Christy and I had been planning a trip to Yellowstone since last fall. As summer arrived though, I found myself with more free time than I'd expected. We decided to expand the trip. We headed out a week and a half early, so we'd have time to backpack in Colorado and visit friends in Boulder. We'd then spend 2 weeks in Yellowstone, with the option of further extending the trip with a week in Grand Teton National Park.
Since we'd be seeing a good bit of the country, we decided to make our vacation a celebration of America. This year we avoided the cost and hassle of air travel by driving. What better way to celebrate being American than by burning large quantities of oil driving most of the way across the country? We also vowed to consume large amounts of fast food and watch a lot of television. As it turned out, we only had McFood twice, and Taco Johns once. Not Taco Bell, Taco Johns. This was much better. For one thing, they used real meat, from real cows. They also used real cheese, also from real cows. We were very busy for most of the trip, so we watched hardly any television. However, we did sort of visit the "set" of a long-running, popular comedy program. More on that later. Finally, we didn't really burn that much oil. My Corolla got well over 30 miles per gallon, despite being packed to the roof and driven at 80 mph through most of the trip. Oh well, so much for our celebration of being American. To compensate, maybe we'd declare war on somebody or relocate a few Indians along the way.
THE BIG COUNTRY
We left Charlotte in a downpour. This wasn't unusual, as it had been raining almost non-stop for months. This particular deluge was the remnants of a tropical storm. Weather maps indicated that we'd be driving right through the heart of the storm somewhere around Asheville. We'd already gotten off to a late start, so we could only hope that the storm wouldn't hold us up.
We made it through the Smokies without incident. By the time we reached Knoxville the skies were beginning to clear. We escaped Knox Vegas without getting caught up in any of their infamous traffic jams. By the time we reached the far side of town, I was starting to believe that we'd have smooth sailing the whole way. Traffic was pleasant, and the sun came out. Little did we know that we'd be praying for just a little of Charlotte's rain in only a couple of weeks.
We ran into a bit of traffic in Nashville but it was nothing dramatic. Then we reached the highlight of Tennessee - the end. A sign welcomed us to Kentucky. Finally, progress! Kentucky went fast. The Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area looked interesting, but we weren't stopping. We drove on through McCracken County, and the town of Paducah looked cute. Then we were passing our first real milestone - a long bridge over the Ohio River.
We drove on through southern Illinois. This part of Illinois is wooded, hilly, and generally much nicer than areas farther to the north. After a bit of McDinner, we were ready to venture into St. Louis. It was 8pm, so I was pretty certain that rush hour traffic would be cleared out. The bridge over the Mississippi was even more dramatic than the one over the Ohio. We got a nice view of the arch, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I expected nothing much more than a cheesy tourist attraction, but it was actually quite impressive. We still weren't in stopping mode, but Christy did get a couple of nice photos out the window of the car.
The rest of St. Louis was a dump. Traffic was bad, and the roads were worse. Those that weren't under construction should've been. We passed miles of abandoned factories. Why would anyone live here? At one point we saw a billboard declaring that Jesus Was Lord Over St. Louis. That's great, but you'd think the big guy could do something about the roads.
We were almost out of town when our rapid progress came to a halt. Road construction had created a traffic snafu, and we got to sit on the highway for awhile. We finally got passed it and out of town, but the scenery didn't get any better. I've always said that there's a place for everything. Apparently, Missouri is the place for billboards. For the next 3 hours, we passed a billboard every 50 yards. On both sides of the road. It was nearly enough to give me attention deficient disorder. My favorite billboard advertised Jack Schmidt Chevrolet. If you don't buy a Chevy here, you don't know Jack Schmidt! Actually, the billboard didn't say that, but I like my version better.
My expectations for Missouri were low, but I was still disappointed. It's an ugly state. Things did improve a bit when we reached Kansas City. Here was a city that looked interesting. It certainly appeared to be cleaner than St. Louis, and more lively than anywhere else we'd passed through. The Royal's baseball stadium is right off the highway, and it's quite a sight. Although it was nearly midnight, all of the lights were on, which gave us a nice view.
The roads in Kansas City were still a problem though. At one moment we were heading into the city on I-70. The next thing I knew, the interstate disappeared and we were sitting at a stoplight in the middle of downtown. How did that happen? At first we drove around looking for a way to get back on the highway. That turned out to be impossible, as I-70 had ceased to exist. We did drive parallel to another interstate for a couple of miles, before getting on and heading for Oklahoma. This wasn't much of an improvement, so we got off, with the idea of heading back into town and relocating I-70. No re-entry. We saw a bit more of downtown before finding our way back onto I-70. Eastbound. So now we were on the right highway, going the wrong direction. Finally we exited and got back on westbound. We were now more or less a couple of miles east of where the interstate had disappeared in the first place. The map indicated an alternative highway that allegedly reconnected with I-70 on the far side of the city. Although I was mildly curious about the disappearance of the interstate, I didn't want to drive circles around Kansas City again. We took the alternate road, which carried us into Kansas. At some point I-70 reappeared, and we followed it towards Topeka.
We continued on the Kansas Turnpike, which turned out to be the only toll road of the trip. We reached Lawrence, Kansas shortly after midnight and stopped at a KOA. In most respects, it was a nice campground. We pitched our tent in a grassy field and enjoyed the best bathrooms I've ever seen camping. However, getting to sleep was difficult. This particular KOA was strategically located next to both the turnpike and the busiest railroad in the country. It was so noisy, I thought we'd somehow accidentally pitched our tent in the middle of Grand Central Station.
This leads me to the math portion of this trip report.
Question: If a freight train leaves Kansas City every 10 minutes heading for Denver at 35 miles per hour, and a freight train leaves Denver every 12 minutes heading for Kansas City at 30 miles per hour, and your tent is pitched next to the tracks somewhere in between, how many hours of sleep are you likely to get?
