Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Bugaboos With Tom


While in the Bugaboos this past week one of the most common questions I was asked was: “Is this your first time here.” A simple question, sure, but somehow for me it wasn’t.

I had been to the Bugs before, twenty years ago with the venerable, redoubtable Loobster. We’d climbed the “Fifty Classic” Northeast Ridge on Bugaboo Spire. So, what’s the problem with answering a simple “No”? Well, we did the route two days after ten inches of snow fell. We were the only party out climbing that day. We managed the climb up to the base of the ridge okay and then the first few pitches, the really classic ones, were relatively snow-free, as they face east into the morning sun. But the upper, chimney pitches were a different story.

When the snow depth was above my knee, we switched back to mountain boots. A low-angle ramp high on the ridge was a sheet of ice and I was forced to aid the corner. I wanted to turn around, but the Loobster was convinced we couldn’t descend, as we had only one rope and the route had no fixed rappel anchors. He took over the lead for one pitch and we continued on to the end of the route, which I know now was not the summit of Bugaboo Spire. There we saw a horrific site. The entire complicated traverse was buried in snow. We didn’t think it was feasible to even find places for gear under so much snow. Despair set upon us, resting most heavily on the Loobster:

Loobster: Oh, we’ve really done it this time, Bill.
me: Yup, it’s a tough spot.
Loobster: It’s more than that.
me: We’ll be okay. We just have to rap the route.
Loobster: We can’t. There aren’t any anchors.
me: We have an entire rack of gear. We might not have much left when we get down, but it’s just money.
Loobster: I just bought all these Technical Friends. (long pause). I won’t replace them. (long pause). I’ll never climb again.

Now it was clearly a very tense, very stressful situation, but when he said, “I’ll never climb again,” I burst out laughing. That was ridiculous. Then I said, “Loobster, we only brought three of your Technical Friends. The rest of the rack is all mine.” When I finally convinced him of the only possible plan, he reverted to his usual, unflappable self. Secure in the knowledge that at least he would have a climbing rack when we got down, he went last on each rappel and always off a single piece of gear (after I tested it with back-up pieces). In the end, we didn’t leave a single cam behind. We left slings, biners, and stoppers and found fixed pitons and bail slings on our 24-rappel descent to the glacier. Yes, that’s a lot but we took advantage of every fixed piece we could along the way. We touched down just as it got dark.
Protecting our rental car from porcupines
So, I felt like a first-timer down there. I’d never been up the Snowpatch-Bugaboo col that is used to access many of the classic routes. I’d rappelled a route that is never rappelled, at least in its entirety. Plus it was so long ago that I don’t remember many details. Except, of course: “I’ll never climb again.” I’ve got a lot of mileage out of that line over the last twenty years. The Loobster is still climbing, with no end in sight. And I think he still has most of those precious Technical Friends.

Bucket List

The older I get the more focused I’ve become about getting things either check-off my bucket list or removing them altogether. There is no point in keeping items on the bucket list if you aren’t going to work towards them. So, one of my annual goals now is to do a “50 Classic Climb”. Last year I did Mount Sir Donald, with the Loobster, who was 75 years old at the time. I used to say that Loobster was such an inspiration for me in that my climbing career could also extend that long, but now his achievements have become almost terrifying. I don’t see myself doing that stuff for twenty more years. I don’t think I’ll have the energy. But, I digress.

When it came to selecting a 50CC for this year, I had two routes in mind, with the Becky-Chouinard route on South Howser Tower in the Bugaboos at they very top of the list. The reason for this was another item on my bucket list: Fitz Roy. Both the Bugaboos and the Fitz Roy area are characterized by granite spires rising above glaciers. I likened the Bugaboos to the Minor Leagues to Fitz Roy’s Major Leagues. If we could do well in the Minors, we might be invited to The Show.

Derek was supposed to be my partner, but he had used up his time off work with a 10-day trip to Europe and a week-long trip to San Diego for a Robotic Submarine Competition (his team got 7th out of 54 international teams!) I turned to Tom “Hardly Manson” Karpeichik. I’ve done a big majority of my longest, toughest climbs with him including the Moonlight Buttress, Prodigal Sun, Levitation 29, Steck-Salathé, Half Dome, and the Nose — all one day each. And a 5-day ascent of the Salathé Wall and a 10-day ascent of Denali. Suffice to say, he’s solid. Also, he’s a much stronger climber than me.

When I asked Tom if he was interested in a trip to the Bugs, the response came back so fast that I wondered if he had had time to read the text. After a short discussion on the timing, he booked tickets for us. Well, that was easy. Now I just needed to pack my gear. I got us three nights in the Conrad Kain Hut, but couldn’t get any others, so we were forced to carry in a tent, pad, stove, and heavier sleeping bag. We ended up staying the hut the entire time (slots opened up, apparently because the perfect weather scared people off), so the extra weight was just good training. In solidarity to my extra load, Tom carried in an extra 70-meter line that we wouldn’t use either. Teamwork!

Getting There

Travel to Calgary wasn’t smooth. Our flight was delayed multiple times and we had to walk about a half-mile through the Calgary airport to the rental car desk. My arms were pumped from dragging my 50-pound duffel. Once in the car I came to grips with how bad my night vision is and how dependent I am on Google maps. My failure to set up my phone to get data in Canada would be ratified the next day, but I’d have never found the hotel on my own. Thankfully Tom was an able navigator. Tom then got to stand in line to checkin to the hotel for 45 minutes. It was a rough start. We didn’t get into our room until 1 a.m.
The awesome Conrad Kain hut
The next morning, Friday, after a lame hotel breakfast, we headed west. Listening to the radio we found out it was the start of a 3-day


In order to get the lay of the land, we decided our first day would be spent reconnoitering the descent from Bugaboo Spire (which is the Kain Route - 5.7) and climbing the West Ridge (5.4) of Pigeon Spire so that we could check out part of the approach to South Howser Tower.

We were hiking at 5:45, which was first light up there. We were the only ones up at the hut, which I thought was strange. We hiked alone up to the glacier below the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col (SBC), which is a key passage up here. It seems most of the climbs require either going up or down from this col and frequently both. It’s condition is crucial to the climbing access. While we were there it significantly deteriorated. Actually, it seemed just the current route deteriorated, as there seemed to be other mini-couloirs to ascend to this col, like the one with rappel anchors at the top. Those only get you down the steepest part of the couloir and then you’d have to downclimb the rest. There is a complete rappel route on the climber’s far left, and we talked to a couple of women who came down it, but never used it ourselves. The snow in the morning was pretty firm, but great steps are in situ and going was easy, though a fall would be very serious. In the afternoon it was softer and it seemed that a self-arrest would be possible, in case of a fall. The issue was that the top of the couloir had melted out and existed of just rock, dirt, and ice. This was a short section, but we took extra care here.
Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires
At the top of the couloir it was windy and cold, with lots of clouds. We stopped to pull off our crampons and stash our axes, so that we could head up the Kain Route. We met a couple here. They were headed to climb All Along The Watchtower (12a, 20+ pitches) on the west face of North Howser Tower. They were hesitant, though. Clouds engulfed the Howsers. Their plan was to do the entire approach (very long, very complicated and involved)  and climb up six pitches or so to a bivy ledge. As we scrambled up the lower portion of the Kain Route we watched hike halfway across the Upper Vowell Glacier and then turn around. Later, they would turn around again and hike clear over to Pigeon Spire, solo the West Ridge, and cache their gear for tomorrow.

