Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Plans for 2017

I've been unintentionally sporadic in my posting habits here, and there's several reasons why.  Firstly, the blogging platform works better for updates than it does for sharing where I may have hiked last weekend. Updates in my case tend to be during a road trip or some other substantial adventure.  And let's face it, who really wants to read a full trip report on every time I've gone to Mount Washington this year?  I think I'm up to four times just since the new year, and as I visit that mountain more and more, I try to take photos of only the things that make that particular climb unique.  So far, facebook has proved a better platform for that kind of update.  The second reason for sporadic posts is that somehow, life just gets in the way, and has for most of the part two years, as I've been working full time, as well as gigging and networking for Windfern Ensemble, which takes an enormous amount of time outside the standard 9 to 5 job.

The whole reason that I'm posting again is to announce a big turning point in the course of 2017.  As of April 21st, I'm leaving my job to go travel for four months this summer.  Maintaining the work-life balance has proved a challenge during the last two years, as my job in customer service is based on having people there to serve customers, opposed to a work-when-you-want schedule that is based on getting the job done.  It's not fun for a hiker when it rains on my days off for weeks on end.

It's certainly a tricky decision to make, quitting a job.  It's hard because I know I'm highly valued where I work, and unfortunately it's just not a place I want be.  I've heard it said: "Better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than halfway up one you don't."  After two years working at the same place, it's time to move on.  Our lives are very short, and it's important to make sure that we are living that life fully.

With all of that out of the way, I welcome anyone to follow my upcoming trip on here, and I certainly intend to keep the posts a bit more frequent so y'all know what I'm up to.  I also want to make everyone a little jealous!  You're probably wondering where I'm going to be going, and aside from some vague ideas, I am wondering too.  Here's what I have in mind:

I'd like to travel along the Appalachian Mountains south, maybe as far as North Carolina or Georgia.  I haven't done any hiking south of New York in these mountains, and I feel there must be something good about everything south since the Appalachian Trail follows these mountains for 2000 miles.  After that, Colorado should be fun in the summer, right?  I was there for a week in February, and it was a blast, I can only imagine what it's like when you don't have to heave around 40 pounds of winter clothes and gear to get anywhere.

After Colorado, I want to have a chance to explore, at my own pace, the Pacific coast, try some more big volcanoes, certainly Mt. Hood, and watch the sun set beneath the ocean.  I drove for 4 days along US-101 on my 2015 trip, and it rained the whole time gosh-darnit.  I need to redeem myself.  The only other thing aside from that on my wishlist is to climb Borah Peak in Idaho.  Noah and I bailed on it this winter because the weather was against us with lots of fresh snow.  The solar eclipse on August 21st this year is predicted to pass directly over Borah, and it would be very special if I could experience my first (perhaps my only) solar eclipse from 12,000 feet on a mountain that has turned me back twice already.

Following the eclipse, I'll head back eastward to explore in detail the White Mountains, Green Mountains, Adirondacks, and of course Baxter State Park during the autumn.  Every fall, I look forward to the vivid colors that we have in this corner of the country, and I don't want to miss that.

I hope you will join me on my exploration to once again find myself, find what I love to do, see new places, meet new people, and most importantly, remember what it's like not to rush through life.  I look forward to getting Pluto ready for the journey, and heading into the unknown: a true venture of Pluto.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Icebreaker Tours 2017: Longs Peak, a success

Having turned back on Longs Peak at 12.1k, we decided we wanted to go for it again, but to give ourselves plenty of time by doing a true alpine start.  The day after our first attempt, we rested, gave our bodies a recharge to get ready for the challenge that lie ahead.

Sleep happened early the night before, as wakeup time was 10:30pm in order to hit the trail at 1am.  We were not far behind schedule, and got moving around 1:30, with a beautiful starlit sky above us.

We stopped at Mills Lake again for a rest break, and the stars above a wide expanse blew our minds.  It was wonderful just looking up.  We were making better time this time, and after three hours we made it to Black Lake.  The crescent moon peered over the mountains just as we arrived there, as if on cue.  We layered up in anticipation of the wind tunnel that was the way out of the Black Lake bowl.  And it was strong.  Systematic steps and breaks got us up the hill and on our way to the Trough.

