Monday, April 09, 2018

I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Still-Standing Rock

I probably first became aware of this tower from Layton Kor’s book Beyond The Vertical. Kor was a hero of mine. How could he not be if you ever read Climb: A History of Colorado Climbing? Kor climbed everything. With anyone. He succeeded on extreme climbs with neophyte partners. My buddy Opie made one of the most apt comments when discussing Kor approaching Castleton Tower (he did the first ascent) via a very steep, loose cone: His balls were so big he had to carry them up there in a wheelbarrow.

Indeed, Kor was bold. One look at Standing Rock and a sane climber would turn tail and immediately dismiss it. But Kor climbed it via scary A3+ and I had no intention of following in his large footsteps. Too scary. Or it was. Then it got free climbed, mostly at 5.10. New, safe belay and rappel anchors went in and when they did, the climb went onto my to-do list. That was ten years ago. Since I’m not sure medical science will solve the dying thing before I reach 100 (they might), I decided I better get that tower done. When Tom mentioned it, I didn’t hesitate.

Standing Rock is located in Monument Basin - a place rather difficult to get to. This is a remote area of Canyonlands National Park. Most climbers drive the White Rim Trail for 4 hours and then rappel down into the basin. We didn’t want to do the drive and found some information about accessing the White Rim directly from the Island In The Sky mesa. There is a, possibly mythical, route called the Government Trail that descends from the mesa that doesn’t require fixed lines. We read about someone descending it, though they called it 5.5. Neither Tom nor I wanted to onsight down solo 5.5 on a 500-foot cliff with heavy packs. Still, it sounded like the easiest way down. We never found it.

We drove out Friday night and slept just off the Mineral Bottom Road. I’ve crashed there many a time before riding the White Rim Trail. No sooner than we had laid down our bags than it started raining. We popped up, emptied out the back of Tom’s truck and slept in the back. The next morning we drove out to Grand View Point. Somewhat surprisingly, I’d never been there before. Mainly because there is no trail (other than the phantom Government Trail) that gets one off the mesa. There is a nice 1-mile hike that goes out to the very tip of the mesa, which is well worth doing.

We packed up a rack, a 70-meter lead line, and two extra ropes for fixing: a 30-meter 9.8mm and an over-due-for-retirement 60-meter 7.8mm line. We both carried a jugging setup as well, to ascend any fixed lines we might place. We hiked a 100-feet out to the viewpoint and then hiked to our left, north, along the eastern edge of the mesa, looking for a way down. The cliff is huge and very steep, so it was difficult to see much when peering over the edge. After a quarter mile or so, we got to a steep gully cutting into the cliff. We figured it was our only shot for descending.

We worked our down some small ledges to the lip of the first vertical cliff. It looked no more than 100 feet high and ended in a hike-able gully that led to another steep drop. We decided to descend and check things out. We anchored our rope around some huge rocks near the lip and then dropped in, wearing our packs, which was the wrong decision. Our packs were quite heavy and the rappel was free hanging for nearly the entire way and the weight of our packs pulled us back uncomfortably. We lowered the packs down separately from then on.

We descended the gully to the next steep section, which was only about 30 feet high, but also overhanging. We fixed the skinny rope here and dropped down onto the ledge below, which was right above another 100-foot cliff. Our rope reached the bottom and we did our third completely free-hanging rappel down to the steep slope below. I cached my jugging setup here, since we were out of fixed lines.

We hiked down the slope, found our way through the black cliff band and down more steep terrain to the final cliff band above the White Rim. After some searching we found a way down this as well. We hiked out a wash until it hit the White Rim Road. We continued across this to the very rim and then hiked along it, looking for any way down into Monument Basin. We had read about a fixed 20-foot line. We never found that and I can assure you that there is no fixed line anywhere near where the White Rim overlooks Monument Basin.  We did see a bunch of bikers, though.

We saw one spot where a steep slope got to within thirty feet of the rim and we headed over there to check it out. Sure enough, we could get down here, but we’d have to leave some cams as an anchor and then climb back out, as we couldn’t leave our only remaining rope. We searched further, determined to find the fixed line, with no luck. We could have left some cams and continued on to the tower, but by the time we gave up looking for another way, we were a bit short on time. Plus, we didn’t know if we could leave part of our rack behind and still climb safely. We decided to bail and try again on Sunday. We’d hike back up and check again on how long the drive would take.

We hiked back up the wash, but before we started up steeply, we cached the rack, rope, water, and climbing shoes. We were committed to returning.

Once back at our tiny, ratty 7.8mm line, we donned the jugs and set to work. Tom was not thrilled about ascending this line and I didn’t blame him. When we first headed back, our plan was for me to jug it and then haul up our lead line for Tom to jug, but we had cached it. He jugged it. He didn’t like it, but he did it. I went first and then hauled up both packs. I did the same on the next two jugs. The next two were a bit difficult at the top, as the rope ran tight against the rock as it rolled over to the ledge above.

We left both of these ropes behind, as well. At the top of our last line we stashed our harnesses, helmets, and jugging gear. We hiked back to the car with near empty packs. With some time to kill, we hiked out to Grand View Point and then went to the Visitor Center to confirm the length of the drive. The rangers confirmed a 4-5-hour drive time. No way. I felt that now that we knew the route, we could get down to the White Rim Trail in under two hours. So, we decided to repeat our route the next morning.

We drove back to Mineral Bottom Road and found a place to camp. Once again, we laid out our tarp and were about to throw down our bags, when the rain started. It rained off and on, mostly on, for the rest of the evening and well into the night. We hung out in the truck - Tom in back and me in front, reading. Tom cooked up some ravioli for dinner and we slept in the back of the truck again.

The next morning the ground was soaked, with puddles everywhere. We wondered if the rock would be climbable and figured it wouldn’t be. Either way, though, we were headed down to the White Rim to get our gear. Originally we wanted to be moving by 7 a.m. but everything was so wet that we took a bit longer and didn’t leave the pavement until just before 8 a.m.

