Andrew Hamilton’s 1999 Attempt

Day 2 (August 29, 1999)

Originally on day 2 I was supposed to drive up the Lake Como road and climb Little Bear, then Blanca and Ellingwood, then back up Blanca and over to Lindsey.  I had never done the route from Lindsey to Blanca, and was a little nervous about it.  But I figured that if I could handle the traverse between Blanca and Little Bear that I would have no trouble with it.  The traverse between Blanca and Little Bear is the most unbelievably exposed ridge I have ever been on.  I had done it the year before with my little brother and had been extremely scared.  With a rating of class 5.0-5.2, it would be the most technically difficult climbing I would encounter on all of the fourteeners, and I was happy to get it over with on day 2.  What really sets it apart is the ridiculous double sided exposure on both sides of the ridge.

The problem with the motorcycle changed the plan.  With the motorcycle, I would have been able to drive to 11,000 feet on the lake Como road, saving me nearly 3,000 feet of elevation and 4 miles of hiking.  Now I had decided to start on Lindsey, and traverse over to Blanca.  This made me especially nervous for the Little Bear – Blanca ridge because I would be going across it in the more difficult direction.

The first step was to get myself up the Lindsey road (to the Huerfano River Trailhead).  Although not as bad as the South Colony Road, this was another bad dirt road. I had actually driven most of the way up it in my truck the week before, but I had banged the bottom of my truck so much that I was hesitant to take the truck up again.

At 2:00am Natalie woke me up.  We were 5 miles from the trailhead and were shooting to have me hiking by 3:00am.  We got all of my stuff packed and I was quickly ready to go.  Shane was convinced that we could still use the motorcycle, even without the clutch.  The day before while I was climbing he had practiced driving without the clutch, and he said that when you shifted, it jumped forward, but then it settled down.  Since Natalie and Shane were going to pick me up on the other side of the mountain range, Shane and I were going to ride the motorcycle up the road, and Shane was going to bring it back.  Shane got the motorcycle going, and I put on my backpack, said goodbye to Natalie, and hopped on the back of the motorcycle.  I held onto Shane so I wouldn’t fall off the back when he shifted it into first gear.  Shane revved it up, then shifted into first gear.  The motorcycle shot forward so fast, that with all of my weight in the back the front end shot straight up the air.  I fell straight back onto the ground, never letting go of Shane, he landed on me and the rear end of the motorcycle smashed into the ground and pieces of the rear end of the bike went flying everywhere.  Shane, not wanting the engine to quit (because it is so hard to get started), never let go of the throttle so the motorcycle was still trying to take off.  Finally, Shane let the engine die.  Fortunately, neither of us was hurt, but there were pieces of the motorcycle lying all over the place.

I immediately asked Shane to help me disconnect the trailer from the truck, we left the motorcycle behind and drove up the road as far as we could make it, not quite all the way but pretty close.  I finally started hiking at 3:34am, about a half an hour behind schedule.  One of my best moves was to bring Shane’s hiking poles.  I would use them on every mountain from then on.  Although my legs were stiff, my knee problem had mysteriously vanished and my feet felt great.

I made great time and cruised on up to the summit of Lindsey at 6:05am.  From Lindsey I wanted to check out the route over to Blanca, but dark clouds ominously hung over the Blanca Massif, so I could only guess what lay ahead.  There would be no trail over to Blanca so as I dropped down the long ridge between Blanca and Lindsey, I tried to figure out the best way to go.  I decided to drop to the south side of the ridge (onto what I later realized was private property).  The going was rough as I had to go up and down some big Boulder fields.  It was long and slow as it took me 3 hours to get to the base of Blanca’s south ridge.  As I got closer the clouds cleared up a bit and I was able to see the class 4 gully I was fearfully anticipating.  It was easier than I expected and it took me just over an hour to climb the gully and traverse the .7 miles north to Blanca’s summit.

The Summit of Blanca was reached at 10:18am.  I was moving just as planned, but I realized that I would not be down by 5:00pm, so I tried to make radio contact with Natalie and Shane but I could not reach them.  There was a HAM radio operator on the summit and I guess they had a radio operator on top of a bunch of the 14ers in the state this day, I heard the guy talking to someone on top of Mount Evans.

I began the traverse over to Ellingwood Point.  I originally thought the traverse to Ellingwood and back up Blanca would only take an hour.  But as I traversed to Ellingwood I realized it would take much longer.  It took 45 minutes to get to Ellingwood Point.  I was feeling tired but was trying to make up time so I would try to run a little, then would get out of breath and rest, then run again.

