This is a work in progress. Sorry it is so long, I know I am very wordy, I can’t seem to help myself. It is very detailed, and I am sure there are still plenty of grammatical errors. I know I am a terrible writer as every paragraph and sentence pretty much starts with the word “I”. I am currently up to day 9, and will finish as soon as I can. After finishing then I will go back and try to add some pictures. If you actually manage to read the whole thing, then you deserve a reward!
2014 Colorado 14er Speed Record Attempt
Prologue, June 17, 2014
My driveway was a disaster. I was packing two cars, I had gear all over the place, and didn’t know how I was going to get everything ready in time to leave. How I hate packing! I had plenty of time, as I had anticipated this day for months. Yet, the simple fact is that I get so little done on any given day while trying to take care of my 4 kids that it was a miracle I had the boxes out on the front driveway.
I was getting ready to go to try set the record for breaking Colorado’s 14ers in the fastest amount of time. The current time was 10 days, 20 hours. I had an aggressive plan to try to get near and somehow break 10 days. It wasn’t because I thought I was in amazing shape…on the contrary, I hardly even had time to train. I had managed a handful of scouting trips, but most of my training came from jogging the kids to and from school every day. The truth is, I am very slow compared to other people who have gone for this record.
I thought I could break the record because I believed in my logistical plan. Having held this record once before, and then watched it get broken twice, I understood the importance of a good plan of attack, and I had learned from those who had gone before me. My goal was not to break the record by hiking faster, but by being faster than everyone else while I wasn’t hiking.
Actually my original plan had been to go on to climb all of the 14ers in the 48 states. I had never been to see the ones in California and Washington, and was looking forward to that part of the trip. However, I knew there was a very good possibility that if I beat the Colorado record, I might be so beat up that I wouldn’t be able to continue. And if I didn’t beat the Colorado record, that probably meant I was injured. So the odds were good that I wouldn’t be able to make it on that part of the trip.
I had approached several friends and my mother about being on the support crew. Being on the support is a lousy job…The crew is responsible for all kinds of jobs: Driving me around while I sleep, feeding me, dealing with unforeseen problems, and the list goes on and on. I only had one person (James) that had agreed to be there the entire time, everyone else would have to leave here or there. I believed it was critically important for at least one person to be there the entire time. In addition to James, I had my mother, and good friends Andrea and Kim coming along for part of the trip.
We were also bringing along my oldest sons Calvin and Axel (ages 10 and 7). I figured this would be a good experience for them. For the last several years my big project had been climbing all of the 14ers with them.
James was due to show up soon, and he arrived too early, I thought I still had hours of packing left. I went inside, came out 15 minutes later and everything was packed! Well, so much for my number crew one rule: Stay Organized. Well, on the other hand I was glad everything was packed up. I had to have faith that James would figure it all out, and apparently packing up quickly would not be a problem.
We had to drive to Durango to drop off my van for my mom, who would be joining us at the end of day 2, and then head up to Silverton to take the trail into Chicago Basin. It was there where I would start the clock. James was ready to go and left ahead of me, and I followed a couple of hours behind, as I kept thinking of last minute things to do.
I said goodbye to my wife and kids, and then had my wife help me with my first ever facebook post. Second if you count one that my wife posted for me.
It was a 7 hour drive and I arrived early in the morning in Durango, where I met up with James again. The pathfinder was looking like a low-rider, because it was packed down so heavily, the dirt bike was really weighing it down.
Speaking of the dirt bike, that was a key part of my strategy. Although I am a novice at riding a dirt bike, I bought a Yamaha wr450 back in march, and had practiced on it a few times. The dirt bike was important because of how fast you can move on all of the 4 wheel drive mountain roads that you run into while heading up to 14er trailheads or while driving between 14ers. Even as a novice, I could fly by experienced 4 wheel drive operators on technical terrain. In a way it felt like cheating. But I was scared as well, because during practice I had been getting beat up on all of the rocky technical roads.
We left the van for my mom, and drove to Silverton, where we spent the day organizing. James had me buy a bunch of food the day before, and he spent some time cooking up some burritos.
In the afternoon we took the trail from Silverton down to Needleton, and hiked in about 6 miles to 11,000 feet, the start location for the next morning. It was my lucky day as part of his job was for James to carry all of our gear up today. We made camp and ate some food. I regretted not getting any sleep the night before, right before such a huge endeavor, but at least I would sleep well tonight.
All day long the wind was blowing hard, and apparently the forecast predicted high winds for a few more days.
