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

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