Saturday, March 18, 2017

Streaking on Longs winter!

While we were climbing up Mt. Massive a few weeks ago Derek asked me when winter ends. He was thinking that he should keep this streak of climbing Longs Peak in winter going. How long was his streak at that point? One winter in a row! I told this to my buddy Mark, thinking he'd chuckle too, but he responded, "For most things that would be funny, but for Longs Peak in winter...that's definitely a streak."

He makes a good point. Climbing Longs Peak in winter is no easy chore. At least for most people, myself and Derek included. Maybe not much of a stretch for Homie, Anton, Joe (as we'll see), Danny Gilbert, etc. but those aren't normal people. I've done it a number of times, but it's never been easy for me.

So, we made plans to climb the last weekend of winter, which was today. Derek wanted to do the Loft to Clark's Arrow, as he'd never been on that side of Longs before. He'd been up the Loft before, though, in winter, when we climbed Meeker as part of our training for Denali. We decided not to make a loop out of it (via a descent of the North Face) and settled on an out-and-back. That way we wouldn't have to carry harnesses or a rope. We did carry an ice axe, crampons, and a helmet. We wore double mountaineering boots with Microspikes over them and used poles.
What a nice day!
We got a pretty casual start, arising at 5 a.m. and leaving the house at 5:35 a.m. and starting up the trail just a few minutes before 7 a.m. We ambled along to just below treeline and took a short break to drink and apply sunscreen. Once above the trees the wind hit us pretty good, but we were still just in our long-sleeve shirts. For me to be dressed that lightly, in high winds, it had to be warm -- and it was. But not too warm. The snow was quite firm. In fact, we decided to switch from Microspikes to crampons for more security and less slipping.

The climbing up to the Loft Bypass was nearly perfect snow for crampons. The only drawback was that it was very windy and we were in the shade for the first half. My hands got very cold, mostly because I refused to stop until we hit the sunshine. By then my hands were quite painful. Derek took care of me here, getting out my heaters and digging out my big mitts while I kept my hands balled up. The mitts and heaters had the problem solved in 10-15 minutes and that was never an issue again. We pulled on our shells here as well because we'd get hit it some pretty big gusts. Of course shortly afterwards the wind seemed to ease up and the sun had us pretty warm.
Derek climbing up the Loft couloir
The Bypass had steps up very steep snow, but it was solid going. We noticed some strange tracks in the snow here but thought nothing more about it. We continued up to the Loft, pulling off our crampons here, as it was just bare rock. We left out poles here as well and then descended the other side and did the traverse past Clark's Arrow to Keplinger's Couloir. Shortly after heading up the couloir we met two guys, Pawel Mikrut and his buddy Damien, coming down. They are Polish ex-pats now living in Denver. They had started  up at 2 a.m. and had just completed their first winter ascent of Longs. Cool. We asked them if we needed crampons to complete the ascent and they assured us we did. I was hoping to leave them behind.

Derek on the steep snow section of the Bypass. Notice the tracks right of Derek and also behind and left of him. They go to the edge of the cliff...
I was amazed how little snow was up there and we were able to stay nearly entirely on rock up the couloir, across the traverse to the Homestretch and up that to the summit. We didn't put our crampons back on the rest of the day. We made the summit just two minutes short of five hours. It was not entirely coincidental that we broke five hours. I might have mentioned it to Derek...

We spent thirty minutes on the summit, an extreme rarity for me in winter. There was little wind up there and it was sunny and beautiful. We ate and drank and relaxed. When we started down we were careful on the slabs and took our time. As we approached the top of Keplinger's I spotted a guy coming up, moving unusually fast. I noticed his pack was tiny and he had long hair. The way he moved, I knew he was something special and I immediately thought it must be Anton. I knew there was a 95% chance I knew this person though. Or if I didn't, I wanted to know them. Then I saw the curly hair and called out, "Hey, Joe!" It was unsupported, self-powered-14er-record-holder and all-around world-class endurance athlete Joe Grant, who is also an incredibly friendly guy. We chatted for at least ten minutes. Joe was in the Scarpa Neutron running shoes, which appeared to be nearly identical to the LaSportiva Crossovers, both have built-in gaiters and Gore Tex covers. He was in running tights and his signature BUFF. Looking at the differences in our clothing you'd think we were climbing different mountains or at least different routes. Nope. Though Joe was planning on descending the Keyhole Route to make a loop out of it.
Derek on the Homestretch and nearing the top of Longs Peak
We continued on our separate ways and Derek and I reversed our path back to the Loft and then very carefully down the steep snow section. We used our ice axes here to protect us and went slowly and carefully. Derek had an intense altitude headache and we took some time to eat, drink, and down some Advil. He was in pain but continued on, climbing safely and securely in no-fall territory.