I reached the summit of Ellingwood Point at 11:04am.  I made contact with Natalie and asked her to try to change our meeting time for Culebra to 6:00pm.  She wasn’t sure she could do it but for some reason I knew she would.  Fortunately for me she was able to make it for 6:30pm, and I needed every last second.  I looked over to Blanca and realized that getting back to Blanca was no cakewalk, as I had to drop to the saddle with Ellingwood, and then climb 800 feet to get back up.  Then traverse the nasty ridge to Little Bear, which drops approximately another 800 feet.  I realized that if I dropped all the way off Ellingwood, all the way down to tree line, I could do the normal route on Little Bear with only 2000 feet of climbing and then I could avoid the traverse.

I made the decision to avoid the traverse, then I thought that rather than doing the standard route up Little Bear, I could climb the Northwest Face.  In the guidebook Gerry Roach speaks highly of the route, and it was closer to me and shorter than the standard route.  I dropped down to about 12,000 feet in pretty good time, then sat down when I was in a good position to look at the Northwest Face and try to figure out where I was supposed to go.

I pulled out my trusty guide book.  Normally, you wouldn’t think I would want to carry my guidebook.  All that weight when all I needed was a couple of pages.  Well, I have learned my lesson many times (meaning I have been lost many times), I figured I would probably have to change my plans every once in a while so I decided early on to always have the entire guidebook with me.  I was happy to have it on this occasion.  [Now I think I was not too smart to carry all that extra weight around.  I probably should have cut the book up and just taken relevant pages] I was also fortunate enough that for this particular route, there was a picture of the Northwest Face and there was the route drawn on the picture.  I was happy, impossible to get lost!  I studied the picture and the route until I was sure I knew the exact line I was supposed to take.  Then I put the book away and started up the mountain.  I thought the line I was taking was a little strange because when I looked at the route, I thought it looked quite a bit easier off to the right.  But hey, it isn’t called a guidebook for nothing.

So I cruised on up for about 500 feet to the black watermarks described in the book.

To my dismay, I realized that the “black watermarks” were caused by water running down the route.  And even more to my dismay, I couldn’t see a good route up.

Roach said the route was class 4, and in my experience I can handle any class 4 with no problems.  The reason it is class 4 is because there is always a big fat handhold so that no matter how exposed you are you won’t fall.  So I got out my guidebook again and made sure I was in the right place.  I was convinced it was correct, and I saw a little ledge that had potential so I started up the wet rocks.  The climb got harder and harder until finally I looked down and realized that backtracking would be difficult and time consuming, time I simply could not afford to waste.  I crossed a slippery ledge and spied some climbing hardware (two nuts, 3 beaners and some webbing) that someone had used to repel off the ledge with.  I crossed over to the hardware and picked it up, there are some advantages to getting yourself in bad situations!

I climbed up to the ledge that I thought had potential, traversed right on the ledge to a more exposed position on the face and I looked up.  The headwall was just too steep and high for me to get over.  I was starting to get a little worried about time now and was mentally getting a little panicky.  Not knowing what to do, I decided to go back down.  In anticipation of doing the Little Bear – Blanca traverse, I had packed my rock climbing shoes today, I figured it was time to put them on.  I climbed down to where I had picked up the climbing hardware, it was much more difficult on the way down.  I looked down and realized it would be very time consuming to go down.  My only option if I was to make it down in time to do Culebra was to find a way up.  I looked up the gully, the only possible way up appeared to be on the right side of the gully.  I then made some fairly reasonable class 4 moves up to another ledge.  Then I made a scary move up to yet another ledge.  This ledge was covered with wet moss and small loose rocks.  The good news was that I only needed to go up about 8 feet before I was up and over the headwall.  The bad news was that the 8 feet was nearly vertical, there were no good hand holds, and it was all wet and covered with this dirty slime that made it very slippery.  I looked down and realized that going down was virtually impossible now.  I was committed and extremely scared.  My legs were shaking and it was hard to stand on the ledge.  I was worried that they might start cramping up.  I tried to climb straight up, but there was just nothing to hold on to, so I came back down.  I looked to the left and saw that if I could just cross over about 5 feet then there were some potential handholds.  I wiped off my hands and the bottom of the shoes and stretched up and to the left as far as I could and tested a decent handhold, it immediately pulled out and fell down the gully, my heart jumped into my throat, and I carefully went back.

