It was a no good, very bad day

A friend had graciously volunteered to drop me off and pick me up for some one-way linkups, so we set off from Leadville reasonably early and headed down to BV to start at Cottonwood Creek. The plan was Columbia to Harvard to Pine Creek to Oxford/Belford then down to Missouri Gulch, where we would camp. I thought this would take 8 hours, 12 if I got into trouble. It was forecasted to thunderstorm.

 

The morning was beautiful, I love the basin of Harvard and Columbia, the wildflowers were blooming, CFI was out working on the new and improved Columbia standard route. There were an extraordinary amount of Alpine Spiders out, and especially some really big, wicked looking ones. I made a mental note to look up whether there are any poisonous spiders living in the talus (since that episode on the Sawtooth, I am no longer irrationally afraid of spiders, but I’d still like to know if they can kill me). (If you’re wondering, my research didn’t uncover much. According to the internets, black widows, brown recluses, and “hobo” spiders are the only poisonous spiders in CO that are a threat to humans. While the big black ones I saw in the talus were horrific, they weren’t black widows, so I guess it’s safe?)

 

As we neared the summit of Columbia, I started thinking I saw storm clouds coming FROM THE EAST. Which is impossible, right? I kept an eye on them, carried on, but as I descended the summit onto the shitty crazy gnarly ridge, it was impossible to ignore them and I began the bail into the even shittier, crazier, talus field, all the way into a lush, green valley full of willows to the NE of the ridge. By now, the sky was blanketed in storm clouds, and it was sprinkling, but not storming yet. I began a very long ascent towards the summit of Harvard, thinking that along the way I’d find a crest to cross over down to Pine Creek, without having to summit Harvard in a storm. The North side of Harvard is very cliffy, and of course I couldn’t find a safe place to descend, especially since I had Luna with me. I could see the beautiful tundra-covered North arm that is the Nolan’s route, but the further up we went the more obvious it became that there was no way to get to it besides crossing directly over that rocky summit. As we approached it, I almost slowed down, trying to make the call. Up until now, we weren’t very exposed, but the final talus climb to the precarious summit would leave us extremely exposed to lightning for just a couple minutes. If I did it fast, would it be okay? Then the thunder started. There’s something about thunderstorms above treeline that make you feel like the mountains under your feet and the sky are about to break apart. We ran for our lives, bailing all the way back to the willow basin we had come from. I couldn’t think of another safe solution, so we began to descend East, hoping to come across the Colorado Trail.

 

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lunchtime

At first, this was actually kind of a nice time. I sat down with Lu right around treeline and enjoying the epically beautiful, quiet, isolated valley while having some lunch. It rained off and on, but didn’t pour. Below treeline, things got nasty quickly. The rain picked up, and so did the piles of dead trees making a crazy tangled maze that it was impossible to climb over or under, so we had to wedge ourselves between trees and climb through. I was quite certain I’d come across bears, and spent the whole time yelling, and I also figured I couldn’t escape this without a host of ticks. There were freezing water crossings, more and more tree tangles, and it took hours to make it what had to be only 4-6 miles. When we found the Colorado trail, I thought I might burst into tears, but resisted, because I still had a long, long way to go and losing it is the perfect way to sap your limited energy.

 

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looking back on the ridge we bailed from, NE of Columbia

Maybe 15 minutes after gaining the trail, I saw a person! I asked her if she happened to know how far it was to Clear Creek and county road 390, and she said at least 11 miles. Which might have been disheartening, as that would make about 17 miles to get to my friend at Missouri Gulch, but 17 miles was reasonable on easy trail and road, and it was around 3pm so I figured I could make it before dark. The sky started to clear, and I jogged pretty contentedly. Crossing Pine Creek, I considered what it would take to off trail to Oxford from there, and finish my original route. Then, a trail junction. To ELKHEAD PASS. I took it, and up into the bowels of Pine Creek we went. It’s actually a beautiful area, if not a little creepy and very isolated. There are a ton of fairly intact mining buildings, with windows and padlocked doors. As we approached the southern slopes of Oxford, the thunderstorms rolled in again, so we continued on the trail to Elkhead Pass. I kept thinking we were going too far, that it didn’t make much sense. But as the sun began to set, I didn’t feel quite up to off trail route finding in a place that was unfamiliar, and I wished I had just ascended Oxford because at least I’d know where I was. After miles of going southwest, we suddenly wrapped around and headed North, and I understood that the trail had taken us several miles out of the way, only to bring us back around up through a valley we would ascend NE to the pass. It was one of the most beautiful basins I had ever seen. My knees had just about had it, the bail off the Columbia ridge had destroyed them and each subsequent mile was taxing too much. My nervous system was fried. I had been hoping and hoping that I could just make it back before dark, but darkness was coming too fast and I was moving too slow, and still had so many miles to go.

 

Gaining Elkhead Pass was another moment that I wanted to burst into tears. What a relief, after all the off trail, all the route finding and wondering, the bailing from storms, that I was on a trail that I knew. The thunderstorms raged over the mountains around me as the last bits of light dissipated. I got out my headlamp, the batteries needed replaced and I happened to have packed new batteries, but I couldn’t see well enough to change them. I descended as fast as I could, it still probably took over an hour from Elkhead Pass to Missouri Gulch parking lot as I arrived about 10pm. There I burst into tears, finally safe and sound. 35 miles, 11k gain, 15 hours.

