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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Humboldt Peak (2nd attempt)

I decided after my previous failed attempt at Humboldt due to insane trail breaking in deep snow, that I would try it again only 5 days later. The forecast the day before was a high in the 30s with a 15mph wind. The forecast changes quickly in Colorado. While I was leaving the house, I saw a "high wind watch" for this entire mountain range pop up.


Yet, I had already committed to go on this hike, and I had even agreed to pick someone else up along the way so he could climb a peak close to Humboldt. So, off to the Sangre De Cristos I go, hoping that the forecast was wrong. It wasn't.
I slept in the truck in the familiar spot at the winter road closure on S. Colony Rd. Woke to my alarm at 4am. I had breakfast, geared up, and hit the trail at 4:45am. The wind was already going pretty good, but I hiked on, hoping it would subside. It did the exact opposite. The higher I went in elevation, the worst it got, but I was determined.

I hiked the 3.1 miles of snow covered 4-wheel drive trail and .5 miles of the Rainbow trail all before sunrise. I captured the sunrise as I gained the east ridge.

I continued up through the trees with the wind howling around blowing snow in all directions.

As I hiked up, I watched as the wind took mere seconds to wipe away the imprints of my boots or snowshoes. This would mean that route finding on the way back would be difficult. The wind was easily sustained at 40 - 50 mph with gusts that would nearly knock me off my feet. With each gust I would plant both trekking poles into the ground and just hold on. The wind never quit either, it was absolutely relentless.

This video really does not do it much justice, but it'll give you an idea.

As for me, I wasn't terribly tired, and I was warm. I was geared up to the max. As I rose above the treeline, my goggles started to build a lot of condensation, and the snow was blowing so madly my visibility was limited to maybe 15 feet. It was at this point that I looked again behind me and couldn't tell where I had come from.

I briefly thought of how much of a pain in the ass it was going to be to find my way off this mountain. This led me to think, "The summit will always be there, I can always come back, preferably at a time where I am not risking my life as much.". This was when I decided to turn around. Upon turning around, I could not find anything that even looked like a snowshoe trench, or the even the remnants of one. So I just plowed east and down in elevation until I got back into manageable 40 mph winds.

It was at this point, standing in thigh high snow, I realized I was a bit lost.

I did not panic, even though part of me wanted to. I calmly broke out the Topo map and iPhone to try and figure out where I was and which direction I needed to go. I knew too far south and I would be in really steep terrain leading to South Colony road, and too far North and I would be off the ridge into the wrong valley. As I am studying the map, a gust of wind decides to rip the map from my hand and send it flying into some thick trees.

Knowing I was totally screwed without this map I basically ran down through thigh high snow in snow shoes chasing it. It got hung up on a tree stump long enough for me to stab it with my trekking pole and retrieve it.

Whew! That was close! The thought of spending a night in this bull shit weather crossed my mind when that map went flying and I was NOT prepared for a night out in this shit.

I figured that I needed to head southeast from my location and I would eventually meet up with the snow trench.
I trudged along for close to a mile before I finally made it back to the trail. I proceeded down the ridge, down the rainbow trail, and down S. Colony Road where my tracks from the morning were already long gone, replaced by knee high snow drifts and odd wind-shaped snow formations.

Back at the truck, I thought to myself how much I hate Humboldt Peak since I have now been turned back twice. However, I refuse to give up on it. I will be back, but it might be summer before I return.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Snowshoeing in the Sangre De Cristos

The plan was to ascend Humboldt Peak's east ridge from the winter road closure. This is about 13.5 miles and a 5650 ft elevation gain. There's not really a trail for a good portion of this route, so it involves a lot of bushwhacking and trail breaking through snow. More about the route can be found at the website here.

Two days prior a huge storm dumped a foot of snow in
town and several feet in the mountains. I drove down to the winter road closure the night before on Dec 23rd. At 10pm it was already -1 degrees. I got into my sleeping bag, and proceeded to go to sleep and was awoken by my alarm at 4:45am. By the time I actually woke up, chugged a mountain dew, ate breakfast, and got geared up I was on the "trail" by 5:30am.

From the winter road closure, it was clear that I was the first one who had taken on Humboldt's east ridge since the snowstorm. I was breaking trail the
entire way.

I am a bit of a winter hiking amateur, and this was also my first time ever wearing snowshoes. All the winter hikes I had done up to this point did not require them, only microspikes. This hike was completely different. I wore these snowshoes all day. Trail breaking through knee high snow is hard work, but the views are worth it.

