Archive for the ‘wildflowers’ Tag

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!




A day in the Caucasus

A quick flashback to May 2010. . .

The weather had been bad in Tbilisi, with heavy rain for an entire day that turned the river into a muddy mess, flushing all sorts of debris, trash, and a dead cow or two downstream. I wisely decided not to head to the Kazbegi area for the day, instead, I took advantage of a break in the weather the next day and figured that I could at least get in a quick visit to the region. Alas, it was my last full day in Georgia, and having come all this way, it would be a shame to miss what is perhaps the most famous sight in the country, the Gergeti Trinity Church, a 14th century church overlooking the spiky peaks of the Caucasus.

It’s a three hour journey north from Tbilisi on the famed Georgian Military Highway, on a mostly paved road of greatly varying quality. The road is fine from Tbilisi to Mtskheta, and OK up to the ski resort of Gudauri. Following the tunnel, the road deteriorates into a potholed slippery gravel and mud track, crosses the Jvari Pass at 2379 m, ¬†and then down towards the village of Stepantsminda (Kazbegi). And here is the starting point for the trail / road to the church. The pass was socked in and rainy, and I was stuck in the middle back seat without a view.

I was lucky and got a three-hour window of dry-ish weather, and even a bit of sun, before a nice dumping of heavy rain on the way down. The trail was not signposted, but was fairly straightforward. It’s more or less across the river from the bus stop, through the village, and then around the corner with the church on your left. After about two-thirds of a mile, the path joins the jeep road, and after some more climbing, you reach the plateau, with the great peaks of the Caucasus spread out before you. The dominant Mt. Kazbegi (5033 m, 16512′) showed herself very briefly, then disappeared for the rest of the day.

The weather cleared for about 30 minutes as I explored the church and took in the view of the church, a nice carpet of wildflowers, and the still snowcapped peaks. From the town, it’s about 1500 feet in elevation gain in a couple of miles, a rather steep trail. You can also take a taxi, they’ll be waiting for you when the marshrutka arrives in town, but the walk is quite reasonable and takes around 50-60 minutes to walk up to the church. The path to the church is badly beaten by the number of cars that have blazed multiple tracks through the meadow, so walk up and save the environment in the process. The marshrutkas run only a few times a day, so if you miss the last one back to Tbilisi, you’re stuck. The town is still apparently cut off from the outside world during the winter, and still experiences periodic power cuts, so the infrastructure is limited around these parts.

A few miles to the north is the Russian border, a bit to the northeast is Chechnya. This is another hotly contested part of the world, with endless squabbling among the countries of the former Soviet Union. More on Georgia later, the food, drink, language, and sights are awesome, but just a few photos for now!

Kazbegi and the Caucasus

Rush hour on the Georgian Military Highway

Gergeti Trinity Church

Tbilisi at night