We followed our familiar route again, but this time we carried two more ropes (both 30-meters) and four extra cams to fix the rope at the White Rim. We descended to our first line, geared up and rapped in, with our packs, this time, clipped to our harnesses. At the second drop, with the ratty, skinny line, we replaced the first 30-foot rap with a 30-meter 7.8mm rope that was in much better shape (no core shots) and used the extra line from that to fix our second extra line, a 9.8mm rope, which just made it down the 100-foot cliff. With three fixed lines behind us, we continued down to the White Rim, to the location we found before. It took us just 90 minutes to get back to here. We put in the four cams and fixed the middle of the ratty, skinny and rappelled 80 feet down onto the steep slope. We carefully picked our way down this slope and into the winding wash that led us directly to Standing Rock.

We got the rock just 2h15m after leaving the parking lot. We took a break here to survey the tower, eat, drink, and tape up. Tom started up the first pitch around 11 a.m.

Standing Rock is just over 300 feet tall and is normally climbed as four pitches of 5.10, 5.10+, 5.11+, and 5.7. The first pitch is super cool and heads up a dihedral to a huge roof, where you have to traverse hard to the right, around from the east side of the tower onto the north side - the shaded, windy side. Tom dispatched the pitch nicely, working out the gear and finding the belay with the shiny, bomber anchors. I followed without much trouble, except for a steep (slightly overhanging), awkward section above the roof..

I led the second pitch, which traversed on an easy, but airy ledge to a vertical crack system. I climbed up this crack, fighting my way over two overhanging sections which were a bit pumpy. The protection was mostly cams, with a stopper or two, a couple of ancient bolts, and one fixed pin. I passed one three-bolt hanging belay and arrived at a second 3-bolt hanging belay. I was confused if this was the end of the pitch or not. I thought each pitch was going to end on a good ledge. I yelled down to Tom if I was supposed to be at a hanging belay and he thought so, so I belayed there, hanging on the edge of a tower that shouldn’t even be standing.

While Tom followed the pitch, I convinced myself that I made a mistake and should have gone thirty feet higher. I couldn’t see any anchors above, but it looked like there might be a ledge up there. As Tom took off on next lead, I told him my theory, and he said, “No problem. If that’s the belay ledge, I’ll just bring you up to there.” He then climbed up to a very wide crack where he placed our only #4 Camalot. The climbing here was crux-y, as you had to make a big reach on steep ground to a cupped-hand jam and then pull up with marginal help from your other hand. This led directly to another bulge with marginal holds before reaching a great hold just on the belay ledge. Still, getting up and onto the ledge was tiring and Tom did a great job getting the gear in on this pitch. I felt that section was the crux free climbing of the climb…for us.

The next pitch, now my pitch, is the free-climbing crux. It was rated 11c, but that was when there was this hold called the Elephant’s Ear, which no longer exists. I climbed steep ground up to the bolt that protected the crux. After a brief look at the crumbling edge I’d have to grab and pull on, with no feet at all, I quickly decided to aid it. I put a sling on the bolt and pulled up and stepped in it. From there I could reach a fixed pin, which I clipped and then pulled on it. I climbed maybe ten feet above the pin and clipped another bolt. Here I went to the left a bit, to some limestone and pulled over the bulge onto a good ledge. I followed this well to the right, up an easy section and back a bit to the left, where I found a belay from two old bolts and one newer bolt. I belayed here and Tom followed, using aid as well. He felt there was no way he could free climb the crux move and Tom’s sent 5.13. Regardless, it was beyond me to free it, but I’m really good at cheating on bolts. It’s sort of a specialty of mine.

Tom led the final 5.7 pitch to the summit, which spiraled further around the spire to the south side. It was runout and the rock quality wasn’t great, but nor was the difficulty and Tom tread lightly. The summit is roughly six feet by fifteen feet. We found a summit register in a water bottle stashed on the summit. Inside was a single piece of paper, which documented at least three or four ascents this year, including one by two friends of mine: Timmy O’Neill and Erik Weinmayer. Erik’s blind and I once again shook my head in amazement by what he can do. Just approaching this tower is an adventure. The only other thing in the water bottle were two joints and a lighter. We left them unsmoked. We couldn’t even add our names since there was no writing instrument.

We took some photos and then descended, easily, via three rappels from bomber, 3-bolt, chain anchors. Our 70-meter rope comfortably made the first two rappels and just barely touched the ground on the last one. We knew a 70-meter would work and opted to bring it instead of two 50 or 60-meter lines.

We ate and drank some more, before packing our gear. The tower took us about 4 hours to climb, roundtrip. All we had left to do was to ascend 2000 feet back to the Island in the Sky, jugging and collecting our four ropes along the way. By the time we topped out, our packs were really heavy. Tom jugged the first line and hauled the packs and I went first on the next two and hauled the packs. We got back to the car just before 5 p.m. and just before ten hours.

What a cool adventure this was! Standing Rock really is a crazy tower. Almost the entire tower is offset from the base, so it seems even more precarious. Once on it, though, the rock is surprisingly reasonable. Yes, there is some of bad rock too, but all the gear seems solid and while it would have been scary to fall on this tower, I felt all my placements would have held a fall. The three rappel anchors are the most bomber I’ve seen anywhere. That’s pretty shocking considering the rock on this tower.

I suspect this tower will stand for a thousand years or more, but eventually it will topple. When it does, you don’t want to be on it, but it would be very cool to watch it go from a safe distance. Get it while it’s Still Standing Rock.

Postscript: The drive home was a nightmare, as we drove through a driving snowstorm so fierce that we could hardly see the road. This was over both Vail Pass and up and through the tunnel. The worst of it was probably descending to Georgetown. This is a 3-lane highway and we were the only vehicle on the road, driving as close to the center as we could. The only way we knew we were on the road was sighting the median on our left and the guard rail (not always there) on the right. Visibility straight ahead was around fifty feet or less. We drove 15 mph. Finally, past Georgetown it let up to rain and then stopped. We got home at 2 a.m.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Longs Peak Again

I'm well into a complete indoctrination of Derek. I'm instilling in him a love of Longs Peak. Perhaps the job is already done, but I'm insuring that it sticks. With this ascent he's now climbed it 12 times by nine different routes. He's twice done it without me, guiding up his friends. He's even getting the winter treatment. He's now climbed the peak the last three winters, each time by a different route.

This trip we invited our friend Dan Vinson because when he sent me his goals for the year, I noticed these two:
  • climb a winter 14er
  • climb Longs Peak in winter
Derek pointed out these goals overlap a bit.

