Peak(s):  Sunlight Peak  -  14,061 feet
Windom Peak  -  14,089 feet
Date Posted:  07/07/2022
Date Climbed:   06/29/2022
Author:  HikesInGeologicTime
Additional Members:   daway8
 Guides for the Gimpy   

(Note: as is typical with my trip reports, they’re not particularly useful if you want actually relevant information on route finding or climbing the peaks themselves. If you’re interested in material that might be of use to a future psychology dissertation or several, however, this is totally the trip report for you!

Further note to tack onto the end of the initial note: I spend the first part of this report talking a bit about my fall off Pyramid last summer and the generally dismal mental state I was in for the rest of that season, so if you’re not up to reading about that, once again, there are plenty of other trip reports out there with a more upbeat tone throughout.)

Sometime in 2020, it seemed likely that I would be able to finish the 58 USGS-named fourteeners in Colorado.

This was no guarantee before; while I realize that being able to climb a fourteener in the first place likely puts the successful climber somewhere around the 99th percentile for American fitness levels, I would put myself somewhere in the first percentile of that elite category. My muscular coordination or lack thereof is such that I can barely walk and breathe at the same time (just ask any of my hiking partners!), and I refuse to do so much as climb on a chair to get something off a high shelf because such a distant height off the ground might make me dangerously dizzy.

Nevertheless, I managed to summit Little Bear and Capitol, widely considered to be the hardest fourteeners in Colorado, and while I feel that much of the credit for that is due to the extraordinary patience and skills of my partners on those peaks...I did make both summits. There was nothing stopping me now!

And indeed, “there’s nothing stopping me now” was more or less the thought I had when I started toppling backward off Pyramid’s steep, garish mess of a face on July 6, 2021. I’m sure I only spent 30 seconds at most tumbling end over end, but I spent every fraction of them absolutely convinced that I was going to be a recovery rather than a rescue.

Fortunately, a small ledge and a brave stranger got in my way before I reached the point of no return. More fortunately still, it was a beautiful day to go for a helicopter ride, and when I reached the hospital following an ambulance transfer, I learned that I only had two noteworthy injuries: a compression fracture in one of my vertebrae that was set to knit on its own as long as I didn’t aggravate it, and good news about not aggravating it - I’d also fractured my calcaneus, which was a fancy way of saying “shattered my heel,” and I would have to be off that foot for two whole months!!! Hahaha, wasn’t I every bit as lucky as doctors, nurses, friends, family, and random passerby all insisted I was!!!

At some point in what I hope is the very, very near future, I am hoping to exact my vengeance on Pyramid. I am further hoping that the sequel is such a non-event that I will have no choice but to pad that trip report with a more detailed account of what the recovery process was like, complete with advice of varying quality that I received throughout and adding in advice of my own that is recommended by precisely 0 out of 10 doctors (and/or physical/occupational therapists).

For the purposes of providing adequate backstory to this trip report, however, I will summarize that process as succinctly as I can: it f—king sucked. I spent as much time asleep as I could, watched a lot of reruns when I couldn’t manage that (how do you do, fellow Law & Order: SVU and Star Trek fans), and spent commercial breaks wishing that malignant mountain had done me the courtesy of putting me out of my misery while it had the chance.

Sure, I knew there was an end in sight to the summer of sheer stultification. I knew how lucky I was to have family and friends who were willing to pitch in and help me out when so many activities I previously hadn’t given much thought to were suddenly exhaustingly challenging at best and flat-out impossible at worst. But I also knew that if that period of mandatory limitations had gone on much longer - if, the cosmos forbid, the surgery to repair my heel had failed as my retired-doctor dad had warned me 50% of them were wont to do, well...

Suffice to say I was sympathetic to Worf's desire for an honorable death in this otherwise unremarkable TNG episode.

Fortunately, mine was a success, and as I was able to start tentatively hobbling around, then biking, then hiking, then skiing, my mood drastically improved. Eventually, with the help of further generosity and patience of my partners, I limped up Bierstadt for the 2021 Winter Welcomer in a mere eight hours, then up Elbert for a March snowflake in only sixteen and a half, then Grays and Bross in May for some slowness-stat-disrupting ski descents that also marked some of the best times I’ve ever had on fourteeners.

