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A peak experience

Bart Craig

Editor’s note: Bart Craig and Dan DiMaria, both 41, of Snowmass Village, and Dave Percak, 44, a former Snowmass Villager who lives in June Lake, Calif., recently completed a monthlong peak-bagging odyssey that took them to every 14,000-foot summit in Colorado. Craig and DiMaria work at the Snowmass Lodging Company; Percak is a painter. This is their story.Every journey begins with a single step; ours was in the dark on a muddy trail.

On June 20, our band of three – Dan DiMaria, Dave Percak and me – approached the trailhead of our first pearl in the string of 54 fourteeners, Longs Peak. Aptly named, Longs was to be a 10-hour climb and one of the longer days in our journey to summit all 54 peaks in a month – not record time, but we felt it was a worthy and ambitious goal. Of course, the standard for adventure is high in Aspen and we must pay homage to Oregon’s Ted “Cavedog” Keizer, who blitzed all the fourteeners in just under 11 days. We were not out to set a record, but were trying to stretch our own limits of what we thought possible. We started Longs at 4 a.m. and three hours later, at the Boulder Field, a blizzard moved in. Instantly it was snowing sideways. Visibility was zero and every rock in the Boulder Field was coated with ice and snow. In the howling wind we debated the possibility of turning around.Getting shut down on our first peak would be a demoralizing way to start the trip, and we knew momentum was everything. Rather than turn around, we took shelter at the only place available, some lowly outhouses that were the only windbreaks available for miles. So there we were, three frosted doughnuts humbled and pinned down behind the crap shacks. It was the morning of Day One, one of those ludicrous moments where you have to look at each other and ask, “How did we get here?” For us the answer was three words: dream, plan and train.Planning and teamworkWe three amigos have been climbing peaks and hiking the fourteeners for the last 15 years. Over the last few years, we’ve devised more difficult combinations to test ourselves. As the “Idea Man,” I take full blame for this last trip.

We made a great team because we each had our strengths. In addition to coming up with the idea, I was also known as “The Pacesetter.” It was my job to decide what time to start each day and generally keep us moving on the trail. Dan, photographer and “Logistics Wiz,” devised a mammoth spreadsheet to guide us efficiently through the mountains. We knew we would be incapable of organized thought at the end of each day, so his directions would be the only thing to keep us on track. He kept retooling it, poring over maps and atlases in the weeks before the trip. Our third group member, Dave, was “The Rock Jock,” who would lead all the hardest and scariest sections. Dave is also the most even-tempered, and could always be counted on to be loose and carefree.Several months of pre-trip discussions produced a dense, seven-page reference sheet with driving directions, distances and times for each day and trailhead. “The Bible” also included hiking distances, estimated times for each route and notes on every town we could hit to eat, resupply or camp. In addition we had piles of food, day packs, ice axes, crampons, first-aid kits, headlamps, Gore-Tex, mounds of hiking socks and assorted gear. Between us, we used 10 pairs of hiking boots, plus another three pairs for driving and camp use.Planning cuts down on the specter of the unknown. Our biggest concerns were weather, fatigue, injuries and transportation problems. And none of us wanted an asterisk next to our names because of lack of planning.The climbing lifeLet’s talk about another asterisk, also known as “The 3,000-Foot Rule” – the unwritten rule that suggests climbers haven’t bagged a fourteener unless the climb started at least 3,000 feet below the summit. On most peaks this rule never comes up, but several fourteeners have roads above 11,000 feet. Still, we had some absurd moments meeting “The 3,000 Foot Rule.”

Approaching Mount Sherman in the Sawatch Range, we drove on good dirt road to the trailhead until we could see the peak and decide if we needed ice axes. But, being 600 feet too high, we had to start our climb by hiking two miles downhill, away from the summit. We hiked the two miles back to the car, then another mile to the actual trailhead. Despite some grumbling from Dave, we did similar gymnastics on Lincoln, Bross, Democrat, Handies and Sneffels.One key to our success was recovery, both mental and physical. We knew the only way we could climb peaks every day was to take care of ourselves every day. We created a lifestyle for the month that made this possible. We always had dry, comfortable clothes to change into after each hike (notice I did not say “clean”). We had food and water in our packs at all times, we had food and water in the vehicles, and we stopped in every town, ate in restaurants and bought still more food in grocery stores. It was kind of a City Market and diner tour of Colorado.All we really wanted to do after each climb was collapse. At times we would eat and drink not because we wanted to, but because it was the right thing to do.Getting down the peaks was never the end of the day. We always had to prepare ourselves for the next day by getting our bodies to the next trailhead and getting our minds ready to do it again. In some ways it seemed like the whole month was one continuous day.One day we were feeling quite full of ourselves after climbing Kit Carson, Challenger Point and Humboldt Peak in a single day. Plus, we had climbed both Crestones the day before – five pretty hard peaks in two days. As we sat on top of Humboldt, surrounded by dark clouds after eight hours on the trail, it hit us how much more work we still had left that day. We had to descend Humboldt, pack up our camp at South Colony Lake, backpack to the car, drive for one-and-a-half hours on a bone-jarring four-wheel-drive road, find a restaurant, eat dinner, then drive at least two hours and find a campsite near the next day’s peak, Mount Lindsey. It was another eight hours until we got to camp and to bed that night. And so it went.

