Our Final 2 Weeks in the Wilderness – Week 6 and 7

Total Miles Hiked this Summer: 240 Miles
Total Elevation Gained this Summer: 98,000 ft

Well, with 5 peaks left before we reach our summer goal of 36 peaks, we will unfortunately come up a little short. After Kirsten’s knee problems in Chicago Basin, we decided to take it easier with more rest days between peaks. After climbing Longs peak yesterday, we reluctantly decided that it would be our last of the summer. Kirsten’s knee wasn’t getting any better and since she still needed it for South America, so we thought it was best to not push it.

After Chicago Basin, we took a few days off to see if Kirsten’s knee would improve. After a few days, we decided to continue climbing and drove up to Aspen to climb in the Elk Range.  Our first peak to climb in the Elks was Castle Pk.  The Elks are a beautiful range and Castle was no exception.  Castle holds a lot of snow throughout the entire year, so we finally got some use out of our ice axes and microspikes.

Kirsten reaching the summit of Castle

Next up in the Elks was going to be Maroon Peak and Pyramid Peak. However, since it was a weekend, the Maroon Bells overnight lot was full so we headed back to Buena Vista to continue making progress and finish up some peaks in the Sawatch.

Back in the Buena Vista area, we still needed to summit Mt Harvard and Missouri Mountain.  Earlier in the summer we hadn’t been able to traverse from Mt Columbia to Mt Harvard due to extremely strong winds and lack of visibility.  Also, we had substituted Missouri Mountain with Pikes Peak so that we could make an emergency stop at the apple store in CO Springs to get our Mac working again (turns out we needed a new hard drive).  We had chosen to hold off on Missouri Mountain in particular because it has a deep and wide river crossing at the beginning of the 4WD road leading to its trailhead.  Due to all the spring snow Colorado received this year, it would have been impossible for our Xterra to cross it back in early July, making the hike much longer.  Later in the summer we knew we would be fine.

Since we had already been up to the Horn Fork Basin to summit Mt Columbia, we decided to climb Harvard from the much less traveled route on the eastern slopes.  It turned out to be a beautiful hike, most of it on open tundra.  The hike was 11 miles round trip and 4,120 ft of elevation gain.

Breaking out of tree-line on our way up to Mt Harvard

We were thinking we’d take a full two days off between mountains, but after a day off, we decided it was time to climb Missouri Mountain.  The river crossing was intimidating, but not a problem at all for the Xterra.  The route up Missouri was short and sweet: 3,200 ft of elevation gain over only 2.7 miles (5.4 miles round trip).  We made quick work of it and were back in Buena Vista that afternoon.

Kirsten refueling on our way up to Missouri

After Missouri, the next peak north on our list would have been Mt of the Holy Cross, near Vail.  However, the forest service had decided to close the road leading up to the trailhead for the entire summer in order to cut down the pine trees that had been killed by the pine beetle.  The next best route would have been much longer and not on a trail, so we decided that mountain will have to wait until next summer.

Since Mt of the Holy Cross was off the agenda, we decided to hit a peak nearby that Kirsten had yet to summit but was my first 14er ever, something like 10 years ago: Mt Massive.

We drove to the Mt Massive trailhead, intending to spend a day relaxing, then climb it the second day.  Around noon of our rest day, however, we saw that the sky was clear and we decided to snag an afternoon summit.  This was a Saturday, and on most Saturdays you would expect to encounter quite a few other hikers, however when we reached the summit around 4 pm, the last of the other hikers were leaving and we had the summit all to ourselves.

Kirsten proud of all the wild strawberries she picked on our day off

Our final goal of the summer was to climb Longs Peak.  Longs Peak is a long hike (15 miles) and quite a bit of elevation gain (5,300 ft), so we had intentionally saved it for our last climb of the summer so that we’d be in good shape.  Also, it is known for being ridiculously crowded — probably because it can be seen from so many front range cities and also because of the huge number of people visiting Rocky Mountain National Park — so we knew we wanted to climb it on a weekday.  We wound up splitting the cost of an overpriced $20 campsite with a random guy we saw setting up his camp named Stuart.  Stuart is from Summit County and into mountain biking so we had a lot to talk about.  Since he was alone (except for his dog Lucy, who isn’t allowed on the Longs Pk trail or on any trail in RMNP for that matter) and he said he would like to hike with someone, we decided to hike with him.  It turns out that he was a fast hiker which was nice…we started at 5 am, and averaged almost 3 mph up to the ‘keyhole’ and reached the summit in about 4 hours (past the ‘keyhole’ the route is single-file and you are only as fast as the slowest person on the mountain).  Longs Peak is a great mountain with a magnificent 1,000 foot tall vertical northeast face overlooking you for most of the hike.

