Britton Hill (345 feet) Highpoint of Florida – August 10, 2013

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After dragging my family 2 hours out of our way in order to grab Cheaha Mountain yesterday, I had no intention of dragging them along for another Highpoint trip. Since the Highpoint of Florida would be about 2 hours from where we would be staying on vacation, my initial plan was to just grab Britton Hill as a roundtrip day-drive all by myself. But, before leaving our hotel for our last 3.5 hour drive to Gulf shores, I quickly checked the time differential if we were to grab Britton Hill on the way. It turned out that our 3.5 drive would be 4.5 hours instead. This was just one measly hour longer than going direct. To top it off, we couldn’t get the keys to our vacation place until later in the afternoon. So, with a bit more eye rolling from Meg, I convinced the family that we should grab the Highpoint of Florida together. The plan was set…

Kids at Britton Hill

Kids at Britton Hill

We started south, and continued almost due south, through the town of Florala, Alabama. Once passed Florala, we crossed the border of Florida, and the Highpoint was only a few minutes away. The Highpoint of Florida was in a nice small park. It was hot and humid, so the kids, Meg and I took a few quick pictures. Then, the kids and Meg jumped back into the air conditioned car, while I set off for my requisite 2 mile run for the Highpoint. It turns out that there is a nice little trail system that runs around the backside of the Highpoint park. There seemed to be two primary trails running through the woods. The trails were around 0.5 to 0.65 miles long. I much preferred the idea of running trails in the shade, rather than running along a boring road, in the scorching sun. So, I started running the trails. I immediately noticed that these trails were not well traveled. I was hitting small cob web strings about every minute or so. About 5 minutes in, I plowed through a huge full sized web, spread completely across the trail. I have to say, “that sucked.” I paused to stop and clean myself off, then started running again. To my dismay, a few minutes later, the exact same thing happened again. I stopped again, cleaned myself up, then continued running. The only thing that gave some hope was that I was taking these webs down on the first loop. So, on the second and third loops, I wouldn’t have to deal with anymore webs. Mostly that thinking was correct.

Britton Hill Marker

Britton Hill Marker

For the first and second loops, I ran the “red” trail twice. For the final loop, I decided to go ahead and grab the “blue” loop. Unfortunately, when I jumped on the “blue” loop, it was at the end, and I did not figure it out right away, but it actually caused me to backtrack most of the trails. And, by grabbing the “blue” loop at the end, I foolishly signed up to clean the remainder of the trail system’s spider webs. Argh… Overall, my 2 mile run ended up a bit long (about 2.2 mi). Run time was just over 21 minutes. It was pleasant, but I was soaked with sweat by the end. I jumped in the air conditioned car, and the family and I headed to our final destination.

Britton Hill Sign

Britton Hill Sign

The Highpoint of Florida was actually nicer than I expected it to be. At 345 feet above sea level, this was far from being a mountain peak. The small trail system was also nice and unexpected. The trip was nothing spectacular, but with a visit to Britton Hill, number 28 is complete.

 

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Cheaha Mountain (2,411 feet) Highpoint of Alabama – August 9, 2013

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Kids at Cheaha Mountain

Kids at Cheaha Mountain

Once Meg and I started talking about a driving vacation to Gulf Shores, Alabama, I immediately looked at the Highpoint opportunities that might exist along the way. Pretty quickly I determined that the Highpoint of Alabama could be gotten with only 2 hours of additional driving time, by deviating from the more direct route. Needless to say, I still kept the plan to myself until the day before we left on our trip. When I told Meg that I wanted to grab the high point of Alabama, and it would only take us an additional two hours, she rolled her eyes at me. She pushed back a little bit, with the valid argument that three kids trapped in the car for 12 hours would be tough. But, I convinced myself that we could pull it off without major issue. And, I drug the whole family along for my adventure.

Cheaha Mountain Highpoint

Cheaha Mountain Highpoint

We left Cincinnati at 8 am in the morning. The fact that Meg pushed us to leave earlier indicated to me that she had accepted my plan… my insanity. The drive through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama went well. We hit several short but heavy downpours along the way, but other than that, it was rather uneventful. The kids also did good. We took a lot more breaks than I had thought we would, but that broke it up well also.

Cheaha Mountain Geomarker

Cheaha Mountain Geomarker

After driving through Anniston, Alabama, we continued south a bit more, until we reached Cheaha State Park. The drive was actually pretty nice. Although the back roads slowed us down, it was a beautiful drive, and we saw many interesting old homes, cabins and other properties. Meg was pondering all of the great old antiques that must be in some of those old homes and cabins. When we reached the park, we drove passed the gift shop, the front gate and the small hotel in the park. The drive from the front gate to the Highpoint was just over a half mile. Once we reached the Highpoint, we got, out. Nolan, Anna, Sadie (the dog) and I climbed the tower steps to the top. This Highpoint was definitely one that the state had put a lot of effort towards. The tower at the Highpoint was a solid rock building, rather than a rickety old steel fire tower. From the top, the kids and I waved at Meg. We quickly started back down after we finally heard what Meg was yelling at us from down by the car: “you locked me out of the car, and I don't have the keys.” So, we climbed back down to save Meg.

Kids and Sadie in the Tower

Kids and Sadie in the Tower

After we got back to the car, we drove back to the gift shop. The family was done with their Highpoint, but I still needed to run my requisite 2 miles in order for me to claim this Highpoint on my list. I started running from the gift shop. The road from the gift shop to the top was actually pretty steep, and unrelenting. When I was all said and done, I'd gain and lose about 300 feet of elevation. Definitely not a killer elevation gain, but it certainly ranks as a tough 2 mile run. I knew that I would need a bit of extra distance in order to get a full two 2 miles. So, when I got to the top of the hill, and approached the left turn that leads to the Highpoint, I continued straight, instead of turning left. I continued down the road another 0.35 miles, then turned around, and made my way towards the Highpoint. I tagged the Highpoint, and kept running the return loop, towards the gift shop. The return loop is similar to the entrance loop, accept, along the way you pass by some rustic campgrounds along side the road. Several groups were camping. I continued down the hill. I was happy to finally be running down hill. I passed by the backside of the hotel, through the gate, and back to the gift shop, where the family was waiting for me in the Explorer, with the air conditioning cranked up high. Round trip on the 2 miles was right around 18 minutes. We left the park, and started the 2 hour remaining drive to our final destination stop for the night.

Cheaha Mountain was a nice simple Highpoint. It was better than a street corner. It had the nice drive-up option, and the park was beautiful. If I had it to do over again, I would have planned for the family to actually stay over a night at the park's hotel. Even Meg thought that would have been neat. Number 27 complete. Numbers 4 for Anna and Nolan. Sadie's first.

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Mount Eolus (14,083 feet), North Eolus (14,039 feet), Sunlight Peak (14,059 feet) and Windom Peak (14,082 feet) from the Needleton Trailhead – July 27-28, 2013

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Chicago Basin Group

Eolus Geomarker
North Eolus Geomarker
Sunlight Geomarker
Windom Geomarker

Hiking into the Chicago basin, and bagging the four 14,000 foot peaks in that group arguably requires the greatest timing and logistics commitment of any fourteener grouping. This was evidenced by the fact that everyone I met in the Chicago Basin was on counts of 20+ fourteeners, and several that I met were down to single digits on their remaining fourteeners. I had pondered back and forth about taking the Silver/Durango train into the Needleton stop, or hiking in from the Purgatory trailhead. Taking the train would save me about 15 miles overall on the roundtrip. Plus, the train would offer a unique experience that is somewhat connected to this particular grouping. So, last minute, I decided to take the train. I bought my train tickets a few weeks prior to my trip. Based on the timing of the trains, I chose to take the train out of Silverton, rather than the one out of Durango. It is the same train as it goes back and forth between Silverton and Durango, but the schedule coming from Silverton worked best for me. I had already done Uncompahgre in the morning, and taken Engineering Pass from Lake City to Silverton. I arrived in Silverton around noon. My train into the Basin would leave around 2:30 pm.

