Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Windy Day in the Park

I recently attempted a hike to the summit of Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, only to be turned back by strong winds on the northeast slope leading up to Flattop Mountain. Given the relative shelter from the wind below treeline, the weather felt mild. In addition, the path leading away from the Bear Lake parking lot was firm well packed snow. I attached snowshoes to my backpack in case deep snow was encountered, but they ended up becoming dead weight. Reaching a lookout that provides a view over Glacier Gorge and Longs Peak, exposure to the wind increased, with conditions seemingly worse above treeline, given the large plumes of snow blowing off of the Keyhole ridge.

I continued on nonetheless, but put on a balaclava and glacier glasses in anticipation of the winds I would soon encounter. Right on cue, the exit from treeline to exposed snow packed tundra was greeted with cold icy blasts blowing down from the Continental Divide. My lower and upper body were covered with layers of Cap 3 and Gore-Tex, and proved to be quite adequate in preserving warmth. In addition, a wool hat and the balaclava provided plenty of protection for my head and neck. However, the pair of First Ascent Guide Gloves were not enough protection to prevent my hands/fingers from becoming numb. In hindsight, I should have brought along a pair of heavy mitts (stupidly I left them in the truck to save weight). I also had issues with the pair of Julbo Explorer glacier glasses...moisture emanating from my balaclava combined with the cold ambient temperature led to annoying lens fog-up.

Besides a few gear issues, the combination of a steep snow packed slope exposed to the strong downslope winds made it nearly impossible to maintain upward progress. In fact, I fell down several times, sliding back down the slope in multiple awkward positions. So, hands were becoming numb (would frostnip/bite be next?), and the winds were knocking me down (and would surely be worse at the top of the Divide)...I decided the responsible thing to do was admit defeat and come back another day. The other day could have been the following one, except a blizzard was taking aim on New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, and Kansas, which would block my return route to Oklahoma (or even worse, cause me to become stranded). I had no choice but to start driving back home after my summit attempt...this trip was an epic fail.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Black Mesa

Having a few days off from work recently, I decided to head out to the Oklahoma Panhandle and knock off a state highpoint that was long overdue (given I've been living in this state for almost 3 years). The high point of course was Black Mesa...located in the western Oklahoma Panhandle, which is mainly high plains agricultural/ranch land that gives way to a rather expansive area of volcanic lava flows/mesas near the border of New Mexico and Colorado. Cimarron County, the geopolitical location of Black Mesa, is also known for its abundance of dinosaur bones and footprints, as well as the location of the southern branch of the Santa Fe Trail.

I arrived at the Black Mesa trailhead near sunrise, and started hiking immediately in order to fight off the cold autumn air. The first two miles of the trail are for the most part flat, which allows you to enjoy the interesting vista of plateaus and buttes. I eventually passed a heard of cows grazing next to the trail (apparently the state park also serves as ranch land)...they stared me down, somewhat pissed that someone would interrupt their morning meal. This was the crux of my hike though, and I got past unscathed. After two miles of flat hiking, the trail then begins to ascend for a mile up the side of the mesa. After the ascent, the trail levels off rapidly at the top of the mesa, with another mile to go before reaching the high point of Oklahoma. As I approached "the top," a heard of antelope ran across my horizon, stopping briefly to check me out, realizing I wasn't a predator, and then continuing on their way. After an hour and a half, I reached my destination, 4,973 feet above sea level. There is nothing spectacular about this state high point...a simple granite column marks the spot, with pleasant views of Rabbit Ear Mountain to the southwest, as well as Sierra Grande and Capulin Volcano to the west. After 10 minutes of refueling/rehydrating, my task for the day was complete...I hiked back to the truck in 1.5 hours, and made the drive back to Norman, arriving just in time for the start of game 7 of the World Series.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Mount Elbert

After completing Mount Bierstadt, I began the journey westward to Mount Elbert. I stopped in Vail for a quick lunch, then jumped back onto I-70, headed south on highway 24 across Tennessee Pass, drove through Leadville, and then turned onto dusty Halfmoon Road. I arrived at the north Mount Elbert trailhead by 4pm...having a few hours to kill before sunset, I relaxed in the back of my truck and read Lord of the Rings (a classic that is long overdue on my list of books to read). Twilight finally arrived, and I settled into my sleeping bag, once again gazing upwards at millions of stars. I woke up about an hour before sunrise. The air temperature was colder than the night before, and because my sleeping bag is very effective in transporting moisture away from the interior of the bag, the outside of the bag was coated in a glaze of frost. The cold morning air motivated me to quickly get ready for the hike, and 20 minutes later, I was heading up the trail.

