Pyramid traverse

Traverse from 13,361

I was tired of getting spanked by Front Range weather, so I looked around for some more agreeable weather, and saw that western Colorado was at least passable. This would involve some backtracking, but would not be that far out of the way. “Thunder Pyramid,” a high 13er south of Pyramid Peak near Aspen, was one of my few remaining Centennial peaks. I had hoped to tag it when I did Cathedral, but the (dry) road was gated an infuriating 6+ miles from the normal trailhead, and I lacked the will. With the road now open, Thunder Pyramid would be almost too easy, so I upped the difficulty by climbing it as part of a long traverse from an unnamed 13er to Pyramid.

Bells and west-side choss

With snow, this turned out to be Serious Business, taking nearly 12 hours car-to-car with quite a bit of that spent managing rotten snow and rock above 13,000′. It was good Canadian Rockies practice: the rock around Aspen is similar to what I found up there in 2014, rotten and surprisingly steep, with angled layering that makes one face easier to climb than the other. I have climbed chossier rock, but this was some of the worst rock in the area, significantly more rotten than the Bells.

Crater Lake sunrise

I had planned to get up at 4:30, but it sounded like it might be raining a bit, so I was up at 5:00 and off by 5:30. Given the conditions, I chose to do this the heavy way, with boots, crampons (unused), ice axe, and snowshoes. There were a couple sets of helpful bootprints to follow on the West Maroon trail, which was snow-packed and obscure before the holiday weekend. After bashing through some willows, I saw the print-makers working their way up the Bell Cord couloir between the Maroon Bells. I continued a short distance past their starting point, then crossed the creek on a snow bridge to make my way east into Len Shoemaker Basin.

Nearing ridge and sun

The snow remained supportive yet soft enough to kick steps as I made my way straight up the basin’s outflow, and I was regretting bringing the snowshoes. However, as soon as the basin flattened, I started postholing, and gratefully put on my snowshoes to hike the flats toward the saddle north of Peak 13,631′. I finally got my first taste of sun just below the saddle, where I put the snowshoes away for the day and made my way south — away from my main objective — to tag this nothing-peak. Though I had been watching spindrift off the surrounding peaks all morning, the fresh snow made it look windier than it actually was, and conditions were pleasant on the ridge all day.

Traverse and cornices

I was instantly made aware that the day would involve considerable suffering, as the ridge to 13,631′ was crust over sugar over movable Elk Range choss. Cursing ensued. It also featured some impressive cornices, which I gave a wide berth. I found a couple of awkward rock steps, which would probably have been easier when dry, but met no serious difficulties on the way to the summit. I briefly took in the view, then began the traverse in earnest, over 4 hours after leaving the car.

Snow traversing along ridge

I returned to the saddle, then began the traverse with some easy but frustrating postholing toward the first of many bumps on the ridge. The traverse from 13,631′ to Pyramid took about 4.5 hours, and I was focused too much on immediate problems to give a detailed account. The detailed route description I linked above describes one 5.2 headwall and lots of 4th class scrambling, but I found quite a few sections of what felt like 5th class. This was probably because the snow obscured some ledge bypasses, forcing me along the ridge crest more than when the route is dry. Also, later in the day the east side, which had been baking in the sun all morning, was quite prone to wet avalanches, making it largely unusable.

First headwall

I surmounted the first notable headwall before “Lightning Pyramid” via a sort of chimney just west of the ridge crest, then continued along a snow crest. In general, I found it best to leave the ridge to the west, as the joints are more favorable for climbing on that side. I had hoped to take advantage of the snow to traverse the east side, but by noon or so it had become slushy and prone to avalanche. Making my way along the crest, I kicked off a couple of small wet slabs that expanded to full-on wet avalanches as they made their way well down the face. Dealing with the ridge crest was often the best course, despite multiple small bumps and intermittent cornices. At one point I even did a small section of narrow snow crest à cheval, an unusual thing to do.