North Eolus in the Fog

North Eolus in the Fog

I was particularly nervous about this group. At this point, I was down to five fourteeners remaining on my list. This group accounted for four of those remaining five. No pressure. These wouldn't be the hardest peaks, technically, but the commitment, of taking the train, the hike and camping into the basin required the most amount of time commit of any fourteeners. On top of that, the weather report for the days that I'd be hiking in the basin was miserable. I planned for an early start, but if the rock was wet, it would be very difficult for me to grab all four peaks on this trip.

Cheesy Self Picture on Eolus

Cheesy Self Picture on Eolus

I jumped on the train at 2:30 pm, and started towards the Needleton stop. During the train ride, I was able to chat with this really nice older couple who had massive experience in the mountains. These folks had hiked hundreds of peaks, and were actually working on finishing up the last of the bicentennials (top 200 peaks in Colorado), where I was only working on the top 59 peaks in Colorado. They gave me some great tips on the climbs, and also on the best places to look for camping spots in the basin. These folks put me at ease a bit. Although, I was still a little bit nervous. I was mostly just nervous that I'd put all this time and effort into getting a shot at the basin group, but that the weather would shut down my plan, without me having anything to say about it. In reality, I had little control over that, and the Chicago Basin was a beautiful place. If I had to return later, there could be worse things.

The Catwalk from up on North Eolus

The Catwalk from up on North Eolus

The train dropped me off around 3:30 pm. Since I had jumped on the train kind of late in Silverton, the conductor had actually allowed me to hop on with my backpack. Most people had to stash their packs in the bag boxcar. That gave me a little bit of a head start in front of the rest of the hikers that got off with me. I jumped off quickly, and started hiking fast towards the basin. It was Friday, mid day, and I had visions of fighting for tough to find weekend camping spots. So, I wanted to stay ahead of the masses, if I could. Plus, I wanted to get up to camp, and setup before the sun started to get too far below the mountains. I ended up hiking completely alone the whole time. Nobody caught me. I made it to my chosen camp site in about 2 and a half hours. I had hiked in with minimal water in order to reduce weight. So, once I hit camp, I gathered water, and immediately started preparing dinner. While dinner was cooking, I setup my tent, and got everything ready for sleeping. I scarfed down a tasty Mountain House stroganoff meal, prepped my pack for the next day, then crawled into my sleeping bag.

Baby Goat

Baby Goat

I woke up around 4 am, with plans for another 4:30 am start. The skies looked sketchy. Honestly, the skies this morning looked worse than any of the mornings that I'd hiked so far on this trip. But, I was determined to see how much of the hike mother nature would allow me to get in today. I jumped on the trail around 4:30. The trail up to twin lakes is pretty easy to follow. There are a few sections where the rocks made the trail unclear in the dark. But, I never really got off trail. In the day time, the trail would have been easy to follow. I made it up to twin lakes, in just over an hour. At that point, I gathered more water. I had decided to forgo getting water in the morning, at camp. Instead, I just used the water that I already had available, and made plans to refill at Twin Lakes. That worked out well. I actually planned to stop at the lake again after grabbing the Eolus pair. From the lake, I turned left, and traversed towards the Eolus pair. Once around the bend, I could pretty clearly see Eolus. As I was heading towards Eolus, the fog was starting to build up a bit. The skies had not gotten any worse, and honestly seemed to be clearing up slightly. But, there was certainly, a low fog building. I worked my way towards the bottom of the shelf that I knew would lead me to the Eolus/North Eolus saddle. I should mention at this point that I had seen several headlamps ahead of me at various points in the hike so far. It looked like there was a group of about four or five people ahead of me, heading towards Eolus. I couldn't tell if I was gaining on them, but I thought that I might be. I worked my way to the shelf (left), then began the traverse up the shelf (right). The hike up the shelf was not very difficult. It was only moderately steep, and stayed pretty much class 2. Eventually, the shelf opens up at the base of the saddle. At this point, there are several options to get up on the saddle. I took an option that seemed to stay mostly at class 2+. When I gained the saddle, I was actually about 20 feet above it, onto the North Eolus ridge. I made the saddle in about 2 and a half hours from camp. I contemplated grabbing North Eolus first, but I wanted to try and catch the group ahead of me, and climb in tandem with them, rather than worry about crossing paths with them later on the face of Eolus. So, I quickly scamper across the cat walk. The cat walk was different than I expected. It wasn't particularly difficult, but it did involve a variety of low class rock climbing moves. It stayed class 3, but it was interesting, and exposed. I made it to the base of the Eolus face, about the same time as the group of five was heading up. So, I followed them up the face of Eolus. The face and final pitch on Eolus was very loose, and nasty. It was class 3 ledges, the whole way. The technical difficulty was moderate, but the exposure was sustained. For 30 minutes of climbing, you are on 3-4 foot grass and rock ledges, slowly working your way to the summit of Eolus. Again, it wasn't technically much more than a “ladder climb” but the sustained exposure was mentally draining. I made the summit in about 3 hours from camp.

Sunlight Summit Block

Sunlight Summit Block

On the summit, I briefly talked with my summit partners. They were a group of five guys, from Denver. We spent about 10 minutes on Eolus, and then headed down as a group. We made it back to the catwalk in about 20 minutes. It took another 20 minutes to reach the summit of North Eolus. The climb up North Eolus was really solid. It was very different from the loose climb up Eolus. The rock was very solid, some of the most solid that I've seen in Colorado. The summit of North Eolus was one of the more enjoyable summits. The perch was outstanding, and the view all around, especially at Eolus was great. I should mention here that the weather was looking reasonable at this point. The fog had come in strong while we were on top of Eolus. but, by the time we reached North Eolus, the fog had started to clear up a bit. And, the clouds had pretty much stayed at bay. It looked very possible that I could grab all four of the basin summits in one day. After 10 minutes on North Eolus, we all started down together. I stayed with the group of five, until we got down into the basin. As we got closer to Twin Lakes, I pulled ahead a bit. The group was planning on an extended stop at the lakes in order to grab a bite to eat. I was planning on just a quick dunk in the lake for water, and I would eat on the run. I make it back down to the lakes in just under 5 hours from camp. I refilled my water and treated it. Then, I was headed towards Sunlight Peak.

Windom from Sunlight

Windom from Sunlight

The trail towards Sunlight starts on the east (right) side of the lake. If you we're coming from camp, you'd turn right around the lake. The trail is moderately easy to follow. As you leave the lake, you pretty quickly start to gain elevation. There is a small ridge that you gain that lies at the very bottom of Windom's ridge. After you gain the lower ridge, you actually drop slightly on the other side, before you start climbing Sunlight's face. There are some amazing and large cairns that guide you across the lower Windom ridge, and up the base of Sunlight. As you being to gain the face of Sunlight, it gets very loose and nasty towards the top. The route on the face of Sunlight targets the saddle between Sunlight Peak and Sunlight Spire. Your goal is clear, but there are many ways to achieve it. All ways are loose and crappy. I wouldn't say that the route to the saddle is dangerous or exposed, just slow going, and very tiring. Once you gain the saddle, you follow the left side of the ridge towards Sunlight. In other words, at the saddle, turn left, towards Sunlight, and stay on the left of the ridge. As you work towards the summit, it seems like there are multiple class 3 and class 4 options. I'd say that the easiest route actually stays low in elevation for some time. This version is a bit looser, but the exposure, and technical climbing is minimal. Eventually though, you have to sign up for some class 4 and a bit of exposure.

At about this time, I ran into another climbing partner, Michael. Michael was stalled at the bottom of the final class 4 section, pondering his options. We both saw a clear cairn, but is was up on a ledge, that required a significant chimney move in order to gain. As I got closer to the move, it looked a lot easier. I made the move easily, and was up on the shelf with the cairn. Michael mimicked my moves, and easily made it up with me. The next move was of simlar difficulty. It was also a bit of a chimney move, but this time, it was a pass through window from one side of the ridge to the other side. Michael and I stopped here to take a couple of cool pictures throught the rock window. After pictures, again we made the move pretty easily. Neither of these moves had wicked exposure. There was exposure all around, but you'd have to make a pretty bad mistake to have any issues. Once through the window, we turned left and made the final 30 foot walk to the summit. I made the summit in about 6 hours from camp.

