The Calm After The Storm

The inital plan was a good one, but our unpredictable weather had us playing it by ear this weekend. The idea was to have a sort of Vail-expatriate reunion at the camping area near Shavano and Tabeguache, and spend the weekend climbing nearby peaks. I caught up to my friends Ben and Erica who moved to Crested Butte on the road up to the campground, just as they were getting a call from our friend Whitney who moved to Denver. We waited for her to catch up to us and all drove to the campsite some of her other friends from Denver scoped out earlier in the day. A little while later our friend George from Avon met up with us as well and we all finished dinner around the campfire before heading off to rest. This time it wasn't the cows that woke us up in the middle of the night, it was the thunder. A huge storm rolled through while we were still sleeping around 5am. So much for the 7am hit the trail we had planned on originally. We woke up late, had breakfast in the fog, and tried to figure out if the weather was going to allow us to climb this day. The clouds kept teasing us, patched of blue sky would briefly break through and we eventually decided to just hit the trail and hope for the best, after all we could always turn around! By now our group had grown, two of Ben and Erica's friends from Crested Butte met us and we all started hiking together at what for a mountaineer was very late: 9am. (Normally I summit between 9 and 10)

We kept climbing through the fog, closer and closer to treeline which we finally reached after 2 hours on the trail. At this point we were starting to break through the clouds and became very encouraged by the site of blue sky above the 13,400' saddle that marked the start of our summit pitch. I reached the saddle first, the summit still visible (and Tabeguache's too) and started to enjoy a snack while I waited for 4 of my parters shortly behind. The other 4 were still a ways back. In the 10 minutes it took them to catch up the clouds thickened and neither summit was visible anymore. Should we press on? Would it break? We talked over our snacks about what to do when we started to hear distant thunder. Our remaining companions still hadn't made the saddle, and despite George's desire to summit, we made him turn around and we all started to head back. When I hear thunder, the climb is over. A short 10 minutes later we were a few hundred feet below the saddle when we started to become pelted with heavy snow. That's right, an August snowstorm! Complete with thunder and cold winds we continued our descent and met our other friends. We told them about the weather and urged them too to turn around. They decided to stop for a quick break before heading back, George decided to stay with them, but the rest of us wet and cold hikers pressed on. Good thing I always carry warm clothing for these types of situations, you never know what you are going to get in the mountains, even in summer! As we continued on the sky started to break into blue sky and sunshine once again, we hoped George wouldn't be too mad at us for making him turn around. Right there in the middle of a clearing in the trail we all stopped to wait for the rest of our group and had lunch. Soon after Clint and Jill (Ben and Erica's friends from CB) appeared on the trail, but no Ben, Erica or George. They decided that with the break in the weather they would go back and try to summit. They still had a long way to go, as they made this decision nearly 2000' below the summit. That is a lot of climbing in uncertain weather and we hoped for the best as the rest of us headed back to camp.

We continued to hear thunder, mostly it seemed to be coming from the valley below, but we couldn't help but think of our friends still climbing. We got back to camp, started a fire and waited. 5pm came and Clint and Jill started to cook dinner, still no sign of our friends. It was 4hrs since they turned back from the summit, and we started to think that if they made it we should see them soon. Finally, now around 6.30, they arrived. They made the summit, but right as they were about to take pictures at the top they felt a tingling in their bodies and their hair began to stand on end. Static electricity was in the air and in the rocks around them, they could barely speak as they yelled to each other to get off, lightning was not far behind. They ran non-stop from the summit to treeline some 2000' below in the snow and building storm before they finally stopped in a safe place to catch their breath and reflect on their close call. They all said "never again" as they told the story. The lightning on our high peaks is not to be taken lightly, it is why I start so early, and why I turn around when I hear thunder. I think in the future my friends will too.

We had dinner and hung out around the campfire before heading to bed. The next morning we had originally talked about climbing some nearby 13ers, but my friends all decided they were ready to head back home. The weather on Sunday was clear, the summit was basking in a cloudless blue sky and even our old friends the cows were grazing in the field near camp. The weather was perfect, so I decided to give the 13ers a shot anyway. It turned out to be a pretty nice day actually, a little chilly and it did start to cloud up around noon, but no rain and no storms to be had. I headed to the nearby trailhead, essential just behind the Tabeguache up a drainage called Cyclone Creek. There were only 2 other cars at the trailhead as I put on my pack and headed up the trail. The trail was easy to follow, but not as well traveled and soon I found myself at the base of the gully leading to the saddle between Cyclone Mountain (13,596') and Carbonate Mountain (13,663'). I headed up the scree and talus filled gully, some parts were pleasant but others became loose and arduous. I made it to the saddle and chose to climb Cyclone, the 192nd highest peak in the state first. From here the views of the surrounding higher mountains were quite astounding. I signed the summit register, the first person to do so in 24 days. In fact the peak is climbed so infrequently that the register was placed in 1989! On popular Fourteeners, the registers can see over 200 names in one weekend alone. On the way over to Carbonate though I saw two others who were climbing the same route I was, just reversing the order of the peaks. I summited Carbonate where the register was much more active, and was only 6 years old. Still these two peaks see a lot less traffic than their higher neighbors and I appreciated the view from my priveledged place. I headed back to the car, it took about 3 hours total to climb these two peaks, though after seeing how unpopular these peaks are I guess its 3 hours most people would rather spend elsewhere. I don't mind, the solitude and the rewarding views made for a nice peaceful ending to what started out as a stormy weekend.


