A Bond Between Strangers (Horseshoe Mountain/Boudoir Couloir)

There’s no point in denying it: Horseshoe Mountain’s Boudoir Couloir is a flat-out classic. I’d already climbed it in 2011 as one of my first snow climbs, but when Speth suggested it for this weekend, I had no qualms about returning. This April is all about getting into shape for the Skillet Glacier, anyway. If a route has snow and vertical gain, I probably won’t say no.

IMG_3565

We were forced to park about a mile short of the standard starting point at Leavick due to lingering snow. A few poor souls had tried to drive a bit farther. Carnage ensued. Three-foot-deep tire tracks, busted wooden boards, a wrecked tow strap and, of course, their abandoned vehicles. All that to avoid walking an extra five minutes. Human nature is a funny thing.

Speth and I were walking by about 7:30 a.m. My memory had blocked out the difficulties of the approach, and for some reason I thought it would only take us about an hour to reach the base of the couloir. In reality, including the extra slog to Leavick, it took us three. A little less than a mile from Leavick is a road that branches off left and crosses Fourmile Creek. Follow it as it switchbacks up a couple hundred feet to break treeline, then make a straight shot for Horseshoe’s namesake amphitheater. Many options exist to reach the base of the couloir. Gerry Roach’s guidebook suggests angling to hiker’s right around two small lakes. As the lakes remained solidly frozen, we took a more direct line straight across.

11146443_10101132413955556_1085142736858826831_o

We reached the base of the couloir around 10:30 a.m. I’d normally be nervous about starting an east-facing spring snow climb so late, but the temperatures were mild and a stiff breeze kept everything firm. Speth hadn’t even used snowshoes for the approach. While gearing up with crampons, helmets and ice axes, we were joined by fellow 14ers.com members BKS (Brian) and eskermo. Brian also had his 2-year-old labradoodle, Charley.

Being an English nerd, I was absolutely tickled by the company of a poodle named Charley. Surely his owner must be a Steinbeck fan? Actually, no — it was a total coincidence. Charley was a joyful companion, and I used the encounter for the title of this blog entry. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, famous novelist John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, etc.) wrote a travelogue in the 1960s about a year-long road trip across America with his full-size poodle, Charley. Travels with Charley is one of my favorite travel books. Contained within is the quote, “Dogs are a bond between strangers.” How true is that?

We started switchbacking up the apron on perfect snow. Our boots were sinking in to about lace-level and the crampons bit hard. It was much more relaxing than the first time I’d climbed Boudoir on bulletproof névé.

An intermittent old boot-pack existed in the middle of the couloir. I tried to use it at times, but given the moderate angle and great snow conditions, switchbacking was much more efficient.

IMG_3577

IMG_3578

IMG_3583 IMG_3585

In addition to being an aesthetic line, what makes Boudoir special is the spectacular setting. Horseshoe Mountain’s entire east face is a half-moon of near-vertical cliffs. Boudoir offers the only easy passage. Rest breaks were passed giddily spying other potential snow, ice and mixed lines in the breathtaking amphitheater.

What else makes Boudoir a must-do? The direct finish over a mini-cornice onto the summit plateau. Immediately above the exit is a remarkably intact old mining cabin, which we crawled inside to escape the increasing wind. Views of the Sawatch, Sangre de Cristo, Tenmile and Mosquito ranges did not disappoint. We ditched our packs and most of our gear inside the cabin before strolling over to tag the true summit.

IMG_3590

IMG_3600 IMG_3603

Normally I would have suggested walking off the standard Northeast Slopes route, but the Skillet Glacier will require downclimbing snow up to and including 50 degrees. I figured I might as well practice walking down moderate/steep snow as much as possible. It was still a bit firm for easy plunge-stepping. Once we were through the constriction and the angle began to relent, we popped off our crampons and glissaded the rest of the way in a matter of minutes.

We followed our tracks out and reached the car only two hours after leaving the summit. Glissading is awesome. The wind had even kept the snow remarkably firm for an April afternoon. No waist-deep postholing in snowshoes necessary. A perfect spring day. We did have a bit of difficulty finding a dining option in Fairplay given the Easter holiday and my low-carb kick this month, but we eventually settled in at McCall’s Park Bar. Let’s just say a 1/4-pound buffalo burger with no bun and a side salad is no match for a post-hike appetite. It’s going to be a long month…

Third Time’s the Charm on Mt. Princeton

MOUNTAIN: Mt. Princeton (14,197′)
ROUTE: East Slopes
RT GAIN: 5,400′
RT DISTANCE: 13.25 miles
RT TIME: 10.75 hours
PARTNERS: Jerry, Adam, Shawn, Joel

Mt. Princeton had become something of a winter nemesis. I tried it in early January 2014 prior to shoulder surgery, but the recurring dislocations that necessitated said repair left me woefully out of shape. I only made it as far as subsummit “Tigger Peak,” a mile or two and nearly 1,000′ short of the summit. Princeton was also the plan three weeks ago, but I was forced to bail last-minute for a variety of reasons.

