Monday, October 5, 2015

Never say never in mountaineering

“I’ll never do that.” – I should probably add this phrase into my vocabulary more when it comes to adventures because I find myself more and more doing what I never imagined myself doing. Five years ago when I was just getting into my journey hiking the 14ers of Colorado I wrote this blog and this about the mountains I feared. I wrote: 10 of the mountains are rated in the difficult category including Crestone, Longs, Kit Carson, El Diente, Maroon Peak, Snowmass Mtn., Mt. Eolus, Mt. Lindsey, Wilson Peak and Wetterhorn Peak. None of these really scare me except Maroon peak probably because in my mind there are 7 others to be much more terrified of, these include Mt. Wilson, Crestone Needle, Capitol Peak, Sunlight Peak, Little Bear Peak, Pyramid Peak and North Maroon Peak.

I also posted photos of Maroon Peak and underneath wrote, “not for me but they sure are beautiful to photograph.”

This past September my “never” turned into standing on the summit of Maroon Peak overlooking the valley below. In fact, looking back at my list of “maybe never’s” above, I’ve summited longs, kit carson, mt. lindsey, wetterhorn and pyramid. I think when I wrote that blog I had summited maybe 6 or 8 total 14ers and now I’m up to 42. With each summit, my confidence has grown and so has my knowledge. Nothing could have prepared me for these peaks except for time spent on the trail and while every peak is different, my courage has grown exponentially with each summit. In August, my little brother came out and along with three friends we climbed Castle and Conundrum in the elks. While not particularly hard mountains, there was plenty of snow to contend with coming down the saddle between the two and I cut my teeth, so to speak, on more glissading. Glissading can be done on rock but is traditionally done on snow and involves basically controlled sliding down the mountain on your boots or behind to expedite the process of coming down. While dangerous, if done right it can at times be safer than trying to walk on slippery wet snow. Wet pants however, are a small price to pay for getting down in half the time.

Maroon Peak, another elk range mountain, had been on my radar for quite some time and I decided to finish out the summer on its summit. In lieu of camping, Chad and I stayed at a hotel in Aspen Friday night that was close to the trailhead. The nice thing about the bells is the road is paved in and, given our 4:45am start time, we didn’t have to rely on the bus to shuttle us to the trailhead. We saw several other cars in the parking lot but it turned out to be all photographers gunning for a chance to shoot the bells at dawn. We were on our own then for the hike.

Let me be clear however, Maroon peak, and the bells in general, is more than just a hike but less than a climb. There’s no ropes involved because the rock is dangerously loose and rotten so finding a solid anchor would be next to impossible. They aren’t just walk up hikes though because after the hike up the ridge there is no defined trail. Even the trip report from suggests there are multiple ways to go to reach the summit so a knowledge of route finding is paramount to success. Just to reach the hard stuff you must subject yourself to what’s known as the “2800 feet of suck” which is a steep climb up the green ledges of the ridge of maroon peak. Chad fell at one point when we got off route and cut up his finger pretty bad in an effort to control his fall down a steep gulley.
2800 feet of punishment

Once up the ridge the real climbing begins. We had spotted a guy who was in front of us so we half followed him and half followed the trip report in combination with our own good judgement. My blog was partially right because 5 years ago there is no way I had acquired the skills needed to climb this mountain. While Pyramid is ranked a class harder than Maroon, I didn’t even think Pyramid was as tough based on the mileage (8 vs 13) and the relatively shorter approach. Everywhere you look, the ledges look the same and I would compare it to a labyrinth. Stop paying attention and you’ll cliff out and possible fall to your death. I don’t know if route finding is necessarily a skill you can teach but somehow I seem to have gotten the knack for looking at rocks and picking out lines. You have to be careful because there are some false cairns (piles of rock people make that are supposed to mark the way) that will lead you to nowhere. I can’t stress enough how much attention this mountain commands from the time you leave the trail behind Crater Lake until you arrive on the summit. Even at the top, I wasn’t sure I had arrived at the top yet because that mountain just would not quit.
still a ways to go

the chimney

steep, loose, rotten, confusing, it has it all

“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it until you become a person that can” – that’s the motto I’ve been living by after this adventure. Climbing this peak showed me that truly any summit is within my reach. In the past I doubted my abilities as a hiker and mountaineer because this is nothing like I’ve ever done before. You can’t take a training course in how to be a good hiker. You can’t go to a gym and learn how to read trip reports or follow cairns. There’s no guides along the route to tell you if you’re going the right way or not and even if you do have the luck to have someone ahead of you they might not know where they are going either. GPS, maps, trip reports, they can all give you clues but ultimately the summits don’t reveal themselves unless you have the courage and the power to get you to the top. Chad had a moment where he wanted to quit. I had a moment on the way down where we cliffed out and I thought truly we might be stuck indefinitely. What scares you in the mountains is totally different than what scares you on a day to day basis. You’re in pure survival mode and critical thinking is key. I’ve never had something give me such a rush before as climbing mountains.
the ledges

maroon lake- I wonder how many could see us on top?

chad looking like a mountain goat

had the summit to ourselves

The Maroon Bells are one of the most photographed spots in North America. People come from all over the world to take pictures of them. They are so famous in Colorado they are on the King Soopers loyalty card. As we came down the trail we drew stares and awe from those around us. Not only had we been hiking for 13-14 hours but we had helmets and hiking poles not tripods and strollers. People stopped us to chat and couldn’t believe we had been to the top. “It looks impossible,” they’d remark.

“That’s what I thought too” I replied.
with pyramid peak, last year's conquest in the background

beautiful hiking scenery we didn't get to see at 4am

I cannot wait to come back next year for North Maroon. While not an officially ranked 14er, it’s still one of the 58 and thus on my list. Now that I’m down to 16 and my list is getting smaller, the amount of hard ones I have left is greater. I know I won’t be able to hike with as many friends for the future because they don’t have the skill set I have. However, this journey isn’t really about anyone else it’s about me and my goal…and perhaps my husband helping me to finish as well.

conquered the left now have to come back for the right

After our hike we stayed in Glenwood Springs and ate at our favorite brewery and then soaked in the new Iron Mountain Hot Springs. Our legs were sore and tired and the heat was refreshing. It was such a trip to think those around us had no idea of the adventure we had been on the day before. They didn’t know we’d been to the edge and back and were thrilled just to have made it out in one piece.

That’s how mountaineering is though, you do it for the cause not for the applause. As one of my favorite quotes says, “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are cathedrals where I practice my religion.”

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