Thursday, November 16, 2017

Cactus Mutt Hiking the Decalibron: Lost and Found

I have referenced my dog Choya (also known as Cactus Mutt) in previous blog posts.  He came into our lives on New Years Eve of 2016.  He was a stray at the Humane Society of Fremont County in Canon City.  We had an instant connection with him.  He was overweight when we got him.  I started walking with him daily and soon increased his mileage.  Before long he was going on hikes.  In ten months he has become a walking/hiking machine.  In the past three months he has walked, run, or hiked over 400 miles and over 1000 miles since he joined our family

I wanted to take him up a 14er before the end of the year.  With a decent run of weather, I decided to take him on a hike called the Decalibron.  The Decalibron is named after the four peaks it climbs Mt DEmocrat, CAmeron, LIncoln, and BROss.  All the peaks are over 14,000 feet with Lincoln topping out at 14,286 feet.  Despite the the lofty elevations, the Decalibron is known as a relatively tame 14er route.  The entire route is around 7 miles with less than 4000 feet of climbing over the four summits.  This was well within Choya's abilities who has hiked close to 14 miles in a day comfortably and has been above 13,000 feet on past hikes.

The Decalibron is one of those hikes that has been on my radar for a while.  Because it allows for 4 summits in such a short distance and is less difficult than many other climbs in Colorado's 14ers, it tends to see a lot of traffic.  It starts above treeline at 12,000 feet and the entire route is above treeline with endless views.  I like a little solitude in the mountains so I kept putting it off.  Recent condition and weather reports sounded favorable.  The road to the trailhead was still easily passable without any serious snow.  A weekday in November sounded like a good day to finally hike the Decalibron without the crowds of summer.

We left for the Kite Lake trailhead outside of Alma, CO on November 13th and  we were on the trail by 715AM.  For November, the conditions were pretty good.  It was already around 30F at the start of the hike.  The wind was a gusty but it wasn't too unbearable given the decent temperature.

Kite Lake

We began our hike heading for Mt Democrat.  The trail was a mix of snow and bare ground to start.  As we got a little higher the snow became a little more consistent and firm.  Before reaching the Democrat/Cameron saddle, I put on my shell for the increasing winds and microspikes for better traction.

Looking across the basin

Not much snow near Kite Lake

Kite Lake below

Looking toward Bross

Mt Democrat

From Kite Lake, Democrat is reached in 2 miles with 2100 feet of climbing.  The trail switchbacks its way toward the summit.  The snow cover made for easy travel as it covered the rocks and made for a smooth surface.  A false summit is reached first with an easy traverse to the final easy pitch.  The small summit has fine views in all directions.  Since the summit was getting the full brunt of the wind, we quickly headed back down toward Cameron.

Democrat had the most snow

Choya waiting for me to put on microspikes

Continuing toward Democrat

A look up at Democrat

Looking toward Cameron

Just before heading up Democrat's Ridge

If I had to guess-Mt Arkansas?

Democrat's Ridge

Snow covered the rocks in the trail

Democrat from the false summit

Sawatch Range in the distance

Quandary Peak

Notice the snow on only one side of the mountains

Choya on Democrat

Climbing Cameron involves 800 feet of elevation gain from the Democrat/Lincoln saddle.  Other than the initial hump up from Kite Lake, this is the most elevation gain on the route.  I only made it about quarter the way up Cameron before removing my microspikes.  The snow was less consistent with  more bare ground.  The climb is pretty straightforward on an easy to follow trail.  We were on the summit quickly.  Mt Cameron's summit is pretty broad and flat.  Because of its location in the middle of the loop, it offers great views and you can see the entire Decalibron route.

Looking toward Cameron

The view down the road to Kite Lake
with South Park in the distance

Approaching the Democrat/Cameron saddle

The trail from the saddle

Headed to Cameron

Just below Cameron

At 14,238 feet, Mt Cameron is the 2nd highest peak on this route.  Despite it's lofty elevation and modest gain from the Mt Democrat side, Cameron is not a ranked peak.  Cameron only rises 138 vertical feet from Mt Lincoln, it's nearest, higher neighbor a half mile away.  When looking at Lincoln from Cameron, it's easy to see why it isn't ranked.  There is barely any drop to the saddle from Cameron.  It's a mere bump from that side of the mountain.