 

The aftermath of that day has made me question what I’m doing with my life. I don’t ever want a day like that again. I didn’t even want to continue to pursue Nolan’s, as it will inevitably be a lot of the same isolation, loneliness, miserable off trail, painful gully descents that defy you to break all your bones. It’s hard to get past all that. The net gain of that day was, a week later, I realized that I don’t have to finish Nolan’s. Yeah, that doesn’t seem that novel. But I’ve always thought of it as a do-or-die situation, and it’s just not. I have to attempt Nolan’s, otherwise I’ll never be able to move on with my life. I can finally see, though, that days like this are the net gain of Nolan’s. You will get lost, you will find the way. You will be miserable, hopeless, and desperate, but you will be alive and you will be happy again eventually. You will run for your life, you may get hurt, but when it’s over, you will understand the value you place on your own life. The two years that I’ve been up here, training and route finding, planning and talking about it, running free in the mountains: that’s the glory of Nolan’s. I’ll have it forever no matter what happens in August. Maybe I’ll finish, or maybe I’ll call it hallway due to thunderstorms or a busted knee or whatever. Maybe I’ll finish in 66 hours. That stuff doesn’t matter. People say it’s the journey and not the destination, right? The journey is nearly over, and it has been the greatest of my life.

 

 

Mt Princeton (who’s the boss?)

Mt Princeton (14,204) is generally believed to be the crux of the Nolan’s route. Its long approach, almost entirely off trail ascent and descent, and the fact that it generally falls overnight in most people’s attempts have led me to believe that if Nolan’s were Super Mario, Princeton is the big boss. Once I make it past Princeton, nothing will stop me from finishing.

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It was incidental that last summer, as I hammered down every part of the Nolan’s route, I tread nearly every piece of Princeton except the summit. I spent 3 days route-finding from the Avalanche Gulch trail, putting tons of miles in figuring out the [long] way up off trail on the NE arm. I spent a day in Grouse Gulch, learning the descent. But I didn’t summit. Princeton was the only Nolan’s mountain that I did not stand on top of all year.

As I considered my winter training, I knew that I’d have to push harder on winter ascents this year (no matter how miserable! I would prevail), especially since I planned/am planning an ambitious July attempt (if you don’t remember from last year, there was still waist-deep snow in the mountains at the end of May, summer doesn’t generally start until the end of June). I knew that I had to do Princeton in the winter.

When I drove to Arizona in February, I hadn’t yet managed to do more than Elbert, Massive, and La Plata (I was busy skiing I guess). Passing Princeton as I drive through BV, gracefully and commandingly taking up the sky, I thought “Princeton is such a boss, I have to get up there.” (I not only thought this but texted a running buddy, who was not thrilled like I was).

After AZ, I came back injured and spent a month trying to get back on my feet. One week ago, I went out for my first long(ish) run. Basking in the glow of Princeton on the East side of BV, I resolved to get up there. Another friend asked if I wanted to run together, I suggested Princeton, and ultimately plans fell through.

It’s not that Princeton (or any Sawatch Range winter ascents) is inherently dangerous or harrowing or even difficult.. just long, somewhat miserable slogs. Which is why I was hoping for company (because good company can make even the longest of drags fun) but I guess it wasn’t in the cards. Despite a lousy forecast, I headed up Princeton on Friday. The weather was beautiful when I got there, clear and sunny and warm, but turned terrible about 6 miles in. I got this picture just before it started snowing and visibility was totally lost (and my phone turned off because it wasn’t willing to suffer the new frigid wind),

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Terrible weather in the winter doesn’t scare me or even affect me that much (as long as I know the route well enough). It’s even kind of appropriate, because it’s slow and miserable to begin with so the weather’s like “hey, why not take away your view, too?” (“Bwahahaha”, because I think the weather should be personified). Someone asked me after if it felt good to be in the mountains again, and I didn’t really know what to say…it felt normal. It wasn’t “fun” and there wasn’t the thrill of standing on a summit (conditions were so bad you could have been standing anywhere and just seen gray). I had kind of forgotten just a little what it feels like to endure…so at least I still had that sort of toughness to push on.

The truth is, some days I’m so pumped to get back to climbing mountains and running again, and other days I don’t even want to go outside let alone spend another full day dragging my legs through the snow. I heard a team went up the Maroon Bells, and at first I was inspired, then it faded to meh…fuck that. As does everything eventually, I think this whole thing boils down to GOOD VS INTERESTING. Would you rather your life be good or interesting? Most people say good. If you read that question and thought “why would you ask a question like that?” Or “why can’t it be both?” That’s ok, I get it. Sometimes I admire you, a lot of times actually. I’ve come to realize during this time off that I can’t just read and watch TV, or study yoga or design or whatever I get into. I need the full spectrum of pain, the challenge, the risk, the fear, the incredible doubt. I choose interesting, and I don’t care at all if it’s good. Good is such a relative term. When someone asks you how you are, you say “good.” I don’t want easy, and as much as I sometimes regret moving up here because it is quite the POLAR opposite of easy, I know that this is where I’m meant to be.

It’s hard being 29 for a lot of reasons. There’s the cultural/societal pressure around 30, and there’s this “return of saturn” business that I would have never believed in except that I’ve been having rolling emotional/life crises for months. Sometimes I think “how the fuck did I get here?” Or “what have I DONE in the past 10 years!?” But I will never measure success by my job or my house, my friends, my bank account. At least I don’t ever feel like “why aren’t I married?” It’s more like “WHY haven’t I been to Banff!??”

I guess the point of all of this is, I climbed Princeton and it didn’t feel like epic or harrowing or victorious. I just quietly surpassed my recent (injury-induced) doubt and accepted that this is who I am. Some days I am NOT okay with it, and I wish I could stay at home and eat pizza and watch TV all day…and sometimes I do (and whether you know about chakras or believe in them, let me tell you when I stay home it physically hurts beneath my sternum and in my solar plexus). And sometimes I go out and run mountains.

ICE MOUNTAIN (what doesn’t break both your legs makes you stronger)

I realized today what it means to find comfort in discomfort (and it only took me 29 years to understand). I was climbing Mt. Elbert from the south, and after 2 hours of mind- and foot-numbing post holing, I was above treeline where intense wind and below 0 temps made a usually mellow mountain into a harrowing summit bid, which is the best time to think about my life. And I remembered the miserable day I spent on Ice Mountain probably two months ago.

