| WINTER ASCENT OF HURON PEAK
Winter Ascent of Huron Peak
First Winter Ascent of Huron Peak, 09/10 Season
First Winter Trip Report of Huron Peak on 14ers.com
Peak: Huron Peak
Route: West approach
Length: 26 miles RT
Vertical: 5400 feet
Total time: 12.5 hours
Ken, Kirk, Sarah T, Dominic, Teresa, Jim
Excuse for a New Strategy
I'd been experimenting with a modified Nordic travel method this winter to attain peaks that are more difficult due to lengthy distances imposed by snowed-covered roads. The recipe calls for gear light enough to kick up roads and low angle trails, but heavy enough to get back down: Old alpine skis, tele bindings, light plastic boots, and Nordic wax. The strategy opens routes deeply distant from summer trailheads for human-powered winter dayclimbs. The downside includes having to change out boots. The tradeoffs for this speed include adding 6.5 pounds of pack weight (but one is often carrying the snowshoes anyway, which is 4 pounds of this additional weight,) and sacrificing 30-45 minutes RT time for changing out gear. Inclusion criteria are long roads, and low angle travel to treeline. Wind-scoured travel above treeline is a plus for this strategy, where only boots need be carried in.
In early January, Sarah T graciously helped with current info on Harvard and Columbia, from their January 1, 2010 trip. See her TR:
Sarah's team had put in a good track, and the route sounded like a good one to try the method with. At that time, Nordic wax alone would get to treeline, where it would be boots to summit. It met with limited but encouraging success. See Columbia TRs of 1-5-10 and 1-9-10:
I began to compile a dossier of routes meeting inclusion criteria. Huron Peak came up at the top of the list. By mid-January, I started looking for partners. Lots of interest, but no solid commitments. Research showed zero trip reports for Huron in calendar winter on 14ers.com or SummitPost. Just throw a little gas on that burning fire for Huron.
(I later learned that Ken Nolan has a TR on 14erworld from March 2008.)
Columbia had gone well as a solo winter daytrip, covering 18 miles in 9 hours RT, though conditions were ideal. Huron would be much more difficult, but I was prepared for a solo attempt via either the Lulu/Browns route, or a winter variation of the summer route. After conferring with one of the few alpinists to have done this route in winter, we decided the latter route was preferred, given reasonably safe snowpack conditions.
A climber in Buena Vista graciously volunteered to scope the road, where he found snowmobile tracks under the new snow. I was banking on the likelihood that there would be a packed track to Winfield, and possibly beyond. It was an educated guess based on the best research I could do, and my friend's information had helped a great deal in confirming this.
Tour de Clear Creek: 26 miles Round Trip
The map showed a steep rocky section on the Lulu/Browns route that could be circumvented by going slightly to the right (west) around the ridge. The west route (standard,) was more likely to have some type of track in. The trouble with the west approach was the first 1000 vertical feet out of the basin. It was very steep, treed, the likely had lots of snow, and given this winter's conditions, lots of depth hoar. In January it was a question of whether this might be tough snow busting. By February, with the new storms, there was no longer a question about it. This 1000 foot section was going to be the toughest part of the trip, from what I could tell.
Our actual ascent route
The ideal window comes January 16. The west aspects are all well-scoured; weather is good. Huron presents a low angle ski in, right up to the base of the steep stuff on the west side. I may not even need snowshoes, going from skins to boots. If you're reading this TR in fall or early winter, and planning to ski in, look for similar conditions, and don't miss the window.
On January 16, I need a break, and do an easier route instead, hoping conditions hold. The mountain gods admonish that when they beckon, one had best listen, or lose out. A few days later storms come in, with minimal wind, and the west aspects pile up. A trip up Princeton on January 30 makes this too clear:
The easiest and best opportunity for a solo winter dayclimb of Huron is gone. I vow not to let the next opportunity slip away.
Just what is it that drives us to want to undertake such extreme tasks? Why do we climb? We could look to the ancients: The humility and fated predeterminism of Epictetus, the recognition of the true goals of human pursuit of Epicurus..... Hmmm.... OK, to heck with the ancients.
