My time in Salida on tour soon came to an end, after a little time at the hostel with an honest to goodness shower. Time for me to travel north! Out of Salida, there’s some pretty awful highway riding to get directly to the next town, Buena Vista, and the day I set off saw me face a stiff headwind, that only got worse as I got closer and as a storm cell was moving from west to east. Frustrating!
I made it to Buena Vista, which I was going to only use as a top-off spot for food, etc – but my Brother was in town for Paddlefest, so I decided to linger a bit. After another partial day of rest, the weather turned much nicer, and I continued my ride to Chaffee County 390. The road out of BV North is dirt, and follows an old railroad line complete with tunneled out sections of the hillside, making things quite fun. TONS of people were out for Paddlefest – or just the good weather – I’ve honestly never seen it so packed.
A little more highway riding, then Clear Creek Reservoir shows itself, which signals the turnoff left for 390. A fairly special road – the bike-version of the Colorado Trail dumps you off of 390 after taking you up and over a saddle from Twin Lakes; there’s a very well known old mining ghost town called Winfield which is used as the halfway point for the Leadville 100; and most importantly for me, it’s a Mother Lode of Centennials! –
I may target up to nine separate peaks that I could summit from this one access road in only a couple of days. From West to East:
- La Plata
- North Apostle
There’s judicious opportunity for mass-linkups – on my Tour 14er, I was able to basically link up all the 14ers from this road in a single day: Huron/La Plata/Missouri/Belford/Oxford – one of my strongest days! Tour of the Highest Hundred will be a little different – as 9 is a lot to do in just one day – or even two, but these high numbers of peaks, and flexibility in the order in which I take these all on, lend themselves well to doing a good speed run on them. Three days would be awesome:
- Day 1: N. Apostle/Ice/Huron
- Day 2: La Plata/Hope
- Day 3: Missouri/Emerald/Belford/Oxford
As far as Centtenials (that aren’t 14ers), I’ve only done Hope in this group, so N. Apostle/Ice, as well as Emerald were my two focus points. I decided to check out N. Apostle/Ice first, as they have somewhat of a reputation.
I set up camp a little past the start of the 4WD track that 390 turns into after Winfield. The track became fairly snow covered, and the sun was setting, so it seemed like a good place. For the early morning alpine start, I started setting up basically all the gear I brought: snowshoes for the approach, ice axe/crampons for the climb up to the saddle of Ice/North Apostle, tons of clothes, food – whatever else I could fit into my Fastpack 35. Ugh!
In the morning, I set out for Ice, a little nervous. Following the track I had pre-programmed seemed to be taking a ton of time, and the creek crossing down and up a steep ravine seemed ridiculous. Surely, this can’t be the way? At the other side of the creek, I entered post-hole hell, as the forest kept its stash of snow greedily – instead of an easy grade up to the lower basin of ice, it was as if a frozen sea of ocean rollers were there to greet me. Even though I brought snowshoes, I was too stubborn to stop and actually put them on, so every now and then, I’d just fall hip deep into a hole of my own making. Gugh!
Reaching the lower basin, I was very much in awe over the setting. The lower, and upper basin of ice were completely covered in snow, and I felt as if I was transported somewhere much more serious than the happy-go-lucky Chaffee County 390. I must say, I was a little nervous. I finally stopped, and put on my snowshoes, and started the approach to the upper basin.
It wasn’t long until I reached an area too steep for snowshoes, so I stashed them (thank Gawd), and continued in microspikes to the upper basin. the upper basin somewhat demanded crampons, so I did another song-and-dance to get those on, get the ice axe out – I hate these gear changes (bring up summer!). The upper basin was completely white, completely silent, and all this just continued to make me nervous. The snow climb up to the saddle of Ice/North Apostle – both of which were my objectives today, isn’t super steep, but it’s not chill either.
I began noticing other signs that were giving me pause: each and every aspect in the upper basin showed signs of recent avalanche activity – including the very slope up to the saddle. I pressed on, but with a bit of trepidation. Snow conditions felt off – the snow wasn’t the crunchy Styrofoam I was hoping for, but was rather layered, with a thick crust, over essentially sugar. Under that, who knows? I didn’t think of digging a pit, but the closer I got to the saddle, the more I realized that this snow wasn’t going to get better. I could climb to the top, but would descending make sense? There’s no real other way to descend.
I had to make a decision, and I decided to bail. It’s was already after 9:00am – had I been at this exact spot at 6:00am, I may have pushed on, but this seemed silly. I was already seeing how bad the snow was – I was walking in avalanche debris! As much as it hurt my fragile little ego, I turned around, plunged step’d down the way I came. Each step went already above my ankle, or to the top of my knee, or all the way to my hip. Yikes.
