What to do around Susanville

Hold my beer…


I have passed through Susanville a number of times commuting between the Sierra and points north, and my impression has been: (1) at least it has a Walmart, and (2) keep going for cheaper gas. For reasons too mundane and pathetic to detail, I found myself spending a few days nearby recently. It remains a desert redneck hub, too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, and fertile ground for “F*ck B*den — not my president” signs to grow. But it also has a wealth of good cycling in the shoulder season, from paved backroads, to dirt forest roads, to a couple of long rail trails. I don’t think I could live here, but like many parts of drive-through country, it has redeeming features if you take the time to look.

Bizz Johnson trail

Bizz Johnson trail

The Bizz Johnson trail is a 25-mile rail trail following the Susan River west from Susanville, with two short tunnels and many bridges. Parts were destroyed by recent fires and floods, but the first 7.5 miles are undamaged, and the rest is being repaired. I was in town too early for the western parts, which are still a mixture of snow and mud, but was able to follow parallel forest roads to the end at Mason Station, then loop back on Highway 36. Once the country to the west melts out, there are apparently many other roads and trails that can be combined with the Bizz Johnson to make long loops. But as in Oregon, there is a strong rain shadow despite a lack of notable mountains, so peaks above 7000 feet east of town were dry even as forest to the west had patchy snow at 5500 feet.

Fredonyer Peak

Fredonyer summit

There are no fewer than four mountains named Fredonyer in the area, as well as some other features. All are named for Atlas Fredonyer, an early settler with an unsettling biography. This is the highest one, with a lookout and antenna nest on top, accessed by a rough dirt road off Highway 139 between Susanville and Eagle Lake. The road is hard to spot, an unsigned turn on the long descent to the lake. Another, more obvious road apparently also leads to the peak, but crosses aggressive private property near the bottom. Riding the peak from camp north of town, it came out to just under fifty miles round-trip. Though the day was fairly pleasant lower down, the summit was uncomfortably windy, leaving me with cold, stiff hands for the rough descent and much of the paved ride back south.

Eagle Lake

No need to share this time of year

For some reason, this region features many large lakes. The most famous and arguably scenic is Tahoe, but others include Pyramid, Honey, Alkai, Goose, and Eagle. From Susanville, there is a 60-mile paved loop around Eagle Lake via Highway 139 to its east and Eagle Lake Road (A1) to its west. Even the highway part of this loop is not too busy, and the Eagle Lake Road is almost deserted before the campground along the lake are open for the summer. This makes for a wonderful, quiet, rolling long ride, only slightly spoiled by the pavement cracks on A1, causing vicious jolts every few seconds for what seems like hours.

Shaffer Mountain

Susanville from Shaffer

This is another peak with an antenna nest, and therefore a road to the top, climbing about 2000 feet in seven miles at a steady grade. The upper parts can be frustratingly rock and loose, but not nearly as bad as the Fredonyer road. This would be a long ride from town, but it was a good short objective from the highway, suitable for a day with miles to travel and errands to run. Not only is it an efficient workout, but Shaffer has 2000 feet of prominence, making it worth multiple Peakbagger Points.

Waucoba, Squaw

Waucoba from Squaw


After repeating some terrain in the Inyos near Lone Pine, I was headed north when I remembered Waucoba Mountain, a prominent mound near Big Pine at the northern end of that range. Its approaches normally require quite a bit of dirt road driving, but I had my bike with me, so after some quick research, I turned southeast on 168 and the initially paved Death Valley road, then pulled off to camp at the junction with the Saline Valley Road’s northern end. There I had no cell service, passing a quiet night before watching the full moon set and the sun rise on the Sierra.

Trailhead

The road into Saline is graded smooth enough for a passenger car, but too washboarded for any car you care about. This is almost as miserable on a bike, but at least you can weave back and forth or hug the shoulder to find the smoothest lines. My mapping program directed me up a rougher, steeper road in a wash to shortcut a bend, but I made it to the “trailhead” without incident, locking my bike to the wilderness sign before taking off up the fading roadbed.

Typical terrain on climb

Though this seems to be a standard route on a DPS peak, and I saw a few cairns, there is no trail, but fortunately the terrain is mostly easy travel, soft dirt dotted with piñons, prickly pears, and granite boulders. Dodging these, I made my way generally uphill and left toward an indistinct east ridge, occasionally checking that I was roughly following the track I had downloaded. Where the ridge steepened and became more defined, I put out more effort, enjoying the workout as I climbed a mixture of open slopes and game trails. There was some snow lingering on north and east slopes, but it was still firm in the morning, and mostly avoidable.

Northern Sierra pano

There are two similarly-high boulder-piles on the summit plateau, with one having a large cairn and ammo box containing the register. I leafed through to find a few familiar names as I admired the Palisades to the west; the view east to Death Valley was hazy and unremarkable. I checked the time, then decided to follow my track and add on neighboring Squaw Peak, shorter but better-looking as befit its name.

