| It's Winter Wonderland in Sawatch!
We started at the South Winfield trailhead after making the 2 mile drive from the lower trailhead to the 4WD parking area. We weren't too concerned about the snow yet since the surrounding peaks still appeared to have a some brown spots interspersed among the thick white stuff. We were still charged from a successful Tour de Torreys (Kelso ridge) and Grays the weekend before and weren't about to be deterred by the snow cover. Little did we realize what was in store!
The hike through the trees was mostly uneventful as the trail switchbacked through the thick forest. While there was snow on the trail, it wasn't deep enough to pose a threat. Hiking through the tress, my biggest problem was keeping my sunglasses from fogging up. As we climbed up to treeline, the conditions quickly turned south as the snow cover deepened and the only way to find the path was to follow the one set of tracks that had thankfully been laid by a lone hiker before us. Through the entire day, the only person that we encountered on their descent was this brave pathfinder!
The picture here was taken looking south at the Three Apostles just above treeline, showing the thick snow cover that completely buried the trail:
As I trudged along, the snow became heavier making traction a serious issue as I didn't know what I was stepping onto: loose scree, unstable rock, or soft grass, take your pick. Soon after, Huron peak came into view along with some sinister clouds looming over it. This picture was taken looking over the basin at the Northwest slope of Huron:
The toughest part of the climb was the section getting up to the west side of the ridge connecting Huron and Browns Peak. Every step I took resulted in a slide and after a few minutes of this action, I was just about ready to throw in the towel. I was just over two hours into the hike and decided that I needed to fortify myself with some food before tackling that pitch. As I looked back over the path I'd traversed, I saw my friend and another hiker making what looked like excruciatingly slow progress some 500 feet below. Evidently, my predicament was being shared by the few that had ventured out on this day. This picture shows my hiking pole buried in 18 inches of powder:
I finished off a bar and embarked again on what could only be called the step, slip and slide motion. What seemed like an eternity was probably closer to fifteen minutes and I was finally on the ridge connecting Browns Peak and Huron. Here is a look at Huron Peak from just below the ridge:
The trail beyond that point thankfully flattened for a bit and as I made my way to the point where it met the ridge, the howling winds suddenly died away, blocked by the hump at the ridge crest. I seized the opportunity to drop my backpack and pull out my windbreaker and skull-cap; I knew I had a fighting chance of making the summit and needed every protection I had for the last pitch.
I was underway momentarily and no sooner had I marched away from the hump, the howling winds made their presence felt. As I took one step after another, the other lone climber that had made the summit was winding his way gingerly down the snow-covered Talus. Enervated from the last stretch of climbing on uncertain terrain, I hoarsely yelled out, "How much farther?" and the only words I caught in his reply were "600" and "feet". I should've been more grateful to this hiker for it was his tracks that had gotten me that far but I was too exhausted to realize that at that moment. The last 550 feet on this climb is over a paltry 0.25 miles so the steepness was palpable. However, the boulders beneath the snow provided much better traction as I wearily put one foot in front of another.
The point at which at I actually knew that I would make the summit did not come until I was perhaps 20 feet below the peak. I looked back one last time and only spotted one hiker who had prudently turned away. I later learned from my friend that he had made it up to the ridge crest before discretion overcame valor. We both acknowledged that we'd been lucky to survive the hike in one piece and vowed to come back next July for what will surely be a very different proposition.
In all, the ascent to the peak had taken me just over 3 hours and 10 minutes but it seemed much longer. This is a picture of yours truly at the summit and the exhaustion on my face is clear:
I quickly snapped a handful of pictures from the summit but didn't linger too long as the clouds were still at hand. Here is a picture overlooking the Three Apostles:
This view looks out east from the summit:
As I launched into my descent, it became quickly evident that I'd have to give each stride some consideration in order to avoid a misstep and a nasty fall. Even exercising great caution, I did fall a few times fooled by the deception of what lay beneath the snow but the only injuries sustained were to my ego.
No more than 800 feet from the top, I ran into two weary hikers and the inevitable questions, "How hard is it the rest of the way?", "Will the weather hold out?" I looked back over at the peak and the clouds, though still dark, were scattering and I replied, "Not much worse than what you've seen so far. You'll make it." They expressed their gratitude for the much needed encouragement and we parted ways. The rest of my traverse was quite unremarkable and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. As I ran into the first of the stunted pines, I paused to gaze around at the magnificent beauty that surrounded me. The snow may not have done any of the hikers a favor that day, but it had certainly transformed the Sawatch into a winter wonderland!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):