Story and photos by Madeleine Ahlborn | firstname.lastname@example.org
THE San Luis Valley, as we all know, is wrapped by the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristos to the east. Both ranges have an abundance of adventure to offer. In this article you will hear from Logan Hjelmstad, Blaise Rosenberg, Curt Howell (audio) and Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue president Crystal Wilson. Continue reading to learn about adventures in the Sangre de Cristo alpine terrain, how to prepare yourself for a summer above tree-line, and a first hand look at the first ascent, “Fish in a Barrel,” the west face of Crestone Peak.
I first spoke with Logan Hjelmstad, who I have known for a few years now. Our first climb together was Saturday, April 30, on the west face of Crestone Peak. I initially asked Logan a few questions over email to share his experience growing up in Colorado and his life outdoors.
Alamosa Citizen: Can you talk a little bit about your history and background as an outdoor steward and your climbing experience? Where and when did it all start for you?
Logan Hjelmstad: I was fortunate enough to grow up with a father that supported and developed my love of the mountains at a young age. Some of my earliest memories outside are of scrambling around on the sandstone formations of Garden of the Gods. I climbed my first peaks around Colorado Springs at age 7 and I climbed my first 14er at age 10. Climbing 14ers was where my love of the alpine all started for me, but in 2015 at the age of 20 I finished all 58 of them and I quickly had to find new ways to enjoy the mountains. As Colorado and my childhood home on the front range expanded, I learned very quickly about the benefits of treading lightly in the outdoors. I began seeing some of my favorite trails turn into cement sidewalks, litter became more common than wildlife, and my favorite places quickly became overcrowded and overused. The 14ers were no longer the remote endeavor they used to be and to get the feel of exploration I had when I was a kid, the terrain and consequences of being there had to grow along with me.
AC: You recently climbed Willow Lake Falls above Crestone. Have you climbed it in past seasons or was this a first time? What was your experience?
LH: The dry winter of 2018 was the first time I saw Willow Falls frozen, it was January, there was no snow on the ground, and the lake was covered in crystal-clear ice. That day, a friend and I were actually on our way up to climb Mt. Adam’s west ridge when I saw the falls. Upon arriving back home that evening I immediately contacted my climbing mentor Curt (Howell) and asked if he was willing to go up the next day to try and climb it with me. At the time, neither of us had the confidence to lead something that tall and steep so we opted to hike around to the top and climb it on top rope. That was a great choice, as I fell about half way up. Four years ago, something that difficult felt far out of reach for my skills, but after letting the climb haunt me for so long I finally felt I had the experience to come back this year and climb it on lead and without falling.
AC: In a previous article, both Stephen Cline and Curt Howell mentioned your name in their (ice) climbing endeavors. Can you speak a little about the climbing community in The San Luis Valley?
LH: The Valley has such a wonderful and diverse climbing community that consists of some of the most genuine and accepting people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. We are one of the few rural communities in Colorado and the Southwest to have our own climbing organization (SLV Climbers Alliance) whose focus is to improve
climbing access and education for everyone interested in participating. It is never difficult to find climbing partners to go out with to one of the dozen or so sport climbing crags in the area and oftentimes it turns into groups of us if we go out on the weekends. Still very few of us that are part of the climbing community identify as ice climbers or alpinists, so I would say in that regard that we are a rare breed.
AC: Where are some of your favorite places to climb? (either established routes or backcountry ascents) Where do you dream of going? Do you have trips planned for 2022?
LH: The Crestones (Challenger Pt, Kit Carson Mtn, Columbia Pt, Crestone Peak, and Crestone Needle) host some of the most impressive alpine rock in the state and is a relatively unexplored playground for visionary alpinists. I have dreams of putting up a first ascent on the west face of Crestone Peak, a nearly 2,000-foot wall that, to my knowledge, has been unexplored until recent years. This fall, my main objective is to climb the Diamond on Longs Peak, the renowned east face of the 14,000-foot peak, which serves as a test piece for climbers looking to push their skills in the alpine.
AC: The Sangre de Cristo range, as you stated, offers numerous hikes into alpine terrain. As an experienced alpinist, what is some advice you would give to someone who wants to push their limit in more advanced terrain? Where would you recommend they seek additional information i.e websites, guide books, etc.
LH: For someone interested in getting into alpinism, I would say it’s important to be patient and start small. Becoming at home in alpine terrain takes time and practice, so the best way to get better at it is just to go out and do it! Though, it is so important to remember that it is always OK to back down from a challenge. The mountains will always be there and there will always be a better day down the road.
