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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mt. Wheeler 13,161

Mt. Wheeler, the highest mountain in New Mexico, a commonly climbed peak, but challenging none the less…

My girlfriend and I first struck up the idea to climb it late one evening while eating dinner together. To be honest, I wasn’t totally convinced we would make it a reality. She was eager to make her first summit attempt. I was a bit more reserved, id made summits and fallen short of them before, but all with Sight Unseen. If the trip really did take place it would be my first summit without the team.

I agreed, excitedly and with a hint of caution. Immediately she started looking into the different kinds of gear she would need. She had been backpacking before, but never a summit. We had gone to Cabela’s a few months earlier and picked out a good starter pack for her, other than a pair of boots it was all she had for a trip. We stopped in at the local gear store in Arlington; it was like she was a 4year old in a toy store again, Kind of like I was when I first started getting in to mountaineering.

I had a few spare gear items for her to use, she was quickly learning all the basics, the brands we like, why we like them and the differences between types of things. I enjoyed being the mentor. We got her all set up and just needed a date and time to leave. This was the part I knew would cause problems.

I was still interning at the city of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management to finish up my degree. I had been there since the start of the summer, and it was already early July before we had everything we needed. Finally we hammered out a timeframe. August 4th, we would leave with her dad, drive to Cimerron New Mexico and stay in their family’s cabin out in the hills, about an hour from the trail head.

At this point I was a little nervous mixed with frustration. Naturally I had to know where we were going, the trail we would take, the time frame, and all the essentials. For some reason my Google powers were quickly failing. Information on the mountain was hard to come by, a few sporadic trip reports, each one with different and conflicting information. I tried to plan our route the best I could with Google maps, but that’s not always reliable. Worst case scenario plans kept forming faster than an actual climbing plan ever did. I figured we might have better luck with information once we were actually there, so I locked down the emergency plan in case we were just out of luck.

Before I knew it we were piling into her dads pickup, the monster truck, as Caitlin’s 2 year old nephew would call it. We headed out to their cabin; her dad came to do some maintenance on it and would take us to and from the trail head. The evening before we started our climb, her dad handed me a guidebook he found in the cabin. “A guide to New Mexoc’s Mountians”, I flipped to the section on Mt Wheeler, reading through the many different trails to take. It was the first real bit of information regarding trails I had seen. It eased my concerns as I found the trail we were planning on taking.

The following morning we drove out to the trail head. Long winding mountain roads littered the path to the trail head. It was a good feeling to be back in the hills again. Eventually we found ourselves driving along a one lane, gravel road that lead to the parking area for the trail head. We went over the plan again and set off. The first leg of the climb would be roughly 8 miles to lost lake, our camp site. From there, we would get an early start to the summit and plan to be off the mountain by about 6pm the next day. As we started moving up the steep switchbacks, my heel started rubbing on my boot. I hadn’t worn them in awhile but I didn’t think they would hurt. We stopped and covered the hotspot, hoping to prevent a blister, luckily it did.

As we kept moving we stopped for lunch, a delicious combination of cliff bars and my personal favorite, gold fish. We had been hiking for a few hours and had gone roughly 4 miles, moving fast in some places and slower in others. Eventually we reached the altitude where we would start to traverse around protruding bends in the mountain, opening up the spectacular view of the valley below. Being visually impaired I could only actually see bits and pieces. Just knowing where we were and feeling the cool mountain breeze was exhilarating.

After crossing a few more bends we came up to lost lake. It was a small, crystal clear mountain lake at about 9,850. As I looked up I saw the dark rain clouds coming in, so we quickly searched for a campsite, hoping we could get everything set up before it started to rain. In a rush we found a rather sub par place, pitched the tent and hunkered down for what we were sure would be a heavy storm. It started to drizzle, and quickly stopped. It teased us for about an hour before we both were fed up with the site and the weather so we got up, put on our boots and went to look for a better site.

Not but 25 yards away we found a good one. Another group was camping not far from there, so we picked up our gear and quickly moved. As we started to settle in, a heard of mountain goats came striding through the camp area. Young and old, big and small, they constantly ran through the area, all day long, stopping only to stare at us.

Dinner time came and I broke out the whisperlite. It had been giving me problems before we left and I was praying it would be in a good mood. I was hungry. I started to work with it and it kept dying on me. Caitlin came over to take a look, and go figure, it fired right up for her on the first try. Not thinking much of it we slapped together a quick mountain house meal that soothed the soul.