The initial part of this hike follows the Colorado Trail up to a ridge crest. The trail then splits, with the Colorado Trail heading south-eastward, and the North Elbert Trail heading south-westward. Above treeline, the North Elbert Trail turned out to be a non-technical, but seemingly never-ending upward journey. Viewing the terrain from below, it appeared that the summit was over the next "bump," but actually turned out to be a series of false summits. One short section, false summit #1, required a bit of class 2 "climbing" up a steep snow covered slope. There was no danger of a long fall, but a slip on the ice/snow covered slope would have been painful...so extra caution was required. Near the top of Elbert, another large snow field was encountered, followed by a walk along a ridge line to the true summit. After a little over 4 hours, 4700' of elevation gain, and 4.5 miles of hiking, I reached the highest point in Colorado. I estimated around 20 people sitting at the top, all quietly taking in the view and refueling for the trip back down. Similar to previous peaks, I found the descent to be more painful on the ankles and feet compared to the ascent. In addition, in order to cut down on weight in my backpack, I only brought one liter of liquid with me. I finished this before reaching the halfway point down the mountain...needless to say, I was dreaming of my big jug of Gatorade for quite a while.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mount Bierstadt

I took advantage of a 5 day weekend in order to summit a couple of easy 14'ers in Colorado. The original plan was to re-climb Longs Peak, but snowfall during the past few weeks has made the Keyhole route a bit too treacherous for my current skill level. So instead, I found myself driving up through scenic Guanella Pass on September 23rd toward the Mount Bierstadt trailhead. The Aspen trees carpeting the foothills that rise southward out of Georgetown are now producing leaves which display a glorious shade of gold in the late day sunlight. I arrived at the trailhead parking lot at the top of Guanella Pass about an hour before sunset, and spent the next few hours taking pictures of the fading light reflecting off of Bierstadt and the Sawtooth. As the dark replaced the light, I threw my sleeping pad and bag into the back of my truck, jumped in the sack, and slowly drifted off to sleep under a million stars. I watched the occasional satellite gliding past my field of vision, which were mixed in with meteorites streaking across the sky every 15 minutes or so...it was perfect.

I woke up early on Saturday the 24th as a couple of hikers pulled into the lot to get an alpine start on their summit attempt of Bierstadt. My sleeping bag is rated to 0-deg F, and easily kept me warm through the night. However, it also made me reluctant to climb out into the cold morning air (I was sleeping at 11,669-ft...it was chilly!). Luckily, I quickly warmed up as I started moving around, putting on my boots, gloves, and jacket. Soon after, I hit the trail, first hiking across a field of willows. This part of the trail is easy and flat, with boardwalks interspersed along the way (I'm guessing these were built in order to avoid particularly muddy portions of the trail?). After crossing Scott Gomer Creek, the trail then begins to ascend the western slopes of Mount Bierstadt. After slogging upwards for a couple of miles, I encountered a ridge which rose to the summit of Bierstadt. Some easy boulder hopping is required during this portion of the hike, perhaps involving a few class 2 moves, but certainly nothing difficult. Before I knew it, the boulders were behind me and I was a few feet away from the summit. There were 3 other people scattered along the summit with me, and we simply sat and enjoyed the morning light illuminating Mount Evans and the Sawtooth to our north and east, and marveled at the sight of Grays Peak and Torreys Peak off to the west-northwest. The view of Guanella Pass and the trailhead parking lot far below the summit were also spectacular.