Tom and I continued in our mountain boots for hundreds of vertical feet. Clear until we ran across the first bolt anchor. We were both wearing La Sportiva Trango Tech GTX boots. I bought them on the spur of the moment when I was at the Sportiva store buying some new TC Pros for the trip. They seemed just the ticket: light, comfortable, waterproof, and took a pneumatic or strap-on crampon. The boots climbed rock surprisingly well and were the absolute bomb for talus hopping. I sent Tom and photo of them and when we got to the airport, I saw that he had the same boots (he had to carry them on the plane because his bag was overweight - only because he carried all the heavy stuff). We used Kahtoola K-10 steel crampons on these and the setup worked great. Tom carried an ultralight CAMP ice axe and I carried a heavier, more technical tool. I now own one of the CAMP axes.
Heading for the Snowpatch-Bugaboo Col.
We switched into rock shoes, but carried all our gear with us, not sure we come by this spot on the way down. Tom led upwards for a pitch and I followed and led and easy ridge traverse, pausing only long enough to get a #0.4 Camalot stuck. Embarrassed, I struggled to remove it before Tom could see and only made it worse. Without a nut tool, I moved on, leaving the problem to Tom. I ran out the rope, belayed, and then watched Tom struggle with the mess I left behind. He got it, though.

Tom then led the steep, crux pitch, which looks much harder than it is (5.7). That pitch ended just below the South Summit. We scrambled over to the summit, found the metal tube that contained a wad of water-damaged paper. We looked at the tricky traverse over to the North Summit, where the Northeast Ridge would end and wondered how that would go. It looked complicated and far from trivial.

We didn’t linger, though. We had another summit to nab and the cold winds made it uncomfortable on top. Despite just ascending the route, we still found the descent complicated. It was mostly reversing the route, but rapping past the Big Gendarme put us skier’s left of the route. We missed a key anchor behind a flake and had to do an exposed, but easy, scramble and downclimb back to the next anchor. Once off the rappels, we had to negotiate the myriad cairns on the lower slopes. A guide would later tell us that the beta for the descent is to ignore all cairns and stay skier’s right, on the ridge, until the last final section.
Tom leading the crux headwall of the Kain Route
Back at the col, I talked about leaving some of the weight there. Tom wouldn’t have it. We put the crampons back on, though we didn’t really need them - the well worn track across the glacier was soft enough for bare boots.

We trudged over to Pigeon, taking maybe 45 minutes. There we found a few parties. Some just getting back down and some gearing to go up. I talked Tom into soloing the route, which was the right choice. It was only rated 5.4 and mostly much easier than that. We changed into our climbing shoes, donned our shells due to the wind. We pass a couple of parties and in less than 30 minutes (maybe 15?) we are on the summit. We meet a couple of guys on the summit. They have soloed up as well. One says, “What a great day.”

I respond, “Yes, but a little windy and cold for me.”

“Welcome to the Bugs,” he says.

This grates on me. It harkens back to when I was nearly killed by rockfall below the North Chimney on Longs and a climber above just yells down, “Welcome to the alpine.” While this wasn’t nearly as egregious, it still bothered me. Like he was implying I’d never been alpine climbing before. Or that the Bugs were unique where a windy and cold day is as nice as it gets in the Bugs. Neither was true, of course, as the rest of our trip would prove.
On the South Summit of Bugaboo Spire with the Howsers in the background
This guy and his partner followed us down to the base of the route where another party was gearing up for the glacier travel. They asked our plans and when we said the Becky-Chouinard (BC) the next day, they both replied that they had the same plan. “It’s going to be crowded up there,” one of the climbers says.

Tom quiet and I wonder what he’s thinking. We both want the route, but who wants to climb in a conga line? I suspected he dislikes it even more than I do. I offer up caching our gear at the Pigeon-Howser Col, but we don’t. At least that gives us options. If we had cached the gear, we’d have to do the BC the next day. We reverse our path across the glacier and carefully climb down the SBC, facing in for the first few hundred feet.

We got back to the hut after an 11-hour day. Worried that the expected crowds was putting Tom off, I offered up Bugaboo Spire for the next day instead. Truth be told, I was nervous about the BC. It is so long and so committing. The descent is down the other side and it an 11-rappel descent down a huge wall. Most everything in the Bugs seems to be a “carry over”, where you don’t descend the route you climb, despite the fact that our two routes on this first day, did descend the same way. Tom just acknowledges the statement and mulls on it.
En route to the summit on the West Ridge of Pigeon Spire
Later Tom says, “Let’s do it”. “BC?” I ask. Yup. I offered up 3 a.m. as a start time and he countered with 5 a.m., worried that it would be too cold to rock climb if we got there too early. It was a valid point and getting up at 2:30 a.m. hurts, so I relented. We packed our one 70-meter rope and a generous rack and tried to get some sleep.

Beckey-Chouinard South Howser Tower

Unfortunately, we were in for a terrible night with non-stop snoring from super loud couple. Three times I got up and walked over to him and shook his leg to get him to stop snoring. On one occasion he woke up and asked me what I was doing. I said they were snoring and he shook his partner awake to stop her. Each time it would start up again. Tom finally had enough. He got up at 3:45 and told me he was getting. I should have popped up, but I didn’t. I was fearful of the big day on little rest, but 30 minutes more of not sleeping wasn’t going to help. I got up at 4 a.m.

Sunrise behind us as we head towards South Howser Tower
We brewed up coffee, ate, some last-minute packing, a bathroom visit, and we were moving at 4:50. Gearing up below the SBC, two parties caught us. One was the couple headed for the All Along the Watchtower. They moved past us, carrying little weight because of their gear stash. The other two looked young and strong and also passed us. I was sure they were headed towards BC. Why else would they be up so early and headed this direction. Alas, I was wrong. Above the col, they broke hard left to climb something on the West Face of Snowpatch Spire. This spire is very impressive. Steep on all sides, it looks like a giant dorsal fin. But the West Face routes would be in shade for a long time and probably quite cold. Maybe they were going for a big linkup…

The couple paused to use the facilities. There in-house here. I don’t call it an outhouse because there are no walls around it. This is common in alpine climbing environments. The Grand Teton has an awesome one at the Lower Saddle. Even Longs Peak has one below Chasm Lake. So, just like that, we were alone, walking across the Vowell Glacier. At the Pigeon-Howser col, we descended steep talus to steep snow to steeper, looser talus, and then back to snow and the glacier on the other side.
Weather  is looking good...
We descended down into the East Creek area and found four or five tents. I feared they were all up on the BC. We could see the profile of the route now and indeed saw a party high on the skyline.

We stripped off crampons at one point and then put them back on. We ascended a tongue of snow up to the ridge below our route. Here we put the crampons away for the day. We scrambled up tricky boulders and slabs for a thousand feet, all in our mountain boots. Finally we got to the base of the route. We could see multiple parties above us on the route, but no one was directly in front of us. I hoped everyone would move well and we wouldn’t catch them. I was wrong about this.

I led a long, 70+ meter pitch around to the right, into the sun, and then back up to the ridge proper. There was a short 5.8 section here with some committing moves well above gear, but it went fine and soon I was on a big ledge with bolted rappel anchor. This gave me a false sense of the coming belays, for this was the only fixed belay.

Looking up at the Becky-Chouinard route from atop the first pitch

Tom followed and climbed a low-angle, but awkward and physical wide crack, which pinched down deeper into the crack. He caught the party in front of at the next belay (we’d combined the first three pitches into two pitches somehow). We’d get to know this party very well and they were super nice. They were newlyweds on their honeymoon, which was poignant for me, as Sheri and I had honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies as well and even went back for our 10th anniversary. Katie was a pretty, petite woman and a solid climber, who would take some of the easier leads on the route. She was just about to enter medical school. Ben was physics major doing post-doc work on quantum computing at Yale. They lived back east, though in different states currently.

The fourth pitch was our first 5.10 pitch and it was really just one short section. We watched Katie follow it and she loved it. I followed a respectful distance well below her. We were right on the ridge for this pitch. I jammed up 5.9 cracks to the crux bulge and placed some good gear. Reaching high above me, I grabbed a flake and liebacked upwards. The crack directly above wasn’t that good and I balked. I then readjusted my grip on the flake to an undercling and was able to reach entirely past the difficult crack to a jug. I then hauled myself up and stood on it. The rest of the pitch was solid and fun and easier. I was soon at the belay with Katie, as I’d so often be. This is how it would be for most of the climb.

