We woke up at the normal time on Saturday, got our stuff together and hit the road at about 7:30. My wife and dog (Julie and Poudre respectively) as well as my little sister (Kara) were joining me on this trip. Kara needed to drop her car off at our parents house so we stopped by there on our way south from Fort Collins. After transferring Kara and her gear into our car, we continued on down through Colorado Springs and Pueblo to Walsenburg. In Walsenburg we stopped for a burger and then headed up to Gardener.
As we drove west toward Gardener the scenery became more and more spectacular. Once through Gardener we took the left turn onto CR69. The road cruised along the Huerfano River through little ranches as the valley gradually narrowed. I strained to catch a glimpse of Mount Lindsey, but it was hidden behind other mountains. As we progressed up the valley I was pretty sure I could make out California Peak before the road dipped down into the trees along the river. We cruised through the Huerfano State Wildlife Area. We passed a couple of what appeared to be guest ranches and then the road changed from a smooth dirt road to a much rougher, rockier road.
In my driving directions I had been warned that passenger cars should stop there. However, this was many miles from the trailhead and I didn't really want to hike it, and I knew my wife and sister wouldn't be thrilled with a long approach hike up a dusty dirt road. We've got a Saturn VUE which is more of a station wagon than an SUV, but it does have all-wheel-drive and a little bit better ground clearance than a normal passenger car so I decided to give it a try. The first few miles past the guest ranches was relatively easy and I probably would have done this with our other car, but then the road steepened and got a little rougher. If I'd had my other car I probably would have had to stop there. However I pushed on in the VUE as the road ascended through a mix of pine forest, aspen forests, and meadows.
After several miles of this we came to the crux of the drive. There was a stream running across the road and it had turned the road into a soggy mud bog for about fifteen feet. I knew we were still several miles away from the trailhead, so I decided to go for it. Hopefully if we got stuck somebody would come by shortly to pull us out. I got up a little speed and hit the bog. I believe there were some ruts in the mud bog and as I went into it I was on top of the ridges between the ruts. However, as I drove through it the car slid off the ridges and down into the ruts. As the driver, the feeling of sliding of the ridges was very scary and when we hit the bottoms of the ruts I either bottomed out the shocks or smacked the underside of the car on the ridges. However, just as things were looking bad the front tires grabbed dry, firm land and we drove up and onto the far side of the stream crossing. I got out of the car to see if we were leaking anything or if there was any other obvious damage. There was none so we drove on. The rest of the road was steep and rocky but didn't pose any major problems. I think I only scraped the bottom of the car on a rock once the rest of the drive.
We parked the car at the trailhead and unloaded our packs. This was Kara's first time out with her new pack so it took her a bit to get all the straps adjusted. Since this was going to be a relatively short and easy hike in, and only a one-nighter, my wife and I had decided on a new packing scheme. I loaded my pack up with all the shared gear and some of her stuff. She in turn was using my daypack instead of her normal internal frame pack and was carrying only her cloths and sleeping bag. The thinking was this would make things easier on her and tougher on me so that we'd hike closer to the same speed. Anwyho, once we were all loaded up we set off up the trail.
Right at the trailhead we were treated to a terrific view up the Huerfano River Valley. This part of the valley was rugged and rocky with several craggy peaks on our left. The highest of these peaks was the Iron Nipple, one of my goals for the next day. Mount Lindsey was tucked away behind the Iron Nipple and wouldn't be visible from down in the valley. We hike along the trail through the trees before we entered a broad grassy meadow and Blanca Peak (the fourth highest in Colorado) came into view at the head of the Huerfano River Valley. It was truly a spectacular scene.
We crossed the meadow and entered pine forest interspersed with meadow. The trail was virtually flat as it meandered beside the Huerfano River. It crossed several little tributary streams and then we came to a trail junction. The sign said take a right for Lily Lake. I knew we didn't want to go to Lily Lake so we took a left. The trail went ahead a couple hundred feet and then crossed the Huerfano River. On the other side of the river the trail paralleled the river a little ways and then began to climb toward Mount Lindsey.