Once on the summit, Michael and I both looked at the summit block, and discussed going on top of it. It looked pretty interesting to me. Michael was not as keen on doing it as I was. After a few minutes to gather my thoughts, I finally moved towards the summit block. The first move is to walk up a 6-8 foot slab, then grab the top. The next move was a transfer from the top of the slab onto another rock. I made both moves without much issue. Then, I was sitting on the rock, just below the true summit block. I was maybe 3 feet from being on top of the summit block, but I was already having rubber legs. The moves weren't that tough. And, the exposure was only bad if you looked down. I think that my major issue was having 6 tough hours on the legs, with minimal calorie reflenishment. But, I was determined to get on top of that summit block. After a few minutes rest to gather my resolve, I finally stood up, and moved towards the summit block. I grappled the summit block, and started to pull myself up. There were really no good hand holds anywhere, on any of these slabs, including on the summit block. The climbing was all friction climbing. I was able to pull myself up, center myself on the block, with my feet basically hanging out. I didn't stand up, or even sit on the summit block. I just laid there, on my belly, with my arms and legs flailing out in space. That was all that I was able to commit. Touching the top point with your belly counts just as much as standing or sitting on it. After Michael snapped a couple of pictures of my belly summit, I slowly slid back down, until my tippy toes touched back down on the lower block. I sat there again for a few minutes pondering how I was going to get back onto that slab, without sliding and falling down the face of the slab. A fall on that slab probably wouldn't be fatal, but it was really suck bad. It was maybe a 10 foot fall that would involve a hard rocky ending, and a bunch of scrapes along the way. Many people just make the “leap of faith” onto the slab. It is more like a “step of faith.” But, I did not trust my wobbly legs at all. Eventually, from a sitting position, I just stretched my legs out at far as I could. I still wasn't touching the top of the slab with my feet/toes. And, my legs were hanging out over a 30 foot drop off (between the blocks). I stretched, and stretched. I still didn't reach. I was inches away. So, I made a sort of “butt scoot of faith.” I made a quick butt scoot off the block that I was sitting on, and landed my feet on the top of the slab. I was now suspended above the 30 foot drop. My feet were solidly on the top of the slab, and my butt/back was resting on the upper block. Believe it or not, I was actually feeling pretty safe at that point. I also knew that I could easily make the transistion to the top of the slab from how I was positioned. So, I rested and took a sanity breath. After a brief rest, I pushed up off the upper block, and stood firmly on top of the slab. From the top of the slab, I friction climbed back down to where Michael was standing. Whew… I'd love to try that group of moves on fresh legs. It wasn't graceful, but I got it done!

Once back on solid ground, Michael and I hung out for a few more minutes, then started heading down. The class 4 moves weren't much more difficult going down than they were going up. Michael and I both made the moves without any issue. We made it back to some class 3 loose stuff. Then, we traversed back over to the saddle without much difficulty. We started down the nasty loose slopes. About 100 feet down, I said goodbye to Michael, and started heading over towards the base of Windom. From the saddle, I had scouted out my approximate route. My plan was to stay class 2 on Windom. I was going to stay as high as a possibly could, but to start working my way towards the base of the main Windom saddle. As I descended the face of Sunlight, I worked towards Windom, and continued descending, until I finally found a break towards Windom that was easily class 2. Once I broke towards Windom, it was a pretty easy boulder and rock walk to the Windom saddle. Once I gained the Windom ridge, I just followed the standard Windom trail. I planned to do Windom last because it was suppose to be the easiest of the four peaks. It turns out that Windom was alot of fun, but it definitely was not what I would call easy. Luckily at that point my brain and legs were still functioning quite well.

The Windom ridge was pretty rocky, and moderately steep. It wasn't too hard in the beginning, and I seemed to gain elevation very quickly. I guess that I hadn't dropped all that far from coming off of Sunlight. Before I knew it, my GPS was showing that I was within 400 feet of the top. At this point, the weather was still ok, but it definitely looked like it could be heading towards storms. I wanted to get up Windom, and down the most technical parts before any rain or hail dropped from the sky. At about 13,800 feet there is a notch in the Windom ridge. Beyond the notch, the climbing definitely ramps up to class 2+, and I would argue some class 3. It wasn't horribly difficult, but it was very useful to have some technical rock skills on the upper portion of Windom. Several groups that I met along the way on Windom said the exact same thing: “We did Windom, because people said that it was the easiest one of the group. That was easy?” After doing almost all of the fourteeners, I would say that the class 2 route on Windom was the hardest class 2 rated route that I've done. Having said that, with even a moderate amount of rock skills, I think that anyone would think that the Windom ridge is a whole lot of fun.

The route pretty much follows the left side of the ridge after the notch. Just before you reach the top, there is another small notch that passes through the ridge to the other side. Once you pass through the ridge, the summit blocks are right in front of you. A few easy class 3 moves, and you are on top of the summit blocks, and on top of Windom. I made the top of Windom in just over 8 hours from leaving camp; 2 hours from the summit of Sunlight. I'm glad that I still had plenty of energy left for Windom. Because it really was alot of fun, even though it was more technical than I expected it to be. I summited with another group, and we chatted a bit. They were a couple who was planning to finish their last two fourteeners (the Eoluses) tomorrow. They had also brought along the ladies brother, and Sunlight and Windom were his first two fourteeners ever. I was very impressed that he could do Sunlight as his first fourteener. He was really enjoying himself. He was clearly “hooked” on climbing fourteeners.

We spent just a few minutes on top, then headed back down. The skies were ok, but there were some small storm groupings in the distance. Our climb down the most technical sections was uneventful. We continued down the remainder of the ridge. As we reached the bottom of the ridge, the skies finally started to lob pea-sized hail at us. I had intended to take off my helmet, but had not gotten a chance to yet. With the hail coming down, I was glad that I had something to protect my head. I should say though that the “plunk plunk” of hail hitting my plastic helmet startled me at first. And, whenever the hail hit exposed skin, it stung pretty good. The hail persisted on and off for about 30 minutes. As we got closer to the lakes, I slowly pulled away from my summit friends. I continued past the lakes, down the waterfall, and back into the basin. I ultimately reached camp in just over 10 hours round trip.

Once I got back to camp, I quickly gathered water, and started cooking dinner. About an hour after I got back, the skies finally did open up in a big way. By this point, I was in my tent, and eating my dinner. I stayed in my tent the rest of the night. Actually, I pretty much slept from 4 pm until 8 am the next morning. I wasn't really that tired, I just didn't have anything else to do, and it was raining. I figured that I could hike out to the train in about 2 hours. And, my train was scheduled for 11:15 am. So, around 8 am, I started packing up my stuff. And, around 8:30 am, I started hiking down the trail. Sure enough, I got to the Needleton train stop around 10:30 am. At 11:15 am, I jumped on the train, with a big smile on my face. I should mention that it rained almost non stop from 3 pm the day that I summited, until well into the next day. In fact, it was still raining lightly when I jumped on the train. I suspect that not too many people attempted to summit on the day that I hiked out.

After the train returned to Silverton, I got to my car, packed up, and headed to Jared's house. He'd texted me that they were preparing a huge meal. Yummy. The Chicago Basin group was really nice. But, I'm glad that I was able to get them done. I would love to go back into the basin later, but not with any required summits “hanging over my head.” Four more peaks complete, and only ONE MORE remains. Mount Wilson will have to wait for another time.

