Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Strange Story of Mt. Buckhorn

This may be one of the strangest climbs I’ve ever reported on. Mt. Buckhorn (8,540 ft.) is, in the grand scheme of things, a very unimpressive little ridge point to the north of North Cheyenne Cañon, just a few miles from home (38°48’00’’N, 104°54’11’’W). Indeed, it’s hard even to see it (or at least to pick it out with certainty) from very far away in most directions. But it is a named summit, and it is easily accessible because there is a trail all the way to the top. For those reasons, various parts of my family, including me solo, have been there many times in the past few years. It’s a great little hike for small children, and adding the final leg from the Gold Camp Road parking lot makes a nice addition to a good run from the bottom of the cañon, or from home.
However—there’s a “however” on Buckhorn—I had never actually stood on the true summit of Mt. Buckhorn, and neither had any of the rest of the family. The reason? Well, you can get right up to the summit on foot, but once you arrive there, you are presented with the unexpected sight of a single huge boulder, some 30 feet high and undercut on all sides, which constitutes the actual high point. Repeated inspections and attempts had yielded no conceivable way to climb it without technical aid. Indeed, I wondered if anyone had ever stood on its summit.
The picture above is one I took last winter of the summit boulder.
Sooo…fast-forward a bit to late 2006. Through, I ended up communicating with Kevin Baker, a Colorado Springs resident who had taken on the personal project of climbing every named summit in El Paso County. (There are about 70 of them, according to him.) Since that includes Mt. Buckhorn, he reported that he had made the easy hike to the summit block, and had been stymied just as I had. He said I would be welcome to come along in December, when he and a few friends were planning on assaulting Buckhorn’s summit with technical gear. For my part, I had to be impressed with his/their generosity, as I freely admitted that I had no rope climbing experience, and no equipment of my own.
Well, the December date fell through, due to scheduling problems. But I asked Kevin to keep me in mind if a new plan was concocted. I really didn’t know what to expect, or when.
But, as luck would have it, he didn’t forget about me. Sure enough, on the 12th of March, I got an email stating that a late afternoon attempt on Buckhorn was on for the 16th, and inviting me to come along! I replied that I would certainly be at the Gold Camp Road parking lot to join them on the appointed day. I figured this was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
Also as luck would have it, Suzanne got off work early that day, so I was able to have a car all to myself for the trip. Shortly before 5 pm (MDT), I pulled up just as the group of four other people was assembling out of two other vehicles. I introduced myself and found out that the others were Kevin (of course), his friend and well-known climber Patrick Thornilly, Doug (whose last name I didn’t get), who proved to be the “life-of-the-party” participant, and Sue Personett, the author of a long string of impressive trip reports I had read over the past couple of years.
Just as Kevin had stated, Patrick had brought a very long aluminum ladder on top of his car, which was duly hauled down, as well as ropes and numerous pieces of rope hardware. Eager to contribute, I picked up one end of the ladder, while Patrick T. grabbed the other end, and the group set off on the relatively short hike to the summit. Based on their past experience, the route chosen was different from what I would have done: up High Drive on the east side of the ridge, as far as the saddle between Buckhorn and Mays Peak, then switchbacking on the trail to the ridge crest. This was a section of trail on which I had never been before, but we made decent time and reached the summit area with plenty of late afternoon sunshine left.
(I also learned on the way up that the summit had indeed been climbed at least once. Gerry Roach, the author of the famous fourteeners guide, had “jugged” himself up it many years ago by using two ascenders on ropes thrown over the top.)
Then began the slow part: surveying all sides of that boulder to determine what would work best. Could we do it without resorting to the ladder, with just ropes, etc.? It sure didn’t look like it. Patrick opined that the boulder seemed bigger than his memory had indicated. Sue admitted that the idea of using a ladder was truly weird, something she had never done before. (I don’t think any of the rest of us had, either...) But, in the end, we concluded that there was really no other way, without relying solely on upper body strength to pull ourselves up with ropes. That’s because the rock is significantly undercut up to eight or ten feet off the ground on every side except the southwest side--where it is virtually vertical. Plus, it’s big enough that just tossing the rope all the way over it from the ground looked like a daunting task in and of itself.
So the ladder was duly extended to nearly its maximum length--close to twenty feet--and placed up against the east side of the rock, where it looked like it could at least reach a place where the slope relented enough to allow some sort of friction walking up the remaining distance to the top. Sue took the rope up while Patrick steadied the base of the ladder. After reporting back down that the handholds offered just beyond the ladder’s reach were few, small, and dangerously flaky, she managed, on the second try, to throw the end of the rope over the top to the west side. There, Patrick attached a rappel sling and secured it artfully to the bases of two sturdy trees.
This arrangement made the climb possible, but by no means a piece of cake. The chosen method of ascent was to don climbing harnesses (no thanks to me!) and secure them to the rope with a one-way ascender clip. Once at the top of the ladder, it would be necessary for one to commit one’s weight to the rope, and use the ascender to work up the rope a bit at a time, with one’s feet planted on the sloping rock. The trick would be to exit gracefully from the ladder--and to accomplish the reverse move on the way down.
Sue went up first and made it look easy. After sliding some of her equipment back down the rope for others to use, she was soon joined on the top by Kevin, and then Patrick. Meanwhile, I tried to get as many good pictures as possible of people going up, and standing on the top. This wasn’t easy, as vantage points on the ground, from which those standing on top could be seen well, were very few. You can’t even back off a ways and zoom in, since the land just falls away in all directions if you leave the immediate vicinity of the summit block. This can clearly be seen in the pictures I brought back. They can be seen at:

Finally, Doug (the only one of us without a helmet) climbed up. After getting a shot of the four of them waving from the summit, it was finally my turn, after Sue descended to stabilize the ladder for me. She kindly showed me how to get into the harness and attach the ascender, and up the ladder I went. As anticipated, the crux move was getting off the ladder and onto the rock proper. Despite the ladder’s impressive reach, the rock was still seriously sloped at its top. After several tries, I abandoned my attempts to find adequate handholds, which would allow me to get off the ladder without depending on the rope. I simply had to use the holding power of the ascender to pull myself up and forward the next few feet, with only my feet planted on the rock. But, I did it, and, finally, I was on top! On top of this summit which had tantalized me (“so close and yet so far away”) a dozen or more times in the past!

I had handed off my camera to Sue, and she took a few pictures of Patrick, Doug, and me on the summit; they’re included in the photo album. Thanks, Sue!
We had all made it just in time to catch the last direct rays of the sun. I had already put on my windbreaker against the coming chill, and everybody else, as, one by one, they hit the ground, also pulled out their extra clothing. I was the next-to-last one down, doing my first ever rappel under Patrick’s hastily concocted guidance. I think he was a little worried about me when he found out that I had never rappelled before, but he said I managed it just fine. Indeed, I was a tad slow, but I thought it went fairly well; I lowered myself a little farther than I really had to with the rope, before reclaiming the security of the ladder for the return to ground level.
With the light fading, we re-packed, and headed down, with Kevin and Doug carrying the ladder this time. I convinced the group that it would be faster and perfectly feasible to take the gully on the west side of the ridge, which leads directly back to the parking lot. This might not have been a good idea had the ladder been very heavy, but it wasn’t. We made good time down, but it was still dark when we finished, and I had to take the group picture at the trailhead with a flash. It was a strange, unconventional climb, but I was glad to be part of it, not least for the chance to meet and talk with some interesting fellow climbers. What’s more, since this was four days before the equinox, this was still technically a winter ascent!


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