| The East Ridge of Mount Yale
"There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell, and with these in mind I say, climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end." -- Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps
Derek’s foot comes toward me like an outstretched hand reaching for a savior in one last act of desperation. His torso arches down and away toward a maelstrom of shattered rock. I recoil in horror. I reach out for his foot but grasp only dust. Derek is falling.
We know the rock is junk, sharp and shattered, stacked haphazardly in a fragile house of cards. It seems that one wrong move could bring it all down. We gaze long and hard at the short fourth class pitch that rises to the top of the rocky point. The pitch is twenty feet high by five feet wide, made of broken rock glued together by gravity. The climb is precarious.
I carefully scale the rotten pitch. Derek makes competent work of a similar pitch a few feet to my left. We meet at the top of the climb on a narrow dusty ledge. Relieved, I take a seat on a large talus block a few feet from the edge. Derek sits next to me and in one continuous action the mountain crumbles away.
(Captions on top of photos)
Flowers at the Avalanche Trailhead.
The lot is empty except for a truck parked at the far end of the pavement. It belongs to Derek. I park my car, perform a final gear check, and shoulder my pack. I smile at the beautiful wildflowers alongside the trail. It’s been too long, old friends.
The Colorado Trail rises from the Avalanche trailhead at 9,400 ft. to the Silver Creek divide at 11,900 ft. This divide forms the East Ridge of Mount Yale, our route for tomorrow.
Derek hiked to the divide earlier in the day to establish camp near tree line. I will hike three miles and gain 2,500 ft. of elevation to meet him there by sundown. Our plan is to bivy tonight, wake at sunrise, and gain the summit. We will descend to camp, retrieve cached equipment, and return to our vehicles. The complete route is approximately ten miles in length with 5,000 ft. of gain.
A topo map of our route:
Mascot Peak and Mount Yale (L to R) seen from the Cottonwood Pass road.
The trailhead at 6:30 PM.
Old friends, show me the way.
And the palette.
The song of moving water.
The water brings life big and small.
One of the little things.
The trail gains elevation quickly. Rainbow Lake and the highway are below.
The view to the west, as the sun moves towards the horizon.
The summit of Mt. Yale is seen on the left. Yale’s East Ridge curves to the rocky point on the right and then continues downward off the photo.
I enter a darkening forest.
It’s a strange and somber trip through a cemetery of downed timber.
Like valiant soldiers fallen in battle.
The trail continues…
To the south, through trees, is this view of Mt. Princeton’s northern ramparts. (Photo by Derek)
The trail to the Silver Creek divide enters the trees and never breaks out. I’ve been following a fresh track – I hope its Derek’s. Lacking a GPS, my only reference is time. I’ve been hiking for two hours now. The divide must be near.
Derek established camp approximately 100 yards below the divide. I have no trouble finding him. It is 8:40 PM when we meet. Derek has stamped out a bivy platform in the snow for me to use. He built a nice snow shelter to sleep in, as seen here. (Photo by Derek)
We crawl into our bivy sacks as the world spins beneath stars.
Sleep doesn’t come easy. All around are the sounds of night - tree branches crack, the crunch of hard snow, the rustle of movement. And now, in the middle of the night, some creature is standing on my chest. I turn in my bivy sack and it moves away. It is persistent and returns many times in the night. I have a choice: the way of nature or the way of grace. I choose the way of nature and slip my hand beneath it and push it off my bivy sack. It doesn’t come back. We wake in the morning to find the damage done. Derek’s shoulder straps are nearly chewed through (seen in the photo, the strap will fail later in the day) although he had hung his pack from a tree branch. If that weren't enough, his trekking pole grips have been mauled. I’m more fortunate - my pack has been chewed on but the damage is slight. We have some lessons, learned. And unknown to us at the time, more profound lessons were to come. (Photo by Derek)
We did something right: we hung our food overnight in an unmolested bear bag with OpSak liner. We eat a simple breakfast, share a few laughs, and make final preparations for the day’s adventure. The golden hour is upon us. We start towards the east ridge.
We arrive at tree line after a few minutes of walking. (Photo by Derek)
The east ridge route comes into view. The summit is out of view, hidden by the rocky point at 13,400 ft.
Mt. Princeton fills the view to the south.
Derek scales a rock outcropping near 12,400 ft.
We stay on the ridge top.
The route steepens as we approach 12,600 ft.
Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia (L to R) dominate the view to the north.
"Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." -- Evan Hardin
We approach a rocky point at 12,900 ft. We’ve been warned that this is the loosest rock on the route.
There is a steep snow slope to the left of the point and a steep talus slope on the right. We decide to have some fun and head straight up the point. (Photo by Derek)
We spot the weakness in the ridge (at the top left of the photo) and we go for it.
The pitch steepens.
I rest at the top of the climb and take this photo looking down. Derek sits next to me on a large rock that appears to be firmly planted but is deceiving. The rock lets go and he falls backwards, headfirst, down the pitch.
A cloud of dust and broken rock erupts from the gully. Horrified, I peer over the edge. Derek appears to be suspended in mid-air. He has landed 10-feet down, forearms on the rock shown by the blue arrow, feet on the rock shown by the green arrow. There is only thin unforgiving air beneath his mid-section. I call out to him. Derek is bloodied and bruised but responsive. He descends to the base of the pitch and locates a less treacherous route to the south of the tower. I am inspired by the strength and poise that Derek shows through this difficult incident.
We talk it over. The decision belongs to Derek – he decides we should continue upward.
We cross snow to circumvent the towers at 13,400 ft.
The summit of Mt. Yale comes into view.
The ridge widens and the angle relents. The view to the west is vast.
We cross a snow slope en route to the summit. (Photo by Derek)
We’re almost there.
The summit of Mt. Yale. I am more relieved than celebratory.
The view to the north of Mt. Columbia, Mt. Harvard, Belford, Oxford, Missouri, and on and on – a sea of high peaks.
To the west is Taylor Park. In the distance, the Elk Mountains.
And to the south is a roiling sea of mountains.
We sit and relax for thirty minutes – the stress of the climb drains into the rock. Calm and satiated, we start down.
We traverse the south slope of the towers at 13,400 ft.
Derek approaches a tower at 13,400 ft.
I pass beneath the tower. (Photo by Derek)
We find a less harrowing route down the difficult rock at 12,900 ft. We take great care descending the leg-snapping talus.
We approach treeline. Pt. 12,505 rises across the saddle.
We recover our cached sleeping gear and start down the Colorado Trail. Mt. Yale moves in and out of view. I’m reminded of the words of Reinhold Messner: Mountains are not fair or unfair - they are just dangerous.
We approach the highway in late afternoon. Our talk turns from future climbs to the post-hike celebration at Eddyline.
It’s great to see old friends again.
We swap polyester for cotton, boots for sandals. It’s bittersweet when the car starts.
Soon the sun falls behind the Sawatch and all of its great peaks merge into one form in the fading twilight.
"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go." -- T.S. Elliot
Thanks for reading.