I was moving incredibly slow through the snow as it continued to get deeper with every bit
of elevation that I gained. Before long I was sinking thigh high in snow, even with snowshoes on. The weather was fortunately beautiful. By the time daylight had broken it was sunny, calm winds, and just downright beautiful, even if it only reached a high of 20 or 25 degrees.
About an hour into my hike, I knew my chances of making it to the summit were pretty much non-existent. I decided to continue anyway. For me it's never been about reaching the summit of each peak, but the adventure. So today would just have to be a summit-less adventure.

Six hours into my hike, I had learned a ton of things about snowshoeing. I will review the main points.

  • Snowshoeing uses many muscles that you may never have known you had.
  • There is a reason people who are snowshoeing carry trekking poles. It's to keep you from falling on your face. For the record, I only ate a face full of snow once, I will cover it below.
  • Breaking trail on new snow is a total pain in the ass. It is like hiking, but 2 - 3 times slower, and uses 2 - 3 times as much energy.
  • Snowshoeing in fresh snow through a forest allows you some amazing views, but you also need to be able to bob and weave your head around snow covered tree branches in moves that would make Walter Payton envious.
  • When ducking under a snow covered branch, be sure your ice axe (tied to my backpack) does not catch that branch and dump a bunch of snow on your head and down the back of your shirt.

  • Snowshoes are likely inventions by orthopedic surgeons that were trying to drum up knee and ankle surgery business. I can't tell you how many times I nearly rolled an ankle.
  • Snowshoeing downhill can be fun, doing step/slide motions. That is until you slip a little farther than you want, and that trekking pole hits all loose powder and doesn't catch on anything and you become intimate with Frosty's mistress. Yes, this is how I did a face plant / roll.
  • Keep in mind, that with so much snow on the ground, that signs or landmarks you are looking for may be buried. If you don't have a good sense of direction, some common sense, and a compass, then bring a GPS. Personally I am old school and refuse to use a GPS when hiking.
  • Snowshoes are fun. They allow you to go out and walk on "top" of several feet of snow and have an adventure in a winter wonderland.

After hiking for six hours, I had "only" gained about 3300 ft in elevation and I hadn't even hit the treeline yet. I got to a spot where the snow was waist deep even with snowshoes on, and decided that it would be my turn around point.

The best part about snowshoeing for 10 miles is either this view, when you can actually see your vehicle, even if it is still far away.

... or it may be this part, when you are back at the truck and get to take the snowshoes off for the first time in 10 hours.

...or is it this... watching the sun descend on the mountain you were just on?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sunrise at the top of the Rockies

Really early Saturday morning there was a total lunar eclipse. My mission was to see it from the top of Mt. Elbert, along with the sunrise that followed shortly thereafter.

Mt. Elbert (elevation 14,433 ft.) is the tallest mountain in the entire Rocky Mountain range, as well as the tallest in Colorado. It is the second tallest mountain in the lower 48 s
tates behind Mt. Whitney in California.

I tried to take a nap in the late afternoon, but I could not fall asleep. Therefore I was left doing this hike while pulling an all-nighter. I left my house at 10:15pm on Friday night and drove 2+ hours to the trail head for Mt. Elbert's east ridge.

At the south Mt. Elbert trailhead, there's a
4-wheel drive forest rd that runs for 1.8 miles of this 12 mile hike, and I decide to take a crack at this in the Honda Ridgeline in order to save some time. I drive the first 1.4 miles of this trail without any major issues. The road is covered in packed snow, but so far I have good traction. There's a couple of white knuckle moments, but it's really just my very big truck vs. the very narrow, snow covered trail shows with sheer drop offs on the edge of the road. At the 1.5 mile mark, I pass a campsite where I see a Jeep Rubicon parked and a tent pitched behind it. I think very briefly, "I wonder why he stopped here rather than another 1/3 of a mile up the road at the trail head." I drive toward the trail-head and as I am approaching I see two things. There is no parking area here, and the snow on the road is much deeper now. I wonder if I am going to have difficulty turning around. As that thought crosses my mind, my truck begins to lose all traction, and I am officially stuck.

I did come prepared for such a problem. I had brought a shovel.