This was a predicament.  My legs were shaking so bad I almost couldn’t stand.  I noticed that just below the handhold that had fallen was a big clump of moss.  I stretched over, punched my fingers through the moss into the mud below and stretched my left leg all the way over to a tiny little foothold that was wet and slimy, yet my foot seemed to hold.  Then I did one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.  Placing all my weight on that little foothold and the moss, I reached up with my right hand and thankfully found a solid hold, I grabbed it and hauled myself up to some decent holds, then up and over the headwall.  What a rush.  I looked up and started moving fast, and didn’t slow down till I came close to the ridge crest.  At this point the book said to angle to the left.  But it looked better to the right so I went right, made the ridge and was happy be on the Little Bear – Blanca ridge, which seemed like nothing compared to what I had just been through.

I Summited Little Bear at 2:09pm.  I was cutting it close, and immediately started heading down.  Little Bear’s west route is no picnic and the going was slow.  I’d have to say that I think Little Bear is the most difficult 14er.  I finally got down to tree line and started heading down the road.  I knew that Shane was at the same time hiking my mountain bike up the road, and he was going to have to hike back down.  I didn’t want to have to wait for him once I had ridden down so I tried to radio to him to leave the bike where he was and head down.  His radio had died so I couldn’t talk to him.  I summoned up all of my energy and slowly jogged down the road.  As luck would have it, I ran into him at exactly 11,000 feet.  This was right at a water crossing, so I got in the water to ice down my legs, took about a 10 minute break, then started down the road.  This road is not a fun bike ride.  It is extremely rocky all the way down and jars every organ in the body.  My body was hurting so badly before that it was very hard to take the shaking and bumping.  Shane was actually leaving me in the dust as he was running down the trail.

Finally the difficulty eased a little and I was able to pick up speed.  On one section I took a bad crash which cut up my left thigh and left hand pretty badly, so I had blood dripping down my leg, but it was mostly just a flesh wound so I got back on and cruised the rocky road down to the Volkswagon.  I made it to the car at 5:00pm.  Natalie and I waited for Shane for about 15 minutes, then we packed it up and headed over to the former Taylor Ranch, where I would climb Culebra.

Just before I began this trip, I found out that the Taylor Ranch had been sold.  The Taylor Ranch is the way people typically climb Culebra.  The previous owner charged climbers $40 to climb Culebra, but now the rumor was that climbing access was being denied and there was no number with which to contact the owner.

I had done some investigative work and found the number for the Lawyer of the owner on the day before I began.  He gave Natalie the number of the general manager of the ranch (Jim Barron).  She called him up and he  was willing to let me climb the mountain.  I was pleasantly surprised at how nice they were to work with.

We arrived at the gate at 6:28pm (2 minutes ahead of schedule), and Ed Sanchez, the ranch foreman, was there to meet us.  He allowed just me through the gate, and I drove my truck up the Culebra road.  Whoever made the Culebra road was not messing around.  That road goes straight up the mountain, no switchbacks or turns, just straight up the mountain.  I was concerned that coming down I would destroy the brakes on my truck.

I drove up to a road junction called four-way.  It is slightly higher than I wanted it to be because I would not ascend 3000 feet to the top.  I did an extra 200 feet of elevation by descending back down and going up it again.  I saw lots of elk including a huge herd that saw me and ran off.  As I hiked up I saw that a huge storm had engulfed the Blanca group.  I was glad that the clouds and flashes of lightning were not on Culebra.

Reached Culebra summit at 9:00pm.  Dreadful Culebra.  The ridge just goes on and on.  Just as I reached the top, fog rolled in and I had to be very careful to go the right way on the way down.  I got down to the truck around 11:00pm and, pumping my brakes the whole way, drove the truck down the Culebra road.  Ed had told me to come knock on his door when I was ready to leave.  I mistook another truck for his and woke up the wrong people.  Finally, I found him and we drove out and he unlocked the gate for me.  I was exhausted.

Shane and Natalie fed me and then I realized I had a slight problem.  Shane and Natalie had to go home, as they had to work on Monday.  I had mistakenly told my sister, who was going to take over as support, that I could drive myself the 4 hours to the Purgatory trailhead to climb the Needle mountains near Durango.  I was so exhausted that I knew I couldn’t do it.  So we decided that Shane and Natalie would stay until 4:00am, at which time they would wake me up.  They would head home and with 4 hours of sleep behind me, I would drive to Purgatory for a slightly late start.