Sunday, February 1, 2015

Hiking Paths Less Traveled

While many of my outings take me to well known destinations.  Sometimes I enjoy visiting less known spots.  This week I took two such trips.  I didn't have much time for longer outings so I took a couple quicker trips to areas that aren't on everyone's radar.

My first destination was close to home and a spur of the moment quick getaway.  Puma worked an overnight shift Sunday night and was sleeping Monday during the day.  Since I had a few hours to myself while she slept, I was looking for a quick outing.  Going on a coworker's suggestion I headed to Badger Creek.  

Even though I pass the creek several times a week, I had never heard of it.  Badger Creek is a tributary of the Arkansas River that meets the river not too far from our house.  Apart from a few fisherman and grazing cattle, Badger Creek doesn't appear to get too much traffic.  

Even though there was a trail visible on a couple maps that I have, when I got there, I didn't find a trail.  I started my exploration where the creek meets the river.  This section of the creek lies on BLM land.  The elevation at this point is below 7000 feet my entire outing never gained too much elevation as I followed the creek.  

I followed the creek, bushwacking along its banks for at least three miles.  I wasn't sure what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised.  Near the start there was quite a bit of desert vegetation.  Prickly Pear, Tree Cholla, and Yucca were pretty common sites.  As I traveled a little further, the banks became thick with willows at times.  The creek was never too wide.  Cliffs and small canyons lined the creek at places.  I crossed the creek back and forth to follow the path of least resistance as I reached a cliff or a thick section of willows.  The Arkansas Hills surround the creek and were in sight as I continued upstream.  Numerous outcroppings stand around the creek as well.

Looking upstream early on the hike
Section of cliff along the creek
Big Baldy Mountain in the distnace in a
dense section of willows
A small ledge along the creek with thick willows on the other bank
Rocky slopes near the creek and the Arkansas Hills ahead

Outcropping close to the creek
After several miles, a four wheel drive BLM road crosses the creek.  As I approached the road I came into sight of a private house.  To avoid tresspassing, I left the course of the creek and headed up a dry wash.  Because I was short on time, I turned around just shy of the BLM road.

Coyote track
On my way back, the scenery is more impressive.  The peaks of the northern Sangre de Cristos are a constant backdrop on the way back.  I also took a short detour to check out some rock outcroppings close to the creek on my return. 

The northern Sangre de Cristos just a few miles south
above the desert scrub
Outcropping I plan to explore in the future, it's higher than
it looks and requires technical climbing from this side
Creek entering a small canyon
The Sangres near the end of the route
Despite no trail, traveling was fairly easy.  It's January and most of the vegetation along the creek was dead.  Occasionally I had to contend with thick willows or small canyons  I also had to cross the creek dozens of times but I seemed to make good time.  I'm guessing I covered about 6 miles.  

I plan on heading back to the area again to explore more.  I would like to climb some of the rock outcroppings and possibly some of the mountains that can be accessed near the creek.  After several recent alpine trips to the high peaks, this little off the beaten path area was a nice change of pace and fun to explore.

Twin Sisters on the left, Red Mountain middle, and Hunts Peak on right
A couple days later I made another trip to a lesser traveled destination.  This time I headed with Drew Petersen to climb Colorado's 751st tallest summit, 12856 foot Bald Mountain.  Bald Mountain sits on the Continental Divide just a few miles north of Monarch Pass.  Drew has hiked here numerous times.  The hike to Bald Mountain involves a long ridge hike along the divide with big and continuous views over grassy alpine slopes.  On this trip we didn't have so much luck.

On the drive to  Monarch the sky was clear and we could see our destination as we headed toward the pass.  By the time we started hiking however, clouds descended on the Continental Divide. 

Our trip started at the parking lot for Monarch Ski Area.  A quick trip by snowshoe took us to the top of the ski area.  The visibility decreased as we climbed.  Initially we traveled through fairly deep snow with our snowshoes.  We were in sparse trees a short distance before breaking out above treeline.  Above treeline, much of the route had its snow blown off the ridge and we were able to walk on bare ground.  Most of the route follows the Continental Divide Trail and we were able to follow the trail much of the way.

The deepest snow was in this section just north of Monarch Ski Area
More travel through the sparse trees
Unfortunately the weather wasn't our friend.  This route stays on the Continental Divide proper much of the way.  Along the divide the wind was constant, sometimes at least a steady 35 MPH.  We were hiking in the clouds and the visibility was extremely limited and near zero at times.  With the temperature near 20F, all of our gear and clothes were forming rime ice.  Occasionally a the clouds would lift momentarily but not for more than a few seconds.

