| Rediscovering the List
My first 14ers were Quandary via the West Ridge and Lindsey’s standard route, done at ages 12 and 14 respectively. It wasn’t until I was 23 when I decided rather randomly to get off the couch and go climb Mount Elbert that I even considered climbing all of them.
It quickly became an addiction after Elbert, though.
I spent most of my time at work (retail sales) on 14ers.com, reading about the different mountains and routes. I bought and read Gerry Roach’s 14ers book. And then I moved through peaks pretty quickly - picking my way through the lower hanging fruit.
Things slowed down in 2010 as my summer filled up with my wedding and trips to New York, Israel and Jamaica, limiting my checklist ticking abilities.
In 2011 my summer calendar was full of plans to climb 14ers before a trip to Ecuador to attempt their big volcanoes... But most of those plans came to a stop on I-25 on the way to climb Pikes Peak on Friday, May 13, 2011.
A fast stop proved to be too much for the guy behind us, and he slammed into our car. The back pain that would follow for Jessica and me, as well as seemingly constant trips to the chiropractor put an end to almost all of our 2011 climbing plans.
Summer 2012 was full of travel, first to Costa Rica for fun and then to California for more fun at a good friend’s wedding, and climbing 14ers remained below the radar.
On top of that, Jessica is less and less interested in hiking 14ers. And the few climbing partners my anti-social tendencies have allowed me to meet have moved onto tackling other goals, having families, running hundreds of miles at a time. You know, the usual.
So, I’ve struggled to motivate myself to make the 8-16 hour drives to trudge up different 14ers alone. My interest in going back up Belford to meander across to Oxford, for instance, was, for the foreseeable future nonexistent.
Instead I turned my focus to hikes closer to home that my always-willing partner and dog, Spriggs, can do with me – discovering the Indian Peaks and visiting the Medicine Bow.
In many ways I’d given up on actively working toward my 14er list.
"Spriggs on S. Arapaho Peak"
“Rained out on the Cross” 8.11.2012
In August Jessica and I finally put a 14er trip on the calendar and headed to Mount of the Holy Cross. Arriving at the trailhead the evening of August 11th, we gave our recently leftover pizza to some returning hikers and set off to camp on the other side of the pass.
When we got to the top of the pass, though, I considered the possibility of camping near there. This would make the hike out easier the next day I reasoned, saving us from carrying camping gear up the pass after a summit attempt.
"Jessica and Spriggs on Halfmoon Pass"
We found a livable spot just on the west side of the pass, set up the tent and went to the top of the pass for dinner with a view.
As we went to sleep it started to rain. When the alarm went off in the morning it was still raining. Happy to hit snooze, we kept sleeping, waiting for the rain to stop.
The forecast was decent – only a 30% chance of storms after noon, so we figured it would let up eventually. Many many snoozes later, around 2PM, it was still pouring. So we packed up and made the wet hike out to the car – happy we didn't go all the way down to the other side of the pass the day before.
With Holy Cross successfully not checked off my list, my desire to finish the 14ers was as distant as ever…
Then came the story of Homie, and his now legendary attempt at Cavedog's even more legendary record. I was inspired. Maybe I would reconsider tossing the list.
“Not so stormy skies on Maroon” 9.3.2012
With a renewed desire to climb a new 14er, I decided to give Maroon Peak a shot. It’s my last Elk 14er, and was one of the closer drives for a class three 14er I had left.
Jessica, surprisingly, agreed to go with me (not to climb, just to hang out by the lake while I climbed). We arrived at the overnight parking, got cozy in Hotel le Toyota, and went to sleep.
"Spriggs Facebook Profile"
After coffee and pictures by the lake the next morning I set off around 8.
I made good time to the bendy tree and started up the dreaded 2800 foot Slope of Misery by 9:20. As I neared the top and looked east some of the clouds were coming together and dropping scattered bits of rain already. The forecast for the day was good, like a 10% chance of storms after 2PM, but the view east suggested otherwise.
"Entrails Along the Trail"
I sat, frustrated with the decision ahead of me. I'd already done the worst of the climbing, but my pace had slowed considerably. It took me over two hours to get almost to the top of the Slope of Misery, and I knew I had at least 3-4 hours to the summit and back from there. Feeling exhausted from my efforts already, and conservative in my solo decision-making, I headed back down and truly learned how miserable the Slope of Misery is.
"A Long Way Down"
I'm no stranger of shitty descents, Snowmass' West Slopes, a dry Cristo Couloir, the Redcloud/Sunshine saddle... but this one takes the cake. For me what sucked so much about it was the lack anything to gain traction on – it’s just up to your legs. Of all the hills to just give up and roll down "Princess Bride" style, this is the one. "As... yoooouuuu... wiiiiiiiissshhhh!"
The clouds above the Bells never did form like the ones to the east, by the way, and I watched as mostly sunny skies remained overhead on my jog out to the car.
“A somber day in September” 9.15.2012
With my focus squarely on Maroon, we returned two weeks later; this time I planned to do the traverse so I could descend off North. Same routine: sleep, wake, coffee, Snickers, pictures… and go. But something was off this morning. Jessica had this look on her face that said, "Don't go."
The selfishness of taking off up into the hills for the next 9-12 hours, while leaving her and Spriggs at the lake hit me in that moment. I could tell she was dreading sitting there all day, but that she wouldn't say so.
She was there to support me, and was willing to do so even when it meant she would be spending all day doing something she didn't want to be doing. I made the same compromise for her and called my hike off. We strolled around the lake with Spriggs, took photos, and then drove home, stopping to enjoy the fall colors along the way.