Not the best thing to do at 1am when it's 5 degrees outside, but I get out of the truck and realize I am in a pretty bad spot. My truck is up to it's bumpers in deep snow. I am on a narrow 4-wheel drive trail in the dark with my only option of backing down the trail since there is only deeper snow in front of me. They say a picture is worth a thousand words... so feast on my mspaint interpretation of this situation.
I proceed to dig, shovel, rock the truck back and forth a few times, shovel some more, and I scope out the situation and decide that if I can make it back through this first set of trees I can back up a snow covered hill with no real trees on it and maybe make a 3 point turn. But first I have to not hit any of these trees and every time my truck rocks back and forth it's sliding further to the right and my truck bed is now maybe 3 or 4 inches from a tree... and getting closer.

I shovel some more. Trying to ensure my next attempt will not slide any further to the right and instead I will just go for it down the hill backwards into this snow covered turn around area.

I finish shoveling A LOT of snow and am prepared to make a run for it. I fold in the mirrors on the truck just in case.

I miss the tree on the right by maybe an inch or two but successfully get past it and out of the deep snow. So I pick up a little speed to plow through backwards into this turnaround area. I manage to miss all the tree somehow and only make it about a 1/3 of the way up this hill, and I cut the wheel a little too late so I am further down the trail slightly (which puts me closer to a tree). I again have to shovel myself out and then get to a point where I am literally between a rock and a hard place (pic below).

I eventually get it turned around and escape without a scratch by doing a lot of shoveling, and a 12 or 16 point turn. I drive a 1/3 of a mile back down the trail to a place I can park. At this point I am already exhausted from shoveling, and have wasted about 45 minutes with the whole getting stuck fiasco.

I am determined though. So I gear up, winter boots, gaiters, ice axe, snow shoes, trek poles, etc. It's about 5 degrees at 1:30am. You usually lose about 5.5 degrees with every 1000ft in elevation gained. So, it's only going to get colder as I hike up and it won't even start warming until the sun comes up. Clothing is a huge deal when hiking a 14er in winter. Particularly when you are stupid enough to hike one in the middle of the night.

Feet: Single pair of Merino wool socks, Sorel winter insulated boots. Microspikes (for traction)
Legs: Smartwool base layer on my legs. A synthetic layer too, just for added warmth. Top layer is waterproof & windproof pants. I also have gaiters on.
Core: Synthetic layer next the body, then a loose fitting Under Armor shirt, then a thin alpine weight fleece. The top layer is a PrimaLoft jacket that is wind proof but not water proof. If I get caught in snow or rain, I have a waterproof rain jacket in my backpack.
Head: Thick fleece neck gaiter, balaclava, and my Boston Bruins hat of course. I also have ski goggles in my backpack if the wind starts blowing snow around. Headlamp for navigating in the dark.
Hands: Synthetic glove liners, and a windproof and waterproof REI mountaineering gloves on top.

Finally ready to go have some fun...

I start my hike and quickly realize that although I am carrying snow shoes, I likely will not need them. There is a fairly solid trench of packed snow below the treeline. I quickly throw the Microspikes on which is very helpful on some of the steep packed snow terrain that cuts through all the aspens.

I make my way through the trees quickly... stopping occasionally for water and to take in the full moon. The full moon in fact is so bright that I don't even really need my headlamp. I have it off for at least half the time.

I never listen to music when hiking, but brought my iPod on this trip. So I rock out to some music while making my way to the treeline. This hike from where I eventually parked my truck is probably 4400 ft in elevation gain, and right around 9 miles round trip.

Hiking at night is so peaceful, and quite different. So far I am warm, but my toes are beginning to get cold. I tell myself that I will likely need to break out the chemical toe warmers soon.

After getting to the treeline, and realizing I am maybe only halfway to the summit, I feel tired for the first time. I trudge along. I remember the countless trip reports I had read on about this hike and heard about the many false summits. I am mentally prepared for them.

I stop about 13,000 ft to put chemical toe warmers on my feet and in my gloves too. At this point the cold is really pissing me off. I am doing everything I know to stay warm. My balaclava is frozen from where I am breathing on it, my nalgene water bottle even with the insulator around it is frozen shut and when I do get it open I have to use a knife to break through the layer of ice to take a drink. I have ice crystals forming on my eyelashes, but I am too cold to even stop and take my backpack off to get my goggles.

I continue while viewing the sky starting to lighten up.

I realize that I am likely going to miss the total Lunar eclipse since the moon is setting at the time of the eclipse and I would have to be at the summit then, and I just don't think there is a good chance at seeing that as I watch the moon begin to disappear behind Mt. Elbert.