It was one of those days where I was ready to give up mountaining and get a real job, but it started out lovely; clear, sunny skies, even decently warm. First you drive nearly to the middle of nowhere on a Jeep road, then you park in an empty TH parking lot and run a handful of miles. You scramble up this very long and unstable talus field (and hope nothing worse happens than a few rolled ankles and smashed fingers and toes as the rocks you’re putting your weight on slip and slide and rock disturbingly beneath you) then begin ascending a gully.

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Ice Mountain is one of the three Apostles (in the middle above). Three beautiful, jagged, sheer, and rocky peaks all rated class 3 and with only one logical route to ascend any of them. I’ve never been told this by someone who’s done it, but I had thought for quite some time that it sounded like a fun day of scrambling and I finally managed a day to do it before the weather turned [into winter]. I began the ascent to the gully, which was supposedly the crux of the route, and thought it was iffy at best. I actually felt a little silly for being annoyed with the instability of the talus field before it, because this gully defied logic. Had I not been sure I was on the route (there is no alternative, just sheer rock faces and this one gully) I would have been sure that there just was no safe route up this mountain. It was extremely steep, and mostly comprised of loose, slippery clay topped with smatterings of pebbles and frequently featuring loose boulders that threatened to dislodge themselves at any moment.

Ascending terrain like this sucks, but more importantly on anything so unstable is HOW THE FUCK WILL I GET DOWN? About halfway up I was suddenly pissed, because I felt insecure about my situation, and I wanted to blame it on everyone who’s ever climbed this mountain (which is the kind of excellent logic of a girl who knows she’s about to get injured, deep in the middle of nowhere). Meanwhile, the weather took a sudden turn and the dark sky looked like it might break all hell loose upon the Apostles any moment.

So why did I keep going? I was thinking about that a lot today. What makes anybody keep going when they want to turn around? I’ve finally realized the things that make me miserable (for example: snowshoe running, unstable gullies, climbing at night) aren’t inherently bad. To be home in the mountains, you have to be supremely comfortable, up, down and sideways. I’m just not that comfortable with all of it yet. It doesn’t seem mindblowing, but it blew my mind.

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Today, on Elbert, I discovered that there’s horrible, excruciating pain on the other side of numbness (and I wondered if it was the early stages of frostbite). It was so bad that I thought all the bones in my feet were simultaneously breaking. But I kept going. The wind became so harsh above the first false that I sometimes had to bear down so it didn’t push me back down the mountain, and meanwhile my eyes were starting to freeze shut (is it a thing to wear goggles when it’s this cold? I feel like I should, but I’d feel silly kind of). But I kept going. It only barely occurred to me that I maybe should turn around and come back when the weather was better.

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I kept going because I don’t want to be comfortable all the time. People who never face fear (in all of its manifestations-especially pain, misery, doubt) are so afraid that it controls their lives. I don’t want to climb unstable gullies because I’m afraid of [the very real possibility of] rock slides. If I had turned around that day, then I wouldn’t have made it safely up and down, thereby gaining a new [small] shred of comfort. There’s more than just our big fears to face, there’s dozens of smaller discomforts that we can’t keep avoiding. Discomfort is not the reason to turn around (or to stay home, as Dan’s mom famously said on our snowy Capitol attempt last year). That’s what it means to find comfort in discomfort: you experience discomfort, you own it, you accept it…it would be easy to turn away or avoid it but you don’t. You spend time is discomfort. You face all of its sides and angles. You sit in it (and climb and run and go about your business in it). Once you surpass fear, then you’re at home in the mountains.

CAPITOL PEAK PT 5 (this is about love, perseverance and terror)

It’s very nearly one year since my first attempt on Capitol Peak; as it was I intended to summit the glorious and dangerous peak as the 28th 14er on my 28th birthday. Things went awry, to say the least, kicking off what would turn out to be a long and tumultuous quest to finally stand on top of the mountain I now love the most.

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So if you’ve been reading for a while you might remember that last year’s birthday Capitol attempt failed because the Elks got 3 feet of snow the day before. It became my first winter camping trip, and going up on that class 4 ridge drowned in snow was maybe the biggest risk I’ve ever taken.

Because of my fanatic single-focus Nolan’s training this year, I didn’t even leave the Sawatch until the end of August when I made a glorious and successful attempt on North Maroon Peak, one of my favorite ascents of all time and my first class 4 Elk summit (the “Maroon Bells” along with Capitol are recognized as both the deadliest and most technical of the 14,000+ ft mountains in Colorado). Naturally, now free of Nolan’s (for the rest of this year anyway), Capitol was scheduled and I was so ready to get back to that magical valley, which has definitely become my favorite place in Colorado.

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Maroon Bells 💙

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I made two unsuccessful attempts on Capitol with the toughest mountain runner I know, my friend Trish. I believe that Mama Elks was physically shaking us off the Northeast ridge with the loudest, wildest thunder you’ve ever heard. [okay listen, did you know if you can hear thunder then lightning is less than 10 miles from you? And even crazier, if there’s less than 30 seconds between the thunder and lightning then it is less than 6 miles from you…ipso facto if there’s only a few seconds between…I’m just saying it’s fucking close! Also, we apparently know now the talus in our beloved mountains conducts lightning (because of the indirect lightning strike on Handies during Hardrock this year) but I couldn’t find any full explanation]

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After a week including two trips to Aspen (and beyond) and two sadly unsuccessful attempts (that were still most excellent days in the mountains AND we discovered CP Burger so really great days overall) I have to admit I was more crestfallen than ever before. Capitol looms like a beast from Lord of the Rings over the Capitol Creek valley and you can see it from the TH and almost the whole way in. Honestly there is no place more epic, this mountain is just it.

