Alpine starts, bear-baiting, & cowboy coffee: the ABCs of climbing (and living) disaster-style

Kids at work ask me all the time where I live. I always point at my little Kelty two-man tent, and they almost never believe me.

“No way, Miss!” they exclaim in a tone of mixed disbelief and curiosity. I must seem almost crazy enough for it to be true. The tents we set up for kids will sleep ten in a pinch; my tiny two-man (which is for one person, really) looks to them far too small to sleep even one adult human. Often, a kid will ask if it’s a tent for dogs. They want to know if I have a TV in there.

“Nope,” I tell them.

They have to see in it for themselves. There isn’t much to see: my Therm-a-Rest, a sleeping bag, a stray headlamp. A notebook, usually, or whatever book I’m reading two pages of each night before falling asleep, exhausted.

“I don’t spend much time in there,” I explain as they marvel over how little they see.

It’s true; I don’t spend much time in there. Some nights—like the ones when kids wake me up four or five times to pee, or I sleep fitfully to the stifled whimpering of homesick eight-year-olds—it seems like entirely too little time.

Totally worth staggering up to the kitchen at five in the morning before a long day at camp.
Totally worth staggering up to the kitchen at five in the morning before a long day at camp.

I’d just had one of those nights when five-fifteen rolled around on a chilly Thursday morning. I fumbled for my headlamp—it was late in the season, and the sun had begun to make its first appearance closer to six—and half-rolled from my tent, the peaceful breathing of preteen girls still in their sleeping bags keeping me company as I made my way up the trail.

The trees around my girls’ campsite rustled, and I looked up to see a half-dozen elk, as surprised to see me as I was to stumble upon them. The big bull, by now familiar with my presence after a summer of early-morning encounters, quickly determined that I presented no threat, and the herd went back to grazing quietly as the sun sent its first rays into the eastern sky.

This, along with the pot of coffee I was staggering up the trail to make, is one of the many small pleasures of living simply. This has been a summer of living out of tents and cars, of infrequent showers and generally marginal hygiene, of waking up in beautiful places with people I’ve grown to love dearly, of living disaster-style and loving it.

Disaster-style living, a phrase I’ve borrowed from prolific climber/writer/drinker of margaritas Kelly Cordes, is best described by example. Cordes climbs in a style he calls “safety-fifth alpinism,” a practice I’ve come to appreciate during this summer of bare minimums.

Cowboy coffee is prepared by putting grounds directly into the pot, boiling the water and steeping, then using an improvised filter, in this case my partner's disgusting handkerchief. The things we do for coffee, right?
Cowboy coffee is prepared by putting grounds directly into the pot, boiling the water and steeping, then using an improvised filter, in this case my partner’s disgusting handkerchief. The things we do for coffee, right?

Disaster-style alpinism involves alpine starts (those that begin well before sunrise, when the stars are still high in the sky), burly and potentially impassable terrain, the risk of running into aggressive megafauna (particularly bears), at least one brief moment in which the participants aren’t totally sure where they are, and a bout of mountain weather. Such misadventures may also include inescapable ridgelines, whose siren call is nearly irresistible to the disaster-style mountaineer; running out of food and/or water due to an unplanned bivouac, in which at least part of a night is spent out without shelter; and, whenever possible, should end with all participants regrouping over beers in the nearest mountain town.

Cold beer, another small pleasure of simple living, was on my mind during one such unplanned bivy on the slopes of La Plata Peak. It was four in the morning—too early or too late to be thinking of drinking?—and I knew several hours stood between me and a Crank Yanker.

My partner and I had woken to my alarm at 2:00 and quickly prepared to start climbing Ellingwood Ridge, a long and committing route which our guidebook promised would offer some spicy fourth-class moves. Our kitchen was a few hundred yards from our campsite, and my memory of its location hung like pea-soup fog in the early morning air. We made cowboy coffee, choked down some granola, and were on our way by 2:30.

“Our way,” as it turned out, was not as easy to find as we’d anticipated. We’d counted the game trails on the way up to our campsite the afternoon before, but in the disorienting darkness, we quickly lost what we thought was the trail to the base of the ridge.

An hour later, near a noisy stream—prime bear real estate, and we’d already seen fresh scat that morning—we finally made an unpleasant decision: this would not be our day to summit. Instead, unsure of our location, we settled in for an unplanned bivy until sunrise, when we knew we could find the trail and our tent again.

It was pleasant, as bivvies go. We drank the rest of our coffee, shared a bag of politically incorrectly-named but delicious “Oriental Mix,” laughed and listened for critters in the thick darkness around us.

The sun finally rose, revealing black bear tracks overlaying our own from earlier in the morning. Slightly shaken, we resolved to find our camp and regroup. Our senses restored by the soft morning light, we arrived at our campsite an embarrassingly short twenty minutes later.

We didn’t have much time to feel sheepish for our morning misadventure, however; directly in front of our tent lay a pile of moments-old bear scat, its accompanying tracks headed for our kitchen.

A stellar view eases the sting of a summit left unclimbed. Also, the promise of beer helps.
A stellar view eases the sting of a summit left unclimbed. Also, the promise of beer helps.

“Well,” I began, feigning cheerfulness, “We’re not camping here again tonight.”ย While I am of the philosophy that black bears are basically giant raccoons—interested in your garbage but essentially harmless unless threatened—I didn’t relish the idea of startling one in the wee hours. (Our food cache, hung high in a ponderosa pine near our kitchen, was luckily untouched by our ursine neighbors.)

This brings us to the Eddyline, where my partner and I discussed the disaster that had been our morning and made plans for the following day over Crank Yankers. The bartender, amused by our enthusiastic retelling of the alpine-start-cum-bear-boondoggle and a climber himself, suggested a number of less committing objectives given our limited remaining time in the Sawatch.

Twenty minutes to the turnoff for Winfield, another thirty down a winding dirt road, and three miles of rough 4WD deposited us at the base of Huron Peak, and we were soon reconnoitering in the Huron Basin, readying for an ascent of Ice Mountain. Due to its proximity to a ranked Fourteener, Ice Mountain doesn’t get much traffic, even on a weekend, and there’s no particular trail to the top. It fit our criteria perfectly.

Tired and resigned to an eternity of alpine starts, we set to work finding a campsite near the trailhead. We had only about four hours until midnight, when we’d be up for another round of cowboy coffee. Then, with minimal gear and only our instincts and a vague idea of the usual route to guide us, we’d set off into the darkness for our objective—disaster-style.

Perfect.

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