Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tour de Platte

With plans to camp with friends west of Cheesman Lake, Shelby and I made plans to climb a fun link-up of the main domes of the Sheep Rock massif during the day when everyone else is napping, shooting guns, and playing lawn games. The link-up is sometimes referred to as the Tour de Platte and it enchains any routes up Helen's Dome, Acid Rock, and Velcro Wall. The route goes from the bottom to the top of the formation in the picture above. Relative to our last big climb, Royal Flush, there was relatively little information about this climb and the approach and so it made for a fun adventure with all the route finding. The approach was a beast. Easy hiking for about 20 minutes led us to a giant boulder where we turned left and headed straight up the hill with lots of scrambling and steep hills to ascend. Getting to the base of the climb was the most tiring part of the entire day.

Luckily we were able to get to the base of the first route which was called Fractured Fairy Tales which is a 6 pitch 5.7 route that goes all the way up Helen's dome. If we were going to finish the entire Tour de Platte, it would be a total of 11 pitches which would take a long time. In order to save time, we decided to try to simul-climb the easy climbing on Helen's Dome. Simul-climbing is necessary when the leader climbs far enough that she runs out of rope, but doesn't have an anchor to belay from. When you run out of rope the second climber can fix the rope to himself and begin to climb at the same rate as the leader until she reaches an anchor. This is the fastest way to climb easy terrain since both climbers can move at the same time.

About to start the climb.

We rock paper scissored for the first lead and Shelby took off first leading some pretty easy low angle slabs. At points you could easily stand up on the slab without touching the rock with your hands it was such a low angle. After reaching the first anchors, Shelby started a traverse pitch to the right, hoping to link the first two pitches. She ran out of rope and called for me to simulclimb, so I took off after her. The rope drag became too much for Shelby to continue leading, so she just stopped at a bolt while I caught up with her. From here, the bolts started going up, but disappeared with no bolts anywhere near us. We were dumbfounded. Going straight up where the bolts appeared to be heading looked very difficult. There was a ledge we could take down and to the right that seemed like it might make sense, so I stopped at a bolt and belayed Shelby while she continued down that ledge to find the route. Glancing back at me she started laughing. The anchor was 10 feet below me where I was belaying from the last bolt of the route. Any time we had saved by simul-climbing was eaten up in the time we took to find these anchors which were placed in a very odd location right under out noses. 

We were off to a rough start, but after this the climbing went much more smoothly. We had heard that there were some spots on this route where it was nice to place a bit of protection to reduce the runout, so we brought a small trad rack. I had the pleasure of placing one cam on the next pitch and I belayed Shelby up to the anchors at a very small ledge. I led the next pitch which had a fun little 5.7 roof move. The views started getting better and better the higher we went up. You could see leaves changing on the mountains in the distance.

Shelby at the top of pitch 3

Our route description told us that the next anchor wasn't at a very comfortable spot, but that if you kept climbing another 10 meters you could belay from a comfy ledge using gear for an anchor. Shelby took the lead on this one and she ended up linking all of pitch 5 and 6 with some simul-climbing, practically finishing the route without noticing. Oops!

Shelby leading pitch 5 up the fun arete

Shelby belaying from the top of pitch 6

The last part could have been done easily without a rope, but I dragged the rope along for the ride and clipped one bolt on the way. Later, Shelby climbed to the top of the dome in her Chacos. Yep, pretty easy finish. The view from the top was spectacular. 

The top of Helen's dome with one of the "hot-tubs" on the right.

Funny looking selfie from the top of Helen's with Acid Rock in the background on the right.

Upwards we hiked/scrambled towards Acid Rock. At this point our feet were starting to bother us. Neither of us had brought the right shoe for the job of climbing up so much slab, so we were starting to question whether we would finish the Tour. I wanted to at least try out the next route on Acid Rock, so we found a good rock to hide under to take a 15 minute snack break before continuing. There were boulders everywhere up there. Some were absolutely gigantic and we had to find our way to the base of the next climb by crawling through caves formed by huge boulders leaning on each other. All the scrambling and navigating around obstacles was part of what made this day an adventure for us.

