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Pyramid In Winter. Winter 14er FKT Finisher 3-18-2023
The challenge of climbing all of Colorado’s 14ers is a worthy goal for just about anybody and it usually takes several years to complete. Taking on those same peaks in the winter months takes the challenge to a whole new level. Winter adds so many challenges that the peaks are simply out of reach for most people. Among others, some of those challenges are: the cold temperatures, strong winds, snowfall, short daylight hours, avalanche conditions, and lack of access to summer trailheads.
The difficulties are enough that only a handful of intrepid adventurers have completed the task. I’d like to get an updated list but I think it is still less than 20 that have finished all the 14ers in winter over several years of trying.
The 14ers in winter though, are incredibly beautiful. And it has the feeling of the old days of hiking when the mountains were not overcrowded. You are very lucky to run into anyone on most of the peaks. There is also the satisfaction of challenging yourself and accomplishing your goals.
As far back as 2000, when only 2 people had completed them all over multiple winter seasons, I was introduced to the idea of trying to not just climb all of the 14ers in winter, but to try to climb them all in a single winter season. That is a challenge that takes a truly unique individual. The first requirement is that you don’t have a job. Well, one that requires regular hours anyway. The problem is that you have 59 peaks to climb (yeah don’t get me going about North Massive) and about 90 days to get the job done. And that may not sound so bad, especially because many of those peaks can be combined, so you can probably get by with 30-40 days of actual climbing.
Somehow though, with all the difficulties involved, it is just hard to pull off. Luck is a huge factor. Sometimes you just simply can’t go out because the weather is too bad, or it is too dangerous. Also over days of continuous winter adventures you are bound to get sick or injured or just beaten down so that you need days off. A single storm can put an entire range out of limits for a week or more.
Note: I’d like to get this updated to be accurate. If anyone can update my list here of people who have attempted to climb all the 14ers in winter please let me know and I will update this report. I think Amy blazintoes climbed a bunch one year and I thought I heard about someone before her.
In 2018 I was able to complete them in one of the most memorable adventures of my life. I had lots of experience on the 14ers in summertime, perhaps more than anyone, but I knew next to nothing about climbing in winter and it was a huge logistical challenge because I only had half the winter to work with. https://www.14ers.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=53677
As of 3/18/2023 Chris Fisher became the second person to pull it off, and set a new FKT! Back in fall I was finishing up a run in Boulder and I did not know Chris at the time. He and Erin passed Andrea and I as were nearing NCAR, and Chris said hello, and mentioned that he knew me and that he was going for the Winter record. I think I mentioned to him that he was the 3rd person who had told me that this year. For whatever reason the Winter 14er FKT was starting to draw some attention. You can read through Chris’s 14ers.com thread here:
https://www.14ers.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=62424 (Sorry if I try to make that a link the whole paragraph it is in disappears)
He consistently whittled down the list all winter, with some particularly impressive days in the San Juans, until finally it came down to just the Elks standing between Chris and the finish line. Peak for peak they are the hardest 14ers to complete in winter. Then some late winter storms started to make things interesting.
So here we were. March 18, 2023. Chris had made it through Capitol, survived a brutal day on the Maroon Bells, and braved the Valley of Death on Castle Peak. All that remained was Pyramid. And only 1 day to spare as Spring was arriving officially on the 20th. With a lot of help from professional mountain meteorologist Chris Tomer, who kept us informed daily of the changes in the weather forecast models, Chris Fisher had been able to navigate the persistent late winter storms in able to get to this point.
Usually, I am a pretty optimistic person. For some reason though, I had been dreading Pyramid all week and had a very bad feeling about it. From the Maroon Bells a week earlier, we had a good look at the west side of Pyramid. The gullies and ledges were holding a lot of snow despite most of the west side being quite windblown. However, since then two storms that each dropped more than a foot of snow had come through. What were we up against? Potentially a nasty situation with fresh snow sitting on an old weak layer that could make those gullies and ledges on Pyramid treacherous. At home I spent a couple of hours reading through the instructions on my avalanche beacon so I would be sure to be sharpen my skills at avalanche rescue. And I read up on several older Colorado Avalanche Information Center accident reports. That was probably not the best idea as it left me thinking about some of those scary incidents and feeling entirely inadequate in my knowledge of avalanche terrain. And actually that is a good thing because I don’t ever want to feel comfortable in that terrain, I feel like that is asking for trouble.
