4,000 meters is an unrecognized altitude threshold within the United States. However, it is as well known where the metric system is used, as 14,000 feet is known in the US. This page is dedicated to climbing those peaks in Colorado that rise above 4,000 meters (13,123 feet)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

James Peak – It Surprisingly Provides a Lot of Solitude…Above the Glacier

James Peak is a solid hike. It has a lot logistically going for it. Its close to Denver, and it has a paved road all the way to its St. Marys trailhead. It even has paid parking and a crapper at the trailhead.

But its also a great scenic hike as well. It is not particularly difficult and certainly nothing technical, at least on its normal route. But the views afforded from James Peak’s broad summit are outstanding stretching North to Longs Peak and South along the Skyline Traverse (Parry, Eva, Flora, and Co Mines Peaks) and beyond to Grays/Torreys and Evans. Quite a lot to take in actually on a clear day as we had.

Joining the great ranks of the unemployed recently, I took it upon myself, when not involved in the activities of finding a new job, to take a least a little free time for some hiking. I was originally going to do this hike during the week. But James had been discussed as the perfect reunion hike for my Spring Wilderness Trekking School (WTS) class so I thought I would try it on a weekend and see who I could rope in with me. So, with short notice I sent the invite out to the class. Unfortunately, on such short notice only one of my ex-pupils, Elizabeth, was able to make the hike.
I have only been to St. Marys in the early

Spring when the glacier (to be geographically correct I should note here that St. Marys is not really a glacier but rather a permanent snow field) is in full form with a hefty load of snow. Actually, several times I have been to the glacier, usually for WTS Snow Day, the snow load was actually being added to by a winter storm with winds howling.

Elizabeth (E) and I met at 5:30am and arrived at the paid parking around 6:30am. Right on our schedule. We got our gear together and departed towards the trail head.

We trudged up the road following the trail that looked unfamiliar to me as it had no snow. As we arrived at the St. Marys Lake we were greeted by a site that I have never seen (and hope never to see again) in the mountains.

There was a large group of about 20 guys, say around college age or so. They all looked normal…except for two guys who were apparently naked, signing, and doing a little dance.

Now mind you I don't often pine to look at naked guys (never actually) but this was like a train wreck. I was psychologically compelled to look. Then I noticed that the two guys were not really naked. They were mostly naked but they had on skin colored underwear.

So onward E and I hiked past this unusual spectacle as the two almost naked guys kept up their singing and dancing.

We could both see that the glacier was substantially smaller than in the early spring and provided access to its upper reaches on rock on the glacier’s right side.

A Much Reduced St. Marys Glacier Accentuated by Fall Color

We climbed to the base of the glacier and decided to climb up the rocks on the glacier’s right. The “snow” at this time of day was solid ice and didn't offer a very good purchase.

It was windy from the lake up to the lower portion of the glacier. I began to worry that it would be just a heck of a windy day up higher and particularly on the peak.BFSmith_JamesPeak_091909_010

The Remnants of St. Marys in Late Summer
There was a faint but followable trail on the right side of the snow so E and I made out way up on rock instead of ice. The trail was descent if not hard to follow at times but did get you up the steepest portion of this climb quickly.
The Upper Portion of the Glacier Narrows Considerably Before Disappearing
The glacier continues up its steep slope becoming progressively narrower until it finally peters out all together. From here E and I simply climbed out of the snowless gully and popped out onto the relatively vast and level “Jamaica Plain.”
James Peak Finally Visible (on right) From the Broad and Flat Jamaica Plane

So far E and I had only seen the people at St. Marys Lake and one other hiker who was heading up the glacier. Solitude indeed. The wind had become calm. The morning light was great. And the temps cool. It looked to be a great day.
E and I crossed the plain at a

good clip. The only tricky part of this hike is crossing a road that bisects Jamaica Plain. I am not sure why this was unclear to me but the trail was not abundantly obvious after crossing the road. We could see the trail in the distance and some signage. So I just headed for the sign and picked up the trail easily and headed of towards the peak in the distance.

