October 1, 2010
Peak C: 13,220 feet
Peak C Prime: 13,100 feet
Peak D: 13,047 feet
Peak E: 13,220 feet
Peak F: 13,230 feet
Peak G: 13,260 feet (Not attained)
Elevation Gain: 5,450 feet
RT Distance: 12.6 miles
RT Time: 17:30 hours
Participants: Goldielocks (female suffer superhero) and Pete Castricone (castricone7)
6:25 am Start
12:50 pm Peak C
1:47 pm C Prime
3:38 pm Peak D
5:01 pm Peak E
6:28 pm Peak F
11:55 pm End
Ripsaw Ridge: Peak C to Peak G
To every hour, its mystery.
At dawn, the riddles of life and light. At noon, the conundrums of solidity. At three, in the hum and heat of the day, a phantom moon, already high. At dusk, memory. And at midnight? Oh, then the enigma of time itself; of a day that will never come again passing into history while we sleep. ~ Clive Barker, the opening lines of Sacrament.
There had been words left unspoken, as there always are, in the moment when I dangled from the north face of Peak E, 300 feet above the jagged rocks below. A few feet higher on the steep face, Goldielocks had hugged a boulder and dropped a rope around my wrist. My white fingers had steeled into a black crack at the base of a small ledge that sliced into the vertical granite. The ledge was the depth of my forearms and two feet wide, ending and dropping steeply at my elbows; but it was to my right and at the level of my shoulders. Worst of all, the sheer cliff face was stripped by years of erosion of any suitable holds and dropped into utter emptiness at my feet. I only had to pull myself onto the ledge.
Moments earlier, lower on the face, the mountain had given way beneath my boot. Any faith I’d had in the solidity of the mountain had been supplanted by the strength of my arms and the sweat of my conviction to live.
“I don’t want the rope.” My voice had narrowed. My head felt like a tin can. My knuckles had solidified, my fingers had become vice grips. The muscle in my calves had hardened as I’d shifted the full 220 pounds of my body and pack to my right toes. There had been only a matter of seconds after I’d made the decision to trust the mountain. And then the flake beneath my right boot crumbled and dropped into the abyss. With arms stretched awkwardly across the two foot ledge, my body swung into space.
There was a muffled melody from a moose in the woods at the end of the lot. Or perhaps up on the hill. Although I had heard the call of the wild many years before, I had never heard the call of a moose. Under a hazy headlamp, I wrapped the dusty laces around my boots.
Beyond the parking area, Piney River Resort, however ineptly named, slept silently at the end of a long dirt road that had begun in Vail twenty minutes earlier. I had been here once before, when my good friend Jason and I had given Eagles Nest a half-hearted summit attempt. Back then the resort was dressed in log and evergreen and adorned with the glow of yellow lamps behind frosty windows. A veil of light fog had protected its sleeping inhabitants and tempted those who were proud to call themselves early risers.
Instantly, I created the false memory of a distant reflection in the window, bacon sizzling on a cast iron pan, a leathered fist around a steaming mug, a silent nod and cracked smile. The romance gave way to a dilapidated shack and dreary Piney Lake, which lay like a sleeping guardian to the enigmatic Gore Range. Sentinels of immense and dark granite soared above the horizon: Mount Powell and Peak C claiming dominion over the Piney River, its tributaries, and the whole of White River National Forest. Even as a ray of sunbeam rose behind the range, remnants of the night dripped tiredly from the sky.
I shut the back door of Goldielocks’s truck and looked over my shoulder at the dark lodge. Not a soul stirred. I hadn’t been certain of the source of the droning music; but wilderness was alive at this end of the road. There were bound to be wild animals afoot.
Goldielocks’s mind was focused on the impending effort more than anything else, not due to any form of anxiety but as if it was a routine task yet to be completed. Her purpose for living might be vastly different from my old friend Jason’s but perhaps not too different from my own. We weren’t here for recreation. We were on a mission.
Under the charcoal haze of dawn, a truck pulled up. Two shadowy silhouettes exited and quickly evaporated into the blackness.
I had wrapped both knees and my left ankle in athletic tape. The hike into Eagles Nest Wilderness and the climb up to Peak C would be a test of strength. The subsequent traverse across Ripsaw Ridge would be nothing more than a testament to my desire. I’d known this would be my last climb for a while. My knees were in bad shape and needed time to recover. Goldielocks and I had blasted across a few of the more difficult ridges in Colorado over the summer of 2010. This was the time to conquer Ripsaw Ridge.
But as all alpinists know, man can never conquer the mountain. He can only conquer himself.