Day 1, June 18, 2014
Windom, Sunlight, North Eolus, Eolus: The Race to the Train
The wind did not relent during the night. I was just happy that my Megamid tent had managed to stay upright. I wanted to pick the most accurate starting time possible. I had decided that a time between 4:00 am and 4:30 am would be ideal for me. If I chose 4:00 am that would give me an extra 30 minutes to take it easy. However, that would also add an additional 30 minutes to my final time. Homie and Cave Dog had both started too early and were frustrated in that they had to waste time waiting for the train. I figured I would leave it until morning and depending on how confident I felt I would pick my start time.
I woke up at 3:45 am and ate some breakfast and got my pack ready to go. My pack was fairly heavy as I packed extra warm stuff because of the cold wind, and because I added my ice ax and homemade glissading sled.
I was feeling brave so I decided to go with the 4:30 am start, figuring that if I was running late I could run the downhill from Chicago Basin to Needleton. So I said goodbye to James, who would pack up the tent and sleeping bags and meet me down in Needleton to catch the train. I went down to the starting location. The previous night James and I found the spot exactly 3000 feet below Windom using two GPS devices, and then went down a little further just for good measure. My satellite tracker was giving much different readings than our Garmin GPS devices, but the Garmin devices were agreeing with each other so we used them as the “official” devices for determining starting and ending locations. I noticed later that the satellite tracker was giving elevations off by more than 100 feet compared to the Garmins. It is hard to nail down the 3000 foot rule start and finishes because of how finicky the GPS devices are. Therefore I always made sure if there was any doubt to add an additional 20 – 50 feet. That is the nature I guess of trying to follow the 3000 foot rule. However, I definitely made my best effort, almost to the point of being stupid, to guarantee that I always did extra work rather than less.
Speaking of rules, there are some rules that one must follow when attempting to set this record. The one that has been around for a long time is the 3000 foot rule. Basically this rule exists because there are some roads (especially the paved ones on Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans) that allow people to drive to the top of the peak. I imagine that climbers didn’t like the idea of tourists claiming they had “climbed” a mountain simply by driving up to the top. So this rule began as a way to guarantee you put in a minimum amount of effort to claim you have climbed a peak. Before CaveDog set the record in 2000 he came up with a bunch of other rules as well, although most of them seem like addendums to the 3000 foot rule. According to his rules, you have to carry all of your own gear, and do all of your own routefinding, but only as long as you are within that magical 3000 foot zone. If you are below that 3000 feet from the summit, then you can pretty much receive any support you want. If you had 4 friends who were willing to carry you on a litter that would be acceptable…but once you were within 3000 feet of the summit then you are on your own. People can hike with you, but once in the 3000 foot zone, they are not allowed to either pace you, or routefind for you. I decided to go along with CaveDog’s rules, mainly because I was too lazy to come up with my own…although I have always been interested in the idea of a no-holds barred 14er record, with no rules. I realized over the years that the rules actually help keep the 14er record from becoming another ultramarathon. It isn’t just a long trail run, you need to know these routes inside and out if you want to set the record.
I started at 4:30 am sharp, and put in some headphones. I don’t normally hike with headphones but for this trip I decided it might be a good idea. I had several audiobooks uploaded on my iPhone and a few playlists that I like. I discovered that it is nice to hike to music, but was disappointed that I couldn’t get my mind to concentrate on the audiobooks.
At about 11,400 feet I saw I couple of hikers get on the trail behind me. Surprisingly there were few hikers that I would run into in the mountains this year.
The wind was howling and fortunately it was a tailwind so I received a fair amount of wind assist pushing me up the mountain. The trail was snow free all the way to Twin Lakes, at about 12,500 feet, but after that snow covered at least 50% of the route. Because it was early in the morning, the snow was rock hard and was just as fast to walk on as the normal trail.
I was a little discouraged to see that in the week since our scouting trip, the snow had melted into very choppy formations and it didn’t look good for my plan of sliding down the snowfields to save time on the descents, and abuse on my legs.
With the wind consistently at my back I was able to make the summit in 1:23, a solid time for me, and I was very pleased with it. I immediately sent a message on my satellite tracker that I was at the top and headed for Sunlight. I dropped down the ridge to the west for a few hundred feet before finding the snow gully I wanted to descend. The snow was still rock hard, and as I had feared the bumpy formations in the snow made it almost impossible to glissade. After attempting to slide down a little ways I gave up and walked carefully down the snow. Fortunately the shoes I had worn today, Salomon Speed Cross shoes, have great traction on everything except wet rock, so they worked well on the snow.
