We did it!! We finished mountaineering school!!
After 3.5 months of Basic Mountaineering School at the Colorado Mountain Club, our class came to a close this weekend with our High Peak Graduation Climb. This climb is a student-led trip, designed to pull together all of our learned skills and test our abilities. Each BMS group climbs a different mountain and all locations are kept a secret until a couple weeks before the climb to prevent 1) freakouts and 2) early planning.
Our team, Team Stoked up the Adze, was assigned the Citadel/Pettingell Traverse, a route close to Denver that summits two 13ers (mountains at least 13,000 feet tall). After a few student led planning sessions, we’d picked our route (Snoopy’s Backside Couloir), estimated climbing times and settled on a campsite. From there, a trip plan was prepared and distributed. I’m including a copy of our trip plan here – you can see the level of planning detail that went into this climb. For each and every field day, we students prepared a trip plan exactly like this.
We planned to meet Friday afternoon, drive to the Herman Gulch Trailhead and hike in 3 miles to our campsite at 12,000 feet.
The 3 mile hike in was tough! We gained 1,700 feet in those 3 miles! 3 hours later, we found our campsite just above treeline and near Herman Lake.
We arrived shortly before the sun dipped behind the mountain and quickly set up our tents.
With so much snow, we set up a little tent village in one of the few grassy patches near Herman Lake. Next objective was water; we were able to find water nearby bubbling out of the ground (Herman Lake was still frozen!) and refilled water bottles.
One water bottle Alex and I were excited to fill was his Pat’s Backcountry Beer bottle. He was gifted a kit for Christmas and we were pumped to finally have a chance to make legit beer in the backcountry.
Survey says? It’s a winner! This genius product warrants its own blog post so more to come on Pat’s Backcountry Beverages!
Before the sun fully set, we started calling it a night. We had an alpine start of ‘boots on the ground’ at 2:30 a.m. As our alarms chimed in the morning, we hardly needed headlamps, thanks to a huge, full moon, which made getting ready and determining our route so much easier.
The base of the couloir was ~1 mile from camp. Here we stopped for a quick snack break (snacks at 3:30 a.m.! Some people are eating White Castle at 3:30 a.m.; I was eating a Cliff Bar. This post applies here.) and harnessed up. It was couloir climbing time!
Snoopy’s Backside Couloir varied in steepness from 35*-50*ish with the summit situated between two summits of The Citadel, with the steepest section in the top half. This couloir is no joke. Rock fall is a very real danger on this couloir and we were fortunate to have a ton of snow which helps mitigate rock fall risk. The steepness was also pretty unnerving – it was, by far, the steepest climb I’d ever been on and knowing the consequences of a mistake rattled my nerves. My mantra of the morning? DON’T FALL. It took us just about 1.5 hours to climb up the 500 vertical feet of Snoopy’s Backside Couloir.
At the top of the couloir, we had an East Summit (the true summit) and the West Summit. Most of us climbed up the East Summit first, West Summit second. The exposure and snow freaked me out a little so I climbed up the initial rock to the East Summit on belay and then opted to stay put. I was confident in my ability to climb UP to the official summit, less confident in keeping my head together to down climb after.
View of the East Summit from the West Summit
View of the West Summit from my East Summit perch
Once off the East Summit, it was time to review the trip plan and decide to continue to Pettingell or bail out. There was quite a bit of snow on the exposed route and very few bailout options once we began the traverse. After considering the size of our group (10), the time it’d take for us to complete the route (especially given that a couple of us were nervous about exposure) and risk of weather moving in, we opted to bail out with just a Citadel summit.
We evaluated our options to get off Citadel and settled on downclimbing the opposite side of the couloir about 100 vertical feet, traversing a snowfield and glissading down from the Citadel ridge and hike (er, post-hole…) back to camp.
Because we weren’t traversing to Pettingell, we had enough time for pancakes on the Citadel summit! One in our group, Rob, promised summit pancakes if we needed to kill time on Citadel because we needed sunlight before starting the Pettingell traverse so by nixing the traverse, we had some extra time to enjoy a hot, fluffy pancake on top of a mountain.
It was awesome.
Soon, we packed up, clipped our ice axes back to our harnesses and learned to downclimb. Nothing like learning a new skill in a do-or-probably-get-injured-or-die situation, right? Kidding. Kind of.
Truthfully, though, downclimbing was not challenging, just fatiguing. After a few minutes of downclimbing, we hit the snowfield, traversed to the ridge that would take us home and glissaded down!
Glissading was a perfect almost-end to the climb as we giggled our way to the bottom of the mountain. From there, it was a short distance across the valley to our campsite and a 3 mile hike back out. Unfortunately for us, the snow had softened significantly and the short route back to camp became a long hike, slipping and sliding with each step in the snow. We did finally make it back, exhausted but all in once piece.
Dark clouds moved in minutes after we’d returned and we hustled to pack our tents and get down below treeline. The last place I want to be when a thunderstorm rolls in is above treeline with a metal-framed pack and an ice ax attached to my back. Bad news! Fortunately, we made it back to our cars with no rain – but we did get a tiny bit of snow!
In total, our route from start to finish was approximately 8 miles. My Garmin died on the hike out so this route isn’t completely accurate but close enough.
While this couloir climb was a bit freaky for me in the moment, looking back, I’m proud of myself for persevering and finishing it and I’m really looking forward to finding a time to come back and do the full Citadel/Pettingell traverse. I was way out of my comfort zone all morning but now, my little comfort zone is just that much bigger. I know I can successfully climb a couloir, down climb a couloir, keep my head together when it seems impossible, summit a class 3 route with little sleep and enjoy a pancake with syrup.
I’ve got a lot of thoughts about Basic Mountaineering School that I’ll save for a future post. In short, I’m SO glad I took this class and I’m also so glad it’s over! I learned so, so much and I’m really excited to be able to plan my own trips again, incorporating all that I’ve learned and experienced these past few months.
As they say in rock climbing, climb on!
[edited to add: this also checks off Summer Resolution #14: Summit a 11er, 12er or 13er!]