We went to bed early, anticipating an early start. When the time came though, we didn’t leave until about 7am. We decided to go fast and light, taking only one pack, loaded with water and an extra warm layer. Eventually we came up on Horseshoe Lake at about 11,500 ft. We could see the summit. It looked closer than we thought. As we kept moving we came to a fork in the trail, naturally we took the more defined one which took us across a steep basin to a ridge just below the summit where it switched back. The summit was literally 30 feet above us with the trail leading on past the peak in the wrong direction.

Normally I don’t endorse what we did but the trail was becoming rather annoying with this many switchbacks and teasing manner. So we took our own path vertically about 30 feet until we reconnected with the trail again. We were at the summit, 13,161 feet. There were a few people already there, having lunch, signing the registry at the top and taking pictures. We did our share of the same and spent about 30 minutes admiring the view, savoring the moment. I was in awe that we had even made it a reality. Our first climb as a couple. It had more emotional value than physical, immensely different from a team summit, but still a summit.
As we followed the trail down, we ended up coming to the top of Mt Walter, Wheeler’s sister peak at about 13, 141. Not expecting it, we stopped and savored a second summit before heading back to lost lake. It was an interesting experience, two summits in as many hours.

On our way down we stopped for a quick rest at lost lake before packing up and heading out. The whole way down we discussed how we had actually just made our first summit together. Caitlin started talking about how she wanted to continue backpacking and mountaineering. It seemed as though a new found passion had been born. I was glad to hear her say that. While descending to the parking lot we kept discussing different peaks we could try, when the best time would be to climb them. Looking back on it now she was acting the same way I was after returning from Peru in 2006.

It was the first trip of many and the beginning of something new. I can only wonder where the next climb will be.

Out of Darkness

Hey TSU followers. I realize I've been absent from the blog for a while. I felt like doing some deep thinking this morning so I typed up this short piece about rock climbing and what it means to me. I'll try to post some reports about the incredible summer I had in 2011 soon. For now enjoy this piece of rare deep thinking.

Climb High,


Out of Darkness

As I half balanced, half clung with desperation to a finger lock and knee bar, I reached up to clip my rope into the quickdraw that Brendan had managed to get into the bolt but failed to secure the rope through. My entire body trembled and I knew that I was going to peel if I didn't clip. I made an effort but my finger lock gave out and I tumbled backwards calling out "falling" as I did so. I came to a bouncing hault after a fall of about 25-30 feet and I couldn't help feeling disappointed. But at the same time I felt exhilarated.

I tried to clip the rope several more times but each subsequent attempt took more and more out of me, and was followed by a long whipper. It mattered and yet didn't matter.

Brendan and I had spent pretty much the entire afternoon working on this one route, a 5.10 plus called "The Ram" located on the "Bank Rob Wall" at Shelf Road just outside of Canyon City, Colorado. Brendan and I were dedicated weekend climbers but both of us wanted to be better. So on our last trip to Shelf Road two weeks prior I'd made the suggestion that we just grit our teeth and attempt to lead a 5.10. We debated on a 5.10A or a 5.10 plus. And for some reason we chose the 10 plus.

That first time we'd only made it up to the seventh bolt (out of nine) and had felt too nervous going for the eighth, because we were both nervous about falling. But on this trip we were both determined to "slay the Ram". We both made several gallant attempts before Brendan finally managed to clip the rope through the eighth bolt. But then neither of us were strong enough or had the guts to go for the ninth bolt.

I felt disappointed with myself for not being able to complete the climb, but I vowed to come back and "slay the Ram" at some other point. But in the subsequent weeks since attempting the Ram I've come to realize several things about myself and climbing. It took some examining of my past, present and future and shoot it's still not all clear to me, but I more understand myself because of climbing now.

When I was six years old I lost my sight to Retinoblastoma (cancer of the eye) and I thought that everything was just not going to be okay. Fortunately for me, I met Erik Weihenmayer (a world class blind athlete and climber) only about a month or so after I went blind.

Erik and I talked for a while and Erik just told me that I needed to live my life and not be afraid. He made a suggestion that I go ahead and try rock climbing. It was a scary but truely exhilarating proposition. I wondered if I could have the guts, the strength, etc to climb a vertical wall.

About a year after meeting Erik, I climbed for the first time at our local indoor gym. A family friend and I developed a system so that I could locate the holds by using my hands and feet as if they were the hands of a clock and the wall a clockface. David would call out where each hold was by telling me positions on a clock.

As I began going to the gym more and more, my confidence grew. My family got into climbing and it became our family activity. After a couple of years, my parents signed my sisters and myself up to compete on the competitive climbing team that was getting started up at our gym. I took to competitive climbing with a passion unlike any I've had before. My sisters, teammates and I were at the gym almost every day whether it was a scheduled practice or not. Our coaches gave us techniques and exercises to do which we strove to master. Hangboard competitions became fiercely competitive among the team. At one point I could hang straight armed for more than three minutes from two decent jugs on our gym's hangboard.

