The Rockies: Mt. Elbert, The Tallest Mountain in Colorado…My First 14er of the Season

What a lucky ten days I’ve had, starting with a random act of kindness when a gentleman approached me on the sidewalk near my drive way and asked for a few minutes of my time to give me a DVD of a movie, to the rain gods blessing our girls trip to Mt. Elbert providing the best two days of weather we’ve had in the mountains for the last two months, to stopping off at West Side Books (as they carry my photographic notecards) on my way home to pick up a small gift only to get a book for free! I’m not usually a horoscope reader, but with all this luck I read my June/July horoscope by Susan Miller after the fact, and she was right on!

This is the sixth year, our fearless leader Karla, has organized a sojourn to climb a 14er. It began as a celebration for her 40th birthday, though she hasn’t reached the tender age of 46 yet. Last year was my first year to participate, and as soon as the date was scheduled, I was signed up again this year. As always, the trip includes repeater hikers and new faces. The only restriction is, “women only.”

This year the trip included first timers; flat-landers from Kansas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania; and seasoned veterans from Denver. About twelve of the 28 girls, the largest group yet, planned to meet in Leadville for lunch at High Mountain Pies. Most of the drive to Leadville was through a sprinkle, a drizzle, or a solid shower, as our wipers cleared the rain and road water away from the windshield.

The restaurant was tiny with only a few tables for indoor seating, though the fenced in backyard was enormous. With the sky overcast, the tables soaked in rainwater, and the temperature a cool 50 degrees, for a few minutes we debated whether we should find another lunch spot, but the pizza smelled divine and the bathroom called our names, thus we ordered.
It turned out to be a good decision to stay.

The staff quickly squeegeed the outdoor tables and soon thereafter the sun poked through the clouds! To top it off, the pizza was superb. No sooner did we finish lunch, did it start to sprinkle. The mountains, covered in dark clouds, looked even worse. As such, we made an executive decision to stroll around town instead of looking for and setting up camp in a deluge. After browsing though an antique shop and a second hand store that had some useful winter gear for a few of our flat-landers, we warmed up over a cup of coffee as the skies cleared.

The mountains came into view, so we caravanned to the Mt. Elbert – Northeast Ridge Trailhead located five miles down a relatively decent dirt road lined with several campsites leading to Halfmoon Creek. Karla always likes to know where the trailhead is before we search for a campsite. Jess and Nilou left us at the trailhead parking lot, while they scoped out a campsite. They returned in record time with a great spot just a ¼ of a mile down the way. They promptly claimed, “The site found us. It was the only one available.”

It was a great site for us, as with 28 girls, we probably had 15 cars, and we were located across from the overflow parking area for the Mt. Elbert Trailhead. While “No Camping” was allowed at the trailhead, no signs were posted at the overflow area; therefore, we essentially had two spots next to each, of course one was much more picturesque than the other. While there were many amazing things about camp, the best may have been that it had stopped raining! Some girls pitched their tents beneath trees, while others prepared to sleep in their cars. We wandered around enjoying the creek that gurgled along-side our awesome site. With a lot of patience, brown paper bags, and pine needles, we finally got the wet wood to burn into a toasty campfire.

Soon the rest of the group trickled into the San Isabel Forest. Karla prepared an excellent carb-load dinner – cold pasta with shredded chicken, cabbage, snap peas and asian dressing. We formed a circle in our camp chairs around the fire, each us taking turns explaining how we ended up on this amazing adventure!

4:30 a.m. arrived early, though I don’t many ladies slept well. It was a cold night camped at 10,000 feet. Our packs were stuffed with rain gear, cliff bars, sandwiches, chips, fruits, dessert, water, and Andrea even brought a flask of whiskey to celebrate summitting the highest mountain in Colorado at 14,433 feet. The Mt. Elbert – Northeast Ridge Trail is rated Class 1 (the easiest), begins at 10,040 feet, and gains 4,700 feet (because it goes up and down) to finally end at the top of the second highest peak in the 48 contiguous states. The roundtrip hike is nine miles.

