Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Ticklists, Fourteeners, and the Knife Edge: The Personal Challenge of Mountaineering

Capitol Peak: whether you agree or not, it’s hard to deny its reputation as one of Colorado’s most infamous, if not most difficult, fourteener.

Most of the fame comes from its notorious Northeast Ridge and its crux feature; the Knife Edge, a 100-foot-long exposed traverse with 2,000 feet of air on either side. Most people choose to straddle the pointed top and scoot awkwardly to less exposed ground on the other side. Some eschew danger and tightrope walk across it. Others call it a day and turn back to camp.

Capitol was significant to my girlfriend and I not just for its notorious difficulty, but because it was our 27th fourteener, pushing us past the halfway mark in climbing all 53 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

We camped at Capitol Lake the night before our ascent. It was a hard-luck-approach day complete with a twenty minute tree-hug (clinging to the only shelter we could find in a driving hail storm), a slow-motion tumble of our camp stove down a steep embankment to a sorrowful splash and Titanic-like descent to the bottom of Capitol Lake, and a half-hour of begging and bartering from our fellow Capitol Lake dwellers for a water filter after discovering ours non-functional.

At 4 a.m. the following morning we awoke in dire need of a change in fortune. With at least five headlamps already snaking tortuously up the slopes above us, we summoned whatever appetite such an early hour would allow, and began our own journey up the 1,000-foot slope to the saddle between Capitol Peak and neighboring Mt. Daly.

Soon, we found ourselves with an unlikely escort – a fox. The curious creature trotted ahead of us, pausing occasionally to turn and re-evaluate his bipedal mountain companions. We took our new friend as an omen of good fortune and a sign that our luck was about to change. But as soon as he appeared, he was gone, and we were forced to continue to the saddle alone, only now with renewed confidence and vigor.

We reached the 13,600-foot false summit known in mountaineering circles as K2 and stared for the first time down the infamous Knife Edge ridge. A queue of mountaineers was already forming. We stood in awe of Capitol’s imposing escarpments and the sheer volume of climbers already present at 6 a.m. on Colorado’s “hardest” fourteener.

Excited but not debilitated by the exposure, we traversed carefully towards the Knife Edge.

*          *          *

Less than a month earlier, on a picnic table at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park, we sat in the shadow of Grand Teton, one of North America’s most inspiring mountains, and concocted a very personal “ticklist” of peaks we wanted to climb.

Climbing all of Colorado’s “official” fourteeners had been a goal of ours for several years, but recent encounters on the slopes of these great peaks with vast numbers of over-excited and under-prepared humanoids yielded a distaste in us for the practice of peak bagging. The hardened, John Muir-reading environmentalist in me felt conflicted and even somewhat guilty for what I viewed as my complicity in the growing problem of overuse on Colorado’s fourteeners. These mountains, and the great wildernesses in which they reside, have simply become overrun by the thousands of climbers intent on completing the most cherished of Colorado mountaineering lists.

Weary of the crowds we had encountered on virtually every fourteener we’d attempted, we decided to abandon our goal of summiting all of Colorado’s 53 highest peaks in the shortest duration possible and decided instead to create a list of mountains we wanted to climb. There is something exciting about a goal-oriented “ticklist” and something very gratifying about its completion.

We discussed, added, crossed off, and eventually finalized our new ticklist of mountains. It included plenty of Colorado thirteeners such as Vestal Peak, Jagged Mountain, and Mt. Meeker, as well as other Western classics like Wyoming’s Gannet Peak, Pingora, and of course Grand Teton. It also included a small selection of international peaks: Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro and Mount Blanc. And of course it even included some of Colorado’s best fourteeners like Longs Peak, Pyramid Peak, Crestone Peak, and Capitol. Once the list was complete we inscribed the date on the top and admired our new goal.

It was a proud list, running the spectrum of time-honored classic climbs to little-known hidden gems. Although leaning towards the technical, remote, or difficult, our list included everything from easy walk-ups to full-on multi-pitch mountaineering adventures. It suited us and encompassed the best of the mountains we wanted to climb. We debated for a minute what we would do once we’d filled in all the tick boxes on our scrap of paper. We settled on a bottle of wine and the creation of a new list.

*          *          *

At the Knife Edge we found ourselves alone. Several climbers had decided the ridge was too much for their sensibilities and turned back, smartly staying within their skills and allowing prudence to trump pride. Such decisions are to be applauded, not ridiculed.

Standing at the beginning of the Knife Edge, I convinced myself it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, that the hype was the creation of the un-seasoned peak-bagging crowd. Nonetheless I resorted to the oft-scorned technique of straddling and scooting along the edge, one leg pointed towards Capitol Lake, to the north and 2,000 feet below me, and the other pointed toward Pierre Lakes, also 2,000 feet down but to the mountain’s south. I scooted slowly along, each move made with the utmost care and deliberation.

Gradually, the ridge widened, becoming less knife-like. My girlfriend and I shared a hug and a high-five on the other side. Though the remaining route, notoriously loose and dangerous, was still ahead, we were past one of the most infamous spots in Colorado fourteener lore. We were that much closer to climbing the first mountain on our personal list, not to mention our 27th fourteener.

But the lists didn’t matter any more. We gazed south toward Snowmass Mountain and gazed over the crystalline waters of the Pierre Lakes. Other great peaks swelled like waves in the sea of the Elk Mountains. We weren’t here to check mountains off some arbitrary list. It was for the sheer joy of the experience. Everything from the hailstorm, to the fox, the Knife Edge, and even the drowned camp stove had formed this experience.

Mountaineering is a ready metaphor for life. Challenges ahead eventually met. The joy not in the blackened tick box or the bragging rights for barroom banter, but in the experience. The ecstasy of mountaineering comes from challenges set and the personal growth that comes in that magical moment on top, and all the other great moments that got you there.

NOTE: This article was originally published August 1, 2012 in print and on the web in Our Backyard.

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