2020 was a hard and uncertain year for many of us, though my year was challenging and unstable in different ways from most people’s. In previous years I have been most successful in the mountains during the summer, generally from June through September, and less active in the winter and spring. This year was almost the opposite, with my best months in the winter and fall, for various external and internal reasons.
The year’s defining event, the novel coronavirus pandemic, scrambled my plans from March onward, and impacted my life less than most people’s but more than I anticipated. I had originally planned to return to the Alps this summer to climb the 4000-meter peaks as fast as possible under human power (i.e. biking between trailheads and not riding lifts). I was hoping to fund this expensive endeavor by writing a book and promoting it with slideshows during my spring travels. Both the trip and presentations things became increasingly unlikely and then impossible as the pandemic spread, leaving me without a main project for the summer. While I scrambled to put together some alternative goals, I was never truly inspired as I have been in the past.
Another defining event for some people was the California wildfires. They destroyed homes, torched beautiful wilderness areas (including the Huntington Lake area where I passed on my first bike tour), and filled the Owens Valley with smoke for most of the late summer and early Fall. The smoke, and the dry heat that preceded it, scuttled my backup plan to make something of the season, driving me east to the San Juans and southern Utah. This proved fortunate both athletically and socially, leaving me starting 2021 in a different and in many ways better place than I had anticipated. Unusually for me, I enter 2021 with a partner, a place to live, and plans for the winter and spring. I hope the new year is a similar time of reassessment and growth for you too, dear reader.
My trip to the High Andes was the year’s mountaineering highlight. Between mid-December and mid-March I visited two new countries, rode over 3000 miles, and summited 21 peaks, including a dozen 6000-meter peaks (nine over 20,000 feet). The low number of peaks per day compared to e.g. my trip to the Alps can be excused by the facts that I was cycling between peaks, and that one often has to gain 15,000 feet to summit peaks from town in the high Andes. The peaks were only part of the journey, though, and I equally enjoyed the outgoing and laid-back people of rural Argentina. Both it and Chile are huge countries, ranging from the southern hemisphere equivalents of central Mexico (in the Atacama) to northern Canada (in the Tierra del Fuego). I saw only their central regions on this trip — roughly 25 to 42 degrees latitude, or north-central Mexico to southern Wyoming — so I hope to return to see both ends.
- Puna de Atacama: Though it tested the limits of my endurance and sort of broke me, my two week crossing of the Puna de Atacama by bike, summiting seven 6000-meter peaks, was the unforgettable pinnacle of my trip. With only two natural water sources other than snow in the 300 miles between Fiambala and Copiapo, and nowhere to buy food, it is the harshest and most remote place I have traveled to climb, and peak-bagging there required maximum effort.
- Mercedario: This was the first big Andean peak I did town-to-town, and the second-highest. I was still learning about how best to trade off between hiking and hike-a-bike, and met the only other bike mountaineer of my trip along the way. The climb was unremarkable, but typical of the high Andes for, among other things, its barren dryness.
- Nevado de Famatina: This is a high and prominent peak seldom climbed by foreigners because it stands by itself, far from other 6000-meter peaks. Climbing it was less a mountaineering than a cultural experience, as I spent time before and after in the tiny town of Famatina, and got a ride with Argentinian tourists up to the remarkable La Mejicana mine near 14,000 feet on the peak’s side.
Since 2012’s California Fourteener record, I have tried to set a few Fastest Known Times (FKTs) each year, and this year was no exception. I set new FKTs for the White Mountains Traverse and Buckskin to Paria Gulch, though the former was more of an “Only Known Time,” and the latter was soon crushed by an actual runner. However, I recognize that my advancing age makes these “records” increasingly meaningless and absurd. I am a decade past my peak athletic potential, and while mountaineering’s skill-heavy nature allows older athletes to remain competitive, I am more or less past that point. Rather than setting times on increasingly obscure and meaningless objectives, I should consider moving on.
My most rewarding FKT experience this year was probably helping my friend Renee set a record for the Sierra High Route in late August. She is a competent and driven all-around athlete, meticulously prepared, and a thoroughly decent person, so I was happy to see her both accomplish a personal goal and receive some recognition. The High Route is not my kind of objective — I tried backpacking it back in 2013 and wandered off-route on the second day — but it is a great route, and an impressive accomplishment to cover so much cross-country distance in 50-mile headlamp-to-headlamp days.
San Juan trip
The San Juans are my favorite Colorado mountains: they are far from Denver’s hordes, beautiful in the fall with their turning aspens, and widely varying in character, ranging from the almost drive-up peaks around Silverton to the rugged and remote Weminuche. After being forced out of the Sierra, I spent most of a month there, tagging 88 peaks and visiting regions both familiar and new.
- Cimmarons: I had seen these peaks many times while driving through Ridgway, but never visited until this fall. Though their rock is mostly rotten, they have some spectacular cliffs, vast aspen groves, and a few good scrambles, including Coxcomb.
- Beartown: After years of chipping away at the remote Weminuche 13ers via dayhikes from pavement, I finally had the opportunity to tag many of the more mundane summits via an overnight from the northern Beartown trailhead. Thanks to Dan for providing both the vehicle to reach it, the motivation to lug in a tent, and the quick thinking to punch a mouse to death.
- Vestal Basin: I normally think of Vestal Basin as a once-a-year approach, but I ended up doing it three times this summer: for an overnight with Ted, to tag the peaks between Tenmile and Noname Creeks, and to connect the Grenadiers from Arrow through Storm King. I am therefore probably done with this beautiful area for a few years, but I realized that, at only a few hours of easy headlamp, the approach is not something to dread.
Though I had visited Zion on family trips growing up, I first scrambled there in 2013, doing the Guardian Angels and Tabernacle Dome. Coming from Red Rocks at the time, I was disappointed by the gritty sandstone and did not take much time to explore. Buzz Burrell clued me into the park’s scrambling potential this year, and I was not disappointed on my belated return visit. Coming a bit late in the season, my efforts were frustrated and cut short by cold mornings, short days, and snow, but I saw enough to make me want to return.
- Cowboy Ridge to West Temple: This is a classic and fairly challenging linkup. I had previously done the standard route on Kinesava, but adding Cowboy Ridge and West Temple significantly upped the length and difficulty. The hand-crack crux on Cowboy was unavoidable and challenging, but secure, while the crux on West Temple was shorter and scrappier. Connecting the two involved some unexpected difficulties descending from Kinesava along the ridge.
- East Temple: This one was a bit scary, in part thanks to some lingering snow and wetness on the crux upper slabs. Though the route is improbable, bighorn sheep apparently use it to visit the summit, keeping it much freer of nasty desert shrubbery than West Temple.
- Lady Mountain: Tourism was a lot more fun in the 1920s and 1930s, when women in full skirts could climb 4000 feet from the Zion Lodge to the summit of Lady Mountain via an improbable route consisting of natural climbing up to class 3, steel handlines, chipped steps, and a couple of ladders. This grownup version of Angels Landing, now long decommissioned, is still a fun low fifth class route, for which I want to return to Zion and attempt an FKT. Maybe next fall…