Climb up Squaw

I ate the last of my food as I hike-jogged down easy terrain to the saddle, then ground out a hot, steep, loose, brushy climb up Squaw’s ridge. There were fewer entries in its register, and therefore a higher proportion of familiar names. I am no desert rat myself, but have been playing the peak-bagging game long enough to recognize them. I briefly admired the similar views then, thinking of the rising heat and my uphill ride to the car, followed the track down Squaw’s southeast side toward the trailhead. This was steep and loose, with brush, short cliffs, and miserable talus getting in the way at times, but still fast, with stretches of boot-skiable dirt and scree.

Back at the bike, I drank some water, then set off for a jostling ride home. I followed the main road around its bend, passing one of those huge overlanding vehicles built from what looks like a surplus military vehicle. I saw a few more vehicles on the climb out, mostly Tacomas, likely headed to and from the Saline Valley hot springs, and finally reached my car around 2:00. I had just enough time to wash the disgusting dirt and sand from my feet, put my bike back on the car, and grab some snacks before driving back to Big Pine and cell service to catch up with the world, glad to have finally checked this minor landmark off my list.

Brahma Temple

Temples from South Kaibab


Grinding out the South Kaibab climb, jogging some flatter sections but not wanting to put in maximum effort, I reflected on the fact that it will be 40 years this fall since I first hiked down that trail. The Grand Canyon is therefore a special place for me, so while I prefer mountains and generally dislike deserts, I always find excuses to return. I will never be a Canyon obsessive like Harvey Butchart, who sussed out all the Redwall breaks allowing passage from Rim to River, but the place has enough intrinsic interest outside the nostalgia.

In this case, I realized that several of the buttes are climbable at grades I can manage without a rope, including Brahma Temple, Zoroaster (“ZOE-roast-er”) Temple’s easier, higher, and less popular neighbor. While it may be approachable directly from the North Rim, the most common route takes the Zoroaster approach from the Clear Creek Trail. A couple of people I follow on Strava had recently done it in a day from the South Rim, confirming my belief that doing so was reasonable, and I even found a decent map on a blog I had run across before.

Sunrise on O’Neill Butte

Not knowing how long it would take me, but also not wanting to waste time running the initial descent by headlamp, I decided to start around dawn and bring a headlamp just in case. I camped off one of the Forest roads just outside the east entrance, then drove into the park around 6:00. Given the popularity of Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, I expected the picnic area parking lot across from the Kaibab trailhead to be full, but there were only a half-dozen cars. I took my time getting ready, then set off in a light overshirt, with 2500 calories and a cup of water in my pack. I passed the expected backpackers at the trailhead, then took some guy’s birthday photo before starting down.

Tipoff Rock

I had jogged the road to the trailhead, and felt good taking the descent at something like a genuine run, though the average grade of about 13% makes it a bit too steep to be comfortable. While some of the surface is pleasantly smooth, much is either rocky and chewed by mules, or split by endless equally-spaced steps. Because every man and beast falls into the same rhythm on these steps, they quickly develop hollows filled with dust behind them. This means that the best way to run without tripping is to land on the wooden retaining logs themselves, placing extra strain on one’s calves. While the trail no doubt sees more traffic than ever, there was less (mule) urine and feces than I remembered, a pleasant surprise.

Crossing the bridge

I made the descent from Rim to River in about an hour, mostly enjoying the descent, then was hit with a concentrated dose of my least favorite parts of the canyon. First, I got off the bridge to find a mule train stopped at the Bright Angel ruins while a Navajo-looking guide talked at length about the former inhabitants. Since they were stopped in the middle of a narrow part of the trail between a cliff and the ruins, I could not pass. The cowboy at the other end said they would be moving on in “a minute,” but it was more like ten before the two guides and their line of soft, bored-looking dumplings trundled past. I ate a sandwich and stewed about the oblivious entitlement shown by packers everywhere as they harm the vast majority of trail users. Shortly after finally starting, I passed a fat, sullen ranger packing a pistol. I was initially irritated at her, but soon transferred my ire to a system that takes caring for one of the world’s most beautiful places, and turns it into a soul-crushing menial job attracting and creating the attitude of boredom and petty authority found in mall cops.

South Rim from above Clear Creek

Stopping at Phantom Ranch, I drank as much as I could, then filled up my two-liter bladder for the dry, hot part of the day before jogging up-canyon to the Clear Creek trail. I was tired of the trodden and familiar corridor trails, so it was pleasant to head out into the Park’s less-traveled regions. I passed a surprising number of backpackers (as in “three”), who had taken in enough solitude to be cheerful meeting a stranger. Near where the trail crosses the first major wash below Zoroaster Temple, I left it to follow the west branch toward what I thought was the correct break in the Redwall.

Zoroaster and Brahma from approach

I found enough cairns and footprints to reassure me that I was on the right track, but it was still essentially cross-country desert travel, either in the rocky wash, or up the mixture of limestone choss and thorny plants to either side. It turns out that a trail emerges left of the wash as it steepens near the gap, but I missed it on the way up, instead slogging up the loose slope. The route’s first difficulty is a dryfall in the Redwall gap, avoided by third class climbing to the right. To my irritation, I found a rap anchor above this detour, nylon trash left by Real Climbers too incompetent or lazy to scramble down easy terrain they had previously ascended. Oddly, I found no similar detritus above the more difficult terrain above, a bit of class 4 on the left wall bypassing a second step.

