Can we call this one an epic? Well, not quite, but before I report on our arduous trip, here's a quick note on snow conditions in the southern Sawatch Range. Bring floatation devices!!! Skis, snowshoes, whatever. There's a lot of snow up there, and even with mostly clear skies at night, the snow is not necessarily consolidating. If you get lucky with a cold night you might be OK on the way up but you will get into trouble on the way down. This advice would seem to apply to most if not all of the Sawatch Range based upon what we saw from the summit. We were on the east side of a mountain, so you might have better luck on another side of a mountain, but I wouldn't bet on it. End of snow report, now the trip report.
First, the background. Tom emailed me a couple weeks ago about maybe hooking up for a 14er or three this year. Tom lives in Wichita and was planning on several trips to Colorado. We ended up agreeing on Shavano and Tabeguache via the Angel of Shavano, a snow feature on the east face of Shavano that sort of looks like a 1000+ foot tall angel with upstretched arms. Tom's friend Jeff would accompany us, and I was a little concerned because Jeff had never been to 14000ft before and Wichita is at only 1300ft (Tom had climbed 10 14ers so I wasn't too worried about him). This turned out to be a non-issue.
We were to meet at about 4:30am, so I left Laramie at about 11:30pm. The drive went well until about 2.5 miles from the trailhead when the right-hand side of the only switchback on the road was drifted over for about two car lengths. There was a tire track on the snow and after about 10 minutes of thinking it over, I decided to try it in my car and made it fairly easily. My only concern was when the snow got mushy in the heat of the day and I had to drive back down. This put me behind schedule and it was after 4:30 when I arrived at the car trailhead which was empty. I walked up the 4WD road a little while just to check that they were there, but decided it was too far to the "real" trailhead and came back down and geared up.
By the time I reached their 4Runner a quarter-mile up the road it was about 5:05am and the note on the windshield said "4:45", so I had to pick up 20 minutes on them. I started hiking up the trail but after only a few hundred feet of elevation gain parts were covered in snow, and shortly after, the trail disappeared. To top it off, the snow wasn't consolidated at all. I followed posthole footprints for a while and caught up with Tom and Jeff. After the introduction, my first comment was something like, "well, this sucks!". To make this part of a long story short, we laboriously postholed our way up the drainage through the forest generally following snowshoe and ski tracks, often sinking crotch-deep (or worse) into the snow.
Our first break came at about 7am and we had only made it up to about 11200ft; a rate of about 700ft per hour. On my successful climb of Shavano in 1995 with a clear trail to the Angel, I was already above 12500ft two hours into the trip. At least the weather was good with clear skies and light winds. From there, it took us until about 8:15 to make it to the base of the Angel at 12000ft, with somewhat consolidated snow above treeline.
The snow in the lower part of the Angel was mostly in decent shape and Tom and I alternated leading kicking steps up the slope. By this time Jeff was lagging behind and willingly let Tom and I go at our pace. All that postholing had really worn us out so our pace was quite slow and we had already decided that the one-mile connecting ridge between Shavano and Tabaguache was a goal for a different trip.
This early in the year the Angel isn't very well defined at the top and there is continuous snow well past the nominal top. However, the higher snow generally wasn't as well consolidated so we alternated between the snow and talus. For what it's worth, we pretty much went up the head of the Angel instead of either of the wings, which are best later in the season. At about 13500ft we hit what was pretty much the highest significant snow. A pair on snowshoes and skis had already summitted and this was the point where they ditched a pack and their flotation devices. Tom decided to drop his pack here and carry the bare essentials up the summit.
Although we had just about counted Jeff out of the summit and knew that we would have a tough time making it, by this time we noticed that Jeff really wasn't all that far behind us. Tom and I continued our plodding pace up the talus with Tom in the lead and myself remaining about 20 feet below. Finally at 11:17 we reached the summit. At 6 hours and 12 minutes it was slowest ascent of my mountaineering career. However, with our early start it was a reasonable summit time with noon being our "turn-around time". Tom narrated the summit view to his camcorder and took some still photos. I somehow managed not to even take my camera out of my pack. It's too bad because the views were great and we could pick out a lot of the other Sawatch Range 14ers, Pikes Peak, and pieces of several of the other major ranges of the state. The atmosphere was very clear and the visibility was probably nearly 100 miles (Pikes was about 65 miles away).
After about twenty minutes we headed back down and before too long we met up with Jeff. Since we were so close to the summit, Tom offered to hike back up to the summit with Jeff, and I was to head down to Tom's pack. I quickly realized that I really didn't know where Tom's pack was (just about any downhill route will go so I hadn't worried too much about the specific route), so I slowly descended a while and found a big rock on which to lounge in the sun. They eventually came back down and Tom led us back to his pack.
Finally, we could reap the reward for all that climbing; the glissade down the Angel! In 1995, I had slid 1000ft down the Angel in less than 4 minutes, albiet a little out of control. However, we had several hundred bonus feet above the Angel which served as a good warm-up for the main attraction. Tom took the first few hundred feet first and Jeff shot some video. Then I went down the mushy snow; not really fast but easy to keep your control. By the time Jeff made it down to our position a cumulus cloud with enough ummph to produce a few minutes of granular snow (but not graupel) passed overhead. Even then, the lightning threat was pretty much non-existant. Tom and Jeff took the Angel in two pitches to get more video, but I wanted to do the whole 1000ft at once just to see how fast I could do it under control. The answer: 4 minutes 25 seconds. What a ride! The softness of the snow actually made for good conditions once you got going because you could regulate your speed easily.
Unfortunately, now we had to posthole back down to the trail. Although this is easier downhill, the snow was even sloppier in the heat of the day, and it seemed like it would never end. Tom led the way down most of the time because he was doing a better job of route-finding. Once we finally hit the trail, we were almost done, and reached the trailhead at about 3pm.
It's funny; I commented in my report from a couple years ago on the trailhead sign that warned people that it takes 12 hours to hike to Shavano and back. In that respect, I'm a little chagrined that we took almost that long. On the other hand, the people that need a sign like that probably aren't attempting Shavano this early in the year! (For reference, with the clear trail I had in 1995, the round-trip to Shavano took 6 hours.) To further put this into perspective, this was my longest day hiking by a half-hour. We earned this one!
To finish, I had to hike the last quarter-mile to my car. Tom was surprised that I drove across that snowdrift, and mentioned that they had found an alternate route that avoided this obstacle, so I followed them out on a good road. This alternate route, which will be a good idea for the next week or two, involves taking the right fork on your way up where the signed road for Blank Gulch branches to the left. The right fork is signed for a couple other gulches. This road joins the Blank Gulch route at a cattle guard a short drive away from the passenger car trailhead.
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File last modified: 28 December 2004