Alas, all good things must eventually end, and so it was with the freak May snowstorms that seemingly did more to hydrate the Front Range than the rest of 2022 had. This also meant it was time for me to start thinking about getting back in the saddle again, though of the geological variety rather than the equine one, because I find it very unnerving when my connection to the ground has thoughts and feelings all its own.

At least I would not have to go it on my own, however. My father, having recognized that his lone offspring got all of the familial stubbornness genes and precious few of the common sense ones, figured out pretty quickly that he wasn’t going to be able to talk me out of my longstanding goal of tagging all the summits on The List, so instead he offered to mitigate further damage by paying for guides to take me up my remaining peaks. Snow conditions were looking sufficiently melt-y for me to start my professionally accompanied journey right near Dad’s homebase in Durango, so I arranged to spend June 28-30 in Chicago Basin with San Juan Mountain Guides’ consummate expert Kent, shadowing newcomer Luke...and, to my great surprise and delight, steadfastly loyal friend David, better known to the forum as daway8.

This shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, however. While helping me get back on my feet again had been a team effort, David deserves special credit for his share: way back when I’d first wound up in Aspen Valley Hospital’s care, he took a day off work, drove over Independence Pass (Glenwood Canyon was, if I recall correctly, closed due to mudslides at the time), ferried me back to Denver, spent at least half an eternity waiting for my brand-new prescriptions to be ready at what has to be the most chaotic Walgreen’s in the state by sheer population density alone, drove back up to Fort Collins the next morning in time for work...then repeated the drive three days later so I could rescue my own sorely-needed vehicle.

An accurate representation of the prescription pick-up process at my local Walgreen's.

He also took me out to dinner when he was passing through Denver, helped me get groceries during the same, and lowered some of his weekend ambitions from 13,000’ to well under five-digit elevations when I was able to start making like Limpalong Cassidy on the likes of North Table Mountain and Golden Gate Canyon State Parks. He then slowed down significantly to accommodate my tedious-even-by-my-usual-standards pace on Bierstadt in October. Apparently, all that meant that he had a lot invested in my redemption tour, so after confirming that he could use some partially-mandatory vacation time to join the party, we were off.

I knew there was going to be no way I was going to meet or beat David’s 2019 Chicago Basin train-to-camp hike time of 2.5 hours. I hadn’t backpacked since just before the accident, and while skis feel even more burdensome than snowshoes when they’re attached to your pack rather than your feet, I still don’t think mine measured up to the 35 lbs. I schlepped into the Basin. And one of those feet had come a long way in just under a year, but I knew this outing would be demanding a lot from it.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, that it was only 4.5 hours to camp from Needleton. I was even happier still that the rain clouds that had been playing catch-up with us most of the afternoon deigned to wait until we had our tents set up - rain flies and all - before bestowing their baggage on us. And while I wouldn’t exactly call it pleasant that my general restlessness meant I was awake mere minutes before our scheduled rise-but-no-shine time of 2 am, I wouldn’t call that a surprise, either.

We did set off at a good enough pace to make room for the multiple times I needed to stop and wrestle with my blood sugar on the steep trail leading to Twin Lakes. Just before the lakes, I started to perk up, and I somehow managed to avoid getting too blubbery when first light began illuminating the crests and spires surrounding us; it had been less than a year, after all, since the day I fully believed I would never have the chance to take these views in myself.

Just as breathtaking as the hike to get up to that point.

The majesty of it all carried me a little over halfway up the ramp that leads to the saddle between Sunlight and its infamous Spire. But then, despite my thorough inexperience with the area, something about that ramp started to seem familiar - too familiar. The steepness, the looseness, the terminal point at the saddle that marked the start of the no-fall zone that could be an absolute certainty no-fall zone this time...

