3,300 feet elevation gain
One year ago I wouldn’t have characterized 10 miles, 3,000 feet of elevation gain and three peaks a “relaxing day in the mountains,” nor would I have considered a two hour drive a “short trip.” However, today I was looking for just that, and I found it northwest of the town of Alma, Colorado, along the Continental Divide.
The eastern horizon was just beginning to show a light tint as I parked my jeep at the west side of the Montgomery Reservoir. I had hoped to use my snowshoes today, but there was no snow on the road, so I figured it best to leave them behind. I did not want to drive any further either, unsure of how rough the Wheeler Trail/Road might be, and how much snow I might encounter along the way.
Just up the hill I came to the Magnolia Mine, consisting of several bluish-green mining buildings with waterfalls behind them. I didn’t stick around long, as the weather forecast was not too hopeful, and I could already see clouds building in the west. Fortunately the storm did not hit until after my departure from the mountains, and it would turn out to be a great, mostly sunny day for a hike!
I could have driven up to the mine, but beyond that the dirt road was as rough as the South Colony Lakes Road in the Sangres. I walked back this road for more than two and a half miles, through a beautiful valley. As the sun began to rise, it cast a colorful glow on the clouds and mountains ahead of me, including the three mountains I was to climb: Clinton, McNamee and Traver Peaks.
Even in the valley I came across very little snow, but large puddles of ice covered the road at places. Eventually I came to a split in the road. The left fork went downhill and continued into the valley. The right fork went steeply uphill and looked even uglier for vehicle travel. If you are still driving at this point, Gerry Roach recommends in his book Colorado’s Thirteeners
, that you park here before continuing up the road to the right.
Half a mile up the hill, I came to the pristine Wheeler Lake. On the lake’s west bank I saw an old rusted automobile, from the mining era I presume.
From here on up the mountainside there was a lot of snow. Because of some deep drifts elsewhere, I decided my best path of travel would be directly uphill along a rock outcropping behind this old car. At times the snow was a blessing, as it allowed the most comfortable footing. A lot of the time, however, the snow consisted of deceptively deep drifts amongst talus, perfect ankle-twisters, which prompted some careful travel.
Uphill I went through basin after basin, as if I was climbing a huge staircase, with 300 or so footsteps to each stair. Traver Peak materialized to my left (south), McNamee Peak straight in front of me, but the peak I wanted to climb, Clinton, was as of yet unclear. I knew the slopes to my right (north) led up to Clinton, but I could not figure out the summit's exact location.
Finally I made it to the uppermost basin and turned right to begin climbing Clinton’s slopes, still unclear of where the summit stood. The snow on these slopes provided great footing, and I tried to stay in the snow to avoid the frozen scree, thus I inadvertently angled left (west) up the mountainside. Nearing the top of the ridge, I noticed what appeared to be a huge wall of snow above me, so I changed direction to come to the top of the ridge a couple hundreds of yards to the east. From here I was happy to see I was just below the summit, which I had been on a straight course for before being redirected by the wall of snow.
I reached the summit of Clinton Peak at exactly 1000, three hours and ten minutes from when I had begun hiking. There was a tall yellow metal pole stuck in a pile of rocks, but I could find no register in all the snow. The wind was harsh, so I put my heavy coat/hood on and sat for a few minutes to enjoy the view.
The longer I sat, the more unsure I was that I was on the actual summit. The ridge-top to my east looked like it was about the same height as where I sat, so finally I decided I would leave my pack and climb over to that ridge. When I got there, I realized I had been right the first time: this eastern ‘summit’ was just an extension of Clinton’s east ridge. I did get a great view of Quandary Peak from there, however.
Back on the real 13,857-foot Continental Divide summit of Clinton Peak, I stayed only a few minutes before heading off to the next summit. It was a 25 minute hike from Clinton Peak to the 13,780-foot summit of the unranked McNamee Peak. The snow on this ridge was a hazard to comfortable walking, and I was glad to sit down and rest again on McNamee’s humble summit.
Looking forward, I could already see the ridge up to Traver Peak was not so laid-back. I had arrived at McNamee’s summit at 1100. Ten minutes later I was walking down to the next saddle. That easy walk was followed by some semi-steep scrambling up Traver’s west ridge. The drifts I mentioned earlier were worst here, and so was the wind.
Traver Peak’s summit, at 13,352 feet, although unranked, provides tremendous views of Mounts Lincoln, Cameron, and Democrat, as well as a multitude of other peaks to the south, just as Clinton had provided great views to the north. I arrived here at 1135 and sat for 25 minutes. There I found the only register of the day and signed it, the first to do so in 23 days! Also on the summit is a small wooden cross with a tiny plaque on it that reads: TRAVER PEAK; EL. 13,846; PLAQUE PRESENTED BY HAROLD TRAVER; TONY PORTER.
At noon, having taken my share of pictures and inhaled my share of wind, I started down Traver Peak’s gentler east ridge. At one point I tried a small glissade, which wasn’t very effective in the soft snow. Otherwise I picked my way down the talus and snowdrifts, all the way back into the Wheeler Lake Basin.
Attempting to cut my return trip a little shorter, I tried to aim more for the lake’s south side this time. Doing so, I ended up at some ice-and-snow covered cliffs. However, I was able to find some natural passages in between the steeper cliffs, and, with some steep switch-backing in the snow, I made my way back down to the Wheeler Trail/Road, just south of Wheeler Lake.
From there I went out the same way I had come in, via almost three miles of rough dirt road to my jeep. The sun was shining brightly as I downed the last of my water and headed to Fairplay for lunch. An hour later the mountains would be hidden by falling snow.
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