What a difference a few weeks makes. Last month, we seemed to have just flown through the window for a Winter conditions ascent of the Notch Couloir. Since then, the temps started rising precipitously. When I rode back to Longs Peak last weekend, most of the snow had already melted. Incredible.
On this day, I was considering going for a Longs Peak Radical Slam, which is a challenge outlined in Roach’s 14ers book: tag Meeker, Longs, Pagoda, Storm Peak., Mt. Lady Washington, Battle Mountain, and Estes Cone in one go. I’ve done it once before, but didn’t ride up and back in the same trip. So that’s what the challenge for today was. The meat of it all was the 20 miles – mostly off trail to tag all these peaks. Riding up always takes a little bit of the spring out of my step, and the ride down usually is an experiment in mental suffering and fatigue. But I got a rep. to keep, ya know.
I’ve long since seen, “mountaineering” as the ideal stage in which to set my practice of suffering in the outdoors. Although I’ve certainly danced around mountaineering, I’ve done so only on its periphery. I borrow its terminology with jealousy as the basis on how I explain the other disciplines I practice. For example, Alpine Style: going light and fast. That’s exactly how I explain bike races I do, that take weeks to finish. I also describe no-holds, lightning-quick bike rides as, “Disaster Style”, which itself is coined by alpinist, Kelly Cordes.
But, mountain biking is not mountaineering. Nor is trail running really, nor even rock climbing in the classic sense. They all take a small aspect of mountaineering and focus on this one thing, disregarding the rest. Which is a perfectly fine thing to do. But mountaineering – I want to imagine at least, comprises a large set of skills to be competent in, to allow you to reach your objective and come back down alive.
So when Peter Bakwin and Kendrick Callaway invited me to climb the Notch Couloir with them – truly a classic mountaineering route on Longs Peak, I was excited to take it on, as well as relatively scared out of my little head. As much as others may want to believe, I’m not the boldest of climbers.
I’m only in Allenspark, and the sun has already risen. I feel as if I’m very late to my own party. Allenspark is only seven miles away from the Longs Peak Trailhead – my riding destination, but as I summit the last punchy climb and await the downhill just beyond, I conclude that the downhill won’t give me the rest I’m hoping for. The winds are strong today – strong enough that I’m fighting to stay upright as I crest the hill, and belaboring with my never-ending pedaling to simply continue going forward while I start descending. These are the exact type of conditions that even the hard men that have established such challenges have tried to avoid, because it’s madness.
The Front Range 14ers Grays and Torreys make an excellent beginner 14er hike – it was one of the first 14ers I ever did. Being so close to the Front Range Urban Corridor – less than an hour from Denver, it still affords some dramatic changes in environment, not the least because of the sweeping ridgeline going West to East to Northeast from Grays Peak, and ending essentially at I-70. When hiking up (or driving, I guess) up the beginning of Stevens Gulch, you can’t but feel that the world is closing in on you, and you’re now entering a different place altogether.
You may also, like me, have the urge to be on top of this ridge line. Not many obvious entrance points present themselves from the start of the Summer trail head to Grays Peak, to the summit of Grays Peak itself. The ridge is rocky and broken, with much rockfall danger. You could, and people have, find a weakness in the ridge to climb up, but I don’t suggest it. In this route, I outline what is sure to be a classic traverse over the entire Steven’s Gulch; bagging you two 14ers, a Class 3 ridge scramble, and at least 2 13ers – one of which (Mt. Edwards) is a Centennial. If that’s not enough, you’ll also go over a mountain that used to be labeled a 14er, McClellan Mountain – actually height: 13,587′ which faked out turn-of-the-century tourists!; as well as many smaller 12ers, in your hike to close out the loop.
Some stats of the route as I describe it:
7,000 feet elevation gain/loss
mostly off-trail, w/Class 3 scrambling
no easy bailout point after Grays Peak
crampons/ice axe recommended until late in the summer season
This route is not to be underestimated, it’s a requirement to get an alpine start, and to not be afraid to bail, if weather comes in (bailout points are noted, below). Be strong in your logistics game.
One of my mini projects this year has been to ride to the Longs Peak Trail head, and summit it, via they Keyhole route. I’ve now done that three times (once, in Winter), having tried about six times to summit. My method to do this, as they say, is now pretty dialed. One direction to go from here is to see how fast you can do this as a personal challenge. Another goal to hit, is the fastest known time to complete.
2:00 am is a hell of a time to wake up, especially when you finally went to sleep at a little before midnight. Probably. I now wake up and think about my immediate surroundings. They seem almost Thoreau-ian – if the surroundings weren’t in their own immediate surroundings. I’m wrapped up in a sleeping bag, on top of a beat up sleeping pad that has slightly less patches holding it air tight, then countries it’s been placed on the ground of, all in a room just wide enough to outstretch my hands and not touch the opposite walls.
The trip’s itinerary was to hit up most all the 14ers in the path between Denver, CO and Alma, CO, taking the I-70 corridor to Breckenridge, and then HW 9 to Alma. Ambitious, as the routes picked weren’t the easiest, or shortest: Bierdtstat from the East Ridge, then over the Sawtooth to Evans, Torreys via Kelso Ridge – and then to Grays, Quandary via the West Ridge – and then a final push to do Democrat, Lincoln, and Bross. All in five days – all ridden to on a bicycle.
It’s getting warmer and I’m getting a little more comfortable with this sort of travel. This next trip is without trailer, or racks/panniers: as close to ultralight as I can in this dual-mode type of trip (cycling to, climbing from).
This time, it’s Evans. I leave fairly early – but not really that early in the morning, with the goal of riding to the top of Evans, as there’s a paved road to the top, and then coming back to Echo Lake to camp get up very early in the morning and try to do the Evans Egis: which is basically Evans, Bierstadt and all the sub peaks you can see from Denver. Aim high, baby!
Waking up at 2:00am on the Sunday of the weekend St. Patrick’s Day festivities in a drinkin’ city seemed a strange way to begin a trip. I needed to go from the North side of Denver, through the South side, without incident. And then far beyond.
Plan: ride the bicycle from the back door to the Barr Trailhead ~90 miles away in Manitou Springs, CO and immediately begin the 13 miles hike up to the summit of Pikes Peak, for a winter ascent of a Colorado 14er, before it ain’t winter no more (mere days away). And of course carry all the gear that’s probably going to be needed. Which is really unrealistic, so just take what’s absolutely necessary. Which probably means, a different pair of shoes.
Then, take a few winks and ride back home, in perhaps a bit more scenic (read: more difficult, mountainous, less boring) route.