Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Backpacking the Lost Creek Wilderness

The South Platte is a special place to me and Shelby. We've now made 7 trips to the region this year alone. Its elevation is only a bit higher than Denver's so it is a warm, dry area. It's an area that is often overlooked and relatively unappreciated. The ground is composed mostly of BB sized granite gravel with a thin layer of decomposed pine needles. The land is mostly covered with pine trees except for the 138,000 acre burn scar from the Hayman fire in 2002, roughly a third of the entire area of the South Platte region. All this being said, the region visible from paved roads isn't scenic by most Colorado standards. Once you start to venture onto the dirt roads and trails, you start to see some of the gems - Sheep Rock, Cheeseman Canyon, Turkey Rocks, and the Malay Archipelago to name a few. Looking to get lost for a weekend, Shelby and I stumbled upon what may be one of Colorado's best kept secrets, found in none other than the South Platte area- The Lost Creek Wilderness.

Looking at a terrain map, the Lost Creek Wilderness looks like an unimpressive set of small hills relative to some of the giant peaks found elsewhere in the state, so it is easy to skip across when scanning a map. Somehow Shelby had heard about backpacking loops in the area and a quick google search revealed some beautiful photos. The photos combined with the excellent forecast were enough to ignite a spark and we couldn't wait to explore the area.

We chose a loop that cherry-picked the most beautiful parts of the area. We would start by following Goose Creek, then Lost Creek, climbing up to McCurdy Park, over to Hankins Pass and back down to the car. I drew out the route on MapMyRide and it came out to 20-25 miles depending on how many switchbacks I missed while drawing the route.

We got started early on Saturday morning and began the hike north along Goose Creek. Most of the time we were in the trees, walking along a wide trail that we assumed must have been used as a road back in the mining days. 

Every once in a while the trees would clear and we would catch a glimpse of the granite domes and other rock formations that surrounded us on all sides.

Occasionally, we'd come across a giant boulder or a grove of aspens.

The miles ticked by quickly for the first half of the day. We had lots of energy and were excited to be in such a beautiful place, so the hiking was easy.

Much of the day passed in silence, both of us in our own thoughts, but with the occasional conversation. We would stop frequently, taking the time to look at the views. I would stop even more often to take pictures while Shelby continued and then I would slowly catch up. We stopped for a snack around noon and both of us realized that we brought less food than we normally do. Not a big deal, we just figured we'd be pretty hungry by the time we got to camp.

Eventually the trail went down to Lost Creek. We were low on water, so we took some time to filter water while we watched tiny trout feeding on food that drifted down to them. Just above this spot you could see the water come out of a dark cave. Lost Creek gets it's name from all the times it disappears underground and then reappears a ways downstream.

We weren't really sure where the trail lead from here. Following a less worn trail through some campsites, we eventually dead ended at the creek. It seemed really weird that the trail was less faint, so we weren't really sure that we came the right way. We ended up wading across the creek here and finding no trail on the other side. Darn. We came back across the creek to figure out where we went wrong and then continued along the trail barefoot, looking for a place we could sit down to put our shoes back on. Ouch! Ooh! Ouch! What the? I didn't realize it but we were walking through a field of thistles barefoot and I had about 5 thorns in my feet. Nice one. 

After taking the time to pull all the thorns out of our feet, we made it back to where we filtered water and found the other couple that had been hiking at about the same pace as us. They had a much better map than us and got us back on the trail we were supposed to be on. 

At this point, we started to realize that our map wasn't very good and we weren't exactly sure how far along the trail we were. We just kept hiking along the trail, figuring that we'd be able to figure out where we were eventually. Up a steep hill, down another hill, we came to two creek crossings, a landmark that allowed us to figure out where we were. By this point, we were both pretty exhausted. My mileage estimate seemed like it was way below what we had actually hiked due to switchbacks and we didn't bring enough food to keep our energy up. We sat down for a bit and shared my last clif bar before starting the long climb up to McCurdy Park. 

This part of the hike dragged on and on. Endless switch backs traversing up the face always brought us back to the creek that climbed up next to us, so it felt like we weren't making any progress. Eventually we finally made it to the last switchback and just hiked straight up the valley. Finally the trees opened up to a meadow and I knew that we were almost there. We made it to a nice camping spot with a firepit, sheltered by trees from the wind and right next to the stream. We cooked dinner, gathered wood and made a nice campfire before going to bed early after a long hard day.

