I finally summited a mountain outside the Tenmile-Mosquito or Front Range this year! This summer turned out to mostly be a tour de nearby peaks, but I finally did something in the Sawatch Range. (Which is still rather close to Boulder.)
I had a nice hike up the south side of Mount Elbert in late September several years ago, with nice views of aspens in their fall colors. I decided to give up on doing Casco and French together and do the route on Casco up Echo Canyon, near the Elbert route. I figured that if nothing else I would have good views of aspens on the drive and hopefully on the hike as well.
Considering that just getting out and getting to the trailhead are a significant part of the deal, this was really my fourth attempt at Casco. My first "attempt" ended with hitting a deer just a few miles before I would have turned off onto the Independence Pass Road, and I limped back home with $1500 worth of damage to my car. In the second "attempt" last August, I found out that the road to the north side route for Casco and French wasn't good enough for me to drive, and I didn't want to add another 3+ miles of walking to an already hefty route. Instead, I came partway back home and climbed Atlantic Peak. Finally, a month after Atlantic, I found yet another road I couldn't drive in the Sawatch, and instead of that hike I made a half-assed attempt at the western route on Casco. But, it wasn't what I wanted to be doing, nor the early start I wanted, so I bailed at treeline.
We are near New Moon and it is getting dark early enough for me to start spending some quality time out of the city with my 6" telescope. But, that observing sort of screwed up my scheduling to try to climb Casco on Saturday. I really didn't want to be on the highways Sunday afternoon with all the leaf-watchers and hikers, so I decided to burn a vacation day and climb on Monday.
I didn't get a particularly early start from Boulder for the 2.5 hour drive. But, we were still in a prolonged spell of excellent weather, so I wasn't very concerned. I arrived at the "trailhead" at a little before 8am. If you are driving a normal car, there is room for 2 cars to park across from the start of the signed road. A 4WD can get you up a quarter of a mile of bad road to the start of the trail; I don't remember how much room there was for parking there.
The first part of the trail stays fairly close to Echo Creek before making a brief climb out of the canyon. You are hiking through a grove of aspens here, so it was quite pretty in the early sunshine. It was to remain less than 10% cloudy the entire day, and it was warmer than I expected at the start. Just above 11100ft, the trail splits, with the more popular route going to the right for several mines and eventually up to Bull Hill. There were even rocks aligned at the junction to guide you up this trail. But, I was paying attention and knew that I wanted the left branch to continue up Echo Creek where it flattens out and stops being a canyon.
The trail is good up to near treeline, and then gets sketchy at times. I never quite figure out how a trail can be really good for a while, then bad, then good again. There were several places where I had to carefully consider whether I was still following the trail. One of these places was a large rockfield at around 11700ft. I thought I was doing a pretty good job in crossing this and finding more trail segments afterwards. This isn't a particularly good valley to go off trail due to all the ground willows, and in fact the trail remains well above the creek most of the time.
I managed to make it to the point where I could see the saddle to which I would climb to reach the final ridge. The trail seemed to peter out here, so after a break, I started heading straight up the slope. It wasn't too steep, but I suddenly hit a trail angling up to the right. As it turns out, there is a trail all the way up the ridge! This is not depicted on maps, nor mentioned in the Roaches' high 13er guidebook. There was one place where the trail was not very environmentally sound, but otherwise it is a great trail with long switchbacks. A bit too long, frankly, and I added a bit to the guidebook distance to compensate. The last switchback to reach the saddle is a little gratuitous as the better route would be to continue to the left to a spot above the saddle, rather than hiking almost directly away from the summit to hit the saddle. I actually cut this switchback on the way down, a practice I only recommend if the surface is not loose and the trail builders were morons.
The ridge is pretty well defined until the very top, so I expected bits of climbers trail and that was the case. I seemed to be feeling more tired than usual up this ridge, but from my altimeter watch I know it only took 45 minutes for the last 1000 feet. Near the summit, the ridge is a little less defined, which is the only real stretch of sustained Class 2 on the whole route. You could actually do some Class 3 scrambling here if you wanted.
The summit itself is a collection of large boulders without any marking or summit register. There is a slight chance I could have missed the latter if it was hidden below the boulders, but I checked all the likely locations. The views were pretty good, although there is still not very much snow at all on the peaks. I also couldn't really see any aspen groves. But, I could identify a lot of peaks that I had previously climbed (I've climbed 18 out of the top 21 "ranked" peaks in the Sawatch Range). Leadville was also visible in a gap in the terrain which of course means just the reverse, although it might be hard to identify it to the right of Mount Elbert.
