Monday, June 4, 2012

Little Browns Creek Mountain Marathon

The Shavano "Marathon"
Mt. Antero, Tabeguache Peak, and Mt. Shavano from Browns Creek TH 
26.3 miles
9,750' gain
10 hours, 20 minutes of fun
Hikers/Climbers/Runners/Whateverers:  Me, Jake, Christoph*

I had a free weekend, so I figured I better spend some time on my feet.  On Saturday, I ran the 26.5 miles from Palmer Lake to my place in 3:33.  No Boston qualifier, but the 8:00 miles did feel good.

Sunday's plan came together as the week progressed; I'd known I wanted to get into the mountains for something long, but had a bunch of ideas.  By mid-week, I had done some research and decided that hitting the Shavano group would be a good run.  I also hoped to scout out more of the Nolan's 14 course.  (I had already been to the top of all three peaks, but had never been in the basin between Antero and the other two)  Christoph was up for a day in the mountains.  So was Jake, a sophomore at the Naval Academy who used to run for Cheyenne Mountain.  Crew assembled; game on.

The route - start at Browns Creek TH west of Buena Vista.  Up Little Browns Creek trail until we got bored, then up Antero's SE face.  Down Antero, into the Browns Creek basin, up to the Carbonate-Tabeguache saddle, complete the Tabeguache-Shavano traverse, standard Shavano trail to Blank Cabin TH, Colorado Trail back to Browns TH.  Got all that?

Wheels up at 6:30.  A little on the late side, but we move.

Browns Creek TH serves both Browns Creek Trail and Little Browns Creek Trail.  From the TH, a trail goes about 1.7 miles until it hits the Colorado Trail.  From here, you go left on the CT for a short while to catch the Browns Creek Trail.  Of course, the creek you cross en route is Little Browns Creek.  If you want to get on the Little Browns Creek Trail, don't turn towards Little Browns Creek; instead, go right on the CT for a little bit before making a left at Little Browns Creek Trail.  The good news is that all of these junctions are clearly marked.

Little Browns Creek Trail was somewhat undulate-y.  For us, it was about 75% runnable going up.  As with everything else I've seen in the Sawatch this spring, there was quite a bit of deadfall.

The trail is lest densely forested than those in the northern Sawatch.  This cool little clearing must've been around 10,000'.

Mt. White in the background.  Our route would find us circumnavigating the whole thing.

Around treeline.  Christoph decided at this point to bag any idea of hitting a bunch of peaks, as he wasn't feeling too hot.

9AM - 3:30 into our day.  Jake looking out toward our next objective - Tabeguache. 

I didn't particularly enjoy any of these three peaks when I did them individually the first time around.  However, I had read enough trip/race/experience/adventure reports from people who had done portions of Nolan's 14 to know that getting sidetracked and lost, even for a couple of miles, can spell the end of one's adventure.  More than one party had gotten confused and/or lost during this part, or had chosen a route that required a great more deal of effort than necessary.  I wanted to get familiar with the Browns Creek basin in case I had to deal with this portion in the dark.  Instead of ascending up the Tabeguache/Shavano saddle (which by every account I've ever read is horrible), I thought it might be more expedient for us to gain the Tabeguache/Carbonate saddle.

We took Jeep roads down from Antero for as far as we could.  Eventually we had to bite the bullet and bushwhack across the upper basin.

Looking up to the Tabeguache/Carbonate saddle.  Notice the me, we did.  We knew we were racing time and were in full-on kick ass mode, as the next couple miles were all very high and exposed.

The view east to Tabeguache's summit from point 13,936.  It's interesting to note a comment Roach makes in his book about the current standard route up Tabeguache, which involves first summitting Shavano.  He mentions his concern over being above treeline for a long time, thereby inviting bad weather.  One look here makes me say it doesn't really matter - in order to get to the top of Tabeguache, you are going to have to spend a good deal of time near 14,000' no matter how you do it.  We had just gained almost 2,000' in VERY short order.  The clouds hadn't yet fully formed.  There were isolated patches to our north and west, but we knew we were on borrowed time.

Jake near the summit, looking east toward Shavano and wondering which one of us was going to get struck my lightning.

"LET IT BE ME, LORD.....LET IT BE ME!!!"  Tempting fate.