Tom followed and then led a long, moderate pitch up to a belay ledge in the sun. When I arrived, it was clear why Tom stopped here. Katie and Ben were out of sight, around on the right side of the ridge and we were all waiting on the party above. Actually, parties. Right above them was a group of five Slovenians, climbing as a party of three and a party of two. They were on a 4-week trip to North America and this was their goal climb and they really wanted to do it together. That’s cool. We’d get to know them too, much later, and they were all super friendly. But they weren’t very fast climbers. They weren’t too slow, though. The party of three had the seconds simul-seconding and the seconds moved reasonable fast. It was the leaders that were a bit slow. But above us lurked an even slower party.
Tom leading the second of the long, burly 5.8 pitches in the middle of the route.
We lounged at out belay for awhile, watching the progress above. When I could saw Ben get to the top of the next pitch, I got moving. At first, we just moved our belay around the ridge to where Katie was. Then, after an appropriate gap, I started leading the first of two, burly 5.8 pitches up a big, long, left-facing dihedral. The climbing here was mostly nice crack climbing, but a 20-foot offwidth section proved quite the sting-in-the-tail near the top of the pitch. We carried one #4 Camalot with us and it came in handy on this pitch and would be used many times before the route was completed.

The next pitch was also pretty challenging. These were full-on pitches, despite the 5.8 rating. A tricky steep section gave Tom pause near the top and me as well. It was also a long pitch. I followed and then led up a 3rd class pitch to join Ben. Katie was leading her first pitch - a steep 5.8. Since 3rd class wasn’t much of a pitch, I led the next pitch as well, following well below Ben. It went smoothly, but the crack at the end of the pitch was quite steep.

At the next belay, I found Ben again and watched Katie wrestle with the difficult 5.9 pitch above. I remember being pretty desperate at one point following this pitch, but Tom made it look easy. This pitch put us at the base of the Great White Headwall and things got a lot steeper. There is also a great bivy spot here and I took advantage of it for the next two hours. Yes, two hours.

Katie and Ben were here as well and so was one of the Slovenians. I watched his partner slowly lead the next pitch. The big problem was that the Slovenians had caught up to a party that had ivied on the route. Tom found out later (not sure how) that his party had started up this route two days ago, hit bad weather, and bailed back to the base. They then started back up the route the next day, when we were doing our recon routes. They either slept at the base of the headwall, where I was now, or three moderate pitches lower. They also must have slept in until past noon. This sucked. Why they took so long to start moving, I don’t know, but they had to know that the masses were on the way. They caused every party behind them, which was five, since we now had a party behind us, to rappel in the dark.

This brings up the biggest drawback to this route: crowds. I expect that, somewhat, because of its inclusion in “Fifty Classic Climbs”, but this route is much more of an issue than the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire because it is much harder to pass and much longer. Because of the length, there is frequently a party doing this with a bivy. This means that no matter how early you start, you will not be the first on the route. Ideally, of course, they were be so far up the route that you couldn’t possibly catch them. That wasn’t the case of us. Secondly, even if you catch a party, it is quite difficult to pass. There are really no alternatives (except for the second headwall pitch). So, the leading party needs to let the trailing party pass. This is tough because everyone is racing the light and don’t want to waste any time. Usually in this case, the best thing to do is to simul-climb by on a short (30-meter rope). It would be quite difficult for me to simul-climb much of this route because nearly all the pitches involve real climbing that is challenging and needs to be protected. Hence, to simul-climb multiple pitches, I’d need a very large rack, which is heavy to carry and you might not need it. Some of the belays are cramped, too, and this was the issue I was watching above.

The bivy party was on the second headwall pitch — a recommended variation up finger cracks left of the corner, which we had heard had ice in it (and housed a 5.9 squeeze). Slovenian 3 were all queued at the tiny belay stance. Eventually the bivy party’s second started climbing and a bit after that Slovenian 3’s leader started up. A little bit after the leader of Slovenian 2 arrived at the belay. I was lounging down at the super comfy bivy spot, eating lunch, and trying to rest. I’d have taken a nap if I was more relaxed, but I was a bit stressed at how slow things were going. Fortunately, the weather was absolutely perfect.
The summit of South Howser Tower, just before sunset.
Once the second of Slovenian 2 was halfway up the pitch, Ben started up. He’s a strong climber and cruised up to the belay, only to hang out for at least twenty minutes just below the belay, waiting for some space. That sucked, but Ben is so friendly and nice, he just chilled. There was nothing anyone could do about it unless the Slovenians let them pass. They weren’t inclined to do that at this point because they were being held us as well. The bivy party wouldn’t be seen again, though, and the Slovenians were again the roadblock.

I got a little frustrated watching Slovenian 2’s leader on the finger crack pitch. He took forever to lead this pitch. Granted it is a long one, but at one point, high on the pitch, I watched him dip into his chalk bag 14 times (I counted) before moving an inch. He chalked each hand seven times. I don’t climb with chalk and I never make an issue of it, but here I lamented how much time is wasted chalking. This alpine climber could be twice as fast if he’s stop chalking his hands. Twice as fast! You’re an alpinist for gosh sakes, not a sport climber.

Eventually, I could start up. Twenty feet of easy climbing led to a ledge below a wide crack in a right-facing corner. It was fist width into a wide pod, which then leads to a physical flare. Before leaving the ledge, I stretched high and clipped a fixed sling around a chockstone. Then, committed to liebacking the start before fully thinking it through. I climbed up until my feet were even with the chockstone and nearly fell off when I transitioned back into the crack to stand on the chockstone. Once here, chicken wings inched me higher until I could get my feet into the pod. The flare, made more difficult by my pack and ice axe, had me quite winded by the time I topped the pillar. The remaining climbing was easier, 5.9 at most, and I zigzagged up behind Katie and was able to climb above their belay and set up my own belay.

Tom followed but had a devil of a time retrieving the 0.4 Camalot I placed. In fact, after much effort, he couldn’t get it out. He didn’t have the nut tool with him. I mistakenly had it on my harness. This was the second time on the trip that I had got that piece stuck. For the rest of the trip I was reluctant to even place for fear that I’d screw up again. Tom left it and continued up to the belay. I promised to replace it (we climbed with Tom’s rack), but he wasn’t concerned about that, only if we needed it for the rest of our climbs.
One of our Slovenian friends, happy to be back on the glacier.
We waited at the belay for Ben to finish the next lead and then waited to give Katie some space. Then Tom started up and the party that was behind us, finally caught up to us. They were two super friendly guys and their second got our 0.4 cam out and returned it to me at this belay. Sweet! He got it out by removing a small chockstone that was preventing extraction. Slick.

Tom methodically climbed the pitch above and he also paused up high where the Slovenian had, though not nearly as long. I figured that was the crux, but following I didn’t think so. I thought the initial thirty feet of off-fingers with marginal feet was the toughest section of the pitch. Above, I didn’t have any trouble by reaching to the right whenever direct upwards progress was difficult. There was another crack over there that provided a nice side pull whenever I seem to need it.

When I got to the belay, Ben and Katie were long gone. I quickly transitioned into leading and blasted off. I wanted to remain in contact, but I really wanted to get to the top before darkness. I probably still harbored hope of doing the rappels in the light, but that chance was already gone. I turned a tricky roof and ran up easy ground, climbing up a wide, low-angle V-corner. I found Ben at a stance up on the left wall and started up a hand crack that led to an offwidth below the belay. I didn’t see another alternative, but halfway up it Ben mentioned that Katie had climbed a hidden crack to my right. Oh well. I grunted up the offwidth, placed my #4 Camalot and got to the belay stance, just after Ben left it. Tom followed and was none too pleased about the offwidth. I think he had more trouble with five feet of this crack than he did anywhere else on the route.