Answer: Not many. I can sleep through pretty much anything, and I struggled. Christy wakes up more easily. We ended up lying in the tent until we were sweating from the heat. Then we had to have showers to wake us up. We had done well the previous day, going 16 hours. However, our late start on Thursday largely negated our previous day's progress. It was after 9AM when we left the KOA and headed for Colorado.
SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW
It was hot in Kansas. Brutally hot. Well over 100 degrees hot. At times, I saw a mirage of snow-covered mountains on the horizon. Are we in Colorado yet? No. Aside from the heat, the worst part of driving across Kansas was the sense that you weren't going anywhere. It's not that Kansas is flat. Actually, eastern and western Kansas are fairly hilly. It wasn't that the scenery was that bad. It's just that Kansas is that BIG. We'd make two inches on the map between rest stops.
We'd had a brief shower, along with a lovely rainbow, the evening before in Missouri. Today though, it was nothing but hot and hazy. We might have gone delirious from the heat and boredom if we hadn't found ways to amuse ourselves. Surprisingly, this wasn't hard to do. First, we passed signs promising tourist information on a particular radio station every 50 miles or so. Our favorite game was trying to guess what the message would say. We could have tuned in, but it was more fun to guess. Plus, I was terrified that I'd tune in and hear "only 400 more miles to Colorado" repeated over and over again.
That's not to imply that Kansas doesn't have tourist attractions. We were well-informed, by series of billboards, about an opportunity to see the world's largest 5 legged prairie dog, or something like that. We didn't stop. We passed Bob Dole's hometown. We didn't stop. We passed a car from the Kansas Department of Forestry. Hello! What was that? Does Kansas really need a Department of Forestry? If I were a Kansas taxpayer, I'd want an explanation. I'm not saying that Kansas doesn't have any trees, but I am saying that the Kansas Department of Forestry better consist of only one employee, who spends her days in her government car visiting each tree individually.
The highlight of Kansas was a billboard we passed advertising a Steak Buffet. The billboard itself wasn't that amusing really, but the herd of oblivious cattle grazing underneath it was. The only thing that would've made that scene more hysterical is if it'd been a Chick-Fil-A billboard.
We finally reached the Colorado state line late that afternoon. Dramatically, the scenery changed not at all. The first two hours of driving in Colorado looked exactly like Kansas. We stopped at a rest area. Temperatures had plummeted into the upper 90's. I couldn't find urinals anywhere in the men's room. Later, Christy informed me that they'd been hidden in the women's room. I guess they do things a little different in Colorado. Maybe a really smart janitor had switched the signs on the restroom doors, so he wouldn't have to clean them.
The scenery hadn't changed much, but we'd been going gradually uphill for hours. Finally, we reached the outskirts of Denver and spotted the Rocky Mountains. They were mostly hidden in afternoon clouds, but it didn't matter to us. What a relief! Dorothy, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.
Our jubilation ended quickly, as we arrived in Denver right at 5pm and just in time for afternoon rush hour. We sat in a fairly impressive traffic jam before traffic opened up again on the road to Boulder. We headed for our friend's house, and it was great to see Brian and Jill and their 5 year-old daughter for the first time in a couple of years. They'd also had a new addition to the family, a baby girl, since our last visit. They welcomed us with some great food and beer, and we spent the rest of the evening relaxing and catching up. Our tour of middle America was over, and it was time to get on with the fun stuff.
4TH OF JULY
We had an ambitious vacation planned. First we'd backpack in Colorado's Collegiate Peaks Wilderness for 6 days. During that time, we hoped to climb four 14,000 foot peaks as well as three high 13ers. Then we'd head for Yellowstone, where we intended to backpack 70 miles in 8 days. Then, if we decided to stay, we'd backpack for another 5 days in the Tetons. It was time to start training.
Friday's training regiment consisted of hanging out on the back porch under the giant Cottonwood, gazing at the glaciers on the Indian Peaks, and drinking frozen margaritas. Actually, we had gotten up at 9AM and gone for a run in a nearby park. It had already been blazing hot. But the afternoon was dedicated largely to relaxing and watching Brian and Jill's wiener dogs try to make more wiener dogs. I won't attempt to describe that, but it was funny. Ok, picture two wiener dogs?.well, let's just say they ended up back to back. They looked like some sort of wiener dog pretzel. I don't know how that happened, but I don't think that's the way it's supposed to work. Aside from that entertainment, we cooled off with frozen margaritas. After all, what's the 4th of July about if it isn't drinking and playing with explosives? We didn't have any explosives to play with, but we planned to watch some. After we each consumed a pound of steak for dinner (another key part of our training regiment) we headed into Boulder. Our destination was a hill that I do remember the name of, but can't begin to spell. From it, we'd get a bird's eye view of all of the fireworks displays in the region.
We eventually found a parking spot and began the half-mile walk up the hill. Christy and I were both gasping for breath before we were out of sight of the car. We were still adjusting to the altitude, but I could only hope that we'd get acclimated by Sunday. Brian led us to a nice grassy spot on the hill, just below the sheer cliffs of the Flatirons. From it, we could look down on Folsom Field, which would be the source of Boulder's fireworks. The real highlights came from elsewhere though. As it got dark, bursts of color began to decorate the horizon in every direction. At its peak, we could see maybe fifteen different displays. This was fun, but difficult to watch, as it was hard to guess where the next explosion would come from. Finally Boulder's fireworks started, front and center. The hometown display was very brief and a little disappointing. However, the bonus displays we saw more than made up for it. It was an Independence Day I'll never forget.
OH MY GOD, YOU KILLED KENNY
We slept in on Saturday, and didn't do a whole lot once we got up. Well, we pigged out on donuts (part of your nutritious breakfast) and hung out. Finally, it was time to go. We planned to start backpacking on Sunday, but we wanted to head into the mountains a day early to help us adjust to the altitude.