Once at the bottom I continued straight up the snow and headed to the saddle between Sunlight and Sunlight Spire, and then followed the mostly snow covered route to the Summit of Sunlight. I didn’t even pause and just ran straight up the normally difficult friction moves to the actual summit block of Sunlight, and sent my Satellite Message. My total time so far was 2:04, much better than I would have expected, and probably due in no small part to the massive winds that had been pushing me up the mountains.
I made one routefinding error on the descent that forced me to backtrack a bit, and then the big disappointment was that I was not able to glissade hardly anything on the way down to Twin Lakes. Just a week before, using my glissading sled I could have covered the descent in 15 to 20 minutes, but the way the snow had melted (and because it didn’t soften up in the morning because of the cold winds) meant glissading was not going to work. So unfortunately that added nearly 30 minutes to my expected time to Twin Lakes.
I began the climb to the North Eolus, Eolus Saddle, and was sad to see that the snow here was also no longer smooth, and was no good for glissading. I could already tell that there was no chance the snow would soften up and become useful for a fast descent, and for the first time I worried that maybe I was cutting it close with my time estimate to make the train at 11:15 am in Needleton.
However, I was able to make pretty good time going up the snow to the saddle, where I dropped my pack and poles, and was up to the summit of North Eolus by 8:00 am. From my scouting trip the week before I had seen that the standard route up Eolus was still pretty lousy, with lots of snow intermixed with the loose rocky ledges. A much better option is to just stay on the ridge all the way from North Eolus. It may feel a little more exposed and have one or two class 4 moves, however it is very solid and seems like a much safer choice than the standard route. I made the traverse from North Eolus to Eolus in just 14 minutes, and that included a quick conversation with the hikers that had started up just behind me that morning. They were just descending Eolus after struggling with the standard route all morning.
I hurried back down along the ridge to get my pack and poles, and then headed back down the snow towards Twin Lakes. Despite the pitted nature of the snow and how hard it was (normally it would have softened up by now with the sun but the cold wind was keeping the snow “bulletproof”), I still pulled out my glissading sled and attempted to glissade a little. The only success I had was to basically glissade in a self-arrest position, but that wasn’t very comfortable and I gave it up immediately and just walked on down the snow.
I decided to refill my water at a place where some running water was available near some ice, and right as I disconnected my pack a gust of wind picked up my sled and blew it 30 or 40 feet up the mountain. I didn’t hesitate and sprinted after it and it was almost in my grasp when the gust of wind picked it way up out of reach and carried it far up the hill. I gave up on the sled and went down to my pack, disgusted with my carelessness in the wind.
I drank a little water, and turned to leave. First I chanced one glance up the snowfield, and somehow, way up on the snowfield, my sled was caught in a precarious position on the snowfield, in one of the melted out pockets. It had somehow turned so that the wind was blowing through it. At the last minute I decided to try to get the sled, despite being in a hurry to get down. I figured I had a lot more glissading to do on the trip, and I couldn’t afford to lose it already. I only had one spare and they get shredded quickly on rocks and hard ice.
So I dropped my pack again and as quick as I could move I ran up to the sled. My lungs were burning, but I was afraid the wind would blow the sled away from me just as I arrived, so I went as fast as I could and as I neared it I reached out and jumped on it, just to make sure I didn’t lose it again.
I was happy to have the sled, but felt pretty dumb for the wasted time. In order to try to regain the time, as I descended I decided not to go all the way to Twin Lakes to pick up the trail, but instead headed straight down the hillside to try to rejoin the trail coming up from Chicago Basin more directly. This allowed me to utilize another hundred feet or so of snow, and after that the terrain turned into grassy slopes so it was still a nice descent.
Once I was back on the trail, I alternated from hiking fast to slow jogging all the way back down the trail. I passed our campsite from the night before and found my supplies waiting at a stream crossing near the starting location at about 11,000 feet. James had left me a little food, and a new pair of socks and shoes to change into. I had made it down in just about 5 hours, as it was now about 9:30am. That was pretty good and I was feeling pretty confident about the timing. I figured I would be able to leisurely stroll down the 6 miles to the train.
So I took my time. I removed my socks and let my feet dry, drank the protein shake left by James, and finished off all the food in my pack. I massaged out my legs a little, and I put on my new Hoka shoes for the descent. They are great shoes if used in the right conditions, and that basically means on good trails. Putting them on after wearing the Speed Cross shoes all morning feels so luxurious!