It took 2.5 hours to ascend the 2850' to the summit over a distance of 3.5 miles. I was glad to have started early (about an hour before sunrise), because the large crowds heading up the mountain, which I encountered on the way down, would have taken away from the serene experience that I enjoyed at the top.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Longs Peak - Attempt

I made a summit attempt of mighty Longs Peak on August 20th with my mother. We hit the trail at 2am, but I quickly found that it was hard to hike slow enough to stay with my her. After a mile or so, I told her I would meet her at the Keyhole. I then quickened my pace, and made good time going around Mount Lady Washington and across the Boulder Field. I reached the Keyhole at sunrise...and then the wait began. It took my mom 3 hours to catch up...in the meantime, I talked with several hikers who took the customary break at the Keyhole, and then went on to finish the climb. In hindsight, I should have gone to the top and then come back down to meet my mom. Instead, I sat there shivering slightly, muscles tightening up, and momentum slowly slipping away. By the time my mom arrived (close to 9-10am), I was beginning to question whether my weather window had passed by. In addition, given my mothers slow pace reaching the Keyhole, she realized that reaching the summit probably wasn't going to happen...she decided to turn around. However, I wanted to push on and told her I would meet her on the way down.

So off I went...first traversing the Ledges, which are comprised of large slabs of rock above Glacier Gorge. There are a few interesting scrambles that have to be tackled, including a short climb over a rock outcrop which is mildly exposed to the Gorge below, and also a 50-degree pitch up a 20 foot crack. After putting these challenges behind me, the Trough laid ahead. This section is a very steep gully that ascends about 600 feet to the ridge that connects Longs Peak and Pagoda Mountain. It is not technically challenging, but does wear down your legs, and can be dangerous due to loose rock (which you can either slip on, or be struck by if climbers above dislodge a rock). A short scramble past a large chockstone is required at the top of the Trough. As I prepared to climb over this feature, I looked back across the horizon and noticed cumulus beginning to tower around Longs Peak. Realizing that I still had several crux sections to ascend and then descend once again, and also taking into account my dwindling energy reserve, I came to the conclusion that I should probably turn around instead of trying to quicken my pace ahead of the impending storm development. I made it to 13,800 feet, 400 feet shy of the summit. There was a persistent sense of failure lurking in the back of my mind as I went back down. However, as I got past the Boulder Field and rounded Lady Washington, I looked back on Longs Peak and saw a large dark towering cumulus above the mountain...I felt better knowing that my instincts turned out to be correct.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

West Spanish Peak-Summit

The weather on the morning of July 2nd was perfect for a summit attempt of West Spanish Peak in southern Colorado. Only one and a half weeks earlier, I was denied access to the top by a winterlike storm during late June. What a difference a few weeks made. Yesterday morning, the wind was calm, temperature mild, and the sky sunny and cloud free (except for the haze drifting northeast out of Los Alamos, NM). I started my hike from the trailhead at Cordova Pass at 7:15am sharp. It took about an hour to reach treeline, and then another hour and 45 minutes to reach the summit. The hike up the western slope of West Spanish Peak was fairly easy...the only obstacles being the loose rock that covers most of the route. At 9:50am, I found that I was the only person on top of the mountain...another group of people were still about an hour below...I would meet them as I began my descent. There are two distinct vertical points at the top...when I looked east at the second summit, it appeared that it was higher, so I walked over to that feature in order to insure I obtained the true summit. However, when I looked back to the west, it appeared that the original summit was higher...obviously one of these is a false summit, but I'm still not sure which is which. The pictures I posted below are from the western summit.

I began hiking back down at 10am. A small cumulus was already building directly above the summit, a sign that storm initiation would be early on this day. I met many different people making an attempt on the summit as I went down...one person was bringing his grandmothers ashes to the top, where he would then scatter them according to her wishes. Strangely, people kept going up even as the towering cumulus above the peak became darker and more ominous. Shortly after I went below treeline, the first clap of thunder was heard, yet people kept going up...a very poor decision on their part. Otherwise, I reached my car at noon...a 5 hour round trip, 6-7 miles total, and around 2400' of vertical gain.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

West Spanish Peak -- Attempt Number 1

Driving up and down I-25, one can't escape the majestic view of the Spanish Peaks southwest of Walsenburg, and then start to get a strong desire to climb these beautiful mountains...at least that is how I've felt during the last few years. I finally found some time to drive from Oklahoma out to southern Colorado and make an attempt on West Spanish Peak during late June. Unfortunately, my timing was awful, as a strong upper-level storm system moved across the region during the day of my summit attempt. I made the easy hike on the West Spanish Peak trail to treeline, and was immediately greeted by snow squalls, swirling clouds, and very strong wind gusts. West Spanish Peak was covered in a bank of thick clouds, and I decided that making an attempt for the summit may include the risk of loosing my route either going up or down the steep slope. Knowing that the mountain would still be there for another day, I decided to turn around and make the long depressing drive back to Oklahoma.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pikes Peak

