Thursday, May 14, 2015

Views from the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness

The past month has been filled with snow and rain.  The mountains surrounding Salida that had mostly bare summits in early April are now blanketed with a heavy coat of snow.  Even the lower elevations received quite a bit of snow.  Mid April saw one storm with 22 inches of snow at my house and we had 2 inches as recently as this past weekend.  Because we have been stuck in this dreary pattern, it has been difficult to get in some quality time outdoors.

The first half of spring was quite dry.  Mountain biking was my sport of choice before the wet weather arrived.  Since the mid April storm, it has been difficult to find trails dry long enough to get in a ride.  Clouds have been the norm in the high country with the chance of rain or snow most days the past month.  A lot of snow has also made for unsafe conditions in many locations in the mountains as well.

Since most of my time recreating was focused on mountain biking in lower elevations, I was eager to get back into an alpine setting.  Two weeks ago I went for a quick hike to Brown's Pass.  Brown's Pass sits on the Continental Divide at just over 12,000 feet in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness near Mt. Yale.  I had a brief window of clear skies and made a quick trip to the pass and back.  The pass sit above treeline and has fantastic views of the surrounding high country and endless mountains.  The mountains had the most snow coverage I have seen all winter.  I contemplated hiking further but I forgot sunscreen.  With intense sun and the reflection on the snow, I didn't want to take chances getting baked.  I was already cooked by the sun and snow reflection in similar conditions more than  a month earlier and the sun has only grown more intense since then.

Since that trip to Brown's Pass, the weather continued to be dreary.  Finally I had a small break of clear weather on a day off that I could hike.  Unfortunately, the mountains just received more snow and the snow didn't have time to consolidate.   I didn't want to take my chances on sketchy snow.  I decided to head back to Brown's Pass which travels over tame terrain.  My first trip, I forgot my camera battery and wanted to get some photos of the scenery while the mountains are so covered in snow.  I also wanted to continue from the pass along the Continental Divide.

I left the Denny Creek Trailhead about 7am.  Even though the mountains still wore a heavy blanket of snow, the start of the hike quite a bit less snowy than 2 weeks prior.  Last time the trail was snow covered completely except for the first couple hundred feet.  This time the trail was a mix of snow and bare ground for nearly the first 2 miles and 1000 vertical feet. The temperature was right around 30F when I started.  I was able to travel bareboot for at least 2.5 miles on firm snow before putting on my snowshoes.

The hike starts traveling through the woods.  The first 1.3 miles use the same trail that accesses Mt. Yale.  The only other tracks I saw in the beginning turned toward Mt. Yale. Less than 2 miles in, the woods thin and some of the surrounding peaks come into view.  There is another junction about 2 miles from the start.  A trail turns off to the left toward Hartenstein Lake.  I continued straight on the Brown's Pass Trail.  Because of snow cover, the actual trail was nowhere to be seen and I continued traveling through a mostly open meadow.

Early views of the Continental Divide
Looking back down the trail toward Mt Princeton
Close up of Mt Princeton area
As the morning warmed, the snow became softer.  I began to sink a little more with each step and finally put on my snowshoes after about 2.5 miles of hiking.  Generally the snow supported me with my snowshoes but where the sun was hitting the snow I sank a little deeper, especially on steeper slopes.

PTs 12,956 and 12,524
PT 12,956
PT 12,524
Entering a meadow on Brown's Pass Trail
Climbing toward Brown's Pass
As my route climbed toward the pass, the meadow opened as the trees thinned.  The last bit of the climb to the pass travels through an open alpine basin.  Brown's Pass sits on the Continental Divide.  From the pass the views to the north are stunning.  Most impressive are the views toward the rugged peaks of the Three Apostles.  14ers Harvard and Columbia tower above to the northeast.

Looking north from Brown's Pass
Looking along the Divide north from the pass
Three Apostles
PT 12,524 from Brown's Pass
View back down Denny Gulch from Brown's Pass
From the pass, I continued south along the Divide.  There is a long ridgeline with unnamed alpine summits leading back toward Cottonwood Pass.  My plan was to travel this ridge as long as it seemed safe with the current snow conditions.  The ridge appeared safe for at least the first several bumps along the Divide.
Looking south on the Divide
The initial climb to the ridge is short and only moderately steep, not steep enough for avalanche concerns.  Luckily I didn't need to go very far to get to the ridge.  The snow was very loose and soft as I climbed.  At the steepest part, the snow broke off in slabs but it wasn't steep enough to slide.  Travel was easier once I got past the initial climb.  The snow was thinner and more scoured along the top of the ridge. I passed over a couple low bumps along the ridge but nothing substantial.  The divide was mostly flat to start.

Mt Yale
Distant peaks
Looking across basin to the west of the Divide
Another shot toward PTs 12,524 and 12,956 as
I move along the Divide
Another look toward Yale
Three Apostles and I think 14er Huron beyond
Looking back along the Divide toward Harvard and Columbia
The first spot on the Divide with any noticeable climb was PT 12,524.  Colorado has so many mountains that many lower peak, and 12,524 is low by Colorado standards, go unamed.  Albeit short, the climb was relatively steep.  The snow was fairly thin and I was able to safely ascend with my snowshoes.  From the top of PT 12,524 I had to decide if I wanted to continue along the Divide.

PT 12, 956 from the top of PT 12,524
The terrain becomes more rugged beyond PT 12,524.  The next peak along the Divide is PT 12,956.  PT 12,956 is extremely steep on its south side.  The ridge connecting the two peaks requires a traverse over a short knife edge.  As the day warmed and sun started to hit the snow, the snow's condition was deteriorating.  With firmer snow or less snow, I would have felt safe on the knife edge.  I didn't feel safe trying to traverse the knife edge with the slabby snow.  The steep south and east side of PT 12,956 also had the remains of numerous avalanches.  Even if I could pass the knife edge, I'm not sure I would have been able to descend safely into the Denny Gulch drainage.

A closer view of PT 12,956 and the route I decide not to take
14ers Harvard and Columbia
The stunning view to the north
Another shot of Yale
From PT 12,524 I descended to the east toward the meadow along the Brown's Pass Trail.  The slope was shallow enough to safely descend.  The sun was hitting it directly and I sank quite a bit even with the snowshoes.  Had the snow been firmer I may have needed my ice ax, but the poles were fine with the soft conditions.  After passing the junction for Hartenstein Lake, I started hitting large stretches of bare ground and took off my snowshoes.  Because the trail traveled between large stretch of bare ground and snow, it was easier to travel without the snowshoes the rest of the way.  I did posthole above my knees a few times but generally travel wasn't to bad on the despite the softening snow.

My descent from PT 12,524
This trip was a fairly quick and not too difficult.  I did face a wide variety of snow conditions however ranging from firm crust, to mash potatoes, to slush.  I hiked only 4 hours, covering about 8 miles.  I didn't climb any major summits and gaining the Continental Divide at Brown's Pass is gradual.  The scenery however was stunning, with the heavy snow cover enhancing the already beautiful views.  Sitting on the Continental Divide in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, there are no signs of civilization visible.  Numerous 14ers are visible from this route as well.  The date of this trip was May 11 and the mountains were covered with more snow than I have seen all winter.  In summer conditions I imagine the trip to Brown's Pass would be a fairly easy hike.  Even in snow, it's a safe bet for someone seeking a trip above treeline without too much avalanche risk.  At some point I will probably return to traverse the peaks to the south when there is safer conditions or no snow.

Close up of the Three Apostles
North from Brown's Pass
Yale Close up
Princeton, Antero, and neighboring peaks

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