Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mt. Elbert, Colorado September 21, 2012

Mt. Elbert, CO (14,433') via South Elbert trail (State High Point #22) September 21, 2012.

Distance: 8.4 miles RT
Elevation gain: 4,218'
Trailhead: US 24 south from Leadville, right on CO-82, travel 4  miles- take another right onto Lake County Road (a highway sign indicates the South Elbert TH). Drive past Lakeview Campground. Lower trailhead will be a half mile further on your left (9,560’). If you park here and walk up you will add 4ish miles and 900’ elevation gain to your hike.  OR Just past the lower trailhead is USFS 125 1-B, a four wheel drive road (note: 2017 reports have indicated this road has gotten very rough, needing a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle). Drive the 2 miles to the upper trailhead (there are many places to pull off and park if the going gets too rough for your vehicle).

Lessons learned: A level 1 trail is hard at an altitude of 12-14,000 feet!
Hiked with Rich, Peggy and my brother Bob (Bob was WAY ahead).  
I learned in February that I’d be in Colorado in September to attend a work-related conference. In the past, I’ve combined visiting state highpoints with work trips and saw this as a perfect opportunity to go for Colorado’s highpoint, Mt. Elbert.
The thought of climbing Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s (home of the Rockies) highest peak was intimidating.  Though still considered summer hiking season, September is late to be climbing a fourteen thousand footer.  Somehow I managed to convince Rich to come with me; we booked flights for the week prior to my conference and reserved an SUV just in case.  I also talked my brother Bobby and his wife Peg into joining us.
Four inches of snow fell on Mt. Elbert the week before our trip. Since it was getting late in the season we brought our Microspikes.  Bob and Peg, who'd planned on driving out from Utah, threw four pair of snowshoes in their car for us.  Just in case. 
We live and work at an altitude of about 81’ so we needed time in CO to acclimate to the higher altitude.  Work schedules allowed us four days to acclimate enough to reach the summit at 14,433’ without too much risk.  We’d fly in to Denver on Tuesday and summit on Saturday. 
As soon as we landed we drove to Vail (8500’) where we explored the town.  We were winded when climbing stairs and walking up Vail’s sidewalks but confident that would subside in a few days.
Vail - cute but quiet this time of year.

We spent the night there, planning to head to Leadville (10,000’+) the next day to continue acclimating. 
Are four days really enough time to acclimate for a trek to a 14k summit?  We weren't sure.  To try to prepare ourselves, we drank unbelievable amounts of water (and consequently spent a lot of time in the bathroom and behind trees).  We also watched what we ate and drank (limited alcohol, caffeine).  Four days was all we had to acclimate and we were determined to hike to the summit of Mt. Elbert on the fifth (Saturday).
We stayed in a private room at the Leadville Hostel.  The hostel is neat, clean, spacious and quiet.  Day 1 there we hiked the North Elbert trail to 11,600’- 2.5 miles up (still in the trees) and hung out for over an hour feeding the gray jays, having lunch and playing with our phones.  The weather was beautiful.  The North Elbert trailhead is nice with bathrooms and lots of parking. This route is very popular and the one most visitors take.  We originally planned to hike to the summit on this trail so I wanted to see what it was like.  Our short hike had us gasping and huffing.

Day 2 we hiked the South Elbert trail, driving the extra 2 miles on the four wheel drive road to the upper trailhead (our rented Kia Sportage did very well).  We had no problem going up and the dips, rocks, holes and stream were easily overtaken without scraping the undercarriage.   

The upper trailhead of South Elbert trail is about 400’ higher in elevation than the North Elbert trailhead; we were at 11,600’ in 1.5 miles, much of that trail offering up some spectacular views.  The distance from trailhead to the summit was shorter and the description of the rest of the trail seemed more appealing than that of the North Elbert trail (where there's a disheartening false summit just before the top).  South Elbert was described as easy to descend in one trip report
South Elbert trailhead.  

Mmmmm, let’s see.  Shorter trail, better description, less elevation gain, no false summit – a no-brainer, South Elbert was it! Everyone was on board and excited for Saturday.

Colorado and Continental Divide trails come in left of the trailhead signs.

