Friday, September 13, 2013

So you want to climb 14ers?

So you want to climb 14ers? Read on...

I've decided to write some educational posts about my experiences climbing 14ers. After summiting 58 peaks, I wouldn't say I'm an 'expert', but I would say I have a pretty good idea of what it takes. The first post is more of an overview. I'll also talk in detail about clothing, equipment, logistics, and more. Many of these tips would also apply to climbing 13ers and lower peaks, as well.

The difficulty: Is climbing a 14er hard? Yes. And no. It depends on several factors, but it isn't without difficulty. For starters, the air is 30% thinner than sea level at the start of the hike. This would be like skipping every third breath at sea level. At the summit, it's 40% thinner. The thin air is the hardest challenge in my opinion. Thin air makes you tire quickly, it makes you recover slowly, and can reduce your cognitive functionality.

Then there is the altitude, which offers 2 challenges. It's possible to get altitude sickness as low as 10k feet. Altitude sickness can be fatal. The only cure is to descend. The altitude can also lead to dehydration, abdominal cramps, and other strange medical symptoms. Acclimatization helps, but some people will not experience these problems at all. There is also a medication you can take to help with altitude related health issues, but it can have varied results.

The second challenge is obvious, but still worth mentioning. Steep uphill climbing. Unlike a lot of hiking trails, a 14er trail goes up and up and up. Most trails gain 3,000' of elevation or more, automatically putting them in the "hard" catagory by most considerations. Some are extremely steep, others offer relentless switchbacks. But no matter what the trail looks like, you need to go UP.

The third challenge is weather. Your last 2-3000 feet will be above treeline, with little or no available cover. Storms can move in rapidly above treeline. Temperatures can be cold, winds can be strong, rain can appear suddenly, and lightning is menacing. The best defense against afternoon T-storms is to start early, often before the sun even comes up. You also have to move quickly enough to be up to the summit and back down to treeline before noon or even 11 AM. On Mt. Sherman or Bierstadt, this is pretty easy. On Longs Peak or Pyramid, it takes more effort.
They say that for every 1,000 feet of elevation, you lose about 3 degrees F. So, if it's 90 degrees at home, it may be 66 degrees on the summit. Or, if it's 60 degrees at home, it could be 36 degrees on the summit. I've started many 14er hikes in temperatures below freezing. In the summer!

There's also psychological factors, which effect some people more than others. This mostly includes fear of heights, which is related to exposure. Some 14er route are not exposed, but may take you close to areas that do have exposure.

To climb a 14er the most important thing is cardiovascular fitness. Strength and Balance can be helpful, but cardio trumps all. I'll talk about this more later.

This is going to vary based on what 14er you are looking at.
1) A decent pair of closed-toed shoes, running shoes are okay for about 1/2 of the 14ers. Light hikers are nice as well.
2) A water bladder. I like Platypus, but Camelback is good, and there are others. One that holds 3L is preferred, you can always take less if need be. You can also use water bottles if that is what you prefer. Some people like to re-use gatorade bottles because they are cheap, light, and fairly durable.
3) A decent backpack. Depending on what mountain you do, 20-30 liters is big enough for most dayhikes. It needs to be able to hold your water bladder, clothing, snacks, and essentials.
4) Synthetic clothing. This is generally going to be polyester or nylon. Beathable, non-binding, allowing for free movement. No cotton! The phrase "cotton kills" exists for a reason, it performs poorly when it becomes wet.
5) Appropriate snacks. I like Clif Shot Blocks, or Powerbar Gel, or something designed to provide energy on the go. For the summit, something packed with calories.

Congrats, you have the most BASIC items needed for the easiest dayhike 14ers. As you move to the more complicated ones, more specialized equipment will be necessary, especially when you start backpacking and camping overnight.

