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Sunday, March 18, 2012

No luck of the Irish on Sunshine Peak

Date: March 17th, 2012
Mission: Summit Sunshine Peak (elev. 14,001ft) and traverse to Redcloud peak (elev. 14,034ft)
Starting place: Mill Creek Campground

I left work Friday in Boulder around 4:15pm, and drove 6 hours to the Mill Creek Campground where I met up with a couple fellow members of Natalie and Jim.

I was asleep in the truck by 11pm and woke to my alarm at 5am and considering I was in a truck in a sleeping bag, I had a great night of sleep.
To hike Sunshine peak from the Mill Creek Campground is a relentlessly steep route, with 4600ft of elevation gain in about 3.5 miles. There's also only a partial trail, that meanders it's way around cliffs, talus fields and through the trees until you get to the tree line. Good route finding skills are a must. The route in red below is the route from Mill Creek to Sunshine Peak.

We were on the trail just before 6am and had a nice pace through the trees, and even though it is March (Colorado's snowiest month), the conditions here are way dry, and we had yet to see any significant snow.
Now, any person who climbs 14ers will tell you, snowshoes are a love/hate relationship. You love wearing them through the deep snow. You hate carrying them until you get to the deep snow. We were at 10,600 ft or so when Natalie decided to ditch her snowshoes along side the trail and take the gamble that we wouldn't see any deep snow. Jim and I both kept carrying ours and Natalie joked a couple times in the next 10 minutes asking how we were enjoying carrying our snowshoes.
We both laughed, knowing that conditions in Colorado can change quickly, particularly at this time of year. And as if the mountain was listening, we immediately hit some deep sections of snow, where Jim and I stopped put on our snowshoes and Natalie immediately started regretting her decision to leave her snowshoes behind. Even though she was following the tracks left by Jim and myself, she was still post-holing in the snow up to her waist. So she began crawling to distribute the weight better across the snow. She'll probably hate me for posting this picture, but I couldn't resist.
We finally found a previous trench through the snow from previous hikers, and were glad to be done with the waist high snow conditions.
We continued to the tree line and then across a snow field to the ridge. At this point we had made it from the trail-head at 9400 ft. to the treeline and I was energized and excited to continue.

We took a break and ate some food. The winds were maybe 15 mph and it was almost warm, maybe 30 - 40 degrees.
I snapped a decent picture (below) of Natalie cresting the ridge from where we were sitting and waiting.
Once we began again, we made it to about 12,500 ft in elevation when I stepped with my snowshoe on some snow, and it felt like it was going to support my weight when the crust broke and my right leg sunk just as I was putting a bunch of weight on in. Over the wind, I heard a "pop" from my right knee and pain immediately hit me.

Jim was already 30 ft in front of me but Natalie was close by, and as I stood there obviously favoring my only good leg she asked if I needed help. I explained that my knee was totally snafu and that I would likely need to turn around. I took a step to see if I would be able to continue, because I really wanted this summit. Every step I took was brutally painful. I told Natalie to go on without me, if worse came to worse I had a SPOT to signal for help.

I wrapped my knee with an ACE bandage, and that really didn't help at all. From 6am to 10am I had made it up 3100 ft. Usually I can descend about twice as fast as I climb. Not today. I began my descent at about 10:00am.

I had been descending for about an hour and had only made it barely back to where we had stopped and took a break. Every step, I was using the trekking poles like crutches and would plant the poles, step with my left leg, and move my right leg trying to put as little weight on it as possible. Occasionally the snow under my poles would give out and I would be forced to put weight on my right leg (or take a face plant), and it would hurt like hell.

Finally after a couple hours I was again in the trees trying to navigate the trail and I got to the place where we had previously met with the trench, and rather than following my own tracks up, I took the trench down. This would prove to be a bad decision.
This trench slowly faded into nothing. I continued in a down direction hoping to pick up a trail fragment again. I then realized I wasn't even on any trail anymore. Soon it went from no trail to a talus field full of loose rock. Lucky me. Navigating loose rock is a pain in the ass with two functioning knees. Today it was dangerously loose and every movement was shifting rock, causing mini-slides.

Looking below me I saw a cliff, and knowing that there are a lot of cliffs in the area, I stopped looked and the Topo map, guessing I was about 11,000ft or so. I finally recognized some landmarks on the other side of the canyon and decided I needed to head back east to pick up the trail.
I began to move east and the second step I took is when a ton of rocks started to move (and quickly). I was on top of the moving slide and sinking a bit, and gaining speed. My first instinct was "STOP". Acting on this thought, I jammed one of my trekking poles into the ground as hard as I could. Problem was, the ground (all loose talus) was moving. I pushed harder with my hands now below the surface of the moving rock in attempt to reach solid ground of some sort.

I finally slowed and came to a stop as the rocks I was surfing on and hundreds of others gained even more speed as some went to the steep talus gully to the right side of this photo (right) and others went flying off the cliff in the center of the photo (right).

I had so much adrenaline running through my system that my knee didn't even hurt now. I hurried to the east stepping over talus with great care to not start another rock slide.

After about 15 minutes the adrenaline wore off and my knee was hurting again. My pace slowed and I bushwhacked through thick trees, and another talus field for about an hour before I finally came to the trail again.

I slowly made my way down the last 1000 ft or so in elevation and back to the parking lot at Mill Creek campground. I reached my truck about 3:00pm. 5 hours to descend <3 miles / 3100 ft. My only injury from the rock slide was a bruised hip and I ripped part of a thumbnail off.

To sum up the "luck of the Irish day" I get a call from my friend Billy on the way home. He totaled his SUV in a crash near Flatirons. As if that wasn't enough, upon arriving at home, I get a text message from Natalie saying that she had hit a deer driving out of Lake City that did significant damage to her car. Thankfully everyone made it out of this day in one piece.

That all being said, I think this is the last time I will ever climb on St. Patrick's day. Now I am off to go schedule an MRI on my knee.