Monday, May 28, 2012

Tour de Yale!

 So there I was, wilting in the early afternoon sun after many hours of running, 2/3 of the way up a climb that would take me from 9,000' to 12,000'.  Powerhiking was draining me; running was out of the question.

Where was I?  If you guessed Hope Pass, not quite.  However, if you guessed Hope Pass, then you might want to read on and give this loop a shot yourself some day.

Tour de Yale
Silver Creek TH -> Mt. Yale summit via NW Ridge -> Denny Creek TH via SW Slopes (standard route) -> Avalanche Gulch TH via Cottonwood Pass Rd -> Silver Creek TH via Colorado Trail
  • 24.5 miles
  • 7,570' vertical
  • Start 7:01 AM
  • End 2:51 PM
  • 7 hours 50 minutes

I hatched the idea of doing a circle tour of Yale a few weeks ago, when Cale and I wandered up the lower portion of Yale's East Ridge route.  I liked what I saw; the trail was mellow enough to run and very scenic.  I did a little research and realized that I could link up a few trails to create a fat loop that would essentially circumnavigate the entirety of the Yale massif.  En route, I would be able to hit at least portions of every feasible route on Yale.  In addition, I would also get a chance to go through each of the four trailheads that service this Collegiate Peak.  Seemed to me a perfect mix of adventure, training, and challenge, and on May 27th, I made a go for it.  My primary goal was to circumnavigate the peak, but I would summit if the opportunity presented itself.

First part of the day - up Cottonwood Creek to Kroenke Lake (where the red line disappears in the upper left)

Early morning on the road between Silver Creek TH and North Cottonwood TH.

The North Cottonwood/Horn Fork TH serves mostly those looking to climb Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia via their standard routes.  However, it also provides access to Mt. Yale from Kroenke Lake to the northwest.

The trail along North Cottonwood Creek is in great shape.

Bridge across N. Cottonwood Creek.

Trail splits - to the right is the trail into Horn Fork Basin.  To the left is Kroenke Lake.  About a mile up the trail I ran into a guy who had mistakenly turned left instead of right here.

There are a couple of smaller crossings over North Cottonwood Creek.

Kroenke Lake(~11,500') - definitely worth coming back to.  There was one tent up there when I passed.  Doesn't seem like there are nearly as many alpine lakes in the Sawatch as the other ranges.

Beautiful trail alongside Kroenke Lake as I continued south toward Browns Pass (background)

Looking back north toward Kroenke Lake as I began the climb to Browns Pass

The NW ridge of Mt. Yale, with the summit poking out in the far center.

After some bushwhacking due to the trail being snowed in, I came upon a pretty cool (frozen, even!) alpine pond at 12,200'.

Harvard(L) and Columbia(R) in the background.
Second part of the day; up Yale's NW ridge, summit, then descend via the SW slopes.

Most of Yale's northwest ridge.  It's fairly gentle, never exceeding class 2.  I had originally planned on just climbing Browns Pass and dropping into the Denny Creek drainage, but I felt pretty good and the ridge didn't look too formidable, so I went for it.  This did, however, put me a good mile west of where I would have otherwise gained the ridge.

The view of the remaining route from 13,600'.  I had gained about 1,200' in the preceding mile.

Summit.  It was windy enough to hinder one's enjoyment of the surroundings, so I didn't stay long.

I was able to make really good time on the really good trail.  I saw a total of maybe 50 people on the day; 45 or so of them were on Yale's standard route.

A mellow portion of the descent


Although it held a slight decline in elevation, I still found the 3 mile stretch of road from Denny Creek to Avalanche Gulch to be one of the more challenging parts of the day.  It was hot, I was tired, and I still had a big climb coming up.
Down the road, up the trail.

17.5 miles

I took a break at the base of the trail to refuel.

A quick glimpse at "Mascot Peak", a 13,400ish' sub-peak of Yale.

Starting the last climb of the day; in the valley is the road I had come from.

Old deadfall at 10,500'.

