#84 Cathedral Peak A – 13,943

1

RT Length:  9.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 4416

This was my second attempt to summit Cathedral Peak this year.  The first time was back in April when I had to turn around due to avy debris I was unable to navigate in the dark.  I’d read a recent conditions report stating there was now a path around the avy debris and decided to attempt Cathedral Peak on my next free day.

My sleeping schedule is currently all messed up.  I’d woken up at 2pm, took my daughter to the art museum, and then left my house at 9:30pm to make it to the trailhead by 2am.  I wanted to get an early start on this one because of the potential thunderstorms later in the day, but mostly because I was worried the snow in the couloir would soften up early in the sunlight.

The trailhead had room for plenty of vehicles.  When I arrived, there were 4 or 5 cars in the lot, but when I left there were dozens, all lined up on the side of the road.  Also, apologies to the man I woke up who was trying to sleep in his vehicle:  apparently my trucks headlights were too bright.  I was on the trail at 2:10am.

2

The trail starts off meandering through an aspen grove.  Last time I was here this had been covered in 3-4 feet of snow and I’d missed the sign…

3

I made it to the avy debris area after about a mile and a half of hiking.  When I was here last I couldn’t see the top of the downed trees; they were supported by a huge layer of ice that was at least twice as tall as I am.  Today the area was much more manageable to navigate.

4

Next I followed the side of the mountain up some switchbacks on an obvious trail.  Side note:  Beargrass (the tall plant with lots of tiny white flowers) looks scary in the dark; kind of like children waiting for you silently in the night.  I like to keep my flashlight directly in front of me to keep myself from freaking out.

5

Once again, the trail is easy to follow.  Here’s a look back at the trail

6

I stayed left at this junction on the way in (but on the way out ended up coming back down the Electric Pass trail and rejoining the trail here)

7

The most difficult route finding occurred here, before the lake.  I knew I could pass the lake on either side but due to a creek crossing I didn’t want to take I navigated to the north.  I was told there was a miners trail here, but was unable to locate it in the dark.  I lost half an hour going up and down the trail, looking for the offshoot and was unsuccessful (although I did find a lot of trails that went in other directions).  Finally, I decided to just head northwest through the willows.  This sounds easy enough, but the willows here were several feet taller than I am.  I just turned my trekking pole parallel to the ground and held it out in front of me while I bushwhacked across them.  I only got hit in the face a few times (and had a swollen upper lip the rest of the day to prove it).  The good news is I made it across, and the willows were no worse for the wear.  On my way back I could see the miners trail in the daylight (more on this later).  Here’s the route I took through the willows and across the creek (which was small enough I could jump across here without getting my boots wet).

8

Next I rounded Cathedral’s east ridge and found a well cairned trail that led me into the basin

9

This trail brought me above Cathedral Lake

10

This route was well cairned, and the talus was terrible.  I got to be the first to experience the spider webs this morning.  Tons of fun in the dark!  Second only to phantom children.

11

Once in the basin you can see the route up the access gully.  Today the basin was half filled with snow and I couldn’t help but think how much easier it would have been to traverse if it had all just been snow.

12

In the morning I didn’t need snowshoes.   I made it to the base of the access gully at 5:25am and put on my crampons and helmet and got out my ice axe and garden tool (that tool’s really coming in helpful, but I may just break down and buy another full ice axe).  This is steeper than it looks, but luckily it ‘went’ all the way to the ridge

13

Here’s looking back at the basin

14

The snow was still really firm and I was unable to kick in steps but I was able to ascend with crampons and ice axe.  I was glad to have both my ice axe and (garden) tool.  I was about 30 feet from the top when I decided it was better to be on the left side of the gully rather than the right and started traversing sideways.  About 4 steps in my crampon hit the ice sideways and my boot slipped out of the bindings.  This was the worse possible place for this to happen:  I was balanced on the side of the wall of ice, with one foot in front of the other (I wasn’t able to kick in steps here, and was balancing on a very small mound of frozen snow with my right toe pointed at my left heel, sideways).  I needed to have an ice pick in the wall for balance or I was going to slide all the way down the gully.  My pulse rate quickened as I realized the severity of the situation.  Luckily I had two tools. I carefully balanced on the working crampon and tried to knock the other back into place with my ice axe.  No dice, my crampon wasn’t going back over my toe by sheer force (as well it shouldn’t;  I’d fastened it pretty tightly initially, and had no idea how it had been knocked loose from my boot).  That meant I was going to have to untie the crampon and re-tie it with one hand while holding onto the ice with the other:  Without losing my balance and sliding down a few hundred feet of ice.  It took me a solid 10 minutes to gingerly untie and re-tie the crampon, but I was able to do so from where I was perched.  I mentally praised my daily yoga routine for developing my balancing skills.  Here’s where my crampon was knocked sideways

15

Ok, crampon back on I carefully hustled my way to the top of the gully, topping out at 6:09am, a little shaky as I looked back down.

16

From the top of the gully I turned right and noticed the rest of the route was snow free.  Woot!  I took off my crampons and put them in my pack.  Time for some scrambling!  On the way up I took a class 3-4 route up and over the ridge (solid line) on the way down I found the cairns and took the class 2+ route along the side of the towers (dotted line).

17

The last bit to the summit was easy

18

I summited at 6:40am (it took me half an hour from the top of the gully to summit).

19

Summit Video

Check it out!  A summit marker!

20

Here’s a look back at the basin and my route up to the gully

21

Time to head back down.  I made it back to the top of the gully and met 3 other climbers.  We chatted for a bit.  They said they’d kicked in steps on the way up to make their descent easier.  It was 7:20am as I headed back down the gully. On my way up I’d forgotten to put on my gloves (it wasn’t cold) and my knuckles were a bit tore up, but that’s the best way to learn a lesson.  Also, I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to untie and then re-tie my crampon with gloves on.  At any rate, I was putting gloves on for my descent.

