Climbing Mt. Yale on October 24, 2009, I began a bit later than I'd hoped- due in part to my getting a ticket driving to the trailhead- but in the end it turned out later was better!
The trailhead for the more commonly used route (Denny Creek/Delaney Gulch) is right off the north side of Cottonwood Pass, the gorgeous, paved road which runs out of Buena Vista, up and over the mountains to Taylor Park. Pretty convenient, that!
It was chilly and the sun hadn't risen above the clouds over the mountains just yet, but it wasn't terribly cold, either. A very light snow fell as I parked the car, but it stopped before I left it. The tops of the peaks were hidden as I drove in, but I was hopeful the skies would clear as the morning wore on…
The first mile or so of the trail was covered in light snow, sitting over older falls (maybe just from the previous Wednesday), but the snow increased slowly and steadily as I climbed. To start, I wore just my trusty trail running shoes, but when the path started getting steeper beyond the split in the trail (to either Hortenstein Lake/Brown Pass or Yale), I augmented with some Yaktrax.
Shortly thereafter I met some guys descending, and we discussed the conditions above. They'd turned back after encountering serious cloud cover and limited visibility- plus wind and a much more biting cold. Another hiker who'd left a few minutes before me, they said, was still going for it, and I had no plans to stop either. Not yet, anyway…
Just before breaking out above tree line, I came upon my fellow, aforementioned ascender. The snow here was deeper than anything yet, maybe 5 or 6 inches in areas.
Entering the windswept, barren southwest face of Mt. Yale, the snow on the ground became thinner briefly, but the higher I climbed, the more it had succeeded in clinging to the ground despite the winds. Soon the drifts, which were relatively solid, were a foot deep in places. Deeper the higher I went. Still, lots of grass poked from the snow, and there were areas almost free of any.
Trudging up the crunchy/soft path, the wind now grew stronger and I added another jacket and swapped hats for one with a face mask. At this point, either the clouds (which had been a companion the whole hike anyway) became much thicker in general, or my elevation gains brought me into a thicker level.
Pausing for breath, I turned to look back down the trail. My fellow climber was about 100 yards back, but I often couldn't seem him in the clouds. Movement caught my eye, though, and at first I thought a dog had joined us! Squinting in the wind, I thought then I saw a long, swinging tail and my mind said 'mountain lion!' even though I knew it unlikely. As I pulled out my camera, though, the clouds swirled just enough I was able to see it was a mountain goat!
Just ambling along, I don't believe it knew I was there (or just didn't care), and it continued to the southeast out of sight. He/she may not've cared, but I was pretty thrilled!
Continuing on, visibility continued to decrease. Good vision distance shifted; most of the time I could see 30-35 yards pretty well, but not far enough to spot the next cairn. Hiking from one landmark rock to the next, I'd pause every few minutes when visibility would increase to 50-75 yards, scanning for signs of the trail as the snows grew deeper.
I knew roughly where the ridge and peak were, though I'd not seen either. Once, in an especially generous clearing of clouds, I was able to see close to the peak- and was surprised how much further up and away it seemed. The lighting made it tricky to judge, though… Eventually I lost the trail entirely and just headed northeast, since I knew where I needed to go.
Gaining the saddle right at its intersection with the summit ridge, I wanted a break and some food, so I set up behind a boulder and broke out my lunch. Sitting there, of course, my feet and hands cooled down, so I switched to boots and worked my fingers. With my extremities in mild distress I eyed the steep ridge in front of me with suspicion and wondered how much further it was to the top. Was it worth it? I'd pretty much decided that yeah, it was worth it. Then, as I finished eating, the mountain's other hiker reached me and began the final ˝ mile push to the summit, having gained the ridge from further west. That closed the deal. If he was going, I was.
We picked our way up the wind-blasted spine of stone and reached the summit at almost the same time. No views from the top this day, however- I even pulled my map out to make sure I'd reached the peak, in case the clouds were hiding a further stretch I'd need to trek. I was there, though. 14,196 feet.
With the temperature and wind factor, I headed down almost immediately, and within 10 minutes was gifted with the breaking of the clouds. Very quickly they ran from the Sawatch Range and continued their journey east, opening glorious vistas of snow-capped peaks in all directions. After 4 hours of oppressive cloud cover, exuberance took over as the sun shone and the amazing views flooded in.
I tried my best to find the proper trail for my descent, but the saddle was too snowy, and it wasn't until I was almost back to tree line before I gained the right path again.
Jogging back to the trailhead, the sun had cleared much of the light snow I'd hiked through previously, replacing it with mud. The temperatures climbed, my layers were shed, and then- 5 hours, 40 minutes after leaving the car- I returned. So in the end, beginning my climb later than planned saved me from traveling almost exclusively in clouds. Had I been an hour quicker in starting the hike, I'd have been in the trees when the sky opened.
A fantastic day all around (except for the ticket, of course), and a great trail and peak!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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