For this day, Chris Tomer had forecasted that it would be dry. And that was good news because just a few days before it looked like more snow would be hitting in the early afternoon. However, he did warn us that it was going to be cold.
I arrived at the winter trailhead near the Lazy T ranch at about 1:30am ready for a 2:00 am start. Here I met Jack, a 20-year-old from Durango who would be joining us for the day, and his girlfriend. I greeted Chris as well. We were going to be joined by Jon Kedrowski. Jon was running a little late so the 4 of us hung out for waiting for Jon to arrive.
Jon Kedrowski…aka Dr. Jon, aka Doc Santos…has a colorful history with the 14ers community, to say the least. But although we were going to roast Jon quite a bit during the day, he has been very helpful to Chris nearing the end of this quest. He is a great skier, has climbed Elk peaks in winter conditions several times, guides on Mt. Everest, and has a PHD in Geography. You can’t deny that is a skillset that should come in handy on a day like this.
We were giving Jon until 2:30 am to arrive before we left without him, and fortunately he showed up just in time.
We left the Lazy T ranch around 2:30 am. Pyramid took Andrea and I about 17 hours back on March 14, 2018. I was expecting us to be faster because we were all on skis.
I was hopeful that my skis would be my secret weapon for the day. They have scales on the bottom like waxless cross-country skis. This means you don’t need to put skins on until it gets steep, and you may not realize it but skins are incredibly slow, you can get a very nice glide out of a backcountry ski with scales. However, I was going to find out later that those scales do come with a serious drawback.
As we started, they were great. Jack and I were having a great conversation and we were moving at a pretty good pace up the hardpacked snow on the road up to Maroon Lake. I was surprised at how fast he was moving with his skins on, and after a while we looked back and saw we had dropped the others, so we slowed up and waited for everyone to catch up. I can’t believe he is only 20. Man that kid could accomplish some great things in his life! The others didn’t realize that I was basically cheating. It was effortless for me to glide along while they were working much harder. We quickly covered the 6.1 miles to Maroon Lake, then looked for the trail that heads up to Crater Lake. It was funny to see signs that were several feet high buried so deep that you had to dig them out a bit to even see what they said.
I knew that soon I would probably have to put on my skins, but just to try out some new gear I had brought along some ski crampons to see if they would help me climb the steep sections toward Crater lake without using the skins. When I finally reached a spot that was a little steep Jack stopped with me while I attempted to put on the ski crampons while Chris and Jon continued ahead. I tried getting those crampons on without removing the ski, but dang I am not that flexible! So I had to remove my skis, and then I felt a little conscious about holding the others up. After installing the crampons I pulled up on the lever at the tip of my ski binding to crank down the binding so the ski wont release while in walk mode. When I cranked up on the tip, it basically broke off in my hand. I had a moment of panic as I have never seen anything like this happen, and I thought that might be the end of my adventure for the day. If that binding was broken, I couldn’t go on. Fortunately on closer inspection nothing was broken, I just had to do some mental gymnastics and some experimentation to figure out how to put it back together. Then Jack and I continued, but I discovered a new problem. Ski crampons work great on hard snow, but basically do nothing if the snow is soft. So when I ran into a steep soft section of snow the experiment was over and I had to stop and finally put on my skins.
The others had stopped to wait for me, so I finally caught sight of Chris near the summer turnoff for Pyramid, and the 4 of us continued up to Crater Lake. It was depressing having those skins on now. I was so used to gliding along freely that I was practically losing my balance and falling on my face because the skins had no glide.
