Friday, July 31, 2020

Utah/Idaho Mountain Vacation

Kings Peak

Long ago Sheri and I worked on doing all the Colorado 14ers. Once that was done, we did all the California 14ers too. Then Derek wanted to climb Denali and with that done I got more interested in the state highpoints. I had an old book on the highpoints, but now I was much more interested. Still, I was only interested in the “real” mountains, which were the peaks over 10,000 feet and a number of other exceptions, like Mount Washington in New Hampshire. But then Derek asked me why not do them all. I started to answer about how so many of them weren’t mountains at all, some not even hills. But he made me look at it a different way. It was an excuse to visit all fifty states and at least experience them in some superficial way. That struck me as a very worthwhile goal. Then I learned that my buddy Homie was interested in them and had taken a couple of eastern trips to bag handfuls at a time. When Alexander the Sometimes Great joined the Minions, I learned that he not only was a “high pointer”, but that he was almost done. A few years ago I set a goal of doing at least one high point each year, but last year I never got around to it. This year I had to make up for it.

The Big Four of high pointers are Denali, Rainier, Gannett, and Granite. They are the most remote and technical. I’ve now done all four of those with Derek. I’d been basically working my way through the highpoints from west to east and the two most western summits I didn’t have were Kings Peak in Utah and Borah Peak in Idaho. I devised this trip to do with Sheri, to start another list-checking quest. Even though Sheri wasn’t motivated to finish them all, she was all in for the remaining peaks. 

Kings Peak is 13,528 feet tall and the highest remaining high point for me. It resides in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah — the highest and one of the few ranges in the lower 48 states oriented east-west. This peak lies a long way from any road. The usual access is from the north via the Henry Fork Trailhead and the peak is more than 13 miles away. We elected to do it as a multi-day backpacking trip. After driving 7 hours from our house in Colorado, we hit the trail around 1:30 p.m under threatening skis. 

As we hiked the gradual, rolling, rocky trail, numerous riders on horseback passed us on their way out. At one point we caught a family hiking with two llamas. They were off the trail, barely, to let a group of riders by, but the horses were very nervous about the llamas. They balked, ears perked up, nostrils flared, then they’d canter by, causing Sheri and me to fade further off the trail to avoid being trampled. Another mile in another family was hiking out, but most weren’t carrying anything at all. This was because they hiked with four heavily-laden goats with huge horns. All the goats were just hiking free with no tether or leash or harness at all. 

It started to rain on us around 4 p.m. and it quickly got really hard. Sheri asked if we should take shelter and I thought, “Why? We’ll still get wet,” but then she said we could get under the ground cloth we were carrying. I whipped it out and we dropped it over us. We sat on our packs and the rain pounded our tarp and it stuck to our backs. It was cold and miserable. I thought my tent’s rain fly could be set up without the tent and I pulled it out of my pack and found out that wasn’t the case. Now we huddled under both. Others hiked by us and one person remarked, “Hey, look at the tarp.” And then Sheri poked out her head. It wasn’t our proudest moment. 

When the rain eased a bit, we packed up and continued on in a light rain. Our goal was to get to Dollar Lake, eight miles from the trailhead, but after five or six miles we burst from the trees into high tundra, just as the rain started again in earnest, accompanied this time by thunder and lightning. Going out into the open didn’t sound like a good idea. I found a semi-sheltered spot just a tiny ways off the trail and decided to throw up the tent, initially as a temporary shelter, until the rain passed by. We spent two nights there.

By the time the tent was up, we were wet and cold. Sheri had a rain cover on her pack, but I did not. Some of my gear was damp, but not too bad. We changed into dry clothes and got under our sleeping bags, but it was awhile before we were warm. It continued to rain for a couple more hours. Sheri got us some water and I cooked up dinner. Eventually two guys set up their tent about fifty yards away from us. By the time we left, there would be five separate parties and decided our spot was a good camp, though they were located well away from us.

The night was cold, below freezing judging from the frost on the bridges and the frozen puddles. I had only brought my lightest sleeping bag, which is really a quilt, with no enclosed bottom. We did have our down jackets and we wore all our clothing inside our bags and it was still cold. My feet were the worst off. They didn’t warm up until two hours into hiking 

We left camp around 6:30 a.m., both of us hiking in our long pants and down jackets. In less than an hour we got to Dollar Lake, though we never saw it. The trails here avoid going directly to lakes. I don’t know why. I waited too long to get water and had to drop down to a still pond and dip water out of it. The only filter we had was a heavily clogged Be Free and it would have a solid hour of squeezing to get a liter out of it. Yet, I didn’t want to drink this water. Further up, we found a small drip coming from higher up and I dumped the water I had retrieved and replaced it from this drip. Still, we used the Be Free, with great effort. 

We hiked up to Gunsight Pass via two long, rocky switchbacks at a gentle angle. We caught a group of four women at the pass. Another party had passed us lower down and they were hiking the “direct” option across the slopes of the peak to the west. The regular trail dropped well down the other basin to circumvent this peak and come up the valley between it and Kings Peak. This shortcut went well until we got to the southern slopes. Then it was a pure talus traverse. Sheri does not like terrain like this. I can just walk right across it. I’ve probably done hundreds of miles of talus by this point in my life. I’m not as agile or bold as Derek, but I know what I’m doing on talus. Sheri has no confidence at all that she can balance on these rocks so she has to squat and grab hold of them. She moves at about one third of my usual pace and expends about three times the energy. She’d later say that her big, soft Hokas sucked and that she turned her ankle 129 times. This caused pain in her already injured knee. She hated this. I was already planning a new route back. 

Once across the talus we did a fairly short climb up to Anderson Pass. From here it is a long 2nd/3rd class ridge to the summit. It gains another 900 feet from here, but the distance is great and seems to go on forever. All this boulder hopping wore on Sheri, as did the false summits, even though I assured her we had 500 vertical feet to go. Maybe 300 feet below the summit, I asked how she was doing, expecting the usual: I’m beat, but I’ll make it. Instead she broke down in tears and said, “This is too hard for me!” Too hard for her? I can’t remember ever hearing that from her. Sure some things are too hard for her and she declines to try them, like the LA Freeway or the Diamond. But I’ve never heard that from her on a non-technical mountain. We climbed Cotopaxi (19,348 feet) on our 5th day away from our sea-level home in San Jose, back in 1993. Near the summit she was stronger than I was. She’s done the 26-mile, 6000-foot roundtrip on Mt. Whitney in one day. And countless other hard peaks. Of course we’re both older now. The problem was just the length of the day and the length of the boulder hopping. It drained her. 

Despite her fatigue she continued to the summit. What choice did she have? She’d come so far already. The summit is neat with a very steep west face. There is a sign at the summit, but no register. We were up there with three or four other teams and more on the way. Mostly we had hiked by ourselves, but seen other parties. Now we were clumped together a bit more. Three runners had come from the trailhead that day. This is a big outing for a single day, but quite doable...if you’re from Boulder. Kyle could do it and be back for a late breakfast. I could do and be back for a late dinner.

Sheri was glad to have made the top and thankful to sit down, rest, and eat. She wasn’t drinking enough because of our crappy filter and limited amount of water. I didn’t drink hardly anything at all, trying to save almost all of it for Sheri. She ate quite a bit here, saying she was so hungry, another phrase I don’t hear that often from her. After half an hour we started down.

It was slow going back to the pass, but then we picked up the trail and moved a bit quicker. Now Sheri wasn’t limited by the terrain as she was by fatigue and dehydration. I found a little trickle of water down and refilled our bottles, but it was still difficult for her to suck it out of our Be Free bottle. 

From the summit, I had scoped out a route around the horrible talus traverse. I’d even thought about this route on the way in, but didn’t want to lose the elevation only to regain it again. But seeing how tough the talus was for Sheri, this was an easy decision. We dropped down on the regular trail until we were below the talus and then broke cross-country on grassy slopes until below the cairn that marked the end of the traverse. This cairn was six feet tall and I could see it from below. We did have to climb a couple hundred feet to get back on the shortcut route, but it was a huge time saver. We had been passed on the ridge descent by two young women and they had started the traverse at least ten minutes before we got down off the ridge. We then dropped two hundred feet below them and then re-climbed that vertical and ended up well in front of them. They wouldn’t re-pass us until miles later. Sheri appreciated the ease of this new route, but said she almost hurled on the climb back to the ridge. That’s a third phrase I never hear from her. I’m the hurler, not her.

I had been trying to move us along at a good pace because the sky was threatening another storm. The discomfort and cold of the day before was fresh on my mind and I wanted to make sure we at least got to Gunsight Pass before it hit. Sheri wasn’t moving that fast, but she was moving continuously. I’d get out ahead of her periodically and then wait for her to catch up, but start moving as soon as she got there. It wasn’t until we were down from the pass (taking a nice shortcut to lose altitude quicker) that I offered up little rest breaks to her. She took the first two offerings and then decided that she had to keep moving or she’d tighten up. 

It was a long way back to camp and it did rain on us some, but, try as it might, it could not develop into a real storm. We donned our jackets, but soon had them unzipped and the hoods off. Back at camp, I got us plenty of water and started brewing up some coffee and hot chocolate. It was only 3:30 p.m. so too early for dinner but we needed to hydrate and snack a bit. I also boiled up a few water bottles worth of liquid so that we didn’t have to use the filter. Sheri took a little nap and then the sun came out and the tent became hot. She hobbled down to the creek and iced her feet. I had originally thought we’d hike out this day, but I knew that was out before we had hit the summit.