Third time’s the charm, right? I roped a few poor souls — Shawn, Joel, Adam and Jerry — into yet another winter attempt Sunday, Feb. 15. Most of the Colorado high country still looked more like early fall than mid-February, and with the weather pattern changing toward more frequent snow beginning this week, I figured I better poach an easy winter summit while the option remained.

0e686-10423910_10101078575049156_3511556781516054955_n

d590a-10408746_10101078575039176_9164814199657688711_n

The group started from the lower trailhead at 6:45 a.m., faced with a few miles of road walking before reaching the standard summer starting point. Snowshoes weren’t necessary and the distance melted away. As the day grew warmer and the sun burned off the early-morning clouds, some of us even found ourselves in baselayers. Of course, with a storm scheduled to roll in during the afternoon and high winds obvious up high, we knew it wouldn’t last.

The rest of us caught up to Jerry, who’d dashed ahead at superhuman speed, at the only real decision point we’d face all day. The road continues to above 12,000′, but the summer route leaves it on a good trail that traverses across the face of “Tigger Peak” to the low point in the saddle between “Tigger” and Princeton. Most winters, avalanche danger dictates forgoing the summer trail and going up and over “Tigger” instead, at the expense of some extra mileage and about 800′ of added elevation gain. The minimal snow levels convinced us to take the easier option and stick to the trail.

1a61b-10167947_10101078575133986_708853930885757043_n

89bad-1506934_10101078575228796_4593519269851371764_n

The “easier option” was still kind of a pain. The Mt. Princeton trail consists of large, loose, annoying talus. Add a foot or two of powder on top of it and the going becomes very slow and tedious. Jerry continued leading the way as the weather began its preordained decline.

Princeton’s summit looked tantalizingly close. Almost every winter trip report I read had a huge round-trip time that didn’t align with the 13.25 mile/5,400′ stats. Sometimes it even took people 20+ hours! Now, I understand why. Most of terrain above 12,000′ is simply horrid. If we’d had to deal with trailbreaking in snowshoes and going over “Tigger,” it likely would have taken us much longer as well. The path becomes more and more intermittent, replaced with steep scree, loose talus and ankle-breaking murder holes. The final push to the summit took about twice as long as I expected at first glance. We finally topped out, one after another, between 1-1:20 p.m.

The forecasted storm was arriving in earnest. I stayed on the summit only long enough to eat a sandwich and snap three pictures. No one else bothered. Clouds and light snow had already rolled in, with the wind whipping around at 30 or 40 miles per hour.

4d3c6-1795724_10101078575223806_985083053038985882_n

8a043-10991413_10101078575308636_9191885510138229903_n

On such hideous terrain, the descent took almost as long as the climb. I think we all wanted to kneel and kiss the ground when we were finally back on the solid trail. As nice as that was, regaining the road was even better. We rested for a while at the junction to eat, drink and adjust layers, tasks we’d neglected for a few hours in the deteriorating elements.

Thus replenished, the stroll down the road was lighthearted and victorious. The storm produced a veritable whiteout at times, with an inch of snow falling per hour and visibility reduced to a couple hundred feet. Safely on the road, however, we had little to worry about. We spaced out a bit, with the last person returning to the vehicles around 5:30 p.m. It’s not often you can do a long winter daytrip without needing a headlamp. Not to say we were especially quick — just lucky with the conditions.

37b84-1382313_10101078575408436_6092640717812428709_n

5c13f-10978516_10101078575478296_6600707507496642795_n

We tried to stop at Eddyline Brewing for a post-climb meal, but shockingly there was a 45-minute wait on a Sunday night in the middle of winter. We instead visited a Mexican joint down the street on Joel’s excellent suggestion, which hit the spot just the same. Thanks to Joel, Adam, Jerry and Shawn for a fun day. Now, back to ice climbing…

Buyer’s Guide: Ice Axes and Ice Tools

So, you’ve decided to get into winter mountaineering. Forget that you’d benefit exponentially more from snowshoes, trekking poles, a softshell, goggles, a pair of mittens or myriad other essentials – it’s time to get sexy with it. There’s no faster way to decorate your pack and impress your friends than purchasing an ice ax.

Choosing your ideal ax can be daunting. They come in many different shapes, sizes and, most importantly, colors. Depending on the kind of climbing you plan to pursue, do you need a traditional piolet, all-around ice tools, wickedly curved mixed tools, or a highly specialized hybrid? The answer is almost assuredly some sort of combination. It took me three years and a few wasted Benjamins to arrive at my ideal quiver, and now that I have a decent grasp on the ins and outs of the ice ax market, here’s a gentle rundown of what’s out there.

