After failing to reach the summit last year on a Halo Ridge attempt, we decided to go the direct, classic route with a group of six (three faculty, three cadets) from USAFA. Two of the latter were 14er rookies, but in very good shape, so we didn't have too many worries. (All pics are below)
We left from USAFA a few minutes after 1600 on Friday were greeted with just horrific traffic almost the whole way. It really didn't slacken until after the Eisenhower Tunnel. We'd hoped to arrive early enough to set up camp at the Half Moon Trailhead campsite and get a short reconnoiter hike in before dark, but that was not to be the case. We made a quick pitstop in West Vail for Subway and Q'doba and didn't make it to our campsite until almost 2045. We quickly set up camp at one of the sites and ate our sandwiches, pre-packed for the morning, and got some sleep.
We awoke at 0330 and were on the trail by 0405 after a quick snack and packing up. The first couple of miles went very well in the dark with only a few wet spots, excellent trail, generally clear skies, no wind and temps in the low- to mid-40s. In fact, we made it to the top of Half Moon Pass in just over an hour and took a break there for a couple of minutes. Our strong pace continued in the dark down the hill to the valley and our luck with the weather and quality of the trail held, too. Once the switchbacks started on the descent, though, we all took mental notes of the trail and began to dread the return. We passed through the backpacker campsites and at one I turned to look and my headlamp illuminated two eyes that came running at us at full speed in the dark twilight. We were almost immediately greeted by an overly friendly small terrier that was probably happy to NOT be entering the local food chain. She returned to camp after a good ear scratching.
The crossed the stream easily on the step-stool rocks and began our climb as the light made its slow debut to our east. The trail remained in excellent condition with the appearance of some staircase rocks as we began to climb in earnest. We crossed above treeline around dawn and were a little disappointed to not have a very picturesque sunrise due to a bank of clouds to the east. Still, the winds remained calm and the temps were quite moderate. We enjoyed the climb and the plentiful flowers along the route, staying in close contact until we reached the first large stone cairn above the trees that signaled our assault on the true north ridge.
Our Senegalese cadet--who's a monster on the slopes--and I went ahead of the others, taking advantage of the fantastic trail and huge cairns. A couple of groups were ahead of us and we began gaining on them. Out other four could clearly follow the path and we watched them throughout our ascent. We really enjoyed the more gentle ridge traverse after the initial steep part and looked forward to the final bouldering 700 feet or so. Again, the trail was excellent up to here.
Once we turned east for the final climb, the trail was much more difficult to follow--if it really existed at all. The cairns shrunk in size and seemed to be all but randomly scattered across the west face of the peak, That was really no issue, though, as we enjoyed the bouldering, had no issues navigating gaps, and we stumbled upon short stretches that passed at least as partial trail before finding ourselves scaling the last few to reach the summit. Two groups were there ahead of us and we just relaxed and took photos waiting for our hiking partners. We summitted at 0825--the final pitch took us about 20 minutes to navigate. The others arrived almost a half an hour later, claiming that they had had a more difficult time finding the trail up that final pitch--something we realized because they climbed up from the south-southwest of the peak, having drifted a little on their climb.
The weather was so nice on the summit that we didn't want to leave. Our terrier friend was there and she was clearly enjoying the company. we took plenty of photos of ourselves and others and didn't begin our descent until 0945.
On the descent, we strung out a bit as one of our cadets twisted an ankle--actually reinjured it from a parachuting accident this past summer. Still, the descent was uneventful as we passed groups that had obviously begun from the trailhead at about dawn that morning. The clouds weren't building, though, so we felt like they would be safe.
The climb back up from the west side of Half Moon Pass was all we wanted and more--pretty taxing after so many miles of up and down. Still, the group did fine and our semi-injured party actually did much better in the more stable uphill mode. Our lead hikers made it back to the campsite shortly after 1300 and the last of us arrived at 1325. The trailhead parking area was jammed with overflow cars parked up to a quarter mile back down the road. We packed up, drank up, and headed straight for home--all happy with a truly memorable hike/climb.
I can't say enough about the quality of this trail. We met two CFI worked along the way and paid them awesome thanks. I just made an online contribution and I'm sure others in our group will be doing the same. This is probably the best trail I've seen bottom-to-top of a 14er. Well done!!!
For me, this finally completed the Sawatch Range for me. Now it's time to plan some longer trips to the Sangres and parts west. for those looking for ALL of my photos from yesterday, you can view them her at my website.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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