We bid Brian, Jill, and family farewell and drove around the west side of Denver. We then headed up highway 285 towards Kenosha Pass. This probably isn't the fastest way to the Collegiate Peaks, but it would take us through new territory. Just before the pass, we reached a turnoff for a picnic area. We headed that way, and the road led to a parking area and bathrooms. The road continued beyond, and a sign said that free, disbursed camping was available. That was what I was looking for, so we drove that way. We passed several occupied campsites before we reached a great site with a view of Pikes Peak in the distance. It had everything I look for in a campsite - shade, a flat place for the tent, and a nice view. Bathrooms were nearby, and we'd brought plenty of water. All of that, and it was free. It sure beats paying $15 to be squeezed into a little site in a crowded campground.
We set up camp and went for a short hike. We walked back to the parking area and found the Colorado Trail. The Colorado Trail crosses most of the state, running from Durango, in the southwest corner, all the way to Denver. We decided to hike a couple of miles of it to stretch our legs.
Initially we walked through the parking area, where we viewed the remains of an old railroad that used to cross Kenosha Pass. Beyond was a nice view of snow-covered mountains. We followed the trail up into a charming Aspen forest filled with Columbine. The trail then wandered in and out of woods and meadows, before reaching a clearing. From it, we could look down on the vast expanse of South Park. From our vantage point, South Park appeared to be a single giant meadow, extending for miles in every direction. Bordering the meadows in the distance were ranges of high peaks.
It was well into the evening when we headed back to camp. It was getting chilly at 10,000 feet so we enjoyed a pleasant campfire along with a jambalaya dinner. Homemade ice cream, courtesy of Jill, helped cool our mouths off afterwards. We went to bed shortly after dark, but neither of us slept well. I woke on several occasions, gasping for breath. We'd be hiking to almost 12,000 feet the next day, so I could only hope that my body would be ready for it.
We got up early that morning and drove through South Park. The valley looked much as it had appeared from above. It was a vast expanse of ranch land surrounded by snowy mountains. At one point, we passed a pair of Pronghorn Antelope grazing along the side of the road. We didn't see anything that looked like it had inspired the cartoon. We did pass near South Park's only town, Fairplay. We didn't drive through it though. Perhaps Fairplay is the town that the cartoon is based on.
We drove on to Buena Vista. As we approached town, the massive snow-covered heights of the Collegiate Peaks reared up at us from across the valley. My pulse quickened and my mouth got dry. Were we really going to climb up there?
COLLEGIATE PEAKS WILDERNESS BACKPACKING TRIP
Most of Colorado received abundant snow last summer. The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, west of Buena Vista, traditionally melts out sooner than most of the mountain ranges in Colorado. Since we planned our trip for early July, we selected this area. This part of Colorado contains many high mountains, including an unusual concentration of 14ers (peaks above 14,000 feet). Our goal for the trip was to climb several of these peaks.
One of the biggest challenges in the area is to make a loop trip, as few of the trails there connect with each other. Our plan was to start at the Frenchman's Creek trailhead, which is off the map. We'd hike up a 4 wheel drive road to the wilderness boundary and the Frenchman's Creek Trail. Our route joins the map in the lower right corner. From there, we'd hike north on the Colorado Trail to camp at Pine Creek. On the second day, we'd backpack north on the Colorado Trail to Mount Oxford's east ridge. We'd follow the ridge, without the benefit of a trail, west over Waverly Mountain to the summit of Mount Oxford (14,153'). We'd then continue west to Mount Belford (14,192') before descending southwest to Elkhead Pass. We'd then continue south through Missouri Basin to camp. On the third day, we'd dayhike up Missouri Mountain (14,067'), Iowa Peak (13,831'), and Emerald Peak (13,904'). On the 4th day, we'd recover and perhaps take an easy hike southwest to Silver King Lake. On day 5 we'd relocate, backpacking down Pine Creek, and continuing on the South Pine Creek trail to an unnamed pass east of Mount Harvard. If time and energy allowed, we'd attempt Harvard by the east ridge. Then, we'd descend into the basin east of Mount Harvard and Mount Columbia to camp. On the final day, we'd hike back down Frenchman's Creek to the car. It was an ambitious plan, but one that we thought we were ready for.
CHRISTY AND HER SHERPA
We reached the parking area late on Sunday morning. The road had been rough, but we made it to the lower parking area in one piece. We shouldered our packs, which was perhaps a bit easier for Christy than it was for me. Due to the extreme difficulty of the hike, we had cut our gear down to the absolute minimum. We brought only one sleeping bag, along with a fleece attachment that makes it (barely) big enough for two. We minimized clothing, kept the food simple, and left the alcohol behind. We'd have to rely entirely on advil for pain relief. I carried most of the gear that we did bring. I brought the tent, both food bags, the stove and pots, and fuel. Christy's pack consisted of the sleeping bag and her clothes. After all, I had done a lot more hiking than Christy in the spring, and we believed that keeping her pack weight down would ensure the success of the trip. Christy took to referring to me as her sherpa.
The first two miles of the trip led up a rocky 4-wheel drive road. I didn't think there was any such thing as an ugly hike in Colorado, but this was. The road led through a partially burned forest of scraggly pine. The trees provided no shade from the noonday sun, and the heat was brutal. And of course, it was uphill the whole way. We slogged along for an hour, swatting at horseflies and wiping away sweat the entire time.
We reached the 4-wheel drive parking area at the wilderness boundary. The hike improved immediately. Beyond the gate, the rocky road narrowed to a pleasant trail, which led through a shady forest full of wildflowers. Soon we were hiking alongside a pleasant stream, and we didn't go far before we stopped for lunch.
