Happy Holidays

Total Eclipse from the Red Desert of Central Wyoming

Sunrise from Caribou

The new year started with the normal revelry of great music, too much food and wine, and the company of good friends. Our little mountain village has become a haven for nature lovers, musicians and other free thinkers who are trying to make some sense out of this crazy world, and their company is very enjoyable. The unusually warm winter started quite late, but it finally hit with a fury, and resulted in one of my best ski seasons ever. Our local ski area is only 15 minutes away, and sometimes I can ski from my house, so I ski almost every day and managed to log 118 days on the slopes. I can’t quite remember my previous record, but I think it was only about 110, and I was 23 and living in Aspen then.
Skiing is like dancing on snow, and the gentle rhythm of perfectly carved turns allows me to escape “if only for a few moments” from the turmoil of this crazy world. The occasional huge storms provide waist deep powder which is the closest thing to nirvana that I have ever experienced.
The county where I live varies in elevation from 4,718 to 13,502 feet, and this offers a great variety of weather conditions. The day time temperatures on the plains can vary from below zero to 70 degrees in January, and if the skiing is bad, the south facing crags are usually warm and cozy and great for rock-climbing, which is my second favorite sport. The melting snow feeds the wild rivers, but I can’t hold my breathe as long as I used to, so the fear of drowning has turned me into a land lubber. But, I managed one run on our local river, and the thrill of whitewater still feeds my spirit. I used to ski every month of the year, but I’ve discovered that August and September really aren’t worth the effort, so I’ve narrowed it down to 10. The nearby mountains of Loveland and Arapahoe Basin offer incredible high altitude terrain and lift assisted skiing from October till June. I’ve skied waist deep powder at A-basin in May, but my favorite type of skiing is to climb a big mountain and ski back down. My favorite mountain to ski is Mt. Toll in the nearby Indian Peaks wilderness area. It involves about ten miles of skiing into a remote basin with frozen lakes and stunning peaks.
The last three miles of the road was not yet open, but it had been plowed, so I started just before dawn and rode my bicycle up the steep paved road with my skis on my backpack. The sun was just starting to show it’s face as I stashed the bike in the woods and started to ski up the gentle valley. The calm air was a bit brisk, but the sky was clear and the Alpenglow on the high peaks was stunning. I had the whole valley to myself, and proceeded up past Lake Mitchell and onward to Blue Lake as the sun gradually warmed the morning air and the snow glistened under its rays.