Both the North and South Elbert trails begin in tandem with the Colorado trail, a popular 500 mile trail in the state that happens to run concurrent with the Continental Divide trail in this region.
Bob and Peggy drove eight hours east, meeting us in Leadville on Thursday. Bob is an intense hiker and planned to hike up the South Elbert trail to the summit, then down the North Elbert trail to the trailhead,and then back up North (summitting twice) and down South to meet us at the car.  Since the Colorado Trail joins the North and South Elbert trailhead (forming a triangle), Bob could opt to cross over from the North to the South trailheads via a stretch of the Colorado trail should conditions prohibit hiking the mountain a second time.  We hatched our plans for Saturday.
Call it pre-hike enthusiasm, call it group-think - before we knew it we'd decided to hike on Friday instead.  Would we be ready? Hiking Friday shortened our acclimatization plan, removing a badly needed third day of acclimating. But Friday just seemed like a good idea to us.  We weren't going to spend another day hanging around to acclimate (no shortage of fools in the world). 
At dawn - excited for the challenge.

The next day we were up and on the trailhead at 6:50, it was a beautiful day.   Any snow from the week before had melted to a patch here and there (more on the north side) so we left the snowshoes but kept Microspikes in our packs (in case it was icy).
Bob was well ahead of us in no time (in fact we only saw him in the distance after this point).  We crossed the bridge and headed down the South Elbert/Colorado trail. 

Shortly after taking a bit of a dip (which as you know becomes a grueling uphill on the return), the Colorado and South Elbert trails parted ways.
We took a left and immediately went up!
Trail junction (where S.Elbert leaves CT and CD).

Peg says this is the hardest part of the trail, heading up the wide path with its unrelenting incline.  The ground eventually flattens out for a short period; this is where we rested and breathed.  We were winded already, less than a mile into the trip.
Shortly thereafter we started seeing awe inspiring views of the surrounding mountains, and the lake and towns below.  Rich says those views are what kept him going.  Colorado’s fall foliage is spectacular, with its shimmery yellow aspens and dark, rich green tall pines.  
The day was clear and the sky was a wonderful blue (well, a bit of a haze from wildfires in the Northwest crept in).    Soon we were above treeline and trekking on what I call the “tractor road.”
It's not really a tractor road, just deep ruts from many feet.

We were going much slower than our usual pace, stopping to rest - clearly not as acclimated as we should have been. Peg and Bob live at about 7,000’ and Peggy too was huffing and puffing as we ascended to 12,000 and then 13,000 feet.

It was Friday and only a handful of people were on the trail. All but the serious hikers were resting often; we looked like we were on a big conveyor belt, moving and stopping in unison.  One brave mountain biker was bringing his bike up the trail.

I wonder just how many of us live high enough to find climbing to over 14k not an issue. 

The path was wide and though not blazed, easy to follow.  We wound our way around the back of a small bump in the mountain and soon were walking up the slant of the mountain; clearly the longest 4 miles of easy terrain I’ve done. 

The little outcropping of rock (center right) is the small bump 

A few cairns were visible but not many.

It started to warm up. But at 12,000 a bit of wind would swing by so we stayed in long sleeves, taking off and putting on gloves from time to time.  Thunderstorms, a serious threat when hiking this peak, were not predicted.  The day just shined.

Every time I'd be out of breath I’d take a drink of water. It’s not easy to find a private place to lose all that liquid high above treeline.  We had to plan our pee times and take advantage of the odd pile of rocks or shrub.

 Part of the trail went right to the edge of the cirque.  I dared a small peek down.

Long way down!

The summit cones of New Hampshire's northern Presidentials consist of large gray angry rocks requiring hikers to hop their odd angles, desperately trying to find the right place to step and stay upright. Nothing like that was on Mt. Elbert. The trail is primarily soft easy grade, good footing earth with the occasional rock. 

At 13,000’ things changed (we changed). Our heavy breathing wasn’t cutting it. I focused on slowing my pace and filling the depth of my lungs with each breath.  I would stop and breathe, breathe, breathe – deep ones.  And of course I started to get dizzy which wasn't altitude sickness at all but the affects of my deep breathing  - I was hyperventilating!

The views were even more spectacular. Tired and breathless, I forced myself to turn around and look at them; it took my mind off the chore of trying to get enough oxygen from the air to continue to lurch my body upward.  Peg and Rich were also slowing, stopping continually to catch their breaths. 

