Even though I wanted to get out of Colorado for so long and finally did with my new nomad life, I had to come back for a month in the summer to reach the summit of more 14ers. My target was the San Juan Mountains, nearly the most beautiful mountains on earth. So I booked my Silverton house early and made a list of the peaks I had to summit.
Uncompahgre Peak (14,309), July 25
Despite a harrowing, endless, foggy, and rainy drive over Engineer Pass from Silverton, culminating in a three mile drive up the worse forest service road I have ever been on, this hike is probably my favorite 14ers to date. Even with a downed tree blocking Nellie Creek Road and adding three miles to my hike. I spent the night in my car only halfway up Nellie Creek Road because I got there late and was afraid to cross the raging creek (from weeks of rain) in the dark. In the morning, it wasn’t so bad, though I was still the only fool to attempt driving up this road in a small SUV. Everyone else was in an OHV or a monstrous pick-up truck.
When I arrived at the downed tree early the next morning, a bunch of large men were standing around wondering what to do. Well, find a place to park and get moving, of course! I threw my junker into reverse, went back to a wide corner, pulled off the roadway, and started hiking. What a beautiful morning! A gradually rising trail through a lovely forest that eventually gave way to sweeping mountain views in every direction, the rock face turning from gray to golden with the sunrise. I loved every moment. The trail got steeper above 12,500 feet and there was a tiny section of scrambling, but really, I felt like this hike barely edges into Class 2 territory. The last little bit above 14,000 feet felt long but the summit – ah, just epic! It was broad and flat and the morning was warm. I could have stayed up there an hour. There was one young guy up there already and we chatted a bit. Two more men summited while I was still basking in the bliss of being on top of the world, and we chatted briefly too, and then it was time to head out.
I encountered the large group of men again on my way down, although they were no longer a group. They were scattered along the face of the mountain, some a mere ten minutes from the mountain top but some still easily an hour away from their goal. Turns out they were a group from Oklahoma. Flatlanders. I got a few high-fives, a few comments about how I inspired them to do the hike despite the downed tree, and a few other comments of admiration. This was all very amusing to me, since this was really such an easy hike and I often do intense hikes solo, but hey, I’ll take the compliments.
The compliments didn’t end there. As I drove back down the horrendously bumpy, rocky, rutted Nellie Creek, a forest service employee in a pickup truck and I struggled to get past each other on a narrow section of road, but as we did, he stopped to chat. He was in his 60s and “very impressed” to see a woman out there alone that morning, and pleased that I started so early given the ever impending possibility of thunderstorms. Apparently he was somewhere on the trails when I started my hike. Well, I was amused again since I’ve done so many epic hikes solo, but also again, I took the comment (and his high-five!) for what it was – a compliment. My mood was sky high and I enjoyed this friendly interaction. That was not the time to be a feminist. And really, we solo female hikers are actually something of a rarity out here on the trails and I get a little happy feeling too every time I encounter one of us. Get out there, ladies. It’s a beautiful world!
Redcloud (14,034) and Sunshine (14,001), August 8
It has recently come to my attention that 14ers are ranked only by the technical climbing portion, with Class 1 being a basic hike and Class 5 requiring ropes. But in reality, there are many other factors at play: length of the hike, total elevation gain, exposure (meaning the likelihood that if you slip and fall you will plummet to your death), and route-finding. So, with all these other factors ignored in the ranking system, a Class 2 is not a Class 2 is not a Class 2. Uncompahgre was easy. Redcloud was hell.
The beginning of this hike was smooth sailing through a beautiful valley until 13,000 feet but then it got scary. It started with a traverse across a narrow ridge that dropped off a thousand feet on either side. Then the trail vanished for an approximate 200 foot vertical section and we had to scramble up a steep crumbling wall. The rest of the way to the summit was my least favorite terrain, hard-packed dirt sprinkled with tiny pebbles and nothing for your feet to grip onto. I can handle this going up but I was already terrified of how it was going to be heading down.
Luckily, the mile-and-a-half traverse between Redcloud and Sunshine was easy. Yes, you have to descend 500 feet and go back up – otherwise these wouldn’t be considered distinct 14ers – but the trail itself was no big deal. The trail up to the Sunshine summit is all rocks, about double the size of a fist. They are quite stable and easy to walk across. Way, way, way better than Redcloud. I felt great when I got to the top of Sunshine, but then, unexpectedly, altitude sickness set in swiftly and deeply. I wanted to vomit. My friend’s boyfriend was on the struggle bus too by the time he got to the top, so we didn’t stay long, despite how beautiful it was up there. The air was calm and sunny – the opposite of the wildly windy Redcloud summit – and ordinarily I would have liked to stay, but my body wasn’t cooperating.
