Friday, September 27, 2013

Sangre de Cristo Trip: Humboldt Peak

I was really excited to spend a night or two out at South Colony Lakes. From the pictures I had seen, it looked like an amazing place with a beautiful view of one of the most picturesque peaks in Colorado - Crestone Needle. It was going to be nice to just spend some time away from the roads and just relax in the wilderness.

We left early this morning, around 4AM. It was going to be a long walk up to the lakes and we would be carrying our big backpacks with all our camping gear. Little did I know, my partners were planning on taking everything but the kitchen sink for this short, 2 night backpacking trip. Their packs weighed over 50 lbs, and I was carrying less than 25lbs, still falling into the "heavyweight" category according to ultralight hikers. The hike up south colony road was painfully slow. Eventually, we got to the old trailhead where a small trail cuts north to the lakes and the sun was starting to rise. We hiked through the woods as the trees started to thin and finally got our first good view of Crestone Needle.

Soon we arrived at the lower south colony lake and looked around for a campsite. Being Labor Day, many of the camping spots were full, but we were able to find a good one sheltered by short pine trees, close to the creek where we could collect water. We didn't eat a proper breakfast that morning so we set up our tents and spent some time cooking oatmeal. Enough lollygagging around, we decided to head on up Humboldt before any storms came in.

The classic Ellingwood Arete on Crestone Needle

The climb up Humboldt was much harder than I expected, mostly because I've started a bad habit of not paying attention to route descriptions for "easy" hikes. The hike starts out with a bunch of switchbacks up to the saddle below Humboldt. I was expecting this to be the only hard part and the rest to be really easy. But it was actually the other way around. From the saddle to the top, it was a bunch of tiring boulder hopping up a steep slope.

Slowly but surely we made progress. I could tell that Richard was starting to acclimatize. He still said that he felt very tired, but he was climbing noticeably faster than yesterday. The hike itself wasn't anything to write home about, but the views certainly were with the Crestones in full view.

We made it to the summit and as usual, we only spent about 15 minutes there and made our way down to avoid storms. We saw a young couple taking two corgi dogs up the mountain and it looked like a horrible idea with all the boulder hopping. It wasn't long until we looked back and saw that they gave up because of the dogs' slow pace and headed back down. We made it back to our campsite and began our day of lounging around.

While we were lounging at camp an older man told us that his water filter was clogged asked if he could borrow ours. So I went down to the creek with him to help him fill up. I got down to the creek and realized that I forgot the bladder for my filter, so I left the filter with the man and jogged back to camp to get the bladder. At this point, it was starting to rain and by the time I got back to camp, it started to pour. I had no interest in going out in the rain to get my filter back, figuring the man would return it. So I just hunkered under a pine tree to wait out the storm. Tony found a tree nearby to stand under and Richard went into his tent. We figured the storm wouldn't last too long, but it wasn't stopping. The older man, soaking wet, came up to our camp to return my filter. I had some dirty water in my bladder, so we sat under the trees and chatted for a few minutes while the water filtered into his Nalgenes. He thanked us and ran over to his site just 100 feet from ours.

The storm didn't get any better. It started hailing and the lightning was getting closer. We were staying relatively dry under the trees, but the hail was able to get through the branches and there was really no place we could stand without getting pelted. We started to notice that a stream was starting to form and it was flowing under our tents. Tony and I tried to dig some quick trenches to get the water to go around the tent, but the hail just got worse and we gave up, just praying that the tent stayed waterproof and didn't let our down bags get soaked. We felt horrible for choosing such bad places for the tents. My dad had always taught me to not set up a tent where water would flow, but over the years I had grown lax and just chose the nice flat spot.

