| Autumn Afternoon on Yale
Autumn Afternoon on Mount Yale
Route: Mount Yale, Denny Creek
Distance: 9.5 miles
Vertical: 4,300 ft
Time: 5 hours
When: Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Weather: a spectacular fall afternoon
This trip report begins with my alarm going off at 4:30 a.m. In Pittsburgh. My home. Pittsburgh is a great place, but it takes longer to get to the trailheads from here than I would like.
I had already made two trips to Colorado this summer, first in late June and again in early August. I had had some amazing hikes in the Sawatch and around Lake City, and had great times on both trips. It turned out that I had an opportunity to take another extended weekend trip in late September, so I jumped at the chance. I had been turned around by weather and conditions on a couple of hikes around Buena Vista on my prior trips, so with the sheer number of peaks in that area, Buena Vista seemed like a great destination for a long weekend. Perfect.
This would be my first solo trip to Colorado. It would also be after the traditional end of the summer monsoon season, so I had high hopes for good weather. I had prepared an ambitious itinerary for three days of hiking: multiple summits on each of three days. Also, because I would be catching the early flight from Pittsburgh to Denver on my travel day out to Colorado, rather than “waste” that entire day on traveling, I even had the crazy idea to hike a 14er on the same day I arrived. Is such a thing even possible? I assured myself it was.
But which mountain? It would have to be one that is easily accessible, without a long approach on a slow dirt road, and preferably close to Buena Vista. Some familiarity with the trail also would be a plus. Mount Yale? Paved to the trailhead, 15 minutes from town, not too long a hike. It also had been one where I was turned around by conditions in June, so I knew the first mile or so of the trail. Perfect. But could I get there in time to complete the hike before dark? The sun would be setting earlier than in the height of summer. Everything would need to work out perfectly – flight on time, no problems with picking up the rental car, no traffic delays, no other problems. And the weather would have to be solidly good. I’d give it a shot.
There was, of course, that other issue to consider: acclimatizing to the altitude.**DISCLAIMER**CAUTION** I DO NOT recommend climbing a 14er on the same day anyone travels from lower altitude to Colorado. In fact, I recommend against it! If anyone from lower altitude is traveling to Colorado, please follow the conventional wisdom of taking a day or two (or more) to get acclimated. Be careful and make smart decisions!
For myself, I decided to try it. I had been to Colorado two times already this summer, three times in the last year, and once more in 2003. The only time I ever noticed any effect from the altitude was during my first trip in 2003, when I had a mild headache the first day. In the four trips since then, I have been blessed with not having any altitude issues, even at 14,000 feet, and even after only minimal time to acclimatize. I knew the symptoms to watch out for, and I was fully prepared to turn around if anything problematic started to happen. I was amply pre-hydrated, I was in shape, I knew what I was committing myself to, and I was as ready as I could be.
Everything needed to work out perfectly with my travel and, fortunately, it did. My 8:05 a.m. (eastern time) flight took off on time. The flight was a little late arriving in Denver, but not so late as to ruin the plan. Picking up the rental car was quick and easy. Driving to Buena Vista via 285 was a breeze. I pulled into the Denny Creek trailhead around 1:20 p.m. local time. A quick change into hiking gear, set up the pack, get situated, and I was hitting the trail at 1:45 p.m.
I was somewhat tired from the travel – over three hours in the air and three more hours in the car – but when I started on the trail, the adrenaline was going strong and I felt good. I made great progress up the great trail.
The weather was nearly perfect. The air was crisp, but it was warm enough to hike in shorts and short sleeves for most of the hike. This was my first trip to Colorado in the fall, and so my first time to see the aspens in their beautiful fall color.
Fall color on the lower slopes
I quickly reached the crossing of Denny Creek. When I was here in June, Denny Creek was a raging torrent, and the crossing was difficult. The water had been running fast and deep, and only the highest log had been above the current, although it had been wet and slick. On this occasion, I was happy to find the water level much lower, the creek much narrower, and the logs bone dry.
Denny Creek crossing – no problems
I passed the sign for Hartenstein Lake and the sign where the new trail diverges from the old trail. The great trail continued up through the trees, which thinned and eventually disappeared altogether. Views opened behind and around me.