At 14,000 we became hopeful.  Rich (who was carrying the GPS) said we couldn't ask how high we were anymore, it was annoying but I caught him sneaking peeks at it.  Switchbacks were coming faster now and each time I stopped to rest I could hear and feel my heart pounding out of my chest – so hard and fast that it seemed impossible to slow.  I tried to focus on a rock ahead and move toward it but would have to stop and catch my breath on the way. 

Twelve steps, stop. Twelve steps, stop. Eight steps, stop.  After a while I found a slow step/stop pace that got me up to the overlook about 20 yards from the summit.  And what an overlook it was.

Looking down on the north side.
Snow streaked the steep slabs of rock that continued down into oblivion.  It was exhilarating. 

When I reached the summit I was floored by the views. I was actually looking DOWN at peaks of the Rockies!

Peg and Rich followed and soon we were lunching and taking ours and others’ photos at the top. 

Rich on top of the world (close to the summit).
The summit air was sharp and dry.  No longer out of breath we reclined and socialized, aware that we shouldn't stay on the summit too long.

Fine hiking conditions made for a popular summit.

There were several homemade signs left up there. We opted for this one.

Cell coverage was funny – not a bar for any of us if we faced north, 5 bars for all of us if we turned around and faced south.  Facing south I posted my photo on Facebook; Peg heard from Bob (who was on his way back up to summit a second time via North Elbert trail), Rich took a phone call.

A few more photos later we got our stuff together and headed down.  Breathing was still tight but no longer a problem (we were, after all, descending).   We were elated to have reached the top and feeling confident that we would wiz down, starting making dinner plans.  Above tree line we could see the North Elbert trail on the north ridge and a figure in red heading up to the summit.  It was brother Bob; he waved back at us!

The treeline ahead meant bathroom break!
At the treeline we rested (everyone needed to go to the bathroom after the long trek out in the open). We took our boots off, drank some Gatorade and stripped down to short sleeves. At 12,000’ and close to 2:00 p.m. it was getting warm. 

 About 3:00 we reached our car (that last little uphill wasn't even noticed) and an hour later Bob showed up. He’d hiked trailhead to summit and down of both South and North Elbert trails in about the time it took for us to go up once. Thirsting for draught, we settled for bottled beer and toasted our day at a local restaurant.

It took us 5 hours to hike 4 miles to the summit of Mt. Elbert, an easy trail that would have taken us half the time had the altitude not affected us. No matter, we got what we came for and other than a big headache and sunburn, we are none the worse for wear! 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mt. Jackson via Webster-Jackson Loop September 15, 2012

Mt. Jackson (4,052') via Webster-Jackson, Webster Cliff (AT) trails September 15, 2012

Mileage:  6.74 miles (loop)

Elevation gain:  2,951'

Trailhead:  Trail starts across from Crawford Depot on Route 302, about 8.5 miles east of the junction of Rt. 3 and Rt. 302 (Twin Mountain), 0.1 mile after the Highland Center. 

Lesson learned:  Check the trail signs AND the map.

Hiked with Rich today.  This was our second time up Mt. Jackson (see previous posting), the first being in November when conditions were quite icy.  I was hoping for more pleasant conditions this time. We decided to do the Webster-Jackson loop, visiting the summit of Mt. Webster on our way up to Mt. Jackson. We hiked the loop counter-clockwise.

We started up the trail around 9 a.m.; at .6 miles we took a short side trip to Bugle Cliff.

Trail is quite rocky and starts off fairly steep.

View from Bugle Cliff
We continued on until we reached the trail junction.  The Webster-Jackson trail is "Y" shaped, with a Jackson branch and a Webster branch.

Notice you will stay on the Webster-Jackson trail either way you  go.
For the direct route to Jackson turn left at this sign. We went straight (the Webster branch), excited to explore a new route.  On the way up we passed Silver Cascade Falls.

The trail steepens immediately after the falls and continues to climb to the Webster Cliff trail junction.  One of the signs at that trail junction reads, "Mt. Webster Summit .1."  Not checking our map or the direction of arrow on the sign we take a left onto the Webster Cliff trail, toward Mt. Jackson.