He then led a long 5.8 pitch up the V-corner to a belay at a notch. The next pitch was the technical crux of the route — a delicate traverse rated 10+. This section can also be solved with a tension traverse. While belaying Tom a pitch below, I heard Katie’s victory yell, as she climbed it free. Once again, there was no sign of Ben and Katie, so I blasted off with speed my main concern and free climbing a distant second. I figured to give it a quick go and if I came off, would revert to the tension traverse. I was a little concerned about the pendulum fall back into the wall, but I had to move, so assumed it wouldn’t be that bad. At first I started to high, but quickly reset four feet lower and crimped and smeared my way leftwards. At the rounded edge I was able to reach around the corner and stretch all the way to a crack, where I got a hand jam and then pulled myself over. It went so quickly and so easily that I thought it more like 5.8 than 10+. As it turned out, it seems I just got extremely lucky.

I raced up the long 5.6 corner to a notch, where there was a rappel anchor. Below me I could see the Slovenians and Katie and Ben going by them. Lucky two. Below Tom was a bit flummoxed on what to do. He had trouble finding the sequence that I had used. I impatiently waited for Tom to arrive, all the while watching the Slovenians, one by one, disappear up the final few pitches to the summit.
Tom coiling our rope at 1 a.m.
When Tom arrived I belayed him down to the rappel anchors and then followed suit. We rapped down to the easier ground and pulled the rope. Tom led a pitch and then I took over and caught the Slovenians and followed them to a notch just below the top. Tom followed and led the last fifty feet to the summit. We hastily snapped a summit photo and immediately switched out of our climbing shoes and into our boots, mainly for warmth. Darkness followed soon after. I pulled on my down jacket, over the shell I already wore.

The Slovenians had already started down, after the last two left, Tom and I did the first two, very short rappels and caught them at the first lengthy rappel. It was completely dark now and we all had our headlamps on. The first guy down couldn’t find the next anchors and had to climb all the way back up, belaying himself with his rappel line. Frustrated with the lack of movement, we offered to go down and find the anchors. Tom went, since my night vision sucks. He also struck out and couldn’t find it. He was down there, climbing up a bit, swinging around, searching in vain. Finally another Slovenian went down on double ropes, so that he’d have lots of rope safety to find the anchor. We had been rappelling on a single line because we knew the descent could be done with a single 70-meter rope, or even a 60-meter rope, which is what the Slovenians had. This third guy found the anchors and we continued the descent.

We ended up teaming up with these five, since we were already intertwined and had another rope, four amongst the seven of us. In retrospect, this was a mistake. It was a complete cluster with, at times, four of us at a hanging belay in the darkness with another climber hanging on rappel above us. We leapfrogged ropes down the route. At one point a rope wouldn’t pull. Our stress wasn’t super high because there were those two guys behind us, but the rope came down. I was out of my comfort range, rappelling with a rope draped over my neck and falling off. On one rappel, the ropes made it by a single foot. Thankfully the ropes were knotted, but it was still pretty terrifying.

On the last rappel, the first guy down, on a single rope, didn’t have enough rope to get over the bergshrund. We set up a double rope rappel for him and he got back on and finished it. He called up the need to get out ice axes out and at the ready before heading down, as the icy slope was steep and quite hard.

I was very thankful to touch down on the glacier. We high-fives with all the Slovenians. While they weren’t very fast climbers, they were very solid climbers and handled the tricky descent with aplomb. They were always super friendly. They were extremely excited to complete the biggest goal of their trip. It was our biggest goal as well and I was so pleased. After our celebration, Tom and I strapped on our crampons, coiled our rope and headed down the glacier. We followed steps in the snow to weave around crevasses, first back to the Pigeon-Howser col and then across the upper Vowell Glacier to the dreaded Snowpatch-Bugaboo col. This went reasonably well and we were happy to finally pull off our crampons.

We got a bit lost, losing the trail for a bit, but we re-found it. We didn’t get back to the hut until 3 a.m. for a 22-hour day. It was a lot longer than we had hoped, but there was nothing we could do about the crowds and then everything is slower in the darkness. I didn’t bother unpacking anything. Five minutes after I arrived, I was horizontal on my pad.

Eastpost Spire Scramble

More horrible snoring turned what should have been deep sleep into intermittent bursts. After four hours, the sunlight streaming through the window and general activity drove me from my sleeping bag. We moved slow that morning and lingered in the hut until noon. The glow of our successful ascent was still bright. I searched the guidebook for something we could do with little effort. I still wanted a summit and I found the perfect objective: Eastpost Spire.
What a rest day looks like at the Kain hut. We needed it, but what a shame to waste this weather.
Eastpost Spire looks very impressive from the hut. Before heading off, I’d guessed it was a 3000-foot climb to the summit. It turned out to around 1500 feet. I was amazed. In Alaska they say that everything is way bigger than it seems (and I found that to be true). Apparently, in the Bugs, things are way smaller than they appear.

It was another perfect day. I didn’t feel bad “wasting” it on Eastpost. After our 22 hours the day before, there wasn’t really anything larger that I wanted to tackle. We did the familiar hike up from the hut, but for the first time hiked all the way to Applebees campsite. Every time I hear that name, I can’t help of think of the restaurant chain. I’d start salivating just thinking about that campsite.
Walking into Applebees
Applebees was really a sight to see. There are so many tents up here. The density seems almost like in the hut. I wondered if snoring was an issue here as well. All the tents are erected on rocks and there are many different levels. Two big metal structures were covered with hanging packs such that it looked like a tree of packs. At this camp there is even a bathroom and spigots for water. It’s quite nice, if you can handle the crowds. Probably a great place to meet other climbers. In fact, we ran into Ben and Katie here and chatted with them for a bit. We heard about their descent, which was half in the dark. They were taking a rest day as well and hadn’t left Applebees.

Above camp we followed a trail up to the saddle between Eastpost Spire and the Crescent Towers. From here a well cairned and very neat trail leads up to the airy 4th class finishing pitch. This summit is guided and there is a nice rappel anchor on the summit. Here we met a 19-year-old from German who is traveling through North America for five months, by himself. I noticed him when he got to the hut earlier that day because he carried snowshoes with him. When I mentioned that to him he immediately responded with, “Yeah, that was dumb.”
The summit of Eastpost Spire
We snapped some photos and descended back to hut. The guides were planning on the Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire the next day. All five of them, I thought. Then another team, Mitch and Dave, were also going for it. As were we. We told the guides about our plan and that we hoped to be ahead of them. The main guide, Patrick, was fine with that. We had some bona fides after our BC ascent. We packed our sacks and set our alarms for 3 a.m., determined not to be fifth in line for this route.

Northeast Ridge of Bugaboo Spire

The next morning, after coffee and breakfast, and a bathroom stop, we were the first team headed up the trail. We wondered how many parties were coming from Applebees. Mitch and Dave were right behind us and was already telling myself that I’d be okay with them passing us. Though I had climbed the route before, it was so long ago that I couldn’t be sure of finding the right passage up the lower wall. Mitch had done the route before as well, so I figured it might even be best to follow them.

I had scoped out the approach from the SBC and thought we could head for the col and then curve around, staying on relatively easy and smooth glacier terrain instead of boulder hopping up the moraine. This was the right strategy, as the guides would follow a similar path, but in the darkness, I didn’t take the most direct or best path. In fact, we wandered a bit high and later in the day a huge rockfall would come down nearly to our tracks. Mitch and Dave continued up towards Applebees before ascending the moraine and hence we were alone for this bit.