It was also my first adventure since a medical issue I had two weeks earlier.  On the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 23rd, I started to feel some pain in between my ribs on the left side of my chest. It was uncomfortable, but no big deal. I could find the specific spot and if I pressed on it, it hurt. I figured I must have injured myself in the climbing gym that morning, though I didn't recall. But what else could it be?

The pain increased throughout the afternoon and by the time I got home, I was very uncomfortable. I took two Advil and that eased things and I ate dinner and watched the Olympics. I took two more before going to bed because it was hurting again. At 2 a.m. I was in serious pain and couldn't lie down in any position. I got up, took two Advil, and 15 minutes later went back to bed, but could only lay on my back. I got up at 6 a.m. and took two more. I was meeting a buddy to hike/run up Bear Peak and I did that, taking two Advil at 7:30 a.m. and then two more just as I started back down (this is about a 6-mile hike with 2700 feet of climbing). I got home, at some lunch, took a shower and went to work (yes, on a Saturday, as I had some stuff I needed to get done). At 2:05 p.m. I sent Sheri this text:

"Hey, my chest really hurts. Uncomfortable to even sit at my desk. I took two more Advil, but not better yet. Just whining, but I can’t work very well."

Then 20 minutes later I sent this: "Advil kicked in! That stuff really works…"

Curious about my chest pain, I googled and found this link: Rib cage pain: Six possible causes

The most common cause, as expected, was a sports injury. I scanned the others and found #6. Then, as a joke (not so funny now), I sent this email to Sheri:

Hi Mac,

I looked up chest pain and it just must be a pulled muscle (the #1 cause is a sports injury, including a pulled muscle), but number six was interesting because it mentioned a blood clot in the lower leg. But no anxiety and I don't think irregular heartbeat, but I have all the other symptoms! Or at least I did when heading up Bear Peak this morning.

6. Pulmonary embolism
A pulmonary embolism (PE) is when an artery going into the lungs becomes blocked. The blockage is often caused by a blood clot that has traveled up from one of the legs.

As well as rib cage pain, PE can cause the following symptoms:

shortness of breath
rapid breathing
coughing, including coughing up blood
irregular heartbeat
PE is a serious condition that can damage the lungs and other organs due to reduced oxygen in the blood. Anyone who experiences the symptoms of PE should see a doctor.


I noticed the last line, but didn't send it to Sheri:

"The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimate that 30 percent of people who develop PE will die if they do not receive treatment. "

Now I assume I'd be in the 70%, but those odds aren't great with the consequences of losing that bet. But I was 99% sure it was a muscle pull. I'm not a doctor, but I have stayed in a Holiday Inn before, so, you know...

The pain came back though, with a vengence. Much worse than before. I sent this to Sheri at 4:57 p.m.: "Pain back. Majorly. Just took two Advil. 4:57. Major pain."

It became unbearable and I called Sheri to come get me to take me to the hospital, as I didn't think I could drive. I know I could have called 911 and I was holding that in reserve. Sheri was in the shower and didn't answer. I knew Sheri couldn't get into my building, so I had to get out of it. I packed up my computer and, in agony, staggered toward the stairs, calling Sheri again. She answered and I could hardly talk, but as I walked to the stairs, the call cut-off but didn't completely drop. We couldn't hear each other, though. She thought I had passed out. When the call did drop she tried to call me a couple of times with no luck, so she called 911. I got to my car and was in such pain, I didn't want to wait for anyone, so I got in and started driving, slowly and carefully and ready to pull over.

I called Sheri from my car and didn't get her, but left a message that I was headed to Avista. She was on the phone with 911. Shortly after I hung up, my phone rang. Thinking it was Sheri, I answered and got a 911 operator asking where I was and that an ambulance was on the way. I thought I could make it to the hospital, but kept the lady informed on where I was and she stayed on the line with me. She called ahead to Avista and called Sheri back.

In the meantime, Sheri was just pulling into Oracle when she got my voicemail and turned around to head for Avista.

I pulled up in front, the 911 operator told me to do that, as I was going to try and park. No one was there - apparently I went to the wrong emergency door - not the door for an ambulance. I staggered in bent over in intense pain and the lady at the desk calmly asked, "Can I help you, sir?"

"I have massive chest pain," adding immediately, "It's not a heart attack" so that no one would panic. I'm bent over at the counter and she just asks for my birth date. I give it. They pull someone else. Pain crushing. I give my address. My middle name. I'm giving two forms to sign. I scribble my name as a guy comes out with a wheelchair and I sit down, but the pain isn't any less. He sees my name on the form. and asks, "Bill Wright? Are you the runner / marathoner?" No marathoner here, but I knew he was talking about me, so I say, "Yes." It was Armen Goodwin,  one of my Strava followers. Cool.

They wheeled me back to an emergency room and started hooking me up to machines. O2, EKG, blood pressure. A second nurse tried to get an IV in my right arm, but I was so tensed up, breathing really shallowly because anything else was more pain that I could take. I was in serious distress and needed relief. They tried to get to me relax and I tried. They got the needle in my arm and started pumping some drugs into me. Five minutes later, or less, my pain eased enough where I could talk semi-normally.

Sheri shows up a bit later and everything is under control. I'm a bit embarrassed that I can't take the pain of a muscle strain or tear or whatever it is. I expect to get diagnosed with exactly that and issued some industrial strength pain killers to handle the pain. I even tell Sheri that. I say, I think I have a 99.99% of being home tonight. Once again, remember the Holiday Inn. I'm not quite a doctor, but I'm close.

I've just had a physical less than a week ago and given a clean bill of health. They say with any chest pain they do a blood test to look for D-dimer - something in your blood if you have a clot. I figure it is a waste of time, but they have their procedures and they do them. Despite my expertise, I defer to them.

In an hour or so they come back and tell me the D-dimer count is high and now the procedure says they have to do a CAT scan of my chest. There are other reasons for D-dimer to be there, so I'm still pretty confident it is overkill and maybe they are just running up the bill, but with some justification, so the insurance company has to pay.  The CAT scan is a cool looking donut-shaped (so you know I loved it. Donuts!) machine. They inject a radio-active substance in me and it is supposed to make me feel hot and like I've peed myself. Sure enough, it is a warm feeling, but I don't feel that I've peed.