Don’t slip; note east-side sloughing

While Pyramid looks close from Thunder Pyramid, the final leg of the traverse seems interminable, with multiple steep subpeaks along the way and few opportunities to bypass them. I finally intersected the semi-standard northwest ridge route just below a 4th class chimney, and followed it to the summit. The current standard route, the northeast ridge, looked way too avalanche-y to try, so I retraced my steps a bit to follow the northwest ridge.

Steep snow traverse on descent

I had done this route in 2010, but did not recognize it with snow. I started down via a steep, descending snow traverse that is probably a ledge in summer, following the occasional cairn. Judging by the cairns I saw, the route follows a series of gullies on and off the northwest ridge. I dutifully did so as well, then headed straight down as soon as I reached a gully that I could see did not cliff out. After some obnoxious knee-deep plunge-stepping, I glissaded part, scrambled around a constriction, then reached the stream at the valley bottom via a combination of hiking, glissades, and boot-skiing.

I rejoined the trail south of the Bell Cord couloir, then stomped through slush back to the car. It was the Friday before a holiday weekend, and the once-faint trail had been beaten to a slushy trench by the tourist hordes. Reaching the car around 5:30, I had some food and debated going into town. However, I wanted to climb an east-facing couloir the next day, which meant waking up extra-early, so I watched some downloaded TV and tried to go to sleep by 9:00 instead.

Why I am a summer “mountaineer”

Ain’t nobody got time for that

After a resupply and some maintenance, including an oil change by a possible neo-Nazi, I looked around and realized I was relatively close to Mount Bancroft. I had put its east ridge, a class 4-5 affair supposedly best with some snow, but it seemed like a perfect objective for a day forecast to be “mostly sunny with a 20% chance of snow.” So I drove up to the first of two locked gates and watched some saved up TV as it started snowing. There was an inch or so on the ground by the time I went to sleep, and about 2 when I woke up: not great, but still manageable.

I clomped up the road with boots, snowshoes, crampons, and axe, eyeing the partly-cloudy skies. Below Loch Lomond (a man-made reservoir, not a lake), the snow got punchy enough for snowshoes, and the wind picked up enough for goggles. The wind picked up as I continued past the dam and up the slope to the west, adding spindrift to complement the persistent clouds. It wasn’t particularly cold, and I could see the headwall at the base at the ridge, so I knew where to start. But my chances of success seemed low given the fresh snow and lack of visibility. Screw that.

I had plenty of day left after getting back to the car, so I headed up to Boulder to do some laps in the Flatirons. Boulder is even more obnoxious than I remember, and I had to park well down the street from Chautauqua Park, but carrying only rock shoes, water, and snacks, I didn’t mind the extra walk. Boulder is also home to a university, so I got to inhale the pheromones of beautiful people half my age as I hiked and jogged around.

Flatirons climbing is unlike anything I have done recently: the rock is very sticky with few cracks, so climbing it relies on dishes, crystals, and thin edges. This sort of slabby climbing is unnerving until you get your mind in the right place, since no single appendage will hold you if something goes wrong. I hadn’t done this style of climbing in awhile, so I warmed up on the easy 2nd Flatiron. I tried to do Dodge Block, but couldn’t find the upper part of the route, so I finished on something else to the right. Next, I headed over to the significantly harder 1st. Starting up was a bit scary, especially since the hardest part is near the start. I had the hang of it by the time I got to the top, and knew I had to return for another lap.

To break up the repetition, I headed out to Royal Arch. I hadn’t climbed on top of that, so I did it from the downhill side, which I found pretty easy. Then it was back to the 1st for another go. This time went much smoother, though I took a slightly different line. I passed a party I had seen on my first lap near the top, then repeated the awkward downclimb off the back. This is completely different than the face, following several downward-sloping ledges covered with jugs on a near-vertical face. It feels secure if you take your time, but I’m still slow at it.

Sometimes I wonder why I subject myself to winter.


Argentine Peak and Pass

Ah, where were we?