Knowlege is power. You need information for a successful summit. I recommend you check out before climbing any 14er. You need to know where the trailhead is and how to get there, what the route is called, and how far/long it is, at a minimum. Some routes are well defined all the way (Handies, Huron, Pikes) and some are difficult to follow (N Maroon, Pyramid). I also highly recommend that you leave a record to someone of 1) where you are going 2) when you expect to be done 3) what the phone number is for the county sherrif in that area. With accurate information, a search party could be quickly and effectively dispatched at the earliest possible time (if need be). Without accurate and detailed information, it would become difficult or impossible to direct and effective search.

Imagine this scenario. You expect someone to return, but they have not. Where did they go? How do you narrow it down? When did they think they would be back? What route did they take?

You also need to understand and embrace the idea of LEAVE NO TRACE.

You need the drive and motivation to find the summit. When it's freezing cold, windy, and you are tired, it takes some guts to keep moving upward. It's not always a picnic on a 14er hike, and adverse conditions can be expected. When life puts a big pothole in the road, do you plow through it, or slam on the brakes and turn around? Climbing a 14er can be similar to your mental state while running. Your body is suggesting that stopping to walk would be easier, and more comfortable. You have to will yourself to continue; which is why I think running is great physical AND mental training.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Capitol Peak- 14er Finisher

Capitol Peak

September 5th, 2013
17 miles, 5300' elevation gain- "ditch" trail to Capitol Lake

After aborting our double-header last weekend, we quickly returned to the Elk Mountains to finish the 14ers. With colder weather on the way, and our skills at their peak, we decided not to delay our last 14er at all.

This year has been a little bit of a challenge. I got sick several times in June and July, which hurt my training and forced us to cancel trips at least 2 times. But none of that seemed to matter with the goal so close at hand. So we set out for another 400 mile drive to Aspen and beyond.

From our parking spot at the TH, we can see the Capitol Peak summit
Uh, what am I doing again? (SZL)
The trailhead area is quite large and very nice. Immediately, you can see the summit of Capitol peak, which is somewhat unique. Similar to Mt. Whitney, I suppose. The ditch trail starts off in a small Aspen grove before coming into a treeless area with a great view of the valley floor below. And yes, the Capitol "ditch" trail is actually quite nice. Did I mention we love aspen trees?
Start of the trail

Aspen panorama

Friendly trees and cool mud

Storm clouds are building
The open area right before the ditch trail meets up with Capitol Creek trail

Poisonous Mushroom!

A closer look at Capitol
Capitol Lake panorama
After quickly setting up our tent, we grabbed our stuff and headed to Capitol Lake for a veritable FEAST. We had Subway footlongs (from Buena Vista), cookies, and Ska Brewing Company True Blonde Ale. We also stashed some special bombers in the lake.

Beer tastes better at high alpine lakes

Cheers, Capitol!
Another view (SZL)


Sunset Panorama

We went to bed early but were worried about the wind which seemed to be shaking the tent. We "slept in" until 4:30 AM and quickly realized the wind was a non-issue. We started up the trail around 5AM and found ourselves at the saddle a mere 35 minutes later. But the easy trail was done.

The boulderfield was a test of patience, it ended up being much more work than we anticipated. Once topping the headwall, K2 was a short jaunt followed by a brief scramble.

Sunrise over Mordor

K2 looms ahead, hit with alpenglow

I love the reflected light in the foreground (SZL)

Climbing up the boulders (SZL)

Scott scrambles up the last bit of K2 with Capitol Lake in the background

Looking up at K2 (SZL)

Capitol Summit from K2

Panorama looking West from K2

Sunrise looking east

Panorama East to South. Castle, Pyramid, Maroon Bells, and Snowmass Mnt. are visible.

The three lakes seen from K2 area

Getting close to the knife edge, trying to figure out the GoPro (SZL)

After downclimbing K2, scott starts on the "Knife Edge" ridge

Starting on the knife edge (SZL)

I took this video while about 1/2 way across on the knife edge, looking back at Scott and trying to help him negotiate the trickiest part. I can't say that my comments are intellectual, something about fatigue and altitude makes you about 30 IQ points less intelligent. Anyway, it gives you an idea of what it was really like for us.