After a couple hundred feet I realized this was not what we wanted to do. Instead we wanted to find a nice camping spot down by the river in the valley. So we bushwhacked our way back down to the river. We spied a trail on the other side of the river so we looked for a spot to cross. Crossing the river here was a little tricky. It was narrow and relatively deep. I wandered up stream a little bit and found a good spot for Poudre to wade across. Then Poudre and I backtracked down to where Julie and Kara were. I tossed my trekking poles across the stream and with their help Julie and Kara were able to make it across with only slightly wet boots. Julie and I were okay with our waterproof boots, but Kara’s boots weren’t much better than tennis shoes and she got her feet pretty wet. I keep telling her she needs to invest in better boots.
We wandered up the trail another couple hundred yards where it opened up into a nice clearing. Julie and Kara were content to pitch camp there so we dropped our packs. I was curious to see what was up the trail so I strolled up it a ways while the rest sat down for a break. Another couple hundred yards later I came to a much larger meadow. However it was a little boggy and the place where we'd stopped seemed like a better spot. I returned to Julie, Poudre, and Kara and we pitched our tents and got camp set up.
When we were finished it was only about 4:30 so we decided to explore the valley upstream. We hiked up past the large meadow I'd seen earlier and then along the river as Blanca Peak grew nearer and nearer. Near the head of the valley we found the ruins of an old mine. There was a bunch of machinery lying around and we tried to piece together what it all was. After some discussion we concluded that the big cylinder things we found must have been furnaces for creating steam. The large wheels we found must have been some sort of tram system used to transport material from mine shafts further up the valley. We set up off the valley in search of the mines.
We continued hiking up the valley until we popped out of the forest into a large meadow at the base of Blanca Peak. Julie commented on how close it looked. And although the summit did seem relatively close distance-wise, I assured her it was a long, long, way away effort-wise. We saw what looked like a couple of mine shafts further up the meadow, but it was starting to get late and some clouds seemed to be building so we decided to head back to camp. Julie and Kara decided to come back the next day to explore while I climbed Mount Lindsey.
We made our way back to camp and got sprinkled on a little but the storm we feared never materialized. We fixed dinner and hung out until about 9:00 when we decided to turn in. I set my alarm for 5:15 with the goal of hitting the trail at 5:30.
August 8, 2004
When my alarm went off I peeked outside the tent and it still looked pretty dark to me so I snoozed a couple of times before rolling out of bed at 5:45. By the time I got all my stuff together and hit the trail it was 6:00. I left Julie, Kara, and Poudre fast asleep.
Today was going to be the inaugural run of a new piece of equipment: two-way radios. I'd been pretty impressed how well they worked for my buddies on Kit Carson so I'd gone out and bought a pair. I bought some Midland GTX200 radios at Best Buy for $40. I left one with Julie and told her to call me when she woke up. I turned on the other one and put it in my pocket.
As I headed back down the Huerfano River toward the trail junction we'd seen the previous day I passed a sign pointing toward Lily Lake. However, this didn't look like the sign we'd seen the previous day so I continued on down the trail. Soon I came to the sign I recognized and re-crossed the river. Now I was back on familiar territory and headed up the trail we'd been on yesterday. The trail climbed very steeply out of the Huerfano River Valley along an unnamed stream. On the way up I noticed a mineshaft on the opposite side of the stream. I made a mental note to explore it on the way down.
After a long steep climb out of the valley I crested a small ridge. From this vantage point I had an excellent view of the Iron Nipple and Mount Lindsey. There was a small valley ahead of me and then a steep climb up to the Iron Nipple/Mount Lindsey saddle. I made my way across the valley and then started up toward the saddle. Ahead of me I could pick out a sizeable group of hikers and an even larger herd of bighorn sheep. As I ascended toward the saddle my path took me right through the heart of the Bighorn Sheep herd. They were a little jittery around me, especially the young ones, but for the most part they just watched me pass. I probably got within 20-30 feet of the nearest ones and I snapped a bunch of photos. As I made my way past the sheep I could pick out another hiker below me.
