Peak Five: Mount Elbert, Sawatch Range
Saturday, September 12th
Northeast Ridge (9 miles, 4,400 feet of gain, class 1)
7 hours car to car
After a tiring trip on Maroon Peak, James and I agreed to tone it down a little for the next peak. Mount Elbert would still be a fun notch for the belt, as the tallest peak in the Rocky Mountains, but as a class 1 hike it promised to be much more casual. A couple of James' friends, Fernando and Lucas, decided to join us for the hike, so with a couple tents, munchies and other camping gear, James drove the four of us in his Blazer up to the trailhead. We had one representative from every class: Fernando is a freshman, James a sophomore, I'm a junior and Lucas is a senior. Fernando built a small campfire as we set up the tents, so we chatted for a while before hitting the sacks with a planned start of around 6. Lucas and I were sharing a tent and continued talking for a while. After a pause during which I almost started dozing off, Lucas piped up.
"It would be really cool to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain."
"Yeah, that would be cool..." I said, not really thinking about it.
"We could probably do that, don't you think?" he continued.
"Uh... yeah, I guess so... I donno, do you want to?"
"I'd like to, yeah, I think it would be worth it." I thought about this for a minute, thinking about how this was supposed to be a break. But at the same time, I agreed... how cool would it be to see the sun rise from the second highest point in the lower 48 States?
"Hey James!" I yelled to the other tent.
"Wanna see the sunrise from the top?!" A long pause...
"When would that mean starting?"
"About 2:30 I think." Another long pause. I could hear James talking to Fernando.
"What do you think," he said, "want to do it?"
"Sure," said Fernando.
"Alright! See you at 2:15 you crazy bastards." And that was how that decision was made...
The alarms went off and we were moving pretty quickly. We started up the Colorado Trail and then took the turnoff to Mount Elbert which gets steeper than I ever imagined for a class 1 rather quickly. It felt awfully warm and Lucas and I were both pouring sweat. In fact, by the time we reached treeline, we noticed in our headlamp beams that Lucas was actually steaming. It was starting to get a little breezy and chilly as we left the trees so we talked about slowing our pace a bit so as to not get so sweaty, nor to arrive at the summit long before sunrise and have to sit there stamping our feet while we wait for it. We slowed down, but it still felt like a somewhat tough pace. It was colder than any other climb in the project so far and we all felt the strain. A while before the summit, I passed out a few hand warmers and let James use a pair of my gloves. He was starting to feel the altitude as well. But of course, this was the highest that any of us had ever been.
Almost time for sunrise
It was just barely starting to get light when we arrived at the top of the Rockies. We still had about 45 minutes to wait before the sun actually came up. Amazingly, a couple arrived on top from the East Ridge only 15 minutes after us, but they didn't stay long. They were doing a quick hike before work! Shortly after they left, James announced that he wanted to go down because he wasn't feeling right and he was really cold. Fernando offered to go with him, saying that the sunrise would be basically the same from the way down. Off they went, leaving Lucas and I waiting for the sunrise, a decision I do not regret. When it finally came, it was worth every second of waiting in the cold. That said, as soon as the sun left the horizon we waisted no time in heading down.
Lucas checking out the sunrise from the summit of Mount Elbert
La Plata Peak from near the summit of Mount Elbert
Looking back at the summit with some beautiful color
Looking North at French Mountain and the northern Sawatch Range in alpenglow
Mount Elbert summit panorama
Mount Elbert has a lot of ground above the trees, and it seemed to take an age to get back into the woods. We passed by quite a few groups on their way up, and we were commonly asked, "What time did you guys start?" with a bewildered look accompanying our answer. Around a half mile after entering the trees we caught up with James and Fernando, who were both feeling much better and warmer. We scampered down the trail as a group and got to Buena Vista in time for breakfast at Bongo Billy's!
The long descent from Mount Elbert's summit
Peak Six: Venable Peak, Sangre de Cristo Range
Saturday, September 26th
Venable Pass to Comanche Pass Loop Hike (~12 miles, 4,300 feet of gain, class 2)
8.5 hours car to car
If anyone is looking at the dates, yes, there is a week missing. That weekend, James had a bad cold and I signed up for a mountaineering skills clinic with Wilderness Pursuits out of Western State where the plan was to climb Mount Crested Butte via Guide's Ridge, but our van failed the morning of the climb and the weather wasn't that promising anyway so we ended up doing some skills practice elsewhere. I had a peak to make up. The following weekend, James had to go home for his mother's birthday party, so I would be flying solo. I decided to go home as well and hike a peak in the Sangres that I had attempted back when I was around 8 years old with my older brother. Long story short, I got sick at camp and threw up in the tent and then the next day I was too tired to continue. So 12 years later, I would have my redemption on Venable Peak.