Back in my emergency room, we wait. And wait. Around 9 p.m. the doctor comes and says, "Turns out you have pulmonary embolisms in both lungs." Bummer. Now the doctor was interesteded in my phantom leg pains from December and January. I had those checked out but they didn't find anything. Most pulmonary embolisms start in the lower legs and go to the lungs.

So, what to do about it? I need to be on blood thinners and they started me right away with an injection to the stomach fat (thankfully I have plenty). Before the nurse injected me, she psyched me up for it: "This is going to hurt. Not just the needle going in, but it's going to burn. For some people significantly." Great. Bring it on. Not much I can do about it. Turned out to be not too bad. I got another one the next morning. Not my favorite activity, but I can deal. Absolutely nothing compared to my chest pain. I'd have to give myself these shots twice a day for the next five days.

The bad news was that the blood thinners would not dissolve my clots. I'd have to wait for my body to do that naturally. The blood thinners will prevent the clots from getting bigger or getting more of them. After five days of two-shots-a-day, given by myself, I'll transition to Pradaxa, which is a pill, and take that twice a day. While on blood thinners I can no longer compete in any UFC events and need to be careful with running, climbing, etc. as I need to avoid any bruising because I'll bleed a lot.

They initially said I'd be on blood thinners for 3-6 months and then the doctor this morning said 6 months, but I talked him down to 3 months and he was totally fine with that. I'm not restricted from any activity, except things where I might bruise, which is pretty much everything I do.

The good news is that I have an excuse for doing so poorly at altitude and in my Green TT last Thursday. What else could explain Homie and Danny Gilbert being faster than me?

The ultrasound technician noticed an anomaly with my heart and I might have the same hole that my sister Brook and brother Chris had. Later the results would confirm this. It can be fixed with an operation that goes up a vein into the heart to patch the hole, but one thing at a time. First I needed to clear the emboli. This will soon pass. I have big plans for the year and nothing has changed there. And because nothing was changing, we went to climb Longs Peak.

Derek had already climbed Longs in winter via the Loft/Clark's Arrow and the North Face, so I selected the Northwest Couloir route. I'd been up this route three times before and really enjoyed it. It heads up the second gully after passing through the Keyhole and has a cool 5.2 crux that passing directly under a massive boulder. To exit the cave underneath the boulder you have to take off your pack and wriggle on your belly.

Things went smoothly and we roped up for two pitches in the gully before soloing the upper 4th class section to the summit, arriving after about six hours of climbing. The descent down the Noth Face was a bit stressful.We should have put on our crampons as soon as we hit the snow, but we didn't and I ended up descending with just Microspikes, mainly because I was lazy. But crampons for Derek and I weren't a full solution since we were in soft boots and the snow (under 8 inches of sugar snow) was rock hard and very difficult to kick into with a soft boot. In retrospect, we should have worn our technical boots. But we took things slow and stayed solid and made it down without a fall. A fall there, without being roped, would likely have been fatal, so nice we didn't fall.

At the top of the North Face pitch we found a couple ascending. The leader, the husband, looks up at me and asks, "Can you just pull me up?" That question took me back a bit. He didn't ask for us to throw him a rope or belay him up, but to "pull him up." I told him where he could place a piece and he got it in. After Dan got off the rappel line (and I had to push him a bit to hurry up, since I was a bit worried about this guy), I offered to drop him a line, but he was good now. He said, "I guess I just needed someone to talk me through it." He would later tell his wife when she got to the same spot, "I thought I was going to die." He was about thirty feet above the last eyebolt and it would have been a nasty, sliding fall, but he wasn't going to die. Plus, he was in a stable position. And we were there to rescue him. After Derek rapped down, I had him toss me up a couple of slings and then I lowered down a bit and got his lead line and clipped it into the belay, so he had toprope for the last ten feet.

Below the rappel the snow was really hard and nearly impossible to get any purchase with dull Microspikes on a soft boot, but I was able to balance myself and then securely move my axe down. It required a lot of concentration and patience. Derek wisely changed to his crampons, but it was still very difficult to kick them in. The saving grace was that the axe was bomber. Having two axes would have made it a lot less stressful.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


On top of Black Mesa, Oklahoma's high point.

Now let's try something really different.

The last two weekends I met my adventure partners at 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. and we did long, tiring, cold 14ers. On both of those trips I went with really strong partners (Homie, Wes, and Derek on Culebra and Homie and Danny on Antero) and really benefited from their help. But it was time to up the ante, from a single peak in a single state, to three peaks in three states!

These aren’t just random peaks either, but state highpoints. What’s more we wanted to do it in a calendar day from our houses and none of the peaks were even in Colorado! Impossible, right? Well, no, if, like I did with the winter 14ers, you pick the right partners. This adventure would involve nearly 1000 miles of driving, so I needed a car and a driver. Enter Mark Oveson.

Mark owns a 2002 BMW M5 - the same car that was used to set the record for driving across the entire United Sates (since broken) in 31 hours, averaging nearly 100 mph for the entire trip. Installed in Mark’s car is a Valentine V1 radar detector and a Laser Interceptor laser jammer. Supplementing this hardware, he ran the Escort iPhone app which tracks speed traps in real time. All this equipment is useless, though, without a motivated driver. Mark was motivated.

Our most essential (and pretty much only) piece of equipment: the M5.
Six months ago, Mark gave up on his right ankle. Eighteen months of antibiotics post surgery didn’t save his cartilage and he had the ankle fused, effectively ending his quite successful career as an ultrarunner. He had his ankle fused in September and he won’t run again. This limited what adventures we could do together. Turns out, his ankle still worked well enough to handle the pedals in his Bimmer (pronounced "Beamer").

