So Christy pulled it off, she’s the first woman to ski the 54 Colorado 14ers. And what a finish it was, not simply due to the fact that her final peak was Capitol, considered by my many to be the most committing ski descent of all the 14ers, but in the various challenges that presented themselves this past season. It may have appeared as though it all fell right into place, but in reality there were several occasions when it looked like Christy might not wrap it up this year.
During the fall of 2009, with winter right around the corner, Christy and I began to talk about our goals for the next season. Among other things on her extra long list, she was really hoping to wrap up her own “Ski the 14ers” project. She had nine peaks left: Sneffles, San Luis, Holy Cross, Little Bear, Pikes, El Diente, Mt. Wilson, Pyramid and Capitol. A stout list for sure, but also a reasonable number to do in a season. But when we began to consider other things– a two week trip to Greenland planned for spring, another Elk Mountains Grand Traverse in March, Christy’s nordic goals, and both of our work schedules– Christy realized that in order to have the best chances of finishing this season, she should start on her list as soon as was safely possible. At a cost to other activities, (i.e. winter tennis league, sewing projects) she decided to make skiing these peaks a priority, and as her partner through it, I thought I’d share my take on Christy’s Homestretch.
Mount Sneffles – January 9
A quick glance at Christy’s list and one thing was apparent– she still had several of the hardest peaks left to ski. So it was first determined which peaks made the most sense for a winter attempt. Generally speaking, Sneffles, San Luis, Pikes and Holy Cross offered easier climbing and skiing than the other five, so Christy decided to put them at the top of the list, with Sneffles first. An overnight in Montrose with an early start and a high road access got us far into Yankee Boy Basin without much effort. The mood changed though when the snowy couloir we ascended from Lavendar Col became airy rock climbing. After a quick retreat back down to the col, a quick “Plan B” was devised, and we climbed up a different couloir, more on the mountain’s South Face. The unanticipated retreat cost some valuable time on a day that was pretty short on daylight hours already, and we topped out a little before sunset. The skiing was fun and the late day light made for some great photos, but the effort climbing the dry, unconsolidated snow in cold temperatures with less daylight (we got to the truck in the dark) were challenges not often found during the typical spring 14er ski season. (Sneffles photo gallery here)
San Luis – January 16
During a small mid-winter getaway the following weekend, between ice climbing days in Ouray and Lake City, we ventured to Creede to try for San Luis Peak. Last May, Christy bailed on an effort here after hiking up to San Luis Pass and seeing the desired ski line, the Yawner Gullies (and entire mountain for that matter) devoid of snow. This second time around things looked much better. The snowmobile shortened the long road approach by several miles in both directions and the skiing was great, but the long, rollercoaster-like route to and from this peak still ate up the short winter day, and once again we didn’t get back to the truck until dark. (San Luis photo gallery here)
Holy Cross – February 27
The first half of 2010 was very lean on snow and in mid-February we finally caught a good storm. In hindsight it was the biggest storm of the season, which as you might recall made for great conditions in Highland Bowl, but increased the avalanche risk in the backcountry substantially. The weekend following the big storm, Dirk, Christy and I cautiously headed to Holy Cross. The early alpine start from Aspen with the snowmobile in tow (to get us up the 8 mile Tigiwon Road) went smoothly, and Christy’s call to attempt the wind scoured and moderate angled North Ridge, as opposed to the Cross Couloir, was smart with all the recent snow. Apart from triggering a remote avalanche while picking our way down to Cross Creek, it proved to be pretty reasonable. The effort was big though, and like San Luis Peak we had to climb back over a pass (Halfmoon) on the return trip. When combined with a good amount of trail breaking, we once again finished in the dark, exhausted. Six peaks left. (Holy Cross photo gallery here)
Little Bear – March 5
So far so good, especially considering that apart from CAIC avalanche forecasts, we were bagging peaks without any real beta as to the conditions. It’s one thing to get current info from someone who has recently been to where you are going, it’s another to go in during the winter months without knowing what’s there, you can easily get shut down. After Holy Cross, Christy’s call was for one of the harder peaks, Little Bear, so armed with only one small piece of info– a recent aerial photo shot by Chris Davenport that showed the route to have at least some snow– we made the six hour drive. It was another gamble, but I respected Christy’s willingness to “just go and see” and as always, I agreed that we definitely wouldn’t get anything done if we stayed at home. And get it done we did, checking this one off in a day without a high camp, and from a real low starting point on the Como Lake Road. Better yet, the snow was really good and we got back to the car, skiing almost the entire way, twelve hours after we started. And after turning back here last May when temperatures were too high, Christy was psyched to get it this time. Four for four in winter, only five peaks remained and spring was right around the corner. It should only get easier from here. Did I just jinx something? (Little Bear photo gallery here)
And then it all stopped, or at least slowed. With a marginally good report from a Telluride friend about conditions there, Wilson and El Diente were targeted for the following weekend. Unfortunately we had to turn back. New snow was settling everywhere around us and the winds were pretty fierce– and we weren’t even to treeline. Oh well, we’d get the next one, we thought.
But with the arrival of spring, work starting taking up our already scarce free time. The Grand Traverse and associated planning and training ate up more of our time and before we knew it, it was April. A month after Little Bear, on our first free weekend with nice weather, Christy decided to grab the bull by the horns and go for Capitol. She wanted that one out of the way. Despite a huge effort, unconsolidated snow up high turned us back, and fifteen hours after starting, Christy, Joey and I were back at the truck with no summit. The effort was draining but she stayed up beat, gleaning one big thing from our failed attempt, that Capitol appeared more reasonable than all the over-dramatized reports online would lead one to believe. She knew she could do it. So the following weekend we tried again, this time as an overnight, which unfortunately never saw a summit attempt. Christy had a small cold on the hike in which blew up into full blown sickness overnight, and we had to head down first thing in the morning. It would be two weeks and two series of antibiotics before she felt good enough to do anything.