Beaten down by an immovable, and unfeeling force of nature, I trudged back with all my heavy gear, happy to be in such a beautiful place, but still, a little lost on what else to do on this day. I decided to stash some gear at the Huron trailhead, and do a quick(er) dash up to the summit. Avalanche conditions – even late in the day, shouldn’t be too bad. In fact, they were night and day – Huron feeling like a friendly place in comparison to the hallowed ground of the Three Apostles – the thought of continuing up the route I wanted to recon still giving me chills.
Huron’s summit was easily topped, and I began the post-hole/ski-glissade (if I was lucky!) trip back down to camp. Back at camp, I sat by the creek and filled myself with food. Huron was a nice consolation. Tomorrow, I decided to go a lot lighter – no snow shoes/ice axe/crampons/helmet or 35 liter pack – just my Fastpack 15 liter almost running vest pack, trekking poles and microspikes. Missouri should be no big deal, and I’ll be down in no time.
I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. I found Missouri and the Missouri Gulch chock-full of snow – the North Chutes of Missouri completely filled in. I lost the trail to Missouri before I even got to the junction and just took a face on the north side to what I hope was a ridgeline that would take me to Missouri’s main north ridge. Easy, right?
Easy, I guess, but slow-going. I did finally get to the main north ridge. I found conditions a bit spicy – enough that having the security of an ice axe – or even crampons, would have been a blessing. But of course, those were left at camp. I decided to continue. Weather looked good, and I had plenty of time in the day. The snow was heating up insanely fast, though, so I tried not to dawdle.
Though of course, a few hundred meters from the summit, the route turns a bit serious, and I found myself doing somewhat sketchy snow traverses just below the ridge itself. Finding this situation unappealing, I made the decision to just take the ridgeline. This may have been a mistake. The rock quality of this ridge is poor, and > 100lb rocks were already perfectly set up to topple on top of me if I were foolish enough to use them as, say: a handhold. I kept it together, but seriously reconsidered the idea of retracing my steps to descend, whatever that looked like. I was following a lone pair of steps – they must of had the same idea, as I saw their descent went down a couloir I’ve only descended in the summertime. That ended in avalanche debris – whoa! Hope everything is OK – I didn’t hear of an accident! So, that idea, is out!
Finally summitting Missouri, I… kind of realized I didn’t bring a ton of food with me. Not completely alarming, but something I noted. Hmm, how to get down? Ridgeline was out, couloir was out. Ah! Elkhead Pass! Elkhead Pass cuts between Missouri and Belford/Oxford going north to south. I could continue on the ridgeline I was on, which ducks down and gets way more casual. Following the ridgeline would allow me to tag an unranked 13er, Iowa, and then a Centennial, Emerald! Brilliant! From there, I could descend the Emerald/Iowa saddle, simply walk to Elkhead Pass, take that back into the right side of the basin, and hike back to the bike!
Iowa/Emerald were summited quickly and easily. But, from the vantage point of the summit of Emerald, it was quite clear that Elkhead Pass wasn’t passable: The entire ridge of Elkhead Pass was snowed in, and in parts: was topped with a meaty cornice. Well, shit.
Options for self-extraction were getting a bit thin: I could retrace going over Iowa AND Missouri, take the sketchy ridgeline that’s now poised to slide, I could walk out to the highway from this basin – a good 15 miles of snow covered trail, or, I could look and see if there was another way of getting on the ridge of Elkhead. “Shit!”, I thought, “I may have to summit Oxford, today!”.
I spied, and I cringed when I did, a subsidiary ridge line that bee-lined to Missouri’s East Ridge – once on this ridge, I could gain access to the northern Missouri Gulch basin, and get outta here.
I knew this, because I’ve taken Missouri’s East Ridge – it’s a memorable ridgeline and goes at Class 4. But, it’s also way loose and scary. Now we get to add snow to the mix: great. But, it was the only realistic option. So I pressed on.
The ridge started as a steep pile of gravel (great), the type that slides you back almost as far down as you’ve stepped up. To my relief – and after surviving this, it became a steep, Class 3 ridge. Loose, but, doable. I only needed to climb a few hundred feet to gain the ridgeline itself, and from there, it was a ridge walk a little bit more east to get to easier ground.
But of course, I became impatient. It seemed that it would be doable to traverse over more east and meet to the ridgeline as it started dipping down. I knew enough about the east ridge of Missouri that the going – even on the top of the ridge, wasn’t going to be breezy, so I wanted to engross myself as little as possible with it. To my perspective, there was a few ledges I could hop across to do exactly what I wanted to do.