Two large cairns marked the top of the break, at a saddle between an unnamed butte and Zoroaster’s long west ridge. Here I found an intermittent use trail, as climbers approaching the butte were forced onto a single feasible path. I also found two well-used tent platforms, though I would have preferred starting earlier from Phantom Ranch to carrying gallons of water to this dry camp. The trail disappeared above the platforms, but the terrain suggested trending left to get around the first Supai cliff bands. While it is not one of the Canyon’s steeper sections, the Supai has enough hard layers to force one to weave back and forth looking for weaknesses. Most of these seemed to be on the left/north side of the ridge, requiring much side-hilling on packed dirt.

Top of Supai slot

I eventually found some cairns leading to the first break, two low fifth class corners leading back and up to the ridge crest. Not having done any climbing in awhile, I was hesitant on the gritty sandstone, but eventually found my groove. Above this cliff band, I looked again to the left, then found cairns leading right to an improbable slot leading through the next. From there, a long stretch of easy walking on the crest led to the base of the main obstacle, a tall layer of cliffs below the Hermit Shale and Coconino of upper Zoroaster Temple.

First handline

Here there was a single, clear path, boot-prints in the dirt and mud leading on a long left traverse to an amphitheater where the single high cliff was eroded into smaller, manageable sections. The route weaves back and forth to find their weaknesses, with two permanent hand-lines on the most difficult ones. I first tried to climb both without touching the lines, but quickly realized that the necessary smearing on gritty sandstone in running shoes was beyond my current skill and confidence. With the knotted ropes to grab, neither pitch presented much difficulty.

Above, I followed the main trail up loose garbage, then descended to the saddle with Brahma Temple, where I found only a single set of old prints. While the summit register suggested that 5-10 people per year climb Brahma, but it is far less popular than Zoroaster, which holds a destination route for Real Climbers. The near side of Brahma is too steep to climb, forcing another long side-hill on steep red dirt around its left side. Once the Coconino became more broken, another convoluted route with some class 4 bits led to the summit ridge, where some walking and a couple of short steps led to the summit.

Zoroaster from Brahma

Brahma Temple is about as high as the South Rim, so it commands a fine view of Zoroaster nearby and below, Wotan’s Throne to the east, and the Gorge in both directions. It also has cell service, so I texted a couple friends as I huddled away from the wind and perused the summit register. It had taken me a bit over five hours from the South Rim, but nearby NAU is a strong running school, so I was not surprised to read that someone had done it in 4h07 a couple years earlier. I ate about half of my Mexican calorie puck (La Molienda Mazapan), then got tired of the wind and began retracing my steps.

Most of route from Brahma

The off-trail portion was only slightly faster on the way down, as the loose desert ground, particularly the limestone, somehow manages to simultaneously grab at your shoes, remain unstable, and be dangerous to fall on. I had some minor trouble retracing my route down the Coconino, having to backtrack and take a slightly harder line in a couple places, then got back into the groove. I tried side-hilling around Zoroaster rather than climbing to the trail, though I doubt it saved me much time. I followed the trail below the notch, hiked the wash, then jogged what I felt like of Clear Creek on the way back to Phantom Ranch.

O’Neill Butte and temples

I lingered in the shade near the canteen, drinking a liter o water and filling up another two, then eating one of my last two bars while listening to the resting hikers. I suppose I could have tried to put in a fast time, but it didn’t seem worth the effort, so while I jogged the descent to the Colorado and parts of the climb, I mostly just walked. Two more mule trains passed me near the bridge, but I saw almost no people between there and the Redwall hut, giving my mind time to wander as I rhythmically climbed the endless steps. Above the hut I encountered the tourist hordes come to watch the sunset. The final switchbacks were a disgusting traffic jam, with the trailhead crowded enough that I did not feel like lingering. Instead I strolled back to my car, where I ate continuously for an hour before driving out of the park again in search of a place to camp.

Mount Taylor (Quad-style)

Mount Taylor is a prominent mound north of Grants, named for President Zachary Taylor, a president who is mostly skipped in High School history and, given his period, was probably warlike and otherwise mediocre. Amid the current trend of renaming peaks, I note that it has also been named Cebolleta (tender onion) by the Spaniards, continuing the food-themed naming scheme demonstrated by nearby Sandia (watermelon) and Manzano (apple tree). The Navajo named it Tsodzil (blue bead mountain), one of their boundary peaks along with Blanca, Hesperus, and the San Francisco Peaks. The other local tribes, the Acoma, Hopi, Zuni, and Laguna, predictably gave the large stratovolcano their own names as well. People like to refer to landmarks, and therefore give them names; take your pick.

As it is a big tree-covered mound with Forest roads all over it, one must get creative to make it a challenge, and the best way to do that is the Mount Taylor Quadrathlon, an event almost as old as I am. Starting from the town of Grants, participants (or teams) bike 13 miles to the end of the pavement, run five up graded forest roads, then ski and snowshoe about two apiece to the summit before reversing the process to finish back in town. I was in the area and had the fitness, and in addition to enjoying racing, I believe it is healthy for the mind and ego, so I signed up.