David pointed out that my breathing was starting to sound not so much like mere exertion and more like something else was going on, which prompted Kurt to suggest that we stop, I check my blood sugar again, do whatever I needed to do. My glucose level was high, which certainly had done nothing for my mental state. A few minutes of deep-breathing exercises, some water, and a reminder that I’d brought my harness and helmet and Kurt would rope me up at the saddle and keep me short-roped as long as I needed convinced me to take one last, full breath before pressing on.

All too soon, the harness and helmet came out of the pack and onto me. Kurt double-checked the Figure 8 knot and explained how he’d be positioned in such a way that if I slipped, it wouldn’t turn into a fall, and then we were off to the summit.

David, fearless veteran of this peak that he was, typically darted ahead to get pictures of our guides more than earning their pay as I hunched as closely as possible to the rocks farthest from the imposing drop to our left. Part of me did feel a little demeaned; here I was, a veteran myself of such a mountain as Capitol, a peak which, if I had to summarize it in a single adjective, I would have described as “tedious,” and now I was being pulled up this trivial segment of Class 3 scrambling that had nothing on K2 or the Knife Edge like a sugared-up toddler on a kiddie leash and/or Gollum being dragged kicking and screaming through Mordor by Samwise Gamgee!

I am fairly certain this move even had me hacking, "gollum, gollum" when I paused to sputter for air. (Photo courtesy of daway8).

But I wasn’t the same arrogant prick I’d been on Capitol. I was someone who had pushed past my limits since then and been lucky I hadn’t paid a much higher price. And I was also someone foolish enough that I couldn’t quite let go of all that previously held arrogance, at least not enough to have used the summer I’d been largely flat on my back pursuing therapy over Zoom or FaceTime or using the following autumn, winter, and spring on something gutsier than saving exposure therapy for safely roped routes at the climbing gym and sticking to Class 1 and 2 trails above treeline. I’d decided to, if not dive off the deep end, at least shimmy right up to the edge of it, and if it had not been for Kurt and Luke and their knowledge and experience and rope, I would and could not have not gotten past the saddle that day.

But thanks to their physical support and David’s moral support, I didn’t just get past the saddle. I got all the way up the very top of that infamous summit block. And there would have been no day on this Earth, no matter how cocky I might have otherwise been feeling, that I would’ve made it up that menacing jumble of boulders without the aid of a rope and someone who knows how to use it, because when you are looking at it head-on, it appears rather like the Sphinx sizing you up to see if you can answer a riddle without asking Google.

Turns out all three of my companions could, albeit in different ways: David going for the so-called Leap of Faith route on the backside, one which I had stressed to Kurt on the phone during a pre-trip conversation was not an option for me, as I was reasonably confident that I could jump, but not so sure I could stick the landing. He and Luke made quick work of the steep stone closest to the USGS marker, positioned themselves atop it...then beckoned me to follow their lead.

My hands were a little fumbly. My feet, I felt, weren’t so trustworthy, seeing as how they’d failed to keep me rooted on holds far more forgiving than the ones on this boulder a summer ago. My knees, consequently, took a beating as I pressed them hard into the rock face. But the rope was good and taut and the men at its other end clear in their suggestions, and I was somewhat proud of myself for how quickly I found my fingers grasping the top edge of the nemesis I’d studied in pictures and video for years before I faced it in person.

Sure wished I'd brought knee pads. (Photo courtesy of daway8)

Moments later, I exchanged high-fives with and whispered exultant thank-yous to Luke and Kurt in turn before gingerly side-stepping over to the true high point. 51 weeks to the day of my last attempt at one, I knelt down on my first new 14,000’ summit since 2021.

If a retired doctor in Durango inexplicably reached for the drink around 8 a.m. on June 29th, it was because the rope emboldened me enough to try the, "Look, Pa, no hands!!!!" routine on something with a decidedly decisive drop-off on the side I was facing.

