San Juan Mountains

San Juan Mountains
San Juan Mountains: Grenadier Range

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Confessions Of A Thankful Peakbagger - Part 2

Yesterday I indulged in a totally selfish blog in which I only spoke, wrote and thought about myself.  I told you about all the amazing things I have accomplished in the mountains over the years and why everyone else who is out in the mountains is stupid when compared to me.  Today I am going to change gears a bit and tell you what I am thankful for.  Being thankful necessarily implies and requires an object of that thankfulness.  In my case I am thankful to the God of the Bible for it is He and He alone who has given me all that I have known and experienced these last 40 years.  In addition to being thankful to God, I am thankful for the many wonderful things I have seen in the mountains during my climbing career.  Today I want to indulge myself one more time and tell you about some of the highlights.

The Mountains Themselves:
The mountains are an amazing place to spend time.  My mountains of choice are the Rocky Mountains, particularly the southern Rocky Mountains, of the Socialist Democracy of Amerika.  Anyone who has ever spent time in the mountains knows what I am talking about.  There is a certain feng shui that I only experience when I am in the mountains that all true lovers of the mountains know about.  The mountains are beautiful, both in their stark rock faces and their gentle green valleys.  The mountains morph throughout the seasons into a multitude of different forms.  The same place in December is not the same place in July.  Every day is different and every place is special.  Although I thoroughly repudiate all of the pagan doctrines of animism, I do acknowledge that the mountains invigorate my soul.  One needs only read a small portion of the Psalms before a similar sentiment can be found.  The mountains become like personal friends to me.  I love spending time with old friends and I love making new ones.
People often ask me what my favorite mountain is.  Or they will ask me what the most difficult mountain was to climb.  The answers to those questions are not easy.  Asking which mountain is my favorite is like asking which of my children is my favorite.  I can't answer that question.  They are all different, unique and special to me in different ways.  The same is true for difficulty.  A peak could be difficult for me because I was sporting a terrible head cold the day I climbed it.  Or it could be difficult because of snow or rock conditions.  The only question I can answer is which peak is the most dangerous I have climbed.  That is easy....Little Bear.
Little Bear (a 14er) has a stretch to the top via the standard route called the bowling alley.  It is so named because it is a steep slick section of rock which acts like a funnel to guide anything that falls from above into it.  Climbers expose themselves to rockfall the entire time they are in the alley.  To make matters worse, the top of the alley is a dreadfully loose area of bowling ball size rocks, each poised to go crashing down upon climbers in the alley at a moments notice.  When I climbed Little Bear I was to the top before anyone else so I avoided the danger on the way up. Coming down, at the top of the alley, I noticed a group of three climbers working up the alley.  I sat down immediately so as not to dislodge any of the rocks upon their heads.  When they got up to me I could see one of the climbers was petrified with fear.  I asked them to sit right there and wait until I cleared the alley on my descent.  They agreed.  I quickly downclimbed the pitch and yelled up that I was clear.  Not more than a couple of seconds later a bowling ball sized rock came screaming past the point I had been standing in a minute earlier. 
All of the photographs posted to this blog are taken by me in the mountains.  They capture to a small degree the thrill of being there.  Scroll to the bottom often as I change the photos from time to time.

Scouting Trips:
A scouting trip is my term for an aborted climb.  As an non-obsessive/compulsive person I am prone to turn around at a moments notice.  I can't count the number of times I have turned around on a peak.  I turned around just 200 feet below the summit of North Maroon (NE Ridge route) because of snow conditions I did not like.  I turned around on the south summit of South Maroon one day because of a party member's fatigue level.  I turned around just a couple of hundred feet below El Diente (north slopes route) because the monsoonal rains were causing large rocks to plummet down the many narrow couloirs on the face.  I decided I didn't want to be jumping from rib to rib under those conditions.  I have turned around many times due to approaching thunderstorms.  I have turned around several times due to snow conditions that were screaming "avalanche" to me.  In most cases I believe other peakbaggers would have ignored the conditions and pressed on.
Yesterday I mentioned the married couple with the peakbagger son I met on Culebra.  Before the couple started down they asked me about my peak count.  After bringing them up to date on my stats the father exclaimed, "I bet you have hundreds of tales of dangerous moments in the mountains, don't you?"  I thought about his question for a moment and replied, "Actually, no I don't.  I turn around before things get dangerous."  Climbers with much less experience than I have tell dozens of tales of harrowing escapes from certain death.  I don't consider that to be a good thing.  Scouting trips are much more fun.