Except those ridges were spaced out, and in between were some fairly steep faces of snow. I’m sweating through everything I own at the moment, and the chance of causing a wet slide – however small, was getting kind of great. A small slide wouldn’t harm me, but would bring me down a few hundred meters to the bottom – and of course, the bottom cliffed out. There’s nothing really to do but to keep it together, do the traverses over the way-scary snow quickly and efficiently, and thank your maker later. Long story short, I’m typing this, so the plan worked, but I can’t suggest it for others.
I walked the ridge to a low point, and ski-glissaded the much mellower north side to the basin below. Success! Just another post-hole death march back to camp.
It’s funny for me to compare my two days. The first day, I felt over-conservative (looking back) of my decision of not going for N. Apostle/Ice. On the second day, I threw caution to the wind for Missouri/Iowa/Emerald. I never felt, I guess, “afraid”, but I had put myself into a dicey situation, then got myself out – and perfectly fine with that, too. I guess I assessed the risk and mentally one day was a , “no”, the other was a, “yes”
I returned back to camp, and ate most of the rest of the food I packed, except for two granola bars. I broke camp, and made the ride to Leadville.
Goodbye, Chaffee County, 390! I shall return.
Mt. Ouray, 13,971′ seen from Chipeta Mountain 12,850′ under threatening skies. I made a nice loop of the Little Cochetopa Creek basin starting from the south, and going clockwise following the ridgeline until I could find a place to make an “interesting” descent/schwack back into the basin. Beautiful time up there, highly recommended. I saw no other human all day, and was wondering if I’d instead see moose or beaver first. I startled a large pheasant coming out of heavy brush, but quickly lost sight of her. Happy the clouds only opened up for hail, and not lightning. . . . #colorado #14ers #13ers #mountainrunning #trailrunning #highesthundred #runwithud @ultimatedirectionusa @lasportivana
I took a ride out from Salida to Poncha Springs then onto Chaffee County 210 to the rarely visited (by 14er standards) Little Cochetopa Trailhead, which gives you access to Mt. Ouray, a Centennial peak @ 13,971′. The last few miles of the well-maintained road turned into a legitimate 4WD track, and it was a nice challenge trying to get my over-burdened Surly ECR up this steep track. Eventually, I got ‘er done, and after a little wandering around looking for a flat place to set up the Ultimate Direction FK Tarp while it slowly began to rain, (then snow), I was able to get some sleep.
The next morning (after sleeping in a bit), I set out from the trailhead following the actual trail for a little while, until I turned south and started gaining a saddle of the ridegline. That went smoothly, even though the trees were choked with snowdrifts. Once on the ridgeline, I was greeted by bristle cone pines – quickly turning into my favorite tree, and started the hike to the top of Ouray. The ridgeline proved a little spicy – with a few Class 3 moves if you didn’t want to drop too far off the ridge itself.
Soon the summit was gained, but weather seemed to want to move in, in the form of some angry looking clouds. The wind picked up, but I decided to keep moving along the perimeter of the basin on then same ridge to see if I couldn’t also summit the neighboring peak, Chipeta. There’s a bailout point between Ouray and Chipeta, so I kept an eye on the quickly degrading weather, as I made my way down the ridge.
The weather did hit, but came only in the form of some hail – no thunder or lightning, and I took just a few minutes for the worse of it to pass over me, before continuing my hike to Chipeta. The rest of the day was fine, and Chipeta was summited with not additional difficulty.
Descending back into the basin was a bit spicy – I had no beta on this, so I just chose a saddle on this side of the ridgeline, and pointed ‘er down. I glissaded a bit to a talus field and rock-hopped a bit, until getting suckered into a steep ravine, with a small creek running swiftly down it. Deciding it would go with a bit of care, I quickly descended into a huge field of thickets, with whip-like branches. Slow going, but not impossible, and lucky for me, a social trail (animal or otherwise) suddenly appeared to take me out of that and back into more manageable bushwhacking, where I then re-found the main trail. Good route!
Really fun day. I’ll almost surely approach Ouray on the Highest Hundred by Marshal Pass, as I can ride from the west side of the pass, leave the bike at the top of the pass, take the quick hike to summit Ouray, then ride down the east side of the pass and onward to either the town of Salida, or directly to Shavano/Tabeguache. I wasn’t sure if Marshall Pass is open all the way open to the top, and I wanted to explore a different trailhead, so Little Cochetopa worked perfectly.
I also know Marshall Pass somewhat intimately; it’s part of the Tour Divide route, the Colorado Trail Race route, the Vapor Trail race route, and with all the racing and recon of all those rides, I’ve visited Marshall Pass almost more times than I can count. I’ve never managed to summit Ouray though – having tried once from Marshall Pass, but failing due to the threat of lightning, so it was nice to finally tick it off. I look forward to visiting its summit again in a few months.
I’m presently in the Salida area, enjoying the incredible weather, tough training, and reconning potential routes. Salida and its people are incredibly friendly, bike shops and bike people are everywhere, and the mountains are crazy-accessible.