I left the house at 4:40am and arrived at the North Crestone Trailhead at 5 and began hiking immediately. Hiking in the dark with no wind or other sound is something I had done before but it still spooks me, so I was hiking pretty quickly at first. I took the left fork when I arrived at Three Forks, knowing I would return via the middle fork, and continued up the drainage. The sun finally starting to come up an hour and a half after I started was a very welcoming sight.
Some sunlight over Venable Peak
Looking forward toward the summit of Venable Peak from the crest of the Sangre de Cristos
Venable Lakes with the town of Westcliffe in the background
Four miles in I took a right at another fork and started heading up towards Venable Pass, arriving there after sunrise and encountering the first real snows of the project on the way. Sitting on the spine of the Sangre de Cristo range is always an awesome experience... I could look back at the way I came, look over the other side at Westcliffe, and north or south along the crest which makes up the county line between Saguache and Custer Counties. South was my route, and it brought me along the ridge crest and to the summit at about 9:30am. Ah, I love the Sangres...
Approaching the summit of Venable Peak
Looking back at Venable Pass
Comanche Pass, my descent route
It was windy and cold so I did not stay long. I continued South and found the Venable-Comanche Loop trail which traverses along the slopes of Spring Mountain to reach Comanche Pass, just before Comanche Peak, arriving there an hour after leaving the summit. Amazingly, I actually met a couple of hikers who had camped near Three Forks at the pass. I dropped from the crest and started hiking down the longest and most pointless switchbacks I've ever seen. It took about 45 minutes from there to reach treeline again, and I picked up my pace because I had an eye appointment to get to. However, when I arrived at the turn in the trail leading me back to Three Forks, I stopped, mouth wide open in amazement. Fall colors had arrived to the Sangres and the view was incredible. I had to stop and take some pictures. I can only put a few here, but there are more in my online photo album.
Venable Peak from my descent
The rugged Sangres
Fall colors which were at least worth stopping and staring at for a couple minutes
More colors from further down the trail
The remainder of the hike consisted of fast hiking with periods of photo taking until I was a little ways beyond Three Forks. I hiked back to the car, arriving at about 1:30pm, pleased with my solo journey and happy to have finally returned to the first summit that ever turned me back.
Peak Seven: Mount Shavano
Sunday, October 4th
Mount Shavano Trail (9.7 miles, 4,400 feet of gain, class 2)
6.5 hours car to car
October. It had finally come. James was back in the game and Fernando wanted to come along for this one as well. I had already done Mount Shavano via the Angel of Shavano snowfield the summer before, but I had hopes of getting Tabeguache Peak while we were at it, and James had wanted Shavano for a while. We drove to the Blank Gulch trailhead in the Volvo the night before to camp, and this would be Raz the Volvo's last trip to the mountains.
First light... from treeline
5:00am starts are really intended for summer, but James wanted to get up there early... so be it. We started up the already snowy trail and made good time to treeline, where we finally started to see hints at sunrise. Along with sunrise, we could now see that winter was making a preemptive strike on the summit. This could get interesting...
The foreboding view ahead. We were in the light for less than an hour before entering the clouds
James and Fernando nearing the 13,400 foot saddle
Heading for the summit
By the time the trail was bringing us to the broad saddle at 13,400 feet, we were getting hit hard by a cold wind. We started covering up exposed skin and gearing ourselves up for an 800 vertical foot battle with the weather. Sure enough, as we started up the summit cone, the wind picked up snow that had fallen overnight and blew it in our faces as if it were actually snowing. We trudged onward and upward to the summit, arriving in a surprisingly brief 3.5 hours at 8:30am, but there was no view this time. Tabeguache was no longer on the itinerary, as I was tired from the rapid ascent and neither James nor Fernando had any interest in it. It was time to go down.