Let us turn instead to that modern American philosopher, asking his practical opinion on the matter: Tell us, Muddy, just what is it within us that makes us seek such lofty heights?
"Must be the same ol' thing that make a tomcat fight all night…" (That Same Thing, Willie Dixon, as sung by Muddy Waters)
Oh. (So, this has become some highly evolved but thinly veiled emotional survival of the species? Seems so simple…Just sex, huh? Yet the implications for human behavior are so profoundly far reaching.) Ah...Thanks, Muddy.
Turning back to that sleeping giant... A climber wants to do Missouri from the west side on January 30. I tell him that will be harder than Huron, and we're still at a "considerable" avy rating near and above treeline. I join the large group on Princeton, instead, waiting patiently for prime conditions, essential for a solo day ascent of Huron. He ends up not doing Missouri. Two days later I read Sarah T's TR - they do Missouri that weekend. The sleepy little Clear Creek corridor is beginning to feel just a little busier than I'd like.
Sarah's team is incredibly prolific this year. Their TR provides an account of the incredibly difficult conditions in the Sawatch right now. To raise my blood pressure further, they bump into a fellow who attempts Huron as a solo overnighter. Turns out he is unsuccessful. This means two things: One, there is a partial track in. And two, it also doesn't take much imagination to figure out that interest in Huron is mounting. I can soon say goodnight to the blissful somnolence of my sleeping giant. I still have a shot, but it needs to be soon.
Only now I figure Sarah and her team are on it. I sure don't want to jump them if my attempt is successful. Nor do I want to go around seconding everything her team does this winter. I wrestle with this moral dilemma. There appears no way around Fate; I blew it by waiting too long. Perfect is the enemy of good enough...
At least I know I'll be treated to a well documented TR when they get back. Oh well, I"m singin' the blues. It's Friday afternoon. I give up on the idea, knock off early, get on the bike, and bump into a dear climbing friend of 20 years, on his birthday, on May's Peak that afternoon. He is accompanied by a well known and most attractive female mountaineer. I swear, he must have been spreading the good will of those birthday vibes…
Fate intervenes at the eleventh hour. I find myself invited into the company of some fine mountaineers, to converge upon Huron for this first winter ascent of the 09/10 season, and one of the few winter ascents documented for this incredible peak. While I'd hoped to pluck this beauty while no one was looking, it is still way better to be in the ascent party on this first shot. And what a party it is!
Our Day on Huron
Photo: Sarah T
Sarah and Dominic arrive in Winfield to camp
Photo: Sarah T
Snowpack conditions are stabilizing, but the forecast bumps pops from 30% to 60%, calling for 1-3" of new snow during the day, with a significantly deteriorating forecast the following day. These are not my ideal conditions but they will have to do. Sarah and Dominic are leaving in a couple hours to pack into Winfield; I will be on 390, eight miles down-valley from them, at 5:00 am, on skis, with plans to meet them at 7:00 am. Ken will either come in that night and camp, or in the morning. I hurriedly throw the pack together and set the alarm for a three hour nap.
Novice Mistake -- What, Again??
At 4:45 am, Ken and Sarah's trucks are covered with light frost in the pre-dawn darkness, neatly parked on the south side of 390, turned around and ready to head out when they get back. The marshy section of 390 is about a mile after the ranch; roughly eight miles from Winfield. I'm excited, and can't wait to meet everyone in Winfield. I immediately get the truck stuck.
Getting out to assess the situation, I blame the puff-ball SUV, wishing for my old Jeep. This does not help. After getting over it, I realize I am also over my Huron trip. To top it off, I'm blocking the road.
Axe and Crampons? No, I'll have the Shovel and Chains, thanks.
My choices include leaving it there and getting started on the skis. This necessitates imposing upon my partners on our way out. So…what would I do? …. just keep it a secret till after we summit and bring it up casually on the way out? Not. : (
So....I accept fate and recognize I've ruined my shot at Huron by trying to skip the hors d'oeuvres and going straight to the main course, plunging face-first into humble pie. Shovels and chains are in the back. How many times have I traded skiing for shovelling? Ugh!