22

I turned, faced the gully, and began my descent.  It was only just after 7am, but there was a huge difference from when I was climbing at 6am.  The snow was quickly softening up.  I was careful to either avoid the kicked in steps, or if I had to use them to make sure I only made them better, but the softening snow wasn’t making things easy.  Sticking to the climbers left of the gully seemed the best way to go.  About ¾ of the way down the snow was slush and I really just wanted to glissade the rest of the way (but didn’t because I was worried I’d mess up what was left of the kicked in steps).

Here’s the route once again

23

I actually took more time than necessary heading back down, and as soon as I could I switched out my crampons for snowshoes to exit the basin.

24

I met a man starting his climb up the gully and was worried for two reasons:  #1, the three people I’d met at the top of the gully hadn’t yet began their descent, and #2, it was rather late in the day for someone to start their climb (the snow at this point was rubbish).  I figured the trio up top must have decided to picnic at the summit and asked the current climber to look out for them.  It was now 8:25am, and I knew I wouldn’t want to begin my descent at this time.  I figured I’d timed it pretty well starting at 2am: it would have been perfect if I hadn’t spent half an hour lost in the willows.

Speaking of willows, I made my way back to the small creek crossing and in the light of day was able to locate the miners trail.  I crossed the creek and headed up the slope, aiming at a small pine tree.  From here I was able to follow a faint trail, which eventually led me to the Electric Pass Peak trail, which I took back to the junction with the Cathedral Lake trail.

25

On my way out I couldn’t help but think how dreadful this climb would have been with snow all the way up to the lake!  I have no idea how I found my way so far the first time.  Here’s a look at some of the avalanche debris

26

I made it back to my truck at 10:55am, making this a 9.5 mile hike with 4416’ in elevation gain in 8.5 hours.  The hike felt longer than it was, most likely because much of the trek out was done in direct sunlight on the way out (no trees for shade).

27

Second Attempt for the Win!

 

Taylor Mountain A – 13,651

Taylor Mountain A – 13,651

1

RT Length – 10 miles

Elevation Gain – 4017’

I’ve been listening to a lot of Taylor this week, so it was only fitting I chose to hike Taylor Mountain A today.  I made it to the snowmobile area (lower trailhead) around 3am, and decided to park here.  There was one other vehicle when I arrived, and 7 when I left.  This area can hold about 10 vehicles if everyone parks nicely.  Be sure to park behind the red and white signs.

2

One of the deciding factors for parking here was the sign indicating the trailhead was only 1 mile away. This was only supposed to be a 7 mile hike, so I welcomed the added 2 miles distance.  Note:  The trailhead is actually 1.4 miles up this road, which isn’t a big deal unless you’re hiking and worried you ‘missed’ the turnoff in the dark.

3

The trail started off dry-easy-4WD, and stayed that way until I made it to the Boss Lake Trailhead. I could have easily driven my Tundra here.

4

About ½ a mile before the Boss Lake trailhead there was avy debris that had been cleared just enough to let a vehicle through

5

From here the road got a little muddy, but it wasn’t something that would stop a 4WD vehicle from making it to the trailhead.

6

I was very excited when I made it to the upper trailhead (I hadn’t past it in the dark!). There was a little bit of snow here, and no vehicles parked.  There was room for about 4 vehicles total.

7

I followed the 230 for another quarter mile or so, realized I’d missed the turnoff to the 230C in the dark, and turned around. The turnoff was about 1/10 of a mile away from the trailhead.

8

The road became increasingly rockier but was still dry

9

On my way back I took a picture of the turnoff to 230C. It’s on the right side of the road. The intersection is easy to see in the light, but easy to miss in the dark, and as you can tell, the signage is well off the road (20 feet down 230C after the turn).

10

This is where the road really started to get muddy

11

There were tire tracks from an ambitious off road driver all the way to about 10,880’.

12

I started needing snowshoes around 11,000’, and didn’t see any other tracks in the snow

13

The road was easy to follow until it ended at the cabin area, and from here to treeline I was breaking trail. I turned right at the last cabin and navigated my way northwest through the trees, keeping the creek to my left and hugging the mountainside to the right.

14

15

I never came to a meadow, but this is most likely due to a recent (small) avalanche in the area. I just followed the avy debris to the bottom of a small basin

16

And followed the small gully to the top. The snow here was well consolidated, and even a bit icy.

17

At the top of the small gully I turned right

18

And looked for a trail that hugged the mountainside…

19

This was more difficult than it sounds. There wasn’t actually a defined trail.  Well, maybe there was one 50 or 60 years ago, but I’d venture to guess this ‘trail’ hasn’t been use more than a handful of times recently.  It’s more of a goat trail, completely overgrown with tundra.  I took off my snowshoes here and didn’t need them until I made it back to this point.

20

Can you see the trail? Here’s a clue, go this way, under the rock and up the hillside

21

22

Eventually you’ll reach the ridge and turn left to ascend Taylor’s long ridge

23

I made it here just as the sun was beginning to rise. I got a nice view for a minute, but the sun quickly hid behind clouds for most of the rest of the morning

24

The rest of the route up Taylor Mountain A is a straightforward hike up the ridge.

25

I passed several neat mining sites on the way up

26

The terrain got increasingly rockier, but nothing too difficult.

27

I was actually hoping to make this hike a double summit and attempt Mt Aetna as well. However, I didn’t have any good beta on the ridge below Mt Aetna towards Taylor Mountain.  I knew it usually holds snow, but I’d been hoping the ridge was clear enough to trek without snow on part of the ridge.  Worried the snow would soften up too much for me to be able to climb Mt Aetna, I decided to check out the conditions there before summiting Taylor.  I headed left, to towards the Aetna/Taylor Saddle

28

29

I made it to the ridge, and even before walking all the way to the end became disappointed: the wind had held at a steady 20-25mph all morning, but on this ridge I kept getting knocked down.  The wind here was most likely well above 50mph, and while the route up to Mt Aetna looked to be in great climbing condition, I didn’t feel comfortable crossing the ridge in all this wind.  I wasn’t entirely sure I could do it before the sun warmed up the snow either.

30

So I turned around and looked at the path back to Taylor Mountain.

