A Travellerspoint blog

Storm on Mount Sniktau

A Colorado Thirteener on the Continental Divide

snow -10 °C

Snowflakes gusted past my car window as I left the hotel in Idaho Springs and turned up the valley. The blue patches in the metallic grey sky held out some hope but since I'd arrived at Denver, 2 days before in warm sunshine, winter seemed to have returned to the Colorado Rockies.

I followed the I-70 through a heavy snow shower which ended abruptly just after Georgetown revealing my objective for the day. The pyramid of Mt Sniktau rose ahead over the left side of the valley, its snow covered upper slopes reaching up to the grey ceiling overhead.

Snow showers at valley level didn't bode well for attempting my first ever 13000 foot summit. The route I was planning was an easy walk - in summer - but though it was almost June, it was a none too summery 3C at my hotel back down the valley. Leaving the interstate just before the Eisenhower Johnson Tunnel, I followed the winding road up through tall conifers towards the Loveland Pass. I saw no cars on this stretch but the road was completely clear of snow as I ascended the pass. Once above the timber line, the view of the surrounding mountains opened up. The air was remarkably clear between the snow showers and allowed distant views. At the top of the pass I pulled in at a small parking lot. There was only one other vehicle there, the occupants of which ventured outside for all of half a minute before getting in out of the cold. Probably a sensible option!

As I prepared to set out, an intrepid cyclist rode into the parking area. He was in training for some up and coming races and was a huge fan of Lance Armstrong whose recent exploits in the Tour de France had boosted the sport's popularity in the States. I'd have to get my bike out again when I got home, I thought to myself as I set out up the trail.

The path followed a wide easy ridge leading up a thousand feet or so to the East. This was actually the Continental Divide and it led up over open slopes to a breezy summit named on my map simply as point 12915. I took it slowly going up as I was a little breathless from the altitude. At the top I stopped by a cairn to admire the view behind. A wide landscape of bare mountains flecked with snow and the darker greens of the valleys across which drifted the snow showers like grey veils. Closer at hand could be seen the runs of the A-Basin ski area just across the valley.

Not far to the North rose 2 summits, the further of which was Mt Sniktau. Leaving the first top, I set out towards them, the going easy down the frozen turf and stones of the ridge. In what seemed like no time I was at the base of the first top and the altitude kicked in again as I made its ascent, the path now partly hidden by patches of snow.

More weather looked to be approaching from the North West and it began to snow again, the tiny flakes gusting across the ridge in the icy wind. I reached the first which had the equally imaginative name of '13152' on the map. From here the rapidly disappearing summit of Sniktau was visible half a mile away.

The ridge was straight and easy to follow so I went on. It should be easy to find my way back if the weather became worse. The last pyramid gave no difficulty and in a rising wind I soon reached the highest rocks. The view was intermittent as the cloud base was skimming the peak and the windblown snow was increasing by the minute. For a while I could make out the I-70 far below in the valley then this too was gone. I bet this is a great spot in clear weather but it was starting to get grim so I hastily set off back down the ridge. Walking back into the wind was harder and it was so cold that any exposed skin became instantly numb. I made my way down in what was almost a white out, turning back to the wind every so often to let my face thaw out. Should have brought a balaclava! I managed to stay warm though and afterskirting round point 13152 and cutting the corner off where I'd visited the first peak - the visibility was better down here - I rejoined the path I'd ascended from the pass.

The view had gone but it wasn't as bad here, the snow was starting to whiten the ground as I arrived back at the pass but the wind wasn't quite so strong and the cloud had lifted. It was still a relief to get back to the warmth of the car though.

Pete Buckley May 2004

Essentials >>> Up 427m >>> Down 427m >>> How Far? 5.5km >>> How High? 4034m/13234ft

Posted by PeteB 07:37 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Mount Evans

An easy fourteener and America's highest road

overcast -5 °C

The last day of my trip to Colorado in June 2004 saw me back at Idaho Springs where I'd started. The town was handy for my drive to Denver airport to fly home while still being surrounded by magnificent forest and mountain scenery. Just to the south of the town lies Mount Evans, one of the Rockies' highest peaks and home of the highest paved road in North America. Yes - even higher than Pikes Peak.