I was completely out of water. Somehow, I'd consumed 3 quarts of water in the first 2 1/2 miles. I'm sure that must be some kind of record. In fact, Christy and I shared a quart of lemonade at lunch, so that ups my total to 3 1/2 quarts. I didn't let up much after that. I killed most of another 3-quart camelback before we stopped for water again that afternoon. By the time we reached camp, I'd drunk over 7 quarts! That might be almost normal in the desert, but it seemed strange in the Rockies. It was still hot though, and we were adjusting to the altitude.
After lunch we crossed Frenchman's Creek on a wobbly log. Beyond, we climbed a long, steady hill that seemed to go on forever. I was almost certain that we'd missed the Colorado trail when we finally reached the signed junction. We followed the Colorado trail north, crossing Frenchman's Creek on a slightly more stable log. Another gradual uphill followed, until we topped out at tree line. To the east we had a fine view of the Buffalo Peaks towering over the Arkansas River valley. In the other direction, dark clouds were building.
This was my biggest concern of the trip. We'd be spending a lot of time above tree line, exposed to the elements. The biggest danger in the Rockies in the summer is afternoon thunderstorms. Today though, we'd only be above tree line for 2 brief stretches. We hurried across the meadow, as a few raindrops fell on us. We relaxed when we reached the relative safety of the woods. By the time we climbed to tree line again, the clouds had scattered without anything more than a few drops of rain.
Christy was struggling. She'd had trouble adjusting to altitude in the past, and it seemed that this trip would be no different. She had a mild headache, and she was nauseous. Both are symptoms of altitude sickness. I thought that she would be ok where we were, but would she be ready to climb to 14,000 feet the next day?
Our next venture above tree line gave us a great view across Pine Creek Canyon to Mount Oxford. We took the opportunity to scout our approach to the mountain the next day. My first impression was that it was high and rugged. My second impression was that it was high and rugged. Then, I noticed that there was still a lot of snow up there. Upon further examination though, it looked like the top of the ridge was clear. It looked passable, but I knew we'd be in for a long, tough climb.
We started descending into Pine Creek Canyon. Ahead, Christy had stopped at an obvious but unmarked junction. The map didn't indicate any other trails, but I did notice Rainbow Lake just to the west. Christy rested while I scouted the trail in that direction.
The path led to the lake, as I'd expected. It was a lovely tarn, tucked under a series of high peaks east of Mount Harvard. From shore, there was a stunning view over to Mount Oxford. It was the kind of place you just have to camp at. There was no one around. My doubts about the wisdom of attempting Oxford the next day resurfaced. I didn't think Christy was ready for it. Perhaps she needed an extra day to acclimatize.
I returned to the junction and told Christy what I'd found. She suggested that we camp there and take an extra day to adjust to the altitude. Great minds think alike, even when deprived of oxygen. We returned to the lake and pitched our tent in a grove of spruce trees. We spent the evening down by the lakeshore though, relaxing and enjoying the view. Christy made her wonderful pita pizzas, which we supplemented with fresh salad.
Later we acquired some neighbors. The first was a Colorado Trail thru-hiker. Then 3 girls arrived. The mosquitoes were terrible, and they came by to see if we had any extra bug spray. We didn't, as we'd brought only a small bottle for six days. I felt bad for them, as they only had a citronella candle. They didn't even have a tent, only a tarp. I shuddered at the thought. Luckily for them, it got cold enough that night to disburse the bugs.
CHANGES IN ALTITUDES, CHANGES IN ATITUDES
Our neighbors were gone when we finally rolled out of the tent the next morning. Due to our change in plans, we weren't in any hurry. We had a relaxing breakfast by the lake and took our time packing. It was late morning before we were motivated to relocate. We continued north on the Colorado Trail and descended into Pine Creek Canyon. Across from us was a sheer wall on the opposite side of the canyon. Beyond, the snow-covered peaks of the Mosquito Range were visible.
We descended to Pine Creek in time for lunch. At the creek we ran into the same girls we'd seen the night before at Rainbow Lake. They had fled from the lake early in the morning to escape from the mosquitoes. We crossed the creek on a sturdy bridge and hiked a short distance upstream. We spotted an ideal sandbar on the far side of the creek and waded over to it. We spent a couple of hours there, having lunch and enjoying the abundant sunshine and beautiful views. From our vantage point, we could see up along the meanders of the stream, with the canyon hemmed in by Mount Oxford and Mount Harvard. Emerald Peak loomed at the head of the canyon. Downstream from us, the creek plunged over the edge of the hanging valley in a foaming rush of whitewater, as if it was in a hurry to make up for its laziness upstream.
We only had another mile and a half to go, so we weren't in any hurry to leave. Eventually though, lounging by the creek lost it's excitement. We continued north on the Colorado Trail, climbing steadily on switchbacks out of the canyon. It was hot again, and by the time we were halfway up, we were ready to go back down to the creek for a swim. My plan was to camp on Mount Oxford's east ridge, just below tree line. However, I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to find water. The map showed a gully near the trail, but it was bone dry. I decided we'd find a campsite first and then worry about it. In a worst-case scenario, I'd hike back down to Pine Creek and bring water from there.
It took an hour to reach the saddle on Mount Oxford's east ridge. From it, we had a nice view north to Colorado's highest mountains, Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. We spent some time looking for a campsite, but finally found a great place west of the saddle. Here we found an incredible site in a meadow, with a stunning view back across Pine Creek Canyon to Mount Harvard. We pitched the tent in the shelter of a spruce grove, but spent most of the afternoon in the meadow. It was a view that you could sit and enjoy for hours.
First though, I had to solve our water problem. The idea of going all the way back down to Pine Creek for water was as appealing as climbing Oxford the next day with a backpack full of rocks. I decided to try the north side of the ridge, as it was likely to be wetter than the south side. I followed the Colorado Trail north for about half a mile and was rewarded for my efforts. I found a decent spring, and filtered for 30 minutes, filling up everything we had. Then I filled our collapsible bucket and carried everything back to camp. This was hard work, but I was rewarded with the best backpacking meal I'd ever had. Christy made Tai with noodles, chicken, and vegetables. We planned an early start for the next morning, so we went to bed at dusk. I was restless though, and had trouble falling asleep. Before I did, I was treated to an endless sky full of stars.
