Mount Lady Washington is easily overshadowed by its two loftier neighbors, Longs Peak and Mount Meeker, on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. From afar, she appears to be a mound of rocks in front of these other giants, and nothing more. But, for those who are willing to explore this uninteresting-looking 13,281-foot hill, they will find she is full of character. Mountaineering partner Joe Parvis and I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park early on this seasonal February morning, looking forward to seeing what Mount Lady Washington had to offer.
There had been some fresh snow dumped on the Front Range in the previous couple of days, so we had a long discussion about the pros and cons of carrying our snowshoes with us. We finally decided not to take our snowshoes, and for once this was the correct decision. There was some fresh snow, but the minimal powder was already broken by two sets of footprints, and the trail was hard-packed underneath as usual.
Joe and I were both well-familiar with the Longs Peak Trail, and we made good time tromping up the switchbacks toward timberline. We passed the two hikers who had broken the trail for us already. They had started very early in the morning and made it to Chasm Lake to preview conditions on Kiener’s. While they were there they said they saw some snow come down on Lamb’s Slide, so they did not stick around long.
At timberline, the familiar but always inspiring view of Mount Meeker, Longs Peak and Mount Lady Washington began to open up before us. In the opposite direction, Twin Sisters Peak jutted out of the otherwise flat landscape. We did begin to feel some wind here, so we put on our goggles and wind gear and continued forward. The sky was mostly clear, and the view was fantastic!
The original trail was completely snow-drifted at this point, and the two hikers before us had blazed their own trail up through the evergreens to reach Mills Moraine. We followed in their footsteps, post-holing only occasionally. As we reached the wind-blown moraine, we came onto an obvious cairn marking the actual Longs Peak Trail.
As we gained the trail, three other hikers caught up with us: a lone man who continued in the direction of Mount Lady Washington, and a father/son duo who was ready to turn around. They had been going to Chasm Lake, but the dad was feeling tired, so they had us take their picture and then turned back.
We started out making good time, making it to timberline in an hour and a half, but now we were lagging around and taking pictures, enjoying the view. The wind had not gotten any worse, except for some gusts here and there, but above the Ship’s Prow we could see quite a different story unfolding. Snow was blowing through the Loft at an incredible rate. The sun shining through it cast an amazing glow on the cloud of snow, which at times extended from Longs Peak to Mount Meeker.
All that being said, we did not begin our true ascent of Mount Lady Washington until noon, four hours after leaving the trailhead. Almost as soon as we started up the boulder-strewn slopes, however, we found another distraction. A couple bighorn sheep, one with a collar, appeared around the bend just above us. We tried to inch closer for a photograph, but they disappeared again. As we made it to the crest of the ridge, we saw them again, just below us. There were actually six of them, some male some female, and a couple of young ones. We stood there for several minutes taking pictures of them. If they saw us, they did not seem to mind. They simply stood around eating grass, with great views of the icy Chasm Lake below.
Bighorn Sheep Above Chasm Lake
Finally, Joe and I packed up the cameras and started making our way up the steepening east slopes of Mount Lady Washington. This is a deceiving “hill,” as the mound it appears to be is actually a 1,500 foot climb that gets fairly steep and full of boulders near the top. There was hardly any snow, because the slopes were so wind-swept. However, we were mostly shielded from the brunt of the wind as we hiked upward. Occasionally a mean gust of wind would make us hunker down and wait for it to pass, or a snow devil would blast through quickly, but that was about it.
Time seemed to go slow, and I really felt the altitude. It had been over a month since I had been above 6,000 feet, so this was understandable. Still, the dizziness and light-headedness was no fun. I just paced myself, stopping often to enjoy the views. Blowing snow continued pouring through the Loft, and we both took several more pictures of that.
Nearing the top, the boulders became a little more difficult to get around, and we had some fun scrambling our way to the crest. There, we found we were not on the true summit, but near it. We had crested the east ridge of the mountain, which is an easier but longer alternative to the route we had taken. The view opened up to reveal much of Rocky Mountain National Park, but at the same time we were blasted by an incredibly fierce wind.
Seeing that we were not yet at the summit, Joe and I decided to retreat behind the boulders and put on some heavier clothes before continuing upward. Instead of venturing out into the dangerous winds, we decided instead to work our way up behind the ridge-crest, staying shielded form the worst of the wind.
Arriving at the top about 15 minutes later, we could see there was just a 50-yard-wide plateau separating us from the true summit. That 50 yards of flat land made up the scariest part of our hike!
We stood there a moment, hesitating as the tremendous wind gusts hammered us. Then, we took off for the summit, alternating running and crawling to avoid being lifted off our feet or thrown to the ground by the wind gusts. We made it to the summit block and sat in a crevice against it, catching our breath. After a moment, I crawled first onto the summit block, keeping my entire body prostrate and braced against a small ledge in the rock. I could feel the wind trying to lift my body, so I never even got to my knees. Instead, I scooted myself out as far as I could, and reached my hand out to touch the highest point.
Glancing to the west, the incredible face of Longs Peak, the Diamond, loomed huge and indescribable. Snow was blowing in front of it from both sides, giving it an eerie feel. Still, I could do nothing but glance at it, before I had to crawl back into the crevice to catch my breath again. Meanwhile, three of my fingers were beginning to lose feeling. The air temperature was a warm 20 degrees, but the hurricane force winds were chilling me quickly.
Joe took his turn on the “summit crawl,” also admiring the views with just a glance, and then we decided to high-tail it out of there. We ran back to the ridge and descended behind some boulders to finally escape the wind. Though we would endure some gusts on the way back down the mountain, none of those would bother us after the winds we had just experienced.
About a quarter of the way back down the east slopes, I jammed the big toe of my right foot. The new La Sportiva boots I was trying for the first time had been great the whole way to the summit, but my toes were screaming at me for the remaining three-quarters of our descent. When we finally arrived back at the car, at six in the evening, I took off my boots to reveal a purple toenail.
There was one other car at the parking lot when we arrived. There was a young guy sitting in it, who told us he had been separated from his partner. They were free-climbing the Ship’s Prow, which we could see shrouded in blowing snow most of the day, and they had come to some icy terrain that this guy didn’t feel comfortable soloing. He told his partner to meet him at the small cabin near Chasm Lake, but after waiting for him two hours, the guy never showed. After that, this guy made a speedy descent to get to the trailhead, where we met him. As we left, he was calling emergency services to report his missing friend. We stayed until we were sure he got the call through, and after that there was nothing we could do. As a followup to this story, we never heard anything on the news, which means more than likely his friend just got held up for some reason, and made it out of the mountains safely.
Other than the elevation troubles and the toe pain, I had an enjoyable time on this hike. We got to see a herd of bighorn sheep up-close, we made the summit we were trying for, and we enjoyed an overall beautiful day in the mountains. The views of the snow blowing through the Loft, in front of the Diamond, the Ship’s Prow, and Mount Meeker, were also well worth the trip.
Thinking back on it, I realized I have only been to this area in the winter: Estes Cone in March 2004, Mount Meeker in January 2005, Longs Peak in March 2005, and now Mount Lady Washington in February 2006 (also my first February summit in Colorado). I would be willing to bet that there is no better time to visit, however, because of the huge tourist push up the Longs Peak Trail through the summer months. In any case, this is always an exciting place to be.
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world."
--Oscar Wilde on Absinthe