Sunday, December 20, 2015

Jon and Shelby's Christmas Letter - 2015

Merry Christmas! Once again it's time to update you on our lives and I've been keeping meticulous records this year. It marks my 10th year in Colorado and Shelby's 4th year. We visited 4 different states, rock climbed over 150 pitches, survived 345 days and counting (we're hoping for 365 this year). We purchased 1 dress, 1 suit, 2 rings and are about to celebrate 9 months of marriage. Adding everything up, it's been a pretty good year!

After a quick 6 month engagement, we got married this past March in South Carolina. The ceremony was at the top of a beautiful mountain and we had a great time celebrating with our friends and family. For our honeymoon, we went to Leavenworth Washington. On the way, we discovered the best biscuit sandwich ever and purchased an entire king salmon, which made for a fun week in the mountains with plenty of delicious food.

We spent a lot of time outside this year hiking, biking, fishing and climbing. Some of the highlights were climbing Spearhead in Rocky Mountain National Park, fly-fishing on the Frying Pan River with Shelby's family, backpacking the Lost Creek Wilderness in Colorado, and a climbing trip to Red Rock Canyon in Nevada.

Shelby is enjoying her new job as a school nurse for Denver Public Schools. She always has good stories like the time a kid told her that she should dress up as Darth Vader because it was like she worked in the death star since she has the office where people come to die! I'm still enjoying being an engineer at ITN Energy Systems, but have far less interesting stories about the batteries I work on.

We've been blessed to have another wonderful year together and will report back in 12 months!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

You Went to Vegas to do What?

It was completely dark and we were walking along an angled slab with a giant vertical wall to the right and a huge drop off to the left. Our headlamps gave us light to see 30 feet in front of us, but the rest of the landscape was dimly lit by the full moon and the lights of Las Vegas. Before this climb we joked that we'd always know which way was east as long as we could see the light beam shining up from the Luxor. It actually ended up being quite useful! We had been going for 12 hours non stop, so we were beat. We had climbed 13 pitches and were working on a complicated descent into Oak Creek Canyon, which we could follow back to our car. The slabs were wearing on us. We had to be careful not to slip when it got steep and the tension we felt, not being certain of our route, was stressful. We were ready to be done. We were actually ready to be done 3 hours ago, but we had no option but to continue. Looking beyond our headlamps we saw a terrace with trees on it, the first trees we had come across in a while in this sea of sandstone. Looking at our route description we knew that the terrace was a sign that we'd be off the slabs soon. We walked through the trees and just before turning to head downhill I saw a pair of eyes. The eyes moved and the creature started crawling down a steep rock. With my headlamp, I could see that the animal was about the size of a small fox. It stopped to look at us again and all I could see were white eyes again. As it continued crawling down, I caught a glimpse of a long furry ringed tail. "It's like a fox or a lemur thing! That's awesome!" I exclaimed. I was so excited that for a moment I forgot about the crick in my neck and how tired and thirsty I was and felt like a kid again, seeing a new animal for the first time.

In March last year, my Dad and I were hiking towards this same canyon. We had flown into Vegas for a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon and did a short hike in Red Rocks to check out a climb that I had been dreaming about. I was just starting to really get into climbing and had read about a nice little climb called Solar Slab. The idea of climbing a long multipitch route was what inspired me to get into climbing in the first place and this was a long climb. 13 pitches of rock climbing sounded like a pretty cool adventure. At that point I hadn't even placed a piece of trad gear and had been climbing less than a year, so it was hard to imagine climbing something like that. But I explained to my dad the difference between top roping and leading and how cams and nuts work. I wondered if someday I'd learn how to actually use these skills I had read about and climb the Solar Slab.

The picture I took last year with my Dad. Solar Slab goes up the big white slab on the left

To many rock climbers, Solar Slab sounds like an easy day out. It's only rated 5.6, which is about as easy as a technical rock climb gets. But that easy grade meant that we could climb fast and cover a ton of ground within the short days of late November. The idea of a really long, easy climb sounded like a fun thing to do, but Shelby wasn't super keen on it at first. We initially planned to stick to the shorter climbs, but out of the blue one day she said, "I think we could climb fast enough to do Solar Slab." So we went for it.

