| Full Circle Finisher
FULL CIRCLE FINISHER: #58, MT. SNEFFELS
September 15, 2012
In memory of Rob Jansen, Chris Gray and Sean Wylam
(Disclaimer: I know, I know. This report is long-winded and will probably be more LOOK-AT-ME than my Pyramid TR. But it’s about my finisher. Let me have this one, eh? Greg will follow with a LOOK-AT-ME finisher TR of his own after he gets No. 73.)
The Summit Party.
“Nah, you can’t summit any of the 14ers without ropes and stuff. They’re all really serious climbs.”
Those were my friend’s words as we drove back from a dayhike in the Weminuche Wilderness in early summer 2009. He was my outdoor mentor at the time, a lifelong backpacker from Chicago. He even had his own tent. I stared up at the inspiring pyramid of Twilight Peak as we descended back into New Mexico on U.S. 550 and thought, “I guess peaks that intimidating are simply out of my league – and it’s not even a 14er.”
I moved to New Mexico in June 2008 after graduating college to take my first job as a newspaper reporter. I grew up in Charlotte and had spent the previous four years as a beach bum in Wilmington, N.C. I heard there was some outdoor stuff or something out West, which sounded cool, so I went to WalMart and got a pair of $40 Ozark Trail hiking boots. Thus adequately prepared for my desert/mountain life, I shoved everything I could into my Mazda 3 and streaked off on I-40 West.
My prior life: Putting the Surf in SurfNTurf.
I spent most of my first year figuring out what green chile was and trying to avoid skinwalkers. I drove up to the mountains a few times, but the heaviest coat I owned was a track jacket and my prevailing thought about winter was, “This is the worst thing ever.”
The following summer, when the temperatures finally warmed up and I was able to leave my apartment not dressed like an arctic explorer, the majesty of the mountains started to dawn on me. I had my stepdad send me some hand-me-down gear, went on my first overnight backpack, bought a mountain bike and fell in love with the Weminuche. I purchased a 0-degree bag for summer because I still thought cold was lame. Just when I started to turn my eyes upward, my friend told me the 14ers were inaccessible. C’est la vie.
Then, in late August, I discovered 14ers.com. It turns out some high peaks are easy after all, including a few near me in the San Juans. I bought a synthetic T-shirt and a pair of Merrell Moabs the next day and was attempting Mt. Sneffels that very weekend. I was solo and overeager, the first person on the mountain. When I reached a highpoint about 50 feet past the V-notch and couldn’t see where else to go, I figured that was the summit. Merrily down I went, spraying to everyone I passed that I’d just summited my first 14er. I kept Mt. Sneffels checked off for nearly two years before I grudgingly admitted to myself that I hadn’t visited the top. Thus, a poignant “full-circle” finisher was born…
Descending after a "successful summit" of Mt. Sneffels (August 2009).
It’s cool, though. How many people can say their first 14er was in Chicago Basin? That’s where my buddy Steve Lynn and I went that Labor Day weekend, but Mt. Eolus scared me and I was too chicken to even acknowledge the existence of Sunlight Peak. We did a two-day dash for Windom (carrying, among other things, a gallon jug of water each) and made it back in time to work (on Labor Day). Being a journalist is a pain in the ass sometimes.
It started getting cold again in September. I went to TJ Maxx and bought $10 gloves, which made Redcloud and Sunshine attainable. My car couldn’t get anywhere near Uncompahgre, and Wetterhorn might as well have been called “Wet-my-pants-horn.” My easy options within a reasonable drive were finished, but no matter. I moved to Boston in November.
I’d learned the basics of rock climbing in Ouray and Durango, and with no real mountains in the Northeast (trolling…trolling…), that’s what I spent most of my time doing. I went to MetroRock 2-3 times a week and lounged most Saturdays at the Quincy Quarries. It didn’t take long for me to realize life was no longer the same without mountains, and after only 10 months I was again overburdening my poor Mazda3 and racing back west – this time, to Denver.
I crashed on my friends Lindsay and Steve’s couch for a few weeks while I got set up. Lindsay, a wedding photographer at the time, worked odd hours. I roped her into a weekday climb of Quandary Peak as soon as I was acclimated. From that moment, the race was on. I went to the mountains more and more regularly, which wasn’t hard as I was unemployed for nearly three whole months.
