Springbreak had finally come (even though grad students do not officially get time off) and it was my plan to climb a fourteener in either the San Juan or Sangre de Cristo ranges. Since my wife grew up in Humboldt, TN, we decided to climb Humboldt Peak in the Sangre de Cristos. Originally we planned to leave Boulder, Co on Wednesday night (March 22nd) and spend a long Easter weekend in the Sangre de Cristos. However, after getting ready to go to work on Monday morning, we discussed our trip and decided to check the weather for the week. It turned out that Tuesday (March 21st) was the only sunny day for the whole week. Thus we decided to change our plans and drive down to the Sand Dunes that morning in order to climb Humboldt Peak on the following day.
After contacting my professor and packing, we finally left Boulder at 10:30 and headed down I-25 all the way to Walsenburg on a cloudy day. From there we took 160 and then 150 to the Great Sand Dunes National Park where we arrived at 3:45. After a short visit to the visitor we hiked up to the "High Dune". Unfortunately it was still cloudy and we only had limited views from the top. However, it was a fun trip.
After visiting the Sand Dunes, we returned to Walsenburg where we found a Motel and spend the night. We got up at 3:30 the next morning and headed towards Westcliff and the South Colony Trailhead which we reached around 5 am. Finally, by 5:15 we started up the 4WD road towards the Colony Lakes. Initially it was our goal to hike all the way to the Colony Lakes and then take the West Ridge route. However, this plan changed.
Hiking along the 4WD road was easy and we made reasonable fast progress. Due to fainted snowmobile tracks we could walk on the snow without using snowshoes for the first several miles. However, at 10200feet we put on our snowshoes, since we were now sinking in slightly deeper (however, continuing from here without snowshoes would have been okay). We continued along the road, but slowly became annoyed with the constant up and down of the road and our slow upwards progress. Thus when we reached approximately 11000feet about 5 miles from the trailread, just as the road begins to descent to the 4WD trailhead, we decided to leave the road and head straight up the South Slopes which were clearly visible from this point (9:15am).
The first several hundred feet up the South Slopes were fairly gentle and we stayed in the center of the snow slopes. However, when the slopes started to steepen, we stayed close to the trees and willows which allowed our snowshoes to catch better then on the soft snow. We continued like this up to tree line and made reasonable fast progress. Our spirits were high and we enjoyed every bit of the climb. We continued up, staying close to the boundary between constant snow slope and snow covered rocky sections. However, when the snow slope began to steepen even more (at about 12400ft) and headed straight towards the cliffs, we decided to head slightly east and continue on the snow covered rocky slopes. At this point we took our snowshoes off, which made it easier to find good footholds on the rocks. However, many of the rocks were loose and it became more and more challenging to find a good route. We were only at 12500ft and we were getting tired fast. By the time we reached 13000ft (I was leading all the way up the steep slope), I was worn out and needed a break. How much longer could it take to get to the summit. It was already 12:00 o'clock, our initial goal for making the summit. The weather was beautiful and the sun was hitting us with full force, causing us to sweat like crazy.
After a 20 minute break I continued to lead up for 600 additional feet, after which my strength was completely gone. My wife now took the lead on slowly easing slopes and I slowly followed in her footsteps, pausing every few feet. Finally at 1:45 my wife shouted out that she could see the summit, which provided new motivation. I almost caught up with her by the time we reached the summit at 2pm. The day was still beautiful and the views of Pikes, Blanca etc, Crestones, Kit Carson, etc. were spectacular. After sitting on the summit for about 20-30 minutes and eating a sandwich, I started to regain my energy, and after taking a closer look at our descent options we decided to head down the South-East Gully, which we had seen on the ascent.
We decided for the South-East Gully for the following reasons. 1. West - Ridge seemed too long and involved a Class 2 ridge for 0.7 miles. 2. The East-Ridge seemed to stretch for a long distance above tree-line. 3. The South-East Gully was gentler than the South Slopes and provided the quickest way back to the 4WD road. 4. There did not seem to be any avalanche danger. 5. We were hoping to glissade part of the South-East Gully.
After leaving the summit at 2:30, we first headed down the South Slopes for a few feet until we traversed east into the South-East Gully. Once we reached the gully, we started to plungestep downhill. Unfortunately the snow was a little too soft for a glissade, but we still made fast progress and reached the 4WD road at 3:45pm. The only obstacle on this descent was a cliff in the gully at about 11000ft. However, we were able to pass this cliff by descending through the trees on its east side. After the cliff, the slope of the gully eased and we entered thicker trees, which made route-finding slightly more difficult. However, we simply continued downhill and soon joined the 4WD road at about 10700ft.
From here on, we only had to walk down the road, which was easy but long and we finally reached the South Colony Trailhead at 5:45pm. Making for a 12.5 hour round trip. We were exhausted, sunburned (forgot our sunscreen --> stupid mistake), and ready to be back home. However, we still had a 4 hour car drive ahead of us. When we finally arrived in Boulder at 10pm, we were "dead tired" and glad to be home again.
Overall it was a great trip and despite the sunburn and the exhaustion, I already cannot wait till my next climbing trip.