More deadfall.  I felt here as if I could dead-fall as well.

Lots of recent deadfall throughout the Sawatch.  The size of the trees that got blown down by wind this past winter/spring is crazy.

At the high point of this section of the Colorado Trail, 12,100 or so.  Getting ready to drop back down the other side.

A harbinger of things to come - some pretty substantial drifts met me right away.  Bummer; there was no snow whatsoever on the south side of the mountain!

Deadfall dodging + postholing /= fun.  Over 20 miles in and only 4 to go, though!

The only real creek crossing on the last stretch.

Four-star lodging at 10,500'.


A peak down toward the Arkansas River Valley.

By now, I was absolutely exhausted.  The last half-mile and the lack of +/- was much appreciated - each of the previous two miles coming off the low point of Yale's ridge had dropped over 1,000'.  Real quad-busters.

To the ultra-crowd:  highly recommended run.  If you're not looking to get in quite as much scrambling and rock-hopping, you could do this loop with Browns Pass instead of Yale's summit.  That would likely put it at more like 21 miles and 5,500' climbing.  I would recommend doing it either way if you're not planning on hitting Yale's summit.  However, descending via Denny Creek allows you to maximize your running mileage.  Done in the other direction, you would have to be much more careful with your footing on the descent.

To hikers:  after getting a chance to soak in Yale from all directions, I would recommend this:  do something other than the standard route!  The northwest ridge from the North Cottonwood TH is doable as a day-trip and fairly straightforward.  The trail to Kroenke Lake is beautiful and in good shape.  The ridge itself doesn't have a trail, but it is scree-free.  If you choose to do the east ridge, I would recommend coming from Avalanche Gulch and not Silver Creek.  Silver Creek has a couple of rather unpleasant miles of trail - exposed to sun, kind of steep, just a trail on the side of a hill.  Avalanche Gulch's approach is much more scenic.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A springtime loop - 4 in the Sangres held its annual spring gathering this weekend.  Much to my relief, the location that "we the people" voted for the gathering was the Horn Creek trailhead in the Sangre de Cristo range.  I did find some irony in the fact that the trailhead didn't give immediate access to any fourteeners.  But I definitely wasn't complaining.  I had to miss the gathering last year, as it fell on the same weekend as Collegiate Peaks.  This time around, though, the timing was perfect and I had myself with enough free time to go spend a day in the mountains.
View southward of the central Sangres from
the top of Horn Peak.
I pulled into the trailhead on Friday night with some ideas of what I would like to do, but no firm plan.  I had studied up on some of the possible climbs in the area, but wanted to see what everyone else was doing before settling on anything.  By the time I slipped into my sleeping bag under an almost too obnoxiously bright supermoon, I had decided to check out the "Horn Loop" - Little Horn Peak(13,141'), Fluted Peak(13,554'), and Horn Peak(13,450').  I also held in the back of my mind the possibility of attempting the centennial Mt. Adams(13,931') in addition to the loop.  That part of the plan was contingent on conditions allowing for a safe ridge traverse without snow equipment, which I wouldn't be able to judge until I was there.  Bottom line - I just wanted to have a fun day in the mountains.

One of my favorite aspects of spring climbing is the stable afternoon weather.  It afforded me the luxury of sleeping in - I didn't even hit the trail until 8:15 on Saturday morning.  I geared up fast and light, hoping to run as much of the approach as I could before an inevitable blanket of melting snow buried the trail.  A couple quick turns on and off the Rainbow Trail found me on my approach - the Horn Creek trail.  (which, I should point out, doesn't lead to Horn Peak.  Horn Creek drains Little Horn Peak.  Dry Creek drains Horn Peak.  Unfortunately there is no Dry Peak to further this confusion)
The Horn Creek trail alternated between open meadows...

