Monday, January 21, 2008

Number 19 on the 19th

19 January, 2007: This past summer (and fall) had held many opportunities for climbing fourteeners and other high peaks deep in Colorado’s mountains. One of the consequences of this fact was that I had put my project of climbing Mt. Rosa (11.499 ft.) in every calendar month pretty much on hold. I had left off in December of 2006 with just January and February left.
Thus, more than a year had passed without my visiting my “favorite mountain” (defined by the number of ascents). An early plan to climb it on the 5th was aborted because, although it was quite warm, there were very high winds, and I decided to wait for a more pleasant winter day. With (what I thought was) only light new snowfall in the preceding week, and a forecast for clear, calm weather, I decided that the 19th was the day to get out and get the project back on track.
I knew it would be cold, especially at the start, with overnight temperatures down in the teens. But without significant wind, I knew I could dress for that. I got up before dawn, ate a good breakfast, and hit the Gold Camp Road trailhead wearing a wicking t-shirt, two long-sleeved thermal undershirts, a cotton/polyester turtleneck, a fleece jacket and my down vest under my 60/40 shell. I also put my fleece-insulated windpants over my running tights, heavy wool socks over light liners (for lack of itch), and my long gaiters over my boots. I took no chances with my extremities, either: Light fleece gloves went inside my wool mittens, which were topped with down mittens. This would give my flexibility and at least limited ability to use my fingers to do things like taking pictures, and the nylon exteriors of the down mittens would shed snow cleanly if I should have to stick them in the snow (and I did in a couple of places). Finally, I not only wore my usual wool hat, I put my long fleece “head sock” over it. This would keep any drafts out of the top of my coat, plus keeping my face and neck warm, even if wind did come up.
I was the first car to arrive at the parking lot, with bright stars still visible overhead. At 6:35 am, about 45 minutes before sunrise, I was off. I had resigned myself to carrying a backpack, instead of just a belt pack, in order to have space to stow removed clothing, if the day should warm up.
At first, the new snow provided good “crunch,” and I made fairly good time. Arriving at the collapsed tunnel, with its nice view back down and out of the canon, I stopped to photograph the layer of clouds blanketing most of the city below (see pictures). Then it was back on the trail toward St. Marys Falls. I saw a few sets of old footprints, but, clearly, I was the first one up since the most recent snowfall.
Sunrise came long before I got to the falls, but I only got direct sunlight as I was ascending the switchbacks alongside the falls. Already, I was having to do some high-stepping to break a trail in the snow. It didn’t hide the trail, but it did begin to slow me down. In fact, I was already having to stop and rest every once in a while.
I didn’t look at my watch, but it must have been approaching 10 am when I finally finished the steep jeep road section of the trail, and arrived at what I’ve come to call “the crossroads,” where the trail crossed the old road that comes up from the south on the east side of the mountain. There, I discovered that the Forest Service has erected a new fence section to keep dirt bikes off the trail. There’s only a narrow opening to admit hikers (and, presumably, human-powered bikes). I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this. The dirt bikes are a noisy annoyance, and I do wish they would stay off trails designated for foot traffic only, but the fence is, frankly, an eyesore.
Past this point, the snow only got deeper. Rock cairns mark the point where the trail takes off upslope from the road, but I knew from experience that the trail can be difficult to find in the snow through this section. Indeed, on one of my earliest winter forays up here, I had turned back precisely because I couldn’t find the trail. With many trips of experience under my belt, however, I wasn’t about to let this deter me this time. It was already clear that this was going to be a longer day than I had originally anticipated. Still, I knew that I could make it, even if I did get off-trail at times, so I plodded on.
This is where the serious postholing became the norm. I was sinking in up to my knees on nearly every step. Naturally, I sought out what bare ground I could find, as well as places where the snow seemed less deep or more solid, but most of my steps had to be tested before proceeding with the next one.
Had the weather appeared to be closing in on me, I might have had to make the decision to turn back. Fortunately, that was not the case, so as long as it seemed that I could count on clear January sunshine, I was determined not to waste the effort I had put into getting this far.
I’m pretty sure I went seriously off-trail just before topping out on the ridge, but there was just no other choice. The prevailing wind had loaded the slope just below the crest with deep drifts, and I chose the path of least (apparent) resistance through both the snow and the trees. It was very slow, but I finally came up to firmer and shallower snow where the slope leveled out. It was probably almost noon by this point.