The peaks we were after might seem less impressive than my previous weekends, but this was the only weekend where I regretted leaving my helmet behind. Speeding through the inky blackness of eastern Colorado at over 100 miles per hour had me thinking we should be dressed more like a NASCAR racer than a mountain climber. I wasn’t dressed as a mountain climber either, though. I was in my pajamas.
Highpoints around Colorado. I've now done them all. The three eastern ones are the KNOHPIAD.
So, what peaks? Our first was Black Mesa in Oklahoma. After a 325-mile drive down to the trailhead we’d embark on our longest trek of the day: 8.6 miles and nearly 800 feet of climbing. Next up is the precipitous and ominous Mount Sunflower in Kansas. We’d finish up with awesome 360-degree views afforded by Panorama Point in Nebraska. All of these “mountains” were located very close to the Colorado border, so our adventure amounted to a circumnavigation of eastern Colorado.

In order to fit this into a calendar day, I calculated we needed to start at 2 a.m. Mark immediately chopped an hour off the total driving time and we met at 3 a.m. and were rolling by 3:06. We had a full tank of gas, a cooler full of drinks. It was dark. We pulled on our sunglasses and hit it.
Mario Andretti's long lost brother.
In the first two hours, we covered over 160 miles. Surprisingly, we followed another car for a good portion of the drive from Denver to Colorado Springs. Mark remarked at one time about this guy, “He’s absolutely fearless. I’m impressed. He must drive this route often at this time of night.” Our laser jammer went off a number of times, most of the time it appeared to be a false positive, but once it warned us of a cop coming straight at us. Derek and I were both impressed how well that worked. Mark explained to me that you never want to JTG a cop. That stands for Jam-To-Gun and means you don’t want to let the cop know he’s been jammed. Ideally, you get warned early, you slow down, turn off the jammer, and let the cop get your now-legal speed. Then turn on the jammer and drop the hammer.
Derek pacing himself for the night driving on the way back. Oops! He can't drive a stick. Dang. Bad parents, clearly.
I dropped the ball on navigation and when Black Mesa Preserve came up on Google Maps, we just headed that way. When we got close I read our guidebook description from the town of Kenton…which we didn’t quite hit. I did get a bit confused with the directions here, but the signage was all directing us to the Preserve and when we got there, it wasn’t the right place. Some helpful guys directed us back the way we came and now the directions in the book made complete sense. We lost 30 minutes here, but more importantly we wasted some gas. This would cause us some stress later.

The road signs here all face south. Our 80 mph speed when headed the other way may have also been a contributing factor, but the trailhead was very clearly marked as we headed back to the north. We pulled into the small dirt lot and Mark swung into action. In 5 minutes he had used the bathroom, pulled on his tiny pack, and was off down the trail. Derek and I took another ten minutes or so to get ready. Mark took off early because of his limited mobility.
Surprisingly nice hiking on Black Mesa.
I decided to run the trail until I caught up to Mark, so that I could chat with him. Derek didn’t want to run with me, probably due to his knee, but he wasn’t saying. Maybe he was still too sleepy for conversation. It took me 1.3 miles to catch Mark, who is obviously still a fast walker. The trail is nearly flat for the first two miles and then it climbs 775 feet up to the top of the mesa over the third mile and then another mile to the high point, which is marked with an impressive obelisk. Derek caught us with a half mile to go. He’s an even faster walker.
Derek atop the true high point of Oklahoma. I wonder how many highpointers cheat and just touch the marker...
We took some photos and even had Derek climb up onto my thigh and then shoulders so that he could sit on top of the marker. Mark celebrated the high point (not summit, though, as the top of the Black Mesa is actually in New Mexico, though it is pretty dang flat up there), by giving each us our own ziplock of four homemade marshmallow Rice Krispies treats. Yum.

Back at the car, we punched in the coordinates for the nearest gas station, which was in Boise City. Mark’s computer said we had 30 miles of range left. The gas station was 40 miles away. Mark slowed below the speed limit for the only time during the entire trip to milk as many miles out of the rapidly drying gas tank. The computer’s range readout went to 3 miles with 13 miles to go. We started calculating how long it would take me to run to town, get the gas, and wrangle a ride back to the car. The readout went blank with still nine miles to go. We were sensitive to any perceived change in the car’s velocity. With three miles to go, it would only be a minor inconvenience. By the time we pulled into the Toot ’n Tote’em for some high-octane petrol and some world-famous hotdogs, we knew that the M5 can go at least ten miles further than its computer thinks it can.
Glorious Mount Sunflower. Ah, the vistas from atop this "mountain."
Mark’s M5 is chip-limited to 165 mph, though he hasn’t tested it.The best he’s done was 149 mph on I-70. We hit a new top speed for the trip when we headed north on 287 out of Boise City. Mark had promised the M5 that if it got us to the gas station before running dry, he’d let it go fast again and immediately delivered, to the tune of 121, 132, 139. Did I mention that Mark was motivated? Having the right partners makes all the difference. Nowadays my only contribution is thinking up the adventures. Then I recruit partners and help me achieve it.

Mark's Escort app. Derek's in the back watching a movie and I'm writing this blog. I mean it's only 129 mph.
The drive to Mount Sunflower wasn’t nearly as arduous as it sounds. Thinking back on it now, I don’t even remember how many switchbacks were involved. Mark drove so smoothly it seemed,  at the time, like none. We parked at respectful distance from this hallowed ground and weaved our way, on foot, through the cow pies to the very summit. I think the word “spectacular” isn’t overstating things, but, for perspective, I think an Egg McMuffin is a sublime breakfast sandwich.

After crafting a suitable Strava track, we bid farewell to this solitary monarch, jutting so majestically out of the Kansas ranch land. We folded ourselves back into the M5 and once again unleashed the Kraken. It was on this next stretch of road where Mark set his personal record of 151 mph. Up a hill. On a two-lane road. A bit after this a road sign indicated a curving 90-degree turn ahead. Mark was approaching at 90 mph. I wasn’t overly concerned, but did say, “Mark, turn coming up.” He said, “Oh, so you want me to speed up?” We exited the turn at 98 mph.
Now we're talking. This got everyone's attention.
Mark was pumped up after his 151 mph record, but he didn’t want to repeat it. He proclaimed, “Under 100 mph from here on out.” Seconds after he said this, I saw that we hit 101 mph and I say so. He responds, “Oops, that was by accident.” A bit later we went into another one of those sweeping 90-degree turns at 98 mph. Clearly he had backed off considerably. Not!