When we got home I logged into 14ers.com and learned about the fatality on N. Maroon that morning. While we were at the lake, snapping pictures of two of the most beautiful mountains in the world, rockfall took the life of a climber on one of them.
Death is never far on any 14er, but it felt particularly close this year. Rockfall, simple losses of balance... something about the fatalities this year hit closer to home for me. Perhaps as I get older I’m simply losing the sense of invincibility that comes with youth. Or maybe my awareness of the inherent dangers of the mountains has grown with my time spent in them.
Whatever it is, my mortality in the hills felt ever more apparent this year.
“Just me and Wilson” October 9th, 2012
October rolled around, and despite some snow it looked like some of the harder peaks were still in good enough condition to make a trip. Without any partners I considered different options for a Monday-Tuesday trip.
Maroon was still high on the list. Wilson Peak and Tabeguache via the West Ridge were as well. I packed up and cruised onto I-25 without a clear decision.
As I neared the turn-off for I-70 (Maroon or Wilson) or 285 (Tabeguache or Wilson), I took 285. As I passed by Tabeguache I text Jessica: “Wilson it is.” Arriving at the Rock of Ages trailhead late I snuggled into Hotel le Toyota and went to sleep.
Morning routine: Coffee, Snickers… and go.
Mine was the only car at the trailhead, and I was truly solo as I made my way up the Rock of Ages trail.
I’m not a fan of hiking up roads, so the first section of trail was relatively boring until I turned the corner and entered the basin. Here the views were more than enough to overcome any boredom brought on by hiking up the road.
"The Views Open Up"
I got a spot-on conditions update from jmc5040, describing snow conditions on the route, and I was glad to have my ice axe as I neared the Rock of Ages saddle.
"Just Me and This Cairn" -and that's all I need
The trail was hard packed and I wouldn’t have gone across a few of these slopes without an axe. (Traction and trekking poles would probably be a fine combo, too.) After two hours and fifteen minutes I reached the Rock of Ages saddle, 3.7 miles from the trailhead.
"Rock of Ages Saddle View"
The short stroll across to the Wilson/Gladstone saddle was a nice change from the road through the basin as the views here really open up. The saddle would be a nice spot to catch a sunrise I’d imagine, and I paused for the first time long enough to put on another layer while I snapped a few pictures.
"Real Camera Panoramas"
This next part of the route has two options; I went for the higher class three option on my ascent. I thought the climbing here was super awkward, but I was having a particularly off day.
The route felt like it was trying to push me off the slope and what looked like a good path often wasn’t. The climbing and my lack of confidence scrambling were unnerving and I was happy to use the lower, easier option on my way back down.
After this short, awkward scramble I made good progress to the false summit. From here you have to make an exposed descent, the only other place that had snow on the route according to jmc5040, and now my own eyes. Now realizing the severity of the exposure here I couldn't help but wish I'd stopped and bought microspikes, or lugged my crampons with me for this section.
I started down, the rocks were loose, the snow was iced over solid, and the fall consequences were severe.
Not being a fan of my first line I turned back up, took another look from the top and tried a different one. Again, the climbing was flat-out uncomfortable.
One of the things I normally love about rock climbing and scrambling are the smooth fluid and sure movements that when put together right are as graceful as someone dancing ballet. On this day my scrambling felt like anything but graceful.
I went back up again, unhappy with the lack of solid balance and sure-footing that I can usually find on scrambles – even snowy loose ones. Sitting there on the false summit, again, I considered how much I was willing to risk to get to the summit – barely over 100 feet above.
After taking a good 10-15 minutes to reconsider my options and failing to come up with a safer route, I called it. The false summit would be the only one for me today.
This was tough, anyone who’s been here can attest to how close the summit is – you can taste it. I also knew that people had been up this way in the last few days, so it was certainly doable. But for me, on an off day, all alone, and recognizing the fragility of our mortality in the hills more than ever before, it simply didn’t feel worth it.
Content with my decision, I scooted down just a bit from the false summit to get out of the wind, threw on some layers, sat down, and was just present. I didn’t take pictures, I didn’t think about anything, I didn’t nap or snack… I was just there, alone in the San Juans, high on Wilson Peak.
On my way down I had time to rethink my decision and knew it was the right call. Unlike the storm-free afternoon that followed my turn-around on Maroon, this time I would have no regrets.
A few years ago I imagine I would have gone through that section on Wilson without thinking twice and probably would have a new 14er to add to my list. But I also might have slipped. I also might have pulled a key rock out and brought part of the mountain down on myself.
I’m generally far from a catastrophic thinker, but as I’ve grown older and spent more time in the mountains my awareness of the risks has gone up, and my tolerance for them has gone down.
I’m still learning about who I am as a climber now, compared to a few years ago, and I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
But, I know a few things.
One, I will finish the 14ers. I’m actually looking forward to that stroll over to Oxford.
Two, I’d rather have a climbing partner than go solo. This means I need to reach out to connect more with other climbers, something I struggle with. (Anyone up for that fall stroll up Oxford? I’m free almost all month).
And three, I learned that I care more about making deliberate decisions on risky peaks than I do about getting to the summit. I still feel like I need to find a better balance here, to avoid days like my far-too-conservative call on Maroon Peak.
But, better to make the wrong call and walk out in the sun than the alternative.
And while I may not have made any new progress on the list, I've certainly rediscovered it.
Anyway, thanks for reading (did anyone really make it this far?). I didn’t expect this to end up so long, but here we are. It’s been an introspective journey for me, and hopefully an enjoyable one for you.
Now for some more pictures...