Monday, February 04, 2008

Ormes Peak (9,727 ft.)
The Rescue from Notch Mountain

3 February, 2008: Having scoped out the south end of Rampart Range Road the previous Friday, and determined that it was indeed passable in the Honda, I left home before dawn on Sunday intending to knock off Ormes Peak (my highest remaining ranked peak in El Paso County). A little new snow had fallen, but I hoped confidently that it wouldn’t be much of a problem. I figured that the worst that could happen would be that I would come to a slope the car wouldn’t climb, and I would just have to back down to a level spot and either hike from there or abort the plan. I was also hoping to add unranked Devil’s Kitchen (just to the northeast or Ormes), as well as Notch Mountain (9,665 ft.) and UN 9,620B, both of which can be climbed via short jaunts directly from the road on the way back.
I began to encounter consistent snow cover on the road above about 8,000 ft., but the Honda handled it all very much to my satisfaction. Even where there was five of six inches of new snow, I had no problem handling either the slopes or the turns. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly.
I had hit the Rampart Range Road, at the west end of Garden of the Gods Park, just before dawn, and was treated to a spectacular view of Venus, Jupiter, and the old crescent Moon grouped in the southeast of a perfectly clear sky. As the road switchbacks and winds every which-way, I had several good opportunities to drink in this celestial treat on the way up. Almost an hour later, with sunrise approaching, I passed the turn-off to Eagle Lake Boys’ Camp and then found the intersection with FS 303.
As FS 303 was actually better plowed and more snow-free than the main road, I made such good progress east along it that I missed my “trailhead,” the intersection with FS 302. FS 302 isn’t plowed at all in winter, so I drove right by it, and had to double back about a mile. Thus, I didn’t quite achieve my objective of starting hiking before sunrise. I found a good, bare place to park the car and started hiking at 7:17 am. This starting point is at just about 9,400 ft. There was anywhere from four to twelve inches of snow on the ground, but I was also able to find many semi-bare stretches, so initially I made pretty good time, only sinking into the snow a few inches in most places. I wore long gaiters all the same, and, indeed, I needed them later on.
After only fifteen or twenty minutes, I was getting warm enough that I needed to stop and shed my outermost insulating layer (my fleece jacket). I also put on my sunglasses, as the sun finally peeked over the hills to the east at me, but I left my head sock and heavy mittens on. I hate having cold extremities!
Putting fresh tracks in the snow all the way, I followed the road/trail east until I encountered the gentle south ridge of the mountain. There, I began free-lancing my way up to the ridge crest for my final approach. Almost at once, I was rewarded with less snow on the ground so, even though I was climbing steeper ground, the going got easier, or at least no harder.
I clambered over the rocks of one ridge point before coming to the actual summit rocks. Even though this mountain is below timberline, the summit is, as can be seen from the photographs, bare of trees. There was a short spate of nice scrambling to make the final few dozen vertical feet to the open summit area. I arrived there at 8:24 am, and was greeted with a steady, cold wind out of the west.
This peak is named for renowned Colorado historian and mountaineer Manley Ormes, best known today as the father of even greater mountaineer (and Colorado College professor) Robert Ormes. It is not quite the highest peak in the Rampart Range--there are two up in Douglas County that are slightly higher--but it is the highest in the Rampart Range that is in El Paso County. So it is worthy climber’s objective. The only real reason why I had not climbed it long since was an overblown idea of how rugged the long dirt road approach was going to be.
Almost back at the car, I finally saw another human being--a rabbit hunter. A minute after chatting briefly with him, I rounded a curve and saw his truck, and another one, parked near my own vehicle. Still thinking how wonderfully everything was going, I turned around with no trouble on the slightly snowy road, and headed back down Rampart Range Road, looking for the best spot to stop and make the short climb of Notch Mountain.