After crossing the plain the trail cuts to the Southwest to a steep overlook of Loch Lomond, Ice, Ohman, Stewart, and Reynolds Lakes. All magnificent hanging lakes tucked into a glacial gorge. The view into the gorge and these lakes is rugged and magnificent.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ice Lake Just Visible Nestled Against the Base of Mt. Bancroft
We continued through 12,600 feet up the sloping side of James Peak following the great trail towards the summit now well within view. The weather was still perfect. It was a little breezy and chilly. While comfortable for hiking we both had to wear gloves.
The Weather Still Perfect. Cairns Mark the Great Trail to James Peak Summit in the Near Distance

The last bit of the climb, while steeper just below the summit is really not that difficult. This 8 mile round trip hike really doles out the 2,900 feet of elevation gain gently.

E and I motored efficiently up this last section and hiked right on up to the broad sloping summit. It was just before 10am as we walked onto the summit. We found a rather large stone shelter, put our gear down, and meandered about the summit taking in the views and snapping images.

This was E’s first 13er and she was quite pleased. She had done great.

Elizabeth has a Rare Outburst of Emotion as She Celebrates Her First 13er

And the Summit Shot With Both of Us, 13,294 Feet
We both relaxed, ate, and took in the incredible views and the fine weather. It was till only a  bit after 10:00am and we had the summit to ourselves, for the time being.
The View to the South. Bancroft in the Foreground and Grays and Torreys Way Out in the Background

After about 30 minutes a couple came up to the summit with two dogs. They made a bee line for another shelter on the summit and settled in. Another person showed up shortly after that with yet another dog. As E and I did not have a dog we felt uncomfortable and decided it was time to head back to the glacier.

The trip down was great. Relatively easy hiking, great weather, and good company. We had the same trouble finding the trail as it crossed the jeep road, which at this time of day had jeeps on it. We corrected our navigational errors and were soon back on the trail heading back to the glacier.

We descended towards St. Marys Lake. This time we stayed on the actual glacier as the snow/ice had softened in the sun and provided a bit easier walking than the loose talus and scree.

As we descended towards the lake we were surprised to see a bunch of people. All sorts. No mostly naked frat boys. But a rather broad cross section of outdoor enthusiasts from families to groups heading up the glacier for a few moments of summer skiing. It was actually quite crowded.

The views of St Marys Lake, The glacier, and some Fall aspens were beautiful.BFSmith_JamesPeak_091909_094

St. Marys Over the Toe of the Glacier in Late Morning

Fall Colors Accent an Already Incredible View

We walked on out to the truck and headed into Idaho Springs for a beer and lunch at Tommyknockers. A great finish.

James Peak is really a great hike. E and I had a fantastic time hiking together and sharing a relaxed scenic outdoor adventure. Good Times!

GPS Track Data for the James Peak Hike. Red is Route Up. Blue Route Down.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Pikes Peak – There Really is a Coffee (and Donut) Shop On Top


I think everyone has joked about the proverbial “Coffee Shop” at the top of any given 14er that one happens to be climbing. The funniest part of the joke now, is that on top of Pikes Peak there really is a coffee shop…and a donut shop, and soup/chili in a bread bowl cafe, and a full on gift shop…

When we decided to climb Pikes I was prepared for a bizarre mix of 14er climbing and kitschy Park Service marketing and sales. And actually we did get all of that. But, I was not expecting the beauty and uniqueness that the Crags to Pikes summit hike delivered. While the attainment of the final summit is truly an exercise in surreal outdoor activities, Pikes is ultimately a very worthy hike.

Don and I left the Denver area relatively early on August 28th as we wanted to get a campsite at the Crags Campground. Being a Friday, we thought that the spots may go fast.

We arrived around 4ish and found a great camp spot. Don and I set up our tents and generally got everything set up. It was a really nice spot near a small stream. We had time before dinner so we both kicked back for a bit and and relaxed and did some reading.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Don and I Relax in Some Lounge Chairs. Ahhhhh…Camping

Around 5:00pm we both headed into Woodland Park for dinner. We returned to the camp site and eventually headed into our respective tents for a 5am wakeup call.