But to my surprise, it comes unstuck pretty quickly; though it's still pointed the wrong way. I'm not risking going further in to find the turn around point. I slowly back out for over half a mile in the dark, engage a 20-point turn-around near a tree on the top of a gradual hill (have you ever smelled burning power-steering fluid?) and put the car into peaceful repose, neat and tidy, along the south side of the road, pointed the correct direction. Ahhh.....Good car; Gooood car. (Expletive, expletive…) I realize I'm still sweating.
The mistake burns a critical hour. I ponder the options: Head home, or go over to La Plata and catch Dan and his crew. No. I'd promised Sarah I'd be there. I'll have to catch up.
It's a warm morning, the storm looks delayed, the waning half moon and the first light of dawn obviate the need for a headlamp. I leave the car at 6:12 am.
Going Into Battle
Augustus Caesar reputedly admonished his troops, "Festina Lente!" ("Make Haste Slowly.") I begin to understand this concept, but only after yet another mistake.
The skis are slipping badly on the well-packed road. I'm reminded there's base-wax since the last trip, but no warm wax on. In my haste, I choose to push on, figuring the snow further up is less faceted, and the wax will eventually stick. I wrench my back and exhaust myself with the slipping and sliding. I try to skate. I can't get a rhythm. Even before Vicksburg, the sun is up. The hard snow gives way to a snowmobile track and some powder, but still no kick. By Rockdale, I'm exhausted.
Dawn's Blush: Mount Hope (13933)
Got My Mojo Workin'
Perhaps it is Mount Hope, showing her magnificence in the first rays of dawn, that later convinces me to stop and smell the roses. Or at least the red wax. In my haste I cut my thumb on the ski edge as my hand slips trying to get the warm wax to stick to the cold base. Normally it's not a problem, but normally I'm waxed the day before. Yet, after this, things take a huge turn for the better.
To my surprise, the buzzards under my feet sprout wings and start to fly. Suddenly, there's power and glide in the kick. I find myself moving down the road with rhythm and pace. I can practically hear Muddy Waters singing, "Got my Mojo Workin'"! Yes, my mojo is now indeed, at long last, working.
As I pull into Winfield, I'm finally moving faster on the boards than I would be on the hoof...
Winfield in Winter
Yet, the wax mistake had burned another half hour. It's 8:45 am. Sarah and Dominic's tent is silent. Dawn's blush is long since gone. I'm alone. The morning sky is becoming dark with storm. I pound down some water and push on.
The skis are working well now. The 200 vertical hill section on the way to the TH is easily surmounted. Moving past the Lulu Gulch turnoff on my left, I see no tracks up that way, just big pillows of uncut snow on the 4wd road…Brown's is out, west face is in. I intend to catch my crew.
South Clear Creek Basin
The threat of weather makes good. Wind and snow obscure the tracks in the basin, but there is an old snowshoe track underfoot that is not hard to stay on. I smile as the beauty of winter smiles back.
Finally at the summer TH, I try not to think about the 3400 verts remaining to the summit. The snowshoe tracks fork, the older packed line goes past the gate on the CDT; our party's track goes up Huron on the summer TH.
The Summer TH and fork with the CDT
My name is all over this route. Sarah has not given up on me. Exhausted but encouraged, I imagine them to be just up ahead, where I can help my fellow apostles of pain at the front of the trenchline.
Message from an angel
I call out once, twice. The return comes only as faint echoes rolling out of the Silver Basin fork from behind me. I hurriedly drop the skis, don boots, gaiters, and snowshoes, get into the trench, and start the long-anticipated 1000 foot death march.
Trenchcraft: . . . .
(Photo: Sarah T)
The section out of the basin is anticipated to be the toughest part of the route, and does not disappoint. The leader swings the line straight up, staying north of the gulley. I'm pleased to finally burn through some vertical, though find negotiating the terrain somewhat improbable in snowshoes.
Tracking up steep loose sugar snow over rock, dirt, and deadwood, it looks like these guys are making dead-accurate foot placements like they're wearing climbing slippers. I seem to be having trouble with these beartraps at the ends of my feet.