For your humor, I respect you

Edwards, one of CO’s 100 highest, is just east of popular Grays and Torreys, just south of I-70. I probably should have used Stevens Gulch, the standard approach for the latter, but I instead approached from the other side, via Horseshoe Basin near Keystone. Camping is limited while all the neighboring forest roads are gated, so after a noisy night at the one pullout on Loveland pass where you’re allowed to park (there was a crowd of a half-dozen cars and RVs, and a trailer probably housing an A-Basin employee), I headed back down and around to the gate, then started walking the road.

Cabin remains

The snow was firm enough in the morning not to require snowshoes, and I enjoyed the scenery, including power lines and an utterly obliterated vacation home. Apparently the avalanches grow big here, and I’m surprised the builder didn’t look at the terrain a bit more carefully before breaking ground. Once above vacation home territory, the valley opened up and flattened, providing a snowy version of a marsh for a few ducks.


Despite some clouds, the snow was softening up, so I put on snowshoes as I finally neared the summer trailhead. I passed more mining ruins as the valley turns north, toward the saddle between Edwards and the fourteeners. The normal route takes the trail to Argentine Pass and follows the ridge, but I saw a chute just west of the summit that looked easier than side-hilling along a snow-filled trail. I could also follow a partially-scoured rise below it, which would be faster than snowshoes.

4-foot pinwheel

The chute was a little steeper than I prefer to climb in snowshoes, with some huge frozen pinwheels suggesting that wet slides were a possibility once it warmed up. “Fortunately” the day showed no signs of doing that, with strengthening winds bringing clouds and perhaps a few showers from the south and west. I reached the ridge, then followed bits of trail to the summit, watching the spindrift fly off north to Stevens Gulch.

Not wanting to descend my chute, I continued on the standard route toward Argentine Pass, following a few cairns along the mostly snow-free ridge, then descended a likely-looking chute and rib before reaching the trail. This was more tedious than expected, with the snow alternatingly hard and punchy, perfectly unsuitable for a glissade or boot-ski, and the rib covered in loose rock and scree. It was still faster than the trail, though, and I was soon snowshoe-plodding back down the gulch and through the house debris.


South to La Plata from summit

“Lackawanna” is a nondescript, unofficially-named centennial peak in the Mount Elbert area, just south of the road to Independence Pass. Unlike Oklahoma, which involves a long slog, Lackawanna is a quick couloir climb from the road. Its name, a Ute word for indifference or a shortage of enthusiasm, was bestowed by Chief Ouray when he passed through the area with a raiding party, and one of his braves dared him to climb the peak. He looked at the unexceptional hill surrounded by higher neighbors, then rode on, muttering “meh, lack a’ wanna.”

Looking down wrong couloir

I woke up a bit before 6:00 in a pullout west of the La Plata trailhead, and started off across the road around 6:30. It is hard to get a good view of the mountains from the road, so I somewhat randomly bushwhacked to the base of what turned out to be the couloir east of the correct one. It worked out fine, but for future reference, the correct “Lackawanna Couloir” is the one you can see from the road where the valley broadens and flattens in a willow-choked flat.

Upper wrong couloir

After an easy climb through open woods, I cramponed up a bit of snow, then hopped up some boulders to reach the continuous snow tongue leading to the summit ridge. The snow was pleasantly firm, and I had almost no postholing trouble as I cramponed up into a bowl, then up what turned out to be Lackawanna’s southeast face. The final climb was steep enough that I was glad to have an axe to supplement my worn-down running shoe crampons.

Looking down correct couloir

Topping out, I figured out the wrong-couloir situation, then made a quick jaunt to the summit before descending the correct chute. The initial drop was steep, and the snow was still very hard, so it was a bit of a desperate effort in my worn-out crampons, downclimbing with several kicks for each step. Once the angle eased a bit, I was able to walk down facing outward, and even began postholing occasionally lower down. Though I did not see any wildlife, I saw mountain goat tracks and spoor surprisingly low down.

At the base of the snow, I turned into the woods east of the couloir instead of bashing through the willows. For some reason, the woods here were much less pleasant than those I encountered on the way up, with more deadfall and underbrush, but the road was not too far, and I reached the car by late morning. After a random meal, I headed down to Buena Vista for a shower. The shower was dirtier than I remembered, and despite the “very hot water!” warning signs, the actual water was never warmer than not-freezing, but I managed to make myself a bit cleaner for $2, and I was on the road again before noon.