Starting the descent
We dropped out of the cloud engulfing the summit and continued to battle the wind as a few other parties climbed up by us. Once we were below the broad saddle again the wind died down and we started removing face masks and heavy gloves and continued on, taking breaks to eat and drink from time to time. By the time we were back at the car at 11:30am, we were all warm again, though I was surprisingly tired. Driving back to Gunnison, I could only think one thing: one more week.
The geologists in their element
Peaks Eight and Nine: Scarp Ridge and Ruby Peak
Friday, October 9th
Scarp Ridge Trail to base of Purple Peak, around to Owen/Ruby Saddle, back to Lake Irwin Trailhead (~8 miles, ~3,000 feet of gain, class 2 with 3-4 downclimbing Ruby)
7 hours car to car
A three day weekend brought our Peak a Week Grand Finale. I had been wanting to return for a third time to Purple Peak's East Ridge (which I previously dubbed Chappelle Ridge) as a classic, class 4 route with a mandatory rappel. Unfortunately, this would be the only time during the project that we would have to turn back on a route.
James drove us to the Lake Irwin Trailhead and we started at 6:30am. As I had done twice in the past, we wrapped around the north shore of the lake and hiked up a steep hill to find a large building next to the start of the Scarp Ridge Trail. There are no trespassing signs on the building, and the signs for the trail that had been up the year before were gone, so I am not 100% sure of the legal access here, but I figured that as long as we went about our business going up the trail it wouldn't be a problem.
Ruby Peak at sunrise
Sunrise was fantastic and showed off the day's goal quite well, but also showed just how much snow there was compared to when I did this a year prior. I started having doubts about the ridge, but we would still at least hike Scarp Ridge and check out the base of Purple Peak before discounting it as an option.
Mount Owen, Purple Peak, and Afley Peak. The ridge on Purple we were going to attempt is in profile
The view to the North from the summit of Scarp Ridge. The Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak are in view
Arriving at the summit of Scarp Ridge, we gave each other a big high five. We had done it! This was peak 8! We took in the views of the Elk Range, looking back at a couple of our other accomplishments: Mount Axtell, our first peak together in the project; South Maroon Peak, the most technically challenging peak we had done; and Gothic Mountain, a hike we had done a year ago. However, it was time to look forward... towards our bonus points!
James at the base of Purple Peak
At 8:30am, we were at the base of Purple Peak, and I already wasn't too happy with what we were seeing. The initial part of the ridge is one of the most challenging parts of the route, and the easiest terrain was on the north side of the ridge. Naturally, this side had more snow, and once we started checking it out we found a thin layer of ice covering most of the rocks. I tried scaling the ridge directly where the rock was bare, but it was too loose. Then we attempted a ledge on the north side, but the face above it to return to the ridge was too snowy and icy to be done safely. James reminded me about the cliff drop that was about 50 feet below us, and we decided to back off.
Ruby Peak, our final destination
Our attention changed over to Ruby Peak, the only peak in the cirque surrounding Lake Irwin that I had not climbed. Fine... That would be our finale. We hiked around the base of Mount Owen and started up towards the Ruby-Owen saddle. Here, I hit an energy wall that had been building over the last couple of weeks and slowed down tremendously, but we continued to plod on to the saddle. The wind picked up, and somehow this gave me motivation to move my butt up the mountain, and we at last arrived on the summit at 11:20am. But wait... There's a weather station. The top of that post is taller than either of us... That's the highest point. We would have to reach the top of the pole to count this one. No problem.
The end! James clutching the "true" summit of Ruby Peak
We shook hands and then began the final descent. We followed the east ridge to the top of a huge face and then descended southerly slopes. There were a few rock bands we went through and it is probably possible to find one's way around them, but why not add a little class 3 to 4 spice at the end of our project! Back at the car, I looked back at the mountains one more time. Then we got in the car and left. It was over. I wouldn't be returning to the mountains for months after this... but I was kind of glad. Climbing that often was starting to wear on me and I was happy to have my weekends completely free again. I have since left my high gear mode for climbing mountains alone for a while, but I'm hoping to get back into it when spring snow climbing season returns. Until then...
A big congrats goes out to James for his dedication and perseverance to the project, as well as our other partners who helped make the project more interesting. Apologies to my other friends who saw considerably less of me than usual, especially for having to leave my surprise birthday party early so we could get to Mount Shavano before it got too late. And if anyone has read this far into my longest ever report, THANK YOU and you should probably get back to work now.
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