Scramblin’ in the Sangres

September 2017.

Hiker Box hiked the Wind River High Route this summer, as did a few other hiker friends, and after talking about how I’d probably hate it (too much talus), I said, “I just want a long high route that has a bunch of wide open rolling ridges!” Well, it turns out that what I want is apparently to hike the CDT again, but in the meantime HB suggested a trip to the Sangre de Cristo range. He spent five days on the crest with Guthook last summer, and suggested that we hike along the ridge to the north of where his last trip was.

We both looked at the ridge on Caltopo and picked out a chunk that looked do-able. Based on the topo map we figured it would be decently wide. I pointed out one or two spots where I thought it’d get narrow– but it didn’t look too narrow, plus we figured that if it got too sketchy for me we would just bail off the ridge and hike along some trails instead.

Labor Day weekend was the perfect weekend for this. Heading down to the Sangres, we had less traffic than if we’d been going west on I-70. HB’s friend Parker and his friends Andy and Michelle joined us for this trip. This was going to be a pretty short trip, mileage-wise, and we only had about 6 or 7 miles to hike in to where we planned to camp, so we took it pretty easy and took lots of breaks, including one great stop where HB, Parker, and I helped out a woman who was doing some trail maintenance. She had her dog with her so I made sure to get in a lot of puppy time.

We set up camp near the start of the climb up to the ridge and hung out in the meadow until the sun went down and it was cold. HB and I usually backpack with just the two of us, sometimes with Mags, or solo, and so it was fun to be out with a group. We all swapped jokes and adventure stories and spent a lot of time talking about ski season (SOON!).

Our tent was super cozy and warm all night and we didn’t have a very big day planned so we got to laze around a bit. We all took our time eating breakfast, drinking coffee, and packing up before we headed towards the pass. This first mile or so was on trail, nicely switchbacked, and HB took the lead. A few switchbacks from the top of the pass, we stopped to regroup and headed off-trail towards the ridge, traversing below a pretty big rocky hump in order to avoid some extra up-and-down.

We had a bit of rocky terrain in this first little stretch of the ridge but overall it was nice and grassy and not too challenging for me. There were a few spots where I had to slow way down, but nothing scary. We hit the saddle and hiked up to the next lump on the ridge. I looked back and was pretty surprised… from this vantage point, the ridge looked a lot more imposing than it actually had been! HB has been insisting that most of the time, jaggedy ridges look a lot scarier from far away, and it turns out he was right.

We looked ahead to where we could see one of the 13ers that we’d be summitting… And immediately I got nervous. Uh-oh. This one looked pretty scary. The ridge was very rocky and jagged and there was a sharp drop-off to the east. HB and I looked around and identified a couple potential bail-out points in case we got there and it was too much for me. But first we did have to navigate some more rocky ridge. There was a little bit of exposure and scrambling here but again, nothing overwhelming. I was nervous on a few sections but I took my time and HB stayed just ahead of me for the few spots where I wanted someone to hold my hand.

At the saddle before the big climb the five of us talked about the route. Andy described it as “child’s play.” For someone who has no problem with super exposed routes and class 4, it sure was! I was definitely intimidated, but he and Michelle were pretty adamant that I’d be able to get through it all right. So we went for it!

Andy took the lead, and I followed right behind him, with HB behind me and Michelle and Parker taking up the rear. Andy easily picked out a good route and suggested that I try to stay on top of the ridge, rather than dropping down to my left where I could ignore the exposure. I was able to stay up there for most of the ridge, which was wider than it looked from afar, and only dropped down once my legs started to shake. And suddenly we were at the top of the peak! Woah!

I really couldn’t believe that I’d made it up there! I was really grateful to Andy and Michelle and Parker for the peer pressure. I know that if it had just been me and HB, we would have turned back without trying it. HB is great about helping me push my limits very gently but every once in a while you need someone to give you a harder shove. The exposure was definitely scary but I just kept telling myself that I know how to walk, and I wasn’t going to suddenly fall sideways off the mountain for no reason. (I also developed some great fear goggles and just blocked the steep drop-off from my brain. Pretending it wasn’t there helped a lot, too!)

We took a few photos at the summit and then headed down. Fortunately the rest of the ridge didn’t look quite as intimidating. There was still a lot of talus ahead, on our next big climb, but the ridge looked a LOT wider so it wasn’t as nerve-wracking to look at. All of the scary stuff was also easily bypassed by hiking slightly below the crest of the ridge, too– but I made myself stay up on top to give myself more “exposure therapy.”


When we reached the last hump on the ridge before we intersected trail again, we stopped for a quick snack break, and discussed the rest of the plan. HB and I had proposed that we hike the ridge to the trail over the pass, and follow the trail down into the valley where we would camp. The next day would involve hiking trails over two passes if we did that. After a discussion we decided to continue the off-trail adventure in order to skip one of the big climbs. But first, there was a 13er just north of us on the ridge that everyone wanted to bag. We dropped our packs and set out. I got about 1/3 of the way there and realized I was very tired, so I turned around and went back to wait with our packs and enjoy some solitary reading time.

Eventually everyone else returned from the peak and we plotted our escape route. We hiked on the ridge for a short ways and then dropped off the side and followed a grassy ramp down into the basin where we were planning to camp. From below, the route we followed looked almost impossible.

We had another great night camping. Again, it got pretty chilly, but we were cozy in our tent. In the morning we were packed up a little more quickly, and soon set off to push our way through some willows in order to intersect the trail we’d follow for the rest of the day. Once we were through the willows, it was smooth sailing. I saw five marmots as we hiked up and over the pass. On the other side of the pass, back in the basin where we’d camped the first night, the aspen leaves were already much more yellow than they’d been two days before! We cruised down back to the trailhead, and celebrated with a freezing-cold brief swim in the creek by the parking lot. Successful scrambling trip!