I'd driven part way up coming over here and had an afternoon walk from the parking at the top of the Goliath Trail over open tundra to the summit of Rogers Peak at 13391 ft. It was a lonely summit of stones rising above the short tundra grass and was reached by a 3 mile round trip from the road. The weather was clear and views had extended far out across the plains towards Kansas as well as along the Front Range (the eastern rim of the Rockies) north towards Longs Peak in the National Park.

Today though, the weather wasn't quite so promising and as I left town by highway 103, the Squaw Pass Road, I decided to alter plans to be off the mountain before the forecast bad weather arrived.

I'd planned to go to Echo Lake at 10600 ft and one of the nicest spots in the area and hike up the Chicago Lakes Trailto Summit Lake at 12800 feet before ascending the Peak but after stopping at Echo Lake decided to head on. I'd drive to Summit Lake and go up from there. It is still a recognised ascent unlike driving to the top of the road and walking the last quarter mile to the summit which is cheating a little bit! Shame about the weather as Chicago Lakes looked a good route - it was a full day up and down though.

The mountain could be seen through the pines, partly obscured by cloud as I left the lake and the morning sun broke through higher up the road though huge clouds boiled up over the plains to the east.Well above the timberline at Summit Lake it was cold and breezy. That morning the summit temperature had been 10 farenheit or -12C and that was less than 1500 feet above now.

Coat, hat and gloves on and I was off. The usual route goes nearly straight up the steep slope to the summit car park but huge snowdrifts by the roadside made this awkward so I followed the road itself up until just before the first bend where I set off up the steep mountainside to my right. Only one car had passed me on my walk up the road - a truck loaded with bikes.

I managed however, to avoid walking on the road again as I made my way steadily upwards finding the going easier than expected - I must have been properly acclimatised by now. OK I wasn't about to sprint up the slope but at least I could keep a steady pace and not stop for a rest every 2 minutes.

Bierstadt appeared level with me across a deep wild valley. The cloud continued to build ominously and the Sun had vanished behind a high grey layer but it remained fine on Mt Evans if chilly, the ground frozen iron hard by the wind.Crossing an area of shattered grey rocks and a small snowfield I presently arrived at

the summit car park and walked past the ruined Summit Hotel - never rebuilt after a destructive fire - and the grey hump of the observatory. I remembered meeting this guy who'd had his wedding reception at this hotel when it was still open, only to have to reconvene back down in Idaho Springs when half the guests passed out from altitude sickness!

The road is a feat of engineering but I'm not sure I like the idea of driving up to places like this. It must be awful on a busy day with traffic jams and crowds - exactly the things many of us come up to avoid. To say nothing of the danger of ascending quickly to 14000 feet. Today though there were no crowds, just the one truck and some very cold looking cyclists preparing for an even colder descent.

Up a shallow bank of snow on the far side of the car parkand a stony trail led me in 5 or 10 minutes to the summit rocks. As I scrambled up a pair of eyes belonging to a brown furry face stared at me before vacating the highest rock and disappearing under another nearby. At 14264 feet I'd almost certainly just met America's Highest Marmot!

The approaching weather made the view dramatic if not distant and after taking a few photos I too left this cold and lofty place to the marmots and the rising wind.

Pete Buckley May 2004

Essentials >>> Up 440m >>> Down 440m >>> How far? 8 km return >>> How High? 14264ft/4348m

Posted by PeteB 03:53 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The Ascent of Grays Peak

To the top of the Rockies

sunny

The sharp grating noise from the floor of my hire car brought to mind nightmarish words such as excesses and clauses and something about not driving on 4 wd roads. It's significance here was that the Steven's Gulch Road had won this particular battle and that I'd now need to turn around without going over the edge. I managed this with less difficulty than the initial panic might have suggested and soon found myself back at a parking area about half way up the track near to Josephine Mine.

Some guidebooks and websites say that you can drive this road in an ordinary vehicle and some say you can't. In the absence of a united front on either side I will say that if you value your car - don't try!

I'd left Interstate 70 at junction 221 for Bakerville back down in the valley and driven up the winding dirt track through the pines, passing a parking area before reaching a section that more resembled a dry river bed than a road - rocks, ruts, the lot! It was this short section that had defeated me and so I set out from the lower car park to walk to the Grays Peak trailhead.

I'd been going only 10 or 15 minutes when I heard a car coming up the track behind me so I instinctively stuck out a thumb in hope. The car turned out to be a jeep and I was soon chatting to 2 guys from one of the universities out east - Boston, I'm sure he'd said - as we drove up to the trailhead. I was pleased to see that even in a Jeep the driver took great care on the part that had caused me problems so at least I hadn't bottled it for no reason.