I rode here from Colorado Springs, having taken the bus from Boulder -> Denver -> Colorado Springs to save some time. It snowed about 3 feet last week, so some of the more interesting routes out of Boulder are currently under water.
Some photos from the bike ride,
Morning vibes underneath a bristlecone pine near Black Mountain. The area boasts bristlecones over 2400 years old . Contemplating my immediate future as I’m pretty sure the newly fallen snow has turned my route into the consistency of Nuttela. Happy – very happy to have packed the @ultimatedirectionusa FK Tarp + Bivvy, as I would have been SOL without it. . . . #bikepacking #bikecamping #bikeaneering #surlyecr #surlysociety @intergalacticsurlybikes #runwithud #bikewithud
#mudseason Revel in pushing a bike so clogged with peanut butter-sticky mud, the back wheel cannot spin and the drivetrain is choked. For miles. Beats working. Today’s goal is to not sheer off my rear derailer, and make it to Salida. In that order. . . . #bikepacking #bikecamping #bikeaneering #surlyecr #surlysociety @intergalacticsurlybikes
Yesterday, I recon’d a potential route from Shavano/Tabeguache to Cronin via the obvious ridgeline that connects all these mountains – in the Tour of the Highest Hundred, I’d also add Antero, but ran out of time/stoke to do it in this outing:
Yesterday’s little romp
Between Tab. and Cronin, there are a few bumps and two named peaks – so it’s no gimme. My idea is that staying up high would save on elevation loss between Cronin and Tab. On Tour 14er, after bagging Antero, I dropped into the Browns Creek draining to then go up a ridge on Tab’s north side, to reach Tab/Shav. Looking at my route from Antero – I have to be honest: it looked impossible – the distances and climb seemed just insanely too much. I really didn’t even know if a realistic route truly existed!
But, it went! I then dropped back down to Browns Lake, and slogged back to my bike via Brown’s Creek Trail, where I found it right after been destroyed by a bear! All my food, and many of my bike bags where consumed! Oh, the humanity.
I remember that day being very, very long, and my deproach on Browns, and then the Colorado Trail done in a zombie-like mode. Adding yet another mountain to this circuit doesn’t inspire a lot of stoke in me – can I even do it in a day push?
I’m almost betting that I won’t – in fact I think I would rather start this circuit not at the Colorado Trail/Little Browns Creek intersection, but rather as far up Little Brown’s that I can get that day (leaving the bike still near Little Brown’s/Colorado Trail), bivvy, then push for Antero early in the morning – leaving most of my gear at the start of my climb. After Antero, I’d grab my gear and move it a little farther towards Cronin to a point that I can drop into Browns Creek drainage, then bag Cronin with minimal gear again, to return to my stash.
With Antero/Cronin done, I can drop into Browns Creek Drainage, stash the gear once again, and bag Shav/Tab, then retrace my steps, picking up my gear. I still face the long slog out of Little Browns/CO Trail back to my bike, but I can stop whenever I please to crash out.
Mapping this alternative route where I don’t take the direct ridgeline from Cronin to Shav/Tab, only adds a mile and about a thousand feet of elevation gain according to Strava. This seems… really off to me – I think Strava’s route builder is lying about the elevation gain (see for yourself: v1 and v2 – those elevations graphs look… wrong)- there’s no WAY that the ridgeline doesn’t have more elevation gain/loss, as the saddle between Tab and Carbonate drops you to ~12,000′, and the Little Browns Creek drainage is ~11,000′.
This style for those longer linkups: bringing bivvy gear, and summiting most of the peaks with a tiny running vest with just the essentials to bag the peak in an out-in-back (basically a UL rain jacket, GPS tracker, phone/camera), then moving on to the next summit base, may be a method I employ more often than not. The alternatives are try to do it all with minimal gear, or break up the linkups to multiple trips. The former adds risk, the latter adds time/and major mileage.
There’s one main advantage: Flexibility. If I want to stop, I can stop. If I have to stop (I’m ill, or the weather turns terrible – which it does, often), I can and it’s not such a big deal.
The disadvantage is hauling more weight – and I hate backpacking if truth be told: These recon missions are damn good at dialing in my gear, and I can already think of easy ways to improve:
If the sleep system can get around 3lbs (getting there…) and my pack weighs 1.5 pounds (which it does), it’s not so bad to hike within the lower elevations on easy terrain. I’m beginning to understand that the more weight up in the higher elevations, where terrain is trickier is where having more weight really starts hurting. The less the larger pack weighs, the less disadvantage it gets you, for its perceived advantages.
