It would be my fourth drive out west. I decided to vary it up a little this time, checking out some of the sights along the way to try to relieve the boredom. A stop through at Antietam led me on a more southerly course than I usually take, winding through West Virginia and Kentucky. I eventually met back up with I-70 at St. Louis, two days before the All-Star Game. The festivities had already began, some kind of US vs. World prospects game going on in the splendidly red Busch Stadium. The contest is suspended due to a constant drizzle. A furious thunderstorm had just blew through here. I know this, because I had just driven through it. Furious torrential downpours had managed to find me on every long-distance driving day on this trip. I did not think of this as a good omen for the mountains.
I drove out to Colorado two years ago and had my fill of four 14ers. Last year I couldn’t leave work until the Fall; there was already snow on most of the higher peaks by the time I got to CO, so I climbed only Pyramid before I moved on for some of the desert peaks. This summer I would again focus my attention on the 14ers.
After Pyramid last Fall I did not plan to exert myself too much on the difficult peaks this year. Acclimatize on the Decalibron, then hit up the San Juans for Wetterhorn and try Sneffels’ SW ridge before relaxing and lounging on some of the easier talus slogs. Somewhere around Cumberland, Maryland, however, I got the idea that I wanted to try North Maroon. I spent the next few days deliberating on whether or not I wanted to give it a go, as that peak scared me more than half to death. By the time I passed through Kansas and was cruising down US-285 I had still not made up my mind, but to possibly fit that peak in I decided to bypass Fairplay and head straight up to Buena Vista; Yale would have to do for an acclimatizing.
I woke up at a decent time and left the hotel with the first glints of light beyond the Mosquitos on the eastern sky. It was near sunset when I got to the trailhead, right off the paved road to Cottonwood Pass. I packed up and set off.
I had been massively out of shape on my sojourns on the 14ers the last few years. This year I had been spending some time at the gym and was in decent shape, and I hoped to improve my pace on the mountain. I pushed myself to go fast the few couple miles of the hike, while still in the trees. The trail gains elevation pretty gradually, but I still soon began to feel winded. It was a different kind of tired though, not out of breath-ness but more of a head-pounding kind of fatigue. I had never really felt the elevation before below 13,500 ft or so, but then I had never pushed my pace that much before.
I slowed my pace a little after taking a right at the Browns Lake turnoff but continued at a moderate pace, rarely taking rest stops and barely touching my considerable stock of Aquafinas. The trail steepens for the first time, switchbacking up a slope and through a clearing which I thought indicated timberline. It continued, however, back up into the trees. Soon enough though, I had cleared the last of the pines and had nothing but dirt and talus before me. Some time later I passed a large group of between 20 and 30 people. They were a church group from Michigan, having driven down from the Midwest in several vans. They had done the tourist thing, checked out Garden of the Gods, spent a few days whitewater rafting on the Arkansas, hiked up to Browns Lake the night before, and now, for the coup de grace of their trip, was attempting their only 14er. I chatted with them for a bit then continued forward at a steady pace.
The views opened up. I forget when I first spotted the 3 Apostles for the first time, but I do remember being mighty impressed by them. The steep slope the trail switchbacks up before gaining the ridge was ahead. I had the 14ers.com trail description with me, but for some reason the slope looked different and was difficult to recognize. Probably the lighting or shadows or something
I switchbacked my way up. The slope went by fairly quickly, and I found myself in a large open area upon gaining the ridge. Greeted for the first time that morning by Harvard and Columbia, I paused to take a few pictures and continued up on the ridge. I soon found myself scrambling around boulders. The boulders began to increase in size and jaggedness. This seemed to be more than class 2. I looked to the right and down, and saw some cairns. Apparently the trail traverses along the side of the ridge. I had stuck to the very tippy top of the ridge crest since the open area, thus explaining the scrambling. The rock was extremely stable, however, and by the time I met back up with the trail I was having way too much fun to leave the ridge crest. Eventually I summitted. A few other people were on top, including a guy from 14ers.com, a girl who had solo’d her way up a different route (East Ridge, I think), and a thru-hiker on his way from Denver to Durango who was summitting most of the Sawatch 14ers along the way.
After taking a few pictures I grabbed my cell phone from my backpack and turned it on, curious to see whether I had reception or not. A couple bars, and a text message from my Senior Manager at work, with a work related question. I texted back a response. This alerted him that I was near my phone, and before I knew it I was on the phone, discussing work for ten minutes or so, probably to the annoyance of everyone else on the summit (sorry!).
We all spent a decent amount of time on the spacious summit, as the weather remained perfect and the clouds were sparse and far between. A few other parties joined us on the summit, and we soon decided to head down. I took the trail on the side of the ridge this time. Midway between the summit and the saddle we ran into the group from Michigan, working their way above and around the ridge. Being a large group they had taken their time out of necessity, but they were all going to summit. I chatted a little more with a few of them and wished them luck on the rest of their trip.
The descent was mostly uneventful. The weather stayed sunny and dry, and I took a decent amount of pictures before reaching treeline. The last mile or so I twisted my ankle. It wasn’t too bad, and I hoped that it wouldn't linger, as I still had a few more 14ers on the agenda.
On the way to Ouray I stopped at a Target to pick up some Icy Hot patches and a cheap ankle brace, hoping that the ankle would hold up on Sneffels tomorrow. The ankle held up. My route finding abilities didn’t.