It was still dark, and Jack mentioned later that he was very demoralized at this point after several hours of dark and cold. It was at this point that I realized how incredibly cold it was. Jon was estimating -25 degrees F. It was so cold I had to put two of my hand warmers in my underwear to try to warm it up in there. Also, something happened that I have never seen before. All 4 of us had Garmin inReach trackers with us, and 3 of them all died at approximately the same time. Only Jon who kept his in a pocket said his was still functional. Chris put his tracker in his pocket next to his body to try to warm it up. I’ve never had my tracker die like that before from the cold. I was concerned about our families and friends seeing all of our trackers stop in a similar location and think we had been caught in an avalanche.
Past Crater lake you start to get a sense of the incredible steep pitch rising up to your left that is Pyramid, and on the right that goes up to the Maroon Bells. Not wanting to be in the direct path of any snow that decided to come sliding off any number of scary looking steeps on the Bells, we navigated through some willows, then headed left and up to start climbing the west slopes of Pyramid. We weren’t in the vicinity yet of the west couloir that we would follow to Pyramid’s ridgeline, so we needed to continue to make our way south. We got ourselves into a steep powdery forest. Chris was out front breaking the trail trying to figure out a way through the dense forest. It was challenging making some of those nearly 180 degree switchback turns in the steep powder. Soon we became separated from Jon and Jack as we warned them about a tricky spot we were momentarily stuck at, but then after more steep snow bushwhacking we busted out through the dense trees and were below the west gully that we were looking for, and shortly after Jon and Jack came up behind us.
The sky was finally turning from shades of black to shades of blue as dawn was near. And we were finally getting a first look at the Maroon Bells, clearly visible across the narrow valley to the west. And they were an impressive site. The east side is just so intimidating and carrying a lot of snow. Its both beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
I think after a winter of climbing 14ers so consistently, there probably aren’t many people who can hang with Chris Fisher right now. He strategized with Jon, and then, after Jack performed a quick beacon check on all of us, started leading the way up the west slopes, traversing back and forth as he made his way up towards a shoulder on Pyramid’s Northwest ridge. None of us could keep up. Chris didn’t go directly up the gully, instead he headed up the slopes to the south of the gully in what seemed like much less dangerous terrain in terms of avalanche risk. And it was clear to us that the risk was high, as the west side of Pyramid was completely covered in fresh snow.
At some point Chris tried his tracker again and now that it had warmed up in his pocket he was able to turn it on. I suggested that he immediately contact someone to spread the word that our trackers had died in the cold and that we were all OK.
I complained plenty about my ski boots in my last writeup about the Maroon Bells. Well since that trip I did get them punched again. However, by now the “Sixth Toe” bone and ankle bones in my feet were feeling very bruised, and they would hurt for the rest of the day. I also had a couple of hotspots which are annoying. I can’t wait until I find some boots that fit me better!
I struggled with another binding issue as one binding kept releasing and leaving me in a position of trying to get the boot to clip back in while the ski is at an awkward angle on the slope. After the trouble I rushed to catch up to Jack and at that point just tried to keep up with him. Each one of the switchbacks Chris cut in the snow became an obstacle for Jack and me to get around. Meanwhile Jon was in the back taking lots of pictures. And some of them were just great so I am very happy he was there to do that.
We regrouped and all gazed in amazement at the glorious first strands of sunlight that graced the summits of the Maroon Bells. Then we continued up, and for me it really seemed to drag. You have the Bells right across the valley so can use them to judge your progress and we just didn’t seem to be getting higher very quickly.
After some time Chris reached a headwall, and was just about to start ascending it when we all looked around and considered our options. We ended up deciding to avoid the cliffs. Instead we removed our skins and took turns skiing a short descent where we could take a minor snow gully up to the ridge. We skied this section one at a time just so only one person at a time would be at risk in case of an avalanche. I think we were now at a little over 12,300 feet. We were a little above treeline, but still needed to climb approximately 500-700 feet straight up the snow to gain the northwest shoulder. I decided to leave my skis here for two reasons. One, I was stressed about skiing down. Two, one of the happiest moments I experience on any winter climb is removing those ski boots! Woohoo, ski boots off!
