| The Rock Pile
14,197 Feet (20th highest in Colorado)
East Slopes Route (Class 2) from 11,000 Feet on the Mt. Princeton Rd.
6.25 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: 3,200 Feet
Greenhouseguy (Brian) and RockFarmer (Zach)
June 28th, 2008
The Rock Pile
Mt. Princeton viewed from the east
Mt. Princeton is one of the Collegiate Peaks in the central Sawatch Range. Henry Gannett of the Wheeler Survey reportedly named the peak in 1873, and its first recorded ascent was by Princeton University professor William A. Libbey III on July 17th 1877. It is one of the most impressive-looking peaks in the Sawatch Range, and it absolutely dominates Buena Vista's skyline. The Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort brings many tourists to the area.
RockFarmer (Zach) and I wanted to get an alpine start on Mt. Princeton, so we planned to meet at the lower trailhead on Friday night and car camp. Accommodations were plush on the futon mattress in the back of my Jeep. Josh roughed it in the back of his Liberty. Overnight temperatures only got down to about 40 degrees, so we slept comfortably. We rolled out at 4:00, and hit the Mt. Princeton Rd. about 45 minutes later. Driving to the radio towers in the dark wasn't as bad as I had anticipated. The rocks in the road were not particularly large, and were easily avoided. Deep ruts made the ride more interesting, but the overall road condition was not terrible.
The Mt. Princeton Road in the headlights
We drove about 0.2 miles beyond the radio towers, and found plenty of places to park at about 11,000 feet. The first few rays of light were beginning to appear on the horizon.
Parking pullout beside the Mt. Princeton Rd. about 0.2 miles past the radio towers
We headed west out of the parking area, and hiked through four easy switchbacks. I didn't bring my "A" game, so I was content to let Zach lead the way. Along the way, the hose pulled loose on my hydration bladder and I lost every drop of my water. I hiked the rest of the day on my spare water bottle and Zach's spare bottle of Gatorade – a total of about one liter of fluid. I had some iodine tablets, but there was no running water along the standard route. I just had to deal with not having much water. By the time that we got to the top of the switchbacks, the sun was rising over the Arkansas River Valley.
The sun rising over the Arkansas River Valley
At about 11,825 feet, there is a cairn and some stone steps at the point where the Mt. Princeton Trail meets the Mt. Princeton Road. The steps were buried in a snowdrift, but the cairn was clearly visible. We met 14ers.com member SummitFever at the bottom of the trail.
Stone cairn at the junction of the Mt. Princeton Road and the Mt. Princeton Trail
The trail essentially started at timberline, but there were a few krummholz Engelmann Spruce beside the trail. Before long, we were hiking in open tundra. The huge bulk of Mt. Princeton rose in the distance.
Zach starting out on the tundra with Mt. Princeton in the background
There were numerous wildflowers on the tundra, and it was hard to ignore the huge flowers of the old man of the mountain (Hymenoxys grandiflora). Its common name comes from the conspicuous white hair on the stems and buds. These hairs diffuse the dangerous levels of ultraviolet light that are present at high altitude. This should remind us to wear sunscreen!
Old man of the mountain (Hymenoxys grandiflora) on the tundra at about 12,000 feet
The trail through the tundra was easy, but it soon gave way to a miserably rocky trail across "Tigger" Peak's north slope. Some of the talus was unstable, and it rocked or slid under our feet. Both of us banged up our knees stumbling through this part of the trail. We passed through a few stable snowfields, but they were hardly enough to slow us down. Gaiters were not necessary. We came to a snowfield that was obviously a junction in the trail; some people headed up the slope to the saddle between "Tigger" Peak and Mt. Princeton at this point, while others continued on the trail to the west. We headed up the slope and found that this was just a social trail that eventually ran into the standard route to the saddle. If we had gone about a hundred yards farther down the trail, we would have found the low rock wall that blocks the old standard route and directs hikers up the new standard route.
Junction with the social trail to the saddle between "Tigger" Peak and Mt. Princeton. Don't turn here!
Low wall that blocks the old standard route. Turn left (southwest) and follow a good trail to a low spot on the saddle.
Plant life was scarcer among the talus than it had been in the tundra, but there were still some nice splashes of color. One of the more common alpine plants, the fairy primrose (Primula angustifolia), grew in cracks between rocks and anywhere there was soil.
The fairy primrose, Primula angustifolia
The trail up to the saddle was not so bad; short switchbacks brought relief from the steep grade.
The narrow trail up to the saddle
The view from the 13,100-foot saddle was fantastic. This is one of the best places from which to view the stately Mt. Antero. There were several old mining test pits or collapsed mineshafts on the ridge.
Mt. Antero viewed from 13,100 feet on the saddle between "Tigger" Peak and Mt. Princeton
The trail on the saddle was cairned, but was still difficult to follow. Talus hopping on the saddle was exhausting and treacherous. Zach managed to flip an impossibly large rock, but fortunately he was not injured. I rolled an ankle when a rock gave way. There is virtually no exposure on this mountain, but there is plenty of potential for minor injuries.
Zach hiking on the saddle
There were a few bumps on the saddle, but we were able to sidehill around them. The summit cone began at about 13,290 feet. We had about 900 feet of seriously steep talus ahead of us.
Mt. Princeton's summit cone
The mountain seemed to get steeper as we neared the summit. There was a small false summit at about 14,000 feet. The hike between the false summit and the true summit was short but strenuous.
Zach topping out on the false summit and sizing up the remainder of the route
We hit the summit at 9:00, and only had to share it with three other people. I was pleased to see so few hikers on the trail, because there were several dozen cars in the lower parking lot when we left before dawn.
Greenhouseguy (blue) and RockFarmer (orange) with Mt. Antero in the background
In addition to Mt. Antero, we could see several other fourteeners. I was able to identify Mt. Yale, Mt. Columbia, and Mt. Harvard. Mt. Belford, Mt. Oxford, Missouri Mountain, and Huron Peak were slightly farther away.
The view to the north: Mt. Yale, Mt. Columbia, and Mt. Harvard
We enjoyed the summit for 45 full minutes before we decided to hit the trail again. Much of the route was visible from the summit.
Looking down at the Mt. Princeton Trail from the summit
The trip down the steep talus was tedious. It was difficult to enjoy the views when we had to pay such close attention to our foot placement on the wobbly rocks. We took a break when we reached the low point in the saddle, and were amused by a marmot's antics. He chirped with all his might, then bounded over, around, and in between the rocks until he disappeared from view.
We passed all of the late risers on the way back to the trailhead. The fantastic weather had attracted all sorts of people to the mountain. We had hiked on the rocks for a long time, and were ready to get back on stable ground. At long last, we returned to the good trail through the lush green tundra at about 12,000 feet.
Approaching the good trail through the tundra
I kept an eye out for any interesting plant or animal life in the tundra, and spotted a nice specimen of alpine forget-me-nots (Eritrichium aretioides) with white flowers instead of the typical blue flowers. Not particularly scarce, but sort of interesting.
White-flowering alpine forget-me-nots (Eritrichium aretioides) at about 12,000 feet
We got back to the Jeep by 12:30, and started the dusty trip to the lower trailhead. It had been a relatively short day without an excessive amount of elevation gain, but we were both whipped. Mt. Princeton offered no real technical challenge, but the physical challenge was more than sufficient. The beautiful weather helped to make this a satisfying trip.
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