31

This didn’t look too difficult, and indeed, it wasn’t. A bit rocky, and a few of the rocks were loose, but they weren’t going to tumble down below me or cause a rockslide.  The most they could do is put me off balance.  I navigated the rocks along the ridge

32

Stopping in the middle to take a picture of the route through the avalanche area to the basin and up the ridge

33

I summited at 7am

34

Summit Video

Almost immediately the sun came out from behind a cloud, and I was pleased with my decision not to attempt a summit of Mt Aetna today, guessing I’d only be making it to the snow now as the sun rose.

35

I turned to head back down Taylor’s South Slope

36

Stopping for a little bit in the mining area to take some more photos

37

Here’s a picture of the ridge between Aetna and Taylor

38

I made it to the ridge, turned right, found the old miner’s trail, and followed it back down into the basin, humming as I hiked

39

I followed my earlier snowshoe tracks through the avalanche area, down through the trees, and back to the trail, where I was able to see remnants of old cabins in the daylight I hadn’t seen in the dark.

40

I made it back to my truck at around 10am, making this a 10 mile hike with 4017’ in elevation gain in just under 6.5 hours.

41

All in all, today was a fabulous day! Now to drive home and take my daughter to the movies before she heads off to camp for a week.

#79 – Cronin Peak 13,870’

1

RT Length – 11.5 miles

Elevation Gain – 4510’

Today became a ‘Surprise! You’re free to hike!’ day at the last minute, which I quickly took advantage of because I was unable to get out last weekend. Luckily the weather cooperated as well.  The 2WD road in to the Baldwin Gulch Trailhead was completely clear and dry all the way to the lower 2WD trailhead.

2

In the dark I could hear and kind of see Chalk Creek. It sounded like it was raging and looked dangerously close to reaching its banks in some areas.  I seriously wondered if it would start to overflow later in the day. I’ve driven up the 4WD #277 road before, and even if it was open I didn’t much want to drive it again, so I parked along the side of the road (in the dark not seeing the lot just before the trailhead) and got my gear ready.

3

I was on the trail just after 3am.

4

The #277 Baldwin 4WD road was worse than I remember it from 2017 and I was immediately glad I’d chosen to park at the 2WD area. The road was in full spring conditions, with a river of water running directly down the road.

5

After following the road for about 2 miles I came across avalanche debris blocking the way. It wasn’t too difficult to navigate around, even in the dark, but it looks like it’s going to be there for a while and vehicles can’t cross the area.

6

7

If you do decide to drive up the 4WD road there are 2 camping spots with parking for 1 car each before you get to the avy debris. The last spot is located at 10,530’.  It’s also the last place to turn around before the debris.  I’d just recommend parking at the bottom and hiking in though, as it’s an easy hike.

8

After the avy debris the water on the road really picked up. It seemed the creek was overflowing its banks here and I easily crossed through a couple inches of water for hundreds of feet

9

There was also evidence of moose in the area along the trail, but it didn’t look too recent. I made it to the first Baldwin Creek crossing while it was still dark.  I couldn’t see how deep the creek was, but my plan had initially been to rock hop across the creek on the boulders to the left.  I got about halfway across and had second thoughts:  the rocks were slippery and some were under quickly flowing water. I was going to have to jump to make the last few and would most likely end up in the creek in the process.  So I backtracked and thought about what to do.

10

I don’t feel safe crossing streams barefoot, and I hadn’t brought extra shoes/sandals/socks, so if I was going to ford the creek I was going to have to complete the rest of the hike in wet shoes with soggy socks. This did not sound appealing, and I knew soggy socks would turn into ice socks when I got further up in elevation.  I gave my summit a 50% chance of happening if I forded the creek but knew if I stopped now that number dropped to 0%.  I decided to go for it.  In the dark I studied the water and looked for the safest area to cross.  This ended up being close to the mouth of the creek.  I put my electronics in my pack, adjusted my trekking pole, and took a step in the water.  Woot!  My foot stayed dry!  The rocks were not as slippery as I’d imagined, but I was still careful and gingerly crossed the stream.  I took three more steps before my hiking shoes slowly started filling up with water.

11

I made it to the other side of the creek without incident. The only casualty was my wet feet.  I kept hearing squish-squish with each step I took.  This was not going to be enjoyable.  Oh well, on I went.

12

It wasn’t long before I came to the second creek crossing, and since my feet were already wet I didn’t hesitate and just walked through this one as well.

13

This is where the snow started. Since it was still early morning it was consolidated and I was able to walk on top of the snow.   As I continued up the trail I encountered more and more snow.

14

About a mile after the first Baldwin Creek crossing I turned right and entered the trees, aiming for where I mentally knew the willows area should be. I immediately sank up to my waist in snow, but I’m stubborn, so I had to sink about 10 more times in the next 10 more steps to break down and put on my snowshoes.  From then on out I didn’t posthole (much).  Oh, and my wet toes were beginning to freeze inside my wet socks.

15

I didn’t feel like I walked very far before I was in a clearing and could see the willows and the rest of the path before me. The sun was also starting to rise, which was nice.  Here’s the route I took, staying out of the trees and going straight up the gully

16

Luckily there was a small snow bridge over the creek in this area, so I didn’t need to get my feet wet again. I could hear the water rushing underneath, and asked myself if the snow bridge would still hold me this afternoon on my way back?

17

After crossing the stream I navigated around the trees, sticking to the left (southwest). As it rounded I turned west and followed the gully on consolidated snow.

18

There are a few options from this point to gain the ridge and summit Cronin. One is to take the north ridge, but the scree here didn’t look appealing.  Also, there were goats enjoying their breakfast and I didn’t want to disturb them (but it was mainly the scree that made the decision for me).

19

So I continued following the gully up and to the left (west)

20

I still had options for gaining the ridge, and decided the safest option was to kind of parallel the ridge as I gained elevation. Here’s the path I took to gain the ridge

21

My socks were now frozen. I could feel the ice between my toes, but surprisingly they weren’t cold.  I decided not to question it and kept going.  Gaining the ridge wasn’t difficult, but the snow was starting to soften up.