 

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Eagles Nest Wilderness

In 2015 I was happy to keep camping until almost Thanksgiving, but this year September ended up pretty cold and gross. HB and I had really wanted to hike the Four-Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, but the forecast that weekend in mid-September was for snow, and lots of it. Snow is fun, but not when you have extended hiking above treeline. So we made alternate plans to hike the Gore Range Trail through the Eagles Nest Wilderness. This is also part of the Silverthorne Alternate aka the Chipotle Cutoff on the CDT, so I was looking forward to hiking it so I’d actually have firsthand info about it for work.

We invited Mags with us for one last jaunt before he set off to Utah. HB and I picked Mags up on Saturday morning and we made the drive out to the Silverthorne area. We planned to use the free Summit Stage bus to get from one trailhead to the other, so we didn’t have to take two cars. This worked out, but because we didn’t actually research the bus routes or anything, it took a lot longer and wasn’t quite as efficient as it could have been. But no big deal. We left HB’s car in one of the free lots in Frisco and eventually got on the bus to Copper.

Typical Colorado

From Copper we hiked right into the woods, and hit the Wilderness boundary fairly quickly. We saw a lot of bow hunters heading out, since it was the last weekend of bow season. Also lots of day hikers with their dogs. I got to pet most of the dogs which is always a plus. The afternoon started out pretty hot, but as we hiked on it started to cool down and by the time we got towards treeline before climbing up to Uneva Pass, I was wearing all my layers plus mittens, and the promised snow had started to blow in. Ah, shoulder season! Fortunately, this trail doesn’t spend very long above treeline- which was why we picked it, knowing the weather! The climb up to and over the pass was pretty short so we were out of the worst of the wind and cold in short order. I did have to stick my hands in HB’s armpits to warm them up, but that’s to be expected.

Looking back towards Copper and spooky clouds

Da boys

We looked at our maps (and apps) and decided on a campsite for the night, near a trail junction where we’d be able to bail out the next morning if the weather was looking particularly nasty. When we got there, it started snowing again. There was a nice campsite nearby and we set up our shelters, HB collected water, and we got our stoves going so we could get some hot food into us. It was nice to hang out with Mags before his big trip and hear all about his plans and his route. After a nightcap (whiskey provided by Mags, tea provided by me!) we settled into our shelters for what would end up being one of the chillier nights of camping I’ve ever endured. HB did give me his down jacket to stuff in my sleeping bag, which helped a lot!

Chilly morning

In the morning we took our time packing up and since the weather was nice we decided to continue on the Gore Range Trail instead of bailing out. So we started our climb up to Eccles Pass. We had a bit longer above treeline this time so I was glad that there wasn’t any snow falling, just some wind. It was cold but I was feeling all right in all my layers, with my hands nestled between my back and my pack to keep them warm. The views were also great! It was so beautiful to see freshly-fallen snow, and the golden aspen trees down below us.

Hi buddy

Thankfully, the weather held out for us the rest of the hike out to the trailhead (which had a bus stop!). We enjoyed the nice weather and good company and burgers & beers at the Dillon Dam Brewery before we headed home, another great weekend in the books.

On the way up to the pass

…and coming down from the pass.

Queensway

September 9, 2017

Weather was looking iffy, thunderstorms in the afternoon, so HB pulled out his Indian Peaks book and found us a shorter trip than the ones on our to-do list (which are all 15+ miles). Queensway is a couloir on Isabella Glacier and you can climb it year-round, then scramble up to the summit of Apache Peak. We’d been talking about ski season for the past few weeks so playing in the snow sounded perfect!

We made it to Brainard Lake by 6:30 and the parking lot was already full. So we had to tack on an extra 1/2 mile or such, no big deal. We had a nice hike in to Isabella Lake and then followed the Isabella Glacier Trail up to the glacier. A group of 3 splitboarders were also on their way to climb and then ride the Queensway. So we had company for a bit of the hike and while we booted up and got our crampons on. 

The glacier starts out very gentle, and at it’s steepest is still only about 40*. I followed HB, who has the job of kicking steps by virtue of his bravery. But my feet kept slipping and I only made it up about 1/3 of the way before I was over it. If we’d been climbing up to hike back on dry trail I would have kept going but the plan was to glissade and down climb back down and from my vantage point the top 2/3 just looked too steep for me to feel comfortable going *down* it! I probably would have even kept going if I’d been dragging skis up there, but in crampons, no thanks.

So HB kept going and I very slowly down climbed until I found a flat-ish spot where I could sit, take off my crampons, and pull on my rain pants. Time to glissade! I got in some great glissading action and then sprawled out on the snow to watch/wait for HB.

HB is the tiny speck up top

 I also got to watch the splitboarders make their way down. Didn’t look like they had a lot of fun but I guess you have to get your September turns in somehow!

Working on my weird tan lines

HB was back down in no time, I barely got to enjoy the sunshine before he reached my sunbathing spot. We glissaded down to the edge of the snow together and switched back into our trail runners for the hike back to the car.

Lessons learned: next spring I’m taking the CMC snow climbing class so I can stop being such a chicken.

Mt. Belford, 14,197′

Getting out of bed for this one was hard: HB set the alarm for 4:45. Rough. But with coffee and breakfast burritos we had a decent drive from Boulder out past Leadville to the Missouri Gulch TH.

