Summer of 14ers

Five years ago, I hiked my first Colorado 14er, which was a difficult but straightforward ridgeline climb up to the top of Quandary Peak. These are the set of 58 (give or take a few) peaks that top the 14000′ mark in Colorado. Each of them are difficult, marked by steep trails that often gain 1000 vertical / mile, at high altitude. After completing a series of so-called ‘easy’ 14ers over a two-day period in September 2010, I swore them off, vowing to never hike another one again.

OK, so that didn’t last too long. I made summer trips to Colorado in 2011 and 2012, and hiked Mt. Elbert in October 2012, which felt like an epic undertaking. After moving to the Rockies in the summer of 2013, I found an enthusiastic hiking partner and over the next two summers, we added a few more peaks to our lists. I had stood on top of 14 of them by the end of 2014, and my buddy moved back east.

I set a goal to get back in shape and hike an average of 3000′ / week. For the most part, I soloed most of these, and got off my ass enough to drive the 300 miles to access the trailheads. The driving is not that fun, but like most things, you get used to it. My car is also not equipped for sleeping, as I have to twist myself into unusual shapes to fit. In any case, I roughly doubled my total, repeated a few peaks, and have to admit that it was a great summer. Here are a few of my notes and observations, I definitely felt in shape by the end of the summer, and did enough of them that I had a good idea about how to pace myself, and what to expect on the way up. Still, they all hold little surprises and the views are really pretty. Each hike / climb is a story, and some are epics.

June 28: Grays and Torreys Peaks. This is the among the most accessible 14ers, lying just a couple miles off of I-70, and the ease of access shows in the very heavy crowds. I opted to park at the interstate exit, and hitched a ride up to the trailhead. From there it was a pretty straightforward ascent to the top of Grays, and another clear trail up Torreys. For the first time at elevation this summer, it’s a good one to start with and get back in shape.

July 3: Huron Peak. This was the only one that I hiked with a partner, that I hooked up with via 14ers.com. We took a circuitous route to the summit via an old fire road that was literally sliding down the mountain. So it offered pretty amazing views, and a fair amount of off-trail travel to join back up with the standard route. I was hardly able to make it up the last 200 feet, which was a very steep climb on a very busy trail. The summit views are probably the best out of the 14ers I’ve been on so far, as it’s deep in the Sawatch and far from any paved roads, and despite its prominence and distinct shape, it’s pretty hidden.

July 11: Mts. Cameron, Lincoln, Bross, South Bross, Bierstadt. I went as an afterthought, after a friend emailed me and said that he was hiking the so-called DeCaLiBro loop with some students of his. I was going to meet them somewhere along the trail, but turned towards Lincoln at the saddle, and it turned out they were still on Democrat, in the other direction. These peaks are all ‘easy’ ones, but turned into an all day effort. Given that it was a Saturday morning, they were crowded. I pulled into Kite Lake at 7 AM and ended up walking a half mile to get to the trailhead. The access road is pretty rough and narrow at the end, take it easy. This loop attracts everyone, including an older couple that I took to the trailhead. They had driven from Minnesota to check this off their bucket list; he was in between cancer treatments. I don’t know whether they summited, after I passed them on the trail up to the Democrat / Cameron saddle. These are unexceptional summits, mostly just rounded piles of rocks and fairly easy traverses between the peaks.

I checked the radar and it was already showing rain in the vicinity, but forecasted some clearing later in the day. So I headed up Guanella Pass road and parked at the Bierstadt trailhead. This one was also completely full, and despite being in the Mt. Evans Wilderness, it was anything but. Now I was headed up when everyone else was headed down, slowed my pace, checked out the blooming flowers, and the weather slowly cleared. The trail also cleared, and I shared the summit with a total of two other people, in a beautiful late afternoon light. But hey, I was pretty tired by that point, having hit nearly 5900′ vertical.

July 18: Castle Peak. This was my first attempt in the Elks, didn’t summit, there was this pesky snowfield at the top with loose rock and I was pretty sketched out. It’s rated as a difficult class 2 hike, but it had a few moves that scared me enough, and the weather quickly deteriorated, so I turned back 50′ from the top. The rain turned into a pretty good downpour by the time I got back to my car. This was my first did-not-summit 14er, and I guess this seems to happen on this peak quite a bit.

July 25: Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks. It’s accessed via a shelf road that goes west from Lake City, but is passable by most passenger vehicles up to the trailhead. I drove it at night, which spares one from viewing what turned out to be a very steep dropoff. This was an excellent hike, made better by the wildflower display along the way, and the view from the top was wonderful, with the red rock of the summits contrasting with the green below. It’s on the somewhat long side, 12 miles or so round trip with a re-summit of Redcloud on the way back. But it was also one of the most stable weather days in the San Juans, warm and sunny from start to finish, and no thunderstorms. So I lingered and probably spent more time on the way back than on the way up.

August 8: Mt. Yale. This is one incredibly well-maintained trail, more like a freeway up to the last section, which is a not-to-difficult scramble. I’d say that this felt like my best-paced summit, a solid, deliberately paced, three hours up without too much soreness the day afterwards. The weather didn’t quite cooperate, with some good wind at the saddle and a losing battle between the fog and sun. So while there wasn’t much of a view, the weather did finally clear up a bit on the descent, offering a hint of what could be seen.