The others loaded their skis onto their backpacks and started climbing up the snow. I was behind as I was changing shoes and stashing my skis. I had brought along another secret weapon, all these secret weapons I was carrying led to quite a heavy backpack I should point out. Several years ago I purchased a type of snowshoe called a vert that is specifically designed for climbing straight up steep snow. Originally I thought we would be boot packing in from the base of Pyramid, so I though it made a lot of sense to bring them. However, then we ended up skiing up so lugging them along had seemed like a waste. I was happy to have this short chance to try them out.
I came around a corner and saw Chris out front again leading the way up the steep snow. The wallowing was intense. I use that word a lot to describe struggling through deep snow where it is hard to get a foothold. I had to look up the definition:
(of a person) indulge in an unrestrained way in (something that creates a pleasurable sensation) “I was wallowing in the luxury of the hotel”
So yeah I guess Chris really loves that stuff!
He was in a spot where the snow provided no support and all crumbled away below his feet. He was in a position where he simply could not go up efficiently so he was cutting horizontally over to some rocks to find something to give his feet some support.
Meanwhile the verts were pretty nice and I was able to quickly catch up. I figured with the verts I should take the lead and break trail for awhile and with them I was able to climb right up the spot that had given Chris the trouble. Then I led the way all the way up to the shoulder. It was tiring though. The snow had a weak crust that I would break through with every step, and by the time I reached the shoulder at about 12,800 feet I was winded, my legs were burning, and I was definitely feeling tired.
At the shoulder we were exposed to a fairly gentle but bitterly cold wind, but the effect of that was slightly counteracted by the sun which we were able to feel for the first time. We had finally reached the ridge line. It was still early and we had a much better view as we could see down into the amphitheater on the north side of Pyramid.
The Danger Zone
The others decided they would carry their skis up the ridge a little further which would give them easy access to what looked like a better slope to ski down. I again took the lead although the verts were a little difficult to walk in now that there were rocks around which was forcing my feet into angles that put pressure on the pain spots I was feeling from the ski boots.
I started walking up the ridge and suddenly, just like that, I triggered an avalanche. It was not what I would have expected. I stepped down with my right foot in a very shallow patch of snow, and a small crack instantly formed and shot forward and about 15 feet in front of me the slope fell away. There was no thunderous crack or sound really at all. The slab of fresh snow from the previous storm just literally slid off down the west slopes. It was such a stealthy slide, and the snow was light and powdery. I don’t even think Jack saw it, as he was in the rear still down by the shoulder.
It was interesting to investigate. You could see exactly where I stepped, and follow the crack all the way to the site where the slide occurred. This slide caused Jon and Chris to rethink the slope they were planning on skiing down. So they retreated back to the shoulder with Jack and the 3 of them left their skis so they could go down the slope we had ascended.
I don’t think any of us felt super threatened at that moment. We had climbed up the snow all morning and it had been fine. We were surrounded by many steep aspects and there were signs of small slides but nothing too sinister. And, at this point we were basically on a ridge and that’s pretty much where you want to be in conditions like this. So we continued on towards the summit. I still hadn’t recovered from my push up to the shoulder so I stepped aside and let the others take the lead. I had a strong desire to ditch my pack, because that always speeds me up, but I needed to keep my avy gear on me so that wasn’t an option. Lagging a little behind, I stopped on a ledge protected from the wind to ditch some gear while the others stopped ahead.
We were just about to the main event for the day. The last 1000 feet to the summit of Pyramid on the west is a somewhat complicated maze of gullies and ledges that lead you to a bowl that sits on the west side of Pyramid. Then depending on the conditions in the bowl you may or may not be able to reach the summit.
We were at a decision point. There was a snow filled ledge that we could try to cross to get to the gully that I usually ascend in summer conditions. But we were wary of the snow. We were also at the base of another steep couloir that I remembered descending with Andrea in winter in 2018. The problem with that route was that I remembered Andrea and I had rappelled somewhere in there and I couldn’t recall how difficult it was going to be.