The route I chose up Acid Rock is referred to as "Unknown Between Divine Miss M and Erotic Plants." Shelby decided to just call it Miss M's Erotic Plants.  It's listed as 5.9+, but it felt like at least 5.10a to me, but I admittedly haven't been climbing too much recently and I'm not a slab climbing master, so my rating could be off. We weren't optimistic about finishing all four pitches, so I dragged our second rope so that I would be able to climb as much as possible and still be able to rappel off. The first few bolts were the crux of the first pitch with some pretty thin, slabby moves and then the pitch finished off with easier climbing with lower angles and bigger edges. I headed up the second pitch immediately and it brought me to where the wall steepens. The route goes up between two black water marks that look like car skid marks. As I approached the crux I told Shelby that it was about to get pretty hard. I made the first couple moves and clipped the next bolt. As I started up again I started to get scared and told Shelby that I could fall here. The holds were absolutely tiny and I was afraid that my feet would slip or that the tiny edges would break beneath my fingers. I made it to the next bolt and looked up. This crux was relentless! The angle wasn't about to ease off anytime soon and the wall was smooth all the way up. I had started going up the left skid track, but at one point I was stopped. I would step up into an insecure stance and would find no hands and no feet any higher. I went up and down between this spot and a more secure stance a foot below several times before my feet couldn't take it anymore. My feet were tired of standing on these tiny edges and I wasn't making any progress. I called out to Shelby to take in the rope and I took a rest hanging on the rope. While hanging I looked at the right skid track and saw much better edges that I could use to make some better progress. Soon I started back up and made it to the next bolt, finding that the right skid track was much easier. But the pain in my feet didn't go away. These shoes were not made for this kind of climbing and my toe knuckles were dying for a break. I wouldn't be satisfied stopping where I was, so I determined to just push through the pain and make it to the top where I could take off my shoes. I inched up the slab and got to the last bolt. I stemmed my legs from one skid track to the next and was able to pull out of the steep part. I climbed the remaining easy ground, clipped into the anchor, and ripped off my shoes. Shelby told me that she wasn't going to climb up after me. Her feet were already tired of her shoes and she could see how bad the pain was for me on this pitch, so I contentedly tied my two ropes together and rappelled back to the ground. This climb felt like one of the hardest leads I've done and Shelby later told me that she had never heard me make the noises I made on that climb. When an edge broke under my fingers I made a loud gasping/grunting noise while doing everything I could to stay on the rock. Near the top I was making a pretty bad groaning noise because my feet where hurting so bad.

Despite not finishing the entire Tour de Platte, we started the hike down feeling content. The climb up Fractured Fairytales was very pleasant and the views were amazing. I felt very accomplished to have pushed myself to my limit on Acid Rock and we were looking forward to coming back to this wonderful climbing area again. 

But what made this climb special was that it was our first big climb after getting engaged. We first met climbing and somehow she entrusted her life to me, a complete stranger, allowing me to belay her. Climbing will always be a reminder of the early times of our relationship. I have always had a passion for adventures and I'm so happy to have Shelby to share these adventures with for the rest of our lives. Especially the adventure of marriage which might be one of the most epic adventures ever.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Four Pass Loop

Likely the result of a Sunday evening daydreaming about my next adventure, I somehow stumbled upon a trip report on December 2, 2012 about the Four Pass Loop. I knew nothing about the hike's reputation. I just knew that the trip report had some pretty amazing pictures. It turns out this route is often ranked among America's best backpacking loops and it is known for excellent scenery of big mountains and wildflowers. If you've ever seen a picture of the maroon bells, chances are you are familiar with the view at the start of this hike.

The route starts at Maroon Lake and makes a loop around the Maroon Bells crossing four passes: West Maroon Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass, and Buckskin Pass. This makes for a 26 mile-10,000ft elevation gain hike.

Our route with miles marked in red circles and camping spots with yellow triangles. Hiked clockwise.

After an uncomfortable night sleeping in the parking lot in the back of a Subaru, we were ready to get going on Friday morning. The hike started out with a gradual elevation gain as we passed through the valley towards maroon pass.

The hiking was easy for several miles and we passed a few groups on the way. I was ready to give us the "Best Hikers of the Day" award until we made the long, painful slog up the last mile of the pass where we met a man who had already ran 20 miles of the loop that morning. We ended up seeing around 10 of these runners who do the loop in one day. Getting to the top of the pass was quite the challenge for me, but Shelby made it look easy. She's a backpacking machine.

After a short break at the pass, we made our way down the north side of the pass towards Frigid Air Pass. No more than 100 feet down the trail my knee started giving me issues. The same issues it gave me a couple months ago. My knee became a constant concern of mine, but I was able to manage by compensating with my trekking poles.