Out of the trees and into the clouds
A brief moment where the clouds lifted
A few cairns marked the CDT
Despite the poor conditions we made it to Bald Mountain's summit.  Once on the ridge there isn't huge elevation gains.  The Continental Divide Trail was visible most of the way.  The rest of the hike follows a ridge and was free of snow making for easy route finding.  We didn't linger at the summit.

Drew about 100' before the summit in poor visibility
As we headed back it was more of the same.  The last half of the ridge on the way back saw slightly better visibility but never great.  We did get to see a little more scenery.  Since we didn't have much incentive to linger, we finished the 9 mile route in 4 1/2 hours or so.  As we descended down Monarch Pass the skies brightened and we were back out of the clouds quickly.  Back in the valley in Salida most of the ridge appeared to be clear.

The clouds lifted slightly on the return trip
A section of narrower ridge
A look back with slightly better visibility
The summit of Bald Mountain has a register.  The last four entries dating back to late summer were all Drew.  There was not a single winter entry in the register.  The CDT skirts around the summit so the relatively few people that do travel through here often skip the summit.  While I can't speak for the scenery on this hike since I was in the clouds most of the time, all the photos I have seen of the area look impressive. You can find plenty of off the beaten path alpine summits in Colorado.

Back on snowshoes before entering the trees
Despite the lackluster conditions, the hike wasn't a complete bust.  The last couple alpine trips I took, I enjoyed nice weather.  You never know what you will get for weather hiking in the mountains and the near whiteout and windy conditions are just part of deal with winter travel in the Rockies.  It's just a different kind of experience.  If the terrain was more challenging we may have turned back but never felt the need to on this hike.  This trip isn't too far from home and I'll be sure to visit again and hopefully get to enjoy the scenery next time.

Besides the alpine terrain there are some historical interests on this route.  Numerous low stone walls are visible above treeline not too far the ski area.  These walls were used to trap game by native peoples dating back to 9000 thousand years ago.  It is referred to as the Monarch Game Drive and there is even an interpretive sign along the CDT near the site.  We saw quite a bit of elk and sheep scat so apparently big game still passes the area frequently.  Unfortunately with the poor visibility I didn't get to fully appreciate the artifacts but will be sure to check it out in the future with better conditions. 


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rocky Mountain High: Climbing Mt Elbert- the Highest Peak in the Rockies

The Rocky Mountains have no shortage of high summits.  The highest peaks of the range are in Colorado.  Mt Elbert stands the tallest as both the highest peak in Colorado and the highest summit in the entire Rocky Mountain Range.  The summit elevation is 14440 feet. (14433' is often listed as the elevation but the most recent surveys list 14440')  Only California's Mt. Whitney, 65 feet taller, has a higher elevation in the lower 48 states.

Despite Mt Elbert's lofty elevation, it is known to be a fairly tame mountain to climb among 14ers.  Because of its status as Colorado's highest peak and relatively easy terrain for its size, it tends to get crowded.  I'm not a fan of crowded summits so I was in no hurry to climb Elbert during the busy, snow-free hiking season.  Drew Petersen, with whom I climbed Quandary Peak on my last hike, was looking to climb Elbert this winter.  Since I never have been on Elbert, I was happy to join him.  

The weather didn't turn out in our favor last week.  We had a period of warmer temps and a decent weather window on MLK day.  We planned on hiking the East Ridge.  The slopes are relatively gentle with nearly no avalanche risk.  Despite the gentle slopes, the route covers about 12 miles* round trip in the winter and gains close to 5000 vertical feet so it's still a workout with its high elevation. *(I have seen the distance for this trip range from just over 11 miles to 12.5 so I'll use about 12 miles for my distance.)

Even though we hiked on a Monday, we were surprised to be the only car at the trailhead.  It was MLK day and a long weekend for many.  One of the benefits of winter hiking is more chance for solitude.  Since this route has little avalanche risk and climbs the highest summit in the state, we expected to see a few people, especially after our fairly crowded midweek climb on Quandary.

We began our trip a few minutes after 8AM.  While the forecast wasn't that bad, it called for increasing clouds and somewhat windy conditions.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind at the start of the hike.  From the trailhead, the hike follows a snow covered road with easy hiking and little elevation gain before reaching the Colorado Trail.  The easy hiking continues on the Colorado Trail before beginning the climb on the South Mt Elbert Trail.  From the trailhead, the route was well packed from previous traffic and an easy bareboot walk.