I hoped to tag Buckskin Mountain, a formless mound across from Democrat, but the weather deteriorated rapidly. I gamely headed out anyways, only to turn around when the lighting started — Buckskin just wasn’t worth risking electrocution. This turned out to be a fortunate choice, as I happened to meet a random Canadian with whom I had interacted online on the way back. It’s a small world of people who get out into the hills in the awkward season.

Oklahoma, Deer

Oklahoma from plateau

These two high 13ers are buried at the head of Half Moon Creek, west of Mount Massive and northeast of Independence Pass. Deer, the more interesting of the two, is slightly lower, falling short of being among Colorado’s highest 100 by 40′. In the summer, they are normally approached via Half Moon Creek from the east, but with that road impassable far below the summer trailhead, they are best reached from the road to Independence Pass. This plowed and dry road was spitefully gated well short of the trailhead, but the mile or two of road walking in either direction was tolerable.

Road-clearing equipment

I woke up at my campsite at the gate at 5:30, but was slow to get started, not hitting the road until about 6:20. Since the day involved much road and not much difficult terrain, I packed light, with only running shoes and snowshoes. I passed some road-clearing equipment, then left the road at the big bend to continue north up Lake Creek. To my surprise and pleasure, the snow was hard enough that I didn’t even need snowshoes as I made my way toward the Continental Divide.

North from Divide

I finally put the snowshoes on below Lake 12,378′, not because I was sinking in, but because I needed more traction. My 10-year-old MSR Lightnings are starting to fall apart, but they still have enough teeth to act as pseudo-crampons. Lake 12,378′, nestled just below the Divide, was of course completely frozen and covered, but I went around it out of excess caution, then finally got my first view of Oklahoma, on the east side of a clear U-shaped glacial valley, somewhat unusual for Colorado.

Massive from Oklahoma

I dropped partway down the north side of the pass, then did a long, miserable sidehill before climbing to the 12,800′ tundra plateau between Oklahoma and Deer. I briefly harassed a ptarmigan here, then headed north up the long, gradual ridge to Oklahoma. There were enough exposed rocks to keep my snowshoes strapped to my pack with only minimal postholing.

Deer’s summit from false summit

With the higher and aptly-named Massive only a short saddle away, Oklahoma is a thoroughly underwhelming peak. I mentally ticked it off, had a snack, then retraced my route to the tundra plain. Despite being northeast-facing, most of the ridge to Deer was snow-free and almost dry. The final steep pitch to the false summit, however, was covered in unstable slush, and it was a desperate slog. I put on snowshoes for this part, then had to take them off again only a few minutes later to deal with the final class 3 scramble to the summit. I found my first register of the summer here, and it was even dry (!), so I signed in, then plotted my path home. After following the ridge south a bit, I made a careful glissade down Deer’s north face, then plodded back to my outward path near Lake Creek. Then it was just wet slush and dry road to the car.

Traver, McNamee, Clinton

Industrial wasteland

With high valleys (Leadville is just over 10,000′), even higher passes, and lots of crappy rock, the Mosquito/Tenmile range is a great place to go in May. Unfortunately, the easy access has made it one of the most thoroughly land-raped areas of Colorado, with both active and abandoned mining junk lying all over the peaks, even up above 14,000′ in places. Mount Clinton and nearby Fremont Pass are the worst of it, bad enough that I have skipped climbing it more than once over the past few years. This time, however, circumstances conspired to motivate me, and it turned out to be my first type I fun day of the season.

Something’s home

After wasting a few hours in Aspen (at $1.50/hr to park…), I drove up toward the Maroon Bells trailhead, planning to do at least Thunder Pyramid, and possibly the Pyramid traverse. To my dismay, I found the perfectly dry road still gated almost 6 miles from the trailhead. I thought about jogging it by headlamp, but ain’t nobody got time for that. Next on my peak list was Holy Cross ridge; I quickly learned that its 8-mile approach road doesn’t open until June 21. On to the next, then… Clinton.