We lounged around in the grass surrounding our tent. I was in shorts and nothing else. The grass was so soft that even I, with my wimpy feet, could walk around, gingerly, barefoot. We cooked dinner out here and enjoyed the views and the satisfaction of success. 

It was so warm that evening that we had high hopes for a warmer night, but that was not to be. If anything it was colder. I first woke up to put on my long pants and down jacket. Then, around 4 a.m. my cold feet woke me up for the rest of the night. I got up to pee at 5 a.m. and retrieve our food bag. I did fall back asleep in spurts, but started making coffee at 6 a.m. We ate and packed up and were hiking around 7:15 a.m. Not in our down jackets this time, but in hats and gloves and my pile sweater. It had been so hot at home and even when I did a 15-hour day up in Rocky Mountain National Park, but I had a hard time imagining being this cold anywhere outside of Alaska or Siberia. Later in the trip we’d do some more backpacking into the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Those mountains are lower, but further north. I’d bring a bigger sleeping bag for that trip (actually, I would not). 

That was my 16th state highpoint. The only remaining western highpoint is the next mountain on our list: Borah Peak.

Borah Peak

After hiking out six miles on Monday morning, Sheri drove us to Borah Peak’s trailhead. She does almost all the driving on our trips. I navigate, handle the music, read articles to her, and write the trip report. I only take a turn behind the wheel when the drive is extra long and she needs a break, or if it is at night, despite my terrible night vision. Or on a 4WD road. Or bad weather. Basically, I drive all the junk, which is very few miles. It works for us.

My book tells me that Borah Peak is 5500 vertical feet in 6.8 miles…roundtrip. That makes the direct route on Green Mountain (above Boulder) look like a road race course. It’s more vertical than Longs Peak in half the mileage (via the Keyhole Route). The summit is at 12,662 feet and the only state high point above 9000 feet that I had left. Once you get out of the west, elevation isn’t an issue. The next highest is Guadalupe Peak, in Texas, at 8,749 feet.

My guidebook mentioned three camping sites at the trailhead. Three. With so few I wondered if they were ever not filled, but we decided to check them out anyway, since it would be a Monday night. And we got one. In fact, there are probably five sites here. Two were open, but the first one we went to didn’t have any ground that was flat. The only remaining site worked fine. It even had a picnic table. We set up the tent, made dinner and chatted with our neighbors who had just got down from the peak. One of the guys was 68 years old and he adventures 9 months a year. The other three he works with his wife. They have a two-person, tax-accounting company. Sounds like a sweet deal. His wife doesn’t come with him, though. That would suck. His goal is to run a marathon in every state, bike across the US (in pieces), do the state high points (he isn’t very far), and visit every country (even less far there). I love a guy with lists to check off. I’m that guy. He recently biked around Lake Michigan: 1200 miles! He brings all his own gear, pulls a trailer and camps. That is so cool. I want to be like this guy when I grow up.

We also met Caleb and Kylie, a father-daughter team, in the parking lot. They had never climbed a mountain before. This monster seemed like a bold choice for initiation. But, I like bold goals. They had set up their tent right there in the main parking lot, not in a campsite, which was open when they arrived. It was windy and they tied the tent to their car, but couldn’t make it work, so they brought it down and slept in their car. They didn’t look very fit and I didn’t think their chances were great.

We readied our packs the night before and set the alarm for 5:30, planning to start as soon as it was light enough to go without headlamps. This turned out to be about 6 a.m. Sheri led the way and set the pace, which was steady and sustainable. The trail is indeed steep and consistently so. We hiked up a wooded ridge, frequently without any switchbacks at all. When there were switchbacks, they were very short, tens of feet, and still steep. We caught the K’s (yeah, Caleb isn’t a K, but it was easier to say and to remember) after about 45 minutes. They had started at 5:30 a.m. and were stopping to attend to some hot spots on Kylie’s feet. I noticed Caleb was wearing jeans. My assessment of their chances dipped lower.

Sheri kept pounding up the trail. If we could average 1 mph, we’d do the roundtrip in under 7 hours. That seemed like a good goal. The 68-year-old guy had taken 13 hours. Our other neighbor had taken 11 hours. We did our first mile in 32 minutes and our second mile in 47 minutes and our third mile in 48 minutes. Only 0.4 miles to go, right? Wrong. At least according to my GPS, the trail isn’t 3.4 miles long, it’s at least four miles. 

As we approached the scrambling section, we spotted a huge group above us. Up until then, the only people we had seen were the K’s. This group, of about 20 people, was a scout troop. Unfortunately, we caught them right at the start of the crux, a section called Chicken-Out Ridge. We’d talked to a lady in the parking lot the previous day who said, she did chicken out. It is solid 3rd class with some serious exposure. We picked our way past the scouts when opportunity allowed. Sheri was nervous, but did well. 

Chicken-Out Ridge ends with a steep, 15-foot down climb to a col, with hard snow. Thankfully, a knotted, fixed line eased the descent to the snow. I went first and spotted Sheri on the way down. The snow crossing was short, 10-15 steps, but very serious. A fall there would likely be fatal, but flat steps existed and I held Sheri’s hand across. Once on the other side, Sheri remained a bit nervous and needed me holding her hand for a while longer. Then the terrain became a trail again and she pushed on for the summit. 

The final 900 vertical feet was class 2 and 3, but not very exposed, but a bit loose. We made the summit after 3h37m and were the first climbers on top. We had gone non-stop from trailhead to summit. And it wasn’t me driving that. It was Sheri. The only time I pushed the pace was guiding Sheri around all the Boy Scouts on Chicken-Out Ridge. Other than that, Sheri was always in the lead. We only spent 15 minutes on top because of threatening clouds. It had been cloudy all morning, but now they grew darker. We left the top just before the first of the Boy Scouts arrived. We passed them all on our descent and then were once again alone. Until the Chicken-Out Ridge, where we found, much to my surprise, was the K’s! We directed them to the proper route and passed by them just before they got to the fixed line. I’m sure they made it. I’m also sure they got very wet on the descent.

Once off the ridge, our pace picked up. We did the descent without stopping as well, making the roundtrip in 6h40m, just a bit under our goal of seven hours. The last 30 minutes or so was in the rain. We put on our shells, but barely needed them. Back at our campsite it was raining harder and everything was soaked. Sheri hopped in the car while I made her a hot coffee. She relaxed and fueled while I packed up our campsite. I wanted to get on the road quickly because we had a 2-hour drive to our next destination: Redfish Lake. We wanted to get a hotel so that we could shower and dry-out our gear before packing for our next backcountry trip. 

We drove to Stanley, population 67, passing Clayton, population 7, without any cell service. Once there I started calling hotels, without any luck. Finally, I tried a lodge back the way we had come and booked a quaint, cozy cabin. We reversed course for twenty miles and had a great afternoon and evening. We drove back another 8 miles to a grill located at a gas station. We had great burgers and fries here. We liked it so much that we repeated the meal on our way home, three days later.

Sawtooth Range

As long as we were driving all the way to Idaho, I wanted to sample some of the classic alpine climbing in the Sawtooth Mountains, especially the famed Elephant’s Perch. Sheri wasn’t interested in any honest rock climbing. Luckily, I had a friend, Ali G., who lived in Boise and had climbed on the Elephant’s Perch numerous times. Unluckily, Ali G. had a trip planned to Yosemite that same week. It was his first trip to the Valley and he was rightfully excited about it, despite the ridiculously dumb time to visit. At that time of year Yosemite Valley will seem more like Death Valley than the climbing Mecca that it is. I queried some of my other partners. Danny has a strict rule of not climbing outside the state of Colorado unless he’s with a climber of short stature (Hi, Ryan!). Tom was busy bagging peaks with his wife, just like me. Except his peaks weren’t my peaks. I queried Jon Oulton, up in Seattle, before realizing his drive would be as long as mine. I even queried the Brilly Goat, who also lived in Boise. He’s a young kid known for running up mountains, not climbing up them. He was tempted, itching for a good epic, but decided he needed to write a paper on the limits of human endurance, a subject about which he has lots of firsthand knowledge. 

I was thinking seriously about rope soloing the Mountaineer’s Route on the Elephant’s Perch. It was rated 5.9, but the comments on indicated that it wasn’t very sustained. I thought I might be able to manage it. Then, on the goodbye scramble for Angela, 36 hours before leaving on my trip, I talked with David the Sometimes Great. He of state highpoint fame. I gave my pitch. He bit. He mentioned Baron’s Spire, the hardest summit in Idaho. I said we could probably get both and the hook was set. A day later he confirmed.

We met at the Redfish Lake boat ramp on Wednesday morning. I was going in loaded for comfort. Kings Peak had convinced me to man up either in my toughness to discomfort or to carrying a heavy pack. I opted for the latter. And then tried to sneak all the heavy climbing gear into DSG’s pack. Actually, it was so warm that I took my tiny sleeping bag once again. The only extra comfort I carried was our backpacking chair. 