The forecast for the 29th was generally good with the familiar prediction of thunderstorms after 12pm. We wanted to get started early so that we would be out of the donut shop by noon to avoid any thunderstorms while we were still near the summit.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Don Geared Up and Waiting (Impatiently) at the Trailhead

We unnecessarily drove the few hundred yards from our camp site to the Crags Campground Trailhead. Even at this early hour all the parking spots were taken and we had to park along the road.

Oddly there were a few camp sites immediately next to the trailhead parking area. While the camp sites were indeed esthetically pleasing, I can’t imagine how miserable it would be to have throngs of hikers and their vehicles parading just a few feet from your head. But hey…Its only $12.00 bucks.

We started the hike through some very pleasant pine forest as we gently ascended towards the summit, still miles (many miles) away.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Well Watered Pine Forest Near the Beginning of the Hike from the Crags

The trail eventually starts to climb steeply as it nears tree line. It winds and switch-backs around some very beautiful scenery. I don't particularly like to hike that much in the trees. But this trail and setting was rather pleasant.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

An Interesting, Rocky, and Beautiful Hike in Tree line

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

The Crags Trail Finally Busts Out Above Tree Line But there is Still Plenty of Steep Hiking Ahead

Don and I climbed steeply in this section and finally broke out from tree line. There are two steep sections on the Crags Trail. These two steep sections are separated by rather generous and generally flat hiking sections. The first steep section starts below tree line and leads to a saddle at around 12,500 feet. The second steep section is just below the summit.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Looking Back Towards Tree Line From Below the Saddle near 12,500 Feet

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Looking up at the Saddle with Pikes Peak Summit Just Visible Poking Up in the Distance

We attained the saddle and finally had a good view at of Pikes Peak Summit. This next approximately two mile section stretches from the saddle all the way to the summit base and winds through some very interesting rocky terrain, prominent rock ribs, alpine meadows, construction zones, Pikes Peak road. You know, the usual stuff you see on a 14er. The trail also winds around Devils Playground. An area so named because of the high number of lightning strikes that this prominence receives.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Devil’s Playground. You Don't Want to be Here During a Thunder Storm, Unless You Want to be Turned Into Carbon.

We both tooled comfortably along this relatively easy and very scenic section. We chatted with some nice folks that we were leapfrogging on the trail and just generally enjoyed ourselves.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

This Part of the Trail is a Scenic and Easy Cruise

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Magnificent Rocks Ribs Cross the Trail

This section also parallels the road for short distances. It is really more odd than unpleasant. It just seams somehow wrong to see cars whizzing by kicking up dust and exhaust as they too struggle their way to the summit festivities.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Pikes Peak Road Just After Devil’s Playground. The Trails Wraps Around the Left of the Road and Heads Up the Hill.

Don and I continued along the obvious trail, which was punctuated by overly large and abundant cairns. I am not sure why the trail is so ridiculously well marked. I mean Erik Weihenmayer (http://www.touchthetop.com/) could follow this trail.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

The Obvious Trail Marked by the Completely Unnecessary, Abundant, and Large Cairns With the Summit Towering in the Background

The two of us quickly crossed this final gentle section of the trail and made our way to the second and last steep section, the final summit push consisting of about 800 feet of rocky (but not technical) climbing to Pikes Peak summit.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

The Base of the Final Pitch to the Summit

This final steep section is really your last grasp of “normal” 14er reality. At the top of this pitch, at the summit, things will change rather abruptly and somewhat unexpectedly.

The final pitch is typical steep summit-push boulders and talus. Its fun picking your way through the abundant cairns and the well formed trail.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Again, Giant Cairns Make Route Finding on the Final Pitch Somewhat Academic

So here you are picking your way up the trail laid into the red jagged rock of the summit. Passing cairns. Seeing people behind you struggling below up the same trail segments that you had just completed in the thin atmosphere at 14,000+ feet. Your thoughts turn towards the summit that is just 100 feet above you. As you continue to climb you look up to see where the next portion of the trail is and you see…A friggin guard rail. And the road.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

The Last Bit of the Hike and the Visitor’s Center on the Summit Just Visible in the Left of the Image

As you push up over the last steep part you can finally see the complex at the summit that consists of an Army High Altitude Research building and the larger (huge really) Visitors Center.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Here is something You Don't See On Every 14er. Or really Any Other 14er. Cars, Tour Vehicles, Non-Athletic People Eating Donuts, and so on.