Good place to start…

After a long drive and a fitful night in the familiar Mayflower Gulch trailhead, I continued past the tailings pond and open pit, just over Fremont Pass to my chosen trailhead. Unlike the climbs so far, this one was west-facing with a relatively short approach, so even with a 6:30 start, the snow remained shaded to the top of the first peak, making for much better conditions.

Democrat, etc. from Traver

After an uneventful hike south up the head of the Arkansas River, I turned east into a couloir I had picked out on Traver’s east face. The face is a complicated mixture of steep snow, rock, and talus, making for interesting route-finding. I had left my crampons at home for this one, and while they would have made a couple sections easier, I was fine using snowshoes lower down, and kicking steps along a carefully-chosen line higher up. The line I chose eventually deposited me on the ridge a couple hundred yards north of the summit, which I belatedly realized is very close to fourteener Mount Democrat.

Building on ridge

The long descent to the saddle with McNamee started off easy past a surprising, lone mining ruin. I didn’t see the expected trail or cable car remnants, or a nearby hole, so I’m not sure of its purpose.

Class 3-4 ridge

The ridge then turned into some fun class 3-4 scrambling through several pinnacles, with a chockstone bridge between a couple of them. Beyond, the ridge was broad and easy, with bare rock on south-facing sections and breakable snow requiring snowshoes on others. Between McNamee and Clinton, you are constantly treated to the sights and sounds of the open pit (the Glory Hole, according to the USGS topo) and its polychromatic tailings ponds. While snow conceals some of the ugliness, it is still a disheartening sight.

After my out-and-back to Clinton — one of Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and my main goal for the day — I returned to (I think) McNamee, then found some nice glissades to speed my return. It was t-shirt weather in the 11,000′ valley, and I baked as I made my leisurely way back to the car. Though it was snowing the last time I was in Leadville, it was a balmy 60 degrees this time. I can’t complain.

Cathedral (East face)

Cathedral’s east face

I try not to visit Aspen, as it combines some of the worst characteristics of Jackson and Boulder. But I had yet to do a couple of centennial peaks in the area, Cathedral being the first. The standard routes are south- and east-facing, so an early start would have been good. Unfortunately, I found Castle Creek Road inexplicably closed at what turned out to be a cross-country ski resort, so I slept at another trailhead and got a later start from the gate, which turned out to be about a mile down the road from the trailhead turnoff.

Cathedral’s east and north ridges

After some confusion following various snowmobile and ski tracks, I found the Cathedral Lakes trail, which quickly became solid snow. The trail seems very popular with backcountry skiers, and it was packed enough that I could follow their skin track without snowshoes. I stayed on the north side of the creek past the first headwall, where I finally had to put on snowshoes. Past the second headwalls, I finally emerged from the trees to see Cathedral’s gnarly east and north ridges, and snow-covered Cathedral Lake below.

Wet slide

Rounding the base of this ridge, I finally got a look at my goal. The standard route reaches the south ridge via a snow-filled gully; alternatively, a steep snow-chute diagonals left across the east face, finally depositing the climber about 100 yards from the summit. I had plenty of time to choose a route as I made my laborious way across the rolling snow-plain toward the peak.

Upper chute

Many wet slides had taken place in the past day or two, but I did not see or hear any new activity as I approached the peak, so I opted for the more direct and adventurous east face route. Though I carried crampons, I once again had no use for them, as the snow was snowshoe-soft down low, and almost too soft for step-kicking up high. The face was completely sheltered from the wind and directly in the sun, so I was dripping sweat as I climbed gloveless in a t-shirt. The couloir seemed to have already slid, though I kept my music off to listen for the occasional snowball. I meandered back and forth seeking firmer snow, noticing some ski tracks from a day or two ago.

View down east face

The couloir steepens as it turns left and approaches a rock constriction. Postholing and generally hating life, I stopped yet again to drink some water and catch my breath, only to look up and see a small wet slide coming toward me. It was less than a foot deep, so after a half-hearted attempt to scramble to one side, I simply planted my axe uphill (my legs were plenty well-planted) and turned sideways to minimize my surface area. Once it passed, I continued up the now-cleaner couloir with a renewed energy and sense of purpose.

