Getting To the LizardMountain: Lizard Head Peak (13,113’)
Route: Southwest Chimney (5.8+)
I think I found the reason why I climb
“Want to go climb Lizard Head this winter?”
I think I have talked to a few of my climbing partners about this pretty ambitious idea. I usually try to bring out all the positives and leave out the negatives to bring someone into the plan of mine but this plan was different. I wanted to climb what’s known as Colorado’s most difficult mountain, in the most difficult season. In other words, I wanted to find out what suffering is like to the maximum. It was my mission to do this. To pull this off requires a lot to happen and for things to go your way at least a little bit. As you all know, alpine climbing never goes as planned, except rarely.
A year and a half ago, I contacted Michael Dudley who was on the first winter ascent party all the way back in 1970 about what they encountered. (He was also the 25th person to do the Nose and the first winter ascent of the Ellingwood Arete) He shared a little and left the e mail at “May the pro be plentiful.” Now what does that mean? It sure does not sound good. I went into detail finding every picture I could of it in winter (barely any) but that was no help. I studied as much history about it as possible, but that still didn’t answer the questions I had. How do I approach this sort of climb? Do I bring ice tools and crampons and mix it up? Will there be ice? Do I bring plastic boots and climb in gloves? Do I climb in rock shoes? Over the last year and a half, these questions have filled my head but the one definite thing was, it was going to be cold. Rock shoes or bare hands could not be used. It would also our first time on the route or peak so that added a bit more of thought.
I can remember talking to Steve Gladbach about this idea when I first told him. All he told me is to find a way to keep my hands warm. I had heard of people getting frostbite on it in summer let alone winter. I was a little nervous as I had no clue what to expect. I had seen a few people call the climb “R” meaning a fall at the runout could be serious injury or worse. That’s manageable in the summer but in the winter? Adding a lot of snow and ice to the picture? I think I had a reason to be slightly nervous. I had no clue what I was getting into to a certain point. A lot can go wrong in a matter of seconds, and the whole game is changed.
Plans were made and then dropped. Whenever they were dropped, I was sort of glad in away so I could put it off more. The climb started turning into a long term dream and more of a distant “false” reality. To accomplish this, my partner and I would need to want this like nothing else and to suffer more then the usual. When things have not been done or not done much, I’ve realized it’s because the suffering is usually more then it’s worth for many or it’s just plain dangerous.
I had talked to Jay Karst about it a year ago after climbing an ice route in Telluride but we were too tired to think about it. Jay has always wanted to climb it and I think he was crazy enough to do it with me. We climb and connect really well together. I trust him with my life and vice versa and to be honest, that’s what we needed for this climb. We both connect well as far as being as safe as possible. He is ambitious and opens his mind to things “outside” the box which is also quite a gift. We both wanted it bad. We have had a great time on anything we have gotten on from the Black Canyon to alpine. We also needed to be doing some serious training for a trip in a couple months so this proved a good “serious” starting ground. Any climb where you and your climbing partner go through trial and error and do something you both didn’t know how it would turn out or when you have been dreaming of it for a while, and you finally do it, there is nothing else that can bring a closer friendship then that.
After climbing Bird Brain Boulevard in “warm” temperatures a couple weeks ago, I was surprised at the temperatures Ouray was receiving. There was not as much snow as most ranges have seen. The thought of climbing Lizard Head popped into my head. Perhaps, just perhaps we can sneak up it. We’ll give it an attempt.
Here I was waiting for winter to hit and hoping not a huge storm would come. And then the opportunity arose but was the time ready?
Just go for it.
Staying here in Ouray for the last few days, we picked the best day that called for “Breezy” but mostly sunny. We both thought we were golden until it started raining the night before. I was kind of fearing rime ice on the climb. I had a hard time sleeping thinking about all of it but soon woke up at 3:30 A.M. Is it just me that hates these starts? Yet decides to do it over and over? I was not positive about our success. I was tired and feeling sick. We got ready and drove an hour and a half to the Cross Mountain Trail and set off after a 30 minute nap.
We’ll just go “check” it out.