Once we got to Tabeguache, our bailout option finally switched from backtrack to drop down the Tabeguache/Shavano saddle to the north into Browns Creek.  As we busted ass down Tabeguache, we noticed a couple dudes hiking down Shavano, obviously looking to summit Tabeguache. now, I was convinced Jake and I were idiots.  But these guys...were willingly pushing on.  A small wall of rain/graupel/something was about to hit us, but behind it was another stretch of clear skies.  They seemed unconcerned, as this would surely pass.  I've learned enough to not preach on the mountain.  And who was I to talk anyway. We were up high too, but I did share our plan to skirt around the summit as we didn't like what we were dealing with.  Sure enough, within two minutes of parting ways, I felt it..."JAKE, GET DOWN!"  No questions asked, we hunkered down at 13,800'.  Less than a minute later, flash and boom from not too far away.  These other two guys let that serve as their warning to turn around and joined us.

Right after a strike...

...and right before another one.  Yes, your hair really does stand on end.  Another eerie thing - if there's a lot of charge in the air, you can stick your hand up and hear it.  Don't stick your hand up.  :/  How about don't get stuck up high during an electrical event?

The last bit passing by.  Mammatus clouds, I believe?

Back in the sun on Shavano's summit.

Down, down, down.

The "impassable deadfall" on Shavano's standard route.  Hey Forest Service guys are freaking awesome.  Seriously, some amazing work to clear the trail!

Some sort of demonic deadfall hatchling I suppose.

"Hey Jake, do you want Christoph to pick us up at Blank Cabin?"  "Nah, I want to run the Colorado Trail!"  And thus, an 18-mile day became a 26-mile day.  We each had our last sip of water at Blank Cabin.  The last 8 miles (the sign at Blank Cabin says it's only 5...yeah, right) were TOUGH, but beautiful.

When it was all said and done, we covered 26.3 miles.  I had no intentions of running back-to-back marathon distances days, but there it was.  I ended up with 101 for the week...somewhat by accident.  A great day, though, as I got to see much more of this area than I ever experienced during my initial climbs of these three peaks nearly ten years ago.  We stopped at the Coyote Cantina in Johnson Village, ate like kings, and began scheming for the next meaty mountain loop.

Disclaimer:  OK, so let me get this straight.  Getting stuck up high during a storm is no picnic.  Could it have been avoided?  Yep.  An earlier start would've been the best defense.  In 100+ summits of 14,000' peaks, this was the sketchiest weather I've ever had to deal with.  Considering the stories I've heard from others, I consider myself lucky.

Ultra-types:  Another pretty cool loop.  Of the 26 miles, I'd estimate we were able to run about 13-15 of them.  Going Antero first allowed us to run the jeep roads down for a few might be pretty difficult to run them upward.  The icing on the cake was the stretch of the CT from Blank Cabin to Browns Creek...beautiful stuff.

Hikers:  Little Browns Creek is a way to take in some otherwise ho-hum mountains.  I distinctly remember being kind of jaded by Antero - the roads, gem-diggers, 4x4's, etc.  Approaching this way meant we didn't have to deal with the junk show until the very end.  For those of you who kind of like the "solitude" thing, forget Baldwin Gulch!

26, 45, close enough.  Cannot wait till this album comes out in July.


  1. hair on end? Christ dude.

  2. GZ, yup. Here's the thing that's difficult to put into words. Were we freaked out? Hell yes. Was there much we could do about it at the time? Nope - we were as low as we could comfortably go, we were a couple hundred feet below the high point with a decent amount of rock cover around us. Seeing that it was only a pass-through, we elected to wait it out where we were. Could we have used better judgement? Yeah. I'd go that far. We could've gotten an earlier start - 6:30 isn't super early for a three-fer, even for those planning on making good time. We dug in at 12:15, which is later than I like being on any summit unless it's bluebird.

    That being said, I know of many others who have been in far sketchier situations. If this is the worst I've ever had of it in 100+ summits, I'll trust that I don't need to give up the sport as long as I'm capable of showing the ability to learn.

    Day one of the Nolan's run-through will start at 2:00 AM. :)

  3. For what it is worth, one of the things I really don't like about the burro races is they start at 9AM. That puts you on a high pass way too late in my opinion.

  4. Those rocks have some interesting shapes. It looks like they were human made. Instead of the nature.