My fascination with Jagged Mountain started the day I picked up Roach's 13ers book. I remember scanning through all the names and pictures of the 50 or so peaks. I was overwhelmed by the possibility of climbing all of them, but I knew this was the obvious next step in the Colorado climber's agenda. Dani and I were getting close to climbing all the 14ers and I was anxious to see what was next. It didn't take me long to find the picture of Jagged. WOW!! It didn't look like any peak I had ever seen. And how cool is that name? Then I read the description...
"Jagged is Colorado's premier centennial thirteener. Recalcitrant with its secrets, this mighty mountain surrounds itself with wilderness, and there are no good views of Jagged from civilization."
"Jagged is jagged. The peak is a half-mile long ridge festooned with summits and spires. Even identifying the main summit is a challenge."
"Jagged has only one reasonable route to its main summit. This route holds the essence of wilderness mountaineering."
This has to be the coolest peak in the state...beautiful, difficult, remote, and mysterious. I immediately decided that this should be the 100th peak on my quest to cimb the centennials. How could it not be?
Some time in early 2011 I realized I might be able to finish the high 100 that year. Once I figured that out, I started to hatch my plan for climbing Jagged. The thought of climbing it in winter didn't occur to me until I heard about a friend's possible first winter ascent of Dallas Peak. I was really surprised to hear that. How could such a cool peak that is so close to a hardcore mountain town be unclimbed in winter in 2011? That got me thinking. If Dallas hasn't been climbed in winter...Jagged probably hasn't either. There's no way to really know, but I couldn't find any record of a winter summit or even an attempt. I was immediately entrigued by this plan.
Next step was to choose an approach. I decided on Vallecito mostly because I had never been to that side of the San Juans before. I also didn't want to ride the train for the 3rd time in one year and I had heard bad things about Noname Creek. I liked that the Vallecito Trailhead is accessible in winter and that (according to Roach) the route would be all uphill and then downhill...no ups and downs.
On September 17th, I climbed Pigeon and Turret...99 down, 1 to go. I had my plan, I knew what peak I wanted to climb and I had a 3 month window to do it. Now I just had to wait for the weather to cooperate. The Colorado winter started off warm and dry. It would have been a great time to attempt Jagged, but Dani and I were in Ecuador for 2 weeks and completely missed the opportunity. I was ok with that because my plan was always for March. I knew I would need the longer days and warmer temperatures. In February the snow finally came to SW Colorado. That snow brought with it elevated avalanche conditions.
I found out first hand what "human triggered avalanches likely" really means on an attempt to climb Mt. Wilson from Slate Creek...
In early January I was approached by Steve G. to join a stong team to attempt to climb Jagged in winter. This definitely caught me off guard. I couldn't believe that someone else had thought to try this the same winter I was planning on it. I had always planned to go by myself and I had been savoring at the possibility of a first ascent. But the people in Steve's group were all people that I have admired from a distance ever since joining the 14ers.com community. How I could I turn down this invitation? I told Steve I would join them if the dates worked out, but that if I had an opportunity to go in before them I would take it. Steve was so cool about my response and even took time to talk to me about the pros and cons of the different approaches.
I was somewhat relieved when Steve called me to say that they had decided to abort their attempt because the conditions were still suspect over the dates they had chosen.
That was around the first week in March. At that point, I had pretty much ruled it out too. Everywhere I went there was hard, heavy snow on top of weak, sugary snow. Not ideal conditions for this endevour.
Then the sun came out and stayed out and the snow stopped falling. I watched the southern San Juan avalanche report get better and better every day for a week. I had only one chance...the last weekend of winter. From Tuesday (3/13) till Thursday (3/15) all I could think about was Jagged...go or no go...no nights, one night or two nights. I didn't make a final decision until Thursday night. I was going to attempt to climb Jagged in one day, by myself, in winter
I sent an email out to my family on Thursday telling them of my plans and alerting them that they would start to get SPOT messages from me very early on Saturday and that they would be receiving them for 20 – 26 hours. I wanted them to know this so they didn’t panic. I told them that I wanted to include them all on the SPOT messages because it helps me when I’m alone. Every time I hit the “ok” button, I feel like I’m talking to them and it comforts me. (this would turn out to be a bad decision)
12pm…left work to go home and get my stuff together
4pm…left Colorado Springs
10pm…pull into the Vallecito parking lot…watch movie on my computer
12:05am…start out on Vallecito trail
The first 6 hours were tough. The effort wasn’t too bad because the snow had a nice, hard freeze to it. I didn’t posthole too much. It was the overwhelming desire to sleep. The only other times I’ve started this early were on Rainier and in Ecuador. On both occasions I was able to get a little sleep before starting. At this point I hadn’t had any sleep since the night before. At 5:30am I gave into the desire. I put my down parka on and curled up in a ball and tried to take a nap. My feet were so cold that I didn’t get much, but the little I did get helped more than I expected. At 6:30am, I started out again with renewed determination. It also helped that I started to see some light in the sky.
Looking South at the Moon and some early morning light
It was about this time that I started to notice that I wasn’t going to get to the Sunlight Creek turnoff at the expected 11.3 miles. I was already past 12 miles and I still had a ways to go. When I finally did get to the turnoff I had already traveled just over 14 miles. I also noticed that I had gained 1200’ more than expected to this point. In my sleep-deprived stupor, I hadn’t noticed all the ups and downs that plague the beginning of the Vallecito trail. This would come back to demoralize me later.
Vallecito Creek crossing was not an issue
Once I was in Sunlight Creek, my energy levels soared. The sun was coming up, peaks were starting to show themselves and I was finally gaining elevation.
