Sunday, January 02, 2022

A Stressful End to 2021

 


Photos

Thursday, December 30th


At 7 a.m. I noticed that my Alexa device signaled it had a notification. I asked her (it?) what it was and she responded, “There is a high wind warning for Superior from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.” Hmmm, I thought, I should get out for my exercise early today. Like now. I did not. 


At 8:09 I sent a text to Stefan: 


Headed to Green (Mountain) but could be talked into your circuit (he scrambled the Second Flatiron to the First Flatiron the day before) from yesterday. Pretty windy out.


It was a “First Day” for Stefan, meaning a calendar day in which he had not already climbed the First Flatiron. He was close to “gridding” the First Flatiron, which means climbing it all 366 days of the calendar (over many years). Since it was a First Day, he was quite motivated to climb it despite the strong winds. He responded that he was an hour away from getting there so that I should just do my thing.


I selected Green Mountain because the entire loop would be in the trees and hopefully somewhat sheltered. Driving up Baseline to the Gregory Canyon parking lot, not a single traffic signal was working, including the ones at the 36 off-ramp and the Baseline/Broadway junction. I texted Sheri, jokingly, that if I didn’t return in a timely manner, likely a tree fell on me.


I did the loop without incident. It was extremely windy, but I was mostly sheltered and I’m used to high winds. I saw my buddy Big Bad Brad on the summit and we trotted down to the Ranger Trail junction together. He was doing a much bigger loop down Bear Canyon, so we parted ways there and I went down Ranger to Gregory Canyon. 


I finished up, hopped in my car, drove home, took a shower, and was reading my book when I got a text from Stefan at 10:37 a.m.:


trapped by the wind on the down climb. gonna have to wait it out. temps ok.


I didn’t see it right away, but responded at 10:50 a.m.:


Yikes! Let me know if you need a rescue. Crazy wind out there. I could come up there with a rope and a couple of harnesses.


At 11:43 a.m. Stefan responds:


shit yes, feet numb, wind worse. dunno how to get here tho


Me:


Okay. On my way. 


Stefan:


East face was fine. Southwest down climb is nuts. I think u need 2 summit? Downclimb impossible. 


Me:

Got you


Stefan:


shit, it’s gonna be dangerous man. Wind supposed to decrease in two hours. 


The winds would not decrease in two hours or four hours or six hours. Alexa said it was going to be high winds until 5 p.m. When I went to bed that night at 10 p.m. the winds were still howling, but this day was just getting started.


I sent Stefan a text at 11:47


Driving now


He responded:


dunno if it is even doable


As I crested the high point of Rock Creek Boulevard, I saw the wall of smoke coming from the west on Marshall Road. As I drove through the dense smoke, barely able to see, I called Sheri and told her about the fire. Visibility due to the smoke was limited until I topped the hill on highway 36. I could not see any of the flames, as the fire was south of me and over another hill. I knew the fire was significant, but I had no idea how significant it was and put it mostly out of my mind as I concentrated on Stefan.


As I drove, Stefan’s wife Sheryl sent me this text message:


I see your text thread with Stef. THANK YOU for trying to help, but please do so ONLY if you can stay safe! Please let me know how I can help.


This message actually didn’t come through on my phone, so I called Sheryl and asked what she said. She then asked, “Can RMR help?”


I responded, “No. It has to be me.”


That was a silly thing to say. RMR is awesome and have rescued me three times. But this was a unique situation. Almost no one, besides Stefan, knows the First Flatiron better than I do. I was already on my way and time was of the essence. Stefan had already been trapped for more than an hour and his feet were already frozen. I knew the best way up was going to be Atalanta — one of the shortest and easiest ways to ascend the East Face, thereby staying out of the wind and getting close to summit before hitting the North Ridge, which indeed might have been impassable. RMR would be much slower than me, as I’d solo up this route. RMR as angels of mercy and the best rescue crew in Colorado, but, as Liam Neeson said in Taken, “I have a unique set of skills.” Plus, also like Neeson’s character trying to save his daughter, I was supremely motivated: I love Stefan. We’ve been friends for decades. He’s an inspiration to me and a mentor. Here was my chance to use my skills and show my love. It looked grim and I might not succeed, but I wasn’t going to sit in my house or in my car. At the very least I was going to be below him on the ground. And maybe we would need more help.


Stefan, 12:02 p.m.:


too dangerous to summit. I can’t get back up. down climb or waiting in the only way.


Me:


I’m coming anyway. I’ll hike up there and see what things are like. 


Me, 12:10:


Hiking


I was wore a light long-sleeved shirt and a “garbage bag” wind shell, hat, and light gloves. I put on my harness at the car, put a 60-meter rope on my back, clipped a second harness and a helmet to my harness. Why the helmet when I would be soloing? I thought if the wind knocked me off low enough to the ground, the helmet would increase my chances of surviving. But if that was true why not wear it when I normally scramble? I wasn’t thinking everything through enough. I didn’t bring any slings. I just grabbed stuff and went. I should have taken just a couple more minutes to bring some slings…


There were other people out hiking in this wind, which didn’t seem too pleasant to me, yet I had done the same earlier. People in Boulder are hardy. I was a bit surprised that no one asked me where I was going with the rope. It was clearly insane to go climbing in this wind.


I hiked the entire way. I thought about how slow I was and how Anton or Kyle would be running to Stefan’s rescue. Despite my earlier hubris, there are better people than me. Most of the Minions are better than me. Fitter and faster. I wished I was stronger.


I kept Stefan updated so that he knew help was coming.