Don and I topped out over the edge and strolled across the parking lot (yes…parking lot) to the visitors center (VC) for a hardy bowl of soup/chili in a bread bowl and some of those world famous Pikes Peak donuts.

When we arrived at the VC it was absolutely packed with people. The Cog Railway train was in station. When the train left about 25 minutes later most of the people left and the VC was much less crowded.

Don pushed his way towards the counter to order lunch. I miraculously found a table and took off my pack and stowed gear.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

It Really is Hard to Beat Soup in a Bread Bowl and the Donuts Really are Quite Good. Beats a Crescent Shaped Rock Shelter.

The soup was really quite good and the donuts excellent. I had the chicken noodle soup and Don had the chili. I must say that a carb laden bowl of soup hit the spot.

We both sat and ate and enjoyed the accommodations. The Cog Railway Train left and the VC cleared out. After we were done we wondered around the VC looking for souvenirs but found none. Finally we wondered outside to take the summit shot and then head down the mountain.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

There Are Two of these Signs on the Summit, One in Front and Another in the Back. So if one of them has a line you can Just Try the Other Sign for that Memorable Summit Picture.

Benjamin F. Smith, Pikes Peak, PeakPixels Imaging

Rested and Well Fed. Now We Had to Get the Heck Off the Summit as Thunderstorms Drifted In

With the summit shot in the can, we noted that the weather had deteriorated rather quickly (as it so often does in the mountains) and we anxiously started to head past the Army Research Building and ultimately down the trail home.

Within a few minutes we heard the first peel of thunder. It was a ways off and appeared to come from an isolated cell south of the summit. I kept and eye on the cell and it was definitely moving away. However, the atmosphere was becoming less stable with the afternoon heating and we could tell there would be more storms.

For a good part of the hike from the summit base to near Devil’s Playground the weather was ok. But it became much more sinister quickly as we approached Devil’s Playground and the very exposed saddle that we still had to cross.

At one point Don looked out and observed that the weather now looked like Wizard of Oz $#@&!. And it did. With the weather closing in we finally crossed the saddle and headed rapidly down towards to tree line.

It rained lightly and there was quite a bit of distant lightning and thunder. We dove down into tree line and relaxed a bit. At one point within tree line we were making relaxed conversation when there was a bright flash behind us and nearly instantaneous thunder. Both of us nearly browned out.

We decided to make double (or even triple) time and I did something I rarely do. I ran like a frightened school girl. I looked at my altimeter and noted that we were descending at 100 feet per minute.

To make a long story short we didn't get turned into carbon and actually that lighting bolt was the last close one we had that day. Don and I finished the hike and headed back to camp to pack up.

Over all with all the crazy stuff at the summit, Pikes is really a very interesting and scenic hike. Its no Wetterhorn, but it it has its own unique charms.

The GPS route below shows a total hiking distance of 13 miles and a bit over 4,000 feet of elevation gain.


GPS route for Pikes Peak from the Crags Campground

Friday, August 28, 2009

Mt. Audubon - Its Like Comfort Food for a Hiker


Climbing Mt. Audubon is like visiting an old friend. Audubon was the first “high” peak that I climbed way back in 1998, a year after I moved to Colorado from Maryland. As Audubon is my first high peak, I hold a special affection for it. Audubon however, is an excellent mountain in its own right. Its a beautiful hike through some of the best of the Indian Peaks and gives the hiker views of some rugged front range terrain including spectacular Longs Peak.

I recently found myself with an unusual amount of free time during the week. I wanted to find a way to clear my head and started thinking of some logistically easy hikes I might do nearby. I wanted to do a solo hike. My personal rule for solo hiking is to only climb something I have hiked before. Going solo on a familiar hike can help reduce surprises and ameliorate some of the risk.

