Date Climbed: November 3, 2016
No clouds, no rain, not even snow in sight for the foreseeable future! It was already November and there was not even a dusting of snow for the next two weeks! By this time last year I had skied Loveland numerous times and had already pulled out the winter gear and snowshoes.
In preparation for this season's bitter and snowy winter, I had upgraded to Alpine Touring skis and had a list of gear to purchase when the snow came. I was ready for the worst winter Colorado could throw at me, and I was going to hike in my summer boots and light thermals. Disappointing to say the least.
Now, about three weeks later, it appears Colorado's weather is coming back with a vengeance and there will be a lot of snow over the next few weeks. Some forecasts are predicting up to two feet over the next two weeks! All of it falling on almost bone dry ground. To be honest, this is great for backcountry travelers, as it will mitigate Avalanche hazards later in the season with such a late and consistent snow cycle. Here's to hoping!
But for this adventure, my hoped for snowy season would have to wait. At least I could take my time and enjoy the sunny, (relatively) warm weather while it lasted! As I began my hike up the familiar trail, numerous memories came back. Hiking on the frozen lake just downstream, car camping with some good friends up near the ghost town, multiple hikes nearby, and even getting lost for the first time on this very trail! it was here just a few years before that I had abandoned the trail to avoid a thunderstorm and had gotten very lost. Thankfully, I've had a little more experience under my belt, and that was unlikely to happen on this hike.
Although the snow was very disappointing for this time of year, there was still about an inch right from the first step. Just enough to make things interesting and slick on steeper terrain. Since I had been able to sleep in to a very late 4 AM, I had a decent amount of energy and made it to timberline in rather quickly and was able to check out the conditions for the first time. Just before timberline, I encountered the wrecked cabin; a popular camping spot and a reminder of the tenacity of the miners who came before.
It does look much snowier in the picture than I made it sound, I realize. However, this is all off trail, and mostly no more than an inch or two, just enough to cover the smallest rocks. In some of the steep chutes on the mountain there is about a foot of snow, but only from the wind, not from direct snowfall. Colorado at this point was (and still is) very dry and in need of a couple of big storms. The approach to the mountain itself took longer than I had anticipated, but I did have some small white birds to keep me company (I don't know what kind of bird they were and I deleted my photos)!
The approach is a straightforward hike up the valley, followed by a steep trek up the ridge just too the right outside of the photo above. Along the way, there were numerous stream crossings, allowing for short breaks to stop and take in the breath taking scenery.
This is the first time I had seen natural snow in the backcountry since last spring! Yes, I did make it to Opening Day at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, but it was manmade and rather sparse.
Once on the rock rib that lead to the saddle (seen on the left of the above photo), I donned my micro spikes, giving me greater traction for the steep slick trail. Up I went, strong at first, but slower as I continued up. I had forgotten my breakfast and had not been at altitude for such a long time that I felt very weak. Compared with other hikes, this was a relatively easy one, but it was kicking my butt! I had to stop and take an extra breath every 20 seconds or so, yet every time I looked up the ridge was getting steadily closer. About two-thirds of the way up the ridge, I came to what appeared to be a juncture. Since I was breaking trail and there were no footsteps to follow, I had to decide which way to go. The trail had been covered up and both directions seemed to give little indication as to which direction was right.
One "trail" went straight uphill, the other around a huge outcropping, and almost looked as though it went straight into a couloir. Opting for the safer route, I went straight up, aiming for the saddle. A few hundred feet, and a some slippery steps later, I was on the saddle! The route was now obvious, but the summit still far ahead.
Although I call it a saddle, it's more like one very long, continuous ridge ending in a relatively flat high point. Besides Quandary Peak, Elbert, and Humboldt, this is one of the longest ridge walks on a single 14er. One must walk the entire ridge seen in the second photo from the top and then some, even after the long approach. I was very glad for a windless day, as this peak would be miserable for the last mile. Moreover, I could not feel my toes at this point, even with double socks and no wind. I stomped my feet hard on the ground, trying to bring feeling back into my toes and began the last stretch to the summit.
The views were unbelievable, and no camera can do it justice. All I wanted to do was stop and imagine the different basins and valleys I could explore and camp in once winter came. The danger, the thrill, the exploration, all earned by hard work. Creation at its most pristine, enjoyed in solitude. It is in the winter, in these mountains, where seeing another person the entire winter is rare that I understand John Muir's quote, "the mountains are calling, and I must go." In these moments, when I stop and gaze at snow capped peaks, that I feel closest to God. I also drift into thoughts of bigger challenges. Aconcagua is in the near future, but a winter ascent of a big peak sounds much more appealing.
Only a few will understand, but it is the suffering that makes winter so much fun. When I could be sitting at home, drinking coffee, eating dinner with my wife, or even reading a book. It is the suffering that makes these things so precious. The feel of the cold biting at your face, turning your toes into pins and needles, slowing your whole body down, unable to see even your hands because of the driving snow. To know that without money and technology, this is how hard life can be, and knowing that you will not break. Being able to face challenges and even extreme danger and come out on top. I wouldn't call it thrill seeking, as that can be done on a roller coaster or in a plane. The danger in the wild is real and complicated, not imagined or created; it takes mind, body, and spirit to win.
However, I would not be tested on this hike. The summit came relatively easy, and I was even able to call family and make a short video and post it online! After a long lunch and a lot of lounging around, I started down.
The trip down seemed to take longer than the hike up, but I was afforded some time to stop by a stream and relax a bit, knowing that the hard part was done. I was able to read some of my Bible and take in the sound of a babbling brook. Something I had not done in a long time, and something that is pretty much impossible in the dead of winter. I had thought I would run into someone on the way back, and although I did, it was not until the trailhead. I had only seen three people the whole day, and all had gone for a different peak; a rare treat with such good conditions!
Once back at the truck, I could finally feel my toes again. What's more, the days were now notably shorter. Whereas before I would return in what felt like the middle of the day, it was now early evening, and I still had a long drive ahead. Winter is coming! Having just returned from a good hike up to St. Mary's Glacier with 35 mph winds and a -10 F wind chill, that could never be more true. Just writing this post goes to show the difference two and a half weeks can bring.
And now the long wait begins. Once the next few storms have passed through and calendar winter begins, the real season starts. Here's to a good winter, and hopefully some good skiing!