Fall in the Rockies

Snowcapped Handies Peak is visible above a grove of golden aspen trees in this postcard image of Fall.

San Juan Adventure

With the practical climbing season starting to wind down, I still had one goal of 2005 left to achieve; that was to climb a peak in the San Juan Range. I have climbed at least one peak in the highest hundred in each of Colorado’s 7 ranges that house one, except the San Juans. The one limiting factor is that even the closest peaks are at least a 4 hour drive away, making it too far to climb in one day. I have been trying to convince people to head down with me, but it seems those plans have never panned out. I took it upon myself to go explore this range and hope that maybe my photos will inspire others to join me on more trips there next season. This weekend was a beautiful fall weekend, and despite some light snow in the high country on Thursday, I decided to head down before the peaks got any more snowed in. I chose to head to Lake City one of the closest towns in the San Juans but still a 4 hour drive from my house. The town has 5 fourteeners nearby and several centennial peaks as well. The initial plan was to get a hotel on Saturday night and head to the trailhead, about a half hour away, on Sunday morning. That didn’t quite work out, the problem was the wine and music festival in town had all of the rooms booked! I had brought a blanket “just in case” I had to sleep in my car, and it was good that I brought it because I needed it. I drove to the trailhead, had a sandwich, and went to bed. I slept okay considering, and woke up at around 5.15 in the morning. I decided that rather than try and squeeze another hour or so of sleep before sunrise, I would just get up and start early by headlamp. I hit the trail at 6, and after an hour the sun was starting to light up the basin enough to turn the lamp off. I made the summit of Redcloud Peak (14,034’) at about 8.30, with only a minimal amount of snow to deal with on the trail. The snow was hard packed in the cold morning, and not more than a couple of inches deep. Most of the ridge and summit had blown clear of all the snow and it was only confined to a few spots that get less sun. From here I made the mile plus traverse over to its companion, Sunshine Peak. At 14,001’ it is the lowest fourteener, and my 20th overall. The summit lived up to its name, as it was basking in warm sunshine. I found a spot out of the wind and had a nice 20 minute break for snacks and sunscreen.

The return route required re-climbing Redcloud, and made it back there at around 10am. From there I descended to the saddle on the trail and decided I had the time to make the extra mile traverse over to the next neighboring peak, unnamed Point 13,832. This peak is the state’s 90th highest summit, and was soon to become my 35th peak in the highest hundred. Not bad for two seasons of climbing! These peaks are all relatively close together, but still it made for a long day with climbing three peaks (one of them twice). I was back at the car at about 1pm, after 14 miles of hiking and over a mile of total altitude gain. I was glad to get back so early though as it was a 4 1/2 hour drive from the trailhead to my house. I stopped for lunch and gas in Gunnison on the way back and was home at around 6. Perhaps the best part of the whole hike though was the amazing display of fall color! All of the aspen trees were a brilliant golden color, and combined with the dark green pine trees, blue sky, and white capped peaks it was a perfect fall day. If the weather keeps holding up, hopefully there will be a few more peak excursions this October, but if not at least this past weekend will have made for a perfect to end to the season.


The seasons are changing

Fall is definitely upon us here in the mountains. Our evening temperatures have been dropping close to freezing at night, and the leaves are starting to change, even on the local ski areas. It will still be a couple of weeks before the colors peak, but there are a lot of patches of yellow in the aspen stands around the area. There was even some snow mid week above 11,000 feet, it melted out quick, but it was visible at the top of Beaver Creek all morning. Only two months until Vail’s opening day, so I guess it makes sense. This weekend was Oktoberfest, and some great ski sales to go with it. Saturday my friend Drew and I hiked one of the local trails to Deluge Lake at the east end of Vail. The lake is up at 11,400 feet at the foot of some of the Gore Range’s spectacular peaks. The lower section of the trail had a lot of aspens that had already turned. The trail then ascends through pine to an open meadow near the end of the trail. The views back to the south stretch as far as Mounts Elbert and Massive, the two highest peaks in the state. After the hike we headed to Oktoberfest for lunch, and to check out some of the sales. I need another pair of skis like I need another hole in the head, but they had some good deals on powder skis that were hard to pass up. If I wait until Christmas bonus time, the deals won’t be there, so I figured it was better to pick them up when they are relatively cheap. I got a pair of last year’s Rossignol B3’s, and they were only $300 with bindings. This is already over 50% off, and with the bindings, which even on sale run over a hundred, it was too good a deal to say no to.