My mother and friends Wayne and Angie along with myself hiked from the Crags campground up the northwest slopes of Pikes Peak on June 15th. Not only did we avoid the grueling standard route on the east side of Pikes, but we were also treated to a much more scenic view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and other central Colorado ranges to the west and northwest (which are obviously more interesting to look at and photograph compared to the flat uninteresting high plains of eastern Colorado). There is nothing difficult about this trail. It ascends around 4000' over a distance of 6-7 miles in order to reach the summit. The trail appeared to be well maintained, and we only encountered a few snow fields which were lingering into mid June. The crux of this hike was a boulder strewn slope at around 13,500', which requires scrambling upwards in order to reach the summit. However, it is easily tackled, and actually made the trip more interesting...its always fun to use your hands a bit on any hike.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Royal Gorge

There isn't much to say about the Royal Gorge bridge and park, except that it is a tourist trap, and probably isn't worth the $25 admission. After avoiding the photographer at the front gate, and ignoring the kiddy carnival rides, my mother and I made our way to the expansive suspension bridge. I do admit that it was pretty impressive to walk across the rickety wood planks located nearly 1000' above the Arkansas River...and yes, looking down towards the river from that height was somewhat exhilarating...but the crowds, carnival atmosphere, and dodging the cars driving across the bridge took away from a natural setting that is otherwise truly awe inspiring.

Mount Evans

After failing to reach the top of Mount Evans the day before, I returned to bag the peak on June 13th. I had to be in Colorado Springs later in the afternoon, so I took the easy route up by parking at Summit Lake, walking about 0.5 miles southeast, and then turning up the steep eastern slope. It was a fairly uneventful hike, though the trail upwards was difficult to locate initially, so I had to find my own route across talus and snow fields. After about an hour or so of intense exhertion, I reached the top. Similar to Mount Spalding, the view was outstanding, with Longs Peak off to the north, and Pikes Peak observed to the south. I also met a nice group of people, a couple, and the wifes parents visiting from Denmark. After chatting with these folks for 20 minutes, I snapped a few more pictures and then started the descent, which was a pretty quick ordeal as I glissaded for about 500' on the intermittently spaced snow fields.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mount Spalding

Set out on June 12th for Mount Evans with my mom, sister, and my sisters friend Christina. We decided to take the Evans Loup, which starts at Summit Lake (elevation 12,830 feet). This was a fun trail, which included scrambling up class 3 ledges, and post holing up snow covered slopes. After a few hours of hiking, we reached the summit of Mount Spalding (elevation 13,842 feet). The view from the top was of course outstanding as we gazed south, west, and northward at the many snowcovered ranges in central Colorado. We then set off to complete the loup which tops out on Mount Evans. We glissaded down the southern slope of Spalding and then reached the saddle between Evans and Spalding. Unfortunately, the weather made a turn for the worse, with 50+ mph winds developing and ominous bubbly looking midafternoon cumulus forming overhead. We gave up Evans due to the weather, and retraced our steps back to Summit Lake. It was a fun hike despite not achieving our goal...and plans were immediately made to finish off Mount Evans during the next day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Humboldt Peak

For those who don't own a 4 wheel drive vehicle, the approach hike from the Wet Mountain Valley to Humboldt Peak is an exhausting ordeal in itself...which I found out a week ago. In hindsight, I should have made this hike a two day outing, taking one day to hike to the South Colony Lakes and then camp overnight, and then obtain the summit of Humboldt the next day. Instead, I hiked up to South Colony Lakes, and made the mistake of following a trail which branches to the right of the 4WD road. This trail is easy to follow until it reaches an expansive area of brush. From the brush, you have to bushwhack in order to obtain the trail which leads up to the Humboldt-Creston saddle. The day was starting to get late, and I didn't want to spend another hour getting past the brush, so I turned around and made the long trip back to the car. If I had to redo that hike, I would have continued to follow the 4WD road, which would have been longer, but would also avoid any bushwhacking. After finally reaching the car, I drove north through Westcliffe. Shortly after, I blew a tire, likely due to the very rough gravel road I drove on to get to the Humboldt trailhead.