Monday, December 31, 2007

The Horns of Cheyenne Mountain (9,212 ft.)

30 December, 2007: Well, I just couldn’t resist squeezing in one more climb before the end of the year. Possible high winds were forecast for Sunday, but they had been forecast for the two days before, too, and virtually nothing had turned up, so I figured that the morning, at least, would be fairly safe from really severe weather. Sure enough, the day dawned clear and calm, with temperatures in the 20s. Since this was actually warmer than what I had dealt with two weeks earlier, I felt like the prospects were pretty good.

My target was selected because when I had climbed Cheyenne Mountain, back in October, I had actually failed to do all of my homework. I had had a route description for climbing “The Horns” on Cheyenne Mountain, in addition to the true summit, but I had failed to realize that this northern high point on the long summit ridge actually has enough vertical separation to qualify as a separate, ranked summit! It is, in fact, Colorado ranked summit number 2795, and the 21st highest ranked summit in El Paso County.
I decided to make a short day of it, however. Instead of re-climbing Cheyenne Mountain and then traversing the summit ridge to the north--a route which stays within Pike National Forest right up until the very last leg--I blatantly trespassed on the Broadmoor Hotel’s (or El Pomar Foundation's, I’m really not sure which) land and climbed the peak from the north. The starting point is basically the northernmost point on Old Stage Road, where it wraps around from the east side to the west side of Cheyenne Mountain.
There is no real trailhead, in the conventional sense. I simply parked (at about 7:30 am) at the nearest wide spot in the road to the ridge crest. From there, I jogged west a few dozen yards, and started my climb by scrambling up the very steep, loose cut on the uphill side of the road. I very quickly found the Sunrise Trail, which snakes its way up, along or near the ridge crest, to the south until it intersects the disused road which leads to the summit from the Will Rogers Shrine.
I wore long gaiters, because there was snow on the ground, and I fully expected it to be more than ankle deep in places. This expectation turned out to be quite correct, but, overall, there was only a modest amount of snow on the ground. It only slowed me down a very little.
A historical note here: On this trip, as well as the last one, I was wearing two items--gaiters and down mittens--which came from the Denver store of the no-longer-existent Holubar Mountaineering. It’s amazing that I still have them after all these years, but they continue to serve me well.
Covered as it was with snow, I’m sure that I lost, and then re-gained, the trail several times. Still, all in all, it wasn’t hard to see or follow. I saw many tracks, and at first I thought some of them might be human, but I eventually decided that they all belonged to wildlife. There were tracks of mice or voles, hares or rabbits, probably deer, and even some larger ones (with claws) which might very well have those of a bear. For good or ill, however, I didn’t encounter any of these animals, only the signs of their previous passings.
The trail wanders up on the west side of the ridge for a fraction of a mile before coming out on the crest, where I finally re-encountered direct sunlight and put on my sunglasses. Then the trail more or less follows the ridge crest for a ways, going up and down just a little over some rocky points. I had to peek through the trees of course, but the views to the west, north, and east were consistently improving through this stretch.
Finally, after bypassing one rather large rock outcropping (which required a bit of serious scrambling on snow-covered rocks), the trail falls over onto the east side of the ridge as it makes its final climb to the road.
The road hasn’t been used in years, and is seriously degraded. Not only have large rocks fallen onto it in places, in other places trees have started to grow up on it. Not even a jeep or Hummer could actually navigate this track all the way to the top now. It’s still a clear track, however. It runs basically south, with many large switchbacks to keep the grade down.
Once on the road, I quickly came to a place where I could look down on the Shrine, and then to a turn where I finally got a good view toward my objective. I resisted the temptation to take a more direct and steep route and just followed the road through its many switchbacks.
After only an hour and forty-one minutes, I finally rounded a turn and found myself in what had once been the parking lot of the Cheyenne Mountain Inn. Across the lot, a retaining wall and the stone staircase which once led to the Inn’s front door stared back at me. As I understand the story (and there seems to be some level of mystery or uncertainty about the details), the Inn burned down back in the 1950s and was given up as a lost cause. That’s when the road began to fall into ruin. Nowadays, the Broadmoor/El Pomar people keep people from venturing up past the Shrine to access this area. That’s why you have to trespass to get to this ranked summit: Both the Inn site and the true high point are just a few yards east of the National Forest boundary.
The actual Horns summit is 60 or 70 feet higher than the Inn, and just to the southwest of it. After climbing to the little rock point beside the Inn site--still sporting a railing to indicate that others in the past had stood here too--I scrambled up the snowy slope to this summit. In doing so, I discovered that there are two small abandoned buildings on the summit! One, the highest, seems to have been some kind of electrical junction station. Now, its door is broken and permanently open; you can see its shadow in one of my summit photos. The other’s purpose I don’t know, as all I really saw of it was the peaked roof.
After summitting, I re-crossed the Inn and dropped slightly to the next ridge point, where a platform was built for a flagpole. The pole is still there, as are the narrow stone steps leading to the platform. This lower point actually offers the best view of the lot, including a view from above of the “horn” which is most prominently visible from the city below. Here, too, there is a flagpole (or some sort of pole). I can’t imagine how it was put there, though, as inspection from this angle convinced me that this point was not climbable by me (see photos). So I took a few photographs and headed down.
I made (what I thought, at least, was) good time going down, doing some boot-skiing in places along the ridge. It was easy to follow my own tracks back down and, even with stopping a few times to take some more pictures, I made the descent in an hour and fourteen minutes. This makes 20 out of 37 ranked El Paso County peaks for me.
Photos are at:

Long life and many peaks!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Blue and the Gray (Back)

Blue Mountain B (9,856 ft.)
UN 9,410
Gray Back Peak (9,348 ft.)

The weather forecast for the 16th called for totally clear skies, no wind, and a high in the 30s--perfect December weather. I headed back to the southern extremity of Pike National Forest, off of Old Stage Road, to continue working on the list of El Paso County summits.
Blue Mtn. was my highest remaining ranked peak. Gray Back is an unranked summit, actually a sub-peak of 9,410 (which is ranked), but it is the one that is visually striking, so it has a name. It also has a trail to the summit. Thus, I figured I could knock off all three of these peaks on a single trip.
The trailhead is at 8,720 ft., about ¼ mile off Old Stage Road, on the dead-end road to the Emerald Valley Ranch. I actually parked at the intersection, rather than risk getting the Honda stuck in the snow on the less-travelled ranch road. I started hiking at 8:17 am, an hour after sunrise, and I figured I had plenty of time. The temperature was only in the teens, but it was quite still. I had plenty of layers on, and wore high gaiters in anticipation of walking through snow most, if not all, of the day. A few minutes’ hiking along the road brought me to the actual trailhead, which is plainly marked. According to my reading, the trailhead is actually on the property of the Emerald Valley Ranch, but I don’t know where the trail leaves the ranch and enters the National Forest. My guess is that it isn’t far.
It is a well-travelled and maintained trail, however. Although the signage labels it as a horse trail, I found no horse hoof prints in the snow, but I did find one set of boot prints. This made the trail even easier to follow. The trail heads east and then southeast, roughly along a broad ridge, first over a 9,153 highpoint, then just to the west of 9,410, before hitting the saddle between 9,410 and Gray Back. Along the way, the morning sun gave me a dynamite new view of Mt. Vigil to the west (see photos).
Upon reaching the saddle (9,100 ft.), I first headed northeast to 9,410, as my major overall goal for the day was to bag the two ranked peaks. This would put me over 50% on ranked peaks in El Paso County. After a short climb along the ridge, I checked out three highpoints of very nearly equal elevation, and finally settled on the westernmost one as the true summit. I had to peek around trees, but the view of Cheyenne Mountain was unusual and well worth capturing.
Then it was back to the saddle and the trail, and off up the north side of Gray Back. This climb was a bit more challenging. It got rather steep near the top, and the terrain turned to mostly large boulders. Between the snow cover and the rockiness, I’m also sure that I was off the trail by the time I got to the top, even though the topo map shows a trail right up to the summit. I basically wound around onto the more gently sloped eastern side to approach the summit.
The last boulders finally gave way to the very dramatic view westward from the top. The west side of the summit block is, quite simply, a cliff (see photo above). Going back and forth between the two nearly equal parts of the summit block necessitated coming scant inches from this impressive drop-off. I was glad the snow was mostly gone from the surfaces I had to walk on! It had taken me barely two hours to get to this second of my three peaks, but bagging the remaining one would not prove so easy.
My plan going in had been to head south or southwest from Gray Back, more or less directly across the valley toward Blue Mtn. A look down Gray Back’s southern slopes, however, convinced me to change this plan. It’s steep. I decided to retrace my steps a ways along the much easier trail, then traverse counter-clockwise around the broad basin in which the ranch is located, and approach Blue from the west-northwest. As the true summit appeared to be at the west end of a long ridge anyway, I did not expect this to add too much distance to my day. I was only sort of right.
The bushwhack down to the road was steep, and when I finally crossed the road, at about 8,300 ft., I found that I had to clamber up an equally steep slope on the other side. I had spied a series of ridge lines from across the valley, which I want to use as my basic route up Blue, but I could see that sticking to my intended route would be a challenge in the timber.