I actually didn’t map out thinking this linkup of the four peaks was one of the bigger ones, but I’m changing my tune a bit. Rather than try to blaze through these linkups as fast as possible, I’m changing gears to really consider my overall strategy being one of optimization while keeping my overall (aerobic) effort as low as possible. I’m giving myself 60 days to complete this, and I fear burnout somewhere in the halfway point.
Surly Bikes have been exceedingly generous in providing me with a Surly ECR to run amok in Colorado. It’s turning out to the perfect Search and Destroy recon. vehicle for the Highest Hundred. I’m anxiously awaiting the next weather window to take ‘er back on the road… or trail, singletrack, clearing in the woods, ice over lake – you get the idea. Hopefully this time for a nice long while. Below are some reviews and stories:
Thank you Surly!
Whoo boy, do I like me some optimizations of my routes! Being not the fastest, strongest, or most, uh, endurance-est person in the world, I’ve gotta rely on my brain fat a lot of the times to figure out the most efficient way top get from point A to point B. I love working on projects like the Highest Hundred, since optimizing the route can have seriously awesome outcomes, like saving a few days, or a few hundred miles by finding a shorter path to the mountains I want to visit.
But, that’s not the only thing I’m optimizing for. I could be out there pedaling my slowly melting-away butt at most any hour of the day or night, so I want a route that’s somewhat safe. I’ll also have a mountain bike in between my legs, so if there’s a dirt route, I’d rather take that, instead of pavement. And if the route’s a classic, well all the better.
Colorado has it made for classic offroad bike routes, as people have been riding bikes on dirt in Colorado for a while now, and there’s two long-distant routes that cross through most of the mountainous regions of the state that are ripe for the plunder: The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, and the Colorado Trail.
I use these two routes generously to advise where I should go – I know the routes well-enough, and I know they’ve been well-vetted and see a bit two-wheel, fat-tired traffic.
While planning out my route of the San Juans from Lake City, I traced a route ,similar to my Tour 14er route:
Taking the paved Highway 149 to north out to Gunnison, up Highway 135 to Crested Butte for a quick cup of coffee, and then taking the rocky four wheel drive track over Pearl Pass to summit Castle/Cunnundrum. Continuing this road north takes you to Aspen to grab the rest of the Elk 14ers, while going west.
Afterwards, grab Frying Pan Road east out of Basalt which goes up and over Hagerman Pass into Leadville and move in a generally southern direction, bagging the Sawatch.
In the Tour 14er, the southernmost 14er is Shavano, and Buena Vista was the southernmost town you really needed to get to, to head back north to the Mosquito/Tenmile (and eventually Front Range) via paved (and somewhat busy) Highway 285.
The Highest Hundred will require me to go slightly more south to grab Mt. Ouray, and I might as well make a quick trip to Salida to get my bike worked on by expert mechanics, then take the Great Divide Mountain Bike route up and over Ute Pass into South Park, past Hartsel and access Alma to start the Mosquito/Tenmile that way:
This is all well and good, but as soon as I mapped this all out, I realized the long slog on pavement is really obvious from Lake City to just outside of Crested Butte. Ugh! On my Tour 14er, I started on this pretty early in the morning, and the route is quiet enough where I didn’t feel I was in any real danger – I even saw a lot of road bike touring enthusiasts going the opposite direction! The payoff of all this boring pavement is the chance to go up and over Pearl Pass, which is cemented in local mountain bike culture as one of the first mountain bike rallies (most likely, after a bar bet that it couldn’t be done!).
If you look just to the east of this route on the map, you’ll also notice that you pass a good majority of the Sawatch, on your race to get to Aspen. Wouldn’t it be wiser instead to go to the most southern Sawatch Centennial, Mt. Ouray, make your way north to Independence Pass just south of Mt. Elbert, take that into Aspen, summit the Elks, take the same route back from Basalt to Leadville, finish up the Sawatch, go up and over Mosquito or Weston Pass, and enter into the Mosquito/Ten Mile that way? It would look like this:
Without measuring, that seems like a major distance/time savings. It cuts out the paved highway slog to Crested Butte, and replaces it with a gravel ride on the Colorado Trail’s La Garita Wilderness Detour, until it meets up with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (more gravel), which crests ,right at the trailhead for Mt. Ouray at Marshall Pass. Salida is still close enough to visit for TLC, but you won’t need to go up and over Ute Pass to take the GDMBR to Hartsel, then Alma which I have to admit maps out to a bit of slog with no peak bagging for a long stretch, since you will be following the Highway 24/Colorado Trail tagging Sawatch Peaks until Independence Pass. Indy Pass is paved, but it’s somewhat of a classic road ride, and strangely something I’ve never taken myself before. Then to to get to Mosquito/Tenmile, you’d have to take Mosquito/Weston Pass – both classics for this tour.
