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 Colorado...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 14ers.com. 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 easy...you'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.

1 comment:

Gayla Wright said...

What a great write-up!!! Love reading it from my warm cuddley bed. You all are animals and seen to have a clutten for punishment. Not proper English, but you get the message. Bill, you do have a flair for writing and keeping your reader interested. Even if it is at your expense. Derek has grown so in these climbing adventures. You want your kids to surpass you someday, but maybe not today!!! Think Derek has inherited your love of the mountain and adventures. Can not critique this now as I am headed to the Amazon in a couple of hours. My compliments to your climbing partners. They certainly are the best!!! Guess now I love you all as you are keeping my boys safe.
Happy adventuring. The NaƱa