When I made it to the saddle it was 8:00 and I stopped to rest and grab a snack. I tried to call Julie on the two-way radio but got no response. After refueling I put on my pack and headed toward Lindsey. I had heard some really bad things about the standard route that goes up a nasty, scree gully on the north face. Instead my buddies from summitpost.org had been recommending the northwest ridge. This was solid class 2 and 3 scrambling with one short section of class 4. I decided to go with their advice and left the trail to gain the ridge proper. Once atop the ridge I stowed my trekking poles and put on my helmet. The helmet turned out to be pretty unnecessary on the ridge but I would strongly advise using one when attempting the standard route up the gully where loose rocks getting kicked down on you from other climbers is a huge danger.
The ridge was very solid and fun class 2 scrambling until I came upon the crux: a 60-foot section of fairly vertical class 4 scrambling. You can see this section from a long way away and from the saddle it looks very challenging. Up close it looked doable and I made my way up it. I stayed fairly near the ridge proper on the northern side of the ridge. There were some pretty tough sections, but I made it up unscathed. The climber I'd spied below me earlier had rapidly gained on me and we met up not far past the class 4 section of the ridge. He had watched my progress from below and when he got to the gully he decided that I'd chosen a much better route. He climbed out of the gully on some class 3 and 4 stuff and met me up on the ridge. His name was Billy Bob and he was a chiropractor from Colorado Springs working on his 35th fourteener.
We scrambled along together toward the summit of Mount Lindsey. Most of the views of Lindsey from the approach made it look like a nice pyramid shaped peak, but what you see during the approach is actually a false summit. From the false summit you have another couple hundred yards along a mostly flat ridge to the true summit on the east. As Billy Bob and I passed the false summit we also passed the group of hikers I'd seen ahead of me earlier. They were waiting on the slowest member of their party which was a young boy who couldn't have been much more than ten years old. Billy Bob set a stiff pace across the near-flat ridge and I struggled to keep up. We arrived on the summit of Mount Lindsey at 9:00, signed the log, had some snacks, and talked about Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingwood. With the spectacular view of these peaks they all but commanded conversation. Billy Bob had done both the Little Bear - Blanca Traverse, and the Blanca - Ellingwood Traverse. The former of these is supposed to be a fierce test of ones mountaineering skills. Another thing we noticed were the building clouds. As we had ascended the ridge a cloud had been forming right over the summit of Mount Lindsey. It had been steadily swelling over the past hour and Billy Bob predicted that it would continue to grow throughout the morning.
Before departing from the summit I tried to raise Julie on the radio again, but got no response. Billy Bob talked me into downclimbing the ridge back down to the saddle between Lindsey and the Iron Nipple. I was a little concerned about downclimbing the class-4 section but this turned out to be a non-issue as Billy Bob found a much easier way past the tough section only 20 or 30 feet down north face from the tougher stuff I’d ascended. We downclimbed this and then hugged the north side of the ridge until the trail was just a short ways away and we dropped down to it.
At the saddle Billy Bob and I said our goodbyes. He was going to head back to Colorado Springs and I was going to continue on to the Iron Nipple. With a name as cool as "Iron Nipple", I'd never forgive myself if I passed up this opportunity to add it to my climbing resume. The clouds were continuing to build so I hustled up the ascent of the Iron Nipple. This was relatively straightforward and I was on its summit at 10:30. I had another snack and then began to fumble around for the radio. This would be the best opportunity to make contact with Julie because this was the point on the hike where there was the minimum number of obstructions between base camp and me. I was a bit concerned that I hadn't heard from her yet - maybe purchasing the radios wasn't such a great idea. Surely she was awake by now? If they didn’t work today they probably wouldn’t be much good anywhere in the mountains. Just as I was about to get the radio out I heard her voice. It turns out that Julie and Kara had both slept in and had just gotten up. Julie told me that they planned on having some breakfast, filtering some water, and then heading back up to the old mine. I told her that I expected to be back down at base camp in two hours and then we signed off. I decided not to attempt Huerfano Peak (a centennial thirteener) only three quarters of mile away to the east. I wasn’t sure I had it in my legs and the increasing clouds looked worrisome. Instead I beat a hasty retreat down the Iron Nipple to the saddle.
