Mount Parnassus trip report

Disclaimer

This hike was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my first mountain peak. Since I'm leaving the West soon, I didn't want to "waste" a day with the 3+ hour drive to Laramie and westward to climb Medicine Bow Peak for the 13th time. I really would have liked to have done something more significant, but I'm still recovering from my hernia surgery. Also, my plan was to hike on this day, and again on the 3rd and the 5th, taking a 5-day weekend instead of the "normal" 3-day holiday weekend. That strategy required some caution.

I was going to try to drive up the Mount Evans Road to do Spalding and Gray Wolf. But, yet again the road was closed. This time, I drove about halfway up the approach road and could see that there was fresh snow on the mountain and figured that they needed to do snow removal. What's really stupid, though, is that I checked road conditions at the CDOT website at around 0430 and they had the usual "open 24/7 conditions permitting", but I was able to go back to an archive of National Weather Service statements, which includes the road reports, and at 0500, they said that the road was completely closed!! Which is really stupid since there would have already been poor road conditions well before 4am, and probably even before midnight, given the heavy precipitation that fell along the east slopes of the Continental Divide the previous evening. Either it's a 24/7 road or not! If it is, you don't wait many hours to check the conditions and have such an idiotic switch from "dry" to "closed" from one report to another. End of rant.

Yet, this wasn't totally a surprise and I had a contingency plan for Mount Parnassus and maybe nearby Bard Peak. These peaks loom over I-70 in the vicinity of the Bakerville exit (Exit 221), directly across the valley from 14ers Grays and Torreys. However, Parnassus and Bard are 600+ feet shorter. One can do a rather difficult bushwack to the saddle between the peaks from Exit 221 to minimize the elevation gain in doing both peaks. But, I went with the usual Herman Gulch trailhead just up the road at Exit 218 to have a trail to work with. This made it unlikely that I would do the extra 1100ft of gain (on top of nearly 3300ft to just get Parnassus), because this was not supposed to be my biggest hike of my 5-day weekend. Parnassus just misses the top 200 list in Colorado, while Bard comfortably makes this list, so Bard is considered a bit more of a prize. For more silly numerology, they are the 12th and 16th highest "ranked" peaks in the Front Range.

While driving up the interstate, I could see clouds over the high summits lingering from the evening and night of precipitation. Otherwise, it was mostly sunny. The Herman Gulch trailhead and the moderate 2.5-mile one-way "family" hike to Herman Lake are very popular. I was the first person to arrive at around 6:10am, but there were a dozen vehicles there when I left at 10am; this was a Thursday.

Just up the trail, it splits into the Herman Gulch Trail and the Watrous Gulch Trail and I needed the latter. I worked my way up the good trail without my usual trekking poles. It would have been nice to have them on this hike for the ascent, although not so much for the descent as I discuss later. As I approached treeline, I could get some views across the road toward Torreys and could see a cap cloud there. Also, clouds were blowing across Parnassus, although I couldn't tell if they were reaching down to the summit or not.

I was expecting a trail pretty much all the way to the saddle, but at around 12000ft, I realized that the excellent trail I had been following up the left side of Watrous Gulch had been ascending directly toward a rather unclimbable slope on Woods Mountain. This was not where I was supposed to be headed! The trail was crapping out at that point, although somebody had built a couple cairns for some unknown reason. I'm still not sure if I should have been looking for some other trail heading off to the right lower down. In any case, I could see the obvious western slopes of Parnassus and knew where I needed to be heading. I dropped down 200ft to cross the drainage, and contoured over to the vague drainage leading down from the saddle between Woods and Parnassus. (I did not count that extra 200ft in the totals above.)

As implied by the topo map, you don't have to go all the way into the saddle with Woods but can work your way more or less in the middle of the face between the northwest ridge and west ridge. It was starting to be more clear that there may be a cap cloud over Parnassus. It was also getting pretty breezy at my back.

I have to confess that I was in running shoes for this hike, which actually worked out pretty well. For the 3rd hike in a row, I was in shorts over midweight underwear. As I ascended the slope, I needed to put on my shell jacket over the Polartec jacket due to the cold, damp wind. Right at 13000ft, fresh snow started to be visible on the ground! That was obviously connected with the Mount Evans Road closure some 15 miles away. The snow cover gradually got more continuous and deeper as I ascended.

A couple hundred feet below the summit, I started getting into the cap cloud and had variable horizontal visiblity. I had incorrectly set my altimeter at the trailhead, so I kept thinking the summit was just over the next hump, but it took a while to get there. By the time I reached the summit plateau, I was walking through 1-2" of fresh snow! After a couple of minor rock outcrops, I hit the rock shelter and summit register at 0826. Based on the register, no one had been up since last weekend, but it is worth noting that the last person to use the register is a graduate of the "He-Man" school of over-tightening register caps and I almost gave up before I could get it open.

It was just 30F on the summit with gusts over 20 mph and visibility was down below 100 yards at times. I sat down for about one minute, walked over to a couple of large boulders to make sure I stepped on the true high point, and then made my escape back down my ascent route. No thoughts of trying to do the traverse over to Bard.

Not long after leaving the summit, I heard some sort of boom or other sort of loud noise. It could have been a lot of things, but one of those was thunder. I couldn't really believe that this cloud was capable of producing lightning, but I still decided that it would be prudent to more or less run down the moderately steep western slopes of Parnassus. I would have been pretty fast down this slope without my trekking poles, but with a little motivation, I set all sorts of new personal records! I had a peak descent rate of nearly 150 feet/min, although I've done twice that when glissading. I don't think I've ever come close to descending 1040ft on foot in 9 minutes and 1660ft in 19 minutes! That should give some idea of the easy nature of the off-trail hiking, which makes this a nice peak to climb.

I hit the ascent trail just above treeline at around 11700ft, and after a short break, I continued down the trail at a much slower descent rate than before. It was quite pleasant out of the wind and with some sunshine. Traffic gets quite loud as you near the trailhead, but that is a small price to pay for such easy access. It took under 3.5 hours for the hike; short enough that I didn't even eat anything! Under better conditions, the views would have been excellent and I would have spent a lot more time on the summit. Even with the route-finding oddity (which was very easy to take care of), I think I would consider calling this one a "classic".

[Unfortunately, apparently my intense descent down to treeline damaged some muscle tissue on or near the mesh implant used to repair my hernia. Thus, my bad luck has continued and I'm having to take a few more weeks off from hiking.]


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File last modified: 31 March 2005

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