Though I did not take it seriously enough to, say, do intervals, I did want to actually be a contender, so I borrowed my friend Mike’s fast carbon bike, and gave some more thought to gear choices. With six transitions, I focused on minimizing the time they took, which meant using the same shoes and clothing for every activity. To do that, I put flat pedals on Mike’s bike, and borrowed a pair of Altai Hok skis from a friend in Albuquerque, which have both snowshoe-style strap bindings and built-in kicker skins for the steep ascent. I also wore plastic bags inside my running shoes to protect my feet from the starting cold and snow higher up.

In retrospect, I should have focused more on performance, particularly on the ski. I may have saved about a minute per transition, but those six minutes were easily lost on the downhill ski, which was much slower than it would have been on my AT skis. Also, a one-minute transition probably costs 30 seconds or less, since it doubles as a one-minute recovery. In the future, I would still use flats, because it is a mass start and therefore easy to hang with the lead pack on the bike up, but would use aero bars for the descent. I would also use AT skis, which would make the downhill ski both much faster and a semi-recovery period. I would need a spare pair of shoes for the snowshoe, since doing it in my AT boots would be painful and slow.

All those changes might have saved me about ten minutes, enough to place higher, but not to be a contender. I was about 15% off the winning pace, far too much to be made up by better tactics and nutrition, and probably more than I could make up through better training. As I have written before, it is important to know your place, and that is mine. Interestingly, I was not beaten by a bunch of younger guys, but by four men around my age (the winner was 50!) and one woman who I gather has been utterly dominating local races recently. There were plenty of younger participants, but all ended up farther down the leaderboard. While age and place are positively correlated as expected for the top 100 (corr=0.12), they are negatively correlated for the top 20 (-0.20) and 10 (-0.34). Whether this is due to experience, interest, or equipment (i.e. money), I cannot guess.

In any case, conditions were near-ideal for this race through a wide range of ecosystems. A recent storm had added a few inches to the meager La Niña snowpack, but the day was sunny and calm, and the roads had dried the day before. Grants being subject to the high desert’s huge daily temperature swings, it was still in the low 20s for the 8:00 AM start. I easily hung in the lead pack on the flat roll out of town and the gradual lower climb. I seemed to be working slightly less hard than most of the guys (and one woman) around me, so I liked my chances. Unfortunately I had tried to adjust my seat beforehand and, fearful of breaking Mike’s fragile bike, failed to sufficiently tighten the seat post bolt. Therefore by the time we neared the end of the bike, the seat was far too low, slowed in its descent by the tyvek number taped around the seatpost.

A couple of stronger cyclists turned up the pace where the climb steepened, and I made the mistake of trying to keep them in sight. This made no difference in placing, as I passed them in the transition, but did put some hurt in my legs. I lack experience pacing for multi-sport events, but immediately noticed my mistake as my legs were sluggish on the run. I had expected multiple runners from teams to pass me, but only one did on the gradual five mile climb to the ski transition. About half of the road was bare dirt, the other half packed snow.

I liked my chances at the ski transition, and was happy with the Altais, which had just enough grip for most of the steeper parts of the climb. I was passed like I was standing still by one skimo guy, and saw another person behind me going up Heartbreak Hill, but still made decent time. I started losing on the snowshoe, where I walked some gradual uphills that I should have been able to run. I laughed passing the Viking aid station, then started the hike up the summit meadow with the next person just behind, who turned out to be a ridiculously fast woman. We chatted a bit on the climb, then she took off jogging where it flattened out, while I continued walking.

After a brief side-trip to touch the summit sign (I am, first and foremost, a peak-bagger), I ran the down-trail as best I could, singing “We come from the land of ice and snow…” to encourage the Vikings as I passed. I caught the woman ahead of me in the transition, but she was gone by the time I was gone, and since she was on AT skis, I knew I would never see her again. I had expected to lose some time descending on the Altais, but it was far worse than I had hoped. Not only were they slow and hard to control, but I had to work kicking and poling where I would have coasted on real skis, obliterating both potential recovery and any time I gained in the transitions.

I found a decent rhythm on the downhill run, but my legs were toast on the short uphills before the transition. Partly they were just fried from too many similar activities back-to-back, but partly I was running out of energy. I had brought only solid food, and was too dehydrated and breathing too hard to chew and swallow much of it. Between the sinking seat and my fatigue, my bike performance was fairly pathetic, but I made decent time on the downhills and flats. The one climb reduced me to a pathetic grind. I was glad for the race to be nearly done, as my feet and calves had begun to cramp, but I was passed with authority by a guy on aero bars with a TT helmet only a couple miles from the finish. Like everyone else ahead of me, he was in my age group, but I did not have the energy to jump on his wheel.