I started walking down the trail once I was all packed up and ready to go, and stopped to chat with some other hikers for awhile. Soon I reached a spot that I remembered from the hike up. James had pointed out that from this particular uprooted tree it was 4.5 miles to Needleton. Then I looked at the time and all of a sudden it hit me! I didn’t have plenty of time! It was already 10:10 am, so I basically had only one hour to cover the 4.5 miles to make the train at 11:15 am.
I started running but was not too happy! I had intended to have plenty of time to get to the train, and had been looking forward to enjoying a nice easy hiking pace on the way out. So here I was running, and the truth is I am a terrible runner. 6 miles per hour feels fast to me on the trails, and I was struggling to maintain that pace. I didn’t stop running except to tie my shoes, and to fix the bag I had hanging over my shoulders with the extra pair of shoes. It was bobbing all over the place and was driving me nuts.
I ran past a couple of groups who were nice enough to move over when they saw that I was running. I kept checking the time and somehow as the hour went by, despite feeling like I was running hard, I wasn’t building up much of a buffer. On the bright side I never fell behind, so I never had to push myself and run hard, which would have been bad news for my knees and ankles, to be running hard so early in the record attempt. I would have felt so stupid to miss the train! Timing on the first two days is absolutely critical to this record attempt, and here I might have blown it already! I was thinking we might have to do a restart – head all the way back up and start over the next day. That was possible because I had scheduled Culebra for two different days, depending on how fast I was moving, and it did add an element of flexibility.
I ran all the way until I saw the bridge across the river, and then finally I slowed down and started to walk again. The trail had paralleled the river and the railroad tracks for the last half mile, and I hadn’t seen any sign of the train, so that was a relief.
I crossed the bridge at 11:08 am. At first I didn’t see James, and was wondering where he might be. Then I saw him and sat down. He didn’t seem to grasp how close we had been to disaster. He was telling me to go soak my legs in the river. I mentioned that I thought the train would be coming soon, and that minute I heard it and we heard it blow its whistle. I jumped up and gave it the signal to stop. I was very relieved that this part of the trip had succeeded!
I intended to try to lay down on the train, or elevate my legs, or try to get some sleep. However, I quickly realized this would be impossible. The train was pretty full so there wasn’t a lot of extra room. The seats were narrow and the side to side motion of the cars makes it very difficult to stay on the seat if you are trying to lay down. So the best I could do was sit normally and try to elevate one leg. I realized that I had carried some money in my pocket, and James was nice enough to go get a soft drink and some M&Ms.
Despite the beauty of the scenery, I was impatient to get to Silverton and begin the next leg of the journey. As we entered Silverton and the train came to a stop, James left to go get the big backpack from the boxcar, and I headed straight to the car to start getting ready. It had just started sprinkling and the wind was still very strong.
El Diente, Mt. Wilson, Wilson Peak: Disaster Averted!
I packed up my motorcycle pack with my pack for the Wilson’s, and some extra food and drink for when I reached the trailhead, and unlocked the bike. I was relieved that the dirt bike was still there, we had it ready to go in front of the car and I was worried that the previous day someone would come and drive off with it. James made it back with the pack and within a few minutes I was ready to go.
I sped off on the dirt bike, and James started to pack the car. He was to follow my route to the Kilpacker Trailhead and pick up the dirt bike. I headed to Ophir Pass. Ophir pass is critical to day one, and I was lucky because it had just opened up about 2 weeks before. I had been worried it wouldn’t be open in time this year because of the snow, and that would really cause problems for my day one plan. Fortunately, it was open, and it is a relatively easy pass for a 4 wheel drive, and especially for the dirt bike. The only problem I had was right as I descended from the top of the pass, where the road is full of loose rocks. I was approaching a large brown rock and just as I was near it, it moved! It was actually a marmot. I swerved to avoid it, and lost my balance and almost veered off the side of the road. Then I was angry with myself, and with the marmot!
After that I made good time down the pass, and when I reached the highway I turned south toward Lizard Head Pass. The speed limit changed to 55mph, and as I sped up I was getting pushed around by the strong winds, which had been strong all day, and had been forecasted to stay strong for a few days. It is actually pretty scary being on a motorcycle in strong winds, totally getting pushed around. When a big car would go by in the other lane you get sucked towards them. I was relieved when I reached the turn off to Dunton Road, the way to the trailhead, because I was able to slow down on the dirt road and not get pummeled so badly by the winds.