It was my first time ever with a ski setup. Was I in for a surprise! We started off at 6:30 and cruised pretty fast. We went past a couple meadows looking at Lizard Head face to face. It looked surreal, almost like Castleton Tower in Utah, except at 13,000 feet, and coated with snow. I was amazed but also interested on how this was going to work. The snow level was not much and there was not a ton of snow on the peak but there was a little bit. Soon we got to the base of the cone and took our skis off. We made the trudge to the base. It took quite a while as we were post holing for quite a while. It was almost like post holing up the cone base of a desert tower, pretty hard with big packs and all that technical gear.
Approaching the base, I was tired and worn out. The thought of climbing 5.8+ with snow/ice in double plastic boots and gloves did not sound like a lot of fun especially leading. None the less everything was shaping up, and I mean everything. It was clear blue skies, some wind but not horrible, and we had to go for it. It looked to be just a double boot and glove climb. Not really good for mixed climbing the way the route is. We hit the base at the perfect time. The first pitch receives later sun. As we would have it, the sun was starting to get on it.
I gave the rack to Jay as we decided before hand what pitches we were taking. He took the 140 foot pitch to the notch taking his gloves off for the hardest part of the pitch. It looked a lot harder in winter mentally. (Though I have not done it in summer) It was “out” there with no one around. Winter has a crazy thing of making things a lot more serious feeling. The climbing almost felt 5.10 with double boots on. It was only 5.8 but it was not easy. Perhaps it was the altitude too. The Wilsons and El Diente were in the backdrop while climbing this crazy exposed “space” needle. Now this is awesome. I followed warming my hands up a few times on the pitch. It was still cold, especially when a lot of the holds are snowy and icy. I got to the notch and pretty much knew we were going to get up this thing one way or another. Looking down to all the snowy holds on a vertical chimney system, now this is what I dream about. I took us to the bottom of the last pitch over lots of nasty snow and Class 4 scrambling. It was kind of scary but not to bad. Jay followed and I grabbed the rest of the gear for the last 5.8 pitch.
The hardest part of this last pitch is a small overhanging snowy roof crack sort of deal. It’s a #4 cam overhang meaning its wide hands and hard to jam in gloves. I could see the moves in rock shoes but I had really no smearing ability so I made do with what I had. Jamming it was a littly icy and my hands were slipping out but soon enough I passed it and moved onto the 5.6 part that was run out to the summit on easier ground. I built the anchor and screamed in excitement. Jay followed and soon joined me.
It was turning into some sort of dream. A dream you wake up from and mad your not there. Avalanche conditions were good, sunny, blue sky, not really windy. Is this to good to be true??
This is the best summit I have ever been on in Colorado. A snowy perch with all these snow covered jagged peaks around. The summit itself seems like it’s going to fall down. I even “Tebowed.” Mainly because it was a Godsend with everything working perfectly out though we still had a treacherous descent along with my first time descending on skis.
I think God really showed me everything he is and what he created in a 12 hour span like I have never seen it. I don’t know how to describe the feeling of being on top of Lizard Head in the winter. I really don’t know how to. I was surprised to be there.
Descent & Ending Thoughts
After two rappels and some interesting Class 4 down climbing we were at the base. Walking down the cone, the sun started to set into perhaps the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. It was hitting the Wilsons and Gladstone with an alpine glow. Colors were being shot up everywhere. I took a few pictures. I walked on a ridgeline back to the skis in what seemed to be another dream. You know, the one where you’re running on the beach with an amazing sunset. I got on the skis and started the painful descent. It was faster then snowshoes but I must have fallen 20 times. It was a horrible first ski descent. I had perhaps a 40 to 50 pound pack, first time skiing in the dark with a small trail. Face first into the snow or butt in the snow, I’m glad I didn’t break anything. We got back to the truck with a strong breeze kicking in. We had climbed Lizard Head in the winter. I’m not going to say we were the second, or fifth, or ninth, because that’s not the point. I will say we overcame Lizard Head and made a huge personal victory. I would not trade this experience for anything. Everything I love about climbing was on this trip, except for learning to ski in the dark.