Mountain Weather:
A large part of the joy of mountaineering is experiencing the different weather conditions that exist in the alpine environment.  I don't know what the record high temperature is for the air at 14,000 feet in elevation is but I am quite certain it is not very high. Still, on a calm day with a bright sun shining it can be downright warm at that elevation.  Thunderstorms are the bane of alpine climbers in the SW SDA as the summer monsoonal flow frequently creates powerful afternoon storms.  They are best avoided by starting early, climbing fast and keeping an eye on the sky.  I have always been amazed at how many people I have seen hiking up the mountain, while I was coming down, into a dark and threatening sky.  On the other hand I probably shouldn't be amazed.  I am also aware of the fact that inexperienced climbers have many tales of how they were afraid for their lives because of a lightning filled thunderstorm.  After 822 summits I only have two such stories and, rather obviously, I survived them both.
Monsoonal rains can shut down an entire climbing trip.  I have spent two five-day backpack trips into the San Juans sitting around camp, desperately attempting to keep the camp fire going while it rained and rained and rained.  Climbs planned for those trips were aborted and replaced with the subtle beauty of the monsoon.  There is something wonderful about reducing life to staying dry and keeping warm. Watching the low, moisture laden clouds sweeping up the valley only to drop their rain on my tent is a joy to behold.  I have even climbed some peaks during the monsoon, but only easy ones that did not require route finding or any rock work.  I summited Windom Peak (one of the four 14ers in the Chicago Basin that I mentioned yesterday) and never saw anything but the fog hanging a couple of feet in front of me.  I would like to go back some day and do it when I can see the views....I hear they are fantastic.
Winds are always an issue up high.  Rare is the day that is calm.  Many of my favorite memories involve wind conditions strong enough to blow a man to the ground.  I was climbing Quandary Peak one late fall day many years ago and as I got higher on the east ridge the winds became increasingly strong.  As I neared the top of the peak I got hit by one blast of wind from the north followed immediately by another blast of wind from the south.  The end result was that my backpack was stripped from my back and I was pushed to the ground.  As I gathered my pack and struggled back to my feet I noticed two fellow climbers hiding in the shelter of a large cairn about 100 feet away.  I fought through the wind to the cairn but despite shouting as loud as we could we were unable to hear each other.  We exchanged thumbs up and I continued to the summit while they headed down.  The smiles on all of our faces told the entire tale of that day.
Winter snows bring a completely different set of conditions.  I have summited in the winter by walking over frozen tundra, on snowshoes and on skis.  Winter climbs are always cold and much more difficult than their summer cousins.  They also add snow and the pleasures associated with travel over it.  One day in particular comes to my mind when I think of the winter snows.  We had skied to the top of a peak near Wolf Creek Pass in southern Colorado and decided to come down via a snow-filled bowl.  The snow was so deep, so light and so powdery that we were able to point our skis straight down the hill and let it fly.  The waist deep powder kept us under control as we cruised along enjoying the views.