Me, 12:32 p.m.:


At base of First. Headed to Atalanta


He responded:


I think bad idea to summit. you could get trapped on final notch


Me, 12:47 p.m.:


At Atalanta now. Going to try for tree (two thirds of the way up the route). I can rap from trees from there I think (this was to imply that I don’t think I’ll be trapped at the tree or below it). Yes, final notch is an issue.


Stefan:


ok, good luck


I was just in my Topo running shoes and now lamented why I wasn’t in my best scrambling shoes. More failures of not taking just a minute or two more to think. I’d scrambled a bit in these shoes, though. I was determined to be as solid as possible and I climbed slowly and very carefully upwards on familiar rock. The wind was strong but no real issue. I could hear the roar of the wind above, though. At the ridge it was going to be fierce and maybe impossible for me. I reminded myself of Sheryl’s words. Getting blown off the ridge wouldn’t help Stefan. It would devastate him. 


Me, 12:57 p.m.:


I’m at tree. About 150 feet below ridge


Stefan:


ok


I crept upwards, fearfully. I was able to traverse a bit towards the summit below the ridge and delay the inevitable a bit longer. Then I was on the ridge and the wind hit me. Brutal, but I was able to hang on. Then a slight lull. I didn’t hesitate and rushed for the notch. Once there I crawled to the summit and dropped into a hole next to the anchors. The winds here were biblical. I know winds. Believe me or not, but this was sustained 100+ miles per hour. 


Despite the text messages telling me he was below the summit, I was surprised he wasn’t there. I was strong on motivation, weak on thought. I texted him.


Me, 1:06 p.m.:


I’m here. On summit.


Stefan:


wo[(o(oo| (apparently typing was tough)


Me:


Where are you?


Stefan:


15’ down, just around corner


I pulled the rope off my back and dropped it into my hole. I struggled to get it untangled and thread it through the anchor, but eventually succeeded and got myself on rappel. Now I needed to get my rope out of the hole and down to the west. But the wind was blowing 100 mph towards the east. I needed slings to coil the rope and clip it to my harness, but I didn’t have them. I’m no RMR. 


After what seemed like forever, especially to Stefan, I was able to wad up the rope in one hand, and rappel with my other hand, telling myself how careful I needed to be not to make a mistake. I inched out of my hole and was immediately battered against the rock by the wind. I clung to the rope with my brake hand and hugged the loose rope to my chest. With no hand to push myself away from the rock, I used my legs to push myself west and down. The ends of the rope that were not secured ripped skyward.


Fifteen feet down I came to Stefan, lying in a sloping slot and trying to reach the rope whipping above him. I came down and lay next to him. I handed him my other harness. No words were spoken, as nothing could be heard anyway. He struggled to get the harness on. It was too small. The buckle couldn’t be undone. This was my Tour race harness and really tight on me. Stefan is a bit larger, more muscular, and couldn’t get it on. All the while I’m getting very cold. I couldn’t imagine Stefan’s state. We had to get out of there. I yelled in his ear: “We have to switch harnesses.” He nodded and I stripped mine off and handed it to him. He handed me the race harness. 


We both pulled on the harnesses, while holding and sitting on the rope. If it had gotten out of our grasp, we’d have been trapped. We both knew that. I also couldn’t get the harness on. I must be putting it on wrong, I thought. I took it back down, oriented it, probably identically, and tried again. It was stuck on my fat butt. I lay prone, wriggling and struggling desperately, like a Victorian maiden trying to put on a girdle. I was desperate. There was ZERO chance of pulling up a harness after Stefan descended. I’ve done a Dulphersitz (sp?) before. There was ZERO chance of that working for me. I redoubled my efforts and finally got it up to my hips.


Stefan rappelled first. He had trouble getting west and fought the wind and got over the edge, where gravity could now help him. I fed out rope to him until I had no more to give. I let go, praying it didn’t get stuck anywhere. I laid there for a minute and then had to crawl north in my groove to reach the rappel ropes, now directly west of the summit and north of me. Staying on my ledge I grasped them and pulled them towards me. The fact that I could pull the ropes told me that Stefan was down. I now had to get on rappel. I’d pull in a tiny bit of slack to try to feed my device and the wind would yank the rope back. I tried again. And again. And again. My hands were going numb. I didn’t panic, not yet, but I was getting desperate and shaking didn’t help matters. Finally, I got them through the device and wrestled trying to get the loops into my carabiner. I got one in. I got the second in. I checked. I checked again. I locked the biner. I slid off my ledge and extended my legs and was blown hard to the north, against the rock. I hung on and slid down the rope. Once down ten feet, I was good. 


Stefan below held the ropes, as I knew he would. If he had let go of those ropes before I got on rappel, the ropes would have been blown over the top of the Flatiron and I’d have been trapped, just like he was. 


Once I hit the ground, Stefan staggered over to me. I immediately saw that he was having trouble moving. The wind on the ground was nearly as bad and he staggered against it. As I pulled the ropes through my device, he hugged me tight. Even if words were possible (they were not), they would have been a poor substitute. I couldn’t imagine the suffering he went through for hours up there. His relief, his gratitude, his love, his thanks, his emotion rushed into me. 


A mighty pull on the rope didn’t budge it. My puny arm strength was useless against this wind. I cared almost nothing about this rope, so great was my relief to be back on the ground. I’d abandon it without a second thought, despite it being my primary lead rope. It was due to be replaced anyway. Still, I couldn’t help trying, now that I knew we’d both live. I tied a knot in one end and clipped it to my harness and then hiked downhill, toward the trail. My weight and my leg strength was enough, and the rope slowly came down. 


By the time I hit the trail, the rope pulled through the anchor on top, but it did not fall to the ground. It didn’t get hung up either. Thirty meters of 9mm rope flew like a kite, ramrod straight at a 45-degree angle up into the sky. I pulled down every inch of that rope to my feet. Not once did it drop to the ground. 


