Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Solo Winter Fourteener Climb

Yesterday I attempted my first solo winter fourteener climb. My goal was the summit of Mt. Yale (14,196 feet) via the East Ridge. I chose this route for several reasons: A) the trailhead is accessible in the winter, 2) the round-trip distance of 10.5 miles can be covered in one day, and D) the route is generally avalanche safe.

Route overview

I set my alarm for 2:15 AM and was out the door by 3:00. I was at the trailhead by 5:45 but decided to wait for first light before setting out. I ate breakfast (three chocolate cupcakes and orange juice) in my truck, took off my slippers, laced up my mountaineering boots, and started hiking at 6:45.

The objective in the distance

I followed the Colorado Trail (which I solo thru-hiked for its entire ~500 mile length in the summer of 2009) for three miles due north up Avalanche Gulch to a saddle at 11,900 feet. Snowshoe traffic since the last storm (way too long ago) meant I could keep my snowshoes (I hate them) on my pack and simply boot up the packed trail, saving me time and energy.

From the saddle I got my first glimpse of the East Ridge. It looked long, exposed, wind scoured on the north side, and loaded/corniced on the south side. I began the two mile climb up the ridge.  The wind was blowing hard so I ducked behind a large rock and added an extra layer of insulation plus my balaclava, goggles, and hood. The ridge would be a cakewalk in the summer months, but snow and ice forced me to slow down and focus on my footwork.

On the East Ridge with Point 13,420 in the background

After maybe 90 minutes of climbing I reached a prominent rock formation at 13,400 feet. The wind speed had really picked up and I was forced to stop every dozen or so steps to turn my back to the wind, brace myself with my legs and ski poles, and wait out the latest gust. I had another 800 vertical feet to go; given the conditions it would take me over an hour to reach the summit, plus another hour to get back to treeline. That was too long to spend in such high wind, risking frostbite or a fall on a solo climb, so I turned around. The siren song of the summit is hard to resist, but in situations like this I remind myself of a quote - "The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too" (Hervey Voge). I heard you can see 30 fourteeners from the summit, so I will be back!

Ranger, not looking pleased

To my disbelief, the gusts were even stronger on my descent. I was forced to turn my back to the wind and brace myself for ten seconds, then take advantage of a few seconds of "calm" to descend a few steps only to be forced to hunker down again. I can say without exaggeration that I was knocked off my feet no less than a dozen times. Eventually I made it back to treeline, where I took a much deserved break.

Happy to be back to the safety of treeline but a bit disappointed that I didn't make the summit, I decided to take a "long-cut" on the descent for a change of scenery and a chance to test out my new Northern Lites Elite snowshoes. I descended the drainage west of the drainage I took earlier in the day for about 1,000 vertical feet. The snow was untracked which made for a beautiful but extremely tiring journey - even with snowshoes I was postholing through knee-deep snow. While waiting for my dog to catch up (I thought it was hard to move through knee deep snow but realized it's much harder for a knee-high dog) I marveled at how quiet the woods are in winter.

I was glad to have made the detour but I was ready to get back to my truck, so I angled to the southeast and eventually intersected the packed trail from earlier in the day. Travel was now twice as fast and five times as easy! I made it back to my truck at 3:45, just as the sun was setting behind the mountains to my west. Nine hours, nine miles, and 4,100 vertical feet - equivalent to climbing from the ground level to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building four times!

On my drive home I saw a sign indicating that Route 285 was closed for inclement weather. Weird, I thought - it wasn't snowing and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Two CDOT employees were manning the closure and I inquired as to the reason why. It turns out that wind speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour were measured at Kenosha Pass (9,997 feet). As I detoured onto 24-W towards Colorado Springs it dawned on me that I must have experienced wind speeds over 100 miles per hour as I was 3,400 vertical feet higher and well above treeline. That translates to a strong Category 2 or even a Category 3 hurricane, which made me feel better about my decision to turn around! [edit: wind speeds were probably more like 60-70 mph - equivalent to a strong tropical storm.]

Yale from the southeast ("Mascot Peak" on left and Point 13,420 on right)

1 comment:

Karen Palmiero said...

Great story, sorry you didn't achieve what you set out for, but it seems to have been a great experience. And yes, the mountains will be there!