HB and I had come out here once before when we climbed the “west ridge” couloir on Missouri earlier this summer. But we’d hiked up the night before with heavy packs and camped, so it was nice to hop up the trail with just layers and lunch and water, no boots or crampons or ice axes or backpacking gear. The trail climbs and climbs. HB set a good pace, not too fast but not too slow, and we were at treeline in about an hour, good time to take a snack break.

Aspens are poppin right now

Out of the protection of the trees, it was cold. really cold. My toes got chilled and then went numb. Perks of having Raynaud’s. I kept adding layers as we climbed, first a midlayer shirt then a fleece then my windshirt. My fingers were numb in my liner gloves and rain mitts- that’s on me, since I passed over taking heavier gloves. Up to Belford is just endless switchbacks, one after the other after the other. 

Picture of HB taking a picture

Picture of HB taking a picture of me taking a picture of HB

HB kept stopping to wait for me and finally just hiked behind me. For some reason the altitude just walloped me on this one. My body felt fine but my lungs were not happy, at all. I kept stopping to gasp for breath, literally panting. Usually I feel it starting around 10,500 or 11,000 and when it hits me it’s not that bad, but this trip I was fine till about 11,500 and then just couldn’t breathe. Probably a shortage of donuts in my diet!

Well, at least I brought cake for the summit: one piece for each peak. But since I was SUPER FUCKING COLD and also couldn’t breathe, I decided that I would go back to the car instead of hiking with HB over to Oxford. If I were peakbagging I’d probably be disappointed with my body for not cooperating, but since I’m not peakbagging it was no big deal!

View from Elkhead Pass

I hiked off the summit with HB and then we split ways, him to Oxford and me over to Elkhead Pass. Figured I might as well add a mile or so of easy, pretty hiking and skip all those shitty switchbacks to boot. Of course I was on my way down the pass when I realized that HB forgot to give me the car keys…. Oops.

Gettin spooky out here

I alternated jogging and hiking down and everything was uneventful until I hit treeline again, when it started to spit graupel on me. Meh. Graupel and then more graupel and then thunder in the distance. I stopped to put on my wind jacket and when I started moving again there was a flash of lightning right in front of my damn face, so bright I had afterimages when I blinked, and thunder overhead, so loud that I shrieked. I cowered in the lightning position until my quads cramped up and then kept hiking/jogging down back to the car, no more excitement but I’m not mad about it!

Hiding from the storm


Miles: 8

Gain: 4500′

Dogs petted: 2!

When the Woods Are Not Enough

Have you seen these memes?

They started making the rounds sometime in 2016, and since then I’ve seen them posted and re-posted on my facebook feed, sometimes by my friends who lean more towards the conspiracy-theorist end of things or the ~natural living~ end of things, but most frequently by folks in the outdoor community.

Spending time in the outdoors is certainly beneficial. The Japanese coined the practice of “forest bathing,” or spending time in the woods, practicing mindfulness. This practice can decrease blood pressure and levels of stress hormones, compared to taking a walk in an urban environment. The non-profit organization Warrior Expeditions follows in the footsteps of Earl Shaffer, who “walk[ed] off the war” and became the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, in 1948. Anecdotally, I have found that immersive wilderness activities like thru-hiking tend to become very meditative. Walking long distances becomes a way to practice mindfulness, and there’s a growing body of scientific evidence to support the health benefits– both physical and mental– for integrating a mindfulness practice into your life.

But these memes aren’t really concerned with touting the very real, and very valid, health benefits of outdoor recreation. If they were, the bottom halves wouldn’t need to be present. No, the real point of these memes is to perpetuate the stigmatization of depression and other mental illnesses, while promoting a conspiracy-theorist mindset to “Big Pharma.”

Suggesting that a walk in the woods is all that’s needed to cure depression is just another way of trivializing mental illness. It’s yet another variation of “it’s all in your head; get over it.” This is a standard we apply only to mental illnesses… not physical illness. We would never suggest that people with diabetes should flush their insulin down the toilet and go rock climbing, or that someone who has epilepsy should stop taking anticonvulsants and take up kayaking instead… so why is it okay to tell a person with depression that they just need to go take a walk outside and they’ll be cured?

2013-11-21-Helpful Advice

Most of the folks who have posted this meme have responded to my criticisms of it with “I’m trying to help!!!” But, quite frankly, this meme is the opposite of helpful. Depression can be fatal, and suggesting that it’s not such a big deal and can be cured if you just go take a walk is, again, trivializing the issue. Antidepressants are, in fact, necessary for some people to manage their depression, and making blanket statements that medication is “shit” and “a life-long addiction” serves only to further the stigma surrounding mental illness. How is it helpful to conflate taking life-saving medication with abusing drugs? Considering the way our society demonizes drug addicts (which is absolutely also a problem, though I’ll keep that topic for another rant), the “life-long addiction” meme implies that folks who take antidepressants are weak-willed, and/or bad people, and/or whatever other negative stereotypes of addicts you can come up with. Is that kind of message really helpful to someone who is already in a potentially fragile state?

One of the acquaintances who most recently posted this meme responded to the criticism (mine, and another person’s) by saying “It makes me laugh when people try to rationalize these things. It’s just a meme. Outside is good for you. Big pharma is bad.”

This is probably the second-most common response I’ve seen, after “I’m trying to help!” This kind of outright dismissal allows the poster to avoid thinking critically about the content they are sharing. Saying “it’s just a meme” frames anyone who disagrees or offers a critique as overreacting, so you can easily dismiss their criticisms as invalid. So much of our communication nowadays occurs online; nothing is ever “just” a meme. The things that you say online have real impacts on real people offline. (If they didn’t, cyberbullying wouldn’t be so effective at making people feel like shit.)

