Climber's sights set on Colorado peaks

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2005

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — No one has climbed all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks alone in one winter, and maybe for good reason, but Hamish Gowans of Colorado Springs is trying to become the first.

The 28-year-old climber, skier and sometimes Colorado College student has been scaling mountains since before he was born. His mother climbed a fourteener when she was seven months pregnant with him. Since then, he has bagged many of the classic technical rock routes in the state.

Now he hopes to complete the tour of the state's high peaks that he's dubbed the ''Fourteeneramma Gran' Slamma Winta Jamma'' with a sunrise ski up Pikes Peak in mid-February.

''I still have a long way to go; my success right now is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other,'' he said early this month while resting in Colorado Springs.

In December, the Colorado native quit his bartending job, moved out of his house, and started the ''winta jamma'' with an ascent of Long's Peak. He succeeded, but lost two toenails to frostbite.

''It got really cold up there; my hands and feet were completely numb,'' he said.

He kept climbing through Christmas on Grays and Torreys peaks, and New Year's on Mount Antero. As of Monday, he had topped 17 summits, but the most dangerous peaks await.

Earlier this month, Lou Dawson, the first person to ski every Colorado fourteener (it took him 13 years) posted this message about Gowans on his WildSnow Web site.

''Winter fourteeners can be tough — a lot tougher than most people realize. The weather can be Arctic, snow conditions vary from bottomless sugar to icy boilerplate, the days are short, trailheads are farther from the peaks.

''You've got to admire Hamish for what he's done so far, and cheer him on,'' he wrote.

Gowans has a blog on Dawson's site where he updates his progress.

Avalanches are the biggest danger, he said.

Gowans scheduled his climbs so he will hit the drier eastern mountains before too much snow piles up, then swing over to the southwestern peaks once a settling snowpack has lowered the risk of slides. Even with careful planning, he said, ''my biggest fear is that bad avalanche conditions will shut me down.''

Gowans has already been shut down several times. Last year, he came down with viral pneumonia. This year, he has been more serious about training and organization.

But even on the initial easy mountains, he's had some close calls, due in part to his dedication to carry as little as possible so he can move quickly.

Gowans generally only wears ski boots, long underwear, a windproof layer, gloves and a hat, and carries an extra jacket, water, energy bars, a small headlamp, goggles, lightweight hiking boots and a camera in his backpack.

He can move fast because he's not loaded down, but it also leaves him vulnerable if for some reason he has to stop. While climbing Mount Shavano, for example, he stashed his skis in what he thought was an obvious spot at tree line and hoofed it to the top.

On his way down in the dark, he couldn't find them with his headlamp so he spent the night without a sleeping bag on the slope, convinced that mountain goats had run off with his gear.

''I was in this little snow hole using my tennis shoes as a pillow,'' he said. ''I spent hours cursing those goats.''

At dawn he found the skis.

He never considered that he'd die that night. And he doesn't dwell on the prospect of meeting his maker on any of the peaks he has left.

''It's silly to think about it now,'' he said. ''When I get that prickly sensation at the edge of my comfort zone, then I will make an honest assessment of my capabilities and decide what to do.''

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