IntroductionThis is a brief trip report outlining our trip in the Colorado Rockies over Thanksgiving Weekend 2010. Our family climbing party consisted of Kessler (eight years old), Shaylee (six years old), Kimberly and me. A few other friends joined us part way through the trip as well. We had planned to climb several 12,000 and 13,000 foot peaks over a four day period (with the ultimate goal being a climb of Jacque Peak), but instead of camping we would stay at one of the 10th Mountain Division Huts located high in the mountains at timberline. When you have two small children, this makes multi-day mountain trips in winter conditions much easier. The only problem with staying at the cabins is that you must book them well in advance and long before the weather forecast is available, but we had had good luck in the past.
Usually we have friends or family joining us on our Thanksgiving weekend trip, but this year the cabin filled up too fast and only two friends were to join us.
Click Here for Previous Year's Trip
The year previous it was almost too warm and dry before the trip and snow cover was spotty and slushy in places. We had hoped for more snow this year and a little colder temperature. Of course we have all heard the old adage:
Be careful what you wish for.
Decisions, DecisionsWe had hoped for more snow cover, and from early on in November, the snow piled up deep in the mountains. Prior to Thanksgiving, storm after storm pounded the mountains. Since we (just us four) were supposed to be the first people to reach the cabin of the season, trail breaking would be difficult, but the trip should go smoothly as long as we had a good weather forecast.
If only we did have a good weather forecast. The closer we got to the weekend, the worst the forecast became. Just prior to the trip, it sounded terrible. There was a blizzard warning out. Record breaking cold temperatures were predicted. The news predicted that this “might be the nastiest blizzard we’ve seen in a while”. Windchills were predicted to be as low as -60F (-51C) in the mountains.
What to do; what to do? We had a family meeting two days before the trip. The first thought was simply to cancel the trip. On the other hand, if we did go we could always try and turn back. We had a reservation for three nights at the cabin so if conditions were too bad we could wait it out in a hotel in Frisco (near the trailhead) until they got better and at least get one night in.
Kim and the kids thought that we should at least give it a try. Though we have gone on many winter conditions trips before, I thought the kid’s clothing may be inadequate for the predicted conditions. We made a special shopping trip to Steamboat Springs in order to get the best gear possible. After visiting every outdoor store in the town, we got outfitted. It was a big hit in the pocketbook, but it gave me a peace of mind and hopefully the clothing would last many seasons. The decision was made and the trip was a go! We would just make sure to turn back at the right time if everything didn’t turn out well.
November 24: First AttemptIt was a long sleepless night for me. We were lucky since we made it to the hotel just before the blizzard really hit the evening before, but the howling wind pounding against the hotel windows made me nervous about the next day.
The blizzard howled all night, but by morning, the winds weren’t extreme. We drove to the trailhead (at Copper Mountain Ski Resort) where I dropped the kids off. We also learned that the lift we were supposed to take part way up was not open yet and that our route would be all over virgin powder. We weren’t supposed to park there however, so I drove back to the parking lot and walked the two miles back to where the kids and Kim were waiting. It was now late morning.
The kids started out wearing two pairs each of long underwear, fleece pants, wool shirts, fleece jackets, expedition snowsuits, down coats, undermitts, gloves, two pairs each of wool socks, -40 snow boots, facemask, neck gaiters and goggles. It was snowing pretty hard, but it actually wasn't bad starting out with temps of +7F (-14C), but it did get colder as the day went on.
Climbing up the ungroomed ski run was challenging in the deep powder, but route finding was easy even though visibility was poor due to the snowstorm. Since Kim has heart problems, I had to do all the trailbreaking, which was slow and hard. Visibility was poor and we made very slow progress up the mountains. Once we had to leave the ski run route finding became more difficult. When it was obvious that we missed the turnoff while route finding through the near whiteout, we traversed cross country through the thick forest (difficult) from one ski run to the other. It was now afternoon.
Since there was shelter from the bitter winds in the thick timber, I left Kim and the kids there to eat lunch and to have a break while I pushed the route farther (without my pack as breaking trail through the deep snow with a big pack on was difficult). We were at the top of the (closed) ski run and about to head out into the wilderness, but the visibility was poor enough that I couldn’t even see across the narrow ski run. I looked for the turnoff to Union Creek, but didn’t find it in the poor visibility. Since there wouldn’t be a broken trail anyway, I headed cross country west through the thick timber and to a finally to a point where the slopes dropped steeply into Union Creek. It took me an hour and a half from when I left Kim and the kids to get to this point. It was time to return to them. I was sweating despite the cold temperatures. Going back on my broken trail was much faster, but when I got back to my wife and kids it was 4 pm and the temperature was -16F (-27C) and breezy (the estimated chill factor was -43F [-42C] to -49F [-45C] in the open areas; but not as bad in the timbered areas). I had only made it as far as 10,800 feet and we had a long descent to get down to Union Creek before breaking the long trail up the valley to reach the cabin at 11,630 feet. Even though the weather was clearing, it was painfully obvious that we didn't have a remote chance of making the cabin so we turned around. We all stayed warm, but Shaylee said her toes were a little cold when she was waiting for me to break trail, which was just more motivation to head quickly down the mountain.