FOURTEEN THE HARD WAY
Most people climb 14ers as dayhikes. For the more remote peaks, climbers typically backpack in and base camp. When they actually climb the peak, they travel light. Climbers rarely carry full backpacks across these mountains. That's exactly what Christy and I proposed to do though. To my way of thinking, almost anyone could backpack into Missouri Basin, set up a base camp, and climb the peaks. To actually backpack across Oxford and Belford though, that would be a real adventure.
In my pre-trip research, I hadn't found anyone that had attempted such a trip. In fact, I hadn't even come across another hiker that had climbed Oxford by the east ridge. Most climbers dayhike up Belford and then continue to Oxford and return the same way. Our guidebook did describe the route, and rated it a class II climb (i.e. easy off-trail hiking / scrambling). I could only hope that the traverse wouldn't turn into hours of boulder hopping. That would get old really quick with a heavy pack on.
We reached point 12,562' at 7AM and had bagels. When we arrived, we spooked a lone deer, which bounded away in four leaps. After the fourth hop, the deer disappeared over the edge and into the canyon. I hope she landed well.
We'd gotten up at dawn and broke camp before 6:30. I knew an early start was critical, as there was no telling how long the climb would take. I wanted to reach Oxford well before noon so that we could be down off Belford before any afternoon thunderstorms popped up.
The hike had gone well so far. We'd simply worked our way west along the ridge, creating our own switchbacks in the steeper areas. When we reached the first prominent peak above tree line the whole world revealed itself to us. To the south, Mount Harvard towered over Pine Creek Canyon. Likewise, to the north above Clear Creek Canyon were the snowy peaks of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive. Ahead of us was a long series of grassy slopes leading up to Waverly Mountain, our first challenge. The only direction without a view was back east, into the brilliant fire of the rising sun.
We started up the grassy slopes, which made for pleasant walking. Scattered along the mountain were tiny wildflowers, only a few inches high. We stayed right on the ridge, except when it was advantageous to skirt a minor peak. Occasionally I'd find myself plodding along, staring at my feet. Then I'd snap my head up and take in the stunning mountain scenery that surrounded me. Each time this gave me a burst of adrenaline that helped me pick up the pace.
We reached the summit of Waverly Mountain (13,292') at 9 AM. Meanwhile, in offices throughout the country, most folks had just grabbed a second cup of coffee and were thinking about doing some work. Our hike was going smoothly, the weather was perfect, and we were making good time. However, I knew the real challenge was still ahead of us.
We suffered an annoying 200' descent and began the final climb. We soon found ourselves on a narrow, rocky ridge with considerable snow off each side. Luckily the ridge top itself was clear. Finally, we were beginning to get close when we encountered a huge pile of boulders (point 13,833') directly ahead of us. The peak was steep, and climbing straight over it would've been difficult and dangerous. We had a choice: bypass it on the left or right? Both sides promised a nasty scramble across a pile of uneven boulders. The left side was steeper, but there was a promising notch part way up that looked inviting.
I was almost sold on going right, but changed my mind at the last minute. It looked like if we could reach the notch, we'd be home free. We headed for it, and didn't have much trouble getting there. Hopping from one boulder to the next is tricky with a heavy load, but we moved cautiously. When we crested the notch, we discovered that we were definitely not home free. Instead, we found ourselves clinging to the steep south face of the peak. Continuing ahead around the summit would be impossible. I looked down, and found myself staring down a rock and snow-lined chasm. A nasty case of vertigo ensued, and I pressed myself back against the rock. I stared at the sky for a minute to help regain my composure. Did I mention that I don't like heights?
Going back looked almost as bad. Our only other option was to head up. We were near the top already, and climbing didn't look too bad. Christy led the way, but I struggled with my heavy pack. At one point I struggled to find a hand hold. Christy helped me through that spot, but then I reached a place that required stretching my leg waist high. Such a move might've been fun without my pack, but taking it off wasn't an option. Instead, I chimneyed up between two rocks. This was also awkward with the pack on, but it worked. A little more scrambling, and we dragged ourselves to the top of peak 13,833'. Congratulations! Oxford's still ahead.
First we had to descend from our favorite rock pile. This wasn't much fun, either. Fortunately it wasn't nearly as far down on the west side. We picked our way down carefully. This would not have been a good place for a broken leg. Finally we reached the base, and spotted a faint path going around the north side. Sigh.
Our little adventure had cost us an hour, and our climb took on a new sense of urgency. We were both still doing well though. We pushed on up the final hill, and finally the summit was in sight. I waited for Christy just below the peak. Then, we walked hand in hand to the summit. It was another hot, sunny day, but oddly, Christy's hands were ice cold. Christy let go of my hand, saying that her hands were burning up. This seemed strange, yet important. Still, I dismissed it in our excitement of reaching the top.
It was just past noon, but the skies were still clear. We had lunch, took photos, and found the marker signifying the summit. A few other hikers came and went (the first we'd seen since Pine Creek). Then for good measure, the same girls we'd seen at Rainbow Lake and at Pine Creek arrived. They were stunned that we'd come up the east ridge with full packs. They'd come the normal way - across Mount Belford with fanny packs.
The view from the summit was incredible. To the east were Pikes Peak, the Buffalo Peaks, and the high mountains of the Mosquito Range. To the north were Elbert, Massive, and La Plata, among others. To the west were Belford, Missouri, Emerald, Huron, and even the Elk Mountains, including the stunning white rock of Capitol Peak. The best view may have been south, to Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, and Shavano. In between were countless other peaks, and all were still decorated with lingering snow.