I had sent Stefan on down the trail. He was in bad shape, clearly, and there was nothing for him to do. The lower he got, the more out of the wind he’d be. I was still getting hammered in the wind. With no chance of coiling the rope, I picked it up in a bundle and staggered down the trail until I could find some relief. I caught Stefan and went by him to get next to a large boulder. I coiled the rope here as Stefan continued. Once I had the rope on my back, I caught Stefan again. We could now talk if our faces were close together. He said, “My feet are numb. Oh, and I have Covid.”


He had a buff up over his mouth and nose, to protect me. I wasn’t worried. Any breath from him was immediately blown to Kansas. He then said, “Today wasn’t my smartest decision.”


We continued down the trail, cold, but now fine and on our way to warmth. It wasn’t a quick descent, as Stefan was walking on a couple of clubs. Once out of the trees we could see the smoke rising to the east and my thoughts turned back to the fire. 


My buddy Homie called me. He asked, “Are you in Superior?” I said no, that I was in the Flatirons. He told me that Superior was being evacuated because of the fire. What?! I called Sheri. She was still in Superior at the Eldorado K8 school. She had left the house before the evacuation order had gone out just to see the fire that I had told her about. She couldn’t go up Rock Creek Boulevard, as it was grid locked. 


I sent Sheri a text at 1:44 p.m. telling her that Stefan and I were down. She responded that they just issued an evacuation order for the entire town of Superior. She watched the fire come over the hill and sent:


It’s getting close to this townhouses. Shit. Shit.


I called Homie to see where he was and tell him that Sheri was still in Superior. Authorities had come door-to-door to evacuate him and his wife. His daughters had already left, but didn’t get far, due to gridlock. It took people 90 minutes to go 1.5 miles. Sheri reported that she was leaving and in the gridlock, going “an inch a minute,” she said. I was worried for her, but there was nothing I could do. All roads to Superior were closed: highways 36 and 93. Marshall Road. I was trapped in Boulder. Sheri and everyone in Superior was fleeing to the south and east, chased by a fire driven by 80-100 mph winds. 


I figured I would wait it out at the Starbucks at Baseline and Broadway and drove down the hill, noticing a 2-foot-diameter spruce tree that snapped off five feet above the ground and blocked a side street. Starbucks was closed due to lack of power. I was parked under a swaying power pole. I moved to the parking lot but was then under a swaying light pole. I moved to the middle of the lot and fielded text messages and phone calls about my safety. Superior was burning to the ground and friends and family wanted to know if I was okay.


My Nissan Leaf only had 15 miles of charge left. I needed to charge it before I could go much of anywhere. Homie told me to go to his church, but I couldn’t find the charger there. I headed to the Nissan dealership, as I knew they had a free, fast charger there. I spent the next two hours there, charging my car and watching, on 9news.com, my neighborhood burn. I felt there was little chance any house was going to survive, including mine.


Sheri made it out. My sister and brother both offered their houses in Denver for her to stay, but she didn’t want to drive too far and got a hotel in Arvada. I was flooded to offers for lodging from Tom, Stefan, Kristen, Holly, Chris Weidner, Chris Archer, Ed, Sarah, Bruno, Brad, Brian, Connor, Davin, Jack, Sue, Charlie, etc. It seemed everyone I knew was calling concerned, desperate to help me. I was and still am overwhelmed with emotion at the love and caring of everyone. 


Friday, December 31st


I didn’t sleep well and awoke early. I watched updates on my fast-dying phone at 4 a.m. and decided to head to Rock Creek to see if my house was still standing at 6 a.m. My buddy Tom joined me. We parked at highway 128 and McCaslin — 3 miles from my house and the closest we could get via car. We donned headlamps and made our way down the hill on a trail, creeping into the neighborhood. We dodged cop cars and fire trucks and weaved our way via trail and bike paths and some roads. Most of what we saw was good. All of Rock Creek south of Coalton Road was completely intact. North was a different story, but nearly as bad as I had feared.


It seemed 90% or 95% of the neighborhood’s houses were untouched. But the houses that were touched, were obliterated. Burned so completely that driveways and walkways ended at nothingness. The first house I saw like this caused some cognizant dissonance. I thought I had made a wrong turn. I didn’t recognize the view in front of me. It look a moment to understand I was looking at a lot the once held a two-story house. It was so completely removed that it looked more like an empty lot than a burned house. To be a burned house, there would have to be a house. There wasn’t one. It was as if it had been vaporized. Everything? Sinks? Stoves? Refrigerators? Nothing remained, at least that’s how it looked. Later I realized that a lot of this stuff must just be in the basement. 


Some burned lots had cars on them, whether in the garage or the driveway, they looked the same, as no structure remained. The cars were just empty metal husks. Inside the only remains of any seats were the metal wire springs.


We saw one house that was partially burned and it puzzled us how it could be like that. Why didn’t it burn to the ground? What could have stopped it? Then we found a fire hose on the driveway and the answer was obvious. Heroism stopped this fire. Hundreds of bad-ass, honest-to-goodness fire fighters stopped this fire. They couldn’t save Old Town Superior or the Sagamore neighborhood. These were on the front lines and the fire was fed by 100 mph winds. God himself couldn’t have saved those houses. But in Rock Creek and elsewhere these brave fighters took a stand. They saved hundreds of homes, including mine.


