Sunday, September 22, 2019

Ellingwood Ledges to the Crestone Traverse

Downclimbing off Crestone Needle on "no fall" terrain

Derek has been close to finishing the Colorado 14ers for a couple of years. With Sheri and I both done, he’s had to look to other partners a bit. He traveled down to the Wilson group a month ago with his friend Greg (his cousin’s boyfriend) and got those three over two days. He only had two to go: San Luis and Crestone Peak.

He didn’t just want Crestone Peak. He wanted to do the classic traverse between Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak. But even that wasn’t enough. He wanted to climb the Needle via the 5.7 “50 Classic Climb” of Ellingwood Ledges. This combination raises the minimum qualifications for prospective partners. Greg didn’t have the skills. I did.

I’d done this exact outing before, with Homie. Only then we descended into the Bear’s Lair and did the complete Prow to the summit of Kit Carson, bagging Challenger Peak along the way. It was a massive 15-hour day, but we got four 14ers. Thankfully, Derek didn’t want to do that. I don’t think I can do that any longer.

We drove down Saturday night because the forecast called for calmer weather on Sunday. If it was calmer on Sunday, I’m sure glad we didn’t go on Saturday. We slept at the 2WD parking and neither of us got much rest. We just slept in the back of our Grand Cherokee and it was a bit slanted. We lolly gagged in the morning, but our late start didn’t hurt us and might of helped us, as it was cold. After some breakfast (french fries for Derek), we drove up the 4WD road. It was the first test of our new vehicle and it handled it nicely. A high clearance vehicle is mandatory on this road now and there were a number of crux sections. Nothing too concerning for the experienced 4WD driver. I’ve driven a few 4WD roads, but I am decidedly not a 4-wheeler.

We didn’t start hiking until 7:40 a.m. It took us a little over 50 minutes to get to the end of the road and start up the single-track trail. We were hearing the wind the entire way and knew what awaited us. Once above treeline, it was cold but our movement kept us from pulling on our shells. Derek led the way up to the Upper Colony Lake and then across and up the lower part of the east buttress on Crestone Needle.

We zigzagged back and forth up the grassy ledges and climbing the conglomerate rock bands. The exposure increases continually until you are acutely aware that a fall or a slip would be a very bad mistake. Some of these rock bands were certainly 4th class and maybe a move or two of 5th class. We continued unroped in our scrambling shoes. Before hitting the final rock buttress we took a short break to eat and drink. I wasn’t able to keep up with Derek, but I was feeling fine. I just can’t go that fast uphill these days.

At around 13,600 feet, the buttress gets quite steep. The grassy ledges are gone and we decided to rope up here. Roach’s guide book talks about climbing a 200-foot chimney around to the north. In fact, he implies there are at least three chimneys. I can assure you there are none. Gerry’s guidebooks are great. They are so well done and I love his prose. But they are not mistake free.

You might wonder why I even looked at the guidebook, having climbed this route before. I didn’t need it. I remembered where to go, though it really just seems like the obvious route. I pointed Derek in the right direction and he led the entire route. We’d brought a single rack and a 30-meter rope with two Microtraxions for simul-climbing. Derek led a 250-foot section using both Micros and I followed with frozen hands. At the belay, my hands weren’t very functional, but Derek wanted to lead the whole route, so I had time to thaw them.

Above was the crux and Derek cruised up it nicely. Previously I had stayed in the small corner and climbed the crack there. Derek wisely broke out to the left at a key point. Watching from below, I was nervous for him. The crack offered protection opportunities. I called up to him to make sure he was making the right choice and just as I did, he clipped a pin. There were a couple of pins out on the arete to the left. Sweet.

Derek led clear to the summit, using the Micros again and I followed. We were both feeling the altitude a bit, but Derek was excited to have led the entire route. The grade (5.7) is easy for him, but it was quite cold (some snow on the route) and he climbed some of it in gloves. We hit the summit about 4.5 hours after leaving the car.

We didn’t linger long and started for the traverse. I edged out along the ridge to find the rappel anchors and didn’t find them. I guess I didn’t go far enough. Instead, I headed down a steep groove and a ways down from some slings attached to a single piton. I threaded the rope here and put myself on rappel, but ended up down climbing it. Derek didn’t even bother with the rappel line and I pulled it down.

