Mt. Champion and the Centennials

Aron Ralston

Aron Ralston on Mt. Champion

Even before I completed climbing Colorado’s 14ers, I had already expanded my peak list to add the next 61 highest mountains in the state. Comprising the 120 named and/or ranked summits above 13,800’, this list includes the “Centennials,” the 100 highest peaks in the state.

Compared to the 14ers, the high 13ers have far less traffic on their routes, despite being well-
documented both in guidebooks and on the internet. As well, several of the Centennials are more remote than most of the 14ers, and a few have standard routes that are more technical than even the toughest of their higher cousins. In total, their lesser popularity, distance, and ruggedness means that oftentimes the lower Centennials lack rudimentary foot-trails, even on published routes.

Not surprisingly then, the high 13ers feel more wild than the 14ers. In my experiences, this wildness translates to greater solitude and more wildlife encounters (which I appreciate), and nastier rock conditions (which I don’t). Because I lived in Phoenix and Albuquerque from 1997 until 2002, three of my first high 13ers were Vestal Peak, Dallas Peak, and Jagged Peak, all in southwest Colorado. They also happen to be three of the hardest of all the Centennials. But my first climbing mentors, Mark VanEeckhout, Bob Graham, and Steve Patchett, showed me the ways of these less-trammeled mountains and endured the lurches of my learning curve with great patience.

[Mark, I’m still embarrassed by my whining on Vestal Peak: “You said it wasn’t going to get any harder! That was harder! Stop making it so hard!” Although, in my defense, having both of my mountaineering boot soles detach from their uppers, just as I started the first pitch, severely rattled my composure. As if the increasingly steep ramp of the north face weren’t exciting enough, my boots looked like I’d taken them off a drunken hobo. My socks – and my psyche – frayed under the exposure of the 800-foot route. At 13,000’, I’d rather climb 5.6 in flip-flops!]

After I moved to Aspen in 2002, I continued to climb the high 13ers as part of my training for the winter 14ers. I came to respect the Elk Range 13ers as having some of the loosest, most dangerous rock of all, notably on the S-Ridge of Hagerman Peak, the East Gully of Cathedral Peak, and the White Gully of Thunder Pyramid (a well-respected veteran climber died on this route a few summers ago).

Just over Independence Pass, however, the Centennials of the northern Sawatch are mostly tundra-romps. One cloudy summer day in 2004, after a night in my own bed and just a 45-minute drive from Aspen to the Blue Lake Trailhead along Highway 82, I linked together the four high 13ers, Casco, French, ‘Frasco’, and Lackawanna, and was home before the afternoon rains. A few weeks later, I repeated the commute to Blue Lake and traipsed up the resplendent South Slopes of Mt. Champion, where I took the above photograph. (While I’m always smiling in my summit photos, there’s a difference between a smile of self-satisfied athletic accomplishment and a smile of general pleasure and well-being. I think John Denver wrote a song about that.)

In April of 2003, I skied the high 13er ‘Castleabra’ above Conundrum Hot Springs; it was the last Centennial I climbed with two hands. A few days later, a shifting boulder in Blue John Canyon crushed my right arm, resulting in my self-amputation. When I resumed mountain climbing later that spring, the high 13ers figured prominently in my return. Indeed, my first post-amputation backpacking trip was to climb Rio Grande Pyramid, a Centennial down in the San Juan Mountains. Even more special was that Mark, Bob, and Steve – the same friends with whom I’d climbed my earliest Centennials – joined me for this second ‘first’ too.

Less than two years later, I went on a week-long backpacking trip with nature photographer John Fielder into the Weminuche Wilderness. (After hauling huge packs over the precipitously steep hillsides that separate Ruby, No Name, and Elk Creeks, we joked that ‘Weminuche’ is an ancient Indian word for “straight-fucking-up-and-down.”) When I wasn’t helping John make images of Colorado’s largest wilderness, I scrambled the remaining peaks of my list: Turret, the three Trinitys, and – finally – Arrow Peak. Atop that ultimate summit, sitting next to an improbably-positioned two-foot-high spruce tree, I surveyed almost a third of all the 14ers and high 13ers of my entire list. Including, right there, a quarter-mile to the east, the iconic ramping north face of Vestal Peak, my first 13er. Beginning and end: seven years – but just 500 yards – apart. My eyes grew weepy with hypoxic emotion. It was a fitting bookend to the project.

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