The forecast had been calling for a chance of morning snow showers, and we half-expected the area to be shrouded with thick clouds and fog, as is often the case in the Mosquitos. We were also expecting high winds, another trademark of these mountains. Amazingly, we had neither. The sun was shining and the air was completely calm as we exited the car where CR 696 became completely covered in snow. At 0915, we began walking downhill along the lower road (the upper road was marked “private property”) and before long came to a dead-end.
Continuing back through this gulch, along the South Mosquito Creek, we passed by a number of mines and found ourselves in some nasty willows and pines. Everything in this gulch was smothered in deep, powdery snow. My snowshoes were essentially useless, and his skis were only slightly better for handling this mess. We bushwhacked our way along until Colonelpyat decided it would be best to cut uphill toward the power lines on the creek’s north side. This was somewhat easier, but we had to be careful as we crossed ravines full of lopsided boulders covered with deep snow.
The snow was indeed perfect avalanche material, had it been on steeper slopes. A number of times we heard it shifting underneath us, and saw tremendous cracks form on these plates as we walked across them. Nothing we traversed exceeded 23 degrees, but we were amazed at how much shifting was happening underneath our feet, even while walking on flat snow.
Eventually, as we neared timberline, the terrain began to flatten out, and we turned back toward the south to cross what remained of the gulch. Once again I was post-holing with my snowshoes, the entire way across the wide dip in the terrain. This definitely wasn’t turning out to be a walk in the park.
However, when we started up the south side of the gulch, finally gaining elevation toward the Pennsylvania/Evans saddle, the worst part of our ascent was behind us. Here, the shallow snow was hardened considerably into wind-blown waves, and we walked directly over them, steadily gaining altitude. As we approached the saddle, the snow abruptly disappeared. We had had impressive views of Pennsylvania’s steep north slopes the entire time, and it was easy to see there was very little snow on the actual mountain. We had at last made it to that “no-snow” line, where the ridge had been swept clean by the high winds prevalent in the Mosquitos. Those high winds were nowhere nearby on this hike!
Here we detached our snowshoes and skis, ate a snack, and finished the short clip up to the crest of Pennsylvania’s west ridge. From here the route was straight-forward: up the ridge to the summit. Most of this was easy walking along snow-free talus. There was one more moderate section of steepness that helped gain some quick altitude, and then we had another six-tenths of a mile of relatively level walking to get to the broad, flat summit: 13,006 feet above sea level. We arrived at 1239.
I rather enjoyed standing atop “Colorado’s Pennsylvania.” I envisioned the broad grassy summit area being used for picnics and football games, while having such a magnificent backdrop: Several fourteeners and many more thirteeners were visible in every direction from this place. Walking over to the southern edge, we were able to peer down tremendous cliffs to the bottom where the car was parked. And we were able to enjoy this all without any wind!
After staying at the summit about twenty minutes, however, a slight breeze began and clouds started moving in, chilling us quickly. For mid-December, we certainly couldn’t complain!
The few snow-fields we had crossed on our way up consisted of densely packed glacier-like snow, and Colonelpyat had some fun with his skis on the way down. A couple times we stopped to listen to a pack of coyotes, howling up a storm down in the gulch. Neither of us had ever heard such loud howling in the middle of the day. We later came across fresh coyote tracks, but never saw the animals.
Trying to stay out of the mess in the gulch, we contoured with a sort of bench that started at the saddle and followed the huge power lines for a while. However, we ended up in some deep drifts amongst willows as we headed toward American Flats, and it took some time to get through them. I stubbornly left my snowshoes off, as I figured we would get through the willows quickly, but each new horizon provided another dip and more snow-covered willows to wade through.
Eventually we came to some wind-swept tundra, and easily walked that all the way to a designated snowmobile route, which we followed downhill to get back to the car. We arrived at 1520, after a six-hour journey that could probably be done in less than three without snow. It had been about six miles round-trip, and less than two thousand feet of elevation gain, but the off-trail snow and willows made it seem like more than that. However, I really did enjoy hiking this mountain and the views it provided. Anyway, it was another chance to get out into the mountains and meet someone else who loves the outdoors, and for those chances I am always grateful.
© 2004, BSV
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