Had we checked our map and gone right .1 miles we would have enjoyed the wonderful views the summit of Mt. Webster has to offer.  

The trail tops out shortly after the junction and we started descending, wondering how we could have missed the summit of Mt. Webster.  We'll have to get it next time. 

We headed toward Mt. Jackson on the Webster Cliff trail. This part of the trail is wooded with no views. As we started our ascent up to Mt. Jackson we could see glimpses of view when we turned around. All that was ahead was a gray cloud.  

Scrambling up the slabs was fun; all scrambles have good footing and hand holds.

Who doesn't love a good scramble on dry rock?!
 The summit of Mt. Jackson was a dark, windy place; not unlike the last time we visited it (except this time we saw no views). We took a few photos and headed down the Jackson branch of the trail.

Cold, rainy, windy.

 Below the slabs (which were dry and easy to get down), the trail was muddy with some deep puddles here and there.  This section of trail is experiencing serious erosion and is in need of new bog bridges.  

After a side trip to Elephant Head, headed to Route 302 back to our car.

View from Elephant Head (which looks just like an elephant's head from Route 302).
Mt. Jackson is considered one of the easier New Hampshire four thousand footers and its beautiful summit views (when weather allows), convenient location and short mileage make it a popular place to hike.  Today was no exception; we saw dozens of people heading toward this peak.  Even on a view-less peak, the rock scrambles make for a fun morning!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mt. Washington via Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head Trails September 9, 2012

Mt. Washington (6,288') via Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head trails September 9, 2012 (New Hampshire State High Point)

Mileage:  8.4 miles (loop)

Elevation gain: 4,357'

Trailhead: Pinkham Notch Visitor Center - Take Rt 16 north from North Conway, located about 10 miles north of Jackson. 

Lesson learned:  "Easier" is a relative term!

Today I hiked with Rich, Norm and Sandy.  Rich and I had a disappointing week and we needed to get away.  Hiking helps us unwind and seeing as how I hadn't hiked in almost a month, I needed it bad!

Rich always wanted to hike Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine trail; a challenge for someone height averse.  I wanted the experience, the exercise and the elevation gain (we'll be hiking in Colorado in two weeks). Norm just wanted to get out and hop some rocks.

Saturday's forecast was iffy, with severe thunderstorms and winds up to 80 mph (okay - "iffy" may be downplaying it).  Rich and Norm suggested we try for Sunday; I was concerned the bad weather would linger in the Whites making for a cold, foggy trip.  I was so wrong!

The storms quickly retreated before sunrise; the summit was clear from all viewpoints. Sandy met us at the trailhead. She and Joe hiked the Osceolas the day before and they barely made it to the car before the weather came crashing down on them.  She was glad to join us on this dry, clear day though her plan was to accompany us just to the floor of the ravine.

The trail to Hermit Lake Shelter and Tuckerman Ravine
The storms the night before intensified the rivers and made the damp areas wetter.  We met quite a few hikers along the way; these two ready to consume (and burn) some calories!

Hiking Washington is strenuous - bring lots of gorp!

On one of the bridges to Hermit Lake Shelter.
I've hiked to Tuckerman Ravine many times - always in the snow on my way up to watch the skiers (from March through May); never in the summer.  In the summer there're more rocks and fewer people on the trail.  

The deck on the shelter (ravine is in the background).
We had a quick snack at the shelter and then headed up to the base of the ravine (via rock "stairs").
Rock "stairs" up from Hermit Lake Shelter into the ravine.
The base of the ravine looks so different in the summer, with trees and bushes clinging to the headwall.  
Tuckerman Ravine in summer (trail continues on far right).
Norm struck up a conversation with several hikers from Montreal as we headed up toward Lunch Rocks, a well known spring skiing viewing spot. Here Sandy said her goodbyes and headed down to her car.  

And so it began - climbing up the steep ravine to the top.  Although there are no scrambles, the exposure was a bit daunting to Rich, who did not fully appreciate the beautiful views behind us.  We topped out and crossed a narrow stream, walking above the walls of the ravine.  

Heading up the wall of the ravine

We hiked to the right of the falls, turning left and crossing over the falls.
Gorgeous view!

