San Juan Mountains

San Juan Mountains
San Juan Mountains: Grenadier Range

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Confessions Of A Thankful Peakbagger - Part I

About fifteen hundred years ago a fellow by the name of Augustine wrote a book he entitled his Confessions.  The book described the events of his life and how he came to be the greatest theologian in the history of the Christian Church up until that time.  The events of the last weekend in my life have inspired me to write a "confessions" of a sort.  Last weekend marked the 40th anniversary of my first climbed mountain, 13,101 foot South Truchas Peak in New Mexico.  I remembered that anniversary by climbing my 60th fourteen thousand foot peak, Culebra Peak in Colorado.  If you will indulge me for a bit, I will tell you all about it.
I have never liked the term 'peakbagger' and use it in reference to myself with great reticence.  Peakbaggers are a class of mountaineer that seek to climb as many peaks as possible over their lifetimes.  Top peakbaggers spend practically all of their spare time climbing mountains.  The top peakbaggers in the history of the Socialist Democracy of Amerika have over five thousand peaks to their credit.  Go here if you are interested in the list of top peakbaggers.  John Kirk, the top peakbagger in the land, has climbed 7,301 peaks.  Other luminaries like Bob Martin and Mike Garret have climbed 5,546 and 5,335 peaks respectively.  As a peakbagger, these are numbers that stagger my mind as I consider the time that must be dedicated in order to attain such huge numbers.  I will certainly never rise to the top of the peakbagging ranks. Label me an amateur peakbagger, if you will. 
I will occasionally run into a peakbagger on one of my trips.  That happened again last Saturday when I climbed Culebra.  Although they are usually decent enough chaps I have found that it is impossible for me to relate to them.  Peakbaggers are almost always Type A, Obsessive/Compulsive people who climb peaks simply to be able to say they climbed the peaks.  They love to talk about how many peaks they can climb in one day and their goal is always to climb as quickly as possible while getting as many summits as possible each day.  Stopping to smell the roses along the way is forbidden since it would detract from the possibility of attaining one more peak that day.  The young man I met on the top of Culebra was planning on finishing the Colorado 14ers (58 peaks) today.  He was going to hike into an area in the San Juan mountains called Chicago Basin the first day, climb the four 14ers surrounding that basin in one day, then hike out on the third day.  That sounds miserable to me.  I took three separate five day backpacking trips to Chicago Basin to accomplish the climbs of those same four 14ers.  Chicago Basin feels like an old friend to me today and I have nothing but fond memories of the place.  The young man hiking out from there today barely knows her and will probably recall nothing of her nuances a year from now.  How sad.
So I will reluctantly adopt the moniker of a peakbagger with one significant caveat....I am much more concerned with the quality of my mountaineering experiences than the quantity.  No peakbagger would ever want to climb with me because I am not O/C.  No peakbagger would ever want to camp with me because I take way too much time to explore an area.  And no peakbagger would ever go on a climbing trip with me because I always leave at least one peak unclimbed in the area, giving myself a reason to go back some day.
Culebra was the last of my Colorado 14ers.  Most peakbaggers have a list of 14ers that contains 58 peaks.  We recognize as official peaks all named peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation as well as any unnamed point that exceeds 14,000 feet in elevation that has at least a 300 foot saddle drop to the next nearest peak.  This is the standard set of rules for almost all peakbaggers.  I have also been to the top of two 14ers in California, thus making my 14er peak total 60 rather than 58.  Culebra is a privately owned 14er and has gone through various access issues over the years as different ranch owners controlled the property.  Back in the old days (the 80s) a person could climb the peak simply by calling the ranch manager and informing him that you were going to be there.  There was a fairly long period of time when the ranch was closed to all people.  I assumed that I would never get around to climbing Culebra peak and had dropped it from my list of official peaks when it was closed to all climbers.  Then, a year or so ago, I discovered that the new ranch owners were allowing limited access to the peak.  I was interested.
The current owners of the ranch allow access to the summit on each Friday and Saturday in July and August.  A maximum of 25 people per day are given permission to trespass on their property and the trespass fee is $150/person.  Our access to the peak on last Saturday was the last trespass slip given for the year as hunting season starts this weekend and the real paying customers will be arriving to hunt trophy elk.
My climbing party consisted of my wife and a long-time friend and climbing partner who made the trip up from Tucson to be a part of the planned celebration on the summit.  I assumed that most of the remaining 25 people would be folks nearing the end of the 14er list and I further expected there to be several summit celebrations.  Man was I in for a surprise.  Only 10 people assembled at the entrance gate in the semi-darkness of a 6:00 am start.  We were given instructions about the area and sent off to find our way to various trailheads in our four wheel drive vehicles.  Six of the climbers sped their way to the highest trailhead in order to make the climb as short and easy as possible.  One other climber joined us at a trailhead that allowed us to gain 3,000 vertical feet on the climb.  The 3,000 vertical feet is an important point.  Climbing all 58 Colorado 14ers is called the "Grand Slam."  Climbing those same peaks individually, rather than running the easy ridges between many of them, with a minimum of 3,000 feet of vertical on each climb is doing it cum laude.  Only a small percentage of the 1000+ people who claim to have accomplished the Grand Slam have done it cum laude.  The middle aged man who parked beside us was one of those men.  I am another.  He gave us a friendly greeting and sped off up the trail.  We were a couple of minutes behind him.  We hiked up the jeep road to its terminus, where all of the other climbers had parked their vehicles, and surveyed our options to the top.
The standard route, which is also the shortest and easiest route, went straight up the west face of the peak to a gigantic cairn on the upper ridge.  From that cairn it is a rocky ridge hop on a rare (for the Sangre De Cristo range) east/west running ridge to the summit.  A more interesting route, in my opinion, was to take the NW ridge of the peak up to the higher ridge where the gigantic cairn was located, then finish via the standard route.  Using the NW ridge would afford us dramatic views into the north facing cirques of Culebra Peak.  While all of the other parties raced up the standard route we took off for the NW ridge.  Here is a photo of me just reaching the NW ridge as the sun was rising in the east:

The NW ridge rose moderately along the intersection of the west face and the dramatic north face cirque.  We enjoyed skirting along the ridge, peering off the face on occasion to enjoy the views and exposure.  Here I am working my way up to the high point seen in the photograph below which would eventually become the summit ridge:

To my left in the above photograph was a cirque and Carneros lake.  Here is the view we were treated to as we ascended the ridge.  We are looking down almost 2000 vertical feet:

It was a windy morning and a jacket provided sufficient warmth to climb comfortably.  Upon arrival at the high point on the upper ridge we were treated to our first view of the east/west ridge to the summit, as well as the summit itself.  As we looked to the SE, here was our view:

Our route would follow the skyline coming in from the right and ascending to the summit, which is the high bump in the left-center of the above photograph.  The high point in the middle is a false summit.  This ridge would end up taking more time than I anticipated due to the rocky nature of the traverse.
The gigantic cairn that Culebra is famous for is found where the standard route reaches the ridge traverse visible above.  Here is a shot of the cairn with the false summit looming in the background:

The cairn in the above photo is about ten feet high.  We pressed onward and engaged the final summit ridge.  From the moment we first attained the high ridge that would lead us to the gigantic cairn we could see the other 7 climbers at various points along the skyline on their ascents of the peak.  We were obviously going to be the last to the top today.  Shortly after leaving the point in the above picture we ran into the man who had parked next to us.  He had already reached the summit, checked it off his list, and was now dancing down the rocky ridge to the west face descent and onward to his car.  He barely spent four total hours on the peak and was long gone by the time we returned to the trailhead.  Typical peakbagger, I thought to myself.  I wondered if he had seen the tiny forget-me-not flower growing in the tundra we passed along the way.  I rather doubt it.
We saw the forget-me-nots.  Here they are:

Shortly after passing the man completing his Grand Slam we encountered another climber on his way down.  He, like all the remaining others on the mountain, had parked at the high trailhead.  The first words out of his mouth were, "You are aware that what you are looking at is a false summit, aren't you?"  Given the fact that we had come up a completely different route and already been treated to a full view of the summit ridge we were quite aware of that fact.  He was one of those "know-it-all" climbers who just has to let people know what is going on.  The second comment out of his mouth was an interrogation.  He abruptly asked me, "How old are you?"  Seeing my gray hair and withered body he no doubt thought I was too old to be out climbing mountains.  I could barely answer him before he proudly informed us that he was 70 years old and he had never seen another climber as old as him on the peaks.  My Tucson friend also happened to be 70 but, as it turned out, he was a month younger than the bragger we were talking to.  I was relieved to press on and allow him to his own thoughts.
On the summit we caught up with an older couple and their 20-something son.  The son is the peakbagger I mentioned earlier.  I noticed that he was wearing tennis shoes as he told me about his "ultra-light" techniques that allowed him to climb six 14ers in a single marathon day.  He told me about his plans for Chicago Basin before jogging off to climb a nearby 13er that he wanted to add to his list that day.  His parents were obviously quite proud of him but I could only think to myself that the situation was so sad.  I wondered if he noticed the tundra flowers as he jogged over them.
We were shortly left alone to enjoy the summit. We spent a hour basking in the moment until we started getting chilled and needed to start the descent.  We enjoyed the views and reminisced on the hundreds of beautiful and glorious moments we had shared in the mountains during our times together.  My wife, ever the thoughtful one, had brought a small bottle of champagne so I opened it up and celebrated my 60th 14er:

For you peakbaggers out there, here are my stats after 40 luxuriously slow and deliberate years climbing mountains:
  • 153 ascents of 60 14ers.
  • 298 ascents of 253 13ers.
  • 63 ascents of 54 12ers.
  • 822 total ascents of 493 total peaks, including 393 Colorado peaks and an additional 100 peaks in 16 other states throughout the Socialist Democracy of Amerika.


  1. "I believe it is fair to say that Amerikans are some of the most insular, most uncompassionate, most hateful, most selfish and most barbaric people to have ever populated the face of the earth. Amerikans routinely turn a blind eye and a cold shoulder to the enormous amount of human suffering that they have created in the world. Then, when a tiny little event takes place on Amerikan soil, they cry out for vengeance and demand retribution. That is the way it is when people are citizens of an empire. They come to expect special treatment. They come to believe, as our King informed us last Sunday night, that they are "exceptional." They come to believe that everyone outside the empire is inferior. And they come to believe that only Amerikan lives matter."

    Mad Welshman


    No comment to you except arrogant, hypocritical Welshman and hater of Americans. Disdainful Brits can go the fuck home (Tories out…rebels can stay). America is socialist…and from a Brit…what? And get over your precious revelry of self-accomplishment. Climbing 14ers, 13ers, California peaks, and all ant hills in between is the epitome of selfishness. You indulgence in privilege and sneer at the inferiors…those that ascend a peak in less than 3,000 feet, or worse yet, traverse a Class 4 ridge as a “shortcut.” Your ability and lifetime’s accomplishment are trivialized by the like-kind accomplishments of so many countless fat, uneducated, ill-bred, impatient, unappreciative American barbarians in their running shoes, ball caps, and Gortex gear. You have no more than kept up with the inferior natives. Your senses are no keener. You are superior only in your existential British mind long after the sun has set on your fleeting empire. To you sir, I turn down my glass…a “mad” Welshman in too many ways. Are you sure that you are not English?

    So in your final days when you have no more climbing left and can only intellectualize your accomplishments rather than accomplish, like old Britannia does, measure your years spent peering down from your peaks against this Irishman’s epitaph perfectly scripted for your superfluous ranks:

    Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
    In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
    An ancestor was rector there
    Long years ago, a church stands near,
    By the road an ancient cross.
    No marble, no conventional phrase;
    On limestone quarried near the spot
    By his command these words are cut:
    Cast a cold eye
    On life, on death.
    Horseman, pass by!