The storm had been going for 30 minutes at this point, with 15 minutes of rain and 15 minutes of hail, and I was starting to shiver. I was wearing a rain jacket with a t-shirt and hiking pants. There were no signs that it was going to stop anytime soon, so I opened up my pack to get my puffy jacket, hat, and gloves and I put them on under my rain jacket. This helped a lot, but I was still cold. The hail was piling up and Tony and I decided we would try to get into the tent to stay warm. When we opened to tent and Tony jumped in, it was floating on 2 inches of water and it just didn't seem like it would be very helpful for us to sit in there. So we continued waiting under the trees. The hail finally stopped after coming down for 30 minutes. The rain continued coming down, but seemed to be relenting a bit. At this point all 3 of us were cold and most of our gear was wet. The hail had piled up to about 3 inches. If we stayed there for the night, we would be cold and wet and none of us really felt like having a miserable night, so we decided to head back to the Jeep, which would take 3 hours. We packed up all our heavy soaked gear and headed out. It was a long, tiring walk, but we made it just as it was getting dark. We threw in the towel for the day and decided to stay in a hotel where we enjoyed a nice shower.

I was really disappointed and upset with myself for not choosing a better camping spot. It we had chosen a higher spot to put our tents, we probably could have comfortably stayed the night and had a chance to attempt the Crestones the next day. That night at the hotel we were talking about what we wanted to do for the rest of the week. It seemed that our plans for the week were toast. We were a bit turned off from backpacking and unfortunately the other hikes we had planned would include at least one night of backpacking. We almost decided to leave the Sangres and do some day hikes in the other ranges, but that would have been really disappointing to have driven all the way down there only to hike 2 14ers. So we decided to just spend a day drying out and drive to the other side of the range and then attempt to do two really long day hikes up Kit Carson/Challenger and up Crestone peak from the west side.

The two lakes in the hail piles where our tents were

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sangre de Cristo Trip 2013: Mt. Lindsey

My checklist was checked and my backpack was packed. I spent the morning drinking a hot cup of coffee and listening to music. Before I knew it, two men were walking down my stairs and greeted me. I wondered, who are these two white guys coming down my stairs and how do they know me? It took a few seconds, but I realized that they were Tony and Richard, my two climbing partners for a week in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. It was time to go, so we hopped in Richard's rental Jeep Grand Cherokee and started our drive south. I had met Tony the week before on a hike to Mt. of the Holy Cross, but I had only gotten to know Richard via Facebook stalking. So the conversation had its gaps, but we all had enough to talk about and were comfortable enough with each other.

After a long highway and a long rough dirt road, we made it to our campsite for the night at the Mt. Lindsey trailhead. We camped at the trailhead and had a beautiful view of the Iron Nipple.

The plan was to get a 5:00 start the next morning, so we gathered water from the creek, ate our dinner, and headed to bed early. These alpine starts suit me pretty well because I'm usually so excited for an upcoming climb that I can't sleep anyway. I can't say I'm too crazy about walking in the dark though.

Walking in the dark the next morning proved to be challenging. The trail to Mt. Lindsey had social trails that diverged then converged and it was very easy for us to get lost while navigating in the dark. As we approached treeline the sun rose and we got to see the beautiful views once again.

We walked through this beautiful valley above the trees with a great view of Blanca Peak and climbed to a saddle that connects Mt. Lindsey to Iron Nipple. From here we could finally see our route. There are two options. The first is to climb a loose scree gulley up the face that supposedly stays class 2 and the other option is a class 3 climb up the ridge on solid rock with a short easy class 4 section near the top. I was eager to try out a class 4 route for the first time, so I had already convinced my partners to do the ridge. I would say that it was the safer option. There was some exposure, but much less chance of a rock fall compared to the north face.

Mt. Lindsey's northwest ridge and north face from the saddle

At the saddle we all put our helmets on and packed our trekking poles. The ridge looked foreboding and Tony would later tell me that the scariest part of the route for him was standing here at the saddle, looking at the route. It wasn't long before it was evident that we were going to need to do a good bit of route finding to stay on route. I took the lead and kept us high on the ridge for the majority of the climb. It was a lot of really fun class 3 scrambling with a bit of exposure and, of course, really good views.