Once at the wall, I was surprised that we couldn’t find a well-defined track of kicked steps up to the start. We searched along the wall a bit and then Tom decided to just sit and wait for the other teams. I kept looking though. I headed up the glacier towards where I’d go if I was making a first ascent. Just below the granite wall I found faint suncups, probably of past footsteps. I kicked steps up here to the wall and called out to Tom to follow. He did so and then we saw headlamps approaching from the glacier. It was Patrick and his clients. I asked Patrick if I was in the right spot and he confirmed it. I scampered up to a ledge, but found the going steep and tricky. I asked Patrick if he roped up for this wall and he said, “Absolutely.”

Tom and I hastily pulled on our harnesses and got out the rack. I asked Tom if he wanted to lead and he urged me forward. This was the right call. If I have any speciality at all in the climbing world, it is climbing moderate terrain quickly. I’m also a pretty decent route finder, though in the dark, this was a bit tougher on me. I scanned carefully with my headlamp and took a bit of time to deliberate before making each choice and then move swiftly up the rock. I ran out two third of our rope and belayed. Tom followed and suggested I stay in the lead. Patrick was close on our tail. I went again up to a ledge and brought Tom up. One more short pitch and I was on the ridge. We stayed roped here because we had it out and I stayed in the lead. We went along the ridge until I thought we were at the rope-up spot, but we weren’t. We saw Mitch and Dave approaching. They had soloed the wall to the ridge and were moving quickly. Tom led off and I followed, managing the rope. We got to the base of the route first and quickly started to gear up, feeling the pressure of the two teams behind us.

Mitch told me that the crack to the left was a 5.10 variation and that he climbed up the pillar on the right and then traversed left to the first belay. Patrick adamantly disagreed with this path, saying the pillar was dangerous and that he’d done the route almost 30 times. He did admit that the crack felt very hard for 5.8 and was a stiff warm-up. I followed the advice of Patrick and led the 5.8/10 crack. It seemed a bit challenging, but I didn’t think it was 5.10. 5.9 at most and maybe just 5.8+. I set up a belay and Tom was soon up and leading above me.

Mitch, also feeling some pressure followed and asked to go by belay to belay from two fixed pins, which I hadn’t seen, just fifteen feet above me. Once Tom had me on belay, though, I was quickly by him and would never see him again. I followed the 5.7 pitch and led the super cool and circuitous third pitch up to a ledge below a 5.7/8 crack. Tom followed and strung the next two pitches together and before we knew it we were done with the hardest climbing.

While not particularly in a hurry, we were fully engaged in “efficiency mode,” and moved far ahead of our trailing teams. So far ahead, I elected to climb the super clean, optional 5.8 hand crack left of the regular chimney. Above, I crossed over into the chimney and ran out 210 feet of rope to belay on a nice ledge in the sun. Tom followed and took over, climbing, as he would say, “from sun to sun”. He led out all our rope (230 feet) and I followed and then did about 250 feet before finding the next sunny ledge. Just below this ledge I recognized the sloping ramp that I had aided up on my previous attempt, as the ramp was covered in ice. Dry, the climbing was maybe 5.6.

I thought I was just below the summit and expected Tom to be off belay in a few moments, but, no. He ran out 150 feet of rope to bolt. We thought this was the bolt where Patrick said if you stood in a sling, you could go up from there at only 5.10-. I didn’t stand in any sling and went up easily at 5.6. Unfortunately, I was atop a gendarme and not the summit. The other side of the gendarme was unprotected and much harder. It was probably twenty feet back down to the ridge. This would be no big deal for me, as I had a toprope going down, but Tom would have fifty feet of slack while doing this. I told him the situation and asked him what he thought. I could have reversed back to him and we could have rappelled, which is what every other team does. But he was okay with me staying on the ridge and I ran out the rope to the very summit.

Tom followed but not without some hesitation and a lot of consideration of the consequences of a fall. The down climbing was palm smearing on a rounded arete and tricky, insecure feet, but he pulled it off. On the summit, we found another unreadable and unsignable wad of paper stuffed into a metal tube. I realized that on my previous ascent of this route, I had never made the summit. We turned around at the bolt and the rappel, as we thought that was the start of the traverse to the Kain Route. In essence it is, though still below the North Summit. We didn’t think we could climb back up if we had rappelled and descended. So this was my first time on the North Summit of Bugaboo Spire.

We now had to complete to the South Summit in order to gain the familiar Kain Route descent. We started with a steep downclimb and then I led down and along an exposed ridge. The going was generally easy, but quite exposed and I placed a couple of pieces so that we had some security. I led all the way over to the base of the South Summit block. Here I found the bolt that Patrick was talking about. The wall above this bolt was dead vertical without any usable features. But, as he said, if you stood in a sling, you’d be able to reach the horizontal crack above and place some gear and complete the climb to the summit at 5.10-.

It was Tom’s lead and he did just that. Once he had the crack, it was tricky, hard climbing to move left, as the crack went left, because there still wasn’t any footholds below. He made awkward moves left and after six or seven feet he could finally move upwards and it was over. With the benefit of a toprope, I was able to free the entire pitch. I could just barely get my tips into the crack on the far right. I did a pull-up on these holds and then dead pointed for a hold higher up. From there I followed Tom’s climbing to the summit. Sweet.

The descent was long and complex, but we remembered it and it went okay, though we made the same mistake at the Gendarme Rappel. Just below there we ran into the friends of Mitch and Dave. They were at their limit coming up the Kain Route, but would meet their friends on the summit. Tom and I continued down without any trouble, back to the SBC. Descending the col sucked. The path we’d been using had melted out in one section and I had to do some very dicey down climbing on dirt, ice, and rock. It was dangerous and when Tom got there, he refused to do it. From below I could see there was another path up and climber’s left of a rock rib. Tom climbed up and over the rib and descended carefully down to me. Further down we noticed some climbers on this spectacular route called Sunshine on the north prow of Snowpatch Spire. After looking at them for awhile I thought it might be Ben and Katie. I called out to them and sure enough it was them. They had to borrow a #5 Camalot for that route, but found it amongst all the climbers at Applebees.

We got back to the hut around 3 p.m. doing the roundtrip in 11 hours. I felt we moved quite efficiently and was quite pleased with our effort. Mitch and Dave would be more than 3 hours behind us and Patrick another hour after them. It is so much nicer to be able to climb at one’s own pace and not be at the mercy of another team’s speed or lack there of.

Rest, Recovery and Return

We were down so early that I figured we’d be up for one final climb up Snowpatch Spire. It was the most prominent remaining spire that we hadn’t climbed. There are a number of routes on this spire, but the longest climbed it from the east side — the side facing the hut. It was rated just 5.8, but was 19 pitches long and had a reputation for difficult route finding. I was milking the guides for information and was quite successful, but then Tom told me, “I don’t think I’m going to be up for 19 pitches.” It was one of the only times where I had more ambition than Tom.

We settled on the extremely popular McTech Arete on Crescent Spire before turning in, but the next morning Tom slept in a bit and I could tell he was done with the Bugaboos. He was already thinking of the Colorado Trail mountain bike, which he’d start a couple of days after returning from this trip. I wasn’t disappointed. We’d had a great trip and bagged the two main objectives. We ended up just hiking around, after a failed attempt to scramble up Crescent Spire. We mistakenly were heading up Crescent Towers, which was 5th class climbing. After getting ourselves into only a little bit of trouble, we descended and had some lunch by the upper tarn. We ran into Ben and Katie again and exchanged some contact information.

Back at the hut, we packed up, hiked out, and drove to Calgary. We got a cheap hotel room and showered and slept. The next day we flew home. What a great trip. I will be back. I have to come back. Snowpatch is calling me.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Sundial Dihedral with Mark

Mark on the small ledge at the base of the fifth pitch.

Mark has been learning how to jug this year. He was preparing to go up the Nose with Derek and I, but due to variety of factors, including my shoulder problems and weather issues in the Valley, we didn't make our planned trip to Yosemite. As a consolation, we picked a location equidistant from his house in Provo and mine in Superior, which was Colorado National Monument. The weather forecast called for a high of 85 degrees, which was a bit of a concern, but didn't stop us.