Alpenglow in Sunlight Creek
Peaks finally getting closer…these were on the South side of Sunlight Creek…Greylock Mountain?
At around 8:30am I got this view. I thought it might be Jagged, but didn’t know for sure. It seemed too close and not high enough. I eventually figured out it was Jagged and I’m really glad I took this in black and white. I have this picture as my desktop picture and it’s going to take something really special to dethrone it.
Here is the route I took to get up and around a cliff band in Sunlight Creek.
Once above those cliffs I was met with this view. I was convinced that the middle peak looked more like Jagged than the first peak. It was long and flat and had lots of spires. Without checking my GPS I kept going up the creek (red line) instead of taking the correct line (yellow line).
My reward for this minor error in navigation was that it took me to Sunlight Lake and this view of Windom Peak (14,082’), Sunlight Spire (14,000’) and Sunlight Peak (14,059’).
Now I’m back on the right track. Here is a shot of the south side of Jagged. From here you have to go around that amazing tower to access the North Face.
And there she is.
It’s 10:23am. This is the first point today where I really think this is going to happen. The GPS says that I’ve traveled 18 miles and 6300’ in just over 10 hours. I’m at 13,000’, I can see the summit, and the route looks like fun. Maybe I’m delirious, but it really looked doable and fun to me at this point. So after a quick break, I put my head down and I powered up it. The problem with putting your head down is that you miss things.
The yellow line is the correct couloir…the red line is the more interesting route that I chose to climb.
Here is the view looking back at my tracks and Vallecito Mtn from the start of my route.
I figured this out as soon as I saw that the snow ended. I knew that the snow should continue all the way to the notch. But it would have been difficult to reverse course at this point and I still felt good about climbing what I saw. The bigger issue at this point was the change in the snow conditions. Up to this point the snow was nice and firm…very spring-like. As soon as I transitioned to the north side of the mountain, I noticed a significant change in the consistency. It was loose and sugary. This made the climbing much more demanding than I expected. At the same time, all I could think about was how unsafe it was going to be to climb down in these conditions. For 2 hours I struggled physically and mentally on the North Face of Jagged Mountain. The climbing was so strenuous that I could only take 2 or 3 steps before having to rest. I was having to dig my way up the snow sections…excavating, packing, ice axe plunging, and stepping with every upward movement. When I got tired of that I tried to stick to the rocks...without much luck. Every boulder was smooth and offered very little in terms of solid holds. And most rocks that I approached had huge hollow, Mike-swallowing areas on the downhill side of them where the snow wasn’t able to collect. The mental battle was even worse. This isn’t safe…you should turn around…how are you going to downclimb this…your rope isn’t not long enough…all it would take is one slip…you can’t trust this snow…but I’ve come so far…18 miles…first ascent…make your family proud…love my family…love my wife…miss my dog…don’t want to die here. At 13,730’, 94’ from the summit, the reasonable me convinced the determined me to turn around.
Zoomed in shot of the ridge…so close.
Looking down at the start of my descent.
I did bring a 10m rope and some cord to set up possible short rappels. This came in handy as I used it to get down two of the steeper sections of rock.
At 1:15pm I sat here and stared up at the East side of Jagged Peak. I felt good about my decision and I was just so happy to be alive and in this beautiful place.
After eating some food and taking a short nap I set off on the long walk back to the car. Here is a shot looking down on Sunlight Creek.
The snow was still pretty supportable and this part of the descent was a lot of fun. Dani, you would have loved this...reminded me a lot of our descent off of Vermillion…huge snow mushrooms, open trees, frozen waterfalls, etc
Here I am celebrating my return to Vallecito Creek.
I’m not sure what I was celebrating or why I was so happy. The rest of my trip was the f*cking worst. I don’t know how else to describe it. 7 ½ hours and 14 miles on a trail that seemed to go up more than down, post-holing on every 2nd or 3rd step. I couldn’t even manage 2 miles an hour.
Post-holing on the Vallecito Trail
Had to cross the creek at this log jam
When it got dark around 7:30pm...the demons came out in force. The mileage on the GPS seemed to be going no where. How could I still have 6 miles to go...who is that person I keep seeing out in front of me...are those bear tracks...did I just hear a bear...is that bear talking to me...could I survive if I jumped in the creek and tried floating back to my car...why does this trail hate me...am I dreaming...how can I be going uphill again...is this some sick version of groundhog day...why haven't we invented teleporting...am I walking backwards...did I miss a turn...there are no turns...why does the snow hate me...is this a nightmare...and on and on and on. When I got back to my car at 10:15pm I was a total wreck. Somehow I managed to talk myself into driving to Pagosa Springs so that I could find a cheap hotel room and take a shower. Thank you Alpine Inn. ($49 rate, hot shower, free breakfast). For the first time in a long time I slept for 11 hours without waking up.
The last thing I did before going to bed was to send an email to everyone on my SPOT list to let them know that I was ok and that I was going to bed. I didn't find out till Sunday on my drive home about the sh*t storm that my SPOT caused. I was very methodical about when I sent my SPOT messages. I sent them out at least every 2 hours and more frequently when I was near the peak. I wanted to make sure that everyone knew when I was in and out of danger so they didn't worry too much. This would have been great, but for some reason none of the messages I sent between 12pm and 7pm were transmitted. The timing couldn't have been worse. At 12pm I was on the north face of the mountain. I won't recount all the phone calls to family members and climbing friends that ensued, but you can imagine what happened next. I'm so sorry to everybody, especially my Wife and my Mom, that this happened.
Jagged...I will be back. Maybe not in winter, and probably not by myself, but I will be back.
Here are a few short videos I took at different times during the trip. They are each about a minute long.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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