A Winter Day on the Divide

Cupid Peak (13,117’)

Grizzly Peak D (13,427’)

Mount Sniktau (13,234’)

8.0 miles/3,700 feet of vertical gain

1/5/16


I have climbed around twenty peaks above 12,000 feet in calendar winter, seven of them being above fourteen thousand feet, the hardest two being Creston Needle and Wilson Peak.  I have always gone with people who are more experienced than myself.  Climbing large mountains in winter is hard, anyone who has done it understands why; longer approaches, more gear, heavier packs, cold dark early start times, hours spent wallowing in the trees breaking trail through feet of snow, avalanche danger, less daylight, the lack of desire to drink water or eat because of the cold etc. etc.  The effort is quadruple that (maybe even more) of summer climbing.  Some of us sickos love the suffering and love the solitude as most mountain climbers go into hibernation as soon as the snow starts flying.  This means you are likely to only have the mountain and your partners face to stare at for 15+ hours, so choose who you go out with wisely ( : 

When I first started winter climbing 2 seasons ago, I did not like it.  I did it because I missed the mountains and honestly that is the only reason why.  My second season, I still did not like it.  But this season I made an active choice to embrace the cold, embrace the snow, embrace the difficulties, and what I found is a new respect, not only for the mountains but for the strength and toughness a climber develops while connecting with the discomforts of winter climbing.  I have not hated or cursed winter up in the high alpine or even down low in the front range (I have done plenty of long cold, icy, local runs up and down the Jeffco and Boulder peaks).  I am building character, or at least that is what I keep telling myself. 


Connor is a very good friend of mine.  We met three years ago while attending Red Rocks Community College.  We both took a full semester class on Hawaiian ecology and geology and then traveled to Hawaii for several weeks where we applied everything we learned.  He ran around barefoot, climbing up and down rocks, running away from the group, and most importantly he got me to do something I am deathly afraid of: snorkel in the ocean (the waves were HUGE that particular day).  We bonded over a common sense of adventure and mischief and our friendship grew when we returned home and became rock climbing partners.  To this day he is the best lead climbing partner I have had.

If I had spent this past summer in Colorado, we would have climbed a lot of mountains together but I was traveling from May until late August and then started at Colorado School of Mines.  Connor moved to Washington DC in September but before he left he wanted me to take him on a fun class 3 that summited a 14er or two.  We did the Tour de Abyss (I will eventually write about it) and had an absolute blast.  He said, “when I come back for Christmas I want you to take me up some winter peaks.”  I agreed. 

The time came and I had no idea what to march him up.  I am not a seasoned winter climber.  I want Ellingwood Point but in the end my only real criteria, keep us both safe.  I need more experience.  I jumped in the deep end having Wilson Peak and Crestone Needle be my first and second winter ascents, I was also accompanied by Abe the non-human. Since then, I swam back to shallower water and am willing to put the time in to develop a feel for winter mountain synergy before I go attempt another crazy peak.  I want to take a winter survival class, an avalanche class, and get several safer peaks under my belt.  Will Connor and I eventually climb Ellingwood Point?  I have no doubt. 

I went to Rocky Mountain National Park with two friends and summited Flat Top Mountain and Hallett Peak (awesome day that I will eventually write about) and less than 48 hours before Connor and I got out, Dillon and I summited Mount Columbia via the south east ridge route (a 2 a.m. wake up call and another great day I will eventually write about).  I reluctantly decided on Mount Bierstadt for Connor and I, neither of us too stoked.  As well I really want Mount B as my first winter solo.  But what else is close?  Grays and Torreys?  I said no to these two for several reasons.  In the end I decided on Grizzly Peak D because of its accessibility and because I had done this ridge in the summer.  It gives great views in all directions and is a great introduction to winter peak bagging.  When I suggested it to Connor he seemed much more excited, so done.


It was still a 4:30 a.m wake up call that turned into a 7:15 a.m. start time, late for any season.  The weather forecast was iffy but I felt comfortable with the route even if an early storm moved in as predicted.  Connor and I emerged from my warm car atop the chilly summit of Loveland Pass and headed northeast towards PT 12,915.  We did not get far as the sun rose over snow covered mountains.  It’s as if it was saying, “Halt small humans and enjoy my glorious arrival.”

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The peak colors only lasted about five minutes.  Winter sunrises are different, they are crisper, they are cleaner.  As well, I am normally slogging an approach deeply buried in trees as the sun comes up, so this was special.  Onward we pressed to Cupid Peak as the ridge turned south.

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sunrise over Torreys Peak

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summit of Cupid

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From Cupid Peak the remaining route to Grizz D is visible.  There are impressively large cornices on the east side of the ridge.  It is obvious you should not walk out on them even though we saw foot prints going right to the edge.

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There is a lot of ups and a lot of downs.

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In the summer I rarely ever carry my real camera because I only take a small running pack but winter means big pack – big camera.  We stopped to take some artistic snow shots, turns out the photo of me taking a photo came out better.

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We dicked around quite a bit with picture taking.

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The climb up Grizz D looks scary as F from PT 12,936 (a bump on the ridge) but not technically difficult once in it.  It is however straight up.

