Preparation/Getting ThereAs the snow began to fall around Colorado, I had just finished a book called the White Spider by Heinrich Harrer. In this account about the struggle to ascend the North Face of the Eiger, each climber had as intense an inner struggle as the actual climb itself. This has created some sort of envy in me, wishing to be able to experience such a coming to enlightenment; finally resulting in the peaking of a great mountain face. I was anxious to be climbing in the mountains, in the snow, and on the ice. There just seemed to be a strong appeal to trudging up a slope blanketed in white. Of course, I knew my skill level was nowhere near the climbing legends that I always read about, so I searched for a class 3 to start my winter season. A climb that would test my endurance, but come nowhere close to my limit. My friend had told me of numerous 13ers that were in close proximity and near Quandray Peak, one of Colorado's 14ers. I had climbed the west ridge of Quandary just this summer, navigating on the ridge and over several false summits and chimneys before reaching my destination. It was one of my favorite climbs. Without much encouragement, I decided to climb Drift Peak, a 13,900 foot mountain, with my friend Jeff Fox. We both also decided this would be good training for our climb of Mt. Rainier in the summer of 2007.
We were both relatively new to winter mountaineering, although had gained some experience climbing couloirs on the Middle Teton in the summer. We knew that it was too late in the season to do couloir climbing in Colorado. These areas would now act as snow shoots and would be very dangerous to try to climb. So after careful study of a topo map and elevation profile of the mountain, we chose to ascend the ridge on the north-eastern side of the mountain.
This is really cool part of the ten-mile range, in the Mosquitoes, and I was excited to get going. I spent the night at my freind's house near Black Hawk, so that we could carbo load and leave in the morning, not having as long a drive from my home near Denver.
After packing essential gear, a few extra things, and extra weight to train for packing in heavy loads on Rainier we relaxed and slept. When all was said and done, each of our packs weighed about 35 pounds, not quite as much as what we would probably take to Rainier, but a significant amount of weight to trudge around with all the same.
Gold HillAfter eating a quick breakfast consisting of dry cereal and some Odwalla drinks, we took off and arrived at the trailhead next to Clinton Reservoir at around 8 a.m. We were the first people on the mountain, and no tracks could be seen anywhere. Consequently, we put on our snowshoes immediately to cope with the 9+ inches of fresh snow that the area had received only two days before.
We followed a faint path, but soon decided that it would be just as easy to make a bee-line to the top of Gold Hill. We trudged through the forest, finding the simplest and least energy draining route through the trees as possible. It was very quiet, and other than the rhythm of my breathing, all I could hear were Jeff's snowshoes crunching in the powder behind me. We took a few breaks to catch a quick breather, but mostly to try and gauge where we were. After around 30 minutes of climbing, the trees became sparser, indicating that we were close to tree line. The sun had just now begun to infiltrate the forest, sending beams of bright light to illuminate the snow; almost as if the sun were creating a path for us to follow.
We reached the top of the hill and could now see our destination, the beautiful Drift Peak. I had immediately wondered why the mountain was not called Mt. Drift, since the summits around it seemed to have sharper peaks than it. Not fully aware of where I was, I was dreaming of greater adventures, transposing the image of the mountains in front of me onto the greater mountain ranges of the world, such as the Himalaya and Andes.
Although tired, the view of the mountains gave me more strength and I continued digging an almost trough like path out of the fresh snow towards Villa Ridge. This part of the climb was more of a hike, consisting of gentle slopes that rose and fell before the mountain. It was still very taxing on energy though. We began to make good time, and were soon confronted with the initial steep part of the ridge. The ridge to the left dropped off onto a steeper slope, which was bound to be avalanche ready after the recent storm. We therefore stayed to the right of the ridge, still in our MSR snowshoes. Luckily for us, the MSR design has more of an aggressive metal like foot plate than other snowshoes, so they acted as mini-crampons aiding in our climb. It was apparent though, once we found loose rocks; we needed more precision to climb the slope and to avoid falling.
We carved out a seat, and put on our crampons and pulled out our ice axes. This is the stage of the climb that becomes fun, not only from a technical standpoint, but also because one gets to put on all of his gear and act as close a mountaineer as possible on a Colorado 13er.
Villa RidgeThe crampons were on; we had good grip and were able to navigate around the ever loosening rocks as the sun softened the snow matrix around them. After leading us to a dead end on the ridge, Jeff offered to lead for a while and I gladly accepted. This was hard for me because I always like to lead the climb. Jeff and I work well as a duo. I generally have more energy and gusto on the way up a climb, and thus always lead. I am quick and find the best route, although not always the easiest, up the mountain. Jeff on the other hand is more careful and always errs on the side of prudence, making him a great leader for the downclimb, which I tend to rush.
After Jeff got us back on track, we came to a high part in the ridge, where we took a break. The view was glorious, surrounded by mountains covered in every snow feature imaginable; mini seracs, cornices, flutings, etc. Of course these are much more toned down and smaller than what most people consider when they think of great pictures of 8000 meter peaks in their minds, but they were just as great to me.
We both knew it... we were tired and drained from carrying our heavy packs on the mountain. The trough cutting into the snow made the climbing difficult from the very start, taking us longer than we anticipated, even though we had made relatively good time. We would not peak today. For some reason, I was not disappointed or angered, which is the usual response from me when I know we cannot get to the top of a mountain. We were both satisfied deeply with just being where we were, enjoying the outdoors and the mere movements of the climb, the placement of one crampon in front of the other. We ditched our packs and decided to go as high as we could in an hour. No water, no food, just a camera and our ice axes.
We arrived at 12,700 feet when the hour was nearing its end. When we looked back down the ridge to where our packs laid, we realized how far we had gone in such a little time. Guess that with the removal of 35 lbs, we were able to speed up the slope. After thoroughly enjoying the view and basking in the sun on the small ledge that made the ridge, we decided to turn around.
DescentWe arrived at our packs, took a drink, and headed down. This was the part I dreaded the most. The downclimb. It is always much harder than I imagine it is and I am afraid I will slip and hurt myself. I believe reading somewhere that most accidents occur on the downclimb. I always hate downclimbing sections that I am barely confident enough to climb up! Thanks to Jeff taking his time, and acting as an example for how I should descend the ridge, I made it down no problems.
We traded our crampons for snowshoes, and hiked the remaining miles back to my 79 Chevy truck parked at the trailhead. We stopped several times on the way back to look at the mountains. Drift peak was not alone, Pacific, Atlantic, and Fletcher were near by and all connected together by a ridge. All were 13ers, and would provide difficult, (a.k.a fun) ascents. We spent the rest of the journey back to the truck talking about doing this climb again, over a two day period. First, camping on the spot of the ridge where we ditched our packs, making sure of course to anchor the tent good to snow stakes and our axes. Spending the night and then climbing the peaks already being at 12,000 feet.
We arrived at the truck around 4, took off our outter gear, put on regular shoes, and left the tranquility of the range behind us.
We knew we would be back, most likely sooner than later...