The sky lightening enough to see the mountains
At the base of the Trough, we got geared up with crampons for the steep and relentless slope that lie above.  After 2000' vertical feet of (mostly) hard-packed snow to climb up.

Gearing up under The Spearhead

The sky always seems to get light so fast in the morning.  If you're not watching closely, it seems that one moment it's black and just a few minutes later it's fully bright outside.  The crescent moon was rising just ahead of the sun this morning.  All the spires in the photo below are called "Keyboard of the Winds" and they are very impressive the closer you get to them.

About an hour into the Trough, we got to a steep step in the rock that forced some critical thinking for us to get up.  A fall would maybe not be fatal, but it's a long way down, so solid purchase with the axe and crampons is critical.  The bare rocks don't help you out much.  I suppose we owe an apology to the points on our crampons.

After hours in darkness, all the gear was finally getting a workout.  Truly wonderful payoff for having purchased all of it.  Just a quick mental image of trying this stuff without proper equipment justifies it for me.  And of course, as they all say, we do all this crazy shit for the views.  We love the views.

We started to see evidence of elevation gain.  The Spearhead appeared quite small now, despite looming over us at the base.

The way the trough works, it slowly curves to the right, and two thirds of the way up, it joins in with the popular Keyhole Route that people often take in the summer time.  The uppermost section of the Trough is synonymous with the Keyhole Route, which is blazed with red and yellow bulls eyes.  Now over 12k, the thin air was changing how we had to climb.  Very slow and steady, no more than 20 steps and then we'd take a break.  There's lots of time for jokes once you catch your breath.

Following the leader.
The view uphill is grand as the columns of the summit block come into focus.  It feels like climbing up a pipe organ, perhaps.

Noah kindly taking the lead for a bit, leaving me behind with endless views.
The photo below shows us nearly to the junction with Keyhole.  We traipsed through the talus and scree hoping to have some snow deep enough that the crampons wouldn't scrape.  The top of the Trough is at the V in the horizon below:

Challenging the perspective
Looking down into the valley revealed incoming snow flurries, which is never a great idea up in the mountains, but we decided to press on anyway, thinking that we could move fast enough to get down at least into the gorge before it got too bad.

Keyhole Route blaze in the bottom right

Action shot!
We got to the top of the Trough, at 14k, with just 255' vertical left to ascend, and turned the corner.  I know this is Colorado, but it was such a shock to pull up to the ridge and see endless mountains on the far side.  As a first time climber in this state, this whole side of the mountain was shielded from view for the entire time.  Looking off to the right is Keyboard of the Winds (shown below).  Not quite as impressive from here, but interesting nonetheless.

Keyboard of the Winds
Now for the sheer cliffs.  Welcome to the Narrows.  Appropriately named, I would say, we shimmied across a pathway only several feet wide.  Thankfully the wind was calm here, allowing us to focus on our footing and handholds.  Again, like the rest of the mountain, this would be a poor place to make a mistake.

Killin' it on the Narrows
I've never quite seen rock like this before, but there were what I'd call "flutes" of rock running along the ridge in front of us, and the coloring was unusual.  Greenish if nothing else.

Turning the corner to the left, we spiraled our way up to the Homestretch, the final 250'.  Noah told me that it was much easier to ascend this with snow in the cracks between rocks than in summer.  Apparently the rock is wet with runoff and getting a good grip is tricky.  With an ice axe, the feeling of invincibility is easy to have.

Noah gave me the honors of topping out first, and in all my excitement, I immediately sunk into the snow to rest.  It was real: Nathan J Hillimanjaro had climbed to over 14 thousand feet!  Honestly, I should say that it's not the summit really that makes the trip for me.  I love breaking a new altitude record and all, but the whole mountain experience is what I come back for.  I think any mountaineer can agree with that to some degree.

The Icebreakers at 14,255'
Shortly after, I shuffled over to the geologic marker for the summit, wanting to get the most elevation possible out of the mountain.  With me on top of the rock, I got to see 14,261', which. I should note, is miles better than the view from a measly 14,255'.

Yep, I got high in Colorado.  14,261' high.
The views in absolutely every direction are nuts though.  That's the part about Colorado that stands out.  You can see mountains in all directions.  Rugged mountains that have stood up to the weathering and erosion over millions of years.