Hayden Survey named Capitol Peak in 1874 (which you may remember was during the gold rush in the High Rockies), comically because of its “resemblance to the Capitol Building”. No one attempted to climb it until 1909, because it appeared to be an impenetrable fortress and it wasn’t thought possible. Percy Hagerman and Harold Clark of Aspen summited for the first time on August 22, 1909. These pioneers also gained the first ascents of North Maroon Peak, Pyramid Peak, and many of the treacherous 13ers in the Elks (yes, Hagerman and Clark Peaks are definitely named after them). Hagerman said later “there is one rather sensational bit of 40 ft where the ridge is so sharp that one must get astride of it and move along hands and knees…the drop here is something like 1,500 feet, not straight but appallingly steep and smooth”

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I attempted Capitol a fourth time by myself. The result was a hyperextended knee, my first real knee injury and let me tell you it struck terror into my heart. I’ll talk about this more at some point in the future, when writing about it becomes cathartic instead of heart wrenching.

Anyway, still injured I saw what appeared to be one last glimmer of hope in the form of a 3-day weather window, which will probably be the last before the Elks are covered in snow for the year. I got up balls-ass early (I don’t understand what that expression means either) and Hooptie and I drove to Aspen (then 14 miles North, and something like 12 miles west until the Jeep road ends…) and I got out and started walking. And boy has it been a long time since I WALKED a trail! It takes for fucking ever, just sayin. It was a perfect clear sunny day and I couldn’t help but see it for what it was- Mama Elks was finally saying I was worthy. Not gonna lie, my knee hurt and it was disconcerting. But I kept on; I knew it was my last chance this year and I wouldn’t give it up for anything (if you’ve read this blog before we all know how irresponsible I am, and you guys I just don’t care). The first time things get weird is downclimbing K2, especially since that was the only part of the route with snow on it. Shortly thereafter you see the “baby knife edge” and you’re like REALLY!?! No way…then you get to the real Knife Edge and you’re like OHHHHH ok I get it. And you throw a leg on either side and squeeze your knees into the rock and cross the thing on your hands. So, I’m not afraid of heights. And by the end I was gasping for breath. I wasn’t SO freaked out that I DIDN’T take a Knife Edge selfie though

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The worst thing about solo ascents of Capitol is being alone on the Knife Edge/not having a buddy to take a sweet badass picture of you on it (ok I’m kidding…I really think the exposed scary bits would have wreaked less havoc on my nervous system if I had a friend). So Mr. Badass Hagerman says that after this point the climb is “arduous” and I think that’s a beautiful euphemism. This sums it up, I think: the route on Capitol is great because for hours you’re like ok I’m on route, climb, climb, super exposed, where the fuck is the route, nbd I guess I’ll just traverse this cliff until, infinity later, you’ve nearly circled the summit it seems like and you’re finally there. I summited to greetings from two friendly gentlemen, who immediately asked me where my helmet is and ARE YOU ALONE!?! I wasn’t even initially annoyed though, they weren’t being condescending at all (like the usual tough guy mountain nit wits) and I don’t think it had anything to do with my being a small girl.

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The weather was a real treat-above treeline lately it’s been winter for sure but today with the perfect sun and no wind it was warm and sweet. Those guys told me they’d been napping and I believe it. I have to admit it was anti climactic. I was content but not deliriously happy. Maybe I knew the way down wouldn’t be easier?

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I peaced off the summit first and in a hurry. It was all going great, and actually the return trip over the Knife Edge I kind of spidermonkeyed super fast with some kind of renewed confidence. All was well until below the ridge after K2, where you have the high road/low road options and I chose high because it’s faster. The high route is harder to find, in fact I’ve never been able to keep it on the return trip but I was overly confident because I’d followed it all the way in. The trouble here is that it cliffs out between, and if you’ve chosen the high road and lose the route you’re…fucked.

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I don’t know what happened, it’s safe to say that at this point I was a little mentally exhausted. I was following cairns and the route disappeared. I climbed up and down looking all over for it and suddenly I was stuck. And for the first time I can understand why someone might call Search and Rescue…they’ve backed themselves into a terribly dangerous corner that will require some serious climbing to get out of…and maybe they’re alone and without ropes. And then they[I] panic. Huddled on a ledge, shaking so violently I bumped my head, I was desperately trying to calm down and get enough courage to turn around and start the long climb down. I kept hoping to see ANYBODY descending appear at the top of the rock field, but I had apparently put myself over an hour ahead of them. I turned my phone on and by some luck I had service. I called a friend and immediately burst into tears and told her I was in a bad climbing situation and I needed to calm down. I also swore I was giving up mountains, and I was going to be a nurse and have a normal life and watch Netflix (BWAHAHAHA YEAH RIGHT. Look mountains, I’m really sorry for those crazy things I said but you know they’re not true). The phone call worked though and four minutes later I was shaking much less and steeled to climb down to (eventually) solid ground.

So basically, MAD respect for Capitol, who makes every other ascent (including North Maroon Peak) look like child’s play. After so many hours of exposure, my nervous system was just fried, but now I know it’s that much stronger. By the time I was back to Aspen I was thinking about my next ascent (yeah when I got back to Hooptie I was still decompressing) and by the time I was home I was ready to say THAT WAS AMAZING. Hard earned, to say the least, summiting Capitol felt like a real accomplishment. 77 miles on foot, 20+ hours of driving, every kind of storm, lightning, hail, an avalanche, a sprained ACL. 💙 You Capitol.

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FAILURE

I looked up the definition of failure (you’re not surprised) and it’s pretty heavy:

1. Lack of success
2. Omission of required or expected action
3. The action or state of not functioning

I’ve [obviously] spent a whole lot of time thinking about what happened, and simply put it’s that I made a mistake that was too big to recover from. I chose to call it in favor of starting over and hoping that at least the big problems are out of my system. I think all three definitions of failure are appropriate.