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sun over Grizz D

Against all odds we made it to the summit of Grizzly Peak D, actually, it was pretty straight forward and not THAT hard.  But you can make an otherwise easy day more difficult by not eating or drinking any water and climbing Mount Columbia right beforehand.  If you employ this tactic you are certain to grow nauseous, weak, dizzy, and get the fever sweats.  I still have not figured out the most effective way to get water into me during the winter.  A hydration hose is the only way I will drink but they freeze solid.  I have tried the “blowing” technique, doesn’t work.  I even went to Ace Hardware and engineered my own insulation system, didn’t work.  Soooo I reverted back to the old Nalgene inside my pack trick.  All three examples result in me carrying around 2 liters of water and drinking 0 liters of water, very healthy.

I also put no effort into packing any food for this outing so I survived on one Justin’s Peanut butter cup and a cliff bar.  I was feeling the ups and the altitude for sure.

Now I thought that Torreys west face was going to be covered in dangerous avalanche prone snow, so I took that summit off the table before we even started the day.  Instead I came face to face with a wind swept slope, lots of visible rock, and a completely viable ascent route.  I almost started crying, drowning in my own bad choices, was I overly cautious?  And then I thought, “we can TOTALLY go for it.”  And then, “you don’t have any food. And then, “but it is literally right there.”  And then, “but you started late and it’s already 10:15 a.m” And then, “but it is literally right there.” And then, “you did this in the summer, it is not literally right there.”  Plus there is a metric ton of ascending on the way back and a storm coming even though it is currently sunny.  I had this chat with myself at the very east end of Grizz D’s east ridge.  Connor was ecstatic with the views but curious why we were not going for Torreys and Grays.  Grays would have added even more.

Ultimately it was too late and I did not have enough food.  We decided instead to enjoy the summit of Grizz, take photos, and add on Mount Sniktau.  There are several ways to climb Torreys and Grays in winter; with good weather, an early start time, and food, the ridge from Loveland Pass appears to be the safest.  I learned something!

** Even though Connor really wanted to go for them, I was firm (enough) in my decision.  The loss and gain of this ridge is very deceiving.  A storm did move in as we were descending Sniktau and I was not prepared food or gear wise to do those mountains.  I am proud of myself for turning away even though, yes, it was super hard because they really do look like they are just right there.  Why ruin a perfectly good day?  The mountains will seriously always be there.**

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point to where we are NOT going

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ugh, HEY Patagonia

Lately, I have been carrying this small survival kit (by Pinewood Outdoors) around with me.  It is especially great for summer, because of it’s size it fits nicely into my running pack.  Let’s just say I could start a fire, maybe not on the east flank of Grizz D where wood is null but there are plenty of trees to wallow in in Colorado.  What is super cool about this company, it is run by 15 year old entrepreneur Charlie Scarborough aka CharScar.  Any 15 year old who loves the mountain, starts a business, and has the nick name CharScar is all right in my book.

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survival kit – Pinewood Outdoors

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turn and walk away from where we are NOT going

I had a revelation or two.

The ridge over to Lenawee is so so so so sexy.  It really looks like something straight out of Alaska.

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the sexiest ridge in the room

And then we began the descent.

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And the ascent.

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And the descent and the ascent and the descent and the ascent.  Connor forced me to go for Mount Sniktau (off a north spur ridge of the main ridge) which consisted of descending, ascending, descending, ascending, descending, and ascending.  I am not even being dramatic this ridge is a roller coaster.  Running on fumes I was very happy we skipped Torreys and Grays.

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almost to Sniktau

Rather quickly a storm was on the divide.

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There was something magical in those last few miles.  Watching the clouds billow upward until they connected with one another fully engulfing statuesque mountains.  The temperature dropped and I could no longer feel my face as the snow began to fly in all directions.  The winter light fading dim as the darkness from the incoming storm crept over the ridgeline we danced on.

When climbing up to the summit of a mountain there are moments of suffering which seemingly and out of no where give way to moments of complete elation.  This was one of those moments.  Even though every foot of elevation regained screamed through my under nourished body like a freight train ripping through the night, I felt alive.  There is something about being out there in the raw elements that keeps my spirit wild.

To put it more eloquently, I will gladly suffer all the suffers so I can feel all the feels.

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A day in the mountains never disappoints.  I was happy, Connor was happy, we will be back for Torreys and Grays (in March Connor).


“I am willing to put myself through anything.  Temporary pain or discomfort means nothing to me as long as I can see that the experience will take me to a new level.  I am interested in the unknown, and the only path to the unknown is through breaking barriers, an often painful process.”


Comments

A Winter Day on the Divide — 5 Comments

  1. I tuck my platypus hose insie my coat and it stayed warm and useful on a 0 degree day trip to Barr camp. I also recently had it at a higher elevation also. Also I have gone to taking a little money pouch that I hang around my neck inside my coat.. that keeps food/nutrition bars soft enough to eat. Please do not post if you can. these are ideas for you. you can write me back if you wish to my email.

  2. I’ve climbed Sniktau in the winter and really liked it. But I’d thought Grizzly might be too steep (having climbed it in the summer). Thanks for the report: it seems that Grizzly ought to be do-able!

    And, yes, the ridge over to Lenawee is sexy. (BTW: There’s a report on 14ers.com from a couple who traversed the ridge in the winter …like wizards.)

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