I had been eyeing the three day weekend for Presidents Day for several weeks as an appropriate time to jet up to Colorado for a few days of climbing, skiing, or whatever else I could think up. The weather was supposed to be fantastic and I hadn’t been on any mountains in Colorado since September. My initial objective was to climb the long East Ridge Route on Sunshine Peak. I figured I could knock it off in a day and spend the next couple days skiing at Wolf Creek or something. A couple of my mates expressed interest in coming along for the adventure, but one decided he couldn’t and the other bailed the day of departure because he had hurt himself playing basketball that morning (sheesh!!). So rather than scrap the whole weekend I decided to go solo. With the alternative being staying in Albuquerque (ick) it wasn’t a very hard decision.
I left later than I would’ve liked on Friday, around six, which meant the long drive to Lake City would have me arriving in the middle of the night. I pulled into the Mill Creek Campground at around two in the morning, pitched my tent by the car, and went straight to sleep. I didn’t expect any other hardy souls would be up for some winter mountaineering so I was a little surprised to find another vehicle parked in the same pullout, but its owner was nowhere to be seen.
I slept well (except for the middle of the night foray outside to pee) and woke up around seven feeling pretty well despite the limited amount of sleep. The only problem was it was at least ten below zero and I was still dressed in the clothes I had worn on the drive up the night before. So at the risk of sounding like a pansy, I decided the best thing to do was to hop right back into my truck and turn the heater on full! Once warm, I packed up the tent (without gloves just to see how long it took before my hands were so cold and stiff that I couldn’t shove the tent into its sack…it didn’t take long), but still didn’t depart. I knew it was going to be very warm when the sun finally hit the slopes, so I didn’t really want to dress up for the cold only to have to take off the warm clothes all off and carry them the rest of the way up.
I heard the other truck take off before I got out of my sleeping bag, and it returned around eight. I asked the fellow who got out if he was planning on doing the East Ridge, which he was, so he got his gear together and took off. I finally got underway around nine. I had bought snowshoes over the holidays and brought them along on this trip. It looked like they would be of some use so I started out wearing them, but the south face was pretty melted out so after no more than a couple hundred yards I decided to take them off. Now I knew there would be plenty of snow high on the mountain, but for as far as I could see there was very little snow or none at all so rather than packing the shoes and poles on my back, I decided to hide them behind some rocks off the trail and pick them up on my way down.
I tried to follow the other fellow’s tracks since the trail was non-obvious to me, but I lost them several times and finally decided to head straight up. After bypassing the cliffs right near the road the next obstacle is a loose rock slope. This was slow going but made much easier since the rock was mostly frozen together still. It took about an hour to make my way up the slope and before long I was trudging through knee deep snow. Fortunately I came across the other climber’s path and from there made quick time, quick enough to catch him up as he was taking a break. I sat down next too him and found out that his story was much the same. He was down from Boulder and had failed to find any companions for the trip. The night before he had tried to climb up some distance and make camp, but it had been slow going and he started seeing a menacing pair of eyes in the trees following him. Rather than risk tempting an apparently hungry mountain lion, he retreated facing up slope all the way back down to his truck where he locked himself in and went to sleep! He claimed that he had made it to tree line and that it wasn’t much further, although this turned out to be false.
We decided to join forces to slog through the snow, which slightly above our rest stop got to be waist deep! We traded turns post holing through this mess…it was quite strenuous and we’d swap leads only about every 10-15 minutes. Proceeding along like this finally saw us leave the trees and come out on a snow slope leading up to the large plateau to the southeast of the peak. After trudging up the snow slope and making the plateau we finally got out of the deep stuff and quickly made our way to the base of the East Ridge. We took a much needed break as I had been going for well over three hours now, but there was a significant amount yet to be done. I set off with the guy from Boulder following, but our pace was very slow. I would pick out distinctive rocks to reach and then take a rest. After toiling upward for an half an hour or so, the other guy said he had had enough and was turning back. I thought I could still go on as there was plenty of daylight left so I continued as he headed back down to the plateau. I watched for a while marveling at how much faster one can move downhill!
