On the morning of January 7, 2006, my friend, Nate, and I decided to tackle Sentinel Point on the west side of Pikes Peak. We figured the class 3 rating would make the climb a bit more interesting. Both of us had new packs we were eager to test. Although we did not get a particularly early start, when we arrived at the Midland tunnel trailhead a little after eight, we were the only car there. The weather forecast for the Springs was calling for a record high; however, the National Weather Service was predicting a wind chill as low as negative 10 above 11,000 feet. Just in case, I packed my ski jacket and pants (I didn't use either of them.)
Nate and I made fairly good time approaching the base of Sentinel Point. The "Northeast Ridge via Horsethief Park" approach is almost completely flat for the first mile and a half. There was not any fresh snow and the trail was covered in frozen, icy footprints. Once we began ascending through the trees however, the snow softened as we followed a well-packed path. After about an hour and a half we reached treeline. At this point we lost our footprint guide and the snow significantly deepened. Luckily, the snow was almost entirely moisture-free, due to its light, powdery-crystalline state. As we traveled through knee-deep snow, we felt the first warm rays of the morning sun.
The "Horsethief Park" route suggests following the creek drainage to the saddle. We found this advice helpful, as the frozen creek allowed for quick travel through an otherwise snow-blanketed boulder field. We later chose to descend through this boulder field, and although it was probably not the safest route, the deeper north-face snow was an absolute blast. The accent of the saddle was relatively easy; the wind-swept snow greatly hardened the snow (and probably increased its slickness.) Once we mounted the saddle, our goal was finally in sight: Sentinel Point.
The wind was strong and chilling as we moved westward toward the summit across a vast plain. (At this point I finally put on gloves.) The final summit accent was a little difficult due to the snow. The snow was almost hard enough to support our weight, so each step resulted in the breakage of small, crusty, slabs. I brought along a pair of ski poles, which greatly came in handy. Nate and I each used one to locate rocks and holes underneath the snow. This leg of the trip took surprising longer than we expected. Nevertheless, we climbed up the center of Sentinel's east face until we arrived at a notch on its ridge. At this point we began searching the ridge for the true summit.
Being beneath large boulders, it was impossible to locate the true summit. Our first guess proved to be incorrect; however, the higher vantage point directed us toward our destination. We scrambled around some large boulders and found ourselves in another notch. Fifteen to twenty foot walls flanked us right and left. However, in the middle of this notch, a five foot tall boulder was wedged into the base of the other two. We climbed this rock, and skirted north (our left). Shasam! We were at the top. The "Horsethief Park" route mentions bridging a 3-4 ft. gap with a thirty-foot drop beneath. By climbing the 5 ft. wedged boulder, we were able to avoid this drop.
The three mile hike (it seemed longer) was well worth it. The sun was bright and not a cloud rested in the sky. Such a clear day provided excellent views of distant ranges. We had 360 degrees of snow-capped peaks. From Sentinel Point's rocky summit, Pikes Peak, the Pikes Peak Highway, The Crags, and hundreds of distant peaks are easily seen. This climb is both entertaining and visually rewarding.
Nate had plans for the afternoon, so our summit time was brief. We made a hasty descent (through deep snow) and jogged once we were below treeline. Literally minutes before we had returned to the trailhead, we saw two people hiking upwards. We had a wonderful hike; the weather was gorgeous, the climb well worth it, and the trail was completely free of crowds.
On our return drive to Colo. Spgs., we noticed the JAMMED parking lots of Waldo Canyon and Red Rocks Open Space. The unseasonably warm January weather must have been drawing people outside, but not all the way to the watchtower.