Monday, November 12, 2007

Mary Had a Little Sheep

Marys Mtn. (9,960 ft.) and
Sheep Mtn. W (9,920 ft.)

11 November, 2007: What better way to celebrate an amazingly warm Veteran’s Day than by knocking two more ranked peaks off my El Paso County list, and making myself a veteran of one of the longest round trips I ever failed to anticipate? I couldn’t think of anything better, especially since Trisha and Suzanne were still off in Florida, and the kids were both keeping themselves occupied the whole day being teenagers!
Mistake #1: I decided I could get by without a sunrise start. So I let myself sleep in until 6 am, and didn’t start hiking until 7:20. This was yet another trip starting from the Gold Camp Road trailhead, going up the Seven Bridges Trail. After that, the plan was to extend the route I had taken to climb Tuckaway Mtn. (in May) and Cameron Cone (in July) by continuing west on the trail south of Tuckaway, until it intersected a Water Department road which the topo map showed as running north, right to the base of Marys Mtn. I made it to the vicinity of Tuckaway in just barely two hours, and then continued on past where I had been previously. But I had seriously underestimated how much time it would take from there to reach my two objectives.
The map showed the trail continuing to the west and running right into the road. Before I reached the road, however, I found the trail blocked by a fence and a gate with a big “No Trespassing” sign. This was not entirely a surprise. I had wondered whether my projected route would include some “trespassing” in the city utilities department’s bailiwick, and that was one reason why I figured a Sunday morning was the best time to give it a try!
Undeterred, I turned right (north) and followed alongside the fence, where a fairly clear track led down the slope. I figured that eventually the fence would turn away to the west, or simply end, allowing me to access the road farther north. This turned out to be right. After dropping a short distance, the fence, and the faint trail, started up again. This was, in fact, the west ridge of Tuckaway Mtn. When I topped out at a rock outcropping, the chain link portion of the fence did indeed come to an end, after which there were only a few derelict strands of barbed wire, mostly trodden into the ground. I stopped here to check my position.
I got a good fix on my location with the GPS, and I could see that, by simply continuing north (where the wire continued on in a beeline), I would indeed intersect the road. I also discovered that I was at about 10,300 ft, fully 400 feet higher than the peaks I had set out to climb! This was the first time I had ever had to climb _down_ to my peaks.
When I hit the road, it was, as I had hoped, deserted. I followed it down the drainage (the upper part of Ruxton Creek), as it wound its way just past Horsetooth Reservoir and right to the base of the south face of Marys Mtn.
I’m sorry I couldn’t get a decent picture of that south face: it is the rough and cliffy side of the mountain. But only glimpses could be had through the trees. I left the road and started up, having decided to angle to my left (west) to work around the cliffs, and approach the summit from the west or north. This turned out to be the best decision. Fairly easy climbing through light timber eventually gave way to just a couple of hundred feet of scrambling up larger boulders on the west face.
I finally arrived at a small saddle between what looked like two high points of roughly elevation. Unable to tell, from this vantage, which was the true summit, I realized that I would simply have to climb one and have a look at the other to answer the question. So I had a fifty-fifty chance of having to climb both. I chose the south point, mostly because it looked easier; the face the north point presented to me was nearly vertical.
The south point was indeed the true summit, with a small pole to mark it. The other point was now obviously a few feet lower. Also, I could see that I could have climbed it had I had to, by spiraling around counter-clockwise to its east side.
BTW, I don’t know for whom Marys Mtn. is named. I’m going to try to dig up that fact, but it’s likely to take a while.
The weather was gorgeous and almost (but not quite) warm enough to convince me to shed my long sleeves. I had fantastic, clear views in all directions, some of which I managed to capture in pictures. I was also able, finally, to get my bearings with respect to surrounding peaks and other landmarks. The bad news was that it was already well after 11: It had taken me longer to get here from the base of Tuckaway Mtn. than it had taken me to get there from the trailhead! Plus, I still had another summit to climb. Although I could now see it clearly to the northeast, and could see most of the route to it, I could also see that I would have to drop quite a bit to the saddle in between the two peaks.
I toyed fleetingly--very fleetingly-- with the idea of abandoning Sheep because of this. But I knew that if I did that, I would just have to make the entire journey over again on some future date. So, after 15 minutes or so on the summit of Marys, I set off down the north side, looking for the best place to cross the creek running out of the reservoir and begin the climb of Sheep Mtn’s. west ridge.
The north side is steeper than the south side, so I didn’t make really great time going down. And, once I started up again, I was back to navigating blind in the trees. As I began to encounter more and more rocky sections going up the ridge, I did quite a bit of wandering back and forth to avoid the more difficult stuff, so I wasn’t exactly setting any speed records on that leg either. I finally came up to the summit, basically from the north, almost an hour after I had left the summit of Marys.
The weather was still holding warm, calm and clear, but I knew the sun would be sinking before I could get back to the trailhead. When I headed back down, just over five hours (!) had elapsed since I started. The only saving grace was that I didn’t have to go back over Marys. Instead, I climbed only slightly from the creek, over a low ridge, to get back on the road at a point farther north than where I had originally left it.
From there, I began paying the price for the strange topography of my route: I had over a thousand feet to re-gain on the way “down” before I could start back down the trail on the southwest side of Tuckaway. It was a slow and weary slog.
Fortunately there was, once again, no traffic on the road. So if I was indeed breaking the rules by making an incursion into the city’s private playground, it went unnoticed. As I trudged up the road, and then along the fence, and also down the trail, I kept wondering why this trip was so slow and tiring. It would not be until the next day, when I sat down with the map and actually added up some figures, that I would realize the true reason. In addition to the estimated 16 miles this route encompassed, I had had to gain just over 6,000 feet of elevation in total!
Still, I don’t know of any easier way to reach these summits. Even worse private property access issues bedevil the would-be climber from the east side, and access from the Barr Trail to the north requires crossing huge, heavily-timbered drainages which sport no trails at all. No doubt this is a major reason why these peaks are so rarely climbed!

I got a few pictures, and they are at:

Long life and many peaks!


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