The trail started along the road through the resort and above the lake’s northwest shoulder. We passed some photographers and a hunter, noting that in the shallows of the wild we were not intimidated by a stranger carrying a loaded weapon. Hunting moose...we could only surmise why? As we settled into the hike, the forest swallowed the trail, and the beauty of birch and aspen swept our minds from ordinary thought to extraordinary spirit. In less than thirty minutes, the convoluted distractions of our jobs, our finances, and our relationships had acquiesced to the surrounding silence. As if in recognition, or perhaps out of compassion, the wind had jostled the thousands of golden leaves into an eloquent whisper.
We prodded along casually as the trail snaked through the forest, talking about almost nothing at all until arriving at a juncture with Piney River. Only twenty feet across, the river cascaded swiftly across broken logs and ancient rocks, as it carried the remnants of the warm summer’s waning spring water from the Gores to Piney Lake. The river banks were carpeted in dirt, moss, pine needles, and boulders. When I had wandered here so many years ago, I had wondered whether to cross the river before continuing northwest along the river’s edge. Now, years later, I knew to stay on the near side of the river, as the more distinct trail passes several scattered campsites and ascends through the dense woods towards 11,000 feet.
Heading toward Kneeknocker Pass, the route steepened and a family of mountain goats graced us with a curious visit. We paused for a moment to eat some peaches and make friends with the wildlife. Kneeknocker pass rose to a saddle between Mount Powell on our left and Peak C on our right. There were two obvious, wide gullies leading to the ridge south of Peak C. We chose the more direct one on climber’s left. While steep and tedious, the climb was fairly short. Momentarily, I wished the gulley was snow-filled. As we ascended to the saddle, we were greeted by a warm morning sun. It had taken us several hours to arrive to this point, and we settled for a bite to eat, as the goats kept us company.
Rather than execute a descending traverse to find the ascent gulley detailed in Cooper’s Colorado Scrambles, we ascended almost directly up the primary ridge, which I will call the southwest ridge, until we had little choice but to commit to climbing the west face. An obvious ramp sliced diagonally up the face, but we couldn’t ascertain its level of difficulty or where it would dump us. As is often the case, Goldielocks led, and up the west face we went. This was essentially composed of very large vertical slabs stacked together, with cracks and ledge systems through which one could attain higher ground; however, this face as a whole lacked one principle element needed for success: sufficient 5.0 holds.
Goldielocks’s line was too difficult for me, and my alternate path hit a dead end where I couldn’t climb any higher. I retreated back to a ledge system that took me to a notch, from which I traversed slightly onto the shadowy northwest face. I was able to gain some ground from here and climbed up to a down-sloping slab, which was connected to a similar downward-sloping slab about three feet below me. At the same time, Goldielocks had ascended the west face to a ledge just below and to the east of the lower ledge that I was standing on. There was no way for her to reach me. (Note: whenever I say Goldielocks couldn’t do something, it means it was probably impossible...she is a superhero with a concealed identity, after all.)
We both carried an accessory rope, 10 meters long with a tensile strength of 800 pounds. (This rope is a staple of my pack essentials, more important to me than matches.) I slung one rope around a boulder, clipped a biner, and dropped the second rope to her. It barely reached to her, but she was able to grab it in both hands and swing over onto the cliff face and work up to the ledge. My perspective about the auxiliary rope has changed since this climb. In the future, I plan to carry a minimum 30 meter climbing spec. rope, and I don’t care how much it weighs.
Speaking of weight, I am reminded that I carried Goldielocks’s additional layers and a Diet Coke (which weighs in at a pound). She joked about the fact that I needed to train for carrying a heavier expedition pack. Be careful who you choose as a climbing partner!
We quickly ascended Peak C, up and through some difficult moves, finally arriving on the gorgeous summit 6.5 hours after we started. This surprised us, and I silently chastised myself for making fun of Dave Cooper for listing Peak C as an 11 hour RT climb. Mount Powell sat due west with Eagles Nest just south of it.
We searched for a summit register and found none. To the east, jagged Ripsaw Ridge stretched out before us like rusted mountain teeth. We tried to figure out which peaks were D, E, F, and G: even with the detailed topo, we could come to no real conclusions. In retrospect, we were in denial about how far away Peak G really had been, and we had convinced ourselves that it was one of the nearer peaks.
Dropping along the ridge, we quickly realized this would be a serious undertaking. We stuck to the ridge crest, which carried us across boulders and slabs and crags and lines and cracks and knobs and faces. I was behind Goldielocks most of the journey and, at times, she would stand in front of an obstacle, stare up at it for a minute, and wipe the bottom of her shoes on her pant leg. I hated these moments, because I knew the next bout of climbing would scare the crap out of me.
