Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Mt Ouray Trials

Here’s a semi-trip report that I concocted of a trip I had the privilege to help lead in late June/early July at the camp at which I worked over the summer. Please realize I can’t tell every little detail, but I’ve tried to reconstruct the trip as best I can.

The Mt Ouray Trials:
Elevation: 13971 ft

I'd been in Colorado for almost a month and hadn't yet so much as sniffed a mountain trip, let alone a mountain summit. To that end I hadn't sniffed a mountain summit since 2008 when Peter, Brad and I successfully climbed Mt St. Helens. Originally, Austin, Adam and I were supposed to lead a trip up Quandary Peak (14265 ft). However, Sanborn higher ups decided that Quandary was too covered with snow to warrant attempting it. I didn't argue even though I knew that my friends and mentors Erik Weihenmayer and Eric Alexander had just led a trip up Quandary several weeks earlier and had gotten around 55 people to the summit. Granted these were older and some much more experienced people than 12-14 year old kids at a summer camp. But I digress. Our objective now was the 13er Mt Ouray.

Colorado is best known for it's 57 peaks of greater than 14000 ft. However, what many don't realize is that Colorado boasts around 600 peaks that are higher than 13000 ft, many of which are far more physically, mentally and technically demanding than the 14ers. Although I didn't have much in the way of "experience" on many mountains (I'd only ever been on 4 mountains) I knew from my limited experience and even more from my meticulous research of mountaineering exploits to never underestimate a mountain.

I myself had underestimated Mt St. Helens in 2008 and it turned out to be the hardest thing I'd attemmted in the outdoors. That is, until we attempted Gannet Peak in August, 2010. So it rubbed me the wrong way when I heard campers, and even counselors say something like "it's only a 13er". Every mountain and endeavor has it's challenges and I'd learned to not underestimate any mountain no matter it's height or "difficulty". So I had my reservations that everyone on the trip would summit Ouray, especially when I was informed that Ouray was considered one of the more physically and logistically challenging trips that Sanborn offered. I later wondered why they allowed us to take 11 and 12 year old campers on such a strenuous trip.

From the outset I figured Ouray would be challenging especially with the benal attitude that we trip leaders brought to the table in regards to planning. Austin was our designated trip leader and had summitted several 14ers and had quite a bit of experience having worked at Sanborn the previous year. Austin took care of the trip planning and logistics although he quickly discovered that there wasd't any solid beta on file about Ouray, whether through Sanborn or through the internet. All we were told was that the trail was hard to find but easy to follow once we found it, and that once we got higher it was steep scree. Not exactly the meticulous trip planning that I'd become accustomed to in my climbing with Sight Unseen.

We had a group of seven or eight campers and us three counselors. When we first arrived at our campsite Austin scouted out where we thought the trail was and then met a couple guys who had just done a traverse of Mt Ouray. They had started on the opposite side and followed a trail up and over to our side. The idea appealed to Austin and Adam, and to me as well, even though I was hesitant because we knew absolutely nothing. The guys that Austin met said the trail was easy to find and follow and then departed.

So the next morning we got up a little before 1:00 AM and drove to the opposite side of Ouray to attempt the traverse. We thought we found a trail but then it turned off in an odd direction so then we attempted to bushwack in the correct direction. Then our younger campers started complaining and saying that they were scared we were lost. So Austin, Adam and I decided to go back and just do the standard trail. So we hiked back down and drove over to the trailhead. We'd already wasted about 2.5 hours on our little adventure. Now it was time to actually climb Ouray. My instincts were telling me that 4:30 AM was too late a start to climb and summit a mountain. Maybe my experience from the previous year on Gannet was kicking in, or maybe I was just paranoid.

We followed what appeared to be a trail until it suddenly ended in a wooded area. So now we wound up bushwacking searching for the trail. We didn't find it until close to 7:00. When we finally got on the trail, after having bushwacked for a few hours, we actually started gaining some elevation. One of our less in shape campers announced that he wasn't feeling very good and wanted to go down. This camper hadn't really been enthusiastic about the trip in the first place, but it was now an obstacle we had to overcome. Rather than making everybody in the group go down, Austin took this particular camper back down to camp while Adam and I continued upward with the remaining campers.

Adam and I led the campers up, climbing higher and higher while the terrain got steeper and rockier. We had to cross back and forth over a stream several times, before finally coming out on a large rock strewn slope that led up to a ridge which led to the summit. The slope that led to the ridge was much longer and steeper than it first appeared. As Adam and I climbed we had to stop frequently and urge our remaining campers to not stop and to keep going. Several were starting to seriously tire. I could tell they were having a hard time. Breathing hard, heavy steps, and stopping every 15-20 steps or so. I too was tired but not as much as I would have expected, this being my first time above 13000 ft in about four years.

One of our campers was having an extremely hard time. Adam and I both expected that he hadn't been drinking water and was now paying the price as he was cramping up all over his body. We helped the campers push through and finally cam up on a large flat open space just prior to the ridge walk that would take us about 400-500 vertical ft up to the snow capped summit. But standing there I knew deep inside that we weren't meant to make the summit. Adam and I brought everyone around and asked how they were doing. Everyone was in the 25-40 percent range and that was good enough for us. It was getting close to 10:00 and everyone was exhausted. We'd been moving for the better part of eight hours and the campers just weren't ready quite yet. The inexplicable thought that Adam and I could make a quick dash for the summit crossed my mind for one instant, but then I took a deep breath and focused on why I was here. I wasn't here to bag the summit. I was here to help these campers to reach their potential, to help them make their own circumstances, to help push them and to keep them thinking rationally, and above all to help them do all of that safely while enjoying the beauty of the outdoors.

So we announced that this would have to be our summit and we all had a toast. I sat back and would be lying to myself if I said I wasn't disappointed or saddened. But too my surprise it hurt much more that these campers couldn't make the summit. I'd seen them battle through the brush with no trail down below. I'd seen their spirits pick up when we found the trail. I knew that they were all struggling but not a single one spoke about not reaching the summit, and I wanted to be the one to take them there. But I also knew that sometimes the mountain is just a little too tough. I remembered something that Jeff Evans had once said, "when you try big things you have to expect to fall short". I'd fallen short on my goal of reaching the summit of Gannet Peak the summer before, and these campers were now falling short of their goal of reaching the summit of Mt Ouray. But I also knew that failure helped define us more than success.

When we'd reached the summit of Kilimanjaro in 2007, sure we all felt a major sense of accomplishment, inspiration, the whole shebang. But on the other hand many of us hadn't been particularly challenged despite the mountain's imposing form. I learned more about myself as a mountaineer the following summer on the slopes of Mt Hood and Mt St. Helens. And even more about myself in the summer of 2010 when I humped a 50-60 pound backpack for miles on end up and down thousands of ft of elevation change before finally having to turn back about 2200 ft below the summit due to blisters the size of half dollars on my heels.

Gannet had hardened me and made me more of a climber. I knew that Ouray wasn't nearly as hard as Gannet but I knew that these campers would hopefully learn something about themselves from this experience. I wasn't sure what they would learn about themselves but I knew that they would, someday.

We got down from Ouray after about 3-3.5 hours of actual descent time. We'd had to stop and provide fluids and electrolites to our camper that was suffering from severe cramps and pains all over his body. We took it extremely slow down the mountain and finally got everyone down to camp safely. After a lunch break we drove back to Sanborn exhausted. I kept my fingers crossed that I would get to go on another m%tain trip soon. And I also resolved to myself that I would need to return and summit Ouray at some point. Because once a peak's in my system it won't leave me until I've summitted and made it back down safely.

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