TIMES:

*Train to Camp 2:43

Camp to Eolus Catwalk 2:30

To Eolus Summit 3:00

On Eolus 3:10

Back To Eolus Catwalk 3:30

To North Eolus Summit 3:50

On North Eolus Summit 4:00

To Sunlight Summit 6:10

On Sunlight Summit 6:20

To Windom Summit 8:10

On Windom Summit 8:20

Back To camp 10:08

*Camp to Train 2:00

TOTAL TIME 14:51

TOTAL ROUNDTRIP MILEAGE AND ELEVATION:

Miles 6.17 + 10.16 + 6.17 = 22.5 miles

Total ascent 5320 ft (summit day only)

 

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Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet) via the Nellie Creek Trail Head – July 26, 2013

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Summit Marker

Summit Marker

I had plans to meet up with a couple of partners for my hike up Uncompahgre. I’d met Jennifer and Xan online. They were hoping for a ride up the 4×4 portion of the Nellie Creek Road. I’d rented a 4×4 for this trip, just because I knew that I’d need it for the Nellie Creek Road. I texted Jennifer after I left Kilpacker Basin, and told her that I’d be in Lake City around 6:30 pm. I drove the long way around to Lake City, rather than take any of the mountain passes. I made it to the bottom of the Nellie Creek Road and Jennifer and Xan were already there. We move their stuff into my 4×4, and started up the Nellie Creek Road. The 4×4 travel was a bit rough at first, mostly because my 4×4 driving skills were a bit rusty. But, after 10 minutes of driving the road, I was starting to get the hang of it. We made it up the road, and to the Nellie Creek trail head parking lot in about 45 minutes. We checked out the parking lot, and ultimately opted for a camping spot about ¼ mile down from the trailhead. We had discussed making a very early start, so around 9 pm, we headed to our tents.

Really Goofy Summit Self Shot

Really Goofy Summit Self Shot

It rained lightly during the night. We woke up and started hiking around 3 am in the morning. I need to drive to Silverton in the afternoon for a train into the Chicago Basin. So, I really needed to get up and down Uncompahgre quickly, and we truly had no idea how long this one would take us. We estimated between 5 and 7 hours possibly. Jennifer and Xan were use to early starts, so 3 am was normal for them. We walked the ¼ mile from our camp, up the road, to the trial head, and signed in at the register. For the beginning of our hike, we were face to face with a lower summit that we all thought was Uncompahgre. Later, I got out the map, and we realized that Uncompahgre was much further to the west. The trail that we followed skirted the bottom of this other peak, that was not Uncompahgre. The trail was nice, and very easy to follow. The ladies seem to set the pace. I was pacing slightly behind them, and every time that they paused to take a breather, I caught up. Whew, at points it started to looked like they might leave me in the dust. They admitted later that they were huffing and puffing pretty bad themselves also.

Amazing Sun Rise

Amazing Sun Rise

The travel was pretty much in the dark the whole way, but it was a very bright moon, and the sky was almost perfectly clear. So, even though we used headlamps to keep from stumbling, we could easily see silhouettes of the peaks around us, and a rough view of the route that lay ahead. Eventually the solid trail gains the south ridge, and slowly starts towards the summit. A few switch backs later, and we were finally into some mild class 2. There was only one small section that might be rated class 2, and that was the section that gains the primary plateau, up to the upper ridge. The exposure was minimal, and the class 2 was mostly just a short section of loose scrambling. It was not super steep. Once you clear the class 2 section, the final pitch is another moderate ridge/hump hike to the top. We made it to the summit in around 2 and a half hours from the trailhead. This was so much faster than we ever thought we would summit. I guess that maybe we were being a little bit competitive with ourselves. Or, maybe we didn’t want to let each other down. Or, maybe we were all just a little bit concerned with the need to summit and return quickly, that we overcompensated, and drove ourselves harder than we thought we could. Regardless, I felt that we rocked to the top.

Parting Sot of Uncompahgre

Parting Sot of Uncompahgre

We spent about 20 minutes on top. We discussed waiting for the sun to rise. But, it was pretty cold up there, and after about 20 minutes, a really nasty storm cloud formed, and started spitting hail down on us. We cautiously started back down the ridge/hump. As we approached the class 2 down climb, we were blessed with a beautiful sun rise view in the east. At the same time, the hail that had threatened us seemed to stop. We paused for pictures, then continued back down the ridge, looking back often at the sun rising in the east. We continued down the class 2 section. On the way down, it seemed even shorter and less steep. We continued down the switch backs, down the rest of the ridge, off the ridge, and down into the basin, toward the trail head. We made it back down to the trailhead in a total roundtrip time of 4 hours and 30 minutes; about an hour 45 minutes from the summit.

 
Sweet Deer at the Lower TH

Sweet Deer at the Lower TH

I’m still shocked at how nice this hike was. If it weren’t for the nasty 4×4 road to the trailhead, I think that this peak might challenge Bierstadt as the peak that people do regularly, on a whim. After getting back to the car, we packed up, and made our way down the 4×4 road. I dropped the ladies off at their car, and mooched a beer off of them. Yumm, good. Since we had made such great time, I was able to stop off in Lake City, and partake in a well needed shower, at a local camp ground. After my shower, I set my sights for Silverton, via Engineers Pass. After doing the Nellie Creek Road, I couldn’t imagine the 4×4 mountain pass could be much worse. Let’s just say, that it’s about the same level of difficulty, but for a much longer period, which makes it feel a whole lot worse. With Uncompahgre complete, only five more to go…

TIMES:

To Summit 2:25

On Summit 2:45

Back to Trailhead 4:27

ROUNDTRIP MILEAGE:

7.78 miles

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El Diente Peak (14,159 feet) from the Kilpacker Trailhead – July 25, 2013

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I’d met Jared on a Capitol Peak climb back in 2004. He met up with this stranger (me), whom he’d never met. To his surprise, I came to Capitol Peak with massive experience (insert sarcasm here): I’d climb about 20 fourteeners, including Longs Peak solo. And, I’d been gym rock climbing for about 3 years. On top of all that, I’d come to Capitol Peak ill prepared for the peak. I didn’t have a helmet, and I wielded my trusty Leatherman needle nose pliers as my substitute for an ice axe. Needless to say, when it was all said and done, I think that I actually did impress Jared a bit; enough that we kept in touch, and he decided that he’d climb another tough peak with me. We still joke about that first visit.

First view of El Diente

First view of El Diente

Nine years, and 30 fourteeners later, I was very much a different mountaineer. Jared and I had touched base before my trip, and he agreed to join me on the Wilsons group, with a possible shot at the El Diente, Mount Wilson traverse. We met at the Kilpacker trailhead, the night before the climb. It was good to see my old buddy, after so many years. Of course, much of our talk that night was about our first climb together. We also caught up on the time in between. For me it was three kids, a bunch of marathons, and clearly a bunch of mountains. For Jared, it was a whole lot of mountains, rock walls, canyons, new house, new cities, and new jobs. Nine years is a long time…

We finally checked into our tents around 10 pm. The skies looked horrible, and threatened to rain on us. There were storms in the distance, but we never ally got wet. I slept much better than I did the first night (Wilson Peak night). We woke up just after 4 am, with intent on a 4:30 am start. We started hiking right around 4:30. The skies in the morning still looked horrible. The cloud cover was solid, and the clouds looked nasty. From the beginning of our hike, we were already talking about alternatives, and possibly dumping the idea of a traverse.

Jared Hiking

Jared Hiking

We continued to trudge forward. The beginning of the hike was open fields and through the woods. Eventually, about 3 miles into the hike, it opens up into the basin. At this point, the sun high enough that we could see our various goals. Our first goal was to get above the waterfall, and up into the basin. After that, we would work our way up the side of El Diente Peak. The trail was amazingly easy to follow, with very good cairns almost the whole way. In fact, I’d say that if you are on this trail, and you don’t see cairns, look harder, and find them. Because, the cairned route is much more pleasurable than being off route. Jared and I both noticed how, even walking through the boulder fields – while following the cairns – the trail was moderately easy on the feet and legs. Anything off of the trail was miserable travel.

Waterfall

Waterfall

We got above the waterfall, and started working our way up the side of El Diente. The route goes more or less straight up (just to the east of the summit), the takes a pretty hard left, and follows, just under the ridge to the summit. At one point, we lost our cairns, and started heading too close to the base of Mount Wilson. The travel was difficult, and I desperately tried to find a cairned route to get back on. Eventually, in the distance I saw a cairn and we corrected our mistake. Sure enough, once we got back on the cairns, things were pleasant again.

