Colorado Peak Sweep (Parts 29 – 32)

My 2022 mountains started with Mt. Rundle in Banff, which while not a 14er, had more gain and was more challenging than anything I plan to do in Colorado this summer. It was terrifying and difficult, but when I had completed it, I knew that I was Colorado ready.

I have seven weekends in Colorado to knock out a minimum of 12 peaks. I’ve picked a dozen as the magic number because that will bring my total up to 40 but also because that’s just about how many I have left that I think I can reasonably do. I’m also in training mode for Bolivia in October where I’ll be going for peaks in the 17,550 to 21,455 ft range. I need to be in peak peak condition! So I’m pushing myself hard this summer.

Here’s my report on the summits I conquered in my first two weeks.

Wetterhorn (3)

Date: July 30
Summit Elevation: 14,015 ft (ignore my sign in the photo)
Performance: 8.6 miles in 5 hours 10 minutes with 3,879 feet gain
Report: I loved this hike! And I found it easier than many Class 2 peaks. The trail goes through a beautiful forest, there is almost no scree, and the scramble at the top is fun. The scramble is super steep – make no mistake that this is not a 14er for anyone with a fear of heights – but the rock is stable and there are plenty of foot/hand holds. It’s difficult exertion-wise, but not especially challenging, like Sneffels was last year. I did get off trail twice on the summit push but was easily able to scramble my way around and get back on track.

While I didn’t have much a view for most of the day, it never rained and there was hardly any wind either, which is rare for the top of a 14er. The threat of rain also kept people away – I passed only three other groups on my way up and two on my way down. I had the summit to myself and it was actually warm, but since I couldn’t see anything, I didn’t linger.

I also got a beautiful campsite just a half mile down the road (my total hike was 8.6 miles) the night before. I didn’t bother to take down my tent before the hike, but left it up to nap in afterward since I knew I’d be done before noon. I started this hike at 5:45 AM because it had been raining heavily in Lake City and I wanted to beat the rain.

The only weird thing that happened was that in the morning, about 2.5 miles into the hike, a bunch of animals started aoooo-ow-ow-aooooing somewhere nearby in the forest. Coyotes? I don’t know if they go up to that elevation. Wolves? I don’t think they are that widespread yet, especially in the southern region. I was a bit freaked, but I was out in a meadow at the point – not in the forest anymore – and I did have bear spray with me so I wasn’t too worried. Overall, this peak was a fantastic start to my 14er season!

Missouri Mountain (2)

Date: August 6
Summit Elevation: 14,067 ft
Performance: 10.61 miles in 5 hours 49 minutes with 4,194 feet gain
Report: After my failed Missouri bid in 2020 thanks to an early thunderstorm, I didn’t have the heart to go up the Belford/Oxford trail (Missouri Gulch trailhead) a second time. Plus, that trail is always mobbed, and the Saturday I did it was no exception. There were easily 50 cars there before 6am. Luckily, there is an alternate route for Missouri – the non-standard West Ridge trail (Rockdale trailhead). The third reason I chose this route was that if my car could get to the upper trailhead, the hike would be less than 6 miles. Alas, my little Patriot could not get over the huge rockpile on the other side of Clear Creek, so I ended up hiking several miles more than had I just done the Missouri Gulch route. That was a little frustrating because my car would have been fine on the rest of the road, but like I said, I’m in training mode, so it was not a big deal. Also, the first 3 miles are relatively flat and I banged them out in just 57 minutes on the ascent and 51 on the descent. I was cruising.

This trail is not heavily used. I passed only two other parties on my ascent and three on my descent. This is wonderful, but it also means the trail is not always clear, so you should have a downloaded map. When you ascend above Clohesy Lake, the trail splits into two. Both will get you there, but the lower route that goes straight up along the waterfall seems to be a bit harder and longer. I mistakenly took that on my way up. To avoid it, take the sharp spur to the left, which is the route I took on the way down. The trails eventually merge, though, and that’s where it gets tough.

Shortly after the merge point, you begin to ascend a steep, grassy hill. Steep, steep, steep. Like you have to stop every 50 steps to catch your breath even though you’re not to 12,000 feet yet. It’s crazy. After that comes an only slightly-less steep rocky uphill with a bit of talus. Those two segments will take you a long time. One mile there took me 1 hour and 9 minute. But when it’s all done, you’re on a beautiful and fun rolling ridge line to the summit and it’s smooth sailing from there.

Almost. At this point, the West Ridge route has merged with the standard route, which means that right before the summit, you come to the dreaded “ledge”. The trail drops twenty feet onto a scree patch with extreme exposure. More than one person has turned around at this point – just 1/20 of a mile from the summit – and indeed, when I arrived, two young women were frozen there in fear. I passed by them, went to the summit, hung out and ate a little bit, and the whole time they were still there, plastered to the rock, not moving. They finally figured out how to turn themselves around and go back. A major disappointment, for sure, but better to be safe and not attempt it if they were that scared. I took the low route of the ledge on my ascent and honestly thought it was fine. Some people were on the low route on my way back, so I took the high route. I’m not sure if it was really sketchier or if it was just because downhill is always worse, but my heart rate leapt up noticeably as I crossed.