22

I gained the ridge close to the false summit, and could see the rest of the trail in front of me. There was just enough snow to walk on and goat tracks to follow.

23

From the false summit there’s a little bit of a downclimb and I’d been told it included some tricky footwork, but the snow obscured any difficulties. I postholed here once or twice up to my waist, even with snowshoes on.

24

The ridge was one long but squatty cornice. I stayed to the right on the snow and walked where the snow met the dirt.

25

On the final push to the summit the snow got increasingly softer but was still navigable.

26

I summited at 7am, and set up my camera with my new gorillapod (which isn’t at all what I’d expected: poor quality but gets the job done).

27

Summit Video:

(For some reason I said Casco, but I was on Cronin. Whoops!  Oh well… my fingers were too frozen to try a second time.)

Check out Antero

28

It was windy and my feet were now solid blocks of ice, so I didn’t stay long on the summit. I turned to look back at the way I’d come

29

Here’s the route I took back

30

The snow was warming up quickly so I got out my ice axe. It helped me through some quick sketchy sections

31

The most difficult part of the day was just beginning. This snow section here below the ridge was rapidly warming and became slippery.  I had to walk slowly to prevent slipping, yet wanted to make it down before the sun warmed up the snow even more.  I couldn’t believe how soft the snow was for 7:30am!

32

I made it to the top of the gully area, said hi to the goats, and breathed a sigh of relief: I hadn’t slipped once!

33

Here’s a look back at the route

34

And a look down the gully

35

I made it back to the willows, following the tracks I’d made on the way in. My feet had finally defrosted and I was squishing again.  From here I decided while I was hiking through the trees I would aim for the ridge directly in front of me

36

I made my way to the snow bridge and looked back at the mountain. Cronin looks better in daylight!

37

The snow bridge still held my weight

38

Once in the trees I walked northeast until I made it back to the road. I’d overshot my entry point by a few yards, but was pleased with my navigation skills. My toes had almost dried by the time I made it to the first creek crossing.  Both creek crossings were much easier in the light of day, and with the added bonus of previous experience I just walked across them both.  I followed the road back to my truck, taking pictures in the daylight of the fun I’d had in the morning, my feet squishing the entire way.  I made it back to my truck at 10am, making this an 11.5 mile hike with 4510’ in elevation gain in 7 hours.

39

Chalk Creek hadn’t overflowed its banks, but it was raging! Here’s a picture from further down the road

40

Bull Hill A – 13,761

1

RT Length: 7 miles

Elevation Gain: 3775’

I picked Bull Hill because I needed something easy for today so I could be home by noon to meet a friend. The weather forecast was perfect (no wind, 50s at the summit) and I was tired from Friday’s climb but didn’t want to waste a great opportunity to get out and hike.

This was my third attempt at Bull Hill this year. The first time I got turned around before making it to the trailhead due to unexpected heavy falling snow and a road closure.  The second time I had no problem making it to the trailhead, but even after a hard freeze I was postholing up to my waist and couldn’t find the trail.  I ended up turning around shortly after the creek crossing.  Today I learned what a great choice that had been!

The trailhead is easy to get to but difficult to find. It’s located at exactly 12.5 miles down the 82 from Granite.  Turn right and there’s a small parking lot that will hold 4 cars if you all play nice.

2

I started at 4am. From here walk about 10 yards and turn north on an unmarked trail.

3

This trail is super easy to follow, as it’s an old 4WD road. There’s quickly a stream to cross that gave me some pause in the dark.  I couldn’t tell how deep it was and it seemed to be flowing pretty fast.  I walked up and down a bit, looking for a better area to cross, but this was it.

4

I decided I was wasting too much time on this: I had on winter climbing boots, so I decided to just walk across the stream.  I started out the hike with wet feet but they quickly dried.  The trail followed the stream, and here was where the “fun” began

5

And by fun I mean postholing. This was by far the worst experience I’ve ever had postholing.  Every step I took on snow for about 2.5 miles I postholed.  Over and over and over again.  I knew this was a possibility going into this hike (it had happened to me last time, even with a hard freeze) and I just gritted my teeth and continued on, sinking to my knees with every step.  Yes, I was wearing snowshoes, which helped, but they weren’t needed 100% of the time.

6

They were needed just enough to make taking them off not worth it

7

I followed the ill defined (due to the snow) trail to a gully, and took switchbacks up the south ridge. The switchbacks seemed unnecessary.

OK, so postholing isn’t fun, and I was getting tired of it. I came to an unexpected avalanche (although this year they seem to be the norm) and considered what to do?

8

9

It looked like this area went straight up the slope, but I wasn’t entirely sure the path was safe, so I continued on for another few switchbacks, the snow getting deeper and the postholing getting more aggressive as I went.

10

I switchbacked over to the gully once again and took another look.

11

This time it looked like it went all the way to the mine, and the snow in the gully was very consolidated. It didn’t take me long to pick consolidated-snow-gully over postholing-switchbacks.  Yes, this was the way to go!  I turned to look back over my shoulder and thought this was a cool view of La Plata and Ellingwood Ridge

12

I took the gully until it met up again with the road below the mine. The road here was covered in snow, but not a lot of the surrounding terrain had snow.

13

I stopped for a bit at the mine to rest. My quads were killing me! That type of postholing had been the 4 letter word type of postholing.  I was not looking forward to a repeat of that on my way down.  After applying sunscreen (yes, I did get sunburned on Friday’s climb of Thunder Pyramid) I took a look at my next step:  To gain the ridge in front of me. I decided it was best to keep my snowshoes on and looked for a line that would get me to the ridge

14

There was just one rocky area to climb over

15

And by looking left I could see the rest of the route before me

16

This was by far the easiest part of the entire day. The slope was gentle and had enough snow for me to keep my snowshoes on.

17

The only downside was a false summit that took me by surprise, but it was close to the actual summit so I didn’t mind too much.

18

I summited at 7:45am

19

20

Summit Video:

I was amazed at how calm everything was! There wasn’t any wind, which was amazing.  This is the first summit this year I haven’t needed to wear snow clothes to hike, but where there was still a ton of snow!

