Aron Ralston on the Summit of Sunlight Peak, Colorado, March 2005
Starting in the winter of 1998-99, I began solo-climbing the 59 mountains in Colorado above 14,000′. While many thousands of people have climbed the entire list of ‘Fourteeners’, and over half-a-million hikers start off from a 14er trailhead each summer, by the late 90’s no one had ever soloed them all in winter. Besides the inherent risks of climbing at altitude (illness, storms, falling, losing the route, etc.), Colorado’s winter adds the dangers of severe cold, jet-stream-fueled winds, and avalanches. In fact, the Rocky Mountains have one of the deadliest snowpacks in the world, with approximately six avalanche fatalities per year in Colorado alone (this winter, the state’s snow slopes claimed 8 lives out of the 28 total victims in the US).
Compounding the challenge for me was a nearly-complete lack of winter mountaineering skills. This led one of my dearest friends to express his concern early on that the climbing project would kill me. With his mentoring, as well as that of several other experienced friends and partners in Arizona, Washington, New Mexico, and Colorado, I survived my learning curve. By Spring 2003, I had winter-soloed 45 of the 59 named and/or ranked 14er summits, including many of the most remote, technical, and dangerous peaks. Then, I had my experience in Blue John Canyon, which famously resulted in me amputating my right hand and forearm. However, even during my recovery, it was never a question of whether I would continue to climb — or finish my 14ers project– but, how.
With my family’s encouragement, custom prosthetics donated by Hanger (including a mountaineering attachment that I helped design), and again with the mentoring and support of more-experienced friends, I resumed my soloing the following winter. Those first peaks post-amputation were some of the sweetest summits I’ll ever enjoy. They represented far more than just a checkmark on a list, or even progress towards a goal: if I could still winter-solo 14ers — the most self-reliant activity I could imagine — I could do anything in my life. I was proving to myself that my trauma didn’t have to slow me down; rather, it might even accelerate me forward.
After a busy few months of climbing in early 2005, I was in the homestretch, with one group of peaks remaining. Located in Chicago Basin in the heart of Colorado’s largest wilderness, the Eolus Group are the most remote 14ers in the state. Uniquely, the best winter access to the range is a 2-hour ride on the renowned Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The conductor wished me well as he unloaded my 60-pound backpack and ski gear at the Cascade Creek turnaround. The train left and for the next five days, I was as isolated as a person can be. Fording the Animas River in my boots at Needleton, I skinned up Needle Creek and spent a night along the trail at New York Creek. Setting base camp at 11,600′ the next evening, I made myself home in a glorious bowl of heaven.
On the third morning of my trip, I ascended to the bottom of Windom Peak’s northwest face where I left my skis and donned crampons to climb the snow couloir. On top, I looked southward to Jupiter Mountain which I’d climbed in a single 32-mile push the previous summer. Skiing over to the south slopes of Sunlight Peak, I braced myself for some of the trickiest climbing of the 7-year project. Surmounting the ice-riddled blocks and highly-exposed slabs of Sunlight’s summit brought me to a precarious seat overlooking the San Juan’s hundred summits. I photographed myself, dangling my boots two-thousand feet over Noname Creek to the north, smiling at the beauty of the Weminuche. 57 done, 2 to go.