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!


Post a Comment

<< Home