We started out the day with an hour walk to the base of the climb and walked part of the way with another couple from Colorado. I don't remember their names, but they were really friendly and allowed us to start climbing first. If we hadn't been the first on the climb, we may have not gotten to the top before dark, which really would have sucked, so we were very thankful for them.

To approach the Solar Slab climb proper, we climbed a 4 pitch 5.7 route called Johnny Vegas. From what I heard, the climb was worth climbing on it's own, even without linking it with the rest of Solar Slab. Shelby lead first up the pitch following a crack with an unbelievable amount of features on the face to use for holds. Typically on trad climbs, you have to jam your hands and feet into cracks, but we found that many of the climbs at Red Rocks have so many face holds, jamming is rarely required. This made the climbing feel easier and was just a lot of fun.

Johnny Vegas goes up and to the left in the middle of this photo

We continued up another pitch which followed discontinuous crack systems straight up the face. On this pitch I realized that finding protection at Red Rocks could sometimes be tricky. There were long stretches without any cracks on this route, but the features of the rock often times created gaps between features that provided places to put gear. This was new to me, but I soon got used to it and enjoyed the process of looking carefully for protection opportunities. 

Next, we traversed around a huge bulge by following a really sweet diagonal hand crack, which of course required nearly no jamming due to the abundance of face holds!

The diagonal crack

We had a great time climbing on Johnny Vegas. The climbing felt easy compared to a lot of the trad climbs we had done in Colorado and it was just a lot of fun climbing on such unique rock. Something that I've realized recently is that climbing teaches you to appreciate little details about rocks that you wouldn't notice just walking by a cliff face. We scrambled up easy slabs to get to the base of the Solar Slab proper and nobody was on the route yet! This was great because we didn't want to be held up by anyone and if we were to start climbing the route we needed to get to the top. In order to get off the route once you're on it is to either rappel with two ropes or to climb to the top and take the Painted Bowl descent off the backside, which can be done with only 1 rope. We didn't want to have to deal with a second rope, so we went for the second option. The climbing was well within our ability. We were moving at a good pace and had an early enough start that we knew we could get to the top before dark without anyone in front of us. And if for some reason we had to rappel, there would be many other parties climbing the route who could lend us a rope if need be. After doing some calculations, we determined that we could easily get to the top before dark and started climbing again.

Contemplating the rest of the climb. Note the headlamp, just in case...

The rest of the climb was something of a race with the clock. We didn't feel super hard pressed to climb fast, but knew we couldn't just doddle around all day or we would be caught in the dark. I didn't take as many photos as I would have liked, but rather just enjoyed the climbing. 

There were a lot of pitches. Most were pretty fun, sometimes we combined two pitches into one to climb faster. The climb started with a very easy slab to the base of a crack that went over a bulge and up to a large ledge. Fun pitch, but it felt hard for a 5.6. Next up we followed a giant flake up and to the left, through a chimney and up to an uncomfortable stance. Then we went up and over to a tough corner where all the good holds were away from the crack, but I had to use the crack for protection, so it was tough to make the placements.

At this point I was getting pretty tired and the pressure of needing to climb fast was starting to wear on me. We were still making good time, but it was kind of a bother to not be able to climb slow and enjoy ourselves. Our next long pitch started with about 150 feet of a sweet hand crack which required some fun jamming as well as good face holds. This pitch traversed over to another crack where I belayed from a really uncomfortable spot. I was ready to be done. My neck started bothering me a few pitches back from belaying in awkward positions and it was killing me now. If we had two ropes I would have turned around at this point. But since we had one rope and no one else was within a couple pitches of us to rappel with, we pressed on, looking forward to being able to walk unroped. 

