Good title, huh? I’ll get to that fun development in a minute.
The long road ahead
From my hotel in Denver, it was a fairly easy hour to the turn off from I-70 (exit 221). It was still a bit dark when I turned off at about 0630 or so.
I had a rental car, so the road to the trailhead really had me concerned. I had looked on SP and 14ers.com and all the beta said the road was not passable without a high clearance vehicle - they were right. There was a skid pan propped up on a tree showing the latest road victim. I had decided I would go as far as I felt comfortable and then park and walk the rest of the way...that turned out to be 1/4 mile or so till the first section of ruts!
It was still 3+ miles to the trailhead and it was all uphill! I locked everything up and decided to start walking and hope someone came along and offered a ride to the trailhead. I didn't have to wait long as I walked by a pickup with a camper on the back. The light was on and soon after I passed him, I heard him pulling up behind me. I did my best to emulate my puppy and hoped my pitiful situation would yield a ride.
After introductions, Bob and I had some good discussions on the way to the trailhead. He was 60+ years old and mentioned he had climbed 300 of Colorado's highest peaks and over 700 mountains in total. I asked about his most memorable climbs and he had some great stories that really inspired me.
We were joined at the trailhead by a couple of cars. I had to laugh as Bob just pulled in a bit crooked and just set the brakes. I guess when you're that old and have climbed that many mountains, you have the right to park wherever you want to!!
There was another gentlemen that started off about the same time I did. His name was Jack and it was his 50th birthday! He mentioned he had not been on a mountian in many years and wanted to see if he was still in shape. We started crossed the bridge together around 0730 or so. After signing in at the trail register, we were off in the crisp cool morning.
In The Beginning
The beginning part of this hike is really nice. There is a meadow that has some early elevation gain, then quickly flattens out. Jack had taken us out quickly and I was pacing myself a bit having learned from my previous experience that it is much better to go slowly, and not stop too often for rest. During one of our breaks, I made sure to put on sunscreen and drink plenty of water. I hadn’t had a chance to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen, so I had drunk many gallons of water the day before and was going to do my best not to dehydrate today.
The Dark Side
The meadow gave way to some elevation gain around a bit of a knoll. Since we were on the west side of the knoll, it was relatively dark and this was our first exposure to snow and ice. I hadn’t thought there would be snow and ice in September, but I was wrong! The snow was okay, but the ice was quite slick and there were no handholds. I was lucky that I had Vibram soles on my shoes. Jack had only tennis shoes and he was sliding all over the place. At one place, Jack slid down and almost went off the trail. You can see from the pictures, there’s not much to slow you down once you fall off of the trail.
The Real Climb
Jack on the way up
Once we got around the knoll, the sun had melted off most of the snow and ice. It was good hiking for a while. As we approached the mountain, it was obvious that the remainder of the climb would be on snow and ice. The trail to Torrey’s looked like it was a bit slushier and less icy, so we decided we would make it to the trail sign where they split and decide which way to go then.
At this point, the lack of oxygen was beginning to affect us both. Jack was taking quite a few breaks and I had popped some ibuprofen for my pounding headache. I had eaten a few snacks during our breaks and was drinking quite a bit, so I was hopeful I could make it.
The last ridge to the trail split was really icy and it took quite a while to make it up there. When we got to the sign, we looked at both trails and Jack expressed some concern on taking either. I thought that the trail to Grays was icier, but it had more switchbacks. I was hoping that the switchbacks would allow enough of a gradual ascent that the ice wouldn’t be a problem.
The ice slide
The next section took us up towards a rock tower. It was slow going, alternating between hiking in the softer snow on the shoulder and near the rocks that were sticking out to give a firm foothold. The rock tower was pretty majestic! The view back toward the valley was breath taking and that wasn’t good because I didn’t have any breath to spare!!
The rock tower
The next trail section was the longest switchback. We started off with a lot of slipping and sliding and were quickly passed by two gents. Both had trekking poles and one guy had crampons. I left both my poles and crampons back home as flying with them was not easy. The guy with crampons mentioned it was his 50th birthday as well. His friend had flown up from Australia to join him. They had done a few 14ers in the previous week and this was their last of the trip. I thought to myself that this guy must be dragging as being jet lagged and lack of O2 must be kicking his butt! He looked wore out, but was game to keep going.
When we reached the switchback, Jack had had enough. He mentioned he didn’t feel good about going on because of safety. I told him he should listen to his inner gut and turning back was probably a good idea. I felt good to go and was ready to push on. Jack did make it up to 14,000 ft and I thought this was pretty impressive for his first go at it – congrats Jack!
Summit pic What a view!
After two more switchbacks, the summit was in sight. I had made up some time on the two guys that had passed us and they gave me some much needed encouragement as I neared the top. The last few feet were extremely icy and I almost fell a couple of times before summiting around noon.
The view was well worth it! The weather was fantastic with almost no wind and crystal clear skies!! It was truly beautiful and I really enjoyed the view. Again, I felt a sense of accomplishment and was thrilled to have made it.
After the obligatory summit pics, all of us were deciding which way to go. I wasn’t fancying going back down the ice slide that I just came up, so we all decided to go down the saddle towards Torrey’s and go down the trail there.
I think this is the best way to go as we quickly lost elevation. In a matter of 20 minutes or so, we were down on the saddle between the two majestic peaks. As I went down the trail, there were many people going up. It was clear that this trail was slushier and provided better footing that the Gray’s trail. This made sense as it got more sun.
I had been feeling the effects of the altitude all day. I'm pretty sure I had a mild case of altitude sickness. This was a bit of an opportunity trip and I wasn't able to camp at altitude the previous nights. I'm pretty sure I was adequately hydrated.
My headache did not go away and I wasn’t feeling good even though I had descended close to 1,000 feet by now. I had to stop to catch my breath every few hundred feet and I felt very nauseated. My summit snacks were not sitting well…
After making it back around the dark side, I enjoyed the hike through the meadow even though I was still stopping every few hundred feet. I felt horrible.
Finally, I remember thinking to myself that I should just give in and let it all out – I always feel better after puking! After checking the trail both ways, I bent over and [I’ll spare you the details].
I was right and felt a thousand times better. I quickly made my way back to the trailhead and hitched a ride back to my waiting car. I enjoyed a good dinner that night before flying back the next day. It is always pretty cool to be sitting in the plane, looking out as the captain tells us we have just passed 10,000 ft and knowing that I had hiked higher than that!
Colorado at it's best!