I ended up sixth overall, fifth man, and fourth in my age group. (Results here.) I was happy with my overall place, surprised to be crushed by an amateur woman, and disappointed by my age group place. As noted above, there are some easy ways I could improve my place and time via only gear and nutrition, but I would be hard-pressed to train well enough to podium. Still, I would like to return to a wonderful race to see how I could do with more refinements, and am sad that other priorities will probably send me elsewhere next winter.

2021 in review

This year I had no great overarching plan, and therefore have little to show in terms of notable achievements. Instead, I mostly have done a mixture of things of no particular significance, some of which were nevertheless enjoyable or memorable.

Bike touring

Nice pastoral riding


I had some larger plans on the bike, none of which came to fruition. However, I made some discoveries that may inform future tours. First, global warming’s inevitable advance is creating a widening window between when seasonally-closed roads in the National Parks and Forests are rideable and when they are open to cars. Prominent examples include Highway 120 over Tioga Pass, the Cascade River Road, and the road to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, but many dirt Forest Service roads are also closed to prevent damage while muddy. In addition to offering miles of quiet riding, the closures return unbearably-crowded parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon to the blessed quiet of an earlier age, without tour buses and hordes of selfie-stick-wielding tourists.

Second, while the American Pacific Coast is short on interesting mountains, it has miles of good riding, such as the Big Sur coast. The mountains behind Santa Barbara and the greater Los Padres National Forest, while not quite coastal, are another revelation, containing a network of dirt roads permanently closed to vehicles due to repeated fire and flood, but not yet completely washed out and overgrown.

Box-ticking

Scrambly bits of Zebra


Without major goals, this was a year of checking off minor items on my to-do list. Some of those include:

  • Lonesome Miner Trail
  • This route on the east side of the Inyo Mountains, connecting springs and old mining trails, is one of the most remote-feeling places I have been, cut off from the lifeless Saline Valley by slot canyons and from the sparsely-populated Owens Valley by a 10,000-foot ridge.

  • The Zebra
  • I had been defeated twice trying to summit this obscure and minor peak west of Mount Moran. I finally reached it with Robert, approaching via Moran’s northeast shoulder and the western Triple Glacier and exiting via the Skillet Glacier for a long, wild day.

  • Torment-Forbidden traverse
  • The overcrowding of Greater Seattle and hence the North Cascades has hit this route particularly hard, but a washout along the Cascade River Road kept the crowds at bay. When not overrun, it is a deservedly classic scramble.

  • Blum-Hagan-Bacon
  • These peaks between Baker Lake and the Pickets feature several surprisingly large and low glaciers, and views of some of the range’s most remote and inaccessible terrain.

  • Buck, Clark, and Luahna
  • The territory between Stevens Pass and Glacier Peak includes a number of high and spectacular peaks separated by deep drainages. In particular, climbing Buck is either difficult or long from any direction. I chose to go up the hard way (northeast face) and down the long way (Buck Creek Pass), for a mix of steep bushwhacking, tricky scrambling, and superb trail-running.

  • Little Tahoma
  • What looks like an unpleasant choss-pimple on Mount Rainier is actually a fun scramble, far more interesting than the standard routes on its looming parent.

WY 13ers

Gannett from Koven


Perhaps the only notable thing I did this year was to climb Wyoming’s 36 13,000-foot peaks quickly, taking just under nine days. Most of the peaks, and most of the challenges, are found in the northern Wind River Range. This area is home to the best Rockies glaciers south of Canada, and is one I have been meaning to revisit since doing Gannett way back in 2012. The 13er speed record was the impetus I needed to go backpacking, and once committed, I also managed to scramble Ellingwood’s north ridge, another to-do item and a candidate for the final Classic Scrambles list.

Et l’avenir, quoi?

I had opportunities to step back from my nomadic life in 2021, but realized that I harbor some remaining ambition, and value my hard-earned autonomy. With Covid’s risk for me on the level of the flu, which has never limited my plans, and with restrictions on international travel easing due to a mixture of decreased risk and increased fatigue, I hope to reclaim the plans I set aside in early 2020. The specifics will depend on my fitness and the state of the world in a few months, but you can hopefully look forward to summer dispatches from Dr. Dirtbag from Europe, Asia, or at least the Great White North.

FKTOY nominees

WY 13ers accomplished!


Peter Bakwin and Buzz Burrell have recently announced the nominees for the Fastest Known Time of the Year, and I am honored to be included for my Wyoming 13ers speed record. With the increasing commercialization and professionalization of Fastest Known Times or “FKTs,” especially during COVID times, there are fewer ways in which middle-aged amateurs like Yours Truly can meaningfully contribute. Most of the time, if I set a speed record for a route these days, it is because no one truly fast has tried; these Only Known Times (“OKTs”) usually have little interest or value, like a race with one contestant. Given that only five other people are recorded to have climbed all the Wyoming 13ers, my outing is not far from an OKT, and knowing the level of effort I put into it, I have no doubt it can be done faster, especially with full support. However, the peaks require a wide range of skills and a long time commitment, and the record is moderately obscure, so I believe my time will stand as both a record and an inspiration for quite awhile.