Once back in the Loft couloir we were able to walk down facing out, digging in our heels, ice axes at the ready for a self arrest. It was too hard and too steep to glissade until we were more than halfway down, but then we got in some marginal glissading on hard snow.

Nearly to Chasm Cut-off we took a break to eat, drink, and strip off our Microspikes, stow our axes, and pack up our shells. The rest of the descent went smoothly with our conversation completely masking the tedious, tiring nature of the descent.
On the summit!
When we got to the parking lot we found Pawel and Damien, our Polish friends still there. They told us that they had started as a team of three and the third guy, also named Pawel but I'll call him Pole3 to avoid confusion) had turned around at the Loft and started down alone. This was around 8 a.m. He hadn't been seen since. The three had stashed snowshoes on the way up and when Pawel and Damien retrieved their shoes, they noticed the Pole3's pair was still there. They picked them up, thinking that their Pole3 just forgot them. Back in the parking lot, they found that Pole3's car was still there. As I write this at 10 p.m. he is still lost. The rangers will start a search and rescue Sunday morning if his car is still in the parking lot. I was hoping they'd go up tonight. It is still winter, but the weather report is pretty mild tonight, though with building winds.
Descending back to the top of Keplinger's Couloir. We did not climb the snowfield behind him.
Derek and I should have seen him descending. We would have got to Chasm Cut-off before Pole3 got there. What could have happened? What about those tracks on the steep section of the Loft Bypass? I hate to think he went over that cliff. Wouldn't we have seen a body below? Maybe not. He was supposedly a bad route finder. He was the fittest of the three, a marathon runner, and had been 100 meters ahead of the other two for the entire climb up to the Loft, yet the other two had to correct three route-finding errors of his. Could he have missed the traverse from the Meeker-Longs cirque back out to Chasm Cut-off? And descended that gully down to Peacock Pond and got lost down there? Unlikely, I think, with the trail so clearly in view. It's definitely a mystery. I have Paul's phone number and we are in touch. I'll find out what happened to Pole3 tomorrow, I hope. I'm crossing my fingers for him until then.

Derek has now climbed Longs Peak six times by six different routes in five different months, with his only doubling up in March - both winter ascents. And he's just 19 years old. I told him about my first time up Longs on our hike out. It was after my freshman year in college and I was 19 years old and did the Keyhole Route. He did the Keyhole when he was ten years old. He's got quite a jump on my young self. His ascents have been:

September: Keyhole, 10 years old
March: North Face, 18 years old
May: Notch Couloir, 18 years old
July: Kiener's Route, 18 years old
August: Keyhole Ridge, 18 years old
March: Loft/Clark's Arrow, 19 years old

Our goal this year is to climb the Diamond and we'll try that in July or August.

UPDATE: As of 5 p.m. on Saturday Pawel (Pole3) still hasn't been found. Supposedly they were going to use a helicopter but it's been very windy today.

UPDATE: I don't know anything more than what is in this DC article, but I suspect our guess was right. The climber fell and died. Tragic.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Mt. Princeton

Tigger in the background and Piglet (aka Homie) in the foreground

Homie and I kept our winter 14er streak alive this weekend. For the third weekend in a row we topped a peak. This time it was Princeton. I picked it because it was the easiest and closest 14er that I hadn't already done in winter. It was my 21st winter 14er. For Homie, it was another grid point and his second ascent of Princeton in the winter.

Derek was very excited to join us. I'm so lucky to have a son nearby that loves doing the same things that I do and that he still likes having me as a partner. This kid loves it more than I do. That's clear. Sheri picked him up at CU on Friday night and brought him home where we prepared our gear and packed our packs. We went to bed early, were up at 3:30 a.m. this morning and picked up Homie at four.

The trip got off to a bit of a rough start with a patrolman pulled me over for excessive speed on highway 285 - 70+ in a 55mph zone. Dang it. I wasn't trying to speed. I was just driving and not paying enough attention to the speed limit. After taking my information and looking me up in his database of bad guys he returned to my car and said, "Well, it looks like you're off to have a fun day with your sons. I'm going to view this as a momentary lapse in judgement and let you off with a warning. Don't make me regret it."

I looked at him and said, "Officer, first, we're going to climb a 14er in winter. That isn't going to fun. That's going to be serious suffering. I'd rather stay here and have you do a body cavity search. Second, how old do you think I am? This guy in the back seat could be my brother. Granted a much younger brother, but come on!"

