Trip Journaling — Today We Go Retro — A Tale of Challenger Peak

Post by blogger | October 23, 2007      
Challenger Peak, Colorado. North side.

Challenger Peak, Colorado. North side.

The photo was taken by early Fourteener skiing pioneers during aerial reconnaissance in the 1980s. Howie and Mike Fitz and Bob Pfeiffer skied more than 40 fourteeners and were trying to get them all. They had a pact to ski together, and when Howie’s knees gave out they called it quits. These guys were super helpful during my ski-the-teeners project, and shared all their photos. This one really inspired, though I ended up doing my Kit Carson descent down the other side. Davenport skied the Outward Bound Couloir, connecting via a route that’s on the other side from the photo view. My journal entry below is for the “Kirk Couloir,” which I named after my first orthopaedic surgeon Rodny Kirk, who was killed in a plane crash some years ago.

(A brief digression to the department of orthopaedic recreation
While writing about Kirk I had to chuckle to myself because I’m on my fourth surgeon. After Rodney, I procured the skills of a guy up in Seattle who was doing some radical stuff at the time, then switched to a gentleman in Colorado who retired a few years ago, probably off all the money he made from my insurance company. Guy I’m seeing now seems to be doing a good job of keeping me going — and he sure makes a lot of money from our insurance — not to mention the co-pays… groan.)

Backcountry skiing trip journal.
The object at hand, a trip journal from 20 years ago written while doing my ski the fourteeners project.

One of my biggest life disappointments is that I failed to journal things like my first NOLS course or that big Denali expedition back in my day. Now, even though I sometimes even get paid to write and most often enjoy it, I’ll confess that a series of swift kicks to the rear are what I usually need to journal a trip. So after self administering a few of such, I usually keep some sort of log when I’m doing any trip more significant than my day-to-day.

Now those little books tucked away in my file cabinets and memento boxes have become as precious as the alpine breezes and scrappy mountains they describe. They easily evoke positive emotions that are more powerful than I probably should admit. More, my family will have them when I’m gone and hear about the things that made my life whole and complete, just as we presently enjoy letters and other writings from past relatives.

On lesson I’ve learned is that I need to remind myself that creating a trip log or journal is like making a deposit in an emotional bank. Later on in life, perhaps when things get tough, you can dig up those words and cash in. Years later, someone else might do so as well.

Inspired by Chris Davenport’s new 14er skiing book that’ll soon be on the shelves and includes some of his excellent trip reportage, I thought I’d share a vintage ski mountaineering journal entry from back in 1989. That’s back in the days before there was an internet as we know it, when my sharing anything in writing about my adventures meant doing so in a rare magazine article, or perhaps a guidebook that would appear years later.

This particular entry is from when I was skiing all the 14ers, and nailing the occasional “bonus peak” for guidebook research and because some looked worth their own day if plans had to be adjusted due to weather or lack of energy for bigger climbs to the real 14er summits. In this case, bonus summit is Challenger Peak, a point west of 14er Kit Carson that was named in honor of the Challenger space shuttle astronauts who lost their lives. Challenger definitely doesn’t count as a 14er even though the top is about 14 (because it’s just a point on a ridge), but it’s a cool climbing goal and a nice ski descent. The day was intense because I went solo, into a storm. A few words from my journal bring it all back to me. Yeah, it’s just some scribbles, but they work like magic to dredge up those fine memories.

4-12-89 — Challenger Peak North Face

Slept in late, till 5:00 AM, then did the slow drive from Alamosa to Crestone with time for breakfast and loading the truck. Didn’t get moving from the trailhead ’till 8:00, late, but it was cold and stormy, not a thaw day.

What a slog up Willow Creek! I put my head down like a pack mule and had it out with the first 2,000 vertical — walked the dirt in my randonnee boots — ouch.

The clouds were dropping and it was snowing like crazy. I knew I couldn’t make it to upper Willow to do the O.B. couloir off Kit Carson, but a “proposed” route that Howie and Mike Fitz and Bob Pfieffer had told me about was penciled in on my map and looked intriguing; a stunning couloir that cut up to lookers right of Carson and topped out just a few feet from the summit of Challenger.

