Palmyra Peak 13,320'

January 17, 2003

Dave Svilar


Route as seen from Bald Hill.

How about this for an approach: walk out the front door of my apartment (9,200'), take four ski lifts (to 11,800') and start climbing.  The one wrinkle was dealing with the ski patrol.  Ducking a rope at Telluride can cost you a ski pass, so I descended a couple of hundred feet to the backcountry gate and made a few tracks in the snow.  While working for a month at the base of Palmyra I hadn't seen anyone try to climb it, so was concerned I may catch the attention of the ski patrol.

My cubicle for two days per week.  Palmyra in the background.

After making the tracks to prove I had used the backcountry gate I returned to the shack at the top of lift 12.  My co-worker who was manning the shack had the appearance of a typical "liftie."  Even though it was 9:30 a.m. his eyes were blood shot, slurred speech, and overall level of motivation nearly zero.  Could this lift operator be under the influence of an illegal substance?  Do one-legged ducks swim in circles?  Is the pope Catholic?

"Hey man, where you going?"  I pointed up towards Palmyra which towers above the lift shack and waited a few seconds for his delayed response, ".... wow."  A typical lift operator smokes so much cigarettes and pot, that just walking up a flight of stairs seems like an incredible test of endurance.

I dropped my snowboard and boots at the lift shack in the capable hands of my co-worker then started out across the ridge in my new snowshoes and climbing boots towards Palmyra.  Staring at the mountain everyday while running the lifts I had climbed it thirty times in my head already.  The snowpack in the San Juan Mountains that make up southwestern Colorado is considered by avalanche experts to be the most unstable in the country.  Even so, I was finding it to be torture to live amongst all these mountains without being able to climb one of them.  Most of the route was wind scoured with only one potential place for avalanche danger, so the plan was to climb until things got sketchy.

Upon reaching a wind scoured ridge I was reminded that it was winter as my hands froze trying to take off my snowshoes.  The weather was typical Telluride - cold and clear.  Unfortunately I was on a northwest aspect, so the shadows kept the temperatures near 0 F forcing my hands down the front of my pants (the only place to find true warmth).  Ascending the wind swept and frozen scree was easy, allowing me to focus on the views looking down on Prospect Basin below.

By looking at the route I figured the only thing that could stop me was a section of 30-35 snow that if it should slide, had a long runout.  I tried to tackle it without snowshoes, but soon regretted it as I sank into chest-deep powder.  I squirmed in the snow that felt like quick sand trying to get my snowshoes on, finally accomplishing the task making my hands as cold as ever.  Even with my snowshoes I sank in knee deep, but at least now I was making progress.  I didn't dig a pit, but the snow seemed safe, so I continued all the way to a windblown snow arete at the notch below the summit block. 

Snow arete beneath the summit.  My tracks are visible on the left of ridge.

The summit block proved to be the most difficult part of the climb as I tried three or four different options to climb the final 70 feet.  All options were climb-able, but involved loose, exposed, snow-covered rock.  I didn't feel like falling, so searched for 25 minutes in vain.  Finally, I traversed to the other side of the block and swept snow off the rock unveiling a bolt that was probably used by summer climbers for belays and rappels.  Sweeping away the snow also revealed a deep icy crack, which I sunk my right hand into.  Using the index finger of my left hand to grip the bolt and jamming the crack I swung over the step and onto the summit. 

The summit was in the sun and seemed warm compared to the rest of the climb, so I took my time to soak in the views and snap a couple of pictures.  With skiers seemingly directly below me in the Prospect Basin I felt obligated to make my presence known, so let out what used to be my signature Banshee scream.  Having finally gone through puberty at the age of 23 my scream was ineffective and probably went unheard by the skiers and my stoned co-worker below.

Looking from the summit of Palmyra across the corniced ridge towards an unnamed peak.


Breaking for lunch on the way back down.

Besides stopping for lunch the descent was mostly unmemorable.  Upon returning to the lift shack to pick up my snowboard and boots the stoned co-worker greeted me, "Hey dude.  Did you go somewhere?"  I didn't feel like repeating myself, so changed boots, strapped on my board and made the 4.5 mile, 2,600 foot descent back to my dorm via the Galloping Goose ski run. 

At the end of a climb it should be dark, I should be tired, and it should be time to go to bed.  Right?  Wrong.  This is Telluride and the mountains are close and when you arrive home there are still things to do.  It was only 1:30 p.m. when I arrived back at my room, so I grabbed a quick bite, jumped on the gondola into town and went ice climbing (bouldering) until dark in Bear Creek.  After dinner I capped my day with a night on the town.  The next morning I returned to work with the satisfaction of having finally bagged a Colorado summit.

-written January 2003

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