A little over a week earlier, I had been in a similar geographic location, but a whole different position. My friend Kurt and I were speeding off towards the Sangre De Cristo range, with nothing on our minds but lust for adventure and a photo of a drip of ice on the north face of Crestone Peak. During the drive we had ample time to discuss the most important matter at hand: How far are we willing to go? We were quite unsure of what the approach had to offer, aside from the repuation as being "unpleasant." The photo was old as well, and recent warm weather may have melted the route. In addition, we had a favorable, yet unsettled weather forecast. We agreed that we should climb something, whether or not it would be fun is another story. What this ultimately amounts to is a mutual pact to have an epic, an odd phenomenon in itself, almost totally exclusive in occurence to males in their mid twenties. Yes, this we agreed was an excellent idea. Our rationale was that in no way can a day in the mountains be as bad as the worst possible day of our lives. If nothing else, we would have a character building experience. We ended up bailing that day, turned back by a ground blizzard at 12,000 feet that offered us nothing better than 30 foot visibility. We would have climbed the route had we been able to find it, since we both agreed that unpleasant weather is not an acceptable excuse for bailing off of an ice climb. Despite the gift of GPS, we found out that in those conditions, locating a (relatively) small terrain feature on a 1000 foot wide face is nearly impossible. We stumbled around in the storm for 2 hours before calling it off.
Kurt, just before hiking up into the storm.
Kurts photo of me enjoying the conditions and thinking about.... something.
Sometimes the Crux is Just Getting There
I'd heard in the week prior to our first attempt, "That's a long way to go for WI3." Although I agreed with this to an extent, another part of me shrugged it off thinking, "I've gone further for AI2." I initially saw a photo of the route in the Colorado ice thread. It was simply beautiful. It looked like The Ribbon, but on Crestone Peak! Come on! I shrugged it off several times thinking that surely there were better things that I could do with my time. There's something funny about just a photo though. It ensnares its victims with its mystery and promise of adventure, rather than anything tangible. It is a purely emotional response, spurred on by the most quintessential elements of the Thoracic personality. Looking back at my favorite trips to the mountains, I find that they all contain this element to a degree. Surely this is the driving force behind many a failed expedition and the sole benefactor of countless mountaineers' financial ruin. For us though, it would only be the matter of a long drive and an inconvenient approach. You can't buy this stuff!
Crestone, CO, is a little over 200 miles from Boulder, and it is about a 4 hour drive. It's trips like these that really make me appreciate having an efficient vehicle. I've owned a 2005 Toyota Prius for several years, and have just about beat it to death driving all over the country. With over a decade of experience in the automotive industry, I'll stand behind it as the best dirtbagging vehicle in recent memory. I was frustrated coming back empty handed after our first attempt, and was totally psyched when Luke Walch at Green Eyed Motors offered to let my partner and I demo a 2012 Prius for the second trip. Luke is truly a great guy, always been totally supportive of my climbing addiction, a good friend, and one of the only honest used car dealers I know. I was psyched to take him up on his offer. The reduced expense of the second trip made doing all of that driving and all of that hiking a little easier to handle, mentally. Unforunately, as a consequence of the poor weather, we never actually saw the route. On the return trip, we still didn't know if it was even there anymore.
The driving/camping story is about the same as any 14er. Bust out of town late in the afternoon, hit the liquor store, grab some fast food, drive out into the middle of nowhere, and throw your sleeping bag down in the dirt. Drink a bottle of wine, wonder if it's really going to be "this windy" in the morning, lose yourself in the stars, watch the full moon track across the sky, and try to stop your mind's racing from all of the excitement. Finally, set the alarm for some ungodly hour and hope that no one comes by in the middle of the night to kick you out of your poached camp site. These essential tasks behind us, we woke and were on the trail right around 4 AM. The trail up Spanish Creek was challenging, but not quite the miserable endeavor we had anticipated. It really was a lovely hike, provided you are capable of keeping an open mind to alternative definitions of the word "trail." We found it to be reasonably worn and well cairned when it is difficult to discern. The approach winds its way through dense forest and deadfall, gaining 4100 feet of elevation to the base of the route, over the course of just over 4 miles. It took us approximately 5 hours to complete it at a casual pace, both times.