At least that's how I remember it now, but I might have said, "Thank you, officer. No, you won't regret it. I'll be a good."

We geared up at the trailhead in great weather - no cloud in the skies, no wind, 18 degrees out. Derek first indication that things wouldn't go his way came when he tightened the waist belt on his pack and the buckle broke. He'd have the weight hanging off his shoulders all day long.

Snow came all the way down to the parking lot, but it was very hard and icy. Homie, once again with snowshoes, just walked in his boots and Derek and I did the same for awhile, at least until Derek said, "I'd rather be using these skis than carrying them." Good point. We put on the skis. Derek was in the same gear he  used on Massive, but I was in my NNN setup. These boots were not nearly as warm as the Olympus Mons I used on Massive, but the forecast was more friendly today. We all took Microspikes to pull onto our boots as well. Homie was in a very light pair of boots that were no longer waterproof.

Homie went off the front, moving strong, as he always does. Derek, though, was moving quite a bit slower than last weekend, right from the start. The main reason I went in my NNN gear was to be considerably lighter, since I had lagged the group last weekend and was well behind Derek then. Today, it wasn't just my lighter gear. Something just wasn't going well with Derek. I asked him how he felt and he said he felt fine. I asked him if his torn-up heels were hurting him and he said they were doing okay. He just couldn't find his rhythm. He couldn't keep a steady pace. I stayed with him for the first mile and a half, but then forged ahead at my own pace, putting in a ski track for him next to Homie's footprints.
Derek following Homie's tracks above the radio towers
We had no track on this ascent at all, but we weren't sinking in too deeply. In fact, Homie went for about 2.5 miles before he put on his snowshoes. That was where I caught him. Much to my surprise, Derek wasn't that far back. He must have started moving better once I went ahead. I waited for him to catch up and we moved together up to the radio towers (the summer parking spot for most people with 4WD).

We stopped to eat and drink and then Derek took over the lead here, mainly to keep us together, but the going was tougher - breakable crust and some very hard sections on steep side hills where it was difficult to hold an edge, especially for Derek with his skins a bit too wide for the skis (we're going to fix this). I went ahead again and once again caught up to Homie. My skis were a distinct advantage on this terrain compared to his snowshoes. We stopped just across one of the hard, steep sections and waited for Derek. I was just about to descend to check on him when I thought about calling him. We had great cell coverage on this entire mountain and he answered quickly. I asked how he was doing and he said he stopped to eat and drink again. This was after only 0.4 miles of moving from the last eating/drinking break. Clearly something was off. Derek didn't know what it was and tried more eating and drinking. It helped marginally.

Further up was an exposed section where the snow was so hard that Homie couldn't get purchase with his snowshoes. I was able to barely edge across it, switchback and come back across but it was difficult to hold an edge and I was on the verge of sliding down the slope. Homie climbed directly up the hill side and met me above. I sat down here and waited twenty minutes for Derek. I wanted to make sure he pulled his skis and hiked up directly. He did this, but had tremendous difficulty climbing this slope. It was probably what really did him in. I pulled off my skis and descended to help him, carrying his skis up the last bit.
Homie above the steep section where he avoid the rock-hard snow behind him. My tracks can barely be seen there.
We were following the 4WD road completely up to here, though the road bed was completely obscured up here, as the hard snow angled across it, eliminating any level terrain. This was especially difficult for Homie on his snowshoes, but Homie's a beast.

I put my skis back on and continued up the road. Homie had gone on 20 minutes before. I rounded the mountain and was on the long traverse that eventually hits the south ridge of Tigger - a 13,000+ sub-summit to the south of Princeton. Here Homie called down to me that he was heading up directly to the ridge, as the road was about to exit the trees and any protection from the wind. I followed suit and switchbacked and kick-turned my way up the slope to the ridge, where I met up with Homie and we both dropped our floatation and pulled on our Microspikes.