We started on our 9 miles around 5:15, a few minutes later than planned, though relatively timely given we were rounding up 28 girls…that’s sort of like herding cats. Dressed in multiple layers, ski caps, and gloves, we donned our headlamps, and ventured up the trail in the dark.

The rocky path ascended immediately and veered to left at the Colorado Trail Junction. We individually crossed a make shift bridge across the shallow creek and continued up the trail through the lodge pole pine forest as the orange glow of the sunrise glimmered above the low lying clouds and behind the mountain range.

We followed the switch backs until we reached a flat portion of the trail surrounded by a green ground covering and pine forest to which I commented to Tanya, “I’m really enjoying this part, but that only means we’ll have to gain all the elevation over a shorter distance.” This comment will come into play later.

We hiked for about 2.3 miles through the forest up wood and rock steps before we finally reached the tree line. This steep section stretched out the group as some of the flatlanders struggled with altitude sickness despite acclimating for a week and the super fit zoomed toward the top without a picture while the rest of us filled out the middle. Upon leaving the trees, we enjoyed a magnificent view of the cloud filled valley with the sun gleaming overhead. The fallen trees that lined the trail were blanketed in frost. A twisted one looked like a brown and white candy cane.

After several photos, we followed the path as it zig-zagged through the tundra. With all the rain, I was expecting to see a bunch of wildflowers as they have been magnificent this year, and we saw tons last year on Mt. Yale. Unfortunately, the flowers were lackluster.

Slowly, the tundra turned to rocks and the path began steepening again. Marmots sunned on the piles of stones as pikas chirped and scampered beneath them through their tunnels. It took forever to finally find one. One with calico markings poked its head out of its hole right by the trail that followed the ridge in a very steep section up to the first false summit. By this time, I had stuffed my good camera, with my heavy lens into my backpack, so it wouldn’t be smacking into the rocks as I leaned forward and lumbered up almost vertical trail.

I have to say, the trail was extremely well maintained and for the most part was smooth. We finished one steep portion in order to earn a 30 foot flat segment and geared up for the next steep section. Is there another word for steep? I can’t imagine the grade. A few times a felt like I was going to fall backwards. My feet slid. Occasionally I stepped sideways or backwards to keep my balance, though admittedly, there wasn’t any loose shale which was nice! I think my problem was the lack of soccer. Having quit in January and not supplemented my exercise with any other kind of cardio, my lungs and legs were challenged, but for the first time ever, I started out hiking a 14er without a headache, so I had that on my side, though I felt one coming…it was only a matter of time.

With the sharp incline, this part of the path was a doozy and we spread out even more. Tina zipped past us. Tanya and I hiked together. Others lagged behind. We could see the next false summit. I wondered out loud, “How many false summits are there?” as I heard the girls saying there were many. This false summit was the one we could see for much of the hike, and it turned out to really be the only one. The last one hundred feet to the rock pile cairn, I walked at a snail’s pace…that’s what my headache, the thin air, and legs whose muscles didn’t feel like they wanted to flex did to me. I turned to Tanya, “Am I going too slow for you?” “A little,” she responds as she passes me. She nicely waited for me, as once we reached this flat area, we could see all those who had summitted and we only had a short distance to cover. We could summit together in a few minutes!

That sight was the most encouraging sight of the day. With an added zip in my step, we topped the mountain 4 hours and 15 minutes after we started! We joined four other girls from our group that had been resting on the far side of the summit for the last 30 minutes and Tina that had reached the peak a few minutes before us. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to sit on the highest point in Colorado and not freeze to death. Oh what a glorious day…clear skies and no breeze!! The panorama offered views of Twin Lakes as the low clouds has dissipated, all the 14ers that were below us, and more. We snacked, snapped photos, napped, and celebrated each time more girls joined us.

