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Things I've Learned Climbing in Colorado


by Kelly Bates

April 01, 2003

Here's a short list from a few years of adventures gone slightly awry learning (usually the hard way) about alpine, rock, and ice climbing here in the lovely Colorado Rockies.

+  It’s okay to bring the wrong map. If you’re good, you can orient the map’s terrain features to fit where you are. (on a backcountry approach to Mt. Evans & Mt. Bierstadt)

+  If you’re short on time, hike in on cloudy moonless nights. You’ll go faster without the scenery to distract you. (wondering where the trail really went on Capitol Peak)

+  That tick on your leg, don’t worry about him. Odds are he wasn’t a carrier anyway. (prior to catching Rocky Mtn Spotted Fever while trying to finish off the Weminuche wilderness 14ers)

photo by griebel, NW ridge of Chopicalqui, Peru, August 2002+  Your new climbing partner says, “We’ll be back before dinner.” (Should be heard as … “Bring a headlamp.”)

+  Yeah, it’ll be warmer on the rock up there at the top. When we get up a couple of pitches it’ll be in the sun. No, those clouds are headed the other direction. (at Eldo and the Flatirons, multiple times)

+  “Man, that ice looks fat! This is great – last time there were 14 other people on the climb with us. Wonder why they’re not here today.” (All Mixed Up in Rocky Mountain National Park in the thinnest early season conditions I have seen in years with the second pitch entirely missing)

+  If you’re on a 40degree snow pitch in a whiteout snowstorm and your mitten blows away, laugh. Don’t attempt to recover it. (winter full conditions ascent on Mt. Bross, on Coby's first alpine trip)

+  If you’re on top of a steep icy backcountry col and just can’t decide if you want to ski it, toss your pack down in front of you. Ensure your car keys are dummy-corded inside the pack. Remember to take your ski boots out before you toss the pack. (trying for first descents on Mt. Lincoln)

+  “Sure, you can climb that. It’s only 10c, very easy. Six #2 Camalots, that’s all you’ll need.” (before decking on Incredible Hand Crack in Indian Creek - yes, I made Climbing Magazine on this one...)

+  Tents are for sissies. They put an artificial barrier between you and the nature you’re trying to commune with. (cold, wet, generally miserable, in the dark, in the weather, just before bailing, on Capitol Peak)

+  Your new climbing partner says, “We’ll be back before dark.” (Should be heard as … “Bring bivy gear.”)

+  If you encounter a dangerous section while descending a knife ridge, descend any snowfield. They always run safely to the bottom of the adjacent valley. (running the ‘simple in a grand way’ ridge off of El Diente - note: if your partner takes your pack and throws it off a cliff, be pretty sure you're gonna have to follow it, one way or another.)

+  “Let’s keep going up. I’m sure the Viento Blanco will clear when we get higher.” (we’ll call it an acclimatization day at 20,000’ on Aconcagua)

+  If you’re climbing a mixed rock/ice technical route with lots of exposure, don’t use protection. This is the only way you’ll get better at it. (climbing the wrong unnamed peak in the Elks)

+  If you come across footsteps in the wilderness, always follow them. Odds are they are headed to your destination anyway. (spring snow conditions without a trail on La Plata Peak)

+  Threatening dark grey clouds appear soft and fluffy from within. (always in the Elks, on South Maroon Peak)

+  Your new climbing partner says, “We don’t need snowshoes.” (Should be heard as … “You better be good at postholing.”)

+  When climbing on unknown extreme terrain with slabby loose rock, put your least experienced person in front. Encourage him to make mistakes. It’s the only way he’ll learn. (oh, I forget…)

+  “Hey, the book says this one’s just an 8. I’ll lead it.” (a fun 10b on Finger Face at the Garden of the Gods)

+  Switchbacks are a waste of time. Everyone knows the shortest path is a straight line. (probably in the Sawatch somewhere)

+  Before you go out partying until 3:00am, make sure you didn’t call your climbing partner and leave a message on his answering machine about some alpine rock climbing the next morning that requires a pre-dawn death march. (You get home from a party at 3:00am and partner is ringing the doorbell an hour later wondering why you are not ready.)

+  Sunscreen is a nasty, greasy, dirt-attracting waste of time. How many people do you know that died of sunburn? (definitely in the Elks, before the rain started again)

+  For food only take 2 packets of Lipton soup. If you’re still hungry, eat grass. Cows have been doing it for thousands of years and they get along fine. (on just about every trip)

+  Your new climbing partner says, “The weather is supposed to hold out the rest of the day.” (Should be heard as … “Bring a rain jacket. We’ll probably need it.”)

