Not that this has been an overriding concern in my life, but the one big thing I hadn't done in the 8 years I've been peak bagging is climb a 14er in winter. I climbed Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming in early March 1995, which at just over 12,000 feet is a much more difficult winter ascent than many 14ers. I've also climbed a few relatively easy 12ers and 13ers in Colorado in winter. The big issues are that I always lose the end of December and the first half of January to holiday and work commitments, and the weather is rarely any good on the other days when I can go. Also, since I'm usually solo and I'm somewhat of a coward, I tend to be particularly cautious when it comes to winter weather both for hiking and driving.
But, today was to be the day when I finally got my 1st winter 14er. It wasn't even the one I had set out to do! Access to two of the easiest and safest winter 14ers, Mount Lincoln and Mount Bross, is a little difficult in winter due to road maintainance issues and the rather poor attitudes of the people who live in the area. My plan was to hopefully circumvent this problem by a clever route on Mount Lincoln from the road closure of the Montgomery Reservoir Road. Unfortunately, the part of the road where I could have probably parked unmolested was not fit for driving my car. I also tried an alternate route, which ended with a gated road and a no trespassing sign by the city of Colorado Springs which gets at least part of it's water supply from up here. There was another nearby road for "fishing access" which again was not fit for car travel.
So, I had to call an "audible" (it is Superbowl Sunday). There are other options, but I decided to try Bross via the Windy Ridge Road. For this, you drive halfway up the road to Kite Lake (2.8 miles or as far as you can get, which as I found 2 years ago, was 2.6 miles), then take a right turn and hike up the road to the bristlecone pine forest. The guidebooks say that this road is closed in winter, but at least right now it's not. Although it appears that there may be no snow removal at all, in this dry snow season a person with a good 4WD and "big ones" could make it most of the way up the road, and in fact there were tire tracks on much of the road. But, that point was moot for me.
I finally got started at 0805 (horrors!). Skies were clear and there didn't seem to be much wind, so I thought I still might have a good day. I decided to try to take a short-cut and leave the road before the Dolly Varden Gulch area where the old mining roads start their climbs over the east flank of Bross. The standard winter route (and one of the alternate summer routes) has you following this road most of the way up Bross. I decided to put on my snowshoes and leave the road well before this gulch and make my own route. Technically, this short-cut is on private property as the various mining companies own most of the eastern halves of Bross and Lincoln near and above treeline. On the other hand, the summits are also on private property. I would have obeyed any "No Trespassing" signs but there weren't any, and it's pretty common on 14ers to have at least part of a route be within an old mining claim and nobody really cares. (Active mining operations and homesteads are, of course, a different matter.)
I found what seemed to be a reasonable place to leave the road, and put on my snowshoes. I had to gain about 400 feet to get out of the trees, and the snow was deep in spots. I kept the snowshoes on to gain a couple hundred more feet up variable snowcover to get up to a more level part at 12,000ft. I had been considering climbing directly to the long west ridge of Bross and then traverse over the minor 14,020ft false summit to the main summit. However, in making my way over and around deadfall and snowdrifts I headed too far north (right). That put me in a poor position relative to Bross, essentially due east of the false summit. On the other hand, the upper east slopes are so wind-hammered and essentially free of snow that I was free to pick any route that seemed reasonable, and the terrain isn't very steep anyway. (One of the great things about the east side of Bross is that there is rarely any avalanche danger, due to the wind and shallowness.)
Amazingly, though, there was hardly any wind even at 12,000ft! I've been doing about a mountain a month since early last fall and my weather seems to be getting better on each hike! It was still chilly [around 15-20F], but the wind was never sustained over 10 mph and I didn't see a single cloud the entire day; not even from the summit or when driving to and from the trailhead. At this point, I knew I had caught one of those rare "perfect" weather days during the winter, and all I had to do was keep my shit together and I would get my summit.