When the competition season rolled around and my coaches and parents began to battle with officials on whether or not I would be able to compete because of my blindness I didn't much pay attention. Finally, the officials relented and I was allowed to compete. I climbed hard at every comp, taking fifth in my first comp and placing as high as second. I was invited to nationals to compete but I was so cocky and the trip was too expensive that my parents decided that I wasn't ready to compete at the highest level.

Instead we went on a two week camping and climbing vacation around the southeast. We camped in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. I onsighted my first 5.11"A during this time, as well as flashed numerous other 5.10 and 5.11s. I returned to the gym and climbed hard all summer, but when the school year came again getting to the gym became harder. I was now in middle school and in a new division. Slowly my family and I fell out of climbing.

I continued to satisfy my hunger for climbing by reading books and writing papers, stories and essays about rock and mountain climbing. In eighth grade I started getting into more hiking and mountaineering when I got the opportunity to hike the Ankascocha Trail with Global Explorers into Machu Picchu. After this trip I climbed and summitted Mt Kilimanjaro, again with Global Explorers.

After summitting Kili, the friends that I'd made on the GEx trips and I came together and formed our own climbing team, Team Sight Unseen. Together we climbed Mt St. Helens, and then made an attempt on Gannet Peak. I received my guidegog during these years as well and felt that my path would be more defined by mountaineering and hiking now than rock climbing. I was also really getting into downhill skiing, cycling and wrestling so I figured those would all keep me happy and content.

As I entered college though, I felt a yearning for vertical rock; for feeling my mental and physical strengths to be pushed to their utmost as I sthove to figure out the correct sequence of moves to det past the crux on a hard climb or boulder problem. Slowly, I found myself reading up on rock climbs and climbers, telling myself it was just a small thing that would pass. I was too busy with college wrestling, thinking about become an indoor cycling instructor and mountaineering, to pay attention to rock climbing. I had been a decent rock climber but those days were over for me.

Then I found myself reading about rock climbing techniques and remembering the drills that I used to do in training. I remembered the thrill I felt at hearing my name called for a second place ribbon at a comp. But more importantly and more vividly than anything, I remembered the pride, sense of accomplishment and the happiness I felt at completing a particularly difficult climb. And I realized that rock climbing was my passion and the thing that I was best at. Rock climbing had brought me out of a state of depression and into a state of happiness. Rock climbing had brought from the dark and into the light, and I wondered if it could do it again.

My friend had worked at a summer camp and encouraged me to apply for a job as a counselor at this same summer camp. I applied and was offered a job for this past summer. I moved to Colorado in late May, went through staff training and the first few weeks of having campers. Every time that I had "time off" I managed to find a group of people that were going climbing, and if they weren't somehow I still managed to get up on the rock. Most mornings or evenings I found myself going down to the camp's small bouldering house where I put up several difficult boulder problems...projects for me to work on throughout the summer. Working on these problems gave me the old feelings of working toward a goal, of building my confidence back up.

Soon I abandoned top rope climbing and began focusing on my sport leading ability. Brendan and I somehow drifted together and became climbing partners. We went to 11 Mile Canyon, Shelf Road, and Garden of the Gods together, pushing each other to get better. When Brendan and I went on our last trip to Shelf at the end of the summer before it was time for me to fly back to Florida, we discussed taking another crack at the Ram. For some reason though I wasn't feeling up to trying to "slay the Ram" just yet. It might have been age, it might have been experience, it might have just been the clear and crisp Colorado mountain air, but I came to the realization that climbing isn't about how hard a route you can put up. It's not about making the first ascent of a route. It's not about making money. It's not about the adrenaline. It's not even just about the compaoionship of being around other climbers, or if you're a free soloist, not just about being alone and one with the rock. It was a combination of all of these. It felt good to push myself, to feel when I got Elvis legs. It felt good to conquer a difficult route. It was awesome just hanging out with my climbing partners and having a good old time. It felt great to be one with the rock and nature. And it even felt good (after the initial disappointment) to not complete a route because it gave me something to shoot for in the future.

So Brendan and I decided to forgo attempting the Ram, and instead we just climbed. We both lead our first ever 5.10A and talked about what it would be like to climb around the world. Not necessarily the hardest things, but just experience climbing in different cultures and places. We both wanted to be trad climbers and travel. And we both wanted to keep improving to become the best climbers we could possibly be. So that's what I'm going to do. Sure, I have ambitions, hopes and dreams of doing some radical stuff, but right now I'm happy if I can just get out to the rock and climb. For there's nothing like coming out of the dark and into the light.