After a failed attempt at summiting Mt. Princeton the day before (due to weather), we weren't overly enthusiastic to tackle Mt. Yale. That said, we were meeting people at the trailhead and had little else to do that day, so we decided to play it by ear. Since we hadn't finished Princeton the day before, this peak would be my twentieth 14er, and probably my last for the season, so I was kind of looking forward to that. Lisa, Lonny, and I met Shari, Brad and Tracy at the trailhead at 6:30am. There were only a few cars there - a rarity for this trailhead, but given the cold weather, it wasn't surprising.
Tracy, Shari, Lonny, and Brad (nearly falling over) crossing a stream
The weather looked far better than it had the day before - the sky was mostly clear over Buena Vista and in Taylor Park (where we'd stayed the night before, and the direction that most storms would come from). The sun was not yet out and the temperature was just below freezing as we got our packs on and headed up the trail at about 6:45am. I'd remembered reading in Roach's book, "No matter how you tackle Yale, the peak will test your legs," and was not surprised to find that the trail starts off steeply quickly. Of course, there's only one way to cover 4,290 feet in 4.5 miles - it's to go up, and fast!
We reached the first stream crossing at 7:15am, where some of us rock hopped, and I took a log bridge off to the left. We ended up crossing streams probably about six or seven times on this hike - all with decent log bridges or rock hops. The trail meandered through the forest, heading up and down with the terrain until finally getting serious and switchbacking up rather dramatically. We reached tree line around 9am, and got our first glimpse of the summit above us. By now, the switchbacking was done with - the trail simply headed straight up the grassy tundra. We all slowly climbed up the steep trail, stopping occasionally to shed or add layers - none of us could quite regulate our body temperature given that the sun was no shining on us, but the air temperature was right around 36 degrees with little breeze.
The snowy, steep talus climb
By 9:30am, we'd reached the snow line from the previous day's (and night's) storms. The trail still continued relatively straight up, and we kept plugging along. We were all trying to compare this hike to others we've done, and the closest comparison we could think of was Holy Cross (with the steepness), except that Holy Cross was boulder hopping - this was at least a nice solid trail! I know one thing: despite the cold air, I don't think I've ever sweat this much on a hike - this was quite a schlep!
The terrain transitioned from grassy tundra to talus around 12,900 feet or so, and the snow got deeper as well. At this point, the snow obscured the trail from us - at times, I'm sure we were on it, at others I'm sure we weren't. It was still quite passable (and still more pleasant than icy boulder hopping on Princeton the day before), but it certainly slowed our pace a bit.
Lonny, scrambling over the first obstacle from the saddle
We reached the saddle point (13,900 ft) at 10:45am and stowed our trekking poles for the scramble ahead. I recalled from the 14ers.com trail description that we lose the trail at this point and have to scramble - and indeed that was true. The scrambling wasn't too hard: the snow made it easier in some spots by providing more solid footing between rocks, but at the same time also created some slick spots that made movement a bit of a challenge. The ridge is a bit narrow, and although it would take some significantly serious effort to slip, fall, and tumble down the mountain, I was a bit nervous.
The last scramble to the summit block
After scrambling over or around three rocky lumps, we finally reached the summit at 11:00am. We spent a few minutes snacking and sung happy birthday to Tracy (we brought up 8 cookies that spelled out "Happy Birthday Tracy"). Unfortunately, the "happy" clouds we'd been watching in Taylor Park all morning were becoming more agitated, and a giant cloud was billowing up directly over the summit of Yale - which made us a little wary, but more importantly it blocked out the sun, so it got much colder.
Lonny, pointing to the trailhead on Cottonwood Pass from the summit
I was anxious to get off the summit - the ridge scramble was going to take time, and the large cloud above us made me very nervous. We started our descent around 11:30, and passed about six hikers on their way up to the summit (we perhaps saw maybe 15 hikers all day). It took about fifteen minutes to scramble down, and the descent was easier than the ascent (perhaps because more people had followed this route, compacting the snow more). Lonny, Shari, and Tracy pulled out their poles again, but I opted to descend this section poleless - I figured that, between the steepness and the slippery snow, it would be better if I slip to simply fall, rather than try to catch myself with a pole and torque myself awkwardly (this ended up proving quite true, as I slipped three times on my descent, falling on my butt quite innocuously). Brad and Lonny got a little ahead of us on the descent and took the time to make a snowman (or, a snow cairn as Brad called it).
The construction of a snow cairn
We were off the snowy steepness around 12:30pm, and had stopped to snack a bit. The clouds were filling in by this time, and a group of passing hikers warned us that across the next ridge over, there was a pretty serious squall with lightning. We hadn't heard any thunder, but knew that that meant nothing. We packed up and quickly descended down the trail. We were only a few hundred feet above treeline (and relative safety), but we hurried down. Once in the trees, it started to gropple on us. We still had to switchback down some exposed sections of meadow, so we kept our pace up. By the time we were deep in the forest, our pace slackened, and the weather seemed to clear up a bit. We reached the Hartenstein Lake trail split off at 2:00pm, and the parking lot by 2:40pm.
The snowman/snow cairn
This was certainly a challenging hike - unlike others that are lengthy but gentle, this trail simply doesn't mess around. You just sort of have to drop it in low gear and chug away up the slope, trying not to loose momentum. That's both good and bad news: the bad news is that it's hard to do. The good news: you gain altitude really fast and you're up at the summit almost before you know it. This probably would've been a touch easier if it hadn't had so much snow, but I'm not sure that it mattered all that much - besides, these mountains are always so much more beautiful when they're snow covered!