Mt Toll is a spectacular peak that towers above the awesome vistas of Blue Lake, in the Indian Peaks wilderness of Colorado, and its somewhat moderate slopes provide one of the best ski descents on the Colorado front range. This peak has become my right of spring passage for quite a few years, and I don’t feel like I’m ready for summer without it.
The steepest mandatory skiing is about 35 degrees and on an open slope so I cautiously wait for stable spring conditions.
This normally occurs in mid May and if the planets align properly, it is possible to ski from the Mitchel lake trail head after an easy 3 mile bicycle approach (The main road usually doesn’t open till late June, but it is usually passable a lot earlier and I find a bicycle a lot better than trudging on the asphalt road).
But 2018 was a bad year for planet alignment in many aspects, and one of them was a closure to all humans on the only access road until late June. This combined with global warming and a low snowpack left a very dismal setting for my annual pilgrimage.
But the road finally opened, and I was in dire need of a ski adventure, so I packed my skis and headed out from the Blue Lake trail head at dawn.
It was another perfect day in the high Rockies and my spirit soared as I headed out on the empty trail.
The throngs of tourists would be arriving soon, but now the wilderness is almost void of humans and I share the trail with only a couple of deer and a few birds. The air is crisp and clear and I pause for a few moments to smell the air and hug one of the ancient Spruce trees that has been here so much longer than me.
The sun begins to show its face on the high peaks and I’m thrilled, but also somewhat shocked to see the diminished size of the old snow field.
It does look skiable and somewhat inviting, but my normal line is dry and the only remaining snow is on the steep south-east facing coular. The trail that I normally climb is also very dry, and I don’t find any snow till I am above the brilliant vistas of Blue Lake.
The bright Colorado sun has finally surfaced out of the eastern horizon and it soaks my old body with warmth as I stop to change into my heavy ski boots. The snow has already evolved into a summer glacier like snow pack, so I leave my skis on my pack and kick steps in the partially frozen snow.The slope gradually steepens and the high altitude air is thin, so I stop for a few moments to catch my breathe and ponder the vastness of this great wilderness.
The few early morning hikers have been left far behind, and I am now the only human soul in this grand valley.
The only remaining snow is close to 50 degrees in steepness and somewhat variable in texture so I’m not sure that I want to ski it alone, but it does provides a thrilling snow climb and I somewhat foolishly opt to go for the summit.
The steep frozen snow nearly reaches the top, but some of it is really icy and very steep so I decide not to ski the steepest part. But, reaching the summit requires scrambling on talus with ski boots and an awkward pack which proves to probably be quite a bit more dangerous than the steep coular.
I suddenly wish that I had left my skis at a bit lower spot, but hindsight is always 20 20, and plan B doesn’t seem too terrifying, as I finally reach the top of this awesome peak.
The summit is calm and sunny, but a very friendly marmot is determined to share my lunch and it takes an aggressive defense of small pebble throwing to partially deter him. This peak is not often climbed and he is really determined to befriend me. The barrage of small rocks eventually succeeds, but he retreats only a few feet and continues to watch me.
The joyful summit is hard to leave, but the thrill of skiing, and the fear of the somewhat ominous task that awaits me makes it very hard to truly relax.
Scrambling down loose talus in my ski boots and awkward pack proves to be as challenging as I had anticipated, and I suddenly wish that I had just gone for the steep slope, but this annoying obstacle is eventually accomplished. The friendly marmot seems to be concerned for my safely or else extremely hungry and lonely so he follows me back to where I finally start skiing.
The slope is still quite steep and the transition to skis is a bit challenging, but the frozen snow has softened a bit with the early morning sun and provides a joyous descent that makes the scary talus just seem like a bad memory.
The east face has become a bit runneled from the sun and recent rock fall, but the warmth of the morning sun makes it somewhat reasonable. This mountain has become a popular ski run, but I am the first person to ski it this year so I try my best to carve my ski signature on the virgin slope.
The exposure on the lower slope faces north and is in almost perfect condition, so I carve a set of perfectly symmetrical turns that will only last a few hours. But, I can’t help but stop to admire them as I remove my skis and prepare for the tourist filled trail.
I awake way before dawn after a somewhat restless night, and start to prepare for the new days event. The plan is very exciting, but I am also a bit apprehensive about this somewhat serious adventure.
The route that I am planning to climb involves a fairly long approach, some steep snow climbing, and a somewhat challenging class 3+ chimney on a remote mountain face.
I’ve climbed this route twice before, so I know what I’m getting into, but I’ve aged a bit since the last attempt, and I know that it deserves respect.
I had made a feeble attempt about a week ago, but a sixth sense and less than perfect weather caused me to turn back early. The alternative was finding shelter from the harsh wind, and spending a lazy day in an awesome and very secluded high alpine meadow.
