This trip came closer to not happening than any other successful trip I can remember. As is my usual practice, I planned to do the trip in one long day from home. I had slept most of the afternoon and evening Saturday and woke up at around 8pm, more or less on schedule. However, I didn't feel much like doing anything at that point and ended up going back to sleep from 9 to midnight. I took it as a given that I had cancelled the trip by going back to sleep, and although I felt much better, I decided that I would wait until dawn and do YALHITBF (yet-another-long-hike-in-the-Boulder-foothills). I fixed some "breakfast", chicken noodle soup and crackers, and tried to figure out what I was going to do in the meantime.
I had left Netscape open from Saturday morning when I was looking at hiking trip reports. With this little bit of encouragement, and a remarkable fit of enthusiasm, I suddenly decided at 1am that I had to go on this trip. Even though I was partly packed for the trip, the strategy behind getting up at 8-9pm was to have some time to finish packing and then leave at around 11pm for the 5.5 hour drive. I scrambled everything together within a half-hour, and hoping I didn't forget something important, I pulled away from the curb at 1:32am. Hurrah!
The hardest part of climbing San Luis from the east side is just getting to the Stewart Creek trailhead, which requires the longest unpaved road journey of any 14er, almost 30 miles. Many people have had problems with the driving directions for the complicated driving route in Roach's 14er guidebook. However, his new 13er guidebook has a much simpler (and optimal) approach which was easy to follow. Also, for being in the middle of nowhere, the roads are amazingly well signed. And, they are amazingly smooth! I was able to average about 25 mph in my Saturn sedan and only rarely had to slow much below 20. Rare kudos to Saguache County and the Forest Service for both the signage and the road maintainance.
I started the backroad trek at first light and there was some really nice aspen color along the roads. I hadn't even really been thinking about fall color season, but elevations around 10-11,000 feet are near peak. It was a gorgeous morning in all respects, clear and calm, with temperatures just below freezing in the high valleys.
The trailhead is at a non-descript open area along the main road. It really doesn't look like a mountain trailhead, except that you can see the terrain roaring up in the distance. If there weren't signs specifically saying that it was the trailhead you could easily drive right by it. There's room for quite a few cars to park and even a couple of car-camping spots, but it was empty when I arrived. There were several occupied car-camping sites within a mile of the trailhead.
I usually don't pull a stupid stunt like starting to climb a 14er after sunrise. But, today the weather was supposed to be stable, and with a trail all the way to the summit, I figured to be on top before 11am. The Stewart Creek valley is bounded on the south by a tall ridge that eventually leads up to high-13er Organ Mountain, so the valley bottom was still in shadow at 0723 when I started.
After a short trek up the open valley bottom, you finally get into the more typical forested terrain. There are an enormous number of beaver ponds along the creek, and moose were re-introduced to the valley a few years ago. But, I didn't see any wildlife except for a couple deer. I did hear what might have been two moose calls, but I don't really know what moose are supposed to sound like (I probably heard elk). The only person I encountered on the way up was apparently in the valley for wildlife viewing, and hadn't seen anything either. I'm not sure where he came from, unless he shortcutted from somewhere to get on the trail.
The trail sticks with the north side of the drainage, and climbs well above the creek in spots. One of the interesting things is that on the north side of the drainage, facing the Sun, lies what must be one of the highest stands of trees in the state. Typical treeline in Colorado is around 11,500 or maybe slightly higher, but these conifers must have been at 12,300, and the markings on the Trails Illustrated map confirm this. However, nearer the valley bottom, you break out of the trees well below this point.
The grade is quite shallow until you get to around 12,200ft. Out of the 6-mile one-way distance, you gain about half of the altitude in less than one-third of the distance. It's still not sensationally steep, and the trail is good all the way to the summit, with the exception of a few spots. The terrain is smooth enough that you wouldn't really need a trail, and the Class 1 rating rings loud and clear.
For much of the approach into the upper basin, a false summit stares you in the face. You reach a major ridge at a saddle between Organ Mountain and this false summit. At this point, you can see the real summit. I could see something on the summit and it's visibility seemed to change rapidly. I guessed it was a flag. A bumpy ridge extends from the major false summit to the true summit. The trail skirts the false summit and other ridge points on the left (east) side, partly on scree. Just before the last ridge point, the trail crosses over to the right-hand (west) side, followed by the last, short push to the summit. There was actually a small patch of snow about a minute below the summit, which I decided was probably left over from snow squalls during a cold snap a week or two ago rather than spring snow that never melted.
A friend of mine will be trying for his first sub-3 hour marathon in a couple of weeks, and back at the Organ Mountain saddle I decided that I could break 3 hours for my ascent if I pushed hard. Unfortunately, this meant I was in overdrive for about the last 40 minutes of the ascent. I barely made it, summitting at 1020. Part of the problem is that I've been hiking exclusively near Boulder at or below 8000ft all summer and I can move really well without the challenges of high altitude. My hurrying was to bite me in the ass later in the day.
Indeed, an American flag was planted at the summit, gently flapping in the 10 mph southwesterly breeze. [I found out later that this was part of an effort to put flags on all the 14ers shortly after the 9/11 attack.] The blue sky was only interrupted by a few small clouds that had recently formed and it was about 50 degrees. I was in the earliest bunch of people to get my $300 federal tax rebate and I used it to buy a camcorder two months ago. I used a borrowed camcorder a few years ago on a few hikes, but this was my first real hike with the new one. I was able to get some good close-ups of other San Juan peaks, including 14ers Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre, the latter of which was one of the hikes I videotaped in 1997. Visibility was excellent, although not exceptional, maybe 60-70 miles.
The whole summit experience seemed rather unreal. I hadn't been on a 14er in 16 months and had only done one high-altitude hike in between. Less than 10 hours before, I wasn't even going on this trip! The weather has rarely been better for me on a mountaintop. I'm still having trouble convincing myself that I've now actually climbed a 14er this year.
I used to spend more time on summits, but it's seems like I hardly do that anymore, and after about 20 minutes, I headed back down. I made my way rapidly down the trail. Just below the saddle with Organ Mountain, I ran into the only other people I would see. It was a group of three, one of whom was finishing her last 14er! She had picked an easy one so that a bunch of friends could join the climb, but it hadn't quite worked out.
Once I got down to the flats, I started feeling the effects of my rapid ascent. It wasn't just that I had tired myself out, but also that it's hard to properly hydrate or eat when you are moving fast at altitude, and you can't really make up for it once you've screwed up. So, I tried to drink as much water as possible (I carried nearly a gallon, and used almost 3 quarts), and just kept myself in Relentless Forward Progress mode. And, even though it's an easy hike, it is fairly long for a 14er. In fact, this may have cracked my top ten list for longest hike on a 14er. (If you're scoring at home, San Luis was my 37th 14er out of 54.)
I reached the trailhead just before 1pm, so even with the 12-mile distance, I still came in under 6 hours. This makes it one of the few times I've averaged 2 mph on a 14er. It was in the 60s by this point, still with hardly a cloud in the sky. Days like this are one of the reasons that September is often the best weather month in Colorado.
There were two "highlights" of the trip back home. First, I could see a smoke plume as I was driving along CO 114 towards Saguache. Eventually, there was a sign along the side of the road saying that there was a prescribed burn in progress. It was certainly a very calm, stable day, but I would have thought the humidity was too low. Second, I got stuck in an awful traffic jam on US 285 near Conifer. It took 35 minutes to drive 2.5 miles, and I lost more than 45 minutes overall. I guess everyone else decided to enjoy what could have been the last great weather weekend of the year.
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File last modified: 28 December 2004