Let’s say someone was making a movie about Chris Fisher’s attempt to become only the second person to climb all the 14ers in one winter season and maybe even be the fastest to do it. Fisher, surely, would decide to do it a year in advance, and then you’d have a training montage, probably set to the “Rocky” soundtrack, right?
Perfect, except that’s not how Fisher works. He decided to go for it three weeks before he began.
When he listened to a podcast of Andrew Hamilton talking about his winter climbing record, something he accomplished while balancing fatherhood, that was enough.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
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“I just go with the flow,” Fisher said in an interview. “Everything is just go and do things. I’m a last-minute decision-maker. He did it with a family and a full-time job. I don’t have kids or a job.”
Three weeks isn’t long enough for any sort of montage, not even one set to “Eye of the Tiger.”
Fisher, as a result, had his doubters. He wasn’t well known in the 14ers world. He hadn’t even climbed half of the 14ers in the summer. He hadn’t climbed any in the San Juans, one of the tougher ranges. His partner, Erin Ton, had climbed all of them, but he lost her experience halfway through the journey, when she got frostbite and a doctor told her to decide between Fisher or losing her thumb.
But Fisher is athletic — he played college football for a year before he broke his ankle — and he is a good scrambler and expert backcountry skier. And maybe he didn’t need time for a montage because he already had a good one: He broke the world record in October 2021 for climbing the most “vert” in a month. That’s more than 400,000 feet, or far more than the vertical feet he’d have to climb to do the 14ers, regardless of whether they were snow covered or not.
“After the vert record, I knew I had that mindset,” Fisher, 27, of Breckenridge, said. “I could grind day in and day out. At least that part was doable.”
He also had passion, something Ton loved about him, and that kind of devil-may-care attitude that could send most 30-something dudes with a wife and young children into early midlife crisis. Fisher’s vert record got him some sponsor money, so he had the luxury to just go for the record instead of worrying about a job, something that leaves him infinitely grateful. His biggest life decision while he chased the record was trading in his truck for a van that gave him an extra layer of comfort in bitter temperatures the nights before he would go to climb.
He knew it wasn’t going to be easy: He calls Hamilton “the man,” as most do, given that Hamilton also owns the more-coveted overall 14ers speed record (it’s nine days, 21 hours and 51 minutes, which is, scientifically, insane). Fisher wouldn’t have to do anything close to that, as Hamilton’s winter record was 84 days.
Even so, the difference between climbing the 14ers in the summer and the winter compares to the difference between, say, the Chicago Marathon and the Barkley Marathon, or Pikes Peak with, oh, maybe Mount Everest. It’s a big deal to climb all of them in a lifetime, and a supermassive black hole deal to climb them all in the winter over a lifetime. Only one person had climbed all 59 in one winter season, and that was Hamilton. It’s generally not a good idea to emulate Hamilton.
Fisher would have to climb in many subzero days, in deep snow, by routes that aren’t marked, practically every day, without an easy chance at a rescue if he got hurt.
Even with all that, despite him knowing it would be a slog, his first, up Shavano, was an eye-opener, when it took him three times as long to summit than it would in the summer with clear trails.
“That’s when it sunk in how much suffering there was going to be,” Ton said. “But I also knew that once he set his mind to it, he wouldn’t stop.”
No free rides
Climbing in winter means many difficult things, but one of the hardest is forgoing the luxury of the trailhead.
“That caught me by surprise,” Hamilton said in an interview. “I remember when I was heading to Sneffels and thinking, ‘Whoa, the road stops here?’”
Those watching over the trailheads, whoever that might be, aren’t going to plow dirt roads full of snow for the few who want to tackle 14ers in the winter. This can add miles — and hours — to the approach.
The common standard routes may not be the best winter routes, so finding the best way up is a very real thing, and the best way can change depending on the snow. This also adds hours to an attempt. Hours are crucial in a season with just a few hours of daylight and nights that freeze flesh. And the challenging and constantly changing conditions make any attempt unpredictable. Scouring winds are common, it’s super cold, and the snow can be deep and, well, deadly, as avalanches kill more people in Colorado than lightning.
“The margin for error,” Hamilton said, “is much lower.”
During the winter of 2018, when Hamilton was trying to be the first to climb them all in one season, he got caught in a fierce windstorm on Holy Cross, a long but fairly gentle 14er, and spent some time cowering at 13,000 feet in the Notch Mountain Shelter near the summit. He tried to get going again and got lost for a bit. The harrowing experience showed how dangerous even the milder peaks could be in winter.
“That could have been really bad at night,” said Hamilton, who has summited 14,000-foot peaks more than 900 times. “I was doing some ridiculous days out there.”
But right away, there were good signs that Fisher was built for the attempt. He ditched the snowshoes early on and relied on his skiing ability to descend off peaks, which saved so much time that it made Hamilton wonder why he didn’t try that himself. Ton was blown away by his route-finding skills when Fisher could look up at what resembled a pile of whipped cream on jagged rocks, glance at his GPS watch and pick the right line up.
Fisher also already knew how to read avalanche conditions from his backcountry skiing experience, and he refused to push his luck. But he also was amazed at how often the conditions seemed to cooperate, even in this winter’s heavy snow. Avalanche conditions never turned him around, even if, a few times, they might have stymied mortals (more on that in a bit).
“I never thought I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I was building skills the whole time. I gained more winter experience than the majority ever do. It’s a super-fast class. But I also got pretty lucky the whole way.”