 
A Sample of the Loose Climbing

A Sample of the Loose Climbing

As the route starts to traverse left – the last couple of hundred feet or so – the climbing finally jumps up to some pretty solid class 3. At this point, there are multiple potential routes. We climbed up multiple small gullies, traversed, and continued to work our way towards the summit. The travel was very loose, and kind of nasty at this point. The fact that we had been hiking for 4 hours at this point was also starting to wear on our legs. Eventually, the route moved over to the north side of the ridge for the last moves to the summit. Jared and I took multiple paths to the various small summit blocks. I was lucky to spot the true summit on my first investigation onto a block. Jared worked his way across three blocks before he finally caught up with me. When it was all said and done it took us about 5 hours 10 minutes to summit El Diente. The time was reasonable, both of us still felt pretty strong, and the skies were only mildly threatening, but for various reasons, Jared and I had already decided to forfeit the traverse. Forfeiting the traverse would all but guarantee that I wasn’t going to finish the fourtneers completely on this trip. I was probably going to be leaving Mount Wilson behind, for sure.

Just for records sake, here are several of the reasons why I personally chose to forfeit the traverse:

  1. I had on my schedule to do the Chicago Basin group (four peaks) in two days. I really needed to be at 100% full strength to get that one done. And, it was much more important for me to finish the four in the Chicago Basin, and not have to go back to the Basin, than it was to do the traverse.
  2. Jared had off handedly mentioned that doing Mount Wilson as a “snow climb” in May or June would be a much neater climb. That stuck in my head as a very cool way to finish the fourteeners. Plus, I could use some quality snow climb experience, and my partner Jared would be a great lead on something like that.
  3. I’m not usually superstitious, but the previous night, a baby bird fell, seemingly from out of nowhere, and landed right near my tent. He survived the fall, but things did not look good for him. I put him up off of the ground, in a hollow stump, to give him the best chance. But, he did not survive the night.
  4. The weather looked ok, but it wasn’t exactly stellar for committing to a 2 hour ridge traverse. And, the weather report was not promising good things to come.
  5. And, the most critical reason in my mind, was because I did not want to finish the fourteeners alone. If my initial plan carried through, it looked like I would be finishing all of the fourteeners, in the Chicago Basin, all alone. It was worth it to delay my finish, if I had any shot of a planned finish with friends.
Cheesy Summit Self Photo

Cheesy Summit Self Photo

Okay, back on track. Time to descend El Diente. Jared and I spent a measly 5 minutes on El Diente, then started down. The descent was much easier than the ascent. It was easier to follow the route, since we’d already been on it. We seemed to clear the most difficult stuff very quickly. We made it down the face of El Diente, and to the top of the boulder field. We took a nice long break to eat, drink and enjoy the mountain. After our break, we hiked down the boulder field, and eventually back down into the woods. It seemed like a really long hike to finally get off of the rocks and boulders. I did not remember it seeming that long on the ascent, but it did take us over 5 hours to get to the top. Jared and I continued to chat and catch up. By the time we reached the bottom, I had gotten myself an invite to his house the night after my last hike. I was already looking forward to a nice meal, clean shower, and a roof over my head.

Parting Shot of El Diente

Parting Shot of El Diente

We eventually hiked out of the woods, and across the fields. We could see the parking lot for what seemed like forever. At this point, the flies and bugs were really starting to annoy. We finally got back to the trailhead in about 4 hours from the summit (9 hours 15 minutes round trip). After packing up, and making some final plans to visit Jared’s house, I left the parking lot. My next goal was Lake City, CO, where I would target Uncompahgre Peak. Six more to go…

TIMES:

To the Summit 5:10

On the Summit 5:15

To the Trailhead 9:15

ROUND TRIP DISTANCE:

12.50 mi

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Wilson Peak (14,017 feet) from the Rock of Ages Trailhead – July 24, 2013

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After 11 years of doing Colorado fourteeners, I was finally coming close to the finish line. My final eight peaks were in the San Juans. I decided to start off the final eight with Wilson Peak. Wilson Peak is a moderate class 3 climb; nothing too crazy or difficult. And, since the “Rock of Ages Trailhead” had been opened back up, the distance required was not to crazy either.

As always, I arrived at the airport in Colorado late. I actually flew into Montrose, Colorado this time in order to save myself a lot of extra hours of driving. By the time I grabbed my bags, got the rental car (Jeep 4×4), stopped at Wal-Mart for supplies, and drove to the trailhead, it was around 11 pm at night. The dirt road up to the trailhead parking lot was not too bad. I actually noticed a 2WD Toyota that had also made the drive up the road, to the parking lot. Coincidentally, I had a couple of hiking partners that I knew were in the area. They also happened to be driving a Toyota. So, I had a strong suspicion that this might be their car. I parked just short of the parking lot, and camped in the car for the night. Since I had just gotten back from a work trip to India, my sleep schedule was way out of whack. I lay in the back of the SUV, and could not sleep much at all. In 5 hours, I maybe slept an hour. When I finally got moving around 4:30 am, I was shocked that the crew in the Toyota had somehow gotten passed me in the night, drove to the parking lot, and were already on the trail. I made it my goal to try and catch them. I mostly wanted to catch them, because I was upset with myself for having such a late start on such a crappy looking day. I could just envision myself looking at the summit from a distance – lightening pounding everywhere – and the Toyota crew walking down, passing me, and saying, “we got the summit.” It should be noted that early starts are important in the mountains, if you want to get down before the afternoon thunderstorms. And, the weather report for the next few days was horrible.

I started cruising up the trail around 4:30 am. I munched my pop tart breakfast while I walked. The initial trail is very easy to follow, dirt trail. A few times, signage would indicate that you were on the “Rock of Ages Trail.” Just make sure to follow those RoA signs. The trail stays under tree line for most of the early miles. Eventually, the trail pops out just short of the Silver Pick Basin, then traverses until you are fully into the Basin. Once you get into the basin, you can clearly see Wilson Peak, and the Rock of Ages saddle. This makes targeting your goals pretty easy.

View of the Final Ridge

View of the Final Ridge

It seems that there are multiple ways to reach the saddle, from down in the basin, but here is the method that I took. I basically followed the RoA trail/mining road until I was about 0.5 mile short of the saddle. I was still well below the saddle; maybe 800 ft. At that point, I found a gully that was loose, but climbable. It was moderately miserable, but I gained elevation very quickly. My goal was a trail that I could see above me. After 500-800 feet of gully climbing, I eventually reached the trail. The remaining trail to the saddle was a mild traverse, with very little additional elevation gain. From a frustration standpoint, the gully climb was probably the worst part of this route for me. It wasn’t technically difficult at all, but it was grueling, and slow. After I got up to the traverse trail, I made the last 0.25-0.5 mile to the saddle. I made the top of the saddle in just under 2 hours from the trailhead. My next goal was to traverse to the saddle that comes off Gladstone Peak. I made it to that saddle in about 15 minutes. From the saddle off of Gladstone, I could pretty clearly see the rest of my route up to Wilson Peak. I should mention at this point that the weather was holding, but it was not looking very good. The skies were dry, and there were no major storm clouds, but it looked like mother nature could be planning a wet afternoon for me.

Back at the Gladstone Saddle

Back at the Gladstone Saddle

As I was pondering my final pitch, I finally got glimpse of the folks that were in front of me. They were very close to the summit at this point. I could only assume that they were the people in the Toyota. I left the Gladstone saddle, and started pushing for the summit. The route at this point gives both a class 2 option and a class 3 option. I opted for the class 3 option, and maintained most of my elevation, rather than dropping down a couple hundred feet. The class 3 travel was solid, and actually pretty easy. After 10 minutes of class 3 travel, the route returns to class 2 hiking. I followed the trail, just below the ridge, along the right (south) side. In about 30-40 minutes, I made the final false summit before the final pitch. At this point, my leading party was coming down. So, I decided to wait for them, and say, “hi!” As they came down, they finally noticed me, and said, “hi, you wouldn’t happen to be Rob?” I said, “Yup!” I introduced myself to Jennifer and Xan, and we chatted for just a few minutes. I would actually be doing Uncompahgre Peak with them in two days. These were my buddies from the Toyota. Since the weather was starting to come to a boil, we held off our extended chat, and I started up, they continued down.

