Saturday, January 09, 2016

Road to Denali, part 1: Estes Cone

Derek in the parking lot with Estes Cone in the background

My youngest son Derek is graduating from High School this May. I offered him a climbing trip anywhere, hoping that he'd choose the sunny, warm Dolomites where we'd go rock climbing, eat pasta, and drink lattes. Instead, he chose Denali. Brrr...

Actually, I've had Denali on my to-do list for decades. I've always put it off because I feared being tent-bound for week. Instead of spending three weeks on one mountain, I'd go to Canada and climb two peaks each week. Also, despite numerous winter ascents of Longs Peak, extreme cold is not my forte. The circulation in my hands and feet isn't good and I need the warmest gear and chemical heaters to avoid freezing. But the appeal of a grand adventure with my son is great and we're fully committed.

I invited Derek along on my December ascent of the Longs Peak Project and it was a wake-up call for him. He was in my old boots and they gave him massive blisters. He hadn't done any exercise since his tennis season ended in October and he was overmatched. I should have realized this, but I was somewhat blinded by love and knowing what Derek's capable of when he's fit. He didn't make the summit, but it didn't discourage him in the slightest. It motivated him to get his own boots and start training.

Derek's Nana gave him a pair of mountaineering boots for Christmas and we decided to officially start our training and break in the new boots with a climb of Estes Cone, near Longs Peak. Estes Cone is really a hike, but heck, so is Denali to some extent. If we're going to the top of a peak, I'm going to call it a climb. Some climbs are just more technical than others and peaks are a lot more difficult in winter than in summer.

The night before our hike Derek was out with friends until past 1 a.m. I woke him at 6:30 a.m and he was ready to go by 7 a.m. We started hiking up the trail at 8:30 a.m. and found a well-packed trail. We both wore Kahtoola Microspikes on our stiff mountaineering boots because it prevents any slippage on hard snow. These can even serve, in some admittedly unique situations, as an ultralight crampon.

Everything went smoothly until about 500 feet below the summit when the terrain got very steep. Here Derek's boots started giving him blisters and he started to bonk because, guess what?, he hadn't eaten since the night before. He slowed to a crawl, stopping often to wince over the pain in his feet and to eat some chews. I asked if he wanted to turn around, so that he could do less damage to his feet. Our primary goal was to test to the boots and now we knew he'd need to go get them custom-fitted. He wasn't a happy guy at that point but he responded gruffly, "There's no way I'm not making the top." This was the same attitude I saw in him when he was six years old hiking his first fourteener: Huron. Also probably five hundred feet from the summit, but with dark skies and a storm imminent, when the idea of turning around was raised by his mom and I, he just said, "I'm making it!" and continued up the trail. I guess he was destined to be a climber, though I would have to train him up about the dangers of lightning.

Here it wasn't so dramatic, but the idea of turning around when he was that close just to avoid some painful blisters never entered his mind. We soon made the top, took some photos, and his feet felt a lot better descending, where his heel wasn't lifting and rubbing. Derek led most of the way out and was motoring along so fast, that I was getting gapped.
On the summit of Estes Cone with Longs Peak in the background
When we hit the junction with the Longs Peak trail and I knew we had just six tenths of a mile to go, I noticed we might be able to break three hours for the roundtrip. I wasn't going to mention it because it would involve running in our big mountain boots and that was just silly...right? But I couldn't help myself. I said, "We have eight minutes to break three hours. Interested?" His immediate reply, despite his blisters: "Definitely." Whether is nature or nurture, this kid is definitely mine. We trotted the rest of the way to car, running by people in our mountaineering boots, with our packs bouncing on our backs. We made it.

This climb was just 6.4 miles and 2000 vertical feet, but journey to Denali is a long one and it starts with the first step. We've taken that first step.

1 comment:

Gayla Wright said...

Congratulation on a job well done. Custom fit those boots before your next venture. Derek has always been one tough cookie. Remember his first Bolder Boulder?? Love you both, NaƱa