A quick bite to eat and looking around the strangely flat summit, we headed back down.  We opted for crampons because of the exposure below, but they became unhelpful for the Narrows.  I admit there is a lot of switching gear on and off, and that certainly takes time, but with such an alpine start, and being on the descent already, we felt that having the right gear for even a short section of the mountain trumps any time saving by staying in the wrong gear, or not putting on gear that you really should have for your own safety.

My new helmet and down jacket were wonderful for this trip

Returning to the Trough, there is a hard move to down-climb, primarily because it's outside what you can see looking down, so catching a foothold is a bit nerve wracking.  I was able to go first with longer legs, and give Noah a hand.  By now however, the snow was coming down at a good clip, and we were anxious to descend.  We planned to glissade the Trough, which would save an enormous amount of time.  However, standing at the top without crampons, (you glissade without them because it's safer when your feet catch on anything as you're coming down) I was not over my nerves.  Noah, as usual, has no problem with such things, but I struggle to feel at ease.  My fear of course being unable to stop, and knowing about the 10' vertical drop that we had to deal with near the bottom.  In addition, my back was not cooperating well at this point.  I had been working with a sore lower back for a few days prior, but at this point, it was quite painful with any twisting motion.  As luck would have it, glissading involves twisting as you sit on snow and hold your axe as a rudder (and a brake when you want to stop).  This made my progress very slow.  I managed, even with a bout of questionable self-arresting.  As the speed picks up, you end up kicking snow right into your face, which coats beards quite nicely.  The ski goggles help, but you still end up with a wet face.

With snow in the cracks, the Spearhead was much more defined, and certainly gave off a hint of "guys, it's still winter, perhaps you should get back to the trailhead".

With all the gear stowed away in our packs, it was a fairly simple trek back to the car - just follow the footsteps before they fill up with fresh snow.

Coming back to the Black Lake basin was beautiful with the snow falling.  Arrowhead Mountain on the far side of the lake was just as beautiful as the attempt two days before, yet so different in the snowstorm.

Taking in the view
Soon the trees reappeared, and our footsteps evolved into a steady rhythm.

By the time we got past Mills Lake, we realized it would a dark finish to the day.  It's amazing to think that even with an alpine start of 1am, we still utilized the entire light portion of the day to accomplish our goal.  That's one of my takeaways from this mountain.  It's not easy, and you have to work hard to get what you want in this kind of terrain.  High elevation, mileage, steepness, exposure, short winter days, and potentially bad weather are all against you in an attempt to do this.  But the right mixture of willpower, reasoning, and experience will get you to your goal.

Our climb ended after 12.7 miles, 17 hours, and an elevation gain of 5700' for the day.  That's what I call a good kind of tired! :)

Friday, February 17, 2017

Icebreaker Tours 2017: Longs Peak attempt

For better or worse, with a 12er completed the day before in an attempt at a rapid acclimatization, we drove back to Rocky Mountain NP for a day with Longs Peak. Yesterday's hike took nearly the whole day, so unfortunately we got a later-than-ideal start for Longs.

The start point for the Trough Route is Glacier Gorge, just a short distance before the Bear Lake trailhead at 9200'.  We arrived at the parking with some thick clouds overhead, which, even with a colorful display, was less than ideal for our plans.

Colorful clouds to the east
At 6:50am, we departed along the Glacier Gorge approach trail.  The trail winds up and around the east side of the Glacier Knobs and up to Mills lake.

Couloirs guarding Mills Lake above
In winter, the trail conveniently crosses directly over the lakes, which was new, fun, and debatably a water sport?  In any case, here is the expansive view from Mills Lake, looking south toward Longs Peak and Pagoda Mtn.

Noah crossing Mills Lake
After crossing Jewel Lake just past Mills, we continued through the gorge a couple miles to Black Lake.  The skies began to clear as we progressed, giving us hope that a nicer day lay ahead of us.

I was taken aback at the views of the Arrowhead, a steep but graceful peak rising to the right of the trail.

The Arrowhead 12,642'
Looking forward was the Spearhead and Chiefs Head Peak, and a confusing headwall that we weren't certain how the trail would pass.

Spearhead 12,575' and Chiefs Head Peak 13,579'
(You can guess which one is which)
Closer to Black Lake, additional spires on Arrowhead appeared.

