Arrow is a startlingly beautiful peak situated in the rugged Grenadiers of the San Juan Range in Colorado and in 2004 had become my nemesis. It is one of the most totally unique mountains I have ever contemplated, with the salient feature being the enormous rock ramp sweeping a graceful curve to split the summit in two. Like the other Grenadiers, it is entirely solid rock- little scree and virtually no topsoil anywhere on it. After having failed to climb it in September 2004 for reasons mostly psychological, I thought long and hard about what it really takes to be a mountaineer, and my determination to climb the mountain grew.
That September (2004) I had the idea of spending a week in the Grenadiers alone, intending to climb Arrow, Vestal and the Trinities as the weather allowed. I travelled to Durango and then caught the train to the whistlestop on the Animas River from which I would being my in-hike. The approach into Vestal basin is fairly arduous in any conditions, but as it began to gust, rain and hail, then snow higher up, it was exhausting. I lost my way along the somewhat faint climbers' trail and ended up following the steep and logjammed creek into the basin. The sky cleared for a moment to show me that I was in one of the most amazing high valleys in the state with the hardened and alien looking row of peaks lining one side in apround and awe-inspiring display. As night fell, the clouds returned with a fury of lightning and snow that lasted well into the morning and dropped nearly a foot of fresh powder, probably the first significant snowfall of the season. The lightning that night made it hard to sleep as I imagined trees above bursting into flames or myself being incinerated by a bolt. One thing about solo travel in the mountains is that sleepless nights in a tent in bad weather are hard to pass and there is little one can do to relieve the tension. The next morning the snow continued, and after a nights' bad sleep and exercising a reasonable level of caution about solo climbing in bad weather, I slept through the morning. The snow continued weakly throughout the day and I remained tent-bound for the most part. (I read a book revolving around the lives of people in a nursing home. Perhaps not the most inspiring reading for a climbing trip. From now on it is Krakauer, Twight and Messner or nothing). Occasionally views of the peaks would open up and I would sit and stare in awe at the ramp, now covered in snow, on Arrow. I allowed a sense of fear to build, as much fear of the accumulating snow and my own loneliness as the mountain itself. A beautiful and inviting peak in the sunshine with friends can become a stark reminder of one's own mortality alone and in the cold. Simply, I was getting psyched out.
The next afternoon the storm broke and I knew the next morning, given good weather, I had to climb or risk the goal of the trip. The three people who'd been in the valley earlier were gone and it was the mountains and myself. I woke up at sunrise and headed for Arrow. The climbs would be fairly short since I was camped just below treeline and the mountains were more vertically than horizontally oriented, so I was not worried about the alpine start. With the last days' snow resting solidly on rock, there was no avalanche danger and the afternoon storm systems of the summer were likely past. Waking at seven, eating a leisurely breakfast and then hitting the mountain seemed quite adequate. Vestal (itself an incredible mountain and deserving of a whole different story) and Arrow are separated by a flat basin filled with massive boulders and talus and a high narrow ridge, steep on both sides runs between them on one end of the basin. That morning I hiked into the basin intending to climb Arrow, but when I saw the amount of snow on the route, which is consistent class 3, exposed scrambling for at least one thousand vertical feet, decided to climb the class 2+ route on Vestal's back side, also called the Descent Route for the really classic rock climb up the sweeping face on Vestal's North Face. With snow on it this route actually had some difficulties of its own. The day was gorgeous, warm with clear blue skies, and from the summit I could see the best of Colorado with its fresh fall coat of snow. I spent an hour on the summit, and allowed myself to be satisfied with that climb. I planned on climbing Arrow the next day. The views of the Ramp as I climbed Vestal did not ease my trepidation.
The weather held that night, and when I woke the next morning it was crisp and bright. I returned in the direction of Arrow and began the ascent to the Ramp. But I dalllied. I hesitated. Regardless of the fact that the route can be seen in its entirety from any point on it, I continually stopped to check my route description. I snacked even though not hungry and worried that my clothes were not sufficient if weather were to move in. I scanned the bluebird sky for any wisp of cloud that might hint of storm. I balked at the simplest of class 3 moves when any exposure at all was involved. Worst, I looked at the route ahead and kept envisioning the snow and water on the rock leading to the fall that would be my end. The climb was well within my physical ability (although I was maybe in poorer condition than I should have been) but mentally I was in over my head. I had spent days worrying in my tent, I had allowed my rigor to lapse, and I had become full of doubts. I sat on a ledge and waited for something to tell me what to do. Hesitantly, but with no real option, I descended back to my tent, well aware that I had made a cowardly decision. There was no real reason to turn back, I just could not make myself go forward. I hiked out the next day after 5 days in the basin and only one climb accomplished. The trip was enjoyable, truly beautiful and as much a wilderness experience as Colorado has to offer, but I had encountered something about myself in the mountains that would take a lot of soul searching to understand. On a nice day, with friends and with a car at the trailhead, the climb would have been cake. After days of bad weather, very much alone and with no easy escape, I began to doubt my abilities.
When I returned home I started to train with climbing as my focus. I started to do more bouldering and rock climbing so that my confidence on easy rock would be high. That winter and spring I did several climbs in snow and bad conditions with friends. All of this was to prepare myself for a trip I had wanted to do since my first backpacking trip as a child- to hike the Colorado Trail. Actually, I had decided to do a somewhat more original trip, and hike the trail from Leadville to Silverton (several hundred mile), climbing the Centennial (highest hundred) peaks along the way over the course of two months. I had done plenty of backpacking and climbing solo in Colorado, but still, two months of daily hiking and climbing solo was a fairly ambitious plan. I would reach Vestal basin a month and a half into the trip. When the trip started, I was a little overweight, nervous and weaker than I had wanted to admit. Carrying a 55 lbs pack miles every day (the mileage at which I tired increased steadily from under ten to over twenty) and climbing an average of five mountains a week for five weeks had me thin and strong and extremely self confident by the time I reached Vestal Basin.
I had built Arrow up in my head to be a massive undertaking of a mountain. I was ready to do everything right. I was self-confident, pragmatic and quite rigorous in what I ate and when/how I slept. The trail up Vestal Creek was not nearly so hard this time as it had been 10 months ago. The weather was gorgeous and I was asleep as the stars came out. I got a 5 am start as had become my wont over the course of the summer. Day after day of afternoon thunderstorms tends to reset one's clock if avoiding them is so keenly important as it was to me. As I got above the trees and onto the rock of Arrow, the sky lightened and the swirling morning mists on the peak created a scene surreal and spectacular. Vestal and the Trinities danced in and out of sight as the sun gradually rose. It was windy and cold high on the mountain and the mist sometimes obscured visibility, but the rock was solid, the climbing pure joy and I had summitted by 8 am after taking a slightly harder ridge variation on the normal chimney exit from the ramp. None of the drama and self doubt that I had prepared for was realized and my nemesis was conquered in a sigh. You all know the story, the nemesis was not the mountain, since a person (expect maybe the Climax Mine owners) never really conquers a mountain, the nemesis was my own self-limitation.