We followed cairns for most of the way across the traverse, though they were occasionally hard to find. The terrain is mostly 3rd class or easier, but there are some steep, exposed 4th class down climbing that had our full attention (mostly at the start of the traverse).

We hit the summit of Crestone Peak tired, but satisfied that things were going well. It had taken us two hours for the traverse. I was concerned about the descent, as I know it had been an area of stress for Homie and I. Before descending we scrambled to the top of Crestone Peak’s East Summit. Homie would be so proud of us.

The descent across the face and then up to the summit of the 14,200-foot gendarme went well, though very exposed and serious. The rock was solid and we moved very cautiously. But we still had to descend further and Derek found some rappel slings. We figured a quick rappel was the best choice and elected to use our Escaper. Derek set it up and apparently did it wrong. I looked at it and it seemed fine to me and, of course it held me as I rappelled last (Derek went down off a clove hitch to the anchor). But we couldn’t get it to release. I scrambled up higher to get a better angle and I could see that I was not making any progress. Derek found a way to climb back up to the anchor and then did a normal rappel, which just made it down with about six inches to spare (knotted ends, of course).

We continued down on mostly 3rd class terrain from there, but it was loose. Derek slipped and fell back on his butt. I slipped and hurt my shoulder and my right knee. Further down I stepped on a rock and it flipped up and bashed my foot so hard that I thought I might have broken something. It would hurt me the rest of the way down and all the way home. Thankfully, the next morning it felt a lot better.

Once down the steep section, we had to traverse the horrible ridge back to the Humboldt Trail. This ridge had at least ten micro-summits. We went up and down, up and down, up and down, on rocky terrain that had me moving slower and slower. I was bonking hard and falling well behind Derek. We stopped before the final descent and I got to eat and drink something. Once down to the trail, I ate and drank again and was feeling better the further we went.

When we got back to the road, it looked like we could break 11 hours for the trip and we pushed the pace. Derek’s stride is so long and his cadence so high, that I’d continually fall behind and have to trot/shuffle a bit to close the gap. We didn’t make it. We could have run, but it wasn’t worth it. I figured I’d just injure myself further. We finished in 11:01, though.

We just were able to reverse the 4WD in the light. Derek handled the long drive home and we got there just after 10:30 p.m. This adventure turned out to be a lot harder than I expected, mainly because of the long, dangerous descent. It is a lot of work to get from the summit of Crestone Peak back to your vehicle.

One to go for Derek…

Derek’s Report:

Long and tough day out there! We got a pretty lazy start to the day, before driving up the 3mi of 4WD road and starting hiking by 7:40. It took us around 2 hours to the base of the steep stuff, where we scrambled to about 13,600. The area was quite windy and cold but we began to be sheltered from it the closer to the wall we got. We also stayed left (south) as much as possible for wind shielding. In the sun and away from the wind, conditions were very pleasant.
Here we roped up and simul'd Ellingwood Ledges as two pitches (we had two micros). It was quite cold in the shade still, and I climbed most of the route in light gloves. The crux section I took my gloves off since I needed the extra feel. The route was great and deposited us directly on the summit of the Needle.

The traverse turned out to be very involved, loose, and long. The ridge is much too jagged to stay on, unlike the Blanca-Little Bear, of Wilson-El Diente traverses, and we ended up dropping 800ft to the low point of the traverse - ouch! I fell once here too: my foot slipped, I immediately dropped to my butt, and then flipped over because of the steepness of the slope, sliding head first downwards. I came to a stop with some help from Pops, who was below me at the time, and really only suffered a sore bum, a bruised knee, and a couple rips in my gloves. That was a bummer.

The climb up to the Peak went well enough, though we were both feeling the altitude. We even tagged the East summit because it looked like practically the same height. What really got to us was the descent. It was heinous.

We first needed to do some very exposed 4th class traversing, then scrambled up a little tower in the hopes of finding 3rd class descending - no luck. We had to descend into another notch, but downclimbing prospects looked sketchy, so we rapped, using the Escaper. I set it up, and I'm sure I messed something up, because when we tried to pull the rope down, it wasn't loosening. I had to scramble back up to the anchor (easier going up; I wouldn't want to downclimb this), and set up a normal rappel. This 15m rappel bareely reached where we needed to go, so it worked out, but that was annoying.

