Andrew Hamilton’s 1999 Attempt

Day 6 (September 2, 1999)

On Day 6, according to my latest plan, I needed to complete 4 mountains.  I would start with Handies.  Then climb Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre, then drive over and climb San Luis.

Laura was up early and drove us toward the American Basin trailhead.  We could not go all the way because of the 3000 foot rule, and had to park at about 11,000 feet.  Once again I asked Laura to come along with me.  There were clouds in the sky, but I was confident that I was finally in for a day of good weather.  Well, we all make mistakes!

Laura and I started at 6:08am, just as the sky was lighting up.  We followed the excellent trail all the way to the summit.  I left her behind once we made it to the steeper slopes, but she made good progress and was able to summit just 15 minutes behind me.  Even though the weather was great, it was windy on top and the summit was covered with frost.  I had a hard time getting the summit register open as it was frozen shut.

I summited Handies at 7:55am.  I was slow on the way down and it didn’t take Laura long to catch up with me.  Together we made good time, I was starting to perfect my method of going down backward, and was down to the car at 9:15am.  I hopped in the back for some more sleep and she began the drive to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead.  After some more complaining about the trailer, Laura drove me up the road until it started getting rough, I would have to hike from there, since the truck could not make it up the rough 4 wheel drive road to the upper trailhead.  But Laura was going to hike my mountain bike up to the end of the road at 10,700 feet to make my descent easier.

I limped on up the road at about 11:30am in the sunlight.  The sun was shining but it was raining slightly for a few minutes.  My fingers were still hurting, I knew I had to make good time in order to get to climb San Luis that day.  I thought I made very good time.  My stride on the uphill with the hiking poles was getting pretty fast and I made it to the 12,300 foot pass between Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre in a little over an hour.

Perhaps the reason I was making such good time is that I had seen a massive rainstorm heading my direction from the southeast!  It hit me just as I reached the pass.  I quickly put on my rain gear, and continued toward Uncompahgre at a much slower pace.  The rain completely soaked my last relatively dry pair of shoes.

I chose a direct route up Uncompahgre and headed straight up the West Face. It turned out to be a great route, especially on the way down because much of the face was loose scree.  Scree slopes were the only descents that did not hurt my knee, although I always feel a little guilty when on scree because I know that it is not an environmentally sound practice to run through the scree.  Near the top of Uncompahgre the storm relented, but I still had a nice, chilly wind to keep me company on the summit.

I reached the top of Uncompahgre at 3:00pm, slowed down by about an hour because of the wind.  I immediately headed down, and made good time because of the scree slope and I headed back to the pass.  At the pass I went by a huge herd of sheep, waved hello to the sheepherder and continued straight toward the ominously named Wetterhorn (Weather – Mountain).  In about ten minutes I had to stop and put on all of my wet rain clothes again because it starting raining again.  By the time I reached Wetterhorn’s Southern Ridge at 13,000 feet, the rain had stopped, but the fog rolled in and once again I couldn’t see very far.  The rocks were also very slick and Wetterhorn turned out to be a lot more impressive than I was expecting.

When the climbing started getting technical, I left my hiking poles behind on the ridge, figuring I could pick them up on the way back. I finally made the top of Wetterhorn at 5:00pm.  I was surprised at how difficult the technical stuff was, especially since it was so slick.  Falling back on my old habits, I somehow managed to take the wrong ridge on the way down.  Instead of going back down the South Ridge, I headed down the East ridge and found myself a third of the way along the class 4 ridge to Matterhorn, a 13er between Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre.  I was quite angry because at about my same elevation on the other ridge were my hiking poles.  Expecting this to cost me a lot of time, I radioed Laura and told her to expect me late.  I was so angry that I pointed myself right at the ridge and ran, ignoring my knee pain, across the Southeast face toward the other ridge.  I was surprised at how fast I made it to the other ridge.  I picked up the poles, and headed down as fast as I could go.  Happily the mountain bike was at the upper trailhead so I was able to ride it down to the truck by 7:30pm.

Figuring I could sleep on the way to San Luis, I decided to climb San Luis in the dark so we could make to the Elk range by morning.  Unfortunately, the drive took much longer than expected. It was raining most of the time, and the dirt road was slick.  Laura couldn’t drive any faster than 20 miles per hour.  While I was sleeping, Laura could see many flashes of lightning in the rain, and she was worried that a summit attempt on San Luis might be a mistake.