The Sangre de Cristo range, and the alpine in general, is a dangerous place and should always be given the utmost respect. The adage of “know before you go” is a good starting point for venturing into the alpine, but the key to becoming an experienced alpinist, which I will be the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn, is knowing where your limits are before you get there. Mistakes happen in the mountains, usually not because someone was unprepared, but because they pushed themselves beyond their limit and chose to keep going or didn’t know before it was too late. Another great way to help mitigate that risk is to find a partner to hold you accountable and keep you focused on, not only your safety, but theirs as well.
14ers.com and Mountain Project are a great place to do research, but the Sangres are a very remote range that don’t see much traffic, and therefore it is really easy to get into terrain that people don’t know a lot about. As far as climbing and mountaineering skills, I learned a lot from “Freedom of the Hills,” which is regarded as the mountaineers bible.
Saturday, April, is when Logan climbed the falls at Willow Lake with his partner, Blaise Rosenberg. I was also able to ask her a few questions about her experience.
Alamosa Citizen: You recently went on a trip to Willow Lake Falls with Logan Hjelmstad, was this your first experience climbing ice?
Blaise Rosenberg: No, this was not my first ice climbing experience. The first time I had a chance to ice climb was in high school at the Ouray Ice Park. My high school, an alternative school, took us on a trip up there to try it out. That was in 2010 I had not done it since. However, I recently started to get into it because of my partner Logan.
AC: The trail to Willow Lake is not a hop, skip and a jump from the town of Crestone, not to mention hauling ice climbing gear. How long was the approach and what were the essentials you brought in your pack?
BR: The hike up took us five hours! It was a challenge because there was still a lot of snow on the ground. There was a lot of breaking trail that drained my energy. Cheese and crackers are my go-to for hiking snacks and I was grateful to have the fuel because I was very tired when we finally got to the falls. Charcuterie saved me. Another essential was waterproof boots. Without them, my feet would have been very wet and cold. One essential I wish I had brought was sunscreen. I put some on my face before we started, but it was not enough to defend me from the reflection of the sun off the snow. My face and lips were fried when we got back to the car. The alpine sun is no joke.
AC: What are some highlights/favorite moments of the trip?
BR: The highlight for me was to support another person achieving their long-held goal. Logan told me a while back that he has wanted to climb this route for years. This was also an experience that I never thought I would be able to do personally. But amazing things happen when you work as a team.
AC: As the weather warms up, do you have other alpine trips in mind to climb?
BR: I aim to do the triple triverse of Lyndsey, Blanca, and Little Bear this summer. In addition, I hope to climb Challenger or the Crestone Needle.
WHEREVER you choose to explore this summer it is imperative to know what you are getting into, the skill levels of the people you go with, and being prepared for unexpected challenges. Debrief meetings before a climb or hike to make sure everyone is on the same page is a great way to plan and communicate potential risks of the route you are taking.
Ask questions: What is the route? Is there a high level of exposure? What is the weather going to be like? Potential ice or rock fall? Who will have a first aid kit?
Has the team climbed/hiked together in the past? (this may seem like a strange question but knowing/learning how people respond to long hikes/climbs, elevation change, and potential physical and mental stress can be challenging if you’ve never experienced it before).
Mountaineering, Freedom of the Hills: Part 5: Leadership, Safety, and Rescue recommends the following:
- Plan: Assess leadership, Research area and route, Craft itinerary, Set a safe margin, assess party members.
- Prepare: Ensure skills, work on fitness, prepare equipment, Check weather forecast.
- Climb: Recognize hazards, avoid hazards, mitigate outcomes.
Another great resource/worksheet to help assess risk and organize your hiking/climbing team is a risk calculation worksheet GAR (Green, Amber, Red). Many organizations, including local search and rescue team, AVSAR, use this worksheet to plan as a team.
ON Saturday, April 30, I had the opportunity to embark on the expedition Logan had mentioned earlier – the west face of Crestone Peak. There was a good window in the weather and both Logan and Curt Howell were well-prepared for the first ascent of a direct route to the summit. In May 2021 Hjelmstad and Howell climbed a mixed route (ice and rock) of the couloir (the red line in the picture) and summited Crestone Peak; as far as they know, this route was also a first ascent they now call “Fish and Chips.” Logan said they chose this name because the snow gave the impression of a fish tail.
“Fish in a Barrel” was decided as a play on their previous route.
Logan, Curt and I carpooled to the Cottonwood Creek trailhead in Crestone. We sorted gear, did final checks on all that we needed and away we went into the woods at 6:30 a.m. Passing giant boulders, fallen trees, and listening to the faint sound of the creek, we ascended above the trees into the basin where the west wall presented itself.