The "Fun" Part
On our second attempt, we were relieved to see the route from afar, in what appeared to be quite good condition! As we approached the base I was taken aback by the landscape. The Prow of Kit Carson absolutely soars overhead to the north. On 3 sides we were surrounded by these majestic pinnacles of conglomerate stone. Centrally located on our stage was the route, a narrow smear of ice that we found to be about 500 feet in length. From the base, the ice appeared to be quite thin lower down, but substantially thicker towards the top. In fact, while climbing the first pitch we realized how thin it was. We had brought what amounted to a standard rack for mixed climbing. A set of cams, a few pins, and 7 of the shortest possible screws, most measuring from 10-13cm in length. The shortest ones are about as long as your fist is wide. The first pitch only provided ice thick enough to protect with an ice screw 4 times. Granted it wasn't incredibly difficult, it was still 200 feet long, and felt very real. In several places we would climb over a bulge onto lower angle ice, where it would almost always become thin and sublimated. We would swing our tools only once, as a second swing would surely destroy the placement and bounce off of the rock beneath. Out of rope, we were forced into a poor belay at the end of the first pitch. I managed to find a good cam placement in bad rock, and equalize it with one of my ice tools hammered into a crack. I didn't want to weight it, but didn't have a choice. Sometimes that is the name of the game. Put in a bunch of crap and equalize it all together. Something will hold, right? If it's ever not fun, it sure as hell is exciting!
Kirill took the second pitch, and I watched in reverent silence as he "thunked" up thin, detached ice for 20-30 feet before finding a placement for a 10cm screw. He proceeded to lead up a 100 foot pitch that was slightly steeper, and with increasingly poorer protection. He managed an anchor at the base of a short, vertical headwall with two long(ish) screws in somewhat aerated ice. While Kirill was leading this pitch, he inadvertently knocked down a steady barrage of brittle ice, which my admittedly shit belay stance offered little protection from. The age old technique of "bob and weave" was my best friend. From time to time, there was a lull in the shelling, at which point my mind finally had a chance to wander. I tried to pin how I felt in this place, what it reminded me of, and then it came to me. It reminded me of the last time I was in the Canadian Rockies. Close to a year ago, Kirill and I attempted Middle Earth Gully on Athabasca. One of my most memorable alpine climbing experiences, I was forced to wait at a hanging ice screw belay and as I did, I developed frost bite in both of my feet. Such good memories. A second later and a hockey puck sized ice missile came down and clipped my shoulder. Bob and weave, bob and weave. There would be no frost bite today, just a lot of annoying ice fall! It had hovered right at around 15-20 degrees F all day and the North Couloir above was pouring spin drift on us from the very beginning. It wasn't inconvenient, but certainly added to the alpine feel. There was also quite a bit of rockfall, which we puzzled over from the beginning. We were sporadicaly subjected to a barrage of golfball sized rock and speculatively cursed when they cracked us loudly on our helmets.
Up until this point we really had no idea of the length of the route. Kirill speculated that it was at least 3 long pitches. I thought that it may go in as little as 1 pitch! This belay set us up to be just within reach of the top of the route, as the next pitch would be another rope stretcher and more sustained than the first. We switched off leads and after surmounting a short headwall I started cruising. The ice was thick, blue, pristine, and there was 200 continuous feet of it. I felt good about this final pitch. I've never been one to run it out, but with only 7 screws was forced to in order to make it to the top. It wasn't a huge deal, as it tended toward low angle with only two steeper sections. Towards the end, I managed to develop a nasty calf pump. My feet felt like two L shaped blocks of wood and my toes went numb. I placed my last screw at the base of the final headwall and fired it, ignoring the pain and focusing on moving. Just as I topped out I heard the call from Kirill, "out of rope!" I managed to work my way up a bit further and squatted enough tension into the rope to get a good belay stance and back myself up with a cam. I couldn't even thread the rope through my ATC. I just yelled back, "on belay!"
Kirill followed quickly and soon we were reunited at the "anchor". "Hey look, it's a sheep," he said. Uphill and slightly to our left appeared the heads of two big horn sheep peering at us over a cliff. Seconds later they shuffled away, knocking down a shower of loose rock which we watched get funneled down the climb. The mystery of the falling rock was solved. Up until now we had been open to the idea of continuing up the North Couloir to the summit, but the climbing took up a lot of time and it was now 2:30 PM. We both agreed that we didn't want to descend in the dark and we began our retreat. We did 3 rappels from v-threads and were at the base of the route and packed up in time to watch the sun set. It was quite the show indeed. It had been slightly overcast all day and the sun reflecting off of the moisture on the horizon breathed fire onto the visible portion of Kit Carson. All around, the snowy landscape blazed brilliant reds and oranges. We were both in awe of the show it put on. I cannot think of a more perfect ending to a day in the mountains. We bombed down the approach trail by headlamp, occasionaly actually seeing the trail. The sequence is still fresh in my mind. 1 minute of hiking, hurdle a tree, 30 seconds of hiking, hurdle a tree, 2 steps, hurdle a tree, awkward steparound, crawl under a tree, cross a creek, hurdle a tree. It wasn't so bad on the way down and we were back at the car by 7:30 PM. My last thought before arriving at the car was, "Oh my God, after today I'll never have to do this drive or this approach ever again." I had finally been released from my infatuation with that photo! Of course, we all know the truth.