Arriving in the Black Lake cirque was unbelievable, with McHenrys Peak to the west, Arrowhead to the northwest, Spearhead to the South, and frozen waterfalls lining the bowl we were in.  At 10,620', we still had over 3600' vertical left to climb.  We took a little time here to take it all in.  This spot is still one of my favorites along this route.  I think anyone who has visited can see why.

McHenrys Peak 13,327'
The climb out of the Black Lake cirque got the heart pumping, especially at this elevation.  We discovered than breaking before we were tired was the key to making our best progress.

Noah climbing up from Black Lake
Out of the Black Lake basin, the Longs Peak summit block came into view, along with the top half of the Trough we would be climbing.  The Trough is the widest snowy swath in the photo below, leading up between the summit block and the pointy spires on right.

Longs Peak and the Trough
It's important to look behind you occasionally on these hikes, because there is a lot to see.  We felt completely in the wilderness, with no views of roads or cities.  Only mountains in every direction.  We certainly lucked out on choosing this as an objective on our trip.  And the skies were clearing even more.

Looking north
We hugged the slopes to the left, and without seeing the lower portion of the Trough, we decided we would ascend the couloir to the left of it (above Noah in the photo below) and cross over when the snow thinned.

Noah boulder-hopping up to the left couloir
The rising temperatures (think 50°) with calm wind and an aggressive slope to climb made the going very warm for our winter mountaineering setup.  Boulder hopping is also frustrating over time, and we were itching for some crampon work on the snowy slopes.  Soon we were on the snow again, but it was too shallow for crampons.  The elevation was nearly killing me, and progress was no more than 15 steps and a few minutes break, then repeat.

Keyboard of the Winds
Around 12,000', we had to assess our progress with the time of the day at this point, considering our time just to reach the left couloir was nearly 7 hours.  It was nearly 2pm, with less than 4 hours of daylight left.  Noah was uncomfortable descending the upper parts of the route in darkness, and there was no guarantee that we would be able to summit in less than 4 hours from this point.  While sitting indecisively on the rocks, we came to the conclusion that we would cross over to at least see the Trough, and see what the snow conditions were like.

The Trough
We were surprised to find the snow to be quite deep in the Trough, but we had failed to see this from the base because it was a fairly deep couloir that we couldn't see inside.  At 12,150' and 7:15 hours, we called it a day, vowing to come back again and try it later with a true alpine start.

We thought glissading down the couloir would be a fun and quick way to descend. It would lift our spirits from having to turn back from a summit bid.  I decided, as per tradition, to guess how far we had glissaded.  My guess of 350' was nearly exact after checking with Noah's GPS!

Our glissade path!
Noah found taking pictures inconvenient as he had stowed his camera deep inside his pack, so I got a photo of myself instead.  Let's give a warm welcome to Nathan's new helmet.

Happy after glissading
The descent was very quick, as the need for breaks is nearly nonexistent. Descending back to Black Lake revealed sunlight ice flows covering the rocky slopes.

Icy flows near Black Lake
The distance from Black Lake to Jewel/Mills Lakes took longer than I wanted, but we did make it regardless.  Only a few miles left after than down to the parking area.

Noah clearly using his trekking poles appropriately on Jewel Lake

We made it back to the car by 5:20, and for me at least, less exhausted than after the hike to Hallett Peak.  Maybe I'm adjusting to elevation just enough to help myself out.  We planned to take a rest day after this Longs Peak trip.  Gotta stay fresh and rested to stay strong.

Hike Data
Miles hiked: 11
Time elapsed: 10.5 hours
Elevation gain: 3650'

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Icebreaker Tours 2017: An Introduction to Colorado

It is with great pleasure that I'm posting again to Ventures of Pluto!  In February of 2016, Noah and I took a week to explore mountains in the PNW, and we had such a blast that we decided to do it again this year.  This time we are taking two weeks, and we've started in Colorado.  Seeing as Noah is based in Denver at the moment, this was a convenient place to start.  This is also my first visit to Colorado, and thus quite a treat for me.

With our team name "Icebreaker Tours" in place, and with two weeks at our disposal this year, we decided to amp up the number of mountains to visit.  I wanted to try climbing a 14er, but dealing with altitude can be tricky for a guy coming from 200 feet above sea level in Maine.  I suggested that we try a mountain a bit shorter to perhaps give me a jump at getting used to altitude before jumping right into a 14er.

