed my first up-close view of the Elk Mountains from an elevation of 14,000+ feet.  The other peaks are truly strong in stature and beautiful in appearance.

Finally, I really enjoyed hiking with Matt and Betsy.  I hope you both enjoyed the hike and climb.  You guys did great on a moderately difficult route.  I loved watching you two work together and enjoy your time together.  I look forward to more peaks with you two in the future and to your wedding in September.

So, what did I take away from this journey?

  • Porcupines are punks!  I have decided I have a new beef with these little rodents.  Actually, I really don’t but I learned that I will be better prepared when traveling to the Elk Mountains.  In the future I will bring chicken wire or other defense mechanisms in order to at least gain some peace of mind and comfort.
  • I missed the mountains. Man have I missed them!  It was great to reconnect with some beautiful peaks and to spend some quality time in nature.  So much enlightenment can be acquired from just a little time in nature.  I need to experience it more often.
  • Mountains are vital to my physical, emotional and spiritual well being.  In time of trouble…He shall set me upon a rock.  Thank you God for humbling me and providing me wisdom through the beauty you have created.  I grow closer to you with each mountain!
Posted by: joshrduncan | August 11, 2012

2011-08-18 Mount Sneffels

“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.”  Greg Child

  • SUMMIT ELEVATION(s): 14,150 feet
  • TRAILHEAD: Mt. Sneffels
  • ROUTE: Yankee Boy Basin
  • ELEVATION GAIN: 2,900 feet
  • ROUND-TRIP LENGTH: 6.0 miles
  • ROUND-TRIP TIME:  5.75 hours

I am just going to start off by saying Mount Sneffels has a weird name.  Let’s just get that out of the way and off the table.  Because of its peculiar name and for the sake of my climbing partner, I completed some research to discover that Mount Sneffels was named after the volcano Snæfell, which is located on the tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland (thanks wikipedia).  That mountain and its glacier, Snæfellsjökull, which caps the crater like a convex lens, were featured in the Jules Verne novel A Journey to the Center of the EarthFrom my research, I understand that Mt. Sneffels west flank is similar in form. So there you go, a little naming history of Mt. Snefflels.

Not only is Mount Sneffels unique in its name, it is very distinctive in so many other aspects.  Mount Sneffels is remote and stands alone.  It rises to an elevation of 14,150 feet and is the 27th highest 14er in Colorado.  The summit of Mount Sneffels is the highest point in Ouray County.  Mount Sneffels is notable for its great vertical relief, as it rises 7,200 feet above the town of Ridgway, Colorado 6 miles to the northeast.  In addition, it is located near the town of Ouray and is known as the “Switzerland of America” as it is basically surrounded by tall, steep mountains on almost all sides.  Ouray is a beautiful place and in my opinion one of the most beautiful towns in Colorado.

Mt. Sneffels is a special mountain for me because of my climbing partner, my younger 17 year-old sister Alyssa.  She came to Colorado from Vancouver, British Columbia to spend a week with my wife (fiancée at the time) and I.  I took the full week off from work in order to spend the entire time with her.  I have not had too many opportunities to spend some quality one-on-one time with her, so I was excited to just spend the week “chillin” with her and to experience some fun sides of Colorado just with my sister.   Besides coming to spend a week with her awesome brother, she was also here to visit the colleges she was considering for her education beyond high school.  The latter was the true purpose of her visit but I like to think it was truly the former.   I feel even more strongly about that because we actually didn’t visit any colleges during her visit (sorry Mom and Dad).  It seemed she had already decided upon the exceptional nursing program at the University of Colorado in Greeley.  So we decided to have fun instead!