The wildflowers along the entire route were gorgeous.

The walk over to Frigid Air Pass was easy and pleasant with lots of low angle trail and pretty wildflowers. The final part of the pass was steep but short. At the top we got our first glimpse of Snowmass Mountain as well as a view of the back side of the Maroon Bells.

Fravert Basin and Snowmass Mountain from Frigid Air Pass

Maroon Bells from Frigid Air Pass

We started to see the same people throughout the day and we would end up seeing them throughout the whole trip. There was the 'Group of Four' who seemed to have an identical pace to us, the 'Descenders' who joked to us, "We're really good at going downhill," the 'Gang' who carried a boom-box and enjoyed making loud cuckoo calls, the 'Patriarchs,' our 'Buddies,' 'Speedy McGreedy,' and others. They all began to feel almost like family. The grand parents, the annoying little brothers, the cousin who seems nice but we rarely hear from her, etc.

The descent from Frigid Air Pass was the worst descent of the whole trip. My knee was really bothering me and we were at the tail end of a difficult 11 mile, 2 pass day. Eventually we found a nice campsite in Fravert Basin. We set up our camp and enjoyed basking in the sun and simply relaxing before dinner time.

The descent from Frigid Air

Dinner was satisfying and we spent the evening playing Mancala on a sleeping pad board with little twigs for the playing pieces. It worked quite well. We also have the option to play Scrabble, Connect-Four, and Tic-Tac-Toe on Shelby's sleeping pad.

In the morning we slept in a bit and then started the hike for the day towards Trail Rider Pass. We hiked through Fravert Basin for a few miles, passing a waterfall and an easy stream crossing.

Eventually the trail started traversing the slope on the north side of the basin and we began our long climb. The trail switched back several times on the way up and the trail was pretty steep for much of the climb.

Eventually the angle eased off and we made it to the upper basin below the pass. This was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip for us. There was a beautiful lake with wide open views in all directions. It was nice to take a break in this area before finishing the climb to the pass.

After a short break, we headed up the last bit of hill before the pass. We caught our first glimpse of Snowmass Lake from the pass and were quickly off down the hill since it started hailing on us. It wasn't too long before the hail went away and the clouds started to break, making for probably the best scenery of the trip.

Snowmass Peak from right above Snowmass Lake

 Snowmass Lake with double rainbow (part of the way!)

The descent from the pass was steep to start out with, then mellowed out for a while, then got steeper again as we approached the campground at Snowmass Lake. We set up our camp quickly and spent the rest of the evening hanging around the lake, reading, and eating.

 Snowmass Peak, Haggerman Peak, and Snowmass Mountain from the lake

We had planned for our trip to be 4 days - 3 for backpacking and 1 for hiking Snowmass Mountain, but due to the condition of my knee and a nasty cold that Shelby developed, we opted to hike back to the car the next day. This ended up being a good call since we were able to get some Niquil!

The last day of hiking was pleasant. We started out hiking through the woods a ways to Snowmass Creek and then started our way up towards Buckskin Pass. The climb started out with lots of trees and after gaining some significant elevation we made it to treeline where we found a pretty upper basin area. 

One more short break before the pass and we made the final climb to the top. It was definitely the easiest finish to a pass that we did on this trip. The trail is very low angle with long nice switchbacks. It wasn't too long until we made it to the top and had views of Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells.

Pyramid Peak on the right from Buckskin Pass

As it typically goes on a long hike, the last stretch feels like it is the longest. We made our way down the steep trail to Minnihana Gulch. The previous days had a long hike leading to the pass followed by a short descent to camp, but this day was the opposite, so we still had a ways to go.

I started to get a rhythm and figured out a good way to walk fast without hurting my knee, so I picked up the pace so that the end of our hike didn't drag on for too long. The trail brought us to the trees before too long and then it was a mostly forgettable hike to Crater Lake. Walking along the trail back to the car, some people ahead of us stopped us and told us there were a couple bull moose down in the valley. This made our trip feel complete. We had heard about the bears and moose in the area and hoped to see one or the other and we were rewarded with a great moose sighting and Shelby's first!

The last mile and a half dragged on, but we eventually made it to Maroon Lake. Our feet were tired and we were looking forward to a celebration beer in Aspen. But first we took a few minutes to wade in the frigid lake and enjoy the bliss of having spent a wonderful weekend together in the wilderness.