21

I turned to head back down, making sure to stay right (the ridge to the left goes the wrong way and has a massive cornice, but they look similar, so stay right)

22

23

Halfway down the slope I made a new friend! Ptarmigans have great camouflage.

24

From the ridge here’s a look back down at the mine and the route I took back to the gully

25

There was a busy marmot running to and from its den

26

I decided to have a little fun at the Last Chance Mine, just because I could and I knew I had postholing to look forward to (ok, I was stalling)

27

28

Doesn’t it look like a lot of fun?

29

I again followed the snow covered road back to the gully

30

And hiked back down to where I’d entered the gully earlier

31

I briefly considered taking the gully all the way back down to the stream, but wasn’t sure if it went the entire way. I found out it didn’t, so if you plan on taking the gully instead of the switchbacks you need to wait until the last set (see map)

32

33

The postholing was actually a little better on the way down because I could re-step in my previously made postholes, which meant more stability. The creek crossing wasn’t too bad in the daylight.  My feet got wet again but I was close to my truck and warm socks so I didn’t mind.

34

I made it back to my truck at 9:30am, making this a 7 mile hike in 5.5 hours: I blame it on the excessive postholing and the Last Change Mine.  You should be able to complete this hike in much faster time.

35

Relive:

 

#78 “Thunder Pyramid” 13,932

1

RT Length: 11.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 4697’

I did a ton of research on this one, as I didn’t want to have to attempt it twice. I’d been watching the weather for the past few weeks for this peak, and now that the road was open into Maroon Bells I figured this would be my best chance of making this peak a snow climb this year. The night before the attempt I was re-reading previous conditions reports and someone mentioned they’d have liked to have had 2 ice picks for this peak.  This seemed curious to me, but if someone’s going to give honest advice I was going to take it.  The only problem:  It was 6pm and I didn’t have a second ice axe.  I gave it some thought, and a wild idea came into my head: I wonder if I could use a hammer?  Probably not the best idea, but maybe just bring it along just in case?  I went to the garage to find a hammer and found a very cheap adze hoe I’d bought at the dollar store last year.  It had three prongs, was very lightweight, and I thought this looked even better than a hammer!  I had no intention of relying on this as my only source of stability (I brought along my ice axe) but I thought I’d have it “just in case”.  I got out some paracord and made a quick leash for it and attached a carabineer to it and put it in my pack, never intending to actually use it.

When I made it to the trailhead there were two other vehicles in the lot. I got my gear together and as I was ready to go I noticed a young man getting his gear ready, so I went over to talk with him  to see which peak he was climbing.  He was a bit surly (which I attributed to it being 2:30am) and he told me he and his friends were going to snowboard down Pyramid.  I wished them luck, put on my helmet (so I wouldn’t forget to later) and was on my way.

I was surprised to find they’ve recently roped off Maroon Lake (on my way out I saw dozens of people step over the rope for pictures, so unless they have personnel there monitoring visitors I don’t think the ropes are going to make much of a difference).

2

The trail was dry until I hit 9950’, about half a mile before Crater Lake. Luckily the snow was firm so I didn’t need to put on my snowshoes. Crater Lake was covered in recent avalanche debris, but even in the dark it was easy to navigate through.

3

After Crater Lake the trail pretty much stopped: it didn’t look like anyone had been out hiking past Crater Lake yet this season. There was a thick layer of snow and what seemed like avalanches everywhere the trail was supposed to be, so I just worked my way through the willows and followed Maroon Creek as best I could.  I postholed a bit in the camping area, but otherwise the snow was firm.  It was about here I turned around and saw someone’s headlamp in the dark.  It looked like someone as hiking North Maroon Peak this morning, and making good time.  Cool!

I never saw the creek crossing as it was covered in snow, and in the dark I accidentally went too far and had to backtrack. When I made it back to the correct spot to ascend the first access gully I noticed an avalanche had occurred here as well.  The good news is it makes it easier to see your entire route.  Here’s the route I took up the first access gully.

4

This was much steeper than it looked. At the base I put on my crampons and looked for a good route.  Boy, was that steep!  The snow was consolidated enough to need crampons, but the slope angle was so steep I couldn’t just walk up it either:  I needed to kick in steps.  I decided to take out that adze I’d brought with me and try it out. Kicking in steps was difficult because the snow was so hard.  I’d kick about 15 times for each step.

5

However, the adze was amazing! In fact, I liked it better than my ice pick.  It wasn’t practical for self arresting, but those 3 prongs were great for traction!  I had the adze in my left hand, and once in the snow it felt more secure than my right hand did holding my ice axe.  Wow!

6

It’s really important to pick your line from the base of the mountain because once you’re climbing the terrain is very steep and it’s hard to tell where the actual summit is. This is the route I took.

7

From the top of the first access gully I needed to ascend a band of cliffs. This is the route I chose to take

8

After the cliff bands there’s over 1500’ of gully to climb. This sounds straightforward enough, but the route was really, really steep. Added to that there were unavoidable frozen roller balls and avy debris littering the whole route.

9

It wasn’t lost on me I was climbing up a slide area, but the entire mountain was a slide area. The debris on the mountain was actually helpful while upclimbing because it gave my feet stability (most of the time, when it wasn’t sliding out from underneath me). I knew I was climbing on a ticking time bomb: as soon as the sun warmed up the mountainside all this debris would become slush and slide (hopefully after I’d made it down).  I tried to decide if it was safer to hike down the slide areas or on the firm snow on steeper terrain that looked like it was about to slide.  I wasn’t sure?

Progress was very slow going. If I were to lose my balance and fall self arrest would be difficult at this angle, and I was going to slide a long, long way if that happened.  So I couldn’t fall.  I made sure each step was secure, having at least 3 points of contact at all times.  This entire stretch required kicking in steps, often times on terrain that fought against me.  Did I mention the adze?  It was amazing!!!  I didn’t care how silly I looked, I was so glad I’d chosen to bring it along.

