Saturday, July 31, 2010

Five Days of Sawatch 14ers

Back in the 1860s a Yale graduate and Harvard professor by the name of Josiah D. Whitney completed a significant amount of surveying in the western United States. Acting as the official California state geologist, Whitney compiled an extensive quantity of data about that state's natural world and published much of it in a collection of books called the Geological Survey of California.  Whitney also produced the highly praised and valued work called The Yosemite Book which brought recognition to the value of that landscape through photographic excellence.  John Muir walked into Yosemite valley soon after that book was published.

Looking north into the Collegiates from Mt. Yale's summit

Whitney was also assigned a surveying job in the highest valley in Colorado.  It was there, along the Arkansas River, that Whitney measured and named a series of tall peaks.  Given his Ivy League background and the customs of surveyors of his time, it was no surprise that Whitney named several of the giant peaks after the prestigious schools.  The highest peak he measured was christened Mount Harvard (14,427 ft).  He did not know that only nearby Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, at 14,440 ft and 14,428 ft would be deemed higher a few years later by the Hayden survey.  Whitney then named the second highest peak in his survey after his Alma mater, Yale, and the third highest after Princeton.  It was later determined that Princeton, at 14,204 ft, is actually one foot taller than Yale.  My students will understand it when I say that this Ivy Leaguer should have made more measurements in light of finding these two mountains so closely matched.  Nonetheless, those mountains retained their names and, along with other Whitney-surveyed peaks, they now make up a mountain group called the Collegiate Peaks which can be found in an area called the Collegiate Peak Wilderness.  I recently spent five days climbing the Collegiates and a few other 14ers in the greater Sawatch Range.

Why are you walking sooo fast?

Cruisin' down from Aspen Pass to Frisco on Monday
Brandon (l) and Tyler (r)

On Monday July 19th, one day after the Leadville Silver Rush 50 mile trail run, I walked about five gentle miles on trails near Frisco and Dillon.  I later rode/coasted thirteen miles from Aspen Pass to Frisco with Brandon and Tyler on rental bikes.  One day later I ran thirty minutes on a splendidly soft single track trail paralleling the Breckenridge ski resort amid a lush and diverse forest.  Both of those excursions loosened up my sore quads and back while also causing intense pain in the toe I'd stubbed on a rock.  So, on Wednesday when I had left the family at the Denver airport at sunrise, I wasn't too upset to find it raining when I reached the Echo Lake Trailhead.  I had decided on a whim to climb Mt. Evans and, via The Sawtooth, also summit Mt. Bierstadt in order to start the climbing that day.  No problem.  I enjoyed an hour-long hike around Echo Lake.  I hoped that the sharp pain in the toe would diminish to an acceptable level by the next morning.

After collecting provisions, mainly food and water, I drove to the Missouri Gulch trailhead on Chaffee County Road 390.  I studied my copy of Gerry Roach's outdated 1999 Colorado's Fourteeners Second Edition as the sun went down.  The plan was to start out by climbing Mt. Belford (14,203 ft), Mt. Oxford (14,160 ft), and Missouri Mountain (14,074 ft) on Thursday.  These three mountains are clustered closely together and can be climbed in a single 14.5-mile journey with 7400 ft of vertical gain.  Belford and Oxford are joined by a 1.1 mile saddle and Missouri can be reached either by descending to the valley and climbing back up or via the Class IV ridge. 
The trail in Missouri Gulch

I would climb Missouri before descending to the valley and powering up the steep switchbacks of Belford's west ridge and then completing an out-and-back to Oxford through the saddle.  That was the plan.  After climbing a challenging set of 8 switchbacks into Missouri Gulch, I ran through the alpine valley before alternating running and walking up the face of Missouri Mountain.  I usually try to stay on the 14er summits 30-60 minutes.  However, only five minutes after finding the Missouri summit marker a large cloud mass began to form over both nearby La Plata Peak (14,368 ft) and Mt. Elbert.  Only another five minutes passed before the cloud had enshrouded Missouri's upper reaches, providing me with 20-30 ft visibility.  Then it started raining. 

Mt. Belford (l) and Missouri Mtn. (c) from alpine meadow

I must state here that safety is a primary concern for me when I am on the 14ers.  To offset the fact that I am a solo climber, I put a few safeguards in place.  I always arrive at the trailhead early - often the night before - so that I can monitor when other climbers hit the trail.  I let others leave as much as 90 minutes before I set out in order to always have people between me and my vehicle on the out-and-back climbs.  Because I run any portion of the trail that I find runnable, I always pass most or all of those groups on the way up, so there are always people behind me on the trail.  I also do not allow myself to leave so late that I cannot be safely below treeline before noon.  Afternoon lightning storms are daily events in the Rockies, so it is wise to be among the taller trees by noon.  I also always carry a summit pack containing: Gortex parka, Gortex pants, puffy (down jacket), gloves, warm hat, extra shirt, first aid kit, compass, map, whistle, 1000 Calories, and plenty of water.  On almost every descent I encounter ill-equipped climbers who are not carrying warm weather gear and/or are who are moving far too slowly to even reach the summit before noon.