Summit shot on Longs

As we continued to push forward with these 14ers, Kirsten’s knee wasn’t getting any better – in fact, it was getting worse. After our tedious push on Longs, we decided enough was enough. It was a hard decision since we were so close to our goal but probably wise since we still had 10 months of exploring South America, not to mention, less than adequate health coverage since we left our jobs.

Now we’re headed to Denver for about a week to wrap some things up and then to Texas before we leave for South America in mid-September.

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Chicago Basin – Week 5

14ers this Summer: 25
Miles this Sumer: 194 miles
Elevation Gained this Summer: 78,105 ft

Week 5 pretty much consisted of a few days off in Farmington with family and trying to bag the peaks in the Chicago Basin.

Spending time with family in Farmington. Awesome to see my brother Konrad and 94 year old grandfather still kicking it!

The Chicago Basin is a beautiful basin located between Durango and Silverton. The standard way to reach the three 14ers in this basin is via the touristy Durango-Silverton train. For $80, you can buy a ticket and take the train for 20-30 miles before it drops you off at the Needleton trailhead. From here, you hike an additional 6 miles to the base of Sunlight, Windom, and Eolus.

Chicago Basin

Because $80 each is a lot of money and because James assured me the additional miles you hike by not taking the train are “flat”, we opted to hike into the basin via the Purgatory Trail (with full packs mind you) the full 15 miles each way. With our longest hike in so far, you probably get the drift by now that it is a pretty remote place. James had taken the train into the basin the previous year with the intent of hitting all the peaks but due to the timing of his trip falling on Colorado’s monsoon season, he wasn’t able to hit all the peaks.

The basin and surrounding area had seen rain every day for the several days before we hiked in. We told ourselves that this was not a sign of what we would experience and surely the skies would clear before we hiked – they did not.

We started the hike as early as we could convince ourselves to get out of bed – a whopping 7am, and headed for Chicago Basin. Our plan was to hike all 15 miles in one day (they were “flat” miles, right?). About 4 miles in, my left knee started giving me problems. As if the looming thunderheads were not enough to dampen my excitement, the persistent pain added additional insult to injury. I hobbled along determined to get to that basin all the while wondering if $80 wouldn’t have been worth it. I thought about hiking out, but then what? If we or at least James wanted to summit these peaks, we would have to return and our schedule didn’t allow for losing days. I went a few more miles where we took a break at a sweet campsite right next to the Animas River. It was still early and luckily hadn’t started raining yet. Only 8 miles in, the campsite we were resting at started looking more and more appealing. I could see where we would put our tent and I could almost smell my Chicken Stew “Mountainhouse” dinner that I was supposed to eat that night. That was it. We were staying. We put up the tent just as we heard the Silverton bound train going by. We cleaned off at the river, built a fire, relaxed, made dinner and called it a night. Surprisingly, we never heard the train going back to Durango as it always does. This was odd.

Our sweet camp spot on our way to Chicago Basin

Our plan for the next morning was to get up early, see how fast we could make it to our next campsite at the Chicago Basin and pray the weather was good enough for James to at least hit one peak that day. It had rained everyday; I’m not sure why we still held out hope but I didn’t see how else we would stay on schedule if he didn’t climb something that day. I had decided at this point that I just needed to get to the Basin so James could summit. I had lost all hope of summiting any of the peaks due to my knee (since I still had to hike 15 miles out) so I put all my hope on James that he could at least be successful and not leave the basin a second time without any summits. So, off we went. The trail was very straightforward so James hurried ahead of me dropped off his tent and pack at a camping spot in the basin hoping to hit a summit.

I made it up to the basin, found his pack, set up the tent and settled into my sleeping bag to take a nap while waiting for him to return like the good wife that I was. Alas, he came back unsuccessful – the clouds starting rolling in and he didn’t want to chance it. Probably a good idea since about an hour later, the thunder and lightning had started followed by an insane hail storm leaving an inch of white on the ground.