The week of the 17th looked like great weather that would be stable for days. So everything looked like it would come together on Thursday the 20th for a hike.

Wednesday evening I drove up to Brainard Lake hoping to find a spot at Pawnee Campground. I arrived at about 8:00pm. While driving into the campground I saw a huge moose meandering down the road. I have never seen a moose in the wild before and this was pretty cool. I found a first come first served camp site. Set up my tent and went to sleep.

I was on the trail by about 6:30am Thursday morning. The weather looked incredible. I started up the wooded trail with not a soul in site.


The Start of the Excellent Trail Below Tree Line

The trail starts out relatively easy through the trees. Soon enough however you encounter switchbacks that elevate you quickly taking you to the edge of tree line and some great views.


Some of the Incredible Scenery you are Treated to Just Before you Start Ascending the First Switchbacks


One of the Lower Switchbacks

This first set of switchbacks puts the hiker onto a broad shoulder of Audubon where tree line abruptly ends at about 11,500 feet. From this point the trail weaves around some magnificent krumholtz in a predominantly rock and boulder strewn alpine tundra.


The End Of Tree Line in Thick Krumholtz


Wind Sculpted Krumholtz


The Change From Trees to Rock at Around 11,500 feet

The trail maintains its rockiness from this point to the summit. It is well maintained and very straight forward. Even when the trail is mostly dirt it is still well peppered with rocks.

The trail had been very rutted out in the past as I remember. It appears now that there has been some trail work to fill in the ruts and uses less erosion-prone material (i.e. rock).


The Rocky Trail and Your First Views of Audubon (tall peak left of the snow field)

As you hike up to 12,000 feet you are treated to fantastic views of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and all the way into Rocky Mountain Nat. Park.


Longs Peak Looms in the Distance

The trail continues to wind higher and higher on a rocky trail. There is another set of switchbacks at around 12,000 feet that leads you across a talus field then back into the alpine tundra. The obvious trail continues to a broad saddle between the base of the final bouldery pitch of Audubon and Point 12,706. There are good views if you continue Northwest on the saddle to where it drops off steeply.


The Rocky Trail, Well Marked by Cairns, Leads You to a Saddle Between Audubon and Point 12,706

The trail continues to this steep drop of then sort of just fades away. There is however a large cairn on the trail marking were it cuts away Southwest (to the climber’s left) to climb steeply up Audubon a few hundred feet before it fades out. There are a series of large cairns marking this turn leading up the final pitch.

After making the turn, the trail winds up the steep rocky slope of the final pitch on a good trail.


The Rocky Trail is Well Marked By Easily Visible Cairns

After several hundred feet of climbing the final pitch I finally reached the summit of this great peak. And the really great thing was…I was all by myself. Not another soul. I have seen this summit packed with hikers. I had seen three other hikers behind me as I made my way up the trail. For some reason none of them made their way to the summit. So for 45 blissful minutes I had this large summit to myself.

There had been a pretty cold wind blowing on my ascent. Especially after I made it to the saddle. However, there was only a light breeze on the summit.


Me, With the Summit to Myself

From Audubon there are incredible views in every direction including Longs, Toll, Paiute, Pawnee Peaks.


Looking in the Direction of Toll and Pawnee Peaks


Longs Peak, Way Background on the Right and Upper Coney Lake

It was finally time to head back down and back to the rest of the world. The weather was still perfect and I felt great. I headed back down to the trail head and my truck. I only saw a few people on the way back. Coming back to Audubon was truly like seeing an old friend again.

Audubon GPS Track Aug 20, 09

GPS Track for August 20, 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Castle and Conundrum Peaks – No Summits, But We Did Get Really Cold and Wet

Benjamin F. Smith 2009, Peakpixels.com, Castle Peak

Castle Peak is arguable the easiest 14er in the Elk Range. I have climbed this peak in the past and found it quite fun. However, on the 14th and 15th, the weather, that has been so darn reliable this season, was not to cooperate.

