Summit Lake to Mt. Evans Summit via the Northeast Face
It was the last day of our annual camping trip to visit U.S. national parks and Curtis
and I had accomplished our primary goals: Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
(both in Colorado). However, Curtis had made it clear from the outset that he also wanted to summit a 14er. He had smiled a little and said, “Any 14er will do, Dad, even a little one!”
The day before we hiked Green Mountain
at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, then we drove that afternoon through the Curecanti National Recreation Area up to Buena Vista. Our arrival at the KOA campground was wet, with a forecast for continued rain all night. :-( After setting up our tent we spent the rest of the evening playing pool in the KOA lounge, which had a pretty neat decorative theme for hikers and mountaineers. I guess that must come with the territory: Within 30 miles are a dozen or so Colorado 14ers!
Curtis and I had pored over Gerry Roach’s Colorado’s Fourteeners
trying to find a suitable mountain to summit. We were limited by time before (we’d only had a week to acclimate and I’d already struggled up High Dune
as a result of the altitude), by time after (Curtis had to get back home so he could move into his new high school, the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics, an in-residence public school), and by my heel (which had gotten especially sore during a hike a few days earlier. I’d later learn I have a heel spur). We figured we could give a half day to the climb and return. We therefore decided that Mt. Evans
would give us the best opportunity in the limited time.
The drive up was … interesting. Curtis is a “new” driver, having received his license in April. I’d pretty much let him sit behind the wheel the entire trip (except when doing homework for that new school. Yes, he had loads of homework during the summer!). As we were driving up the road there were plenty of dramatic views and photo ops … and steep drop-offs that had me pretty white-knuckled (I’m a terrible passenger). He remarked to me, “I’m surprised you’re letting me drive up this road, Dad!” And I told him, “Don’t expect to drive down. I’m not doing this twice!”
We planned to hike the Northeast Face I route
, a class 2 climb that Gerry describes as more outing than hiking. It starts at Summit Lake (12,830’), which is directly below Mt. Evans' northwest face. We knew from reading Gerry’s book that we had to hike the road to reach the northeast face; a climb up the northwest face was significantly more dangerous. A ranger encouraged us to take the “trail we’ve prepared around the summit ridge. You’ll bag Mt. Spalding, too.” It was early in the morning, but already dark clouds were gathering. We knew we had to finish by lunchtime and get headed back to Oklahoma. And we knew that the Northeast Face I gave us a quick bailout if the weather got foul in a hurry. So, we decided to stick with our original plan and struck off down the road (the highest road in North America, it allows summit access to virtually anyone).
The trail is easily found from the road. The summit is just beyond the saddle, top-center. It's roughly a 1500-foot altitude gain.
It wasn’t very long before we met someone who was coming off the mountain and he pointed out a trail from the road up through the tundra. A ranger at the visitor center had said to just pick out a place where we were comfortable with the slope and start heading up, but this was a pretty obvious footpath. The tundra on Mt. Evans is very delicate (stepping on the plants is an obvious no-no, and so is stepping on many of the rocks because of the lichens). I’d therefore encourage anyone choosing to hike this way to look for this footpath; it was easily found once we knew it existed. As we were departing the other hiker pointed up to a small saddle on the mountain and said, “Once you reach that saddle there, you’ll be right at the parking lot. There’s a short trail to the real summit. Have a good climb!”
We started up the mild slope. I knew Curtis wanted to go faster, so I told him to strike out for the top; I’d be up there in due time. I figured I’d be able to keep a pretty good eye on his progress – there were very few places he’d be out of sight until he reached that saddle, and then there’d be plenty of folks who’d driven to the top (far more than I anticipated!).
Initially the ascent is through a field of tundra.
Initially the terrain was a mix of tundra and rocks. But, as I climbed higher the tundra was replaced by talus and the trail became harder to follow. However, I kept the saddle in sight and within a few feet was usually able to find a cairn that brought me back to the trail. As I climbed the view became increasingly better. I wasn’t too high before I was able to see a couple lakes to the east: Beartrack Lakes, according to my topo. It was probably about then that I also noticed that the clouds were getting ever darker and lower.
I continued the climb, now noting that Curtis had reached the top. Hmm. At my current pace I would probably be 20-minutes or so behind him.
Crossing the talus field.
But I was okay with hiking and taking the frequent breathers I needed … oops, I mean photo ops! During the hike up I passed a dozen or so other hikers, all of them finishing up a loop of the mountain via the summit ridge. It looked like the descent would be a lot quicker than the ascent! And that was a source of concern: A few days earlier my heel had started acting up when hiking down a short, rocky trail from Zapata Falls. I figured it was the harder pressure of the footfalls while descending on uneven terrain that left me barely able to hobble. And I really wanted to avoid that. So I was weighing my options. Oh well, no need to decide that now.
One of the descending hikers pointed out some mountain goats. Wow, right up there next to that parking lot. And where had Curtis gotten off to? Oh, there he was, checking out the animals!
I continued my ascent and, upon reaching the top, I immediately noticed how many people there were! Probably 30-40 vehicles were up there, and people were everywhere. From the parking lot there was a very short, well-developed trail to the real summit.
Mark and Curtis at the summit of Mt. Evans. Summit Lake, where the hike started, can be seen below.
We walked up it and asked someone to take the requisite summit shot. Then Curtis and I discussed the descent. I told him I didn’t want to take the northeast face; I was worried about that heel. I asked him if he wanted to take it by himself, go get the truck, then drive back up while I hiked down the road. He could pick me up where he found me. He thought that was a great idea, and so in pretty short order we both struck out.
There was plenty of traffic on the road. But one advantage I had over them was I could stop almost anywhere and snap a picture. They had to wait for the occasional pullout. I proceeded down at a quick pace and, after about 30-minutes, the road had swung around to where I had a good view of the northeast face. Curtis was no where to be seen. I decided he must have reached the road and was probably driving up. I figured I'd hiked about three miles along the road already and, since I was at a pullout, I thought this would be the best place to be picked up. And, sure enough, within a minute or two he pulled up. With the truck I also had access to my SLR and a 10-mm lens, so I took an ultra-wide angle shot of the northeast face. And then it started to rain. I hopped into the driver’s seat as Curtis said, “Boy, that is one scary stretch of road from Summit Lake, Dad. I’m glad you’re driving it!”