At this point, we were running low on food – not dangerously low but low enough to where James would only have one more day to attempt all the summits. This was quite a tall order. The next morning, he got up at 4am and headed out. Being more than halfway through our peak goal of the summer, James was in really good shape. He is also really fast (when I’m not hiking with him). He was able to summit all the peaks! I was really proud of him. I was back at camp packing up the tent and getting everything ready to head out when he arrived around noon.  We still had 15 miles to go but after camping in the rain for 2 days, I was determined to hike all the way out. After only 4 miles, my feet hurt, my knee hurt, it was raining but we kept going. After a long day (even longer for James) we reached the car at 8pm.

James staring down a mountain goat in Chicago Basin. The goats wait to see if you will pee so they can get some salt - no joke!

View on the way to Eolus

Chicago Basin really is a beautiful place, with tons of wildlife. I’m looking forward to going back to see it from 14,000ft but with an injured knee and relentless rain, I must say, when we reached the car, I think it was one of my happiest moments on this trip.

As it turns out, we never heard the train returning to Durango because apparently sometime after we heard it go by, there was a mudslide and the train was stuck in Silverton for a few days while they cleared the mud and fixed the tracks. This was very unfortunate for the hikers who were waiting for it to pick them up and take them back to Durango. In the end, James’ idea of hiking in wasn’t such a bad one after all since chances are we wouldn’t have been able to catch it anyway.

Summit blocks on Windom

James' Summit Shot

Kirsten

And the Verdict is in…

In the last month and a half we have spent time in numerous Colorado towns. From Durango to Delta and Alamosa to Aspen, we have used many towns as our “home base” for internet and laundry while living in our car and climbing the surrounding 14ers. Not all of these towns are created equal and some have served us far better than others.

The best places to live on the fringe of society, or as a “dirt-bag climber” as one of the hikers we met referred to it as, need to have the following:

* Cheap Showers – After a long day on the trail (or several long days) there is nothing more rewarding than a nice, hot shower. However, they can be pricey. Most Campgrounds we tried, charged $5 per person for a shower. If you take a few showers a week, that can put a dent in your income-less bank account
* A free, potable water spicket to fill up your 5 gallon water tank – preferably one that you don’t have to sneak up to and quickly fill while no one is looking
* Plentiful, free internet
* A real grocery store to stock up on trail food and other necessities
* Good, cheap dining options to fill you up after all you’ve had was cliff bars and pasta for the last 3 days
* A Laundromat
* And…most importantly – NO Ski Resorts or Slopes nearby. The Ski towns all seem exorbitantly expensive even in the summer months. Sure, they can be beautiful with cute little downtowns, but you pay for it.

So, after traveling from town to town, our vote for the best place to hang around while making your precious dollar stretch as far as possible is…Buena Vista.

With twelve 14ers nearby and no ski slopes, Buena Vista has plenty of hiking and is surrounded by BLM and National Forest Land which allows you to camp for free in most places.

One of the free camping spots just outside of Buena Vista

One of the best parts about this town is that it has 3 of the above criteria in one location: the Wally La-La Laundromat. Wally La-La is, obviously, a Laundromat but it also has free internet and the cheapest showers we found all summer. For $3.50 in quarters, you can get a hot 10 minute shower but since you only really need 5 minutes, we would each take one 5 minute shower which came out to $1.75 each. Their cleanliness is passable but after your 5th day with no shower, you don’t really care. All that matters is that it’s a shower, and it’s hot.

Coin-operated showers at the Wally-LaLa Laundromat

As far as a free water source, in the center of town there is a park with a hi-flow spicket. You can pull your car right up next to it and fill up as often as you want.

James filling up on water

Also near the center of town is a full grocery store – a City Market. Some of the smaller towns have these tiny little stores where you’re forced to go to re-stock and a loaf of bread costs you $6.

And last, but not least, cheap dining options abound. Our pick was Punky’s – a locally owned hole in the wall. They served up amazing chicken tenders and we can both walk away thoroughly stuffed for under $10. Another not-so-uncommon option was Subway. We frequented these all summer in several different towns since they have the $5 footlong-of-the-month which is impossible to beat. After sharing the footlong and grabbing 3 cookies for $1, we got away with a bargain!

Good, Cheap food at Punky's

Also, free picnic spots are less than a mile from town where you can grill or cook your own food

Hitting our Stride – Week 4

14ers this Summer: 22 peaks
Miles this Summer: 167 miles
Elevation Gained this Summer: 67,000 ft

After the Wilson group, we headed to Lake City to climb the 5 peaks nearby.  We knew we had a long 3-day break with family (and a room in a hotel!) to look forward to afterwards, but we needed to finish the week strong to stay on schedule.

