8.30.2006

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.