The Traditional Piolet

d1efc-onecol

Characterized by a long, straight shaft and a pick with a positive curve (envision a rainbow), piolets are the old guard of the ice ax world. Almost everyone owns one, whether you’re Noob McSelfie or Ueli Steck. Excepting steep, technical routes, this is all you need for winter/spring 14ers, the standard routes on most Pacific Northwest volcanoes, El Pico de Orizaba, the West Buttress of Denali and so on. If you’re reading this because you’re in search of your first ice ax, you likely need a piolet. I believe that’s French for backpack ornament.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Every brand brings something a little different to the table. They range in size from 50cm to upwards of 75cm. Some have a hammer, some have an adze. A few have rubber grips and pinky rests. What exactly is all that used for, and what do you need?

Let’s start with size. When holding a piolet in self-arrest grip (read Freedom of the Hills or take a class), you should just be able to touch your ankle bone with the spike. If you’re torn between two different sizes, I recommend going shorter. A trekking pole is a better option in most situations where you’d want a longer ax, and shorter shafts are easier to wield on steep terrain.

Keep your piolet as simple as possible. Rubber grips, pinky rests and bent shafts are best kept on technical tools and hybrids. These other options, which I’ll dive into next, will also likely have a hammer. For that reason, I suggest getting a classical ax with an adze.

Most outdoor retailers will carry three or four different brands of straight-shafted piolets. The truth is, other than what color matches your pack the best, there’s not much difference. Hold them in your hand, swing them around, decided how much you’re willing to spend and pick whichever tugs at your heart strings.

The All-Around Ice Tool

3fef2-3000s-x-all-mountain-14

The three big differences between an ice tool and a piolet are a curved shaft, a radically shorter length and a pick with a reverse curve (imagine, well, an upside-down rainbow). Don’t let the “all-around” title confuse you; these are meant for ice climbing. They can perform the functions of a traditional mountaineering ax in a pinch, but nowhere near as effectively. Trying to self-belay or self-arrest with an ice tool is expert-only stuff.

You should buy a pair of all-around tools if you want to (duh) go ice climbing, or a single all-around tool to pair with a piolet or a hybrid if you see semi-technical routes in your future. Comfort levels vary from climber to climber, but once a slope angle noses over 50-55 degrees, I prefer to have a second tool in addition to my piolet. One piolet/hybrid and one ice tool is the system of choice for classic routes such as the Kautz Glacier or Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier, the Adams Glacier on Mt. Adams, the East Slope of Mt. Bross and so on.

The reverse-curved pick is super grippy, even if only plunged into ice a few millimeters. The downside is this stickiness also applies when trying to self-arrest. If your technique is off, the tool is likely to get ripped out of your hands and become a flailing projectile hungry for puncture wounds.

As mentioned above, I strongly suggest ice tools with hammers. An adze is dangerous on ice or mixed routes, where a popped tool’s most likely landing place is your upper lip. Hitting yourself in the face with a hammer might be unpleasant, but hitting yourself in the face with a glorified knife is a hospital visit and a significant other who might never look at you with the same lustful gaze. In situations where an adze might be desirable, which are rare to begin with, you’re likely going to have a hybrid or a piolet along as well.

The best advice I can give for purchasing ice tools is to demo as many as possible before investing. The weight, swing angle and grip can wildly differ between tools that look more or less the same. Figure out your preferences before being stuck with a $500 pair that, to you, feels like swinging wooden clubs coated in bacon fat.

The Mixed Tool

7aa67-00e6a5a4-2585-4a8f-8c6f-dd8ca8ea8189

Welcome to the second-briefest entry in this blog post. A mixed tool is an all-around tool on steroids. The curves on the shaft and pick are more wicked, the handles are beefier and the people that use them effectively are the demi-gods of the climbing world. If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t want or need mixed tools. These are used for scraping up blank rock faces with the occasional smear or pillar of ice. Most lack both an adze and a hammer for the face- and relationship-destroying reasons discussed above.

The Hybrid Tool

a6971-adz

I’ve used the term “hybrid ax” about a half-dozen times now, and they’re the most confusing category in the modern ice-ax market. In general, they are a cross between a piolet and an all-around ice tool. Gear companies have the freedom to be creative here. The design elements and included features vary considerably from brand to brand, and not all hybrid tools are created equal.

Speaking generally, a hybrid tool is shorter than a traditional piolet, has a slightly bent shaft and includes some sort of feature that makes it easier to swing like an ice tool, such as a rubber grip or a pinky rest. They come both with positive- and negative-curved picks, with some brands allowing for these to be interchangeable. Because hybrids are meant for more experienced climbers with developed preferences, I’ll leave the adze vs. hammer and positive vs. negative curve decisions up to you. I personally like my hybrid tools with an adze and a positive pick.