From here, we climbed up the tower we should've traversed around to in the first place, and then over the other side was still pretty loose, steep, and unpleasant. I even yelled up to Pops at one point: "We must be off route!" It wasn't until we descended a trough and passed through yet another notch that the going got easier, and we knew we were going the right way. Mind you, the going was not easy at all. It was still very loose and steep, but 2nd class and walking now.

This deposited us on the longgg ridge that leads back to the Humboldt saddle. We had to walk over an interminably rolling ridge, going up and down constantly. Eventually we got down to the Humboldt trail and rejoiced a bit. I finally took my shell off here, but kept my gloves on for the rest of the day.

We trudged down, pretty beaten down. Pops had squashed his foot with a piece of talus, and was moving in pain, but still pretty quick. We calculated we'd be close to the 11-hour mark at the end, but we had no desire to run it in under that mark. So 11:01:21 was the total time. We got down in time to get down the 4WD road in the light, and then it only took us like 3 hours to get all the way home, which was cool.

Quite the adventure! Interestingly, this took almost the exact same amount of time as the LPD last weekend. On both occasions, I was too wasted to break 11 hours.

Overall, the 50 Classic Climb was the highlight, and the Crestone Ridge Traverse can hardly be called such. You spend very close to 0% of the traverse on the ridge. The terrain here is so awesome though, so jagged. Makes for some great photos in some great positions. Of the peaks in this area, the Peak is by far the loosest/crappiest. Need to go back to KC and Challenger for the Prow. Looked pretty cool from our vantage point.

Also, this was my 57th (as I count) 14er! I only have one left, and it's the best of all: San Luis Peak!! I assume most people save this one for last, so it should be a great time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Tour de Flatirons, Stage 2

There's a phrase: "As much fun as you can have with your clothes on." Since my son is now a Minion, that isn't appropriate, but maybe even more apt is: "As much fun as you can have while enduring such intense pain." If you nod your head at that description and a smile creeps across your face, you get it. This was the stage like that.

It started at the Gregory Canyon Trailhead and headed up the Amphitheater Trail for just a minute or two before breaking off-trail to something I named the Gregory Ridge. This is a fin of questionable rock that sticks up out of ridge like blades on a Stegosaurus' back. The idea is to start scrambling as soon as possible and limit the running and hiking. It isn't great, but it serves that purpose and leads directly to The Spy. A bit of hiking after the Spy leads to the start of the North Ridge of the First Flatiron. From the top scramblers could down-climb the Southwest Face or rappel one of four fixed lines. Once on the ground, we ran over to the East Bench of the Third Flatiron for its classic East Face. Then took the 200-foot rappel back to the ground and over to the South Sneak on the Second Flatiron. From the top of that rock we down-climbed the West Face and then ran uphill (oof!) to the back side of the First Flatiron and then down the old trail to the Saddle Rock/Amphitheater Trail and back to the start.

This was only 2.5 miles, but involved 2400 vertical feet and over 20 pitches of traditional roped climbing, up to 5.4 in difficulty. It's plenty of room for the ebb and flow of race dynamics to play out in interesting ways. At least for me.

The last two years my main rival has been the reigning Female Tour de Flatirons Champion Sonia "Beet Red" Buckley. Each year my tenuous hold on besting her has gotten weaker. I edged her out in the first stage only because she couldn't race in the field and had to go solo. Without me to chase, she was slower, as I would be without her. I soon as I saw her walk up for this stage, my palms started to sweat. Pain was in my future. And not just pain, but fear. It's sort of like a horror movie where you know the monster is going to jump out, but you don't know when. I know she is going to be beat me, but I don't know when. The longer I stay ahead, the more the tension rises, as my margins get cut with each stage. It's almost to the point where I want to just give up and follow her in, to reduce the stress. Alas, I can't. No Minion can do it. That's why racing can be quite dangerous if you are harnessing an injury, telling yourself you'll just go easy and make things worse. As appealing as that sounds, it's nearly impossible.

