Archive for the ‘hiking’ Tag

Summer of 14ers, 2017

Well, I burned out on them this year. It was inevitable, as I had hiked more than 35 of them solo, and I got increasingly tired of the driving. So I did still manage to add a few new ones to my list, and repeated several of them on new routes. Overall, it was a good, although not as enjoyable, summer. I still got in plenty of eye candy, exercise, and experience.

My season started with a hike of a still snowy Quandary Peak in mid-June. I wasn’t intending on summiting, and hiked this one up barefoot to around the 13400′ line, and turned around there since it was snowy from there on up.

The following week I hiked the Bierstadt / Sawtooth / Evans combo. I had been up Bierstadt before, and had driven up Evans previously. This one reminded me of how out of shape I was, and my energy level went to near zero after passing the Sawtooth section. Now this was a pretty spectacular hike, a bit exposed and loose in places, but the route was fairly clear, and I was luckily with a small group. I don’t recommend it on your own, though. I also ended up hitching back to Georgetown from the summit of Evans, as I was completely spent and cold from the wind. Good thing, too, as I could avoid the swampy mess in the lower part of Bierstadt. This hike was also notable in that I hiked up Bierstadt barefoot, and it’s an excellent trail. The muddy and wet section at the beginning was manageable, and the remainder of the trail was pretty smooth going. It’s fairly gentle on the feet, even though I still crossed a few small patches of snow. Not bad, check one off my list!

I also repeated Yale, this time on the far less traveled East Ridge route. It’s a fairly straightforward trail up to the saddle, then a sharp left turn and up along a poorly marked trail the rest of the way. It’s really no problem routefinding, but there were a few longer snowfields around some of the subpeaks that slowed me down. We descended via the standard route. My previous hike of Yale was on a rather foggy day, so this time around I managed to actually see my surroundings and the view was pretty good.

Up next was Mount of the Holy Cross, which was honestly one of the better peaks in this rather dull range. It’s way out there, just a few miles south of I-70, and hidden from view. Access on the road is limited, it doesn’t open until late June, and it’s a rough but passable road that goes by the Tigiwon structures, then dead ends at a crowded parking lot. This one saw plenty of traffic, and it’s a pretty hike from beginning to end, just don’t miss the sharp right turn that you need to make on the way back down. Also, save your energy for the 900 feet of ascent required to get out of the canyon on the way back. I took my time and it’s pretty manageable. I caught it on a warm, perfect day.

Mt. Harvard was my Sawatch finisher. I was denied this peak last October due to snow, cold temperatures, and exhaustion, missing the summit by a few hundred feet and a quarter mile via the Columbia traverse. This time I just hiked the standard trail, which is clear up to the last 200 feet or so. It’s a bit of boulder hopping from that point on, but there’s plenty of traffic and help in that short section. This was my debut hike in Chacos, which didn’t quite agree with my feet. It’s also 14 miles long, so no wonder it wasn’t so enjoyable.

The last “easy” peak on my list was San Luis, and I have to admit that I rather enjoyed this one, hiking the southern approach via the Creede side. It turned out to be somewhat longer than I thought, since I couldn’t make it all the way to the official trailhead, and made a few detours en route to joining the Colorado Trail. Most of the hike is on the Colorado Trail as it approaches the peak in slow motion, winding around one basin after another before hitting the ridgeline. It was scenic, very quiet, with plenty of green, lots of wildflowers, and real serenity. This one clocked out at 18 miles round-trip, another punishing outing in Chacos. They didn’t really break in much!

I spent a couple weeks on business trips in July and August, and returned to hike Wilson Peak. It’s relatively short, but has a rather exposed, challenging end. This was real scrambling, with real consequences. I felt this was harder than its neighbor, El Diente, that I hiked the previous summer, although El Diente had more routefinding. The trail to Wilson Peak from Rock of Ages trailhead is essentially two old mining roads that were joined together, and that quickly brings you to the 13200′ mark. After that, it’s much slower going, with a faint trail to another saddle, and then the real stuff starts. It’s mostly okay up until the false summit, and then it’s a thrilling 200′ to the real peak. Have you heard of this peak? Probably not, but it’s on every can of Coors Light and stands proudly apart from the other peaks in that region. Incidentally, the view featured on that beer can is what you see from Telluride ski area.

