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Monday, June 22, 2009

Two 14'er Weekend in Colorado

First I need to clarify, I am not an experienced climber and I am certainly no mountaineer. My friend Mike is preparing to climb Mt. Ranier in July and he was setting up a few "training" climbs. I knew that I wanted to try my hand at one. So, I threw out the idea of joining him and he agreed. Originally, I was going to join him and others on a climb of Mt. Cloudpeak in Wyoming. However, Mike suggested tackling a couple of 14'ers (peaks of 14,000+ feet) in Colorado, Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, instead. We could do them in one weekend due to their proximity. I took him up on the idea, a date was selected and it was set.

Mt. Elbert stands at 14,433 ft and is the second highest peak in the lower 48 states after Mt. Whitney in California. It is considered a Class 1 hike, meaning it is relatively easy by mountain climbing standards. Mt. Massive stands at 14,421 ft and is considered a Class 2 climb, making it slightly more difficult than Mt. Elbert. Both peaks are the two highest peaks in Colorado and are part of the Sawatch Mountain Range. Leadville, CO is only a few miles away from both peaks.

I flew in to Denver the night before, where I met up with Mike, whose flight arrived just 30 minutes after mine. A co-worker of Mike's, Gavin, had also flown in for the weekend's adventure and since he arrived before either of us, he rented an H3 and picked us both up. Once in the car, it was Leadville-bound. We stopped for pizza just outside of Denver and then made it to Leadville late in the evening. After picking up a few food supplies, we unceremoniously hit the sack. Wake up call was at 5:00am.

Day One: Mt. Elbert, June 20, 2009

Gavin had already climbed Mt. Elbert on another occasion, so his plan was to drop us off at the trailhead and go tackle Mt. Huron, another 14’er some 20 miles away. He was to come back and get us after his climb; a part of the plan that should have been thought out a bit more, but more on that later. Mike and I were at the trailhead of Mt. Elbert’s North Trail and ready to start right at 6:00am.

The North Trail starts at 10,040 feet, almost twice as high as the high point back home in Georgia, Brasstown Bald. Altitude was already giving us a bit of a headache and it was yet to be seen how it was going to affect us on the climb. For now, we felt pretty good and excited to get going. The trail is about 4.5 miles to the summit with a total elevation gain of 4,700 feet. It starts rather gradual for a mile or so to a trail junction with the Colorado Trail (Leadville 100 runners in August will go down this section of the Colorado Trail) and then begins to climb as it nears the tree line. The weather was cooperating with partly cloudy skies but we were concerned that it may turn for the worse. We reached the tree line at 11,900 feet keeping a good pace.

After a quick snack break, we hit the trail again out in the open and headed up the slope towards the mountain’s northeast ridge on a series of switchbacks. The terrain was grassy and mossy and we ran into a bit of mountain wildlife, some birds and a couple of marmots. Around this time, a couple of trail runners came up the trail with a Dingo dog. They passed us like nothing. I was jealous. I would love to hit these beautiful trails with my running shoes and my dog, Lilly, but first I would have to spend a few days acclimatizing for sure. Anyway, we would see these guys again on their way back down.

When we reached the ridge, we were around 12,500 feet. I was feeling OK and keeping pace, although it was obvious that I wasn’t moving as quickly as I normally would. I’ll blame the altitude. Mike thought we were making good time and we steadily kept forward momentum. Even though we hit the trail early, we did pass several folks on our way up. It appears that due to the relatively “easy” climb, many locals routinely go up this mountain. After a while on the ridge, the trail ascends steeply by some rock formations and to the right of the ridge. We soon saw the trail runners making their way back down. The one in the lead did stop for a second to chat and we learned that he was from Boulder. Very cool. Continuing upwards, I was breathing heavy and I could feel my heart beating in my chest. Still, we maintained and soon came to an opening were we would get our first glimpse of the snow capped mountain range on the opposite side of Elbert. The view was amazing!