After the knife edge, looking to the summit

After the knife edge, looking back to K2

Staring to climb the summit proper after the ridge
This section reminded me of the "green gulley" on Pyramid (SZL)

I like this (SZL)
Looking up near 14,000 feet, it's all good

Solid rock! (SZL)

This video is the last couple minutes as we climbed to the summit. The actual summit ridge is pretty spiney but doesn't gain much altitude.

Summit! Dan celebrates finishing the 14ers!

Scott Lowery, finisher extrordinare, looks dapper in black

RIP Karl Heiser, 1981 - 2005

When I was growing up in Loveland my best friend was Karl Heiser. We got into all sorts of trouble in our adventures but he always kept me safe. Karl left us too soon in 2005, but I still feel that he is watching sometimes. I wanted to dedicate the climb on Capitol Peak and finishing the 14ers to Karl's memory. He may be gone from this earth, but will forever live on in our hearts.

Summit Panorama. Castle Peak, Pyramid Peak, N and S Maroon, and Snowmass Mnt. visible (L to R)

Looking East, Mt. Daly and K2 are visible, as well as the summit ridge

Another Panorama, looking S mostly; centered on Snomass massif

Scott enjoys the traditional "Summit Snickers"; never did it taste sweeter

Scott negotiates down some steep class 3 rock. I loved this section.

Scott coming down to the knife edge ridge again

Looking toward K2 before the knife

Kendrick hanging out at the knife edge

Okay so after coming across the knife edge once, it's a lot less scary on the way back. I tried to use my South side bypass and do it as quick as possible. You can drop your legs down and then hold on to the flake with your hands to move quickly. However, I do get "stuck" on the middle and I'd need to figure out a faster technique if I want to do a better job next time. It is nice getting it done quickly, you have less time to start "thinking" about it.

Scott on the knife edge

Scott and others on the knife edge

Scrambling down to the noth below K2

The view from the saddle is serene

Capitol Peak summit and Capitol Lake below

Capitol Lake from the saddle
Lake from lower down (SZL). Perfect colors!

Scott quaffs his victory beer 'Hoppenburg Uncertainty Principle' double Belgian IPA

We got from the saddle to the tent in a blazing 14 minutes, which even included time to stop and snap some pictures. While Scott retrieved our special beers from the fridgid shore of Capitol lake, I started to take the tent down and pack up gear.

We enjoyed some vacuum sealed Alaskan smoked salmon and Ritz crackers with our beers. Scott had a "Wunderlust Belgian IPA" and I had a Grimm Brothers 'Magic Mirror'. After we had imbibed substantial beer, we packed up and set off. But we weren't done with scenery. The clouds again gathered and threatened rain, which made us keep up a swift pace on the way down.

Grimm Brothers 'Magic Mirror' imperial kotbusser ale

A last look at Capitol Peak from our campsite

The trail back to the truck

Further down the trail

About a half mile from the trail junction

Reflecting pool, part 2
It's a lovely day (SZL)

Red rocks

3 miles to go, and about to enter the aspen zone.

Lush aspen forests

Final view of Capitol Peak

Less than 2 hours since we set out, we were done. At the truck we were monstrously happy to doff our backpacks, change out of our sweaty shirts, and slip into lightweight and dry shoes. The hike out was beautiful, but it was starting to get pretty hot, and we were ready to be done. We had ice-cold "Absolute Zero" Monster energy drinks and ibuprofen to celebrate the end of hiking. Then we passed an ice-cold soda to Kendrick as he finished the run, and headed down the road.

We ended up celebrating at Rudy's BBQ in Colorado Springs with my wife Nicole and son Alex, and Scott's girlfriend Kerry. All in all, a fantastic day.