The path steepened as I proceeded up the east face, and I stopped a few times to catch my breath and gaze in wonder at this empty paradise.
I arrived on the perfectly calm summit at 10 AM and spent a very pleasant half hour eating lunch and resting against a comfortable rock in the warm sunshine. Mountain summits are magical places, and I thoroughly enjoyed the grand vista of the surrounding peaks and lakes while I contemplated my descent. It had been a really wet winter and spring, so I was able to start skiing from the top. The snow was still a bit frozen, so I skied carefully and felt my senses suddenly become enlightened by the pure joy of carving rhythmic turns on this great mountain. The mid day sun was starting to melt the snow, and the thin layer of perfect corn provided excellent conditions as I danced down the majestic peak.
Mt Toll is challenging, but I do not consider it dangerous. The easiest route involves less than 35 degree slopes (with some optional 45+) that start on a spectacular somewhat exposed ridge. This ridge ends at a giant north-east facing bowl, which soon curves again to face the north as it drops into the scenic gorge of the South St. Vrain river. Here the gradient eases, but the skiing is still really fun as I ride the gentle force of gravity all the way back to my bicycle.
When the snow finally melts on the high peaks, the meadows come alive with a myriad of colorful flowers and plants, and the soft tundra is very pleasant for hiking. My favorite local mountain is the pointed one in the middle of the lower right photo. Mt. Navajo is a stunning peak with a moderate route that involves a little bit of steep frozen snow, a bit of scrambling in a secure chimney, a usually empty summit, and an easy descent route. It’s about a 14 mile round trip, but every inch of the way offers great views, and the tranquility of a mountain paradise.
It seems kinda foolish to drive anywhere when I live in paradise, but I did manage to take a couple of road trips including Wild Wonderful Wyoming. This pristine state is still very sparsely populated, and the empty roads are a pleasant change from what is happening in Colorado. A group of friends decided to mix a climbing trip with the eclipse, so I headed north a bit early and joined them at a place called Ten Sleep Canyon in the Bighorn Mountains. This ancient gorge was once submerged by the sea, and consists of some of the best limestone crags on the planet. Everything that I’ve learned about geology, has been because of rock climbing, and limestone is one of my favorite rocks. The crags are usually steep, but filled with lots of hand and footholds that provide very exciting routes. The lush campground next to the river offered shade from the mid day sun, and a roaring river that lulled us to sleep. A few days on the steep rocks managed to wear out my old arms and Ten Sleep was not in the direct eclipse path, so I took an old dirt road that meandered south through a remote valley of the Red Desert. A few irrigated fields provided a stark contrast from the desert walls, and dozens of gallant horses browsed in the lush meadows.
I found an empty hill top, and settled back in a comfortable chair to observe the big event. The grand desert sky gradually darkened and I watched in awe as the sun disappeared. The temperature dropped dramatically, and the few birds and antelope that occupied the hillside seemed to be quite startled as the mid day suddenly turned to dusk. Some very friendly local strangers had come to join me, and we all shared an incredible sense of awe as we watched the sun return.
As I left the remote hillside, it suddenly appeared that half the population of Colorado had journeyed north for the big event, so the traffic was quite unforgettable as well. But, I wasn’t in a big hurry to get home, so I found a sheltered gully full of sweet smelling sage, and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon of reading and writing, while the memory of the big event still lingered in my brain.
The next day I wandered south to a hot spring, and then stopped to climb a gentle mountain of quartzite rocks that resemble marble. It’s called Medicine Bow Peak and the trail meanders through an ancient glacial basin with about a dozen pristine lakes, a diverse variety of high altitude plants, and giant chunks of the marble like rock. It’s actually quite a spectacular peak, and the summit was filled with a mature group of astronomy professors who had gathered at the University of Wyoming for the big event. They were very interesting folks who shared a passion for eclipses, and had traveled the world to observe most of them, and had already made plans for some more.
Meanwhile back at home, the local rocks and trails were still beckoning, and I enjoyed many days of climbing and hiking in the back yard. Nature is my strongest passion, but I also still work a little bit, and I’ve become very involved with a local toastmasters club. It’s a really fun and interesting group of people that share the same goal of public speaking. Our group is very talented, and the support and exposure to each others skills helps everyone improve. I’m still hoping to turn this into a career to inspire mature adults like myself to stay active mentally and physically and improve their lives.
I can’t help but admit that I’m striving to find something to be cheerful for as I watch my country being destroyed and millions of people suffer because of the greed of just a few. Greed is a disease and it is causing so much pain and destroying the planet that I love so much, but once again, I have managed to survive another year by hiding in the mountains and meditating with the Gods of nature.
I feel extremely fortunate to be enjoying good health and to live in this mountain paradise, and because of this good luck I feel obligated to use my health to continue to explore this “Garden of Eden”, before it is destroyed. I continue to hope for peace and prosperity for everyone and truly hope that 2018 will be a better year. Please check out www.danceonedge.com for more stories. John Mattson

The Head of the Wolf

A great adventure in the Wind River Range of Wyoming with three old friends.

John, Dave and Franz in the Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming; The Wolfs Head Tower is in the upper left corner.


“The route goes right up that knife edge ridge” exclaimed my old friend Franz Helfenstein, as we reached the top of Jack Ass Pass in the Wind River range of western Wyoming. We quickly dropped our over-loaded packs and gazed at the incredible vista of classic granite spires that compose the Cirque of the Towers. The East Ridge of Wolf”s Head is a classic and very exposed line and the first glimpse gave us all a bit of an adrenaline rush.

Franz is a 60 year young math professor from Bend Oregon who is a veteran of many expeditions. He is also known as the “Mad Math Professor” because of his many extreme kayaking adventures, including the first descent of the Cotahuasi River in Peru. This might be the deepest canyon in the world, and it is also one of the best. The clear waters start in the high Andes and create miles of pristine class IV-V whitewater as they flow through a paradise filled with Inca ruins and old vineyards. Franz was also a a fairly accomplished climber, and the Wind Rivers was one of his favorite haunts. He had already climbed many of the classic spires.

Franz had already set up camp in a very pleasant meadow, so we finished the last bit of the arduous hike, and dropped our packs for the last time. It had been a very long day, but now we could enjoy the luxury of a well stocked camp in a mountain paradise. The happy team watched the alpenglow on the large towers as we feasted on a gourmet dinner including a small ration of reasonably good wine. Tales of old adventures flowed freely, and we feasted on the joys of nature and old friendships.

Sleep came very easy and we awoke to another perfect day. The nearby granite tower called Pingora was our first objective. It was big and very steep, but a carefully hidden series of ledges provided an easy, but very exposed route to the summit.