Final Pitch

Final Pitch

I finished the final class 3 pitch and made the summit. Time from the Gladstone saddle to the summit was around 50 minutes (from the trailhead right around 3 hours). I did not stay long on the summit. Finally the skies were starting to break loose. After minutes on the summit, I started back down. At this point, it actually started to rain a bit. The class 3 rock was now wet, so I had to be a bit more careful on the descent. Luckily, the rain was only intermittent, and gave me some small breaks as I descended. I made it back down to the Gladstone saddle in about 30-40 minutes. At this point, I was beyond all of the technical terrain, so I was much less worried about the rain, and the associate wet/slippery rock. I cruised over to the RoA saddle in 10 minutes, then started my long wet slog down into the basin, and toward the trailhead. I pretty much took the same route that I had taken up. I traversed from the RoA saddle, then I dropped down the loose gully. The gully was much easier going down, than it was going up. Once I got to the bottom of the gully, it was just a matter of following the trail/mining road all the way out to the parking lot. At the bottom of the gully, I met up with a group of five people from Oklahoma that were just heading up. It was raining pretty consistently, and I did not envy the work that they had remaining, if they wanted to summit. They still had the nasty gully, and some wet class 3 to contend with. I did not dissuade them from going up, but I was glad that I was going the opposite direction. As I continued down the trail, the skies continued with a moderate, but consistent drizzle. I never noticed any thunder, but I was very wet, and since it did not stop, I was going to stay wet.

Gladstone Peak and Mount Wilson from the Summit

Gladstone Peak and Mount Wilson from the Summit

I finally made it back to the trailhead in about 5 ½ hours from the time that I initially left. Roundtrip miles (according to my GPS) were around 9.7 miles. I met up with Jennifer and Xan in the parking lot, and we chatted a bit, as we all tried to get dried off. Ironically, it stopped raining once we got to the parking lot. After drying off a bit, I headed back into Telluride for some rest and food. I ended up meeting up with the girls, and we talked about our hike in two days.

Cheesy Self Portrait from the Summit

Cheesy Self Portrait from the Summit

Overall, this was a pretty good hike. I could have lived without the rain, but at least mother nature was being reasonable about it. I’m glad that I got a pretty early start. I think that this gave me a much better chance at success. Thanks to my friends for giving me something to motivate me faster. That also helped to make sure that I was successful on Wilson Peak. I think that this is one that I’d like to do again someday, hopefully with sun in the skies. Seven more to go…

 

 

TIMES:

To Rock of Ages Saddle 1:55

To Gladstone saddle 2:10

To summit 3:00

On summit 3:05

To Gladstone saddle 3:40

To Rock of Ages saddle 3:50

To Trailhead 5:20

DISTANCE ROUND TRIP

9.71 miles

 

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Mount Whitney (14,505 feet) via the East Buttress 5.7, Mount Russell (14,088 feet) via the East Ridge from Iceberg Lake – August 15-17, 2012

2012 08 – Mike and Rob trip to California Mount Whitney Russell Highpoint
Click to go to Pictures!!

My buddy Mike and I had been talking about doing a “big wall” trip for years, but never got to doing it. But, in late 2011, when he mentioned wanting to do Mt. Russell, that perked my ears. Mt. Russell is a California fourteener, and that would meet my need to do a serious rock climb, while at the same time tick another mountain off of my fourteener list. By the time we got our trip all planned and got permits, our trip had turned into a Mt. Whitney and Mt. Russell trip. Our plans were to hike into Iceberg Lake, do Mt. Whitney by the East Buttress route, maybe grab Mt. Muir (right next to the summit of Whitney), then the next day climb Mt. Russell by the Fishhook Arête. That was the plan…

August 14th finally came, and we flew to Las Vegas to begin our trip. We arrived in Vegas pretty late at night. By the time we got the car and started driving it was around 11 pm. We drove straight to Lone Pine, CA, and arrived just short of 4 am in the morning. Mike had booked a room already, we checked in, and crawled into bed for a short sleep. We got up around 8 am, grabbed some breakfast, some last minute supplies, and our permits. Then, we drove to the Whitney Portal, where we would start our adventure.

We finally started hiking around noon or so. We weren’t in a big rush today, because our only goal today was to hiking into camp, setup camp, get a decent night sleep. Little did we know how hard that hike in would be. Mike and I had both been doing a little extra training for the heavy pack in, but I don’t think either of us could have been completely ready for carrying 65 lb packs, at elevations of 9,000 to 12,000 feet, and on terrain that would be challenging without any pack. But, we were as trained as we could be, and we’d just have to tough it up and get up there.

At first the hike in wasn’t too bad. I was pacing myself well, but the heavy pack was definitely something that I wish I didn’t have to deal with. Mike was moving a bit quicker than I was, but I still think that he just wasn’t pacing well. So, I reeled him in several times in the initial miles. The first mile or so of trail was actually pretty easy, and very nice. The trail starts by following the Whitney trail for about a half mile or more. Then, the Mountaineer’s Route turns off sharply to the right and goes steep, up hill. If you cross the first creek crossing on the Whitney trail, you’ve just missed the turn-off. There is a sign at the turn-off. After the turnoff, the trail gets steeper and uglier quick, and it doesn’t let off. It only gets harder as you get higher. I’m not saying that because I was getting more tired. I really mean that the trail gets harder. It gets rockier, and steeper as you get closer and closer to Iceberg Lake.

After the turn-off for Mountaineer’s route, it definitely gets steeper, but the trail is still pretty easy to follow, and it is not too rocky at first. Once we started up this steeper section, Mike and I found ourselves resting more often. We’d take 50-100 steps, then rest and breath. Then, we hike a bit more. We did this on much of the remaining route. As the route continues up, you see the ledges on the right. We would be scampering along those ledges in another 30 minutes. The trail cross the creek once to the left side, then a little later, back over to the right side. If you are trying to follow the right face of the ledges tightly, and not crossing the creeks, you are not on route. Not long after crossing the creek the second time, we climbed up onto the ledges. The ledges portion of the route is probably the most dangerous and exposed portion of the hike in. Without a 65 lb pack it would be easy, but interesting. The exposure is definitely serious. You do NOT want to slip here. A fall would be fatal, and it has happened. But, fortunately, Mike and I were climbing mostly in an upward and sideways direction, while on the ledges. Climbing upwards with a pack is easier than down-climbing. At the time, I wasn’t really thinking about our climb out. If I had, I would have been stressing. Mike and I ultimately cleared the ledges, and things opened up a bit. I mentioned earlier that the climb gets harder as you go up. Well, I should follow that statement with a mention that the ledges are by far the most difficult part of this hike in – the crux of the hike in. In general the route gets harder and harder along the climb, but the ledges are a little nugget of special nastiness tucked in the middle.

Once we cleared the ledges, the trail levels out a bit for a while. The mental relief of finally getting off the ledges translates to a bit of physical relief as well, even though the trail was still going up, and we were still carrying heavy packs. At the next large creek crossing we took our first serious break. This was the first time that we actually dropped our packs and sat down for a while. We adjusted our shoes, replenished our water, and snacked a bit. It was really hard to put that pack back on again. I estimated at this point that we were about half way, but in reality, I think that we were only about 1/3rd.

The hike at this point gets a bit rockier. The trail gets moderately easy to follow, but it you know the general direction that you are heading, it is easy to keep on track. For the next couple of miles, we climbed a rocky slope up into the basin for Lower Boy Scout Lake. Then, we hiked along the left bank of the lake, and climbed another rocky slope up into the basin for Upper Boy Scout Lake. Many people setup camp at Upper Boy Scout. This was probably about the 2/3rd point for us. We took another short break just past Upper Boy Scout Lake. At this point it was around 4 pm. Mike and I were not making great time, but we were sure that we could make camp well before dark.