We reached Peak C Prime and rewarded ourselves with some water. After running out of water on our IPW traverse, we were rationing what we carried more conservatively. Unfortunately, summer ridge traverses offer no water sources, so we each carried a couple liters (plus a diet coke). Peak D slapped us in the face. From the notch between C Prime and D, we skirted around to the north face and began climbing some cold cracks. There was a bit of new snow in the few steps, which my big boots didn’t appreciate. The amazing Goldielocks faired better with her 5.10 climbing shoes. Eventually, we got stuck and had to cross a smooth corner and get into another ledge system above us. Goldielocks was able to get to a large ledge above me and wrapped her rope and herself around a boulder, from which she dropped the 2nd rope to me. This was a “wrist belay,” one which will not soon be forgotten.
“I’ve got you,” she assured me. Ultra-light yet intensely blonde Goldielocks weighs in at a lean 100 pounds (sans cape). I’m easily 200 pounds and had a 20 pound pack strapped to my back. With one hand groping for grip and the other slung tightly with the rope belay, I looked directly into her eyes (slightly distracted by the giant "G" on her helmet), saw her conviction and said, “Don’t drop me,” and then shifted all of my weight onto the rope. As I inched higher into and across the corner, Goldielocks took up slack in the rope, and I climbed safely onto the ledge. We had a nervous laugh, and the always reassuring Goldielocks mumbled something about “Accidents in North American Mountaineering.”
“Now I understand what trusting your partner really means,” I said.
Peak D had more difficult sections, and I tried my best to keep pace with Goldielocks. We were happy to reach the summit almost four hours after we had reached Peak C. We checked the map again, lied to ourselves about which peak was F and G, and admired the incredible views of the Gore Range. The weather was supreme, and I had no inclination to worry about the time. Looking along the serrated ridge toward the north face snowfields below the ridge, I sent a Spot message to my sweetheart back at home and wondered silently if we would ever drink the Diet Coke. By the way, we did not know which peak we had just summited. At this point, we had hoped it was Peak F…not even close.
And so we are in the throws of Peak E, and I am holding on for my life. I had said aloud only minutes before, “This mountain isn’t worth it to me.” But choices are limited, and we are led by the dark voices of glory and destiny and fear. I was stripped of identity and left with raw muscle and tendons and emotion, skin and tissue digging into rock and fighting gravity. Goldielocks was above me, an arm’s length away, but she could offer no solace expect encouragement. I didn’t wait for thought or prayer; I pulled myself up, a loud guttural growl emanating from my knotted stomach. The veins in my arms and neck swelled and my teeth grinded into a fist. In the flash of a few seconds, I had swung my leg onto the ledge, Goldielocks had pulled at my shoulder, and life was in balance, once again.
I felt bloodless and blinded, a swell of dread threatened to burst from my throat. I stooped over, a callous sunlight scorching the back of my neck. Sweat beaded and dripped from my forehead. I spat out two rapid breaths, and a burst of tears was imminent…and then rational thought raced back into my brain like a lightning bolt. I inhaled and stood erect and strong, knowing what had just happened: I was afraid. The tension in my body released. I looked at Goldielocks and said, “I don’t ever want to do that again.”
There were moments when I felt conflicted and confused. Goldielocks had told me she was leading me up difficult sections because she knew I could handle it. But, at times, I wanted to find an easier path. What had caused this conflict? You can’t have it both ways. It’s either easy or it’s difficult. Never both. We didn’t come to Ripsaw Ridge because we thought it would be easy. And it sure as hell wasn’t.
It takes only a moment for fear to leave the body, much longer to leave the mind. The remainder of Peak E was no less challenging and I dealt with rationalizing my fear. And then, alas, we stood on the summit. We found a summit logbook from 1948 with only a few pages of entries. This was amazing, and we felt utter pride to be in companionship with generations of hardcore climbers. Although this was a small victory, this was the moment when we realized that, after nearly 11 hours, we had only reached Peak E. We noted that Brian Miller had signed the register this summer, traversing the Ripsaw as well. Well done, Brian! And then we finally drank the Diet Coke, relieving me of another pound to carry.
Getting to Peak F was difficult, as the rock was crumbling with every step. Goldielocks stayed high on the ridge, while I got sketched out about a short chimney downclimb and went another route. I had to cross several rubble chutes and regain the dangerous ridge, where every other boulder seemed to be floating above emptiness. My knees were killing me by this point and at some point I jammed my left shin into a sharp flake. I felt my pant leg get wet and knew it was bleeding heavily. It didn’t help that this was the same spot on my shin where I had injured a tendon earlier in the spring. I didn’t want to look at it, and I kept moving. My left knee was wrapped completely, but my right knee was only wrapped below my kneecap. This aided significantly with the meniscus pain that I’d been dealing with but the ligament on the outside of my right knee and the tendon behind it were both severely swollen. To put it bluntly, I was in brutal pain.