These are best for routes where you’ll be spending a lot of time on steep terrain and most people would prefer two ice tools, but there’s also a long easy-angled approach. Think glaciers. A hybrid won’t arrest, plunge or act as a cane as well as a piolet. It also won’t climb steep ice as well as an ice tool. What it does do is provide a bridge over the gap when you can’t decide which of those others to bring.

Hybrid tools carry more street cred than a traditional piolet and benefit from slick marketing campaigns, meaning many beginners skip straight to them. That’s fine, especially if you see yourself quickly moving into more technical routes, but understand that hybrids are generally much heavier and more expensive than a piolet.

My preferred system for AI2-3 glacier routes or very steep (55+ degree) snow routes is a medium-length (57-62cm) hybrid paired with an all-around ice tool. If I’m doing a more traditional snow climb, I save weight and bring my piolet at the expense of not impressing as many trailmates.

The Red-Headed Stepchildren

c82c0-ee40f0e8-1fa6-4559-81d7-b758c3663fcf

Innovation is required to stay at the forefront of the outdoor industry. There are many piolets and ice tools that don’t fit into any of the above categories. I’m looking at you, Grivel. CAMP USA also makes several featherweight options designed for ski mountaineering, adventure racing and high-altitude. Once again, if you’re in the market for one of these specialized tools, you probably quit reading about 1,000 words ago.

For the record, my quiver:

  • 65cm Black Diamond Raven (piolet)
  • 52cm Petzl Sum’tec (hybrid w/ adze)
  • 50cm Cassin X-All Mountain x2 (ice tools)

Happy hunting.

Top 5 Colorado Mountain Towns (for Dirtbag Climbers)

One of the biggest perks of pursuing 14ers and 13ers is having an excuse to range far and wide across Colorado. Little towns that even natives haven’t heard of become favorite haunts, complete with their hole-in-the-wall restaurants, obscure festivals, historic sites, quirky attractions, sunny patios and small-batch breweries. When you exit ski country, you enter the real Colorado.

I’m daunted by even the thought of trying to tally how many road miles I’ve logged in-state over the past four years. Hiking and climbing nearly every weekend, let’s just say I’ve gotten to know Colorado fairly well. The only criteria I have for the following list is the question, “Which towns do I look forward to visiting, time and again, even as much as the surrounding summits?” This mostly boils down to mountain access, nearby free camping areas and quality of local restaurants and breweries.

1. Ouray

7428f-66826_10100461552801686_1473575404_n

The undisputed champ. Any ranking of Colorado mountain towns that doesn’t start with Ouray is invalid. It has the world-famous Ouray Ice Park; access to the most beautiful mountains in the state, including the 14er Mt. Sneffels; several hot springs; affordable lodging and tons of camping; a smorgasboard of charming coffee shops and restaurants; and my second-favorite brewery in Colorado. For those of you exclaiming how much you also love the Ouray Brewery — pipe down. That place is serviceable, but the Ourayle Brewery, also known as the Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewery, blows it out of the water. The fact that most people go to Ouray Brewery and overlook Ourayle just adds to its allure. Ourayle has what I’d argue is the best atmosphere of any bar in the state — as long as you can appreciate sarcasm and take a joke. Also, don’t be a Beermadonna. Other awesome establishments include O’Brien’s, Backstreet Bistro, Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee and Goldbelt Bar & Grill.

2. Durango

98309-ska2bbrewery

I placed Durango here largely because of its size. It’s a mountain town big enough that the average city-dweller would feel comfortable living there, at least for a year or two. It has all the amenities, a large regional airport, raucous nightlife and enough climbing to occupy several lifetimes. It’s also the basecamp for most everyone venturing into the recesses of the Weminuche, Colorado’s best wilderness area. I mentioned Ourayle as my second-favorite brewery, and the only one to top it — Ska Brewing — resides in Durango. Steamworks also has great beer in addition to some of the best pub food I’ve ever tasted. A trio of top-notch outdoor shops, dueling sushi restaurants, a hidden used bookstore and a variety of watering holes solidify Durango’s ranking.

3. Buena Vista/Salida

cac9f-salida

I know, I know, they’re technically two separate towns. From a climber’s perspective, they’re one and the same. The surrounding Sawatch Mountains are regarded by most hikers as boring lumps of talus, but there are a lot of them, and the towns at their foot are a dirtbag’s dream. There’s so much dispersed camping in the area I find a new spot nearly every time I visit. The presence of Elevation Beer Co., Eddyline Brewing and the Boathouse Cantina make choosing an apres-climb stop difficult. Best of all, this area is only two hours from Denver. These are the two mountain towns I find myself in most often, and you won’t catch me complaining.