After about 5 miles on the dirt road I reached the trailhead and parked the motorcycle in a small grove of trees. I ate a burrito, and drank a Gatorade and was hiking at 1:48 pm. Everything was proceeding according to plan, and by using the motorcycle I think I saved about 30 minutes over using an SUV, of course in an SUV I would have been able to rest. That is always a big tradeoff when using the motorcycle, although for me I know I wouldn’t be resting very well on a bumpy road. And the dirt bike gives you a shot of adrenaline which can be nice when you are tired.
The trail to El Diente from Kilpacker is a very nice hike through meadows and forest. It must be beautiful when the wildflowers are peaking. However it is not ideal for a record attempt because of its length. I was also a little discouraged to run into mushy snow in the trees after the first couple of miles. Fortunately, most of the snow was avoidable, although the alternative was lots of wet muddy puddles. Because my shoes were dry I took every precaution to keep them that way. The longer the feet stay dry the better, because once wet they are prone to blisters.
As I started rising out of the trees, near the upper waterfall, I noticed the wind again. It was as strong as ever, and I happened to glance behind me for the first time. There were dark rain clouds to the south, and I was discouraged to see a rain/snowstorm quickly advancing up the valley behind me. Pushed on by the strong winds, it would be upon me in seconds. I quickly removed my pack and put on my rain jacket just in time to get hammered by a small storm front with strong winds and very wet snow. However, by the time I put my pack back on and walked 100 yards up the trail, the storm had passed and I was already overheating. To my dismay all of the rocks were wet, but I hoped that the strong winds would quickly dry them. I did not want the rocks on the traverse between El Diente and Mt. Wilson to be wet.
I continued east along the trail. Soon I reached the place where you turn to the north and head up the steep class 2/3 slopes towards the summit of El Diente. Unfortunately this area was completely covered in snowfields. The snow was fairly mushy because it was afternoon, most hikers would want to be down by now to avoid these snow conditions. However, I found if I postholed 5 to 10 feet away from rocks then the snow was much more firm, and I could carefully walk up the snow without always falling through the top layer of the snow.
The route was a little tedious as I had to avoid some very steep sections of snow and move onto some class 3 rock, then back to the snowfield. I continued in this manner until I reached the El Diente – Mt. Wilson traverse route. It was a little discouraging because I had been hoping there would not be much snow on this route because the vast majority it is either on the top of the ridge, or on the south facing side. However, because I was here so close to the summer solstice, the north side of the ridge was actually in the sun, and south side was in the shade! In any case, there was a lot of snow and ice on the route. That was going to slow me down, and I doubt I would be able to do the traverse as fast as I planned.
I turned west toward El Diente, and rather than following the route over to the north side of the ridge, I decided to get out of the snow and as soon as I could I headed straight for the ridge and just stayed right on top of the ridge all the way to the summit of El Diente. Strangely it was exactly 5:00 pm, which was exactly when I had estimated that I would be there. So despite feeling a little desperate because of all the snow and ice, I was still right on schedule!
I sent my satellite message that I was on the summit, and immediately turned and headed back the other way to Mt. Wilson. The snow was difficult to predict on the traverse. Some if it was as hard as ice, some of it was soft. It was hard to know what was going to happen when you stepped in it. So I avoided it as much as possible. About halfway across the traverse, I slipped on some wet rock (some was wet from the previous snowstorm) and fell hard right on my elbow. I think it was during this fall that I snapped one of my carbon fiber trekking poles, because later when I got it out it was broken, and I can’t think of where else I may have broken it.
Because of the conditions I made a couple of minor route finding errors, and then when I reached what I think is considered the crux of the route, I stayed way left and found that way to be much more solid than the standard route, in the future I think I would always go that way. For me though the last quarter of the traverse, and especially the very last part of Mt. Wilson is the most difficult of the entire traverse. I still had to deal with one scary traverse across some steep hard ice, and then a climb across the ridge into a gully full of mash potato snow, and then the climb up the last couple of hundred yards up the difficult class 4 ridge to the summit of Mt. Wilson, which was summited at 6:25 pm.
I was now behind schedule, but thankfully I had only lost about 20 minutes. The wind was cold and strong and added to the impetus to get off the summit. I retraced my way down the class 4 ridge, and then headed west to find a way to descend into Navajo Basin.
My plan was to make use of all of the snow and try to glissade the 2000 feet down into the basin. Finally, I found the conditions right for glissading! After downclimbing for a couple of hundred feet, I entered a narrow couloir and found the snow to be very soft. The soft snow made the steep couloir seem a little less intimidating and I unpacked my glissading sled and started sliding. The snow was so wet that I was instantly soaked, but fortunately my pants dry quickly.
