Mount Antero, 14,269 ft. / Cronin Peak, 13,870 ft.
Class 2, with snow
Distance (Round-trip): abt. 13.5 miles
Elevation Gain: abt. 5,500 ft.
The first thing I noticed was the time: 2:49 am. The second thing I noticed was that the moon was no longer shining, and a fresh dusting of snow covered everything in sight. The stars were out however, and the air appeared to be calm. The third, and most troubling thing I noticed, as I started to get out of my zero degree sleeping bag, was the sour feeling in my stomach. I was feeling quite nauseated–not at all what I wanted for the start of a thirteen and a half mile hike with 5,500 feet of elevation gain. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag for a few minutes, but it was no use. I was not feeling great, but I may as well hit the trail while I had plenty of time to spare.
I had arrived at this switch-back of the Baldwin Gulch Road at sunset the night before. After a beautiful three hour drive from Denver, passing by abundant wildlife (deer, bighorn sheep, elk), I had turned up the steep but easy-going four wheel drive trail, wondering how far I could get. The mountains in the area did not appear to have much snow, as I expected, but I was not surprised to meet up with a glaciated snow-drift just half a mile into my journey on the Baldwin Gulch Road. Because there was plenty of room at the switch-back, I turned the jeep around and set up camp at that very spot. There was enough room for anyone to pass should that become an issue. But no one else ever showed. I settled in at my cozy spot at 10,000 feet for a usual restless night in the mountains, and now it was already three in the morning.
I arrived at the four wheel drive parking area at 4:35, satisfied that I was making excellent progress, especially with how I was feeling. I was not getting any better or worse, so I just decided to keep pressing on. First, I had to turn left and cross Baldwin Creek via some slippery fresh-snow-covered stepping stones. After this the road got a little rougher and steeper. Then, before long, I began getting into some deep snow. I had read recent reports of some wallowing in the snow around 11,200 feet. This is where my early start first became worth it. The snow was mostly solid, and my main problem was stumbling in the asymmetrical holes left by previous snowshoe-ers. Still, the snow was not perfect, and I too spent some time post-holing along this section of road.
My stomach was not getting any better, but I quickly forgot how I was feeling as the sun started to light up the surrounding sea of peaks. I smiled. I was here again, enjoying the great outdoors, experiencing one of those moments that you have to experience yourself to truly appreciate. Those are the moments when I remember why I do it. Why I commit myself to suffering and the harsh elements of the outdoors, while others are sleeping or doing something more “relaxing” to enjoy their time away from work. It is not worth trying to explain, but I will say it is worth experiencing. Call me crazy or over-dramatic or what-have-you, I call it worthwhile.
As I broke timberline, a perfect chute of snow appeared cutting straight up through the heart of numerous road switch-backs. Enjoying the simplicity and the directness of this option, I found myself quickly gaining altitude on the solid snow.
After reaching the top of this snow slope, around 12,900 feet, I continued following a steep talus-strewn ridge upward to about 13,600 feet. I slowed down considerably during this time, partially because I was getting tired, and in part because I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the early morning sun-bathed scenery. Near the top of these slopes, I caught a trail which contoured directly to the saddle in front of my first goal for the day: Mount Antero.
As I climbed the final 500 vertical feet, alternating between snow and talus, I began to notice that familiar feeling: a state of dizziness and light-headedness took over, and my pace slowed. This final section was steep, but I was relieved to find no “false summits” as I crested the highest point. Arriving at the snow capped summit at 8:40, I still had all day to enjoy the beauty of this sea of mountains in which I was immersed.
The views from the summit of Mount Antero were surprisingly worthwhile. Mount Princeton and other collegiate fourteeners rose impressively to the north and northwest. The snow-striped bulks of Mount Shavano and Tabeguache Peak rose to the south, and Cronin Peak dominated the view to the west.
The weather was no concern, as early morning clouds and wind were nothing more than a nuisance. I took my time and enjoyed the scenery. Near the 12,900 foot saddle, I stopped to eat a sandwich and preview my route for Cronin Peak. My nausea would not go away, but it was not getting any worse either. Nevertheless, the sandwich provided me with some energy, which I would need for the remaining one thousand vertical feet to Cronin Peak’s summit.
Thankfully, the angle and snow on the ridge relented more and more the lower I went. The weather was getting a little more annoying, with wind and falling snow flakes joining the difficulties of this initial descent, but I began to appreciate the cool air as I returned to the warmer climate below 12,500 feet. Across from me, near the lowest saddle before Point 12,591, I noticed three billy goats enjoying the thin air. What a life!
Before reaching this lowest saddle, I decided I had had enough of following the ridge. Testing the upper snow on the east slopes, I quickly learned the conditions were perfect for glissading. Then, it was only a matter of sliding 500 feet down to timberline.
Still, there were no easy options at this point. I turned due north and started contouring the steep talus-strewn slopes just above timberline. The snow was only patchy here, but definitely not solid. Several times I was forced to post-hole and wallow my way across an area of snow to return to dry ground.
The farther I contoured, the uglier the terrain got. Before I knew it, I was forced lower because of huge cliffs and steep fields of talus. Eventually, I was more or less forced into crossing the creek and heading into the snowy trees I had been trying to avoid. There, I had to cross a couple more small ravines, filled with deep wet snow. I gave up on trying to avoid the inevitable post-holing, and I tromped and wallowed my way east through the trees.
By the time I crossed the creek and arrived at the four wheel drive trailhead, I was soaked because of the wet snow. I stopped to make gear adjustments and take one last look at Mount Antero and Cronin Peak. The sun was shining now, and the green of spring brightened the mountains from this lower perspective.
Then, after securing the pack and all my gear, I descended the last two and a half miles in forty five minutes. I arrived back at my jeep at three in the afternoon, twelve hours from when I had left it. It had been a pleasant day enjoying God’s creation, perhaps the biggest surprise being the solitude I experienced. In another month, I am sure this area will be buzzing with activity, but I was glad that was not the case on this spectacular spring day.