But, today feels very different, and I’m anxious to finish the challenge. The weather looks good, and so are my energy and spirits, as I park my van at the trailhead.
A note stating, “Climbing west Chimney of Navajo. Back by mid afternoon.” is left in a conspicuous location on my dash, and I’m on my way.
The dawn of the new day is just starting to brighten the sky as I saunter briskly along the well worn trail to Isabelle lake. The trail is lined with some very large Ingleman Spruce trees that are much older than me and a pair of young bucks are grazing in an adjacent meadow.
The first rays of the sun light up the high peaks as Navajo and Apache come into view, and my soul is suddenly invigorated.
A couple of early morning photographers and a young moose great me as I reach the stunning vista of Isabelle lake. But here the main trail ends, as I leave the soon to be very busy valley and wander alone into the high alpine zone. The trail has suddenly disappeared, but I know this valley well, and a maze of grassy ledges and tiny valleys provide for a fairly easy scramble.
My awareness suddenly kicks in to my extreme mode, because I am aware that even a short stumble might result in an injury that could be fatal in this remote place.
I am carrying reasonable survival gear and a loud whistle, but the chance of being found rapidly on this remote mountain face are still slim, so I must be extra cautious.
But this caution forces a mental attitude that is totally focused and very enjoyable. All the cares of the world suddenly disappear as I wander upwards completely focused on the task at hand.
The air is a bit brisk, but the sun is warm, and the views are brilliant. The soft tundra is bursting with tiny plants that only have a few months to live, and the banks of some tiny rivers are adorned with a myriad of colorful wild flowers.
The quickly receding old glacier has left about a hundred new yards of manky scree that involves a frustrating mixture of scrambling and sliding backwards, but I manage to find a reasonable route to the snow, and arrive a bit out of breath.
My energy quickly recovers, as I stop for a quick snack and attach my crampons.
The next 500 or so vertical feet involves kicking steps in some fairly firm and somewhat steep (40-45 degree) snow. This is actually about the easiest way to climb a mountain if you have the right skills and equipment, and I do. I have come prepared with one medium length ice axe, and a “Whipit” (ski pole with a small ice axe), and crampons.
The steep snow is much easier than the loose rock and allows for a rapid ascent, but kicking steps is quite strenuous, so I stop a few times to catch my breath and ponder this awesome paradise. The rhythm of setting a fast pace seems to be more efficient, so I divide the slope into about 5 segments of sprint and rest, and each phase brings me ever closer to the summit.
The cool air feels fresh in my lungs and the blood rushing through my brain clears my mind as the last sprint brings me to the top of the snow.
Here, the means of travel will change again and I stop on a comfortable ledge and enjoy the last rays of the sun as I remove my crampons and pack away the ice axes.
The rest spot is warm and sunny, but the weather suddenly changes as I wander upward onto the shady west face.
A brisk breeze is howling through the steep saddle between Navajo and Dicker’s Peck (A small one pitch 5.4 spire that was named by the first ascent party). The usually easy route has been coated with a bit of graupel (frozen rain) from the last thunderstorm.
These conditions are not quite what I had expected, but I know the route and don’t wish to turn back now.
I am now very aware of my remoteness and the normally 3rd class route is covered with a thin layer of frozen rain. A tiny mistake here, could result in a miserable night or maybe the end of my life, so I proceed very cautiously, and my focus becomes even more intense.
The foot holds are a bit slippery, but the hand holds are solid and I revert to the old climbing rule of always having 3 appendages attached while you carefully move the 4th. The approach to the chimney is a bit exposed and I shudder at the thought of being injured on this remote face. But the moves are easy and the exposure mellows as I enter the chimney and move ever upward. This section gets very little sun, and the holds are cold and icy, but I’m starting to catch a rhythm and enjoy a temporary state of nirvana as I climb this stairway to heaven.
But the stairway quickly ends, and once more I am faced with a slippery traverse. But the moves are easy, the summit is near, and a sunny ledge is beckoning, so I move cautiously once again.
This sunny ledge marks the intersection with the easier “Airplane Gulley” route, and I feel that the climb is almost in the bag, so I decide to drop my pack and take a short break.
The rest of the route is still very exposed 3rd class, and a brisk breeze is showing its face, so it is too early to relax. The ledge is warm and comfy, but the summit is beckoning, so I leave my pack, and scramble upward. The route finding here is a bit challenging, and I probably didn’t pick the easiest way, but I manage to arrive on an empty and somewhat breezy summit. This is my favorite Indian Peak, and the views are incredible, but the wind is brisk, and I won’t be able to truly relax till I get back to my pack, so I ponder the views for only a few brief moments. I manage to find an easier route on the return voyage and make it safely back to the comfortable ledge.
The ledge is out of the wind, the sun is warm, and the quest is all but finished, so I take a long break in the warm sun and thoroughly enjoy the serenity and great views.
