Winter Ascent: Pikes Peak
Route: Crags Trailhead
Date: February 10, 2011
Length: About 14 miles RT
Vertical: About 4500 feet
Time: About 9 hours
Ascent Party: Dancesatmoonrise (solo)
The west bowl below Devil’s Playground at sunset, Pikes Peak, February 10, 2011
The weather has been absolutely arctic this week. Today is the first warm-up; still single digits after 10:00 am. The road to the Crags trailhead is plowed to the lower parking just past the camp. I’m able to carefully drive to the upper TH on a foot of new, packed snow.
A ski track starts into the trees, firm enough to boot nearly to the upper stream crossing, where it veers straight instead of making the left across the stream. Shortly thereafter, a cut goes left into some thick brush. I forego the bushwhack left, staying on the main track, knowing it’s wrong, and hoping it doesn’t go all the way into the thick trees and steep terrain, ending up at the large talus field below the bowl. We’ve all made that mistake before. I’m hoping my predecessor has, too. Every now and then the track turns hard left toward Stump Alley and the normal “Banana Rock” route. Just as hope waxes, the trench recants and continues upward. It’s not looking good. The line becomes steeper. The track begins to switchback. Finally, it gives up the ghost and ends, still in the trees, on the wrong side of the drainage.
It’s nearly Noon. I’m not going back down to that cut left if I can help it. I contour a new line left, sinking and breaking through obstacles to clear the drainage and get to the correct side. Soon, the effort is rewarded with the normal route – and glory be, a track is in! But not fifty feet later the new track runs out. About this time I begin to wonder if the alarm didn’t go off; it’s turning into the oddest dream. I pinch myself, and it hurts. Guess I’m stuck breaking trail again.
Under a foot of new snow, navigating the trail proves a tad difficult. A little doggie shows the way. I follow coyote tracks till they run out at a large rock, close to the bottom of the bowl at treeline, where fresh windslab in the small, thin trees cracks loose. A large plate the size of a granite countertop cracks out. Two or three tries at different places yield the same result. The cracks want to propagate; the slab is not well attached. Odd for a west facing aspect; upslope winds this last storm.
Directly above, grass and rock protrudes through thin snow leading to large blocks. I gain vertical through the thin snow along the rocks, then traverse into the bowl on a higher contour, where the bowl’s angle is lower and there’s not much slab. The remainder of the bowl is ok. Knowing it could be after dark on the way back, or tracks windblown, I worry a bit, look back, and make a mental note to stay high in the bowl for the return.
Cresting the top of the alpine bowl, Pikes Peak rises dramatically out of the broad, flattening alpine saddle. One can almost hear Also Sprach Zarathustra. (Edit: Unfortunately one cannot see Pikes Peak rising dramatically: Alas, the little Canon 1200 that has worked so hard the last two winters is starting to fail. This report and the one to follow (Shav/Tab) are a best-effort basis. Shav/Tab really suffered - more than half the photos unuseable.)
Views down into Devil’s Playground are magnificent. The ski chutes, hidden from view, reside over the left edge, easily accessed from the toll road in spring via the Devil’s Playground road. The road itself is a fairy-book tale, meandering through keyhole notches in exquisite rock formations.
Gaining the toll road, one of the more unique unnatural hazards of the peak presents itself: “road avalanche.” Often caused by large, dangerous mammals no longer thought to exist, the Great Smokey Mastodon is a modern day subspecies whose habitat is apparently restricted to this narrow area on a Colorado fourteener. I am actually able to witness two of these beasts today. Armed with giant rotary tusks of steel, they can be imposing, but rarely attack beyond the safety of the road, where they spew snow on either side in order to trap unsuspecting prey. Apparently their activity is just winding down for the day. I steal past, unsuspected.
The road seems long, but the sudden appearance of a wide, paved Class 1 route magically appearing in the alpine cannot be underestimated. It’s like the trench from heaven. I follow, as it meanders through several blissful miles of winter solitude to a corner way back near the top, where cog rail tracks lead to the summit house.
Looking down the huge east bowl from near the summit of Pikes Peak. Note Garden of the Gods in the distance.
The plume coming off the top suggests things are about to get nasty. Just as I summit, woof, the legendary Pikes Peak gusts start to bark, and dog me the rest of the way down. It bites. I get some shots of wind ripping snow across the alpine desert. Ambient temps are likely below zero. Fortunately, that pair of Great Smokey Mastodons have gone back to the cave for the night.
A mile above Devil’s Playground, I’m briefly disoriented. That’s the Oil Creek drainage to the left, so the Playground has to be further up. I think. It seems like I must have passed it. I promise myself not to panic till the road starts making switchbacks down the north side.
The Devil’s Playground evinces a sense of Stonehenge, in its bleak beauty. Today, the bare windswept alpine heightens an awareness of solitude, sundown, and distant civilization. I quickly get snowshoes back on, trade light gloves for full mitts, and quicken the pace, hoping to circumnavigate the little terror patch at treeline while there’s still ambient light. The half moon at sundown may help, though the high winds are drifting in much of the track.
The broad west-facing bowl is an area where people often become lost. It is easy to see why. Several drainages stretch out into the trees below. With the fiery glow of sunset hovering at the horizon, I locate the high traverse across the bowl to the safety of the rocks, above the slabbed area. It’s relieving to find the track at treeline, just below. Enough ambient light remains to get down to the point where the contour ties in to the normal route on the sidehill at around 11,400.
The track has been cut up quite a bit more during the day. It’s not hard to follow in the pale moonlight, but after the upper stream crossing, I don the headlamp for the quiet slog back to the car, where it’s three degrees Fahrenheit. I give thanks for the summit today, and even more thanks that the car starts.