We heard the wind blowing all night long. It rushed through the tips of the trees above us, but never really hit our tent thanks to the good camping spot. In the morning, we made quick work of the usual morning chores of pulling the food out of the tree it hung from, cooking breakfast, taking down the tent and packing our bags. Yesterday Shelby had only drank a kale smoothie for breakfast and it was a big reason why she ran out of energy so bad, so we both made sure we had plenty to eat for breakfast and started the hike feeling refreshed and energized, albeit quite sore.

The scenery today was less epic than yesterday, but we had lots of pleasant meadows to pass through between stints in the trees. We passed through the rest of McCurdy Park, passing a hidden tower called McCurdy Park tower with over 20 climbing routes up it. We'll have to come back and do some climbing in this wonderful area. At the end of McCurdy Park, we dipped down a bit and then took the cutoff towards Lake Park. This trail would be our only climb for the day and was enough to get the blood pumping at 1.5 miles long, but we were good on energy this time, so it went by relatively easily. The climb brought us to our high point for the weekend where we could scramble up a pile of boulders to a great lookout where we could see the whole wilderness area.

The rest of the hike was just a long gradual downhill all the way back to the car. The majority of the time was passed in silence, lost in our own thoughts, watching the landscape shift as we descended in elevation down to Lake Park, then to Hankins Pass.

The miles went on and on and we found ourselves looking at the map more often, ready to get off our feet and eat a tasty burrito in Deckers. We took frequent breaks along the way and eventually Shelby felt inspired to start wearing aspen leaves in her hair.

We were ready to be done and eventually I saw a distant ridge that signified that we were close to the end. Passing through a narrow corridor with rock walls on both sides, we came around the corner and saw horses making the final climb to the cars. We were done.

While the long hike in two days may have been a bit ambitious, we had a wonderful time in the Lost Creek Wilderness. It's truly a special place with few people and a feeling of wildness that is rare in the front range of Colorado. Next time we'll come prepared with more food, more time to explore, and climbing gear! We will be back, oh yes, we will be back.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Chickenheads at the Devil's Head

This weekend we climbed at Devil's Head. It's a beautiful place with a pretty long approach, but good trails all the way and really good climbing.

The area was closed for a few weeks due to a tornado that did a lot of damage near the trailhead. 

After a 45 min hike our first climb was a 5.8 trad route called Head Games. It went up bolted slab for the first half and then went up a small roof to a big corner for the second half. It was a fun, long single pitch.

Next up we did a 5.10a slab route called Remote Control. This was a really fun route, even though we only did the first pitch. Lots of tiny little nubbins to climb on and the bolts were at a good spacing compared to some of the runout slabs we've climbed in the south platte area before.

We finished off with a 2 pitch 5.8 trad route called Chickenhead. The first pitch is a fun, albeit dirty corner that leads to a comfy belay ledge. Then the second pitch traverses into a system of cracks and blocks with some really fun climbing. At one move you had to swing your body out over the empty space, using really good "chickenhead" jugs for your hands and feet to pull up on. The climb was a lot of fun and pretty unique since it was nearly vertical, but only a 5.8.

After Chickenhead, we walked back to our car and enjoyed the pleasant hike with good views along the way. We were quite amazed at the beauty of God's creation and felt really privileged to get to experience it in such a unique way.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Luxury Climbing up Mt. Evans

Ah Mt. Evans. It's claim to fame is the highest paved road in North America. Throngs of tourists crowd the summit taking pictures of each other and the multitudes of goats and sheep that seem a little bit too comfortable around humans. The mountain also happens to have some really good rock climbing on it. Alpine rock climbing with the possibility of hitch-hiking down seemed like a pretty luxurious day out. So we chose our route - Second Apron, Right Side -5.7 (Really creative route name huh?). It's the second buttress from the right in the photo below. The route was supposed to be a "choose your own adventure" kind of climb, meaning that there were lots of ways to the top, all being 5.7 or easier.

At 5:30 we started our hike to the base of our climb. The sun wasn't far below the horizon, so there was just enough light to see where to go, which was nice since we forgot headlamps! We traversed the slopes south of Summit Lake for a while, looking back as the sun started to rise. Due to smoke from California and Washington, the sun looked deep red as it was rising. Some combination of smoke and altitude gave me a bad headache for about an hour, but it eventually went away.

As we approached the second apron, our route came more into view. I could recognize where the standard start was, but there were so many crack systems there was no single obvious path to the top. Rather, endless possible ways to get to the top!