While I was climbing up to the ridge Derek called me. I was able to talk to him for 20 minutes of more as I climbed up here, switched my gear and continued on because I had on some Bluetooth wireless headphones. Derek was distressed. He was tired, alone, and confused why he couldn't more better. He didn't think his legs or his lungs were the problem. It was a weird combination of mental issues and rhythm. It had never happened to him before and he was upset. I tried to console him, saying that sometimes it just isn't your day, for whatever reason. I asked him if he wanted me to descend back to him and possibly all the way back to the car. I wanted the summit, but not as badly as I wanted to have my son stop hurting. He didn't ask me to turn around and I didn't want to just do it. I knew he'd feel bad if he turned me around without a better reason. I asked if he was worried about himself physically. Was he in trouble. He assured me he was not. He was just not happy to be in his current situation. I asked if he just wanted to head back down. He knew where the key was stashed and there was a Kindle in the car and he could read a book while waiting for Homie and I. When we ended the long call, he was noncommittal on what he was going to do. We agreed to talk again in 30 minutes.
Mt. Princeton from the ridge on Tigger
Homie led the way up the east ridge of Tigger. This is the standard winter route up Princeton, as the normal trail traverses the big bowl of the east face and northeast aspect of Tigger. The snow out there would either be an avalanche threat or rock hard and difficult to traverse. Homie quickly gapped me here. There wasn't an doubt which climber had once climbed 41 14ers over 7 days. I fell behind enough where I decided to cut across the upper northeast face and gain the Tigger-Princeton ridge a bit closer to Princeton. This saved me a couple hundred feet of climbing and the traversing wasn't too bad, as it as almost all on rocks and not too annoying.

Once I hit the ridge, I found Homie just a little ways beyond taking a break to eat and drink. I did the same and pulled on my big mitts for the first time and an additional layer. It was quite windy at times on the ridge, and some serious gusts hit us, though rarely. I talked to Derek just before I got to Homie and Derek sounded much improved. In fact, he was at our ski/snowshoe cache. I was surprised at the dramatic turnaround. He was again his normal self, though still moving slowly. He was good to continue, though, and I said to just keep coming and I'd head back to the summit with him.

Homie and I moved on, but soon he had to stop and tend to a blister, though I didn't know this until drive home. When I noticed I was far ahead of him, I figured he was just stopping to take a lot of photos. I took a photo of him with Tigger in the background and said that he must be Piglet, as those two are good friends. I then said that Derek was Eeyore, at least today, since he was down in the dumps, and I was Pooh Bear. Homie responded, "I agree. You are a big pile of poo." I walked into that one.
Looking down the summit ridge to Tigger
When Homie caught me 600 feet from the summit, he said, "I'm going to throw away these boots when I get home." I knew exactly what he meant. If he didn't throw them away, he might be tempted to use them again, as they were so light. But the shoes have lost any waterproofness they ever had and were too light for the task. Homie's feet were uncomfortably cold. And he never gets cold. And ever says he's cold. If he's mentioning his feet, he's in pain. Just then I got another call from Derek and he said he was trying to traverse to the ridge like I did, but thinks he started the traverse too low and it was wearing him down. I told him I'd call him on the summit to check his progress.

While I was talking to Derek, Homie moved far ahead. I could no longer move and talk to Derek at the same time, as my headphones died. With my phone stowed away I continued up after Homie. By the time I joined Homie on top, he'd been there for almost 20 minutes and needed to descend, as his feet were so cold. I bid him adieu and sat down, thinking I'd wait for Derek. I called Sheri and left her a long message with our status and then I called Derek, hoping he'd be well up the final ridge. He wasn't. He'd just gained the ridge on Tigger and was very tired. I looked at my watch and was astounded to see that we'd been moving for 6h15m. I didn't think it had been that long. This must have been become I was never that physically challenged, since we'd stopped a lot and moved pretty slowly. On Massive I was hard-pressed to keep up the entire time and was completely wasted on the summit. I knew Derek was probably 2 hours from the summit in his current state. It was too much, at least today. I told him he should turn around and he didn't argue. I think he might have been grateful that someone else was telling him to turn-around. I don't he'd have done it on his own. He generally just keeps on going, no matter his speed, no matter the difficulty. He'll learn more about when to turn around and when to keep going, but today it was good for me to turn him around. I told him he'd see Homie soon and I'd meet him back at the skis.
Down on the standard trail, looking back up at the snow slope I descended
I started down. I had told Derek to go back over the top of Tigger and Homie would surely catch him. I had eyed the standard trail far below and it looked enticing to descend to it, rather than climb hundreds of feet up Tigger. When Homie left me, he said, "I know you know what you're doing, but if take that route, know that I've had friends fall doing that." I appreciated his concern for me and his confidence in my judgement. When I talked to Derek I mentioned I might try it and he said, "No, go over Tigger." I was touched by his concern for me and said that I would, but once down at the saddle, with tired legs, confidence in my ability, and the desire to rejoin Derek and Homie as quickly as possible, I decided to descend to the standard route instead.