Sunday it was off to the high peaks again, I have recently been neglecting the high thirteeners in the state, and decided I should check another one of the list before the snows move in. The weather was beautiful all weekend; no rain forecasted at all, just pure blue skies. I decided it was okay to sleep in as there were no storms to beat, and hit the trail at about noon. I kept it close, not wanting to have a long drive back at the end of the day, and hit an unnamed peak near Independence Pass, a little over an hour from my house. The peak is commonly known as “Lackawanna Peak”, as it rises above the Lackawanna Creek drainage. It officially is Unnamed Point 13,823, however. It is the 95th highest peak in Colorado, but it is of relatively modest stature compared to its neighbors. In fact, you can see 4 of the 5 highest peaks in the state from its summit as well as several other peaks in the highest hundred. You can also see Independence Pass below and the Elk Range (near Aspen) in the distance. The hike itself poses some interesting challenges, most of which are at the beginning. For starters, there is no trail on this peak, the nearby trail heads in a different direction and you are left having to find your own way to the peaks upper slopes. The lower slopes are steep and forested, but route finding is relatively easy, just keep headed up! There was a lot of fallen trees on the slopes, and you have to pick your way over, under, or around them depending on how they lay. After about a half hour of that the slopes ease slightly, and the trees stop growing. From here you have to climb a steep slope of rock and grass to a gentle ridge just below 13,000. The last mile to the summit only gains 800 feet of altitude, with one large false summit along the way. For the most part, the ridge is flat and gentle and is a welcome relief after the steep start that gained nearly 2000 feet in only 2 miles! The view were spectacular, and it was a good spot to relax and have lunch. The total round trip is a little over 6 miles, but the altitude gain at the beginning makes for a strenuous hike. This peak marked number 32 out of the highest hundred, hopefully I can squeeze at least one more in this season before they start to get snowed in to make it an even third!


Storming the Castle

This weekend we decided to head over near Aspen and climb the monarch of the Elk Range, Castle Peak. It is 14,265' high which makes it the 12th highest peak in Colorado. The Elk Range is one of the most rugged in the state, and Castle is the easiest fourteener in the range. Don't let that fool you though, it is still a tough hike! My friends called me Saturday and thought it would be a good idea to head down Saturday, hang out in Aspen a bit and then camp at the trailhead, so this is what we did. We camped just off the road a little bit above the trailhead at about 10,200'. Sunday when we woke up we actually had 2 deer, a male and a female, grazing near our campsite! The hunting season has just started, so they are lucky we weren't hunters! It is archery season right now, so we didn't have to worry that hunters would mistake us for animals when we were hiking as it is a much shorter range sport. The initial part of the hike follows a road that winds its way past a few cabins and old mining structures to 12,800'. From here the fun begins as you first have to climb a steep slope to the upper basin. There was still a lot of snow in this basin. The slopes leading up to it had some snow as well and we chose to climb directly up the snow face instead of the steep rock. The maximum pitch in this section is about 30 degrees. At the top of the snow field there is a trail heading up a steep shale slope to the left. The lower part of this trail was a little loose, but as it levels out and heads toward the ridge it was in good shape. The ridge was fun, steep slopes to either side made for a dramatic view of the surrounding areas and the peak ahead of us. There are a few steep rocky fins along the ridge, but the trail skirts them to one side. There was one or two brief steep sections that required a little mild scrambling, maybe 10 feet of so, but otherwise it was pretty much just a steep hike. The views from the summit are amazing, this peak is the highest in the area and the views are far reaching. It is also the farthest west peak I have climbed, all the other peaks have had the Elk Range "blocking" views to the west. This peak definitely gave me a new perspective from which to view Colorado's high peaks. We descended back down the ridge and even had some fun sliding down the snow slopes before hiking the road back out. It was a great peak, and a lot of fun to climb.