“Speak English to me!” Exclaimed the beautiful Peruvian woman somewhat frankly from the balcony of her mansion.
A fairly extreme scramble had left me in her backyard, and I did not wish to retrace my steps.
She had thought that the cliff below her was unclimbable, and wanted to know what in tarnation this gringo was doing in her back yard. Dozens of maids and other workers rushed out onto their balconies, and every dog in the neighborhood was barking.
I had just returned to Lima from a great adventure of skiing on the highest volcano in Peru and had left a day of buffer on my schedule to spend in Lima. This grand city that was once called the pearl city of the universe is a bit less than that now, but it still offers brilliant coastal views, great museums, and some of the best restaurants in the world. My favorite restaurant, El Rustica sits right on the ocean in the upscale neighborhood of Baranco. The cebiche is fabulous and the open air dining let’s you enjoy the smell, sound and sometimes wetness of the crashing waves.
I was staying in the nearby tourist friendly “Mira Flores,” which is a couple of miles up the coast, but the general area is fairly elite, and relatively safe for gingos.
There is a pleasant and safe path that follows the coast and affords spectacular vistas, but it crosses one fairly deep canyon, and the bridge is quite a ways inland. I had taken the long path on a couple of occasions and had also explored a trail that went directly through the canyon. It involved about 200 vertical feet of scrambling and crossing a semi-busy hi way, but it was substantially shorter. I had taken this route the day before and felt safe on it, but this time I decided to follow the hi-way down the coast. This would avoid climbing and descending the big hill, and I knew that the restaurant was near.
The hi way started out with a wide walkway, and it was obvious that others had taken it, so I proceeded anxiously, and could almost smell the fresh fish, as I wandered onward. ! The road that I was following quickly joined the Pan American hi way, and the traffic became extremely dense. The restaurant was now very close, but the path got even narrower, and crossing the hi way did not look like a good option.
I was about ready to turn back or cross the road, when I approached a large mesh fence. The fence had been erected to contain the small avalanches of rocks that were constantly sliding down the steep embankment, but there was a faint trail between the fence and the manky cliff. It looked a lot safer than the road, and El Rustica and the pedestrian bridge that crossed the hi way were now in sight.
But my hopes were suddenly dashed when I encountered an old rock avalanche that had closed the path. The old slide had become infested with dense brush, and the trail suddenly stopped. I tried to bushwack my way through the dense brush and loose debris, but it seemed futile, and I really didn’t wish to retrace my steps.
So, I contemplated my fate for a few seconds. I was reluctantly ready to turn back when I noticed a trace of a trail heading up the steep and manky headwall. The trail quickly vanished, but by now my alpine climbing instincts had kicked in, and I wandered upward. The route, which was probably a first ascent, involved up to 5.7 vine assisted mank and the crux move was a mantle off the remnants of an old retaining wall. It was an adrenaline filled solo, but I finally arrived at a friendly plateau.
I was hoping to find a public trail or road at the top of the cliff, but instead it was the backyard of a luxurious condo building. A 12 foot tall concrete wall protected most of the building from intruders, but a few of the condos had taken advantage of the terrain and had sculpted luxurious backyards that enjoyed the constantly changing vistas of the Pacific Ocean.
Suddenly, one of the dogs started to bark and a few curious servants appeared on the balconies.
“I am a gringo and I am lost,” I tried to convey in my broken Spanish.
The 12 foot wall looked unsurmountable, but I spotted a reasonable route to one of the yards. It involved a 5.3 vine scramble, but I survived and didn’t get shot. Everyone within earshot was now out on the balconies, and the caretaker of the property suddenly arrived on the scene.
My Spanish was good enough to convince him that I wasn’t a danger, but he told me to stay right where I was as he summoned the owner.
After more than a few minutes of waiting, the beautiful woman finally appeared. She told me that what I was doing was very dangerous, and I think she thought I was a bit crazy.
I apologized for trespassing and tried to tell her that I was an experienced climber and Peru was one of my favorite countries, but she quickly instructed her manager to guide me back to the street and retreated back to her mansion.! The path through the luxurious condo was a great adventure and the brief chat with the manager on the way out was very amusing. I left a card with my website for the owners, but I don’t think they bought my book. ! The exit dropped me on a friendly street in Baranco, and a short stroll brought me to my favorite restaurant. It was the best adrenaline buzz of the whole trip, but a great pisco sour calmed my nerves, and the cebiche was worth the adventure.
The New Year started in it’s usual manor with some really good live local music shared with friends and some great food and wine. It proceeded onto my 65th birthday, which I celebrated with my best friends at a remote hut in the high rockies. We used our own power and backcountry ski equipment to travel 10 miles and 3,000 vertical feet into the Eiseman hut near Vail, and spent a joyous weekend indulging in untracked powder, an awesome wilderness setting, and lots of food and fine wine. Having 3 holidays in a row nearly wore me out, but it was snowing in Steam Boat Springs, so I proceeded north. My season pass included 6 days there, a huge storm was predicted, and one of my best adventure buddies calls it home, so it was impossible to resist.