I also had one failed summit, which was this awful slog up Ellingwood Point. The clouds turned me back around 13500′, which was a real bummer especially after hiking from my parking spot at 7700′. I probably could have made it up if I had parked a bit higher at 8000′, and that would have saved me two miles of walking. I think that really left a sour taste in my mouth, as I spent nearly 11 hours on Lake Como Road, which isn’t the most scenic or calm way to get up there.

Notably, I made a few changes to my footwear choice this season. Yes, I hiked a 14er barefoot, and have been conditioning my feet to deal with more and more difficult terrain, so it’s a part of my hiking repertoire. Of course it’s not practical for a lot of hikes. My old trail running shoes have more or less crumbled after 30+ 14ers, and I’ve switched to a pair of approach shoes that have been irritating to my Achilles for some reason. So with that in mind, I also did a few of these hikes in Chacos, those rather distinct, heavy, indestructible sandals that seem to work in every kind of condition. I ended up hiking Harvard, San Luis, and part of Wilson Peak in those sandals, and yes, they work pretty well. My feet aren’t yet used to them, even though I’ve done probably at least 50 miles to try to break them in.

Hopefully next summer my energy and desire will return, as my remaining 14ers are the difficult ones, in the Elks, San Juans, and Sangres.

Summer of 14ers, 2016

My slow path towards summiting the Colorado 14ers continues. I have to admit that I burned out a bit on the driving and hiking, and pretty much stopped after August. This year’s peaks were mostly in the Sawatch Range, the bread and butter of the 14ers. They’re all about the same, with the exception of the Harvard / Columbia combo, which was the near-disastrous finale of the set. I failed to find a regular partner for the hikes, overall, so most of these were solo efforts.

My season started with a late June ascent of Mt. Princeton, which is normally a long slog from the bottom. But after starting on the trail nice and early before sunrise, I caught a ride in the back of a truck. This took me well beyond the radio towers to a spot about a quarter mile from where the trail leaves the road and heads off towards the peak. It’s an endless talus field, and not a lot of fun to hike, but as always, the view and accomplishment make it worth it. So the elevation gain was a very reasonable 3000′ or so, including my detour up the nearby 13er Tigger and back down to the trail, where another fellow gave me a ride back down.

Across from Mt. Princeton is the imposing Mt. Antero, which I hiked the following week. This was another uninspiring hike, and this time I didn’t catch a ride up, so I was stuck hiking the entire 15-16 mile round trip. 90 % of it is a road, with the last part a scramble up to the peak. This peak sees a lot of gem hunters and ATV traffic, which somewhat diminishes the experience. But the wildflowers were blooming and the lower stretches were very green. The peak really is one of the most beautiful in the Sawatch, burly with a delicate pointed summit, but the natural environment is looking rather worn out from all the human activity.

Mt. Antero from Mt. Princeton

Mt. Antero from Mt. Princeton

Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak from Mt. Antero

Mt. Shavano and Tabeguache Peak from Mt. Antero

I moved over to the Elks the following week, and made yet another trip up Castle Peak, this time taking the ridge further over to the summit of Conundrum. This was made a bit easier by a driver who gave me a ride uphill, saving me about 500′ of elevation gain and a bit of distance. But the talus fields were pretty awful, and there was the usual scrambling to the summit of Castle. This time I had the energy to continue, and then re-summit Castle, and the weather was clear the entire day, thankfully.

The headwall and Castle Peak from Conundrum Peak

The headwall and Castle Peak from Conundrum Peak

My next two were Massive and La Plata back in the Sawatch. Neither was too busy on the days I hiked them, although the trailhead for Massive is shared with the one for Elbert, making for a very congested, noisy, and dusty start. That area gets a massive amount of people, but it looked like about 80 % of them were headed for the Elbert summit. The trail to Massive is just rather long, with a long section above 14000′ that continues well past the summit. I was intending on going up South Massive, but somehow looking at the climb back up, detracted me. I was also seriously low on energy.

La Plata is much like Elbert, a relatively short 9 mile round trip with lots of scenery and green valleys and endless switchbacks. It’s flat for the first mile, then really climbs.