Of course, everyone up there congratulates everyone else. There isn’t a stranger on a mountain summit. Posters are passed around to use in photos. The log book is signed by all. Climbers search for the survey marker. It’s exciting no matter what, but it’s more exciting when a couple from the group gets engaged! Congratulations Sarah and Joyce!! They overslept an hour, so we weren’t up there to see the proposal (shucks), but what a perfect day for them!

The first group of girls descended after an hour on the summit. Tanya and I spent almost 1.5 hours soaking in the sun before we started down. Cindy and another Sarah joined us. We encouraged the girls still ascending as we were slowly picking our way down the trail. My bladder really wished I had the ability to hike down a trail quickly. Much to its dismay, I go almost as slowly down the mountain as I do up and the tree line was a terribly long distance away!

On our descent, we found two of the Kansas girls at the first “false summit” enjoying their lunch. They said, “We’re starving”. I bet, I thought. I had to eat goldfish as I exited the tree line and half of my peanut butter sandwich just as I was beginning the last steep ascent and that was hours earlier. It’s amazing how many calories are burned just on a hike. It’s also amazing how much a body physiologically changes due to altitude or relative lack of oxygen. Those of us that live in Denver have the advantage of extra red blood cells.

IMG_5585-1 kansas

We finally made it to the tree line which surely seemed like forever. Cindy and Tanya waited on me while Sarah went on to the campground. With the sun blazing overhead, though just about to enter the shade of the forest, we debated whether to shed some more layers. We did. Tanya also changed her shoes while I shortened my pants to crop length…both good choices.

We entered the forest, descended the stone steps, eventually made it to the smooth, flat trail, descended the wooden steps and finally made it to the split in the trail with the Mt. Elbert sign. Whew…only a mile to go! Thank goodness, as I had just sucked dry my camelback. The last mile seemed like forever though I think it’s because we didn’t remember what we hiked in the dark very well. Soon we crossed the creek, stopped at the restrooms at the trailhead, and headed back to camp. We had finished climbing Colorado’s highest mountain in just around 7 hours after having spent at least 1.5 hours piddling around enjoying one of the best summer days I’ve ever had on a 14er.

We chilled at the campground while we waited on everyone to finish up. Twenty-six of the twenty-eight summitted…not too shabby. Our day and night wasn’t complete yet. One of the reasons Karla picks a 14er in the Collegiate Peak range is because it is near Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. We checked into our three cabins and most of the girls enjoyed the warm spring pools. I was probably one of the few, if not the only one that stayed at the cabins but didn’t go to the hot springs. They just aren’t my thing, and my headache seemed to come and go all night…on for an hour, off for an hour, but amazingly I felt better than I normally do, though I guess that’s not saying much. As I said to Karla, “I’m not sure why I torture myself.” And she replied, “It’s that 14er bug.”

She’s right. There are so many feelings that go along with climbing a 14er. The mind over matter comes into play. It’s a competition with yourself. There’s sense of accomplishment. Of course there is all the nature and beauty the earth has to offer. Then there is the sense of camaraderie. Many of us don’t know each other at the beginning of the trip, but we are all rooting for each other to make it to the top. And as I mentioned before, there isn’t a stranger on the summit…human kindness at its finest form shines like the sun. It’s just a good competitive accomplishment.

So after the hot springs, everyone retired to their respective cabins, ate dinner and played games. Ours included bacon and cheese brats with pasta salad, grilled veggies, cous cous and more. We capped off dinner with Cards Against Humanity. I turned in early along with four others. Since I had the couch, those who wanted to stay up past ten went to another cabin. I didn’t hear about any end of the night festivities as I left early to say “hi” to my brother and sister-in-law at Estabrook and to prepare for my sleep study. I’m certain the girls went back to the hot springs this morning, and my guess is Tina taught a yoga class to stretch some of those kinks out of our bodies. I’m so thankful Karla organizes this trip, as I know it is a pain, and I can’t wait for Mt. Massive next year!!! ETB


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The Rockies: My First “Fourteener” – Mt. Yale

Colorado is home to fifty-eight peaks that rise higher than 14,000 feet; however, only fifty-three qualify as an “official” fourteener under the Colorado Summit Criterion.  To be ranked the 14,000 foot peak must have a prominence of 300 feet.  The summit’s prominence is its rise above the highest saddle connecting the summit to higher ground.