The rest of the climb was covered in snow. No trail to follow except for the tracks left behind by other hikers. The snow felt crunchy and footing wasn’t much of an issue. With about 500 feet left to go, we came to a flat area where you can see the summit ridge off to the left. I was excited to see the summit and anxiously began crossing the ridge towards it. Once there, there was another hiker taking some mandatory photos. I offered to take one of him while Mike looked around and took some of his own. The hiker then reciprocated and took a couple pics of us. I was blown away by the view. Luckily, the weather was cooperating and we could clearly see the rest of the mountain range around us. Just stunning!

At the summit, there is a thick wooden stick that has been shoved into the ground claiming the summit. On it, one can read names and dates of others who came before us. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a pen to add our own names. Other hikers started arriving while Mike and I finished up a couple of sandwiches we had brought. It was time to make our way down. In the distance, we could see some heavier clouds moving in, so we knew we needed to get moving. It took us four hours to reach the summit, it was soon evident that it would take a lot less to get down.

It didn’t take long to get back past the snow. We noticed that traffic going up was thickening. We were glad that we had begun our hike so early. About a third of the way down, we were hiking in fog. We could see the trail but nothing of the valley east of us. Our toes and quads were feeling the descent. We passed a couple of guys that we saw earlier on our way up; they were still climbing but looked a bit dehydrated. We chatted with them to check on them, but they seemed to feel like finishing. So we continued our way down.

Soon the tree line was back in view and we were below the clouds. It started sprinkling as we took a moment to grab a bite to eat and put on our rain jackets while chatting with a woman who was waiting for her husband to come back down the mountain.

Feeling good about our accomplishment, we still had a couple of miles to go to finish the job. We were looking forward to meeting back up with Gavin and thought of him in his own 14’er adventure. As we made our way through the trees and back to the trailhead, the rain intensified. Surprisingly, there were still people making their way up. We reached the trailhead and the parking lot and no sign of Gavin. Cell coverage was very limited and we couldn’t reach him by phone. We did the only thing we could think of, and that was to continue hiking along the forest road. This part was quickly going to become the least fun of the day. Trudging down the forest road getting soaked, we started sticking our thumbs out to passing SUV’s in hopes of a ride. After a couple of miles, someone finally did stop. A man and his son picked us up and they were heading back to Leadville themselves. Once within cell phone range, we called Gavin and learned that he had just finished his own hike. He was to meet us back in Leadville.

Gavin had left us that morning and drove to Mt. Huron. His hike was to be a couple of miles shorter than ours and his target summit was at 14,003 ft. Because of his later start, the rain that hit us on our way down from our summit, hit him on his way up. He made the decision to cut his climb short due to the worsening weather.

Mike and I were exhausted but excited. 14, 433 feet! No matter the difficulty or ease of the trail, getting up to that height on foot, especially when I live at around 950 feet, was no small feat. I was already looking forward to day number two and our second 14’er attempt of the weekend.

Day Two: Mt. Massive, June 21, 2009

It rained all night and it was still sprinkling in the morning. The alarm clock went off at 4:00am. We were hoping to be on the trail by 5:00am. As we met up in the parking lot, we learned that Gavin was not feeling well and that he wasn’t going to join us. Even feeling crappy, he was a trooper and gave us a ride to the trailhead.

The way to the Halfmoon Mt Massive trailhead (10,400 ft.) is reached by much the same route as the Mt. Elbert North Trailhead except you add on another 2.5 miles of some of the ruttiest forest road in Colorado. I am not normally a Hummer advocate, but it would prove to be a very useful vehicle to get through this road. Finally at the trailhead, we said our goodbyes to Gavin, gathered our things and began our hike in the sprinkling rain.

The trail was wet and in spots a bit muddy. There was a creek to our left that was roaring from all of the rainwater and melting mountain snow. About a half an hour into our hike, it finally stopped sprinkling. The morning was chilly but once the rain was gone, we could tell that it was going to improve considerably. As we made our way along the creek, we noticed the mountains around us were covered in fresh snow. Soon we came out into a meadow and the view was awe inspiring. We were surrounded by mountains and incredible scenery. The trail at this point was considerably easy which allowed us to really take it all in, but that was soon to change.