Further south, Missouri Mountain is slightly spicier than the other ones in the vicinity, with a rather wet, slippery downclimb near the summit that required some care. Since it snowed just before, there was a fair amount of icy spots, but the weather was pretty stable. Overall, it was a cool August with early snow.

I attempted the Wilson group next, which was a long drive to the isolated trailhead in Kilpacker Basin. I slept in my car, and started up the very scenic trail. It’s one of the prettiest trails I hiked this year, and was full of wildflowers and greenery and had a bonus waterfall before the climbing began in earnest. I had enough energy for El Diente, which was a pretty extended and thrilling, exposed Class 3 climb to a tiny summit. Wisely, I hooked up with another hiker who was on his own and we took turns on the routefinding and was able to navigate up to the summit. It’s sparingly marked and easy to get lost, and a step up in difficulty compared to my climb of Wetterhorn last year. Going down was no fun, with lots and lots of talus. The remaining peaks in the area will have to wait, so that means another long drive next year for Wilson Peak and Mt. Wilson.

Kilpacker Basin and El Diente Peak

Kilpacker Basin and El Diente Peak

The next two were in the Sangres, two peaks with major elevation gain, Blanca and Challenger Point. I wanted to go up Ellingwood and Kit Carson, but my energy didn’t permit it, and the weather on Kit Carson was made more difficult by fog and snow on the Avenue. Blanca turned out to be a monster, since I started just below the 8000′ level and walked up the whole damn thing. The last part of Blanca was a steep, slippery slope with a few tricky Class 2+ sections. Challenger Point was an awful climb past the very beautiful and very blue Willow Lake, pretty much 2000′ of loose crap with no real trail. It was foggy at the top, but cleared enough to catch a view of the Crestones and nearby Kit Carson Peak.

The foggy summit of Challenger Point

The foggy summit of Challenger Point

After returning from Brazil and being out of shape, I got together with a friend and attempted the Harvard / Columbia traverse. Despite the cool temperatures and clouds going in and out all day, we summited Columbia first. The climb up was a mixed trail / scree scramble. It’s notorious for being awful, but the new, partially finished trail was a real help. Getting over to Harvard was problematic, as my partner went way ahead and inadvertently ended up in Class 5 stuff, and I lost track of him. I made it to the saddle between the peaks, took several wrong turns, slipped in a loose gully, and then it started snowing. This was the worst possible place for it to start snowing, as now there was no easy way out and I basically had to summit one of the peaks again. After waiting out the snow, the weather cleared up long enough for me to slowly make my way up the slopes towards Harvard. My goal was to get to the main trail and to treeline before dark. I skipped the true summit, and made my way down another scree and talus slope and eventually made it to the trail. The cold and distance and elevation gain had worn me out, and I didn’t make it back to the trailhead until past 8 PM. Luckily my friend had gone back up the trail looking for me, and we met up about 3 miles from the trailhead. We were both fine, but a lot of things didn’t go right.

So that was my summer!




Mt. Whitney day hike

I’ve run out of stuff to blog about, since my traveling is pretty limited these days.

So I’ll give some details about my late summer day hike of Mt. Whitney back in September 2015. It’s a commonly climbed peak in the Sierra Nevada, since it’s the highest point in the contiguous 48 states, at an elevation of 14505′ (4421 m), and there’s a trail all the way to the top. The trail and Whitney Zone is subject to restrictions on use, and given the fragile state of the ecosystem and plenty of unprepared hikers, it’s probably a good thing. I think that there would be lots of people being peeled off the trail and the summit by rescue squads.

Now about the permit. I had no trouble getting one at the Interagency Visitor Center, at the junction of CA 190 and US 395, for the following day. But I also spent a good 15-20 minutes thinking about whether to punish myself like this. The weather was reminiscent of my first (two-day) hike of Whitney in 2003, hot and dry in Lone Pine, almost excessively hot. And since I’m getting older, I’m not sure how many more times I’ll be able to do this.