4. Lake City

cd4ca-205840_816339861616_2308209_n

This town could be described as Ouray’s little brother, and that’s not a bad thing. What Lake City lacks in size and amenities, it more than makes up for in character. This town has a fledgling ice park complete with an annual Ice Festival the first weekend of February. It’s one of the highlights of my winter. Whereas the Ouray Ice Festival is a bit of a spectacle, the Lake City Ice Festival is a grassroots gathering of the tribe for beginners and crushers alike. Though Lake City tends to be overrun with Texans in the summer, it’s worth wading through the sea of ATVs for access to many of the state’s best high peaks. There’s limitless free camping in the area, and even a hostel for the dirtbag with delicate sensibilities. Must-stop establishments include Poker Alice and Packer Saloon.

5. Silver Cliff/Westcliffe

51aa0-westcliffe

These sister-towns are the gateway to the east side of the Sange de Cristo Range. There honestly aren’t many notable attractions within the city limits, but the views are breathtaking, the amount of nearby trailheads is nearly overwhelming and Tony’s Mountain Pizza has the best pies I’ve yet to find in Colorado. You could literally spend weeks in this area camping for free, hiking a quality 13er or 14er every day and refueling with a different pizza every night. Once someone opens a brewery here, it’s game over, man. Anyone want to throw in with me?

Notable omissions, with reasoning:

Estes Park: Flooded with tourists, lack of free dispersed camping areas, fee required to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, only one (overloved) 14er and you have to go through Boulder to get there.

Aspen: Unless you have a trust fund…

Silverton/Telluride: Proximity to Ouray and Durango. I didn’t want this to turn into a list of only mountain towns in the San Juans, which would be pretty easy. I regard both Silverton and Telluride as highly as the other Southwest Colorado entries.

Pagosa Springs: If only Pagosa had more nearby 13ers/14ers, it wouldn’t just be on the list — it would be near the top. It’s a fantastic town on the borders of both the Weminuche and South San Juan wilderness areas.

Alamosa: It’s the biggest settlement on the west side of the Sangres, but shockingly, you just don’t go through it that often in the pursuit of summits. San Luis Valley Brewing Co. is a treat during the rare visit.

Leadville: No brewery, a kind of depressing vibe and only two passable restaurants (High Mountain Pies and Tennessee Pass Cafe). Turquoise Lake is a worthwhile weekend destination, though.

10 Things You Need to Know for Hiking in the Snow

Most Coloradans consider “14er season” to be June through September, but such a viewpoint is severely restrictive. The fall, winter and spring months are often the most rewarding times of year in the high country. There’s nothing quite like having a popular summit such as Quandary Peak to yourself, looking out over a sea of white-capped mountains as you sip hot tea that warms your body from the inside out. Like many novice mountaineers, a few short years ago I viewed the gap between summer and winter climbing as insurmountable. I had too many questions, and the answers were too hard to find. The truth is, like many things in life, it really doesn’t have to be that difficult.

04c45-462918_969360052926_978220388_o

1. An introduction to winter layering

This was one of the most confusing aspects to me when I was starting out. Hard shell or soft shell? Down or synthetic? How many layers do I need to carry? This stuff isn’t cheap, and with my limited disposable income, making the right choices was crucial. Everyone has their own system. I’ll offer mine as a guide, along with the reasoning and a more general perspective.

  • Polyester/spandex short-sleeve T-shirt: Avoid anything with cotton. I don’t like long sleeves here because it’s uncomfortable when you’re layering other pieces on top, which are almost all long-sleeve as well. If you do opt for long sleeves, find a baselayer with thumb loops to help keep them in place.
  • Fleece 1/4-zip pullover: This is my outer layer most of the time in winter. A simple T-shirt and a fleece gets it done when I’m moving, even in frigid temperatures. The other stuff piles on only on the windiest, coldest days, or when there’s precipitation.
  • Midweight synthetic pullover: Down would be fine here as well, but I prefer synthetic because it might get a little sweaty if you’re working hard. Synthetic insulation stays warm even when wet. I leave this one behind to save weight when the forecast is warm and dry.
  • Soft shell jacket with hood: Hard shells are fine too, but soft shells are generally more breathable. A cheap hard shell is often like wearing a garbage bag, and you want to avoid sweating as much as possible in the winter. Soft shells hold up just fine in Colorado’s dry snow.
  • Down over-it-all puffy with hood: Wearing a down jacket over a shell seems kind of weird, right? It’s not. I promise. This is the jacket that will stay at the bottom of your pack 95 percent of the time, but will become your best friend during long rest breaks, on summits or in an emergency situation. Don’t skimp. Again, synthetic works fine, but in general down is warmer, lighter and more compressible.

a8b1e-1025614_10100441826049256_1814084975_o

2. Basic avalanche education is free

Several local organizations, such as Friends of Berthoud Pass, offer free one- or two-hour avalanche awareness seminars. A proper AIARE Avalanche 1 course wouldn’t be a bad idea, but as a hiker the most crucial piece of your avalanche training is learning what terrain to avoid altogether. Don’t go out in the winter without at least attending one of these free classes, and reading one or both of Snow Sense and Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. I highly recommend Mountain Rescue Aspen’s Public Avalanche Seminar, which is held every year in January. For just $30 you get a three-hour lecture followed by an on-snow day practicing terrain recognition, beacon searches and more. Can’t beat that.