The ease with which I was able to quasi-rappel back down to the picnic area made me vaguely wish I could have done the same for the rest of the return to the saddle. But I was soon glad to have the opportunity to regain my feel for downward scrambling in this relatively controlled setting the rope and its handler offered me. In deference to my freak-out on the way up the ramp, however, I did ask Kurt if he minded letting me stay roped up for at least the start of our descent of it, which of course he did not. Something tells me he was just as relieved as I was that I felt comfortable removing it around where I’d had to stop on the ascent, though.

The epitome of cool, at least as far as this peak's descent went.

David and Luke has charged ahead at the saddle to go climb Peak Eighteen, which left Kurt and me to amble down at a pace I could manage. We stopped a bit off what I assumed to be the usual route so I could refill one of my water bottles with snowmelt, then Kurt gave me suggestions for how I could walk in a somewhat less ungainly manner and shared some techniques he’d put to good use in his years as a backcountry ski guide.

The skiing chat both allowed David and Luke sufficient time to summit Peak Eighteen then decide to come join us and stoked me so much that I almost didn’t pay attention when the trail up Windom’s saddle disappeared into a relentless vomit of boulders. I’ll admit that I hadn’t studied that particular peak’s route with anywhere near the intensity I had its neighbor’s; I’d simply read “Difficult Class 2” and figured that, while such a rating ran the gamut from Blanca and Ellingwood (peaks I had enjoyed) to Challenger (a peak I had...not), there shouldn’t, I reasoned, be anything that exceeded my abilities.

In terms of the technical challenges, I’d been right. It was mostly Class 2 with a few Class 3 moves thrown in, and while I was still getting reacquainted with the Class 3, I at least did not need a rope for those segments (although I definitely appreciated that Kurt and/or Luke sometimes literally had my back or offered me a hand).

But the duration! One nasty aspect to most fourteeners that had apparently slipped my mind in my year of forced time away was how many times a climber will look up and say to themself or maybe their partners, “Oh, yeah, that’s gotta be the summit right there,” only to reach said “summit,” take a deep breath, point at the next bump, and say, “That. That’s gotta be the summit,” rinse and repeat ad infinitum. Eventually, the excessive optimism fades into a smattering of inventive curses and unintelligible yelling as the climber accepts that there will never be a summit, just an endless mess of boulders piled up to infinity.

Probably not ever going to make Wheel of Fortune, but if it somehow does, you can bet everything that the word coming out of my mouth was four letters and started with an F.

So it was with Windom. I became so accustomed to the next tangle of boulders NOT being the summit that I couldn’t fully trust Kurt, who had never done or said anything to lead me astray, when he said that the summit block was right up above us, and we were gonna drop our packs off at the small saddle perched above an unpleasant-looking drop off before coming a short ways into it and then making our final moves. I was still so wary that even as I readied myself to make those final moves, a stranger who summited moments before us pulled out his phone, aimed it at me, and bid me to smile for my photo op.

“We’re a little past that,” David informed him as I gawked at the stranger’s with what I'm sure was the very definition of nihilism in my eyes. As I sagged onto the summit at last, my friend whipped out his own phone. “Fourteener number 50!” he announced as he snapped a pic of his own.

If David ever gets tired of his current occupation, he can totally get a job convincing cranky toddlers to smile for the camera!

That did the trick. I’d been hoping to push my fourteener count into the fifties all the way back in 2020 but had ended the year with a mere 46. 2021 started strong with Castle and Conundrum but fell apart not long after. But what was a mere two year delay when I’d been working on my list since 2005, anyway?

The warm glow from finally being single digits away from finishing in only 17 years carried me down the first few jumbles of detritus, but then, as seemed inevitable on the way up, a sense of existential despair eventually set in. A path or even something resembling a trail would emerge for a few yards, then, just as I was getting into a rhythm of merrily using my trekking poles as added support instead of my hands and whatever nearby rock was closest to their height, it would vanish. It was as if Windom mocked me for dismissing its class ranking compared to its spookier-to-me neighbors: “Oh, you thought I was going to be all but a walk-up?! Here’s some more rubble to trip you up, then!”