Clouds roll onto Missouri's summit

14er summit markers are rare these days


That summit marker is on this somewhat small stone

I climbed down Missouri's face in a light rain before running through the alpine valley to treeline.  When I reached the car at 9 a.m. the sky was crystal clear.  I was a bit perturbed, but I got in the car and drove four miles further up the road to the south Winfield trailhead where I could climb Huron Peak.
 
Winfield is an old mining ghost town/museum that serves as the turn-around for the LT100 Trail Run.  The trailhead is just outside of Winfield and more than twelve miles up the annoyingly bumpy County Rd 390.  CR 390 has many sections, washboard in nature, that will rattle your teeth.  Anyone running the LT100 should make certain to give special thanks for crew members who venture up there.  I was surprised by the number of people who were camping along the dusty road in the San Isabel National Forest.


There is a locked(!) outhouse behind Winfield's school

The first two miles of the hike followed an old jeep road.  I found it easily runnable.  The next two miles involved a lot of really steep switchbacks that were only partially runnable.  I reached the summit under blue skies at 10:25 a.m.  I then enjoyed a relaxed meal spent gazing at all of the surrounding scenery before running most of the way back to the RAV.  For the day, I had climbed almost 8200 ft while traveling 18 miles.  My toe had become stride-changing painful before I reached the RAV.  While cleaning up at the BV public shower ($1!!), I was surprised to see the toenail had already blackened and was beginning to lift off.

Friday started where Thursday did - at the Missouri Gulch trailhead.  I made quick work of the switchbacks and once again ran through the alpine meadow to the foot of Mt. Belford.  I took a deep breath and started power walking up the steep switchbacks.  I passed three groups along the way, but there was one guy behind me who was moving only slightly slower than I was.  When I reached the top of the switchbacks I was greeted by a cold, stiff wind.  I quickly put the Gortex suit, gloves, and hat on over my shorts and knit t-shirt.  That didn't quite do it, so I quickly put the puffy on beneath the parka.  Ahhh!  Ten minutes after reaching the summit I was joined by a young man who said he ran for a Colorado college.  Fifteen minutes later we were joined by a trio that included an IU grad.  So, we talked basketball before moving across the saddle to Oxford.  Moving at our individual paces, we descended Belford via Elkhead Pass.  That gave me 12 miles and 5900 ft of vertical.  My toe and back were both quite sore by the time I descended the Missouri Gulch switchbacks.

After the climb I drove into Buena Vista to eat a big meal at the Eddyline Brewery and  to enjoy a big mug of mocha and a cookie at the BV Roastery.  The BV proved to be most satisfying because they make a great mocha and bake mighty good cookies.  The Eddyline, quite frankly, pissed me off.  They were out of my first two choices of beer, namely the wheat and stout.  The waitress brought me an amber that had been pulled out of the fermenter about 8-10 days too early.  It was as cloudy as a muddy river.  I let them know how wrong that was.  The pizza also left a lot to be desired.  They will have to make some changes if they plan to stay in business.

On Saturday I climbed "the Harvard Group," which is made up of Mt. Harvard (14,427 ft) and Mt. Columbia (14,080 ft).  This 13.5-mile trip involved 5900 ft of climbing.  The long approach to Harvard traveled along an easily runnable trail through the Horn Fork Basin.  I passed and talked to several groups of climbers.  I also stopped to take a couple of dozen pictures of the flora and surrounding peaks and ridges.  What an outstanding trail! (Someone had the audacity to complain in the trail ledger that the trail was too long - Stay on the couch Mr. Potato!) 


Harvard (c) and traverse (r) from Horn Fork Basin's
most runnable trail at about 12k feet.

The Basin ended with a short, steep climb up to the top of the ugly pile of rocks called Mt. Harvard.  Sorry, but most of the climbers I met on the summit felt the same way.

From the summit of Harvard a person can return on the same shallow path or choose to make the traverse to Mt. Columbia.  Most of the two dozen people with me on the summit of Harvard chose to make the traverse.  One lady told her husband that attempting the 2.2-mile traverse at that late hour (8:15) was "absolutely stupid."  I did not believe her - yet.  After all, I can still cover two miles in just over ten minutes.


