IntroductionKessler (my nine year old son) and I decided to make an attempt of Homestake Peak, a 13,209 feet (4025 meters) peak in the Northern Sawatch Range. It was going to be a practice trip for the Himalayas later this year, but due to poor snow conditions, the trip turned out to be more challenging than expected.
April 6 2012Since there were a few spaces left, we made a last minute reservation for the 10th Mountain Division Hut near Slide Lake and drove to the Tennessee Pass, starting up the trail at 2:30 PM. Due to the extreme drought conditions, snow conditions were terrible with much bare ground, mud, ice and crusty snow along with some weak sugar snow in some places (especially around the willows).
We had to take off and put back on our snowshoes on many occasions, which was a hindrance and the going was very slow where I would punch through the weak layer sugar snow and the ice was a struggle with snowshoes as well. It was very windy, but much of the route was protected by trees. We struggled for four hard hours to cover the 5.7 miles (9.2 kms) to the hut and were very glad when we first got sight of the hut.
The hut was supposed to be nearly full tonight (14 people), but it appeared that everyone else whom attempted to reach the hut had given up. We ended up having the hut all to ourselves. We cooked a dinner of salmon pasta and headed off to bed shortly after.
April 7 2012After a mostly windy night, we awoke to calmer conditions and a rather cool 0F (-18C). The cold front must have just gone through. The cold morning was actually a real blessing and the snow conditions were much better with the frozen snow. We could walk on top of it without snowshoes so there was no constantly switching between snowshoes and no snowshoes.
We set off to explore the Slide Lake Basin before climbing the peak. Slide Lake was a neat area and was interesting when frozen over. We found it easier to walk around the lake on the ice rather than in the willows with the sugar snow.
After exploring the Slide Lake Basin (wandering around checking out various places), we headed to the Southeast Ridge of Homestake Peak for our attempt. We decided to make a steep and direct climb up to the ridge for some checking out of the snow conditions. I also wanted Kessler to practice some rope work on steep snow.
We found a steep and direct route and climbed up it to the ridgetop. The steepest section was 40 degrees, but I had to cut steps in places due to the hard snow. In other places the snow was perfect for climbing and kick stepping and we were glad to find out that it would have been fine for glissading as well.
Once we were on the ridge, it was more or less a straight shot to the summit. We put on our snowshoes, but Kessler’s snowshoes don’t have very good crampons on them, so it was harder for him than it was for me. We could stay on the snow most of the time, but had to cross rocks in a few places. It was breezy in places, but calm in others.
After three hours of non-stop (other than to get a few quick snacks and much water) climbing, we found ourselves on the summit of Homestake Peak! It was a lot of work with the more challenging than normal snow conditions, but the views were worth it.
After 20 minutes on top (where we had lunch), it was time to head down the mountain. I roped Kessler to me so we could do some belay work on the steep northeast face of the mountain which we would use for our descent. We descended the ridge a short distance and then descended onto the steep northeast face of the mountain. Conditions we worse than expected and the snow was pretty icy in places. We cautiously descended the very steep face to a bare rock and scree slope which we would descend until we could find better snow. We were able to do some glissading on the crust, and we attempted to find better snow. We finally did find some reasonable snow on the lower half of the face and had a fast ride down the rest of the face to the valley above Slide Lake.
Once we were at the lake, we descended down to the hut, but overshot it and had to backtrack, losing 30 minutes in the process. After reaching the hut we ate a second lunch, packed up and headed back down the mountain by 3 pm. Again the hut was supposed to be full with 16 people and again no one else had shown up.
This time we decided to try the “summer route” because we were hoping to find better snow conditions. This turned out to be a good move and we only had to remove our snowshoes once at which point we could walk on the frozen crust and bare ground back to Tennessee Pass. It was a tiring day since we had covered a very hard 10 miles (16 kms) and took only a few short rests. We could see where another group had presumably turned back and gave up reaching the hut. We finally reached the pass at 6:15 PM and were very glad to see the vehicle.
Homestake Peak was a hard won summit due to the snow conditions, but it was a memorable trip as well and it provided some good practice for our trip to the Himalayas later this year. I was very sore on the drive home, but Kessler fared better.