Nebraska's Panorama Point
Finding Panorama Point was a definite low point on the trip. Our light was fading fast and our Google-Map directions were faulty, telling us to turn on non-existent roads. We did not pull a Michael Scott and drive into the fence, though. We continued north and Google re-routed us onto the roads from our guidebook, which started from I-80 to our north. These worked fine and finally found a sign saying the highpoint was near and to pay $3/person. We could have easily avoided this payment, but we made it as requested. We proceeded down a dirt road with a bit of a crown. Too much crown for the M5, slung about four inches off the ground, but Mark didn’t seem concerned with a bit of scraping.

It was cold and windy here, to be expected at a nose-bleeding altitude of 5,424 feet. I know this because I sometimes gets nose bleeds at home too, which is almost exactly this height. We took some photos and looked around and then hopped back in the car. A half-mile away Mark remembered that we didn’t get a Strava track. Ack! Mark turned off traction control, punched the 400-hp V8, and we spun a neat 180 degrees. Back at the highpoint, while Derek stayed in the car (he forgot his watch), Mark and I walked around in circles until our phones registered a tenth of a mile. This is mountain climbing at its finest!
Just in the nick of time. I mean, who would go highpointing at night? That's when we go cow tipping!
We turned our backs on Nebraska and were soon back in Colorado, speeding our way towards home. I took the wheel for the final 80 minutes to spell our MVP. His job was done and the IAD part of our adventure was in the bag. We arrived back at our start at 8:03 p.m. completing the FKTBM (Fastest Known Time By Me) in 16h57m.

This was my first real experience with high pointing. I guess I’m a high pointer now. Crossing that line is sort of like joining AARP for a climber. I’ve now done both, but, dammit, I’m still not retired. Probably this blog entry will get a lot of attention and I’ll soon be asked to speak all across the country. Though probably not at the high pointers club, since I’ve only done 14.
Enjoying the panorama at Nebraska's Point. This captures the true essence of highpointing...
When Derek told one of his friends he was going to do this, the friend shook his head and said, “You’ve done some crazy things in the past, but this…this?” I’m not even sure how to characterize it myself. It was more of a Cannonball Run than even a hiking trip. We definitely contributed a bit to global warming and since the high on Monday is supposed to be just twenty degrees…you’re welcome.

Our SPOT Track:

In case it isn't obvious KNOHPIAD stands for Kansas Nebraska Oklahoma High Points In A Day.

Sunday, February 11, 2018


This will be embarrassing for me. If you want to feel good about your abilities in the mountains, don’t go with any of my climbing partners.

I climbed Mt. Antero with my buddies Homie and Danny. I've joked before that going with Homie on a 14er was basically being guided up the peak. This was no joke. I was all but carried to the top of this peak by these two. On the one hand I was so thankful to have such compassionate, strong friends and climbing partners. On the other hand, I was quite disappointed that I was a net negative on this climb. I contributed absolutely nothing and was a burden on my partners. Now if I were paying these guys to guide me up this peak, that would be one thing. It has me seriously considering whether I should partner with these guys. I was somewhat okay with being a zero as a climbing partner, but I'm not okay with being a negative...
Taking a drink at treeline.
I didn't even add good conversation on this climb, as I could do little more than breathe heavily. I didn't take in any of the spectacular views because my head was down most of the time, following their tracks. There is no way I would have made this summit without my partners, my guides. I'd have turned around because of the cold. I'd have turned around with the track they made. I'd have turned around because of fatigue.

I obviously didn't plan to be such a burden and I wouldn't have gone if I had known it was going to turn out this way. I know I'm a wimp in the cold and I try to make up for it with gear. And I stay inside if things are going to be too brutal. I knew it was going to be pretty cold when I decided to go. My biggest problem is my hands and feet. My hands are pretty much taken care of by my huge down mittens and 14-hour chemical heaters. As long as I keep my hands in the mittens, I'm generally okay. Any manipulation I have to do without the mittens on can put me into trouble, but my heaters will generally recover my hands. My feet are a bigger problem.
We ditched the snowshoes and are heading up the grassy, soon-to-be-rocky, ridge.
For this long day out, I decided to wear my soft, single boots, because there was no technical climbing - it was just hiking. I wore these on Aconcagua, but my feet weren't in snow at all down there. But these soft boots are so much more comfortable for hiking than my double mountaineering boots, that I wanted to wear them. I wore two pairs of mountaineering socks, used chemical footbed heaters, and had battery-heated insoles care of my buddy Colby of Rock and Resole. So, I at least came prepared.

We met at my house at 3:30 a.m. and Homie drove us down to the trailhead for Antero. In summer, you can drive to over 13,000 feet on this mountain in a 4WD vehicle. In winter, you start just over 9000 feet and walk the road, which we knew was not only covered in snow, but tons of water had flowed over the road and frozen solid, some of it more than two feet thick. In anticipation of that, we pulled on the Microspikes at the car. We all carried snowshoes (slowshoes, they are called by people in the know) because the area supposedly got more than a foot of snow the day before.
I'm hurting and have still so far to go.
As we drove through Leadville the bank display showed a temperature of -10 degrees. Thankfully I didn't see this, though Homie did tease me a bit by saying, "Good thing Bill didn't see that temperature reading." Indeed, at the trailhead things were cold. Danny pulled on his heavier gloves right at the car and I should have put on my down mittens. I did have my big chemical heaters in my lighter gloves, though.

Within the first hour I asked Homie where the car keys were. I knew turning around was a real possibility for me, maybe a probability, and wanted to know if the keys were hidden down by the car. He said the keys were in his pack. I wanted to ask for the keys, but it was too early. I'd go a bit further and see how bad things got.

For the first hour and 45 minutes I resisted turning on my boot heaters because I thought they'd only last four hours, maybe less, and I wanted to make sure I got to the summit with them still working. If they died then, I was headed down anyway and would just have to tough it out. I wanted to go two hours, but I couldn't last. My feet were in trouble. Both Homie and Danny's feet were cold as well, though they didn't have the chemical and electronic help that I did. About this time we also had to put on the snowshoes, as the snow was now consistently deep. Danny took the lead here and stayed there. He's a workhorse through deep snow. I couldn't even keep up with these guys, following in their track. That isn't right.
Getting high on the ridge.
It seems I've been having more trouble at altitude lately, despite going to nearly 23,000 feet on Aconcagua on early January. I'm not sure, though. Measuring myself against these two, I'm always going to come out short, but how short? At what point should I seek slower, less-fit partners? Closer to my own level?

