Peak Bagging 14ers
By: Ben Shaw
*For more on this story join us February 13th at 7PM at Roads Rivers and Trails in downtown Milford for a more in-depth presentation by the trip participants. (2020)
Going on the first adventure of 2020, only took me a few days… I’d been planning this one for months though, getting out to Colorado again and climbing some snowy mountains has been in the back of my mind for years now. The weeks leading up, I obsessed about routes, weather, avalanche conditions and all the other things you actually have very little control over. When the week of the trip hit, I oddly found myself in a funk. The most experienced climber of the group bailed out on Monday and I started having weird shoulder pains on Tuesday. I shrugged it off, still excited, celebrated New Years and packed for the trip. As I got closer to leaving that Saturday I could feel my “funk” start to go away, but unfortunately some of it was still hanging on.
“In the mountaineering parlance of the Western US, a fourteener is a peak with an elevation of at least 14,000′. There are 96 fourteeners in the United States. Colorado has the most (53) of any state”
We left at 3 AM on a Saturday morning with the intent to be in Colorado Springs in the evening. The plan was to spend the night with our friends Olivia and Ike, who would then join us on our trip. On the car ride out, I started to notice the conditions on Bierstadt were already changing, with high winds, colder temperatures and potentially snow forecast for our prospective first summit day. Joining me on the trip were friends Dalton and Toren. I tried to put my thoughts to rest with a combination of laughing at shared stories and playing “My Cows”, but that didn’t help much. I made the call to push our summit day up, our plans were already changing. On top of that, an hour outside of Colorado Springs I got a fever and almost passed out, the trip was going swimmingly… After getting to our friend’s house and throwing down a few slices of pizza we all got to bed early for our 4 AM start the next day.
In the morning, the sky was clear, and after a windy, restless night, the air was calm. Our group quickly covered the two-hour drive to Guanella Pass and before I knew it, I was standing at 10,000′ putting on snowshoes and heading up the snow-covered road. We gradually hiked up, making it to the top of the pass in just under an hour. Toren, Dalton and I setup camp, planning to stay the night after summiting to acclimate at near 11,500′.
Mt. Bierstadt: After we setup camp, and gathered our summit packs we started into the willows up the west slope. As you head up Bierstadt in the warmer months, you travel through about a mile of thick willows and mushy marshland. Luckily, as we headed up, the boggy ground was frozen stiff, and the willows had a clear trench worked in by other climbers. We quickly progressed up above the swamp to 12,500′.
I could feel the altitude wearing on my body. My chest was tight, it was hard to breath, the cold winter air bit at my lungs but upward we went. Gradually we closed in on 13,500′ with a final 500′ vertical push to the summit. This would be the only semi-exposed part of the climb; the east face was shear and the final pitch was blanketed in two small snow fields. As we rested behind some rocks before the push, a pair came down and said it was brutally windy up there. We weren’t discouraged being so close, but we knew it would be a quick up and down. Toren and I set off, climbing up, I felt like he was sprinting ahead of me, excited for the 14,060′ summit. After a few short minutes we reached the top and took in the panoramic views of nothing insight but an endless expanse of mountains. Quickly, we were chased down by the wind as our friends made the final push up behind our descent.
We trotted down the mountain. I could feel the air warm, and my body slowly regaining its posture. I was still exhausted. Having not felt well the day before, I was at a major calorie deficit and dehydrated, not good things for being in the mountains. The lower we descended the more I could feel muscle fatigue and the other effects of the past 48 hours setting in. I needed a nap…
Eventually we all made it down to 11,500′ where we had setup basecamp. We traded stories of our somewhat separate trips up and down as we got a much-needed snack. Eventually Olivia and Ike continued down the mountain, back to their car and headed home to Colorado Springs. Dalton, Toren and I got that much needed nap. After brushing off our alarms for close to an hour we finally arose from our slumber. I sat up, threw up and continued heaving out the tent door… I either had altitude sickness, or food poisoning or a combination of the two. Even if it was just food poisoning, being up at 11,500′ was not making it better, both ends of my body felt like they wanted to explode…
We made the smart call to go down. As we packed camp, I was furious at my body for not keeping up. Once back at the car, I sank into my seat, defeated and feeling like trash. We started off towards Colorado Springs. About halfway down Guanella Pass we ran into some skiers that had locked themselves out of their car and needed a ride to their key. Dalton and Toren obliged and helped them with a ride. I like to believe that that was our payment in good karma for the rest of the trip. After a few hours shuttling and then being stuck in Sunday ski traffic we arrived back in Colorado Springs and I was quickly in bed.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) “The negative health effect of high altitude caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation. Symptoms may include headaches, vomiting, tiredness, trouble sleeping, and dizziness.”
The next day I had a decision to make, pull it together and head towards DeCaLiBron for our 4 summit day or wimp out and give into my body… I told my body to shove off. Dalton and Toren, as they would many more times on this trip, encouraged me to go for it. By sunset we found ourselves at 12,000′, snuggled up in our 4-season mountaineering tents and 0-degree sleeping bags as the wind whipped off the summits outside.
Around 9 PM Ike arrived at our camp, waking me up from what had been a pretty good nap. I was happy though, him being there gave me a bit of comfort, after all, he’s been there on most of my biggest trips. After getting settled in, we again dozed off to sleep to the sound of howling wind outside. My watch began to vibrate at 6:30 AM, it was still dark. I began moving around looking for breakfast and water, knocking frost of the top of the tent. The wind had settled, but it still kicked up here and there. As the sun started to rise up through the gulch we reluctantly put on our cold boots and started up the south slope of Mt. Democrat from Kite Lake.