I have already passed a couple of false summits and now I think I am actually approaching what I think is the summit only to have Mr. false summit rear it's ugly head and tell me I have another 30 minutes more to go at least. My pace is slow right now. I am probably around 14,000 ft in elevation. My feet are cold, and hurting. My spirits are way low and with every false summit I have thoughts of just quitting. But, this being my 18th 14er, I have been here before, on almost every mountain I have climbed. When this happens I just tell myself to take X number of steps more. I then take 30 steps...again I am frozen, tired, sore, thumbs going numb regardless of the chemical warmers.... I take another 20 steps this time.... again I think about turning back.... I wait till I can breathe a bit easier and my body tells me to "move or freeze" and I take another 40 steps this time....

Eventually, I reach the ridge to where I can see the view to the west of me. This is a huge motivator. The sun also peaks up at this time.

I now see what I am 99.9% sure is the real summit. I am now super motivated again and eager to get a move on, but even with numb fingers in this 10 - 15 mph wind at probably -15 degrees, I stop to snap an amazing shot of the mountains to the west of me with the sun glow on some peaks and the shadow of Elbert (which I am standing on) in my view.

It's views like this
(below) that makes me want to endure this bull shit.

I hurry to the summit trying to warm myself with my pace now.
The last few steps are always the best as that feeling of "Holy shit... this is it!" hits you.

I have made it to the TOP OF THE ROCKIES!!!

I literally scream in joy. The physical relief, sense of accomplishment, conquering self doubt, the views, all rolled into one. I am the happiest guy at this moment, even with my numb hands. I stand there for a minute just taking it all in and then decide I am going to snap some pictures quickly and get down to a warmer area asap.

I immediately begin my descent, thinking to myself that the only thing that sucks about winter climbs is the enjoyment of the summit is usually very brief.

I start my descent, and am 100% satisfied. What a great (and yes, I'll admit) slightly insane night/winter hike up Mt. Elbert.

How many people out there can say they've seen a sunrise from the highest point in the Rocky mountains?

On the way down, I have a lot of fun. My knee is hurting the whole way, but I just don't care. The sun has warmed the day so much that I lost the hat, gloves, jacket, fleece, and it might as well be a spring day. Even though it's only 20 or 25 degrees now, the sun makes it feel so much warmer.

On the way down, I stop once to eat a Snickers bar and some pretzels I had brought. The "Summit Snickers" was a suggestion from somebody on that I thought was a great idea. Even though I ate mine at 13,000 ft. on the way down, and it was frozen solid, it's still an awesome idea.

I bump into the two guys who were camping near the trail head. I apologize for keeping them awake with my drama with the truck. We share some good conversation and I am then again on my way. I reach the truck at 11:35am stopping only a few times on the way to take some pictures of the aspens.

My day ends with a drive down the 4-wheel drive trail that made me learn the lesson of... "if you see a parked Jeep Rubicon on a 4-wheel drive trail, and you are in a shitty Ridgeline, stop, do not proceed."

On the way home driving into Leadville, I pass by the East side of Mt. Elbert. It puts it all into perspective. Another great adventure in the Rockies comes to an end, now if I can just stay awake for the drive down I-70 into Denver.

Friday, December 2, 2011

My adventure on Mt. Democrat, Cameron, and Bross

The day before Thanksgiving I decided to go for an ambitious winter hike up four 14ers in one day. Mt Democrat (14,148 ft.) Mt Cameron (14,238 ft.), Mt Lincoln (14,286 ft.) and Mt. Bross (14,172 ft.) This hike is about 8 miles round trip, but gains close to 4000 ft in elevation. On 11/23/2011 it was about 4 degrees when I started hiking at 6:30am.

On the way up Mt. Democrat, the day lived up to it's forecast of a beautiful day, although it was chilly to start it warmed to probably 25 or 30 degrees and there was a lot of sun, and very little wind. It was tough hiking though since I was "breaking trail" through the newly windblown snow on the trail. I did not bring snowshoes for this hike, but I did have microspikes on over my -40 degree insulated boots the whole time. There were places on the trail where the snow was knee high and even thigh high at times. The further up I went, the better it got since the wind seemed to have cleared the snow from the trail the higher I went.

Finally getting into a zone, I reached the saddle between Democrat and Cameron. At this point I thought Democrat was immediately to my left up about 300 ft more in elevation, but I slowly realized there were a few false summits and it was really more like 600 - 700 ft further up.