The winners will be chosen by a private voting process, but here are some efforts that caught my interest:

US

Alex King (Rainier)
A world-class, mind-bogglingly fast time on a hotly-contested course.
Nika Meyer (Colorado Trail)
The unsupported CT is at the upper limit of how much food one can carry in a backpack, and therefore involves significant weight loss in addition to suffering and sleep deprivation. The supported version relieves food pressure, but is still brutal. I have never wanted to try this record, but have always held it in great respect.
Jason Hardrath (Bulgers)
Massive logistics, mental fortitude, and physical resilience to climb 100 remote and often challenging peaks.
Kelly Halpin (Gannett Peak)
While I have not done Gannett by this route, I have seen the terrain, and it is rugged and hard to cross efficiently. Not to mention the Green River crossing, which is enough to deter me…
Pawel Szafruga (CO 14ers)
Through-hiking is a fresh take on this done-to-death objective, greatly increasing the effort required and obviating the need for elaborate rules necessitated by Colorado’s drive-up peaks.
Alex Borsuk (Glacier Peak)
I briefly held the record on this one before it was utterly crushed. It’s cool to see a solid female time on a classic and incredibly beautiful route.

non-US

Luis Alberto Hernando Alzaga (Aneto)
A solid time on the Pyrenees’ highpoint, which deserves a record. I did this one on my trip to Europe, though of course nowhere near as fast.
Tyler Andrews (Cotopaxi)
Beating Karl Egloff, even by only 20 seconds, is no mean feat, as is negotiating Ecuador’s arbitrary guiding and permitting rules.

Book delays

I apologize to those of you who have ordered books a little or long time ago. I did not end up where I expected to this winter, and therefore my supply of books is over 1000 miles from me. I’m working on uniting us again, at which point you will all get your books. This will definitely happen well before Christmas, if that matters. Thank you for your patience and forbearance.

Update 12/6/2021: The books are slowly making their way through the constipated bowels of the USPS. They began their journey on 11/23, with an expected delivery date of 12/2, and are currently farther away than they started, with no expected delivery date.

Update 12/20/2021: So… My books are currently on a road trip similar to one I’ve taken some summers:

  • 11/23/21 – Independence, CA
  • 11/28/21 – Los Angeles, CA
  • 12/6/21 – Seattle, WA (um… what?)
  • 12/7/21 – Denver, CO (okay, back on track)
  • 12/14/21 – Seattle, WA (WTF, DeJoy?!)
  • 12/20/21 – ??? (Skiing in the North Cascades? Climbing in Red Rocks?)

Update 12/22/2021: After rolling into Denver (again) late on the 20th, they traveled right past Santa Fe to spend the next night in Albuquerque. Realizing their mistake, they returned the following day to finally arrive at my door. This was Media Mail, but I did not expect it to take a month. Anyways, I’ll send them out tomorrow.

Update 12/23/2021: All books shipped 12/23/2021. Happy MLK Day, everyone!

Powell, Eagles Nest

Powell and Peak C from return


Eagles Nest and Powell, also known as Peaks A and B, are the northernmost of the Gore Range’s “letter peaks.” To their south stretches Ripsaw Ridge, comprised of Peaks C through H. I had traversed these peaks back in 2012, skipping H because its summit is indistinct from below, but ran out of energy to continue to B and A. Looking at C from Powell, it looks like it might not have been possible to continue the traverse. Powell is the range highpoint, making it an appealing enough target to brave the horrors of Vail on my way south.

Trailhead from pass

I drove the long, dusty road to Piney Lake, which felt much worse than I remembered, reaching the parking area outside the ranch around dusk. All of the designated camp spots along the way were occupied, but no one seemed to mind my sleeping in the car at the trailhead. I was awakened around 4:30 when two young guys pulled in next to me and packed for what I guessed (correctly) to be a traverse of Ripsaw Ridge. I found their conversation insufferably “bro-ish,” but that probably says more about me and the early hour than about them. I tried to get a bit more sleep, then started at a civilized time when I would not need a headlamp.

Bad side of Kneeknocker Pass

I passed a few photographers on the trail, likely guests of the ranch, photographing a few moose hanging out in the willows, and was passed by a couple of young women out for their morning jogs. Farther up I met a bow hunter, out on the last weekend of the season and unlikely to have much luck in such a high-traffic area. I easily found the cairned trail to Kneeknocker Pass, and turned steeply uphill on a surprisingly nice trail. The sun was finally hitting the ranch and meadows, but I remained in Ripsaw Ridge’s shade. Kneeknocker Pass was supposed to be a wretched talus-slog, but I found a decent path on the left side almost to the top.

Start of ridge

There are two ways to Powell’s summit from the pass: follow the ridge, or drop down the other side a little ways to reach the broad south slope. The other side of the pass was hardpack and ball bearings that looked somewhere between miserable and dangerous, so I opted for the ridge. After some traversing to the left, passing the occasional cairn, I returned to the right side, where I easily gained elevation on some nice slabs. The ridge eventually deposited me on Powell’s summit plateau, from which I made my way to the highest of several large talus mounds. The air was clear, and I had unobstructed views of Holy Cross and the Sawatch to the southwest. Closer, I could see the various side-ridges east of the Gore crest that hold most of the remaining letter peaks. There are also a couple of colorful lakes east of Ripsaw, fed by small patches of ice.

