By Greg Mionske
My cell phone rips out a startling harmony and stirs me from my slumber. I flip open the nagging device. Rob Gonzalez-Pita is on the other end with the dangerous question.
“You still wanna go?”
I hesitate, momentarily thinking of what a reply of “no” would yield: at least five more hours of sleep in a warm bed and filling meals throughout the day, interlaced with steaming cups of black coffee. It all seems so sweet.
“Yeah, let’s do it.”
Coffee, orange juice, and an egg scramble later, Rob and I head off toward Mt. Evans, hoping to climb The Road (WI3 M4), a recently established route that cuts through the left side of a rock buttress just above Chicago Lake.
Reluctant to leave the warmth of Rob’s truck at the Echo Lake trailhead, we boot up as if we had never put shoes on before and then continue to fine-tune things that need not be fine-tuned. At last, at 6:15 a.m., we lock the truck doors and skirt around Echo Lake on our way to the Chicago Creek Trail. For the first half-mile or so, we simply enjoy the downhill grade. Banter about our upcoming trip to Chile is muffled by the crunch of snow under our boots.
After a couple of hours of walking, we are standing by the frozen glimmers of Chicago Lake, looking up a snow-covered hill to a rock buttress that’s steep and clean in the center. The ice on The Road looks to be nearing the end of its life cycle. Luckily, a rope length to the right, there’s a beautiful-looking line with numerous icefalls connected by steep mixed sections. After some convincing, Rob agrees that it would be pretty cool to tick a first ascent in the mountains, and we agree to try.
As we approach the lower slabs, the route’s angle eases, and what appeared to be steep and difficult from afar now looks manageable and fun. We enter the main corner system unroped, bypassing low-angle smears for a steeper section 10 meters higher.
I delicately pick my way across this smear, shouldering tools for style points at every opportunity. After placing a short screw, I pull a bulge into a small alcove, and then mantel out sans tools. Another short icefall brings me to tough mixed section, where I implement the good ol’ stein pull—whether or not it was necessary, it was still cool—and then stretch our 70-meter rope to a belay on a large terrace.
We move the belay right to start the second pitch. Rob climbs moderately steep, black granite, dotted with marginal pick placements. The moves are excellent and require ultimate precision with both tools and crampons. Atop the mixed section, ice flows down from above, and Rob happily swings away. A while later I hear “off belay” from above, as chunks of snow and ice whiz by my belay.
I take the lead again and climb two short ice steps to the base of a steep wall. Pick, pick, kick, kick. I place a screw and continue upward, chimneying against a rock flake for good rests as I climb the vertical ice. Pulling over the ice bulge brings me to a mess of scree and rubble. I build a belay and holler down to Rob, who responds with a loud whoop. The technical climbing is over, but we are far from finished.
I suddenly begin to feel exhausted. The next 500 feet of scrambling feels like an eternity, most likely because I’ve had only 200 calories since breakfast. At the ridge, we join the Mt. Evans road at mile-marker seven and begin mindlessly walking down the paved path. We share few words and eventually find a rhythm that steadily chips away at the mileage. Our toes slam against the fronts of our boots with each driving step. Winds sweep up from the valleys to east and burn our faces. The day’s last rays poke over the Divide.
Finally, we cut straight off a switchback in the road and head in the direction of Echo Lake. Animal trails turn into snowshoe trails and visa versa. Eventually, we emerge onto the frozen rim of Echo Lake, and in the snow-blown landscape we slide across the hardened lake back to the warmth of Rob’s truck and the two Snickers bars waiting inside.
Concrete Shoes Won’t Help Ya in da River (III, WI4- M4+), likely first ascent, Rob Gonzalez-Pita and Greg Mionske, December 5, 2009. Greg Mionske, 22, is a photographer and journalism student at CU-Boulder. His photography website is www.gregmionske.com.