David arrived at exactly the same time as we did. I was asking a ranger about overnight parking when I noticed David in his 4Runner. We parked next to each other in the lot and divided up the climbing gear. I took our 9.8mm 70-meter rope and my jugging setup (we planned to attempt Baron’s Spire, which had a bolt ladder on it) and David carried the rack. His pack looked huge. He had to carry all this own gear, while I had Sheri to carry pretty much all the food.

We were headed for the Saddlebag Lakes below the absolutely awesome Elephant’s Perch. To get there, you can hike 5-6 miles around Redfish Lake or pay $17 for a roundtrip boat ride across the lake. We didn’t hesitate even a second before opting for the ride. Not only would it save us a lot of effort, but we all felt it was so cool to take a boat as part of the approach to a climb. I’ve always thought that the CMC Route on Mt. Moran, in the Tetons, was such an awesome adventure because you have to canoe over to the start of the trail. 

Getting the boat was so easy. Just walk up at any time, pay your money, and less than 10 minutes later you’re speeding across the lake. On the other side, we pulled our heavy packs onto our backs and headed up the trail. We were chatting so much that I walked right past our turn to head up to the Saddlebag Lakes. In my defense, there is no sign or cairn or any indication that there is a trail there. The trail was listed on my Gaia maps and I figured there would be a sign. Nope. We backtracked and found a faint path leading into the dense jungle. We got to the river without trouble but there is no bridge there and it was extremely difficult to move up or down the banks because of incredibly dense vegetation and downed logs.

I found a dicey crossing a bit upstream, but it involved a tiny jump onto a rock with water running over it. Not that much water ran over the rock, but it was scary not knowing how slippery that rock would be. I went for it and made it across. I dropped my pack and reversed it (harder), thinking I’d take Sheri’s pack across, but my companions balked. It was too dicey for Sheri and for David with his enormous pack. They crossed halfway, on a log, a bit further downstream and then waded across. I went back across my leaping route with Sheri’s pack and then had to carry both packs through crazy, dense terrain where I was walking across wet logs four feet above the forest floor and couldn’t see the ground because of all the plants. I was fearful that a fall off the log would impale me on a stump or stick below. It was dangerous and as I was doing it, I thought, “I tell people never to do this.” I’ve got my huge pack on my back and Sheri’s over one shoulder. Sheri’s pack kept slipping off my shoulder and I carried it in the crook of my arm. Plus the plants were all wet. By the time I found the trail on the other side, I was wetter than David or Sheri. 

Shortly after continuing on the trail we talked to a family coming out asking if we had crossed at the logs tied together. Nope. We didn’t see it. We didn’t see it on the way out either. We seemed to be the only party having trouble with this crossing. It was frustrating and an epic bushwhack on our way out, the next day.

The trail up to the Saddlebag Lakes is very steep and not maintained. It was mostly easy to follow, but a couple of times we seemed to wander off it only to find it again shortly. It was quite hot and this was a grunt. Just below the lakes we met a couple coming out that raved about their campsite, saying it was the best they’ve ever seen. They described just where it was and we hiked directly there. It was perched atop a 50-foot cliff right above the water. From inside our tent we had a view of the Elephant’s Perch. This area is incredibly beautiful. The lakes are crystal clear and lined with lush, green forests and white granite slabs and cliffs. Above loom alpine peaks and spires everywhere, most are angular and sharp, but the immense Elephant’s Perch is smooth, round, steep. It looks like a mini El Cap, though still huge. It towers a thousand feet over the lakes but our proximity to its base made it appear taller. With numerous vertical crack systems, it is not surprising that this monolith holds many established routes. The easiest route is the Mountaineer’s Route (7 pitches, 5.9). It being my first visit here, I wanted to climb this route. I wanted to increase my chances of success and get a feel for the place. I hope to return someday and try my hand at the more challenging routes.

After setting up camp, eating some lunch and relaxing, David and I trekked over to the base of the Perch to make sure we could find the route and a good way to get there. Halfway up the talus below the wall we ran into a couple taking shade by a big boulder. We asked them if they had climbed the route and the guy told us about bailing. Then, after some introspection, he says, “Can I ask a favor of you guys?” I was expecting him to ask to team up with us or retrieve gear he left or something like that, but he says, “I’ve been climbing for 15 years and this (referring to the woman at his side) is the love of my life. She’s only been climbing a year, but she’s done 5.9 at Indian Creek. We got up to that mantle move (this is prominently marked on the topo and is either on the first or second pitch, depending upon how you string them, and is rated 5.8) it wigged me out. I got by it and belayed hanging below the tree up there. When my lady got up there, she climbed too high and was looking at a huge fall, pendulum.” He goes on and on and then talks about the 5.9 2-foot roof on an upper pitch and how with no fixed anchors he wouldn’t be able to retreat and on and on. He was mentally torn up by rappelling off from that tree (basically one pitch up the route). He said that he climbs 5.12 at Indian Creek but he seemed very inexperienced at multi-pitch trad climbing and especially stressed about how his girlfriend would do and what would happen if she couldn’t get up the route. David said he was forlorn, bearing his soul to us. Watching him wrestle those inner demons, I sympathized. I’ve been through that before. Probably most climbers have. He also seemed to be embarrassed, as he said, “We made friends with other campers down at the lake and they were so excited for us to go climb this thing and now…” Hey, sometimes climbs are too tough, or too long, or too dangerous (we’d run into this ourselves in a couple of days). 

This is part of what makes climbing great: the unknown, the adventure. If you knew you were going to make it, then there isn’t any adventure. Adventure is a two-sided coin, though. It’s type-two fun. Climbing like this is a strange thing for most people to understand. Most people recreate for fun, but trad climbers sometimes specifically seek out situations that will stress them greatly, mentally and physically. While this stress is happening, it is most definitely not fun. Yet, we do it over and over. I do it less and less these days, which is why I was going for the Mountaineer’s Route on this trip. I was mainly on a trip with Sheri and I didn’t want to risk any epics with her along. Plus, I didn’t know David very well. He could fall apart under pressure. I didn’t know. Just kidding, if suspected that David wasn’t solid I wouldn’t have been here with him, but this would be the first time we’d ever roped up together. In truth, I didn’t know him well.

We found the start of the route easily, though we couldn’t identify the mantle move, at least with any confidence. Walking back to camp, we discussed logistics. Since this route was my idea, I wanted the crux 5.9 pitches, though I wasn’t dogmatic about it. That gave David the first pitch and likely the, now more concerning, mantle move. We traversed around the shore of the lake and I was surprised and delighted to spot a couple of frogs. Amphibians are rare in the alpine. I guess these frogs hibernate all winter. Frogs are cool.

The next morning, as I drank my coffee, I watched headlamps bob and weave up the slopes to the base of the Perch. I assumed they were going for our route and hoped they were either fast or would let us pass. I rarely climb for speed alone, but I always like to move efficiently and at my pace. Who doesn’t? Getting stuck waiting behind slow and inefficient partners is frustrating. Nowadays it seems that more climbers are willing to let faster climbers move through. I wasn’t that concerned. We left camp at 6 a.m.

It took a little more than 20 minutes to get to the base and David was leading the first pitch by 6:35. The most challenging aspect of climbing with David, was feeding the rope out fast enough. He sped up the first hundred feet of this route like he was in a Tour stage, not placing a single piece. Yes, the climbing was easy, but, dang, I wondered if he’d be bored belaying me. David ran out 200 feet of our 230-foot (70-meter) rope. I was soon on belay and moving upwards.

I got the famous “Mantle Move” and was a bit surprised. The beta had said that the move was easier if you moved left before you tried the mantle. Moving left is the obvious thing to do and if you do so, there isn’t even a mantle to be done. Footholds and handholds abound and I felt the climbing was about 5.6. Perhaps that rating isn’t fair, though, as I didn’t lead it. David thought it was 5.7. It was barely worth a pause, let alone any consternation. Right after this move was probably the crux of the first pitch with maybe a move or two of 5.7 jamming.

I led the second pitch up to a two-bolt belay on a small stance below a big roof. This pitch was generally easy, but I felt there was a short section (3 or 4 feet) that was probably 5.8. It took me a couple of tries to figure it out. David led the next pitch, going up to the roof and traversing left underneath it. This was easy as well, with handholds and footholds, and probably 5.7 at best. Above the roof the climbing becomes very easy, 4th class, and David burned up my belay device.

The next pitch was the first 5.9 pitch. I did some reach-y face climbing out to the left to gain easy cracks near the arete and then climbed up them into I could step right into a right-facing dihedral at a relaxed angle. The “2-foot roof” couldn’t really be called a roof, since the terrain never even became vertical, let along overhanging. I ran out 160 feet of rope or so and belayed on a good ledge. I never encountered anything harder than 5.7. I wondered if we were on route, but I knew we were.

David followed, confirming my thoughts on the rating. He then led a short 5.7 pitch into the second 5.9 pitch, which actually did feel like 5.9 to me. It even had a runout wide section that would have held my attention on lead. David cruised it and by the time I joined him, he had already changed into his scrambling shoes. We supposedly had a few more 5th class pitches, so I led upwards for a bit to make sure it was easy. I stopped atop a huge block and I changed shoes and we packed up the gear. We scrambled a few more hundred feet to the summit. The climb had taken us three hours from the base of the route to the very summit. Mercifully we did almost the entire route in the shade. Once in the sun, we started to bake.