The trailhead is at a height of about 11200 feet, just on the treeline, and the 3 of us set off together. The path was obvious and easy to follow, leading up a wide valley towards the snow covered Grays and Torreys Peaks at its head.One of my companions was a sports instructor at the college, specialising in coaching ice hockey and it soon became apparent that they were somewhat fitter than I was so rather than hold them up, I suggested they carry on and we meet up at the top. They carried on up the trail and I followed at a slightly easier pace - after all, we were at over 11000 feet here!

One thing I'd noticed here more so than in the UK or the Alps, was that when walking alone, I'd often be asked if I wanted to join up with any hikers going the same way. I don't know if people were simply friendlier or whether it stemmed from a culture of walking in very remote areas where some of the wildlife may even occasionally view us as something to eat!

The trail which had risen gently up to now, began to climb more steeply as I neared the end of the long wide valley. I headed firstly up steep heathery slopes before veering more to the left over rocky terrain near a shallow col. Heading up away from the col and leaving the valley's confines, I found myself in a huge stony bowl in the mountainside as the track levelled out a little. The upper walls of this cirque were formed by the high crags and snowfields of Grays and Torreys Peaks still far above. I could just make out ant like figures picking their way across the snow just under the ridgeline.

I set off up the trail again after a rest, spotting a lone mountain goat by the side of the track. There were a few people about today, but it's a popular route and the weather was warm and settled, unlike on some of my other walks in Colorado this trip. I particularly remember one guy who was sat at the brink of a vast snow slope.

"I'm going to do it" he shouted back to his girlfriend , who shouted back something about hospital bills if he broke his leg. "I've decided - I'm definitely doing this!" as he pushed off and began to slide down the slope, his dog moving to follow, before seemingly thinking the better of it and running back to his by now possibly ex girlfiend as whoops and cheers echoed back up the slope as he gathered speed below.

Back to the matter in hand and I continued up the zigzag path as it began cutting through wide snowfields which stretched down the bouldery slopes. I could now see far beyond the valley as the view opened out more the higher I went. Further up and level with the col linking Grays with its neighbor Torrys. Not much air up here - ten steps - stop for a breather - not far now. I was fairly well acclimatised and had no ill effects but here at 14000 feet, my legs would only go at half normal speed.

There were my 2 mates who'd started the hike with me just below the top which I reached only just after them. Hare and tortoise hey! They were fitter than me but maybe not as used to the altitude as I'd thought.

The summit of Grays Peak is the highest point on the Continental Divide or main ridge of the Rocky Mountains and the view is befitting for such a place. Beyond the far off plains of South Park rose the even more distant lone summit of Pikes Peak. Moving round to the west, passing the long snowy line of peaks topped by Mt Elbert, the highest in the Rockies, Lake Dillon where I'd been staying came in to view beyond the continuing divide ridge. To the North lay great forests with the Indian Peaks heading up towards Rocky Mountain National Park while east of us and closer to hand was the Mt Evans range. We were surrounded by a sea of summits, all seemingly below. Only Torreys Peak seemed to approach our height, it's snowy flanks leading the eye down to the valley where the Interstate crossed the Rockies at the Eisenhower Tunnel thousands of feet below.

I was tempted to go to Torreys as well but time was getting on so, re united with the ice hockey guys, I set off back down managing to keep up on the return trip.

Pete Buckley May 2004

Essentials >>> Up 920m >>> Down 920m >>> How Far? 10.5 km >>> How High? 4349m/14270ft

(These figures are 1070m and 14.5km from the lower car park)

Posted by PeteB 14:31 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Quandary Peak

Fear and Ozone at 14000 feet

all seasons in one day -1 °C

The deer and fawn stood in the roadside clearing a couple of yards from the line of the forest and about 10 yards from where I sat. The morning sun shone on their glossy coats as they took turns grazing the long grass and checking around for possible threats. The pair were quite aware of, and happy with my presence, so I was somewhat disconcerted when they simultaneously stood bolt upright in alarm and looked into the woods directly behind the rock on which I sat. I followed their gaze into the dark pines, and seeing nothing but shadows, turned back to the deer – they had vanished – a panic sprint into the forest.

Something had scared them off – possibly even a bear or mountain lion. The only thing was, my route led into the woods exactly where whatever had scared the deer had been!