Even when Ton got frostbite and doctors told her to stop — which Fisher said “sucked” because Ton had climbed the difficult Little Bear and had bagged a couple other tough ones — it turned out to be OK because Fisher was a lot faster without her. Ton, today, says she wasn’t sure she’d be able to do the hardest ones anyway, such as the Maroon Bells, and she still managed to ski with him sometimes on the approaches. When she didn’t, Fisher wore a SPOT tracker. There were weeks, they said, when they wouldn’t see anyone else on the 14ers. Try doing that in the summer.
When it was obvious Fisher had a shot at it, Hamilton offered to help. Fisher could not only be the man, he now had help from the man.
Down to the last day
Hamilton believes the winter speed record can be done in 50 days. One season is possible for most really good climbers, if they don’t mind suffering. But you have to be lucky, too, because a storm can dump, leaving an area off-limits for a week.
Still, Fisher was doing so well that Hamilton, who began texting Fisher from the beginning, thought he had it in the bag. Fisher enjoyed “ridiculously good” snow conditions all through February, but as March went on, reality hit. Most of the peaks he had left were the so-called dirty dozen, and conditions had turned less than ideal. Fresh snow seemed to fall almost daily.
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The dirty dozen list won’t surprise anyone who knows the 14ers: It’s basically the Elks and most of the San Juans, the two ranges that nearly all would call the toughest. Hamilton said they’re difficult enough in winter to compare to Himalayan peaks.
Some days on the dozen definitely stand out, Fisher said. He managed to climb the Wilsons, in Telluride, by himself, including the Mount Wilson and El Diente traverse, but the way he did it meant he had to descend El Diente’s north face by skiing the steepest face he’d ever done.
“It was puckering,” Fisher said. “I remember thinking ‘Don’t fall or you won’t have a good time here.’”
Fisher did the Maroon Bells with Hamilton. They did the traverse, but even with that, it took 21 hours on a day with 50 mph winds. Fisher calls that day the most exhausting. The scariest, though, was definitely the last day, on Pyramid.
Pyramid gets overshadowed a bit by its fellow Elks, the Bells and Capitol, but it’s no joke, a class 4 scramble with a route that looks more like a steep, broken maze with several exposed spots. A week after the Bells, the snow was relentless until a window appeared to open on a March 18, two days before the first day of spring. In those last few weeks, Hamilton said, FOX31 Meteorologist Chris Tomer, who specializes in mountain forecasting, was a huge help in identifying windows that would allow for relatively safe climbing.
When they looked over at Pyramid from the Bells, it looked sketchy at best, and they were hoping to climb in between storm systems.
Hamilton, like many Star Wars characters, had a bad feeling about Pyramid, and he was so nervous before the climb that he spent a couple hours rereading the instructions on his avalanche beacon.
The day of the climb, Hamilton and Fisher went with two other experienced mountaineers and trudged and skied up fresh snow to a ridgeline on a cold morning, where they could look down onto the amphitheater on the north side of Pyramid. Hamilton began walking up the ridge, and a crack shot forward 15 feet in front of him, sloughing the snow off the slope. He’d just triggered an avalanche.
It was puckering. I remember thinking ‘Don’t fall or you won’t have a good time here.’
— Chris Fisher
It wasn’t a big deal, as a ridge is where you want to be in those conditions, but it was a bad sign. Sure enough, they found themselves staring up at the last 1,000 feet to the top when Fisher stepped into a gully and triggered a big slide.
“It’s actually reassuring when the snow slides out like that, because in a way you have removed the threat,” Hamilton said in his trip report on 14ers.com. “However, it makes you aware of how threatening all the snow is that is hanging around the ledges and couloirs.”
The slide told them their chosen ascent up the northwest face was out. They had no choice but to try to climb up a couloir. It looked safer, but there was still a lot of snow that could slide.
They pieced together the first section of the climb, which included some roped technical spots, and Fisher climbed them without gloves, which gave him some minor frostnip.
The next section, however, looked dangerous enough that their two partners decided to turn around.
Fisher probably would have turned around too in, say, January, but at this point, the stakes were high: Sunday wouldn’t change any of the conditions, and the day was beautiful and clear. It was now or next year and possibly never. Falling one short of the goal would, in a word, suck. Fisher decided to go on.
Hamilton went with Fisher only because he felt a responsibility for him and told Fisher it was 50-50 whether they made it or not.
“OK, man, let’s do this,” Hamilton said. “But we can’t die.”
Fisher described the next area as inching their way to a ledge and stomping the crap out of it to knock all the loose snow off. Rinse and repeat. It worked.
“It was full-on spooky,” Fisher said.
And yet, a final, dramatic piece remained. They were already winging it, and Hamilton knew of a gully that led to the summit, what he called the “mountain goat sneak.” It was the only way to go because they wanted to avoid the alternative, a dangerous traverse across a bowl that Fisher called “certain death.”
If the gully was full of snow, their climb was over, as heading up it would be suicide. But if it wasn’t …
“We’re going to make it!” Hamilton yelled to Fisher after seeing a clear path.
They hugged on the summit, and Hamilton congratulated Fisher on breaking his record. Fisher did it in 72 days, 13 hours and 11 minutes, or 12 days faster than Hamilton.
“This is what’s so great about Andrew,” Fisher said, who had met him just a few months before. “He doesn’t have any ego about his records. He just wants people to do cool things.”
Records are meant to be broken, Hamilton said, and one day, someone will break Fisher’s.
“But that will never take anything away from what he was able to accomplish this year,” Hamilton said.
Fisher has more goals, including the big peaks in the Himalayas, all 14 8,000-meter peaks, that kind of thing. He’s not sure what he will do next. He’s usually not even sure what he’ll do tomorrow. But he is sure of one thing: This wasn’t about the record.
“This was the greatest journey of my life,” he said.