The Marshall Fire was a disaster of epic proportions, burning at least 600 homes (at the time of this writing) and maybe more than a thousand homes. Friends would lose their houses, but I wouldn’t. And my closest friends wouldn’t either. Homie was the first house saved on his street. Every single house on the other side of the street was burnt completely away. Only foundations were left. Danny’s house was in a small saved pocket, surrounded by Armageddon. Dan Vinson’s house, in old town Superior, where 600 homes were lost and I thought everything was burned, was saved. 


We walked out and headed south to meet up with Sheri at her hotel. After breakfast and a shower, we headed back to Rock Creek. We parked along the side of highway 128 and took roughly the same route back to the house. A blizzard was coming and we wanted to make sure our pipes wouldn’t freeze. We thought we’d turn off the water, open some taps, we weren’t sure. Once there, we plugged in our three space heaters. Between the three of them, we could maintain the house at 54 degrees. Then the snow hit and temperature dropped. 


Sheri didn’t want to walk back in the storm, so we decided to stay the night. We had no cable and hardly any phone service, but we had food, electricity and water. We were fine. Sheri wore her down jacket, her warmest, insulated pants, and a hat. We were fine, but I was worried about our cars up on the highway and if they would be a problem for plows. Just then Homie contacted me. I told him I was planning to head back to move my cars and he offered to help. Of course he did. 


I walked down to Safeway and he picked me up there. Coalton Road was now open and our plan was to move both cars down to here, which we did. I walked back to our house and Sheri fed me dinner. I’m so pampered. 


Saturday, January 1st


Sitting in my house now, in a still abandoned neighborhood, I have some survivor’s guilt. The night before, I was sure my house was gone. Of all the people in Superior and Louisville, I’ve got to be one of the people who could have survived it the easiest. Yes, all the memories and irreplaceable items would haunt me, and I’d likely have to move out of the area, but I have a circle of such giving friends and such a loving, caring family, that I’d have been taken in. I would have been cared for. In the days, weeks, and months to come, I’ll be looking for ways to help my neighborhoods. 


Today, I awoke to 8 inches of snow on the ground. Our house had no heat, but we had electricity and three space heaters, so our house was 54 degrees and no water pipe damage. Not knowing what to do, I shoveled my driveway and walk. Then I did my neighbor’s. Then my other neighbor’s. Then his neighbor’s . And her neighbor’s. It wasn’t much. It might be nothing at all by the time my neighbors return, but for me, for just this morning, it was something. 


We’ve all faced a lot of obstacles this year, or rather last year, now. I forgot completely that last night was New Year’s Eve. I went to bed in my chilly house at 9:30 p.m. My wife remembered, but didn’t tell me, fearing I’d wake her up at midnight to watch the ball drop. But our cable’s out anyway, so we wouldn’t be watching anything. 2021 was rough. At times. It was good at times, too. I’ll cherish the good, mourn the bad, and strive to make 2022 better. What else can we do?


Sunday, October 31, 2021

Right Dovetail with Derek

Strava
Photos

I'm on a quest to get my 100th ascent of Longs Peak next year when I have a decadal birthday. To that end, I had a subgoal of getting to 97 by the end of this year (2021) or six ascents this year. I got off to a late start, but then got four pretty quickly. This late in the year ascents are tougher, but Derek and I want to do more alpine/mixed climbing this season in an effort to boost our skills and experience a bit. To start that work, we chose the Right Dovetail. I'd done it twice before and knew it would be reasonable for us and a good route to see where we were at, fitness and skill-wise. 

We took this route a bit too casually and got a late start. After dropping Sheri at the bus stop at 6 a.m. we headed for the trailhead. In Lyons, we found out about the South St. Vrain highway closure and diverted to Estes Park. Driving around that town in the dark, I almost hit a bull elk, coming within a couple of feet. A heavy mist was hugging the ground and I didn't see him until it was too late to do anything. He stood completely still and I passed by without any damage to either of us.

Above the clouds at treeline

We weren't hiking until 7:30 a.m. and took it pretty slow. We carried a small rack of single cams to #2, some stoppers, two ice screws, and even two pitons (just to see if we could figure out how to place them). We started in the mist but climbed above the clouds and at treeline were greeted with sunny skies and no wind. It was surreal, especially at this time of year. It wouldn't last.

As we approached the route, it appeared to be in great condition, with solid ice in the first 150-200 feet. Most of this ice is low-angle and appropriate for my meager ice skills. We were in the shade gearing up and that, coupled with not moving, quickly chilled us. By the time we put on our crampons, harnesses, and helmets and geared up, we were cold. So, we both climbed in our shells and down jackets. It made movements a bit more cumbersome, but the warmth was worth it.

I had planned to use my smaller gloves for this route, but my hands were too cold (I have very wimpy hands when it comes to winter temperatures), so I used my BD Absolute Mitts. These babies are pretty awesome. They have a 3-finger inner glove that is waterproof and provides dexterity and a down overmitt with a leather palm. They are much more durable than a pure down mitten. I climbed with both on as much as I could and when I got into the mixed climbing or needed to place gear, I pulled off the outer mitts and had them dangle from my wrists.

We climbed with two tools and used a spinner leash to attach them to our harnesses. This leash, coupled with the rack, my dangling mittens, and the rope, made for some challenging movement at times. I was awkward and clumsy. I need more practice. Twice I climbed above my tools and then got them stuck below me. Doh. 

I placed two screws on the first pitch. The first screws I've placed in years, which is why I needed to get out training. We brought just a 40-meter rope and planned to simul-climb a bit. This was a stupid mistake, especially for a Gumby mixed climber like myself. When ice climbing and mixed-choss climbing, there tends to be loose stuff and things tumble down. I had to be super attentive so that I didn't bomb Derek with any projectiles. Never again will I try this. In retrospect, this was dumber than I thought I could be at this point in my climbing life. I mentioned this to Derek at the first belay and he was thinking the same thing. I was glad he didn't chastise me further, I was doing fine myself.