The most prominent tower in CNM is Independence Monument. It is 500 feet tall and has a unique, chiseled route up it called Otto's Route, after the first ascensionist. Even with the chiseled holds, the routes overhanging finish is 5.9+. I'd done that route a number of times and it's super fun, but we wanted something more suited to Mark's new skills. We chose the Sundial Dihedral on the southeast face. This is a six-pitch route with a mix of free and aid climbing. Done as free as can be, the only aid is the final-pitch bolt ladder. Done as free as Bill can be, the second pitch (11+/12-) was aid as well. The fourth pitch is rated 11a/b and would be the crux free climbing for me.

We met at the trailhead a bit before 7 a.m. which is a bit later than ideal, but allowed Mark to sleep at his house the night before, though it wasn't a very long night, since he was up at 2:30 a.m. that morning. That was too radical for me so I drove out the night before and had a nice bivy at the Dinosaur Hill trailhead.
My bivy below a shelter at the Dinosaur Hill trailhead.
We saw a number of hikers on the approach and would all day long, but we were the only party on any route on the tower that day. This was surprising to me, since Otto's Route is in the shade and is a very popular route. We geared up at the base and were climbing probably around 8:30 a.m.

The first pitch is a 5.8 chimney/corner. I found just getting off the ground to be a crank, but things go easier and went nicely up to what I thought was the crux - a powerful lieback move at the very top of the pitch. Following, Mark had more trouble down below where is lack of crack/chimney experience made things difficult, but he worked out a beautiful stemming solution to the final move.

I'd climbed this route once before, long ago, with my buddy English Bob. He had done most of the leading and all the hard pitches, including the second pitch. Bob had tried to free it, but resorted to aid. A commenter on thought this pitch was 11+/12-, which is definitely too much for me. At first I thought I could maybe french-free some of it, but it's so steep. I got in my aiders and plugged away. The gear is solid and pretty easy to place. I did place two RPs, but the rock is surprisingly hard.
Mark deciphering the final moves on the first pitch
In this 100-foot I placed most of my substantial rack, but it allowed me to move a bit quicker since I didn't backclean anything except one of the RPs. I even placed my old-style #4.5 Camalot (roughly equivalent to the modern #5) near the top of this pitch. I did free climb the last 15-20 feet, which would have been more difficult to aid.

I wasn't able to self-belay up the third pitch because my rack was so depleted, but Mark jugged quickly so I didn't have to wait long. I was leading with a trail line and hauled up the pack after each pitch. In the pack we had 2.5 liters of water, which proved a bit light. Though we were in the sun almost the entire time it didn't feel nearly as hot as I expected. I didn't feel my climbing performance was limited by it. We also carried extra gear in the pack. I stowed the aiders in there and we had some extra cams in there as well.
Aiding the second pitch.
Third pitch started with a chimney which led to an easier stairstep arete and finally some burly laybacking up a couple of flakes. Both Mark and I cruised up this pitch. The belays at the top of the first three pitches consisted of a single bolt. Atop the second pitch I had nothing that would fit the crack to backup the bolt, but I called down to Mark to pull the cam (0.5 Camalot) from the first belay and send it up with the pack.

The fourth pitch is the crux free climbing, for me at least. recommended bringing four #2 Camalots and we pulled the two extra pieces out of the pack. I avoided looking up at this pitch for too long, as it is intimidating. It overhangs for the first half. In the starting crack were two blocks stacked on top of each other. Both looked very precarious and the top one was completely loose. I put in a piece against the lower block, hoping a fall would just wedge the block tighter. To even get started I had to stretch for a tiny edge, match on it and do a pull-up on it in order to get high enough to swing into the wide crack.
Mark about ready to start liebacking the finish to pitch three.
Once in the wide crack I stretched for a handjam formed by a flake on the left wall. I put in a #1 Camalot here and could then barely reach a handjam in the main crack, just as it closed down enough. I in a #2 and a bit higher a #3. I had good jams for this but the crack was overhanging and I was getting pumped. I didn't have good feet as the crack below me was mostly too wide. The main crack opened again to form an overhanging pod/chimney and the crux moves were getting into this. I was able to place a #4 Camalot at the base of the pod, bu then struggled. My left foot was in the crack, but not high enough. My right foot was useless. I gastoned the lip of the crack with my right hand and tried to set a chicken wing with my left arm. I thrutched upwards by an inch or two and then tried to kick my right foot up on a small 2-inch dihedral, but I couldn't quite get it up there. I needed that to help push me into the pod. I sapped all my strength and slumped onto the cam.
I'm in the chimney/pod above the crux, but below the awesome handcrack above on the fourth pitch.
After resting, I tried again. This time I got my left foot higher. I dynamically bumped up my right hand on the arete and was then able to get my right foot in the small corner and grunted my way into the pod. I rested for quite a while in this pod before making difficult, overhanging moves out of it and stretching around the corner to reach a handjam. The rest of the pitch was perfect hands, but very steep and burly. I barely got this section clean, but there appeared footholds that allowed placing gear nicely. The crack ended at a big roof and the pitch required an ten-foot traverse leftwards to get around it. I put in a bomber #2 Camalot in the corner and then crimped positive edges with just smearing for feet until around the roof and up to the belay. I knew Mark was going to have to free this traverse because there was nothing to lower-out from.

Mark approaching the traverse at the top of the fourth pitch.
Mark jugged the overhanging pitch with some difficulty removing the gear because of the tension on the rope. When he got to the roof he was glad I was nearby to talk him through it. I instructed him to clip into the Camalot and another piece to be safe. He'd then have to get off his jugs and I'll pull in the slack and put him on belay so that he could free climb over to the belay. But he balked at this plan. The Camalot in the roof was his and twenty years old. He decided to leave it and lower out on it. He wanted to learn how to lower out anyway. He did this expertly and was soon at the belay. I offered to climb back across the traverse to get the cam, but Mark wanted to leave it for future parties.

Mark after lowering out from the Camalot he left behind (go get your booty!)
The fifth pitch started with a very committing lieback of a thin crack. At the start I could barely get my tips in the crack and had to smear against a smooth wall. I barely made the reach up to a better hold. I climbed up a bit further and blindly placed another cam just before my feet slipped. I didn't come off, but it gave me scare. Higher up the climbing is cryptic as the crack closes down to just a quarter of an inch wide -- not useable. I gastoned holds out to my left and used opposing pressure with my right hand and barely made a reach to a higher hold. I could then reach right and place a cam. Some tricky stemming put another a block. Some easy liebacking led to a final burly lieback, protected by my trusty #4.5 Camalot.

This pitch ended on a huge pedestal on the eastern end of the tower. Three drilled pitons served as the anchor. Mark elected to jug the pitch and soon joined m on the big ledge. The last pitch loomed above us.  Protected by 13 bolts, the route followed the east buttress as it steepened from lower angle to slightly overhanging. I could barely reach the first bolt. Once I clipped it, I just grabbed the draw, pulled over as the start of the pitch is separate from the pedestal by a gap, and climbed up to step atop the pin. From there I could barely reach the next bolt and above it the angle eased and I had to free climb up low angle, but sandy slabs for 20-30 feet. Two more bolts and more easy free climbing let to the final bolt ladder which necessitated top-stepping to reach each successive bolt, though angle allowed this without too much difficulty.
Looking down the fourth pitch from near the top of it.
Once on top of the tower I looked in vain for the final anchors. There were none. I had brought with me just a few small pieces to possible protect the free climbing sections. I couldn't pull up the pack as Mark had decided to carry it on this pitch and I clipped the haulline into one of the bolts to prevent it from being blown around the tower. It was exceptionally windy. I managed to find a placement for my one cam: a #0.5 in a shallow, flared crack. I put in a couple of large stoppers that just barely fit. It probably would have held. At least a 90% chance. Probably 95%. Would I bet Mark's life on that? I pulled up the entire haulline and walked 100 feet across the tower to the far end, where Otto's Route topped out and secured the hauline to that anchor. I then ran it all the way across the top of the tower back to my anchor and clipped it into that. Next time I'll bring more gear on the final pitch.