A path appeared to switchback up the broad face of the ridge I was on so I followed that. Eventually it dropped along the west side of the ridge, but the snow once again got deep – only ankle deep, but it still made going tough. By this point I was having to stop every 20 yards or so because I was getting so exhausted. I’d say I’m in pretty excellent shape, but this was kicking my ass. I soon conceded that I probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the top, but since it was still only around one or so, I’d at least climb to where the ridge turned directly west so I could get some pictures of Sunshine’s summit and Redcloud. This kept me going for a while until I got right back on top of the ridge. The east side of the ridge dropped sharply off in steep gullies between rock pinnacles. I found a sheltered spot under a rock and ate a chocolate bar, hoping it would bring me the strength to go on.
I started off again and before I knew it had reached the goal point on the ridge. It became very level for a while before shooting straight up the last pyramid section of the peak. I bounced across this in no time and decided that I could make it to the top! My pace was so slow I felt like I was crawling and I had to stop every swithback for several breaths, but I was now certain that I could make it. I decided that I would take a long break and eat something when I got above the rocks, and then tackle the last snow section. From the start it looked like the rocks ended halfway up, but I was up and on top after only minutes from leaving my last rest stop. So surprised at this turn of events, I ran along the top further west not believing I was on the summit!
Firmly convinced that there was nowhere higher to go, I looked around for some sign of the summit register or another indication that I was well and truly at the top of Sunshine Peak. Not finding anything I took photos of the amazing mountain panorama around me and tried to do a self portrait, but I was too cold and tired to do a very good job. The wind was persistent and I was fast getting cold. I checked the time – it was 2:45, which meant from the car it had taken me 6 hours and 40 minutes to get to the top. I had only a few hours of daylight left and wasn’t sure how quickly I’d make it back down, so I got going right away. After about an hour I was already back down on the snowy plateau where my partner of the moment had turned back. It didn’t even feel like I was that tired!
I lost the tracks up and headed too far east as I approached the snow slope, so I had to posthole my way down that (unfortunately too soft to glissade although I tried!). My legs started cramping terribly at this point, but the going was much better once I rejoined our old tracks. While it was better than breaking trail, going down through the soft stuff wasn’t all that much better…it was still a tiring business. I lost the tracks again once I got close to the rock slope. My memory started failing me in terms of the general direction of travel, so I more or less headed straight down. Going down the rock slope took around an hour since it was no longer frozen and incredibly loose. Once below this last major obstacle I could see I should’ve gone more east since I was now directly above the cliffs I had avoided to start with.
Rather than backtrack, I found a couple convenient game trails and shortcuts that got me back on track and after only 2 hours and XX minutes I was back at the car. I couldn’t recognize the rock where I had left my snowshoes and poles, so I figured I’d dump off my gear and come back for a proper search. I headed back up and found a couple places that looked familiar, but there was nothing to be found! After another ten minutes or so I was pretty convinced that I had the spot right, but the gear was gone!!! There were no tracks that I could see, but since they didn’t just walk off themselves, it was pretty clear someone had snatched them. You could actually see the rocks from the road, and I had unknowingly stashed them such that they were visible from the road…so did someone driving by happen to glance at the right spot at the right time and run up and grab them…or did the Boulder climber wander off the trail, come across my stuff, and decide that he wanted some free gear? Hard to say I guess, but I do know I’m out a pretty new pair of snowshoes and some nice adjustable ski poles. I’ve always thought of the wilderness as a pretty safe place (in regards to humans), and so do a lot of other people judging by the number of folks that stash gear just off to the side of the trail, but even in this isolated place one can get robbed I guess…
After getting my butt kicked on the mountain and getting my gear lifted, I didn’t really feel like hanging out in Colorado anymore, so I got back on the road and headed back for Albuquerque, making it back sometime around one the next morning. The whole thing ended up being 31 hours round trip, but amongst the most unforgettable times I’ve ever had!