So what’s the bad news about this route alternative? Although it looks shorter, mapping it out and measuring the distance, it actually comes out marginally longer, with a bit more elevation gain. Surprising! I believe there’s more out and back going on that’s hidden from the mapped out routes. Also surprisingly, the distance from Lake City to the TH for Castle is almost exactly the same as the distance from Lake City to the TH to Ouray – about 100 miles. The same long slog going across to a different range just cannot be fully removed.
All in all: it’s quite a toss up, and wasn’t the major optimization I was thinking it may have been. Still, I’m seriously considering it for my Tour. Weather is beyond fickle, so having these options available could prove invaluable. Good weather is essential in the Elks, and maybe waiting a few weeks for that good weather will mean the difference between a fast tour and a sort of fast tour.
One of the main attributes that differentiates The Highest Hundred from other ultra-endurance FKTs is the technical nature of some parts of the route.
For example, the Appalachian Trail is indeed longer, and has more elevation gain than The Highest Hundred (many of the stats of the AT may surprise you), but I think it’s comparable to this challenge in a, “how much blood/sweat/tears will you go through” if done as a self-supported FKT. As I write this, the FKT is held by Heather “Anish” Anderson at 54 days, 7 hours, so the time to finish is similar to what I expect to do to set a self-supported FKT.
But, how can the AT – a longer track, with more elevation gain be done quicker than the Highest Hundred, where the majority of the mileage in the HH is done by pedaling a bike?!
One big reason is that the AT is on a well-established trail for its entirety and much of the Highest Hundred has large sections that are trail-less, where one is going to face Class 3, Class 4, and even Class 5 mountaineering routes. On the AT – except for one, one-mile section (Mahoosuc Notch), you’re simply hiking, following white blazes. Whatever scrambly bits there are, there are 10x more Class 2 sections on the Highest Hundred to keep you busy. I’m not saying sections like Mount Washington are easy, I’m saying that sections like Mount Washington are par for the course in the HH. The Highest Hundred requires knowledge of rock scrambling and rock climbing techniques/experience.
That’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.
And yeah, there are also some gnarly cycling sections if one elects to take them, but it’s easy enough to bypass riding those sections, by merely walking your bike across them. The on-foot (and on-hands, I guess) technical sections I may not have any workaround: you are required to do them to summit – or at least summit efficiently.
So let’s take stock of some of the big ones:
Dallas Peak, 13,809′, 5.3
Dallas Peak has a reputation of being one the hardest Centennials with legitimate technical climbing – the last pitch goes at 5.3 and usually a rappel is done from the summit to avoid downclimbing the last pitch. To just get to that last pitch takes some devious route finding on loose rock and many more Class 4 sections on the approach.
For my entire trip, I’m not planning on taking any rock climbing-specific gear at all with me: no rope, no pro, no shoes – and certainly no partner; so the technical pitches will be done simply in a pair of burly trailrunners, then downclimbed. For Dallas, usually, a rappel is done from the summit to avoid downclimbing the last pitch. I’ll have to safely downclimb that, as well.
This last pitch is mandatory, as there really isn’t any easier route up the mountain in summer conditions. The rock that makes up Dallas can be of questionable quality and reports of finding dinner plate rocks stacked on top of each other waiting to topple are the norm when trying to ascend Dallas from it’s connecting ridges.
Little Bear/Little Bear – Blanca Traverse/Gash Ridge to Lindsey
The Sierra Blanca in general poses a huge puzzle on how to negotiate all the peaks quickly – I still don’t know if I got it right, or what I’ve got is reasonable! If you do everything by their standard routes, this section could take many days to a week, and be done from at least two trailheads. The routes I plan to take are not going to be the easiest ones, and this line is a prime example of taking more technical routes to improve efficiency.
Little Bear itself is known to have one of the most dangerous standard routes of any Colorado 14er: The Hourglass Couloir. There are easier ways to ascend the peak, but but none of them are available without getting permission from private landowners (good luck), and none really work well with connecting large routes together, like I would want to.
In 2014, when I ascended the Hourglass Couloir in my Tour 14er, I woke up to a light hail with accumulation on the ground, and a dripping wet Hourglass shrouded in fog.
Not ideal. The center of the couloir was a running waterfall, and the slabs to the side were slick and not so wealthy in the Holds Department. You may be able to make out a rope in the photo above – many who climb Little Bear then descend the Hourglass using these ropes left by other parties. I think this is a terrible idea (fixed rope left by anonymous parties in general is in my opinion poor form, and a bad idea to trust with your life!) – but I won’t be descending the hourglass – I may not even ascend it, but rather take an alternative Class 4 route called The Northwest Face.
The Northwest Face is a little harder than the standard route at Class 4, but has less traffic, so less of a chance of getting rocks rained on me from parties above. It also features ever so slightly less mileage. I may/may not have time to recon this route before going for it on this tour.