The descent was easy and straightforward, with a single rappel, and we were back in camp at 10:30 a.m. Sheri hiked over and met us where we crossed over the outlet of the lake. What a fun romp. The climbing is really good. The position is excellent. The views are extraordinary. The rock quality was bulletproof (though there were some loose blocks, but nothing out of the ordinary for an alpine climb). It was the perfect introduction to Sawtooth climbing. David and I had meshed well together with a similar desire of efficiency.

We lounged around camp for a bit, drinking and eating and resting. We were moving our camp that afternoon up to Alpine Lake to position ourselves for an attempt on Baron’s Spire the next day. We shouldered our packs at noon and started down the steep trail, hoping to find the tied-log bridge, which we didn’t. I found a log that went all the way across and went over and dropped my pack. I came back for Sheri’s pack and thought she might be able to walk the log, but she wasn’t confident. She ended up scooting across it on her butt. So, the crossing went okay, but then we fought the worst bushwhack I’ve done in a long time. We only had to go maybe two hundred yards, but it was nearly impenetrable in most spots and finding a way to progress was difficult. It took us an hour to do the last mile to the official trail (Trail 101). 

It was really hot now and we were drained from our battle. We had to climb three miles to Alpine Lake. We broke it up into two sections, taking a break at the trail junction just 1.2 miles up the trail. The final switchbacks up to the lake seemed interminable and we were all beyond ready to stop and camp. We took the first flat campsite, a huge area with at least spotted areas of shade, which we chased the rest of the afternoon. Before we even put up the tents, we went swimming in the lake. Swimming is perhaps an overstatement. David dove right in but got out quickly. Sheri waded into her knees and I knew she’d go no further. I was the only interesting prospect. Would I or wouldn’t I? I stood knee deep for quite awhile before diving in. Truth be told, I knew I was going in. Heck, David went in, so the ironclad rules of masculinity demanded that I match him. Unfortunately, Sheri didn’t get it on video, but as I recall now, I think I did a perfect one-and-half slicing through the crystal clear water with nary a ripple. By the time I dove the shores were lined with other campers all cheering me on. Upon emerging from the water, as gracefully as a penguin shooting out of the ocean and landing on their feet upon an ice floe, the spectators thrust me upon their shoulders and… Well, you get the point. Suffice to say it was quite something.

We drank as much fluids as we could, trying to hydrate for our big day tomorrow. We ate early and Sheri retired to the tent at 7. I got in at 8 and David resisted until 9. 

The next morning we were hiking at 5 a.m. We had to climb 800 feet up to the pass and then drop 700 feet down the other side to the beautiful Baron Lakes. There are three of these, just like the Saddlebag Lakes. Right at the pass we spotted our objective: Baron’s Spire, AKA Old Smoothie. This is a huge, stunning spire which is supposedly one of the toughest summits to attain in Idaho. The gigantic 120-foot tall summit block overhangs on all sides and is only breached by an ancient, Fred Becky bolt ladder. We planned to attempt the easiest route, the Southeast Face, which was four pitches of 5.9 climbing up a ledgy platform, leading to blocky, ledge-y terrain which we’d scramble over to the base of the bolt ladder. 

The hike up from the Baron Lakes to the base of the route was very steep and we weaved our way around cliffs and slabs, finally picking up a cairn-marked climber’s trail. David had been dreaming about climbing this spire for over a decade. I only knew it existed for less than a week. Hence, he got the bolt-ladder pitch and hence the first pitch off the ground. This was an interesting pitch. It wasn’t very steep, but it was burly, wide, and awkward. Despite the wide nature of a lot of the climbing, large cams were not required. David’s done enough desert climbing to have developed solid wide-crack skills and wasn’t deterred in the least. I went to school on his choices and had an easier and less scary time when I followed the pitch.

The next pitch went up a nice corner with a good crack. Steep, but not vertical, it was continuous and had me breathing hard in a couple of sections. I solved the first crux via liebacking until I could get a good hand jam and place some gear. A small roof further up had me baffled for a bit. I had to down climb out of a false start before I noticed some tiny footholds that proved the key for me. At the top of the pitch I was supposed to “step right” to a ledge. When I got up there, this step right was more like a fifteen-foot traverse with no gear. It looked improbable and I thought the possibilities looked better higher up. Wrong. I had to downclimb a bit and back clean a piece. I inched out to the right and found some good footholds. I got out to a small arete and was able to reach way into a wide crack and place a completely tipped-out #3 Camalot. I did a few dicey moves up the arete and was able to step across to a good ledge. 

David followed rather quickly, deflating my efforts just a bit. He did comment that it was “big boy climbing,” though. The ground above offered many options. David selected a middle crack and chimneyed up a bit to some loose blocks, pulled on them and got to a pure chimney section. After little deliberation, he launched up the unprotected chimney. It was a pure back-knee chimney of about twenty feet. David climbed it in less than a minute. This was probably 5.8 climbing, 5.7 if in Yosemite. Following this section I suspended the pack I was wearing beneath me on a sling.

The next pitch was rated 5.9 and continued up the corner I climbed on the second pitch, but it was really just a short little boulder problem that was about ten feet of real climbing, after an easier introduction and then I was on the blocky ledge. This pitch seemed easier than 5.9 and couldn’t have taken much more than five minutes. Once on the ledge, I could immediately see there was rubble everywhere, but I didn’t study it closely. I could see a slanting ledge above and well to the right of me that would lead to the bolt ladder. I slapped in some gear and brought David up.

We decided to stay roped for the next scrambling pitch because it looked dicey. David set off and immediately balked. It wasn’t just dicey. Going the obvious, direct route was a suicidal path of completely loose rubble. Studying things more closely, we could see the rubble covered all the terrain below, which was our rappel route. While David probed another way to gain the traverse ledge, I started doing the calculations of how we’d rap our ascent route. We’d found one rappel anchor at the top of the second pitch, but it didn’t go down the corner that we’d climbed. We only had our one 70-meter rope and descending the other side could leave us hanging in space. I figured we’d have to leave a cam for an anchor to get down that pitch. Expensive, but we’d get down safely.

In the meantime, David had climbed half a pitch and set up a belay. When I joined him, we quickly came to agreement that continuing onwards was far too dangerous. We wouldn’t get the summit today. That’s okay. Just like the Forlorn Fellow over at the Perch, we made the decision to retreat and return to fight another day. I led the way down, selecting horns to sling. We made it down in four rappels, using the one at the top of the second pitch and leaving three slings of our own, along with three biners. The first rappel, from atop pitch 4.5, got me down to just below the “5.9” climbing. I then had to downclimb the 4th class terrain to the block ledges atop pitch three. I found another spike of rock to sling here and it got us down to the top of the second pitch. I looked over the side and thought the rope might reach a ledge with a huge tree below. I took the jugs with me, just in case I had to reverse back up the rope. The last sling was around a branch of this huge tree and that put us on the ground.

We were back at our packs at 11:30 a.m. We ate and drank while we packed up and then got down. Down the slope and then back up to the pass and back down to our campsite where we found Sheri reading her book.  We got there around 1:30 p.m. We were very dehydrated and Sheri squeezed fresh water from our filter until we were sated. We cooked up a dehydrated meal for a late lunch and to lighten the packs. We started the 6-mile hike out to the boat dock at 3:15 p.m. We had a 7 p.m. pickup time and knew it would be easy to make. We got there at 5:30 p.m. and David went for another swim. We thought we’d be hanging out for 90 minutes when I boat pulled up and unloaded some climbers. What timing! We hopped on board and ten minutes later we were at the other side.

While we didn’t get Baron’s Spire, we’d had a great first taste of the Sawtooth Range — such a beautiful place with so many compelling climbing objectives. We all hope to return someday. We all drove back to the gas station burger place and stuffed ourselves. Then we met up again at David’s sleeping spot on a lonely gravel road near Borah Peak. Sheri and I were driving at 6 a.m. the next morning, Saturday morning, while David slept some more. He was headed to the Tetons and then to Wild Iris. His trip started with this adventure while ours was ending with it.

It was great getting to know David better. He’s a very solid, safe, efficient, fast climber. We share a lot of the same type of climbing objectives. The only problem is that David now knows how much Sheri spoils me. She is such a great supporter of my adventures. Being with her and still climbing cool routes is the ideal vacation for me. As long as she’s game for more, we’ll continue with it. 

Saturday, March 07, 2020

RUFA Squaw Peak

On the summit of Squaw Peak with RUFA-founder Jared Campbell and photo bombed by Seth Myer

Ever since my best friend Mark Oveson moved away to Provo, Utah, we’ve been making an effort to get together regular, mostly for weekend adventures. These have mostly been climbing adventures, but the last year and this year I came out for an event called Running Up For Air (RUFA). This is a series of events (Ogden, Salt Lake City, Colorado, and now Provo) that raises money and awareness about the brown cloud that claims mountain cities at the base of mountains. RUFA was founded and still largely driven by outdoor super-athlete Jared Campbell. I met Jared a couple of years ago. Mark recruited him to drag me up the 22-pitch Squawstruck sport climb. He’s a super nice, extremely modest guy. I was mostly motivated by him to enter RUFA.