Christy wasn't feeling well. She had done great through the whole climb, but now that we'd stopped her condition had deteriorated. I feared that her altitude sickness had picked the worst possible time to come back. The only cure for it is to get to a lower altitude. Unfortunately, that's a difficult thing to do from Mount Oxford. There are only two safe routes down from the peak, and one was back the way we'd come. I feared that Christy would never make it past peak 13,833 safely. Our only other option was to continue. However, continuing ahead meant descending and the climbing up to Mount Belford, an even higher peak. We'd have to go up to go down.
I sent Christy ahead of me while I packed up. Then I followed her down the steep, slippery trail to the saddle below Belford. We were completely out of water (we'd already finished a gallon each) so we filled up water bottles with snow. Then we started up the nastiest climb I've ever seen. In my planning, I'd felt that if we made it to Oxford, the rest would be easy. After all, there's an actual trail between Oxford and Belford. In reality, it was a lousy trail. It went straight up, climbing over 600' in .3 mile. Most of the tread was loose dirt and scree, and we slid backwards every few steps. Christy was really struggling, as she was taking only a few steps between breaks.
I was worried to the point of panic. I've never seen Christy concede, but I was beginning to doubt that she could make it in her condition. We certainly couldn't camp where we were. Finally I told her to wait, while I ran to the top. Then I'd return for her pack and help her up.
I started off at a jog, but that didn't last long. Soon I was gasping for breath as I scrambled upwards. Finally, about halfway up, I had to rest. I realized that this was inefficient, so I dropped my pack and returned to Christy. I reasoned that I could rest going back downhill. Plus, I didn't want to leave Christy alone for long.
When I returned, Christy looked better. The rest had helped. I put on her pack and followed behind her. She was moving slow, but making steady progress. For me, her lighter pack was almost a pleasure after my first assault on this hill. We reached my pack, and I let her rest again. I took my pack to the top, and found that the upper part of the trail wasn't quite as bad. I returned, and we followed the same procedure. Christy was almost out of gas, so we broke the remaining climb down into manageable pieces. This meant basically going 5 steps to the next rock, and repeating that approach over and over. Somehow, after what seemed like hours, the top came into view. We had a long rest just below Belford's summit. It was only a short side trip to the top, but I wasn't interested. We'd already climbed that one. Plus, it was now late afternoon. Luckily there weren't any clouds in the sky, but an afternoon thunderstorm could've been disastrous. Someone must've been looking out for us. However, we still needed to get Christy to a lower altitude as soon as possible.
Christy led the way, and did well descending to Elkhead Pass (13,100'). We drank our melted snow along the way, which provided relief from the heat. At the pass we stopped for another break, and Christy's condition seemed much better. I checked her temperature though, and she had a fever of 103! I was beginning to suspect that her illness had more to do with heat and sun than altitude. Perhaps she was suffering from heat exhaustion?
Regardless of the problem, descending to tree line seemed like the solution. That would mean a lower altitude and blessed shade. The pass was snow-covered, but we found a way around the edge. We descended steeply into Missouri Basin, which is the most beautiful place I've ever been. Snowy mountains surrounded us in every direction. We hiked gently downhill among grass, flowers, and willows, and stopped at a small stream for water and a dip. The water was refreshing, and Christy was almost herself when we resumed the hike.
We continued through the basin, dwarfed by the high peaks that surrounded us. I wanted to relax and enjoy the final mile of the hike, but I wanted to relax in a shady campsite even more. We'd been above tree line, exposed to the sun, for twelve hours. We finally reached the first spruce trees, and I immediately began looking for a campsite. We found a decent spot in a spruce grove near a noisy stream. We collapsed there, and reflected back on our day. I'd wanted an adventure, and we got one. It was an absolutely spectacular hike, but we agreed that carrying full packs across Fourteeners isn't the best idea. In the future, we'd climb them the way normal people do.
A DAY OFF
The original plan for Wednesday had been to climb Missouri, Iowa, and Emerald. Ha! It wasn't happening. We needed a day to recover. Plus, we'd noticed that the ridge leading to Emerald was still covered in snow. We could've hiked the other two peaks, but my real goal for the trip had been Emerald. It's a beautiful peak, even if it's just short of 14,000 feet. Now I'll have a reason to return to Missouri Basin.
We slept in and washed clothes and bathed when we finally got up. Afterwards, we decided to do an easy hike to stretch our legs. Christy was fully recovered from her mysterious ailment of the previous day. We decided to hike to the head of Pine Creek and visit a series of alpine lakes.
We hiked down through the woods to Pine Creek, spooking a deer along the way. At the bottom of the valley we found some nice campsites and hiked upstream. We left the trees behind quickly and found ourselves in a deep basin surrounded by mountains. The trail wandered upstream among the willows before a tricky rock hop led us to the far side of the creek. From there, the path led through a marshy area before heading steeply uphill along cascades towards Silver King Lake.
We reached the lake after an hour and a half. Silver King Lake is a sparkling blue pond nestled just below the rocky peaks of the continental divide. We found an old miner's cabin here, presumably the former home of the Silver King. The east side of the lake is surrounded by a grassy meadow full of sunflowers. This proved to be a great place to lounge away the afternoon.
Our lounging was only interrupted by two solo hikers. Aside from the handful of climbers we'd seen on Oxford, we'd had the trails largely to ourselves. Silver King Lake seemed practically crowded by comparison. One of the hikers came down the steep talus slope to the south. He'd climbed a nameless peak on the continental divide because it is one of Colorado's 200 highest mountains, or something like that. I was tempted, not because it's one of Colorado's 200 highest peaks, but because it is on the continental divide and promised a great view. He claimed that he followed an old miner's trail, which was still in good shape. I resisted temptation though. After all, we'd dedicated the afternoon to lounging. The hiker went on his way, and I returned to basking in the sun amid the flowers.