We made it down the mountain around dark and just when it was getting really cold. We spent the rest of the evening/night in the hotel. We made a visit to the hot tub and it was so cold outside that the glass walls around the hot tub were covered with ice on the inside. We had decided to wait two days before making another attempt to get to Janet’s Cabin. It was a rough day, but the kids did great, especially considering the brutal conditions.
November 25: Thanksgiving Day-Another AttemptAs mentioned, we were going to wait until Friday to make another attempt to climb to Janet’s Cabin, but Thanksgiving morning was so clear, calm and beautiful that Kessler and I changed our minds (Shaylee and Kim decided to stay behind and in the hotel-they had enough brutality for now). It was -18F (-28C) in the morning, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the wind was calm.
We left the car with Kim and the kids and took a bus to Copper Mountain. We had to walk to the trailhead, but we were relieved that there was another big group there making an attempt to get to Janet’s Cabin. In fact, there were 16 people in their group (all of one extended family). We would have help in the trailbreaking! Not only that, they offered to give us a ride up a private road where they got permission to park and thus shortening the trip a little. They even had kids with them too!
We had some conversations with them and we told them about the brutal conditions the day before. We made quick progress up the trail that we broke the day before. The going was much easier on the broken trail and once we reached the area of the turnoff it was easy to find in the good (but cold) weather conditions. As we made progress however, all was not well. People in the other group began to get discouraged once we left the trail that our family broke the day previous. The going got more strenuous. As the time went on, people turned back at different intervals. Some got cold, some got tired and others simply got discouraged. Although we were tired, Kessler and I pushed on and broke the trail making the descent down to Union Creek through the trackless snow. Even though it was cold, we actually sweated breaking trail and I had to take off my down coat and fleece jacket and a long underwear shirt plus a light wool shirt were more than adequate. It was very hard breaking trail. Alone and tired we stopped there for lunch. We still had a long way to go.
As we were eating lunch, finally part of the group caught up to us. It was Dan and his 14 year old son Jackson. He told us that everyone else (14 people) had given up. We were tired from breaking trail so Dan and Jackson went on ahead to break the trail on skis (we had snowshoes). Their broken trail was a great help, but with my extra weight I couldn’t keep up with my son Kessler. It took us a very long time to get up the valley and Kessler went on ahead to reach the cabin. I kept punching through the snow in the willows. Following the skiers, Kessler reached the hut right at dark, but I was still 30 minutes behind. The sunset was gorgeous, but we were in too big of a hurry to take photos.
Thanksgiving was a very hard day, but the weather was actually good and even above 11,000 feet, the temperature probably reached 0F (-18C), which is actually quite pleasant if it isn't too windy. The hut was supposed to be booked to capacity (20 people), but it felt empty with just the four of us.
Two SP members, Tony (Tonka) and his wife Krista were supposed to meet us at the cabin, but we weren’t sure if they would make it or not. Long after sunset, headlamp flickers in the valley far below told us that they were on their way. We were glad to see them when they finally reached the cabin. We were also able to get cell phone service at the cabin, so we called Shaylee and Kim and told them that we made it to the cabin safely.
November 26: Persistence Pays OffSometime Thursday night the temperature dropped down to at least -20F (-29C) which is the lowest Tony's thermometer would register (I had left my digital thermometers in Kim's pack and she was back at the hotel), but by morning it was much warmer with -2F (-19C) and it was snowing.
Because it was snowing again and because of the brutal conditions the day before, and for Dan and Jackson the rest of his group was gone and because Tony wasn’t feeling well, all of the others headed back down the trail late morning. After waiting around for better weather, later Kessler and I set off to climb the peak north of Sugarloaf Peak (the only one that appeared free of avy danger, which is why I chose that one).
Not long after we started climbing, the weather cleared and the views were gorgeous and the wind was only a slight breeze. The trailbreaking was a little hard in some places, but easy in some places where the snow was windblown. As we were climbing the peak we got some great photos, but unfortunately my camera died before a very spectacular sunset and I didn't get photos of that (spare batteries were left in the hut). It was a great day and after clearing the weather was gorgeous. The trip to date had been well worth the effort, despite the journey being a lesson in brutality. That night, the cabin was strangely lonely since it was supposed to be booked solid (20 people), yet Kessler and I were the only ones there.
November 27: A Different WorldToday was a different world in comparison to the previous two days. Even at sunrise the temperature was a warm +14 (-10C) degrees. The weather was beautiful and there was no wind, nor was there a cloud in the sky. There were no hints at all about the previous hardships in the past few days.
After eating breakfast we set off down the mountain. Conditions were warm, calm and the going was easy with the now nicely broken trail. I had to strip down into my wool shirt and light pants since we were sweating in the sunshine. We made very quick progress on the descent, even on the long re-ascent up the slope after leaving Union Creek. When we reached the top of the ski lift, it was now groomed. None of the hardships were present. We met a group climbing up the run to the cabin and chatted with them a while before heading down the mountain. I assume they enjoyed our broken trail, but I wondered if they knew what a struggle it was to break that trail to the cabin.
At the bottom of the trail we were met by another local that was familiar with the route to Janet’s Cabin. He was very impressed that we had come from there since Kessler was only eight years old. I didn’t bother telling him that we were the ones that broke much of the trail to the cabin and we quickly parted ways. We had a daughter/sister and wife/mom that were patiently waiting for us in Frisco.