Prior to her visit, she stated she wanted to climb a 14er with me.  She specifically requested that we climb a mountain that I had not climbed.  She stated “I want to be a part of the blog”.  That meant, we had to climb a 14er that was remaining on my list.  Of the ones remaining, Mt. Sneffels was technically the easiest.  This wasn’t my ideal choice in selection because my sister had never climbed a 14er.   Rarely have I heard of Mt. Sneffels being someone’s first 14er.  Nonetheless, we didn’t have a lot of easy choices remaining.  So, I sent her a link about the mountain with pictures and a description to see how she felt about it and she felt it would be difficult but “doable”.  She is in very good shape and physically fit so I knew she was physically capable of climbing it; I was just concerned about her being mentally prepared for what was to come.  As I stated, she had never climbed a 14er and as I have tried to communicate, climbing a 14er demands physical, mental, and spiritually preparation.  Nonetheless, we were both excited to climb together and so we planned a little road trip and adventure for her visit to Colorado.

Our planned adventure consisted of leaving the Front Range and driving up to Mount Sneffels on Wednesday.  We would investigate camping at the trailhead although I had read may not be a possibility; but, we figured we would see for ourselves.  Our contingency plan was that if we couldn’t camp we just find a place to stay in Ouray.  We would then hike Mount Sneffels on Thursday morning.  Our plan was to take the standard route up Yankee Boy Basin.  Reaching the summit would require approximately 2,900 vertical feet of elevation gain in our 6-mile roundtrip hike over Difficult Class II terrain.

So, after a little delay and some last minute running around in preparation for our climb, we left Denver at around 11:00 am on Wednesday and began the drive to Ouray.  The 300 mile drive to Ouray is long  but a beautiful one.   We arrived in Ouray around 5:00 pm and decided to venture up to the trailhead to see if we could camp.  The 4WD road up to Yankee Boy Basin was interesting and beautiful.  About three miles up the road we came to the notorious “C” section, which is where the road had been into the mountain side (a cliff) in the shape of a “C”.  This was a narrow corridor adjacent to a steep drop-off down to a creek.  It was really cool and I have never driven on a road like this before.

From the “C” section, the road was not horrible up Yankee Boy Basin.  In fact, I don’t think I paid attention to the road because I was mesmerized by the beauty of Yankee Boy Basin.  The wildflowers. The waterfalls. The all-encompassing mountains.  This place was breathtaking.

We arrived at the lower trailhead around 6:30 pm and investigated.  We did see a “No Camping” sign at the trailhead.  We contemplated whether that just meant at the trailhead or if we would be able to camp a little bit further up the basin.  It really wasn’t clear and I didn’t know.  So, we decided to drive back to Ouray and stay the night there.  I figured we should follow the rules.  I had to be a good example to my sister, right?

Once we arrived back in Ouray, we found one of the last remaining hotels with a room available.  Ouray is a popular place!  We ate our camping dinner in our room, watched some TV and prepared for our early start the next day.  I missed the serenity of camping and being away from civilization but at the same time it was really comfortable and pleasant to be staying in a quaint hotel.

Alyssa and I awoke at 4:00 am to begin the drive back up to the lower trailhead in the dark.  It was another early start for another climb. The weather forecast was very favorable for the day but we wanted to be safe.  We arrived at the trailhead alone.  Perfect!  Alyssa and I were hopeful to have the mountain to ourselves.  I knew this was unlikely for the entire day but I was hopeful that it was going to be at least quiet.  This was important to me because of two gullies we would be hiking up.  They both had the potential for rockfall so I preferred to be alone on the mountain.  Thus, we began our hike 5:20 am.

The beginning of the hike starts at 11,350 feet and continues along the remainder of the 4WD trail to the upper trailhead at 12,460 feet.  The first segment is about 1.75 miles long and actually makes up the majority of the hike.  From the start, Alyssa struggled to get acclimated.  She was having a hard time (she is going to be mad that I wrote this but what is a big brother for).  I tried to encourage her. I let her know that we weren’t in a rush and to find her own pace.  I reassured her that she could do this!  Although she was struggling with the altitude, she was still all smiles for the camera.  Ah, my beautiful photogenic sister!

In my mind I was humbled by the thought that just a week before I was in Alyssa’s shoes.  I struggled with altitude sickness during my climb of Longs Peak.  I was humbled because I relied on my friends for support and encouragement.  On Mount Sneffels, I was in the opposite role.  Maybe my struggle coming down Longs Peak was to reinforce patience and the importance of support and encouragement.  My weakness a week earlier became a strength for someone else less than a week later.