To put it in a few words: it kicked my ass. None of the trail is steep, but the length, a hefty 22 mile round trip with 6500 feet of elevation gain, including a brief uphill back up to Trail Crest on the way back, makes this a pretty serious undertaking. I started at 4:30 AM, and was back at the car by 6 PM, as the temperature was dropping and the daylight fading. Still, the weather was very stable and warm, with a temperature nearing 50 F at the summit, and nearly no wind. Having hiked a number of 14ers in Colorado, this one still took in excess of 13 hours. I thought I was prepared? Get an early start, and I mean early, like 3-4 AM, and don’t forget the headlamp.

Dawn above Lone Pine Lake

Dawn above Lone Pine Lake

The trail is more like a freeway, and really gets going after you arrive at the last lake (and water source). This is where the switchbacks start, and honestly, it’s too many. I didn’t bother counting how many, but it’s more than the 99 advertised. After all that, the trail levels off and traverses across a slope to Trail Crest (13600′, 4145 m) and the entrance into Sequoia National Park. Yay, you’re there! Not really, you head downhill to a junction with the John Muir Trail, and it’s still another 2 miles to the summit.

Looking towards Owens Valley

Looking towards Owens Valley

Home stretch, just past Trail Crest, also really tiring!

Home stretch, just past Trail Crest, also really tiring!

Summit view, looking south towards Mt. Langley

Summit view, looking south towards Mt. Langley

September is a pretty good time to hike. I’ve done this twice now, and both times were in mid-to-late September. While the days are shorter, the temps stay warm, there’s less competition for permits, fewer bugs, and generally stable weather. There are brief sections on the “99 switchbacks” that stay icy, so watch out. A good rule of thumb is that the summit temps are 40-50 F cooler than in Lone Pine.

I slept in Lone Pine, since this was an unplanned hike. By all means, get a decent place to sleep after your hike, I chose the Dow Villa historic property in Lone Pine. Before your hike, I suggest trying to sleep a bit higher up, like near the Portal. As for the other stuff. . .

Another hint: do this as a 2-3 day hike, it’s way more fun, and you’ll have more time to soak in the scenery. I was too busy being tired to really digest it all. What I should have brought: more food. A banana, orange, and beef jerky is not nearly enough. I essentially went with a light breakfast and nearly nothing else. Not the best idea. More drinks: the two bottles of energy drinks and 1.5 L of water are not quite enough either. The energy drinks did have the electrolytes that kept me from completely malfunctioning. Not surprisingly, I conked out on the way down and fell asleep at for 15 minutes, at 14000 feet.

It’s a beautiful hike, and the minimalist landscape above treeline is special. Up there, it’s just the blinding granite and the deep blue of the many lakes dotting the High Sierra. Have fun hiking, but by all means, be prepared, I wasn’t quite ready and was fortunate to summit.




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 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.



Hiking Mauna Kea, Hawaii

There are a couple of normal ways up Mauna Kea, the tallest in Hawaii at 13796′, 4205 m. The relatively easy way is to drive, although the road is winding, very steep, and a gravel road that is banned by most rental car companies on the Big Island. The other way is to hike from the visitors’ center, which is at 9300′, so it’s a long way up and a 6-7 mile long hike one way. While the trail is not that difficult, it’s at altitude, with little chance in Hawaii to adjust, since the settlements are generally 4000′ and below. For the most part, hikers are coming from sea level and having to negotiate the thin air and brutal UV at that altitude. The good news is that the weather is almost always clear at the top, even if it’s raining heavily  in nearby Hilo, or even at a lower altitude.

I hiked it a few days ago, leaving the town of Volcano in a downpour, getting my fill of rainbows and rain showers in Hilo, and then heading up a rainy and then foggy saddle road (Hawaii 200). The turnoff to Mauna Kea lies in the middle of a lava field mixed in with rangeland, and then the road really climbs, through the fog, a few sparse trees, then into a reddish barren landscape. Where the pavement ends, the trail begins.


Fog line, around 11000'.

Fog line, around 11000′.


Mauna Loa, sitting pretty above the clouds.

You are never that far from the road, which parallels the trail. The lower part of the trail is very steep, but then it ascends at a steady grade, with another steep-ish climb near the nearly-dry Lake Waiau (13020′, 3970 m). The trail joins the now-paved road near the lake, goes for another mile along the road, and then branches for a final pitch up to the top. Exhausted yet? I was, and although I intended to hitch a ride down, I walked downhill more than 3 miles before someone took pity on me and gave me a ride back to the visitors’ center.