The RUFA format is unique for a trail running race. The events always involve doing laps up and down a specific peak. The race has different time durations, ranging from 3 hours to 24 hours, across all the RUFA races. The winner is the person that does the most laps in the least amount of time. Partial laps don’t count, so part of the calculations one must make is asking whether they have time to complete another lap. If not, there is no point (at least in the race results) in going for another lap.

Mark used to be a very accomplished ultra runner, but a horrible infection in his ankle destroyed that joint. He an still move pretty well with a special carbon-fiber brace that transfers the load from his foot up to the top of his lower leg. This braced saved him from amputation, but he hasn’t returned to ultra running…yet. Despite this, he’s still very involved in the ultra running community mostly through his passion for the sport, but also through his great website and phone app, This awesome site/app is an incredible tool for tracking results in real time and also for planning your effort. Mark’s software is used at the RUFA events and he was on hand for the both of the events I did.

It’s definitely a bit strange for me to be running these things without Mark. He was always way more talented at going long. While he does get tired, I didn’t see much of it, because I’m poop out first and he’d have to shepherd me to the finish (these are for ultra adventures we did together). We’ve never raced an ultra together, though I’ve paced him at Hard Rock a couple of times. It isn’t that strange, because I’ve only done three ultras in my life. Actually, counting the RUFAs, I’ve now done five official ultras, but Mark and I have done many an ultra adventure. But Mark is positive and upbeat and isn’t moping around the start/finish area lamenting the fact that he isn’t out there showing me how to do it

Last year I did the 24-hour version of the RUFA Grandeur Peak. It was really snowy and cold and I spent hours (all told) in the warming tent at the base, between laps. I’m pretty slow, but at that event I was the last man standing and I do take some pride in that. I finished after 23 hours. Granted, with lots of time sitting by the fire, but it wasn’t like I did one lap and then slept by the fire for 18 hours and then did a second lap.

The good news about this first version of RUFA Squaw Peak (Provo) as that the longest option offered was 12 hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m). There were also two separate 6-hour races (starting at 7 a.m. and noon). I’ve been lazy this winter and have only done two adventures of note (Top Ten Flatiron Climbs in a Day and an ascent of San Luis Peak). Other than that, I’ve just been doing Green Mountain (4-5 miles and 2400 vertical feet) two or three times a week. Last year I was doing the Skyline every month (16-17 miles, 6000 vertical feet) and even did a double Skyline to prepare for RUFA. But with RUFA you can quit after any number of laps, so I wasn’t going to be a liability out on the course, regardless of my fitness,
The amazing Jared Campbell

I’d been up Squaw Peak once before — when I climbed Squawstruck with Jared. So, I’d been down the trail, but not up it. Each lap on Squaw Peak was 7.5 miles long with 2800 feet of climbing. I figured that I should be able to do four laps (30 miles and 11,000 vertical feet). Those numbers are huge and I hadn’t done much to prepare for that, but 12 hours in a long time. My goal was five laps, because four laps really shouldn’t have been hard enough. My philosophy about races is that they should involve some serious suffering. Otherwise, you can just go do the same thing without entering a race.

I flew out Friday and took a couple of trains from the airport to Lehi, where Mark worked. He picked me up at the depot and then gave me a tour of the super cool office at MX. I met his entire team and everyone was super nice. They have tons of perks at this company and free drinks and snacks galore. We got some lunch and then headed to Mark’s climbing gym: The Quarry. This is nice gym. It was crowded, as it was late afternoon on Friday and one section of the gym is like a canyon and people were everywhere. We did a number of fun climbs, but I was already tired from the enduro session Derek and I had done at Movement that morning.

Mark’s family was busy with wedding preparations for their daughter Alice. While they were at the wedding shower, Mark and I went to the movies where I received a bit of an ego bash. I hang out with lots of young, fit people and I’m deluded enough to think I’m one of the gang. I rarely look in the mirror and while I sometimes feel pretty slow, stiff, and clumsy chasing after these guys, I don’t specifically feel old. When we went to buy our tickets, the guy selling them looks at us (okay, he looked at me) and then asks, “Any seniors?” Seniors?! But always interested in a bargain, I asked how old you had to be, saying I was just forty seventeen. Turns out I wasn’t old enough. So, not only did I look old, but I still didn’t get the discount.
I think this is lap four. Fading big time.
Mark was up early (4:30 a.m.) and off the start start by 5 a.m. The trailhead for Squaw Peak is only a mile from Mark’s house, so he let me sleep an extra 30 minutes and drive separately. I got there at 5:45 and was the last 12-hour racer to check in. This race was really small, with about 45 total runners in all events and just 16 in the 12-hour event. Any time the numbers are this small I feel I have a good chance of finishing DFL. But someone has to be last and when I am last my choices will be: finish last or stay home and sit on the couch. I think I’ll be okay with last in that situation.

We start in the dark and use headlamps for at least 30 minutes. One guy takes off like a rocket and is out of sight in less than a minute. He’d go on to win the race easily. A short, older dude with long hair goes off the front next and soon he’s out of sight too. I’m running along real easy. It’s uphill but very gradually for the first half mile. The road/trail is completely dry for this first half mile and then, at the upper gate, the trail immediately goes to 100% ice coverage. I should have stopped immediately and spiked up, but get going for a bit. I was in third place. Clearly the race wasn’t full of Kyle Richardsons. I didn’t think I was going too fast, but I was running. It was the only time I’d run this section. I walked 95% of the uphill terrain in this race.

When I stopped to spike up, an older guy came by me. We exchanged names and I recognized his: Seth Myer. I’d checked out the Squaw Peak segment on Strava and found him. He had done one workout where he’d done four laps. Damn. He said his goal was five laps and I said that was mine as well. We stayed together, pretty much, the entire first ascent. Two thirds of the way up Jason One (there will be another Jason) came by us with his dog — a pit bull mix. He was running, albeit slowly, while we were hiking. Seth topped out in fourth place and me right behind him in fifth. Jared was on top and he gave me a big hug and we took a photo together.

Seth quickly left me behind on the descent. I knew it was going to be a long day and was just trying to be smooth and get down as easily as possible. The trail was entirely snowpacked and generally quite good. There were a couple of very steep sections that were icy at first and then slushy, as the day was pretty warm. While the trail was packed nicely, it was extremely narrow — one person width — and if you stepped off this narrow path, you plunged up to your crotch. Passing people was an issue and I’m sure everyone plunged deep in the snow multiple times. Early on, it was an inconvenience. Later, when I was really tired, it was difficult to get out of these holes. On the descent, I caught and passed Jason One, mainly because his dog was lagging. And it was blocking the trail! :-)

In order to get in five laps, I had to average 2:24 per lap. Mark and I talked about this and decided that 2:10 laps was a good place to start, to bank a little time for the slower laps to come, but not too fast that I’d blowup. I was running down the road, thinking I was all alone, when Jason Two passed me. He was running well. I was doing my usual shuffle. Still, I finished my first lap around 1:50. I walked into the aid station and surveyed all the great food, including bacon, quesadillas, bars, cookies, etc. But one item caught my eye.

A week before the event the race director sent out an email to all participants, asking if anyone had an specific dietary restrictions or requests. This was very cool. I’d never heard of that being done before. I sure they were sensitive to vegans or gluten-free runners. I responded that I was a strict Hostess diet and would love Hohos or Ding Dongs. Sure enough, on the food table, was a container of Ding Dongs. I said, “Alright! I requested these.” All the aid station workers immediately responded, “Ah, you’re the Ding Dong Guy.” So, not only do I look like a senior citizen, but I have a totally bitchin’ nickname. Needless to say, I was attracting lots of long-legged ultra chicks.

After a quick bathroom stop, I was headed back up the trail at 1:55, well ahead of pace and back in fifth place. I walked the entire way, but I was moving well and climbing well. I’d seen Seth heading out on his second lap when I was still running down, so I was surprised to catch him about halfway up. I figured he’d just run by me on the descent. I then caught and passed Jason Two. I tagged the top and descended well, doing this lap in about 1:43. I was quick at the turn around and heading up for lap 3 at 3:45 into the day.

At the start of lap three I entertained the crazy thought of six laps. I was on pace for it and for a good 30 minutes or more I fantasized about being fit enough to pull it off. Then reality descended around me. I made it in pretty good shape, but it didn’t feel anything like the magic of lap 2. Dang. One good lap.

During the race, you get to know everyone by sight and one guy in a yellow jacket gave me encouragement, saying that the second place runner wasn’t that far ahead of me. When he descended by me, I knew he was still more than ten minutes ahead of me, but I clearly closing the gap, as I’d meet him higher on the hill. On the descent, I tried to get as low as possible before I ran into Jason Two and Seth. I was stretching out my gap over them. Cool. The top three finishers get a mug as an award and I was currently in third place and growing attached to this unseen mug. I was also noticing these two fit running chicks, but not as much as I should have.

