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Route: Quandary Trail, East Ridge, 3,300ft elevation gain
Time elapsed: ~6 3/4 hrs, with frequent breaks
Weather: Sunny, moderate winds (15-20mph), temps: 43F start, 29F summit, 53F end
Conditions: patchy shallow snow with packed (and icy) trail in trees, patchy snow with deeper areas and some crust above treeline
Photos: for additional (non-SP) photos showing conditions, click here.
When my brother and I were young, my mom used to tell us - "No wrestling on the couch. It's too nice to be inside... out, out, out." I never remember resisting, and my brother and I would race outside and through the backyard to "The Dump", an undeveloped square of land in the middle of our subdivision where they had scraped all the extra fill dirt and downed trees from the original construction. The Dump had tall (for a kid) ridges of earth, blackberry thickets, abandoned culvert pipes, tree forts... We'd always return home hours later, wiped out and worn down, often to find my mom now done her housework, resting and reading on the couch. Smart lady, my ma.
So I learned the lesson viscerally, early on in life. Going stir-crazy? Get out.
At work in Michigan (where I still spend much of my time), that means jump up every hour or so and hike around the office park. In Colorado (when I work remotely from the apartment my fiancee and I share in Westminster), the pull is deeper and more persistent. I can just glimpse some of the Front Range peaks between the other buildings. That's one helluva a "Dump" to have in my backyard.
Going stir-crazy? Get out.
I touched down at DIA Friday night, already feeling the itch. It had been gray and blustery in Michigan for the preceeding weeks, and the office-park drainage-pond was looking less and less like a high country lake (did the decaying algae and cattails give it away?), the railroad tracks and embankment less and less like a glacial moraine. A trip up to Clark Peak in the Medicine Bow on Sunday (Oct 30) was great, but we limited our hike based on weather and health (head cold - partner, bad ankle - me). It was cold, blustery, wet. If it hadn't been for the moose tracks in the snow, the ridges looming out of the mist, and the rush of plunge-stepping down in knee-deep powder... hell, I might've been in Michigan.
The next day I logged on at 615am. East coast hours make for a harsh wake up call --- alpine starts suck when the only predawn glow you see is the screen booting up. At lunchtime I was busy messing around in the summitpost site; the weather forecast for mid-week looked incredible, and I was stir-crazy already. (Damn that western view we lucked into.) The cats were fighting on the couch, tufts of hair flying. No outside option for them, and so I left them happily trying to shred each other. I got out the vacuum and sympathized with my mother.
Back in the summitpost pages I searched for a nice midweek objective -- one with enough snow to give a taste of winter, but also modest enough to relax and finish early. Playing hooky from work is allowed, even advisable (think of the long-term rise in productivity); but from your fiancee, well, not so much. The summitpost site had plenty of great advice, and recent message threads indicated some nice fourteener climbs accessible from I-70. It looked like Quandary Peak might be the most manageable. (Recent discussion from IdahoKid and skorpeo indicated there'd be snow, but not impassable). Comments back to my query about conditions confirmed that Quandary fit the criteria - trailhead access with my 2WD, modest round trip, nice views, fine in snow.
The query also flushed another stir-crazy SP'er from the undergrowth of the urban corridor: member climbhighnow, a student at CU. We planned to meet up for the climb on Wednesday (which looked like the best weather day), as long as I could get off from work. I worked late Monday night trying to clean out my to-do list and emailed the boss asking if I could have Wednesday off - if all my short-term projects were delivered beforehand. He agreed and late Tuesday evening I emailed the last big item and logged off. So my hooky-playing turned out to be the relatively weak and responsible kind (hooky 'with permission', even if I didn't say exactly why I needed the time off). Brendan had us covered, though, providing a paradigmatic experience -- no way he was going to wake up for that 8am Spanish class, but a 530am departure for Quandary was no problem.
We discussed what gear to take, agreeing that we would forego axes and such. (Easy for me, as I don't own one yet, and didn't want that type of climb anyway.) SP discussions online suggested conditions should be fine, with most of the snow blown off up high, but the possibility of deeper snow and postholing below treeline. We toyed with the idea of renting shoeshoes, but in the end decided to trust to recent warm weather, luck, and mutual agreement that we'd slog without complaining if we had guessed wrong.
I packed everything the night before and was up at 430am, stumbling through morning preparations on a few hours sleep. I picked up Brendan outside his apartment at about 530am, and we headed up Clear Creek Canyon. The dawn light rose as we went up I-70, and we grinned at the snow on the ridges and at the blue sky. In Frisco we ate some greasy fast-food and then headed south to the trailhead.
The dirt roads off rt 9 had some spotty snow and ice coverage, but the main trailhead (the one with the big new signs) was easy to reach with my Honda. There was only one other car there, a white mini-van. We hopped out, checked our gear, shouldered the packs and set out.
Snow looked spotty and shallow on the road, but I wore gaitors, thinking it might be deeper as we ascended. I soon discovered I didn't need them -- the trail was packed down and icy, with many bare areas. Going was quick up the frozen ground, except for occasional slips on icy sections. (We set off at 805am, with 43 F at the TH.)
The sun was brilliant, and as we looked back to the east the snow on Red Mountain and Hoosier Ridge was almost blinding. As we began to leave the trees we stopped more frequently to gaze south, across the valley to the rugged north side of North Star Mountain.