We continued up a couple of easy pitches and got to a terrace where we could unrope, go to the bathroom and relax for a few minutes. But of course we couldn't stay long, so we scrambled up a class 4 slab to the base of the final pitch. It's really a beautiful pitch and the majority of the people who climb the route don't climb it because you can't rappel off of it. Most climbers turn around at pitch 7. I led up the corner, enjoying the fun climbing and told Shelby, "This pitch is great!" I continued up the corner until just below the top where the wall to the left closed in, forcing me to squeeze through a tiny gap. I took off my helmet so I could move my head around, removed my backpack and dangled it from my harness with a sling so that I could fit into the gap and wriggled my way up. Shelby couldn't see me at this point, but I yelled down to her, "Um you won't like the end of this pitch!" She's not a fan of squeeze chimneys, but she was able to figure out a way up without having to squeeze through the gap!

The scramble pitch and the beautiful black varnished corner of the final pitch above

We were finally done with the technical climbing and it was 3:00. 1.5 hours till sunset. Not too bad, but at this point I knew we would at least be walking in the dark some before we got to our car. We still had to scramble uphill along slabs to get to the top of the shoulder we'd be going around. Shelby's feet were killing her because her shoes were too small, but eventually we got to a point where she could take them off and put on approach shoes. 

The final scramble and the pre-sunset shadow

We made it to the top of the slabs and saw another climbing couple topping out a different route. They pointed us in the direction of the descent route, so we headed down a narrow ledge for a ways, looking for rappel anchors. We got to a point where you had to jump across a gap to a giant block. It looked doable, but we set up an anchor with gear so Shelby could rappel the short section and I followed by making the jump after taking down the anchor. At the end of the ledge we found two bolts that we could rappel from. Since we only had one rope, we had to rappel diagonally to another ledge, which lead us to an old gear anchor which had a nut, a piton shoved into a large hole, and a bunch of slings. It didn't give us the most confidence in the world, but it was good enough. Finally we made the last rappel from a tree and were done with the rappels for the day, just in time for it to start getting dark.

The ledge leading to the rappels

Down we walked, traversing along angled slabs. Sometimes they would get steep and we'd have to walk carefully, other times we'd be able to walk at a decent pace. Eventually we started heading down after seeing the ringtail and with minimal route finding errors found our way to the base of the canyon. The last obstacle to the base was a 20 foot long polished slab that our sticky rubber shoes would not stick to! You just had to squat down on your feet and slide down the thing. Turned out to be a lot of fun and a tear may or may not have been shed when we were finally off the slabs. We had been back tracking all the way up till this point, so we still had a long way to go. Hiking through the wash was pretty tricky at points with lots of wandering around boulders and butt-sliding down boulders. Eventually we made it out of the canyon and onto the main trail which brought us back to our car.

We had been going 14 hours and were exhausted. Eating burgers at a restaurant in Vegas, we looked like a mess with our hair flattened from our helmets, just staring at each other we were so tired. It was obvious that we'd be taking a full-on rest day the next day. We needed it after this climb.

Despite being so tired, it was a great climb and a really fun adventure and it was only our first day in Vegas!

Mmm sweet potato fries

The next climb we did was the climbing highlight of the trip. Solar Slab was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of work and left us exhausted, so we were happy to have a more mellow climb. The climb of choice was Birdland, a 5 pitch 5.7+ route. After a 13 pitch day, 5 pitches sounded like a casual day out and it turned out to be so. We "slept in" and started our hike in around 7:30. 

The hike was pleasant and along the way we could see several parties on the climb already, so we had no reason to rush. We'd just join the congo line and enjoy climbing slowly. We arrived at the base of the climb right after two Air Force ER Doctors who were getting ready to start the first pitch. They were really friendly and we talked to them at all the belays on the way up. It was also nice to have them right in front of us so we didn't have to do any route finding!

Shelby led up the first pitch, which was fun and juggy, up to a ledge with two other parties on it. In their conversation, Shelby realized that one of the climbers rappelling was one of her instructors from her NOLS course! The climbing community is relatively small and it's neat to find the connections we have with other people we meet on the rock. Another connection we realized was that the doctors climbing in front of us happened to work at the same medical center as our friend Erin, who lives in Vegas. Small world.