Finally reaching the summit, the day had become downright beautiful for November in the Rockies, I put the jacket in the backpack and was just in my fleece and base layer. I took in the views and even took a video of the surrounding peaks and noted how calm the wind was for a wintry day in the Mosquito range.

Mt. Democrat video

Later I would regret jinxing myself with the comment about calm winds.

I quickly descended back to the saddle and started up Mt. Cameron which runs along the backside on the ridge. Upon reaching the saddle, the wind starts up out of nowhere. I curse myself for commenting about it earlier.

The trail up Cameron, was nowhere to be found for parts of this jaunt so I just did some rock hopping and would occasionally post-hole into some deep snow. During one of these steps into snow covered rocks, my boot oddly hits a loose rock underneath the snow causing a weight shift, and immediately my knee is catching the brunt of the shift of weight. After realizing what happened, I quickly decide to just take another step and see how the knee is. Pain is shooting down the side of my leg and I feel the source of the pain is somewhere on the outside of my knee. So I stop, but I can't stop long because this wind is now bordering on horrible and is freezing. The only way for me to stay warm is to keep moving.

I evaluate my options. My knee is killing me, but I am still able to walk on it. This hike is a loop, so I tell myself that I am probably close to halfway so turning back doesn't even make a whole lot of sense.

A while back I had knee surgery from basketball injuries. So, I tell myself this ain't shit. I got this, and I press on... slower though and in pain. And the wind was calming a bit... or maybe not...

I eventually found the trail again, and this is about the time the wind started to really pick up again. I pressed on with now estimated 40 mph sustained winds. I put my jacket back on, put both layers of my gloves on and had the ski goggles on for a bit to keep the blowing snow out of my eyes. I trudged up Mt. Cameron to the summit which is completely exposed. There is nothing on the summit of Mt. Cameron and is probably the most uninteresting summit I have ever been on.

On the summit of Cameron, the wind picked up even more. I was having lean into the wind to maintain my walking direction. And now is about when two fingers in my right hand start going numb regardless of the fact that I have on quality mountaineering glove with glove liners.

So the hike over to Lincoln is about one mile round trip or so from the loop... but in this wind, with this knee, and fingers I am having trouble keeping warm, a mile sounds like a LONG way. I immediately decide that Lincoln is going to have to wait for another day.

So I start down the loop towards Mt. Bross not even stopping to take a picture from the summit of Cameron. My only thoughts are getting the hell off this mountain and into my warm truck before my knee completely gives out.

Reaching the saddle between Cameron and Bross the wind calms a bit, restoring parts of my sanity, and allowing me enough time to take a drink of water. After my brief break, I continue in winds that are now maybe only 20mph and it's much easier to mange. I decide to hike up the summit of Mt. Bross, thinking to myself, there is no way I could pass this up. It's only 300 - 400 ft in elevation from this loop. I trudge up a old mining rd. / trail and with every step up the wind is getting worse, but the wind is now at my back....pushing me up the trail. Easy hiking when a now 50 or 60 mph wind is pushing you up the trail.

I reach the summit of Bross and snap a few pictures and immediately begin my retreat down to the loop now into the wind. I stop briefly to capture a video of how bad the wind is. I was screaming into the camera about how I am having to walk a 30 degree angle to the trail just to stay upright... and the wind is so bad that you can't even hear me.

Mt Bross video

Anyway, I continue down to the loop where I find a sign that says Mt. Bross summit is closed. Ooops.... too late now. Anyway, I continue down the trail until it disappears and then I end up just descending via a gully with each step hurting me knee more. I glissade down a ways where I can just to help my knee from hurting. I know where I am, but I am desperately trying to find a trail. At one point I sunk to my chest in snow in the gully. I eventually see a sign, and thinking it's the trail I walk over to it. After reading the sign, I wish I hadn't walked over to it. and I really wish I hadn't lost the trail

The sign reads: "Danger : Unsafe mine shafts and highwalls, deadly gas and lack of oxygen, unsafe ladders, unstable explosives, deep pools of water."

I now just straight up haul ass to Kite Lake and the truck has never been a prettier sight. I lose all the gear, climb in the truck and crank some music and drive away from this place.

3 out of 4 summits is not bad. It's not about the summit anyway, it's about the adventure.

Driving away, I am glad to be leaving this place. I don't really ever want to go back, but I know I will be back just to do Lincoln someday.

Note: When I got home after 2.5 hours of driving... I got out of the truck and I could barely even move my knee. Adrenaline = Good stuff.