Derek topping out our first pitch

Derek led the next pitch, which started with some easy snow, then a tiny patch of ice, before pure rock climbing. Derek was having fun using his tools on the rock. I did less of that and on the upper part of this pitch and the next pitches, I didn't use my tools at all.

Derek did a great job on his pitch and set up a belay on a sloping ledge. He wasn't excited about the stance, so I moved off quickly on the third pitch in search of a better ledge. Derek was hoping that was going to be just ten feet higher, but each ledge that I came across either sloped or didn't have sufficient gear. After maybe a hundred feet I got to a good ledge and even sat down to belay Derek up.

Derek at the crux of our second pitch

After a brief break to drink and eat, Derek led the last easy pitch to the notch in the Keyhole Ridge. Once through this notch, the wind hit us. It was steady, but not ridiculous. We were so well dressed that we remained warm. We stripped and stowed everything but harnesses here and scrambled to the summit. From here to the top, with no reason to pause, we really felt the effects of the altitude. We hadn't been to altitude in a while and it showed. I had to stop and rest numerous times before arriving at the summit. It took us 7.5 hours to make the top.

On the summit after 7.5 hours

We rested on top for less than 5 minutes before fast-approaching dark clouds prompted us to move. Minutes into our descent it started to snow and then turned to graupel. With our crampons stowed (the right choice), we carefully made our way down slippery talus to the North Face rappels. I found the upper eye-bolt this time. I should find it every time, but in the summer, it is not needed and in the winter, it is buried in the snow/ice. We simul-rapped (because I only brought a Grigri, which was another mistake) from this eye-bolt to just above the usual first belay. We carefully downclimbed to the next rappel anchor. 

We simul-rapped, but came up short of the next anchor. I stopped higher up and lowered Derek down to the next anchor. He clipped in and put his end of the rope on belay. I tied into this rope and then pulled down the rest of the rope. Belayed by Derek, I carefully downclimbed the small inset using chimney technique. I had to descend twenty feet and I made it fine.

Making our third rappel on our now-fixed line

The storm was raging now and I knew I'd have trickier downclimbing below. We had the Escaper with us, but I didn't want to mess with it in these conditions. The rope we were using was old and had some sheath damage. Earlier in the day, we had already decided to retire the rope, so I did something I've never done before. I tied the rope to the eye-bolt and, after rapping its full length, left it behind. Nice booty for the next party on the Cables route.

Descending from the last rappel down to the Boulder Field Camp was tiring, slippery, and dangerous. All the rocks were coated in ice and snow. The snow patches were evil traps that plunged between shin-bashing stones. It took a lot of mental and physical effort to get down to the trail. It should have been easy going from here on out and it mostly was, but we were fading. Our feet hurt and the winds whipped at any exposed skin. Our goggles were essential. We were hot in all our clothes, yet didn't want to stop to shed a layer as that process would have us being cold again. 

The descent was long and tedious but then we came to a revelation: we had less than an hour of daylight left. Our casual attitude had extended to us not bringing headlamps. Mistake number three? Four? Too many. With all the weight we carried the addition of a headlamp would have been unnoticeable. We picked up the pace and went as fast as we could. I'm not saying that was a fast pace, but it was a lot quicker than what I had been doing. 

Hiking out in the wind and snow

Once back below treeline, the wind and blowing snow was no longer an issue, though the snow continued to fall. We had fresh tracks, mostly, to the car and arrived just before we needed to use our phones as a light. The snow cover reflected the meager light remaining just enough for us to see. The roundtrip was just under 11 hours. More than two hours longer than I expected.

In the parking lot, we met another party just finishing up an ascent of Alexander's Chimney. They told us conditions were thin there -- mostly rock climbing. Two guys visiting from New York were in the parking lot as well. They were in a rental car and very low on gas. They also didn't know how to use their defroster. We guided them down into Estes Park, right to a Shell station. They were very thankful and it gave us a nice glow to end our adventure. 

This was my 96th ascent of Longs Peak. My third time up the Right Dovetail (with three different partners). My 87th trip over the North Face (most of these are descents). And at least my fifth October ascent. I've now climbed Longs Peak on at least (I don't have an exact date, just the month, for ten of my climbs) 73 unique calendar days (on 13 days of the calendar, I've climbed Longs twice). The month with the least number of ascents (3) is April. The month with the most ascents (21) is August.


Monday, September 20, 2021

The Wright's Fight

Photos

Strava

Three and half years ago, this article appeared in our local paper, written by my friend Chris Weidner. It's about Adam Stack’s Fab Fifteen linkup. The piece did its job. Which was to inspire. What else is the purpose of such a piece? Just to be amazed by an incredible individual? No, not just that.

Adam’s Fab Fifteen was to do five Eldorado Canyon summits, five Flatiron summits, and the five peaks of the Boulder Skyline. What a cool idea. I immediately wanted to do my own version of it. Why not his version? Because he did 5.12 routes in Eldo and that’s too rich for my blood. So, try 5.11, right? No way. That would take all day just in Eldo. So, I decided on 5.10 and mapped out the routes, put them into a spreadsheet with time estimates, and then realized…nope. 5.10 was too hard as well. I had to drop the technical difficulty way down.

Last year, Derek and I started to train for this, by breaking up the challenges into separate days. After some adjusting, Derek and I decided on these five routes: Bastille Crack (5.8), Gambit (5.8) on Shirttail Peak, Long John Wall (5.8) on the West Ridge, the Yellow Spur (5.9+) on the Redgarden Wall, and Wind Ridge (5.7) on the Wind Tower. We linked all those one day and even threw in Over the Hill (3 pitches, 10b) and were finished at 12:30 p.m. after more than seven hours of climbing. 