I was careful to stay in control at all times. The slope was steep and every once in awhile I would hit hard snow and ice and had I not been careful it would have been easy to have my ice ax ripped out of my hand or to lose control of my speed. Down below I could see that my snowfield was going to end in some unpleasant terrain, so I had to stop about one third of the way down and traverse left to another snowfield that appeared to go all the way down to the basin.
I took breaks often because it was a lot of work for the upper body, and I was fatigued in general, but still made great time all the way down to the snow river at the bottom of the basin. I carefully walked across the snow that was covering the water, and once across to the other side I put away my sled and ax and pulled out my poles, but discovered that one pole was broken.
From the basin I had about 2000 feet to climb to reach the summit of Wilson Peak, the first 1000 feet was now in shade, but was still soft. So I had to be careful to stay in the more consolidated snow away from shallow snow or rocks. I passed the little cabin near the Rock of Ages saddle that, back in 1999 I had bivouacked in during a blizzard during my first 14er record attempt. Beyond the cabin, I had no choice to stay in the snow as I angled right to reach the connecting ridge between Gladstone Peak and Wilson Peak. However, here the snow was extremely soft. Sometimes if I fall to through the snow to my waist or deeper, I do what I call a monkey crawl to get out. That is to basically crawl out on my elbows (because usually my hands have poles or an ax) and knees. However here the snow was so soft that when I tried to climb out like this my elbows would just fall through as well. So the only way out was to push out a deep trench!
I finally reached the saddle and then traversed across some class 3 slabs to begin the last 1000 feet of the climb. Fortunately, the class 3 slabs were free of snow, so I was able to cross them easily. I decided to leave my pack at the top of a north facing gully, and was disappointed because I had been hoping for another glissade down this north facing gully, but for some reason this gully was already free of snow. It was getting late and the sun was on the western horizon. It would be setting soon and I really wanted to be off of the crux of Wilson Peak before darkness set in. However, getting to the summit was not as simple as usual as the trail disappeared into some unpleasant snowfields, and it was a little bit of work to climb to the left around them to try to stay on the ridge.
I was getting cold as the sky darkened and the wind continued to punish me since I had to stay on the top of the ridge. At one point my headphones pulled out of the socket and I was taken by the vicious sound of the wind blowing so hard. I realized that I would be much more depressed without the headphones and was happy to have them. Without them I would feel lonely and exposed to deteriorating conditions.
I was fooled by one false summit before I reached the tricky notch before the summit. The notch, as expected was full of snow and ice so I had to take it slow in order to safely move across it. I was disappointed I had left my pack behind because the gully that dropped north from the notch was still full of snow, although it turned out for the best because later I noticed that this particular gully cliffs out and heads in the wrong direction near the bottom.
Once past the notch it wasn’t long until I was standing on the summit of Wilson Peak (summited at 8:36 pm), just after the sun had gone down. Worried about the approaching darkness, I didn’t take time to enjoy the view and heading back down the ridge and retraced my steps as quickly as possible. My hands and feet were numb as I reached my pack, and I put on my down jacket and headed down the horribly loose, steep gully. I was surprised to find an old collapsed mineshaft right in the middle of the gully, and my imagination wandered back in time and wondered what life must have been like as a miner.
Soon it became too dark to see so I turned on my headlamp. I reached some snow that was still super mushy despite the cold and the dark, but was able to slide down a bit before the terrain flattened out. It became much more solid as I got away from the rocks in the gully, and as the terrain flattened out the snow was hard enough to walk on without worrying about falling through. I followed the rolling terrain and eventually came upon a couple of tracks in the snow. For the most part I was extremely disappointed with my fellow San Juan hikers this year! There had been for the most part almost no tracks to follow, and it can be difficult to stay with a trail when it disappears underneath a large snowfield.
I followed the tracks. It was now totally dark, and I was completely dependent upon my headlamp to see anything at all. The snow had hardened up quickly without the sun, and with the cold wind blowing it would soon be as hard as ice, “bulletproof”. After a couple of careful, slow glissades in self-arrest position on the hard snow I decided to leave the tracks. They headed left, but I knew the road I wanted to follow was towards the right. I found the road and followed it for a short distance before it disappeared into snow.
I was blown away by the amount of snow in Silver pick basin. I didn’t know it at the time, but my headlamp batteries were old, and the light put out by my headlamp was weak. I was having a very difficult time figuring out where to go when the road disappeared under the snowfields. There were no tracks to follow and it was just instinct and luck that managed to keep me on track. I knew there was serious danger of missing the crossover point from Silver Pick Basin to Rock of Ages trailhead. Then I would be stranded in the wrong basin and that would put a quick end to the record attempt.