Prior to the Colorado Summit Criterion being introduced, most 14er lists included 54 peaks…counting El Diente and North Maroon Peaks while excluding Challenger Point which wasn’t named until 1987.  The 55 peak 14er list includes Challenger Point and the 58 14er list includes Mount Cameron, Conundrum Peak, and North Eolus.

Just as the number of 14,000 peaks seem to be slightly controversial in Colorado, how to “bag a peak” is also controversial.  The Colorado rule requires the climber to ascend at minimum 3,000 feet.  The climber may traverse between peaks and the climber must descend 3,000 feet.  Driving are car part way up and only climbing a few hundred feet or 1,000 feet doesn’t count!  Some purists don’t even think traversing between peaks count.

Fourteeners are ranked by difficulty as well…from Class 1 to Class 5, easy hiking to technical climbing.  Most fall in Class 2…more difficult hiking, some off trail that may require placing hands on the ground for balance.

Mt. Yale, 14,196 ft and 21st highest, is part of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the Sawatch Range of the Colorado Rockies.  Mt. Yale was named by Josiah Whitney in 1869 when he led a team of six graduate students from the Harvard School of Mines in surveying the area.  Mt. Yale was the first of the Collegiate Peaks named and was named  for his Alma Mater from which he graduated 30 years prior.

There are two routes, both rated class 2, to take up to the summit of Mt. Yale.  Our group of 24 ladies opted to follow the standard route via the Denny Creek Trailhead.  As such, on Friday, we found a campsite a mile or so up the road and prepared for an early morning departure.  While I would like to say we had a nice dinner around a campfire, there was a burn ban in place, so we had nice dinner by the creek at an awesome campsite.

What an awesome group of girls!  My connection was through book club that my neighbor Polly introduced me to this past winter.  Four girls from book club joined the trip and one of them, Karla was the incredible organizer.  Between neighbors, friends, families, and a few degrees of separation…we had group of mentally strong, physically fit girls bonding for the first time or continuing their lasting friendships.  This was the fifth year for the annual trip, and I am so glad I got to be a part of it.  I can’t wait for next year.

To make things easy, everyone was assigned different meal duties…Friday dinner, Saturday appetizers, Saturday dinner, and Sunday breakfast.  Our dinner at camp was gourmet…a lentil salad, a pasta salad, pulled chicken, green salad, a variety of dips, homemade brownies…there was no shortage of food!  After sharing stories over dinner, we turned in…either into our tents or our cars, depending on how we wanted to camp.

Our morning started around 3:45am.  We went through our checklists…layers, first aid kit, lots of water, hat, gloves, chapstick, headlamp, snacks, camera, cell phone, and lunch for the summit.  We piled into a few cars, arrived at the trailhead around 4:15, posed for a some pictures, and started our trek in the dark at 4:30am.

The path was rocky and steep from the start!  I had to stop and shed my first layer almost immediately.  While most of the girls were from Denver, a few were out of towners, and Robin from Washington stopped with me.  She needed to acclimate a bit more to the altitude, as we started the hike 9,900 feet versus sea level.  Just stopping for a minute caused us to lose the group for about the next mile until we reached a creek crossing.  It was a little eerie walking through the woods in the dark…just the two of us.  At the creek, we met up with the rest of the girls crossed mediocre wooden bridge.

Just before the bridge was about the only part of the trail that leveled out for a few minutes; thereafter, it was all up hill.  We continued another quarter mile until we found a sign directing us to the right.  As we followed the trail upward through the trees, the sky slowly changed from dark night to purple to morning light peppered with pink clouds.  With the light, we got to enjoy the wildflowers that lined the trail…blue columbine, indian paintbrush, bell flowers, asters…just to name a few.