Then we practiced the next ten summits. Since it was before August, three of Adam’s Flatirons (Matron, Devil’s Thumb, Third Flatiron) weren’t open to climbing. Instead we did the Fatiron to the Maiden (part of Fab Fifteen) to Freezeway on the Second Flatiron to the Direct East Face of the First Flatiron (part of Fab Fifteen) and then the Red Rocks summit (3rd class). This turned out to be pretty brutal and took us nearly ten hours. 

We gave it one try, but 30-degree temperatures, a biting wind, and a sketchy simul-climb of Gambit in the dark started us out badly and we never recovered. While we completed the climbing routes, we lost our drive to see it through. I put it on my list of goals for this year, but we couldn't try it until at least August because of the bird closures. 

Though Chris’ article clearly calls Adam’s linkup the Fab Fifteen, I took to calling it the Stack Attack, which was Adam’s nickname back when he was sending 5.14d and freeing El Cap. We wouldn’t be repeating his link-up, but creating our own. I called ours the Wright's Fight. Maybe this will start a trend of climbers selecting their own five Eldo routes and maybe even five unique Flatiron summits. I could see Stefan selecting 5.11 routes into the Griebel Grind. Weidner could select 5.13 routes and form the Chris Quest. 

My spreadsheet schedule had us finishing in the wee hours of the morning after more than 20 hours on the move. Since it is a point-to-point adventure, that presents a logistical issue. If I were Danny, I’d have just made myself close the loop via a 10-mile run back to Eldo. Mercifully, I’m not Danny. We dropped a car the night before. 

We got up at 4 a.m. and were headed to Eldo by 4:20 a.m. In the canyon it was surprisingly warm and not too windy. We called an audible and decided to do the Bastille Crack first, as that route, classic that it is, seems to be perpetually queued up. We could have done any of a number of variations on the Bastille, if that was the case, but each would burn precious energy. Turns out, there is no queue for the Bastille Crack at 4:45 a.m. Who knew?

1. Bastille

I led it as one pitch, placing three Micros. Climbing in the dark is a bit tricky when footholds are tucked into corners. I went slow and solid and placed nearly the entire double rack that I carried. Our rack consisted of one #3, doubles of #2 through #0.3, and a red/gold offset, 11 slings, and three Micros. It went smoothly and we were hiking towards Shirttail Peak before 5:30 a.m.

2. Shirttail

We hiked up in the dark and Derek's headlamp died. It was my headlamp and my fault for not fully charging it. Lights would become a bigger issue much later on. We swapped helmets, as our headlamps were attached to them, and Derek led off into the dark. By the time I started to climb, I could see well enough. Derek did an expert job leading this route as one pitch. He said he was going to be rusty in Eldo, as he hadn't climbed there in a month or more, but it didn't show.

We had my usual confusion on the descent, but didn't waste too much. I need to learn Tony and Danny's descent off this peak. Back at the base of the Rincon Wall we found a party of three climbers that had approached via headlamps. They saw Derek's light high on Shirttail and were excited about our quest.

3. Long John Wall

Just as we got to the Long John Wall, we saw two climbers headed up the slope towards us. It was Tom and Kirk, out for some early morning cragging. Kirk, a pistol that knows I like volume, jabs at me, "How many pitches have you done so far?", thinking it was zero. When we told him he laughed, thinking I was joking. Then I explained what we were trying to do and he was taken aback. "Wait, were you serious about those two routes?" 

I led LJW as one pitch with three Micros and it went smoothly. At the top I watched Danny Gilbert climb up to join Anton at the Crow's Nest on the Yellow Spur. I yelled over at them, but I'm not sure they heard me.

4. Yellow Spur

I thought we'd hit a party or two on the Spur, but by the time we got over there it was completely free with no other party in sight. Danny and Anton were gone, not that we had any chance of catching those two. I led again, though Derek was poised to take it. One of us had to lead three of these Eldo routes anyway and I am probably a bit more efficient on this route than most. I led it as one pitch, 3 Micros, and took the Robbins Traverse, which I hadn't done in a long time. All good. We were moving well and ahead of schedule.

5. Wind Ridge on the Wind Tower

We descended the East Slabs to the Wind Ridge, where we found Florence struggling to remove the first cam, just ten feet up the route. It was her first rock climb. After watching her struggle for a while we offered to remove the cam for her and we'd return it as we simul-climbed by. She was really nice and thanked me. She couldn’t turn the 5.8 direct start, which is understandable as I think that is a hard move and it's not my first rock climb. I told her about my alternate start to the right (very runout, but good for a follower) and she swung over and climbed that. She was climbing slowly, though, having trouble with another piece. 

Derek started up and was determined to pull the stuck piece so that when he got to the leader, he would be offering a gift for the passage we'd be requesting. All good, right? Not so. Derek made the mistake of giving the stuck piece to Florence halfway up the pitch, so that when he got to them, well off to the side on a big ledge at the top of the short first pitch, and asked if he could climb through, the guy was a bit tweaked. He said, "There are tons of other routes, why do you have to climb this one? I'm trying to teach my friend how to climb." Derek regretted not emphasizing that he had just retrieved their stuck cam. Also, we didn't even climb that close to them and not only didn't hold them up, but increased their speed by allowing Florence to continue up the route, instead of spending lots more time failing to remove the leader's ill-placed cam. When I came by, I immediately said thanks and was hoping to use my line, "You must be the Machine?" Alas, he didn't respond to me and didn't even look at me. He was busy chiding his partner for not organizing the rack as she climbed the pitch. We didn't let this get us down. It was a rare unpleasant encounter. 

