Wednesday, February 11, 2015

That one time we bagged Colorado Mines Peak during a snowstorm


Today we summited Colorado Mines Peak at 12,497 feet.

In addition to Colorado Mines Peak our plan was to then summit nearby Mt. Flora, Eva, and Pary Peak (also locally called Bearclaw). Chatting over the weather report and routes at breakfast in the commons dining area at YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch, we soon topped-off our coffee and set off for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail trailhead located atop Berthoud Pass on Highway 40. 
At 8am, snow began to fall and we started our hike following a faint old 4x4 road for half an hour. Rather than stick to switchbacks, we decided to trek to the top by going straight up, as hints of grass and rocks might present a solution to this exhausting knee deep snow we had been trudging through. From the trailhead where my wagon was parked to the very tip of Colorado Mines Peak, we'd be covering a little over 1,000 ft of elevation gain, the majority of it by way of steep and icy hiking. As we continued to push past treeline and into more alpine levels, the temperature began to drop and the wind picked up.

90 minutes into our trek, we spotted one of the big communication towers located atop of the mountain. It was a sure sigh of relief as our faces were windburned from the penetrating chilly harsh gusts. Approaching the summit, we saw more antennas, satellite dishes and small structures. Everything was locked up and apart from the howling, now approaching close to 50 mph, winds...it was silent. Kyle and I laughingly joked about how we had just walked onto the planet Hoth from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Where are the AT-AT Walkers and obnoxious tauntauns? Back to reality, the man-made objects up here serve as communications hubs for satellites, phones, and even the FAA.

Conditions at the top turned worse and blizzard-like. There was almost zero visibility over the ridges around us, fierce wind, and temperatures plummeting far into the negatives. We were absolutely freezing and sought refuge in a walled-off corner of the main radio tower. Discussing the increase in dangerous conditions and how the route we would need to take to neighboring Mt. Flora required walking along a ridge, we decided to call off those plans. 
What backed our decision even more was the clear evidence of avalanche-prone terrain in just about everywhere on the east and northeast side of the peak. Massive cornices of wind-blown snow and precarious drop-offs feet in front of us that we could barely see. That was a risk we weren't about to take in these conditions. Thankfully, an unlocked (on purpose, perhaps?) hatch to a crawlspace below the radio tower could provide adequate shelter should things got worse.

After spending about 30 minutes up at 12,497 feet, we started our hike down to the base, which was made fun by sliding on ice and tumbling through waist-deep snow in places. Even in bad alpine weather, it was an epic adventure and my first ascent of a mountain over 10,000ft. 

Cheers,
Robby