I careful made my way down a steep, very hard snowfield, conscious that if I fell here, I'd have just 2 or 3 seconds to stop myself with my poles before it was too late. Surviving a fall down the slope might have been possible, if I didn't hit any rocks. Coming down the ridge above I'd broken one of my poles, so it was now a short stub. I used that on the uphill side and bent over so that I could plant it. I'd fallen on terrain like this once before while going for a winter speed trip on Grays and Torreys. Back then I was going too fast for safety and fell. I tumbled out of control for maybe a hundred feet or more desperately trying to stop myself, which I eventually did, or I'd have probably died. That experience uppermost in my mind and I planted my poles and my spikes carefully, went at a speed that was safe, and made it down to the trail. I was dismayed at how far of a traverse it was back to the ridge and I had to cross four additional snow slopes, two of which were rock hard like the first big one and two that had a foot or more of soft snow atop the rock hard layer.  I took great care with each one, but was particularly nervous on the last two for year that foot-deep layer would slide over the hard surface underneath. If it slid, I'd go with it.
One of the loaded snow slopes I crossed
Alas, I made it back to the ridge where I found Derek patiently waiting for me. It was great to be back together with him. He gave me a fist bump for the summit and I gave him a big hug, knowing what a tough emotional ride he had on his attempt and very empathetic over the pain. We put on our skis and started down after a long-gone Homie, who expected us to ski by him.

The snow was very tricky the entire way down. Either rock hard or breakable crust, with very few exceptions, from the high ridge to the parking lot. We kept both skins on for the steep descent back to the road and continued with them due to the icy nature of the track, which made for reasonable descending even with the skins. Further down, Derek stripped one skin off to use his now familiar technique of one ski skinless and ski with a skin. He has the balance to ski on one leg when he needs the glide and then sets down the other ski when he needs more braking power.
Derek at the ridge with Mt. Princeton behind him. We'd ski from here to the car.
I struggled considerable in my NNN gear with my single pole. Well down the road I decided that I wanted more glide and stripped off both skins. I was now greased lightning and descended on both edges of control the rest of the way. I could work the tricky breakable crust to the side of the track for braking power. I ran off the track and uphill whenever I could to control speed. In some sections the snow was consistent enough to allow for snowplowing. I fell a number of times, once a hard face plant and once into some rocks, but I wasn't injured. I should have put my skins back on, but pride wouldn't allow it. Derek, on the other hand, was doing great and it was first time he did a better job descending than I did.

We got to the bottom almost 40 minutes after Homie. Some might wonder why we don't use snowshoes. I don't. I'd rather ski, even if it's slower. It's more fun and a challenge. And exciting to be sure, though you do risk injury. Derek agrees and always wants to be on skis if it makes sense.

Homie did the round trip in 8.5 hours, but Derek and I took 9h10m. We'd covered 13 miles and about 5500 vertical feet, a lot of that pretty difficult going. I was tired. On the long drive home I tried to make sure I was always within 5 mph of the speed limit. So I was quite distressed when driving across South Park, when I saw the alarming lights behind me. Another police car was coming up behind me, all lit up. Damn it! I thought. Not again. I was being careful. I pulled over to the side and stopped...and the cruiser flew right on by me!

Derek descending the rock-hard snow

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Winter 14ers: La Plata and Mt. Massive

Brutal conditions on Mt. Massive

My buddy Homie has done 56 of the 58 14ers in winter! Only nine people have climbed all the 14ers in winter. It's a rather daunting feat because, news flash, it's cold and windy up there in the winter! It's also dangerous. Oh, and many of the routes are longer, since you cannot drive to the regular trailheads in winter. I've done a few 14ers in winter myself and can confirm that the misery level can be quite high, which is why I don't have more.

My other buddy, Danny, has devised an objective point system for tracking your progress towards completing all the 14ers in winter. It is based solely on the number of ascents each peak has seen, in winter, by climbers on Once you have 58 points (actually, 59 points since Danny's system includes North Massive), then you're done, but you don't get exactly one point for each peak. The points for a peak go down with every ascent and that change gets redistributed to the other peaks. Hence, anytime anyone climbs any of these 14ers, the points change, though usually marginally so. The total for all the peaks always totals 59. It's total nerdvana, but it gives a great indication of how close you are, effort-wise, to finish the 14ers in winter. For example, I've now climbed 20 14ers in winter, but my score is about 12. That's because I've mostly done peaks that have been done by a lot of other climbers.
Peak point values as of Feb. 2, 2017
Mostly the peak point values map pretty well to the actual difficulty of the peak. For instance, the Chicago Basin 14ers, with a very long approach in winter, have the highest value at around 1.7 points each. The system, by its very nature of just counting ascents, takes into account the remoteness of these southern Colorado mountains from the Front Range, where most of the climbers are. This makes the point system biased a bit towards climbers from the Front Range (meaning more indicative of the challenge for a person living in the Front Range) , only because more climbers live there.