Back to School

Seeing as the weather forecasts were not favorable, our camping/hiking trip to the Aspen area was put on hold so I was looking for a peak to climb that was closer to home. I decided to go for Mt Yale, seeing as I hadn’t climbed it yet and a few of my friends already have. It is one of the fourteeners at 14,196 feet and is the 21st highest peak in the state. Along with Mounts Princeton, Oxford, Harvard and Columbia; Yale makes up part of the Collegiate Peaks, all named after their respective universities. With it being September and all, I thought it was appropriate. The peak is easily accessible year round from two different paved trailheads near the town of Buena Vista. The trail on the west is shorter, about 7 miles round trip, and is the most popular way to climb this peak. I decided the east side route, which is 10 miles round trip, would be more interesting, and hopefully a little less crowded. I figured with it being a holiday weekend, and the access to the trailheads being paved, there would be a lot of people climbing Mt Yale on Saturday. I got to the trailhead really early, and was on the trail at around 6.20 am in my attempt to “beat the rush”. I was the first person to register at the trailhead that day and not surprising, saw zero people the entire ascent. I got to the summit at 9am, and had the whole thing to myself for about 20 minutes before I left. I saw a few people below on the “standard” west side route, but they didn’t summit until probably around 9.30. With the weather looking like it was going to hold, and with it being so early, I decided to head for the adjacent unnamed summit, nicknamed “Mascot Peak”. This is the 295th tallest peak in the state, but is only about 750 feet shorter! That is a lot of peaks in those 750 feet. Of course with that much height difference between two adjacent peaks, the connecting saddle between them has to be significantly lower than the higher peak, in this case about 1,100 feet. This isn’t bad when descending, and it wasn’t much to ascend “Mascot”, but that return trip sure is a lot of work! Just to summit Yale was 5,000’ of gain, adding “Mascot” and the return trip, it was over 6,000! That is a lot of climbing for one day. At least I managed to beat all the rain though; I only got rained on when I was in my car on the drive back home.

Sunday was a day of rest, no peak climbing, just a walk to the grocery store for my exercise. I was able to watch the Cubs and Syracuse football though, so it wasn’t a total waste of a day. Monday I headed back to the peaks, this time to one that was really close, in the Gore Range just to the east of Vail. Last year I climbed “Grand Traverse Peak”, one of the most visible peaks from I-70 when headed eastbound out of Vail. Monday I climbed its companion, “North Traverse Peak”. Of the two, north is slightly higher by about 40 feet, but is less visible as there is a highpoint on the connecting ridge that obscures the view of the peak from the road. The ridge connecting these two peaks is known as The Grand Traverse, hence the peaks nicknames, and is one of the classic climbs in Colorado. My friend Ben and I want to do it someday, and I thought a little up close research would be worth it. The hike to the northern peak starts with a trail along Bighorn Creek, at the end of the trail is an old cabin that dates back to 1925 that is a popular destination with day hikers. From the cabin there is no trail to the peak, first you have to travel through a meadow, and then traverse the talus and scree fields (basically piles of rocks) at the base of the peak’s western slopes. At the head of the Bighorn Creek, there is a steep grassy slope that leads to Central Pass, a low point in the ridge that separates Bighorn Creek and Rock Creek to the east. After climbing to this pass, the ridge to the summit of “North Traverse” is a reasonable pitch, but there are several large towers of rock along the way. These are easily bypassed by traveling around them, and the difficulty of this hike never exceeded class 2. Even so, the route finding was occasionally tedious as the lack of trail meant that the easiest way was not always obvious. It was a fun hike, and the connecting Grand Traverse looks even more amazing up close than it does from the highway. With fall coming so quickly though it may have to wait until next year.