On Harvard's summit - still smiling




The traverse and Columbia

The traverse started off fun.  I bounded from boulder to boulder and jogged along the connecting trails for about a mile.  During that time I passed almost all of the early Harvard climbers.  Then I reached a point where the ridge became a knife-edge cliff of unstable rock.  Most of the other climbers went quite low, losing about 1600 vertical ft, to stay on the alpine tundra.  I chose to stay as high as possible and, thus, continued to move through a slanted boulder field.  It was fun for a while.  Then the heat set in.  And the boulder field became quite steep.  Then the summit of Mt. Columbia seemed to begin moving up and away from me.  And then the words of that lady on Harvard came out of my mouth as I mumbled something about the traverse being absolutely stupid.


Stupid traverse!

Upon making the top of Columbia I could see that many of those who left Harvard with me hours before were 15-45 minutes away on the steep climb up far west ridge of Columbia.  Because it was after 11 a.m. I stayed only a few minutes before descending.  A few other climbers left with me.  One guy moved ahead as I was stopped by some climbers who wanted to talk.  I do, you may know, have a hard time turning down a good conversation. . .

By the time I began the descent there were a few others not far behind.  In a state of fatigue I moved quickly down the extremely steep, short switchback slope.  About half-way down I heard someone above me yell, "Rock."  I looked up to see several fist and football sized rocks rolling down in a non-threatening manner.  Closer observation revealed a boulder the size of a beach ball was also falling.  Gravity was putting on a display of Newtonian physics.  The problem was that I was directly in the path of the falling stone.  I moved right.  The boulder bounced right.  I moved left and the boulder bounced left. Radar??  In a move that probably disturbed the people of above (one of whom dislodged the rocks), I leaned into the slope and held my ground while the rock gained speed and bounced loudly.  When it bounced about 15 feet in front of me I could see which way it was going and I dove in the other direction.  Then I turned to watch as that rock exploded upon impact with another stone.  Wow!  Nothing like that had ever happened on my previous 40 14er climbs.  I gave a quick thumbs up to those above me before speeding off to the relative safety of the basin trail.  An adrenaline rush caused (allowed) me to run quite quickly back to the RAV.

This time I followed the day's climbing with an excellent meal down in Salida at Amica's.  I ordered a big pizza and a couple of well-composed beers.  The attentive staff got a workout by filling my water glass every few seconds.  I then drank a great mocha as I walked through Salida's downtown to the Arkansas river.

Then I drove the 25 miles back to BV to attend the Collegiate Peaks Music Festival.  The line-up included everything from mountain locals to front range reggae to DC hip hop.  Amicas pizza and Ska beer (Durango) was served.

Yale (r), Princeton (l), and Antero (horizon)
from Harvard summit
Yale was the next 14er on the southern horizon.  It was a short and challenging climb.  The early trail was covered in fist-size stones - and it was steep.  After running through a nearly flat sub-alpine meadow the trail began to pass an incredibly steep mountainside.  Seeing it stretching nearly vertically out of sight through a veil of trees, I thought about how awesomely brutal it would be for the trail to climb that hill.  Moments later I had to stop and laugh as the switchbacks began.  The trail then entered an undulating alpine meadow.  What followed was about a thousand feet of vertical climbing on a dirt and gravel slope.

Trail crews were busy constructing badly needed switchbacks on these upper reaches of Yale.  The crews consisted of twenty-somethings who didn't mind climbing up to their boulder moving, pick axe jobs before dawn.  I couldn't help but feel guilty as I took pictures of them moving large rocks.


Six people moving one stone


Workers all over Yale's steep upper slopes

The Yale summit was the typical pile of boulders.  I stayed there for 40 minutes and still managed to leave before most of the people I'd passed in the alpine meadow arrived.  Running down Yale was the easiest way down the steep slopes.  I enjoyed the run and the early finish of a 4-hour climbing day.


Why are these summits just piles of rocks? Erosion, which is
occurring as fast as the mountains are growing.
They are much fun to run on!

With my son's tonsillectomy approaching, I knew I needed to get home.  I also knew I would regret leaving that valley without reaching my goal of climbing all of the 14ers along Hwy 24.   From the summit of Yale I could clearly see the two neighboring monstrous heaps of rock known as Princeton and Antero (14,276).  I would have to attempt to climb both of them in one day.


Princeton from high on Yale

I parked at the trailhead of Princeton as the sun went down.  This "trailhead" is a parking lot (Shared by a Young Life ranch) at the end of a long jeep road that winds up Princeton.  Roach's guide said to leave your vehicle in the lot if you value that vehicle.  Well before dawn a big 4-wheel drive truck stopped at the edge of the road before roaring away.  Then a couple of climbers parked a car in the lot and walked up the road.  I was putting the finishing touches on my summit pack just moments before the sun rose above the eastern mountains when a jeep started up the rough road. 

Eye on the prize - only 1.7 miles to go


Long shadow as trail becomes
a boulder field - for a 1.5 miles!