Once again I was at the saddle between Lindsey and the Iron Nipple. Just below me was the group of hikers I’d passed near the summit of Lindsey with the young boy. Instead of descending the way I’d come up through a boulder field I found a scree slope and lost a couple of hundred feet very quickly with some scree skiing. This also allowed me to pass the majority of this slow-moving group of hikers. Once past these hikers I made quick progress down into the high valley. In the bottom of the valley I tried to raise Julie again on the radio. This would be the most severe test of the radios as there was a decent-sized ridge separating us at this point. When we had the radios set to high power (I believe this is two watts) she came in loud in and clear. When we had the radios set to low power (I believe this is one watt) she came in a little less clear with some static. I was very pleased with the radios and would recommend them to anyone. I suppose the one bad thing about the radios is that the clip to attach them to your belt or whatever isn’t that great and there is no easy way to attach a lanyard.
After I passed through the high valley I met up with the creek and began the steep descent back down into the Huerfano River Valley. On the way down I came upon the mineshaft I noticed on the way up. I crossed the creek and scrambled up to its opening. The shaft was about five feet tall and four feet wide. I took off my pack and got out my headlamp. I turned it on, placed it on my head, and made my way into the mineshaft. The headlamp didn’t seem to be doing anything and I couldn’t see a damn thing! But then I realized that I still had my sunglasses on so I took those off and I could see a little better. Duh. The mineshaft went into the mountain about thirty feet and then took a 90-degree left turn. I made my way carefully to this corner and then looked around the corner. The shaft went another twenty feet in this direction and then made a 90-degree right turn. I inched my way to this corner but about halfway there I began to get spooked. It was really dark, wet, and well . . . spooky. I didn’t have the courage to go any further, and not being able to see the exit was a bit disconcerting. I turned around and made my way out. If I’d had somebody else with me for company I’d probably had more courage to continue, but alone I didn’t.
I had a snack and then set off for the final push back to base camp. I arrived back at camp at 12:15. Julie, Kara, and Poudre were gone – exploring the mines farther up the valley. Initially I’d thought I would just drop my stuff and join them, but I was feeling pretty tired so I lay down in the tent and took a nap. It was pretty hot down in the valley and the tent was a little stifling. I opened up the door and the window to get a little airflow but that didn’t seem to help much. The clouds that been forming over Mount Lindsey hadn’t made it up to the Huerfano River Valley and wouldn’t – the clouds just hung over Mount Lindsey and we never heard any thunder or saw any lightning the rest of the day.
Julie, Kara, and Poudre came tromping back to camp a while later and we had some lunch of Ramen Noodles while we packed up camp. Having a hot lunch after the hike really hit the spot. Usually when backpacking I only have hot meals for dinner, but Ramen is so cheap, lightweight, and easy to make I’ll have to reconsider. When we were all packed up we headed back to the car. The hike out was easy and relatively quick. We were packed up and ready to begin the drive home by 4:00.
Getting stuck in the muddy stream crossing on the way down was on my mind and I was a little apprehensive about the drive out. The drive went well down to the stream and I didn’t even scrape the bottom of the car once. At the stream I paused for a moment to check it out. I was about to get out of the car and have a look-see when I noticed that there was a car behind me. There is nothing like a little bit of peer pressure to motive a quick decision. I gunned it and we made it across without incident. I didn’t even bottom out the shocks! I pulled over to let the car behind pass and then we continued on. We made it down to Gardener and looked for a place to buy a soda. However the only likely spot, a gas station/grocery store, was closed (I imagine being a Sunday evening had something to do with that). Instead we stopped at a truck stop in Walsenburg for Twinkies and Cokes.
On the way back up to Fort Collins we dropped Kara at my parents house and then had a snack in Denver. We made it home by 10:00 and took some much-needed showers and collapsed into bed. Putting away the gear could wait ‘til tomorrow.