3. Winter is ridge season, spring is couloir season

People often equate winter with ice axes and crampons. Most of the time, that’s simply not true. You’re far more likely to use snowshoes and trekking poles than technical gear. Ascending wind-swept ridgelines keeps you out of avalanche terrain. Just look out for cornices and make sure there’s terra firma under your feet. Snow-climbing season typically begins in April or May, when it’s finally time to bust out the ice ax and crampons for those tasty couloirs. MICROspikes are likely all the traction you’ll need in winter, and snowshoes with a heel-lift and built-in crampons are the way to go for steep ascents.

61abb-301797_10100101457021516_217102009_n

4. OpenSnow.com and the CAIC are your friends

Check these two sites daily, even if you’re not planning on heading out. It’s incredibly beneficial to your overall education and awareness. OpenSnow.com meteorologist Joel Gratz provides spot-on weather forecasts, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center posts updates daily on avalanche conditions.

5. Water freezes

No duh, right? It’s shocking how often someone will be stuck four miles from the trailhead with a solid chunk of ice as their water supply. This is easily avoidable. For starters, leave the hydration bladders at home. Water will almost always freeze in the thin hose and block your access, even if you have an insulator sleeve. I give this advice often, and inevitably someone will respond by championing the incredible lengths they go through to use a bladder and hose year-round. I’m not saying that it won’t work on some days, or even most days. It just won’t work on all days. At some point, it’ll be too cold or too windy or you’ll forget to clear the hose, and you’ll be screwed. All that effort is an incredible pain in the ass, anyway. I prefer to keep a Nalgene, turned upside down, in an insulated koozie clipped to my pack’s hip belt for easy access. My other water bottles are in my pack, wrapped in extra layers and pushed against my back for the additional body heat. A bit of electrolyte powder also protects against freezing.

6. Pluck the low-hanging fruit

Many of the same 14ers that are considered easy in August are still considered easy in January. Mt. Elbert, Mt. Sherman, Quandary Peak and Mt. Bierstadt don’t require much more mileage or elevation gain than they do in the summer, and there are virtually avalanche-safe routes on each. Search the 14ers.com Trip Reports section for your intended mountain, and click only the checkboxes for the winter months. There are dozens of quality write-ups on the easier peaks in December, January, February and March.

7404c-860711_10100357393378006_30766061_o

7. You don’t need $500 mountaineering boots

Sure, they’re yellow or orange or some other fancy color, and they make you feel like a badass. They’re also overkill for winter hikes and surprisingly not all that warm. Run-of-the-mill winter hiking boots are cheaper, lighter, warmer and more comfortable. As long as they have insulation and come up to your ankle or above, you’re golden. Such boots are even compatible with strap-on crampons. The big caveat is that you’ll want at least a heel welt, and likely both a heel welt and a toe welt, if you plan to try climbing ice. Those are for attaching hybrid or step-in crampons, which are more secure. Expensive mountaineering boots are also more rigid, saving your calf muscles while standing on steep snow or vertical ice.

8. The “Other” Four Essentials

The 10 Essentials list is even more important in winter, when the stakes are higher. I’d like to add four more: a thermos, a multiclava, goggles and mittens. The thermos might be a luxury, but there’s nothing better than hot soup or tea on a cold, windy day. I often joke that a thermos is the best gear purchase I’ve ever made. A multiclava is a close runner-up. These little pieces of fabric have myriad uses, including as a facemask. You need to be able to cover every inch of exposed skin in the winter to prevent frostnip or frostbite. That’s where the goggles come in, too. You need to see even if it’s windy and dumping snow. No need to break the bank here, a simple $20-30 pair will suffice. Finally, buy a good pair of mittens. Even the nicest gloves can’t compare to mittens for warmth. I recommend Black Diamond Mercury Mitts to anyone who will listen.

a7dc2-920328_10100393800113616_1345569293_o

9. The sun is your enemy

OK, not really. The warmth of the sun feels pretty damn good in the winter. It’s just doubly important to have proper sunglasses and apply SPF30+ sunscreen every two hours. The sun reflecting off the snow is lethal. If you don’t take the steps to protect yourself, you’re in for a world of pain. I’m speaking from experience. Pack sunglasses that cover your full field of vision — glacier glasses are best, and they’re really not that expensive. Keep sunscreen easily accessible, such as in your pants pocket, to limit the excuses against applying it regularly.