It was a slow and steady pace as we continued up to the upper trailhead.  Alyssa was visibly struggling.  She admitted to me that she at a Payday candy bar prior to starting the hike.  I think the food and altitude were affecting her.  I continued to try to encourage her.  We would take breaks often and rest regularly.  At one point she admitted to me that she wasn’t sure she was going to make it.  She felt bad and didn’t want to keep me from the summit; especially since we had traveled so far.  I appreciated her honesty! When she expressed her doubts and feelings, I changed my encouragement tactics.  I told her that the summit was not important at all.  It truly really wasn’t!  I was just happy to be out there with her.  That was more important to me than the mountain.  I was cherishing the entire trip with my sister.  I told her the summit was always there.  I told her to not even focus on the summit, which we couldn’t even see at that point.  I said, let’s just hike.  Let’s decide that the summit is not the priority.  I encouraged that we just hike to go and see the mountain, whether that was from the base or the top.  Let’s just go see it.

We continued slowly and methodically to the upper trailhead.  When we arrived at the upper trailhead at 6:25 am, Alyssa was starting to feel better.  She was getting acclimated and overcoming the doubts.  She was now invigorated.  I kept encouraging her that we just segment the mountain.  Let’s get to the base.  Let’s get to the ridge and saddle.  Let’s get up the gully. Let’s get to the summit! I felt segmenting the mountain would take the overwhelming presence and nature of a mountain and make it into something a little more manageable with smaller, yet valuable successes.  At that point, I reflected…that reminds me of the complicated times in life.

Times in life can be complicated, engulfing and overpowering.  It is often thrown around that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  I know I have said that very thing as encouragement to friends and family going through difficult situations.  However, I am not sure that is a true statement.  In fact, I know we can be given more than we can handle.  I have. I believe the truth is God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to do what is right; He will almost always give us more than we can handle on our own.  The Bible has numerous examples and stories of this.  Stories of men and women who are given far more than they can handle and manage. In 2 Corinthians 11:30, Paul states “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”  In the next chapter he then states “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).  Throughout the Bible, God is making it clear that we are not self-sufficient. We cannot just stand strong and power through every situation.  We need Him.

Ok, back to the climb!

Alyssa, rejuvenated and now ready to conquer the mountain, set forth leading us up from the Upper Trailhead.  We had approximately 1.25 miles remaining but majority of vertical elevation to overcome.  After about a quarter of a mile, we quickly found ourselves at the base of the mountain at approximately 12,600 feet.  This is where the true hiking and climbing began and it was time for Alyssa to put on the climbing helmet for protection.

Let’s get to the ridge and saddle!  We began the ascent from the base to the saddle.  This portion was along a broad gully southeast of the summit.  A nice trail at the start quickly dissipated into loose rock and severely eroded trail up the center of the gully.  There were numerous trails up the middle of the gully.  We soon decided it was easier to hike up the left side of the gully on some of the loose, bigger talus instead of the finely graded, loose steep material up the center of the gully.  We continued up this to the saddle.  We arrived at the ridge, also referred to as the Lavender Col, and an elevation of approximately 13,560 feet at 7:40 am.   We still had approximately 600 feet remaining.

Let’s get up the gully!  From the Lavender Col, the climb proceeds up a much steeper gully.    This steep gully often contains snow year round and there were still remnants of snow during our hike.  As we started up this portion, I explained to Alyssa that we have now entered into a very dangerous area where rockfall increases dramatically.  Although there was no one above or below us, I explained to her the importance of calling out a rock when it is dislodged.  Our first priority was to minimize dislodging a rock to the greatest extent possible. However, if a rock started to move and gain momentum, we would yell “rock!” regardless if we were the only ones on the mountain.  To practice and to emphasize the importance of this, we would yell “rock!” even when a rock would move only a couple feet.