This response also illustrates perfectly the unwillingness to think beyond the black-and-white of an issue and into the shades of gray. There is far more nuance into this issue than “‘Big Pharma’ is bad and going outside is good.” This completely ignores the middle ground, the reality that plenty of people need pharmaceuticals to manage their illness. Antidepressants help  them to go to school, and work, and be involved in their hobbies– and yes, to have the energy to get up and go outside. And yet those medications, drugs that allow people to live their lives, are “bad” because some doctors overprescribe them, or because people are gullible and believe everything is a conspiracy, or because our flawed healthcare system doesn’t allow medical practitioners to spend time with their patients and so drugs are often the only thing they can suggest.

I’ve been most concerned when I see this meme shared by fellow outdoor enthusiasts. A lot of folks in the community seem to buy into this idea that nature is a cure-all. And again, time in nature can have plenty of health benefits. Plenty of thru-hikers can wax poetic about how “the trail heals” and how their thru-hike made them a better person, helped them through a rough patch in their life, and so on. But what do you do if that’s not enough? If anti-depressants are shit, but going outside doesn’t make you feel better, then where does that leave you?

I think that we in the outdoor community can do better. We have to do better. We can tout the health benefits of our outdoor activities of choice, but at the end of the day we also have to accept and acknowledge that, even though we may run to the woods when we’re frustrated and upset, some people need more. And that’s okay.

Further reading:

Devon O’Neil, “To Get to the Summit, Cory Richards Had to Lose it All”
Perrin @ Pretty Good For a Girl, “Setting My Default to Happy – The Name that Changed My Life”
Christa Marie, “To the Person Who Made a Meme Calling Depression Medication Sh*t”

Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness

HB is up in Wyoming with Guthook, hiking with Wind River High Route, so I’m on my own for the weekend. I decided to take this time to do a solo backpacking trip. I have actually only done one solo overnight since I met HB, when I went to the Sand Dunes last April, so I was pretty excited to have this time to myself. I get in a decent number of solo day hikes but backpacking alone is rare for me so it’s a treat!

I drove up to Silverthorne on Friday after work and amazingly only hit a tiny bit of traffic in Denver. Magic! I was hoisting my pack up when I looked over a spotted a CDT hiker! It was German Mormon. He told me that he had actually hiked up to Ptarmigan Pass and then turned around because the weather was bad and he was tired of camping in the rain, so he was going back to spend another night in town. I felt for him, as I remember vividly the despair that sets in when you pull your soggy tent out of your backpack and climb into your damp sleeping bag for the fourth night in a row… yeah.

But now that I’m a weekend warrior and my free time is limited (ok just kind of) I won’t let a little rain stop me! So I wished German Mormon happy trails and headed up towards the mountain myself. My plan was to hike a few miles and camp near the Wilderness boundary, before popping out of treeline, so I’d be well-situated for a nice long ridgewalk the next day.

The Ptarmigan Trail was a nice walk through the trees and I even got to pet a dog! I’d left the trailhead around 6:45 and figured I’d hike till about 7:45 and then start looking for a campsite. I didn’t get as close to treeline as I’d wished but nbd. I actually think I missed a trail junction somewhere in there and hiked an extra couple miles. Oh well. It was drizzling and cool out and the walking was nice. I found one really nice flat spot but it was covered in trash, so I kept hiking. Found another that had a broken beer bottle smashed on it. Really? Just bring a can. Jerks. Most of the rest of the flat spots I found were surrounded by beetlekill. I hiked past all those spots because what if the trees fell over on top of me in the middle of the night and crushed me to death? I knew as I thought this that HB would have convinced me to camp in one of those spots. But I was on my own, no HB to talk me out of my anxiety.

I ended up finding what seemed like a nice spot nestled between two live trees with no beetlekill close enough to crush me as I slept. I even tested out the slope by lying on the wet ground. Somewhat slopey but do-able, I thought. So I set up the tarp and unpacked my pack and snuggled into my sleeping bag and my sleeping pad promptly slid completely off my ground sheet. OK. By this time it was dark, so I meandered around the vicinity of my campsite with my headlamp, trying to decide if anywhere close by would be more flat. I ended up moving my tarp about 10 ft uphill to a spot that seemed flatter. And got everything set up under the tarp again and then bam, slid right off my groundsheet again. OK, this is what happens when you listen to your worries: you camp on stupid sloping sites because you’re too nervous to camp in a flat spot that has dead trees nearby. I ended up packing up my things and hiking 5 minutes back downhill to a nice flat spot right next to the trail. Only one dead tree nearby. Much more comfortable, and I didn’t slide around at all.

I was comfortable, I was warm, and i even took 2 benadryl, but I couldn’t sleep. I know I slept but by 5am I was wide awake and I felt like I’d been wide awake the whole night. I made myself lie down for another 45 minutes and then couldn’t take it anymore, the birds were loud and my eyes kept popping open. I never sleep well my first night at altitude so I’m not sure what I expected. I packed up and made a breakfast drink (instant coffee, instant hot chocolate, and chia seeds– cold! actually not bad, and tastes like chocolate milk kind of maybe?). Up the trail! I kept having to stop to catch my breath. Tired from not sleeping.

I was getting close to treeline when I saw a nice deer grazing… then a mama bird (grouse?) who tried to lead me away from her 3 little baby birdlets. And a beautiful undercast in front of the Gore Range. Nice.

