"At times while being faced with decisions that carry very final immediate consequences you perform at the peak of endurance, mental strength, nirvana."
A week to the day after my trip up Quandary, I was feeling confident, weather was good and I was back to the top of Loveland Pass to finish what I had started. Now a standard, I was at the trailhead before the sun, met by few with the desire to trek through the elements in pursuit of proving that it can be done. I've been asked "Why don't you just jump out of an airplane?". This is like asking a painter "Why don't you just take a picture?", as if the motivation for painting a picture is merely documentation. Mountaineering is personal experience, providing clarity of mind, extending your palette, opening your senses to the appreciation of things which can't be provided at will, intangibles that are earned.
Setting out before sunrise, I made my up the Western edge of Point 12,850 with a feeling of familiarity. The slow grind of a nameless ridge to a nameless summit. The kind of place that makes for a wonderful accomplishment for the wife and kids on a Sunday afternoon, surrounded by the beauty of the forthcoming basin and awe of the seemingly towering Grizzly and Torreys. Nearing the top, the sun began to rise over the Tenmile and Mosquito ranges lighting the tops of the numerous 14er's where other aspirations were about to unfold. With clear skies and nearly limitless visibility I made my wat first over Point 12,850, Cupid, and finally up the difficult ridge of Grizzly Peak. The ruggedness and difficulty of the terrain on Grizzly and Torreys was the price for panoramic views of snow covered ridges, the like of which I had only only ever seen in photos.
From the summit of Grizzly which in itself was an accomplishment and the turn around point for the only fellow hikers out for this journey, I could see Torreys and Grays separated from me by the quite arduous descent (and return ascent) of Grizzly's Eastern ridge. Despite being tiny in comparison to peaks of which professional climbers face, it's always shocking to get the first glimpse of a 14er and just how massive it is in the context of its surroundings.
Hidden from view in the photo and not too hospitable a place for casual photo taking is the horseshoe shaped Eastern ridge leading to the saddle between Grizzly and Torreys. Rife with cornices, mixed terrain and high exposure, the ridge is exactly what I've come to know as classic, descending around 800 ft. to the North and around 1100 ft. to the South. With at sometimes no more than a foot or two room to navigate, I found myself straddling, seated with a leg a few feet down either side. It was here I made a critical decision which could have been my last. As the ridge descended it flattened out into a broad saddle, clearly my objective. Seeing the distance required to follow the ridge as it snaked Northward then South before ending safely in the saddle, I began scanning the terrain for a reasonable path of descent which would take me to the saddle but skipping the long haul around the Northern aspect. Ultimately I chose to make a more direct descend down the steep but manageable Southeastern aspect of the bowl shaped face. About 50 ft. down I began to realize the condition of the snow, now wet from the morning sun. Looking back up my path It was clear that given the time, aspect and grade of the slope, I was descending a very likely avalanche slope. Fortunately I realized this soon after starting my descent and made quick work to regain the ridge, although the distance down that I traveled and the time it took to return are really of no consequence in terms of avalanche danger. One I was back on the ridge I tried to get a shot which would accurately reflect the exposure though a camera never does justice.
From the saddle I began to make my up the Western ridge of Torreys, loose rock and talus were the themes of the climb. A thin vein of snow worked its way from the saddle to nearly the false summit so I decided to try my luck ascending it, which now was much more stable then the talus. Unfortunately I'd left my crampons in the car due to the conditions of the snow and relative angle of each ridge I'd be climbing and so was forced to chop steps out of the snow using my axe as I ascended. All in all this wasn't much of a setback, the slope was not too steep to ascend without the crampons (otherwise I would have chosen another route) nor was chopping steps too much work. After about an hour I had made the false summit and was approaching the the summit proper.
Views from the summit were spectacular, feelings of being well above the surrounding mountains, but in this instance with the exception of Gray's all the other peaks were so far below it gave the feeling of being in an airplane. I thought it would be great to continue on to Grays but given the time, my energy level and the fact that the return would require the re-climbing of Torreys, Grizzly, Cupid and 12,850, I opted for a few photos including a good shot of Evans and Bierstadt, both being previous accomplishments, and started my descent.
The snow path which I had ascended made for a great Glasside and significantly shortened the descent time. Nevertheless as I reached the saddle and began the ascent back up the Eastern side of Grizzly the time was nearing 3:30PM I was beginning to question weather I was going to make it out before sunset. I wasn't too concerned with light as I had as packed a headlamp, rather I was concerned with at least making it to the summit of Cupid before sunset. Ascending Cupid in the dark was not a delightful prospect, having just come down this morning I knew the terrain was a little sketchy in places and this in conjunction with the amount of energy I had remaining was starting to unravel my nerves. It's hard to describe the feeling, I knew I was a long hard trip from the car and a feeling of oh fuck begins to take over. This part of the climb has been the motivation for much metaphysical introspection into my life since. Hardly in dire straights, I was in a situation that I knew was going to take a lot hard work to get back out of and if I couldn't muster the strength to do it, I was going to be left far from anyone for the night. It was time to clear the mind and focus on what was most important, getting to the top of cupid by dark, from there it was a walk out. A final solace was that if things didn't go as planned I knew that once I made it to bottom of the opposite side of Grizzly, to the West, I could bail down the Western slope towards Loveland Pass and end up in Keystone Ski area and catch a cab back to the car. These are the things that you always have to keep in mind when do this type of activity.
On the topic of Keystone, as I ascended Cupid, probably around 5:30 I could hear the sound of a chopper in the distance. This isn't out of the ordinary, in fact it's out of the ordinary not to hear a chopper in areas like this. It seems that there are always SAR choppers out training, saving, scouting, etc. but in this case I could hear the chopper constantly getting nearer but couldn't see it due to the setting sun in the West. Finally the sound ended but quite near to me, I was relatively sure that the chopper landed in Keystone and around fifteen minutes later up it started. This time with the sun lower I could see it taking off from the park. It was one of the orange flight for life choppers (which I've also flown on). As it left the park it headed straight East, towards me. Passing over the saddle between Grizzly and Cupid so near the ground that I surely could have tossed my axe up and hit it, close enough to see the mustache of the pilot.
Now fairly relaxed knowing that I was going to make Cupid by sundown. I did in fact but shortly after had to dawn the headlamp, making my way up 12,850 and back down to my car at Loveland Pass around an hour after dark. Reflecting on this trip is interesting because for a short time I had to make an effort to keep a level head. Not the first time I've been in a dangerous situation but the first time I was in real danger.