The map showed it being steep. It was.

There was about four inches of new snow, so to avoid getting blasted by a big slough or worse I worked a climbing line under the left hand cliffs, out of the gut. The clouds dropped down to a point about halfway up the couloir, so I literally front pointed my way up to the clouds.

Got to the summit saddle tired but still enthusiastic, and decided to first explore that side of Kit Carson a bit, thinking there might be a secret ski route that might get me a 14er descent. No such luck, so back to the saddle, then a quick walk up to Challenger summit.

It was still snowing and blowing and all I had on was a pair of wet lycra tights. Had to change up there in the wind & storm. What a pain: Boots off, pants off! Got it done.

Then dived into a complete white-out in the couloir. Realized there was too much avy danger, as well as fall potential because of vertigo, so I hugged the rock wall as long as I could then traversed into the less steep section. All this time I’d been knocking off sluffs that would disappear into the clouds below me.

Finally, I got down to the apex of the bowl and breathed a sigh of relief, but only a short sigh, because here the small sloughs I’d triggered above had deposited enormous piles of snow. I could only wonder if more would be coming down, to the exact spot where I stood.

So I booked it down to the drainage where dirt walking began. I was glad that was over! I’ll also be glad with I’ve skied all these 14ers — that is some goal I set for myself… a bit more than I bargained on…

The walk-out from Willow was more slog action. But I did enjoy the smell of spring down in the forest — and enjoyed calling Lisa — miss her dearly. Seems to me I’d never make a good traveling worker, always too homesick.

Back at truck 4:30 P.M.

The nuts and bolts of journaling a trip are not of much importance, but worth a few words. I favor a ball point pen just because they work better with my stiff fingers. If you use a pen, just make sure it is waterproof (test at home). I’ve journaled on the back of an envelope, and used the margins of topo maps for quick backcountry skiing notes. Neither are recommended, however, as the maps tend to get used up and unbound paper literally falls through the cracks. Instead, I favor those small spiral bound notebooks you can find on any school supplies shelf at the store. The medium size 5×8 inch version works well for major note taking, and at 3×5 inches the smaller version fits in the vest pocket of my collared sun shirts or the hip pocket of my favorite soft shell pants. When a trip is over, they fit nicely in my files or live on my desk while I’m writing.

Blog readers, do you journal? What’s your take on the process?


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16 Responses to “Trip Journaling — Today We Go Retro — A Tale of Challenger Peak”

  1. Andrew October 23rd, 2007 9:03 am

    Lycra? Any photos to prove it?

    I use a “Rite in the Rain” book from J.L. Darling Corporation. I started getting them at REI, but ended up buying them direct from the source in a 12 pack. As the name implies, they have waterproof paper, which is also stiff enough to withstand pocket/pack abuse. The covers are plastic, which is nice for holding stickers, but you can also make a pen holder out of it by cutting horizontal slots in the back cover and use them to clip a pen into.

    I use the 4 5/8 x 7″ version, which fits perfectly into a jacket pocket and is big enough for my sloppy writing. I also like the spiral bound as you can rip pages out if need be and turn it inside out so it is flat when you right on it.

    For pens, just about anything will work, but I prefer a Mirco Point Sharpie.

  2. Tony October 23rd, 2007 9:06 am

    Lou, thanks for an exciting trip report. If you had the wisdom of age and the family situation you are in now, but were still as physically fit and technically sound as you were 1989, would any of your decisions on this trip been different? It certainly sounds more hairy than anything I would consider, but I am a light weight poweder hound, not really a ski mountaineer.

  3. BJ Sbarra October 23rd, 2007 9:13 am

    Thanks for sharing Lou. I always enjoy going to back to old journals, and reading what I was thinking and feeling at the time. I too have to remind myself not to be a slacker and actually take the time to write, because down the road I’ll wish I’d captured more of my thoughts about certain experiences. Good stuff.

