The "Decalibron": Mount Democrat (14,152 ft.)
Mount Cameron (14,238 ft.)
Mount Lincoln (14,291 ft.)
Mount Bross (14,177 ft.)
Class 2, with snow
Distance (round-trip): 8.5 miles
Elevation Gain: Abt. 3,500 feet
After my tumultuous November introduction to the mountains of Colorado, I stayed indoors most of the winter. By May, I was eager to get back out and try some more fourteeners, and the "Decalibron" (Democrat-Cameron-Lincoln-Bross) in the Mosquito Range seemed to be a good way to kick of the spring of 2004. Indeed it was a good day, but I had many lessons yet to learn...
9:09 AM- Lee and I started our walk back the snowy road to the trailhead. This section of the trip alone took an hour, but eventually we came to Kite Lake, which currently is totally hidden by last week’s fresh snowfall. We were greeted here by a little dog, which after giving us a sniff retreated to his masters. Several other hikers were here, heading off their separate ways. We chose the Southeast Face, a class two hike up the east side of Mount Democrat. We trailed three other hikers who had also chosen this route.
I journeyed then across a rather steep snowfield, where I continued to have the problem of sinking, especially as the morning sun shone brightly. My main concern here was the possibility of an avalanche, but I made it all the way across without issue. The route steepened considerably here and I had to stop to catch my breath several times as I made my way up another snow-covered slope. The prize for this was reaching the snowless spine of the ridge. I much preferred hiking up the continuing ledge of rocks to the snowy patch I had just endured.
About half way up the jutting rocks, I passed one of the hikers who I had seen earlier. He seemed to be having a tough time of it, but he would make it to the summit without problem. I meanwhile continued up ahead of him, where the rocky spine turned northward and continued at about the same angle of steepness.
A false summit of Mount Democrat is visible for most of the way, and it was here I got my first view of the real summit, which rose to the left of the spine I was on. I could clearly see the first hiker on the summit, and followed the second hiker up the final steep snowy path to the top.
The man I had earlier passed joined us on the summit before I departed, as did two other hikers who had come from the East Ridge Route. Trailing them was a large group of a dozen or more people who were making their way up the saddle from the East Ridge side.
12:45 PM- I left my first peak of the day and headed down toward the Democrat/Cameron saddle. I passed the large group heading to the summit, and continued down the steep and snowy spine to the base of the very large saddle. Now at 13,400 feet, I had another ascent of 800 feet ahead of me. So, I got to it.
Partway up the spine of the next ridge, I passed the couple and their dogs that I had seen earlier at the trailhead. This was the last time I would see them.
2:06 PM- When I did finally get to the top, I didn’t even know it. I didn’t even realize I was standing on the flat, stony summit of Mount Cameron (14,238) until I saw I had to go downhill to continue on my journey. Cameron, though it is officially named and is in some way a summit of its own, it is actually by strict definition a sub-summit of Mount Lincoln, which rises a half mile beyond it. This is because the saddle between the two only drops 157 feet below Cameron’s summit, 143 feet shy of the requirement for it to be considered a peak of its own.
Anyway, I only stayed there a few minutes because I knew I still had some hiking to get to my highest summit of the day. I continued down to the saddle and up the easy-to-follow trail (pretty much the first ‘trail’ I actually was able to see today).
2:35 PM- The half mile hike to the summit of Mount Lincoln was easier and shorter than it looked. The only one there, I sat back and ate a candy bar as I enjoyed the scenery from 14,286 feet–-the highest I have ever been on the surface of the earth. It was not even windy and the sun felt great. I took a number of pictures of course, as I had been doing all day. The view of Quandary Peak was awesome, and I also had a closer look at Grays and Torreys to the north. As I got up to leave, I was surprised to see the two hikers who had just come to the summit of Democrat as I left it earlier. I asked if they were going to Bross also, and they said that they would not be doing that also today.
The actual hike up Mount Bross, or once again I should say ‘walk,’ was a series of switchbacks on a snow-covered mountain-biking trail to the summit. I’m glad the walking was so easy though, because my lungs and legs were ready for the break.
3:48 PM- What a boring summit! I arrived at the pile of rocks on the top of the mountain and wondered if I was at the top. Indeed I was, but everything was totally flat. The brownish-red colored rocks surrounding me made it appear as if I was on the surface of Mars, not the summit of a mountain. But, this was the summit of Mount Bross, 14,172 feet above sea level. I had made it to all four peaks! Still, I had to make my way down the mountain.
My jeans and hiking boots got soaked by the time I made it to the bottom of this slope, and they would get much wetter as I headed down the not-so-steep but snow-covered hills below. This took longer than I anticipated, but eventually I made it to the snowy road just below the trailhad, completing my loop.
5:42 PM- I reached my jeep, having completed an 8.5 mile hike in 8 hours and 33 minutes. I reached the summits of Mount Democrat, Mount Cameron, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross, and had a lot of fun in the process.
Conclusion: Having grown up hiking in Pennsylvania, I still am not completely accustomed to the ‘rules’ of hiking at 14,000 feet, especially for an extended period of time as I did today. I learned some valuable lessons in November, as far as knowing when to hike and what the mountain conditions are, as well as having enough clothing and planning for a full day’s hike. Today, clothing was no issue. The sun was out and a t-shirt was enough most of the time. However, there were flurries falling as I headed out of the mountain. On top of that, my wet feet and legs were no problem with today’s warm weather, but I might not be so lucky on a colder day. I definitely need to invest in additional equipment, such as snowshoes and waterproof hiking boots.
You see, the timberline was below the trailhead, so I spent the entirety of my hike out in the open snow, rock, and sun. I was under-prepared for sure. While I was not bothered by the sun or bright snow during the hike, I got snow-blindness (burning of the cornea) in both eyes. My vision suffered and my eyes were in excruciating pain for a day and a half. I had to go to the emergency room but fortunately there was no permanent damage. On top of that, I had a nasty sunburn on my face which I am still recovering from as I write this several days later. Needless to say, I learned my lesson, and I hope others don’t have to also learn the hard way.
Lessons Learned1. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses. When I forget them, turn around.
The sun is a lot more powerful up there, and it is amplified by bright snow, especially when there is no shade. I was stupid in neglecting to take protection from the sun.
2. Invest in climbing gear.
Sure, the pioneers of mountaineering did not have gore-tex waterproof clothing and rubber/metal snowshoes, or high tech gear like we have these days. Still, these things help protect us from the elements and make the experience a little more enjoyable. Jeans, t-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt did not quite cut it, especially as the snow started soaking me on my way out of the mountain.
3. Never underestimate the mountain.
This has been one of the biggest lessons I have grown to appreciate. Not only can a seemingly insignificant mountain "defeat" your best efforts, weather or any myriad of factors can come in to play in your defeat as well. On this day, I made it to the summits, but suffered for it due to my negligence and the power of the sun. On many future hikes and climbs, I would not make it to summits due to weather, difficulty in route-finding, or other surprises.
To sum it all up: Always be prepared for anything!