As I hiked up towards Ptarmigan Peak I decided I didn’t actually want to hike the entire loop I’d planned after all. Originally I was going to spend 2 nights out buuuuut I just wasn’t feeling it. I guess it was a combo of not sleeping well, my IT band issues flaring up again, and not feeling like I “had” to stick it out on a trip when I wanted to sleep in my own bed that night. Kind of nice to be able to make that decision without worrying about cutting short someone else’s fun time. Once I decided to just do the ridgewalk I was much happier and was able to actually get some nice speedy hiking in.

One of the things I love about Colorado is the endless number of awesome ridgewalks that are out here. And this ridgewalk did not disappoint! I had strong winds that pushed me sideways just a little bit, numb toes for a while, a funny ptarmigan, an entire herd of elk, that awesome undercast, some tread that kept disappearing and then appearing again, and not one single other person until I reached the Acorn Creek Trail junction. Really- the whole ridge to myself!

I was happy I’d decided to bail once I got to Acorn Creek trl and looked back- the thunderheads were building up nice and high and if I’d been planning to stick with my original loop I would have still had a few miles- plus one last big ol climb- to deal with above treeline. And let’s face it, my legs were shot. I ended up doing a little over 14 miles (and over 3800′ of elevation gain, according to Caltopo!) which is the longest day I’ve done since the Bootheel? So I think that’s pretty good. Not everything needs to be ~epic~ and intense.

The Acorn Creek Trail was a quad-burner, so steep to go down and I was impressed with the day-hikers i saw going up. As the grade leveled out the flowers really came out. So beautiful! I was definitely happy that I went down this way.


 At the bottom I started to walk on the road to Hwy 9 when I saw a big ol husky in someone’s yard. She trotted towards me, I said Hi, and she climbed through the fence to come sniff me. I gave her some pats then tried to get her to get back in her yard but she trotted off down the road, so I knocked on the door of the house and told her human that his dog had gone off on an adventure. Silly pup. After that diversion I made it to Hwy 9 and spent only about 5 minutes with my thumb out before a wonderful woman and her daughter picked me up and gave me a ride back to Silverthorne. I just had another mile or so from where they dropped me to my truck and I was so happy to change into a clean t-shirt and my sandals. And after a coffee and a giant sandwich, hit the road- ready for a shower and sleeping in my bed!

Chicago Basin, July 2-5

HB has been working a weird schedule and had July 2-5 off for the holiday/his weekend, so I took a couple days off work as well and we decided to hit up Chicago Basin. We booked train tickets out of Silverton, which was a six-and-a-half hour drive from our house… ugh. Driving out to SW Colorado, we both wished we had two weeks instead of four days to hang out here.

We stopped in Ouray for lunch and then picked up some hitchhikers on our way to Silverton, and make it with plenty of time to catch the train.

The train ride was interesting. Going through the Animas River Canyon was beautiful, and I enjoyed looking at the river rushing by. We got to the Needleton stop, the trailhead for Chicago Basin, around 3:30. There were about 30 other backpackers getting off the train along with us; the conductor told us they’d dropped off 150 the day before. HB and I snagged our packs and quickly hiked away from the huge cluster of Boy Scouts and others and headed up the trail.

It’s a nice solid climb up to where you start to find good campsites. Along the way we ran into Guthrie and Twinkle and some of their friends, which was fun! Small world 🙂 HB and I managed to find a nice campsite hidden from the trail with no one else around… just some mountain goats. We cooked dinner, watched the alpenglow, and snuggled into our sleeping bags, getting ready for an early wake-up time for the next day’s hike.

I love columbine… So pretty!

We were up and hiking before 7. It was super chilly so I hiked as quickly as I could, in my running shorts and wind jacket, with my gloved hands stuffed into my armpits. If I’d been smarter I would have brought a slightly bigger day pack, so I could have carried my down jacket… oh well. We didn’t see anyone else on the trail for over a mile, till we ran into a group of 10 friends making their way up to the twin lakes. We passed them, then passed another group of 4, making good time up to the lake. We took a break at the lake to fuel up and get ready for Windom Peak.

Neither of us had brought our ice axe, just microspikes, so at first we were a little anxious looking at the snow fields on the way up to Windom. But the first snow field was shallow, so we crossed it without issues to some rocks that ran up the steepest part of the slope. We avoided most of the snow by staying on the rocks, and then just had to traverse another shallow slope to get to the base of the scrambley part of the climb. No big deal! We did, however, see a group of 3 dudes trying to ascend straight up the steep part of the snow field. One had only trekking poles, one had an ice axe strapped to his pack, and the third at least had his axe in his hand but it was facing the wrong way. Hmm.

The next part of the climb was pretty fun. There was intermittent trail and where there wasn’t trail, the boulder-hopping was easy. We passed a couple who were wearing heavy leather mountaineering boots and helmets. The woman seemed really impressed with our pace. TBH I was pretty impressed with me as well- I probably haven’t been this fit since I was in the middle of thru-hiking. But, the couple caught up with us once the route started to turn into more of a scramble. HB and I noticed the cairned route was under snow, so we suspect the way we climbed was a bit more difficult than usual. He was surprised that Windom was listed as “class 2” on 14ers.com and not “class 3”. Either way, I enjoyed the scrambling and handled it pretty well, especially since I was able to avoid most of the exposure by following the mountaineering boot couple instead of HB in a few places!

Well, we got basically to the summit, and it was fairly crowded, so HB suggested we sit and eat lunch. So we sat where I could see a nice drop-off, which was not a great idea, cause that was just food for the fear puppy. I tapped the USGS survey marker, flat-out refused to climb up on the actual summit block, and then HB had to coax/drag me across the large boulders on the summit while I tried to stop hysterically crying. Oh well, someday I’ll get over this fear of exposure.