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I was feeling great, having a good day of various challenges (downclimbing a waterfall, confusing elk for bear, my very first backcountry snake-on-my-feet). I knew the route, I was going east looking for a Jeep road going South and uphill. Maybe a half mile later I stopped and pulled out the map. I knew I was going the right direction-this is the part of the story that I haven’t been able to reconcile. When I looked at the map, it appeared that the road I was looking for was the one I had already passed at N Half Moon TH (that goes South and uphill) and I turned around to go back-despite that I felt very iffy that it was right. I ran that road (south and uphill) to a clearing where the road evens out and there’s a rocky gully on the left (exactly like the course description) and started climbing.

It was crazy steep to begin with, but when it got rocky the real problem became the loose rocks. I’m going to go ahead and give you this description: it was like climbing a vertical ladder made of loose boulders that could easily crush me, covered in tiny rocks like marbles so I never had solid footing anywhere. When I talked to my parents later they noted that it took me a REALLY long time to ascend this section. No. Kidding. I don’t believe it was possible to downclimb any of that crap, so my best bet was to keep going. Unstable class 4, rivers of loose rocks…I kept hoping for better and it kept getting worse. Of all the risky things I’ve done, this was the worst, the longest, and the stupidest. At one point a rock broke off in my left hand and I fell, onto my back and rolled a ways before I could get purchase on something to stop. I would eventually be covered in bruises, but otherwise miraculously uninjured (and it reminded me so much of the time I was hit by a car on my bike and I flew at least ten feet and landed on concrete, with a little road rash and otherwise fine and I just couldn’t believe how I made it out unscathed). I continued up because there really wasn’t anything else to do. It was probably the most afraid I’ve ever been; by the top my nerves were fried and I was fully hysterical.

After a fair amount of weeping, I got up and carried on, now on much more stable ground. When I reached the high point on the ridge I realized in horror that I was looking at Elbert and I could feel my mistake in every cell. I was on the wrong fucking mountain. I think it took almost 4 hours to get up there (I had budgeted 2.5 for Elbert). I started looking for a route to descend, and I turned on my phone and called my dad. We agreed that I was so far gone, if I wanted a chance to get 60 hours I would have to start over. I made that decision so quickly and started to descend. The descent was gnarly (still 1000x better than the ascent from the other side) but every minute I spend bushwacking, especially route finding over rocks and cliffy sections and struggling through thick awful brush, I get more comfortable doing it and it starts to feel more normal and less retched. It was another 2+ just to get down and several more miles to meet my crew.

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In the next 24-48 hours I would face my demons like never before. Every moment I was in the mountains this week I was struggling with how I felt about everything, what I was going to say, and when and IF I was going to go out again. My stars, I still don’t know. It seems easy to put up a date for the next attempt (a week from Sunday) but I’m still wavering on the IF.

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There was something in the moment after I fell that was different than the other close calls I’ve had in the mountains. Before, they’ve made me want to push harder, bigger, faster (after Capitol I believe I wrote something like “Now I know that I will unequivocally risk my life to touch the sky, because what is the alternative!?”). But this time…it felt more like ENOUGH. Since then, I’ve had a few solid days of ascents (I even re-did the one I fucked up on Sunday) and off trail. I don’t have a solid thing to say either way to finish off this post. I’m just still working it out.

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The time has come

I don’t have anything real to say. All week I’ve been so full of every kind of emotion I don’t even know what to tell people when they ask how I am. At this point I’m strangely calm, and it’s like in the Simpsons when the doctor tells Mr Burns that he has so many diseases that they’re all in some kind of crowded balance, and Mr Burns says “you mean I’m indestructible?”
And the doctor says “No Mr Burns, the slightest breeze could kill you”
And Mr Burns says “I’M INDESTRUCTIBLE!”

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I don’t doubt that I can do it. I don’t actually have a concept of what it would feel like to be “ready”, but it is what is, it’s what I’ve trained for, and it’s time to go. I can hardly wait to go.

Everything else is done, except the place I was going to rent a SPOT from was overbooked so I won’t be carrying a tracker. Which is okay, because I’m the only one that needs to know I did it. I’m leaving early on Sunday morning from the Fish Hatchery to climb 14 14,000ft mountains in 60 hours and 100 miles. Whatever happens, Tuesday night will be a hell of a celebration.

Ready or not, here we go.

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Night Ascents (are you afraid of the dark?)

If you type “why are humans” into Google, the third option that comes up is “why are humans afraid of the dark?” Mostly, the internet says that fear of the dark is an evolutionary response-built into us over 100’s of years of big cats prowling the Savannah at night much like our fear reactions to snakes, spiders, and fires. This supposedly also explains why most of us are afraid of the dark and not of cars or saturated fat (mountain lions kill less than one person/year on average in the US and Canada, spiders average 2/year (from allergic reactions), while 610,000 die of heart disease in the US per year and 32,000 die in car accidents in the US).

I’ve said before that I’m most afraid of navigating in the dark on Nolan’s. The last time I was in the mountains in the dark was towards the end of last summer when I had that big 5 summit day and came down Harvard in the dark in a storm. I was so afraid of what lie past the edges of “safety” ie the light of my headlamp that I sang Sanskrit devotional songs at the top of my lungs, comforting myself and hoping to stave off the hungry, evil predators that were sure to be waiting just on the edge of the dark. I didn’t know then that mountain lions don’t even kill one person every year, but I don’t think that makes it seem less scary when your headlamp is reflecting on felled trees and you’re sure you’re seeing things that go bump in the night.

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Things that go bump in the night here in Colorado:
Rattlesnakes (there are 7-8,000 venomous snakebites in the US/year, and 5-6 fatalities)
Black Bears (2-3 fatalities in the US/year)
Mountain Lions (2 attacks in the US/year and .8 fatalities)
Lynx (I could not find statistics, I assume that speaks to how common deaths are)
Grizzly Bears (are not believed to exist in Colorado, which means there have been no attacks or fatalities in a loooong time here)
Wolves (there’s proof this year that they’re back in CO, but no attacks or fatalities in years either)

So all of this means I’m 610,000 times more likely to die from Mozzarella sticks than a mountain lion, and 6,400 times more likely to die in the car on the way to the trailhead than from a rattlesnake bite. WHAT ARE WE SO AFRAID OF!?