While I was removing some gear from my pack to leave behind, Chris took a step around the corner of the gully to see what it looked like. He literally set his foot on the snow and a huge slab of snow slid out underneath him and slid down to the depths below. I watched in amazement as the slide continued gaining momentum below. It seemed to me that the biggest danger facing us was stepping on snow, having it give away and losing our balance and being carried down the mountain.
It may seem strange, but it is actually reassuring when the snow slides out like that, because in a way you have removed the threat. Looking ahead now we knew this spot wasn’t going to slide out again. However it makes you aware of how threatening all the snow is that is hanging around on all the ledges and couloirs.
After that occurred, we knew that cutting across the snow to try to follow the ledge to the normal ascent gully was off limits. That snow was just too unstable, and that couloir would probably be just like this one. So we decided our only chance was to try to ascend this couloir. But looking up the couloir, there was still a lot of snow that could potentially slide out.
Chris continued up the couloir. Jon, Jack, and I waiting on the safety of the ledge while Chris held on to the rocks on the side of the couloir and attempted to knock down more snow. He stomped and was able to knock down one more smaller slide. He climbed up to a safe spot, and I came next, followed by Jon and Jack. We went one at a time so 3 of us would be in position to help if any one of us came into trouble.
Lingering ahead was a narrow spot with a large pile of windblown snow hanging above it. This looked liked a potential problem spot. We gathered in a position of relative safety around a corner below the slot. It was rough looking enough such that Jon and Chris were contemplating a climb up through the cliffs to avoid the couloir. To me they looked unscalable and I thought it would be impossible. At this point Dr. Santos started suggesting throwing some rocks in the snow to test the stability and we all had a good laugh, as throwing rocks down couloirs is one of his specialties. We should have suggested throwing Dr. Santos in there haha that might have gotten the snow to slide out.
Well it was only fair that someone else be the guinea pig for the next section so I volunteered to go around the corner and try my luck getting past the slab of snow. I was hyper vigilant about my surroundings. As I came around the corner I found some good hand holds and climbed up into the slot. Once out of view of the others I tried kicking into the slope, hoping I could knock the slab out of there. I had my ax ready to self-arrest if the snow tried to carry me away.
For whatever reason I couldn’t get the snow to slide out. Perhaps there were rocks anchoring it in that we couldn’t see, or maybe it was slightly less steep, but it didn’t slide. Snow can be so interesting at how unpredictable it can be. I continued working my way up. When I was nearing a safe spot there was a loud “Woomph” as a crack formed across the couloir. But it didn’t slide, even when I summoned some bravery to stomp right on the crack to dislodge the snow. Well, I tried. I yelled down to the others that I couldn’t dislodge the snow, but that they could now come up.
The First Crux
I now recognized where we were. We were at the top of the couloir, at the base of the rappel. The climbing didn’t look terrible. Low fifth class with snow filling in cracks and covering some holds. For the first time I noticed Jon was not wearing crampons. He had on micro-spikes. I knew from experience that the climbing would be much harder with micro-spikes, and I didn’t think I could deal with the stress of him climbing that section un-roped. So I suggested I climb up and set up a rope so he could climb up on belay.
I led the way up the pitch with Jack following behind. It was slow going looking for and digging some snow out for some holds, but with patience and some very ungraceful climbing, I was able to get through the difficulties. I found an old sling that was not trustworthy so replaced it with one of my own so I could set up the belay. Then Chris followed. He didn’t feel comfortable climbing with his gloves on so removed his gloves for the section which may have caused him to suffer some minor frost bite issues throughout the rest of the day.
We decided to leave that rope there to speed up the descent, as we still had one more rope to deal with any more difficulties. And the four of us continued up and over one more rise to where we would have a good view of the next section of the route.
For the first time all day, it was warm. We were protected from the wind, and the sun was blazing, it felt so good to be warm. I still couldn’t feel any toes on my right foot and I was hoping to get some feeling in them.