We were getting close to the crux of the route and I stayed close to the ridge crest. I saw 2 climbers ahead of us who had descended to the base of a narrow gulley that leads to the crux. I thought they had stayed too low and got themselves into a difficult climb. But it was only a minute later when I cliffed out and could not stay on the ridge any longer. So we backtracked 100 ft and traversed the ridge lower down across a pretty sketchy exposed section to get the the base of the crux gulley. The crux was a lot of fun. It took some careful climbing and time to find holds, but we all made it up. The crux was actually easier than I expected, but I must have given my climbing partners the wrong impression about the climb. Richard was pretty shaken by the exposure and told me that he didn't plan on climbing any more class 4. Tony, however was a bit surprised by the difficulty of the climb but later told me that it was one of the most fun routes he had ever climbed. It was the same for me. Right up there with Kelso Ridge.

We were nearly at the top and it was just a tiring hike to the summit. We only spent about 15 minutes at the top because clouds were starting to form. Again, we had the option of the two routes to descend, but we opted for the north face gulley to avoid the very steep sections on the ridge. The gulley was less loose than I expected. We were able to stay to the side, which had somewhat solid rock. Still, we saw several people heading up the gulley without any helmets and deemed them to be crazy for not using helmets on the loose rock.

The walk back to camp was pretty nice. I'm always pretty tired after climbing a 14er, but relative to some of the very long days I had earlier this summer, I felt great. The hike was 8 miles and 3500ft of elevation gain. We went really slow because this was Richard's first day at high altitude after flying in from South Carolina. Probably not the best idea to get him killed on his first day. The slow pace made for a good warm up hike for me and left me excited for the rest of the climbs.

That night we drove up the road a ways to South Colony Lakes trailhead and set up our tents for the night. We had another early start in the morning, so we didn't sit around the campfire for too long.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Summer of Hiking

All last winter I was itching to do some hiking and I resolved that this summer would be the summer of hiking. Originally my goals were to start climbing class 3 and to do Long's Peak, Kelso Ridge, and The Sawtooth by the end of the summer. Class 3 climbing means that you need to use your hands to climb, but it is easy enough that you can go down the slope with your body facing outward. The only 14er routes I had done previously were class 2, which is just difficult walking, so class 3 seemed a bit intimidating to me.

I started out the summer with a climb up Kelso Ridge with my coworker and his friends. It was the funnest 14er route I had ever climbed. There were 3 or 4 sections that required careful climbing and a few spots with a ton of exposure. The exposure was exhilarating and the climbing was fun. I immediately knew that I wanted to do more climbing like this. This kind of climbing is so much more engaging for me. You actually have to use your brain to carefully make hand and foot placements and to keep yourself from freaking out with a hundred foot drop on either side.

The infamous Kelso Ridge knife-edge

Fun exposure on Kelso Ridge

Summer was speeding by before I knew it and I hadn't come up with any vacation plans. This couldn't stand. Last summer involved lots of knitting, reading, and bike riding around Denver. I wasn't going to let that happen again, so I started thinking about a trip to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado. These mountains are absolutely beautiful and have lots of  challenging routes, the kinds of class 3 routes I was now hooked on. I would have been okay doing this trip alone, but I knew I'd have people bugging me about how dangerous solo hiking is, so I took a look on to see if I could find some climbing partners. Sure enough, a guy from South Carolina posted on the website looking to do a similar trip to what I had planned. A few emails later I was committed to climbing with him and another Coloradan guy for a trip to the Sangres at the beginning of September. 

The trip looked daunting. We planned on climbing 8 14ers in 5 days of climbing, which meant lots of miles and lots of vertical feet to gain. I wasn't in shape for this, so I immediately started training. Cycling was cut down to a minimum with only 1 ride a week and instead I started running and hiking more, with a goal of climbing a 14er almost every weekend.

Over all my time training I summited 11 14ers, hiked a total of 92 miles and 41,000 ft of elevation gain. By far the most hiking I've ever done in a summer! It was good for me to have a goal to train for. I am not someone who is very good about exercising for the sake of exercising. The running was tolerable and all the hikes were a lot of fun. My two favorites were a traverse of the Gray's-Torreys valley (Steven's Gulch) and a Bierstadt-Sawtooth-Evans combo.

