Sunday, October 05, 2008

Mt. Lindsey (14,047 ft.)

Iron Nipple (13,504 ft.)

25 September, 2008: Regular readers will recall that, back in May, Trisha and I attempted to start our climbing season with a climb of Mt. Lindsey—only to be turned back by a combination of fatigue and exposure. After our climb of Pyramid Peak, however, Trisha decided that, if we could do that, then we could do Lindsey, and we ought to go back and nail it before the season was over.

I readily agreed, and a check of the weather forecast quickly showed that Thursday, the 25th, promised probably the best weather of the entire week. We both knew that, in fact, this was the ideal time of year for this particular mountain, for two reasons: First, the snow of last winter was finally all gone, meaning that we could drive all the way to the trailhead this time (See the previous entry on Lindsey for an account of the extra work which the lack of this condition imposed.). Second, stream flow would be at or near its annual low, making the crossing of the Huerfano River—which does not sport an actual bridge—as easy as it was ever going to get.

Hopefully well rested this time, we left home at 3:15 am MDT, and were hiking from the Lily Lake trailhead by 6:30. This was before sunrise, but dawn had already come and, although we had brought our headlamps, we did not need them. There were no other cars, or any other evidence of anyone else, at the trailhead.

After crossing the river to its south/east side, we quickly reached the point where we had emerged from the trees back in May. There, we discovered that the trail stayed closer to the river, and in the trees, as it began to climb steeply up to the south. There were a few places where it was a bit indistinct on the forest floor, but soon a well-worn and obvious track emerged alongside the river.

A few hundred feet up, however, the trail re-crosses the river to its (now) west side. On the previous trip, I thought I had seen a trail over on the west side of the drainage as we were descending, but I couldn’t see how it connected to the route we had taken. This time, the answer was obvious: it had been hidden under the lingering snow in the upper basin.

Without the snow, we had no trouble following the trail all the way up to where it tackles the west side of the Lindsey/Iron Nipple Ridge. It took us less than two hours to make this part of the trip, which brought us to a few hundred feet above timberline, at roughly 12,500 ft. By a quarter to ten, we were standing on the ridge crest, at 13,300 feet, under stunningly clear skies, with the whole pageant of the Blanca group spread out around us.

I had avoided expressing any preference as to which route we should follow above this point, to let Trisha make the choice for herself. Somewhat to my surprise, she elected to give the ridge route another try. I was definitely up for the challenge, so we put on our helmets and off we went, clambering over the spiky points and across the tiny tops of steep gullies that make up the northeast ridge.

As we once again approached the crux headwall, however, the wind began to increase. Although we made it farther up than we had before, the exposure once again got to Trisha. (I wasn’t setting any speed records myself.) So, with some reluctance, we decided to retreat a ways down the ridge and take the less demanding couloir route.

It took nearly half an hour of careful downclimbing to extricate ourselves from the ridge, and join the obvious route into the base of the couloir. We were happy to find that, even though there was a smattering of snow in the couloir (it does face north, after all), and even though some of the scree surface was indeed loose, the going was actually easier than I had feared.

It is steep, however, and we carefully picked our way up, trying to avoid the snow for the most part, and always seeking good handholds to supplement our foot traction. Basically, we found that the best method was to stick to the extreme left (east) side, where we could use the mostly continuous rock wall for handholds, and where sunlight had removed the greatest amount of snow. After a few minutes to get the rhythm, we found we were making decent progress. We never dislodged any rocks of significant size, but there were occasional scree showers, and we were glad to see that no one else was on the mountain with us.

By now, it was clear that we would indeed make the summit this time, but our route finding adventures were by no means over. About two-thirds of the way up the couloir, we came to a tiny saddle. Rather than descend/traverse through the snow on the other side of it, I decided that it would make sense to exit the couloir to our right, and make a direct scramble up the face in the general direction of the summit—or what I thought was the summit.

I made this decision partly because the route seemed to be more snow-free than the remainder of the couloir. It was—but not by much. And the placement of some of the snow patches which we couldn’t avoid made for a few little pitches of rather “spicy” climbing, so this stretch didn’t go quite as quickly as I had hoped.