We fully acknowledge luck and timing as a key element in our days – although we earned some of our luck by starting early and climbing fast. We were the first ones on the summit on most days. We climbed at least 30 peaks before we told other climbers about our plans; early in the trip, it would have seemed audacious to even mention our goal. We didn’t even allow ourselves to dwell on it. We just referred to it as “The Dream.” As the days passed, however, we began to talk more openly about our goal.The people we met on the peaks seemed to most appreciate what we were attempting. A common question asked on fourteeners is, “How many have you done?” We were able to respond with, “This is number 47 … this month!” It has been very satisfying to be remembered by several fellow climbers now that the job is done.We also thank our guest climbers, Charlie Eckart and Mitzi Rapkin, who provided a welcome relief to our own tiresome company by joining us for two peaks each. (Although they both could have slowed down a bit, and I wouldn’t have complained.)Favorite rangesThis trip reminded us yet again that the Elk Range is a gem among gems. Our local peaks stand out as some of the most beautiful, pristine and challenging fourteeners in the state. On the Fourth of July, we climbed South Maroon via the Grand Couloir and did the traverse to North Maroon. We were blessed with excellent snow conditions and a perfect summer day. We even met a few mountain goats on the Bells traverse. The next morning, we were rained out at 5:30 a.m. on Pyramid Peak and decided to take our one-and-only rest day. After a glorious day of doing nothing and enjoying the comforts of home, we returned to action by doing Snowmass Mountain from Geneva Lake. It was another blue-sky day with challenging climbing and no other people. Our legs seemed light as air after a day of rest. We ascended rock on the elegant “S” Ridge and descended on snow. It was the definition of a great day in the mountains. We climbed Capitol Peak the next day and Pyramid Peak the day after that. It is hard to find another part of the state that can match that lineup.

The trip reached its apex of difficulty after we left the Elk Range to climb in the Sangre de Cristo Range, which contains nine fourteeners. These desolate, difficult and rainy peaks took me several years to climb the first time around. They include two of the worst four-wheel-drive roads in the state (South Colony Lake and Lake Como) and two of the hardest traverses (Crestone Peak to Crestone Needle, and Little Bear to Blanca Peak). It was hot, dusty, rainy and exceptionally buggy in the Sangre de Cristos. We were eaten by mosquitoes even at night and buzzed endlessly by gnats even on the summit of Blanca. We climbed the nine peaks in four hard days, which brought our total from 32 to 41 peaks. That was a turning point. We could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.The San Juans were the last range in our odyssey. In my mind, only the Elk Range can rival them for beauty and the overall climbing experience. But the San Juans boast 13 fourteeners and we had only the same six days to climb them as we did the Elk Range. Further, we did not enjoy the same good weather that we had when home, as early-morning clouds and later morning thunderstorms became the regular pattern. But the tide had turned and we had the momentum.Even though the weather was bad and the days were long, we somehow got the job done every day. Climbing peaks was simply what we did. We desperately wanted the trip to be over, but we also recognized it was a special time.The final peaks were also the most remote fourteeners in the state. We rode the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway, which dropped us off in Chicago Basin for the last three peaks, all in one day. It was only when the morning dawned clear that I finally believed we were going achieve our dream. We saved Sunlight Peak for last, a steep peak known for the final few delicate friction moves required to reach the summit. Afternoon clouds rolled in, and we reached the top with lightning in the distance. It was the dramatic finish we expected. We didn’t need to exchange any words on the summit. What can you say when you are face to face with your dream? We savored the moment, but like anything difficult, I think we enjoy it more as time goes by.

On Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 7:30 p.m. at Wood Run Place (425 Wood Road) in Snowmass Village, DiMaria will host a slide show featuring some of the 500-or-so photos he shot on the expedition. Call 922-4989 for more information.


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