Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Well, it's Tuesday, and I'm finally finding enough time to write about last Friday and Saturday.
Trisha, Ted, and I headed up to the mountains yet again, this time to attend the 14ers.com annual fall gathering. Amber couldn't get the day off from work, so it was just the three of us.
The plan was to camp Friday night along the North Cottonwood Creek Trail, then climb Mt. Harvard (14,427 ft.) on Saturday morning, and possibly go on to climb the adjacent Mt. Columbia as well. Depending.
We got to the trailhead west of Buena Vista, just below 10,000 ft, good and late--just about astronomical sunset. We knew the weather forecast for the next day was sketchy at best, but we were determined to give it our best shot. We headed up the trail, and into the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness under promisingly clearing skies.
It was cold, but we had come prepared with plenty of layers of clothing. We had to climb about 2,000 ft. to where the communal campsite had been planned, and we figured that that would help to keep us warm. It did.
Still, we should have left earlier. We actually couldn't, but that didn't change the fact that we really should have. We didn't make it to anywhere near our evening destination before full darkness fell. As a result, we knew that the tents of the other campers would be harder to see, plus a good many of them (the ones with good sense) would probably already be asleep--or trying to get to sleep--by the time we arrived. Trisha and I put on our headlamps.
Still, we pressed on as fast as we could. The clarity of the skies was an unexpected plus. As the trees began to thin (the chosen campsite was very near timberline), we got steadily expanding views of the starry sky, uncontaminated by either moonlight or artificial light pollution. That part was absolutely fabulous!
Somewhere between two and two-and-a-half hours into our hike (I didn't have the sense to look at my watch for a more accurate figure!), we found the marker for which we had been looking: a weight suspended by a length of blue climbing rope on a tree branch, placed there by the person (Scott Patterson of Craig) responsible for scoping out the trail and alerting other hikers as they arrived.
Unfortunately, as we looked around, we saw no sign of any tents, or any other sign of humans, at all! The problem was, although we couldn't tell in the dark, that our headlamps couldn't quite illuminate enough to show us where we needed to go. The encampment was actually just a stone's throw away, but we wouldn't find this out until the following day. We decided, incorrectly, that the campsite must be "just a little farther" up the trail. So we kept hiking.
We hiked for at least another half hour, climbing something like 600 feet more. By that time 1) we were clearly seeing the very last of the trees, 2) we were tired, 3) we were getting cold, since none of us had been willing to stop and put on any more clothes, and 4) we were getting hungry! So we decided that enough was enough, we would abandon any further attempts to find the others, and to grab the first level ground we could find to set up the tent, and let answering all the questions wait until morning.
We hurriedly set up our 3-person tent in the breezy cold. Then, with fingers made clumsy by the cold, we got the stove going and started boiling water, first for some hot cocoa (which did a lot of good!), and then for our standard backpacking dinner: quick rice, canned chicken, and spices. It's peasant simple, but it's easy to prepare on a propane backpacking stove, and it's hot, tasty, and filling! When we finally got it ready--which took a real effort, as the primitive can opener on my old Swiss Army knife did not work very well--it really hit the spot.
It was nearly 11 pm when we were finally fed and ready to retreat into the tent and the warmth of our sleeping bags. And then the next bombshell hit: Trisha, the last one in, reported that clouds were rolling in and our clear skies were going away.
We were all warm enough, bundled up in our bags, but, sure enough, the gusty winds that assailed us during the night brought the unmistakable sound of snow hitting the tent's canopy.
Having climbed, successfully, in some snow the previous Saturday, we were certainly not prepared to abandon all hope just because of that. But we also knew that the forecast was calling for significant wind, too. That combination could make conditions too harsh. We had no choice but to settle in and defer any final decision until the morning.
Morning--meaning when we finally got partially out of our bags and opened the tent door enough to take a look outside--came well after 6 am, even though we had set our alarm for 5. We heard it, but we just couldn't face de-cocooning ourselves in the dark.
The view, when enough light finally showed up to make one possible, was bleak and discouraging. Rocks, bushes and trees still showed through the snow on the ground, but plenty had fallen during the night, and more was falling all the time. The wind was still blowing, too. I estimated it as a steady 20 mph with gusts to at least 40. Cold!
Before venturing out, we put on virtually all our remaining clothing. Ted bravely got the stove going again, and fixed us all morning coffee. He reported that the stove had to be broken loose from the ground when he was through, due to ice forming around its base.
With no clearing in sight, it only took a little discussion for us to decide that this was one climb better abandoned. We had seen two hikers heading up past us earlier, but still had no idea where the rest of the 14ers.com contingent was. We took turns in the tent packing up our packs, and then all pitched in to take down the tent and get it packed up in the wind. It's a good thing there were three of us, or it would have taken even longer and ended up even messier than it was. I took a series of panorama shots to document the conditions, and my camera eventually told me that the batteries were low--not because they were really low, but because the low temperature was preventing them from delivering enough power!
At about 8:30, a little disappointed, we finally started down the trail. And, bang--what do you know? Not fifteen minutes later, we met a party of seven coming up the trail, and it turned out to be the 14ers.comers we had missed the night before.
They had indeed been camped near the marker, just a little ways off through some trees. Now, they were determined to make an attempt on Harvard, including 4-year-old Kessler Patterson. We introduced ourselves and chatted briefly. One of them snapped a picture, which can be seen at:


Also, my picture album from the trip can be seen at:


I had to admire their determination, but I seriously wondered if any of them would actually reach the summit, which was still almost 2,600 feet above them, that day. We later learned that only three had done so. They reported 50 mph winds. It took them four hours from the time we left them. And then there was still the descent. Whew! That sort of stuff was just more than we were willing to tolerate that day. Harvard will still be there some day when the sun's out!
We wished them well, and continued down the trail. It took us less than two hours, in constantly increasing temperatures, decreasing snowfall, and clearing skies, to descend the section of trail which we had toiled up for nearly four hours the previous evening!
This was the first time any of us had been turned back from a peak this year. Well, it's going to happen how and then. Still, we had a wonderful shared adventure. We'll just have to see if some gentle fall weather settles in later and allows another last shot at peakbagging this year.


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