As I ascended, I separately passed three solo hikers on their way down. We exchanged brief but pleasant conversations. Interestingly, each one told me he had not summited, but was stopped short at the summit ridge. Each told me that there was significant snow and ice on the summit ridge, and that there were extremely strong winds that made attempting the summit dangerous. I knew that a snowstorm had hit the area about a week or ten days earlier – in fact, I originally had had plans to travel to Colorado one week earlier, but ended up postponing my trip by one week to avoid that snowstorm. The forecast for my long weekend had been spectacular: wall to wall sunshine. When one hiker told me about snow and ice up high, I figured it must be some leftover snow from last week. When the second hiker told me about snow and ice, I started to question in my mind whether I would be able to summit, but I still felt positive. After the third hiker told me about snow and ice, I became concerned. There was nothing to do, though, but to go up and see for myself. There certainly was no snow anywhere near where I was, and no evidence of snow or ice at or near the summit from what I was able to see.
Early view of Yale’s summit – looks dry and clear to me
I still felt good, the weather was still gorgeous, I was still making good time, and it was great to be out in the mountains again. In fact, at this point, it was getting rather warm, and there was hardly a breeze to speak of.
The southern Sawatch
The Three Apostles with Huron Peak
As I made my way toward the summit ridge, the wind did start to pick up a bit. My jacket came out, along with windstopper gloves, and I was comfortable once again.
Approaching the summit ridge
The wind was fairly strong when I gained the ridge, but nothing out of the ordinary. I still saw no evidence of the snow or ice that the others had mentioned to me, certainly nothing that would make me turn around. I began to wonder what they had encountered to make them stop short. It just didn’t make sense.
I was surprised at how close to the summit the trail joins the summit ridge. For some reason I had been expecting a rather long traverse up the ridge. Nope. Just a quick scramble and you are there.
On my way, I did see some snow – very small patches hiding between some rocks. It was all entirely avoidable. The wind that had been making its presence felt at the base of the ridge gradually lessened as I climbed.
On the ridge, with typical “snow”
Further along the ridge
The final few steps to the summit
I reached the summit of Yale at 4:45 p.m., three hours after I had set off from the trailhead. I had the summit to myself. The wind had all but disappeared. The weather was amazing. The views were spectacular. The feeling of standing on the summit of Mount Yale was unbelievable, especially after having awakened in Pittsburgh early that morning. I stood there and tried to soak it all in. The late afternoon sun and the widely dispersed clouds created an amazing show of light and shadow on the peaks of the Sawatch, which spread out below me and around me as far as the eye could see.
Harvard, Columbia, and Horn Fork Basin
Princeton and the southern Sawatch
Antero, Shavano, and Tabeguache
Antero, still showing some snow
Shavano and Tabeguache
Belford and Oxford
Missouri and Belford
Emerald, Iowa, and Missouri
The Three Apostles
The Elks in late afternoon light
Happy to be here
Yale’s east ridge with Buena Vista, wishing I could teleport there
What a view
As much as I would have liked to spend more time at the summit, I knew I had to leave. My travels that day had started to catch up with me. It was now 5:00 p.m. local time, but my body felt like it was 7:00 p.m. eastern time. And I was standing at the top of a mountain with no way down but by foot. I glanced down at Buena Vista, my destination for the night, wishing there was some way to teleport there. Not finding any, I reluctantly started my descent. The sun would set around 7:00 p.m., giving me two hours of daylight left, plus a while after that before the headlamp would become necessary. No problems. I was pretty much on the schedule I had planned for myself.
The descent was uneventful, although I was starting to slow down a bit. I was also getting hungry. The energy bars I had just were not doing the job anymore. I needed a real meal. I passed the time by trying to remember the menu at the Eddyline, debating with myself what I would order. Distracting myself with these and other thoughts, I reached the trailhead at 7:00 p.m., exactly two hours after leaving the summit and just as the sun was setting.
This was an incredible day. I still needed to drive to town, have a quick dinner and beer, and check in at the hotel. I also needed to arrange my stuff and get ready to go hiking in the morning. Exhausted but satisfied, I accomplished all of those tasks and crashed in my bed at a decent hour. My alarm was set for 3:00 a.m. the next morning – only eight hours after getting back to the Denny Creek trailhead. Yikes. In my sights for tomorrow: Missouri Mountain. A trip report for that hopefully will follow.
Thanks for reading.