My old body keeps hanging in there, so I feel obligated to use it, and skiing is still my biggest passion. The snow Gods cooperated and I enjoyed another incredible winter and tallied 97 days of skiing bliss. But the winter ended all too soon and springtime at 9,000 feet can be a bit wintry, so I packed my van and headed west. Part of my family was planning a reunion in Yosemite in late June, so I headed out a month early.
I love Colorado! but California has the best geography in the US and maybe the world. It is filled with mystical ancient forests, pristine deserts, the best rivers on the planet, the magnificent high Sierras, and they also have a beach. I had spent a lot of time kayaking there in the 90‘s and I was anxious to return to this remarkable paradise.
It’s a bit of a drive, so I decided to stop at a remote climbing area in central Utah, which I had read about in one of my climbing magazines. “Maple Canyon” is smack dab in the middle of Utah and offers a world famous climbing mecca in the middle of no where. The primitive local sheep herders are amazed at the visitors that have come to this barren land to test their skills on the steep rocks, but they don’t seem to mind and the remote canyon offers solitude and some intriguing routes. I was traveling alone, but lots of other climbers do too, so it’s usually quite easy to team up, and I’ve met a few of my best friends that way. I lucked out again, and managed to instantly mingle with some awesome strangers and spent a very enjoyable week in this remote paradise. “Birds of a feather flock together” and the adventure world is really small. Most people laugh when I say this, but I really believe that climbing is the safest way for an old geezer to get an adrenaline buzz, and I am a confessed adrenaline junkie. Adrenaline is a natural drug that was genetically intended to help us survive, and I truly believe that it is one of the secrets to staying youthful. You obviously have to be cautious and know what you’re doing, but unlike kayaking, the moves can be carefully contemplated, and the rope offers a safety net.
My next stop was Bishop California in the eastern Sierra Madres, where I discovered the “Hostel California!” This friendly oasis is a melting point for adventurers of all sorts including a bunch of backpackers who were hiking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, and had stopped to relax and wait for the snow to melt on the high passes. It was also a hanging spot for climbers, so I made new friends, and enjoyed some great routes in the Owen River Gorge and a few other nearby Crags. The hiking in the Sierras is also fantastic, and I savored about a dozen blissful days in the ancient forests, with vistas of high alpine lakes and lofty peaks.
This area also boasts numerous free hot springs that spew out of the ground from a tiny version of Yellowstone park. The nearby resort of Mammoth Mountain offers world class skiing and it was still open with excellent conditions and spring discounts, so that’s were I tallied day 96 & 97. Yosemite Park was extremely crowded, but It was great to see LuAnn, Bob, Tiff, Julie, and Tim and we spent two very pleasant days conversing, hiking and enjoying the scenery of this stunning paradise. The gigantic waterfalls were raging, and filled the valley with a fine mist, and the giant walls brought back some fond memories of climbing there in the 70’s.
I’m officially semi-retired, but I still enjoy challenging projects and I was approached with the opportunity to build a pair of tiny houses. Designing and building two 8 x 15 foot cabins was a fun challenge, and the finished project turned out to be quite livable.
Kayaking, unlike climbing, is a very dynamic sport and the water is very powerful, so I’ve decided to cherish my old memories and paddle very little. But, I do still love the rivers, so I joined an expedition with old friends on the Colorado river through Cataract Canyon, and enjoyed 5 remarkable days of rafting and hiking in this remote paradise. Most of the participants had worked as raft guides on the Zambezi river in Africa, so it was a fun reunion of very interesting adventurers.
I’m still pursuing a retirement career of inspirational speaking and writing, which has been very interesting. Oprah still hasn’t called, but it’s turning into a great hobby, and I’ve really enjoyed membership in our local toastmasters club. The key to staying young is to have a good attitude, and to keep moving both mentally and physically, and I think that a bit of adrenaline really helps. I feel very fortunate to live in the paradise of the rocky mountains and I enjoyed another invigorating summer of climbing on the local peaks. Our fall weather was incredibly warm, but winter has finally arrived, and the change of seasons offers new energy. Skiing is like dancing on snow, and it always brings a smile to my face. Nature is my religion, and the only thing that keeps me sane in this crazy world. I must admit that I am somewhat shattered at the current events in our country, but I continue to hope for peace and prosperity for everyone on this incredible planet and I plan to spend most of the next four years hiding in nature. I never worry about the world when I’m hanging by my fingertips on a great mountain. Please check out www.danceonedge.com if you want to read some more stories. Happy Holidays John Mattson