Particiipants:cftbq, trishapajean, Jim
Distance: ~7 mi. RT
Vertical: ~3,400 ft.
“I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky”
The words are almost universally familiar. What is perhaps less well known is that these words are a reference to viewing the annual Perseid meteor shower from the dark skies of a site high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I had wanted to duplicate this experience for myself for many years, but one circumstance or another (the phase of the moon, rainy weather, expenses, or inability to schedule around the vicissitudes of life) ruled it out, one August after another.
With both of us putting renewed energy into trying to finish off our fourteeners as quickly as possible, however, I thought the year might finally have come. The moon couldn’t be behaving better: The new moon in August would come on the exact date of the shower’s peak, the 12th of August. The weather forecast was dry and clear. And the 12th was a Sunday, so it was reasonable to think of hiking up on Saturday night.
All we needed to do was select a mountain. It needs to be fairly easy, with no route finding difficulties, to facilitate climbing in the dark. A short route would be good too, as well as proximity to the Front Range to make a short drive to the trailhead. Finally, a route on the east side, so that we’d be coming down in the morning sunshine, would be ideal. The obvious choice was Quandary. It would be new peak for trishapajean, and I didn’t mind the repeat, since my real goal was the meteor shower.
Reality did intervene a little, though, and Sunday obligations forced us to substitute Friday night/Saturday morning for Saturday/Sunday. Still OK.
Starting off in our usual late fashion, we picked up the third member of our party, Jim, on our way out of Colorado Springs at about 10:30 Friday night. We tried for 10, but just couldn’t get everything together quite that fast. Jim is an experienced runner and climber, who has done ABC, but he had never done a night climb, so he was as psyched as I was for this new take on an old mountain.
As we made our way over Wilkerson Pass and across South Park, we could see, even from the car, a sprinkling of Perseids in the moonless sky. With minimal traffic, we made it up over Hoosier Pass and down to the Summit County 850 turn-off in just about the two-and-a-half hours I had expected. We were able to hit the trail at about 1:00 am
Horton Hears a Hiker
Immediately upon getting out of the car, we encountered the famous Horton, the Quandary dog. Horton is very quiet and quite friendly. With no one else around at that hour, we weren’t surprised that he took off up the trail with us. Later on, we began to be surprised at how consistently he stuck with us.
Somehow mistaking the road for the trail, we quickly made our first mistake. Instead of taking the well-worn and well-signed standard trail, we went north on the road to the second of three trailheads, adding some unnecessary distance to our route. We also added a little route finding difficulty, as the maze of old mining roads is a bit more confusing on this route.
Nevertheless, we made decent progress and re-joined the main route below timberline.
Horton was still with us, mostly running ahead, and often my headlamp picked up just the twin dots of his eyes many yards above me. As everyone who has been there knows, the well-worn trail is easy to see and to follow, but I was a bit surprised by how much more difficult the flat light of the headlamps made staying on-route. We were never in any danger of really getting lost, but the details were actually harder to see, and we wandered off the ends of small switchbacks here and there.
Whenever we stopped briefly, whether to adjust clothing or simply to rest, I turned off my headlamp and paid as much attention as I could to the dark, dark sky overhead. Most of these breaks were rewarded with a meteor or two. We also saw numerous meteors just by happenstance while hiking. How I wish we hadn’t had to keep our attention mostly on the ground in front of us; we would have seen so many more!
After we started up the steep, upper portion of the ridge, three things happened in fairly rapid succession. First, we saw two headlamps coming up the trail below us. Up until this time, we had been alone on the mountain, and it looked like we would be the first group to summit that day. The two young men wearing those headlamps did, however, pass us a few minutes later, while we were stopped to rest. Well, I was resting; this climb was inexplicably wearing on me, much to my chagrin.
Second, I turned around to look out to the east. I saw that, contrary to my hopes, the first light of dawn had crept into the sky, and we were still short of the summit. The disappointment of this was somewhat mitigated by the sight of the very thin crescent moon--barely 24 hours from being new--which hung just barely above the distant horizon. I wish I could have captured that sight on film. But I knew from experience that capturing the delicate shades of azure, yellow, and orange I was seeing, and the dim Earthlight on most of the moon, would require a very long exposure, long enough to be totally impossible without a tripod. So I just let it register as firmly as I could on my senses, to be recalled fondly later. Due to the low horizon, it was definitely one of the slimmest crescent moons I have ever seen.
Thirdly, when I turned back around to begin climbing again, I realized that I didn’t need to turn my headlamp back on. Actual sunrise was probably still most of an hour away, but even the faint sunlight refracting over the horizon was lighting up the east-facing rocks of Quandary better--qualitatively--than the headlamp had.
Watching Horton cavorting up ahead, I pressed on, hoping, at least, to make the summit without any more stops, and before the sun actually rose.
Sunrise: A First
That secondary goal was met. The four of us finally made it up the last slope, and out onto the long, thin, and nearly flat summit area. A quick look behind confirmed that sunrise was still at least several minutes off. I couldn’t read my watch, with its failing LCD face, but when I got the GPS up and running, its clock showed a time of 6:55 MDT, which knew to be 13 or 14 minutes before sunrise.
This was the end of an extended quest for me. Twice before I had set out for peaks in the dead of night, but had never managed to make the summit by sunrise. I was very happy finally to be able to see the sun come up from the actual summit of a fourteener.
A little breeze had come up, though, and this, plus the fact that we were no longer expending energy by climbing, made putting on more insulation priority number one. Trisha and I had packed sleeping bags although, through a misunderstanding of the plan for the hike, Jim hadn’t. I immediately pulled mine out and began crawling into it, propped up against the inside of one of the three stone windbreaks which grace this summit.
I also took my camera off the belt of my pack, and pulled it into the bag with me, since I knew from experience that, if the batteries were cold, it might not function properly. After a few minutes, as I began to warm up, I reached out and took the stove out of my pack and set it up. Something warm to drink was the next priority, for all of us. Horton was still energetically running around, but he did settle down briefly when Trisha used her sleeping bag for a lap blanket, and he tucked himself in between the two of us for some temporary warmth.
Having not brought a sleeping bag, Jim decided to keep himself warm by going for a little run along the ridge west of the summit.
Going Down: Solitude Ends
After just over an hour on the summit—a luxury we’ve rarely enjoyed—we packed up, signed the register, and prepared to head down. It was so much easier to see the trail in the morning light.
Only half an hour or so off the summit, we began to encounter the first of the day’s climbers on a more “normal” schedule, coming up as we were going down. Still Horton stayed right with us, looking especially protective of Trisha.
For all our slowness on the way up, we had no trouble maintaining a good pace going down. Somewhere around 13,000 feet, we got so hot that we had to remove some layers. In fact, in one fell swoop, we changed completely from “winter” type dress (basically wearing everything we’d brought) to light summer clothes. It was glorious. The only hitch was that, since I had started out wearing long pants and sleeves, I had to try to stuff more clothing back into my pack than it had contained to begin with. I ended up strapping the last couple of items to the outside. With every passing minute, it seemed, the number of people coming up continued to increase.
It was about this time that we saw the only mountain goats of the day.
Back below timberline, we tried to follow the same route we had taken up. Despite our best efforts, however, we took a different turn somewhere low down, and finally ended up on the bottom portion of the standard trail--the one we had missed starting out. And when we got back to the trailhead, we found, of course, cars parked all up and down the road in great numbers.
Horton seemed sad to see us go.
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