Copping Out on Lizard Head

Standing at the base of Lizard Head, courage slipped from my spine, leaving my fear as naked and vulnerable as a new born baby. I was used to those momentary shocks of terror on mountains, normally disapated with a deep breath and redoubled resolve. Normally these fears were triggered by sketchy, exposed moves or a near slip with big consequences. Lizard Head was different. Though my feet were firmly connected to the ground, my mind shuddered at the prospect of climbing the crumbling 400 ft. monolith. Spend enough time in the mountains and your mind reflexively scans walls and ridges for potential routes. On that day the imposing hulk of decomposing rock short-circuited and humbled my bravado. And yet, given sometime to recalibrate my courage, the urge to face the reptilian monument began to germinate in my brain.

Lizard Head from Lizard Head Pass
Lizard Head from Lizard Head Pass. Photo by James Dziezynski

It was late summer 2006 and I was hard at work in the field, gathering GPS tracks and photos for my eventual guide book Best Summit Hikes in Colorado. I hadn’t expected the vision of Lizard Head to lodge itself into my subconscious. I knew it scared the hell out of me and I knew I wanted to climb it. And I knew there was only one reasonable way to the top (barring chartering a private helicopter).

On rope behind Jonny Copp.

What loomed as the potential pinnacle of my Colorado climbing career was the kind of diversion Jonny might impulsively climb en route to the bluegrass festival in Telluride – and never make mention of. Make no mistake, I am nowhere near the caliber of climber JC was – not even close. But we had shared in a few quality mountain adventures. If I wanted to learn more about the best lines on Mount Alice or see bouldering problems on Flagstaff reduced to child’s play, Jonny would humor me, if only for the good conversation and fresh air. I was always grateful when he was in town and had a spare day to play in the mountains with a minor leaguer such as myself. My gratitude is evidenced by the fact I accidentally thanked him twice in the credits of the aforementioned guide book.


Back in Boulder a few weeks after my hike to Lizard Head, I ran into Jonny halfway up Mount Sanitas. I had been out in the Rocky Mountains most of the summer and hadn’t seen him in a while, so we had lots to catch up on. Like a a shy 6th grader mustering up the stones to ask the prettiest girl to dance, I finally confessed to Jonny I’d love to get a pro-bono guide up Lizard Head. To my surprise, he seemed genuinely excited to give it a try – we’d plan a date to get up there when we both were in Colorado, maybe sometime that autumn. The great climb was on!

Base of Lizard Head.
The base of Lizard Head. Photo by James Dziezynski

The actual ascent up Lizard Head looks rather tame on paper. The rub is in the rock. Lizard Head is the rotten throat of a long extinct volcano, a solid pipe of hardened molten lava coated with a malignant skin of broken rock. It’s also an officially ranked 13er. Lizard Head is permanently exfoliating, and the ephemeral “standard” routes up are constantly being redrawn. Albert Ellingwood, Colorado’s gutsiest climbing pioneer, said of the mountain on the first ascent in 1920 (light years ahead of its time):

Absolutely the whole surface of the rock is loose and pebbles rain down from the sides as readily as needles from an aging Christmas tree.”

People do still climb up every year, rating the easiest climb a 5.6 or 5.7 X – meaning your protection is purely decorative. Those hoping to climb all 687 13ers are often stymied by Lizard Head.


Despite our good intentions, the climb never happened. Jonny was out in the bigger world, climbing mind-blowing routes in the remote reaches of planet earth and I was stuck in Boulder with a lame arm, diagnosed as a frozen shoulder, a debilitating weakness that came as a result of years of climbing, baseball, ultimate frisbee, volleyball and the occasional mountain bike wreck. The healing period was at least 6 months to a year, so I was out. And time passed on.

And the damnest thing, Jonny passed on as well.

Climbing Lizard Head was now in the deep, dusty archives of ambition, long buried by time, distance and a myriad of other distractions. It wasn’t until this past week on a snowboarding road trip to Telluride that I once again beheld the terrifying spire, eerily displayed by pale moonlight and silver lined, rolling black clouds. My mind automatically extracted the proposal from some hidden cerebral nook while my heart missed the world that Jonny opened up to mere mortals such as myself. Possibility was contagious in his company, and following his leads were like walking behind Moses as he parted the Red Sea. The impossible was suddenly not only feasible but exciting, less intimidating, thrilling. Perhaps the best part was that Jonny’s supernatural modesty meant you could reap in all the bragging rights you wanted because while you were at the pub recanting your epic story, JC was already out on the next grand adventure.

I wish I could say the ultimate conclusion was a bold claim that I’d climb Lizard Head alone in Jonny’s memory, but without his guidance the rock reverts to its previous devilish incarnation. I don’t know if I’ll ever get up Lizard Head but if life has taught me anything, revelations accompanied with audacious bursts of courage sometime bring a summit into focus. But for now, Lizard Head stands like a tombstone, marking the end of adventures with my friend in this earthly realm.

It amazes me how powerfully true heroes can inspire us – and how their absence brings to light the amount of perceived inner courage that is merely on loan. It is not always from a deep inner well of the soul that ignites us into action. Sometimes we feed on the fire of others, cooling down dramatically when the source is extinguished. And yet, despite the depletion of second-hand fortitude, there is something lurking in the darkness. A fragment of hope and power is embedded in the pipeline of my determination. Its foreign presence is easily attributed to JC, as obvious as a fingerprint to Sherlock Holmes.

As I drive away toward the lights of Telluride, Lizard Head fades into the distance in my rear-view mirror until all I can see is the empty darkness of space and the grimy smears of luminescent stars radiating through the winter haze.

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