I wanted to go down the northwest face of Sunshine to save having to re-summit Redcloud and to shave two miles off the hike, but my friends did not. That route down was a difficult Class 2 and not many people were doing it, so my friends were too nervous. I would have vastly preferred the rockiness of Sunshine to the slickness and exposure of Redcloud that awaited us. But alas, I was outvoted, so back over the traverse and Redcloud we went.
The descent from Redcloud was terrifying. We each had to slide on our butts for small sections here and there, and I would not have made it without poles. It wasn’t just that the trail was slick – it was that the switchbacks were on the edges of the mountain with zero margin for error. If you slipped on a corner, there was nothing to catch you. Nothing. No piled up rocks or dirt, no ledge, nothing. You’d plummet for 2,000 feet if you messed up. We all moved more slowly than we ever had in our lives.
We were so grateful to reach the junction at 13,000 feet at last and we took a long break. We still had several miles to go, but we needed to calm our nerves. This hike took us hours longer than we expected. I love bagging two peaks in one hike, and the meadow and the views were unbelievable, but this is definitely not in my list of recommended 14ers.
Mt. Sneffels (14,150), August 14
My first foray in Class 3 world! The Yankee Boy Basin route is an easy class 3, which makes it perfect for a beginner. We also rented RZRs and drove all the way to upper trailhead, making this hike as short as possible. Why walk up a long, rocky road if you don’t have to?
With only 1,700 feet to gain, we weren’t hiking long before we reached the first gully. Poles away, helmets on, hands ready. Because we started so late in the day (this is normally a big no-no on 14ers where lightning often poses a significant threat by noon) most people were descending as we started up the gully. So, helmets were an essential safety precaution as people above us could send loose rock our way. But there really wasn’t much rockfall. Overall, the rock in the two gullies was quite stable. We slipped and slid in a few places, but it was really only the steepness that made the climb difficult. The danger factor felt pretty low, especially since there really wasn’t any exposure, but going up was a slog. We had to stop to catch our breath often, and the top of each gully seemed so very far away for so long.
After 1,000 feet of scrambling up two gullies, we reached a notch that we had to hoist ourselves up into. There was a large drop off to the left as you entered the notch, so the psychological fear factor was present, but it wasn’t actually difficult. Then it was basically smooth sailing the last 150 feet to the summit. Well, smooth sailing until we had to go back down. Ugh…my knees! Slowly, slowly, slowly I made it, but again, it didn’t actually seem dangerous to me. Turns out though, it wasn’t even my knees that hurt the next day, but my grip and my lats and even my biceps to some degree. I’d never used my upper body so much on a 14er.
Back to those RZRs – a short hike left plenty of time to bounce around Imogene Pass for the rest of the summer afternoon and really put those off-road vehicles to the test. Why limit yourself to only one risky, high-altitude adventure for the day?
Mt. Antero (14,269), August 22
My final peak of the summer was not in the San Juans, but on my way up to Denver to catch a flight for a European vacation. I had planned to summit this one last year with some friends, but the weather did not cooperate, so the 15.5 mile hike was still waiting for me this year.
This hike doesn’t have to be 15.5 miles. It can be less than a mile. For real. You can take a RZR or Jeep or 4Runner all the way up to the active mining claim around 13,500 feet and summit from there. But I was in transition from one location to another and had a car full of things and couldn’t get myself organized, so hiking it was. Even though the majority of the hike is just on a forest service road, it’s not unpleasant. The forest is picturesque, there are some fun river crossings, and we only had three vehicles pass us on our way up (though significantly more later in the day on the way down), so it wasn’t annoying being on a road.
We summited quite easily. I actually don’t understand why this is a Class 2 and not a Class 1. This was infinitely easier than Redcloud. Even at the very end, you cross a ridgeline that looks harrowing from a distance, but is actually easy and safe when you are on it. The summit push is a well-defined trail on stable rock. There really wasn’t much to this one other than the distance and some wind.
Still, if I can shortcut 14ers, I will, especially on the way down when the accomplishment is behind me. So when an elderly Mormon couple and a dog named Toto off-roading in their lifted 90s Jeep Cherokee passed us with 2.5 miles left to go and asked if we wanted a ride, we gladly accepted. The faster back to our cars at the bottom – where beers and our flip-flops awaited – the better. Thirteen miles was plenty for the day.
So, I haven’t made it to 30 peaks yet, but I’ll be back next summer. I’ve got eleven more Colorado 14ers on my list that I know I can tackle, and maybe I’ll take on some more Class 3 hikes as well. Plus, I’ll be entering the Mt. Whitney lottery again for a chance at my second California 14er.