I ended up spending about 25 minutes on the summit. I did the usual photography, both still and moving, and had something to eat. I did a full weather report a little after 1130, which included the observation of a few cirrus clouds, a temperature of 39F, relative humidity of 29%, dewpoint of 9F, winds from bearing 310 at 7 mph gusting to 10 mph, and a barometric pressure of 613 millibars. (With just 4 ounces of gear, you too can be a portable weather station!) A friend of mine made the comment that while we in Colorado tended not make a big deal about being at 13 or 14000ft, he still considers that pretty high. (And he has climbed Kilimanjaro!) It is the pressure measurement that reminds me just how high 14000-ish feet is. Average sea-level pressure is 1015 millibars, and Colorado's highest peaks are at 60% of that! Of course, Boulder averages about 85% of sea-level, but I still find it worth contemplating the 8000-9000ft of difference between home and a summit. The human body wouldn't have to have the capability of dealing with that much of a reduction of oxygen without a substantial acclimatization period.
The descent back down to the main trail went fast and easy. I descended about 1600ft in 35 minutes. It turns out that the switchbacking trail between the saddle and the valley does connect, it's just that there is yet another "stupid" switchback at the bottom that you don't expect. One might have a hard time finding this part from below, but if you want to try, you have to go past where it looks like the valley trail ends. The best option is to walk uphill to the big rock that will be staring at you as you are looking at the slope to the saddle, and find the trail just above that.
The most interesting thing about the valley trail was on the descent. I had noticed at one point on the ascent that I went from a sketchy trail to a good trail and could see behind me that I had not been following the good trail. It turns out that there must be at least two "trails" between the rock field I mentioned earlier and a point near where you turn off to reach the saddle. My descent was on a good trail that stayed closer to the valley floor and seemed to be snaking through a lot more willow patches.
I reached the rock field and seemed to be much lower than I had crossed it on the way up and could not find a trail on the other side. There are some helpful cairns in places on both trails, but I was sort of hung out to dry at this point. It was one of those situations where I wasn't lost, but didn't want to have to bash through willows and such to get back to treeline, and didn't want to have to fumble around finding where to enter the trees.
I decided to wander up the edge of the rock field because I really thought I needed to be higher. After gaining about 50 or 60 feet, voila, I hit a good trail entering/exiting the rocks! I'm almost 100% certain that this was my ascent route to the rocks. I still don't quite understand the "proper" route or routes, but I guess it is sort of fun to have to think about these things, unlike mountains with a yak route all the way to the summit. I recommend saving a little extra energy (physical and mental) for trail-finding on the way up and down.
Anyway...I usually end up being ready for the hike to end at some point on the descent. This time it was near the junction to the trail up Bull Hill. It was a combination of being a little tired on this day, hiking pretty fast anyway, anxious to check out more views of fall colors on the way home, and the fact that my feet were blistering like crazy! I can't remember the last time I've had such a good collection of blisters after a hike. I should have taken better care of my feet on the way down, but they are usually in better shape at the end than they feel. This time I ended up with many blisters on each foot, most of which had to be drained when I got home. To be fair, the one on my left heel was due to the leather covering of my custom orthotic peeling and producing a little bump. I'm at a loss to explain the rest. Same boots and same socks as several other hikes this summer, and this one wasn't much longer. These socks seem to work better with my hiking shoes and running shoes, so I may need to revert back to an old pair with my boots. Fortunately, I was able to walk to work reasonably well the next day, just with a band-aid on one of my toes to cover a dime-sized patch of beet red "new" skin where the blister had been rubbed completely off.
The last stretch was still nice under the canopy of golden aspen leaves, and some parts of the trail bed were also golden with the leaves that have already fallen. I reached my car 5:45 after I started, at just a bit before 2pm. It was a balmy 66F at 10000ft. The drive back down the Independence Pass Road featured a few stops for photos, and there was some color visible from US 24 back to Leadville, and on parts of I-70. Speaking of Leadville, gas prices are pretty high and I set a new record with a $19 fill up! That may not sound like much, but I've never owned anything with more than a 12-13 gallon tank, and almost never have to put in more than 11.
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File last modified: 02 January 2005