After break, we started our final section of the hike. The last section of hike is all rocky and steep, with almost no reprieve on soft trail. There is even a couple hundred feet of 5-10 degree slab walking, at least the way that we did the route. On the descent, Mike and I figured out that we were probably off route during most of the slab walking. Oh well, it was actually a bit of a relief from the rock hopping. The continues up to the left of Upper Boy Scout, then pretty much follows the valley, until you gain the most distant ridge to your right. Given the tough rocky terrain, this last section took us a lot of time. As we approached the final ridge climb, the weather turned nasty on us. It started raining, then it started hailing. At the time is sucked pretty bad. But, he biggest issue was not that it was hailing on us, it was that we didn’t know how much worse it would get. I was concerned first about getting to camp without issue, and second about getting camp setup, preferably NOT in the rain. It rained and hailed on us for the final 30 minutes of the hike. We gained that final ridge with water rushing down the trail, across our feet. Almost on command, as we gained the ridge, and arrived at Iceberg Lake, the rain and hail stopped.

Mike and I picked a camp spot, and quickly setup camp, and sorted through our gear. When it was all said and done, our stuff didn’t get very wet. As we were setting up camp, I cooked us some dinner, and gathered water from the lake. I found out later, that Mike walked away from the tent and puked. Mike was not feeling well, and he was reconsidering our plans for tomorrow. He told me this later.

We tucked into our sleeping bags around 8 pm. It was a restless night for me. I could not get comfortable, and my legs and body were burning up from the tough hike in. Mike was sleeping like a baby. We’d set our alarm for 4:45 am, without a firm plan for what we would be doing the next day. Around 5 am, we finally started stirring. We were very slow to get moving. Mike was feeling much better this morning, and I was feeling pretty good myself. As we slowly got ready, we decided to go ahead and tackle the East Buttress on Whitney, as planned.

We finally got started a little after 6 am. I was not crazy about what I considered a “late start.” The initial hike up to the base of the East Buttress follows the base of the Mountaineer’s Route. This portion is class 2, class 3 hiking/climbing. When we finally got to the climbing portion of the climb, there was one group ahead of us. Mike and I figured that they would climb faster than us, so we would be alone the rest of the day. As the other group got ahead of us, Mike and I pulled out the rope and gear, and got ready to bolt our self onto the wall. We’d stay bolted to the wall, moving gear along the way, until we reached the summit.

I wouldn’t be able to do the East Buttress route description justice, so instead I’ll just give a summary of the route, and then describe how I felt on the route, as we progressed. We needed to gain a total of about 2,000 feet of elevation in order to get to the top of Mount Whitney, from camp. By the time that we roped up, we had gained maybe 600-800 feet. So, we still have 1200-1400 feet of solid climbing to go.

A summary of the East Buttress route goes something like this. There are 11 pitches, with a max difficulty of 5.7 rating. In general, the more difficult sections were long longer than 20 feet at a time. So, it wasn’t extremely sustained in the difficult sections. The first two pitches were solid class 5.6. Without a warm up into some of the more difficult climbing, I was already starting to get a bit concerned, asking Mike questions like, “Mike, most of it is going to be easier than that right?” Mike’s answer was, “not really.” Although I could certainly handle the climbing, doing it at elevation, and knowing that we had 11 pitches like that was definitely a bit mentally stressful. Plus, Mike and I weren’t starting off very fast either. We’d gotten a pretty late start – about 2 hours later than I’d have liked – and it was taking us around 45 minutes to an hour per pitch. My quick calculations told me that we would be getting to the summit very very late. At that point (after pitch 2), Mike and I decided to focus on our timing, and try to keep at around 30 minutes per pitch, as a target. Since Mike was doing the majority of the work, getting us setup between pitches, and setting the gear, the only thing that I could do was to help out in the setup, and make sure that when it was my turn to climb, that I kept my rest breaks as short and minimal as possible.

We took a 5.6 option for the third pitch, and another 5.6 for the fourth pitch. Mike was right; this wasn’t going to be any easier. To add to the stress level, I think it was on the third or fourth pitch, we ran right to the end of the rope. We almost ran out of rope. And, because of the terrain, and the wind, we could not communicate at all. So, when I yelled to Mike that we were out of rope, he didn’t respond. Or, at least, I didn’t hear him. Luckily, we had just enough rope. When I climbed up to him, I angrily told him that we need to do something about our communications. He told me that he could hear me fine. I guess it was just an odd place that I was located. We didn’t have as bad a communication problem for the rest of the day – luckily.

The fifth and sixth pitches were a mix of 5.5 and 5.6 climbing. The seventh pitch was the crux pitch for us. It was a slabby 5.7, which Mike said was not well protected. From below, we had seen the other groups go through this pitch, and they stayed more on the face. When we went through this pitch, Mike and I stuck to the crack to the left, and didn’t have any problems. We couldn’t figure out why they didn’t follow the crack. It was clearly a 5.7, but Mike didn’t have any problems with it, and following Mike, I was ok as well. I should mention that we broke that seventh pitch into two, and belayed at the half way point. The second half of that seventh pitch was very cool and easy 5.6ish flake traverse.

After the seventh pitch, things started to wind down a bit. The eighth pitch was a mild 5.6, and the ninth, tenth and final pitch was a mix of class 4 (unroped) and easy class 5. We unroped for a bit of those last 3 pitches, but roped up for the final class 5 push to the summit. The final pitch to the top was a bit tough to follow. There seemed to be several options, and the blocks around the top were huge. So, it was difficult to see how to gain the top of those huge blocks. But, ultimately Mike found a route, and made the summit. I followed quickly.

We made the summit in approximately 10 hours from camp. I should mention that at about the half way point (around pitch 5), the clouds had rolled in. For the second half of the climb, Mike and I were watching the skies very closely for any hint that we might get storms. We saw a few mild sprinkles, but never really got rained on. The clouds were built up, but they never really got dark and ugly.

On top, we hung out for a bit, making calls, and munching on some food. We knew that we didn’t want to mess around. It was late in the day, and we needed to get started down, just in case the weather rolled in. Plus, we wanted to get back to camp before dark. After 30 minutes on top, we started looking for the top of the Mountaineers route. We were planning on walking down the class 3 Mountaineers route back to camp. We finally found the top of the route on the far side of the summit. We mostly just followed the summit counter clockwise, until we found an obvious decent route. The beginning of the decent was rough. It was very loose class 3, and I’d even say some class 4. It was slow going, but we just followed the gulley down towards an obvious notch on the right. The last move out of the gully, towards the notch was a pretty sketchy down climb that I’d say bordered on class 5. But, a fall would have been more embarrassing then dangerous.

We hiked through the notch to the right, and the remainder of our route became obvious. A very loose and nasty gully continued pretty much all the way down to Iceberg Lake. The gully was a mix of scree and rocks. Travel down the gully was a bit frustrating. You’d be walking down the scree (small pebbles and rock) fine, then all of the sudden, you’d hit a slick spot, and have to catch your balance, or land on your butt. I found myself on my butt plenty of times. I finally figured out why the scree got so slick at times. Underneath the scree was either 1) more deeper scree or 2) a nice big flat slab of granite. When the underneath was just scree and other rock, travel was easy. But, when a big slab of granite was only covered by a layer of scree and pebbles, it was like walking on ball bearings. At the end of a long hard day, this kind of travel was more frustrating than dangerous.

Mike and I managed the decent fine, and ultimately made it back to camp around 6:30 pm, a decent time of 2.5 hours. As we cleaned ourselves off, gathered water, and prepared dinner, Mike and I discussed our plans for the next day. Pretty quickly, we decided that maybe the Fishhook Arête wasn’t a good idea. First, we thought that the Arête might be just above our skill level. Secondly, we were a bit concerned that we had challenged the weather goods too much today, and tomorrow we would pay for our lateness. We decided that we’d make the final call in the morning.