Little Bear – Blanca Traverse
The Little Bear – Blanca Traverse is one of the four great 14er traverses, as described by Roach, and it’s an awesome way to link these two mountains together. Taking this route would save a ton of mileage, time, and elevation loss if you were to do it – so we’re doing it.
The traverse is rated at Class 5.0, and is about a mile long. There are few bailout points on the ridge, and it’s not a very good place to be in an electrical storm. I did this traverse during my Tour 14er, right after summiting Little Bear via the Hourglass Couloir. The weather was still cloudy, and I did almost the entire traverse with a visibility of only a few dozen feet:
I’m hoping for better conditions next time around!
Gash Ridge to Lindsey
Gash Ridge from Blanca is the key to accessing the Huerfano Valley from the West. Blanca and Ellingwood’s North Faces are true Nordwands with very steep and loose technical climbing of dubious quality. Gash Ridge is rated ~ 5.4 and will “only” have to be down climbed. Once in the Huerfano Valley, one 14er and one 13er will be summited, then the other side of the mountain range will be re-accessed via a ridgeline far to the north of Ellingwood Point.
Jagged Mountain’s standard route is rated 5.2, but it’s its remoteness that really makes it a standout. One has to be completely committed to climb this technical peak solo. I’m actually more stoked than scared of this leg of the tour – all I can really think of is the intense beauty of the peak, and what the view must be like from the summit.
Wham Ridge, Vestal Peak
This is absolutely extra credit, but does highlight another strategy in making a successful tour: keep the stoke high by doing interesting things – what’s the point of climbing 100 mountains if it’s just a big grind?
Vestal Peak by its standard route is merely rated Class 3, but it’s impossible to look at the mountain without noticing it’s incredible north face, where the Wham Ridge, 5.4 route is found. I would be totally nuts to pass the opportunity to climb this route for my tick of this mountain, and look forward to it being one of the many, many highlights of the trip.
Ring the Bells/Thunder Pyramid
The Maroon Bells Traverse goes at ~ 5.6, making it one of the most technical routes I’ll be doing on my tour. I’ve done the traverse before, so I’m not so worried about doing it a second time.
What I am worried about is descending the route afterwards. On my Tour 14er, I had a particularly nasty spill going down a small gully, where a rock shaped like an ironing board gave way when a put pressure on it with my foot, leading me to fall down the gully itself. Time slowed down, as my life flashed before my eyes. Once I hit the sloping talus, I immediately checked my body for grave injuries. I was expecting at least a broken leg – my hands were a bloodied mess. A broken leg usually means at the very least a night out in the open as Search and Rescue – at the very best estimates, would have to wait till the next day to be able to reach you.
To my incredible surprise, most of the blood was coming from superficial cuts from my hands and a small one from my knee. My groin had a slight pull but… I was ultimately fine. I’d like to not recreate this incident again.
And this is where the true danger in some of these routes are found: not in the technical level of climbing – I can train for that; rather, it’s in the loose and sketchy nature of some of the rock on the routes themselves, regardless of grade. This is where my worry exists in large doses, and I think I’m justified in at least giving these routes the respect they deserve.
If the Bells are chossy, loose, and dangerous, Thunder Pyramid is Crazy Town. I am not looking forward at all for climbing Thunder Pyramid, and would rather just get it done quickly. The standard route clocks in at only Class 4, but it’s loose, and very, very dangerous.
I won’t be descending the standard route on Thunder Pyramid, but will be traversing to the 14er, Pyramid instead. This traverse should make the Bells Traverse look like child’s play, and will be the very next item on my, “not looking forward to” list. This is a traverse I’ll only do if feeling up for it, and will happily do Thunder Pyramid and Pyramid separately if I do not feel 100% up to the task. This doesn’t make things much easier, as the amount of loose rock I’ll have to face will be greater doing these two peaks separately. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Completely out of style with the rest of the Sawatch, Ice Mountain has a reputation for being loose and dangerous – much like the Elks I just described. Ice is a bit more remote as well, leading to a bit more anxiety that could be felt while doing the route. I’ll most likely be taking the Northeast Ridge, as the Refrigerator Couloir will sadly be out of condition by August. This will be an easier mountain to recon, which gives me some piece of mind – if I do, in fact, manage to recon it!
Atlantic Peak to Fletcher Peak Traverse
Finally, I’ll try to cover the Atlantic Peak to Fletcher Peak Traverse, but there’s quite a bit of unknowns about it for me – some trip reports call the finger crack crux at up to 5.7 (perhaps I’m wrong about this?). This may be a bit too futuristic for me to reasonably take on, during the last leg of my tour, so I may have to recon the route to find a sneak around this, or bail on my idea of enchaining all the Centennials in the area together.