My Parents Annual Visit

I'm sure some of you noticed a drought in the blog. Things have been hectic at work, with a lot of 10 hour days and even a few hours here and there on the weekends to make enough hours to get overtime pay. Hey, at least I am getting paid for it! Maybe some new ski gear is in my future! This past weekend my parents and nephew were in town for a visit. Actually they arrived last Wednesday. That evening we had pizza and ice cream and headed over to Wolcott Boulders for a little scrambling. The first face was a little too steep for my nephew, but we found a few easier boulders for him to scramble up. In between work meetings, we managed to have some fun! Thursday work was having a Rockies outing, so my parents and nephew headed down to the game too. They bought "rockpile" tickets, which is the upper bleachers. They tickets were $4 each for my parents and a mere dollar for my nephew, parking at most ballparks is more than the 9 bucks they spent on tickets! For the record we found parking for the game that was $5. The Rockies won, bumped off Arizona in that game. On the way to the game we stopped at Dinosaur Ridge, a rock outcropping off the highway that has fossilized footprints and bones of dinosaurs. My nephew is a dino-nut so seeing real fossils in a natural environment was pretty exciting for him. Friday I had a morning meeting, but took the afternoon off to take my family over to Vail. We walked around the village a bit then took the Gondola up to Eagle's Nest for some great views and to give my nephew a chance to play paleontologist. They have a "dino dig" for the kids, its just plastic bones buried in a sandbox, but the kids seem to like it!

The weekend it was the National Park tour. Saturday we started driving south to do some site seeing in the Sawatch Mountains. We started with some shopping in Leadville and then as we had lunch in Buena Vista it started raining. At least we got some good burgers and ice cream out of the deal! We kept driving south to try and get out of the rain and after some real heavy stuff over Poncha Pass it started to lighten up in the San Luis Valley. At this point we were only an hour from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and decided to visit Colorado's version of the beach. The dunes are kind of a weird feature, there is a gap in the mountains they are up against and it draws the winds across the valley. The sands the winds carry then cannot get up over the mountains and it gets deposited at their base. That is kind of over simplifying it, but you sort of get the idea. Some of the dunes are over 600 feet high, and it really feels like a small desert in the middle of the mountains. After a brief tour of the visitor's center and a short nature hike we drove over to the base of the dunes. My nephew and I braved the scattered rain showers and started climbing. We didn't go all the way to the top, but we got into the dunes enough to get the feel of being in a desert. Unfortunately the rain picked up while we were out there and we got soaked on the way back to the car. It was a fun experience though, and I had never been to that park before.

Sunday was National Parks Part 2 as we headed northeast from my house to Rocky Mountain National Park. We started our journey with a visit to the west side visitor's center before heading over the Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park. The road crosses the Continental Divide and tops out above treeline with a traverse of the tundra at elevations of nearly 12,000'. Along the way lucky visitors can see wildlife ranging from chipmunks, pikas and marmots to deer, elk and moose. We didn't see any deer or moose, but saw all the others on our drive! There is a vistors center at nearly 12,800' that we explored and had lunch in. The views are great, expansive mountain views above the trees, just the way I like it! From there we took the little hiking trail up to the ridge crest at 12,005' for some more great views and some scrambling on the rock outcroppings. A little further down the road was another such tourist trail that topped out at about 12,300' with more rock outcroppings to play on. The clouds of our typical afternoon storms were starting to roll in though, so we headed back down. After a few more stops at the view points on the road we headed to Estes Park. Just before town we saw three more elk grazing in a field near some houses, the elk sure are friendly in Estes! We walked around town, did some shopping and then ate dinner and headed back. I had to work Monday while my parents and nephew enjoyed Beaver Creek Village including some mini-golf and my nephew got to climb on their climbing wall and do somersaults on the bungee trampoline. The next day we had lunch at our favorite local pizza place before they hit the road for the long drive back to Chicago. All together I think they all had a great time, and I really enjoyed their visit too! Time to start planning activities for next summer's trip!


