I did a lot of solo hiking and climbing in my college days. There was one particular October weekend when, after trolling over various route descriptions I decided to just look around on Google Earth and see what looked interesting near Crested Butte. I eventually found a low 13,000 foot peak called Mount Owen. With no outside information, I started trying to figure out what made the most sense as an ascent route based on what I was seeing. At first I thought I should climb over Ruby Peak, the point just to the south, to get to Owen, but then I noticed Purple Peak in the background. Upon further investigation, the East Ridge appeared to be very steep and sharp, but manageable as far as I could tell from a rendered 3D image. It looked fun, at least. Of course, you can’t see everything on Google Earth.
I decided I should carry some extra weight that day. You know, for more training. I threw my short 30 meter by 8mm rope, harness, and a little bit of anchor building material (webbing etc) into my pack and lashed my ice ax to the outside. Why I picked those tools in particular I couldn’t say, but it turned out to actually be useful.
The next morning I arrived at the trailhead around 8:30am. I brought along some topo maps I had printed out and started walking around Lake Irwin, the popular recreation destination below the group of peaks I had in mind for the day. The mountains looked beautiful in the morning, and Purple Peak was already looking intimidating. I crossed the stinky inlet to the lake and started climbing the steep hill on the other side. I came across a dirt road leading to a large, green roofed building which had “No Trespassing” signs on it, but then noticed a couple other signs saying, “Scarp Ridge Trail.” Pleasantly surprised by a well worn trail on some seemingly obscure peak, I followed it gradually above timberline and on to the top of Scarp Ridge at 12,212 feet. The views were already pretty open to all directions except the west, where Mount Owen and Purple Peak were standing. I turned my attention to Purple Peak and began descending towards it.
Traversing on a sketchy trail through some dwarf spruce trees, Purple Peak seemed to grow in size and steepness. Eventually I arrived on a plateau near the base of the ridge I was about to attempt. Looking up at the ridge from here reminded me of pictures I had seen of the standard route of North Maroon Peak, one of Colorado’s most difficult 14,000 foot peaks, and I reminded myself that I was alone with a limited ability to rappel if I got stuck. My mantra for the climb became, “can I downclimb this?” and I hustled up a scree slope to the base of the ridge. The view was intimidating, but exhilarating at the same time. I started the climb.
Things started off with what might have been the hardest part of the ridge. The ridge crest flared out in a small buttress which probably would have been technical rock climbing if you took it directly. I carefully skirted the bottom of it to the right on partially snowy slopes, and then found a broken, somewhat rotten face to climb up and gain the ridge. Looking down, I could see what appeared to be a huge cliff under the face I was scrambling on. The climbing was already very real, with real consequences. I came up with a second mantra and mentally chanted, “Don’t fall… Can I downclimb this?” as I continued up and got back to the ridge crest.
From there the ridge eased up a little, with mostly basic hiking and scrambling. The climbing was wonderfully fluid for a distance until I arrived at another buttress high on the ridge. This time traversing around would only increase the difficulty, but the crest was only a moderately difficult scramble and this buttress went by pretty easily. On top of the buttress I stopped for a longer break and looked up at the now visible summit plus what appeared to be a tower in-between. Once I got hiking again and arrived at the “tower,” I discovered that it was just a rise in the ridge and not really a tower. So it appeared that only the summit cone would hold more difficulties, and it wasn’t far away now. I kept going, feeling excited that I was almost there, looking up at the steepening summit and wondering what would be the best way up, when all of a sudden I was looking down a vertical, roughly 30 foot deep gap in the ridge below my feet.
The downclimb into the gap looked to be extremely difficult at first glance. I wondered about maybe rappelling it but decided to look for a way to get down first. I took my pack off and started down, but right as I started lowering myself I found a pair of bolts in the rock. I stared at them in disbelief. Bolts on an obscure, small peak like this? They appeared to be almost brand new. I gave some hard tugs on them and they appeared solid, no play or movement at all. I decided to keep downclimbing to see if it was possible, but the fact that someone had put bolts up here made me doubt that possibility. Sure enough, after maybe 20 feet of downclimbing on borderline technical terrain, the rock turned into an overhang. No way was I downclimbing that. There was snow in the gap that maybe could have softened a landing if I jumped, but what if it didn’t? It wasn’t worth the chance. I climbed back up and rested for a moment. Things were looking a little sketchy at that point. I decided that I had two choices: go down, or rappel into the notch and continue climbing. I looked across the gap at the rock on the other side; it looked really hard, but probably doable. Deciding that it was worth a shot I got out my rope and harness, neither of which I expected to need on this climb. I put on my harness, double checked myself, and built a little rappel anchor off the bolts. Then I uncoiled the rope, clipped the middle of it into the anchor, and threw it down into the gap. Finally I put my pack back on, situated myself by the rope, attached myself to it with my belay device, and began my first ever alpine rappel.
Of course, the fact that I was at around 12,700 feet had nothing to do with my rappelling ability and it went fine, but it somehow felt like the hardest rappel I had ever done. I was somewhat nervous, what with being alone and not knowing what the terrain ahead was going to be like. I got down to the bottom of the notch and stood on the snow. I took myself off rappel but left the rope where it was for the moment. I looked around. The wall I had just rappelled down started with an overhang that went up for about ten feet. To my right and left, snow-filled rubble gullies went steeply down to unseen slopes. I turned around and looked up towards the summit, and the terrain looked doable, though steep and difficult. I still had a chance to turn around if I needed to by ascending the rope back to the ridge, and I preferred to keep it that way until I knew the rest of the terrain would take me over Mount Owen and down. I left the rope behind and started climbing. The first 15 vertical feet of climbing was pretty tough scrambling and then the difficulty eased to a rubble gully going up and around the right side of the tower. It was only about 70 vertical feet of climbing to the summit, and I set my pack down for a moment. I walked down the ridge towards Mount Owen a little bit to make sure that it would be something I could accomplish, and it seemed that it would only be simple hiking terrain the rest of the way up. Still nervous, I climbed back down to the notch and looked up at my rappel rope. This was my last chance to ascend the rope and climb back down the ridge, but seeing that the rest of the way over Owen seemed to be clear I decided that was the best way down. I grabbed one side of the rope, took a deep breath, and pulled it. The rope pulled smoothly through the anchor and dropped in a pile at my feet. My escape officially cut off, I quickly coiled the rope, slung it over my shoulder, and climbed back to the top of Purple Peak. I had taken over an hour to get from the gap to this point, and it was now afternoon. I dubbed the ridge “Chappelle Ridge” after Dave Chappelle, since Purple Peak is made of a lot more than sugar, water, and purple (yeah I was a pretty cool white kid in college. You can laugh.)
From there, the hike over the Mount Owen went smoothly and took only a little under an hour. Looking around, it seemed that the ridge down the other side would easily lead down to the saddle with Ruby Peak, and below that was what appeared to be an old mining road which wound its way back to the trailhead. I finally allowed myself to feel relaxed, and then excited. I had successfully climbed a ridge with no route information that was harder than expected but turned out to be classic in my mind. I soaked up my position and enjoyed the moment while it lasted, then packed up and started down.
I was running a little late so I decided to leave Ruby Peak for another day. The day was already good enough. I have since returned and climbed this route twice in snowier and completely dry conditions, but it will never be the same as that first climb into the unknown, all alone, as a kid looking for adventure. I can only hope that I can get a similar experience elsewhere some day in the future. But to this day, I think back on that climb as one of the more special experiences I had early in my mountaineering career.