Eventually the trail took us above the tree line at about 12,100 feet.  Here we could see peaks far into the distance, clouds dipped below the summits, an alpine lake, rocky points, and even more wildflowers…forget-me-not, moss campions, and sandwort.  The views were magnificent, the switchbacks ongoing, the summit still a mile and a half away!  While our group stayed relatively close together, we started spreading out a bit more now as girls stopped for water, to eat a snack, or catch their breath.

At one area that required a little scrambling, I paired up with Tanya and we stayed together until we summited.  We kept a slow pace and just trudged along, only stopping for a few sips of water, to put on our gloves, and to enjoy the view occasionally.  We just wanted to get there!  After finishing the switchbacks, we reached about 30 feet of flat space before we had to scale boulders and follow light trail marked by cairns on the right-hand side of the peak.  I wasn’t too fond of this part.  I don’t mind scaling rocks.  I just didn’t like it when I found myself very close to the edge…it felt like one or two boulders between me and a few hundred feet below.  I just kept my focus on my feet and didn’t look up much!  It’s funny because I have no problem bungee jumping, sky diving, or climbing…but I had something protecting me in those cases!

There was a giant cloud overhead and a good breeze at the summit, thus our time at the top was short as sweaty shirts quickly turned into cool rags!  Tanya and I enjoyed our peanut butter sandwiches with Joyce and Serena, two other girls that had summited just before us.  The other four were beginning their descent just as we staked our claim because fifteen minutes at the top is about all anyone could bear without the sun shining!  Just as we were preparing to leave, another part of group summited…so we squeezed about nine of us together for a few minutes.



Serena, Joyce, Tanya, and I all descended together, though Serena and Joyce quickly left us behind as we took countless pictures of the wildflowers, marmots, pikas and creek on our descent.  We even got passed by Karla and Kelsi on the way down…though I do have 80 plus pictures to show for it!  As we descended, we finally started crossing paths with many others.  I think most people started out the hike at 6am.  We started earlier as we concerned about the weather forecast calling for storms by noon.  In addition, for six or seven of us, it was our first time to climb a fourteener, so we were unsure of our abilities and how the altitude might affect us over the 9.5 mile climb.  As we crossed other hikers paths, many commented, “I’ve never seen so many women on the mountain” and “What time did you guys start?”  We also met a group dressed in wedding attire just for the fun of it!

Our entire hike by the creek on the way up was in the dark, so it was nice to be able to enjoy it on the way down.  My favorite hikes have always been by the water, though I will say I was ready to get to the parking lot!

Upon reaching the parking lot, we received a small cheer, joined the few that had already conquered Mt. Yale and waited for the rest of the ladies to join us.

Once the final two rounded out our group of 24, we picked up our gear at the campsite and headed to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort & Spa where we rented two cabins for the night and of course soaked in the pools.  Of course we enjoyed another gourmet dinner and good company before turning in for the night.  What a fantastic weekend with an amazing group of girls!  ETB

Day 198 – Colorado Springs Loop – Part 3

Day 198 – Colorado Springs Loop, June 13, 2011

I met Mike last night while watching the Mavs win the NBA
Finals!  He was rooting for the Mavericks
along with everyone else at the bar.
Mike is from Colorado Springs and recently graduated from college.  He and his friend operate a landscaping
company.  When he’s not working he likes
to go dirt biking.

This morning I drove south, through Fort Carson and then
west through Canon City to the Royal Gorge.
I had visited the gorge about 25 years ago, so I didn’t have a burning
desire to go again especially since it has become more like an amusement park
with a $25 entry.  Visitors may walk on
the bridge, but also take a variety of different rides.  Since I had only planned to stay about 30
minutes, I found a different option…a 3 miles, 30 minute scenic train
ride.  The train was like a kiddy ride at
the carnival…small, open air, and didn’t go faster than 10 mph.  The best part about the ride is dogs were
allowed, so it seemed appropriate, though it didn’t appear that Petey enjoyed
himself.  While it was a perfect option
for me, I think first time visitors should experience the real deal.