Our group included four old friends, so we split into two groups of two and used technical climbing techniques. I had been climbing with Gringo Negro since the early 70’s and it was great to share a rope with him again. This somewhat famous wild man has spent a good portion of his life exploring the world, and he had been part the team that explored the Cotahuasi. His real name is David Black, (Hence the nickname) and he honed his early climbing skills on Camelback Mountain, AZ. He is only 55 and our skills were a bit rusty, but the difficulty of the route was well below our current skill level, and we were excited about the adventure. The forth member of the group was a seasoned 56 year young adventurer named Ken Ransford. Most of Ken’s outings were with his kayak, and we had enjoyed many, including a 17 day trip on the Humla Karnali in Western Nepal. Ken was a bit of a novice climber, but he was very fit and teamed up with Franz, who was a fearless leader.
We all enjoyed a very thrilling ascent and completed the route without any problems. The weather held, and we savored a warm and sunny summit with pristine views of the surrounding towers. This included a birds eye view of the Wolf’s Head Ridge, which was very intimidating from this viewpoint. The first pitch is a narrow 30 degree slope with more than 500 feet of shear cliff on both sides. The summit view made it look steeper than it really was, and pondering the route that we planned for the next day was a bit frightening. But, the perfect weather helped to calm our nerves and we found a comfortable ledge with a natural rock backrest.

“Wow! Isn’t this awesome? This is what life is about.” Exclaimed Franz, as we nestled in to our natural chairs. Summits are magical places and we enjoyed a casual lunch with a lofty view.
The summit of most routes (especially spires) is really only about half the climb, because getting down can be very difficult and dangerous, and descents have been the scene of many accidents. Descending Pingora involved three rappels, but the anchors were already there, and Franz knew the way.

Ken looked a bit nervous as he clipped into the ropes, so I checked his rigging and technique very carefully. We proceeded with caution and arrived safely at the first of three comfortable ledges. His nerves relaxed a bit for the second and third rappels, and a short scramble brought us safely back to camp. The alpenglow provided a second great light show, as we feasted on another gourmet meal.

“We need to get a really early start tomorrow.” Exclaimed Franz over dinner. “It’s not much harder than what we did today, but it’s a lot longer and a long descent. It’s an awesome route, but I think we’ll all find it exciting.”

We awoke to a very pleasant day and scrambled quickly to the high saddle between Wolf’s Head and Pingora. The very narrow ridge looked like a very steep and narrow sidewalk to heaven with intense exposure on both sides. It didn’t look that hard, but a fall by either party would be really bad. Franz bravely lead the first pitch, and Ken followed without any problems.

Once again, we climbed in pairs of two, and Dave and I prepared our belay while we waited. Dave had chosen to wear some old hiking boots because of comfort, and they made the steep ramp a bit more challenging. I watched and belayed him nervously as he cautiously climbed up the steep ridge. He seemed a bit anxious, but his old instincts served him well, and he made it to the top without any problems.

“Off Belay! That was really a rush!” He exclaimed, as he finished setting up the anchors. His belay would prevent me from hitting the ground if I fell, but he had only managed to place a couple of pieces of protection, so a fall would still be very serious.

I take three deep breaths and follow his lead. One of the main reasons I climb is because of the complete mental focus that is required to be a competent climber. All the worries of the world suddenly disappear, as the narrow ridge consumes all of my thoughts. My boots feel somewhat secure on the course granite, and the edges of the ramp provide descent handholds, so I climb like a cat up the exposed ramp.

“Yeow! That was great!” I exclaim as I reach the belay ledge.

“I should have let you lead that one.” he remarked in his usual joking manor, as I arrived at the belay. “I thought the next pitch was going to be harder, but it looks great from here.”

The next pitch is mine, so I grab the rack from Dave and continue upward. The ridge steepens a bit, but there are two beautiful hand to fist sized cracks that provide excellent holds and plenty of protection. The combination of exposure and confidence provides a state of pure euphoria, and I am grinning from ear to ear as I top out and set up the belay.

The route eases quite a bit, so we coil the rope and continue very carefully. Ken and Franz have vanished in front of us, but we soon catch them at a narrow squeeze chimney that is challenging enough to require a belay. Franz and Ken climb into the chimney and drag their packs, but Dave and I find a way to stem the edge of it. This method is a lot less grungy, and much more exciting.