Close enough for government work

Once I got over my fear attack, the way down was just fine. It was slow going but not too bad, actually less scary than the way up, and definitely less scary than the couloir on Missouri. We picked up a stray halfway down the scrambley part, a guy who did not want to keep climbing up because he didn’t like the exposure or the scrambling. I feel you, dude. We were most of the way back to the snow, when we saw the mountaineering boot couple trying to traverse across a steep snowfield… they had their crampons on, but no ice axes. Two minutes later I heard HB say “holy shit, she just fell!” I looked over and the woman had fallen all the way down the slope and was lying on her back. The man had either fallen as well, or deliberately glissaded down to here and was lying near her. We yelled down to see if they were okay and got a thumbs-up, so, we went on our way.

When we got to the snow, HB and I split ways. He headed across the snow to climb Sunlight, which is a class 4 route that you could not pay me enough money to do. I snapped on my microspikes and re-traced our route through the shallow snow and the rocks back towards the lake. I ran into the mountaineering boot couple on the way… the woman was a bit banged up and had snowburn from sliding but was otherwise okay. Pretty scary. I talked to them for a bit; they’d climbed 38 of the 14ers and two of the Seven Summits, so I’m not sure why they thought that traversing a steep snow slope without ice axes was a good idea. As per my last post, we all make mistakes, but their traverse was also completely avoidable, so, not sure what they were thinking. I was glad they were both okay, though!

I enjoyed my hike back down to our campsite… picked up a broken trekking pole to pack out (don’t leave your trash on the trail, thanks!). Got back to our tent around 2:30 and decided to take a nap. HB was back around 4, said he enjoyed the climb up Sunlight and I definitely would have hated it. 🙂 We hung out for a little while, then made dinner, waited for bed time… we really need to work on our base camping and car camping strategies… we’re so used to backpacking trips where we hike till dinner time and then go right to bed!

The next morning HB got up early again to go climb Eolus and North Eolus. Both are class 3 and there’s a “catwalk” to Eolus that did not look like something I’d enjoy, so I decided to skip it. I slept in until a mountain goat fight next to our tent woke me up, and then dragged myself out of my sleeping bag and started my own hike up to Columbine Pass.

The trail up the pass was pretty steep but surrounded by wildflowers and dotted with old mines. The mines were super creepy! I made pretty good time climbing up till I popped out of treeline, and a bit after that the elevation started to hit me so I slowed down and took more rest time. But I did make it up the pass, where I sat and ate several snacks and had a staring contest with a giant marmot.


I wanted to hike over to another lake, so I started to head that way. When I was about 200 ft from the top of the little rise before the lake, I looked back and saw what looked like big tall crunchy clouds… thunderclouds… no thank you! I figured, it’s not worth getting stuck in a storm above treeline, so I turned around and hiked back to the pass. Of course when I got there, the clouds didn’t look nearly as bad as they had looked before… oh well. I hiked down the pass to a field of wildflowers and took a long break on a rock, enjoying the sun. Then slowly meandered my way back to camp. I got back only 30 minutes before HB, so we traded stories of our days and then spent more time doing nothing in camp.

The last day was our hike out! We packed up and hit the trail around 8:15. We took a swim in the creek before hitting the trailhead where several other people were also waiting for the train. And then had a nice relaxing train ride back to Silverton. Overall it was a fantastic trip and I’m looking forward to getting back to the San Juans!

We Climbed the Wrong Couloir

I’ve been after HB to take me on an “easy” snow climb pretty much since last year, when he took the snow climbing class through CMC and told me all about it. We did a nice easy climb up in RMNP back in April, which was pretty fun for me, so this past weekend HB and I decided we’d climb one of the North Face Couloirs on Missouri Mountain.

The last climb we did, I used my regular ol’ Keen winter hiking boots… I mean I have universal crampons, so it worked, but wow. If you’ve never tried to climb a snow slope in crampons and hiking boots, take my word for it that it sucks and don’t do it. My calves were on fire! So our first step in this adventure was to get me some actual mountaineering boots. I have tiny baby feet so finding footwear that fits properly is often a challenge, but fortunately I was able to snag a pair of Salewas in a size 6 that felt just fine. Already had my crampons and ice axe- so I was feeling ready to go and excited!

We drove out to Missouri Gulch trailhead on Friday evening and started hiking in around 6. We clomped up the (kinda steep) trail to just below treeline, where we cooked dinner and set up camp. I was really glad that I’d brought camp shoes, because hiking in stiff-soled mountaineering boots is not exactly a comfortable experience! I didn’t sleep particularly well, and was definitely groggy when HB woke me up at 5:30 the next morning, but woke up pretty quickly in the chilly morning.

Good morning

We were on the trail and hiking up towards the couloir a bit after 6am. Maybe 1/4 mile from our campsite, we noticed the grass was covered in frost. Good news for the snow! We had a few sketchy water crossings to maneuver: water just high enough that it would have come over our boots if we’d just walked across, and all the rocks that were poking out above the water were coated in glassy ice. But we both made it across without falling in or soaking our boots, which was nice.

Not heading to Missouri Mountain

We were taking a break so I could eat breakfast when another couple caught up to us. “Are you hiking Missouri?” they asked. “We’ve never done this one before.” We told them that we were planning to climb the couloir; they were headed up the West Ridge trail. The guy had a GPS strapped to his pack. We noticed where they turned off to get to the West Ridge trail. The couloirs on Missouri are just a bit further along the trail than that route. So we turned off the trail shortly after the spot where they had left it.