We reached the summit of Peak F and made the quick decision to descend from here. Peak G was very close and looked to be similar in difficulty to Peak F. But, we were running low on daylight and near zero on desire. Ripsaw Ridge had proved to be the most difficult of our summer 2010 ridge traverses, but neither one of us felt enamored with it. On my topo, I had marked a descent route down the gulley between Peak F and Peak G. The problem with topos is that they don’t illustrate the true nature of the route. This one was steep and loose…and long. As we descended, we slipped often, and I cursed loudly. I felt like I had lost control. And then I watched Goldielocks slip and fall head first, landing on her forearms. Just as I thought, I’ve never seen such an amazing superhero fall before, I slipped and fell on my butt...just the first of many falls down this horrifying gulley.
The sun fell and disappeared, and we were engulfed by complete blackness. There was no moon, only stars upon which we had no desire to gaze. Even under the dim beam of our headlamps, it seemed we were in deep space, victims of a mocking mountain and hopeless against gravity. The gulley continued into the night, and all sense of time escaped us. I felt like an inmate in solitary confinement, destined to complete reliance on hope that one day I would escape this living hell.
My feet flew out from beneath me, and I landed hard on my right elbow. I rolled over and screamed, more so from rage than from the immense pain that shot through my arm. With a blind hand, I quickly probed for protruding bones, but I didn’t even care if my arm was broken. I just wanted to get out. I stood, bruised and defiant and carried onward, downward, crawling backwards at times, never seeing where my boots landed. My right knee gave out, and I fell again, this time with full force on my tailbone. Again, I clenched my fists and cursed the mountain. Only the darkness and the echoes of scattering talus called back. Then, two hours later, Goldielocks yelled from the deep black, “I found solid ground.” I limped down with a brief sense of relief.
We bushwacked through dense forest, close to a deep ravine, then hobbled across another boulder field. Again, we stumbled across downed trees and sloping tundra until, finally, we hit a well-defined trail running left-to-right. This was the Upper Piney Creek Trail. We took this to the right, satisfied that our suffering had finally eased.
But, in the dark, one loses all sense of reality. We stumbled along relatively happy that we had made it until we came to an unexpected junction. Do we go left or right? It was so dark that we couldn’t make out the silhouette of the surrounding mountains. Guided by instinct and a faint faith on the compass, we headed to the right (northerly). This seemed very odd to me, as I (incorrectly) thought we needed to go south. But, we trusted our instincts more than our brains at this point. And so the trail carried us in whatever direction it led, across undefined and unseen landscapes for several hours. The entire trek, we were confused. At times, we headed down spur trails and then retraced our steps, ultimately staying on the bomber trail. At one point, we crossed a stream that was flowing in the wrong direction. It was my impression that if we were following the Piney River, it should be flowing downhill with the trail toward Piney Lake. After several minutes of contemplation, we determined that this must have been a tributary descending toward the Piney River. It would be wise to stay on the bomber trail, no matter what.
Our sense of victory had faded to a quiet desperation when, finally, we came across the first familiar landmark, a black boulder with white veins running through it. The stress of feeling lost evaporated, and we grasped hold of a newfound energy. We bolted through the woods at a snail’s pace, winding through the birch and aspen forest. It lasted forever, as all sense of time had long ago been forgotten. We descended the switchbacks to the open meadow above Piney Lake, thinking we were almost home.
"Would you turn around and do it all over again for a million dollars?" Goldielocks asked.
"No," was my blunt reply.
An hour later, with Goldielocks ten minutes ahead of me, I arrived at the truck...five and a half hours after we stood on the summit of Peak F. I pressed the Spot message button one final time, before we changed shoes and drove the twenty minutes back to Vail. We stopped in Frisco for some coffee, looking like we’d just been beaten and dragged behind a pickup truck. I could barely walk.
I got home at 3 a.m. where my fiancé was sleeping softly. When I woke her she whispered, “Are you coming to bed?” I told her that I was hurt and needed to clean the wound. She asked (sincerely) if I needed help. “You don’t want to see this,” I replied and closed the door. The water at the base of the tub turned the color of a dusty merlot, as I cleaned the wound…and a mild fear bled from my eyes. It took three bandages to cover the scar on my leg, before I crawled into the warm bed and shut my eyes to the mountains.