It went, however, and we found ourselves back on the ridge crest, well above the headwall. What I still thought was the summit loomed just a short distance above us. Seven minutes of easy scrambling brought us to the high point, where we could finally see the true summit, just a few feet higher but a couple hundred yards farther southeast.

The good news was that there was a clearly visible climber’s trail virtually all the way, we only had to give up a smidgen of elevation, and the final climb to the summit was just a walk-up. With the weather holding (the wind had even died down some), our goal was finally, literally, in sight and only a few minutes away.

As has become my custom, I made a short video of our arrival at this summit; it can be seen at:

With the summit to ourselves and the clear weather holding, we spent nearly half an hour there. We signed the register with a somewhat surprising 200+ names on it since July of 2008, and took numerous pictures, enjoying the break from the technical climbing. We did not, however, feel like eating lunch in that breezy environment. Despite the unbroken sunshine, it was still cool; we decided to stop back at the saddle for lunch.

We also decided not to retrace all of our steps, and, instead, to take the full length of the couloir on our descent. Only a little bit of searching was needed to find the point where we could drop off the summit ridge and enter the top of the couloir: There were boot prints clearly visible from above.

When we got down to the small saddle to rejoin our ascent route, we encountered what may well have been the most dangerous segment of our entire day. The snowfield which I had chosen to avoid on the way up was indeed an obstacle to be negotiated with care: It was steep, with no trustworthy run-out below it, and the snow varied between too hard to kick much of a step in, and so soft that no decent platform could be created when our kicks did go in! We crab-walked across it sideways, very carefully testing each step, and using our hands, even right in the snow, all the way. It was a slow twenty feet!

Once we made it across and back to the small saddle, however, the going got easier, although it was still steep. We were on familiar territory, and made decent time all the rest of the way back to the saddle, where we finally were back on a clear trail. Not to mention back to walking, instead of clinging.

Despite our detour, it was clear that we had numerous hours of sunlight left, and we were not worn out (no small deal). I had mentioned on the way up that, if time permitted, I would like to climb Iron Nipple on the way back. Once we reached the saddle, Trisha assured me that time did permit, and that she wouldn’t mind pausing there for lunch and waiting for me to make what I hoped would just be a quick out-and-back. So I took off, hoping to make it back in something like half an hour.

I didn’t quite hit that time mark, but I was really happy that I took the detour. A decent climber’s trail led along the ridge to where the rocks began to require scrambling. I found the scrambling to be great fun—well within my limits—and the view improved rapidly. Just before reaching the summit, I got the big surprise: There is a short knife-edge ridge that must be negotiated! It looks for all the world like a much smaller version of the famous knife-edge on Capitol Peak, so I eagerly took it on as a little practice for that as-yet-unclimbed peak. The exposure was real, but I found it fairly easy.

I regret not thinking to take a close-up picture of this unusual feature. The photo album does include a longer-distance shot taken from a ways below on my descent.

From the summit, I could just barely make out Trisha below, but didn’t know whether or not she could see me. It turns out she could, and got a nice picture of me silhouetted against the sky. There was no register, so after standing momentarily on the highest point, I hurried down. First, however, I took a few pictures, including what I think is the best (meaning most informative) one I got all day of Lindsey. It makes both routes, gully and ridge, plain to see.

After descending, I quickly ate the sandwich which Trisha had graciously gotten ready for me, and we began our descent. From that point, the descent was just a re-tracing of our steps on the way up, so it went pretty uneventfully. Descending on the west side of the Huerfano River valley, we did lose direct sunlight long before astronomical sunset, but we were never cold. Plus we had beautiful views of the opposite side of the valley bathed in the afternoon sunlight.

Without really pushing ourselves, we made it back to the trailhead in only three and a half hours. There, we finally saw other human beings. They were a couple who corresponded to the other entry we had seen in the trailhead register just minutes before, when we signed out. They had hiked up to Lily Lake, and, coming up to the trailhead just minutes after us, cheerfully asked if we were “the Lindsey people.” A nice conversation ensued, and they inquired about, and were suitably impressed with, our progress in climbing the fourteeners.

This one felt really good. Lindsey is as tough as its reputation: not for beginners. But bagging it late in the season, in perfect weather, to take care of some unfinished business, was extremely rewarding. Plus, it brought me up to eight new fourteeners for the season, and Trisha up to nine: new personal records for both of us.

Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!


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