Logan and Curt have been climbing together before, so I listened and made observations of their conversations. A monocular was passed around to see the cracks in the wall to find the line where we would climb. In this kind of terrain and the endurance needed to summit they found a line that rated between 5.8 and 5.9 all the way up.
WE hiked over the hard-packed snow to the base of the wall and looked up. It was around noon and we decided that Curt would lead the majority of the route, an estimated 15 pitches each at 100 feet, and Logan would lead the final push to the summit. I got into the mindset of taking it one pitch at a time and reminded myself to just keep breathing.
The first section was roughly 400 feet, then we traversed a large third-class snow patch with a technique called short roping (the leader acting as the anchor for the second climber) and stomped out a belay platform to begin the second section of the wall. It was a thousand feet of looking up, focused and intentional movement, spotting one another, and yes, still breathing (which became more labored in the higher altitude). We moved slowly but safely, taking short rests when we needed and had smooth and clean transitions between pitches. The last section was more short roping. We all felt comfortable in the slightly lower-angle terrain and moved as a team to the summit.
The time on rock was about seven hours, more time than I have ever spent tied in and climbing rock, but so grateful for the opportunity to learn from such proficient, experienced, and knowledgeable individuals.
This short video gives an overview of our day:
It is not recommended to be on any summit of any Peak so late in the day/evening. To rewind for a moment, around 4:30 p.m. we were still a ways away from the summit and we talked about our game plan. We decided, as a team, to continue on because we had a plan of our descent into the “Fish and Chips” couloir back to the face of the headwall. The weather was good, we all felt good, so we continued.
THE initial down climb off the summit to the ridge was a little “spicy,” as Logan would say. All this time we were short-roped with Logan feeding rope from the summit. Curt went first, then me, and Logan third. We down-climbed two sections of the ridge before we found our first rappel station where Curt lassoed a horn (a very large rock in the shape of a horn).
Stacked gear and ropes deployed, one by one we rappelled to a ledge where Curt had found great cracks to hammer in pitons (metal anchor material) for our second and final rappel into the “Fish and Chips” couloir.
By 8 p.m. we were off rope and off rock and waist deep in snow hiking down using an ice tool in hand and the plunge-step technique for solid footing. There were some moments of “spiciness” as we had to cross rock and ice traversing back to our original location at the base of the headwall to retrieve my pack. After changing gloves, taking off harnesses and repacking rock pro, it was finally time to begin the approximate 4.5-mile hike out back to the trailhead, where we arrived at approximately 1:30 a.m.
Needless to say, this was an incredibly big day. With a lot of effort, teamwork, and profound leadership, “Fish in a Barrel” is now a named route that was untouched before.
This is my first taste of alpinism, my first first ascent (as a participant) because the vision of the climb was that of Logan and Curt, and the first time I am able to share a story such as this.
Remember, know before you go, communicate with the team you climb/hike with (before and during), and make smart choices. Like Logan said, the mountains will always be there.
There is nothing wrong with calling it a day before you reach your goal. Make the smart choice for your safety and the safety of your team.
A note from Alamosa Search and Rescue President Crystal Wilson:
Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue (AVSAR) is an all-volunteer, nonprofit search and rescue team that operates in Alamosa County Colorado, primarily on the Blanca Massif in the Sangre de Cristo range. The Blanca Massif contains three of Colorado’s 14ers: Blanca Peak, Ellingwood Point and Little Bear Peak. As beautiful as these peaks are, none of the approaches are walk-ups. One of the primary approaches is Lake Como Road, which is rated one of the worst 4×4 roads in America. This road is especially treacherous. All three of these peaks require technical expertise and allow very little room for error. These peaks are very beautiful, very exposed and very hard-faced. AVSAR responds to calls in this area at all hours of the day. Hikers may find themselves off-route, in very technical terrain that they cannot get out of without assistance. And unfortunately, some tragically fall to their deaths in very exposed terrain. AVSAR is committed to investing countless hours into ensuring a safe passage home for those having their worst day in the back country and we are honored to continue serving our community and those who visit.
AVSAR collaborates with teams from other surrounding counties if mutual aid is needed on a mission in the Sangre De Cristo range. Not only do they respond to mutual aid missions but also invite, or are invited, to train with these teams outside of mission call outs. To read more about your local Search and Rescue team visit the website, or follow on Instagram @avsar.co
The small purchase of a $3 (1 year) or $12 (5 year) CORSAR card helps SAR teams from all over the state do their volunteer work in the mountains. This card does not get you “a free rescue” (because SAR teams, whatever the county, will respond to any hiker emergency). The CORSAR card does allow the SAR team to apply for reimbursement from funds spent on a mission call out. Learn more and purchase your card HERE.
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