We exited the trees at around 900am, the temparature 45 F, the ground still hard frozen. On these lower open slopes the snow was almost completely melted off, except for some deeper drift areas, and we followed the well-maintained trail up the ridge. I'd discarded my gaitors below treeline -- with the clear trail and little snow they were just decoration.
Looking up Quandary's ridge and also past Wheeler Mountain to Clinton Peak, we noticed snow streaming eastward off the peaks. The wind was stronger above treeline (maybe 15-20 mph) but the blowing snow seemed to indicate even more vigorous winds higher, and we mused about conditions, even as we enjoyed the view of the snow swirling in the sun.
We reached the flat area (pt 13,146) in the ridge at about 1010am. The wind was steady at about 15-20 mph with some stronger gusts. Occasionally it caught us off balance, but with trekking poles it provided no difficulty. Above 12,500 we had moved through mixed rock and snow areas. In some areas the snow was deeply drifted, and despite a firm crust I frequently broke through (205lbs w/pack). The snow remained preferable to the icy patches, however, and we sought out the snow to kick small steps for firmer footing. The temperature had dropped to 39 F, and with the wind I noticed my hands getting cold quickly when I stopped to fiddle with the camera.
Once we'd gained pt 13,146 we could see up the final slope, almost all the way to the summit. The snow was blowing steadily above, coming off in large swirls. We noticed two other climbers high on the ridge, but they seemed to be moving slowly. We wondered if the high winds above were hampering their progress.
It was great fun to climb the final ridge. We followed roughly in previous footsteps, melted out and blown over, and kicked shallow steps to move around icy areas. Most of our movement was on snow, which had built up along the ridge line. Much loose rock was exposed, but we tended to avoid this, as the rock demanded more effort than the snow. We stopped again to admire North Star Mountain -- now we could see the entire expanse of the ridge and beyond to Mt. Lincoln.
About halfway up the final ridge we met the other two climbers, coming down. They had ascended to within a few hundred feet of the top, but decided to turn around because the winds and blowing snow on the upper sections looked a bit fierce. The older man (who accompanied a younger) had climbed Quandary before, and remarked that he was happy 'just to get out on the mountain' [we agreed], and didn't feel any great need to fight the winds. At this point in the ridge (between 13,300 and 13,800) the winds were very light, much less than at 13,146, but the two promised the gusts returned up high. They were both using ice axes as canes --- it seemed effective but uncomfortable, and as we watched them head down we were glad of our longer poles.
As we continued to ascend we were happy to find that the winds remained relatively light, but on the final stretch to the summit the wind-carved snow provided ample evidence of higher winds earlier. We reached the top at almost exactly 1200pm in brilliant sun, light winds (5-15 mph) and colder temps (29 F) than we'd had below.
The views were incredible. We peered down along the west ridge, attempting to pick out the route. The ridge was very rough, and the beta we'd read on summitpost suggested it was easy to lose the route. We thought we could see our way about 200 meters, but even in that distance there were obscured areas which could have lead to cliffed-out areas. We resolved to return another day with more time and try that route. Some tracks were just visible in the snow-covered sections, and it seems as if someone had been on the route (at least this upper section) since the October snow storm.
We relaxed for awhile on the summit, snapping photos and eating snacks. We tried to identify the various peaks we could see on the horizon, resolving to check the topozone site once we got down.
We started down. We moved much more rapidly than on the ascent, but the section between the summit and pt 13,146 went a bit slowly, as I went gingerly on my weak ankle. Brendan waded down throught the deeper snow, and I followed suit where possible. Both of us had put our gaitors back on, and these were useful now, as we often broke through to our knees, and Brendan found one small area where he sunk almost to his waist.
Back down to pt 13,146 at 130pm, we found the winds were stronger here than on the summit (maybe 15 mph with some gusts higher), but overall the wind was much less than earlier in the day. The temperature had risen dramatically, and here (only about 1000 ft below the summit) the thermometer read 53 F.
We continued down the ridge in softer snow and on the rocks. Near treeline we found we had remained too far north on the ridge, and had to cut south, to find the trail. The snow was melting out rapidly, and seemed much less than in the morning hours.
As we descended into the trees the temperature remained high, the wind diminished further, and the previously frozen trail became slick with mud. We slid our way downward quickly now (we were later than planned, as we'd relaxed on the ascent and at the summit). At 245pm we reached the trailhead --- we kicked the mud off our boots, jumped in the car, and headed down towards Breckenridge and I-70.
The sun had been fierce and hot coming out, and I had a mild headache. Driving down Clear Creek Canyon felt more of a slog than the ridgeline had been, and I fought to keep my mind on the hike, ignoring the creeping thoughts of schedules and committments. I'd be down soon enough, I figured, and it seemed good to savor the thoughts of snow and wind.
The next morning I woke to find I'd sunburned my cheeks, through my beard. I'd worn sunscreen but applied it lightly in those sections. Well, I thought, as I logged in for the day's work, at least I'm working remotely, and there's no one to question this odd pattern burn. I wondered how Brendan would fare in his 8am Spanish class with racoon eyes burned in around his sunglasses. I figured he'd probably grin inwardly at any suspicious glances.
I scratched at my face where the burn was developing into a mild itch, and looked west toward the mountains, emerging from the darkened sky as the light came up.