Round-trip Distance: ~12 miles
Vertical Gain: ~2,800 feet
Brad's Mountaineering Homepage
It is funny that this morning’s four o’clock conversation was on the topic of why we do this, and why everyone else thinks we’re crazy. Why do we get up at the time some people are going to sleep to go out to a mountain with uncertainty of whether we will even make it to the top. Where we will have no view. Where we will be subjected to the wrath of Mother Nature while others are sleeping comfortably in bed, or waking up to go to their cozy cubicle. Where we waste precious gasoline to go hundreds of miles to visit places some humans may venture in the summertime, but not right now. No, that would be crazy.
And yet, thanks to SummitPost.org I have been able to seek out these crazies like me, and we have had some unforgettable times. Even this morning, at four o’clock, Joe Parvis, who I had never met, gave me a lift to Fairplay, where we met Stuart and John for the first time. Together, we were crazy enough to go climb Horseshoe Mountain.
There was some snow on the main roads this morning, so I was concerned about the accessibility of the Fourmile Creek Trailhead at Leavick. We found ourselves about a mile and a half short of the trailhead when the jeeps would go no further. The road was drifted over and there was a solid layer of ice underneath the snow. We parked and started walking at 7:40 AM.
It was windy as we got out of the car, and the mountains were mostly invisible thanks to a cloud of blowing snow. We were hoping the wind might let up as we ascended, but we would have no such luck.
John and then Joe took the lead with blazing our path up the old mining roads past Leavick and into the woods. There were some drifts, but mostly the walking was nice, all the way up onto the ridge in front of Peerless Mountain. Still, as we rounded the ridge and headed uphill, we caught only shadowed glimpses of the awesome glacial cirque of Horseshoe Mountain. We were indeed within the cloud of blowing snow, with high winds and hurricane force gusts. We all stopped to get a snack and put on as many extra layers as necessary, to stay warm.
Continuing uphill, we found it easy to avoid avalanche danger, with many areas being blown free of snow. However, it was difficult to breathe as we were moving directly into the wind all the way up these slopes.
At the Peerless Mines, below the pass, Stuart wisely decided he had had enough. The wind was powerful, and we all had Scott Patterson’s report of North Star Mountain on our minds. We did not care to repeat his frightening experience.
Though one of the powerful gusts near the mines knocked Joe to the ground, we never had to resort to crawling. Stuart said he would return to the jeeps and wait for us, while the other three of us decided to see if the wind was any worse on the saddle.
A thick layer of rime ice clung to everything that was devoid of snow. The wind was howling, but it was no stronger than it had been below. The three of us had a conversation at the saddle, determining what we would do from there. With the wind, we had to stand right in each other’s faces and yell to be heard. Still, we did not completely understand each other. Joe and John started north to the summit of Peerless Mountain, and I started south to test the winds on the north ridge of Horseshoe Mountain.
From their description, Peerless Mountain would turn out to be a much more precarious summit to attain. The wind was ferocious, and John had to break out his ice axe to crawl the final feet to the snow-capped highest point. I have been on this unranked peak in the summertime, when it is just a boring pile of rocks. As with many mountains, however, it takes on a whole new character in the winter.
The cloud of snow cleared for one moment (and it was only a moment) of the day, allowing me to see the summit of Horseshoe Mountain ahead, and the two climbers making their way to the top of Peerless Mountain, behind me. My fingers were too cold to get out my camera and take a picture, so I just kept moving. Meanwhile, far down in the valley, Stuart was standing, waiting with his camera, and was able to capture the glacial cirque and summit of Horseshoe Mountain, beneath deceptive blue skies. We looked at the picture on his digital camera later, and joked that looked nothing like today. It was nice to get to see the cirque, though.
I had worn my snowshoes the whole way up the mountain, so I found a gradual slope of hardened snow on the west slopes leading up from the saddle. This served dual purposes of easy walking, and a ticket out of the wind. While the wind was still blowing here, it was as if I had found a pocket of terrain where the bulk of the high winds were passing me by.