The Steven's Gulch traverse made for a long day. It was 9.2 miles with 6,000 ft of elevation gain, so I started early at 4:15 and was hiking for over 9 hours. The majority of the hike was just a walk, but I had the pleasure of climbing Kelso Ridge again, which was plenty of fun. Towards the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted and found myself stopping frequently to rest. I had summited 5 peaks that day already, and near the end of the traverse I was able to see this view.

Steven's Gulch

Just being able to look at the entire route from the day gave me a great sense of satisfaction even though my body was completely beat. I plotted out the route in Google Earth afterward and I couldn't help but be giddy at how aesthetically pleasing the route was. I had never done a big valley traverse like this before, but I thought it was wonderful because you get to spend a ton of time above treeline on fun ridges and return back to your car by the end of the day.

Steven's Gulch Traverse Route

Earlier in the summer I did the Bierstadt-Sawtooth-Evans combo, which also made for a long day, but a great sense of satisfaction afterward. I went up Bierstadt via the standard West Slope route and it was raining the whole time, even with a 5:43 start time. By the time I got to the top, my gloves were quite wet and the summit was sitting inside a cloud. There were two small groups of climbers at the top and we spent 20 minutes talking about the dangerous conditions on the Sawtooth that connects Bierstadt and Evans. The rocks were slippery and the visibility was poor. I was tired of waiting for the others to decide and I was confident that this route was well within my abilities as long as I was careful. So I said goodbye to the two teams of climbers, put on my helmet and headed to the ridge by myself. It was only about 20 minutes before visibility cleared up and the rocks were never all that slippery. The traverse across the Sawtooth was quite fun with only one tricky climbing section. The rest of the hike was just a long slog. It felt like it took forever for me to get to the summit of Evans because I never looked at the route description enough to realize that it is actually quite far to the summit from the Sawtooth. But I eventually got there and spent 15 minutes with everyone that drove up there on the road. On the descent back to Guanella Pass the sun finally came out, just in time for me to walk through the muddy valley back to my car. I was exhausted after 10.25 miles and 3500 ft of hiking, but happy that I decided to make it a long day instead of turning around at the top of Bierstadt.

The Sawtooth Ridge

These were just two of the many hikes I did this summer. I discovered two fun hikes near Denver called Mt. Morrison and Goat Mountain. They're steep climbs with a little bit of class 3 and very little foot traffic. Bear Mountain in Boulder is a really fun and easy way to get tired without driving very far. The Decalibron is a hike that combines 4 14ers and I was glad I did it because it's a really easy way to get 4 summits without walking very far. The Mt. of the Holy Cross was probably the most scenic hike I did while training. We took the Halo Ridge route and it made for lots of boulder hopping and a very long day and we were absolutely exhausted by the end of it. Missouri was a disappointing hike for me because I had high aspirations of combining it with Belford and Oxford, but was thwarted by the weather and my exhaustion, so I only summitted Missouri.  Here are the stats for my training hikes:
Route Date Miles Elevation Gain
Mt. Morrison 6/7/2013 3.6 2000
Goat Mountain 6/8/2013 6.4 1980
Decalibron 7/6/2013 7.25 3700
Kelso Ridge 7/13/2013 6.75 3100
Mt. Morrison 7/21/2013 3.6 2000
Goat Mountain 7/24/2013 6.4 1980
Bierstadt-Sawtooth-Evans 7/27/2013 10.25 3900
Mt. Morrison 7/30/2013 3.6 2000
Bear Mountain 8/4/2013 5.9 2941
Tour de Steven's Gulch 8/10/2013 9.2 6000
Mt of the Holy Cross 8/17/2013 15 5210
Mt. Morrison 8/20/2013 3.6 2000
Missouri 8/24/2013 10.5 4500
Totals 92.05 41311

After all this training, my trip to the Sangres was just around the corner. I felt like I was capable of tackling our hardest day in the Sangre's, but I really didn't know if I could do strenuous hikes every day for a week. I just spent the week resting and hoped I wouldn't be in the worst shape of the 3 of us.