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We came upon a sign where the trail split and we took the trail to the right, where from this point on, it would begin to climb considerably. We passed a section of rugged rocks where it was obvious a crew of volunteers in the past must have worked their asses off laying down rocks as steps. Once pass this first rocky section, we continued up the trail along mossy and grassy terrain. We hit a few switchbacks and slowly came closer and closer to the first patches of snow. Below us, we could see a couple of hikers steadily gaining on us. Looking up, we couldn’t see the summit, but we could see that there was plenty of snow and a long way yet to go.

At some point, we lost the trail. Most likely it wound under some snow patch and we just couldn’t follow it. Plus there were no tracks to follow from hikers ahead of us. We decided to go up a slope that seemed as the most obvious route to where we needed to be. This is when the hikers behind us caught up with us. They were a couple of guys from Ft. Collins that were making a second attempt at summiting Mt. Massive. After chatting with them for a bit, they took the lead and quickly widen a gap.

As we made our way upwards, we came to another rocky section. Remember, we lost the trail, so we were simply going by feel and from where we thought we needed to go. Plus the Ft. Collins guys were "blazing" a route that we began to follow. The rocky section became steeper and we literally began to climb using all fours. Mike was getting ahead of me, as it seemed that the altitude was definitely affecting me more than it was him. I was also being a lot more cautious getting over this rocky, steep section than he was. Soon, the difficulty of this section became worse due to snow and ice. I was becoming concerned that we wouldn't make it past this.

We continued to steadily climb. Our route had brought us up the south west face of the mountain. Soon, we were able to look down the east face, as other hikers were making their way up a different route. Once past the rocks, the wind picked up considerably and we had to get passed a patch of ice where I didn't feel completely comfortable of the footing. I was very careful as Mike looked on ahead of me. From here, we could see the first of three fake summits and the saddle that led to the true summit. Every step was laborious for me and I had to take big, bottom-of-the-diaphragm breaths to feel right. We made it past the rocks and now it was simply crossing the saddle at around 14,300 feet. The wind was screaming! The view to the north and west was incredible with nothing but snow-capped mountains for as far as the eye could see. Incredible!

I was worn out, but I knew we were almost there. We hiked the ridge past the false summits and finally made it to the true one. I had to take a moment to catch my breath and just look around. Mike was there and so were the two Ft. Collins guys. We congratulated each other, took pictures and took it all in. You could see the mountains to the north and west. You could also see Mt. Elbert which we had climbed before. To the east was the valley and you could see Leadville in the distance. 14,421 feet, baby! Awesome!


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But as always, summiting is only half the job. We had to get down. Mike and I knew we didn't want to go back the way we came for those last 1,500 feet. So, we made an effort to stay on the trail on the way back and see if we could figure out an easier way down than the route we took to the top. We came across another hiker that informed us that we needed to follow the ridge a bit longer to stay on the Halfmoon Mt Massive trail. And he was right, except once again we came up on snow that covered the trail with no obvious route to follow down. However, Mike decided that it was time for a little glissading, a technique where you slide down snow on your ass while keeping your legs straight out in front of you and ideally using a climbing axe to self-arrest, if needed, but we used our hiking poles. Turned out to be alot of fun and after three separate sets, we knocked off about 1,000-1,500 feet in a matter of minutes.

Next thing we knew, we were back on the original trail among the mossy slope of the mountain. It was in the bag and the hardest part was over. We soon reached the meadow we were in ealrier. Mike and I both looked up at the mountain in respect, thinking how surreal our experience had been at the top. We reached the tree line again and it wasn't long before we were back at the trailhead. Gavin was there, all smiles, and welcoming us back. We were glad to see him and wished he had felt good enough to join us that morning. Still, the experience was amazing. Two 14'ers in two days! It took us almost five hours to summit but only two nad a half to get down. Go figure.
That's the story of my Colorado weekend. An experience that I will never forget. I hope one day to go back and either climb some other 14'ers or tackle some of those beautiful trails with my trail running shoes. Who knows, maybe even trying the Leadville 100 some day.

3 comments:

  1. Amazing! The views were stunning. Can't imagine how beautiful in person. Wow! 2 in 2 days!

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  2. When you make the effort it can be amazing what you can do! You did very well and told a great story! Many of us make it a hobby to summit here in Colorado!
    I am so glad that you enjoyed it!

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  3. Great job!! Glad you didn't have any altitude problems. Beautiful pics!!

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