And that’s about it for, “hardest part of a really hard adventure”! I may have spaced a few mountains – I purposely skipped over the Crestone Traverse – the climbing is exhilarating and the real threat is afternoon thunderstorms like much of the rest of the mountains. I have also skipped over Longs, as Longs is my backyard mountain and I am deeply entrenched in a long-term relationship with it. I look forward to many challenges it presents to me. I skipped over some optional routes like the Harvard/Columbia traverse, which goes at 5.7. I don’t know yet if doing the high traverse is worth doing, rather than the standard – and much easier lower traverse.
No rest for the weary! My buddy David perhaps jokingly asked me if I wanted to go for Longs, via the Trough on Sunday (“Those Centennials ain’t gonna climb themselves!”) and I naturally went for the bait, on the condition that I’d probably be lagging behind given the climbing on my legs already for week, after Everesting Green Mountain.
We arrived at the TH at around 7:30am, and were off. I felt just like I thought: pretty hammered, but as the morning grew, so did my strength, and the altitude really didn’t seem to affect me. The Trough showed some pretty scary signs of a lot of wet slide activity and a few intrepid boot and even snowshoe prints, so we went for it.
Slow going! We were sinking past our knees on most every step. I see why others opted for snowshoes, but man: are those things ever annoying to use on steep slopes. We made it to the top of the Loft before deciding to call it. David wasn’t feeling his best, and the Narrows looked slightly sketch, so down we went, plunge-stepping the whole way. I was a bit nervous as it was after 1:30pm, and didn’t want to cause a wetslide myself! Tried to glissade a few portions, but the snow was so deep and wet enough that I wasn’t going to fast or far.
I seemed to have completely recovered by the time we hit somewhat packed trail, and found myself running back to the trailhead with heavy pack in tow. Good sensations! Even though we didn’t make the summit. Ending the week with something like 37,650’+ (11475 meters) of elevation gained, which is a massive number for me. My usual goal is somewhere around 20,000′, so I’m happy to see that I can survive almost double without injuring myself!
Fair enough question, and I’ve wondered myself. Physically, there may not be a “best” training plan to guarantee great results, like you could with a marathon.
Strange things happen in ultra endurance distances and this challenge makes a Hard Rock, or a UTMB look quaint.
But mentally: yeah, you can get yourself pretty ready.
One way I’ve done this is the Tour 14er, which is essentially half of what I propose for the Tour of the Highest Hundred. It’s taken me about three years to feel like I’ve honestly recovered from that tour, but now that I have, I’m mentally starving – ravenous, to go at it again… but this time for much, much longer.
But still, how do you chickity-check yo self before you wreck yo self on a challenge like this?! I’ve crashed and burned before trying what I thought were much easier ultra endurance events, only to see myself pull out of the race mere hours after they’ve started. It’s a giant piece of humble pie.
So, I looked at the hardest part of the the Tour of the Highest Hundred – the part where, when I mapped everything out, I still thought, “there’s just literally no way I can do this“:
The Weminuche Throwdown
Nine mountains, almost 50 miles in length, with a, “the Hell with that” 33,000 feet of elevation gain – to keep on target to hit my 60 day (or less!) goal, I would have to complete this section in less than five days.
The math to pull this off is tight.
It became clear that I had to give myself a physical test. This week was the week of my birthday, so how about a Birthday Challenge? Something to closely match the length and elevation gain of the Weminuche..
Let’s “Everest” the local hill, Green Mountain!
And long story short (a complete writeup is in the works, as I recover!), that’s exactly what I did. In 27 hours, I gained around 31,000 feet in 56 miles by doing 13 laps up and down the local hill. See it yourself on Strava:
My optimism to do a similar feat with well over four times the clock time is now stratospheric. What first seemed impossible still seems, well: difficult, but at least seems realistic, so long as I continue to train my body intelligently.
I have about 90 days to continue sharpening my knives.
I am excited.
One of the things that makes this project so amazing to work on (and eventually complete!) is the dual (at least!) nature of the adventure: you have to ride some challenging terrain, and once you’re in that rhythm you’ll have to stop as it’s time to change things up and go for a backpack.
Mapping out the cycling part of this is a challenge in itself – so many places to visit (about a 100 let’s say!)
I’ve mapped out the bikepacking route ’til Leadville plus visiting Mt. of the Holy Cross/Holy Cross Ridge + Sherman, but after that, the Sawatch are composed of so many different mountains needed to be summited and many (the majority?), of those mountains are ones I’ve never even thought about before.
Even with my experience of doing the Tour 14er and recon’ing for Nolans, I’m at a little bit of a loss on how exactly to start.
Should be a wonderful challenge!
(click the image below for a larger-sized map):