With the summit of Notch in sight, however, things took a totally unexpected turn for the worse. Coming up a hill (which I had driven down with no trouble a few hours earlier), and rounding a big curve on the road, I found my traction failing. I ground to a stop. No big deal, I figured. I just needed to back, carefully, down the road a ways to where I could get some traction, and take a more energetic run at the slope.
Unfortunately, I did a poor job of backing up on the curve. I let the car drift too far to the right (for a forward-facing driver), toward the outside of the curve, where the snow was still undisturbed and fairly deep. The traction was all over on the left side, on the inside, where there was actually some bare ground. Once I got the right side wheels well into the unbroken show, however, I found that I couldn’t move either forward or backward! After a few vain attempts at rocking, which showed that my front tires were too old and slick to bite, I realized that I had no choice but to try to dig some snow from around the car.
But dig with what? Had I had enough sense to bring a shovel? Hell, no! So I went to work first with the business end of one of my jumper cables and, then, with my small tire iron from the jack kit. After 25 minutes or so, I actually did succeed in getting the car to veer slightly to its left and a bit closer to some real traction, but it then ground to a halt yet again.
After 45 minutes, it was still in this second position, and I decided it was time to try calling for help. Suzanne had had me take her cell phone, and I had used it successfully to call her from the summit of Ormes. So I got it out and tried to phone home again. Alas, I was no longer on a summit. I was over on the west side of the range, and I had “no service.” Unless I wished to leave the car (and worry about it...) and try hiking somewhere (where?), my only choice was to continue digging until I somehow managed to actually dig the wheels free, or until somebody drove by.
Fortunately, only about fifteen minutes more elapsed before someone in a 4WD vehicle did in fact come around the bend. Better yet, there were two of them, sturdy 30-something guys, and they had enough combined muscle to push the car out of the drift and back onto the bare gravel/packed snow on the left side of the road. I thought my problems were over and my three-peak day was saved!
But, no. I backed down the road a ways and made another attempt at the hill. I got just a little farther than the first time, but not far enough to get to where the ground leveled out and the problem was solved.
No problem, I thought. I’ll just back up even farther, all the way around the curve, back to where the road is truly level, and take an even faster run at it. However, as I proceeded back around the curve, I came to a section of the road which got even less sunshine than where I had first gotten stuck, and everything but the packed tracks in the middle of the road was still covered with loose snow up to a foot deep.
Sure enough, I ended up getting stuck again in all that loose snow, this time on the left (east) side of the road. And this time, the car had to go up to reach any traction. As a result, the combined strengths of my benefactors (Bob and Bruce) were just not enough. They gave it a Herculean effort, but I was just plain stuck. I was through climbing for the day.
Worse, I now really had to worry about how ultimately to extract the poor Honda from its icy entrapment. Fortunately, Bob and Bruce were willing to turn around (they had been going south) and give me a lift all the way back to Woodland Park, where I hoped that I would have cell phone service and be able to phone Suzanne to let her know, at least, of my predicament. And just maybe, she would be able to use the Forester as a rescue vehicle.
Skin of the teeth: It turns out that I didn’t have service. But Bruce did. So I phoned home on his phone. I suggested that Suzanne go out and get a tow strap, which she agreed was a good idea.

The Rescue

Needless to say, it was boring, and much less fun than climbing, to kill the approximately one hour before the girls (Trisha, too) rolled into the Loaf’n’Jug parking lot and we could set off back onto the Rampart Range Road to play tow truck. Play tow truck we did.
It was a total of about ten miles from Woodland Park to where the Honda was stranded. For those who don’t know, the road leads first north, then northeast out of town, then finally turns south-southeast at an intersection, after climbing some fairly steep sections. It was icy in a few places (owing to general lack of sunshine on north-facing surfaces), but still much more easily passable than the snowy stretches of the road farther south. Had I known that, I probably would have approached the area from that direction in the first place.
The other side of this is that such an approach still would not have saved me (at least by itself) from getting stuck. I would still have had to strike out southbound to try to get to Notch Mountain and 9620B, so I would no doubt still have ended up in trouble. But it’s useful knowledge to keep on hand for future use.
Suzanne said afterward that it took all the power the Forester could muster, but, with the towing strap connecting the two cars, we quickly got the Honda out onto the packed road surface and ready to turn around and drive out. From my perspective, at the wheel of the Honda, it seemed to come off virtually without a hitch, although we did have to tow for quite a distance before the Honda’s drive wheels were back on the level part of the road.
I also couldn’t have succeeded alone in my attempt to get turned around, since the road, while level at that point, is still rather narrow. I got the front end just far enough off the level center that Trisha had to do some manual pushing, and we had to use one of the rear floor mats for traction, to make the final backing turn. But we succeeded, and the whole endeavor really only took about ten minutes. With the girls following me, I knew for certain that I could drive the northern end of the road back to Woodland Park.

Lessons Learned

Perhaps the overarching lesson was: I should simply have taken the Forester! Although I was reluctant to ask (partly because I wanted to show that I could do it with the less-capable car), Suzanne told me later that she would have had no problem with the idea. Bless her. I knew that the Forester would certainly be up to the task, hands down, but I was really convinced that I wouldn’t need it. Boy, was I wrong.
Another lesson: I should have had newer tires, especially on the front. Perhaps just that would have made the difference. Still another: carry adequate digging tools in the trunk at all times in winter. A shovel might have allowed me to extricate myself fairly quickly.
It was certainly disappointing to come so close, only to have to let those extra peaks go. Somewhere down the line, I’ll have to make essentially the same trip again to pick them up. But maybe I’ll wait for summer. (Although, OTOH, the solitude of winter certainly is appealing...)
On the positive side, it was heartening to see the way my family rallied to the situation, and the way we all worked as a team at the crisis site to get everything resolved so quickly. Also, I now have a much better knowledge of the geography of this area than I ever had before, and that should come in handy on numerous future occasions.
And, of course, I did knock off one more ranked peak, making 22 out of 37 in the county. Basic stats: about 2½ miles round trip, and a whopping 565 feet elevation gain. The fun factor was much higher, and I suspect that I will re-visit this summit.
Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!


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