Mark topping out on the fifth pitch.
Mark encountered new problems jugging the last pitch. The free climbing sections had to be freed by him as well, otherwise he'd have swung way to the right, risking a nasty pendulum. He had to climb and move up his jugs at the same time. Also, the start was so low-angle that it made it awkward to jug. And the top had free-hanging sections which were quite physical. Once both of us were on top, we didn't waste much time heading down. We were out of water and too parched to enjoy the food we brought. Plus the wind was brutal.

Looking up the final pitch.
We belayed each other over the edge to the Otto's Route rappel anchors and then I rapped first on our fixed lead line, while pulling our haulline down with me. The idea was to avoid the wind whipping the ropes around to the opposite side of the tower. I didn't take all the lead rope with me, though and Mark eventually had to let the free end go. By then I was a hundred feet down and the rope came down fine. It's three rappels to the ground and after I got up the first rappel and yelled up "Off rappel" I was surprised to hear Mark yell, "Rope!" and drop the end of the haulline. Oops! At first I thought we'd just have to climb back up Otto's route to fix this problem, but, doh, Mark could just haul up the haulline with the lead rope. He'd have to risk the blowing rope on this rappel, but it went fine. We did two more raps and were soon on the ground.
Mark jugging the last pitch.
Originally we thought we might also climb Otto's Route, but Mark's ankle was hurting him and we decided not to push. We packed up the gear and walked around to the other side of the tower, to where we started, and had a late lunch. We reclined there and chatted for a long time, enjoying the views of the desert. On the hike out, just like on the hike in, we spotted a desert bighorn. These are raw sights and it was a great end to our adventure.

On the summit!

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Racing the Iron Horse

My best friend in high school, Magoo, went to Fort Lewis College in Durango. That was probably the first time I ever really acknowledged Durango. I went there a couple of times to visit Magoo, but that was it. I next visited it when Sheri and I were working on climbing all the Colorado 14ers. I learned that the best way to access the three (or four, depending upon how you count them) Chicago Basin 14ers was by taking the train (a train!) from Durango to Needleton. Needleton itself was just a stop on the line. There isn’t a town there, at least anymore. The only way to get there is the train or by hiking an additional twenty miles (roundtrip). I thought that was so cool that you had to take the train. Most Americans, at least outside of big cities, don’t ride trains and hence this was a mini-adventure in itself. This train is an old coal-burning locomotive and is quite nostalgic. It’s a big tourist attraction now and many people ride it all the way to Silverton to experience the spectacular scenery.

At some point I learned about the Iron Horse Bike Race. This takes place the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and is the longest continuously run bike race in the United States. They’ve been doing it for 48 years. The premise is super cool. Cyclists start at the train station in Durango at the same time that the trail pulls out. The goal is to beat the train to Silverton. There are no roads that go along the tracks, of course, so cyclists take a different route - highway 550. The distance is 49 miles and has about 6000 feet of climbing (my GPS registered 5600, others got 5800+, and the medal that you get says it has 6800). The ride starts at around 6000 feet of elevation and ends at 9000 feet, so you do 3000 more feet of climbing than you get to descend.

That’s a non-trivial bike ride. And to do that two days before the Bolder Boulder wouldn’t be recommended if you cared about your race time. Hence, despite having this bike race on my list of things to do, I hadn’t done it yet. The motivation to finally do it was my brother-in-law Carl, married to Sheri’s sister Tara. They live in Durango and he’d signed up for the race too. My performance at the Bolder Boulder has been on a steady decline for 17 years (I peaked at age 40), and I am in danger of not breaking 50 minutes or 8 minutes/mile. At this point I realized that I couldn’t really be taking the Bolder Boulder too seriously. I don’t do much training for it and I don’t run fast. So, how much could one bike ride hurt me? At the worst, the bike race would give me an excuse for any subpar performance at the Bolder Boulder. Plus, Sheri wanted to go to Durango as well to see her sister’s house and would serve as my support crew and personal driver. Sweet. I signed up.

Months later I got a package in the mail. It has a race number in it. I wondered, what the heck is this? Oh yeah, the Iron Horse Race. It had been five months since I had been on a bike. I promptly went out for a ride. That was my one and only training ride. My bike wasn’t in good shape and I needed to replace my chain rings, rear cassette, chain, etc. I decided to upgrade my entire bike. By the time I selected the parts, ordered them, and installed them on my bike, time was short. I finished building the bike on Sunday. Monday it snowed and remained snowy and rainy all week until the Friday before the race. I hopped on the bike that morning and did an easy hour on it, making sure everything worked well. Then I put it in the car and Sheri and I drove 7 hours to Tara and Carl’s house.

The Iron Horse Race has grown to include waves for professional riders, lots of age-group categories and a Citizens Tour, with more than 2000 riders in total. I signed up too late to get into the age-group categories, so I entered the Citizens Tour, which isn’t timed. So, technically it wasn’t a bike race, but I treated it as one. The real racing categories go off in waves at 7:30 a.m. The Citizen Tour is the only group that actually races the train, starting at 8 a.m. with the train whistle acting as the starting gun. This Tour should have had 1500 riders in it, but as I staged in the corral it seemed like no more than a few hundred. Five hundred tops. I could have easily worked my way to very front. Where was everybody?

Carl wasn’t in the corral with me because he had elected to start an hour early. I think he did so to give him a better chance to beat the train. The train takes around 3.5 hours to get to Silverton, so beating it over this course is non-trivial. Carl wanted some extra time. I’d find out soon that this is extremely common. In fact, I’d estimate that 75% of the Citizens Tour start before the official start. Since it isn’t timed, it doesn’t really matter. Carl certainly wasn’t the first to start at 7 a.m. He’d be caught and passed by all the racers (the winning pro time was 2h28m), and many of the Citizen Tour as well. He wasn’t racing anyone, besides maybe the train. He was here to just finish the ride — a big challenge for him at 63 years old and carrying at least fifteen extra pounds.
In Durango at the start of the "race".
The whistle blew and we took off, riding behind a police escort through town. The first twelve miles of the course is relatively flat and I stayed towards the front, but well out of the wind, relaxing as much as possible and just following wheels. I was very attentive though, as I figured most of these riders were not bike racers and even though they may be quite fit, they might not be experienced pack riders. I figured the most dangerous part of the race was riding in this pack for this flat stretch. Things went well though and I had no close calls and everyone rode quite nicely. Almost immediately we started passing riders that had started early and were much slower than the head of our peloton. These riders were the biggest hazards as they frequently didn’t ride to the far right side of the road. We passed these riders within the first half-mile and would continually pass them for the next 50 miles, all the way into Silverton. I’d found the missing riders.

For the first thirty miles, up to the Purgatory Ski Area, the race had the entire use of the right line. With the shoulder, that gave us tons of riding room and moving around was easy for the entire race. Once passed Purgatory the entire highway was closed to cars. That was really nice. The weather was great too, though that was in doubt right up until the morning of the race. The mountains around Silverton have a snowpack that is 375% of average for this time of year. You read that right: 375%. They got snow two days before the race. I was worried about the cold before this race and dressed in leggings, armies, shoe covers, and even heaters in my shoes. I brought and expected to wear my windshell at the start and on the two steep downhills. It was 45 degrees at the start. The high in Silverton that day was supposed to be 52 degrees and the high on Molas Pass was supposed to be 39. Yet, we had very little wind and bright sunshine the entire way. I never put on my shell and conditions turned out to be nearly ideal.