I’d like to try to paint the picture of what we were all feeling as we climbed onto that flat spot on the ridge, where we could gaze at the next difficult section. “We’re Screwed!!!” I imagine we were all thinking that exact thought as we stood there gazing in awe at what lay ahead. I had completely forgotten about this section. And it was terrifying. There was just no way to avoid those slabs of dangerous snow that were hanging on to the ledges over the 3000 foot drops off the side of the mountain.
Jack and Jon expressed their concern with continuing on given the conditions. Chris later told me that he had this lingering fear over the last few weeks that if he wasn’t going to be able to finish his quest, it was going to come down to the last summit. And can you imagine what a spectacular fail that would be, to climb all of the winter summits and miss the last one.
I think Chris and I were thinking along the same lines, we both suggested that at that point we felt like it was 50/50 if we were going to make it or not. But neither of us seriously considered turning back without at least moving forward and seeing what it looked like. I think in my mind I just accepted the challenge and accepted that we were potentially going to be up there for several hours trying to figure it out. And I certainly could not have let Chris go on alone, as I would have worried too much about him dying and feeling responsible for not staying with him. I guess over all my climbs I have been in so many hairy situations that I feel like I’m always going to be able to figure it out.
This is when it was nice having Doc Santos with us. With his Everest experience, where you are constantly assessing risk vs reward, he pointed out that it would be perfect because he and Jack could go down together, and Chris and I could continue ahead, so no one would be left alone. Meanwhile he had an extra radio, so every hour we could make contact and check in on each other. I applaud their decision to turn back. Probably the most important thing any mountaineer can ever do is learn to trust their instincts and turn back if that little voice in their head is telling them to. Ed Viesturs wrote a great book about climbing K2 where he talks about learning the hard way to listen to his inner voice.
As I climbed back down to Jon to pick up the radio, he snapped a picture of me, with Chris in the background contemplating the route. I had this fleeting thought that I hoped that wouldn’t be a last known photograph.
As I made my way back to Chris, we looked at each other, and I basically said, “Ok man lets do this, but we can’t die. So be careful.”
We studied the difficulties. It was all about avoiding those dangerous snow ledges. But the ridge isn’t really an option as far as I know because the climbing is too loose and technical, so we were going to have to deal with those ledges. However, Chris found a way to climb up and around the first sketchy snow. Then I took the lead and climbed down to the steep snow that was unavoidable. Well, here goes nothing.
This is one of the parts of mountaineering that I love. Up here, none of the other stressors in life matter. All that matters is the next step. Total mental focus. So I got into a rhythm. Plunge ice ax in as deep as possible, punch other hand into snow. Then stomp, stomp, stomp. Hoping to knock the snow loose but have a good position so I won’t slide down the slope. But with each step the snow was holding. I slowly worked my way across the slope. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Nothing. I commented to Chris that the snow was holding. Maybe it was the sun? Out here the sun was baking into this snow more than in the shaded couloir.
We made it! Next challenge. A steep mini couloir verses cutting across ledges through snow over steep drop-off? I like the security of the mini-couloir, because if I slid out I thought I would stop before plummeting off the mountain. I headed up that way, several cracks formed but only the top few inches were sliding as I tried to kick it loose. However now looking across at the other option Chris and I decided to cut across the ledges and make use of the boulders sticking out through the snow.
At last we gained another mini ridge. We had made it through the section that had seemed impossible. Now we would finally get a view of the Bowl. Now we would be out of view of Jon and Jack, so they headed down.
We were now in position to see the bowl. The standard route here is to cut horizontally across the bowl to your right, to gain the south ridge of Pyramid, and then you climb the summit from there.
We looked at the bowl. Chris had one word later when I asked what he thought about trying to cut across the snow in the bowl. “Death”.
Still, that isn’t the only way up to the summit. I often use a route I call the mountain-goat sneak. Because I first noticed mountain goats using it one year. It’s a steep gully with some hard moves, but we wouldn’t have to cross the bowl to get to it. Unfortunately we couldn’t see it from where we were. And if it was full of snow, I just didn’t think we had any real options left to us.