The next obstacle is a 50 foot spire that blocks our path on the exposed ridge. The established route involves traversing a steep slab with some thin moves and intense exposure. The route has been protected by some fixed pitons, but they are about 15 feet apart, so a fall by either the leader or the second would be very thrilling, and could result in an injury. A small thundercloud is threatening from the West as Franz takes the lead and disappears around the corner. We send Ken next, and belay him with a rope from each side for better protection. He does just fine, and I watch anxiously as Dave follows quickly behind him, and disappears.

The brief moment of solitude creates a more intense mood, as I clear the belay and wait for the signal from Franz.

“Belay on! Climb when ready.” He finally exclaims.

The rope tightens, and I move very cautiously around the spire. The next pin is about 15 feet away, so I will take about a 20 foot swinging fall 800 feet above the ground if I slip. The finger holds are very small, so I am relying almost completely on some small footholds that are spaced a bit further apart than I would really like. I have chosen to wear my mountaineering boots for comfort and now I suddenly wish that I had brought my technical climbing shoes instead. But, Dave has already survived with his hiking boots so it can’t be too bad. One of the moves involves trusting most of my weight to a tiny foothold, but my boot soles stick, and I reach the safety of the next pin. From here the climbing eases, and I join my friends on a large ledge.

“Yow! That was a great pitch. My adrenaline level is very happy right now! How is yours?” I exclaim as I reach the comfortable ledge.

“Me too!” Exclaims Dave with a big smile.

Franz continues up the steep ridge and Ken follows as they disappear from our sight. It is my turn to lead, and I scramble somewhat fearfully up to a horizontal crack. The first moves are quite hard and a fall back to the ledge would be long enough to get injured, so I move very cautiously up to the safety of the hand sized crack. This provides great handholds and an opportunity to place protection. But, the friendly crack suddenly ends as I step around the blind corner. The next move is a bit awkward and extremely exposed, but a good set of handholds allows me to swing over to a low angle ramp.

Ken and Franz have vanished from sight, so I am forced to find the proper route on my own. I scramble to the top of another very exposed ridge and straddle it. I cannot see Ken, and it looks like there might be an easier route lower down on the right, but I am already committed and continue leapfrogging in my straddled position. My adrenaline gland is starting to max out, but I find Ken and a very comfortable ledge to set the belay. Ken is on a very small ledge belaying Franz who is out of sight.

“How does that next pitch look?” I inquire.

“It looks pretty scary. It’s probably not that hard, but you have to balance on your feet because it looks like there aren’t any handholds, and it is really exposed.” Ken replies in a very nervous state.

“That last pitch was sure wild, and that cloud looks a bit ominous. I hope we’re almost done.”

“Me too.” He replies as he cleans the belay and prepares to climb.

“Wow! That was kinda hard and really scary!” exclaims Dave with a big smile, as he reaches the belay. “I hope we’re almost done.”

All of our nerves are being pushed to the limit, and the anxiety of waiting for the next pitch pushes them even further.

I nervously watch Ken traverse the narrow ledge as I move the belay to the tiny exposed shelf, but he makes the moves without any problems as Dave scrambles up and takes his turn at lead. This pitch involves standing on the edge of a horizontal crack that traverses the rock face. The best technique involves shuffling sideways with his toes in the crack and his upper body hugging the wall that was void of handholds. His heals are hanging over the edge of the narrow ledge, but he moves onward without any problems, as I belay him carefully from my airy perch.

“Off belay! Your turn!” He exclaims with a somewhat ominous chuckle, as I clear the belay and prepare to meet my destiny.

I have been sitting and watching for quite some time, which does not help my unsettled nerves, and standing up is probably the hardest move. But, the crack ledge proves to be friendly, and I am very relieved to find that the footholds are solid and the shear face is sloped enough to make the positions balanced. I suddenly have thoughts of an old James Bond movie, as I move quickly along the skyscraper window style ledge to a comfortable belay.

“The rest is easy and the storm is moving in, so we need to hurry!” Exclaims Franz. He and Ken are standing on the summit, so we move quickly up to join them.

I would have enjoyed lingering for at least a few moments, but the storm is threatening and summits are the most dangerous place to be in a thunder storm. A quick rappel drops us on a comfortable ledge, and the storm changes directions, so we take a well needed break, and enjoy the lofty view. Four rappels and a bit of challenging scrambling bring us back to terra firma and a great celebratory dinner.

Photos of the Wind River Range:

Earthquake in the Colca Canyon

Hiking into the deepest canyon in the world.

The steam from the many hot springs and the occasional giant condor made us feel as if we were dropping ever deeper into a great abyss. But as we reveled in the incredible scenery, the rapids became a bit more serious.