Since the start is singletrack, we self-seeded for the start. I was nearly last, where I should be for the start. Tony was right in front of me and I knew I'd end up beating him, but I also knew he starts fast, so that was no problem. In fact, he gapped me early on. I took the low cut over to the talus even though I think the high cut is faster. I was just following the people in front of me. I passed Tony on the talus and when I got the ridge, there was a queue. I should have expected this. Climbing this ridge is slower than power hiking, so it is a natural bottleneck at the start. Sonia was right behind me and there was five or six of us before I was able to leave the ground. It was a nice rest, but a bit early in the stage for resting.

Above me was Max and at first we were both being held up a bit, but as soon as the group above us hit one of the hiking sections the space between us expanded and he gapped him. Sonia was on me like stink on a warthog (credit to Lion King). She was so tight that by the time we got to the Spy, I stepped aside and let her go in front. She immediately gapped me. By the time we got to the top of the Spy, she had ten seconds on me and once on the ground and hiking up to the North Ridge, she put scramblers between us. It would be awhile before I'd see her again.

Just before getting on the First, I let Corn Muffin by and gave me a boost up a steep section. I followed him for the most part, getting slightly gapped on the easier sections, but closing up and waiting on him on the more technical parts. Near the top I asked to pass and he let me by. I hit the rappel lines just behind David Alexander and Max, with Corn Muffin right behind me. I rapped quickly, but so did Corn Muffin. In no time he was back in front and he and David gapped Max and I. I did a better job traversing over to the Third and caught those guys just at the normal approach trail. David had so much downward momentum that he went right across this trail and continued down! I yelled to him to get him back on track, but now I was ahead of him.

On the Third I was one again on Muffin's heels. He offered to let me by and I declined, as I was redlining. But after a bit I felt better and passed him on the right. I was flowing and moving well and left him far behind as well as David and Max. I could see I was fast closing on climbers above and excited about that until I realized it was a roped party. It must have been quite a show for this team. I'm sure they got passed by thirty Minions before they finished one pitch.

Above I saw David Glennon and was closing, albeit slowly. Since DG is the fastest runner in the Minions, I only catch him, if at all, on more technical climbs. I wouldn't normally catch him on the Third, but he was out of practice and taking things slow and solid. Every Minion racing needs to be solid all the time and David always is. At the crossover, David beat me there by maybe a second, but graciously let me play through. I zipped up the last piece and passed another roped party and Sir Crimps-alot, just below the top.

These passes were key, as I was now just two scramblers behind Sonia, who was still on top when I arrived. The other was Full Gaynor, a young, fit guy who I beat in the last stage and was hungry for payback. As soon as he saw me he exclaimed, "Dammit, Bill!"

Sonia rapped first, then Full, then me. I thought I was unlucky getting the 60-meter line (as opposed to the 70-meter line), but it turned out great, as my line was untangled until just the last twenty feet or so. I zipped down past Full and was able to scramble down and off the end of the rope. With Sonia in sight, I gave chase. I could tell she didn't know the best way to get to the Second and I saw her pause to look around a second. She then cut left too early. I stayed on the path that Kyle had shown me in the preview and got in front of her by about 10-15 seconds.

Full Gaynor arrived at the base and zipped up the lower part of the South Sneak, closing on me fast. I was hurting big time and trying to pace my effort up the Second. I knew it was a long way to the top. Apparently Full Gaynor went too fast and blew up a bit. He stepped aside and let Sonia pass and soon she was nipping at my heels and we were both gapping FG.

I zipped down the West Face. Bill Hanson was walking by, completely unrelated to the Minions I'm sure, and he cheered me on. I wanted to say something clever about holding up Sonia, but I'm not too clever even when I'm full oxygenated and just nodded at him. I ran the first switchback because it was mostly flat and then power hiked the rest of the them to the north behind the First. Sonia ran more of it and was less than ten seconds behind at the top, maybe five.

She closed further and we stumbled, ran, shuffled, but stayed vertical on the loose, rocky descent down to the Saddlerock Trail. I was feeling tremendous pressure. I wasn't sure I could hold her off, so I called back, "We have to at least hold off our chasers." In the last stage Muffin and Sometimes Great came flying by on the talus. This was easier terrain, but I still feared their young legs. Below us I could hear loud cheering and encouragement. It was Kyle's posse cheering on the rest of the field. Cool.

