I just finished up a "Daddy's Weekend Away" in the mountains where I did some hiking and biking on and up some of Colorado's highest mountains. The goal for each day involved a peak (or two) that was a "14er" – that is, a peak that is 14,000' above sea level or higher.
Below are brief recaps for each day.
Friday - Today's objective: hike up to Grays and Torreys Peaks.
I wanted to get an early jump today because 1) I knew the hiking trail I was going to was about 1.5 hours away, 2) I knew the altitude would take some getting used to and 3) there's almost always a threat of afternoon storms in the mountains, and it's not in one's best interest to be milling around an exposed summit above 14,000' if lightning is shooting around.
So, I left Boulder around 6:30a and made my may southwest, into the mountains. My goal was to be on the trail by 8:00a, and I was in good shape to meet that until I encountered the last 3 miles of "roadway" that lead to the trailhead. It's a forest service road, and if I averaged 10 mph on it, I'd be amazed. Less than a half mile into it I encountered a wash out section that made me glad the Explorer had both a decent ground clearance and 4-wheel drive. Anywho, several minutes, thumps and ca-chunks later and I was at the parking area for the trailhead.
And, despite it being a Friday, I was not alone. The obvious parking spaces were all taken, so I followed the lead of others that arrived before me and got creative. After getting my boots on, trekking poles set, and other trail and elevation necessities in order, I set off from the trailhead at 8:30a (elevation 11,260').
The first section of the trail was relatively smooth and easy going. It was in a shallow valley, and paralleled a creek to the left and went along the base of Kelso Mountain (13,169') on the right. Almost from the beginning, though, Grays and Torreys were directly in front of me and seldom out of sight. This made for easy orienteering, but also led to constant thoughts of "I'm going up there?!?!" Eventually, the creek became further away, and the ascent became slightly steeper, and definitely more rocky. A short while after this, a guy came past me on his way to the summit... and he was jogging. I experienced jealously and admiration at the same time.
As I approached the switchbacks that led up to Grays, I began to see and hear the aftermath of the crowded parking lot – large groups of people both coming down the trail and visible on the summit, and the occasional "Yahoo!" from those reaching it. It was funny for the 1st couple of times, but because I was hoping for a more quiet and serene day, eventually it grew tiresome shortly thereafter. After about 2h 10m and 3,100' of elevation gain, I reached Grays Peak (14,270'), the 9th highest peak in Colorado, and the highest peak on the Continental Divide in the US. The summit was still pretty crowded when I arrived, so after snapping some photos, getting a bite to eat, signing the summit log book and putting a bandaid on a blister that was forming on my left heel, I continued on my way to reach Torreys.
Torreys is just north of Grays, about 0.7 mile away as the crow flies. And the trail, save for the occasional switchback, is pretty much of a straight shot between the two. Getting to Torreys, though, requires descending into the saddle that connects it with Grays, and then, of course, climbing the other side of the saddle to reach it. The saddle, though, is about 500 feet below each summit.
I began my short northerly trek by descending and immediately noticed it was getting quite windy on the ridge. Up until this point, I was getting away with wearing hiking pants, a short sleeve shirt and a baseball hat. Not anymore. On went the windbreaker, knit cap and long fingered gloves. As I put on my warmer clothes, I looked back towards Grays and noticed that few of the people were making their way over to Torreys, so hopes rose anew of a relatively isolated summit experience. It took 45 minutes to get there from Grays, but right round 11:45a, I reached Torreys Peak (14,267'), the 11th highest peak in Colorado, and made my entry in the log book.
Thankfully, the summit was less crowded and I was able to find a piece of rock to sit on that wasn't right next to someone else. Unfortunately, the aforementioned wind made things considerably colder. That, and knowing that I still had to make it back down the trail, drive down that rough forest service road and try to find a place to camp for the night, prompted me to cut my stay short and begin my descent around 12 noon.
Thankfully, the return route didn't include revisiting Grays – near the bottom of the saddle there was a connector trail that would take me to the main trail that leads back to the parking area. It was a short trail, but what made it a bit more fun than other parts of the day's hike is that the first 50 yards or so were on a small snowfield. (I just enjoyed the thought and experience of walking through snow in August.)
On the lower portion of the descent, I noticed something I had missed on the way up: On the opposite side of the creek were several abandoned mine portals. Seeing them there made me wonder what kind of effort the speculators had to put forth to not only reach this area (probably) over 120 years ago and then be able to put a mine in, but what life was like for those that lived and worked around these mines. I mean, I thought the trek up that forest service road was pretty sucky at best even with today's modern conveyances, and even with a "modern" road there, it's still pretty isolated. I can't imagine what it was like 120+ years ago minus the conveniences of today and having even fewer people around.