Reaching the ridge, I was immediately treated to views of Pyramid and the Bells, two valleys to the west, with Capitol farther off and Castle nearby to the south. I tagged the summit, retreated out of the breeze to eat, then made my way down the standard route, with its typical Elk Range dinner-plate choss under variable snow. I took a slightly different line on the way back, following the valley bottom instead of side-hilling along the north side, and other than one steep ravine, it was mostly easier going. Aggravatingly, the road was no longer closed when I reached the car. One more day and I can leave this place…

Sneffels (Snake Couloir)

Entering Blaine Basin

After a stupid mistake resulting in an unintended day off, I headed around through Ridgway to the north side of Mount Sneffels. I had already done it via the standard summer route, but that was in the pre-dirtbag days, so I didn’t mind visiting again to try a route on the north side, the Snake Couloir. Couloir season doesn’t really start until later this month, so I was expecting difficult conditions, though not quite as bad what I encountered. At least I didn’t get avalanched.

Sneffels from trailhead

The road was blocked by a snowdrift about a mile from the normal trailhead, so I slept on the side of the road there, then got started around 6:20. There was nearly solid snow-cover from the trailhead on, though it was hard enough lower down not to require snowshoes. The trail to Blaine Basin starts as an old road, making it initially easy to follow. I guessed correctly by turning left at an unsigned fork, and soon crossed a creek to join a little-used jeep approach. From there, the trail narrows to a single lane, but it is fortunately well-signed, and has nowhere to go other than upstream.

Slog, slog, slog

The flagging eventually gave out at a signed trail junction, so I took the most direct reasonable path through a headwall. I somehow rejoined the trail, and followed the occasional sawed logs as it side-hilled up into the basin and out of the trees. Finally, the path to Sneffels was clear. The crust was not quite strong enough to support me, so I made my laborious way up toward the base of the couloir, punching through ankle-deep with each step. Fortunately it remained partly cloudy, so it was not too hot, and the snow both stayed solid and did not slide.

Couloir on right

I put away my snowshoes where the couloir began to steepen, assuming I could kick steps from there. Unfortunately the sun had emerged by then, softening the initial northeast-facing section, so after some wallowing, I put snowshoes back on and switchbacked carefully to a choke-point. There the snow remained in the shade, and I was able to boot toward where the couloir turns left.

Looking down choke-point

I reemerged into the sun, and was once more forced to wallow. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I fell here, but didn’t want to find out; it was steep enough that snowshoes were not an option. With some trial-and-error I managed to make my way on top of a cornice at the turn, from which I could admire the view west and scope out the rest of the climb.

Upper couloir

The last-bad way to climb this last part seemed to be to stay on the right side of the couloir. I hoped to make use of the rocks there, but they were all rotten and/or outward sloping. In normal couloir season, you simply follow the center of the couloir to a ridge, then climb a short pitch of low-5th-class rock to the summit. However, frustrated by the soft snow, I ended up cutting right too early, then climbing some scrappy rock on the summit’s northwest side.

Skiers preparing

Reaching the summit, I was surprised to see a rappel in progress, with what I correctly guessed were skier(s) futzing around preparing to ski what I had just climbed, which sounded like much more fun. I enjoyed the views from the sunny and relatively calm summit, then made my way down the skiers’ boot track, hailing them across the way before they started down.

Where the standard route turns right into Yankee Boy Basin, I turned left toward Blaine, taking advantage of a few glissades to catch the skiers as they took a break and transitioned to skin up the way I had descended. I rejoined my tracks from the morning partway down to the basin, then followed them for the slog back to the car for a fairly tough 9-hour day.

Gilpin (N couloir)

Gilpin from couloir base

And so it begins. The start of my season coincided with the largest snowstorm of the year, dumping 6 inches in town and around 2 feet up at the ski hill. This complicated the move-out process somewhat, but it also gave me one final chance to go backcountry sledding before throwing the rest of my belongings in the car and heading north. Since the recent storm had apparently dumped much more snow on the eastern Colorado mountains, I decided to start with a few random peaks in the Ouray area.

