Elevation Gain: 3252
I’m going to summarize, but if you’re interested in details you can read the entire story here
After yesterday’s summit I drove 4 hours to the next Trailhead, slept, woke up at 1:30am to 3 inches of snow, snowshoed for 3 miles, postholing up to my knees the entire way, came across an avalanche and crossed it, came to a second one that was impassable in the dark and was forced to turn back. I postholed 3 miles back, got back to my truck while it was still dark and it wouldn’t start, so I scraped 3 inches of snow off the hood, lifted it, fiddled with the battery and was on my way to the next trailhead when I saw a sign for Hanging Lake. I decided to turn my day around and check off an item on my bucket list at the same time! Now: off to my next adventure!
I arrived at the Guanella Pass Campground to a full parking area at 11am. I noticed a group ready to leave, so I waited around and snagged their parking spot when they left. I was hungry from this morning, so I quickly boiled some water and prepped a Mountain House meal. While I waited for it to cook I pulled up the weather report I’d saved from earlier in the morning (when I had reception at a truck stop down the road). Wow. The forecast had changed quite a bit in the two days I’d been mountaineering. The weather for tomorrow was now very similar to the weather right now, except 20 degrees cooler.
I took a bite of the meal while I considered what to do. (Yuck! At this point I was forcing myself to eat, but this was really bad. It tasted… old). It was 11am, and while I’d already done 10 miles and 3000’ of elevation gain today and another 6 miles and 3600’ of elevation gain yesterday, I was feeling pretty good.
OK, so looking at the forecast I can either head out now while I’m tired but the weather’s warm, or try to get some sleep (I don’t have much luck of that at trailheads) and try tomorrow after I’ve “rested”. But it’ll be cold and windy tomorrow. Both days had 44mph winds. I took another bite (disgusting!) and threw the meal away. Those things are nasty!
I made the obvious choice: I was the last one on the trail at 11:15am. I figured I had a 50/50 shot at the summit, but I’d make that choice when I made it to the upper trailhead and could see the conditions/weather first hand. The road was covered in many feet of snow and since it was late in the afternoon I needed snowshoes immediately. I didn’t take them off the entire hike.
The views of Bierstadt, the Sawtooth, and Evans were beautiful, dusted with snow
It wasn’t lost on me I was the only one hiking up the road, while I saw at least a dozen hikers on their way down, finished with their hikes (presumably of Bierstadt). Check out the snow in the parking area!
I followed a hikers trail to the Bierstadt trailhead, then crossed the road and found the trailhead at the top of Guanella Pass.
The trail starts directly behind the bathrooms. Looking at the current weather and trail conditions and measuring my present state of fitness I decided the hike was a go. I searched my pockets for the topo map and route description I’d put together a few days ago and came up empty: I’d left them on the dash of my truck. Drat. Well…. I was going for it anyway.
Here’s the route I took
Those willows though! There are wooden bridges in the area and presumably a trail, but with all the snow I wasn’t able to find either of them. So I trekked through the willows and headed towards Square Top, mindful not to trek too fast lest I fall into a willow hole.
Did you know there’s a trick to hiking through willows in the afternoon when the snow’s soft? It’s quite simple really: Figure out which way the wind blows and hike behind the individual willows. If you hike on top of them you’re violating LNT, so try not to do that (even though that works too) but if you hike behind them you hike where the snow has piled up and is more compact. In front of the willows there’s an air pocket from the snow blowing in the wind and you’ll sink.
So I trudged across the willows, only sinking up to my waist 4 or 5 times and aimed for the ridge.
Every so often I’d look back for a frame of reference, trying to find the bathrooms and remembering my intended route back.
Before getting to the ridge there are several small hills to climb over, which had more snow and were steeper than anticipated
Eventually I came to this sign, and something in my head said to go left here, instead of straight (must have been the prepping I did earlier, because this was correct).
Just for reference, directly behind the sign is a small lake.
So I turned left at the sign and continued to a small saddle and turned right and began my trudge up the ridge
There were no signs, and no cairns (I’d been expecting them?)
I just kept heading up and up and up, and actually started drinking water. For me, this is never a good sign. When I start drinking water it’s just the beginning of everything going downhill. But I hadn’t eaten all that much (2 spoonfuls of that Mountain House Chili and the same this morning of an egg and bacon MH ‘meal’) and I’d hiked a lot in the past 24 hours, so I figured I should drink.