I did my first Class 3 route, Kelso Ridge, with Brian Thomas. My peak list was in the teens by the fall. I got an ice ax and a belay puffy for Christmas and found $50 crampons on Craigslist. I joined speth, ChrisinAZ and Brian Thomas on my first winter climb in January, a repeat of Quandary Peak. The same crew, minus Brian and plus Fletch and Vincopotamus, attended the Winter Gathering and notched both Harvard and Columbia. Elbert, again with Brian Thomas, wrapped up my first winter.
Winter summit No. 1, Quandary Peak (January 2011).
Cold was no longer much of an issue. It’s a miracle what some gear upgrades will do. The snow climbing bug bit me hard, and I literally crossed the days off my calendar waiting for May and couloir season. The Angel of Shavano was my first true snow climb, and I basically did the whole thing grinning from ear to ear. There wasn’t any turning back – week after week, I chased the moderate snow. Cristo Couloir, Boudoir Couloir, Dead Dog Couloir. Repeating Grays for the third time via Lost Rat Couloir yielded one of the best mountain stories I have, the rescue of Loki the Dog. The Ellen Show never called me, though. I’m still waiting.
First "couloir" climb, the Angel of Shavano.
Andrew comes upon Loki, the original rescued dog. Andrew and I did not make a Facebook page about our Brotherhood.
When the snow melted I decided to pursue more and more difficult peaks. Snowmass Mountain seemed like a good next step in my progression, and I teamed up with Dan McCool, whom I had met at the Winter Gathering. We’d already shared (failed) hikes of Blanca/Ellingwood and Missouri Mountain, and he had become one of my favorite partners.
On Snowmass, we climbed a direct snow route to within 100 feet of the summit, then stayed ridge proper to the top. The line was aesthetic, the day was perfect and we were churning on all cylinders. Off for North Snowmass we went. We were about 10 minutes from the summit when I heard a sound I’ll never forget, a rockslide of mammoth proportions. It went for several seconds and a thin cloud of dust filled the air. Dan and I looked at each other warily, and even before we heard the shouts for help, we knew it was bad.
We immediately scampered back to Snowmass. The next six hours – from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. – will stay with me forever. A young man, Sean Wylam, had been caught in the rockslide. Dan and I, along with S-Ridge climbers Ryan Marsters and Andrew Reed, did everything we could to help Sean while we waited for rescue. Alas, he passed away on the Flight for Life helicopter late that afternoon, even as we were cheering it on during our descent thinking it was carrying him to salvation. We didn’t learn he'd succumbed to his injuries until 10:30 p.m. when we completed the 8-mile hike out to the trailhead. We were shattered.
Dan and I on Snowmass. Sean Wylam snapped this photo of us moments before his accident. RIP, Sean.
Before Snowmass, I was 25 and bulletproof. Sure, you hear about accidents on 14ers, but they’d never happen to me, right? For the first time I weighed the concept of “risk vs. reward.” Sean was every bit as experienced and prepared as I was, if not moreso, and yet he’d simply stepped on the wrong rock at the wrong time. I developed a serious fear of loose rock – were mountains like the Wilson Group and Little Bear even worth it? I wondered if I’d ever finish the 14ers, or even if I wanted to.
Logic told me to ease back into it. I stuck to more tame peaks for a while, starting with a loop of Missouri, Iowa and Emerald with Trainer Keri. Eventually Darrin (kansas) talked me into joining his experienced group for Crestone Needle. If I was ever going to do a “Most Difficult” peak, it might was well be with such an all-star cast. I battled some demons in my head before the hike, but under Darrin’s watchful eye the Needle ended up being a pleasure cruise. I headed back to Chicago Basin to tackle the previously scary Eolus and Sunlight and had an equally easy time. Hope returned of possibly finishing all the 14ers after all.
First hike after Sean's accident. Missouri, Iowa and Emerald with Keri.
Once again pushing limits. Descending the crux on Crestone Needle.
This time, I acknowledged the existence of Sunlight Peak.
I met Rob Jansen (RJansen77) in October. I can’t imagine finding a more perfect partner. We had similar experience, shared many of the same goals, and got along like old war buddies. We tackled some easier peaks together and then really got after it during the first full winter season for both of us. Over the next few months, I shared with Rob what I consider my finest climbs: the Southwest Ridge of Ellingwood Point, Kelso Ridge and Mt. Massive in winter; Little Bear as an ice climb in late March; Crestone Needle in early May; and the North Face of Mt. Wilson and Wilson Peak over Memorial Day.