Chance it?

Gilpin is a 13er directly across Yankee Boy Basin from Mount Sneffels, with a prominent couloir on its north side. This made it somewhat more interesting than its neighbors, and if I had the energy, I could continue south to Emma. I found something like a campsite on the Camp Bird Road, then continued in the morning, driving to the final “half-tunnel” section, where huge icicles loomed dangerously low. I might have cleared them, but they also might have damaged my car, so I opted to hike the final half-hour of road to where it becomes 4WD-only. Maybe 10 minutes after I left the car, several trucks full of mine workers barreled straight through with no trouble, but I was already far enough up the road that it didn’t seem worth returning.

The road was well-plowed to the active mine, and mostly to where the 4WD road splits, after which it was completely neglected. I put on my snowshoes, then followed the previous day’s skin tracks up the road. They split at the outhouse, and I followed the ones headed southwest toward Emma for awhile, then struck out through untracked powder.

Entering couloir

My pace became pathetically slow as I sunk ankle- to calf-deep with each step, and I was reminded what Colorado is like in May. The day remained warm but overcast, with occasional snowflakes, and it was difficult to read the terrain in the flat light, with very few exposed rocks. I fumbled my way toward the base of Gilpin’s north couloir, keeping open the option of climbing the descent route — the connecting ridge with Sneffels.

Entering couloir

With sun and new snow there could be avalanche problems, but the day remained mostly overcast, so I decided to go for the couloir. It would probably be a slog in the fresh snow, but it would be safe and shorter than the ridge. I climbed the first third in snowshoes, then stashed them in my pack as the terrain steepened. I probably should have put on crampons, but the surface snow under the often knee-deep powder was soft enough that it was easy to continue with boots and ice axe. After some experimenting, I found a path near the right edge of the couloir that involved a manageable amount of postholing.

Couloir from top

As the couloir steepened toward the top, I tried a couple of times to use the rocks to the right, but they were invariably outward-sloping and rotten, and each time I was forced to retreat to the couloir. I was missing my crampons for the final, steep choke-point leading to the ridge, as the old snow was harder here. Climbing became a laborious process of planting my axe, digging a sort of hand-hold, then making a half-dozen kicks with each foot. I eventually beached-whaled over the small cornice, and found myself maybe 50 yards west of the summit.

Emma and Telluride

While gnawing on a partly-frozen bar, I inspected the ridge over to Emma. It looked like way too much work, so I opted for the standard descent down the ridge toward Sneffels. I found bits of use trail and a cairn on the way, but the route down the ridge was not as obvious as I had assumed. I kicked my way down a steep snow-slope just short of the ridge, slowly glissaded for a ways, then wallowed a bit before putting on my snowshoes for the slog back to the road. Though the surrounding peaks peeked out occasionally, the light remained flat, and it was to follow my outbound track until it merged with the larger skin-track. More skiers had apparently passed later the morning, and several more cars’ worth passed me as I clomped down the road to my car for a late lunch.

Notes on writing a guidebook

Although I have written the word-count of several books here online, my 14er guide is the first thing I have published, unless you count my PhD thesis, which probably exists in physical form somewhere in the bowels of the UCSD library. I learned a lot in the process, and thought I would share some of my experience for readers who might want to publish something of their own.

To self-publish or not

From what I could find online, I would receive at most 15% royalties going through a publisher. In exchange for their 85% cut, they would provide editing, typesetting, printing, shipping, and inventory management. They might (or might not) also distribute it to some stores, but as a new author, I would probably receive little to no marketing.

Going through a print-on-demand shop, I can make over 50% of a reasonable cover price after shipping, even when printing in small-ish batches. I already knew how to typeset and do a reasonable job self-editing. It was marketing and distribution where I was weakest, and a publisher seemed unlikely to help much in those areas, so I decided that a publisher was not worth it to me.

