15 months and just over 100 pounds ago I decided that I was going to climb mountains. It was a horribly unrealistic goal for an overweight asthmatic who lives at altitude zero in Houston, Texas but that was the point. I knew that I’d need a significant challenge to keep me motivated to become physically fit. Besides, I’d always wanted to climb. One of my co-workers at the time, Jermaine Gonzales, had similar goals and decided to commit himself to the challenge as well. To further ratchet up the pressure I told everyone I knew about our goals and went public with it by launching neverstopclimbing.com. I was committed and begin training two hours, or more, almost every day.
We reached our first summit just five months later with a climb of Guadalupe Peak in West Texas. The hike to 8,751 feet is very strenuous but not difficult by climbing standards. Still, it was progress and it allowed me to turn my focus toward a significantly more difficult challenge – Colorado’s 14ers.
Climbers, real climbers, were following our progress by this point and we were receiving lots of encouragement and advice. However, climber Alan Arnette really went above and beyond in offering support. After the successful summit of Guadalupe Peak he invited us to Colorado for an April attempt at a Belford, Oxford, Missouri combo – a significant challenge for guys in our position.
We trained hard but the initial attempt didn’t go well. Deep soft snow, heavy packs, and fitness levels that had improved, but not improved enough for the challenge, stopped the attempt in the first few hours. It was a very painful physical and emotional failure. It was time to go back to Houston and regroup.
After returning to Houston we faced different challenges. Jermaine was laid-off and I was laid up with a bad case of the flu. Climbing goals moved to the background for 2-3 months. Eventually those difficulties passed and I resumed training. In July I called Alan Arnette and suggested that we try again. Plans came together quickly for a September attempt. Unfortunately, Jermaine’s work situation wouldn’t allow him to train or climb for some time so I would be the only one making this trip.
We set our attempt for Saturday, September 26th and it turned out to be a perfect day for climbing. Two days of relative cold and snow had faded and we were left with clear skies and relatively mild temperatures. We started off, before dawn, at about 6 AM. It was in the upper twenties (F) but I was comfortable in a synthetic tee and Marmot PreCip. One of the tough parts of this climb (okay, almost all of it was tough) is the start. You don’t get to ease into Belford. Leaving the trailhead you cross a bridge over a fast moving stream and then move almost immediately up, and up, and up. The switchbacks are steep and tough on the lungs. This is where Alan’s advice on pacing myself by using the short step and rest step really helped. Slow and steady beats sprinting and stopping but mastering that is far more difficult than it sounds. It’s something I would struggle with the entire day. Still, it paid off and we maintained a 700 foot per hour climb rate for the first couple of hours. It wasn’t a blistering pace but it was workable.
My second challenge of the day came at the next stream crossing. The stream is fast moving but not especially deep or dangerous. It’s just that you have to cross the 15-20 foot span on three small (and very bendy under my weight) tree trunks that span the gap. It takes a fair amount of balance since each trunk is a different size and flexes differently. I did far better than I’d hoped and we continued up along the other side of the stream, and it’s waterfalls, to the abandoned trapper’s cabin that marks the beginning of the basin that leads to Belford’s west ridge.
It was here, just after passing the cabin, that I got a view of Belford’s snow covered Northwest ridge. It was awe inspiring and more than a little intimidating. I’d looked at hundreds of photos of the ridge before the climb but none of them prepared me for the scale and steepness that loomed ahead. I immediately had doubts about my ability to summit. The ridge rises over 2,300 feet in less than a mile – factor in snow, mud, and the altitude and it’s quite a challenge for your first 14er.
The base of the ridge is just over a mile from the cabin and the altitude gain is gradual. However, it was here that I first started to really feel the altitude. My pace slowed and my doubts increased but we made it to the base of the ridge and discussed our approach. The initial 300-400 feet was intimidating since it’s nearly vertical. Again Alan cautioned me not to focus on the summit and instead focus on shorter, less intimidating, goals. From here on out the physical challenges (for me) would be immense but the physiological challenge of pushing myself higher and harder than ever before required constant focus and commitment.
The trip up the ridge was initially pretty encouraging because the progress in altitude was immediately noticeable. However, getting to the summit, another 2,000 feet higher, would prove to be quite a challenge. I didn’t have any signs of altitude sickness, my leg muscles felt really strong, but the lack of oxygen just left me feeling like I was operating on progressively less power. I later told Alan that it felt like someone had a power knob and turned it down a few notches with every 500 foot gain. Above 12,000 feet everything was more difficult. Above 13,000 feet the game changed entirely, and above 14,000 feet I was sucking more than the Houston Texans on game day.
Alan showed great patience with me as we progressed (slowly) up the ridge. However, time started to become an issue. We needed to make the summit and be off the ridge, if not the trail entirely, before sunset. Descending the steep ridge in snow, ice, and mud would be challenging , time consuming, and very dangerous in the dark. At about 13,700 feet he issued an ultimatum – summit by 2 PM or call the climb. That left us with an hour to climb the remaining 500 feet. That’s a challenge that seems trivial at sea level but I didn’t know if it would be possible at the time. It would become even more challenging as we neared the false summit at nearly 14,000 feet and were blasted by strong cold winds that took my breath away. I really didn’t need breathing to become more difficult at that point. With 200 vertical feet and thirty minutes to go I was determined but I can’t say that I was confident. Nevertheless, we scrambled up the remaining rocks and snow to reach Belford’s summit block at 2:05 PM. Thankfully, Alan bent his timeline just a little.