Lincoln from Cameron

Choya on the bare summit of Cameron

Cameron had no snow on its summit

We made it to Mt Lincoln fairly quickly.  It is only a half mile from Cameron to Lincoln's summit with minimal elevation gain between the two.  The only real obstacle was the pummeling wind in this stretch.

Not much gain headed to Lincoln

A look back at Cameron

Headed to Lincoln

Just below Lincoln's summit

At 14,286 feet, Mt Lincoln is the highest point on the hike.  It also stands as the 8th highest peak in Colorado and the 11th highest in the lower 48.  Despite its elevation, it's not too difficult of a climb from this direction.  It has a fairly small summit with cliffs dropping from it.  It is probably the most interesting summit on the loop.

Choya and me on Lincoln

I believe this is looking northwest from Lincoln

North Star Mountain and Quandary

Looking back toward Cameron with
distant Sawatch Range

Again with the wind continuing, we quickly dropped off the summit and made our way toward Bross.
We got a slight reprieve from the wind as we hiked below Mt Cameron.  There isn't much elevation loss between Lincoln and Bross.  Although a few stretches of snow covered the trail, much of the ground was still bare.  The trail only drops to 13,850 feet or so in this stretch.

The trail visible below Cameron headed to Bross

The views were nonstop on this hike

Looking back at Lincoln

Approaching Bross

Looking down Cameron Amphitheater

A look back at Lincoln

My enjoyable hike quickly turned badly in this section.  As I said earlier, Choya has covered over 400 miles on foot the past three months and was having no issues with this hike.  Of those 400 miles, only a few have been off leash.  In the mountains he walks dutifully right behind me so that I can hold his leash and still use my poles.  If necessary, due to terrain I'll unleash him so I don't step on him or hit him with my poles.  I will also unleash him if I stop to take pictures of him, to eat or drink, or take a break.  Despite the pictures showing him unleashed, while we are moving he is almost always hooked up.  Below Cameron in the next picture was one of these stops where I let him off leash momentarily to take a photo of him and get a quick drink.

The snowiest section between Lincoln and Bross

I was wearing gloves on the entire hike.  After the last stop, I releashed him.  Apparently with my gloves on, I didn't have a feel for the leash hooking on to the collar properly.  Near the Cameron-Bross saddle, Choya caught something move in the distance.  He dashed a few feet in front of me with his leash disconnecting from his collar.  Then suddenly he took off at full speed.  Well into the distance I could something moving.  All I could make out was the light colored rump.  Given the terrain, I assumed a sheep but it was too far to make it out.  I never saw Choya move so fast so far, probably because he is almost always leashed just for this reason.  He supposedly has Basenji, a sight hound, in his background.  He can become too focused on certain wild animals, usually deer.  He disappeared no more than 10 minutes after the above picture was taken.

With Choya's light color, I lost sight of him quickly.  I couldn't even see his bright orange bandana.  I last saw him on the north side of Bross after the trail turn off that travels below its summit.  I went in the direction I saw him calling and whistling.  With the strong winds, I don't know how far my voice carried.  I didn't know if he went up or down from this point.

I traveled along the the north side of Bross, below the summit while calling.  I went over the summit and traversed along the drop off to the east and north trying to look down for movement.  I continued back to where I saw him last.  I continued going over Bross's huge, flat summit and circling around to back where I last seen him.  After three hours of searching and calling while returning to where I last saw him repeatedly, I still had no sign of him.

In the meantime, I spoke to Puma (Heather) at home a couple times by now.  Roaming in cold windchill with no cover for hours started to wear me out.  The windchill was probably in the single digits with 40MPH+ gusts.  She suggested I come down for now to refuel and warm up.  Puma put out notices on local Facebook Pages for the area as well as the 14ers.com Facebook Page.

Before I dropped off the mountain, I saw another animal far below in the basin to the north scrambling off.  It was too far to be sure what it was.  I watched hoping to see Choya nearby but no luck.

I descended back to Kite Lake.  I drove to the Quartzville area and hiked into the basin toward Cameron Amphitheater. This is where I saw the game running below before I descended.  I thought maybe he ran down here chasing the sheep or deer he had followed before.  This area contains a vast network of mining roads in this area that leads to homes right at the base of Bross.  If he was down here, I was hoping he might follow a road to the homes.

Cameron Amphitheater

While I was doing this, a few volunteers also drove and hiked parts of this area to the north of Bross.  Apparently there area a lot of deer in the area according to the locals.  It's a common area for dogs to wander while chasing the deer herd.