It was mid-afternoon before we got motivated to leave. It was another crystal clear day, so we didn't have to hurry back to camp. Just because this was a recovery day didn't mean that I couldn't make an adventure out of it. I noticed on the map that the Twin Lakes were nearby, and that a trail led down from them to the main route we'd hiked in on. There was no trail between Silver King Lake and Twin Lakes, but it looked like an easy cross-country hike. Christy was all for it, so we decided to give it a try.
We hiked back down the trail a short ways and then headed east down a gentle slope. We had to avoid rocks, willows, and snow, but didn't have much trouble reaching the upper lake. We looped around the south shore, below high peaks and a vast snowfield. We had a great view here down Pine Creek Canyon and over to Emerald, Iowa, Missouri, Belford, and Oxford. If anything, these lakes were even prettier than Silver King. We continued along the east side until we reached the outlet below the lower lake. We stopped here for more lounging, though the rocky shore was less conducive to sunbathing.
Christy was still feeling adventurous, and decided to go for a swim. It was too early in the summer for me, so I played with the local marmot population while Christy worked up her courage. She eased into the frigid water very carefully, allowing her body to gradually adjust to the cold. She was doing well initially, but slipped on a rock and fell all the way in! She got more than she bargained for, and seeing her thrash about in the frigid water made me loose what little interest I'd had in joining her.
It was 4pm when we started back to camp. The first problem we ran into was that the trail shown on the map didn't appear to exist on the ground. We wandered around near the lake outlet, but didn't find any sign of a trail. We didn't want to go all the way back to Silver King Lake, so we decided to make our own route. We followed the outlet stream as it cascaded down a steep hillside. We moved slowly, as we had to avoid the steepest slopes, boulders, waterfalls, and snow fields. My biggest concern though was willows. As we neared the bottom of the hill, we could see the broad valley full of willows ahead of us. If you've ever tried to hike through willows, you know what I mean. Willows make crawling through rhododendron seem like fun. They grow together in a tangled web that makes passage nearly impossible. Trying to force your way through the sharp branches only results in torn skin. If we couldn't find a trail through, we'd be in for some misery.
Today was our lucky day. We reached the base of the hill and stumbled upon the trail we'd come in on. Luckily, we reached the valley where the trail was still on the south side of the creek. If we'd come out farther downstream, our hike back to camp would've been much more interesting. As it was, it was fairly simple to follow the path through the marsh and willows and back across the creek. From there, it was an easy walk back to camp. That evening, I feasted on the second best backpacking meal I'd ever had. This time Christy combined chicken and rice with dehydrated corn and salsa in tortillas. That night we enjoyed a rare campfire, which helped to scare off the swarm of mosquitoes that had found our campsite. It got quite cold that night, but I didn't have any trouble sleeping.
LEGALLY STUPID: ANDY AND CHRISTY GET DENIED BY HARVARD
Or, A Miner Climb
We got up early on Thursday in anticipation of a big day. We knew we had a long tough hike to get to our final campsite, and we were still hoping to climb Mount Harvard. The South Pine Creek trail looked horribly steep on the map, so we wanted to get it over with early before it got hot.
We broke camp at 6:30 as a LARGE group of boys hiked past us towards Missouri Basin. This group effectively doubled the number of people we'd seen on the entire trip. We hiked down to Pine Creek and headed downstream. Initially we passed through a marshy area of ponds and willows. Views of the surrounding mountains were great. We continued to Bedrock Falls for a breakfast of cereal bars. The falls were really just a long run of cascades, and it was difficult to get a good view.
We continued downstream and reached a vast meadow. Along one edge we found Little John's cabin. Little John was one of the area's original miners. Actually there were two cabins here. One looked as if it may have been partially restored. There were many old tools scattered about, including an antique snowshoe. Out back was Little John's little john.
We spent quite a bit of time exploring the area before continuing our hike on the South Pine Creek Trail. The new path led to the creek, where two long wobbly logs provided a bridge of sorts. They were too much for me, and I waded through the ice water to the far side. Christy considered the logs, but ended up following me.
On the far side we found another cabin, which appeared to be a bit more recent. Inside were bunks and an old stove. Beyond the cabin we found the entrance to an old mine. The mine was still open, though there were danger signs posted. I looked in, and found that the floor of the mine was covered in a foot of ice. The ceiling was only about 5 feet high, so exploring it would've been awkward as well as dangerous. Tracks still ran out of the mine, and an old mining car was sitting on them. Beyond the first mine, we found a second featuring an open vertical shaft. I couldn't resist tossing a rock in. We heard it bounce off the walls a couple of times, but we never heard it hit the bottom.
This was fascinating, but we spent a crucial hour exploring the area. I don't regret it though, as it was one of the most interesting parts of the whole trip.
We started up the hill. This part of the trail looked terrible on the map, but it was worse than that. Initially we climbed steep switchbacks, but the last half of the climb was straight up. This was reminiscent of the climb up Belford, but longer. At least we had great views back across Pine Creek Canyon to distract us. At one point, I spotted an open mine above Little Johns cabin on Mount Oxford.
We followed the so-called trail past several false summits before finally reaching the crest at tree line. Christy was cursing the miners that had built this trail and threatening them with all sorts of violence. At the pass we found the remains of another mine. We also uncovered another puzzle. The map showed the trail continuing over the ridge and down to South Pine Creek. However, all we saw below us was a steep dirt slope followed by grass and woods. The grass certainly wasn't trampled. Far in the distance, we spotted the trail as it ascended to the pass on Mount Harvard's east ridge. The question was, what happened to it between here and there? Strangely, an obvious trail stayed on the ridge and began to climb to the southwest, towards Mount Harvard.
I joined Christy in cursing the trail builders as we continued uphill. What kind of asinine trail design was this? We reached a meadow where the trail disappeared. We climbed to an obvious gap, but there was no sign of a path there, either. We started back down, but spotted a single horseback rider below us. He had actually passed us earlier, but he appeared to be taking a break.