These climbs, and others, also saw the formation of The Brat Pack (no, we didn’t give ourselves this nickname). Everyone should be so lucky as to have climbing partners and friends like these.
The Southwest Ridge of Ellingwood Point.
Day 1 of the Mt. Massive sufferfest (February 2012).
The Brat Pack hiking the Lake Como Road for Little Bear.
Hourglass (March 31, 2012).
Ascending Broken Hand Pass during an early May climb of Crestone Needle.
Mt. Wilson summit. We earned this one (May 2012).
I last climbed with Rob on Culebra Peak on Aug. 11, 2012. It was an absolutely perfect day, capped with a barbecue at Greg’s house afterward. That Saturday will forever encapsulate the spirit and camaraderie of “the Pack.”
Rob perished in a rockslide while traversing from Snowmass Mountain to Hagerman Peak on Aug. 25, 2012 with Dan, Dillon, Tyler and Greg. I was hiking the approach to Capitol when it happened, and didn’t find out about the accident until I got cell service on the summit Aug. 26. Maintaining my composure until I was safely down past “K2” was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Thanks again Otina, Emily, Mandy, Clay, Milan and especially Darrin for keeping my head on straight.
The news of Chris Gray’s death on Crestone Peak came only a couple days later. I’d also hiked with Chris, and we’d made many plans that unfortunately never came to fruition. The 14ers.com community lost two good men in nearly as many days. I again was shaken to my core.
My final climb with Rob.
As with after Sean’s accident, I wanted to get up and climbing as soon as possible. Rob’s dad told me, and all of us, to carry the torch for his son. That became my main motivation the past few weeks. Rob and I, along with Greg and Tyler, had planned on finishing the 58 Fourteeners together Sept. 15 on Mt. Sneffels. With Rob gone and Tyler out with a broken ankle sustained in the same accident, the task was left to me and Greg. The weekend after the tragedy I daytripped Blanca from the bottom of the Lake Como Road with Will Davis and overnighted Crestone Peak from the Cottonwood Creek TH with Steve Lynn. Both of these, like Missouri Mountain after Sean’s passing, were well within my comfort zone.
The next weekend wasn’t. I still needed South Maroon, and would have been “happy” enough to slog up and down the 2,800’ of Suck. My partners instead encouraged me to keep pushing my limits, as I’d been doing with Rob. We decided on the Bells Traverse after no small amount of waffling on my part. The pure joy of climbing came back immediately, and in perfect conditions we dispatched the traverse with only a few nicked fingers and shins. I couldn’t help but feel like Rob was watching over me. Greg, too, managed to complete the Chicago Basin and La Plata (and the Little Bear-Blanca Traverse for extra credit) despite a bum ankle.
First climb after Rob's accident, a daytrip of Blanca from 8,000'.
Celebrating the Bells Traverse.
So, only two mountains remained: El Diente Peak and Mt. Sneffels. I’d come a long way from the time I turned around about 100 feet short of the Sneffels summit because I didn’t know where else to go. What better way to bring the story full circle than to return to Ouray/Telluride (not coincidentally my favorite area in Colorado) and finish the climb that launched the journey?
Of course, the last two peaks wouldn’t come easy. Emily and I couldn’t leave Denver until 8:30 p.m. Thursday night, putting us at the Kilpacker TH only about three hours before we planned to meet Jorge, Keri, Bill and Mandy for the hike. Luckily, we were able to get a late start with an absolutely stellar weather forecast. We reached the summit of El Diente without issue despite running on fumes, though the talus slog on the way down was atrocious. The Kilpacker route was fairly straightforward and easy, especially compared with the North Slopes, which we had dismissed in May as suicidal (it was ice-covered) with nary a second glance.
El Diente summit; No. 57 for me, No. 56 for Bill. One left!
And so, with only one peak remaining, I met the greatest group a man could dare to hope for in Ouray. More than 20 friends from my 14er journey made the long haul down to the San Juans to celebrate the finisher with me, Greg and Rob. We had more than a few adult beverages at the campground Friday night, including a few special Dale’s cans inscribed with, “Climb on, Rob.” Dale’s Pale Ale was Rob’s favorite beer, which he called “the best beer on earth.” This led to a late start on Saturday for Sneffels, but again, we had a perfect weather forecast. Not even a chance of storms. We started hiking in several clusters around 8:30 a.m.