I pushed just a bit on the descent, for a silly reason. Mark’s oldest daughter, Mallory, has the female record on this peak (which I didn’t approach), but she also had the record for three laps: 5:51. I wanted to beat her time. She was supposed to be in this race and while I would have loved running with her a bit, I was pretty sure she’d have dropped me. Alas, she got injured skiing and didn’t sign up for the race. I came down well and finished three laps around 5:35. Mark greeted me when I came in and said “Dude, if you don’t slow down, you’re going to have to do six laps.” But by then, I knew I couldn’t do it. I was hurting and knew I couldn’t make it. This was a nice mental release, as I had more than six hours to get in two more laps and make my goal. Except, now I had another goal.

When I came in at the end of my third lap, Mark told me that the guy in second place had dropped. So, I was now in second place. I told myself right from the start that I wouldn’t be racing anyone until the last lap and it was likely I wouldn’t be able to race anyone at that point. I certainly wasn’t going to start on lap four, but I was thinking about it and trying to keep moving efficiently. My feet were cold and soaked. Mark got my bag and I changed into fresh, neoprene-like socks. They felt so good. Dry feet lifted my spirits a bit, but I was starting to be bothered by pain to the top of my left foot.

Lap four was the toughest mentally, because it was very hard yet still a long way from the finish. Knowing I had another lap to go made the suffering of the fourth ascent difficult for me. The climb seemed to go on forever. I was moving slow and getting passed by 6-hour runners. I tagged the top and stumbled back down to the finish. My feet were cold and soaked again and the top of my left foot was really hurting. I had Mark get my bag again and I changed from my Mutant’s into my Neutron G’s. These shoes are Gortex and have a built-in gaitor. I wasn’t wearing them to begin with because the Mutants are more comfortable for me, but changing into a dry pair of socks and dry shoes was heaven. This is a huge difference between doing races with full-on support at regular intervals and real adventures, where you are on your own from the start to the finish.

I headed up on my last lap without hesitation. If I had taken a rest for any length of time, I might have dropped. I knew I had to do lap five, so the earlier I started the earlier I’d finish. Leaving the aid station went by Jason Two coming in. He said, “Going for five, huh?” I took that as a hint that he might drop after four. That would give me a cushion on my current place. I ran into Seth way up there. I knew he was no threat. But I was moving slow, slow, slow. I down shifted to tiny steps, as I didn’t have the power to take regular strides.

A big guy came by me halfway up. He was doing his second lap. Another guy was right behind him, but he wasn’t part of the race. His name was Tate and we hiked together clear to the summit. He’s a sophomore at BYU and chatting with him helped pass the time and keep my mind off how far I had to go. Eventually we topped out.

At the summit, no one was standing there ready to check me in. It was getting cold on top and everyone was in the tent pitched here. I got my water bottle filled, thinking I might be in danger of cramping. Each time I took on or off my spikes from the third lap on, I cramped up a bit. On the ascents, I was on the verge of cramping my lower shins, which I’ve never cramped before. Also, my feet nearly cramped a couple of times. I knew I was on edge. I also ate a donut up here. Props to the organizers for getting donuts to the summit.

I headed down, hoping to just shuffle easy and walk a lot of it. But then, just three minutes down from the top, I ran into Jason Two. Uh oh. He had closed on me. I figured it would take him six minutes to ascend what I had descended in three minutes, so I had maybe a 9-minute lead. Now, finally, I was racing, running scared. It turned out that the two women were above Jason and I didn’t realize they were my biggest threat. I don’t know why I didn’t put this together. I think it was because they were pretty far back on the first lap. They had been running very consistently, while I had three pretty fast laps and now two slow laps. But the fear of Jason Two was enough.

I ran as hard as I could, which was slow. Seriously. But it felt fast, as I didn’t have much control and I was so weak. I made three or four mistakes with my balance and got a foot off the packed trail. I plunged into mid-thigh and pitched forward onto my face. I was surprised each time that I didn’t cramp either in falling or extracting myself. Each time I felt my pursuers getting closer, knowing they weren’t burying themself in the snow. The bottoms of my feet got hot as I slide forward in them with each footfall. I got these shoes in a larger size to keep my feet warmer, but they require a very thick sock and I wasn’t wearing one. So pain resided every part of my body.

At the bottom of the steep section I caught the big guy and he stepped aside for me, but he needn’t have done that. I only caught him because I was in a controlled fall. Once on the less steep terrain I slowed, though still tried to maintain some cadence. He moved on by me. I looked back once, but there was no point. With 1.5 miles to go, if I had seen anyone, it was over. They would pass me by. I was going about as fast as I thought I could and still last to the finish. So, I just put my head down and went.

Three quarters of a mile before the finish, I ran into Mark, coming up the trail to finish with me. He gave me props, but I immediately told me about my chasers and my fear of being caught. I ran to the end of the ice and sat on the steps. I had Mark pull off my spikes, because I thought I’d cramp if I did it myself. I had just a half mile to go now and on dry ground. Now if we saw someone I would respond with everything I had. Later, when telling this story, someone said, “Ah, you didn’t want to get chick-ed, huh?” No, that wasn’t it at all. First, I wasn’t even thinking about the girls, wrongly assuming it was Jason Two that was my problem. Secondly, I get chick-ed all the time, by so many women that it isn’t a thing for me. Getting chick-ed is only a thing for guys that are very close to the speed of the fastest women. Now, granted, that was the situation here, but I didn’t know it.

In the final five minutes I had Mark check behind us three times. All clear. I finished in 10h35m, doing 37 miles and just under 14,000 vertical feet. I got second place, though that isn’t very meaningful to me. If all my current adventure partners were in this race, I’d have been last. By a good margin. So, placement wasn’t really meaningful to me. I was happy to make my goal of five laps and to get it done with a sizable time cushion. The winner of the race didn’t think he had time for a sixth lap, so he stopped after five laps as well.

The two women came in just four minutes after me. Four minutes in a race that lasted 10.5 hours. It certainly added an aspect to this event that I didn’t expect. Physically, I’m slower now than when I was younger, of course, but the burning competitive urge is still there, though mostly dormant, waiting for just the right time to reanimate.

Jason Two came in 20 minutes or more after me, but the fear of him allowed me to hold off the women. Seth was still out there when I left for a shower and a bed, but I knew he’d comfortable finish the fifth lap. The support at this race was great and all the runners seemed very nice. I enjoyed this experience, though the last couple of laps were Type 2-ish fun.

Mark was so supportive and so helpful to me. Just getting my bag twice probably saved me those four minutes. He showers me with genuine praise. No mention of his past glory, which far exceeds this effort. He’s just excited that I pushed myself towards a tough goal and I made it. This sort of thing is so curious. There isn’t the achievement of climbing a peak. Or breaking a specific time for a specific distance, like a 10K. This is just: go suffer for 12 hours. That’s just strange, isn’t it? I can see how most of the population, obviously not us trail runners, would think such a thing is just silly. And they’d be right.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Flatirons Top Ten in Winter...Again

Derek high on the First Flatiron

“Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. They make you late for dinner.”

— Bilbo Baggins, on adventures

The first time Derek climbed the Maiden, at ten years old, he slept on top of it. The first time he led 5.9 trad was 700 feet up the Touchstone Wall in Zion. The first time he ever did an “ultra” was when he linked ten 14er ascents over 20 hours. The first time he even climbed a mixed pitch was when he led the crux pitch on the Amy Route in Patagonia. So, it seemed appropriate that his first time doing Roach’s Flatiron’s Top Ten would be in winter.

Today we completed the third linking of Top Ten in winter and the first time all the routes had been led. It’s uncomfortable for me to even mention that, as the only reason Danny and I didn’t lead all the routes when we did the Top Ten was because it was my lead and I wimped out. Danny, not wanting to embarrass me, just followed suit and we top-roped the route. There are some who disdain the distinction between leading all the routes, or even climbing up them. They prefer the cleverness of downclimbing some routes. To each his own, but climbing up them all is a distinctly different outing.  While we did go faster than Danny and I did a year ago, I think the concept of a winter FKT is suspect, as it is largely (not entirely, of course) determined by weather and conditions and not on the speed of the climbers. That said, Peter Bakwin did the Top Ten earlier this winter, solo, in just 11.5 hours. That’s badass, no doubt, and the only solo of the Top Ten in winter.
Derek setting up the last rappel off the Third Flatiron
I’d scoped out the bushwhack from the Third to GMP the Thursday before our attempt and then took Derek on it the Saturday before. He hated it. It is unpleasant and it is slow, but it saves a lot of vertical feet. With that option out, it changes the order of the routes, as I didn’t want to drop all the way down to the Royal Arch Trail, then all the way up to GMP and then all the way down to the Mesa Trail. Starting in the south now looked like a better sequence — this is the order Danny and I did them in. I wanted to start at NCAR, though, in the middle, so that I could do some hiking in the dark at the beginning and end of the day, as this is very low stress compared to climbing in the dark, which we’d still have to do. But Derek didn’t like this strategy. He very much wanted to get the First and Third done early. Since that was my original plan, I agreed. But Derek still didn’t want to do the bushwhack, so our plan was to descend to the Royal Arch Trail behind the Third Flatiron (this is also non-trivial this time of year) and then hike all the way back up to Green Mountain Pinnacle.

