South Arapaho Winter Solo

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 40.02670°N / 105.649°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Feb 11, 2007
Activities Activities: Hiking, Mountaineering
Seasons Season: Winter

Trip Summary

Date: February 10 & 11, 2007

Partner: Solo

Distance: ~14 miles

Elevation Gain: ~5,000 feet

Time: 20 hours for full trip including sleep. 9 hours total of hiking.

The Approach

My destination is the Arapaho Peaks- South my main goal, and perhaps North Arapaho Peak obtained only after a technical traverse from South. My journey begins along side the road at the western limits of the uneventful town of Eldora at about 8,500 feet. It is 6:30pm and my goal for the night to walk the 4.5 miles to Buckingham campground, or somewhere nearby.

The walk begins. Snow packed, but firm and fast. Bright enough to use just ambient light, but I opt for the headlamp to blaze the fast trail. Wind- but it’s always windy here, it’s not too bad tonight. The walk is uneventful, except for a few creaky trees that get the mind going and the blood racing. Birds too become a surprise in this silence. A few postholes later and the trees begin to thin, the view opens- I will camp just below tree line at around 10,500 feet.


I posthole into the woods above Buckingham campground following the skier and snowshoe tracks northward. With each step I sink to my knee, or worse. But tree line is near and the wind-scoured rocks shall provide a much more efficient medium on which to travel- in the morning. Now to find the balance point- need to get as far as possible but I also need a good night’s sleep in the calm of the trees- perhaps even within a tree well itself. Stars would be nice to see. I need an opening, but without the winds. I pass a suitable spot and continue around the next bend where I am quickly deterred by a cold blast of wind. I retreat and begin digging my trench along side a log which provides a perfect wall for my windbreak.
Snow TrenchSnow Trench

After perhaps only 15 minutes or so, shoveling the sugar, my trench is finished. I attempt to even build a little snow pillow for comfort. This, I will later learn, will be a minor backfire in my otherwise luxurious bivouac trough. My lower body will extend under a tree for protection from the elements, but I’ll risk a little exposure of the upper body in order to view the stars.

I do not sleep perfect, but I am not bothered. A wonderful calm passes through me. Light dreaming is interrupted with the occasional toss and turn, or the waft of snow to the face- I wrap my bag in the security of the ground cloth and pass a beautiful night. Stars once immaculate fade as the sky is replaced by clouds. I’m expecting snow in the morning.

Slow to arise, my lack of ambition, combined with the lack of necessity for an alpine start turn my 5:00am alarm into a six-o-clock awakening. My boots pleasantly warm in my bag, my stove at my side; I am able to do nearly all of my preparation in my bag. I am a little cold, it is perhaps twenty degrees in my windless trench, but can’t complain- this will be the coldest I will be all day.

The Climb

I leave camp under headlamp just as the light of dawn begins to replace the darkness. A few moments of post-holing bring me to tree line. Nasty winds and snow, fresh or blowing I cannot say, make for limited visibility. I need to gain elevation as soon as possible in order to reach the easily passable wind-scoured slopes above. No trail today. It will be an ascending traverse to the north in order to reach the saddle between Old Baldy and South Arapaho. I have never before climbed a mountain that I cannot see.
Wind-stripped Slopes

Talus Heap

The ascent is fairly steep and somewhat slick; no need for crampons but my mountaineering axe comes in handy. The wind is relentless and snow pelts my face. Fortunately though, the gale is usually at my back. At times I effortlessly bound uphill as a heavy gust carries me toward the summit; this must be what it is like to walk on the moon. I stop only once, at around 12,000 feet, to melt some more snow for hot tea. It is here that I learn the limitations of my Jetboil stove. Huddled behind a lonely rock, I am eventually able to melt enough water to fill my Nalgene after about twenty minutes of spooning, re-lighting and cursing the stove.

As I continue toward the saddle between South Arapaho and Old Baldy, I gaze fruitlessly at the featureless moonscape in hopes to see the summit. I have never been here before so I rely on my compass to guide the way. The snowfields grow larger up here, and I worry that I will become disoriented. I reach a sign…but it says nothing. I reach a trail…but where does it go? It is here that I remember the map I own of Indian Peaks Wilderness that is sitting comfortably on my end table at home. Dumbass! My GPS would have come in handy here as well.

I follow the trail north until I reach a rock band that heads slightly east toward the summit… I think. I pause for a second to evaluate what I am doing. Do I know where I am? Can I find my way off this mountain? Is it smart to keep going? My gut tells me things are still okay and I keep going. I keep to the rock band as I rapidly gain altitude. Still no features ahead, but I know I can use this rock band to backtrack if need be. I must be close, but where am I? My gut starts to turn sour and I comprehend turning around- but suddenly I reach a distinct ridge, a false summit and a renewed sense of hope. I cannot see anything below, but I feel like the Arapaho Glacier must be just below.
South Arapaho Solo
South Arapaho SummitSummit

After a couple minutes I see a cairn. But is this the summit? After a brief moment of confusion I am calmed by the sight of the climbers log. I carefully pull out the sheets of paper and sign my name. I glance at the paper to see another Summitpost member was here recently, but I am to preoccupied just trying to hold onto the damn papers in the stiff wind, that I safely place the log back in the tube before reading the name of this fellow member.

I pause for a sip of tea in the howl of the summit wind. It hurts to drink- snow has frozen to my goatee making for an amusing, but equally painful crust on my face. After only a few minutes, I half-heartedly begin the traverse towards North Arapaho. Will I be able to make the traverse? I am quickly greeted by a stiff gust that carries me sideways to within a few feet of the drop toward the Arapaho Glacier a few hundred feet below. Hah, my ass! I promptly turn around and begin to retrace my steps to tree line. Not today.

The Descent

The descent was pleasant and pretty much uneventful, though I did become somewhat disoriented. Right as I was thinking to myself how proud I was for my route-finding skills and my inherent sense of direction, I paused to take a compass bearing, just to be sure. What? No, that’s not right! My compass must be broken… I set down my axe to ensure that it was not interfering…I had been heading east, not southwest. This can’t be right! It must be broken! Wait Casey, don’t be that guy… trust your compass. So, like a dog with its tail between its legs, I reluctantly followed the wisdom of my compass to southwest and ended up on the ridge directly above Buckingham campground. Relief.

After a pause for lunch at Buckingham I enjoyed the pleasant descent down Fourth of July road. Greeted by the hordes of weekend-warrior snowshoers, I eased back into the idea of civilized life. It was 2:00pm. The entire trip had taken less than a day, and I was reminded of how much can be done with just one day off.

Looking BackThe Lower Slopes of Old Baldy climbed to reach South Arapaho


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