I followed Chris as he led the way up the ridge through some small cliff bands, then up 100 feet of steep snow. I recognized the base of the mountain goat sneak gully. It was not full of snow! We were going to make it!
We carefully climbed up the gully through what we called the second crux in terms of the difficulty of the moves. There was snow and ice covering holds and lots of loose rocks. Soon the summit appeared and Chris waited for me so I could get a video of him reaching the summit. I’ve definitely not seen that much snow on Pyramid before. It was all snow up there. We glanced down the east side and laughed at suggestions that he ski the Landry Line. “Oh hell no” I think is what he said and that is a quote.
It was nice and warm so we were able to take our time and enjoy the spectacular view. I was blown away at the difference from this day and when we were on the Bells. The west sides of all the mountains were solid white. No longer windblown and rocky looking. What a view!
We hugged, and I congratulated him on the accomplishment. Records are meant to be broken. And someday someone else will come along and beat his time. But that will never take anything away from what he was able to accomplish this year. It really was a spectacle, and I am glad that in the end the Elks made it a real battle. That makes the memories and the accomplishment that much more memorable. I am very happy to have been able to be a small part of it.
All congratulations aside, as on all mountains, you still must safely get down. We radioed to Jon who was standing by in case we had trouble. I hated leaving the summit, knowing how much Andrea and I would have enjoyed taking a nice nap on the sunny summit. We carefully descended back down the mountain goat gully, and then we decided to rappel the hardest spot. I was too lazy to put on my harness, so I suggested to Chris that we just do a body rappel. I taught Chris the technique, I figure it’s a handy thing to have in your arsenal.
It felt much safer heading down as we were able to follow our tracks back, and we had much more confidence in the snow.
Jon and Jack had left the rope in place for us above the couloir, and for that rappel we put our harnesses on and thank goodness because that was a steep rappel. Chris offered to carry both ropes on the way down because my back was hurting, and he looked like a superstar with two ropes wrapped about him as we headed down to his skis at the shoulder.
Because my skis were lower down the mountain, I just headed down immediately and I was able to get a nice glissade down to my skis.
I was nervous about skiing down from here, as there was still a bit of a crust to break through. But when Chris joined back up with me he helped talk me through the best way to descend. Not far down from there the snow became nice and powdery and it sure was a blast feeling like I actually knew how to ski in that soft powder.
We made it to the valley below and skied past crater lake (Chris did not want to put his skins on here and probably should have because we kept finding unexpected climbs that we hadn’t noticed going the other direction). He wasted a lot of energy there. But I am the president of the “don’t put your skins on club” so I understand.
“Them Scales don’t glide.” Andrew Hamilton 2023
The descent to Maroon Lake was getting icy and I crashed several times. Chris had gone ahead to wait for me at Maroon Lake. But I was happy because once at Maroon Lake, it was going to be a glorious descent all the way into the trailhead. I couldn’t wait. I remembered having so much fun on Pyramid with Andrea as we flew down the road in 2018. Still I knew Chris would be fast, so after we regrouped at Maroon Lake, I told him to just go for it, and he’d probably beat me by 20 minutes, but that I would be there shortly. Then he took off and was long gone. I started making my way down the road and quickly realized I was in big trouble.
Those scales on my skis, that had been such an advantage on the way up. They weren’t gliding. The snow was slightly soft, and although I was literally looking downhill, the road just wasn’t steep enough for me to glide. Damn! I had been looking forward to some easy miles, and now the prospect of cross country skiing for 6.1 miles sounded really hard.
And it was really hard. It was just like the descent out of Snowmass creek where my feet were just killing me and I had to work for every single inch on the way down. What a disaster. I tried radioing Jon several times to tell everyone not to wait for me but the radio was off.
So that was rough. What a dilemma though because I love those skis on the way up.