The other difficulty was that part of plan had been for James, once he had picked up the dirt bike, to drive around and wait for me at the Rock of Ages trailhead. He was also supposed to push my downhill mountain bike up the trail and leave it at 11,000 feet. I didn’t know exactly where that was, but I was afraid if I lost the trail then I might miss the bike.
I continued and at one spot I was following the road as it once again disappeared into a steep, rock hard snow field. I tried traversing across the snowfield where I thought the road must be, but the snow was so hard that I slipped and fell. Fortunately, I didn’t go far because my ax was ready for a quick self-arrest. However I was now in a tenuous position on a steep snow field. I decided my best option was just to glissade all the way down into the darkness. When I reached the bottom, I was surprised to find my water bottle. I guess it must have fallen out of my pack when I fell. I made my way through some old avalanche debris and had a bad feeling that I had descended too low.
So I decided to head up a steep talus slope, and to my great fortune, somehow after just a few minutes I stumbled upon the road right where it turns to go to the Rock of Ages trailhead. And I also found the tracks I had been following earlier. I guess it would have been better to just follow them in the first place. What luck that I had decided to head up the talus slope instead of down! That would have been a major problem.
I didn’t see any mountain bike tracks so I was pretty confident I had not passed the bike already. I followed the tracks and once again had to traverse some steep snowfields. However, the people who had made the tracks had also kicked in some steps and that made the traversing much easier. Soon I descended low enough that the snow was not a problem, and after some very rocky switchbacks I found my downhill bike waiting for. I powered up my NiteRider headlight and with pure joy coasted down the trail. The trail was perfect for the bike and I made great time down to the trailhead. It was a lot of extra work for James to push the bike up the trail, but mentally it was sure worth it for me. In what seemed like no time at all I was pulling into the trailhead, it was 10:42 pm, I was about 42 minutes behind schedule.
There were a surprising number of people at the trailhead. James, Kim, Andrea, Calvin, and Axel were all there and I immediately sat down and started drinking and eating. I was excited to see Calvin and Axel, I hoped this would be a good experience for them, but didn’t have much time to visit with them. Will, a friend of Andrea and Kim, had decided to help out and was going to join the support crew. There were also some other people who had read about the record attempt on 14ers.com and they also said hello. I was very grateful for all the support.
After just a few minutes I crawled into Will’s car, and our little caravan of 3 cars, began the dusty drive out to the highway. At one point James was unsure if he made the correct turn and not having any idea of where we were I just told him if we were heading down then we were going the right way. Luckily we managed to stay on the correct road.
Sneffels: Snow, Snow, and more Snow!
When we reached the highway, I crawled into the bed in the back of Will’s car with Axel, and eventually fell asleep for awhile in the back of the car. It was only about a 45 minute drive to Ouray, but every minute of sleep was vitally important. I had originally considered taking the dirt bike over Immogene pass as a more direct route to the Sneffels trailhead, but it was still closed due to snow. In hindsight I don’t think that would have been a good idea anyway, especially in the dark.
The support crew has a difficult job, and somehow in the dark James blew right past the turn to Yankee Boy Basin on the south side of Ouray. However, because we had driven to this exact spot on our scouting trip, he knew something was wrong, and quickly we turned around and found the turnoff. I was going to take the dirt bike from here, so James immediately got the bike ready to go, and I prepared my pack for a night hike up Sneffels. The road was not difficult, but I knew I could go much faster on the dirt bike. Every minute was critical in these first two days as I raced to stay on schedule for a day 3 or day 4 rendezvous with a 6:00am start on Culebra.
I put on my warm jacket and gloves, and began the 10 mile ride up the road. I hoped the support crew would get some good sleep, and expected to be gone for at least 4 hours. I was able to drive fast up the road because it is relatively smooth. I lost some time when I was fiddling with the GPS trying to find a good place to park the bike approximately 3000 feet below the summit of Sneffels. I knew approximately where to go, but then I kept stopping and looking at the GPS, then driving forward a little and trying again. It was very inefficient, so eventually I threw in the towel and just decided to hike some extra elevation to be guarantee an ascent of at least 3000 feet.
I decided to turn the bike around, which wasn’t easy because I was not on a flat section of road and the road was narrow. It seemed like a good idea though, because the bike had been hard to start lately, and I didn’t want to deal with trying to turn it around after hiking Sneffels.