The rest of my hike was uneventful, and even going down that steep part wasn’t really bad because there was minimal scree. Or maybe because I was wearing my ultra grippy Saucony trail runners. Or maybe my confidence and balance have improved. Who knows. But it was an easy trek back to the car. I did have to wade through two sections of Clear Creek to get to where my car was parked, but that cold mountain water felt great at the end of the hike. However, even in the beginning of August, the water was quite fast and up to my knees at some points, so you might not want to attempt this route in spring.

Mount of the Holy Cross (2)

Date: August 7
Summit Elevation: 14,005 ft
Performance: 10.54 miles in 8 hours 16 minutes with 5,533 feet gain
Report: Back-to-back 14ers are tough, but an important part of the training plan. This hike was quite a bit slower than the day before, but there was 1,000 feet more gain and I was feeling the effects of Missouri.

I’d been putting this one off for some time because of the double ascent. You begin by gaining around 1,000 feet in the first 1.6 miles…and then you lose it all. You descend into a beautiful valley with dispersed camping. I highly recommend coming here even if you don’t want to do the 14er. But if you are planning to summit Mt. of the Holy Cross, it’s kind of depressing to get three miles in and essentially have to start all over again when you go over East Cross Creek. And after you summit and descend, you know you still have another 1.25 mile ascent to deal with. I guess it’s really no different effort-wise than going for a double 14er, like Shavano/Tabegauche (coming soon!), except you aren’t getting two summits. Just one. So it’s psychological. But honestly, the second ascent wasn’t that bad. It was steep for the first third, but it’s a very manageable grade after that and we didn’t need to stop to rest.

But really, try to put this out of your mind because this is one of the more beautiful 14ers. The forest, the wildflowers, the terrain…all of it. We enjoyed this trail very much. And there’s no way to get lost. Even without the dozens of massive cairns, you couldn’t get lost because the trail is so obvious, except maybe at the very top where there is a lot of hopping around and over boulders. But if you just go straight up, you can’t miss the summit. And like Missouri, there was minimal scree, which we appreciated, and much of the rocky part has boulders that have been fashioned into steps, making the path smooth. The summit was warm and not windy and spacious with mountains everywhere you looked. Traffic-wise, the trail was moderately busy, but not annoyingly so. This was a good day.

Longs Peak (3) and Bonus – Mt. Meeker

Date: August 11
Summit Elevation: 14,255 ft and 13,911 ft
Performance: 13.62 miles in 15 hours 49 minutes with 6,634 feet gain
Report: I’ve been putting off Longs for some time because I simply haven’t felt prepared to tackle a mountain this legendarily difficult. They say it’s Colorado’s deadliest mountain, but that’s only if you are looking at absolute numbers. Relatively speaking, deaths-to-hikers, it’s not. The number of deaths on Longs can also be partly attributed to its accessibility, which means it attracts a lot of ill-prepared people who have no business being up there, much like Rundle in Banff. Nevertheless, I haven’t had the confidence to try it until this year.

So there I was at 3:45 AM taking off from the parking lot with my headlamp on, along with quite a lot of other people. I was going alone, but I wasn’t nervous because of the peak’s popularity.

Well, 3:45 is an early start and I tend to move fast when I’m alone. I turned at this sign for the Keyhole route, which is the most popular, and then immediately got off track. I missed the sign right after that and started heading toward Chasm Lake. After just 10 minutes, I knew I had done something wrong, because earlier I had seen all the headlamps ahead of me going in a completely different direction. The rockwall rising to my right made it impossible to get to where those people were going. So I checked my downloaded AllTrails map and yep, I was off trail. I turned around and headed back, but ran into another couple. I asked them if we were on the Keyhole route, they checked their GPSes and said, yep, we were all on the right path. I believed them because sometimes AllTrails is wrong and it was early and I was tired. So I turned back around. I checked behind me a few times and that couple was still going the same direction I was. So I thought maybe this was the right route, even though I couldn’t see any other headlamps ahead. A while later, I looked back again and the couple was gone. They must have figured out they were off trail and turned around.

At this point, I had a choice to make. I’d wasted about 40 minutes meandering up and down a wrong trail. I was annoyed. I could turn around and easily find the right trail, but I hate backtracking after so long. Then I saw two men emerging from the dark and thought, what the heck – let’s see what these guys are up to. I asked what their plan for the day was and they were doing both Meeker and Longs, via a non-standard route. Hmmm…

I always wanted to do Meeker, so on a whim, I asked if I could tag along and they said why not? Well, okay – adventure time! The one man looked around 60 years old and was local to Estes Park. He had done both Meeker and Longs separately, but never the full lollipop route. The other was around my age, maybe just a few years older, and had only done Longs before. And so off we went up the first crazy couloir of the day between Meeker and Longs. It was slow going but not especially difficult because the older man – Jonathan – knew the best route. There appear to be multiple ways up, but some of them are far sketchier than others. We reached the summit of Meeker fairly uneventfully at 8:15 AM, which is the photo below with Longs in the background.