At the summit, we caught another party and showed them the way down. They were cool and excited about their climb. It was a great mood changer.

We were back at the car a little after 10 a.m. Just after arriving there, up walked Wade and Joe. Joe had just nearly onsighted the Naked Edge. He sure had a good partner up there, as Wade has more than 100 Edge ascents, I'm sure. Later Eric "Fiver" Warren passed by. He was headed for Hairstyles and Attitudes (12c). I only know about this route because I have some hardmen (and women) friends. 

We ate some cold pizza, downed chocolate milk and a root beer, and packed for the next leg. We carried two 30-meter ropes, one for leading and the other to help with the rappelling. We carried five cams, seven slings, and two Micros. We left the parking lot at 10:30 a.m. knowing we had probably 16 hours more to go.

6. Matron

We headed up the Old Mesa Trail out of Eldorado Springs. We hiked up to the Shadow Canyon Trail and then a tiny way up the Matron trail where we dumped our packs and geared up. We were both carrying over three liters of water each and didn't want to haul it up unnecessarily. Derek led the Matron's East Face as one pitch in his TX Guide shoes. He carried his TC Pros, but only to lead Devil's Thumb. I just had my TX3s. The start of the East Ridge is really thin and polished. I barely scratched up this section and was glad Derek had already placed the Micro above the opening roof. 

There were extended sections where we were simul-climbing with no gear between us. Yes, the scrambling was easy, but definitely not ideal. We knew the score, though, and climbed accordingly. Perhaps we should have unroped.

At the summit, we did two rappels back to the ground and descended back to our cache.

7. Maiden

The long hike around and up to the Maiden was draining, as it was pretty warm, but we got some shade in the trees and then hugged the north side of the Maiden and the shade there. Along the way, we were coordinating with Sheri, who was planning to meet us in Shadow Canyon to bring us more liquids and food, and take our climbing gear. She's a godsend and an integral part of the team. Without her help, I probably couldn't have done this.

At the base, Derek offered me his TC Pros and I took them. Why not? Well, because, despite being a half size larger than mine, they still hurt my feet. But I was more solid with them, so it was worth it. I led the route as one pitch with one Micro (forgot to place one earlier). Despite only a 30-meter rope, I got tremendous rope drag and thought Derek was just climbing slow. He thought the same of me. When Derek got to the downclimb on the Walton Traverse he had no slack and I couldn't give it to him because of the Micro fifty feet below me. I didn't want to downclimb fifty feet, but I offered. Then I suggested he just swing over. We had the Micro in and I was at a solid stance. At first, I didn't think he liked that idea, but then I heard a whoop from below and he yelled, "King Swing!" 

We did the famous rappel from the summit but didn’t continue to the ground. Instead, we reversed the rib of rock back to the west. Once back at the start of the route, we packed our gear and started the complex thrashing up to the base of Devil’s Thumb. 

8. Devil’s Thumb

We first got to the backside of the Fatiron, and then on up on tricky terrain. I had been up there last year with Homie and Derek had climbed Devil's Thumb earlier this year. Devil's Thumb is a prominent tower, located directly atop the ridge forming the east side of Shadow Canyon. The climb itself is quite short, at least the route we did, but it is fierce. I thought the moves here were the hardest of the day. Derek led it super smooth, but I was desperate and weighted the rope a bit. Derek had me on a super tight toprope, so thankfully I didn't lose any ground.

We unroped and scrambled the last hundred feet to the summit and then back to the pole (a metal pole sticking two feet out of the rock), where we rappelled. We scrambled down to our gear, packed up, and traversed around the north side to drop into Shadow Canyon. This was different from the descent Homie and I did, when we went down to the south of the tower. I hoped it would allow us to give up less vert. It might have been a mistake. We found a fixed, frayed, knotted line and it allowed us to descend steeply and then downclimb a slot to hiking terrain. Once down that, we traversed talus down and west until we hit the Shadow Canyon Trail. Sheri was already staged above us. While she hiked down, we hiked up, meeting each other within five minutes or so. 

Sheri brought us frappuccinos, espresso drinks, chips, candy, water, etc. In return we gave her our climbing gear. She hiked out with more weight than she brought in!  We’d do the rest of the summits without any gear, soloing the First and Third Flatirons. After a thirty-minute break, we packed up and started marching. We had a long way to go before our next climb. We left Sheri at 4:35 p.m.

9. South Boulder Peak

We had most of our technical climbing done but we still had to do the complete Skyline Traverse, plus the two Flatirons, so we knew it was a long way to the finish. Still, we were encouraged to have most of the stressful parts done. We started chatting more. I repeated the elements for Derek and he did the US presidents. Then he told me about quantum computing and q-dits, using ytterbium and calcium ions. 

We dropped packs at the saddle and tagged SBP on the out-and-back. We met some nice people on this section and paused to chat a bit. 

SBP went slowly, but steadily and we hit the summit after 5 p.m.

10. Bear Peak

We trudged up towards Bear and suddenly my left thigh was gripped by an extremely painful cramp. My leg was straight, but it wouldn't release. Derek immediately started massaging my leg. I love that he did this without me asking. He saw I was in pain and he knew he could help. What a great partner. He massaged it out and I moved on for just a bit before it happened again. Derek was on it immediately and got it to release again. Afterward I drank some more and ate as much salty food as I had (pretzels and chips). I didn't cramp again, thankfully.

We dropped our packs again at the junction with the Green-Bear Trail. We tagged and descended slowly. My feet were on fire, they still hadn't recovered from my fast descent on the last Tour de Flatirons stage. I'd develop blisters on the bottom of both feet before we were done.