I reached another small saddle and had a pretty good view of the cornices below Square Top
From here is where I started struggling. The wind picked up and so did the elevation gain. I kept sipping water and I even ate some dried strawberries I’d brought along (those were fantastic!). No worries though, I could see my path to the summit and just had to keep trekking. From my views earlier I knew this wasn’t the summit…
But I thought surely the summit was just behind this bump, right? Oh look, a cairn! That must be the summit behind…
I was moving slowly now, and my quads were burning (as opposed to my calves yesterday). I’d take 50 steps, and then stop to rest for 10 seconds, and then continue on
I made it to this bump, thinking surely this was it, but nope, another hill in the distance! Ouch! Ok, now I was down to 30 steps with 10 seconds to breathe. And lots and lots of sips of water. I. Was. Almost. There! I just had to keep pushing on.
I made it to the top of this bump and wanted to curse! Why, oh why was the Lord punishing me? There was another bump and a ridgeline and another summit in the distance.
Well, there was nothing for it. I continued on, thankful at least the intense elevation gain had lessened. Unfortunately the wind was insane here, and blowing directly at me. Oh, and that wasn’t the summit either: This is the summit
Also, it includes losing elevation a bit and then regaining it back. Joy.
Now, this wasn’t a particularly challenging hike, but I was tired to start, and I seriously worked for this ‘easy’ summit. It was cold, windy, and I was sore all over. It was all mental and totally worth the effort!
I’m not sure what time I summited because it was too windy/cold for me to take out my phone, but I did get a few summit photos with my DSLR
I’d originally kind of wanted to make this a loop with Argentine and Wilcox, but I’d already done Argentine Peak earlier this year, and after looking at the elevation gain/loss involved today, this was a big nope.
I decided to turn around and make this an out and back hike.
That wind never let up, and here it knocked me down a few times
(Looking back at the final push to the summit)
I made it back to where I’d originally thought the summit was and got a good view of the route I took up
The route down was steep but felt much better on my quads
This hike was slow going. I wasn’t setting any records today, and I was going slower by the minute. And that wind was causing my nose to run and run and run, making it raw, raw, raw. Ouch!
The wind was bringing in a storm. Here you can see the tracks I made on my way back down to the willows and eventually the upper trailhead area. One of the good parts about descending so late in the day was the snow had begun to re-freeze in the willows area, actually making it firmer than it was on my trek in.
When I made it to the Guanella Pass Trailhead I knew I only had less than 2 miles left to go, but I was exhausted. I followed the road back down to my truck, trying to beat the snow. I lost, and it snowed the last mile of the hike.
That last mile was brutal. My whole body was screaming for me to stop, but it was snowing and I was almost done and stopping was not an option. I did allow myself to crouch down a few times and grunted audibly as I stood up again (I know better than to rest like this, but it felt so good!). During this time I kept telling myself 2 things: I could do this, and there’s a bottle of Knob Creek waiting for me in my truck.
I made it back to the campground at 6:45pm, making this a 10.5 mile hike in about 7.5 hours (But I’d like to add in the past 36 hours I’d done 10,000’ of elevation gain in 26 miles, so my body had gotten quite a workout in the past day and a half).
When I got to my truck there were 2 other vehicles in the parking lot, but they looked like they were from tours intending to be out in the mountains overnight. I took a quick wet-wipe bath and changed my clothes in the back seat of my truck. As I was doing so it felt so good to just lie down. Amazing. Euphoric even. It’s been a few months since I’ve tired myself out this much on a hike and I just wanted to enjoy the feeling. I was numb all over, my body was humming, and I hadn’t even had a shot of whiskey yet. Or eaten. Oh yeah, I needed to do that. So I finished getting dressed and looked at what I had: The uneaten Mountain House meal… 2 uncooked Mountain House meals, a sleeve of saltine crackers, and some Ritz crackers. I was seriously missing my beef jerky! I make an amazing beef jerky that’s my staple on these longer hikes, but my kids raided it and I didn’t have any to bring with me this weekend. Ugh. Ok, Whiskey and crackers it was for dinner. I had 2 shots of whiskey, 2 Ritz crackers, and fell asleep. Only to wake up at 12:30ambecause of the wind, needing to pee. I sat there for 10 minutes trying to fall asleep but it was no use.
OK, I had options again. I could go outside where it was windy and snowing and jump back in my truck, and then spend the next 4 hours trying to get back to sleep. Or I could just get up and drive the 2 hours home now, and take a bath and be in bed by 3am. This meant I’d need to work out tomorrow (a personal rule of mine) but it seemed the better option. I was on the road and home by 2:30am, very pleased with myself. This is why I like hiking solo: I can make these kinds of decisions (like pushing on to the summit or leaving in the middle of the night) and no one has to agree or be put out by them. The only downside? Once I made it home I couldn’t sleep… so I started brainstorming better meal ideas. I’ve got to eat better so I don’t crash, and Mountain House isn’t doing it for me. Apparently I’d rather starve…