When I finally found an exposed log suitable for sitting down on (after clearing it of snow cover), I stopped for some water, and to take off my down vest and head sock. Under the pack, the vest had become seriously sweat-soaked, so it really wasn’t doing me much good, anyway.
At the saddle point, where the trail up from Frostys Park on the west joins my summit route, I looked in vain for any visible hint of the trail. It’s easy to see in summer, but today it was just a memory. I realized that I was simply going to have to bushwhack my way up along the ridge crest (which is, more or less, where the trail is), looking for such landmarks as I could recognize. The snow, or the lack thereof, and not the presence or absence of the trail, was going to determine my route all the rest of the way.
Upon reaching the firsts outcropping of rocks, perhaps a quarter of the way up, I stayed to the west side of the ridge, even though I know that the trail is more on the east side, because the prevailing winds had scoured 90% of the snow off. It was a great relief to be able to tread (mostly) bare ground for some distance. I repeated this pattern beyond the second “hump” in the ridge, where there is a fairly long stretch without trees.
Eventually, however, I had to re-enter the forest and go back to plowing my way through the snow. The last section of the ridge is also the steepest, and here the going got really, really slow. I began to worry here about just how late it was getting. Clearly, it was past noon, making this my slowest ascent ever.
Still, I postholed on, once again clambering up over the summit rocks on their north side, instead of finding the last section of trail, which winds around to the west side of the summit, and finally approaches it from the south. Then I finally looked at my watch: It was nine minutes before two. It had taken me over seven hours to reach the summit. On a good day in summer, I had made the entire round trip in only four and a half!
Still, the weather held. The air was crystal clear, and I was able to take off my gloves and mittens to take a picture, and to put a new register in the canister, which I found containing only a few scraps of paper.
Being so far behind my projected schedule, I knew Suzanne would be worrying about me before I could get back. Thus, I spent only about fifteen minutes on the summit before heading down, determined to make the best time I could. I dropped off the south side, looking for the trail to follow, at least for a ways, but, even knowing where to start, the snow was just too deep and concealing. I wound around to the north side and simply started looking for my own tracks.
About the time I found them, I thought I heard a human voice somewhere near. Almost simultaneously, I realized that the tracks I was following were not just my own boot prints, but also the unmistakable, larger imprints of snowshoes. I had heard a voice or voices, apparently belonging to one of two climbers who were following my path, arriving at the summit just after I had left. Why, I thought to myself, couldn’t they have come up just before me, instead of just after me, so I wouldn’t have had to do all that trail breaking?! Oh, well, luck of the draw.
Not five minutes later, I encountered two more snowshoers on their way up! They looked very similar, and a brief conversation with the second one confirmed that they were brothers. So, although I was apparently the first person to summit Rosa that day, I wasn’t the only one.
The snowshoe imprints did, at least, make the descent somewhat easier than it would have otherwise been. I still sank into the snow a bit on about half my steps, but it was only a few inches, instead of up to my knees. It’s a good thing, too, because I was already getting tired, due to the major exertion required on the climb. It was already clear that I would probably not even get back to the car before sunset. In fact, once I dropped off the north ridge, I had seen the last of direct sunlight. I hiked in deepening shadow the entire rest of the way, although I could still see sunlit ground out on the plains most of the way. I stopped for many brief rests along the way, as my knees and leg muscles were really getting tired.
Amazingly, the snowshoers I had seen near the summit were the only people I saw until I was within a half mile of the trailhead. I did, however, see many new sets of prints, showing that several parties had made their way some distance up the trail. I even saw a set of ski tracks once I approached the tunnel.
Finally, nearly eleven hours after setting out, I made it back to the car. It was forty minutes after sunset, and I went down the canon road with headlights on, just as I had come up that way before sunrise. I don’t even think that Snowmass Mtn., last July, had taken as much out of me as this trip.
Still, I was glad to have done it. I have now summitted Rosa in every calendar month except February, nineteen times in all. But unless the snow pack diminishes quite a lot, or snowshoes fall out of the sky, I may wait until 2009 to fill in that last month.
Pictures are at:


Long life and many peaks!


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