Early view near the start of the hike
Once on the South Mt Elbert Trail, more challenging hiking begins. The trail begins to really climb.  The climbing isn't too difficult and begins in a pleasant forest with plenty of aspens.  Along the way the trail passes through a few clearings that offer decent views, mostly toward South Elbert and a few views to the east and the Mosquito Range.  We were able to hike bareboot all the way to treeline with no issues.  The long East Ridge ahead to the summit was visible.  There were large sections of windblown terrain with little snow.  To save some weight, we stashed our unused snowshoes at treeline.  Up until treeline it was fairly warm and windless.  I was able to stick with my baselayer shirt and didn't even wear my gloves.

Walking through aspens
Mt Elbert in the distance
Looking over Twin Lakes
Nice views passing through a clearing
Looking south 
Another nice clearing
Approaching treeline
Not far above treeline a lone hiker with a dog passed us.  He was moving up the mountain at a blistering pace.  He made it to the summit quickly and passed us on his return down the mountain well below the summit.  On his decent he was running.  We came to find out he was a local from Leadville training for the next Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon.  He was the only other hiker on Mt. Elbert for the day.

As we gained elevation Drew and I split up to travel at our own paces and I took the lead.  By 12000 feet in elevation the snow was thin enough that the trail was visible and could be followed at times.  The wind picked up with elevation and I made a couple stops to add layers and goggles. With the elevation gain the views continued to get better.

A good look ahead above treeline
Nearly snowfree section 
Stretch of visible summer trail
The last hump to the summit, the trail disappeared again and there was a consistent snow field to the summit.  The upper part of the ridge is the steepest but never gets too steep.  Even with the hardpacked snow on the upper ridge we were able to continue to the summit bareboot without traction devices.  
The end of snowfree travel
Snowfield the rest of the way to the summit
The last few feet to the summit
I made it to the summit about 1140AM, about 3.5 hours from the start.   I took some summit photos before adding layers. The wind was somewhat gusty, maybe an occasional 40MPH gust, but nothing out of the ordinary for January at 14000 feet.  While Drew made his way up the last part of the ridge, I hunkered down out of the wind the best I could and enjoyed the solitude.  I had the summit to myself for close to 30 minutes and savored the views from the rooftop of the Rockies.

Elevation 14440 feet
Looking down Northeast Ridge with Mt Massive beyond
Clouds moving in to the north
Looking toward La Plata Peak 14361'
The scenery on any alpine summit is wonderful and Elbert's summit was no exception.  Colorado's second highest summit, Mt Massive is just a few miles to the north with a beautiful basin between the two mountains.  The clouds that were forecasted for the afternoon were visible toward the northern end of the Sawatch Range in the vicinity of Mt. of the Holy Cross.  La Plata Peak's jagged Ellingwood Ridge is just to the southwest and most impressive.  The endless summits of the Sawatch Range stand to the south with some of the Sangre de Cristos visible in the distance on the horizon.  The peaks of the Elk Range near Aspen are easy to pick out to the west.  To the east, the length of the Mosquito Range seems close by with Pikes Peak looming large on the horizon.

Elbert's South Ridge and Black Cloud Trail Route
Looking southeast
Endless mountains in the Colorado Rockies
Tomcat on the summit
When Drew arrived on the summit, we lingered for a few minutes to take a couple more photos before heading back down the mountain.  The upper snowfield was steep enough to boot ski at spots. We made quick time on the decent stopping only briefly for a few pictures and to lose some layers.  The snow managed to stay pretty solid and we didn't have any problems postholing as the temperature warmed with lower elevation.  We managed to complete the entire route bareboot.  The last stretch of the trip on the snow covered dirt road seemed to drag in the end but we managed to make it back to the car before 230PM.  Our total time was less than 6.5 hours to cover nearly 12 miles.  By the time we reached the trailhead, clouds were just starting to reach the summit.

Looking back down the ridge toward Twin Lakes
and Elbert Forebay
Drew desending the ridge
Good look at the snowfield
Tomcat enjoying the view across Box Creek Couloir during
a break to remove layers
Descending through a meadow
Once again this was another beautiful trip in the mountains.  The skies kept clear our entire route and we had nearly endless views.  The packed out trail and solid snow on the upper mountain allowed for fast travel without any rocky travel.  We were happy to have the highest mountain in Colorado basically to ourselves.  As an added bonus we saw a herd of elk on the drive and a coyote running along the road.  There were also a few cat tracks along our route, most likely bobcat.  You can't ask for a much better day.

Cat tracks, I'm guessing bobcat
One more summit shot