10. Carry enough to survive a night out

Like a layering system, this will vary depending on a person’s risk tolerance, attitude and experience. The key is being confident in your ability to live through a night in the open. For some that means a tent and a sleeping bag, for others a bivy sack, and for still others simply extra layers. I fall into the latter category. It would be far from comfortable, but I trust my down puffy and other layers to get me through a winter night. I also carry a tarp to wrap myself in should I need protection from the elements.

Getting the Band Back Together (Marble Mountain)

Marble Mountain (13,266′)

ROUTE: East Ridge
RT DISTANCE: ~7 miles
RT GAIN: ~3,500′
RT TIME: ~7.5 hours
CLIMBER(S): Dan McCool, Ben Shulman, Jeff Golden

I’ve always held the belief that the people with whom you share the trail are the best part about hiking. Lifelong bonds are made in the hills. The common goals, the shared risks, the glorious successes and the crushing defeats — mountaineering pulls us together in a truly profound way.

I’ve formed one of those lifelong bonds with Dan. Ben, too, but we used to live together so I’ve had my fill. Though our priorities have shifted and we’re no longer able to meet in the mountains nearly every weekend, when we get together it’s always as if nothing has changed. That goes for most of the folks I regularly hiked with in 2011-2012 while we all raced toward the 14er finish line. Unfortunately, as it often does, life has taken us in different directions.

When the idea materialized of a reunion hike on Marble Mountain, I knew it was something not to be missed. Prior commitments and injuries got in the way of it being fully attended, but still, getting out with Ben and Dan is about as perfect a day in the mountains as a man can reasonably expect. It’s guaranteed to be a memorable outing.

We arrived at the Rainbow Trail/South Colony Lakes Road junction late Friday night after a necessary pitstop at Phantom Canyon Brewery. Terrified of the swarms of ATV-riding Bubbas in camouflage, Dan and I opted to sleep in the back of his truck. Ben, the bravest of our trio, pitched his bivy sack off to the side of the road. Expecting an easy day, we decided on a gentlemanly start of 7:30 a.m.

The morning began with a short jaunt in the wrong (…but right…) direction on the Rainbow Trail. It’s an odd feeling walking away from the mountain you’re trying to summit. Luckily it’s less than ¼-mile before you take a right onto a climber’s trail and start hiking up Marble’s East Ridge.

The trail is strong in places, and impossible to follow in others. The line is pretty obvious, however; as long as you’re hiking upward and staying near the ridge crest, you can’t go wrong. Good thing, too, as a heinous amount of deadfall had us weaving every which way. We were sporting dozens of new nicks and cuts by the time we finally emerged from treeline. Oh well. Bushwhacking builds character.

3e5f7-15675_2_l

Snow was unavoidable for a couple hundred feet after treeline, about six inches over slick tundra and wet rocks. This was the most tedious part of the route. Higher on the ridge the wind had blown it mostly clear, and in many ways it was reminiscent of summer. Dry tundra, T-shirts, sweat and size 14 boys jorts.

The walk to the summit probably took an hour longer than it should have thanks to the copious amount of Crestones photos that needed to be taken. Marble is a benevolent lump of tundra, requiring only a very minor false summit before the ridge ends in the true highpoint. After drooling over the Crestones all morning, we were pleasantly surprised to see that the views in the other directions were just as breathtaking.

82cf8-15675_6_l

03957-15675_4_l

It was cool to see Dan reach the top. He hadn’t been on a high-altitude summit hike in nearly a year, and he wore a child-like expression of wonder on his face. It was a great reminder not to take these adventures for granted. Going out most weekends, it’s easy to lose perspective on what drew us to the hills in the first place. Dan’s awe and joy after a lengthy time away were palpable.

We lounged on the summit for about an hour, drinking a couple beers and watching a storm roll in over Kit Carson and the Crestones. If possible, the clouds made the Sangres even more beautiful.

ac0ea-15675_15_l

628af-15675_16_l

We started down the deceptively long ridge just as the first flurries were starting to fly. We stayed well ahead of the full brunt of the storm. Regardless, it was simply a tundra stroll back to treeline and the trail. Many stops were again necessary for even more photos of the Crestones.

With a light mist falling back at the truck, we decided to delay our planned post-hike beers until back in Westcliffe. South Colony Road was much rougher than I remembered, but we made it safely down the 2.5 miles to the 2WD trailhead without incident. We got to-go pizzas from Tony’s (the Western is the best BBQ chicken pizza I’ve ever had) and popped open our beers at an undisclosed and probably illegal location with great views of the Sangres. Great ending to a much-needed jaunt with old friends!

51aa0-westcliffe

A Winter Preview on Quandary’s West Ridge

Quandary Peak: West Ridge (Fall 2014)

Saturday was one of those times everything just comes together.