But all things must eventually pass, and so it was with Windom’s last stand. We took a break at the headwall and remarked on our good fortune at having so far stayed out of the way of the storm clouds encircling the peaks above, then, after leaving a herd of mountain goats a gift of the golden beverage they’d doubtlessly charged down a nearby slope in hopes of slurping, we set our sights and our steps toward camp.

I was surprised how decent I felt on the trail down past Twin Lakes. No, there was no way I’d have been able to hit the Eoluses (Eolii?) that afternoon like I’d imagined in my wildest pipe dreams even if the weather had been cooperating, but as David remarked from where he was politely following me, I was doing pretty well for someone who’d had a valid handicapped placard* only a month before, had carried in a pack that set a weight PR the day before, and had just summited two Class 3-4 peaks mere hours before. A little fuel in the form of a fruit cup courtesy of our guides, a rehydrated camp meal, and something resembling sleep as the rain kindly waited until we were zipped into our tents to have its way, and I figured that I’d be refreshed as I was ever going to be to take on the last two of the basin’s behemoths dark and early the next morning.

Alas, next morning rolled in under only the most technical of definitions, and even though I had been the chief supporter of our 1 am wake-up call, I soon discovered that my stomach lining was more willing to rise to the occasion than the rest of my body was. I feel reasonably confident that if I’d had the whole day to dedicate to the summits, I probably could’ve pushed through - after all, who hasn’t had GI issues at altitude?

But after the third or so time I had to collapse on the most conveniently located rock and dry-heave between my knees, plus the second or so time Kurt pointedly asked me, “Are you SURE you feel up to continuing?” I decided to take my existent check marks in the win(dom) column and rest easy for the few hours before we would need to pack up and hike out to the train knowing that I had a whole season in which to return for the potentially less daunting half of the Chicago Basin quartet. And as the rain started to fall on the rezipped tents of those of us who did not go on to Jupiter, I had the additional grim satisfaction of knowing that my weakness of character would doubtlessly not have appreciated Eolus’ slabs in anything less than a desert-dry state anyway.

My nausea diminished at roughly the same rate as our altitude, and even after enjoying a lovely picnic during the wonderfully plentiful time we had to wait on the train’s arrival, I was game for a treat that had caught my eye on the ride up but that I had dismissed as a surefire means of self-destruction on the trail: a sketchy, overpriced DSNGRR hot dog accentuated with a package of fast-food quality relish. I have never tasted such a fine delicacy before, and something tells me I might never do so again.

We parted ways with Kurt and Luke in Durango with the utmost respect and gratitude, warning them to perhaps prepare for a sudden deluge in business once I could spread the word about their exceptional services. My dad picked us up and took us out to dinner, where David made such a good impression that I think Dad is marginally less concerned about my life choices...or at least, less concerned about my choice in companions for the ride(s).

Which is good, because even if I am finally down to (the hateful?) eight, I know none of those peaks will let me cakewalk up them any more than Windom did.

*Admittedly, by that point, most of the “justification” for its continued presence in my car was that I had a crippling aversion to paying for slopeside parking at the Ikon resorts, but there wasn’t usually a whole lot of competition for the spaces outlined in blue in those locations anyway.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
07/08/2022 09:04
Eight More! Go get 'em.

Glad your back!
07/08/2022 10:19
Best of luck finishing out the other 8 peaks, I know you can do it!

SO glad!
07/12/2022 15:27
I am so glad to know you are feeling stronger and was able to go to Chicago Basin. Your dad is wonderful, having hired you a guide. Now not many left, let us know what finisher you have in mind... I would love to join you!Teresa

07/12/2022 12:37
I am glad to hear that you are back at it! I was behind your group on the summit of Sunlight and chatted with you and David briefly. Good luck on the remaining eight.

Congrats and SAME
09/16/2022 18:47
I know I‘m a little late to the party, but I so enjoyed reading one of your trip reports that I have come back for more. I came to say 1) you are a remarkable writer and 2) I also came down with unsavory GI issues a few hours after finishing Sunlight and Windom, and had to pass on the Eoluses (Eolusii?) the next day. Gotta go back..

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