My proposed route lies 200 yards further south, to the shallow ridge just north of the gulley, where it's slightly less steep, but I stay the course. Is it even possible to catch these guys? I need to get out of the trees and into the bowl, where I can assess the situation. Or are they already descending?
Demigods on Olympus
Above the trees and onto the first knoll around 12k, the sun peeks through and I perceive five dots in the upper bowl, 1000 verts above, moving toward the notch in the ridge.
Finally in the Zone
Judging progress, I estimate catching them by the summit, if I can get that far. I honestly don't know where I'm pulling it out of. Eleven miles skiing in, half on base wax, plus the debacle at the car, wastes me, and I'm feeling it. I'm on the last liter of water. The thought of food nauseates. I recognize being a little on the ragged edge: a tad spooky in this environment.
I consider giving up. I'm not having a good day. But once in the alpine zone, my eyes begin tugging at the summit. It pulls me. The bowl is gorgeous. I can see everything.
Dots in the Bowl . . . .
The View from The Front
(Photo: Sarah T)
Ascending the bowl . . . . . . .
Ken and Kirk on right, Jim at distant left
(Photo: Sarah T)
The second wind comes. Good thing, because there's still another 2000 verts to go.
The 12's melt away. The dots move into the notch on the ridgeline (13,400.) I want to see the view over the notch at 13,400, but the weather takes another turn for the worse.
At the notch, there is finally more rock than snow. Now in spikes, I can move. I'm catching the group. Clouds roll in, winds pick up, pelting snow stings the face, the ridge at the notch becomes an ethereal causeway over a void of nothingness.
At the notch ...
(Photo: Sarah T)
Kirk leads the final pitch
(Photo: Sarah T)
The story is about to climax. Nature's stage hands enter with an excellent job setting up wintry conditions, augmenting the drama of our final pitch of snow-covered talus. The summit of Huron Peak rises 600 vertical feet from the ridge, into fog and white-out.
Dominic starts up the NE ridge
(Photo: Sarah T)
(Photo: Sarah T)
Ken . . . . . . . . . . .
(Photo: Sarah T)
I catch up to Teresa and introduce myself. Her warm demeanor and polite modesty belie her impressive mountaineering accomplishments, of which I am later to learn. I reach deep within, and continue upward. Huron is benevolent today.
Near the summit I finally meet with Sarah, Dominic, Kirk, and Ken. The weather adds an ethereal drama to the encounter. The four are huddled against the wind in the rocks on the south side of the summit. Kirk points me to the summit, 200 linear feet above, where I pay my respects and give thanks to this mountain that has forgiven my folly and allowed me to stand atop its highest point, in a mid-winter whiteout, if only for a few minutes. It's 12:45 pm. It is darker than dusk, feeling like a dream.
Ken stands on the summit of Huron Peak
(Photo: Sarah T)
Huron Peak summit, February 6, 2010
Three liters of water are almost gone. I'm exhausted. I'm too nauseated to eat. It has still not quite sunk in that the toughest half of the battle is in the bag. I finally feel like I've paid my dues for missing the Antero trip in December with Steve, where I later saw the photos of the harsh conditions they endured. This is not that bad, but it is still winter, and feels good to actually see wintry conditions in winter.
Sarah and Dominic look back
on Jim and Teresa as
Kirk leads the descent...
The clouds break. Ken takes the steep section of the snow-filled bowl, and in a moment, he is 1000 feet below. Watching this graceful snowshoe glissade is a religious experience. I've seen Steve do this same thing. Elegant, graceful, fast, efficient. I watch as the group becomes tiny dots in the distance, and the clouds roll in around us. I decide to take my time. I focus on the task at hand, secure in the understanding that Huron had summoned me, and I had answered. Today, here and now, was the correct time and place for this ascent. We think we choose. I think not.
(Photo: Sarah T)
My time budget is 3:00 pm to make the summer TH. I have the luxury to give it an extra hour and go slow. I'd given everything I had for Huron; Huron watchs over me. (And also, a tiny red dot in the distance that appears and disappears as I reach every overlook shelf on the alpine descent.)