My hands were so cold putting on my snowshoes that I did a bad job of it and didn't get all my straps right. I also didn't bother taking off my Microspikes. Even then my hands were wooden by the time I had my mitts back on. I trudged on, not wanting to fall too far behind. They waited for me further up and Danny noticed my screwed up snowshoes and fixed them for me. I felt like a little kid being helped by his dad.

I asked Homie, "Might it be better if I had the car keys?" He responded, with some mirth, "Nope. I think they are good right where they are at." I knew he wouldn't make me suffer to the point of doing damage to my feet, but I wondered if he knew how bad things were for me. I could have pressed the issue and he'd have immediately given me the keys. He was just trying to help me to be strong, so that I could make the summit. I very much wanted to be strong. I wanted to make the summit. I wondered how much Homie's opinion of me mattered. Did I care enough to do damage to my feet? I did once. I'd done damage to my feet before with him on Maroon Bells.
This doesn't look like much, but even following in this track was brutally tiring. Danny is a bad man!
Once we broke out of the trees, we decided to leave the road we'd been following and head for a ridge that looked to be mostly grass and rocks - very loose rocks, we'd soon find out. There was still snow up here, but it wasn't very deep and we ditched the snowshoes. It was here that the altitude really started to take a toll on me, but my feet and hands weren't getting any worse.

Danny and Homie waited for me to catch up a couple of times and Danny even gave me some food, knowing that I usually fail to eat when conditions get this cold. Each stop, though, I'd try to get a drink of Gatorade. I did a reasonable job drinking, thanks to this effort and Danny and Homie, but I was still weak and slow.

Once we were on the ridge proper, we still had about 2300 vertical feet to climb this wrecked me. I had to stop often to recover my breathing and to ball up my hands to warm them and hence not able to grip my poles. All three of us did some leg swinging to increase the circulation in our feet to warm them up. Apparently, not being a downhill skier, which is where I learned this, Homie had never done this before. Just like everything that has to do with cold weather, it worked perfectly for Homie. His feet went from painfully cold and a concern, to warm and toasty. Mine remained on the ragged edge. I couldn't feel any heat coming from my footbeds, but my feet weren't numb. Instead, my feet hurt. This made me think that the footbeds had to be working. If Homie's feet were cold, mine should be in danger of frostbite.
Looking back up the ridge. That's Homie and I descending.
Danny and Homie waited for me on some bump on the ridge, before the final climb. There was a significant cairn here and Homie probably considers this some type of summit. I was grateful that they waited, but worried they'd be getting cold with all this stopping. I didn't pause at this highpoint because the terrain dropped down to a saddle and, tired that I was, I didn't need a rest to go downhill. The other two fell in behind me, but it wasn't long before I was off the back again.

The final climb to the summit, from the low point on the ridge, is around 500 vertical feet. This took me well over an hour. I think. It seemed like forever. Lower down on the ridge, a couple of times doubt had crept into my mind. I wasn't sure I'd make it. With just 500 feet to go, I had to go on. At least that's what I told myself. It wasn't quite as bad as climbing Aconcagua, but it was close. I frequently had to stop to catch my breath, despite moving so slowly. I counted my steps so that I wouldn't stop too often. On Aconcagua I could do 10-15 steps. Here I could do a hundred or more if the terrain wasn't too steep, but much less on steeper terrain.

I oozed onto the summit like a sloth escaping quicksand. Danny and Homie were sitting there having a picnic. It was beautiful, with a clear blue sky and white, shimmering peaks in every direction. But it was freezing and I was so wasted that I was mostly gazing at my boots while being bent over my poles. I sat down and Homie handed me a bottle of grape Gatorade. This flavor is one of Homie’s secrets. He claims it’s like antifreeze and will not ice up no matter how cold it gets. I downed most of the bottle. I was on top for only about five minutes before heading down. I knew those guys had been waiting awhile and figured they must be antsy to get moving.

As I started down I was acutely aware of my feet and how cold they were. I figured whatever heat my footbeds had been producing was over. Not only was it a long way down to tree line, but it didn’t seem a lot warmer down there, though it was out of the wind. I stumbled along, trying to move continuously but aware that I could be injured on such steep, loose, rocky terrain.

Climbing back over the bump on the ridge, when I wanted to go down, was annoying, but it was better than doing a long side-hill traverse. I moved along okay here, despite my fatigue. Two thousand feet below the summit we took a short break to re-group. Then it was down to the snowshoes for another break. Everything was getting warmer as I descended.

Back on our shoes we still had nearly five miles of hiking back to the car, but it was so much easier going than the upper mountain that we all rejoiced. It had to be the first time I’d ever been happy to put on snowshoes. I led the entire way out and that kept us together as a group. I regaled my companions with the intricacy of ski jump scoring. It was my only contribution to the day. Teaching Homie and Danny this valuable life skill.

Sunday, February 04, 2018


Ask a Colorado peak bagger how many 14ers are in Colorado, and you probably won’t get a simple answer. If you do and ask  three more climbers, you’ll likely get a few different numbers. It used to be that Colorado had 53 14ers, but that number seems to be expanding in the eyes of these voracious summitters. Now most people wouldn’t care, but in this select group, the pressure to climb ever more 14ers mounts. My wife “finished” the 14ers three times. First with Eolus (and North Eolus - one of those add-on 14ers). Then she decided that she needed Challenger - a 14er too close to Kit Carson to make the short list. Then, when climbing Castle for her second time, with her sons, she climbed Conundrum, another minor bump added to the 58 14ers that seem to be current number for this group. Except that 58 isn’t the number in winter. It’s 59. This is stupid and I'll leave it as an exercise to reader to work that out.