After visiting the Royal Gorge, we continued on to Salida
where we strolled around town.  I tried
for a cache at the old steam plant, but there were too many muggles.  I guess I should just start looking
around.  A fellow cacher’s log claimed
lots of people asked them if they lost something and a few knew they were
geocaching, so they didn’t seem to worry about muggles.

Shortly after leaving Salida, I passed my aunt and uncle on
Highway 50.  They had left Estabrook
earlier in the day.  I didn’t think they
were leaving until tomorrow!  It took a
handful of texts while driving to figure out we saw each other.  I’ve never come or gone to Estabrook from
this direction, so I was surprised to find out they were coming this way.  It didn’t cross my mind until a few hours
later that I had heard I-25 was shut down in both directions between Raton and
Trinidad yesterday, due to poor visibility from wildfire smoke, so I sent them
a fair warning.  It turned out it was
shut down again today.  It probably would
have helped if they knew about that a little sooner.  I hope it didn’t reroute them too badly, and
I’m glad I made it through just three days earlier!

About 20 miles north of Salida, I turned off 50 to visit St.
Elmo.  On the way, we stopped for a mile
roundtrip hike to Agnes Vaille Falls in San Isabel National Forest.  Agnes Vaille, born in 1890 of a prominent
Denver family pursued an adventurous life.
During World War I, she joined the American Red Cross in France, and
later came home to serve as Secretary of the Denver Chamber of Commerce.  She loved hiking and planned to explore Colorado’s
fourteeners with her friend Jo Witchery.
Unfortunately, during a climb up 14,255-foot Longs Peak, she slipped on
some ice and slid down the face of the mountain.  While she survived the fall, she froze to
death before she could be rescued.  Her
friend Jo named these falls for her.

The hike to the falls offers a view of Mount Antero, one of
the four collegiate peaks and a view of the railroad grade from the Denver,
South Park and Pacific Railway (DSP&P).
During the Colorado mining boom, the DSP&P and the Denver and Rio
Grande Railway Company (D&RG) raced to complete a route to Gunnison.  DSP&P chose the shortest route through
Chalk Creek Canyon and built the Alpine Tunnel to get through the Continental
Divide.  But due to weather, high
altitude, and equipment delays, the DSP&P arrived at Gunnison in 1882,
nearly a year after D&RG.  The
DSP&P line was used for nearly 30 years to haul ore, mail, and passengers
but closed in 1910 due to the decline in mine production and the high cost of
maintaining the tunnel.

Mount Antero is named for Chief Antero of the Uintah
Utes.  The chief befriended Powell before
his expedition down the Colorado River in 1869 and worked for peace between the
Utes and the early settlers.  Standing at
14,269 feet, Mount Antero is the highest gem field in North America.  Blue aquamarine crystals, smoky quartz,
topaz, purple fluorite, Phenakite, and Bertrandite can all be found beneath its
summit.  Due to the gem-quality stones of
aquamarines found at Mount Antero, the aquamarine has been chosen the Colorado
state gemstone.

Upon completing our hike to the waterfall, we returned to
VANilla and followed the river through aspen groves as we climbed a few
thousand feet to St. Elmo, once a thriving mining town – now a ghost town.  The town is privately owned.  Visitors may wander along the dead end dirt
road past an old store and post office as well as many old residences.  I believe pedestrians could walk to the
Alpine Tunnel as well, but I think it was approximately four miles away, so we
took a short walk around town and then headed to Estabrook.

On the way, we enjoyed the marvelous panorama of the
Collegiate Peaks: Mount Princeton, Mount Yale, Mount Columbia, and Mount
Harvard.  Despite them standing together,
the distance was too vast for me to snap a photo – I needed a wide angle lens,
or I was going to have to spend a lot of time in photoshop stitching pictures

We arrived at Estabrook around 4 pm, unloaded VANilla, ate
dinner with a glass of wine and just chilled.
It is so great to be here!  Posts will be limited the next two weeks…no internet connection here.  ETB