Hard Lessons on Colorado’s Longest 14er

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13,950ft I sat on the ridge, a mere 142 vertical feet and less than 1/5 of a mile away from the summit, and watched my partner continue on without me. A bitter taste filled my mouth, wind smacking me in the face, while severe disappointment with myself welled up inside, questioning my decision to bail after having come so very far.

Snowmass was not one of those mountains I had ever looked forward to climbing. By it’s standard route, it is Colorado’s longest, and did not hold any particular feature or spectacular aspect that, in my mind, made it worth the 22 miles. Kerina and I decided to sleep at the trailhead on Saturday night, pack in on Sunday, climb Monday and pack out then if we were up to it, too. On Sunday during the 11 mile pack in, I thought to myself that this was one of those mountains I would simply not be doing if not for this 14er list I’ve challenged myself to do.

IMG_9519gimpThe trip was ill-fated to begin with, and perhaps I should have just went along with my pessimism right then and there and gone out for burgers, when we started at the wrong trailhead on Sunday morning thus adding another few miles and 1,000ft of gain to our day. Yet we persisted, and put those 30lb packs back on to go the 8.25mi up to Snowmass Lake. It was very hot, and I did feel a bit silly wearing boots warm enough to take on Denali during June in Colorado, but they are the only mountaineering boots I have, so there it is. The scenery was beautiful at least, but I was still not feeling it, try though I might. I’m just not a backpacker, and am starting to get why people pay Sherpa to carry their crap for them. Soon enough we were at the infamous logjam, which wasn’t as fun as I had first thought it might be. I really didn’t want to go for a swim, and every time I slightly lost my balance I just thought about the prospect of buying a new iPhone because I fell into the lake.

After a long haul we did get to the lake, albeit pretty tired, but set up our camp and were able to see what was in store for us the next day. By some miracle my knee and back didn’t hurt from the pack in, and I was pretty shocked but relieved by this. We were able to look at the entirety of the route for tomorrow, and it did look quite long – 3 more miles and 3,000ft more of gain straight up the giant mass of snow. After a dehydrated meal I cooked up we fell asleep pretty quick for our 4:00am start time.

We wanted to be at the base of the mountain by sunrise, but that meant navigating around the lake in the dark. The lake trail was a quagmire of willows and swamp-like mud; as the sky lightened I kept looking for dead faces to float up because I thought I was in Mordor. Eventually though we started up the rock gully, which turned into a steeper snow area, and it became a little more enjoyable.

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Our intended route – the left ‘bump’ the easier way, the middle ‘bump’ the summit.

This was Kerina’s first official time on steep snow, although she is an experienced climber and has practiced snow skills and self arrest before. I was not worried about her at all, and we made good time to the area above the gully where we could see our destination. It mellowed out for a long time, in almost a rolling hill sort of fashion, with a steeper section followed by another run-out that was almost like interval training. Our goal had always been to climb the upper left section, then gain the ridge over to the summit, as Matt had warned the the ‘more direct’ variation on snow was probably too steep for us. However, the footprints we were following from people of the day before kept heading toward the steeper line, and the ‘easier’ section seemed farther and farther away.
By the time we got to an area we really needed to make a choice about which way to go, it was getting a little later in the morning. The weather was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky, but on an east-facing slope that meant the sun was baking our snow. We could also see that there was a huge cornice at the top of the steeper line, but I reasoned that since I knew the people from yesterday had in fact summited, those footprints meant there was an exit from the cornice and onto the ridge. I said let’s go for it, and we started up the steep section. This was actually the most fun of the day, and we didn’t find the steepness difficult at all. Surprisingly my knee did just fine, and I was able to completely trust it’s stability for the first time in years.

The cornice was another matter, however. We climbed to the right of it, but had to somehow get past it to gain the ridge. We hugged the rock, but the mushy, soft snow broke away from the rock and tried to swallow us into an abyss – forcing us to walk along the top of the back of the cornice and hope that it wasn’t too much to send it flying (taking us with it). We made it to the safety of the rocks on the ridge, but quickly realized the summit was not simply a hop, skip and a jump away as we had been thinking. We tried to figure out the best route to take to continue on, but the way that seemed to be the ‘route’, based on our description, was blocked by a 50 degree snice slope that would certainly send you on a 3,000ft ride to the valley below.

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The only option left to us was to rock climb on the crest of the ridge, some more difficult rock climbing than I had originally bargained for with the intended class 3 ridge. Kerina started up, me following, but within a few moves my knee started hurting. It was as if all of a sudden something had slammed into me, and everything was wrong: I couldn’t see out of my sunglasses well enough, my boots were too big and clunky to make the correct moves, my knee felt wobbly, my confidence gone. I looked up at Kerina and told her I didn’t feel good about this, and in that moment, if she had said “you got this, we’re almost there, just make this move, then this one, and we’ll be there in no time”, I may have continued. But she didn’t. Her nerves were fried. She just stared at me with a bleak look, and asked what I was going to do. I knew then I wouldn’t go any further.

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Kerina climbing up the section I bailed on

Though I didn’t know how to vocalize it right at that time, I knew something was wrong and that the rock climbing would be too difficult for my leg and with her as my partner. Don’t get me wrong, she is an amazing climber and wonderful partner, and I’m proud of her for pushing her own limits by soloing the final, dangerous moves to the summit. As I sat waiting for her to return, I agonized over my decision, considering just climbing up on my own, as I know I’ve climbed harder moves on harder mountains. But I knew that the instant I made the decision I had made the correct one, and it was because when I have done similar or even harder things on mountains before, I’ve always had a partner there capable of bailing me out.

The truth is I’m a handicapped rock climber. I do well on ice and snow, but my leg hates rock. I think the reason it’s been doing so much better over the last few months is because I’ve fully given up rock. And as a handicapped climber, I need to accept that I may sometimes need help on mountains like this – help that comes from a partner with a lot of alpine experience and who is used to guiding. Kerina is a great rock climber, but a guide she is not, and I knew I couldn’t ask or force her into that role in order to get me up to the summit. I knew that if I tried, one of us would most likely get very hurt or very dead.

I made the right decision for both her and I, no matter the self-doubt and loathing that comes with it. It was so incredibly disheartening to go all that way to get so close, and know that I have to repeat it again this summer if I want to finish my 14er list. She said later that she knew it was dumb of her to solo those moves, but she had gone so far and wouldn’t have dared turn back. I told her I wonder what she’ll be like with another 20 or 30 mountains under her belt, because I used to feel like that, too. I’ve always said I will turn around for weather or bad conditions, but never my own weakness. For the first time this trip I did, and perhaps that is me finally growing up a little in my mountaineering mentality. I know that I will summit Snowmass, perhaps this time by a shorter route (if any of my friends who have a high clearance 4WD want to come with or lend me their vehicle…), and the success will be all the sweeter. After all, there are bold climbers, and there are old climbers, but there are no old bold climbers.

Watch the video of the climb below!

Meg 2Meg Kies is a form Wisconsin girl currently living in Boulder, CO. An avid ice climber & mountaineer, Meg is currently working her way through climbing all of Colorado’s 58 named 14er summits. She’s also become our features editor here at SUMMIT. Besides submitting her own pieces she’ll be helping to curate other content here on the Dispatch blog. You can find out more about Meg and read some of her other exciting posts at megofthemountain.com

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