We went by the posse about the time we hit the Saddlerock Trail. I ran as quick as I dared. Catching a toe here would have resulted in a very damaging fall. Sonia would yo-yo between two and four seconds behind me. It was nearly impossible to pass here. I asked myself if I should give track and decided no. She wasn't close enough. Yet. I couldn't look back. I decided not to yield unless asked. She would have to decide if I was holding her up.

Sheri was at the Amphitheater junction and cheered me on, but, dammit, she also encouraged Sonia! I knew it was four minutes to the finish. I focused and pushed hard. There were people on the trail below, but they moved to the side and I never looked up. Even a glance upwards for momentary eye contact could have resulted in bruised and battered body. We stayed locked in that combat clear to the finish. Sonia might have backed off a tiny bit at the end, knowing she wasn't getting by. Officially the gap was six seconds on our respective watches, but it seemed more like three seconds to me. What a battle!

Kyle won, going away. He's the King now and there are no solid challengers on the horizon right now. He's basically a pro. He works these rocks every day. He's young, thin, strong, agile, experienced, and highly motivated. A challenger will emerge, they always do, but it won't be this year. He will likely become the fourth Minion to win the Tour at least twice.

The battle for second sounded epic. Ryan Hans-and-Franz is ultrafit this year and seems to have a lock on second place, but two-time champion Mattias Messner was in field and had never finished a stage lower than second place. He didn't break his streak here either. Ryan knew he had to gap the fleet-footed Tyrolean before the final descent and couldn't get it. They finished seconds apart, but with Ryan in third.

Stefan, 6-time champion, was comfortably in fourth, if you can be comfortable while in so much pain. Logan was fifth, also with a margin, and then there was another great battle between Biceps, Diesel (aka Satan's Spawn), Kissing Cousins, and the Modern Major General. Here's Derek's report on that action:

Some good ol’ fashioned Minion scramblin’ fun out there today! More heavy hitters were in the race this time, so I settled into a more reasonable place at 7th. 1:03:53.
Started off with Greg (duh) and Danny ahead. Dylan passed all of us trying to go get Franz. With Greg pretty much all the way up to the First. No delay with ropes here (thanks riggers!) and the DGD party of 3 were all together heading down the Sunset trail together. Greg got in the lead and pretty soon Danny told me to go by, to which I obliged. Near the bottom of the steepest stuff we both passed Jeff, being a bit careful because of his ankles.
I was trying to stick with Greg and he led me perfectly to the Third, but not without a nice little slip-n-stuff of my face into some talus.
On the Third Dylan was back in sight (he might’ve had trouble on the link), Greg was gapping me a bit, and Danny and Jeff were hot on my heels. I originally followed Greg to the left side of the Third, but, worried Danny would sneak by me on the right, I cut back over in order to motivate me a bit extra and keep him on my radar.
The rap down the Third was a tangle, and I spent some time getting it sorted so I could go all the way down. Thinking we might need a “spotter/rope handler” to compliment the excellent riggers. They’d manage the ropes and make sure they go smoothly.
Greg had a gap now and Danny was even closer, breathing down my neck. I was totally gassed getting over to the Second, but did a good job on the link and started up. I was sure Danny was gonna pass me and he even mentioned afterwards that he was tasting blood in the water.
A bit higher up though, Dylan had to backtrack due to more route finding woes. This put me in front and this extra motivation had me moving faster. Near the top I got a gap on Dylan and I nailed the Second downclimb.
My only objective hiking back up to the notch was to get as high as possible before Dylan/Danny could see me. A really nice cheering section up there and I even ran a bit at the top! I ended up keeping my lead and finished 7th, behind Kyle, Matthias, Ryan, Stefan, Logan, Greg. Not bad people to follow, and about 20 more excellent people behind me. The Tour is SO. FUN.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Tour de Flatirons, Stage 1

Photos (eventually I hope)

It's back. The Tour. For the 16th year in a row. Is there anything else like this? Perhaps not. It's strange because to the people that do this, it's among the most fun their ever had racing. Yet, it's very small. It's definitely a fringe event and one that can only be held in Boulder due to the unique nature of the Flatirons. A Minion asked me if I ever seeing this growing to 100 participants. I don't think so, despite having more than 100 Minions in the club. Even with the high density of climbers and runners that exist in Boulder, I don't think the area is big enough (and we draw from Golden and Denver) to support a larger group. The mix of climbing, running, and the ability to have fun racing at such a thing is apparently pretty rare. Even in the Minions, frankly, as only about a quarter of the members compete. But that doesn't matter, because we have critical mass.

