Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Notch Mountain” (9,665 ft.)
UN 9,620B

11 March, 2008: Ah, taking care of unfinished business feels good!

With a gorgeous day forecast, even though it is still calendar winter, I simply had to get something climbed. If possible, I wanted to continue working down my El Paso County ranked peaks list. With little snow left on the ground at lower elevations, I figured I could probably get both of these peaks, even if I still couldn’t drive all the way up Rampart Range Road in the Honda.

I headed up the Rampart Range Road with Buddy the white Lab good and late (after 10 am!), planning to take advantage of a warm afternoon. I parked the car roughly eleven miles from the Garden of the Gods end of the road, which was where I saw snow ahead deep enough to make me wonder if the Honda could get through it; I was taking no chances this time. I turned the car around (to make sure I could), and left it at 38.91756º N, 104.94042º W, at an elevation of 9,233 ft. It would be better simply to run the remaining mileage on the road to my trailheads, and, besides, it would help get Buddy his workout. We set off at 10:37 am.

Within fifteen minutes, I saw the only other people I met on the road (except for way down low): A group of three hikers who had set off from Waldo Canyon very early in the morning. One of them actually recognized me from the Cañon, so we exchanged introductions. The two guys were Al and Rich, but I didn’t get the woman’s name, and I forgot to ask them if they were regulars on any of the mountaineering forums. As they were just hiking, and showed little interest in the nearby peaks, maybe not. It turned out that they were just as new to this area as I was, and benefited from me hauling out my map and pinpointing our then-current location, as well as that of some of the surrounding peaks. After a few minutes’ conversation, I set off again, with Buddy still on his leash.

It turned out to be only a mile (or maybe even less) to the turn-off for 9620. My old topo quad shows it as a 4WD road running virtually to the summit, but I didn’t know if it was still there or not. It turns out it is. It’s marked at the roadside as FS 300Q, and, although it’s clearly suitable only for rugged vehicles, even without snow, it clearly heads off to the east toward 9620. Just after we pulled off the main road, while I was checking the map again for a final refinement of my projected route to the summit, the only car I saw all day on the upper part of the road went past, heading south.

Despite the map’s showing the road mostly on the north side of the west ridge, I only followed the largely snow-covered road for a short ways, before it seemed to be veering off too much to the south for my liking. Instead, I free-lanced my way along the west ridge, or just on the south side of it, looking for the easiest way to avoid deep snow and brush/timber. It was actually easy to stay out of the snow, with a few exceptions. Where there wasn’t bare ground, I often found hardened snow that I could walk over.

As I neared the summit block, my gaiters had hardly gotten wet. A little scrambling, very enjoyable in the brilliant sunshine and lack of wind, brought me up to the south side of the western half of the summit block. It quickly became clear that the eastern half is slightly higher, so I got into the small notch between the two, and did a little slab walking (on mostly bare rock!) to the true summit. We topped out at 11:16 am. I didn’t find a register. After snapping a few pictures in the great light, I headed back down, but made sure to climb the western block on my way down. It’s actually a little harder, so much so that Buddy couldn’t make one of the moves required, and ran back and forth whimpering at me for the two or three minutes it took to get up to the top and back to him. I experimented just a little on the way down, but mostly followed our tracks back to the main road.

I wasn’t aware of, and never found, any actual trail (or road) leading up to Notch (which is an unofficial name, and does not appear on the USGS topo), so I left the road at what looked like the easiest place to jump onto the ridge which runs basically south from the summit. After dodging east around the first ridge point I encountered, I tried to parallel the ridge crest on its east side, avoiding the rocks for the most part, and trying to make the final approach to the summit from the east.

It would have been more direct to clamber up the south face of the summit block, but I could see as I approached it that Buddy was not going to be able to make some of the big steps required on that route (see picture). He had to do some zigging and zagging to re-join me after some of the preliminary scrambling I tried on the lowest of the rocks. Too bad! I would have preferred to avoid both the snow and the brush waiting for us farther to the right (east), but I had to take Buddy’s abilities into account as well as mine. He’s a lot faster than me of the flat, but his legs are only so long, so the big boulders simply had to be avoided.

After a short war with bushes and branches, we finally came out in the eponymous notch, just north of the summit. I went over to the outcropping to the northwest to make sure, and decided that the more southerly rocks represented the true summit. We got there at 12:33 pm. Despite being well below timberline, the rocks on the summit are mostly clear, and offer great views in virtually all directions. After an even shorter stay, and just a few pictures (including one of 9620), we headed back down.

I did more experimenting on this descent, leaving my own tracks in several places in order to avoid the most serious of the rocks. Overall, I’m not sure it did me any good at all. At one point, I knew I had totally deviated from my ascent route, to the east, and had to do an annoying traverse over not one but two small ridges to avoid drifting off away from the road. No sooner had I finally re-found my tracks, it seemed, that the road loomed in front of us, and I knew the uncertainties for the day were over.

Since I had seen exactly one car in the whole time we had been on foot on the road on the way up, I didn’t bother to put Buddy’s leash back on. I just let him run, immerse himself in snowbanks, and chase sticks to his heart’s content.

We made it back to the car at 1:50, without having seen a single other human being, either on foot or in a vehicle. My GPS showed a total distance of 4.3 miles. Net gain for the two peaks was only about 630 feet, but there was some up-and-down on the road, plus I did some gratuitous re-climbing coming down off Notch, so I feel confident fudging my elevation gain for the day up to a whopping 700 feet. Total time: 3:13. Two more El Paso County peaks checked off! I now have all the ranked peaks down to 9,600 feet, and two more official winter ascents. Not bad for a day when all I had to wear for warmth was two shirts and a windbreaker.

Photos are at:

Long life and many peaks!


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