That still didn't make the last 2000 vertical feet any easier! The main problem was that I had locked myself into doing some traversing, and I had to deal with Bross' famous scree slopes in a few places, although this side of the mountain is fairly solid. Plus, I'm really not in that good of shape and I had spent a fair amount of effort snowshoeing through the forest. The highlight of this 2+ hour effort was that I encountered a white-tailed ptarmigan! (Lagopus leucurus; I hadn't looked at my Field Guide to North American Birds in several years, and I'll double check that identification once I get my film developed.) Despite the name, their winter plumage is totally white so it's a very striking bird, and it's a wonder I saw it at all since it was on snow. But, I was only about 15 feet away and was able to snap a couple pictures, and it didn't seem too bothered by my presence. I still gave it a wide berth as I continued my slow ascent.
I hit Bross' south ridge just below 14,000ft, and from there it's a relatively short walk up to the summit plateau. Unfortunately, this plateau is quite large and despite a snow-filled rock wind shelter on the east side, I was pretty sure that wasn't the summit. So, I still had a 5-minute walk over to the other side of the summit to another shelter, which made the whole thing sort of anti-climactic. I think this second shelter is at the true summit based on appearance and the topo map. Both shelters were completely filled with snow, so there was no chance of finding a summit register. In any case, I figured I wandered around the plateau enough to get within spitting distance of the true summit.
I was sort of ignoring my watch because I knew that I was taking a fairly long time for the ascent and with the fantastic weather I didn't really want to worry about the time. It was actually only just before 1230 when I summitted so I had plenty of time. It still took almost 4.5 hours for the ascent.
I had plenty of time on the ascent to consider descent options. Dolly Varden Gulch (remember that from the beginning of the report?) runs down from about 13,600ft all the way into the trees and hits the upper portion of the road I had partially hiked at the beginning. The gulch is quite pronounced and has a narrow bottom that was filled with snow. Hmmm...that should be a lot easier than talus and scree, and it would be direct. I had the possibility of glissading in the back of my head, but really didn't think it was steep enough (15-20 degrees). The descent from the summit to the top of the gulch was tedious, but short. Amazingly, I was able to glissade most of the way down to treeline!! There were no long continuous rides, and I had to "paddle" quite a bit with my arms in between rides to get to the next little good patch. The snow was mostly solid and fairly slick, but someone had apparently driven a snowmobile most of the way up the gulch, so it was broken up in places. Also, the high winds had driven the snow into "sastrugi" patterns in places like water waves, which were a little too rough for a sitting glissade. I definitely needed my slick nylon shell pants to slide on these gentle slopes. For you skiers, although the gully is a little narrow, it would be a pretty easy 2000ft descent in two pitches. Since I couldn't ride continuously, it still must have taken 20 minutes to descend 2000ft and I wore my arms and legs out a little with all the paddling and traversing I did from a seated position, but it was still a lot quicker than hiking down!
At treeline the snow was again quite soft, but I knew I was very close to the road, so I just wallowed through the powder rather than donning my snowshoes. This turned out to be the right decision and I quickly reached the road. This is the part I knew I would really hate; hiking almost 3 miles on a flat road at the end of a strenuous day. If the route is steep enough you get a lot of help from gravity, but not here. So, I patiently worked my way down the road. A 4WD truck came up the road while I was hiking down, but that was the only humanity I saw during the hike. My stomach was feeling a little unsettled, which seems to be a recurring theme recently. I have a hard time eating and drinking enough at altitude, and I don't remember having such big problems back when I used to hike a lot when I was living in Laramie. Anyway, I finally reached my car in the deep shadow of Loveland Mountain at 1459. It took just short of 7 hours for the route, and that included saving about 30 minutes glissading.
Thinking about ski traffic coming back to Denver, I decided to drive home via US 285 instead of I-70. Good move! At about the time I would have been there in I-70, I heard on the radio that traffic was clogged up in the Georgetown to Idaho Springs corridor due to high volume. My drive on 285 went almost perfectly! I thought the volume might have been even lower than normal for a winter weekend, maybe due to the Superbowl. (The game had already started by the time I got back to Boulder.) Of course, there aren't any ski areas with good access via 285 so I'm never quite sure what drives the traffic during the winter, other than people like me.
I was pretty worn out from the hike, but I wasn't very sore the next day. I'm guessing that I might not get this good of weather on a winter ascent of any high peak for a couple years, but I'm still hoping to get in another 14er or two before spring.
To the chronological trip index
To the Mount Bross page
File last modified: 03 July 2008