Critical mass is when everyone across the field feels like they are in the midst of the battle, when the energy is high and the distance between each Minion is close enough to trigger a chain reaction that yields a megaton of thermonuclear fun.

This one is such a continuous sufferfest. Unlike other stages that mix in descents between rocks, this stage had next to zero rest before starting the next one. It was up, up, up, and then down, down, down. We climb the Regency to the Royal Arch to the Fifth Flatiron to the Hippo Head (aka The Fist). We'd done this stage once before, in 2017. It was the only stage in which I'd ever beaten Derek. It was his first stage ever and had some route-finding trouble on the way out. At least I did it once, because I'm sure that was a one-and-done achievement.

Sonia couldn't make it. I wondered who my new rivals would be, if any. These days I live in fear of being the caboose. It's obviously my future, if I keep doing this. And I think I will. I think I'll keep it up until I'm well into last. Then I'll retire. Maybe I'll learn how to fly a drone. I have to something in retirement.

At gun I'm not far enough back and I'm a bit of a bottleneck on the singletrack start. Once on the wide trail, Minions move by. After I bit I look behind me to see if I am last and there are two trailers. Not last yet. Maury and Brian and jogged along next to me chatting. Chatting! I can't spare oxygen for such prattle. They soon move ahead, but once the trail goes up, I reel them in. I pass Maury first, then Max, then, surprisingly, Muffin Top. I know he's injured, but I'll take any advantage I can get. Eventually, I get Brian and go by him. He's lean, wearing a heart-rate monitor and I feel out of place waddling on by.

I catch up to Sometimes Great at the Regency and we battle all the way up it. He gaps me on the descent, which is surprising, as that is frequently my only advantage. He sneaks through the slot efficiently and I take some time, as worried of bashing myself in that tight fissure. I close on the easy Royal Arch and he gaps me again on the tricky, steep downclimb. I pass him going up the Fifth Flatiron. I rapped off quickly and closed on rookie Jacob "I'm Not" Winey. I closed up right behind me at the hand crack, but there is no way to pass there. He summited with me right on his heels and then he hesitated. I asked what was going on and he said, "I just figured you'd be faster on the descent." Well, okay then. I downclimbed to the knotted lines and hand-over-handed down them.

Once on the ground, I was faced my biggest fear for this stage: the descent. It is so steep, so loose, so rocky. Almost immediately I slipped on my lichen and jacked my injured left shoulder. Ouch. I'm just not agile enough any longer and too easily injured and too slow to heal to descend very fast. Yet, when coming down, I felt I was moving well. I didn't hear anyone behind me. I thought Winey might run me down, but it seemed like I had a huge lead for Sometimes.

I crashed down as fast I could, slipping onto my butt maybe five times during the descent, but without injuries. Descending below the Regency, I heard people coming for me. Dang! I got to the talus before they pounced. The first person by was Corn Muffin!? Where the heck did he come from, I wondered. I hadn't seen him since early on the approach to the Regency. I asked him, "Did you do all four rocks?", thinking he may have forgot about the Hippo Head. No such luck. Turns out that even when I thought I was descending well, I was still ridiculously slow.

Corn Muffin flew by with Sometimes Great right behind him. I got down to the trail before Winey went by. I gave chase, but was now concerned about beating Sir Crimps-alot's earlier time of 1:09:40. I looked at my watch and found that I had just six minutes to make it. It seemed impossibly, but I wasn't going to give up yet. Sonia's time was 1:16, so even if I failed on Brian's time, I'd shoot for Sonia's time. With these times as a goal I stayed close to the three in front of me. For a moment or two I thought I might be gaining on them, but it was just a switchback illusion. Still, we all finished within a minute of each other and I ran 1:09:30.

Kyle won, but was pushed by Ryan clear to the summit of the last rock. He was so shocked to see Ryan so close that he blasted the descent a bit recklessly. It wasn't until the next day that noticed he couldn't walk very well due to a bang on his ankle. But he did put four minutes on Ryan.

Four stages to go...