    William Butler Yeats

    1. Mr. Anonymous:
      Thank you for your kind, insightful and, I must admit, somewhat difficult to understand comments. I promise I will do nothing in my reply to attempt to change your opinion of me. Indeed, you are writing about my favorite! Thank you very much.
      If I do understand your argument correctly (highly unlikely) you believe:
      1. I am an arrogant and hypocritical Welshman. I plead Guilty as charged. Is there any other type?
      2. I am the epitome of selfishness because I have managed to drag my carcass to the top of several hundred irrelevant geographical points scattered about the Socialist Democracy of Amerika. I plead Guilty as charged! If I had more Irish in me I would have spent that time feeding the poor.
      3. I am no better than any other American Yuppie out climbing mountains. Here I must disagree. I am far worse than they! I don't look good, don't wear a ball cap, don't own Gortex and generally smell quite awful.
      4. I might be English and you turn down your glass to me. So sorry to read that. If we ever meet I will be happy to buy you a Guinness my Irish friend.
      5. In my final days I will be a pathetic sight. Ah yes...I fear the final days are already upon me. I am a mere shell of my former physical and intellectual self. And my former physical and intellectual self wasn't much.
      6. When I die nobody will care. I suspect that is true as well. But at least I will be dead and unaware of just how little I was appreciated in this life.
      Thanks for your comments!

    2. Welshy,

      It seems you got this person all in a lather. It's nice that he/she had the courage to sign his/her post and to inform you that he/she was a butler. However, I doubt his/her real name is William Yates. Using the IT resources available to me within A.P.E., I was able to trace his/her posting to the "dark web". I had to reconfigure a few routers and reposition a satellite or two to get the IP address the posting was sent from, and then determine the WWN through a series of DARPA databases, but I'm pretty certain I know who the actual author is. I won't give the exact name, but she will answer to "Miss Hillary". I think her use of improper verb tenses, incomplete sentences, and general incomprehensible ramblings were all intended to hide her real identity.

      Although I'm a chimp, I'm an American chimp, and I know I feel love when you respond to my postings.

      Lancelot Link
      Secret Chimp, Agency for the Prevention of Evil

    3. Mr. Link:
      Good to hear from you as always. Here is my problem. Mr. Anonymous concluded with a bit of English poetry. I am ashamed to admit it but I don't understand English poetry at all. It is like when I listen to a Shakespearean quotation, I understand that English is being spoken but I have no idea what is actually being said. As a Welshman I should be able to interpret Shakespeare and Keats but I find myself as unable to do that as I am unable to tell the truth when caught lying. I think that Keats fellow was trying to tell me that some horse is going to jump over my grave some day. Well, I have news for him. I am going to be cremated! Ha!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. The comment that was posted, and then removed, by Mr. DC (if I may shorten his name without giving offense) was, "So, Mr. Welshman, you just wanted to tell total strangers-- who are simply discussing hiking in the great outdoors-- that you are filled with hatred for Americans, whom you hate because of they hate others?"
      Mr. DC's confusion might be impacting others so I would like to respond to him.
      The blog post found on this page was about peakbagging, and nothing else. On August 4th of this year Mr. Anonymous posted a comment to this particular post about one of the two quotations that I post, and regularly change, at the bottom of my blog page. His anger with me had nothing to do with the contents of this post and my response to his angry comments, which I truly appreciated by the way, had nothing to do with peakbagging.
      If you take some time to poke about this blog you will discovered that I am the mad Welshman because I am filled with rage against those who hate freedom, worship the civil government, believe in theft by majority vote, love the Federal Reserve and inflationary monetary police and swell with pride at the idea of the Amerikan Empire killing foreign citizens all around the world. Every once in a while I will comment about things other than those topics, like beautiful mountains or Hawaii, but those comments do not make up the general content of this blog. So, my apologies if you came here to read about great mountain adventures and found yourself assaulted by the raving declarations of a freedom loving mad man.