This whole time I’ve been in Leadville, I haven’t run with a buddy one single time. Incidentally, I finally met another female mountain runner here and she asks me if I’d be interested in a night ascent. How serendipitous, since Nolan’s is coming up fast and that’s the one thing I haven’t been willing to face (the other night on the phone I said “No I’m sure not going to practice running at night, I’m only willing to take that risk ONCE and it’ll be during Nolan’s and never again”). The very next night, at 11pm after work I find myself driving Half Moon Rd to the TH.

And let me tell you, not only was I not scared at any moment during our run, but it was incredible and fun. Even living up here, at high altitude and in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I’ve never seen the stars glowing quite like they did above treeline. There was a lightning storm maybe 30 miles in the distance. We couldn’t figure out what was causing so much lightning but it was so incredibly beautiful-and just for us, because who else was up high enough to see it in the middle of a Sunday night? The felled trees reflected in our headlamps weren’t mountain lions at all, they were felled trees. And I only fell a couple times which isn’t really even above average for me…(and I expected closer to 50).

Now that I know how not-scary-at-all it is with a friend, I wonder if I’ll go right back to terrified next time I’m alone…or if I’ve faced the things that go bump in the night and overcome my fear of the dark.

Mt Lindsey (will I EVER finish the 28?)

Decisions made in the mountains are so different than in the real world. There’s also something to be said from beginning any endeavor with a “it’s in the bag” mentality.

from the meadow just after the TH

from the meadow just after the TH

After the Capitol attempt, I felt really good about the 28…basically like that chapter was almost closed, and it was just a matter of finalizing it. I knew I wouldn’t head back to the Elks again until I do Av training and buy an ice axe, so I estimated that the official 28th would be Mt. Lindsey. I put it off a couple weeks so that I could go with Mark, and celebrate proper. The day before, we were texting things like “finally finishing the 28th!” “28 is in the bag!” the weather was forecasted to be clear, sunny, high of 42, 10mph winds. Not bad, not bad at all. The round trip was 8.25, all class 2, and aside from some snow and ice it was in pretty good condition.

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We even didn’t plan to leave until 6:30a because we weren’t worried about getting an early start. And we went to Slohi, where the people are very sweet but it takes a very long time for them to make your drinks (do they realize how funny that is?) It was a four hour drive from Denver, there’s a long network of forest service access roads that will be totally impassible come winter. We started off at the TH at like 11am. The hike in was nice. We got mildly lost when the snow blocked a twist in the trail, but we found it again. Arriving at the saddle, the wind picked up. The route seemed obvious, we took a dip down from the ridge on the snowy side and it was a little tricky with the ice but definitely okay. When we got to the point where we could see the gully we’d be ascending, it was very icy and long. We chose to ascend early, climbing the rocks in a rockier, less snowy part and heading to the ridge. I knew there was a ridge route so I thought we’d be able to summit from the ridge. I was route finding.

from the saddle

from the saddle

On the ridge, things were definitely a little dicey. Lu was okay, but I was getting a little worried about her. The wind was picking up quickly, making the climbing feel unsteady. I saw what was ahead and stopped suddenly. Mark caught up and said “I don’t know about this” and I was strangely optimistic. I kicked my foot out on a ledge to the left to see better, and saw what was below me (nothing). It was like a mini version of the knife edge. And on the other side was the crux wall of the ridge route. I was enamored by it, but I couldn’t think of any safe way to get Lu to the other side. The wind was whipping at this point, throwing bits of ice into our eyes (10mph my ass). We decided to head back, and almost immediately regretted taking the ridge back, trying to down climb on the ice. Lu couldn’t find the way that we got down one part and she spent the better part of 5 minutes pacing back and forth and whining, freaking out. She could get down fine, but she just didn’t see the way down. It was terrible, poor girl.

Mark, descending the ridge.  Things were too gnarly to stop and take pictures before now!

Mark, descending the ridge. Things were too gnarly to stop and take pictures before now!

We found a way down from the ridge back to the trail, and headed back out towards the saddle. Arriving at the saddle, we estimated if we should go back and try the route the way we were supposed to, going up the gully. The wind I’d estimate was nearing 50mph, as I could lean into it 45 degrees and be held up. We agreed to call it and headed down the saddle as fast as possible (by that I mean we glissaded on the ice! Or rather, I did). It wouldn’t have been that hard or taken that long to finish it. I’m not actually sure why we gave up and headed back.

Mark and I, over the icy river

Mark and I, over the icy river

It was a nice trip back. I didn’t feel that bad about not summiting, it was a gorgeous day in the mountains. I would like to finish the 28. It’s been an epic journey and now that I’ve done 98% of TWO 28 attempts, it’s going to be nice to call it closed. I’ve talked a lot before about how good I feel in the mountains, how I want to be a better person. How just existing there is enough. Then we go back to the city…it’s enough to make me move out there…

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In other news, I’ve been training for the next adventure. I’m about ready to make it official.

Capitol Peak (and I discovered I will risk my life)

As you know, Capitol was planned to be the piece de la resistance, the 28th summit over 14,000ft of my 28th year, and we were to summit on the morning of my birthday. It is occasionally referred to as the most technically difficult 14er in Colorado, and it certainly makes the top 5 for most dangerous and most deadly due to its long ridge ascent that is sometimes class 4, very exposed, includes challenging route finding, and, of course, the crossing of the famous “knife edge” ridge.