  4. Craig October 23rd, 2007 10:35 am

    Hey Lou, what about culling through all those old journals and publishing a book of journal entries, almost like a book of songs of the mountains, each entry capturing a moment in time.
    That would be a very personal yet, I think, satisfying trip through time.
    Would probably be something all the readers would love to see.
    You could even do it as a regular weekly blog, or something like that.
    Craig in Cal

  5. Steve October 23rd, 2007 12:02 pm

    I agree with Andrew, that the Write In The Rain waterproof paper stands up to the elements. The company (JL Darling Corp) also has a modified Fischer Space Pen that never skips on a wet spot and is compact at about 3 1/2 ” when closed. I always carry both for notes on the climb, weather and photo reminders.


  6. Tom G October 23rd, 2007 2:41 pm

    I second Craig’s idea – this would be cool to read more of on the blog, especially of the fourteeners. Would be cool to compare Lou’s comments to Dav’s.

    For myself, I’ve been trying to journal things with photographs more and more. Not just taking the scenic view pics or action photos but photos of lunch or while skinning up or at the trailhead. Digital has made this easy and affordable. Next step for me would be to add captions. Or better yet, get one of the super small digital video cameras and start filming the days.

  7. Brittany October 23rd, 2007 6:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing your own journal! I find it very appropriate, because I think journals of the past are being replaced today by digital media such as this very blog itself!

    I find myself e-mailing my experiences to friends and family, and that is my reflection of my experience. In essence, it’s my way of journaling.

    Thanks for sharing your journal entry. I hope you’ll share more soon!

  8. Ryan October 23rd, 2007 10:54 pm

    I’ve never had much tenacity to keep up with a climbing journal. Have random notes from here and there in various journals.

    I second the idea of a Jump in the wayback machine journal entries.

    Also I’d like to see a pic of the mtn and the line you skied if possible

    Thanks as always Lou

  9. Lou October 24th, 2007 8:08 am

    Thanks guys, I’ll definitly do more posts like this and share photos if possible. I think I’ve got a shot of Challenger, I’ll look this morning and add to this post as today’s blog effort.

  10. Julin October 24th, 2007 12:07 pm

    Hi Lou,

    Regarding Flash Paper, I can view it with no problem, using OmniWeb on a Mac.

    Regarding journals, I keep a really minimalist spreadsheet with trip, people, weather, and brief comments. Not much, but it can help to jog the memory.

  11. Tom G October 24th, 2007 3:37 pm

    No problem viewing the picture with IE, seems like a cool way to view photos, although I’ve always liked the way you allowed viewers to download a larger high res version of many photos.

  12. Scott October 24th, 2007 10:02 pm

    I really enjoyed the vintage journal entry. Would like to read more of the same.

  13. Lou October 25th, 2007 6:19 am

    Tom, I’ll experiment with doing the old style of linking to enlarged photo vs using Flash Paper. It’ll probably end up being both. When I’m short on time I’ll just whip out the Flash Paper, when I’ve got more time I’ll do the enlarged version. And, when it’s something important such as a huge panorama, we’ll definitely provide the enlarged JPEG.

  14. Lou October 25th, 2007 6:29 am

    Tony, yeah, even if I was the same body as several decades ago I’d dial it back because of family responsibility. Life is about seasons…

  15. Nick October 25th, 2007 8:39 am

    Great post Lou, I’d also love to see more journal type entries if you’re willing to share them. So much to learn from them.

    As for my journal, I write a few sentences each day in a wall calendar. Great to look back at them and see what I was doing on this day years ago.

  16. Frank October 25th, 2007 10:34 pm

    Probably my favorite blog entry ever on this site, Lou, I would love to see more from your journals as well.

    Flash paper works well on Firefox.

    I thought for sure a supporter of Challenger as its’ own peak would give you a hard time, but I guess not. (Not a peak in my book either).

    I wish I had kept a journal on my 14er climbs back in HS. I’m sure I would find my viewpoints interesting all these years and experiences later. I kept a journal later on, but not lately. The TR’s that I have been doing lately should serve that purpose well, complete with photos.

    Keep up the good work.

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