August 9: Bonus, Ice Lakes Basin, this is Colorado’s most stunning location, and I caught it at the peak of wildflower season. Dump my ashes here when I’m dead. It doesn’t come for free, requiring a 2500+ elevation gain to reach the basin. Like the best hikes, this one starts deep in a moist forest, and saves the best for last. The previous year, I hiked this in late June, which was too early, since the lakes were still thawing out, and the wildflowers hadn’t bloomed yet. I also hiked it barefoot as a (rather painful) stunt- there are some pretty rocky sections, but also some dirt sections that were great to hike on. Last year this did involve a few hundred feet walking through melting snowfields, which was a treat.

Island Lake, Ice Lakes Basin

Island Lake, Ice Lakes Basin

August 29: Castle Peak #2. Again I was held back from the second part of the combo, Conundrum. I had to hike from the end of the paved road, which added far too much distance to the hike. It’s a slog up the road, then slow going from the end of the road through this talus field to the basin with the small lake of snowmelt. Then a trail cuts its way up to the ridgeline, and it’s scrambling and routefinding from that point on. The last section requires some thinking, and is probably best done by climbing straight over the last vertical band of rocks. It’s the most stable of the peaks in the Elks, I don’t want to imagine how loose and hazardous the Bells and Pyramid Peak are.

Conundrum Peak from the top of Castle Peak

Conundrum Peak from the top of Castle Peak

September 6: Mt. Humboldt. The hike was nothing exceptional, much of it along a now-closed 4WD road. The lakes pale in comparison to those inky colored lakes in California’s Sierra, but the views of the Crestone group are amazing. They’re really Colorado’s answer to the High Sierra, although with far less vertical relief. It’s just rather long, and hiking on a 4WD road generally isn’t that much fun.

September 12: Mt. Sneffels, standard route. This one’s short and sweet, and it was pretty busy on a very warm late summer day. The V-notch at the end is more of a squeeze, the exposure is definitely there, but brief. After that, it’s a pretty straightfoward path to the top on a moderate grade on solid rock. The lower gully is loose and unpleasant, though, and it’s best to stick to the sides for any semblance of traction. I’ll opt for the other ridgeline route next time.

September 19: Mt. Whitney, California. This was a spur of the moment decision. My original intention was to hike either White Mountain Peak or Mt. Langley, but I wasn’t too keen on isolated hiking. Each of them are pretty long, and White Mountain Peak is one very remote location. So, I stopped by the visitor’s center in Lone Pine and asked half jokingly whether there were still day hiking permits available. The answer was yes, and I spent a good 15 minutes thinking about whether to punish myself on a very long trail. The weather was going to be very nice all day, with similar temperatures to the day I first summited 12 years ago, and the difference here was that it would be an extra 4+ miles. I took the plunge, filled out the paperwork, and had a day hike permit for the following day. This one took the cake for vertical, with about 6500′ feet uphill and a 22 mile round-trip. Needless to say, despite the lack of steep grades, this one took the most out of me. The upgrade on the flight back to Denver was a treat, as I got to experience one of United’s brand new 787-9 aircraft.

Geology of the Sierra on display, Mt. Whitney trail

Geology of the Sierra on display, Mt. Whitney trail

October 3: Wetterhorn. Wow, this was a thrill. It’s got an exposed last section, where you really do climb up to a very small summit plateau. The fun really begins after gaining the ridge and passing this yellowish patch. The first part is rather loose and crumbly, and not exactly easygoing. After getting past the Prow, you climb through this notch and then down this angled slab, and are faced with the last 150′. It’s a steep ladder. This was my first class 3 route, and I started late, being the last person to summit that day in mid-afternoon, and not seeing anyone else for a good 4 hours. These were truly solo, and it was not a place to get lost or get injured. In retrospect it was perhaps foolish, but since I made it up there, had the trail entirely to myself on the way down, it was probably the most satisfying of the summits.

The last 150' to the summit of Wetterhorn, exposed and thrilling.

The last 150′ to the summit of Wetterhorn, exposed and thrilling.

October 10: Mt. Dana, California. Okay, a 13er, but it was convenient and after spending enough time at altitude, it didn’t feel so hard, despite still topping out at 13061′. I managed a quick time of 1:45 up, more to compensate for a late start and getting down before dark.

October 17: Mt. Shavano, Tabeguache Peak. Who would have thought the weather was going to stay balmy? I finished the Shavano / Tabeguache combo, after only summiting Shavano back in September 2013. I started to feel it on the last push to Shavano’s summit from the saddle, and headed straight for Tabeguache since the clouds were rolling in. It turned out to be a false alarm, luckily it didn’t rain or get any worse than just being overcast. The way up Tabeguache is rather steep, and re-summiting Shavano was not too terrible since it’s a fairly gentle grade back up. The views are nice, but they’re pretty unexceptional summits overall. Much of the Sawatch Range is that way, rounded mountains with mostly identical ascents in the 4000-5000′ feet range, and 8-11 mile round trips. They’re the bread and butter of Colorado’s 14ers.

So this leaves me with the more difficult ones, and hopefully I’ll be able to partner up with more experienced people in the following summers. I’m also looking forward to more wildflower displays, since that was probably the best part of the Colorado summer season, aside from hiking the mountains themselves.

 

 

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