A day of milestones

Despite less than optimal weather forecasts, we decided to continue with our plan to head down to 14,014' San Luis Peak for the weekend, the state's 50th highest peak. At the very least we would get out of town and get to camp in a new area. If we were successful it would be a couple of milestones for our group, my 30th, another person‘s first, and the first San Juan peak for the other guys. We left Avon at 11am, stopping for lunch and ice cream in Buena Vista on the way down. After following the driving directions to the trailhead we started to check out the side of the road for somewhere to camp. We found a great spot right past the trailhead where we made beef stew under a light rain, but as we sat chatting the skies started to clear and the Big Dipper wished us luck on our hike. The next morning we woke up and headed up the road on foot. What is an extra 1/4 mile each way among friends? The sun was shining on the damp willows and grass as we made our way up the trail. We made pretty good time and in about 2 hours we were at treeline having a snack break and admiring the surroundings. As we made our way up the gully to the Organ-San Luis saddle the difference in fitness became apparent. Soon I saw the last two climbers, one our first timer, making their way. At this time the clouds were starting to increase, but we all determined that at this time they were not severe weather clouds and tried to estimate how long we thought it would take us to finish. I went on ahead to scout the weather on the back of the ridge. I summited at 10.15am, took a few pictures and then headed back towards my partners now climbing on the final section of the route. By now our first timer was slowing down, and the other two guys went on ahead while I stayed with for encouragement. As we continued on the clouds briefly started to break as if to invite us to finish our journey. We all got to share in the joy of our companion‘s first fourteener summit at 10.45am amid the clouds. We decided to head back down and not press our luck. We made great time on decent, and were back at camp before 2pm. Along the way we got to admire all of the mushrooms on the trail and one of my partners picked a few porcini's. The last 2 miles of trail the rains started to come down heavy. We donned rain gear, but still got soaked. Luckily we had dry clothes to change into when we were back at camp. On the last section of trail where we were paralleling the road, we got to see a cattle drive. The cowboys and girls were herding the cattle along the road above, and luckily were past the trailhead by the time we got there. We negotiated around the various cowpies on the road and broke camp to head home. On the way out we got to see the herd grazing around Nutras Creek, and realized we had seen more cows than people on this trip. Its a pretty special 14er hike when the cows outnumber the people! On the way back we paid our respects to the cowboys we saw working hard on a Sunday in the rain with a round of filet mignon's from Quincy's Steakhouse. A well earned meal!

A view of the final section from the Organ-San Luis saddle, San Luis is on the left just being grazed by the clouds.


Two more off the list

This weekend it was more high peaks in Colorado. Seems to be a pattern in the summer! Friday night my friend Drew and I drove down towards the trailhead for two fourteeners at the southern end of the Sawatch Range. Along the way we stopped in Buena Vista to enjoy a Prime Rib dinner to fuel up before our hike. We set up camp near the trailhead in a nice meadow and tried to get a good nights sleep. Unfortunately the area we were camping (as well as part of the lower sections of trail) are actually on open range. This means that cows can pretty much wander around and graze wherever they like, and whenever they like. Such as 1am, and only 1000 feet from our camp. They moo-ed most of the night and kept me from getting a nice full night of sleep. Before I knew it the sun was coming up and it was time to start our journey. We hit the trail at 6.30am and made good time to treeline. The trail starts at only 9,800', and before we knew it we were up a the saddle below the final summit pitch at 13,400'. Up to this point the trail was really good and easy to follow as well, and despite being steep in parts was generally fairly easy. Above the saddle the trail starts to fizzle out in a few spots but the last 800' to the summit went quickly and without too much difficulty we were at the top at 10am. Shavano was our first summit, the 17th highest peak in the state at 14,229'. We had climbed some 4400' in just over 4 1/2 miles! We decided not to hang out on the summit too long so that we could head over to neighboring Tabeguache Peak just about a mile away. Between us stood a rocky ridge that descended to 13,700' before climbing to Tabeguache's summit at 14,155'. There were only two other people on the summit and we had a quick snack and took some pictures before heading back down. The route unfortunately reclimbs Shavano on the way down, meaning yet another 529' of climbing on the way out. That really started to wear on Drew, and particularly his dog Angel, seeing as they haven't been up a high peak like this is over a year. On the way down we stopped at the creek for a little break where Angel made himself a little bed next to a tree to rest. We made it back to the car at about 2pm, for me these were numbers 28 and 29 on the fourteeners list, and 46 overall in the Highest Hundred. That elusive halfway point keeps getting closer!

We had dinner (pizza this time) and headed to another campsite where we hoped to do another peak on Sunday. Unfortunately the Saturday climb proved too much for my hiking partners and we headed to Leadville for breakfast instead. On the way back home we stopped along the way for a short hike to Whitney Lake, which is about a 5 mile round trip. The lake is really nice and had some big trout in it that we could see through the clear water. Occassionally one would come to the surface to eat a bug that was on the water. It was a nice relaxing spot and a good way to chill after a weekend that involved over 16 miles of hiking and 7000' of vertical gain. Phew! Can't wait for Saturday to do it all over again...