Capitol Peak (14,130ft) 17miles, 5300ft gain

thar she is, so far in the distance, to the left

thar she is, so far in the distance, to the left

Dan and I at the TH

Dan and I at the TH

We had the game plan of hiking in to the lake (5.5miles from the TH) on Thursday so we could be ascending to the ridge early in the day on Friday, giving us the best possible chance to summit. We left later than we had planned, and then there was the snow. Oh, did I forget to mention? It’s been snowing ALL WEEK in the Elk Range and there is now FEET of snow. So in order to set up before nightfall, and because we assumed the temperatures would be even lower near the lake, we made camp a mile or so out from the lake in a relatively flat area beneath some trees.

This was taken not very far into the hike, as you can tell because we're not dragging ourselves through snow yet

This was taken not very far into the hike, as you can tell because we’re not dragging ourselves through snow yet

I crawled immediately into my sleeping bag, hoping to get warm, because as darkness fell shit was getting cold. To no avail. I did my best to eat my frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drink some water because I knew I needed to, but it’s hard when you’re cold. That might be the biggest struggle, is that you don’t want to eat or drink. Dan brought me a bottle of boiling hot water to put in my sleeping bag with me and that was a real game changer. Not to imply that I slept more than about 45min total over the course of that horrible night. This was my first experience in winter camping. Don’t let the horribleness of the situation fool you, now I’m hooked on winter camping. It was 15 degrees that night.

This was taken on my birthday morning.  It's what it looks like to camp in January.  But it was October.

This was taken on my birthday morning. It’s what it looks like to camp in January. But it was October.

Waking up in the morning, you have to surrender your sleeping bag and put your shoes back on, that have frozen completely solid. You know that when you get moving, there’s a better chance of being warm again, but that seems very far in the future. Dan said, “Happy Birthday, Sarah.” Yep.

During a river crossing, I slipped off the snow covered log I was on and ended up directly in the river. We also refilled water bottles here, and let me tell you that ice cold mountain river water is the freshest water I’ve ever tasted. Up until just before the lake we were fortunate enough to be following a trail that a man with two horses and a dog had made (I suppose he was an actual cowboy), but his trail disappeared and we were left to break trail through knee deep snow on our own. Breaking trail is so much work. At the lake, you turn and head up the ascent to the saddle that will bring you to the ridge.

Here's the ridge.  We'd be hiking up to the saddle on the left just out of the picture.  The right is Capitol Peak.

Here’s the ridge. We’d be hiking up to the saddle on the left just out of the picture. The right is Capitol Peak.

This part was arduous. I imagine when it’s not covered by feet of snow, the trail switchbacks because it’s so steep. You do a lot of sliding back down, and some parts I couldn’t even bring myself back up to standing and ended up crawling to a less slippery place. My feet were freezing but my torso was burning up and sweating. It’s that weird feeling like you’re warm again, but that’s a very tenuous moment. Dan and I sat on the saddle for a few minutes, eating frozen clif bars and speculating about the upcoming ridge.

Up until this moment, we had been thinking that the ridge looked rocky, like the snow had mostly blown off of it. We could see now that most of the ridge was covered in several feet of snow, including terrifying cornices that obscured the actual location of the ridge itself. Heading out, Dan tested traversing through a cornice and it was successful. Each success doesn’t really make you less afraid, I think. But it does make you more likely to go on to the next dangerous decision and choose to keep going. There was a bit of steep scree scrambling that was unsettling as it was mired with ice, then some technical climbing. Dan waiting for me at the top of this bit and once I stepped onto the rock above and he turned to take a step forward, the cornice beside us, one foot away, broke off suddenly and avalanched down the side of the mountain. I think that moment was the hardest my heart has ever beaten. [I’m unsure if it’s acceptable to use avalanche as a verb…I’ll look into that in the future]

We kept going.

This was the steep scree bit followed by the technical bit.

This was the steep scree bit followed by the technical bit.

Before each increasingly dangerous obstacle, Dan would turn around and say “you okay?” and I’d say “I’m okay if you’re okay” and we’d trudge on. There was another technical bit that made it apparently exactly what class 4 is-it’s complete vertical climbing with very obvious ledges and handholds, kind of like 5-.2. Another interesting section as most of the good foot ledges were covered in ice and snow. The best part of this bit was, directly underneath it is a slide into a gully that would likely result in 100’s of feet. Do you remember the first time I climbed, and I was fascinated that each time you make a move and take a risk, it feels very much like you’re risking your life, but you’re really not because someone at the other end of the rope will catch you. In this moment, the risk was very much your life, and you don’t think you’ll make a mistake but you don’t know. This was a pivotal moment, I realized I will without flinching risk my life to touch the sky. Before you judge me for that, is it so much better to waste it?

As we began the traverse around K2, the snow got increasingly deeper and it seemed we were not only casually walking into the complete unknown (wtf is under 3-4ft of snow? we don’t have any idea what we’re stepping on) but also putting ourselves right in the middle of what could later be a big old snow slide. After a decent amount of this waist deep trail breaking, we stopped and looked at each other. We agreed it was time to go back. The truth was, we had long since passed any idea of “safety” and although successfully crossing various obstacles made us believe it was okay to attempt increasingly harder ones, the second half of the ridge promised to be much more terrifying, much more technical, more exposed, etc and when we reached those obstacles it was going to become more and more likely that we really wouldn’t be able to cross them at all. The danger we could see, too, was that even if we kept going, made it past the knife edge and other terrifying ice and snow covered feats, by the time we got back we might not be able to cross snowy traverse we were standing in without a snow slide that would certainly be fatal, due to the perfect sunshine that would’ve beaten on it for hours.

It just gets deeper from here.

It just gets deeper from here.

I knew when I chose the most epic of peaks that there was a risk of not making the summit on my birthday. Even before the early-season snow. I knew I would be bummed if we didn’t make it. But, attempting that ridge in January conditions was the most epic thing I’ve tried. At the point where we decided to turn around, I was not upset at all. I knew I’d get my 28th summit. Last year on my birthday, I went shopping at the second hand store, got ice cream for Lu and I, and had dinner with my girlfriend at the time (and she was late). This could not have been a more perfect way to cap off a year of doing epic shit, of blazing, of adventuring.