We reached the base of the climb and by 6:45 we headed up the first pitch. It was a long lieback crack with a decent crack to pull back on with your hands and pretty poor feet most of the way up. The climbing was fun, albeit a bit tenuous at spots where it became really slabby. The rock was very cold, making my hands numb enough that it was hard to feel the tiny edges I had to pull on the slab sections. I got to the top of the crack and traversed over a slab to another crack to the right. This lead to a narrow ledge that I was able to follow to the left for a while. The ledge would have made a good belay position, but I looked down and could tell that I still had plenty of rope left to move upward. So I headed up some mossy cracks, passed a giant M-shaped set of dihedrals, and found a good belay on a small ledge with about 10 feet of rope to spare. We'd be climbing long pitches all day to finish the climb as fast as possible. It was pretty cold and windy all day, so we didn't want to dilly dally.

 Shelby approaching the top of the first pitch

The second pitch was the most straight forward pitch of the day. It headed straight up a mossy crack from the belay and kept heading up. No traversing or any route finding really. It finished with a fun little step with a nice hand crack where I found a hidden jug to get up to the base of a dihedral. The left side of the dihedral blocked the sun and the wind seemed to be shooting straight the dihedral, so this was a pretty cold spot to sit.

From here, the dihedral looked like it wouldn't provide very good protection, so after heading up a bit, I moved out of the dihedral to the left, onto the face where I figured there would be better quality rock. I was glad to find some good cracks with good protection out on the face. This pitch made a zig zag pattern as I traversed left, climbed up, traversed some more, then climbed some more. The traverses were a lot of fun and I was glad to have done a bit of slab climbing recently to help me trust my feet. Just 30 feet away I saw a giant ledge, big enough for a small home and I knew I wanted to belay from there, but I was running low on rope. I headed towards the ledge and felt the rope go tight. I had run out of rope. The wind was blowing loudly and because of the length of the pitch Shelby and I could barely hear each other yelling. I yelled as loud as I could for Shelby to start simulclimbing, meaning that we would both be climbing at the same time with the rope attached to both of us. Since she is tied into the rope, she would still essentially have me on-belay even though she would be climbing. I felt the rope loosen, indicating that she was climbing and soon I was able to reach the ledge and set up an anchor to bring her up. 

The ledge was sunny and sheltered from the wind so we just hung out there for a while before continuing, enjoying the warmth after how cold we were at the last belay. The final pitch was the only pitch we didn't use the entire rope for. It started out with some easy mossy blocks and then I had the choice of taking the easy, but boring way, or the harder but fun way. The route finding all day has had choices like this and since I was still having fun, I chose the harder, fun option which was a wide lieback crack which lead to the top of the technical climbing for the day.

The ridge we would walk to the main summit of Evans 

The climb ends at a sub-summit which is a bit over 14,000 ft, but in order to reach the main summit of Mt. Evans we walked along the ridge for 25 minutes. The walk was a nice cool-down. We talked about our day on the way along the ridge, answering questions from curious hikers wondering why we had harnesses on.

Cairn with Bierstadt and Sawtooth in the background

We made it to the summit and spent some time taking pictures. The young couple that took our picture seemed nice so I asked them where they were from and started a conversation, hoping for a chance to ask for a ride. Sure enough, they were happy to give us a ride back to our car, so we returned the favor by giving them lots of recommendations on places to go during their visit. 

Despite the cold and the wind, it was a really fun climb and a cool way to do a 14er. I'd say that the climbing was significantly better than the climbing we did on Spearhead a few weeks ago, only with less hype. It took a little more thought and the ability to be able to choose our own route up the crack systems was a lot of fun. It's always a bit frustrating to follow vague step by step instructions up a climb, always wondering if you're off route. So it was cool to just make our own decisions on the route we chose to take. The rock quality was excellent everywhere, except for the right facing dihedral we found on the very right side of the face. But the best part is you don't have to walk all the way down!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

North Ridge of Spearhead

I've been wanting to climb Spearhead for close to 2 years now, since before I could even trad climb. The North Ridge of Spearhead is an easy, high quality, fun route, in the beautiful setting of Glacier Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park. The climb is 8 pitches, 1,000 feet long, up to an elevation of 12,575 ft. As big as the route sounds, Spearhead is dwarfed by all the surrounding mountains with Longs Peak, Pagoda, Chiefs Head, and McHenry's all being much taller than Spearhead. Nevertheless, it was a great first alpine rock route for us.

The Estes Park/RMNP area was crowded as usual with flocks of tourists up to Alberta Falls. It wasn't too long before we started seeing fewer and fewer people.