We started with Redcloud and Sunshine, which are two nondescript peaks whose only notable feature is that the pile of rocks that they are happen to rise above 14,000 feet.  We made quick work of the loop, fully appreciating an ‘easy’ walk-up (Class 1) trail.  We had been getting behind on sleep the past couple of days, so that afternoon back at the car we took advantage of rain storms by taking full 2-hour naps!

The next morning we climbed picturesque Handies Peak.  The lush green valleys leading up to the ridges are quite a sight to see.  We saw our first Ptarmigan of the summer on our way up.  The summit came quickly, but it was a cold and cloudy morning with 20 mph winds, so we didn’t stay long.  That afternoon we drove back to Lake City, ate a big lunch at a restaurant, then drove up to the Uncompahgre Pk trailhead.  It rained off and on that afternoon as well, so we deeded the best course of action was to take naps again!

We woke up the next morning at 5:45 to a cold and drizzly morning, and let me tell you: it is hard to get out of the car in the morning when all you have to look forward to is hiking in the cold rain.  I (James) was leaning towards taking a day off, but Kirsten was rightfully optimistic that the morning drizzle would clear and wouldn’t be a lightning risk for several hours.  On the way up, at around 12,500 feet, we heard what sounded from a distance like a large crowd of people.  We rounded a corner and came upon a huge herd of sheep.  Scattered throughout the herd of dirty-white sheep, were several bright-white sheep dogs; the dogs were doing their job of blending in and keeping a sharp eye on us as we walked the trail that lead straight through the herd.  The clouds were low, and from about 13,000 feet on, we walking through them, the water vapor condensing on us as we passed through it.  Just as we reached the summit — Colorado’s 6th highest — the clouds broke apart, unveiling a clear blue sky and some of the most beautiful views offered on any 14er.  On the way down, we came across the sheep herder on horseback with his Border Collie, Anna, who was following his every command.  Since we enjoyed our lunch so much the day before, once we got back to the car, we headed back to Lake City to the same restaurant before driving up to the Wetterhorn Pk trailhead.  This afternoon it didn’t rain, but we continued our streak of naps to three, convincing ourselves that we were preparing for the siestas of South America!

We got up the next morning and made the trek up to the base of Wetterhorn, passing through the same herd of sheep, which had been herded two valleys west since the previous day.  Wetterhorn was a return to Class 3 climbing, with a steep pitch necessary to gain the summit.  The rock was solid and we made it up quickly.  After safely descending the Class 3 pitch, we enjoyed in the feeling of having completed 5 peaks in 4 days and having nothing on the agenda but rest and time with Kirsten’s family in Farmington, NM.

Our weekend with the family was great — we were spoiled by Kirsten’s parents, who used their Marriott points to put us and Kirsten’s brother, Konrad, in a hotel for a few nights. With hot showers, a pool, and free breakfast, we felt like we were living the life of luxury. It was great to see the extended family.

James

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PRICEY CONDITIONS MAY EXIST – Week 3

14ers This Summer: 17
Miles This Summer: 127
Elevation Gained This Summer: 54,000 ft

This week definitely had its ups and downs. On the upside, we successfully climbed 5 peaks, moved on from the Sangre de Christo range to the San Juan range, and we were able to meet our friend Chris in the Navajo Basin to witness his finishing Colorado 14er climb! On the downside, we lost our digital camera and we lost a bit of confidence when we witnessed a helicopter rescue of some people who were climbing towards the Mt Wilson summit at the same time we were.

The week started with three easier climbs: Culebra Peak, located on a private ranch which allows climbs for $100/person, Humboldt Peak, a rounded peak that looks out of place next to — and offers great views of — the craggy Crestones, and San Luis Peak, probably the most remote 14er in the state.  These three were all simple walk-ups, and we climbed them in three successive days of 5 miles, 9 miles, and 12 miles (our longest yet of the summer).