Mountain Critters:
I have seen my fair share of critters in the hills over the years.  The usual marmots, pikas, deer and elk are commonplace.  I have also seen quite a few black bears.  One memorable day I was treated to the exploits of a mother bear and her two cubs walking along through a meadow.  They never knew I was there as I watched the two cubs running and attacking each other through the meadow while mom stood close by keeping watch over the proceedings.  I once came face to face with a black bear as I was hiking down the trail from Chicago Basin.  I came around a corner and there he was, walking up the trail.  I am not sure who was more surprised but he certainly reacted more quickly as he exited the trail stage left and soon disappeared into the trees.  In more recent years I have seen a short-tailed weasel (Lake Como near Blanca peak) and a pine marten (near Guanella pass).  I always appreciate it when I am able to see something that is not quite so common.
My favorite critter is probably the mountain goat.  I have had numerous encounters with these shy masters of the high country.  On one occasion I was climbing a steep ridge only to come around a corner and come face to face with a tiny baby goat.  It seemed a bit unsure about what to do with the human it was looking at.  We looked at each other for a while and then it wandered off in the direction of mom.  Another time I was climbing the Kelso ridge of Torreys peak when I looked up to see an adult male just feet away from me, looking down upon me with bits of tundra flower sticking out of his mouth.  He too ambled away after our brief encounter.
I once came across a new born deer.  The tiny spotted creature was still wet as I walked upon it in the middle of a grassy meadow.  I knew mom was nearby so I reversed direction and gave the little guy some peace and quiet.  Another time I had spooked a rather large herd of elk which ran off in another direction from me.  I was above timberline at the time and as I walked along I came to a small depression in the tundra.  There, sheltered from my view at first, was a new born elk calf.  When it saw me it struggled to its feet and stood there staring at me, wobbling on spindly little legs.  Once again I quickly slipped away so the little guy could return to his place of rest in the tundra.

Mountain Companions:
I have broken the silly rule that one should never climb alone hundreds of times.  There is a joy in solo climbing that cannot be experienced in a group.  With proper preparation and careful climbing there is no reason why someone with a bit of experience should be forbidden to solo.  Some of my most treasured memories are of solo climbs that involved a bit of difficulty along the way.  Solo climbs of Mt. Wilson and South Maroon stand out in my memory.  Maybe it is difficult to find solitude on the 14ers today (it wasn't in the old days) but there is still plenty of solitude to be found on non-traditional 14er routes and the 13ers.
On the other hand, the joy of a couple of compatible climbing companions can make a climb even more memorable.  I have climbed with dozens of different people over the years and whenever we get together these days we will inevitably recall some of those moments.  Comments like, "I thought I was going to die" and "I will never climb with you again" are commonplace.  We can laugh about them today and, no, nobody was ever in a place where they were going to die.
Thanks to my wife and my brother, both of whom have shared over 100 summits with me.  We make a good team and I couldn't have done what I have done without your support.  Sadly, two climbers from my past with whom I also shared well over 100 summits are now my sworn enemies.  The mountains I understand, human beings I don't.  To all of you who have joined me on a climb, a heart-felt thank you and I hope to share another summit with you some day in the future.


  1. Welshy,

    I have a climbing story I'd like to share.

    I'm a chimp. Swinging through the canopy of a rain forest, hundreds of feet above the ground, is and always will be a thrill. That's what chimps do. The temperature is comfortable, the winds are calm, and there's always another vine to grab at the end of a long swing. When my hairy little wife Mata swings with me, it's just that much more enjoyable.

    Many moons ago I was invited to climb a tall mountain by a person who loved to climb. We got an early start and climbed for several hours, at times scrambling over large boulders. Eventually we got to a point in the climb where we were required to scurry across a narrow ledge in winds that were approaching 80 kph. My friend had crossed that ledge dozens of times in the past. Eighty year old women had crossed that ledge. Five year old children had crossed that ledge. In all likelihood, toddlers had crossed that ledge. However, what I saw in front of me was the end of my life. I like heights ... when I'm swinging through the forest ... when there is no wind ... when there is always a vine to grab in case I lose the grip on my current vine due to slipperiness from my last banana. When facing that ledge there were no vines, no safety net, nothing but a 1000 metre fall to my death.

    My gangly little body was shaking in fear and I was hyperventilating, clinging to a solid rock only metres from the abyss. Now when my friend started a climb he liked to finish it. He tried to calm me down. He tried to convince me that the ledge was wider than logs I scamper along all the time at home without ever falling off. He pointed out that the wind was no worse than the head wind I experience swinging from a particularly high point in the canopy. My fears did not abate.

    What happened next was incredible. Instead of my friend calling me a coward and challenging me to cheat death, instead of him telling me to stay huddled in my little rock shelter for an hour or two while he summited, he suggested we turn around and head back down saying that it had been a fun hike, with great scenery, and a good physical workout. Those were welcome words to my ears, and I've always appreciated the fact that you did not try forcing me to go beyond my limits.

    Lancelot Link

    1. Mr. Link:
      Ah yes....I had almost forgotten the day when I climbed with a chimp. It was a great scouting trip.