We made our way up the steep gully carefully.  The gully didn’t really have a defined path so we split up on both sides of the gully when possible.  This was an additional precaution we took in case a rock was dislodged.   At this point, I really saw my sister growing.  Her confidence was increasing.  I saw her amazed in herself and what she was accomplishing!  It was exciting for me to see how much growth she had from the beginning of this hike; she transitioned from doubt to belief.  She was having fun on a fairly difficult 14er.  We made it up the gully to the ‘V’ notch, which lies at approximately 14,050 feet, at 8:15 am.

The small ‘V’ notch is the most difficult climbing move en route to the summit of Mount Sneffels.  It has a bit of exposure with a small Class III move.  To be honest, I was more worried about this move for my sister than she was.  She handled it like a champ and overcame it without hesitation!

Let’s get up to the summit!  Once through the ‘V’ notch, the climbing became a lot easier and we were close to the summit.  The remaining scramble to the summit was on stable rock and went quickly.  We arrived at 8:25 am to a beautiful view on this clear, sunny day!  This summit is spectacular!

Ah…Fat Tire on Mount Sneffels.

I was so proud of my sister!  She persevered and made it!  I was blessed to share in this moment with her. We did it.  You did it sis!

We had the summit of Mount Sneffels to ourselves.  Alyssa and I prayed together on this peak.  We took in the beauty God had surrounded us with.  His creation is truly magnificent.  This was a special summit.

I now saw some hikers making their way up the board gully. We weren’t completely alone.  I wanted us to be out of the steep gully before they began moving up it so we decided to leave the summit at 8:40 am.  Alyssa and I enjoyed the summit together for about 15 minutes.

The ‘V’ notch quickly reappeared.  Coming down was definitely more difficult than going up because you now are looking down at the exposure.  Your weight and momentum is also going with gravity.  However, face in and it was easily manageable.  Once again, I found myself more concerned with Alyssa but she showed no hesitation.

Once we were back in the steep gully we discovered a lone hiker heading up.  We stopped to talk to him for a little bit.  He stated this was his second to last 14er.  Alyssa proceeded to look at me with a “what the heck” face.  She told him that this was her 1st 14er.  He then proceeded to look at me with a “what the heck” face.   What the heck to both of you!  This was a tough 1st 14er but Alyssa was managing it and doing great.  She was confident in herself and was overcoming it.  He congratulated her on her achievement and I congratulated him on his journey and being close to the end.

Slowly and steadily we made it down the mountain.  The decent went by quickly but we stopped to have a little fun by taking pictures.  We just enjoyed the mountain together.  The wildflowers were incredible and Yankee Boy Basin is truly spectacular.

We arrived back at the car at 11:05 am.  It was perfect timing because a small rain storm was just starting.  Alyssa and I, both now relieved to be down for different reasons, began the remainder of our trip back home.  Alyssa comfortably slept the majority of the drive back to Denver.

More lessons learned along this journey:

  • Roles can change and a moment of weakness can become one’s strength.  A specific moment or circumstance could be training for another moment.  My moment of weakness a week before became a blessing a week later. So I learned not take for granted times when I am weak.  God can do amazing things in that moment of vulnerability.  For in a moment of weakness, God reveals I am not self-sufficient and need Him.  I am grateful for that.
  • My sister rocks!  I am so fortunate for this opportunity.  Alyssa, thanks for your willingness and desire to enjoy in something that I hold sacred.  Thank you for the laughs, persevering through struggles, overcoming obstacles both physically and mentally, and the memories.  I am blessed to have had this adventure with you and will cherish it forever.  I am so proud of you and I love you!

I love the quote that I placed at the beginning of this blog write-up: “Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.”  The summit provides significance but is truly small in the full journey.  The summit reveals the importance of everything in-between.  Now I am not saying that I don’t find the summit significant and I would be willing to turn away 50 feet away; it does play a critical role in the journey. The summit provides the climax, the point of highest tension or drama or when the action starts in which the solution is given.   In my mind, reaching summit exposes the valuable lessons learned and discovered along the way.  I do not climb for the summits; I climb to the summit because with every climb, something new is revealed along the way.  The summit is the destination, it is what happens in-between that is the true journey.  And I truly love this journey…

One last thing…Alyssa, you made the blog!

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