I met a group of mostly Colorado Mt. Club (CMC) hikers and others including my longtime hiking friend Don for this hike as it was arranged by another friend Norm. Don and I drove up Castle Creek Road to meet the rest of the group at a trail head around 11,400 feet. The road to that point clearly did require a decent 4X4. But the road/trail is not as bad as some would have you believe from the trip reports.

Benjamin F. Smith 2009, Peakpixels.com, Castle Peak

Camp at 11,400 Feet

Benjamin F. Smith 2009, Peakpixels.com, Castle Peak

My Tent and View at the Camp Site. There were Several Streams in this Area like the One Pictured in the Background

In fact, one person in our group, Robert, drove all the way up to the trail head in a Honda CRV packed with four people. See details later in this blog.

We decided on an early start due to the really crappy weather forecast calling for a 50% chance of rain and thunder storms. We hoped, (in retrospect our hopes now seem based on the optimism of foolish youth) that perhaps the forecast may have a window of opportunity that would allow us unfettered access to these two summits. We did not have to wait long for the bad weather. We all turned in around 9ish PM Friday evening and we were lolled to sleep by lightning, thunder, and of course a good rain storm that lasted most of the night.

We awoke on Saturday morning as planned and the rain had stopped. The clouds were, at this point, broken and stars were peaking in and out. This was to be the best weather we would have because conditions deteriorated from here.

Benjamin F. Smith 2009, Peakpixels.com, Castle Peak

Sunrise on the Trail to Castle Peak

We began hiking up the road to wait for the rest of the group at the “official” trailhead where Pearl Pass Road splits off from the mining road that heads up towards Castle Peak. We waited here about 10 minutes for the remainder of the group.

Benjamin F. Smith 2009, Peakpixels.com, Castle Peak

Don, Bob, Robert, and Norm Wait for the Remainder of the Group

Unfortunately, the rest of the group did not show up as they had had a flat tire coming up the road on Friday. We did meet Tiffany and Erin later in the day.


The Whole Day Looked Rather Moist From the Beginning of the Hike

We began hiking up the road into some sloppy and gloomy conditions. It was breezy and cold and alternately spitting rain. Eventually the rain became steady and rather hard. We even heard one rumble of thunder but did not see any lightning.

Benjamin F. Smith 2009, Peakpixels.com, Castle Peak

The Impending Gloom Through Which We Were Ascending


The Group Sizes Up the Situation

Finally the rain became quite hard and steady. We could see the very low clouds whipping over the summits we intended to climb. We also saw a few people passing us as they descended. They had all decided to bail due to the weather.

We eventually climbed to the base of the first basin just below 13,000 feet. At this point in the hike we were becoming pretty miserable, cold and we could see that even if we were able to make the summits, it would not be a pleasant hike. So regrettably we all made the decision to bail.

On the way back down we ran into Tiffany and Erin, who were heading up, and found out about he flat tire. The two ladies continued up the trail and made it to the same point we did at the base of the basin at around 13,000 feet.

It continued to be crappy weather as we walked back down. At times the sun did come out and gave us some short lived hope for the climb, but eventually we resigned ourselves that this would not be the day we would summit Castle and Conundrum Peaks.

Benjamin F. Smith 2009, Peakpixels.com, Castle Peak

This is the Same Spot Shown in the Photo Above, Perhaps about 90 Minutes Later. While it was a Bit Brighter, You can See the Clouds Still Thick Around the High Peaks

As we all walked back to the trail head we decided it would be much more fun to find a place in Glenwood Springs to eat a nice hot and tasty brunch. And that's what we did. It looks like Castle and Conundrum Peaks will have to wait for 2010.

The only impediment to this plan was getting Robert and his Honda CRV across the stream. This crossing was accomplished by connoitering and reconnoitering the approach and exit to the streams and then careful directions to Robert, who eventually negotiated the stream perfectly.


Robert and His CRV Successfully Cross the Stream Across Castle Creek Road


GPS Track for the Castle Conundrum Peaks Attempt

Next up…Pikes Peak!