The last push to the summit.

The last push to the summit.

The telescope complex at the top, rather populated and busy, actually.

The telescope complex at the top, rather populated and busy, actually.

The upper part is dotted with a large complex of telescopes, taking advantage of the superb atmospheric conditions and clear weather. The mountain is an alien landscape, barren and reddish, perhaps a bit like Mars up there. Temperatures hover in the 30s and 40s, even when it’s warm and humid below, and the weather patterns normally suppress the clouds to below 11000 feet. This part of Hawaii is not the tropical beaches and rainforest, and attests to the incredible geographic and biological diversity of the state.

From near the summit.

From near the summit.

Summit view, a Martian landscape way up there.

Summit view, a Martian landscape way up there.

Oh, and avoid the trail on Mondays and Tuesdays, when helicopters hover overhead, and snipe at the various invasive animals that are eating the native plants, so don’t be a target!

By evening, I was back at sea level, walking along the oceanfront. Unreal!


State highpoint fever

It’s been great to be on the road again, and I drove around the zone between the American West and the Midwest. I did a bit of hiking in the process, visiting three state highpoints on the way. Nothing death-defying or dangerous, but fun places for the curious. Here we go, first stop, South Dakota.

September 25, Harney Peak: It’s in the Black Hills, and is advertised as the highest mountain between the Rockies and the Alps, topping out at 7242 feet (2207 m). A bunch of trails lead to the top from all directions, although I hiked it from the heavily-traveled trail from Sylvan Lake. It’s accessed by a very fun drive on the super-twisty Needles Highway, and most of the climbing is done in the car. As far as highpoints go, this is a relatively easy one, not too long, not too steep, well-maintained, and leads to a nicely constructed fire lookout completed in 1939 by the CCC. Geologically, the Black Hills are full of these rock pinnacles and phallic needles sticking out of dark evergreen forests, interspersed with grasslands and hidden valleys.

Harney Peak and the fire lookout

Summit view

September 26, White Butte: This is North Dakota’s highpoint at 3506 ft (1069 m), and lies on private property, so you need to call ahead, and deposit some $$$ in the mailbox at the parking lot. Getting there takes time, this is North Dakota after all, which is kind of out of the way from anywhere, and is sparsely populated. It’s about 10 miles driving from the tiny one-blink town of Amidon (population 20), down a series of gravel roads. Finally, there’s a mailbox with an arrow marking the way (down the road, and then up the hill), and it’s a straightforward, easy trail, 2 miles or so one-way, with a sampling of the diverse landscape of this part of the state. Yes, the state is not just wheat fields, buffalo, and oil. The main hazard on this trail is yes, rattlesnakes, including a fellow who would not be disturbed from his suntan.

Unhappy rattlesnake, interrupted his suntan

View from White Butte, with fall colors

Abandoned house

October 2, Mt. Elbert: It’s a hill, albeit a big rounded one at high elevation, sitting with a bunch of similar hills in the Sawatch Range. The Sawatch forms a 14000 foot barrier to the west of the Arkansas River Valley between Leadville and Salida, Colorado. There are two main trails to the top, none of them easy. After all, the top of the mountain is at 14440 feet (4401 m), and the northeast trailhead is at 10040 feet, climbing to the summit in 4.5 miles. The first part is actually relatively flat, and after turning right at the sign, the real climbing begins. It’s a trail all the way to the top, but the combination of altitude and several false summits turns it into an epic hike / flogging. I’ve had better views, it’s more or less a pile of rocks, but then again, how often can you get to this elevation? I don’t really have the desire to do it again, though. As for the day I hiked it, there was snow on the trail, it was icy in places, but the top itself was snow-free and relatively warm (around 8-10 C).

That’s NOT the summit of Mt. Elbert.

Ptarmigans, brilliantly camouflaged and getting their winter colors

Going down was worse, the snow really slowed the descent, requiring a few detours, and it was murder on the knees. A better way to get up and down is by mountain bike, as a German fellow I met at the top was doing.

NOT a recommended way of hiking a mountain.

Summit of Elbert, finally!

And all those mountains to the northwest, can anyone identify any of them?