After climbing San Luis a day early, we took advantage of a rest day in Telluride before meeting up with our friend Chris (and his wife Sara, daughter Lucia, and two of Chris’ long-time friends, John and Ben). They were all going to meet us at Navajo Lake for Chris’ final 14er, Mt Wilson (and its infamous ridge to its sub-peak El Diente). Telluride is a beautiful mountain town, but it is a fairly expensive place to eat and hang out — however, we can’t say we weren’t warned: on the way into town a yellow highway sign that normally reads “ICY CONDITIONS MAY EXIST” had been creatively modified via a “PR” prefix…we can confirm that pricey conditions did exist.

Pricey Conditions May Exist

After a restful day off, we hiked the 5 miles into the Navajo Basin to Navajo Lake with our full packs on in a quick 2 hours.  Upon arrival at a nice camping spot, we realized we were witnessing a rarity: a clear afternoon in the Colorado high country.  95% of the time, our days start out without a cloud in the sky, then by around noon, clouds have started to build, which can turn into deadly (to exposed hikers anyway) thunderstorms.  However, this day was different: at 2 pm there were only a few harmless clouds rolling by.  We took advantage of this and dropped our camping gear and headed out for a rare afternoon summit.  The summit in our sights was Wilson Peak, a dramatic 14er that dominates the views south and west of Telluride.  The last mile along the south ridge of the peak was a dramatic change from the walk-up hikes from earlier in the week.  Once on top of the 13,900 foot false summit, the remaining few hundred feet are quite daunting to look at.

The Final Summit Pitch on Wilson Peak

However, the final summit pitch looks worse than it is and doesn’t exceed Class 3 scrambling.

View from the top of Wilson Peak

On the way down, we got some interesting pictures of the remnants of the Rock of Ages mine.

Mining Car at 12,700 ft from Rock of Ages Mine - I can't believe people used to work up here

We were also keeping our eyes peeled for wreckage from any of the small-plane crashes on Wilson Peak’s flanks, but we didn’t spot any.  We summited Wilson Pk by around 5 pm, and were back to our camp by around 7 pm, just in time for a quick dinner and bed, not knowing what the next day had in store for us…

Stay tuned for tales of 1,000 foot falls, massive rock falls, and helicopter rescues…

James

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Hot Showers and Hot Meals: These are a Few of our Favorite Things – Week 2

14ers This Summer: 12
Miles This Summer: 78
Elevation Gained This Summer: 36,000 ft

We have completed a total of 12 14ers since we started climbing this summer which means we are 1/3 of the way through our goal of 36 Peaks (although, we still have a month and a half left since they get increasingly longer and more difficult). In the past week we climbed 6 mountains. For 5 of the 6, we had to hike in and camp. To reach the base of Kit Carson and Challenger Peak, we hiked 4 miles into Willow Lake which has to be one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen. For Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingwood, we drove as far as we could on a 4WD Jeep Road road but had to make the remaining 3 miles up to Lake Como on foot. The Xterra did really well making it as far as it did on the Jeep Road – only one part fell off, and it was only a mud flap so we can fix it.

On Little Bear, I (Kirsten) got to experience my first Class 4 terrain. However, it was a little sketchier than expected since the main class 4 section had water running down it and was in the skinniest part of the gully meaning any rocks that someone accidentally kick above you, all funnel to where you’re climbing. I’m glad we did it and glad we made it down safely, but it’s probably not a mountain I will climb again. At only 4 miles round trip and little over 2,000 ft of elevation gain, it still took us about 6 1/2 hours round trip from camp to summit and back to camp.

Our favorite peaks this week were Kit Carson and Challenger. They had some of most beautiful scenery and were a big accomplishment for James especially, since this was his 3rd attempt on those two (the pervious 2 times, he had to turn back due to bad weather).

After 14 days and 12 mountains, we are feeling pretty good, thoroughly enjoying the beautiful scenery, and having a down-right awesome time! We have adapted well to the elevation and our muscles aren’t sore anymore. Our feet and knees on the other hand are a different story. We haven’t gotten any blisters at all thanks to our Merrell Chameleon shoes (which is pretty impressive since the first time I even put on my Merrells was on our first 14er this summer!). However, the constant pounding when we descend for hours every day, make our feet and knees sore – nothing a day of rest won’t ease. Yesterday we climbed Blanca and Ellingwood, which marked 5 peaks in the last 4 days. During our descent of Ellingwood we realized we were really in need of a rest day.  After descending Ellingwood, packing up our camp, and hiking out the three miles back to the car, we celebrated with a large meal in Alamosa, CO, did our laundry, rented a Red Box dvd, and are now enjoying a much-needed rest day.

Next up – Culebra!

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