Snow bridge!

I thought it was weird that there weren’t any cairns or signs of a use trail, for either the West Ridge, or the couloir routes. Even though neither is the standard route, this is a 14er we’re talking about here. But I shrugged that off, especially once I noticed another set of footprints headed the same way we were going. When we got to the base of the couloir, that also didn’t seem quite right… It just didn’t look like the photos I’d spent at least an hour staring at on 14ers.com. HB pointed out the couloir we were going to take, and I asked him a few times if he was SURE that this was the right couloir… He was sure. And I had seen those footprints, and those other hikers with a GPS were headed up the same mountain. So, it was definitely the right couloir, right?

Nah. Not even the right mountain. We climbed up a random couloir on a random 13er too far north up the ridge.

Oops

But let’s back up to the actual climb. Everything started out great. My new boots didn’t make my calves want to die when I was kicking steps in or when I had most of my weight on my toe points, and the slope was shallow enough at first that I thought, “wow, this is great! what joyous fun I am having!” And then things got steeper, and steeper, and I looked down, and one of my feet slipped, and on the next step my other foot slipped, and have I mentioned ever that my biggest fear is falling from a height and so I’m terrified of exposure and steep terrain? Oh yeah. This couloir was not the first time that poor HB has had to retrace his steps and come get me and talk me through the terrain… I’m sure it won’t be the last time, either. (And why did I want to climb a couloir when I am terrified of heights? We can’t know.)

Steep

So we stopped and took a break on a nice solid rock and I decided that I wanted to keep going. After some water and sour patch kids I felt better, and HB had also promised to stay closer to me, and to kick in his steps closer together so I could use them more easily. We were about a third of the way up the couloir, so we climbed up another third of the way to another nice solid rock. I got through this third of the climb much better: I took some advice from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and decided that I could calmly climb 10 steps at a time. So I counted my 10 steps– axe, step, 1. axe, step, 2. etc.- and then stopped to breathe, and then climbed up 10 more steps, over and over and over. I didn’t look down. I used HB’s steps. I only started to get really scared again when I had to traverse to get to our rock resting place, but I still handled that marginally better than the last time! HB talked me through it again, reminded me that I have done plenty of steep traverses and I know what I’m doing on that kind of terrain. He also told me, “You’ve skied stuff steeper than this before!” I have definitely not skied stuff steeper than that couloir before but I told him (and myself!) that he was right.

Photo by HB

After another 10 minutes of resting, water, and sour candy snacks, we were ready to tackle the last third of the climb. I was absolutely convinced that the slope got steeper about 10′ higher than our heads. HB reassured me that it got steeper just for that one little stretch, and then it would get much shallower and easier. I am not sure why I ever believe him when he says things like that to me, because he’s never right… but I believed him! I kept up my 10 steps at a time, and everything was going great until my right foot slipped. Of course my left foot and my ice axe were both firmly planted in the snow, and nothing happened to me, but it was still really nerve-wracking– not a great experience when you are afraid of heights and clinging to what feels like a near-vertical wall of snow. After that, unfortunately, I started to get nervous again. I had to stop to breathe deeply after every 5 steps instead of every 10. I kept my eyes firmly glued to the snow in front of my face, because every time I looked up I couldn’t ignore the fact that I was climbing a couloir that was much, much steeper than I was comfortable with.

By the time we were almost to the top, the snow was mushy. HB’s steps were more like postholes. I wanted to get the fuck off that snow ASAP. Unfortunately I hadn’t taken into consideration the effort required to get out of the couloir and onto solid ground… First I had to traverse, using HB’s postholes in the mushy snow, over to some dirt and crumbly rock. HB assured me that the rock was “really solid” so I grabbed a nice big boulder and– wobble wobble! Not actually that solid. And to top it off, I had to LOOK DOWN AT MY FEET to make sure I stepped on solid rock or dirt and didn’t get my crampons caught on anything. Looking down is really the worst thing ever. Between my boots I could see the rock, but I could also see this impossibly steep slope falling away below my feet, just open snow, and then jaggedy upthrusts of rock sticking out about 50′ below that. Nope nope nope nope. HB, who has more patience than anyone I know, ended up having to haul me up about 4′ from the little ledge I was on, onto the more solid dirt and grass, because I was just frozen with fear and insistent that I couldn’t move.

Looking down from the top

And as he pulled me up onto the top, out of the couloir, I said/sobbed, “are we on the top?” and he replied, “well… we are on /A/ top!” Because yeah, we were not on Missouri Mountain. Uh… oops.

Still pretty tho

As soon as I caught my breath I told him, “you know… this is exactly the kind of story that when someone posts it online, you and I both say ‘what kind of idiot would make that kind of mistake?'” Well I guess now we know what kind of idiots make these kind of mistakes… it’s us!

We took a break and then bopped our way across the ridge to Missouri. We figured we might as well, since we were basically there. The crumbly, slippery trail would normally have given me pause, but after the couloir seemed bearable. So we summitted, ate snacks, and rested for a bit before heading back down. We took the West Ridge down, and looked at the couloir we would have climbed, if we’d had the correct mountain… it looked similarly steep so I figured I couldn’t be too upset with HB for taking me up the wrong couloir! We did get to glissade down a couple of snowfields as well, which was fun.

By the time we got to our campsite, where we’d left our tent and all our camping things, I was exhausted. But I got to change out of my heavy boots into my sandals for the rest of the hike down! We took a decently long break while packing up and I scarfed down a delicious cinnamon roll that I’d packed in. Good choice for sure. We finally decided to leave when a middle-aged couple stopped where we were sitting to take a break, and sat down uncomfortably close to me. Ok byeeeeee! I hopped my way down the trail, happy that my feet could breathe again, and only slipped a couple of times on the gravel. By the time we got to the parking lot, about 24 hours after we’d left the car, I was totally beat and my legs were shaking. I probably couldn’t have hiked another mile.