The summit visit was short. My primary focus was hydrating and fueling up for the difficult descent. I sat down, rested, and tried to take it all in but I didn’t really think much about the moment until much later. I knew getting down would be tough. Fifteen minutes later we were on our way down. Alan led the way and found a much steeper but more direct path down to the ridge. It was during this descent of the false summit that I had a rock slide away under my foot and took a pretty hard fall – destroying one of my Leki trekking poles. This was a pretty significant liability for me with the steep and slippery 2,300 foot descent ahead. Alan and I tried to bend the bottom third of the pole back into position but it was fractured and broke off entirely. I’d have to descend with one pole that was much shorter than the other. Alan is pretty nimble and graciously offered me one of his poles but I wasn’t going to let my fall jeopardize his safety (even a little) and refused.
We started down again, quite fast, and I made do by switching off my poles so that the longest one was always on my outside hand and the shortest was inside against the higher slope. It was a bit of a pain but serviceable. I think Alan even found the slippery slope a bit aggravating, I heard “I’m sick of this snow” more than once, but we made it to the bottom of the ridge in less than two hours. It was a huge relief.
We encountered a lone climber at the base of the ridge who was scanning nearby Missouri Mountain. Two members of the team that has passed us earlier were missing and he was concerned. We stayed for a while and helped look for the missing climbers but saw nothing. We moved on after asking if messages needed to be relayed once we reached the trailhead. Moving on towards the cabin we encountered three more from the party who were also waiting for the missing pair. We told them that we’d just summited Belford and that it was my first 14er and their response triggered my first real reflection on what I’d just done. They were quite surprised and one of them said “Nice. That thing is straight up!” With the most dangerous part behind us it was finally a pretty gratifying moment. Again we offered whatever assistance we could but they seemed pretty confident that their team was coming down by an alternate route and we moved on. We encountered them again, much later on, and found that all members of their party had been accounted for – thankfully.
The ride back to Belford was fun. The pressure was off and there was obvious satisfaction at reaching my first 14er summit. It wasn’t pretty, didn’t break any records, but I did it and learned much from the experience. The altitude and cardio requirements were challenging but didn’t keep me from the summit. I had leg strength in abundance and the endurance to spend nearly a full day climbing and descending. I had no idea if asthma and high altitude would present a hard limit for me but on this day they did not and that too is encouraging. In short, I still have a ton of work to do but I now know, beyond all doubt, that I can climb mountains.
The only fitting way to close out this trip report is with thanks to Alan Arnette. His willingness to serve as a mentor is inspiring and something that I hope to be able to pass on to another aspiring climber someday. For now it’s back to training and eventually thoughts about the next mountain – sometime in 2010.
Final Thoughts on Gear
Marmot PreCip – Just an awesome jacket. Light, tough, great pocket setup, and workable in a very wide variety of temperatures. I never had to unpack my fleece although it was tempting at the summit where it was quite cold. Highly recommended.
Suunto Core Watch – I think the seal popped at 14k feet and the watch worked intermittently the rest of the descent. There might not be a better option for a climber’s watch but I’m pretty unhappy that it failed when I needed it most. It’s possible, likely even, that I didn’t get the seal set correctly when last replacing the battery but whatever the reason it looks like I need a new watch.
Leki Trekking Poles – Yes, one of mine broke but I don’t fault Leki at all. Great product.
Vasque Breeze Boots – I usually have quite a bit of foot pain on hikes of ten miles or more. These boots took 9,000 feet of alttidude changes, eight miles, snow, ice, and mud in stride. My feet never got wet and the toes never got too cold. I had less foot pain at the end of this climb than I’ve ever had for a day hike. I did have a blister on each big toe at the end of the day but think that was inevitable after the day we had and I didn’t even notice them until the boots were removed.
Green Superfeet Insoles – Also a great product. A significant factor in the decent state of my feet at the end of the day. Wouldn’t climb/hike without them.
REI Switchback Gloves – I just used the liners all day and they were completely comfortable even in fairly strong winds. I never took the shells out of the pack but have no doubt that they would workable in less favorable conditions.
Deuter Futura Pro 42 Pack – My all time favorite. We went light and I had less than a twenty pound load (mostly water) but this pack always rides and ventilates well.
Seirus Innovation Quick Clava – Used it above 13k when the winds picked up and the temps dropped. Does the job and really comfortable. Highly recommended.
Buff – Used when the temps were warm – above 30F. I also used it like a balaclava for a bit when the winds picked up without warning. Great product in the heat or cold.
Julbo Dolgan Glacier Glasses – Another indispensable product. These didn’t come off after mid-day and I didn’t suffer any eyestrain or snow blindness.