We arrived at the Stewart Creek trailhead just before midnight.  I was determined to climb the mountain.  I knew that after San Luis I could get out of the weather beaten San Juans and I just knew (or rather, I hoped) that the weather would improve once we headed north.  Laura tried to talk me out of climbing the mountain.  She told me how bad the lightning had been.  I was stubborn and said if the lightning was bad up there then I would wait the storm out at tree line.  Then she got angry and told me the only reason I was climbing the mountains was to be cool.  She said I didn’t have to climb the mountain, that if I stayed she would tell everyone that I had climbed it.  I was determined though, I said it would only take me about four hours, and I reminded her that it was a very easy mountain.  She said it would take me at least six hours.

In any case, I started up the trail at 12:14am.  Laura was stressed out from trying to get me to the trailheads as fast as possible, not to mention being tired from being the only person to take care of me.  I certainly had not appreciated the difficulty of being support for something like this.  She was experiencing sleep deprivation as well as I was, and I hoped she would get some good sleep while I was gone.  I was out of dry shoes, and my driest pair was my pair with holes in the toe, but I took them anyway.  My blisters hurt, my knee hurt, my butt hurt, I didn’t want to do the mountain, and it was cold and most likely going to begin raining on me any moment.  As I hiked up the trail I thought about what Laura had said.  Why was I doing this?  Certainly I had encountered enough problems that if I quit I wouldn’t be letting anyone down, hadn’t I?  Then I thought about her offer – to cheat.  I knew she was out of her mind.  But still, it is tempting.  It wasn’t the first time the thought had crossed my mind.  I often thought when I was getting close to a mountaintop that I could just turn around, and say I did it.  No one would know, save myself.  No! I wasn’t going to cheat, I was going to give this record everything I had and I was going to climb the mountains in under 14 days!

I continued on the long trail through the forest until at long last, I made it to tree line.  I continued along the trail and crossed a small stream, then headed up a steep slope.  The slope was very slippery and at 12,500 feet I noticed snow on the ground.  At this elevation it was a very thin sheet and most of it had turned into a thin sheet of ice.  As I continued up the trail there was more and more snow.  I finally noticed that the big white cloud up ahead of me was not a cloud, it was San Luis, covered in snow.  I couldn’t believe the amount of snow up there.  I reached the 13,100 foot saddle between San Luis and Organ Mountain and from that point and beyond there was snow as high as 6 inches on the trail (due to the wind).  I began the long, never-ending ridge to the summit of San Luis.  I was very tentative because there were flashes of lightning going off everywhere.  But it wasn’t normal lightning.  There was no thunder, just flashes that lit up the clouds.  In the distance I saw some bolts of lightning, but I still didn’t hear any thunder.  I fearfully pushed on toward the summit.  My toes were starting to get numb because my shoes had been wet since I started hiking and because there were holes in the toes.  I slowly made progress and when I got to around 13,800 feet my fear began to take over.  I sat down in the snow and said I prayer, even though I am not religious.  Then I removed my pack and ran as fast as I could up the trail until I could taste blood in my lungs.

I crouched down in the snow again and said another little prayer.  I waited for the next flash of lightning, then got up and ran again as fast as I could until once again I had to stop and crouch in the snow.  I waited for another flash and then raced on up to the summit.

I possibly spent less time on the summit of San Luis than anyone in history.  I reached the summit at approximately 3:00am (I didn’t look at my watch on the summit so this is just an estimate).  I ran around the summit cairn twice, trying to find the summit register.  I couldn’t find it so I raced off the top of the mountain as fast as I could, following my footprints backs down to my pack and moved back down the mountain as fast as I could.  I was relieved to be alive, and this was just easy old San Luis.

I made it down to tree line and was dozing off so I stopped and slept for fifteen minutes.  Then I headed back down the trail.  I arrived back at the truck just as it was getting light again.  It was 6:15am, Laura had been exactly right when she said it would take me 6 hours.

I hopped back in the truck and immediately fell asleep.  Laura drove back to Lake City to pick up the motorcycle, and then began the long drive to Capitol Peak.  Finally, I was finished with the San Juans.  On the drive out Laura saw that all of the San Juans had been hit with snow, I was lucky to be finished with them.