There are some surprising point values, though. The lowest point total (at this time) is the highest peak in Colorado! Mt. Elbert only gets 0.11 points. That is not indicative of how difficult this mountain is to climb. It does mean that if people are going to climb just one winter 14er, they want to do Elbert.

I'm interested in the winter 14ers, but I'm sort of wimpy in cold weather, don't like camping in the winter, and am not a fan of long drives. Hence, I'm not making much progress. In order not to stall out completely, I set a goal for myself of just two new winter 14er ascents this year. First on my list was La Plata since Derek, Homie, and I failed on it last year. Well, Homie didn't fail, but he did get some frostbite on his face. Derek and I were beaten back by the high winds and frigid temperatures. I wanted to right that wrong. I first talked to Homie about it in January and he said, "January isn't good. Because I've already climbed it in January. Best to wait for February." Homie is working on "gridding" the 14ers. That means climbing each 14er in every single month of the year! That's a minimum of 696 (58x12) ascents! He's done nearly 500 total 14er ascents already, but has many peak repeats in the same month so is only about 40% done with the Grid, which hasn't been done by anyone so far.

We went on Sunday, February 19th and Homie picked me up at 5 a.m. - a pretty casual start for a mountain that was 2.5 hours away. Homie drove us to the trailhead, conveniently the same as the summer trailhead, and were were moving by 7:40 a.m. It was a balmy 16 degrees. In Boulder, Homie would have been in shorts. I pulled on my shell for a bit of extra warmth and started in my big mitts to avoid having cold hands at all. After decades of doing things winter mountains, this is sort of a revelation. Until this year I always started out in lighter gloves and would switch to the big mitts only when my hands got too cold. That's dumb. I've embraced my wimpiness and will now just pull out the big guns at the trailhead.

I used my usual strategy when going with strongmen like Homie. I'd lead the way while the track was packed and firm. Once the going got tough, with deep snow or excessive wind, I step aside and say, "Your turn to lead." My partners don't seem to be catching on. That or they are too nice to point out my shirking of the work. We carried snowshoes on this climb, but never used them.

We started at around 10,000 feet and needed to get to 14,330 feet. La Plata is a big one - the fifth highest in the state - and I was expecting to greatly suffer above 14,000 feet. A ways before treeline we came across two climbers. One appeared a bit heftier than you normally see doing stuff like this. They both wore sizeable packs. They were nice and let us by. They had a third, strong climber, further up. We'd see them again.
Mismatching gloves is the height of fashion in the extreme mountaineering world.
Just before treeline we met three climbers just gearing up outside their tent. Then, right at treeline, we found six tents! That's a huge group for this sort of thing. We didn't see any climbers, though, and had to even break some trail here to get to the steep, rocky slope called the Headwall. This is steep and loose, but only two or three hundred feet high. It leads to the north ridge, which we'd then follow clear to the summit. Just above the Headwall we stashed our snowshoes, pretty sure we wouldn't need them higher up.

Homie was in the lead now and I was keeping up, mostly. We just kept moving and 500 feet below the summit, we met a group of ten descending. They were the climbers from the six tents. It was a Colorado Mountain Club (CMC) alpine climbing class. This was their graduation climb. Cool. We moved on by and Homie started to open a gap on me. I tried to move continuously to the summit and nearly did it, only stopping once for 10-20 seconds. I didn't want to be stopping and resting with Homie up there, just climbing along like was on Green Mountain. I hadn't been to altitude in a long time and was shocked I did this well. It would prove to be an anomaly.

On the summit, my hands and feet were a bit cold and I didn't even sit down. I was only there for 2-3 minutes and didn't eat or drink because I wanted to keep moving to stay warm. We descended together and I quickly developed a rather painful altitude headache. Homie would get one as well. We said hi to the three climbers from the first tent as they ascended by us. Then we caught and passed the CMCers.
On the summit of La Plata (14,336 feet)
We took a short break at our snowshoe cache to eat, drink, and take some Advil. Once back below treeline we stopped briefly to shed some clothing and I dug out a bit more food. Miraculously my headache was gone. Either the Advil was very fast acting or the rapid descent did the trick. I glanced at my watch here, noticing that we'd been moving for just over five hours. I figured we'd break six hours for the round trip and was prepared to push a little if necessary.

The descent went easily and smoothly. We caught and passed the first three climbers we saw that morning. They weren't fit enough for this peak, but the leader vowed to be back. We got back to the car after 5h58m. Having a track and reasonable weather sure helps.