The atmosphere was festive, to say the least. Greg had his son on his back, Kris was carrying a keg, and Emily was playing tunes on a portable radio. I felt a little bad for the other groups on the mountain, but most of them were up and down before we even completed the approach. It was a finishing party, anyway, so I hope you purists will forgive us. Just this once?
The beginning of the end.
About half the group climbed the Southwest Ridge, while the rest stuck to the standard route. Everyone descended the standard. The SW Ridge was everything I’d hoped it would be: short, sweet and fun. The loose gully that comprises the most annoying/dangerous part of the route can be bypassed by staying high on some Class 4 ledges. It’s cairned. I never once had to enter the loose stuff, and the curses I heard from those that did made me glad of it. I stayed ridge proper for most of the upper route, which added a bit of challenge and exposure. It was pure fun. I don’t think I stopped smiling for the final 500 feet of my 14er journey.
Upon arriving on the summit, the first thing I saw was Dan and Dillon sitting down, looking out over Utah and obviously deep in thought. I went up and put my arms around them before I even took off my backpack or helmet. We were all thinking about Rob, and one of them just said, “This is perfect.”
The keg was tapped and groups began settling in on the summit. Greg showed up a bit later, and I was lucky enough to capture his final steps. Have you ever seen someone so happy?
Greg's final steps to the summit.
We stayed on the summit for nearly three hours. Everyone was responsible with the alcohol, and despite the huge group we couldn’t even finish the keg. It was an equally joyous and somber occasion. We all remembered Rob with a moment of silence, and we called his father from the summit. We also celebrated in the style he would have wanted, with lots of jokes and socializing. It’s rare for such a perfect group to come together, and I’m so thankful for each and every one of you.
Kris, the keg-carrier.
Finishers (Jeff Golden, Greg Fischer).
Can anyone see Emily?
Ladies on the summit.
Special Dale's cans for Rob.
Dillon, Dan, Me, Greg and Ben. Better friends a man cannot have.
We were extra cautious on the descent, going slow and in small, tight-knit groups to avoid rockfall. The party began again once we were safely on the approach trail and continued through another night at Ouray Brewery, Ourayle Brewery and the campground. It was exactly the finisher I’d imagined. I wouldn’t change a damn thing.
So here I am, three years removed from $40 WalMart hiking boots and a 14er Finisher. I’m a completely different person – and, in my opinion, a much better person – because of my mountain journey. More importantly, I’ve made some of the best friends on the planet.
Everyone keeps asking what’s next. “What are you going to do now?” The truth is, I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t really had time. The past month has been such a whirlwind I’ve skipped dinner more often than I’ve eaten it.
I don’t plan on doing all the 13ers, and the Centennials will probably be a long-term accomplishment that just kind of happens. I love winter 14ers but in my mind several are simply too dangerous. Of course, my tune could change. The one thing I don’t want to do is feverishly chase another list. The most fun I had during my 14er campaign was the summer of 2011, when I simply attempted whatever route sounded the most interesting on a given weekend. I’ll definitely hit 8-10 mountains this winter -- get some more snowflakes for my profile. I enjoy the group hikes and meeting people and helping newer folks learn whenever I can. People took me under their wing; it’s only fair I do the same. I want to start writing more about mountaineering and potentially pursue that as a career path. More ambitiously, I feel like Rainier was only getting my feet wet. I hope to go on as many “big trips” as I can in the coming years, and cogs are already turning for Orizaba and Gannett Peak.
That’s enough about that. One thing the mountains and the tragedies I’ve witnessed have taught me is that life is about the few inches in front of your face. If you spend too much time looking back, or looking forward, you won’t appreciate the present. We can’t control much except what is happening right here, right now. Sometimes you can’t even control that.
So, what’s next?
I’m going to crack open a beer. I’m going to find a bar with the NFL Network and watch my beloved Carolina Panthers play their first primetime game in two years. I’m going to attend Rob’s memorial this weekend and say another goodbye to one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and then I’m going to enjoy spending time with the people with whom I’m lucky enough to be surrounded.
And if I can find a few spare moments in all of that, you know, maybe these Orizaba logistics could use some attention…
All right, boys. What next? Dan, you can leave that hat at home...
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