I made it back to the car at 2:00p, slipped off the pack and hiking boots (ahhhhhh!) and made my way over to Idaho Springs to do a little prospecting myself. The quarry: a good place to sleep for the night that would be close to the start point for tomorrow's activity. Because it was another early start, I wasn't looking for any place special to place my tent; heck, I wasn't even planning on putting up my tent since it meant waking up even earlier to disassemble and repack it. All I wanted was a place with a toilet of some kind, some running water, and a place where I could "set up camp" in the back of my car. I stopped in the Ranger's Station in Idaho Springs and was told that the two campgrounds I was interested in were full, but that I could do "dispersed camping" in an area near the one campground. Having few other options, I took the Ranger's advice and map and headed that way. When I got there, it had what I needed... running water, a pit toilet and a parking lot. The one other thing I needed and wasn't able to get was perhaps what I needed the most: a good night's sleep.
Saturday - Today's objective: bike up Mt. Evans.
I wish I could say the 6:00a alarm on my watch came quick. But it didn't. I mean, how could it after such a long night?
Yes, last night was not good. Tossing and turning. Hot and cold. I honestly don't know how much sleep I got, but it by no means was anywhere near the recommended 8 hours. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd put it near non-contiguous-and-often-interrupted 4 hours of sleep. But there was a bike ride to do, so I quickly changed into my biking gear ("quickly" not because I was running late; rather it was in the upper 30s when I woke up) and ate a bagel with some peanut butter before making my way back to Idaho Spring to meet up with some friends at 7:00a to do the "classic" ride up to Mt. Evans.
The rendezvous point was a local school, but little did we know that today was the same day as a half-marathon between Georgetown and Idaho Springs, and the race organizers were using the school as a staging and registration area. So, a scramble was on to find parking, which we eventually did, but it delayed our "wheels rolling" time a bit. At about 20 minutes after 7, I and 7 others said goodbye to the 7,585 elevation and began our 27+ mile ride (about 26.5 of it climbing) to Mt. Evans, eventually using the highest paved road in North America.
The first 6.5 miles of the climb are pretty gradual and would have given me a false sense of security had I not done my research. For it is after this point and for the next several miles that a fair amount of elevation is gained...grades go from 3% range to the 5.5-6% range pretty quickly and stay there until the halfway point. It may not seem like a big jump, but keep in mind that the halfway point is at 10,600'.
Having never done this climb before, and wanting to catch up (socially) with some guys as well as get to meet some new ones, I was being conservative in my efforts. I reached the entrance fee station (yes, I had to pay to have this experience) in about 1h 20m, and had about another 14 miles to go. The sign here said the temperature currently at the summit was 32 degrees, with the wind chill around 24. I knew that at the pace I was going, I probably still had about another 90 or so minutes of riding to do, and in that time the summit temperature would likely rise. I also knew that while the road wouldn't get much steeper between here and the summit, the amount of oxygen available to breathe would be going down gradually.
At around mile 16 and elevation 11,500', I find myself above treeline and biking by myself. Thankfully, it was a sunny morning, but being above treeline now made me susceptible to some cool morning breezes which meant frequently adjusting my windbreaker vest and/or arm warmers to help either cool me down or warm me up, depending on what was needed. Except for a brief marmot sighting, the next 5-6 miles were spent watching my pace as well as the mountains and lakes around me.
A brief downhill stretch came at around mile 22, as I dipped down into the Summit Lake area. Indeed, this non-climbing section felt good and was a great time to stretch the back and legs a bit, but it wasn't completely without its own little "perks." For, in this area, the road is contoured by frost heaves. In a car, I wouldn't have paid them much attention. But on road bike (read: narrow tires and no suspension), I definitely did, and had to make a couple quick turns and take some jarring bumps to make it through.
Five miles, 1,300' of elevation gain, a couple of mountain goats and 12 switchbacks after the Summit Lake area – and about 3h 10m after leaving Idaho Springs – I found myself at 14,130' above sea level, the top of the Mt. Evans road. To be sure, I was a little winded (there's approximately half as much oxygen at this altitude than there is at sea level) but not completely wiped out. But my legs were stiff, due, in large part, to the hiking I did yesterday.