I was in a race against the sun, and kept reevaluating my current situation. The snow was firm and I was making good (if slow) progress, but I told myself to stay out of harm’s way I needed to make it to the top of the gully before the sun crested the saddle.  If the sun made it before me, I was going to have to turn back for safety reasons.

Most of the trip reports I’d read said to take the right gully, but that wasn’t an option for me as the safer terrain today was to the left. I topped out of the gully at a small saddle between Point 13,820 and Thunder Pyramid.  Here I stopped to catch my breath.  I’d done it!  I’d beaten the sun!  Woot!  It was now a quick 300’ or so climb to the summit.  But was that really the summit?  I took out my phone and pulled up Peakbagger.  Yep, that was it:  I needed to go right.  I put my phone away, took off my crampons for the climb, crossed the saddle and sank up to my arms in soft snow.

10

Drat! I seriously had to hurry!  The sun was going to warm up the mountainside fast. Here’s the rest of the route

11

Whoops, my camera was still covered in snow from that unexpected dip. Here’s a better picture of the route I took

12

It looks steeper than it is. I’ve heard this is class 4-5, but I was able to keep it at class 3-4.

13

14

I made it to the top, took a quick selfie (my gorillapod is still broken: another’s on its way so hopefully this DSLR-selfie thing can stop soon)

15

And booked it back to the saddle. Pyramid is looking wonderful this morning

16

As are the bells

17

The sun was heating things up fast but Thunder Pyramid was still (mostly) in shadows

18

19

I put my crampons back on, grabbed my ‘tools’, and began descending. I descended a little more to the right than I’d summited, with the intention of climbing the smooth snow instead of the avy debris (which I was worried would fall). Solid line is how I summited, dotted line is how I descended.  Neither was better than the other.

20

I had to turn and face the mountain the entire way down, and wouldn’t you know it? Slick as snot. This side was no better, and probably worse.

21

22

If anything, there seemed to be more avy debris here, none of it stable.

23

24

I tried to avoid the areas that had recently slid because they were very, very slick. I was also happy to see some of my kicked in steps on the way back down!

25

Evidence of wet slab avalanche

26

Downclimbing was just as hard as climbing up, with the added anxiety of making it down (safely) before things started to slide. I made it to the top of the cliff bands and was finally able to turn around and walk down

27

The snow was seriously starting to soften up fast. I kept increasing my speed until I made it to the cairn at the top of the first access gully.  Here was where I could finally breathe a sigh of relief:  I was out of the danger zone!  I figured it was time for some self care:  I reapplied sunscreen (knowing on my way down I’d already done some damage), took off my gloves (it was warm here!), exchanged my crampons for snowshoes, and looked back at the route I’d taken down the cliffs.

28

I also took a picture of my ‘tools’. I was so thankful for the conditions report that suggested I bring 2 ice axes!  The adze wasn’t an ice axe but it had proven extremely useful.  I was glad to have had it with me.

29

Just as I took this picture I heard a loud pop and then a crash that sounded like thunder. It startled me at first, until I realized one of the waterfalls had warmed up and dropped a bunch of ice down its chute.  Then I heard it again, and again, and again.  The entire basin had warmed up at the same time and was filled with icefall.  I’d made it down in perfect time!  Woot!  I sat there and waited for the crashes to stop, just enjoying the experience while I was there.

But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I’d thought I could descend via the avalanche area and skip going back down that steep access gully, but when I made it to the avalanche area it cliffed out

30

Ugh! I had to backtrack up to the cairn and get out my tools one more time.  The snow was very soft at this point, and I should have just glissaded down the access gully, but I didn’t want to take off my snowshoes (etc) so I turned and faced the cliff and descended in rapidly softening snow.

31

After heading down I turned right (instead of left, the way I’d initially made my way in the dark) and was able to safely descend via the avalanche area. This will probably be the new route

32

33

Here’s looking back on the route

34

And now to head back down the basin to Maroon Lake.

35

The willows were much easier to navigate in the daylight, but unfortunately I was postholing in the snow. There was avy debris hugging the base of the mountains, so I tried to stick to the creek as much as possible.

36

Maroon Creek is beginning to thaw

37

And the avalanche area covering Crater Lake didn’t look so intimidating in the daylight

38

Oh, and you haven’t experienced spring snowshoeing in Colorado until you’ve snowshoed over avy debris. There’s no other experience like getting a pine branch stuck in your snowshoe.  And don’t bother removing it:  another one will take its place with your next step.

39

It was really nice to hear all the birds chirping on my way out. After Crater Lake the crowds picked up and so did the slush.  I was very thankful to have my snowshoes.  Every tourist I passed commented on how ‘smart’ I’d been to bring them.  Ha!

40

41

The last part of the trail was over a path with just enough rocks to slow you down, but at least it was snow free.

42

I started at 2:30am and made it back down at 1:30pm, making this an 11.5 mile hike/climb in 11 hours.

43

Disclaimer: I’m NOT advocating the use of garden tools in place of proper mountaineering equipment.  There are tons of reasons why this was a bad idea, but in the end it worked out well.  The next day I went to REI to buy a second tool.  I asked an employee for help, and she couldn’t recommend anything to me at the moment (apparently ice climbing gear isn’t in season in June).  The only thing she could recommend was a second ice axe, exactly like the one I currently have (which I thought was overkill, too much weight, etc.).  So I’m currently in the market for an ice pick for my left hand and keeping the adze in my pack until that happens.  Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Track:

Thunde6Thunder 8

Mt Belford 14,197 via Missouri Gulch and Elkhead pass

1

RT Length: 9.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 4536’

I’ve been eyeing Emerald Peak for a while now, doing research and looking at feasibility for summiting this time of year with the heavier than normal snowpack. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find much information (ok, any) for summiting with snow.  I did see a report from June of one year saying Elkhead Pass wasn’t passable, but it didn’t explain why it wasn’t passable.

I looked at a topo map and studied the slope angle of Elkhead Pass:  it didn’t look that steep.  I know a lack of reports for peaks over specific months usually means there’s a reason no one has summited during that time of year, but I wanted specifics.  I decided to be the beta and go out and see just why Elkhead Pass isn’t passable in winter.  And hey, maybe it was?  Maybe it was passable with more snow?