Things I learned:
– If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t right;
– One of us should have a GPS app on our phones for when we’re in disagreement about where exactly we are;
– Stiff-soled boots make a huge difference in comfort for climbing, but are terrible for hiking… always bring sandals for the way back to the car;
– We should both probably stop being so condescending when we read/hear about other people making dumb mistakes;
– Couloirs are scary but with enough stubbornness I can apparently do almost anything.

Lost Creek Loop

Day 1

Trailhead doggos.

HB and I set off from the Goose Creek TH around 2. It was hot! I was glad to be back on trail and HB was sure ready for a weekend after his 10 day long shift.

This is a really nice loop. We meandered along the creek for a while and passed several groups of people already camped out for the night.

There was some climbing but it felt good to stretch my legs on an uphill climb. Especially good since I’d also managed to get my pack down to <15 lbs including food and a liter of water. 😉

HB and I saw a moose!

And then found a nice stealth campsite across the creek. We managed about 10 miles and were both pretty tired so we were glad to eat dinner and go to sleep!

Day 2

We got up around 6:30 and miraculously I was ready to go before HB, walking around 7:10. We had a lot of mellow flat walking along the creek all day.

HB and I tried to guess when we’d see the first backpackers on the trail. We passed by 11 campsites before we saw our first person packed up and hiking at 8:53! It would have been nice to sleep in a little… Maybe on the next trip.

We hiked near another trailhead so we got to see lots of dogs!

We had a big climb near the end of the day. Up to Bison Pass and then even more climbing. Finally we made it up to the top of the climb, to lots of lumpy rocks and wind. We found a slightly less windy spot to stop and take a break and rest my knee which had been hurting me all day.

HB and I camped early, around 5:30, and were at a loss for what to do… Guess we should have slept in that morning! Oh well, it was a beautiful night and I slept great on our soft campsite. 

Day 3

In the morning I woke up with my knee still hurting. Ugh. I popped some ibuprofen and started hobbling down, around 6:45. We had about 3,000 ft of descending to do. We both guessed that we wouldn’t see another backpacker on trail till 9 again and we were kind of right though we did see 2 trail runners!

I was pokey because of my knee but gradually we made it down and back to the trailhead. It was nice descending and then gradually got hot. Near the trailhead we saw some day hikers. They told us there was a moose up the slope from the trail. It was a big moose! One of the hikers was walking up towards the moose… Smart. 

This day was a good opportunity to work on some photography. Since I’ve replaced my old iPhone with a Google Pixel, I’ve been trying to actually work on taking good photos… So HB took some time to show me some things.

This would have been a pretty perfect short trip if not for my knee pain (but hopefully that’ll be sorted out soon!). I’m looking forward to the next trip.

Mt. Sniktau & Cupid

November 8th.

Of course I needed a getaway from all the election bullshit. I was given a day off as a sort of ‘mental health day’ so I decided to drive up to Loveland Pass and hike Mt. Sniktau and Cupid. There are a bunch of cool peaks to bag in the area but I decided to keep it to those two.

My truck miraculously made it up to the top of Loveland Pass. From there, there was an obvious trail. I headed up. It was steep- very steep. There was some snow on the ground so I put on my spikes for a little extra traction, which helped. It was a beautiful day, with very little wind, and only kind of cold. I saw one guy on my way up- he was on his way down- and other than that, no other humans until I got back to the parking lot at the Pass.

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I haven’t been in the best hiking shape this year. Working 6 days a week often left me feeling burnt out and exhausted by the time Thursday, my one day off, came around. Sometimes I’d rally and go out for a hike, but mostly I spent the summer and early fall lying around in my hammock, drinking beer and reading books. That doesn’t make for great hiking fitness. So I was definitely feeling rough on the ascent to the first little peak from the pass.

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But the view was incredible.

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It’s roughly 2 miles from the top of the Pass to the summit of Sniktau. Of course there’s a sub-peak to climb over first. I felt like the uphill parts would never end. I ran into some drifted snow and postholed to my knees but for the most part the trail/ridge was only slightly covered, just enough to make things glittery and pretty and make me glad I had microspikes.

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I took an extended snack break at the summit and watched some planes fly by.

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Then headed back, down and then up and then down and then up. At the junction I decided I was, in fact, feeling up to hiking to Cupid. Tacking on that peak adds about a mile, maybe 1.25 to the trip. No big deal. So I headed that way. Off in the distance I could see A-Basin. At the time they had just one run open. I kind of regretted not bringing my skis and getting some turns in, since I was there- but oh well.

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Getting to the summit took longer than I expected- I just haven’t spent enough time at higher elevations this summer to be as quick on my feet as I was in 2015. Obviously. Sniktau is a bit over 13,200 and Cupid over 13,100 so it’s not like these are little baby mountains. They’re breathtaking in every sense of the word.

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I took my time on the return trip to my truck. I get so few solo days that I need to cherish them. Of course I enjoy hiking with friends and with HB- it’s fun to have a partner and sometimes it makes scary things more possible. But there’s really nothing like solo hiking for recharging my batteries. It’s meditative in a way that’s impossible for me to feel with other people around- and it’s important for my emotional well-being to be able to grasp that sense of peace, even if only for a few hours every month. Being out alone is just simpler– and sometimes that’s really what’s most needed.

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