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.

1 comment:

Jeff Valliere said...

Super cool Bill!