Curious about the size of that summit pyramid?
Click twice and find the (4) people

The couple in the jeep were putting their packs on when I passed that jeep after running three miles up that road.  I continued running for about another mile before I turned onto the summit trail.  That trail was runnable for about 400 meters.  The rest of the "trail" wound through 1.5 miles of boulders that crept up slowly before arching up to Princeton's summit.  Princeton was, as a fellow climber called it, a big ole pile of rocks.  I loved hopping from rock to rock in a near run.  I was welcomed to another 14er summit by a cold wind and incredibly clear blue sky.  Looking over at majestic Antero, I knew I had to eat and drink a lot so that I could make the 16-mile round trip up it before noon.  So, I ate all I had in the pack and a bunch more after I had scrambled and ran back to the RAV.  BTW, that 4-wheel drive road was not all that bad.  The main obstacles were 3-5 foot wide water berms made of dirt.  Because there were very few protruding boulders, I believe that the RAV could have easily handled that rode up to where the jeep sat just beyond the radio towers.

It was 9:15 am when I reached the RAV and started the short drive to the Mt. Antero trailhead.


Now that (Antero) is a beautiful specimen.  That is about
a mile elevation gain you're looking at.

The morning temperature was a warm 79 degrees, so I stopped at the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Country Store for more liquid refreshments - water and orange juice.  Then I sped further down the road until it turned to dirt.  Then I drove a little further until I was smack dab between Princeton and Antero.  While observing Antero from Princeton's summit, I had wondered where the "trail" went up the mountain.  Like the trail up Princeton, the most commonly used trail for Antero is also a jeep road.  There is, however, a difference.  The actual summit trail on Princeton leaves the road about 1700 ft and 1.6 miles from the summit.  That road up Antero winds around (forever) through the forest before making a few series of switchbacks to within 600 vertical feet of the summit.

While the Princeton road may have been handled by the RAV, the Antero road was far too rough for my comfort zone.  The first half-mile and many of the stretches up to tree line were steep, covered with fist to football sized loose rocks, and sprinkled with tall embedded rocks.  It should only be climbed in vehicles having 4-wheel drive and big, sturdy off-road tires.  I saw several such vehicles and quite a few motorbikes going down as I climbed up.

I ran when I could on the way up to tree line, but that was not very often.  Within minutes I had rolled the ankle on a loose rock.  After tree line was another story.  Beyond a wide parking area the road began making switchbacks and was 95% runnable for me and my ankle.  I was happy to be moving swiftly in the hot sun at such a late hour (11 a.m.). 

The upper reaches of Antero more closely resemble the photos sent back from Mars than anything I'd seen on the other peaks.  Most of the rocks are small in size and orange or white in color.  And there are many areas mine pilings are spread down the slopes.  Interesting and eerie would be my best description.  Also interesting was the old man from Kansas I met whose grandsons were exploring the mine he bought 31 years ago.  Even more interesting was the back country official driving a small pickup down from near the summit like he was escaping a fire.


Antero road switchbacks at 13K feet - easily runnable

I managed to "run" most of the way back down the rocky road from the Antero summit, reaching the RAV at 2:15.  Including the time on the summits, shopping time, and the transfer time, it was an eight-hour day.  I made use of the BV public shower once again before making my way back to Amicas.  That left me with just a 20-hour drive home!


Passing close to the Sangre de Cristo 14ers as I leave CO
Can you see the ghost calling out to me?

While waiting for my pizza I calculated that I had traveled about 74 miles and climbed 33K feet during those five days in the Sawatch.  Not exactly an ordinary experience for me.   And, I almost forgot, there was that 50-mile trail run four days before the climbing started.  Remember, I usually run about 75 miles per month!  So, one would expect me to be extremely sore or fatigued or both.  I was, in fact, neither.  Because I always moved at a comfortable pace, I actually became stronger with each passing day.  I honestly wish that I had been able to do such climbing 1-2 weeks before the SR 50.  Perhaps I can work that out if or when I declare a rematch.  I do still have eleven 14ers to climb and I would love to try other routes on several of the ones I just climbed.

Right now, I am extremely thankful to have the health, finances, and time to complete such an adventure.  I am also happy to report that a minimal amount of my blood ended up leaving my body!  A caught toe while wrestling food from my pack during the Belford/Oxford descent run came during a series of well-constructed stone stairs.  Ouch!  And diving out of the way of that boulder-turned-missile onto a pile of rocks (what else?) resulting in more damage to all four of my limbs - no kidding.  And then there was that sharp-edged slider that got my left shin while building a cairn in the Princeton boulder field.  In all, I have just 23 lacerations currently healing.  They are just little reminders of the fun I had. . .

Setting my sights on new experiences

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