Eagles Nest ridge

The ridge to Eagles Nest looked long and tricky, and I knew nothing about it, but I had nothing better to do with my day, so I took off across the summit plateau to its start. I found generally smooth sailing on the first part, staying near the crest or following ledge systems to the west. Things turned much trickier near the saddle, where there are many small gendarmes and both sides of the ridge seem steep. At the lowest notch, I tried a possible ramp on the west side, chickened out at a dihedral that felt too steep to be safe, then retreated to the crest. Picking my way down the other side, I eventually found my way down a steep gully until I could cross the next rib and reclimb to the saddle. This felt like about low fifth class, harder than I had expected but not unreasonable.

Oh, hi!

Beyond this, there were more towers to go over and around, but the climbing generally became a bit easier. I even spotted a few cairns, suggesting that I was on the correct version of some route. Eventually the gendarmes ceased and the ridge began a steady climb toward the summit. Looking ahead, I was surprised to see five brightly-colored people in helmets. They turned out to be four guys and a woman, who had started early that morning from the north end and had a car shuttle back at Piney Lake. After meeting no one on the higher and much easier Powell, I was surprised to see someone on this more difficult and obscure route. They informed me that it is in Roach’s book, and that the ridge is supposedly easier if you drop farther off the west side.

Powell from Eagles Nest

I continued to Eagles Nest, where I paused to have a snack and check out the view of the small glaciers north of Powell, and the oddly-perched Dora Lake. I then retraced my route along the ridge, planning to drop west and cross the col at the head of Cataract Creek and rejoin the Kneeknocker Pass trail. I had spotted some gullies that did not cliff out as I traversed, and figured I would choose one of them. I ran into the party of five again, passing them as they began their descending traverse, then made my way to the valley bottom without much trouble. I did not say anything, but given their pace, I saw headlamp time in their future.

Goat family

The col worked well, and I was surprised not to find a use trail, since it seems like a useful connector. Stopping near the trail on the other side to get some water, I watched a family of mountain goats graze watchfully not too far away. A few minutes down the trail, I met four inexperienced-seeming people and an unleashed dog aiming to climb Powell. I gave them what route advice I could, told them about the goats, and suggested they leash their dog. They happily ignored me and continued, but I did not hear an altercation. While there were not many peak-baggers out, there were tons of leaf-peepers on the lower trail. I dodged them as I jogged and hiked my way back to the overflowing parking lot. I was hungry, and would normally have taken my time over a meal, but the crowds were too much. I drove back toward Vail, then up a less-traveled side-road, looking for a nice spot to camp. The few flat pullouts were taken, so I finally settled for a flat-ish wide spot in the road. Not ideal, but good enough.

Aiguille du Fleur

Summit plateau and Fleur de Lis


Rocky Mountain National Park is a casualty of greater Denver’s unchecked growth. It was already a bit of a circus when I visited to climb Longs in 2009, and has only gotten worse since. Recently the Park has instituted a “timed entry permit” system, in which one must have one of a limited number of permits to enter the park at a particular place in each two-hour window of the normal day. These permits are “free” through recreation.gov (there is some kind of “convenience fee,” of course), and both the far-in-advance and day-before ones seem to go quickly. Timed entry for the east-side entrances starts at 5:00 AM, and somewhat later for the less-popular west-side ones.

I have long wanted to check out some east-side routes for the next edition of my book, including the Cables and Kiener’s routes on Longs, the 5.6 route on Spearhead, and the long traverse of Glacier Gorge called “A Walk in the Park.” But between the crowds, entry permits, and increasing difficulty of camping in that part of the Front Range, I probably never will. It is sad that these potentially “classic” scrambles have been ruined by unchecked population growth, but there you have it. If I am not willing to put up with the nonsense required to reach them, I cannot recommend them to others. Given that Yosemite seems to be headed toward similar or even worse crowding and restrictions, I may remove Matthes Crest and Cathedral from the next edition.

Almost-lake creek

With the east side of the Park off limits, I decided to check out “Aiguille du Fleur,” a minor tower with a scramble route that I had read about on Steph Abegg’s site. From my camp in the burned-out forest west of Grand Lake, I drove over to the East Inlet trailhead, where I was met with timed entry signs. I had not expected them at a trailhead with no entry booth on this side of the park, and did not know what to do. I had cell service, but there were no reservable permits available online, and the explanation of when one needed a permit was not at all clear. I eventually asked a local guy what the deal was, and he said that, since I had arrived at the parking lot before timed entries started, I was fine. I have no idea if or how they enforce the system at this trailhead.

Blasted trail

I put my annual pass on the dashboard just in case, then started off up the trail. Once past some falls, it stays flat for awhile, crossing some meadows with a meandering, barely-moving creek. The trail then climbs the valley’s north wall to get up a headwall, with impressive blasting in some sections. Along the way there are named, designated camping spots — apparently camping, too, requires reservations. Above the headwall, the valley climbs past a series of lakes, from Lone Pine Lake all the way to Fifth Lake, at the base of Isolation Peak.

