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.


Bill Hanson said...

Fun read! I love the main photo at top of story, a brutally honest look of exhaustion, because I know it all too well...

nemoblack said...

As usual, a great read! Sorry you suffered, but definitely the spirit of your day came through.