As fast as the cloud of blowing snow had disappeared, it covered over us again. I decided to continue toward the summit since the wind was so much calmer, but I could no longer see Joe or John. They had continued back across the saddle and started to follow me up Horseshoe Mountain, trying to catch up, but I would not see them behind me until I was near the summit.
Up higher, the trail was filled in with snow and evident, so I walked straight up it to the summit plateau. The winds were a little stronger here, but not nearly as bad as they had been at the mines. I continued across humongous snow drifts and walked directly to the summit cairn.
The area around the 13,898-foot summit was completely bare, except for a thick layer of rime ice on everything. I had arrived at 12:30, and Joe and John showed up five minutes later. The wind was not bad at first, but then it seemed to strengthen as we sat at the summit. The cap on the summit register had been busted in half, exposing all the paper within to the elements. Everything inside was wet, but intact. The log was down to its last page anyway, so we decided to take the summit register with us and turn it in to the Colorado Mountain Club. By the way, no one had signed it since October.
We sat there a full half hour, by far the longest we had stopped anywhere today, then we started downhill. At the saddle, the wind was as bad as it had been any time today. Joe and John huddled there to put their snowshoes back on for the descent. While they had taken them off to climb Horseshoe, I had just taken mine off partway down from the summit. I would be out-of-sync with the snowshoes throughout the day, which would prove to be annoying and funny at the same time.
We decided, per my recommendation, to stick to the slopes of the side of the ridge on the way down, so we did not get turned too far to the south in the blowing snow. It seemed like a good idea, but it ended up making things more difficult.
On the ascent, we had rounded the ridge and hiked up through the valley, but now the blowing snow made it impossible to see very far at all. We had to stay close together so we would not get off-track. With out limited visibility, it was hard to see what lay ahead, and this is how we ran into some questionable slopes. They seemed pretty solid, but with all the snow and wind in the mountains lately, we could not be too safe. Twice we had to quickly cross such a slope, and we made it across without incident.
The next problem with our visibility is that we completely missed seeing where we had crossed the slope earlier. Somehow we stayed on the ridge too far, until we were looking down a dangerous steep and loose slope to the bottom. We knew this was not right, and we had no choice but to go around it. So, we went north and downhill, off the slopes and into the thick evergreen forest.
Now we had to make a tough decision: keep going downhill in hopes of finding our trail, or cut through the deep snow to the north until we found the road. We all thought we were still above our trail, but as I looked at the topographical map something did not seem right. It seemed as if we had already passed our trail, and we were now below it in the forests.
So, we decided to go with the painstaking task of slogging our way through the woods. Powdery snow, deeper than could be measured with a yardstick, tortured our weary minds and legs as we made our way to the north. We were not sure how far ahead the mining road would be, but we knew we would cross paths with it eventually.
The distance was actually not very far, but with the snow and uncertainty it felt like a lot longer. We came to the road exactly at the four-wheel drive trailhead, where we had first entered the woods this morning. Then, we had another two miles or so of walking the mining road back to the jeeps.
Back at our starting point at 4:30, we found faithful Stuart waiting for us with drinks and cookies! We all stood there, looking at Joe’s icicle beard and recounting what had happened. And of course, someone noted, it wasn’t even officially winter yet for another eight hours! We weren’t sure of the exact temperatures up high, but with an air temperature of ten or fifteen degrees and hurricane force wind gusts, well, it sure felt like winter.
I used to try to answer the critics. I do it for the experience, the comradery, the scenery, the challenge, the fresh air. I do it to push myself, see what I’m capable of, enjoy the great outdoors, get away from it all. I’m a mountain addict. I’m a caveman at heart. I just love the feeling of pure exhaustion when I fall into my comfortable bed the next night.
Yes, I used to try to answer the critics, and all those answers are true. But sometimes, I’ve found, you just need to stop trying to explain yourself and admit to the obvious: Yes, I am crazy. So, sue me.
© 2006, Brad Snider