Aiguille from approach

I went to the third lake’s outlet, then left the fading trail to cross the small creek and bash south through the woods. Expecting a climbers’ trail here, I was disappointed to find only bits of game path, but the rough part was short, and travel became easier as the side-valley flattened. As the Aiguille came into clear view, I skirted around its slabby apron, taking a gully toward the head of the valley before cutting back toward its sheer east face. Here I could see the obvious ledge leading to the base of the north ridge route, supposedly 5.6. I was slightly tempted to try it, but I was worried about north-facing snow on potentially slabby terrain, and not feeling all that ambitious. Instead I stuck to my initial plan to climb the easier south ridge. If I had extra energy after that, I could continue to Fleur de Lis Peak, then follow the plateau west before dropping to the trail lower down.

Hard side

After an easy gully, I found a short tricky section dealing with a chockstone in the notch between the Aiguille and the ridge to the Peak. Once past this, I found more low-fifth scrambling meandering up and right, which eventually eased off to a hike to the long, flat summit plateau. I had felt off my game on the scramble, which was supposed to be only a bit of 5.4. I walked over to the highpoint, a jumble of boulders on the other side, where I found a cairn and a couple of slings. The views into the valley, and of the cirques to the south, were striking, but other than Isolation, most of the surrounding peaks are just bumps on a high plateau.

Without much energy, I decided to return the way I had come. Back at the other side of the summit plateau, I followed a ramp toward the other side of the notch, and realized I had made my life much harder than necessary on the way up. Other than a step-around and a couple of moves, this way out of the notch would have been a simple walk. I did not find a climbers’ trail on the way down, but managed to follow slightly better game paths. The trail was too rocky to be much fun to run, but I jogged the smoother sections. As I got within a mile or so of the trailhead, jogging again became nearly impossible due to crowds of meandering tourists, including what looked like a wedding party. I ate my meal in the completely full parking lot, then took off south and west toward less crowded places.

Mahler, Richthofen

Richthofen and Mahler


Richthofen is the tallest of a horseshoe of choss-peaks encircling Lake Agnes, south of Highway 14 in the Never Summer Range. Any reasonable access requires entering the loathsome and poorly-named Colorado State Forest State Park, with its arbitrary fees. Fortunately I found a fun workaround: park at Cameron Pass and bike the Michigan Ditch road. Technically you are supposed to pay $4.00 for the privilege of riding on the maintenance road, but no one was patrolling it, and the fee seemed absurd for the absolutely nothing the Park does. The road is there to maintain a canal, one of several, that drags water from Michigan Lakes across the Continental Divide to serve Fort Collins, so the water company keeps it in good shape. The fact that it parallels a canal also means that it is nearly flat, gaining only 200 feet in 6-7 miles.

Choss eating Lake Agnes

I took my time getting started, and was glad to have worn my down jacket, despite which my hands and feet were cold on the shady, fast ride. The road degrades somewhat past Michigan Creek, where it parallels an old wooden pipe made of staves like like a several-mile-long barrel. I locked my bike to a tree in this section, then continued on foot, waiting for my extremities to warm up. I soon joined the well-used trail to the lake, which is apparently popular with fishermen. I saw a couple of them standing around in the cold as I reached the end of the official trail and continued along a clear use trail through the talus on the left side of the lake. From there I followed cairns and faint bits of trail along a stream, then across a mix of slabs, grass, and talus toward the Richthofen-Mahler saddle. The upper part of this was quite unpleasant, a pile of loose talus covered in snow on the north-facing slope.

Mahler west ridge

Richthofen itself would be a short day, so I planned to add on neighboring Mahler and possibly continue to Static and Nohku Crags, a notoriously chossy fourth class feature from which I could descend a gully to near my bike. However Mahler proved more of a challenge than I anticipated. I had seen several deep gashes in its west ridge from the approach, and optimistically assumed that the cliffy ridge would be gentler on the other side, allowing me to easily bypass them. Alas this was not the case: deep, steep-sided gullies extended down from the gaps, forcing one to stay close to the crest. That, combined with the fresh snow and the region’s typical chossy rock, made this fourth class scramble quite engaging. Finally reaching the summit, I saw that it would have been far easier, though miserable and chossy, to come up the north slope.

Static and Nohku from Richthofen

After a careful scramble back to the saddle, I started up the slope to Richthofen. I found multiple faint trails, either animal or human, mostly too steep and loose to be useful on the way up. I fought the loose talus for awhile, then found a pleasant slabby rib I could follow to near the summit ridge. A few false summits created more work than I had anticipated on the way to the top, as did the lingering snow. I found a register with a couple of unexpected but familiar names, added my own, and stared at Static and Nohku Crags for a minute. Getting to Static looked easy, and the Crags looked like something I could probably figure out, but I decided I had had enough for the day. I picked my way back to the saddle, suffered down the talus to the lake, then recovered with a pleasant slightly-downhill bike to the car. Needing fresh food and better rock, I drove down to Granby, then found some National Forest to camp outside the dreaded Rocky Mountain National Park.