As of early afternoon Friday, I still had no idea what I wanted to hike over the weekend. I would have loved to make the 14ers.com Fall Gathering in Lake City, but with a three-day trip to Vegas right around the corner, I wanted to spend a bit of time Sunday at home with Kate, Remy, yardwork and Carolina Panthers football.

What I did have was interest from two of my favorite climbing partners, Ryan Kushner and Matt Speth. We bounced ideas back-and-forth until it seemed unlikely we’d ever reach a consensus. I was starting to resign myself to a mellow solo hike when a mutually interesting goal finally emerged: the West Ridge of Quandary Peak.

bb0ca-1461099_10100923968666586_4276488059176234041_n

Ryan also recruited a few of his other friends, local climbing celebrities Alan Arnette (fresh back from success on K2), Jim Davidson (author of The Ledge) and Chris Tomer (FOX31/Channel 2 meteorologist). They agreed to join after their original goal of the Bells Traverse fell through due to last week’s snowfall. It was my first time hiking with all three of them, though I’ve rubbed shoulders and shaken hands at various events over the years.

We opted for a gentlemanly start of 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The route generally takes 6-8 hours roundtrip, and with no more fear of monsoonal thunderstorms, there wasn’t much reason to set an alarm for zero-dark-thirty. Ryan, Matt and I met Alan and Jim at the trailhead and decided to set up a car shuttle, leaving one vehicle at the base of the East Ridge and piling into the other to head to the Blue Lakes Dam near the start of the West Ridge.

The trail was mostly dry as we followed it up into a hanging basin toward the saddle between Quandary Peak and Fletcher Mountain. The majority of our time was spent discussing a potential fundraiser event and spying ice lines, which are starting to form all over the high country.

51685-1383585_10100923968526866_2909034887014448846_n

Chris was waiting for us on the saddle after starting early to tack on Fletcher Mountain. Most of the route came into view for the first time, with a largely mellow-looking ridge interrupted by a few daunting rock spires. The top — and the route’s two cruxes — remained out of sight beyond a false summit.

Easy scrambling and narrow Class 2 sections led to an old mining trail on the north side of the peak. I used the mental break to chat with Jim about The Ledge and reminisce with he and Speth about our Rainier experiences. Once over the dominant false summit, the cruxes came into view and our minds returned to the task at hand.

A Winter Preview on Quandary's West Ridge

A Winter Preview on Quandary's West Ridge

Snow conditions dictated that we stick to the ridge. Easier options exist in the summer by dropping down a ways, but the mountains had received a decent dump of snow earlier in the week. The north face in particular looked almost winterish. With Alan, Ryan and Chris leading, we took turns negotiating several exposed Class 4 and 5.easy sections. The first summer “crux” was actually a nice break in the action. It was my first time on the route, and I naively thought we’d bypassed all the difficulties by the time the worst difficulties actually started around 14,000’.

After another short, narrow Class 2 ridge walk, we found ourselves going up and over several spires. The last one required a steep 15-foot  Class 4 downclimb with a couple long steps to reach the relative safety of a lofty notch. From there we could see the second summer crux, which was said to be the most difficult section of the route. We were well to climber’s right of it, on the ridge proper. An ascending traverse across snowy Class 3/4 ledges put us back on track right as the climbing laid back to easy Class 2 walking.

dbabc-10718368_862000757173228_1379345826_o

d4405-10388069_10100923969090736_6657802947999762217_n

The wind had howled steadily between 15-25 miles per hour most of the day, and near the summit it nearly doubled. We staggered the last 100 yards to the highest point and gratefully cowered in a wind shelter to eat, drink and rest.

We stayed on top for about 15 minutes, snapping a couple group shots before heading down the standard East Ridge route. A few weeks had passed since I’d last visited the mountains, and seeing them coated with snow brought pure joy. Summer climbing is enjoyable in its own way, but I won’t miss the crowds. There’s also nothing more uplifting than looking out at a sea of white-capped peaks in all directions. It’s the definition of beauty.

fcd5a-10646721_10100923969175566_140708452373030492_n

d279e-10722478_862003213839649_897913586_o

The walk down was uneventful. We encountered 15-20 other hikers making their way up or down the East Ridge, a far cry from the 100s that tackle Quandary every summer Saturday. The car shuttle ended up being a godsend, as most of us were pretty wiped from spending so much time in the wind on exposed terrain. Not to mention, my mountaineering boots had turned my feet to mush. It was my first time wearing anything but trail runners in months. Time to toughen up.

37425-10615992_10100923999040716_8978907195452026680_n

It felt good to succeed on a fairly challenging route after a summer spent on Class 1, Class 2 and easy Class 3 peaks due to my ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery. It’s mostly a mental thing now, and Quandary’s West Ridge was a big step forward. I just hope I’ll be full-go by ice season, which looks to be starting here shortly…

#iceupson
#winteriscoming

Thanks for reading.