We left Chautauqua Park at 6 a.m., headed for the First Flatiron. We scrambled this entirely in the dark. We moved deliberately. In the cold and in the dark, this climb seems harder, but we know it well. Still, we relied more on our fingers than we do when scrambling in the light of day and the warmth of summer. The temperature was 21 degrees when we started, but no wind. Conditions throughout the day would be embarrassingly pleasant. I wore my jacket for half of the approach to the First and then never put it on again.
Soloing up the chimney on Green Mountain Pinnacle
The First went well and we were back down on the ground inside of an hour. Once on the ground, I noticed a headlamp coming our way. The person called out “Good morning” and I recognized the voice. Jeff Valliere was headed up Green via the First Flatiron Trail, a route known pretty much only to scramblers, but a nice way to avoid the ice on the standard route. We both had places to be, so we didn’t break stride as we said hello and traded plans.

The link to the Third went well, with hardly any postholing or nasty talus. Now in the light, the Third went smoothly, but at the top we had our first issue. We only carried one 30-meter rope for this adventure and this necessitated using a special device called the Escaper. This is a Chinese-finger-trap-like sling that grips the rope when under tension. The rope is retrieved from below by pulling and releasing the lower end while a clever bungy moves the Chinese finger-trap up the rope it grips. Under ideal circumstances, this works well, though it generally takes 20-30 tugs on the rope to get it to release. The number of tugs can be reduced by reducing the tail of the rope protruding from the trap…but if you guess wrong and use too short of a tail…it’s all over. But for the device to work at all, it needs to be able to “bounce back”, meaning the rope needs to be completely free of tension. For this to happen the knot attaching the climbing rope to the device must be free to move up and down. If there is an edge that catches it, the device won’t work. If the device isn’t free hanging, then the friction of the knot on the low-angle rock can prevent a usable “bounce back.” This was the case on the first rappel from the top of the Third Flatiron. We experienced the same thing on our recon, but thought the main problem was that we threaded the device into both chains at the top. For this device to work best, it need to use a single anchor point. Otherwise the friction can be too great for the “bounce back.” This does require, at times, rapping off a single bolt.
Derek high on the Fatiron
With no success, I dropped the rope down to the intermediate rappel anchor and down climbed the last pitch of the Third. I tried again at this intermediate anchor and it was working, so I rappelled on it. Derek tests the retrieval before I rappel down. Also, I’m the only one actually using this device, as Derek rappels on a line clipped directly to the anchor. We got the rope down and then did the last rappel to the ground. Unfortunately, there is an edge which prevented the “bounce back” from working. Ugh. I had to leave a sling here so that I could extend the Escaper far enough so that the knot wasn’t an issue.

Once on the ground, I immediately led back up to the same anchor, via the route Friday’s Folly. This is such an excellent pitch and we were glad that most of it faces south and we were full-on in the sun. We repeated the rappel and retrieved the rope yet again. At this point, Derek tells me that he is feeling stronger today and is good-to-go on the bushwhack. Sweet. On our recon, failure to put on his Microspikes, feeling tired, getting frustrated, and lagging behind me, caused this link to take 60 minutes. This time we did it in 31 minutes.
Rapping the Maiden on a single line attached to the Escaper
We soloed up the awesome chimney on Green Mountain Pinnacle to the top. I wore the rope on my back to rappel off. On our recon I did the 4th class descent to the east, but it is exposed and time consuming. The Escaper worked easily here and soon we were descending toward Sentinel Pass, excited to have four classics done. We now had a very long hike down to the Fatiron.

We descended to the pass and then down the Woods Quarry Trail to the Mesa Trail, which we took south to the approach trail for the Fatiron. Along the way we ran into Minion Kevin Smith. He was doing the Double Mesa, so it was a quick hello-goodbye. On the way up to the Fatiron I lost the climbers’ trail and veered too far to the north. The woods are so dense you can’t locate any landmarks, despite being near huge rocks. My instincts led me in the correct direction though and we didn’t lose but a couple of minutes.
Starting up the North Face of the Matron
We scrambled up the first piece of this huge rock and then down to the lip of the overhang that splits the two sections. There is a fixed anchor here, but it is too high up for a single 30-meter rope. I had brought a leaver sling with rappel rings on it to loop over a lower horn. We had to simul-rappel since we had both only brought Grigris. This went easily and we scrambled the much shorter second part and repeated the simul-rappel off the summit.

We did the familiar link over to the Maiden and I led it as one pitch, using one Microtraxion to protect the leader. On all of our roped climbs, I did the leading and we simul-climbed them. When simul-climbing it is best to put the strongest climber in back and Derek is definitely much stronger than me. Also, I knew the climbs very well and could lead them relatively quickly. We took the high traverse across the north face, my preferred route when simul-climbing. It is more difficult than the lower version, but much more direct.
Derek at the crux of the Pellea
Rapping off the Maiden is exciting no matter how you do it, but descending this with an Escaper definitely got my attention. I’d done it before, though. Unfortunately, we had a horrible time getting the rope down. The knot was hitting the lip and not allowing the “bounce back.” I had to solo out the ridge towards the start of the climb, clear to the far notch and still it took endless pulls on the rope. I thought our Top Ten outing might be over. We were going to have to abandon the rope and come back later to retrieve it. But then it came down. I wondered about the wisdom of using this device rather than just taking another 7.8mm 30-meter rope. But we were committed to it. It would have to work or it was over. I definitely had some worries about the pull on the Matron and especially the Back Porch. 
Bill in the midst of the Pellea's crux
The second rappel was a snap and we hiked over the Matron. On the way over we ran into RMR all-star doctors Dale and Allison. Always a treat to meet these angels, especially when I’m not in need of a rescue. On the Matron, I once again led it as one pitch with a Micro. The two rappels went well and the Escaper didn’t have any issues. I had been reducing the amount of tail for all my rappels. A risk, to be sure, but since it was taking 20 bounces or more to get the rope down, I figured it was still safe enough.

With just three to go, I turned my attention to the remaining light. We had a long hike back north to Fern Canyon and then a steep hike uphill to the Pellea. We’d only brought 84 ounces of water for both of us and we were running low. Thirst was becoming an issue. We scooted along the trail the best we could, even trotting the downhill sections, not to lower our elapsed time, but to get as much done before darkness engulfed us and route finding would become a serious challenge.

Starting up the Back Porch
Just above where the North Shanahan Trail hit the Gregory Canyon Trail, we stashed our packs and continued with just harnesses, Grigris, and our rope. I thought we were still moving well, but it took us a pretty long time to catch the hikers in front of us. Was I slowing down?, I thought. No, they are probably just a couple of Boulder super hikers. We peeled off the trail and headed up the slope to the start of the East Face of the Pellea. The crux on this route is thin and the rock is a bit flakey and fragile. Oh, and there’s a good amount of lichen too. Definitely had our full concentration, despite only a 5.4 rating. This rock is also a lot longer than I had remembered. I’m sure my state contributed to that thought. Mountain Project says the route is only 3 pitches long. Felt like more to me. MP also says that the rappel is 60 feet, but we know that it is less than 50 feet, since we reached the ground with our single rope. We had to simul-rappel again, but that’s much better than using the Escaper. Much faster too.

I really started to fade on the long hike up to the Back Porch. For us, this climb started when we left Bear Canyon on the Mesa Trail. It’s over a thousand feet of climbing from there to the top of the Back Porch. It was on this climb that I really started to lag behind Derek. We dumped our packs behind the Front Porch and continued with the rope and rack and, just in case, our headlamps. We also downed the last of our water.

We continued up to the route and geared up well below the start, on the only tiny flat section of the steep, pine-needle-covered slope. For the first fifty feet of my lead I was still in hiking terrain, albeit steep hiking. Climbing this route confirmed my belief that it has no place in the Tour. There is so much lichen on this route and the rock quality is marginal. The spire itself is very impressive and some of the climbing is nice, but it isn’t a good solo. We simul-climbed it as one pitch, using the Micro at the top of the first pitch. Just as I was coming to grips with the crux overhang on the second pitch Derek called up to me, “Pops, I need to down climb. Can I have some slack.” Uh…no. The rope is through the Micro and I couldn’t give Derek slack without down climbing all the way back to the Micro. Thankfully, he figured out an alternate way, but it was even sketchier than the main route.

Derek’s Backporch Experience
I messed up Backporch pretty bad. It started with me sort of idly scrambling up a lichen-covered ramp, when my rope started to tighten to my left, over the step to the next higher ramp. I tried to flick it, to no effect. So then I stepped up and saw a red cam slotted nicely in a crack up there. Uh-oh. There wasn’t a good spot to get over where I was. The last good spot was a ways below me, and I figured I didn’t need to take that option since I was on a ramp. I should’ve been watching Pops climb it, but I was pretty far down, and probably too tired to keep my head up. I called up for slack and that I had messed up, but I didn’t even think about the Micro. Even if Pops could downclimb, no rope would come to me. So I began plotting my strategy. I couldn’t go down -- no slack. I couldn’t go up -- no slack, the cam preventing any progress. I had to go left. I grabbed a hold under the little overhang I was at and it immediately crumbled. I stepped over into the overhang to get a bit higher and I scraped off a bunch of that black lichen that is so prevalent on this climb. Hmm. I ended up crimping a solid-looking, thumb-and-index-finger-only crystal, slapping the higher ramp, and swinging the left foot over. It worked out well enough.