So it was decision time. Losing two weekends to Capitol and two more to illness in the April “14er high season” was a huge setback. Furthering the negative outlook was that the fact that two dust storms and high temperatures were melting the snow fast. Christy was now facing the prospect of needing another year. It was a tough stretch of time. I took off to the desert for a week and Christy worked on getting healthy again. We booked tickets to the Pacific Northwest to ski Rainier, Hood etc. in mid-May. It felt like the Colorado 14er ski season was over.
But then a huge storm came through. And another one, even bigger, six days later.
I spoke to Christy from Moab as the weekend approached and asked her what was going on around Aspen. “I think we can get something done, it’s pretty snowy around here.” So I was on the road home.
Christy had five peaks left– Capitol, Pyramid, Wilson, El Diente and Pikes– and things just turned back to winter.
Pikes Peak – May 1
The two storms had just dumped a huge amount of snow over most of the state so it still needed some time to settle and clear out. But it was the weekend and Christy was feeling healthy again and wanted to try for something. Plus, it was now May and even though it felt like winter again, the season was wrapping up soon. So in a bold move, she decided to go to Pikes Peak. What’s bold about that? Well, usually skiers wait for the Pikes Peak Highway to open, allowing for a comfortable drive to the summit, after which you switch your flip flops for ski boots, ski one of the lines from the car and then climb back up and call it good. Last year the road didn’t open until June (we got turned away last year in late May) so not wanting to wait, Christy decided we’d skin the summer hike route from Crags Campground to the summit, ski and climb the Y Couloir, and ski the long and boring route back down to Crags. I never entertained this option when I was shooting for Pikes, it’s probably quadruple the effort when compared to waiting for the road to open, but I was rather impressed with her drive and happily went along. She took one of the easiest 14ers to ski and added nearly eight hours of approach to and from Crags, but as she later acknowledged, the last peak she skied was Little Bear back on March 5 and after three turn arounds and a bout with sickness, she needed some success. I saw her point. So nearly two months passed without a summit, including a big goose egg in the prime month of April, but suddenly she was down to four peaks, which, if all went well, could be done in three big days. (Pikes photo gallery here)
Wilson/El Diente – May 5
And out of nowhere there was momentum. In a surprise move, Christy finagled a mid-week day off from work and we headed back down to the San Juans for another go at Wilson and El Diente. The forecast was great, the days were now longer, the dust had been buried and conditions had reset to something more like early spring. The new snow was deep though, and with just the two of us breaking trail up the snowy north sides of these two difficult peaks, it was hard going up, but awesome on the way down.
We hit El Diente first, where we found the steep traverse across the north side more fun than scary (see photo). Next, we headed to Mt. Wilson, where Christy decided to climb the loose, mixed N/NE finish to the top, and only then could we see there was enough snow on the SE Face to ski right from the summit. We made our way down and around into Slate Creek and eventually climbed back over to ski into Navajo Basin. The sun set as we crested Rock of Ages Saddle and once again we finished in the dark. Arriving to the truck at 9:40pm meant we couldn’t make it back to Aspen for Cinco de Mayo festivities, in fact we were so tired we had to get a motel in Montrose. Only two peaks to go. (El Diente photo gallery here) (Mt Wilson photo gallery here)
Pyramid Peak – May 8
Really? Just two? Well, two hard ones, but when Joey and Sean called to say they were shooting to ski Pyramid and wanted to put together a good group, we were in. We were shooting for Capitol with Dirk but this seemed like an even better idea. Riding bikes up the road to the East Maroon TH, we hiked the trail and climbed the entire route, and with this group of good friends it was an awesome day in every regard. But what began to stand out to me as we neared the summit was that remarkably, after things were looking so grim just a few weeks back, with a little drive, Christy was suddenly just one peak shy from being finished. During this one week in May, she set things up right and got four of her remaining five peaks skied. And it was down to Capitol. (Pyramid photo gallery here)
Capitol Peak – May 16
Alright, one more. The decision was made to cancel the trip to the Northwest to get this done, and Christy wisely opted to keep the vacation days so as to be free for the next available stretch of good weather. Ready to go, our group (Joey, Fred Marmsater, Christy and I) closely watched a slow moving weather system stubbornly refuse to clear out. Joel Gratz insisted it was leaving by Sunday and was offering personalized, near daily forecasts for the area. Our family and friends around town were eager with anticipation. Neal, Dav and others were offering their words of encouragement. And when the good weather day was finally agreed upon, and the alarm clock went off at 10:50 pm, Christy was focused. She was ready to wrap this up and we could all sense it. Long story short, 17 hours later we were back at the trailhead, where Dav was waiting with some beers– she was done. (Fred’s photos here) (Christy’s Capitol photo gallery here)
After disappointment, dust storms and illness, having nearly hung her skis up for the season a few weeks back, Christy bounced back and finished. Seven of these last nine peaks saw failed first attempts, and her last five peaks– four of which are arguably the hardest in the state– were done in just about two weeks, ending with Capitol, considered to be the hardest of them all. In my ten years of partnering with Christy, I have never seen such focus and determination towards a goal, and as I look back on the final stretch, as she rose to the challenges and persevered, I’m overwhelmed with pride.
Congratulations Christy. You’re awesome.