Mt. Massive

Danny emailed Homie and I about climbing Mt. Massive and I was immediately interested and mentioned it to my son Derek. He hadn't done any big mountains since August of the previous year.
As the weekend approached, we decided that Sunday was the best day, though we all acknowledged it was on the very edge of what we were willing to attempt. The call was for 25-30 mph winds with gusts to 45 mph. This would turn out to be conservative, if anything. Derek said it best when he wrote, "Worst case we’ll be out and exercising and we’ll turn around if we need to."

We met in Superior at 4 a.m. and Danny drove us all down to the trailhead at the Fish Hatchery, outside of Leadville. Homie and Danny were going on snowshoes because they can't ski worth shit. Neither can Derek or I, but we're not going to be plodding around on snowshoes like a couple of winter hares when we can be fumbling and falling in the woods.

Homie led the way, having already done the peak in winter, of course. Part of the reason he was along, besides the Grid entry, was that he wanted to stay ahead of me in winter 14ers, on his second time through them! That's right - he's climbed more 14ers in winter twice, than I have climbed at all.

I fell back right from the start. I thought I was fit. I had done so well on La Plata. Derek was cruising, right behind Homie. I wondered how he could be so fit. He was basically doing this off-the-couch. His only exercise was flag football once a week and gym climbing. He'd say later that it was just pure excitement that fueled him. Reality would set in eventually, but not until we were descending.

I continued to lag, but never too far back. Danny hung back with me for a while to chat, but after our first pee break, he wanted a turn on the front. Never once during this trip did I see Danny out of breath. Nor did I see him appear to be cold or miserable in any way. He appears to be a younger version of Homie. These two are an excellent team and earlier this winter they went into the Chicago Basin and climbed Sunshine and Windom, passing on Eolus due to avalanche danger.

Some people are just very well suited to the cold. People that pull sleds solo to the poles, for instance. I think Homie and Danny are of this ilk. I'm not. For me to succeed I need very good gear. Danny went up this peak in such light boots I thought they might be running shoes. Homie at least had double plastic boots. Derek and I both had the boots we took up Denali. For me that meant the Olympus Mons - a highly specialized boot that is very warm and quite light (for its warmth, anyway), but with soles so soft that you cannot use the boot bare. It must either be clipped into a ski or a crampon. On Denali that was no problem. In Colorado, with all the bare rocks we have above treeline, that mostly disqualifies it. But on this ascent, we clipped into skis in the parking lot and when we dumped the skis and the others pulled on Microspikes, I put on my crampons. Sure, I dulled the crampons up a bit on all the rocks, but my feet stayed warm and I didn't ruin my $1000 boots.
Danny looking up at a wind-blasted Mt. Massive
Conditions in the trees were quite nice, though still pretty cold. It was calm and I didn't even hear any wind. At one point we got a glimpse of the upper mountain and it did look fearsome, but we still didn't hear anything. That all changed right at tree line. We stopped there, coming to our senses and prepared to turn around. At least that was what I was doing. My partners were just slipping on their hard shells, digging out their goggles, and pulling on their balaclavas. I looked at my partners and said, "Are you guys serious? We can't make the top in that. I can't." They mostly agreed, but didn't see any point in turning around prematurely. They wanted to get beat up before they turned tail. We cowards don't need such incentives to run. But we do like company and I wasn't going to head down alone.

Besides my crazy boots protecting my sensitive feet, I was the only one who wore a down jacket the entire time I was above treeline. I didn't sweat in it because I wasn't able to move that fast or even continuously on most of the upper mountain. It kept me warm and allowed me to continue where lesser gear would have turned me around.

I also wore giant mittens with extra large chemical heaters in them. Derek did the same. Even Homie had on his warmest gloves, though very light compared to ours. Everyone had on their shells, hoods, goggles, and balaclavas. Any skin exposed for even a few minutes would suffer some damage. In fact, both Danny and Homie did some damage to the faces, just under their goggles. It's easy to do because very quickly your face will go from cold to numb and you can't tell you are in trouble unless you have someone look at your face. I tried to watch for any skin exposed, but I failed to notice this about my partners. The damage was minor here, but it was a good reminder of how diligent you have to be and to call on your partners to check on you.

All this great gear is essential, for me at least, to summit 14ers in winter, but by far the most important thing to bring is great partners. My gear is great. My partners are the best. As I struggled upwards into the tremendous wind, lagging behind everyone I thought back to when I was the leader. When I was the strongman. I wonder if my partners remember that time. Danny doesn't, as he's a new friend. He only knows me as the weak link. I'm embracing age and diminishing fitness and skills. I know it is inevitable. Instead of sulking about my position on the team, I felt tremendous love for my partners and from my partners. They were looking out for me. They wanted me along despite my shortcomings. Mountains are great. Climbing is great. But the reason I love this stuff is because of my relationships with my partners. I found myself hyperventilating with emotion more than exertion. While this felt great in my heart, it was hurting my lungs and I tried to calm myself emotionally.