The sun had warmed things up quite a bit, and I finally had to suck it up and devote the time to stopping to shed some clothes. I took off my wind pants, which required removing my boots first, and tucked them into my belt pack. Added to the down vest, which I could now see I would not need, this left no room for much else. Thus, I had to resort to tying both my fleece jacket and my windbreaker around my waist, instead of packing them away, as I would have preferred. Still, the change made me more comfortable, and I set off with a modicum of renewed vigor.
Sure enough, I did some up-and-down over minor ridges before crossing the road (which turns west from the ranch entrance) a second time, and heading up toward the summit. I skirted a large rock outcropping, which I was using as one of my guideposts, on the right (west), but decided I should probably have gone the other way. I determined to try the other side on the way back.
Previous climber Kevin Baker had reported that Blue was “quite a slog,” and he was right. After crossing the last drainage, the slope increased again, and more boulders began to appear. I certainly couldn’t see the summit, and just had to keep climbing on dead reckoning, heading generally southeast. The only saving grace was that the weather was just as good as predicted: calm and sunny. I had taken off my outer two layers, which made the exertion required more tolerable. But it was still very slow going. A look at my watch and the GPS showed me that I had only reached a bit above 9,000 ft., and it was already 1 pm!
Still, I wasn’t going to turn back here, and doom myself to making this long approach yet another time. I had hoped to be driving back on Old Stage Road in late afternoon sunshine, but I figured that if I didn’t make it back to the car until sunset (which, remember, is only about 4:30 pm this time of year!), I would still be fine. The worst that might happen would be that I would have to put some clothes back on.
When I finally got over the last of the rocks, I found myself on the long summit ridge, but the land still appeared to be rising, if ever so gently, in front of me, so I pressed on, searching for the true summit. I must have ultimately gone over half a dozen little high points and hiked another half-mile before the ground finally started to drop to the east. I still am not sure which of those points is really the highest, as the timber is very dense and makes visual comparison nearly impossible. This was my high point for the day, but there is no view at all from this summit. Also, I found no register or marker of any kind. But, whichever point it was, I can confidently say I got to it!
At 2 in the afternoon, I finally got to it! Obviously, my original projection of being back to the car by 3 was out the window. Hoping that the trip down would be considerably faster than the long slog up, I decided to try for 4 pm, and headed down.
I turned right and headed down the first major drainage I came to running north, hoping to avoid both the delay of that rock outcropping I had detoured around on the way up, and some of the climbing and then descending ridges that I had also done on the way up. I think I was mostly successful in this, but I diverged from the tracks I had left on my ascent for a lot farther than I had actually intended to.
I did finally re-encounter my tracks, however, down near the road. After that, the rest of the day was mostly just hiking out down the road--although this, too, meant going both up and down a bit--but it was slow. I was getting tired! Also, by this time, the sun had set on me, although I could still see sunlight hitting higher ground, like the summit of Gray Back.
It turned out that I had farther to go on the road than I had thought. Climbing that last gentle hill to the trailhead seemed to take forever. I would have been more comfortable if I had put my wind pants back on, but that would have meant not only stopping, but taking off my boots and gaiters and putting them back on, and I just wasn’t willing to go through all that. So I put my fleece jacket and windbreaker back on, and settled for just my tights on my legs. It was, indeed, just about astronomical sunset, 4:32 pm, when I finally made it back to the car. I drove home with the headlights on! The driver of the car which came down the road as I was getting my keys out was the first person I had seen since I had started hiking.
I can only estimate my total distance, but I think it’s around 11 or 12 miles. Vertical gain was just about 3,000 ft.

Topozone link:

Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!