The Rockies: Four Fourteeners…One Day!

To bag four peaks in a day, our weekend started on Friday at 4pm when we were supposed to leave the church for Kite Lake Campground. While the scout troop was organized, the adults weren’t incredibly punctual resulting in a departure around 5. Eventually, we made it to the Subway in Conifer and joined the rest of the mountain traffic as 285 narrowed to two lanes after our short dinner. The delays, however, provided the most beautiful sunset after we passed through Grant, over Kenosha pass, and down into the green valley of farmland situated just perfectly beneath the super moon, dramatic clouds, and pink sky. I was pleasantly surprised by my point and shoot pictures while caravanning 65 mph down the highway!

Soon we reached Fairplay, where we turned right on Highway 9 toward Alma. Upon reaching the middle of Alma, we turned left onto a rugged, dirt road and traveled a very rough 6 miles in the dark to Kite Lake. It was so rough, that my Fitbit which requires five fast taps on its face to switch to sleep mode, managed to change its mode on its own from the vibration of my steering wheel. It was nearly 9pm by the time we prepared to set up camp. All the scouts, the scout leader, and other adult chaperones popped up their tents beneath a sky full of stars and bright moon. I was the only one opting to sleep in the car which was currently toasty warm from the heater. Had I been willing to get chilled above the treeline at 12,000 feet, I probably would have fiddled with my camera to see if I could shoot the big dipper shining over Mt. Democrat. It was magnificent. Unfortunately, I know very little about night photography and knew it would take me an hour to figure it out, in which time I would be frozen. Instead, I took advantage of the campground pit toilets and settled in for a good night sleep in the car.

I’m not sure a good night sleep in the car can be used in the same sentence, especially when I nabbed the last spot in the parking lot directly in front of the trail head information board. Climbers began their treks at 4am. The bright light of the moon nor the headlights of each car that drove to the end of the lot throughout the night and then turned around didn’t help matters either, though it was all that I expected. I wonder what it would be like to climb a 14er on full night’s sleep?

We planned to tackle the four peaks beginning at 6am. I was so toasty warm in my sleeping bag, I almost didn’t want to venture outside, but I was bright-eyed by then and ready to go. While I was wandering around from the campsite, to the toilets, to my car, a young lady asked if I could change her $20 so she could pay for parking. I couldn’t change a $20, but I just gave her $5 as if it weren’t for her, I would have had no idea I needed to pay $3 to park. A large sign stood to the left of the parking lot, but in the dark, it was indiscernible, especially with cars parked on the road in front of the sign. What a lucky way to start my day…much better than returning from four fourteeners to find my car towed or ticketed. That would have stunk. It turns out, our group was less than punctual, so I had time to find Tanya and tell her about the parking and camping fee as well. Toes frozen, the group finally started toward the trail a few minutes before 7am.

The trail travels through a grassy basin of alpine flowers, across a creek, and past Kite Lake before it begins ascending over rocks. The path rises at the rate of approximately 1,000 feet per mile as it passes by remnants of mineshafts, shacks, and rusty equipment leftover from the silver and gold mining days of the 1860s. I was unaware these fourteeners had been extensively mined, as I hadn’t visited, so these historic sites were a pleasant surprise. All I really knew about this hike was from an article in 5280 magazine I read approximately a year ago and a few tidbits from a friend who had made the climb last weekend.

To sum up the information, I knew I could bag four peaks in a day, the official roundtrip mileage was 7.25 miles though my girlfriend suggested it was more like nine and that the descent from Bross was steep. Given the route was listed in 5280 magazine, I assumed the climb ranked on the easy side (if there is such a thing as an easy 14er) as well. For the most part, the information I had was correct, though the mine shafts weren’t our only surprises for the day.

Back to our climb. We began as a group of around 18 and planned to hike at our own pace, but to regroup at each peak, and to always descend in pairs should we wish not continue climbing each of the four mountains. Based on this plan, I intentionally slowed my pace, as I did not want to freeze at the summit. It also gave me a chance to see if a slower pace would reduce my chance of getting a headache (not so). The slow pace did give met a good look at several pikas that scampered across the massive rock field. It’s the most I’ve ever seen. By the time we reached the first saddle between Mt. Democrat (to the left) and Mt. Cameron to the right, the group was so spread out that the first set of climbers were already feeling cold when I arrived and about half the group was still behind me. As such, we reassessed. As much as it would have been nice to have the whole troop together on the summit, it was important to keep everyone warm and moving, so we carried on up the face of Mt. Democrat.

As I climbed over the large rocks, I compared this trail to my recent ascent on Mt. Elbert. I thought to myself, “There are a lot more rocks, but at least the trail ascends gradually over switchbacks.” I thought too soon as I was met with a section so steep, the climbers coming down looked like they were having a harder time than I was going up. I sure wish the new shoes I ordered made it to REI before the promised Saturday delivery. I could have used some tread. The steepness leveled off as I passed by some snow and the remnants of another mining cabin before finally reaching the summit. I really hope the miners left the Mosquito Range with TONS of silver! I can’t imagine wanting to climb any fourteener more than once with anything more than a pack. Working in this landscape had to be tough.

With only a light breeze and the bright sun shining above, we enjoyed a lovely stay on top of Mt. Democrat, 14,148′, as we snacked on our bars, trail mix, beef jerky, fruit, sandwiches and more. The views varied from the summit. We could see the other 14ers we wanted to tackle, the surrounding mountain ranges and what was once the world’s largest molybdenum mine in Climax, Colorado. Molybdenum has the sixth highest melting point of any element and is therefore used in superalloys. I never expected to see such a place from the summit of a fourteener. Around 9am, it was time to continue on as we had rested for a while. I hadn’t even finished descending to the saddle from Mt. Democrat before my Fitbit buzzed at me to let me know I had hiked 10,000 steps which is usually the equivalent of 4.5 miles. I must have weaved significantly on my way up given the roundtrip mileage from Kite Lake to the summit of Mt. Democrat and back is said to be 4 miles.