At the top of the falls we carefully negotiated the narrow strip of trail above the walls of the ravine - turning right and heading up large "gravelly" rocks to the trail junction.

This rocky path above the ravine wall leads to the junction.
No, the top of the rocks in the picture above is not the summit, nor is it near the summit. Trail junction signs greet us and signal the beginning of the seemingly unending trek over those big, rough gray rocks the Northern Presidentials are famous for!  We continued on the Tuckerman Ravine trail (turning right at the signs).

The good news about these rocks? They're not that slippery in wet conditions.
Norm pointed out the orange stack on the summit (in the distance) and said, "You'll hate that stack soon. It'll look like it's moving away from you as you struggle on the rocks toward it."  He was right!

That teeny stack in the distance appears to move away as we advance!
Hopping boulders with us were hikers from Florida, the mid-west, and Canada, wearing jeans, sneakers, and full hiking gear (no shortage of diversity today!).

Tuckerman Ravine trail ends at the autoroad.  Eventually we saw the cairn and sign indicating the end (or beginning depending on your direction) of the trail.    

The sign indicates the end of the Tuckerman Ravine trail (taken from the autoroad).
Some hikers don't like to see the crowds on the summit; those who rode the Coach, the Cog or car.  I love them. Sweaty with dirty legs and my hair stuck to my head, I feel like Clint Eastwood coming into town in "High Plains Drifter" when I walk up to the summit sign.  They all look at me and whisper to each other, "I think she hiked all the way up here."  I'm cool.  I like it.

Crusty, sweaty indigenous mountain folk.
Can someone explain this sign to me?
We stayed on the summit a full hour - the sun was shining with very little wind. After lunch (on a crowded picnic table) one of our new Canadian friends came up to Norm with questions about hiking the Lion Head trail down. His wife was spent from hiking up the Tuckerman trail and didn't want to hike anymore.  She was considering taking the Coach or the Cog down but he had convinced her to take the Lion Head trail down as he heard it was a much easier trail than Tuckerman's. 

Perfect view from the summit parking lot.

Norm suggested that we too head down Lion Head; he too felt the trail was easier to descend than the Tuckerman Ravine trail. So the three of us and our four Canadian friends picked our way down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to the junction, taking a left and heading toward the "Lion Head" (which I am told if you look at just right, it looks like a lion sitting. I tried but could not see it).

That pile of rock in the center is the lion's head
Not a fan of rock hopping, I was thrilled when our descent flattened out and we followed what looked more like a path.
Scrubby spruce with a small path in the middle.
Breathtaking view from the scrubby lawn.
The lion head rock formation juts out of the mountainside with steep angles; we walked up on it and headed left to skirt around and descend.

This steep ledge area on the front side of the lion head takes a few minutes to descend.
We continued to negotiate around rocks, jumping down or lowering ourselves from the larger ones.  This trail is still quite exposed but we were nearing treeline; Lion Head trail is in the woods more than Tuckerman's - still, there's lots of trail out in the open here.

Once we got in the trees, the trail mellowed a bit but still offered some challenging scrambles; one particularly difficult one as it was very slick with no decent handholds.

Soon we were back on the Tuckerman Ravine trail, just below Hermit Lake Shelter.  The general consensus was that Lion Head trail may be less steep that Tuckerman Ravine trail but it is still a tough trail.  We passed Crystal Cascade where we found our Canadian friend waiting for his wife.  

This was one beautiful hike in perfect conditions - the kind you celebrate for days after. I marvel at my good fortune to have hiked all the Presidentials in decent weather.

After the hike I thought about Wieslaw Walczak, the speed hiker who fell from Tuckerman Ravine trail to his death in November of 2009. That weekend was the first time I volunteered at the hiking information desk at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.  I was being trained on how to assist hikers when the call came in from Mr. Walczak's wife saying that he had not come home. The staff assured me that calls like this aren't unusual and most of them turn out fine.  This one did not.  An experience hiker in great shape, Mr. Walczak apparently fell from the trail on to the rocks.  I tried to picture exactly where he fell; Tuckerman Ravine trail has a few stretches where that could easily happen. In the dark.  On an icy trail.  

As dangerous as it can be in icy conditions, in the summer the trail is fun, challenging and (walking above the headwall) exhilarating.  I would highly recommend this trip!