When the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train pulled into Cascade station last Friday morning, one passenger got off.Laden with skis, gear and supplies for the next five days, Aron Ralston was in fact the only passenger all winter to make Cascade the end of the line. Deep in the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juans, Cascade is the popular summertime jumping-off point for backpackers and peak-baggers looking to explore nearby terrain. But in winter, it's just snowbound wilderness, interrupted every so often by a train full of sightseers.And that's just fine with Ralston, the Aspen resident most famous for his solo adventures."It's almost 30 miles from a road," Ralston said. "The further out there you are, the more aware you are of every little risk you take."Ralston spent the rest of Friday and Saturday skinning the 13 miles up to what would serve as his base camp, Chicago Basin, for this special expedition. Once at 11,500 feet, he was well within striking distance of the four most remote 14,000-foot mountains in the state.For Ralston, the peaks represented the only remaining summits on his list to solo, in calendar winter, all the Colorado fourteeners. Ralston, a former engineer, counts 59 peaks; most climbers rank 54 peaks as fourteeners.On Sunday, Ralston scaled Windham Peak and Sunlight Peak. He left his tent at 8:45 a.m. and returned at 4 p.m. - numbers 56 and 57 done.On Monday, he tip-toed the tightrope traverse known as the "Catwalk" from North Mount Eolus to Mount Eolus and back again - numbers 58 and 59 done.
"It was daunting. If you fall, either side, you're not stopping. Steep, fluted snow going off both sides," he said. "It's funny. I remember it being pretty casual in the summertime."While conditions were perfect for climbing - sunny and bluebird skies, warm temperatures - the final act of Ralston's project was no cakewalk."No gimmes - everything was avalanche slopes and I was post-hole climbing a lot of it," he said. "But by the end of it, I put ski tracks everywhere in Chicago Basin. That was great."Ralston is the first climber to complete the Colorado fourteener winter solo project (by a count of 54, 59 or whatever). And he's just the third climber to reach the top of all the fourteeners in calendar winter (from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox).On Wednesday, the day he emerged from the backcountry, he said some variation of "what a relief" in an interview via cell phone at least four times. Friends met him at the Durango train station and took him out to a Mexican feast (complete with margaritas, of course). His mom, Donna, sent flowers.Yesterday, once back in Aspen, Ralston was a bit more composed."I am feeling some relief, still. It was huge. It will probably stand as the biggest mountaineering objective that I will ever set out for myself," he said.Ralston started the project seven years ago, during the winter of 1998-99. He climbed 45 of the fourteeners, including all of the Elk Range fourteeners in the 2002-03 season, before the accident in Utah's Canyonlands in the spring of 2003 cost him his right wrist and hand. He bagged two peaks last winter and the final 12 since this December, including the privately owned Culebra, wearing a 10-pound suit of plate-mail ice because of a storm.Of the 59 climbs, Ralston retreated, or turned back, only once. That was his first attempt on the relatively easy Mount Evans.
"I got to 13,000 feet and saw a huge squall line of a storm coming. But this was back in the early days. I was climbing in cotton turtlenecks and a cotton sweatshirt instead of a Gortex coat," he said, chuckling. "So I went back and climbed it two days later."Word of Ralston's accomplishment spread through the mountaineering community yesterday.Boulder resident Tom Mereness, the first climber to complete the list of winter Colorado fourteener ascents (though not as a solo project), tipped his cap to Ralston."They can be scary sometimes. I felt that on a few of them," said the 59-year-old Mereness, who completed his list over 16 years from 1976-1992. "But doing them all solo? That's something else."Mereness' friend and frequent climbing partner, Jim Bock of Boulder, was the second climber to finish the wintertime list."So Aron makes three," said Mereness. "And I mean, shoot, he's paid his dues."Having somebody like Aron, who did it in such incredible style, it upgrades the whole neighborhood, you know," he added. "I feel honored to be associated even remotely with someone like Aron, someone who did something like that."Carbondale's Lou Dawson, the first and only person to ski from all the fourteener summits (not necessarily in calendar winter) and a guidebook author many times over, broke the news on his weblog wildsnow.com yesterday.
"Aron had the vision and the chutzpah to come up with the idea and, now we know, pull it off," Dawson said. "It's an incredibly difficult project to do safely and in a reasonable fashion. I'm sure somebody could go out and take a lot more risks and perhaps pull it off by luck, but these guys like Tom and Aron have been very careful alpinists about what they're doing.""It can get really dangerous up there really quick," Dawson added. "And with all the extreme skiing stuff people see these days, I don't think people realize what extreme is anymore. One of the traits of an alpinist is boldness. Not really courage, but the willingness to put yourself in harm's way in a controlled environment - kind of like a race car driver trying to eke out a few hundredths of a second around a corner."Now, or at least for the time being, there will be no more lists in Ralston's future."I don't know about any more objectives," he said at his Hunter Creek apartment yesterday. "But I want to keep getting out. I'll probably shift my focus to ski mountaineering. Well, whatever I do, I won't have a list. It came to be too confining. I think I need some time to be spontaneous."Looking back, Ralston said Mount of the Holy Cross was the hardest peak of them all. "But only because of how I ended up doing it," he hedged. "The Halo route - it's 32 miles for one peak, traversing over 11 summits over 13,200 feet.""The hardest technically - the Maroon Bells, when I lost my glove going up the ice fall. But that wasn't even part of the route, either. Psychologically, Capitol was extraordinarily difficult, and Eolus was right up there, too."At one point during the Catwalk traverse Monday, Ralston paused to document his precarious position. Filming a video clip with the same camera he lost - and recovered months later - in a massive avalanche near Leadville in February 2003, Ralston offered this narration: "From 13,800-feet here on the ridge between North Eolus and Mount Eolus, I'm a little bit freaked out but enjoying the views."It was 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday by the time Ralston skied back down to the Cascade train station. The train wouldn't be coming for another 24 hours, so he killed the time eating, sleeping, taking photographs and looking back on the fourteener project."I guess I'm just more relieved than euphoric or ecstatic," he said.