On the way up, at the height of my suffering, Derek asks me, "Hey, when does winter end?" I tell him that we have three more weekends of official winter and he says, "Because, you know, I have a streak of climbing Longs Peak in winter going." Yeah, his streak is currently at one winter in a row. I couldn't believe that at this point in the climb, he was dreaming about another one. That doesn't happen to me. I need a day or two to forget the suffering. Derek revels in the suffering. He said, "I'd sort of forgotten how much fun this is." I was having trouble seeing the fun through the blurred vision of exhaustion. I think for him, it's not so much the suffering as the deep feeling of adventure, of the quest for something not many can or want to do. For the first time in my life, I didn't immediately commit to going with Derek. I couldn't; not in the midst of this suffering. I said, "Yeah, maybe, but if you post to the Minions group I'm sure you'll get some partners." That's embarrassing. As I write this days later, I will definitely join him, if he's going up Longs. I've probably done Longs Peak ten times in winter, at least five times solo, by at least six different routes, including D7 on the Diamond. One time I traversed four routes solo in winter: up the Loft/Beaver/Home Stretch, down Keyhole, up Northwest Couloir, and then down the North Face. I'm familiar with that mountain.

Fully bundled up and still feeling okay, apparently.
I wasn't eating or drinking very well, which, unfortunately, is par for the course for me in these conditions, but Derek prompted me to eat and drink some at our next break. I didn't think much of this, but Danny later would say that I sped up afterwards. Maybe from 1.0 mph to 1.01 mph. I think it was more of my partners slowing up a bit to wait for me. At a regrouping high on the mountain I asked to take the lead for a bit, because there was a bit of trailbreaking to do. It wasn't much, but I wanted to contribute something more than zero. I led for a few hundred vertical feet. Mission accomplished!

Danny headed for the summit
Danny led the way on the final push with Homie hot on his heels. Derek and I lagged behind a bit and arrived on the summit probably 5-10 minutes after them. Once again I didn't bother taking off my pack and ate the food and water offered to me by Homie. We started down after five minutes or so. Homie and Danny briefly discussed bagging North Massive. I took one look at the ridge over to it and the significant drops and gains along it and immediately dismissed it. I rationalized that I'd never considered that part of the Colorado 14ers and it has never been included in the summer speed records, but the real reason was I was too tired to get over there. I was glad when the others agreed and we all descended together.
Derek, Homie, and me on the descent
Halfway back to our skis Derek was bonking hard and needed to sit down and refuel. I waited for him and Danny and Homie waited below. The weather seemed to be improving. It was still windy, but I could wait for quite a while without getting cold. After Derek ate and drank, he was a new man and quickly dropped me on the descent. We all regrouped at our ski cache. Homie had stashed his snowshoes here, but Danny had put his lower down and was having trouble finding them. After some searching they were located.

Derek and I carried our skis a bit lower, until the snow was more continuous and then put them on. We kept on the skins for the upper part of the descent, to help control our speed on the steep sections. We were both a bit dismayed at the amount of climbing or flats on the descent. With our heels locked down, these were a chore. Our mountaineering bindings don't allow switching between a locked and free heel without taking the ski off, so we plodded along getting more fatigued. Homie and Danny motored on ahead, assuming we'd catch up when the skiing became easier and faster.

Lower down I took off my skins, but Derek kept his on. He's still gaining experience skiing in mountaineering boots and a pack in the backcountry. If you're a hotshot downhill skier and think this is're wrong. Derek's tough and a very good athlete, so he's coming along quickly. Lower down he removed just one of his skins. It was a unique solution. He'd ski along on one leg when he needed the glide and only put down the ski with the skin if he needed to slow down or if his leg was getting too tired. Finally, on the lowest part, Derek removed both skins, but the skiing became so flat in spots that it required lots of double-poling. I freed my heel for this part.

When I skied into the parking lot Danny said to me, "That's the first time I've ever beat a skier down!" Apparently, I'm the slowest skier Danny has ever climbed with. At least I'm the best at something - going slow.

I embraced my partners, so thankful to be on their team. It's cheating a bit to go with these three. I admit that. I acknowledge I wouldn't have made the top without them. Does that make me less of a climber? Perhaps. But the best part about climbing is my companions. I didn't contribute much today, but I hope to have more chances in the future to prove useful.