...and mangled masses of downfall.
 A little over 2 miles in at 10,400', I ran into one of the guys who had turned around.  He had a defeated look in his eyes as informed me of the postholing nightmare just ahead of me.  Ugh, that kind of stuff usually doesn't attack until the afternoon!  Of course, I did what any normal person would do - I turned sharply right, straight up the south face of Little Horn's long east ridge.  This afforded me the "opportunity" to gain 1,600' vertical in a little less than .6 of a mile.  Joy.  It did get me to better footing quickly, though, and once on the ridge I made quick work of the terrain.

Little Horn comes into view
Little Horn, with Adams(L) lurking in the distance
I ran into (the) Bill Middlebrook near the summit of Little Horn.  He snapped a shot for me and let me know a few of my friends were just headed down the other side of LH on their way to Fluted.
Thanks for the pic, (the) Bill!
Gentle descent on the LH/Fluted saddle
On the descent of Little Horn, I started eyeing up the ridge to Mt. Adams.  It seemed to be clear enough of snow to at least take a look at it.  I was making great time, so just as I caught Otina and her crew, I veered left and got ready for the most exciting part of my day.

Hidden ledges...not so obvious, is it?

A little more obvious here
The going on the Fluted/Adams ridge was slow to say the least.  More than once, I found myself making a challenging move or two.  Nothing too crazy, just enough to keep it fun.  I was surprised by the amount of exposure offered by the ridge, too.  All in all, I put this up there near the El Diente/Mt. Wilson ridge in terms of difficulty.  A little more exposed, but not nearly as rotten.

 Some of the Fluted/Adams ridge
Looking back at the Horn Loop

What a view
 I had read a few TRs of Adams before heading out for the weekend, and I remembered distinctly the "Class 5 Chimney" mentioned in one of them.  Sure enough, there it was.  Sure enough, it was a thrilling finish to a beautiful summit.  Getting to the top of Adams via the Fluted ridge gave me reason to do a fist pump.  Awesome!
Guess which way I chose?

Rock on
Close-up of the chimney
One of a few technical sections
Besides the chimney, most of the difficult scrambling was found low, near the Fluted/Adams saddle.  Going up, I knocked out one mile of the ridge in 80 minutes.  Coming back down, it "only" took 60 to cover the same mile.  I still had a long ways to go; however, once I reached the saddle the tough stuff was behind me. Before I knew it, I was looking at the surprising summit of Fluted Peak.

Summit of Fluted Peak
My water level was getting alarmingly low by now, but otherwise I was just soaking in every moment as I meandered down and around to begin the climb of Horn Peak.  The rock on the lower part of the ridge was "scralus" - that sharp, crappy stuff that moves AND rolls on you.  Yuck.  The higher I got on the ridge, though, the higher quality of talus I came across.
Fluted from Horn's west ridge
Summit of Horn.  Adams doesn't look very close any more
 I hit the summit of Horn at 4:15 PM, 8 hours after I started.  8 hours is a full day's work.  I know where I'd rather be.
Avy chutes

Wild, wild life
 One concern I had was the condition of the Dry Creek drainage.  If it was anything like Horn Creek, it was sure to be chock full of snow still.  I attempted to stay ridge proper for as long as possible, but shortly after treeline I found even the top of the ridge to hold a surprising amount of snow.  I ducked down into the valley after a while, hoping the elevation loss would lead to shallow snow, but alas, I had to pay my dues for having such a fantastic day to that point.  The next mile-plus was postholehell.  The snow was so wet and warm, it acted like concrete at times.  Too often, I found myself thigh, hip, even belly-deep in the stuff.  Of course by now I had run out of water, as well.  The power of a good day was too much, though, and I was able to view this stretch as a mere hiccup to a great day.
"Oh $#%, I'm stuck!"


The last two miles of trail opened up enough for me to get my running legs going again.  After 10 hours, the thought of food, water, and a few other cold beverages kept me fueled and focused.  I pulled into the trailhead at 6:15 and promptly got busy at doing absolutely nothing.  Good times.

Stats on the day:
15.4 miles
10hours, 2 minutes
4 peaks
1 tired guy