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Sneaky Summit Season

November 23rd, 2012

The dry view of autumns last days on Mendota Peak's summit

I once traded 144 clif bars for 5 beers. At that time, I don’t think I could have ever eaten another one (and haven’t in the nearly 3 years since), but this was a bit of a dilemma considering we had a monstrous 5 day hike left to get out of the location where I squared off that deal — promising they had chocolate in them. No longer being able to accept fuel when the tank is empty is a real issue, but those 5 beers split among friends gave us the mental lift at 16,400′ that 144 clif bars couldn’t possibly have done, especially since we couldn’t stand the flavor of any of them any longer. We were fine walking on without them, we had completed a 50+ day Clif cleanse, if you will.

My life is filled with oddball choices like this. And counterintuitive as it may seem, I believe that sometimes it is better to feel happy when wishing to tough something out than it is to have a full belly. It’s funny now how I can look back and use my own vault of experience to A. subject myself to bigger and crazier things because of choices like this and B. reflect that there was a process that got me there… and could get me back. Hence, where I’m at today, in front of a monitor after a fast and completely unlikely day of going extremely light in the mountains. One of the best I can remember and shared with a great friend.

With a hard goal that sat on my bucket list for three years before coming to fruition on my 33rd birthday (running 8 peaks from Ophir to Telluride), the summer and my passion for the mountains sparked a flame from the embers of aging goals that I have already met in the high peaks. After 16 years of devotion to moving uphill and then back down in every trendy way possible, I finally realized the merit of all that time wasn’t skill so much — it was old man strength!!!! It’s true, knowledge of terrain, high mileage approaches to high peaks and doses of speed at altitude eventually netted me the ability to make quicker work of smaller peaks. Instead of looking for every line I could ski or juggy holds I could pull on this year, I looked at the mountains again with an eye similar to 10 years ago after my first trip to Nepal, as if the Rockies were all a scaled down canvas. Connecting many summits, valleys and ridges is possible, rather than focusing on singular massifs holding individual features I want to string along in a technical way. It is refreshing to see them this way again, much more endlessly challenging, and liberating to explore a new personal paradigm.

So with the last days of Indian Summer coming to a close, on November 4th I really thought I had to obligatorily bid adieu to summer’s sweet access to the San Juan mountains near Telluride, Co. On that day, I ran and power hiked from 8,750′ and enjoyed nearly 12 miles with 4 summits over 13,000′ and about 6,800′ of vertical while ridge-running and capped the day meeting friends in a basin and hiking to the top of one last mountain of the year, 13,275′ Mendota Peak. The air was crisp, the ground was dry and the mountains seemed to be setting the stage for winter to wisk in, ice formations to begin dripping down, turning on the ski lift and the sky to start dumping. Or not… as a mountaineer, I was not content to accept that this time had come yet. I knew there would be a chance that on the razor’s edge between fall and winter, I might have one more shot at a big day with running shoes on my feet.

Mountaineers are silly beasts in that we plot with this optimism and this neediness for terrain, at the edge of the season, of disappointment and often hope lost by weather moving faster than we. Somehow we got labeled so many things for this attitude: crazy, nuts and insane, but “Alpinist” stuck to those in the core, and then we collectively played a ton of games to fire off any objective with varying degrees of extreme and extreme skill. Carrying skis, ice tools, adding altitude, pushing every threshold in remote places is cool; why wouldn’t you want to do that, right?  I know, it’s complicated. Although it has been truly fulfilling participating in high mountain exploration on every level from high to low, few of those games since some of the massive enchainments like “the Jedi traverse” I did in 2004 (Mt. Wilson, Wilson peak, Gladstone, El Diente and Lizard head) had truly opened my eyes to what was possible to get away with — a dual sense of accomplishment and freedom to move like a mountain goat by throwing conventional wisdom out the door and making a run for it. This is very much unlike the staid trials and truths of the High Himalayas where being pounded by elements in between the frozen flutes of alpine features we hoped to climb and ski equals adventure at its finest! Both are fun, but for now I want to climb more mountains faster and get more vertical in — with less technicality, more freedom. The partner I had on the Jedi has since retired, but the mountains, they are still here.

13,213' Campbell Peak and TO. Our route bushwhacked in from the left and climbed the steep spine left of the lower hump on the left.

Having that feeling of freshness and the legs to beat it out of me at the start of winter is not the best timing. Having that ability is, well, something I’m glad to have right now nonetheless, as the snow dried up this summer and I put my skis, ropes and rack away to pursue just that. And so I took the leap once more and following our last storm cycle 5 days prior, this weekend was probably my last legitimate day for a little while of seeing a lot of landscape without a lot of hassle or kit. I ran over 21 miles, gained 6,400′ and summited two peaks that had been on my to-do list for a while, 13,213′ Campbell Peak and its higher, mysteriously-named peak to the right: TO. It’s funny though, the mix of speed and mountains, as 14.4 of the miles run from the town of Telluride took only a couple of hours — the other 6.8 miles, oh man! Let’s just say that me and my buddy Nick LeClaire hit “the” worst scree slope I have ever seen and had a full value day of winter up high above it. But we expected that and I carried one light jacket, 1,100 calories, a neck gaitor, gloves and 50 oz. of water, the style implied only one simple plan: keep moving to stay warm.

Climbing this scree slope with handfuls of wet mud, groveling through chicken-headed ankle biters and sliding back a step or more each time, I was running through scenarios in my mind of the last time I was on something less than 40 degrees steep and absolutely groveling on all fours like this. Was it Sichuan in 2007? Maybe Aconcagua’s kitty litter hill in 2002 and 2005? The moraine in front of Makalu in 2009? Nonetheless, this slope took the complete and total cake at nearly an hour of groveling to make it just 600′ and me telling myself over and over that I am in the best shape of my entire life. After that it was a mix of post holing, running and power hiking in full alpine splendor: snow, cold and wind to just above 13,800 + feet (TO has no marking on the map). Touching down all fours was mandatory several times, as was bona fide scrambling and snow tunneling through an exposed feature revealing to me the simple answer to the question of why I had not done these peaks before: there is no trail and everyone I asked suggested a different way, none of them very detailed, none of them leading here. This was our way, and right or wrong, it worked.

Nick LeClaire groveling on all fours through rare crumbling red rock to the summit of TO. Campbell is the peak behind and left of him, our route hit the ridge right of the lower hump on the right.

This still leaves the question you may be asking yourself: Why the hell would you add 14 more miles to something like this or bother to do it this time of year, it sounds awful. Well, I don’t know, I don’t… curiosity, training? But then again, I don’t think it is awful, it is the next thing, it is an old thing, it is an ongoing relationship I have with the mountains and that is enough for me. To be drawn to them and to draw on them. On the slim margin of ridiculously awesome days I’ve had overcoming the unexpected and having every resource in the book to throw at it, on this one I just had to keep moving or give up and this day was the type of day where I realized that we can all do amazing things that may only amaze us, we can all dream, just by moving forward — that’s really it. Because even though we still need a pack to do some of those things, we have one thing that can’t fit in a pack: our mind. If we have the will and a window opens, no matter what our goals are, we can try to accomplish them… and might! Don’t be afraid to chuck your Clif Bars, take a new look at the mountains and go to them in whatever way you wish; they will never stop delivering creative ways to see more of them.

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