But my route-finding woes were not over. Higher up, there is a little chimney section before the pin and the final overhang. The easy solution here is to lieback the chimney’s edge, but I didn’t know that, so I cruxed it out under the chimney. I had just committed into it when my foot slipped and I was sure I was going to fall. But I had just enough balance to keep it together. I stepped over to under the pin and my foot slipped again! Anyways, the Back Porch was definitely my crux…

Rapping off the Back Porch
I was nervous about the descent off this spire. I knew the last rappel was the trickiest start of any rappel that I’ve probably ever done, as the anchor is below you. But my big worry was the first rappel. If we couldn’t get the rope down from the Escaper we might be trapped on the rock. So worried was I that I didn’t want to use the Escaper. Instead, Derek went down as usual, on the single line to see if half the rope would get us to a point where we could scramble to the second anchor. I remembered some low-angle terrain above the second anchor and this turned out to be the case. Derek went off rappel right at the halfway mark and clipped into the end. With his body as a counterweight, I rappelled the other strand with my Grigri. We then scrambled down to the second anchor. Since this start of this rappel is just such a pain, with the climber basically having to fall onto his belay device, I rigged an anchor above from a couple of cams. This way Derek could start the rappel easily with his anchor above him. I felt there was no need for both of us to do that start.

Once he was on the ground, I rigged the Escaper and then dropped it below me. With a Grigri, I could use both hands to climb down as far as possible before dropping on it. Freaky! But the gear worked as I knew it would (or I wouldn’t have tried it!). Soon I was on the ground. The Escaper came down easily and we stowed it away for good. We packed up the rest of our gear and descended back to our packs. Here we had to turn on our headlamps.

We followed the Minions-worn trail down into Skunk Canyon, putting on our Microspikes near the bottom, as there was snow and ice to negotiate. I was desperately thirsty and dehydration was definitely slowing me down. Down in the canyon, in the pitch dark, it was hard to tell what was what. When I started down canyon, Derek was confused. He thought we had to go up canyon, via the long approach in the Tour. Alas, he was thinking of Angel’s Way. We carefully picked our way to the east with me trying to determine where Stairway to Heaven was. I was so intent on finding the start of the route, navigating by a quickly dimming headlamp, that I didn’t think about getting water from the stream. Being so thirsty, this is hard to explain. Thankfully, Derek said, “Pops, there’s water.” Duh. We filled our bottles and I drank 10 ounces. Why not more? It was freezing cold and I got a brain freeze from just that amount. We filled our 20-ounce bottle and a liter bottle and moved on.
Getting badly needed water in Skunk Canyon
I found what I thought was the start and climbed upwards, slowly. It seemed right and I kept going. I told Derek, “I’m 75% sure. Maybe 85%.” Further up my headlamp illuminated the crux leftwards traverse under the overhang and I knew I had us on course. This is a long climb, made more so by my slow pace. I moved up continuously except for two pauses to drink more water. Derek followed behind me, since we decided it would be best to stay together. When we passed the Love pinnacle, I knew we were more than halfway. When we hit the final section, I knew we were close, but didn’t say anything in case I was wrong. This final section seemed very long. At the top we took a selfie. All you can see is a happy Derek, a tired Pops, and darkness.

We descended the ridge to the tree and did one final, short, simul-rappel to the ground. It felt good pulling off the harnesses and packing them away for the final time. I had debated in my mind what was the best way down. We could do the bushwhack over to the Royal Arch Trail or descend the Stairway/Hill Billy Rock climbers’ “trail” back down into Skunk Canyon. We started with the former, but the deadfall was great and we couldn’t see very far, so we aborted and tried to get on the latter. But I was lazy and didn’t climb back up to orient myself against Stairway. Instead I just thought I knew where I was and headed down, hoping to intersect that climbers’ trail. But I couldn’t find it. I told Derek that I was lost. We decided to just continue downhill. We could see the lights of Boulder and knew we were going down and at least somewhat to the east. That was enough. Surprisingly, the going wasn’t that bad. It helped to be moving slowly and searching for the easiest way. After awhile I brought up Gaia (GPS mapping app) on my phone to confirm we were at least headed in the right general direction. It showed that a trail wasn’t too far away from us. A trail?! I knew of no trail in this area. At least not one that would be listed on a map. But we continued down and towards the trail and low and behold we found a faint trail. After following it for a bit, I said to Derek, “I think this might be the Regency Trail.” At first he was skeptical, but when we hit the “talus road” section, which lies just above the Mesa Trail, we knew we were on it. Instead of heading down the talus, per the usual Tour de Flatirons route, we stayed on the talus road, which turned back into a faint trail and went all the way to the Mesa Trail!

Once on the trail we exchanged final high fives and even a hug. We knew it was in the bag at that point. The hike back to the car was blissfully free of any drama and we arrived 13h37m after we started. My feet and my legs were beat. During that entire adventure we never just sat and took a break. During the brief times we were stopped, we were either belaying, putting on or taking off Microspikes or harnesses and coiling ropes. I don’t remember sitting down all day, save for putting on Microspikes. There is just no way to make this easy. Summer or winter. It's just so much work. So much climbing. So much off-trail travel. So many miles and so much vertical.

A year ago, when I did this with Danny, I wore my down jacket most of the time. On this adventure I didn’t even carry a down jacket. These were completely different adventures. That’s not to say that this outing was easy. It wasn’t and it will never be for me. Much like the Skyline, which I did 13 months in a row in an attempt to get used to the mileage and vertical gain, this outing just never seems reasonable. I’ve now done the Top Ten four times, 2.9 times in winter. 2.9?! Yes. About 15 years ago I tried to do the Top Ten in winter solo and stopped after doing the Maiden, with just the Matron to go. It wasn’t dark yet, but it would have been for the Matron and I’d never soloed the North Face before. I’d had some trouble with the Maiden and was mentally done, so I bailed.
On top of Stairway to Heaven -- our 10th and last climb of the day.
Some might wonder why I do this trip so many times, though I suspect no one reading this does. They understand the need to challenge yourself. And the key is “yourself.” This link-up is a huge challenge for me. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal for many of my friends and they might seek harder, longer challenges. But maybe I need a new Flatiron adventure. The Minions are discussing a new Spring Top Ten. Maybe that will be next, if we ever decide on the climbs to include…

LocationPredicted Time of DayPredicted SplitActual Time of DayActual SplitsNotes
Chatauqua Park6:00:00 AM6:00:00 AMStarted right on time
Base of First Flatiron (1)6:25:00 AM0:256:23:00 AM0:23Efficient approach
Top of First Flatiron6:55:00 AM0:306:55:00 AM0:32Downclimbed and was a few minutes ahead of schedule
Base of Third Flatiron (2)7:25:00 AM0:307:12:00 AM0:17Very efficient link
Top of Third Flatiron7:55:00 AM0:307:30:00 AM0:18Estimate of time but has to be very close
Base of Friday's Folly (3)8:10:00 AM0:158:00:00 AM0:30Descending took longer due to Escaper issues
Top of Friday's Folly8:30:00 AM0:208:30:00 AM0:30This is the time we started the bushwhack to GMP
Base of West Chimney (4)9:15:00 AM0:459:01:00 AM0:31Pretty efficient bushwhack, moved continuously with no route finding issues
Top of West Chimney9:45:00 AM0:309:15:00 AM0:14Estimate, but close. Maybe topped out even earlier
Base of Fatiron (5)11:30:00 AM1:4510:41:00 AM1:26Long hike. At the time I measured this as 1:31, I t hink, so these are rough estimates from eyeballing the track
Top of Fatiron12:15:00 PM0:4511:20:00 AM0:39Rappel from top of lower section and at the top
Base of Maiden (6)12:30:00 PM0:1511:32:00 AM0:12Easy link
Top of Maiden1:10:00 PM0:4012:00:00 PM0:28Climb went smooth, as one pitch
Base of Matron (7)2:10:00 PM1:001:20:00 PM1:20Lots of trouble pulling the first rope down. Lost 15 minutes and almost abandoned the adventure
Top of Matron2:50:00 PM0:401:58:00 PM0:38Climb went smooth, as one pitch
Base of Pellaea (8)4:05:00 PM1:153:17:00 PM1:19Rappels went smooth
Top of Pellaea4:35:00 PM0:303:34:00 PM0:17
Base of Backporch (9)5:20:00 PM0:454:34:00 PM1:00Long, tiring link. Some time stashing packs and pulling out gear included here
Top of Backporch5:50:00 PM0:304:54:00 PM0:20
Base of Stairway to Heaven (10)6:25:00 PM0:355:59:00 PM1:05Rappel shenanigans to get down, back to cache, down into Skunk, getting water, finding the route, all in the dark
Top of Stairway to Heaven7:10:00 PM0:456:36:00 PM0:37Tiring climb. Fading
Chatauqua Park8:10:00 PM1:007:37:00 PM1:01Got lost on the way out
Total time:14:1013:37


Was using the Escaper the right choice?  It definitely isn't faster when rappelling versus using two ropes. With our troubles, I think carrying the extra line probably would have been faster overall. A thin 30-meter isn't enough weight to justify the use the Escaper this many times. I think it is really useful as an emergency back-up and when you are carrying a full 60-meter rope, as the extra rope in this case would be heavier. Or when you know you are only making 1 or 2 rappels.