Mt. Cameron: After losing the saddle back towards Cameron, we grabbed a snack and felt rejuvenated by our speedy pace. As a group we agreed to push on to the other summits back above us. Again, we quickly regained the ridge going up to Cameron and bagged the sub-peak at 14,238′. Dalton and I were beginning to feel the effects of the wind and the day, we were becoming sluggish as Ike and Toren continued to push on. As we traveled across the flat saddle towards Mt. Lincoln, Dalton and I started to doubt ourselves. We could see the peak in the distance, but we were worried about getting too fatigued after our long ascent and knew we still had the journey back. Halfway up the summit push we were deterred by the wind and Toren and Ike carried forward. We found shelter as they bagged the summit and we were already beating ourselves up. Dalton was trying to think when he could come back here next when Toren got back to us and said it wasn’t that bad and that we should have gone for it.
Mt. Democrat: Ike had been smart and brought snowshoes, Toren, Dalton and I thought we were better off without the weight. For the first mile we post-holed up the slope, trying to gain the high ground. Ike moved like a superhuman and we moved like sloths. As we progressed up to the ridge between Cameron and Democrat, we crossed a few different avalanche zones. We always made sure to spread out and take it slowly, one at a time, but the suspense as each one of us would cross was palpable. Eventually, we made it up onto the saddle and excitedly started up the east ridge of Democrat. It was a windy push, with strong gusts coming over the north ridge. We were completely exposed since we didn’t want to go over to the snow-covered south slope. The wind was punishing and after we would all talk about how this was the first time we all collectively thought to ourselves about abandoning the day. The group persevered though, and we reached the 14,152′ summit before 10 AM, we still had a full day ahead of us.
Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Bross: Full of excitement, Dalton and I dropped our packs and pushed over to the 14,286′ summit of Lincoln as well. It was surprisingly easy, and it was also extremely rejuvenating. We crossed over the furthest part of our route, we had all bagged 3 of the 4 and we were about to be on our way down. Slowly, we crossed another avalanche zone before continuing on to Bross at 14,172′. At the top, we sat for a second and celebrated. Something we had doubted doing that morning had just been completed. The group began down the summit back towards Kite Lake, all feeling tired, but happy. We did a combination of rock hopping down the scree slopes and glissading down the couloirs to get back to camp. After an uneventful descent, we were back.
Our original plan was to do Quandary the following day but I knew I would probably be too tired still and severely wanted some rest. I convinced Dalton and Toren to go to Leadville that night and stay at the Inn of the Clouds Hostel for the next two nights to rest up before we finished our journey. Out of all the decisions I made I think this was the only one I regret.
Glissade: “The act of descending a steep snow- or scree-covered slope via a controlled slide on one’s feet or buttocks. Typically done with the support of an ice axe.”
We spent the night in Leadville getting delicious food at Tennessee Pass Cafe, enjoying a beer at Periodic Brewing (the highest microbrewery in North America) and relaxing at the hostel. The next day we poked around the local gear shops, played in the snow, had some great pizza from High Mountain Pies and took full advantage of a much needed day off. On Thursday we were going to be heading up Quandary to bag our 6th peak so we got to sleep and prepared for an early morning.
Quandry Peak: As we woke up in the morning and went out to the car there was a light dusting of snow and the air was bitterly cold. We had an hour car ride, so I was hoping that as the sun came up it would reveal clear skies, it did. Sitting in the parking lot just before 8 AM, we geared up, and got out and started up the easy but steep slope. The trail was well packed below treeline, the group made great time. Before I knew it, we had reached tree-line and were heading up slope with no signs of a trail, everything was windswept. As we pushed onward, it became a post-hole fest up to 12,500′, but we did it.
We continued to gain the ridge, closing in on 13,000′ and the final summit push. On the other side of the mountain, we could see a massive cloud blowing in. The winds were 50-60 mph with higher gusts and the light powder from the night before blew against the smallest bit of exposed skin like shards of glass. It was a brutal and dangerous slog. Every time we stopped, I thought about how long we could continue up into the -36°F weather with this kind of wind and what would happen if we found ourselves in a whiteout.
I made the hard call and turned us back. Dalton understood what the issues were, Toren wanted to go on but reluctantly understood and I felt defeated by my own decision. I honestly believe the hardest decision you can make when mountaineering is to turn back. You abandon the summit; you abandon your goal and you go down. It takes a lot out of you to put in that kind of work and quit. As we drove off, I thought of all of the things that could have gone differently. Would the conditions have been better the day before? If we got a later start, would that have helped? Should I just have kept pushing onward? It sits on your mind…
We left central Colorado and headed towards Rocky Mountain National Park in the Front Range for an overnight snowshoeing in the backcountry. When we got there the Rangers said we’d be the only people out, it was the height of the slow season. It was a fun couple of hours as we headed up to Glacier Gorge, enjoying the winter weather and making the most of the end of our trip. The snow blanketed everything and made the valleys beautiful. Longs Peak was socked in by snow, but it loomed above us as the night set in. It was an enjoyable end to a very memorable trip.
After RMNP we got food, went back to Colorado Springs, visited Garden of the Gods and had one last night in Colorado before heading home. I was proud of our successes, with 5/6 peaks bagged, and being able to make the smart calls when we needed to make them and keeping the whole group together. I had dreamt about this trip for so long and then spent months planning it. It took a lot out of me and definitely didn’t go completely according to plan (but nothing ever does). I was finally excited to live it though, to get the experience in the mountains and push my limits on what I can do and what I know how to confidently do.