My buddy Homie has climbed all the Colorado 14ers. Four times. And is only 13 ascents away from his fifth lap through them. He’s done them all in winter. And he’s planning on climbing all of them in every month of the year. That’s called gridding. And, yes, it is as deranged as it sounds. Homie, is a complete nut, of course, but he has tons of experience and hence a good partner if you want to bag a winter 14er. I climbed my first winter 14er more than twenty years ago, before Homie climbed his first one. As I’ve said, he’s now done all 59 (?!) and I’ve done just 23. It’s not that I’m not ambitious. It’s that I’m really wimpy in the cold. And the wind. And the dark. And sitting on the couch watching football is just so much easier than doing a 14ers in winter. But, do have a smidgen of ambition and hence I try to get at least one winter 14er each season. By a twist of fate, my winter 14er total is nearly identical with Homie’s second time through them. So, we team up occasionally. He knows only to ping me if the conditions are easy and weather moderate. So, it isn’t that often.

But this was one of those times. He wanted to do Culebra and I hadn’t done it in winter. As an added incentive, my son Derek, who had done 47 14ers, hadn’t done Culebra either. There’s a reason for this. It’s the reason Culebra was my last 14er. Culebra is only Colorado 14er where access is restricted by the owner. The owner! He owns a 14er! How cool is that? If you're ever stumped for birthday present ideas for me, this is a good one. I’m not picky either. I’d take any Colorado 14ers. Even those silly add-ons 14ers. Well, except Cameron. That’s a lame 14er. Of course, I’m sure you’d get the best price on it, though. But I digress.

Derek steadying the monster cairn.
Derek just turned 20 on the 29th of January, a Monday, and for his birthday I gave him the chance at Culebra. I’d pay the permit fee ($150) and supply the guide (Homie). The only hitch was that I was going too. So we made plans for the coming Saturday. Our last time driving south through Denver on a Friday evening was emotionally scarring, so Homie and I both wanted to avoid that. We talked about leaving in the early afternoon and leaving later in the evening and going part ways to a motel, but Homie got sick and we fell back to the horrific departure time of 1:30 a.m. on Saturday. The deal with Culebra is that you have to reserve your spot ahead of time and you have to be waiting at that gate at 6 a.m. or you’re not climbing it. With a four-hour drive and no grace period, I picked up Homie in the middle of the night. Derek slept the entire way down and I’m not entirely sure he even remembers getting in the car. This is normal. He also drove all the way home, so it works out.

We met Wes and Corey at the trailhead and Carlos was right on time to let us in, take our waivers and our money, and send us on our way. Homie, Derek, and I skinned up the steep, narrow road while Wes and Corey, lacking the necessary skills, but possessing fitness by the truckload, walked. A couple other skiers started about when we did. One went right off the front and could see him far ahead of us on the climb. The other guy skied much higher and didn’t pass Derek and I until close to the summit. We found out later that these two were climbing partners. What?! They were never within sight of each other.
Nasty conditions
Derek and I quickly fell into our customary position at the rear. We aren’t that slow in normal company, but in this group we were the tortoises. We regrouped after 90 minutes and then Derek and I were able to keep up to tree-line. We ditched our skis here and Derek and I continued in our NNN boots with Microspikes pulled over them. Homie changed into a pair of LaSportiva running shoes with a built-in gaitor. He questioned this decision at the time, since the wind came up big and bad and the temperature dropped. Derek and pulled on our expedition mitts with heaters in them. Everyone put on their shells and googles. Homie’s feet got cold, but he recovered, dilating his capillaries by conscious thought. My feet got cold too, but lacking Homie’s superpowers, I suffered from there to the summit and back.

Derek bonked a bit here and fell behind and then sat and took a break to eat. I waited for him above, getting cold. Twenty minutes later, he joined me and we continued the rest of the way together. He seemed to be having slightly more trouble than I was, but we were both getting worked over so well that the difference was minor. Originally Homie wanted to get Red Mountain, a centennial peak (highest 100 in Colorado) in addition to Culebra and we were in. Now we were out. We rationalized. We weren’t even trying to climb the centennial peaks! Let alone in winter. If it was a nice day, sure, we’d head over and tag a new summit, but not in these conditions. That’s something best left to…mountaineers? No wait, we’re mountaineers. Uh…peak baggers, then.
Selfie on the summit. Derek looks a lot happy than he has a right to be.
We regrouped again at the “super cairn” on top of Peak 13,000-something. This is a common name for Colorado non-peaks. The other three must have been pretty cold by the time we got there and I told Homie, “Don’t wait for us anymore, because we aren’t going to Red.” Only Homie and Wes went for Red and that was the last time I was near them until we all regrouped back at the car at the end of the day. We split into three groups: the two elite guys off the front, multi-Pikes-Peak-Doubler Corey, and then Derek and I.  We trudged onwards and Derek and I were really feeling the altitude and the cold. Derek with his hands (his heaters weren’t working well at all) and me with my feet.

We got to the summit after more than five hours and fifteen minutes on the move. We sat down, but not for long. We drank a bit, but didn’t eat anything, as it was too miserable to hang out. We  couldn’t even see Red Mountain, less than a mile away. We struggled to take a selfie and then headed down. Derek delayed slightly to locate a worthy summit rock for his collection. I was tired and a bit clumsy and took great care descending the tricky talus. I didn’t want to fall and bash myself, or, worse, injury myself. Gaps would open between Derek and I but they never got to great and we’d regroup pretty quickly. The climb back up to Point 13,000-something felt really hard, but we moved continuously up it.

Descending back to our skis, Derek tried some glissading and had some very limited success.He prompted me to give it a go, but it wasn’t very fruitful. Back at our skis we took a break to eat something. I’d only down 160 calories (not counting the Gatorade I was drinking) all day. I was very tired, but not hungry. I forced down some food and we shared a 20-ounce Coke.

The ski down, all five miles of it, was very challenging in our soft Nordic boots. We kept skins on to moderate our speed, as the road was so narrow that the only way to control your speed was to drag a ski in the powder alongside the track. Snowplowing worked a bit further down, but the track was very lumpy and had plenty of rocks in it. It was a rough descent, but neither one of us got injured and I consider that a big success.

We got back to the car around 3:15 p.m. We had started at 6:30 p.m. so we were out almost 9 hours for just the one peak. Corey had finished 20 minutes before us and Homie and Wes arrived around 4 p.m. We bowed before them.

Our ascent was a bit over 5000 vertical feet spread out over 15 miles for the roundtrip. We were sufficiently worked that any thoughts of another winter 14er were banished from my mind. But in a few days I’ll be ready to plan the next one…though it might be for next year.