I just don't seem to have good luck with the Tenmile Range. After a terrific dawn ascent of Quandary Peak last September, I'm 0-for-4, three of those 'failures' being due to snow conditions.
So far, the northern mountains of Colorado have been preferencially getting snowed on this year. I still figured that things wouldn't be too bad.
The dirt road up McCullough Gulch is excellent and not steep, which is good because it had some snow on it. There are spots to park below a gate and I was the first one there.
I started hiking at 8:45am, taking advantage of the expected good weather to sleep until 4:30. The hike starts at 11080ft and you continue up the road to a trail junction at about 11400ft. I was able to stay on the trail for a while, but eventually lost it in the snow. The snow wasn't too bad in the trees as it was mostly powder and generally less than a foot deep. However, I was spending a lot of time with route-finding.
I finally broke out of the trees at about 11800ft near a long unnamed lake at about 10am. My pace was disheartening, but the weather was beautiful and so were the mountains. Before the lake, I had run into a place where I had to actually do some class 3 scrambling near a small waterfall. This gully was more rugged than I expected, but I was off-route.
Above the lake, the exact route isn't any more obvious than below. You can see on the topo map the the terrain is hilly on the 20-40ft level, and it's pretty rocky. What made this awkward was the snowcover. I stayed on the rocks as much as possible, but brief postholing in thigh-deep snow drifts was unavoidable.
At 10:47, I finally took a real sit-down rest. The going had been slow enough and I was only at 12340ft according to the watch, so I really hadn't been working very hard. 1200 vertical feet in 2 hours is 1/3 of my maximum hiking pace. Part of the problem is that the valley just isn't very steep. My journal entry was, "disappointing progress, but getting there, light breeze, clear skies".
By this point I could see that I could have problems later. There is a fairly steep section on the topo map from 12800- 13200ft that leads to the saddle between Pacific Peak and an unnamed 13841ft high point. First of all, I could see snow devils dancing on this saddle so I knew it was windy on high. Second, that steep section looked to be an interesting snow climb to say the least, and the thought of avalanche danger started creeping into my mind.
The final lake on this route is at 12695ft, and shortly beyond this the snow steepens dramatically to start the steep climb to the saddle. I took another break at this point and surveyed the situation. Occasional light spindrift was gliding down the slope from the wind at the saddle. It was difficult to estimate the angle, but it looked to be shallow enough for me to safely climb. There was no evidence of avalanches on the slope. I continued on, and the slope got steep enough to be a climb at 11:50am and 12820ft.
The snow was miserable to climb. There was a 2-3" weak crust above 1-2 feet of powder. I struggled up about 60ft in a few minutes as the angle increased to about 40 degrees. So here's the situation - it would take me at least a half-hour to get up this slope, it has a heavy layer on top with no substantial support below, the sun had been working on this top layer all morning, much of this slope was at a 40 degree angle, there was a convex slope at the top where the angle eases dramatically for the last 150ft, the slope is on the lee (east) side of a ridge, and, oh yes, I'm alone. Again, there were no signs of any activity, but I really wasn't sure how long it had been since the most recent snow and whether the sun had had a chance to do anything before today. I thought about this for a couple minutes and decided to bail at about 12900ft. The snow may have been safe, but I wasn't going to take any chances.
I hustled back down to a place with a nice overlook of Lake 12695 and chilled for a while. No pun intended, the weather was actually rather warm. And the scenery, wow! I'll find out for sure tomorrow, but I think this may be the best set of mountain photos I've taken. The funny thing was that I really wasn't too disappointed with not reaching the summit; I'm not sure if this was a good thing or not.
I finally started moseying down, seeing how well I could follow my bootprints from the ascent. This was interesting because of the stretches where I was rock-hopping. As I got closer to the lake just above treeline, there were some footprints that weren't mine, and I ended up following these to the lake and the trail, briefly getting a distant look at the person who made the prints.
I reached a rocky area where four people were lying in the sun on the rocks, and from here on down, I had no trouble following the trail due to all the footprints in the snow and mud. Apparently at least one person was familiar enough with the trail to follow it through the snow. I made it back to my car just after 2pm.
On the drive home, I was very disappointed in the lack of aspen color in Colorado; the only decent stuff was near Woods Landing just north of the Wyoming-Colorado border.
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File last modified: 20 December 2004