I was the second of my group to make it there, so I waited around a little while for others to arrive. Thankfully, the air temperature seemed to have gone up some since we saw the reading at the fee station, but it didn't go up so much as to make a prolonged stay up there in nothing more than partly sweaty cycling clothes an attractive proposition. So after about 40 minutes of waiting and seeing most of the group I started out with reach the summit, I zipped up my vest, put on another pair or long-fingered gloves, eeked my right leg over the top tube, got back in the saddle and began what I expected to be a rather cool descent. And I was correct in that expectation. For the first 5 miles, my legs were shaking and my teeth were chattering a little bit. I actually looked forward to what was now a light uphill section around Summit Lake so I could warm myself a bit through exertion.
As if being chilled wasn't fun enough, all along the upper section of the road were seams about every 30 meters. Again, in a car I'd pay little notice, but on a road bike, you feel everything. In fact, when we regrouped at the entrance fee station, I learned that the one guy in our group broke a rear spoke on the way down, in large part due to the pounding his wheel took on those seams. The road surface after the entrance station was much better: less jarring, and below treeline, meaning the air felt a little warmer and I was able shed some clothing for the rest of the ride.
We all regrouped in Idaho Springs, and those that could, stayed in town a little bit to grab a late lunch of pizza and a celebratory beer. Once that was over, I again had to begin a search for a place to make camp for the night, except for tonight I did plan on using the tent. So back to the Ranger's Station I went, and inquired about 2 campsites near where I was going tomorrow. Again, I was told they were full, but there were plenty of dispersed camping sites in the area and that I could probably be able to use one of those. So, I jumped in the car and made my way up Guanella Pass road. Thankfully, I was able to find a campsite below but near treeline, not crazy far off the road, and just about 1 mile from where I wanted to start tomorrow's activity. So I made camp, ate a small dinner (with a side of Excedrin), did some reading and turned off the lantern in hopes of a better night's sleep. It was going to be another early start tomorrow.
Sunday - Today's objective: hike up to Mt. Bierstadt.
I wouldn't call last night an ideal night's sleep, but it was better by far than the previous night's.
I new on a nice weekend day the trail I was taking was going to be busy and I wanted to beat the rush. So I got up at 5:45a, changed into some warm clothes (the temps dipped a little below freezing last night), broke camp, loaded the car and made my way (with the heater on) to the trailhead. The lot was pretty empty, but I was by no means the first one on the trail. After "gearing up," I set off on my hike to the summit of Mt. Bierstadt at 6:50a (trailhead elevation: 11,660 feet).
Unlike Friday's hike, today's hike started with a slight downhill-to-flat section. My legs welcomed this very much for they were still a little stiff from the previous two days' activities. The sun was up, but because I was on the West side of the peak, I was in the mountain's shadow for the first mile or so, keeping things on the chilly side.
As I approached a pond in this section, I looked ahead of me and saw a large brown object making its way out of the willows and towards the pond. After a doubletake, I noticed it was a moose... it, too, was probably out early to beat the crowds. After passing by the moose and pond, and crossing over a nearby creek, the 3 mile ascent to Bierstadt began. By this time, the sun had risen a little bit more, allowing me to hike in fewer shaded areas and finally able to warm up some.
The entire hike was above treeline, providing excellent views of the Continental Divide to the West, especially of my Friday peaks, Grays and Torreys. Save for a couple turns on switchbacks, Bierstadt was almost always in view, as was the rock ridge formation to the North of it called The Sawtooth. The trail was, except for the last half mile or so, a consistent and manageable grade for a large portion of the ascent. During this last half mile, the trail was less discernible as it went up through an area filled with boulders... the rock cairns in this area were of great help. After gaining the ridge just below the summit, it was time to stow away the trekking poles and do some scrambling over boulders for the last 250' of elevation gain. It was also time to zip up the windbreaker and make sure the hat was on snug as the winds were whipping around.
Two hours and thirty minutes after leaving the trailhead, I reached the largely empty 14,060 foot summit of Bierstadt and signed the summit log book. I then headed towards the East side of the peak to get out of the wind, and was rewarded with not only warmth, but also great views of Abyss Lake and yesterday's peak, Mt. Evans. I took in some food and water, snapped some photos and, having had enough of the wind, began my way back to the car at 9:45a.
By this time, there were considerably more people on the trail, and I couldn't have been happier about my decision to get an early jump on the hike. It was a good hike back – scenic and uneventful – and took me a little under 2 hours to make it back to the car. Once there, I again took off my pack and boots (ahhhhh!) and sat on the rear bumper eating my lunch and just taking in the view of the hike I had just done.
For pictures, follow this link. (To see captions for the photos, follow that link, then click on "View Album" and then click on "Play Slideshow.")