Due to all the snow the Purgatory Ski area was open! A couple of riders rode with skis and boots on their backs and took one run at Purgatory before continuing all the way to Silverton. That’s cool. I saw one guy on a giant unicycle. I saw a few tandems and one of them had a kid trail bike on it. I joked to the couple as I passed them that they had put the big engine in the back. On the first climb I could hear a bike coming up on me fast. I wondered how a rider that much faster than me could still be behind me. Maybe a racer had missed the start and still wanted to get in a hard workout. Then he went by and I understood. He was riding an electric bike and was flying by all of us. He’d end up passing me three more times, all on the hills. I never remember passing him, though. Maybe he was taking extended breaks at the aid stations. Maybe he was getting in a quick charge. He’d surely have to do a lot of the work himself as the battery couldn’t power the entire ride. The last time he passed me, on the final climb, the rider next to me muttered, “F-ing electric bikes.” I could understand the sentiment, but it didn’t bother me in the least. It wasn’t like we were racing him. Electric bikes are cool. One might be in my future. Though I think they are technically illegal in this Tour, but maybe only in the timed race. All of these riders started well before 8 a.m. One rider that was particularly notable did not, though, because I didn’t see him until he finished in Silverton. I wouldn’t have missed him, though, because what he did is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
In Silverton at the end of the race.
This guy finished with a very respectable time of four hours and change. He did it with one leg! Why only one leg? That’s all he had. His leg was amputated at his groin. When I saw him go by my jaw dropped. Literally. I was speechless. I couldn’t even imagine how he stayed on his seat without anything on the other side of it. I looked across the finishing chute to another rider who saw the same thing. His mind was clearly boggled as well. He said, “Did you see how big that leg was?” Indeed, this was a big guy, well over six feet tall, maybe 6’5” or more. Fit, too. And his left thigh was about as big around as my waist. And I’m not particularly thin. I once did a couple of training exercises of riding with just one leg. It’s incredibly difficult and extremely tiring. Now imagine doing 6000 vertical feet of that over 50 miles with a central climb that is roughly equivalent to SuperFlag. I have many friends who are outrageous athletes, professional athletes who special in endurance. I don’t think any one of them could ride SuperFlag with one leg. That’s saying a lot, I know, and I might be wrong, but that’s what I thought when this guy came by. It just didn’t seem possible. I couldn’t shake my amazement, so inspired by the toughness and resilience of this guy. I went to search for him. I wanted to tell him how amazing he was. I wanted to get a photo with him. Yet, I couldn’t find him. I searched and searched and asked a number of people for the one-legged man, but no one had seen him. I guess he rode so normally that unless you really looked at him, you wouldn’t notice. Off the bike he was probably laying down, as he’d need crutches to walk. It was biggest disappointment of my day. I want to find this guy.

After the opening flat stretch the route climbs steadily for ten miles or so to Purgatory. One of the steepest stretches is on this section, though it is short. Near the top of this section, I rode past a couple of young, thin girls, probably thirteen years old. The one in the lead says, “Great job” to me as I moved by. I returned the encouragement, not expecting to see her again. After this long section the ride consists of two hard climbs. The first is Coal Bank, which gains 2000 feet in five miles — roughly equivalent to SuperFlag, though no sections as steep as the upper part. Then there is a fast 3-mile descent before the last climb up to Molas Pass, a climb of about 900 feet. From the top of Molas Pass it is a screaming fast descent down into Silverton.

I felt really slow grinding my way up Coal Bank. Whereas before I was passing earlier riders at a much higher pace, I now slowly crept by them. Near the bottom of this climb I went by Carl. He was stopped, taking a short rest to eat something. I called out his name and put out my hand for a high five, but he didn’t register it was me until I was by. We had previously thought that I might catch him, but I was surprised to catch him so early. I think it was a combination of how fast the pack got me through the first 12 miles and Carl having a tough day. We found out later that it would get much worse for him.
Carl and Tara in Silverton -- all smiles despite the difficulties.
A mile or two up this climb the thirteen-year-old girl, her name was Maggie, came by me. She was just as friendly and just as positive passing me as she was when I passed her. This was a new, very humbling experience for me. To be passed by a girl so young on a bike. Girls that young have been running by me for years, but on a bike? That’s a first. I sure hope she goes on to be an Olympic champion, if not for her, for my ego!

At the top of Coal Bank I made my only stop and it was for less than 60 seconds. I didn’t even get off the bike, but waited while a volunteer filled up one of my bottles. Just before the start of the last climb, at the last bit of downhill, I caught up to and passed Maggie. She was so light the wind resistance limited how fast she could descend. I told her that I wanted to give her another chance to drop me on the hill. She did. Twice. After passing me the first time, she stopped to strip off a layer. Then she passed me again.

The start of the Molas Pass climbed was a bit disheartening because we went straight into a considerable headwind. I slowed to a crawl and labored up this last climb. I was starting to calculate my chances of beating the train. I wasn’t sure how far it was to the finish from the pass, but it might have been 9 miles. To be sure I wanted to be atop the pass by 11 a.m., three hours into the ride and giving me 30 minutes to get to the finish. I didn’t top out until 11:07 and felt some pressure. I wanted to give it all I had.

I punched it over the top and slid my hands down into the drops. I laid across my top tube in the most aerodynamic position I could muster without straddling the bar. I’ve done that before but with the wind and hitting speeds of 48 mph, I felt that was too risky. Still I blasted by every rider ahead of me, including the soon-to-be-pro, whippet-thin Maggie. Incidently, I did asked her if she was a racer and she confirmed it, saying, "Yes, but mostly a mountain biker."

Once in town, it’s at least a mile of a slight uphill grade to the finish. The coned chute is nearly half-a-mile long and I started to fade before the line. I finished in 3h19m and well ahead of the train, which didn’t make it to town until 11:44.

As I raced down the chute I searched for Sheri and Tara, sure to be there cheering me on and maybe snapping a finish photo. But I didn’t see them. After finishing, I pulled out my phone and sent Sheri a text message: I’m here. She sent back: “Ack! We’re getting coffee! Coming to the finish now.” Ten minutes later we met up at the finish. Obviously they didn’t expect me that early. I was pretty sure I’d break 4 hours and told Sheri that sub 3:30 was possible, but that was before I realized that I didn’t get 6000 feet of descending on this course. No biggie.
The coveted participation medal...
After recovering a bit I changed out of my kit at the car and we lined the chute looking for Carl and cheering on all the riders. When I finished I took a rough guess and figured Carl would be an hour behind me. But that hour came and went. We knew the cut-off time at Molas Pass was 1:15 p.m. and when 1:20 came and went we figured he must be over the top and on his way down. I’d come down from the summit to the finish in 12 minutes (35 mph average?!). We gave Carl 20 minutes before we’d start thinking about other possibilities (like a crash). At 1:28 p.m. he surprised us by going nearly by us before Sheri recognized him. We had thought he was in a white jersey. It was blue. We had thought he had a white helmet on. It was red. Two finishes, two misses.

At the finish Carl related his story of GI distress. He figured he spent maybe 90 minutes not moving. He contemplated turning around and dropping out at one point mainly because he could reach a bathroom quicker by descending than climbing up to the porta-potty on the summit. But he persevered and finished. He was in remarkably good spirits. It was very unfortunate to have those troubles, especially on race day when you’ve trained for six months. But these things happen and he didn’t mope about it one bit. You might think such a tough experience would lead one to say, “I’m done with that event.” Yet, not two hours after finishing he was vowing to go again next year. And I signed on as well. I can see that Iron Horse engineer already plotting his strategy on how to beat me. He’s going to stoke that fire even hotter. He's going to grease that axle. Maybe he’ll look into a fairing for the front. I’ll be ready. Bring it on, Iron Horse. My carbon steed will be ready.