Shelby, finishing up the second pitch

The next pitch went up some chimneys and then up the face to another big ledge. This was a pretty good pitch, but the next pitch was one of the highlights for me. You climb diagonally up an angled ledge, then traverse across the face with thin feet and good hands until you get to a steep crack. The crack goes straight up and then you get to a small ledge for the belay. The traverse on this pitch was a lot of fun!

Matt working on the traverse ahead of us

Shelby at the top of the fourth pitch

Climber on neighboring route

One pitch led us up the face to a bunch of huge pockets in the rock that were big enough to stand in comfortably and belay. The final pitch was probably the best pitch on the route. It goes up and bypasses a roof, leading to a sweet, long finger crack. The climbing difficulty on the finger crack was pretty sustained with only small edges to stand on. It was tricky standing on the small edges while placing gear, but the climbing was a lot of fun. This led to a tiny, one person ledge where we took a couple celebration photos and turned around to rappel the route.

The beautiful crack

Shelby, about to finish the route

Happy to be done well before sunset

We rappelled the route without getting our ropes stuck at all and packed up for the hike out. No epic stories for this climb, just a fun day out climbing a great route, enjoying chatting with the other climbers. 


The rest of our trip involved a couple days of sport climbing and just relaxing with our friends Erin and Cookie. We had a great trip, enjoying the beauty of Red Rock Canyon, the fun climbing, and good times with friends. 

Feeding peacocks at the park

Rue listening in after an exhausting game of frisbee

The hike to the Panty Wall

Cookie on a fun route at the Panty Wall

 No caption needed

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Backpacking the Lost Creek Wilderness

The South Platte is a special place to me and Shelby. We've now made 7 trips to the region this year alone. Its elevation is only a bit higher than Denver's so it is a warm, dry area. It's an area that is often overlooked and relatively unappreciated. The ground is composed mostly of BB sized granite gravel with a thin layer of decomposed pine needles. The land is mostly covered with pine trees except for the 138,000 acre burn scar from the Hayman fire in 2002, roughly a third of the entire area of the South Platte region. All this being said, the region visible from paved roads isn't scenic by most Colorado standards. Once you start to venture onto the dirt roads and trails, you start to see some of the gems - Sheep Rock, Cheeseman Canyon, Turkey Rocks, and the Malay Archipelago to name a few. Looking to get lost for a weekend, Shelby and I stumbled upon what may be one of Colorado's best kept secrets, found in none other than the South Platte area- The Lost Creek Wilderness.

Looking at a terrain map, the Lost Creek Wilderness looks like an unimpressive set of small hills relative to some of the giant peaks found elsewhere in the state, so it is easy to skip across when scanning a map. Somehow Shelby had heard about backpacking loops in the area and a quick google search revealed some beautiful photos. The photos combined with the excellent forecast were enough to ignite a spark and we couldn't wait to explore the area.

We chose a loop that cherry-picked the most beautiful parts of the area. We would start by following Goose Creek, then Lost Creek, climbing up to McCurdy Park, over to Hankins Pass and back down to the car. I drew out the route on MapMyRide and it came out to 20-25 miles depending on how many switchbacks I missed while drawing the route.

We got started early on Saturday morning and began the hike north along Goose Creek. Most of the time we were in the trees, walking along a wide trail that we assumed must have been used as a road back in the mining days. 

Every once in a while the trees would clear and we would catch a glimpse of the granite domes and other rock formations that surrounded us on all sides.

Occasionally, we'd come across a giant boulder or a grove of aspens.

The miles ticked by quickly for the first half of the day. We had lots of energy and were excited to be in such a beautiful place, so the hiking was easy.

Much of the day passed in silence, both of us in our own thoughts, but with the occasional conversation. We would stop frequently, taking the time to look at the views. I would stop even more often to take pictures while Shelby continued and then I would slowly catch up. We stopped for a snack around noon and both of us realized that we brought less food than we normally do. Not a big deal, we just figured we'd be pretty hungry by the time we got to camp.