After dinner and gear prep, we crawled into the tent. Mike told me later that he didn’t sleep as well the second night. I slept about the same. We set an alarm, but for whatever reason it didn’t go off. Ultimately we crawled out of bed around 5:30 am. This late start pretty much established our plans for the day. Attempting the Arête with a late start would be foolish. On top of the late start, the skies looked horrible. Mike and I were comfortable with a nice classic hike, but roping ourselves onto the Arête with the skies overcast starting at 6 am wasn’t something that we felt was prudent. So, instead of the Arête, Mike and I decided to attempt a classic class 3 climb of the east ridge on Mount Russell. The crux to doing this ridge would be actually being able to gain the ridge from Iceberg Lake. The primary route on the ridge came from Upper Boy Scout Lake. But, Mike knew of a supposed gully climb that gained the ridge from Iceberg. So, we decided to try it. We finally got going around 6:30 am.

The goal for the initial part of our hike was just to gain the ridge on the far side of Iceberg Lake. From that point, we’d get a good view of the Fishhook Arête, our planned decent route, and a general idea for the direction that we’d take to our ascent gully. We made the top of the ridge in about 45 minutes. From the top of the ridge, we started down the other side, trying to avoid dropping to much; knowing that we’d just have to regain elevation at some point. I started towards the Arête, but stayed to the right side, looking for a point at which we could gain the ridge that stood between us and Upper Boy Scout Lake. We needed to gain that ridge, then go over it, and work our way towards our ascent gully. After a few checks along the ridge, we finally found our route through the ridge. It should be noted that attempting to drop over that ridge too early would have put us in very dangerous terrain. Once we cleared the ridge, we pretty much just followed the base of the Mount Russell ridge, with Mount Russell on our left. Our ascent gully was obvious. It was a nice trough, which appeared ugly from a distance, but was clearly achievable as we got closer.

We finally traversed far enough that we could start our climb up the trough. The trough ended up being at least as easy as portions of the Mountaineers Route. It was not technically very challenging, and the route finding was very easy. The rock was pretty loose in the trough, so it could potentially be dangerous if multiple groups were in the trough at the same time, and anyone knocked rocks down.

We made it to the top of the trough in about 2 hours from the time that we left camp. We now on the Russell East Ridge, and we were making great time. I estimated that we’d make the summit of Russell in an hour or so. Mike, misreading the guide books, insisted that we were 3-4 hours away from the summit. Either way, it didn’t change our plans. After a short break, we started along the ridge. The East Ridge route was moderately easy to follow. The beginning section was easy and we gained about half our distance very quickly.

The second half of the ridge was a totally different ball game. I should mention at this point that Mike and I had left the rope and climbing gear back at camp. We had no intentions of using it, and we didn’t want the extra weight. I have to admit that having a rope of the second part of the East Ridge would have eased our minds a little bit. But, honestly though, the rope would have probably only gotten in the way. Needless to say the second half of the East Ridge was very exposed and some very serious class 3 and class 4 climbing, with a class 5 move here and there. I’ve done most of the fourteeners in Colorado, including almost all of the hardest ones, and I’ve never used a rope. The East Ridge of Russell was probably the most exposed climbing that I’ve ever done without a rope. It was one of those situations where you absolutely could not make a mistake. The terrain was easy to navigate, and the climbing was easy, but you just could not make a mistake. Any mistake would have been very bad.

Mike and I followed the right side of the ridge the whole way. We tried to stay pretty high up on the ridge, but we were not on top of the ridge for much of the route. Ultimately we made the East summit of Mount Russell. It took us about 1 hour from the time that we started the ridge. Mike and I looked at possibly doing the West Summit of Russell also, but convinced ourselves that the East was higher, and didn’t bother. We found out from another group later that the route from the East to the West summit had a very sketchy class 4 move or two, that really should be done with a rope. But, we also found out later that the higher point is the West Summit. I guess that just means that Mike and I would have to come back and do that Fishhook Arête after all.

We spent 15 minutes on the East Summit, and then started to look at how we’d get down. Mike already had a planned descent route. Our descent route start was actually located right next to the East Summit (about 10 yards east of the summit). The initial down climb for our route was pretty wicked. It was easily a high class 4, maybe low class 5 down climb. A fall at the start would be 30 to 50 feet onto the rocks, and that would not be good. There was a bunch of belay material located at the top of the down climb. Mike and I rigged up one of the lengths of webbing to help us in the down climb. Mike went first, and then I followed. As we looked up, it would have been fun as an up climb. We both got safely down from the initial down climb. If we had brought a rope, we definitely would have used it. After the initial down climb, the remainder of the descent was pretty easy. I’d say that the descent climb on Russell – after the down climb – was easier than the descent of the Mountaineers Route on Whitney. If we weren’t looking for a “classic” climb along that East Ridge, I would even consider doing the Descent Route both ways. It was pretty easy.

Mike and I got back to the base of Whitney and up to the ridge overlooking Iceberg Lake in about 1.5 hours. We spent some time on the ridge, ate and left email and text messages for home. At this point, Mike and I discussed the idea of hiking out tonight, rather than waiting another day. We didn’t have any plans for the remaining trip days, but if we got out tonight, we could at least try to do something tomorrow. If we hiked out tomorrow, the remainder of the day would probably be lost. So, we decided to go back to camp, pack up, and hike out today.

We hiked down from the ridge, and were back at camp around 12:30 pm, 5.5 hours total round trip for the hike. Mike and I casually packed up our stuff, and started the grueling hike out. I won’t go into much detail about the hike out. It was pretty much the reverse of the hike in. Having the heavy pack on the hike out sucked more than it did on the way in. Every downhill step hurt the feet and legs, especially towards the bottom. The ledges section that was tough on the hike in was totally horrible on the descent. Class 3 down climbing with a 50+ pound pack was wicked scary. With a 6 hour hike in, Mike and I figured we could do the descent in around 3-4 hours. It took us a little over 5 hours. It was just slow going with the heavy packs. On the ascent, it was our lungs that slowed us down. On the descent, it was the legs; they were sore.

I think that we finally got down a little after 7 pm. We went back to town, and checked into a cheap hotel. Once we got to the room, we cleaned ourselves up and tried to make plans for the next day. Ultimately, we decided that we try and tackle some locale climbing; something with little to no hike in.

On our final day of climbing, Mike and I headed back up to the Whitney Portal are. Mike had done some research, and found several options that we could check out. After driving up and down the portal road a few times, we ultimately decided to check out a section of rock called the “Beaches.” This rock would be a small hike back up the same hike that we took before. We’d hike up the Whitney trail, and then turn off at the Mountaineers route. Just past the turn, we’d scramble up to the rock on our right. Actually, this climbing area was just about a ½ mile or so below the ledges section.

Without any major pack weight, the hike into the “Beaches” was actually very nice. Plus, the weather was beautiful. Mike and I hiked in just before noon, and planned to just casually climb until we were done. The climbing at the “Beaches” was almost exclusively 5.10 ish slab climbing. The hardest part of the climbing was getting a top rope setup. Mike did not want to lead climb a 5.10 slab. A fall on 5.10 slab would mean some pretty scraped up knees and face. So, initially Mike tried to hike above in order to set top rope. When, that didn’t work, we spent an hour or more stick climbing from bolt to bolt, until we finally got the top rope setup.

Once we got the top rope setup, we climbed several of the routes, probably 3-4 times total. Mike got in a few extra climbs, since he had to setup the top rope and such. This was my first serious sampling of 5.10 climbing, and I thought it was awesome. It was very different than regular vertical climbing. Since a slab is slightly sloped, the hand holds are almost non-existent. That made for a very different style of climbing. We spent a couple hours playing on the slab, until my toes and calves were completely destroyed. Afterwards, we packed up, hiked out and started the long drive back to Vegas.

Overall, this was great trip. It didn’t go exactly as planned. But, a good climbing trip can also be judged based on how many “new ideas” you go home with. And, Mike and I continuously talked about additional trips that we’d like to make back to the Sierra Nevada’s. At a minimum we are looking at grabbing the Fishhook Arête sometime in that future, and also hitting the Palisades. I’m sure that plenty of other ideas will grow later also.

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