+  When leaving return-no-later-than plans with friends at home, add a full extra day to your trip plan to give you the chance to attempt self-extrication. (on Torreys Peak and then again on Missouri Mountain)

+  Know your partners ability to falsely estimate distance, time and difficulty. (“It’s only thirty more feet of easy climbing to the anchors!” Seventy-five feet later the climbing grade has not eased and you haven’t reached the anchors.)

+  Your best protection from wildlife in the backcountry is your ice ax. (another gem from marmot land)

+  Throwing rocks and waving your arms wildly at wildlife reminds them that man is the dominant species on the planet. (somewhere in the San Juans)

+  Asking "How high are we?" over and over gets you there faster and with less effort. (just about every time we go climbing)

+  “No, no, stay away from me, you molting nasty goats. Back off, I say!” (rim traverse in the Cirque of the Remarkables)

+  If you run out of headlamp juice, ensure the person with the last working headlamp is the least well-oriented to the terrain. Being lost, he’ll feel safer and more comfortable in control of the light. (descending La Plata Peak after a sunset summit)

+  Always use rechargeable batteries in your headlamp. They’re good for the 20 minutes of light you’ll need to get out of the deadfall & cliff-strewn ravine your point man led you into. (20 minutes after the previous one)

+  When confronted with cold narrow shallow stream crossings, opt for the warmer wet, slippery log across the deep rapids. (Huerfano Valley approach to Mt. Lindsey)

+  GoreTex is a staple in the diet of mountain goats, apparently. (solo bivy at 14k, -25*, in a GoreTex bivy sack on Mt. Columbia)

+  When you have a choice of two trails, head down the one that will make you a harder individual. (coming back from an aborted attempt on Capitol Peak)

+  Don’t take the water filter. Technology has no place in the wilderness. (Missouri Basin three-banger trip)

+  Headaches are psychosomatic. It’s your body’s way of telling you to stop taking water and rest breaks and to climb harder. (everywhere above 13,000’)

+  Climbing hydrated just means having more body weight to haul up the hill. (everywhere below 13,000’)

+  “Don’t worry, the pikas won’t get your stuff if it’s in the vestibule.” (before waking up to half-eaten boots before climbing Ellingwood Ledges on Crestone Needle)

+  Postholing is an efficient, viable alternative to carrying snowshoes. (descending Chihuahua Gulch from Torreys Peak)

+  When confronted with direct and indirect routes up the face, choose the direct. Avalanches don’t kill people, people kill people. (a Mount Yale winter solo summit tale that doesn’t need repeating)

+  When looking for a new climbing partner, go buy him/her a few beers, get them to start talking and see how many “epic” stories they have to tell. (At least you will know what you are getting into.)

+  “Yeah, my car will make it down this road.” (before it didn’t, ice climbing on Mt. Lincoln)

+  Sure, wool’s ability to wick and insulate looks good on paper, but we all know nothing beats cotton. (anytime I’ve ever mountaineered with someone from the Southeast)

+  Keep climbing. There’ll be plenty of time to eat and sleep when you’re dead. (and enough of that whining, too)

photo by Eliot Howard, belaying covered with ice +  If you leave you headlamp and/or batteries in the car, don’t worry because your climbing partner brought his. (Remembered about dusk on a one-day car-to-car climb of the full Exum Ridge, Grand Teton. Sharing one headlamp for about thirty minutes until the batteries go dead – oops, forgot to change them.)

+  “Oops, sorry.” (having the rope of the party ahead dropped on you in the OW/chimney crux of Durrance Route, Devil’s Tower)

+  Climbing in full-obscuration clouds is fun because it’s always a surprise when you reach the summit. (again in the Elks)

+  If the twenty year old guidebook says it is a “Classic,” be prepared for either a hellishly long approach, marginal protection, getting rained on, snowed on, running out of water, fighting the crowds, or all the above. (This can be learned the hard way when attempting the “classic” rock climbs of the Tetons, Wind River Range and Rocky Mountain National Park.)

+  Don’t get caught in highly localized cyclones above treeline. 400,000 volts sucks. (North Maroon Peak – run! Grab the tent! Run for the trees!)

+  Ice climbing late in the season can be hazardous to your health. (CRACK! Whoomp! Almost learned the hard way after a 150 foot tall pillar of ice detaches from the rock just as you reach the top. Minutes later, after your partner gets to the belay, the entire pillar crashes to the ground. Late April – Whorehouse Hoses, Silverton, Colorado.)

Entirely True Stories from Sean Hudson & Kelly Bates

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