When I finally made it to the Trailhead at dark, long after Chris had made it down, there were still lots of people waiting around. They clapped for me as I arrived, and it was a nice feeling to see all those people and to finally be finished. Chris had lots of family members there and there were several 14ers.com people there to cheer him on at the finish including SnowAlien and SkaredShtles. I was happy that so many people showed up to give some support to Chris’s accomplishment! Thanks!
Chris’s family was awesome and very grateful that I had stuck with him in those circumstances!
Well as usual it took me as long to write the report as it took to actually climb the peak. I hope you enjoyed it and were able to feel some of what we were going through as we climbed Pyramid. Pyramid, what an amazing mountain that was! There is something about that area around the Maroon Bells and the thread of my life keeps bringing me back there and I hope that continues for many years..
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
Congratulations Chris!! Incredible. I have to admit, the snow conditions had me worried for you guys. Obviously, there were times you were worried for yourselves but good decision-making and solid partners made the difference.
Andrew, you are quite the partner. Thank you for having the strength and will to help Chris to the summit and taking the time to share this with us.
Jon and Jack, while you didn't summit, even getting that high under the conditions is pretty remarkable and good job following your instincts. And, Jon, thank you for providing the pictures of the guys up high. They really show us the complexity and danger of the upper route.
Glad everyone made it out safely.
Time to re-read this report...
Congrats to Chris for this new record and Andrew for being there for him on his final summit as well as a few more peaks during this project. Really enjoyed reading this report along with the Bells report. Jon did get some amazing pictures of the adventure, so maybe the forum will give him a little slack (probably not) lol
Amazing accomplishment - thank you for sharing this journey with everyone! Great write-up. Huge relief you all made it home safely, and managed to get the summit. Mother nature was throwing some curve balls that last week of winter.
>> If anyone can update my list here of people who have attempted to climb all the 14ers in winter please let me know and I will update this report. I think Amy blazintoes climbed a bunch one year and I thought I heard about someone before her.
The single winter attempts that I'm aware of are (again, let me know if I have anything incorrect):
Hamish Gowans in 2004-2005
Jason Maki in 2015-2016
Will Seeber in 2016-2017
Andrew Hamilton in 2017-2018
Christopher Fisher in 2022-2023
Erin Ton in 2022-2023 (? - sounded like Erin was iffy at the start, then seemed committed, then had to drop out)
My understanding is that Amy wasn't attempting to climb them all in 2015-2016(?) but may have done the most in a single winter (at that time) that season.
Congratulations Chris! It was a great time this winter following you. Much respect!
And Andrew, just when I thought my respect for you could not get any higher, you go and do something like this! In time, your greatest achievement of your many great achievements will be your persistent and heartwarming effort to help others. Thanks for this writeup. For those of us that have not the ability to even imagine what you two did, this writeup helps a lot.
Ok man lets do this, but we cant die. So be careful”
That's a good mantra to be in the mountains. Another would be ”don't fall” haha.
Glad you guys got down in one piece. These conditions are certainly full value and more.
p.s. Get this man some new skis and well fitted ski boots so he would stop hauling mountaineering boots around.
Great report! I think I might have pissed myself, just a little...
I remember Steve telling us about when he climbed Thunder Pyramid in winter.
He triggered an avalanche down low on the W face, I think on the first slope below lower access gully.
He rode the slide, lost a trekking pole, and got up -- brushed himself off -- and continued to ascend and got the summit!
Your story, eerily similar!
Congrats to Chris on your accomplishments this winter!
Hats off to you, Andrew, for cheering him on and going with him, to break your own record...that's awesomeness and humility at its best.
As I was reading your report, Andrew,I felt it was surreal to know from beginning to end what this journey entailed. All of you are so strong and resilient and yet, the challenges presented had all of you make decisions that were life altering.In each step there was a decision. So much respect for all of you.And so much support from the community and at the end of the journey with family and friends coming over to cheer this mind blowing feat!!.
I hope we can all meet for a presentation or gathering soon with Chris, the team and you!. CONGRATULATIONS!!!! Teresa
What an amazing accomplishment! So inspiring to be able to feel just a bit of what you experienced, well done!
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