Eventually the trail went down to Lost Creek. We were low on water, so we took some time to filter water while we watched tiny trout feeding on food that drifted down to them. Just above this spot you could see the water come out of a dark cave. Lost Creek gets it's name from all the times it disappears underground and then reappears a ways downstream.

We weren't really sure where the trail lead from here. Following a less worn trail through some campsites, we eventually dead ended at the creek. It seemed really weird that the trail was less faint, so we weren't really sure that we came the right way. We ended up wading across the creek here and finding no trail on the other side. Darn. We came back across the creek to figure out where we went wrong and then continued along the trail barefoot, looking for a place we could sit down to put our shoes back on. Ouch! Ooh! Ouch! What the? I didn't realize it but we were walking through a field of thistles barefoot and I had about 5 thorns in my feet. Nice one. 

After taking the time to pull all the thorns out of our feet, we made it back to where we filtered water and found the other couple that had been hiking at about the same pace as us. They had a much better map than us and got us back on the trail we were supposed to be on. 

At this point, we started to realize that our map wasn't very good and we weren't exactly sure how far along the trail we were. We just kept hiking along the trail, figuring that we'd be able to figure out where we were eventually. Up a steep hill, down another hill, we came to two creek crossings, a landmark that allowed us to figure out where we were. By this point, we were both pretty exhausted. My mileage estimate seemed like it was way below what we had actually hiked due to switchbacks and we didn't bring enough food to keep our energy up. We sat down for a bit and shared my last clif bar before starting the long climb up to McCurdy Park. 

This part of the hike dragged on and on. Endless switch backs traversing up the face always brought us back to the creek that climbed up next to us, so it felt like we weren't making any progress. Eventually we finally made it to the last switchback and just hiked straight up the valley. Finally the trees opened up to a meadow and I knew that we were almost there. We made it to a nice camping spot with a firepit, sheltered by trees from the wind and right next to the stream. We cooked dinner, gathered wood and made a nice campfire before going to bed early after a long hard day.

We heard the wind blowing all night long. It rushed through the tips of the trees above us, but never really hit our tent thanks to the good camping spot. In the morning, we made quick work of the usual morning chores of pulling the food out of the tree it hung from, cooking breakfast, taking down the tent and packing our bags. Yesterday Shelby had only drank a kale smoothie for breakfast and it was a big reason why she ran out of energy so bad, so we both made sure we had plenty to eat for breakfast and started the hike feeling refreshed and energized, albeit quite sore.

The scenery today was less epic than yesterday, but we had lots of pleasant meadows to pass through between stints in the trees. We passed through the rest of McCurdy Park, passing a hidden tower called McCurdy Park tower with over 20 climbing routes up it. We'll have to come back and do some climbing in this wonderful area. At the end of McCurdy Park, we dipped down a bit and then took the cutoff towards Lake Park. This trail would be our only climb for the day and was enough to get the blood pumping at 1.5 miles long, but we were good on energy this time, so it went by relatively easily. The climb brought us to our high point for the weekend where we could scramble up a pile of boulders to a great lookout where we could see the whole wilderness area.

The rest of the hike was just a long gradual downhill all the way back to the car. The majority of the time was passed in silence, lost in our own thoughts, watching the landscape shift as we descended in elevation down to Lake Park, then to Hankins Pass.

The miles went on and on and we found ourselves looking at the map more often, ready to get off our feet and eat a tasty burrito in Deckers. We took frequent breaks along the way and eventually Shelby felt inspired to start wearing aspen leaves in her hair.

We were ready to be done and eventually I saw a distant ridge that signified that we were close to the end. Passing through a narrow corridor with rock walls on both sides, we came around the corner and saw horses making the final climb to the cars. We were done.

While the long hike in two days may have been a bit ambitious, we had a wonderful time in the Lost Creek Wilderness. It's truly a special place with few people and a feeling of wildness that is rare in the front range of Colorado. Next time we'll come prepared with more food, more time to explore, and climbing gear! We will be back, oh yes, we will be back.