28 fourteeners did not actually seem possible when I considered the idea. But, I’m not the type to let such little things stop me. I didn’t finish today, but I will. And it will be epic.

Side note: coming back across the ridge and downclimbing the technical sections might have been even more terrifying. We drank my summit beer on the hike out.

Collegiates pt ? (progress is progress)

The morning after where we left off, I had just summited Shavano and Tabegauche, and attempted (but failed at) Antero. On the docket today is Yale and Princeton, but I woke up feeling a little beat.

Planned: Mt. Yale (14,196) 9.5mi, 4300ft gain and Mt. Princeton (14,197) 13.25mi and 5400ft gain
Total planned: 22.75mi and 9700ft gain
Actual: Mt Yale 9.5mi and 4300ft gain

I started out actually pretty damn early, so I felt great about that. I wasn’t feeling great in general, however, and the first couple miles were a bit tainted by the idea of rushing this ascent in order to make it to Mt Princeton, ascend, descend, and make it all the way back to Denver in time to teach an 8:30p class. The rushing was much more strenuous than the elevation gain.

Then I had a brilliant epiphany. What if I didn’t do Princeton today? I struggled pretty hard with this decision. I’m already behind on mountains and at this point I had everything scheduled. I considered all of my options in terms of rescheduling. I did my best to justify skipping Princeton. But, ultimately I didn’t want to do it and once I made the decision to summit Yale then go home I felt a big burden being lifted. Part of this process is surpassing what I thought to be my limits, but part of it is understanding why and if I really want to do things.

The rest of Yale went smoothly, I passed several groups and was the first on the summit, then even had it to myself for a while. It was an absolutely gorgeous summit. I made a fast but not rushed descent, stopping to chat with a bunch of people on the way down. There was a girl that asked to take a picture with Lu as if she was her and her boyfriend’s dog…that was weird.

me and my Luna bug, feeling the bigness of summiting Yale.

me and my Luna bug, feeling the bigness of summiting Yale.

On my way home from Buena Vista I spent a long time thinking about my schedule between now and my birthday, to see how I could adjust to add Princeton and Antero. Tomorrow was supposed to be an all day training ride for the planned 82mi ride to Long’s, Long’s ascent, and ride back to Denver that was schedule for next Monday Tuesday. What I realized is, if I wanted to get all the peaks in before my birthday without subbing any classes I’d have to do Long’s tomorrow so there’s time to go back to BV for Antero and Princeton next week.

Wednesday morning I did not want to set an alarm, so I woke up around 8:30 and hung out making breakfast and drinking coffee. I got lost on the way to Long’s after mixing up some highway numbers and ended up starting out from the TH a bit after 11:30. And yeah, there were storms forecasted.

I did not take this.  But I accidentally deleted my picture from this viewpoint of Long's, on the long way in.  I'll go to the right, around the back, and pop up through that notch you can see about 1/3 from the left to climb to the summit.

I did not take this. But I accidentally deleted my picture from this viewpoint of Long’s, on the long way in. I’ll go to the right, around the back, and pop up through that notch you can see about 1/3 from the left to climb to the summit.

I burned in pretty hard and fast, but stopped to talk to a nice old man right before the trail splits toward the lake and the boulderfield. He was headed in to fish until the weather turned, and was highly disturbed that I was starting a summit ascent so late in the day. I tried to explain to him that I know what I’m doing, but he was unconvinced, and asked me if I’ve been on a fourteener before. 🙂

It’s a good long ways to get to the technical part. Even crossing the boulderfield takes ages, winding about then up a talus field to the keyhole that looks much shorter than it actually is. Once you cross through the keyhole to the other side of the mountain, you’re rewarded with epic views and it’s all class 3 from here. The route’s well marked so it moves pretty fast. Long’s Peak is technically a part of Rocky Mountain National Park, and dogs aren’t allowed so I left Lu home for this one so it was nice to enjoy the scrambling without having to keep track of her. I met some clearly very high gentlemen headed down the very steep and technical gully, and I was amazed that Colorado stoners are so motivated as to climb such long and technically difficult routes (14 miles with a good amount of class 3 technical that is mildly dangerous but also takes a pretty long time). The last two guys I saw claimed to be the last heading down from the summit, which would make me alone on the route for quite a while. They estimated 30 minutes to get through “the narrows” then another 40-60 on the final ascent. I was thinking that when I got to the top of the gully I wouldn’t be too far off from the summit, so the rational part of my brain worried slightly about the impending storms…the rest of my brain felt a little too excited.

from the keyhole

from the keyhole

Turns out, the two guys that gave me the time estimates (who appeared to be competent climbers themselves) were either very slow themselves or had highly underestimated me and given me an inflated time to the summit, because 30 minutes later I was standing on it, confused as all get out, trying to figure out how I ended up there so quickly, and if it was possible that I was not, in fact, on the summit. But I found the metal seal and the capsule containing the register so I knew I was there. I took some pictures then headed down, hoping to make it through the technical before getting rained on.

coloradical

coloradical

I made it to the top of the gully where I’d be downclimbing before traversing that class 3 west ridge again when it started hailing. And I wasn’t scared. Maybe I should’ve been. I moved as quickly as possible coming down the now hail-covered slippery rock, feeling like a kid out playing in the rain.

I didn't take this either, and I don't know these people.  But I stupidly deleted almost all of my pictures of the sweet route I was on to clear up memory for a later trip, you'll hear about soon

I didn’t take this either, and I don’t know these people. But I stupidly deleted almost all of my pictures of the sweet route I was on to clear up memory for a later trip, you’ll hear about soon

After getting back to the keyhole and crossing over to the east side again the storm was gone and I ran the whole way back fast and dirty, hoping to have time to catch some dinner in Boulder before I had to be at the search and rescue meeting. (victory). 14.5mi, 5100ft gain