Getting down the dreaded steep section at 11,500 is not as bad as the worry. I take my time with the field session in Snowshoeing 101, occasionally breaking from the steep loose stuff by getting into the uncut thigh-deep sugar. My quads are really feeling it: pretty unusual on "only" a 5000 vertical climb. It becomes evident that the speed of skiing is a trade off for the extra energy expenditure of getting there fast. I hadn't considered how hard descending in these conditions might be. By the time I get to the skis I'm thanking God to finally be at the bus stop.
The skis now under foot, I feel like a kid with the keys to the car. It's 3:45 pm. The ride out on the 4wd is all glide, no kick, pure bliss. Not a lot of horsepower, but no pedalling either.
I catch up and chat with Teresa. She offers water. I feel bad about taking her water and wonder how many more times it will take before I learn to carry more – or just the micro-stove. We chat as we arrive in Winfield, to find the crew mobilizing for the long eight mile slog back to the cars.
It is my understanding that no man or woman has done all 100 highest Colorado peaks in calendar winter, but that Ken is at the front of the pack, and may well be the first. He is also a delightful man. I have a deep respect for his accomplishments, but it comes out in a somewhat comical way. I re-introduce myself, take his hand, bow slightly, kiss his hand, and proclaim, "Godfather!" Ken plays along, and the group breaks up with laughter, as pleasant conversation ensues. We gather to head down the long road home.
Sarah T, Dominic, Kirk, and Godfather Ken
I stay with the group for a bit, though lack of food and water is really getting to me. These are some very charismatic folks, and it is hard to tear myself away.
Incredible Team: Sarah and Dominic
Before I take off, we get some photos. Sarah takes a shot of Ken, Kirk, Dominic, and me. I realize today has been the high point of my winter.
Jim, Dominic, Kirk, and Ken
(Photo: Sarah T)
I'm amazed at how incredibly fit, skilled, and driven these folks are, the true epitome of the human potential, and for all that, they are low-key, relaxed, and easy going. I guess if you're used to taking all the curve balls mother nature throws at you in the mountains, you learn to roll with the punches.
Ken has a great sense of humor, and keeps us entertained during the tedious monotony of the long slog home.
I finally tear myself away and get kickin'. Saying goodbye to my new friends, I engage the quads, only to find the afterburners are pretty much on empty, and the road back, I swear, has more uphill than the way in. I'm going to have to go back and verify this theory next summer.
Still, as I part the group, I'm impressed with how much faster kicking and gliding is, versus slogging in boots, even on the flats. The energy cost of that speed is also more painfully evident than ever. I soon greet Teresa and we exchange good-byes. It's snowing hard now, three inches of new. It seems I've passed Rockdale at least three or four times. Wax is working well. Yet each kick is painful on the thighs and exhausting on the lungs.
The daunting magnitude of the remaining distance begins to take hold. I'm dehydrated but must go on. There is no way around it. I stop occasionally to eat some snow.
"It could be a spoonful of water, to save you from the desert sand…" (Spoonful, Willie Dixon.)
I'm finally at Ken's and Sarah's trucks, but can't find mine. Turns out it's a long ways back where I should have parked it to begin with. I'm happy to finally see that liter of water, and the ignition switch, at 6:49 pm.
I suddenly realize Huron is in the bag, the first winter ascent of Huron for the 09/10 season, and one of the few winter ascents of this peak ever. "Could be a spoonful of diamonds, Could be a spoonful of gold; just a little spoon of your precious love, satisfy my soul".
Even a day ago, I could not know how this fire for Huron would play out. In many ways, this was the best ascent of my winter so far, and I owe that, in part, to the wonderful folks whom I truly had the good fortune to enjoy. (And another blessed godfather who sets land speed records at 3 hours per mile in winter... : )
I wish to thank Sarah and Dominic, and Ken, Kirk, and Teresa, for an incredible trip and warm comradeship. I hope The Fates see fit to find us travelling together yet again, my kindred spirits, in our future endeavors.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):