At the saddle, those who needed a little relief took a bathroom break. I must admit, this is not an easy feat given there is absolutely no tree cover. From here, we hiked approximately a mile along the ridge to Mt. Cameron. Technically, Mt. Cameron doesn’t count as a fourteener because its summit doesn’t rise 300 feet above the saddle. Whoever made that rule clearly doesn’t suffer from headaches or altitude sickness. Anytime I’m over 14,000 feet, I’m counting it, and Mt. Cameron’s rounded mound clocks in at 14,238′. Frankly, I don’t know how any of these mountains count individually as I thought there was a requirement to gain 3,000 feet of elevation which seems rather hard to do when beginning at 12,000 unless you ascend and descend to all the saddles. Regardless, the others count in the rankings, which is fine by me!

The climb to Mt. Cameron’s summit was much easier than the climb to Mt. Democrat. The smooth trail gradually climbed through interesting rock terrain peppered with green leafed, white flowers. Though the two mountains were right next to each other, the landscape was entirely different from the color and size of the rock to the shape of the summit to the plant life. I was quite fascinated by the variety and couldn’t help but stop to enjoy some of the fantastic views as well. To my right, in an offset diamond shape, I could see how Kite Lake earned its name, and to my left I could see wto lakes that both looked like hearts! Last in the group of teenagers, a few scout leaders, and Tanya, I took a long time to land at the summit of Cameron which was basically like standing in a wind tunnel. The fast hiking kids patiently waited as long as they could and they just started toward Mt. Lincoln as I topped Mt. Cameron. Tanya snapped my picture to prove I made it, and she continued on with me after my brief stop.

I actually prefer not to stop for very long anyway as my headache seems to worsen and I stiffen up, so trekking across the desolate landscape to Mt. Lincoln was perfect. If the dark clouds hadn’t begun peppering us with pellet snow, I would have said I felt like I was in rocky, sand dunes of the desert, but it wasn’t quite warm enough for the middle of a summer day. It was fascinating again to see the difference in terrain. The rock had turned from almost black on Mt. Democrat, to chaulky on Mt. Cameron, to reddish brown on the way to Mt. Lincoln, named for the president. The “expansive desert” turned to a narrow ridge that led to Mt. Lincoln’s pointy peak of grey rocks. Lincoln’s peak was small, though may have been my favorite, despite the view of mining roads below. I just loved the rocky outcrop, though admittedly there was about one foot of the trail that I could not look down without a wave of nausea overtaking me. It also didn’t help that ice began accumulating on the rocks, and I watched one guy fall down in front of me and heard another slip behind me.

IMG_5633 path to lincoln

Amazingly, as soon as we reached the summit, however, the snow pellets stopped stinging our face and the sun came out. This was a welcome relief as we settled down for another quick snack which included Pringles, Goldfish and all the other aforementioned goodies. I was also quite mind boggled by the sight of two mountain bikers at the top of Mt. Lincoln…REALLY?!? They had ridden up the mining road and then carried their bikes the rest of the way. A pack was enough to carry on my back. So the forecast had called for significant lightning somewhere in Colorado after 2pm. We were at the summit of Mt. Lincoln, 14,286′, around 11am with three down and one to go plus the descent. Armed with this information, already being pelted with snow and knowing I’m a slow downhiller, I kept glancing over my right shoulder. Dark clouds and showers blanketed the distant ranges. “Let’s mosey,” I suggested after I tugged on my windbreaker, and we turned back toward Mt. Cameron and then veered to the left to follow the trail to Mt. Bross, 14,172′, and named for a miner.

The trail followed flatly across the side of the mountain as it offered more amazing scenery including an incredible view of Mt. Democrat. About a half mile from the summit, the trail split. The trail to the left expanded to a road which led to the summit, while the trail to the right circled around Mt. Bross’ peak to the descent. According to the posted signs, the Mt. Bross summit was closed to climbers as it is private property. I had recently seen on news coverage, however, that the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative had worked out an agreement with the owners to allow climbers access to the summit. I don’t know which information was correct, but it didn’t seem to stop dune buggy type vehicles from driving up the road. It was a shock to see power vehicles on a fourteener as well. This hike was certainly not short of surprises. I have to admit, the road was an easy walk to a wind-laden, flat summit on which we spent about one dull minute. While it was an anti-climatic final peak, the descent back to Kite Lake’s grassy meadow and lovely waterfall was far from boring.

The trail drops 1,500 feet over seven tenths of a mile of extremely loose rock. At times, the descent was so steep, I ditched my hiking poles and sat on my bottom to slide down. So much for my new hiking pants that now have a tear in the rear pocket! I guess I should be thankful I wore pants, as I used to always wear shorts. In one spot, I also has a small panic attack, but this was because I’m not too fond of ledges, I knew the tread on my shoes was worn out, and I felt like I’d slide right off the mountain if I mis-stepped. My friend had mentioned the descent was steep. She wasn’t kidding. For my own edification, upon return home I visited the 14ers website to see the rating and description of the combined trail. The combination ranked a class 2 and the descent didn’t earn much of a warning. In addition, these are some of the easiest fourteeners. I’m not sure I’m cut out to complete all 54, but I hope to get a few more under my belt over time. I’ve crossed ten off the list since I climbed my first fourteener last July. This hike ranks near the top of my list. I’m thankful I got to join Tanya and her son’s scout troop. It was nice of the fast hikers to accept me as the straggler of the four peakers as the other half set out to conquer the first peak and then go fishing. What a great day! ETB


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