From the top of the housing development, I hiked up the Quartzville area all the way to 13,000 feet yelling and whistling hoping to find Choya.  After reaching the Cameron Amphitheater area, I was running out of light and hiked back out.  Choya was going to have to spend the night in the mountains.

I didn't know exactly where Choya was but he was spending the night at high elevation.  He was last seen close to 14,000 feet and the surrounding area was pretty high in elevation.  Although not as cold as it can get in the area, it was still fairly cold with brutal winds.  Bross and the surrounding area is also littered with holes from mines as an added hazard.  At 36lbs, Choya isn't that big and could face mountain lions or coyotes as well.

I returned home.  I planned on returning the following morning to hike out of Kite Lake and back to Bross.  Several locals that new the area volunteered to search various areas.  The 14ers.com page, with more than 27,000 members, was especially supportive.  The original "lost dog" post was shared more than 50 times on that page and many other times on numerous other local Facebook Pages. 

I was shocked at the amount of support and willingness to help.  There are a lot of good people who are happy to help others.  There was also a recent high profile lost dog in this area that was found after 6 weeks, stuck in a mine.  I received a personal message on Facebook that night from a Summit County resident that saw a shared post on a local Facebook page.  He offered to join the search out of Kite Lake in the morning hiking the loop the opposite direction of me.  Several other local were heading out in the morning to search other areas around Bross.

Tuesday morning I set off from Kite Lake toward Bross.  I was maybe 500 feet above the trailhead when I thought I heard yelling.  I stopped and saw someone at the trailhead and it sounded like he said he had my dog.

I descended quickly back to Kite Lake.  As I arrived, I saw Harrison Palmer (I hope you don't mind me mentioning you by name) standing with Choya.  Harrison was the one that volunteered to hike the route opposite me.

Apparently Choya found his way back to the Kite Lake trailhead where we started the previous morning.  He was cold and exhausted but otherwise not too bad.  I don't know where Choya was or what terrain he traversed while I searched for 3 hours at the point he disappeared and another two hours of searching later in Cameron Amphitheater and Quartzville areas.  Given his sheer exhaustion and redness behind his pads, I'm guessing he traveled  many miles in his time away and may not have slept.

He slept like a champion on the drive home.  He was stiff and his feet were raw from traveling for who knows how far and over what kind of terrain when he disappeared.  There is plenty of rough loose rock and cliffs that he could have traveled over during his chase, wandering, and descent.

An exhausted Choya on the ride home

He usually doesn't sleep in the car

I want to thank everyone that helped share this story, helped search, and offered kind words.  Sean Nichols, Rebecca Love Cardennis, Corrie Beth Stiles, Paul Bibeau, Maggie Pocotte, and Trinity Smith, I know you were all on the ground looking for him pretty quickly and I greatly appreciate it.  Harrison Palmer, thank you so much.  I know you were just in the right place at the right time, but if you didn't volunteer to come look, you wouldn't have found him.  I know there are several others that were enroute to help search and others that were willing to jump in as soon as they had a chance.  Heather was talking with several of you and if I didn't mention you here specifically, we are both very appreciative and thankful for you kindness to jump in and help.

Until Choya's misadventure, the Decalibron was a nice hike that gives you a great bang for your buck.  There isn't anywhere else you can hike four 14,000 peaks in such short order over relatively easy terrain.  It's a bonus that the entire hike is above treeline with endless views from start to finish.

Bross from Democrat

Technically the summit of Bross is private property and isn't legally allowed to be accessed.  While searching for Choya I was on the summit several times, not really caring about trespassing under the circumstances.  There are numerous trails and old mining roads leading to it.  I don't know if it is just the summit proper or the entire summit area that is off limits but the summit is a huge flat area and you can get similar or better views without going to the summit cairn.  South Bross, an unranked summit just to the south, also stands above 14,000 feet and would offer similar views.  Apparently there are open pits that exist on and around Bross. There are several other private property signs along the trail on this route.

Quandary in the distance from Democrat

This area has a huge mining presence.  There are numerous old ruins along the route and other mining reminders.  Be cautious around ruins.  There are many visible nails sticking up and other hazards associated.

Another view from Democrat

I didn't see an entire person on my hike.  This was a weekday in November.  Typically in the regular Colorado hiking season, expect to have company on this one.  It's not exactly a secret destination.  Also be aware that the entire route is above treeline and there isn't any escape from the weather if it approaches.

Democrat from Bross

Another view from Bross

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