The drive in to Missouri Gulch was easy on a well maintained 2WD road.

2

I arrived at 2:45am, surprised to be the only vehicle in the parking lot. Hmmm… this is a pretty popular 14er trailhead.  This didn’t make much sense, especially for a Sunday.   Maybe I was just the early bird. (Nope, my truck was still the only one in the parking lot when I got back?)

3

The trail starts at the south end of the parking lot. You go left at the signs, cross a bridge and turn left to follow the class 1 trail up the mountain.

4

There’s immediate elevation gain that doesn’t quit. I rather enjoy this hike (this was my third time here). It’s always a little creepy hiking in the dark past the baby grave though.  The worst part is I know it’s there, but never actually see it in the dark because it’s just a little ways off the road.  So I know I’m passing it somewhere, but never actually know if I’ve passed it or not. (Anyone ever figure out why it’s so far away from the other graves?)

5

The trail conditions varied from bare to a couple feet of snow, but there’d been two hard freezes the past couple of nights so I didn’t need traction.

6

About half a mile before the cabin I came to the avalanche area. There was an avalanche here a few weeks ago, but I’d heard it was passable.  It was, even in the dark.  The beginning required a little creativity, but once I was in the avalanche area there was a clear path to follow that had been made by other hikers.

7

If it doesn’t snow again I’m pretty sure this will be the new route.

8

This new route picks up with the old one just before the cabin. Here the snow picked up as well and I put on my snowshoes.  There was a full moon this morning, which really made the gulch come alive.

9

I followed the basin on my own path as the trail was covered in snow (at least most of the time). I made it to the junction for Elkhead Pass and Missouri Mountain and turned left (east).

10

I started hearing and seeing ptarmigans as the sun began to rise (here’s looking back at the way I’d hiked in)

11

I followed the basin to Elkhead Pass, which was surprisingly easy: I’d expected more of a challenge.

12

At this point I was beginning to think I was actually going to summit Emerald today. I took a closer look at the Missouri Basin (not the gulch, which I had just come from) and planned out my intended route.  I was trying to decide if I should head over to Iowa or Emerald first, but from this distance I couldn’t tell what the snow conditions were on the ground, so I decided I’d decide when I got there.

13

I started heading down Elkhead pass and immediately turned around. Snowshoes weren’t going to do it: this was steeper than it looked!  Ok, crampons on, time to try again.  I could see where I needed to go, but I just couldn’t get there.  The pass was a sieve for wind:  Intense wind that didn’t often let up.  On top of that the ground was slick like a frozen waterfall (probably due to warming during the day and freezing at night) but the ice was covered in about 3 inches of soft snow deposited by the wind.  It made for an awkward small-cornice-like structure that seemed to extend all the way down the pass.  And the drop down was serious!  This picture shows the easy part of the decent (camera was put away for the more difficult parts, sorry!)

14

I made it past the ice covered rocks to the snow covered ice and retreated up, back the way I’d come.

15

At the top of the pass I once again tried to look for an easier way down, but the snow blanketed everything and I couldn’t tell where the icy-snow pass ended and the basin-snow began. I also couldn’t truly get a feel for how steep anything was just by looking.  I tried again, made it about 30 feet down, and once again felt unsafe as I couldn’t get a good hold with my crampons.  A big gust of wind picked up and I hugged the side of the pass for a good minute or so waiting for it to stop, and then I used my ice axe to climb back to the top of the pass.  Seriously, it didn’t look this steep on the topo map!  I made it to the red circle twice.

16 Elkhead Pass

This was frustrating. Climbing up was no problem at all (I’d done it twice already), but the down climb wasn’t happening.  I felt confident someone could make it over this pass; someone with more skills than I or maybe a backcountry skier (it looked skiable, but I don’t backcountry ski, so I’m not sure).  Today I was not going to make it over this pass.  The problem here was, due to the wind, there wasn’t enough snow, just ice.  In fact, I didn’t like the look of it at all, and will most likely attempt Emerald next time from the Rockdale Trailhead.  At this point, I’d rather do Little Bear again than Elkhead Pass (seriously, summer or winter, I felt safer on Little Bear, and that’s saying something!).

Enough complaining. I was here, what did I do now?  I’d taken a good look at Missouri Mountain on my way in, and that was a big nope.  I turned around and immediately decided to hike up Belford from where I was.

17

No, I didn’t have a route description or instructions, but I’d summited Belford before and knew it was just… well, right there. It looked very doable, so I decided to go for it.  Here’s the route I took:

I kept heading east to the top of the ridge (the wind wasn’t stopping)

18

19

And then followed the ridge north towards the summit of Belford

20

I turned and looked back on Elkhead Pass: It really didn’t look that difficult, did it?  (Sigh)

21

The ridge had areas of deep snow that I much prefer to icy rocks, so I put on my snowshoes and headed north

Halfway along the ridge I paused to take a look at Oxford.

24

It looked like fun, but there was a storm coming in and I didn’t want to get stuck in it all the way over there, so I waved and kept heading towards the summit of Belford.

25

I was a little worried about the last bit of climbing, but once I was there it wasn’t so bad

26

I summited to amazing views and intense (intense!) wind

27

The wind was so intense it kept knocking my camera over, so I took a selfie instead (with my DSLR)

Belford 2

I love how this mountain has a summit marker!

29

OK, time to head back and make this a loop. The only downside was I hadn’t hiked up the north slopes and I’d passed them in the dark, so I wasn’t sure of their current conditions.   I thought to myself I could always turn back and descend the way I’d hiked in if I needed to.  I paused and tried to remember which way was down?  I knew there was a huge gully I wanted to avoid… I was pretty sure this way was the correct way down?

30

I headed that way and found a cairn (woot!) and what might have been a trail.  I turned around and looked at the way I’d come

31

And now I was headed down…

32

This was actually trickier than it sounds. While I couldn’t much get lost here, the rocks were very unstable, as were much of the large areas of snow.  I did not feel secure on any of the snow on the way down:  it all felt ready to fall.  The wind didn’t help either.