11. Green Mountain

The ascent of Green was slow, but I was thankful for the smooth, soft surface. We tagged the top at 7:07 p.m. and descended the Greenman Trail to the First Flatiron climbers’ connector trail. We turned on the headlamps before getting to the connector trail. I wanted to descend the Third Flatiron connector trail, but without Homie as my guide, I didn't think I could find it. So, we descended to the First, and then took the normal connector over to the Third Flatiron.

12. Third Flatiron

The Third Flatiron had a surprising amount of action on it. As we approached the start of the route, three climbers, laden with gear, were ascending as well. When I got to them at the start, I asked if they were also doing a night ascent. Nope. They had just got back down and were just retrieving the gear they left there. They had taken all day on the route and were psyched to be back down. Cool. We moved on by and up the route.

I tried to stick to my regular route, but I didn't nail it. It didn't matter, though, as nearly every part of this great face is nice, secure scrambling. What a great rock. World-class scrambling, to be sure. Early in our ascent, we were hearing noises from above. Calls of "off belay" and headlamps shining. The closer we got the more stress we heard amongst the climbers. We climbed continuously and found the five climbers near the summit. One was on top belaying a second climber and three more were below. We topped out just as the second climber did, tagged the summit, and started down. Strive and confusion reigned in this team, but they seemed capable of getting down. 

We did the usual Southwest Chimney down climb. It was a bit tricky and stressful in the dark, but we took it slow and solid.  We then hiked north to the saddle and took the usual climber’s trail down until it branched off to the Second Flatiron. We followed that trail past the base of the Second Flatiron where we found a group (not sure how many) of naked female hikers/scramblers. Yes, naked. Talk about a pick-me-up! I'm not sure if they were out for a full moon (in both senses of the word) scramble of Freeway or if they were just trying to avoid close contact with us. If the former, they were Gilberting the hell out of the start. They were giggling away and having a great time. I think we can all agree, we need more of that in the Flatirons. 

13. First Flatiron

We hiked to the base of the Direct East Face of the First and took a break to eat, drink and check in with Sheri, who was going to meet us again at Realization Point. This is a familiar climb, but at this point in our day, in the dark, it was a daunting prospect. Derek insisted that I lead the way. I wasn't sure if he wanted me to find the route or that he wanted to be behind me so that he could keep an eye on me. We were both solid and, despite our fatigue, really enjoyed the scrambling. Unlike the Third, the First was deserted.

We climbed down via the Southwest Face. It felt great to be done with all the climbing. No matter what we did from here on out, we couldn't die. We headed west behind the First, towards the First-Green trail, and took the connecting path over to the Saddlerock Trail. We headed up that to Greenman and then down that to Realization Point, arriving at 11:05 p.m. Sheri was waiting for us with Chicken McNuggets, fries, and drinks of all manner. After another 30-minute break, we started the final section. We had three summits to go.

14. Flagstaff

It was only about ten minutes to the top of Flagstaff and Derek led the way, as he would for the rest of the adventure. We separated a bit on the descent and I thought about listening to something on my phone, but I never did. I just put one foot in front of the other. My feet and knees were bothering me and it helped a lot to go slow, so I did. 

15. Red Rocks

We hiked down to Eben G. Fine Park and then took the tunnel under the road to the park formerly known as Settler's Park. Now called First People's Park or the People's Park. We hiked up the hogsback the base of the Red Rocks spire. Homie turned me on to this small scramble. It's a 5-minute diversion and bags you another summit. Once I added it in, I was committed to always doing it. So we did. I switched to my second of three headlamps here. It was already dim, but by holding it in my hand, down low, I could hike with it.

16. Sanitas

Sanitas is just a horrible trail. It's crazy steep, yes, but super rocky and painful on the feet. While the trail has been significantly improved in recent years, it is still unpleasant. Despite this, it is probably the most crowded trail in the entire OSMP system. It was almost a shock to be all alone on this peak, despite starting up at 1:20 a.m.

I thought I was going pretty well on this ascent, despite Derek hiking away from me. It was okay to be alone. We were just doing what we could to finish this baby off. It took me 46 minutes to ascend Sanitas and I climbed it continuously. I was surprised by how long it took. I was tired, but I didn't feel completely wasted. Turns out, I was. 

Derek was waiting patiently on the summit and we embraced. Adam Stack called this summit the finish and it really is. Yes, you have to get down and if you care about the car-to-car time (I generally do, but on this unique adventure it isn't meaningful) you'll track the time back to the car, but if you make this summit, you've done it. Up until this point, we could have quit or turned around. Now it was done and we rejoiced.

I sat down for ten minutes to switch to my third headlamp (much brighter) and drink. Then we plodded, slowly and carefully, back down to the car. What day.

Conclusion

We finished in 22 hours and 13 minutes. It was nearly 25 miles, 13,000 vertical feet, and involved 55 guidebook pitches. We did just four rappels total. This is the longest adventure I've done in a very long time. It felt great to see this through to the end when it would have been so easy to quit at Realization Point. I never got sleepy and felt okay most of the day. I didn't bonk. I did get tired and a bit clumsy in the end, but I was still moving steadily. The key was that we stayed on top of food and water and we took frequent breaks. And we paced it right: slow and steady.

Derek was the perfect partner. So solid and calm and good-natured. He carried the heavier rope and the rack. He always carried more weight than I did, led the hardest pitch, and took the lead in the end, when I just wanted to follow footsteps. I'm extremely excited that he was my partner. I don't know how many more of these big adventures I have in me. I'll keep doing them as long as Derek wants to team up with me.

Oh, and I can finally clear that article off my desk. I won't be tossing it, though. I'll just file it away under "Inspiration".