Putting aside thoughts of black bears and of pumas and cougars – which one was it that lived around here now – I headed off up the deserted trail into the forest. A ttacks on humans by bears or mountain lions are extremely rare in Colorado though it’s healthy respect to be aware of their presence. Little did I know however that later that morning I would face mortal danger from a completely different source.

The trail led me steadily upwards through the deep green of the pinewoods, occasional shafts of sunlight bringing colour to the forest floor and I began to enjoy the walk despite being conscious of the fact that I wasn’t keen to meet whatever had scared the deer. I met no large predators however and presently emerged into the bright sunshine of a clearing in the forest which was followed by another and in a few more minutes, the timberline itself.

Surmounting a small rise revealed an expansive vista of snow capped mountains surrounding the head of the valley to my left while straight ahead rose Quandary Peak – an icy sentinel shining in the morning sun. I was surprised to see a young hiker approaching – he must have been out early to be descending at this hour – we had a brief conversation during which I asked him whether I’d need an ice axe or not. Producing a sharp looking piece of stone from a pocket, his advice was to find “a decent rock.” I was impressed by his resourcefulness at using the rock instead of buying expensive kit. I have since made safe the descent of an icy slope in Wales with a well found rock having forgotten my axe. Stone Age technology indeed – but it worked!

I continued my ascent as the trail climbed across a steep slope of grass and heather above a typical Alpine valley to my left. The Weather Channel had mentioned that thunderstorms were to be expected later over much of Colorado State so I made the ascent as quickly as I could manage on the heavily rationed oxygen up here and an hour’s hard labour saw me crossing a wide stony plateau at about 13000 feet. The summit rose steeply ahead and keeping to the left of the ridge close to the drop off to the valley, I began the scent of the snow. Thanks to the snow conditions - which were near perfect for kicking steps – neither crampons nor for that matter Stone Age axes were needed for the ascent which became steeper as I climbed. The weather still appeared reasonably settled though there was more cloud now over the Mosquito Ranges to my right. Finally, and with the effort of a marathon runner completing that lap of the track that follows running the 26 miles and precedes collapsing on the ground, I reached the summit of my first ‘fourteener.’

Surprised to see other people up here, we took photos of the fast disappearing view before deciding to head down as the weather seemed to be going downhill as faster than we should have been! Large dry snowballs began to fall – each one looking like a giant hailstone but being composed of light powdery snow. while a still grey mist surrounded us and the air prickled with static electricity. We descended the slope quickly as the air became filled with a disturbing sound.

I knew that sound – it was the noise power lines made on a damp day. It was the sound of electricity making its unstoppable way to Earth. Earth in this case was the 14000 foot high ridge on which we stood, like 5 lightning conductors and the power source, a building storm with the energy of a thermonuclear bomb. The brim of my hat began to fizz and crackle and the faint blue glow of St Elmo’s fire lit the mist eerily. Removing my hat caused my hair to stand on end and I was now getting electric shocks through my fingertips. I replaced my hat and the fizzing sound grew steadily in pitch. Having visions of a flash of blue light that would reunite me with God somewhat prematurely, I dived onto the snowfield, shouting to my companions to follow, and slid penguin style for a short way down the slope. Though water and electricity are generally considered a bad combination, I somehow knew that snow was a bad conductor.

Few words were spoken as the 4 of us made our way as quickly as possible down the snow slope. The static seemed to reduce as we got lower. As thunder began to rumble over the Mosquito Range, I followed the guy in front and removing a plastic bin liner from my rucksack, sat down on it on the snow and proceeded to slide down the mountain. Not maybe the most stylish descent I’ve ever made but preferable to finding out what life's like as a fried chicken!

The storm didn’t reach us right away but as we returned to the forest, the Rockies echoed to the sound of thunder and all thought of marauding bears and mountain lions was gone, as the safety of the trees was reached. Such had been the nature of our descent that we’d not been able to make each other’s acquaintance properly. All I knew was that the guy of about my own age was from Denver and had a cabin somewhere near here, and that the younger guy and girl were from neighbouring Kansas.

We bade our farewells at the trailhead and I continued my way back through Breckenridge to Lake Dillon where I was staying. Later that afternoon, I was treated to a spectacular natural firework display over the lake which I watched from the beach, retreating to the safety of my room as the storm approached closer.

Pete Buckley May 2004

Posted by PeteB 13:25 Archived in USA Tagged foot Comments (1)

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