I asked him if he knew where the trail went. He was wondering the same thing, as he was going the same way we were. We wandered back down to the pass, but still didn't see any sign of the trail. Finally I decided that we'd trust the map. We'd go where it showed the trail and hopefully we'd find it. We started down the slope when the horseback rider called down to us. He had binoculars, and said that he'd spotted the trail below us. We thanked him and continued on, finding a faint path when we reached the trees.
We hiked down through the woods and reached South Pine Creek. We stopped for lunch in a spruce grove on the far side of the stream. We also loaded up on water for the second time that day. As we finished lunch, our favorite cowboy rode by again. We followed him, as all signs of a trail had disappeared again. Apparently the South Pine Creek Trail doesn't get much use. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's that first climb. Or maybe it's the second climb, which was still to come.
We knew where the trail ascended to the pass, so we simply headed that way. Every now and then we'd spot a cairn, but it was entirely cross-country hiking. The walking was fairly easy until we reached "the wall". Mount Harvard's east ridge is nearly vertical here. Luckily, the trail magically reappeared at the base of it. We followed it up rocky switchbacks. Mercifully, this part of the intermittent path was well-built. Most of the switchbacks had a reasonable grade, though our cowboy friend had to lead his horse.
Appropriately enough, the trail disappeared again just before the top of the pass. We continued up at an angle and reached the crest. I noticed three things upon arriving. First, the wind nearly blew me back to Little John's cabin. There was nothing to provide shelter, so we had crawl around to keep from being knocked over. Second, the top of the pass was buried in snow. This concerned me. Finally, the ridge up to Harvard looked ugly. The lower slopes didn't look too bad, but there are a series of jagged peaks near the summit.
It was already 3pm. The sky was clear, but I couldn't imagine climbing that ridge through the raging tempest we were experiencing. Plus, we were whipped. We'd been up two intense climbs already. Christy claimed that she'd pulled her right butt check on the last hill. I'm not sure if that's possible, but I wasn't inclined to argue.
Now all we had to do was get down. Easy, right? Well, we had two problems. First we had to get around the snowpack on the south side of the pass. I'm not sure why the snow was piled up on the south side, but it was. Our second problem was a total lack of a trail. There was no trail at the pass or below. At this point we weren't surprised. Who needs a trail?
We skirted around the snowfield without any trouble. We continued down from the pass, enjoying the view of Mount Columbia across from us. We wandered around on the slopes below, hoping that a trail would appear. Magically, it didn't. We continued downhill, until we reached a shelf with a nice view of the basin below. We spotted several small ponds, as well as miles of willows. Here we go again. Without a trail, how will we find our way through that?
We started contouring down into the basin. Suddenly a cairn appeared. I guess we weren't too far off track. Then, Christy spotted a path through the willows far below. We headed for it, and somehow managed to find our way to it.
We hiked our newfound trail the rest of the way into the basin. Along the way, we passed a marmot every 50 yards or so. We'd seen marmots on this trip, but this was overwhelming. The basin isn't named, so I'm going to call it Marmot Basin from now on.
We crossed the creek below the ponds and continued downstream. We were treated to more lovely views of Harvard and Columbia before we headed for camp. We hiked downstream, and found a nice campsite in a spruce grove near tree line. We had dinner out of a bag and enjoyed a campfire and another sky full of stars before exhaustion overcame us.
I WANNA BE A COWBOY
Our horse riding friend had joined us late in the evening. He'd set up camp in a meadow near our site, but courteously asked our permission first. We chatted with him a bit that night. He was in the area scouting out routes to lead clients on. I'm guessing that the South Pine Creek "Trail" isn't going to make the final cut. He was more than a standard outfitter though. The next week he was heading to the Pikes Peak area to conduct a study on Bighorn Sheep. He hadn't seen any in the Collegiate Peaks, though he'd spotted Mountain Goats. When he wasn't leading clients in the wilderness or studying wildlife, he worked on a ranch in South Park. When he mentioned this, I could tell he was bracing for one of the usual jokes (Oh my God, YOU killed Kenny!). I refrained, to his apparent relief. I did tell him how beautiful the area was. I almost asked him if we could work for him on his ranch, but then I came to my senses. What do I know about being a cowboy?
We slept in a bit on Friday. By the time we got up, he was already gone. Somehow he'd packed up and headed out, on horseback, without waking us. Before we left, I hiked back up to Marmot Basin to take photos. When I returned, I found that Christy had loaded my pack for me. This is my absolute least-favorite backpacking chore, and I was thrilled that I didn't have to do it on the last day.
It took us 2 hours to hike out. The walk was uneventful to the point of being almost boring. At this point though, we were mainly thinking about where we'd have lunch. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise. Come to think of it, many people spend most of every morning contemplating this.
We hiked through woods and meadows, but the trail generally stayed away from the creek. We passed the junction with the Colorado Trail, and the rest of the hike was backtracking. The 4-wheel drive road hadn't gotten any prettier in a week, but at least it went faster going downhill. At the top of the first hill above the parking area we ran into a group of 4 backpackers. Other than the solo horseback rider, these were the first people we'd seen since Missouri Basin. They were already taking a break, and looked like they were struggling. They said they were planning on hiking the South Pine Creek "Trail", so it was nice to be able to provide them with some relevant information. We wished them luck and headed for the car.
We'd come to the Collegiate Peaks in search of adventure, and I think we found it. We'd experienced danger, mysterious illness, and exhaustion. We had also enjoyed wonderful solitude and gorgeous scenery. We'd planned to climb 7 high peaks, but we'd only managed two. That may sound like a failure, but I see it as an opportunity. We'll return to Pine Creek and Missouri Basin. Emerald Peak will still be there waiting for us. For today though, there was little left to do but to ride into Leadville for Mexican food and ice cream.
Back to Colorado
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!