And then it all fell apart, but only the best adventuresome way. They really didn’t know they route from there. They had watched a YouTube video and were relying on memorized landmarks. I obviously had no idea where I was going, and despite having several downloaded maps of Longs, none of them revealed any trails where we were on the backside.

But the forecast looked good for the whole day and we had nothing to do but pick around the rocks and find a route, which is exactly what we did. We hopped down huge boulders, scrambled around ridges only to find no way down, turned back, found another route, paused a lot to think and check the Garmin, and finally found a chute that looked scramble-able.

It was a huge risk on both our sides for me to hitch my wagon to two strangers since we knew nothing about each others’ personalities and hiking style, but we all turned out to have the same appetite for uncertainty and danger and endurance. We all stayed positive and engaged, and these guys were just generally good company.

Because we had no idea where we were going or what we were doing, the day took much, much longer than planned. Also, Jonathan was quite a bit slower on the up and down than myself and Michael, so waiting for him added probably an hour and a half to the day. But I certainly wasn’t complaining because I wouldn’t have added to Meeker to my day without these guys. Plus, I love a non-standard route. You can’t build your skills and confidence without getting out of your comfort zone and off the beaten path.

However, being out there so long meant bad news weatherwise. When we were a mere 300 feet from the summit of Longs, it began to hail. This was the Homestretch of Longs – smooth flat granite that requires you to go up on all fours, finding tenuous handholds and footholds. And that granite gets very, very, very slippery when wet. But none of us cared. We had come so far and were going to summit even if it killed us. There wasn’t any discussion or debate about whether we should go to the top.

At 12:59 PM, we reached the summit and the hail stopped. We were obviously the last people on the summit that day, and with dark clouds looming everywhere, we didn’t linger. We snapped a few pics and left…and probably set a record for the slowest descent ever from the summit to the Keyhole.

Although the hail and rain had stopped, the damage was done. Going back down the slick Homestretch was deadly and we all took our time, making 100 percent certain to have a good grip or foot wedge before making any moves. We had to stop, think, try and try again at a few points. My adrenaline was rushing seeing how far I would slide if I made a wrong move, but I never felt like I couldn’t find the right grip. I remained calm and rational. After the Homestretch, we precariously made our way along the standard route of The Narrows, The Trough, and The Ledges.

Throughout these sections, I realized I honestly might not have made the summit by myself even on the standard route. I know I was super tired by that point, having been hiking for 9.5 hours, but even so, these Class 3 sections of Longs were way more difficult than I anticipated. I was so grateful for having good company and a little assistance in the trickiest parts. Although I love hiking alone and advocate for anyone to do it, I have to say that Longs is truly not a peak you should hike alone. The Class 3 part is just so long and so unforgiving of any misstep.

About two-thirds of the way back to the Keyhole, a real thunderstorm rolled in. Only a few tiny drops of rain let loose, but thunder cracked above us incessantly and put a genuine fear of getting stuck by lightning into my soul. There was nowhere to hide, though, and we all pushed as fast as we dared and as our tired bodies would let us for the shelter at the Keyhole.

When we reached the Keyhole shelter, to our surprise, it wasn’t empty. There were two young men in there who were also hiding out from the thunderstorm. They had started hiking at 1AM and were still on the mountain because one of them had slid and injured his ankle on the Homestretch. He could still walk (only because he had hiking poles for support) but the going was extremely slow. I can’t even image how awful it must have been to get to that point and how daunting the remaining six miles to the parking lot must have felt. Those poor guys probably had an over 20-hour hiking day and they didn’t even bag two summits like we did. The five of us chatted a bit while we all rested up and waited for the worst clouds to blow over, and then we picked our way down the boulder field, each at our own pace.

We regrouped at the base of the boulder field – I believe it was around 4:30 pm by then – and there I said my goodbyes. I knew I would make it down the trail much faster than anyone else and I had a four hour drive back to Salida, so I wanted to get moving. Fortunately, it never rained again, but I wasn’t as fast moving as I wanted to be. After the first three miles, my body really fatigued. Everything hurt – quads, toes, lower back, shoulders. Everything. The final three miles were just brutal. My body battery was 99 percent drained, and to be brutally honest, I wanted to cry the entire last half mile. I was that exhausted and in so much pain. The day was much, much more than I had planned on, but I’m super grateful that I got to hike with Jonathan and Michael. I felt so accomplished and a proud sense of growth in my mountain skills and endurance, and it was wonderful to find good people to share the day with.

2 thoughts on “Colorado Peak Sweep (Parts 29 – 32)

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