Once parked, I started hiking up the road at 12:56 am (now about an hour behind schedule). I was wearing my Salomon Quest 4D boots…GASP! No self-respecting speed record attempter would ever be caught wearing boots! But my waterproof trailrunners were wet from the Wilson’s, and I had no choice if I wanted to wear waterproof shoes. They felt good, but they definitely don’t encourage any sort of speed. It was handy having waterproof shoes though because right from the start there were stream crossings, and I feel pretty invincible with the boots on. Unfortunately it was very cold as the wind was still blowing, and wherever there was water, there was ice. I had to be careful not to slip. I followed the trail up past one of my favorite signs, the “No picking flowers” sign. Shortly thereafter I came across the first snowfield. I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising to run into snow already, but for some reason I guess I had expected that some determined jeepers might have pushed through a little further. I traversed across the snow and once again was disappointed with my fellow San Juan hikers. There weren’t any good tracks to follow.
Soon I passed a point where you have the option of taking a hiking trail or staying on the road. At this junction I had originally planned on taking the trail, but could see that the route was virtually 100% covered in snow at a steep angle, so I had no desire to go that direction. However, the road also disappeared into a large snowfield and I had no desire to go that direction either. I chose to go with the road because I believed it would be easier to find the road in the dark when I inevitably lost it. It didn’t take long before I lost the road, so I just picked a grassy patch that ascended for quite some distance out of the snow towards Sneffels, and I hiked up as far as I could. Eventually I picked up the road again and continued to play “the lose the road, find the road” game until I finally reached the upper trailhead.
At last I found a reasonable footpath in the snow, and was able to follow it for a short distance before losing it again in a section of rocks. At this point I decided the trail didn’t matter anymore, I just aimed for Sneffels and didn’t really try to stay with the trail any longer.
When I reached the base of Sneffel’s west facing slopes, I could see that it would be snow travel all the way to the summit. I had brought my crampons for the first time and decided to put them on. Soon I was making my way through some old avalanche debris and it was slowing me down, so I made my way to the left and then continued straight up the rock hard snow. Near a saddle, the snow became very steep so I angled left and finally found a pretty well beaten path. I followed the path up into the couloir and was actually enjoying the snow, but the wind was really whipping up the couloir and my face was pretty cold. I sure was getting sick of the wind! Finally I made it to the point where you exit the couloir, which was basically a vertical 10 feet snow wall, and it was a little tricky climbing up and over. Then I took off my crampons because it looked like I would be able to climb the last couple of hundred feet on rock, and I reached the summit at 3:03 am.
The summit was cold and windy (as usual), so I entered the preset message into the satellite tracker, and immediately turned around. I’m not sure why but walking down hard snow with crampons on seems hard on my joints, so as I descended I lamented the fact that had I been here during the day, I could have had a beautiful glissade down the couloir and down the west slopes and could have been to the upper trailhead in a matter of minutes. Instead it was step after careful step down the hard snow, and it seemed to take a long time.
Once at the bottom of the steep snow field I removed my crampons and tried to retrace my steps to the upper trailhead and then down through the snowfields to the road. I did find one glissade that saved me a little bit of downhill wear on my legs, although it was slow because I could only use self-arrest position because the snow was so hard. I loved my glissading sled, glissading down snow that hard would have shredded my pants without it.
Once down to the road I found that the river crossings were now much more covered in ice, and on one crossing I slipped and put my foot in the water, but thankfully I had on the waterproof hiking boots instead of running shoes so the cold water didn’t get through to my frozen toes.
I reached the motorcycle at 4:42 am. The motorcycle was covered in frost, and not surprisingly it would not start. We think that during our scouting trip we wore down the battery, and I should have charged it up before the record attempt. It was being very finicky about starting up. I put on my warm motorcycle clothes and helmet, and started coasting down the hill. We had mounted my mountain bike light to the dirt bike helmet, but I had found that annoying so it was in my pack, so I had no light. The road was rocky and I couldn’t gain any real speed. When I let off the clutch the bike sputtered a couple of times and then somehow before I knew it the engine started and I crashed it to my left. I was so weak and tired that it was very hard to lift up, and gas was leaking everywhere. However, after wrestling it back into position I tried again and was able to get it going. I think in hindsight I may have been wiser to get a smaller dirt bike, I think a 450 may have been a little too much for me to handle given my weak, sleep deprived state.
After that it I drove fast all the way back down the road toward Ouray. It was getting late, and I knew I was probably running about an hour behind my projections. I made it to the highway at about 5:15, I crossed it and pulled up next to the support vehicles. Immediately the support crew was up and ready to help.