33

After about 300 feet the steepness mellowed out and it was a rocky walk down the ridge, avoiding the gully and slipping on the very loose rocks every 20 feet or so (I have a bruise on my bum to prove it)

34

There were also long sections of snow (I kept putting on and taking off my snowshoes). Here’s looking back up at the way I came down

35

Back in the gulch I knew there wasn’t a trail, so I stayed high on the snow and made a beeline for the cabin

36

Here’s the route I’d taken earlier in the morning from the gulch to Elkhead Pass.

37

Just past the cabin I was able to see in the light of day what the avalanche had done. It hadn’t been a big avalanche, yet it had altered the route of the trail.  Here’s the way back to the trail

38

The rest of the hike down I thought about what had happened today. I was a bit bummed about Emerald, but had only given that a 25% chance of success to begin with so it wasn’t the end of the world.  Time to start researching alternate routes (I know there are a couple).  I was excited to discover you can summit Belford from Elkhead pass.  In fact, I thought it was a much easier route than the north slopes.  If I were to summit Belford again I’d absolutely chose to take Elkhead Pass, as it makes the elevation gain easier.

I made it back down to my truck at 10am, making this a 9.5 mile hike (it felt like more) with 4536’ in elevation gain (it felt like less) in about 7 hours (much of that time spent trying to navigate the pass).

Here’s the Relive

39

40

41

Avy Concerns

1

This winter summiting has been a challenge. I feel I’ve had to turn back more than I ever have, maybe more than all the other times I’ve been hiking combined.  It hurts to turn back.  It’s a pain that’s both mental and physical, and a decision I don’t make lightly.  Or often.

Today’s trip was doomed from the start: I’d only had 2 hours of sleep, I didn’t much care to eat breakfast, and I was both emotionally and physically exhausted from a week of little sleep and lots of problem solving.  I decided to head out anyway because when it comes to winter hiking I still don’t know what I don’t know and I need to be on the ground experiencing the conditions as often as possible so I can learn and fail fast for future summiting success.

On the drive in I noticed there had been an avalanche recently that had caused quite a bit of damage. Avy danger is serious and real this year people!

2

There was no parking at the trailhead because it was covered in snow, so I continued driving and found a turnout about three tenths of a mile away and considered this close enough. Since this is near a winter road closure I didn’t see another vehicle the entire morning.  I set out and hiked in the middle of the road back to the trailhead and immediately put on my snowshoes.

The snow here was deep. I’d say about 6 feet or so.  My instructions said to follow a service road, and luckily I could tell where it was.   I could also tell no one had been on this trail in quite a while.  I’m guessing it’s been months.

3

And then suddenly I couldn’t find the road, or a trail, or signs of either. I knew I was supposed to follow the stream, but here the snow really started to pile up and falling into the stream became a genuine danger.  In places the snow was about 10 feet deep and very soft.  It was still dark as I was postholing up to my waist at 5:30am and all I could think was how messy this hike would be on my way out.  It wasn’t going to be pretty.  As I trekked further into Echo Canyon the snow got thicker and any sign of a trail was nonexistent.

I made it about a mile into the canyon and as the sun started to rise I noticed I was in an area very similar to the one I’d see avalanche about half a mile away: The slope was the same, the angle was the same, and it was loaded with snow. That did it.  I decided to turn back.  I didn’t like the wet slab conditions, avalanche danger, or intense early morning postholing I’d encountered.

I was bummed, but considered this the right call. And then it hit me:  I was about 5 miles away from La Plata!  I knew that trail very well:  I’d just make it back to my truck, drive to the La Plata trailhead, and hike until I felt like turning back.  I knew at this point a summit wasn’t going to happen today, no matter where I hiked, but at least I could get in some elevation gain, right?

OK, on to plan B. There weren’t any other vehicles in the La Plata parking lot, despite it now being 6:30am.  It looked like it was going to be a quiet day on the mountain for me.

4

5

I started along the closed 2WD road and saw the utility truck that was there back in January is still in its same place, accompanied by more snow.

6

There was a ton of snow on the trail but there was a well packed trench through the trees

7

I followed the trench over the creek

8

And continued up the slope, intending to make it to treeline and then turn back. Maybe I’d get a good look at the headwall to see how much snow it had?  I was in a bit of a sour mood because I knew there was no way I was getting in a summit today.  I wasn’t too fond of the conditions on this side of the mountain either:  there was a ton of snow and none of it looked too stable. However, I also knew it wasn’t in a prior avalanche path.  Still… crispy snow on steep slopes isn’t a good thing.

I was tired, I was hungry, I was lethargic, and now I was hearing voices coming from above me on the trail. I stopped, making sure I wasn’t hallucinating.  There hadn’t been any other vehicles in the parking lot, but I was definitely hearing man and woman talking to each other from above me on the slope.  Maybe they’d parked somewhere else and skinned up?  In any event, with the snow conditions the way they were I did not want to hike below other people for fear of them starting an avalanche above me.  I immediately turned around and headed back to my truck.

This day had gone from disappointing to worse. So I tried to keep my mind positive:  What had I learned today?  How had today been worth getting up at 2am, driving for 3 hours, and turning around twice within the span of the next 2 hours?

Well, I saw firsthand the powerful force that is an avalanche. The snow had destroyed trees that were 3 feet around, breaking them like matchsticks.  I needed the reminder avalanche danger is no joke.  I also learned that just because a trailhead is accessible doesn’t mean the trail is climbable.  Another lesson learned:  I need more sleep before attempting a hike, and even though I’m not hungry in the morning, I need to force myself to eat before hitting the trail:  Low blood sugar makes me grumpy.

On the way out I took some pictures of the stream and just enjoyed being out in nature without being cold.

9

I made it back to my car around 8am and looked at my tracker: 4.81 miles and 1514’ in elevation gain.  Boy, was that disappointing!  I decided to call it a day, drive back home, and get some sleep.