Noah's first 14er since moving to Colorado was Longs Peak, the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain NP, and I recall him sharing me the details of the upper route with great terror.  It's one of Colorado's hardest 14ers, and this immediately piqued my interest.  Noah and I agreed to climb Flattop Mountain (12,324'), and possibly Hallett Peak (12,713') if my lungs agreed.  This would be a bit more manageable than jumping right into Longs (14,259') the day after flying in.

We began from Bear Lake Trailhead in RMNP, elevation 9400', and caught the alpenglow from sunrise just as we were starting out.

The eastern flanks of Hallett Peak over Bear Lake
I certainly felt the elevation, even just driving up from Denver to the trailhead, which is 9000' above where I live.  I just took my time, remembered to breath frequently (this helps in normal situations as well), and to stay hydrated.

It wasn't long before the trees thinned and the views east appeared.

Shortly after, the trees on the eastern face of Flattop gave way to alpine scree, covered in snow and the occasional krummholz poking through.  Longs Peak dominated the southern view, shooting out of Glacier Gorge four thousand feet above.

Longs Peak (left) and Pagoda Mtn. (right)
The snowshoes came out for the alpine snowfield climb, as we followed some tracks upward.

Count Noah (Didgipelli) rocking the Rocky Mountains
I was beginning to notice that the hike to Flattop yields better and better views as you ascend, and there really aren't any boring parts of the climb.  We continued up the slope, the winds in our face.  I joked that this was actually helping my progress since it was forcing more oxygen into my lungs this way.  Forced induction, if you will.

Looking north
We spotted to snowboarders who had just climbed up a couloir from Emerald Lake (you'll see one of them headed back down in the photo below).  Looking around at the mountain features in this region shows just how steep and rugged they are here compared to in the northeast.

We passed 12,000', and the going was slow, but manageable if we took our breaks often enough.  Hallett Peak came into view as we rounded the back side of the ridge.  And to our surprise, we spotted a mountain goat just chilling on the rocks.

Hallett Peak and a mountain goat
Flattop Mountains and Hallett Peak are peaks along a cirque called Tyndall Gorge, and our hike brought us around the cirque from the north side around to Hallett on the south.  As the name indicated, Flattop is rather flat, and therefore hard to determine a "summit", but we figured we'd get to Tyndall Glacier and determine if I could make it further up to Hallett.

Noah approaching the edge of Tyndall Glacier
I had a case of summit fever, and with such a fantastic day, I decided I would go for the summit of Hallett, another 400' vertical, even if it took ten breaks to get there. We did it, and the view back toward Longs was spectacular.

Hillimanjaro on Hallett Peak!
At this point in time, it needs to be mentioned that I've now made it to a new highest mountain.  Hallett Peak takes the cake at 12,713', beating Humphrey's Peak AZ, the last record-holder at 12,635'.

Noah on Hallett Peak
The descent was initially great, knowing that the air is getting thicker with every step you take.  However, I think that the elevation was getting to me more than just having to take breaks to catch my breath all the time.  Headache and slight stomachache made the trek around the cirque less fun than it otherwise could have been.  At least the winds were to our back this time.

Noah brought me to the edge of the gorge to show me this sweet couloir that drops all the way down, framed by steep cliffs on either side.  You literally can't go wrong with views out in Colorado.  That's my one-day take on the area.

Noah's couloir show-and-tell
We descended quickly through the snowfield, though strong winds all day had left it all windswept and most new footprints were gone.  Some older ones stuck around, since they were compacted snow, the loose snow around it blows away, leaving the footprints pedestaled above the surface.

The slope was perfectly matched with the setting sun's angle, lighting up the blowing snow in a very cool way.
An early mountain sunset with blowing snow
Since we had deviated off trail a bit to take a more direct route up, and followed a different trajectory on the descent, we ended up a bit off course.  We had seen a few climbed further to the north and thought that we can exited the trees in that area.  We were mistaken, as we looked through pictures I had taken on the way up and determined we needed to be closer to the ridge near some rocky outcroppings. All was good and we found our old prints and shortly thereafter, the main trail back to Bear Lake.

Google Earth track and elevation profile
We made it back to the trailhead before sundown, albeit extremely hungry and our feet asking for mercy.

Hike Data
Miles hiked: 10.3
Time elapsed: 9.6 hours
Total ascent: 3430'