| Chasing Daylight
Friday, December 28. Iron City, Colorado. The winter game is in full swing. I'm pounding an Italian grinder from Snarf's and taking in the digital green glow of the car's interior. This is Bag Night #80 for us this year and we've got the routine down. Dashboard IPAs… The Black Keys… Soft chatter about future peaks and gaper moves…
Everything has fallen into place in the last 24 hours - partners, peak, route, start time. The plan is to take a shot at Princeton's SW ridge and see what we can find. Anything's better than the standard route, right? Outside the moon is full and the temperature is dropping. We wind things down as the curtain falls on CR 162.
Chasing Daylight: A Winter Ascent of Mount Princeton's SW Ridge
Group: Darin Baker, Mad Mike, Modus Joe, Sarah and I
Stats: 7 miles and 5,400 vert, class 3/4
Beta: nkan02 | PKR | Roach
Saturday, December 29. We have a scheduled start time of 7 AM. I need to make a quick pit stop so I pull off the road and hit the lonely vault toilet that is about 0.5 miles below the ghost town of St. Elmo. My watch reads 6:30 AM. I have plenty of time.
I open the door, step inside and immediately lose my footing. The floor is a sheet of ice and before I know it I'm riding a slow motion conveyor belt toward the toilet. The lid is up and what I see is not pretty. Look the f--- out!
Coolly, I am able to pull off a smear move and stop my momentum. Still, the thought of going arm first up to the shoulder into the toilet has every hair on my body standing on end. At least the cold keeps the reek down.
So I beat a hasty retreat to the car.
Wooderson: All set?
Wooderson: What's the problem?
Papillon: The vault. It's kind of technical.
Wooderson: What the hell are you talking about?
Papillon: The entire inside is a sheet of ice. I almost died in there.
Wooderson: Oh my god…
Papillon: Will you short rope me? I'll be quick.
Wooderson: Oh my god...
20 minutes later we meet everyone at the trailhead. We strap snowshoes to packs and put on gaiters. Mad Mike, who stayed at a hostel near BV the night before, had his own issues with snoring bunkmates and a fatty who was trying to cook himself a midnight turkey dinner. He said he almost had to throw down with the guy. It seems like mountaineers get no respect these days.
7:24 AM and we are on our way.
No place for a nervous person.
The route follows a rough road for about a quarter mile before thinning out into a cairned trail that runs parallel to a creek. After about ten minutes, we leave the creek and climb very steeply for several hundred feet. Darin, Sarah and I have been up this drainage before for UN 13,626. We know our goal is to reach a hanging aspen grove where the terrain flattens out for a bit. We pass intermittent cairns and sidehill for a while. Conversation takes our minds off the task at hand.
The hanging aspen grove.
Eventually, we reach a boulderfield and spot the streambed that leads to the upper parts of the drainage. I was up this way in November and the streambed was bone dry. Today, there is quite a bit of snow, maybe calf deep. The going is slow but we have all day.
Gateway to the upper drainage.
We finally break out of the streambed and spot our ridge. The only thing left to do is choose our line (and dump our snowshoes). In the lead up to the climb, we had talked about a car drop at the standard Mount Princeton trailhead and an aesthetic traverse. But Darin wisely pointed out that we'd have to carry our snowshoes the whole way and possibly bust trail on our descent. F--- that.
The climb is on.
We stash our snowshoes at treeline and begin the climb. It's going to be a beautiful day. We set our own paces and ascend 1,200 feet to the ridge line. Once atop the SW ridge, we can see the remaining route to the summit. It's a long ways off, and not without a fair share of undulations and sections that Darin will later describe as "sporty".
I submitted this image to Larry Flynt Productions. I'll let you know what they say...
Mike and Joe take off. I knock down several chunks of a NY style "za" I brought along for instant energy and begin the ridge run. Within minutes we reach a knife-edgy section. There is a good amount of exposure here on both sides and just enough snow to make things a bit game on. But it feels damn good to be scrambling instead of slogging. No need for the axe or spikes, "just hold on tight!" as Joe likes to say.
4 peeps on the ridge. Can you spot them all?
Things get narrow.
Snow adds some spice.
Mike and Joe have separated themselves from the pack and we see them climbing what will be the crux of the route. It definitely looks interesting. The crux is about 40 feet of snowy class 3/4 terrain with a big drop to the right. There is a ledge to the left that looks like it might go but you eventually (hopefully) reach that stage as a budding alpinist where workarounds and weaknesses begin to play second fiddle to solid rock, adrenaline, ass puckering, muttered profanities, etc. The kind of terrain and circumstances that yield daydreamy scenes of endless chicks and flirtations with immortality. Making the myths, as Manzarek said to Morrison.
You gotta problem with the standard route, Mr. Baker? Why yes I do, Mr. Papillon.
Looking back down.
I go first and top out. There is one section that feels a bit reachy and committing but the rock is amazingly solid and there are ample footholds. Beyond the crux, it is class two all the way. The ridge to Princeton is in plain view to my right. I faintly see Mike and Joe making their way to the summit. They appear to be one time zone over.
Sounds good, Mike. If you could uhhhh, yo Mike? I think I'll try to touch base with him later.
Princeton is still a long ways off...
Spindrift is ripping the ridge to Mount Princeton. Things are about to get a bit chilly. Although Darin, Sarah and I have not spoken in what seems like hours, we all realize we absolutely have to get back to the crux and down it before sunset or we are cooked.
The final ridge to Princeton.
The 0.5 mile ridge to Princeton rolls twice. Winds from the south hammer us two or three times. Mike and Joe come down from the summit. We exchange nods and fist bumps.
Mad Mike celebrates his ascent.
40 more vertical feet and we top out. 2:09 PM. I don't remember much from the summit except that the standard route on Princeton looks amazingly dry. Also, our return trip to Point 13,971 and the crux is going to be long and painful. I'm feeling pretty blown out and wish we were taking the standard route down. It seems so narcotic, so inviting. We take pics, drink, eat, and stare down at the streets of Buena Vista longingly.
The standard route looks pretty dry.
Why is it that when I am up here I wish I was down there and when I am down there I wish I was up here?
There is nothing left to do but hit the bricks. The falsies come and go in sinister fashion. We reach Point 13,971 and make the turn. Chasing Daylight. At this stage, I know we're gonna make it as long as we keep moving. We drop down the ridge and head for the crux where Joe is waiting patiently.
If this image doesn't summarize everything great about Colorado mountaineering, give me a call.
We logjam above the crux as the skies near Tincup Pass begin to turn pinkish. Joe finds a workaround to climber's right, a workaround he will later describe to me as "a bit sketchy". Darin, Sarah and I opt for a downclimb of the crux. Darin goes first and spots Sarah who then spots me. I'm pretty nervous making those first few snowy moves, face in, with the world dropping off below me to climber's right.
Downclimbing the crux.
Toto, I don't think we're on Bross anymore...
I reach the bottom of the crux and turn to see my partners cruising across the knife edge section. The beauty of my perch is almost overwhelming. I take many pictures.
Knife Edge II
Not out of the woods yet.
With all of the difficulties and uncertainties behind us, we make a leisurely descent to Joe and the snowshoe stash where we are treated to an unreal sunset.
Two dark hours later, we spill out of the woods and reach the safety of the road. Nothing left but the final 100 yards. We talk and laugh as our headlamps dance in the Sawatch night.
Until next time...
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