There is also an intermediate route: selling print-on-demand through Amazon, with the advantage that they handle shipping and inventory. However, my profit going this route would be at most 20-25%, and Amazon would probably use part of their 40% cut to underprice local stores and sales through my own site. I don’t think it’s worth it.

Electronic or not

Though people increasingly use their smartphones for navigation, I prefer physical maps and guides. (I don’t even own a smartphone.) If I preferred smartphone navigation, I would create a guide that takes advantage of the phone’s sensors (GPS, compass) and interactivity. This guide would, of course, be impossible to translate into print.

Similarly, a well-laid-out print guide is impossible to translate to a tiny phone screen. I have seen crude ePub conversions of some print guidebooks, and the position and quality of figures and photos are inevitably butchered. For a guide to be readable to many people on many devices, the text has to be resizable and reflowable, which destroys the careful layout and often breaks page references.

One legitimate use-case for an electronic version is to print out a handful of relevant pages to carry on an outing. They are both disposable and lighter than a book, and I could see myself using such a thing instead of photographing guidebook pages and trying to read them on my camera screen as I do now. I don’t think “piracy” would be nearly the issue it is with mass-interest content like TV shows — there aren’t enough 14er climbers to establish a reliable torrent, and the PDF is large enough to be hard to thoughtlessly put on the web. However, I still prefer physical things, so for now the book will remain print-only.

Creating a manuscript

First, always submit a PDF! Some places take word documents, but different versions of Word print the same document differently, ruining your careful layout.

I briefly considered using Apple’s Pages, which produces decent documents, but ultimately opted for LaTeX. While it is complex and sometimes maddening, it offers beautiful typesetting, and I had already learned it in school. It is not designed for fancy internal layouts with background photos and color swatches, and text in various colors flowed to match, but I am not artistic enough to create that kind of book. I did use Pages for the cover, though — its output was good enough, and I could match the font.


I spent countless hours creating and tweaking the maps before settling on their current form. My initial plan was to upload my GPX tracks to CalTopo, print out a 6×9 map at a scale to cover the area I wanted, and voila! This, of course, failed miserably. First, GPX tracks are noisy, so it was easier to draw the routes where I knew they should be. Second, map-making is an art, and automatically-created topos are terrible. Google’s “terrain” feature is the least-bad, but of course its license forbids my using it. Open Street Map topos are ugly, with overlapping labels, different features displayed at different scale, and too many other problems to mention. They’re “good enough” for tooling around on a computer, but not for print.

The only usable base map set I found was the USGS 7.5′ quads. They have some infelicities, like the contours in meters in parts of the Palisades, but they are designed by professionals. Unfortunately, to cover all routes at true 1:24,000 scale would require many pages of mostly uninteresting maps. I eventually settled on true-scale maps for the most interesting portions of routes, with a variable-scale “key map” showing the locations of the detailed ones. Like all labels, the route labels were best done by hand.


With increasing use of print-on-demand, many smaller bookstores sell approved books on consignment with a split ranging from 70/30 to 50/50. A 50/50 consignment is an insult to the author, since after printing and shipping cost, he makes almost nothing, a fraction of the bookstore’s huge cut. Better stores will track your sales quarterly, while worse ones will make you drop by periodically to count the books on the shelf. Larger stores do not seem to offer consignment arrangements, instead working with a list of publishers; I have not yet figured out how best to deal with this.

But bookstore placement is as much about marketing as sales. By far the best distribution mechanism for me is through my website, since I don’t have to give anyone else a cut (the $5 S&H covers PayPal, padded envelope, and USPS media mail). I am still deciding how to handle this while on the road this summer.


Though I have some “social media” presence, I am clearly not very good at the game, as evidenced by the fact that, other than a shoe-testing gig, I have never been sponsored, despite approaching a few companies. Maybe I should use more hashtags. I know and/or am known by enough fellow climbers to sell a moderate number of books, but reaching beyond that sphere is an ongoing challenge. I hope to give some presentations to clubs and at outdoor stores, both this winter and while traveling this summer. We’ll see how well that works.