Climb every mountain? Michael Rodenak did
Architect summits every 14er and 13er in Colorado
Michael Rodenak’s story is normal one: Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, he went on vacation to Colorado and decided to move here.
The only thing that gives him away is the staccato-like rat-a-tat with which he speaks when it comes to elevations.
Grand Traverse Peak in the Gore Range? 13,041 feet.
Star Peak near Crested Butte? 13,521 feet.
“I’ve logged a lot of mountains in 17 years,” Rodenak said. “I’ve looked at a lot of maps in 17 years.”
Now an architect at Zehren & Associates, Rodenak has been spending most of his weekends and vacation time since he moved here in 2004, climbing every 14er in the state, all 53 of them, not to mention every 13er, and by his count there are 584 of those.
And by tackling Star Peak on Sunday near Crested Butte — hiking up and bringing some boards to ski down to celebrate — Rodenak completed all 637 of them.
“It’s hard to tell from the Colorado Mountain Club. From their archives, it’s somewhere in the upper 40s of people who have climbed them all,” Rodenak said. “To be part of a group maybe that’s 50 at most is satisfying.”
It also begs the question of why? The existential answer is, “Because they’re there and Coloradans do things like this.” But for Rodenak, it became more.
Now 46, Rodenak started this quest by taking a vacation in 2002, going camping in Rocky Mountain National Park and hiking up Hallet, a 12er as a foray.. More vacations and more hikes followed including bagging Grays Peak and Torreys east of the Continental Divide near Eisenhower Tunnel.
After moving to the Vail area, the hiking continued.
“There certainly is an aspect of the scenery of the place. Wherever you go, It’s gorgeous,” Rodenak said over bites of a barbecue pork sandwich, which was no calorie threat after 637 summits during the last 14 years. “Anyone who has tried the trails around Vail, Booth or Pitkin Lake, it’s impressive, but getting to the lake wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to keep going.”
The 13ers are harder
And so, it was when Rodenak was hiking to Deluge Lake, he kept going and hit the top of the Grand Traverse, one of the 13ers of the Gore Range that looks over Vail proper.
What’s fascinating is that the 14ers, though obviously higher than 13ers, are actually the easier part of the task. Yes, Capitol Peak near Aspen with the Knife’s Edge section is quite the challenge. But by and large, the 14ers have more established trails and whole lot more information published about them, be it books or the internet, than 13ers.
Some of the 13ers don’t have names and are just an elevation mark on topographical maps and roughly 250 of the 13ers are in the San Juans to the southwest of here, so that’s some serious mileage and time.
“You’re going along on a ridge. It looks good on a map,” Rodenak said. “Then you get up on the ridge crest and there’s this notch [or gap] in the ridge where you want to go. OK, we’re going to try this mountain again in a couple of weeks and we’re stopped dead in our tracks.”
While Rodenak is an architect by trade, one of the great feats of this feat is all the organizing it’s taken to do this. Sure, the actual hikes are physically demanding and, yes, dangerous — the Elk Mountains near Aspen and as well as peaks in the San Juans previously used for mining and the loose rock that accompanies that drilling made for the scariest ascents — but it’s also a logistics triumph.
Rodenak and his friends set out in 2012 on a nine-day trip from Durango to the Purgatory ski area through the Wemichuche Wilderness Area, taking 913ers along the way.
“There’s no cell service. There’s no news,” Rodenak said. “You’re disconnected from the world for nine days right here in Colorado.”
According to Rodenak, who should know, the most daunting 13er is the Lizard Head. Down near Telluride, Lizard Head is what it sounds like, a major extension of rock jutting from the ridge line.
There’s no path. It requires all the safety gear one would associate with bouldering.
“You’re a rock climber now,” Rodenak said of that ascent. “You not just climbing a peak.”
The last ’orphan’
The phrase, “Man plans and God laughs,” applies to Rodenak and his travels. He was first scheduled to climb Star Peak back in 2015.
Rodenak and company were heading up the June Couloir of Star Peak. As is customary through all of Rodenak’s travel, they tested the snow pack and made an avalanche pit. As they were preparing for the final climb, weather moved in. Rocks were starting to fall down the hill and into the avy pit.
“It was a pretty easy decision to say we are done,” Rodenak said of the ill-fated 2015 outing.
And as Rodenak made his travels through the 17 years, this happened regularly, leaving certain hikes as what he called orphans, still needing completion. As such Star Peak became the last of the orphans that Rodenak needed for his collection.
Rodenak also wanted a bit of a splash for his finale, which was that one can ski down a good portion of the hike, something he said he’s done 40-50 times after the 647 hikes.
“It’s definitely different,” Rodenak said of Sunday’s finale. “The 14ers and the top 100 [points in Colorado which are part of all the state’s 13ers and 14ers] were definitely milestones toward a greater goal. This was much more of an end-game feel. This is the last one. It’s not a checkpoint. It’s the last one of a huge commitment.”
So with some older touring skis to recognize the moment as a part of his gear, he knocked off the last one on Sunday.
“It was great. The snow was good,” Rodenak said. “We had good snow conditions. Everything was in a stable spring snow pack.”
If anyone deserves to spend the rest of his or her life watching TV on the couch, Rodenak’s earned it.
And the leaves the $64,000 question? Having climbed seemingly every mountain in Colorado — or, at least, 647 of them — what do you do now, Michael?
Spoiler alert: He’s not stopping.
“A lot of these peaks are really fun,” Rodenak said. “I’ve done several of them more than once. I’ve done Holy Cross eight times. Particularly in the area of Vail, I’ve done some 5 or 6 times. There’s definitely peaks that I will do again. Different routes, different seasons. Maybe there would be ones that are fun to ski.
“I’ve got friends who are trying to climb them all themselves. I’ll help them with their climbing goals. As far as lists go, I’m probably done with an elevation list. I may focus more on wilderness areas.”