Devil in Them Hills
Devil in Them Hills
As I was planning my hike for this weekend I recalled that in May of this year I had a failed attempt at summiting Mount Yale. In May the snow was still plentiful on the mountain and along the trail. I had hoped to summit, but mostly I just wanted to feast on the beauty of the snow covered mountains. It was a summit I thought I could do; I was physically conditioned and I had been climbing snow covered trails with some altitude over the previous months, even summiting Quandary Peak in January. There was something about that climb that mystified me. Why couldn’t I finish? No matter; I let it go. That is, until today.
Today I thought I could finish the job. I set out to take on the summit of Yale ascending the East Ridge and descending the SW Ridge. That was the plan. I was on the trail a few minutes before 6am, which starts up Avalanche Gulch just off of Highway 306 west from Buena Vista.
The first three miles of the hike is part of the Colorado Trail. It starts with a 1000 foot incline over approximately 1.25 miles before it levels into a slow ascent through a Pondarosa Pine forest for another mile. The grade increases slightly from here until reaching a small meadow at the crown of the trail and the intersection that leads to the East Ridge of Mount Yale. The trail to Yale is marked with a small pile of rocks and a log on the ground that has “Yale” etched into it.
In the forest along the trail were several varieties of mushrooms, some in fairy rings and all growing among populated pine groves. One section of the trail had many old fallen trees, none of them intentionally cut down. I wondered if they suffered the result of a bad storm or maybe an avalanche, but the terrain doesn’t lend itself to being avalanche prone. Avalanches are not known to sweep very far into heavily wooded areas.
Wildlife was restricted to mostly squirrels that, based on all the noise they were making, apparently didn’t care for me in their territory. I saw a doe bouncing out of one of the small clearings as I approached the crown.
The trail so far had been very nicely groomed and well-marked. The trail remaining becomes increasingly less obvious on the way to the summit to the point of simply finding a route by the half way point up the ridge.
When entering alpine terrain that has little or no path to follow, it’s important to become as familiar as possible with what others have learned. 14ers.com is a great place to start. Colorado Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs by Gary Roach is another great resource. I normally study the route description and read as many trip reports as I can. This helps me set my expectations and prepare my route. This time I read through the material half-heartedly just once; I didn’t study it.
Lesson #1: Do not neglect your homework: study up on what you are about to get into even if you have been on the trail before or you feel you have plenty of experience. Print some of your material and take the most important parts with you, like the trail route and description. Altitude can have a way of messing with your mind and body. It’s best to avoid the gamble. Taking a few pieces of paper along is insurance that’s easy to carry. A map and compass are an even greater asset, but be sure to learn how to navigate with these tools before heading out.
At several points along the route I went off course, which put me on steep inclines with loose and potentially dangerous rocks, unnecessarily increased my chances of sliding or falling and lengthened my climb. There was no real trail on the ridge, but there was enough description and pictures in the material I should have studied that could have made for a less troublesome day. And, surprisingly, I was alone on the ridge. I didn’t see a single soul during my ascent; which I much prefer to a crowd of people. But, in this case, another opinion may have prevented my meanderings.
Lesson #2: Especially in unfamiliar and unpopulated territory, bring a hiking companion to share the load of decision making and risk assessment.
And while I was finding my route in less than ideal territory, not far from the summit the clouds started rolling in. None were very threatening, but any cloud can become threatening in a hurry at that altitude in late summer. It is smart to have a heightened sense of awareness that at any moment the weather could produce lightening and ruin the day. When clouds start to form, look around to determine the quickest and safest route to descend in a hurry if the situation becomes dire.
After spending some extra time off route I slowly climbed my way to the summit where I met up with a friendly group from a local university. We exchanged favors with picture taking, engaged in congratulatory small-talk, ate some snacks, hydrated, and then headed back down the SW slopes.
Before leaving any summit I made time to lose myself in the view and sheer awe of my surroundings. There was a haze in the air from wildfires in other Western States, but it made a cool blue hue that engulfed the Sawatch Range. Many peaks in the 12 and 13 thousand foot range can be seen in every direction, Gladstone Ridge and Mount Princeton to the South, Mounts Columbia and Harvard and the entire Collegiate Wilderness Area to the North, and to the West is the Continental Divide with Gunnison National Forest creating the horizon.
The descent was scenic with some open mountain meadows and several creek crossings along a well maintained trail down Delaney Gulch. At the bottom of the SW slopes is the Denny Creek Trailhead. I met up with a young couple coming back from a hike to Hartenstein Lake. They were kind enough to give me a ride back to the Avalanche Trailhead three miles east along Highway 306. Walking the paved road in my mountaineering boots would have encouraged a battle with shin splints. I thanked them for their kindness, packed up camp, and headed for home.
The third lesson is about foot care. I have a condition called Morton’s Toe, where my second toe is a little longer than my big toe. It’s actually a condition where the first metatarsal bone in the big toe is shorter than normal. This unfortunate condition makes for a painful descent as the longest toes take the full force of the jarring with every step. Several types of injuries can result. I’ve worked to lessen the effects by such things as taping my toes, wearing multiple socks, wearing boots that are at least a half size too large, and different lacing techniques to lock in my heal. But on some hikes, no matter the precautions, it’s nearly impossible to avoid a painful ending to a day in the mountains. Today was one of those days. Next weekend’s plans have been delayed because I need to sit out a week to allow my feet to heal. But the good news is that my wife gets to have me home to help more with the weekend chores. So, there’s that.
It’s the Devil in them hills. Along with the beauty and peacefulness, the good people to meet, the inspiring views, fresh air, and clean cool mountain water - there’s also the risk of losing the trail, suddenly horrific weather, and the physical and mental anguish of the task. And, yes, there is even injury and pain. But the Devil doesn’t win. I will be back soon.
I always enjoy reading about your hikes. I am in awe of what you are capable of doing. I also appreciate your style of
writing. Thanks for sharing your journeys. Godspeed
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