Sunday morning arrives and the Colorado Front Range is socked in. Clouds hang low and a maddening, never-ending drizzle coats everything in a fine mist. There are hopes that in heading west of the Continental Divide, we can get above the cloud. But it's hard to escape the lingering doubt that we are heading into a day of damp, cold, cloudy, view-less misery on Colorado's 87th highest peak.
On the drive up I-70, we all hoped for that magical moment when we pop out of the Eisenhower Tunnel at 70 miles per hour into...SUNSHINE! Alas, even as we neared the tunnel, the clouds were breaking up and blue skies and sunshine were plentiful to the west. Perhaps things would go our way today, after all.
Atlantic Peak comes into view
Indeed, by the time we reached the Mayflower Gulch parking area off of CO 91, the sky was a deep morning blue with barely a misty cloud. The mountains, having received plenty of snow this May, were blanketed in a fresh several inches of powder fallen the night before. What a day this would be!
Atlantic Peak, Fletcher Peak and "Drift Peak."
We stomped off across thankfully consolidated snow, gently ascending Mayflower Gulch. Successive May snowstorms, capped off with fresh snowfall the previous night, left the entire drainage blanketed in smooth, soft, pillowy snow. The surrounding high peaks were likewise cloaked in fresh powder. The sight was stunning.
"Drift Peak" from Mayflower Gulch
As we started winding our way through the trees toward the Pacific Creek drainage, I remember thinking to myself: When the sun warms this snow, our return passage through these trees will be a nightmare. But I pushed the though from my mind in order to enjoy the beauty of the day before me.
Baby smooth snow in the Pacific Creek drainage
The wind was still and the sun was hot. I felt like a Grand Canyon pack mule pushing my way up the slopes in the heat. The heat, even as we broke above treeline toward 12,000 feet above sea level, was nearly overwhelming at times.
Pacific Peak looms over the Pacific Creek drainage
As we neared the ridge line, we could see a 4-pack of climbers ahead of us. Who is going to complain about pre-broken trail? Surely not I.
Ascending the scenic West Ridge
The higher we climbed, the more amazing the scenery became. The dramatic, notched pyramid of Pacific Peak looms over its namesake drainage. I recalled my summer 2010 climb of Pacific fondly (the Mohawk Lakes basin is delightful!) and not so fondly (what was I thinking ascending the north-east couloir in scree and ice conditions?!?!?)
The scenery never stops on the classic West Ridge of Atlantic Peak
I almost lost my footing several times while admiring the gnarly ridge connecting Fletcher Peak to Atlantic Peak. I know that in summer, out of view on the far side of Fletcher Peak from me, sits a heaven of hanging ponds, alpine bogs and wildflowers. How far away that drainage - and summer - feel from this vantage point.
The beautiful and rugged Atlantic-Fletcher Ridge
There is no question in my mind why the West Ridge of Atlantic Peak is a springtime classic. The ridge is narrow enough to be mildly exhilarating, but not so demanding that you cannot bask in the tremendous views. The ridge is steep enough to get your blood pumping, but not so steep as to cut into jovial conversation. The ridge is blessedly free of frustration-forming false summits. On a clear day, the vistas from the West Ridge of Atlantic Peak are alarmingly lovely.
The last rocky push to the summit of Atlantic Peak
The final push up the northern summit slopes were a bit of drudgery on the loose scree and powdery snow. Having spent over a week at low elevation backpacking a section of the Appalachian Trail, I was feeling the altitude on Atlantic Peak. I was winded and my muscles felt tired and hollow, and I appreciated instantly the extra effort low-land visitors put forth summer after summer visiting the summits in the Colorado high country.
At last, the summit of Atlantic Peak
Stepping off the last of the scree onto the blinding white, powder-smooth summit of Atlantic Peak took my breath away. This, I thought to myself, is why I do this. The silence at first was surprising as we all took in the scenery. Then the quiet was overtaken by the chirping cameras, rustling around in packs for lunch, and the relaxed, happy banter of climbers who, having reached their summit goal, know their job here is only half finished.
I took a photo at the summit of the three most senior members of our party. Between them, they had more than 200 birthdays! No retiring to the fairways for these silver alpine foxes!
Colorado Fourteener Quandary Peak from the summit of Atlantic Peak.
Looking closely, we could see a few folks enjoying this splendid day on the summit of Quandary Peak. I wondered to myself if those hikers, too, were enjoying this bright, sunny, warm day with the same wave of wonder as we were over on our summit. Sitting here under bluebird skies on the summit of one of Colorado's highest peaks, with post-card scenery all around me, I though myself one of the luckiest people on earth.
Hamming for the camera
After eating our fill and taking all requisite photos (including my Crazy Woman with Ax pose...) we left behind the bright white summit of Atlantic Peak began our descent into the Pacific Creek drainage.
Pacific east ridge and Red Mountain
It's hard to leave a summit this beautiful! All around us, the scenery just pops. From this vantage point, we admired the long and rugged east ridge of Pacific Peak, with Red Mountain as the backdrop. Many familiar peaks studded the horizon in every direction, like old friends.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our initial descent into the Pacific Creek drainage...
The snow on the ridge had softened considerably in the hot springtime sun. The snow gave way under the feet of one team member, who quickly arrested himself. This kept the team on its toes!
Parting views of Pacific Peak
We bid adieu to the grandest views of Pacific Peak as our feet took us lower and lower along the West Ridge.
Looking down the West Ridge
Surrounded by such great scenery on such a beautiful day, the descent seemed to go quickly. Small, wet slides (natural release) were noted further down the slopes.
Descending the snowy West Ridge
It wasn't long before we turned up to see the bulk of the West Ridge above us and marveled at the beauty we experienced on the higher reaches of the ridge.
Parting shot of the West Ridge of Atlantic Peak
We reached the gentler terrain of the lower reaches of the West Ridge and sat down for a short glissade into the Pacific Creek drainage.
Glissade into Pacific Creek Drainage
The snow in the Pacific Creek drainage had become downright slushy. Upon reaching the trees, our postholing fears came true. Mostly, the soft snow was an exhausting annoyance, though we did "lose" one member of our party momentarily up to his waist.
Spring clouds build over our outhike toward Hwy 91
Eventually, we found the packed "highway" of snowshoe tracks to carry us back to the trucks. At the parking lot, we laughed when team members read the stats: Less than 6 miles round trip and less than 3,000 of net vertical gain. Call it what you will: I call it "A lot of bang for the buck."
We returned back to the Front Range, still socked in with clouds. Despite constantly applying sunscreen, I got a pretty terrible sunburn. The woman at the store where I went to purchase Aloe Vera gel for my face seemed a bit confused by how I managed to get sunburned when the Front Range hadn't see the sun all day. But on the other side of the Eisenhower Tunnel, like magic, there's a deep snowpack and plenty of sunshine - and I brought home the sunburn to prove it.