Our packs were heavy with camping and climbing gear and neither of us were in particularly good shape, so the hike was pretty tough for us. But the farther we got from the crowds, the happier and more excited we became. Around Black Lake, the trees started to thin out a bit so we started seeing some amazing views.

 Black Lake

After Black Lake, the trail starts to get steep and it's the final climb before hitting tree line, so we just put our heads down and ground our way up the gully. With some careful routefinding through willows and across streams, we finally crested the last hill and started singing Lion King songs in celebration. We made it to Glacier Gorge. 

The park service doesn't allow tent camping in the gorge, so we had to find a boulder to sleep under for the night. Thankfully there are several nice "bivies" with good shelter from the wind and flat ground to sleep on. Ours was so nice we dubbed it the Marriott. We arrived right before sunset, so we had just enough time to cook dinner, filter water, and head to bed. We brought a couple bivy sacks (glorified body bags) to sleep in, which helped a lot with wind protection.

The Marriott

Wake up call was at 5:00 in the morning, a relatively casual start since we knew that the forecast for the day was nearly perfect with nothing to worry about except a bit of wind. We racked up and started the hike to the base of the climb which took a good 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, we were the first group on the route. The next three groups showed up as I belayed Shelby on the first pitch. Good timing! Shelby headed up the first pitch at 6:30 up some easy slabs to the base of a chimney. As I climbed up to her, I could already feel pressure to go fast since there were already 3 groups waiting to climb after us. I climbed a short pitch up the chimney and quickly set up another anchor so that we could climb the next pitch without as much rope drag. The next pitch was a pretty fun and thoughtful one involving climbing some cracks and up a slab to a slot which leads to the base of a v-shaped corner.

I belayed Shelby up to me and she quickly took off onto the next pitch. As I gave out rope, I could tell the climbing started getting easier because the rope was passing through my belay device faster and faster. When I climbed up to her I could see that the next bit of climbing would be easy class 4 stuff. So we unroped and scrambled up the next 150 feet to a nice big ledge right next to the Barb Flake. After roping up again, we headed up a couple easy, but fun pitches up good cracks to the base of the steep part of the ridge.

We were a bit off route, so I started by traversing to the left to get back onto the route. I found the route, but I also found a tricky looking roof that looked like it was much harder than 5.6. I made a move up the roof and couldn't find any solid hands, so I stepped back down and found a way to bypass the tough move. I came to a beautiful finger crack in a corner than I went up. The crack was so beautiful that I would have loved to place a bunch of gear in it, but it was really quite easy so it only got one cam before I found a small stance that I could sit on to belay Shelby. This belay was the coolest place to just sit down and look around from. Being right on the ridge crest, I could look straight down the east face to the harder climbing on Spearhead, looking north I could see the 5 parties climbing behind us, and looking south I could see the precarious summit of Spearhead not too far away.

The cool belay stance at the top of pitch 7

Shelby climbed up to me and we enjoyed resting for a minute. Her feet were tired of smearing up so much slab and we had felt like we were pressured to climb fast all day, so it was nice to pause for a minute. What next ensued was some of the most awkward climbing ever. The guidebook described it as an "awkward slot" and awkward it certainly was. Shelby did a great job climbing up this weird and difficult section, but when I climbed it, it was a pretty ugly sight to see. I wedged my body into the slot and tried to inch my way up it, but it was incredibly strenuous. Somehow I made it up without falling and then I caught up to Shelby at the end of the roped climbing. 

We had heard that the summit of Spearhead was spectacular, so we wanted to make sure we visited it. So it took about 150 feet of scrambling up some cool natural stairs, through a tunnel, and then up an exposed slab until we reached the amazing summit. It was about a 6x10 foot block perched over the steep east face. If you looked over the edge you could see all the way down to the base. It was a pretty amazing summit and we were glad that we stopped by.

For the next two hours we made our way back down to the Marriott. The descent involved a lot of scrambling with plenty of loose rocks, but mostly pretty solid. It looked like we were going to run into a cliff, so we looked around the corner and found a rappel station where we made a rappel down to the route we should have taken off the mountain. Eventually we made it down to easy hiking and were glad to be almost done for the day.

So we spent the rest of the day napping, eating, walking around and generally relaxing. We slept in our cave again and then headed back home in the morning. It was great to finally get on some alpine rock. The climbing itself wasn't anything spectacular, but the setting was just amazing and the sense of accomplishment to have hiked in 6 miles, climbed a big route, and hiked back out was great. The scenery was amazing in Glacier Gorge and I'd venture to say that the cave we slept in was one of the coolest places I've ever camped. So overall, it was a great experience.