Days 9 to 11: Collegiate Peaks

Days 9 and 10: Camping/hiking in San Isabel NF

I spent the weekend with Ginette and our dogs, Gabriela and Phoebe, camping and hiking in the San Isabel National Forest, about an hour’s drive west of the Great Divide route, but only about 15 or 20 miles as the crow flies. Ginette picked me up at my motel in Silverthorne on Saturday morning and it was so great to see her! She said I looked “a little furry,” now that I’ve got 10 days of beard growing.
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We had a late breakfast in Silverthorne and then set out west on I-70, up to Copper Mountain, where the Continental Divide hiking trail passes through, then drove over the divide itself at Fremont Pass, where the Climax mine has obliterated part of the high-alpine landscape that separates the Colorado River and Arkansas River watersheds. We had car camped south of Leadville a year or two ago, in fall, and eventually headed up the same road after an aborted hourlong venture up another drainage that didn’t yield any decent camping spots. We wound up driving all the way up to 11,500′, nearly to the top of Weston Pass, and found a great spot just at treeline. The weather on Saturday was unusually good for August high in the Rockies. The Southwest monsoon has receded for a few days and it was in the 70s and sunny way up at that altitude with just a few clouds over Ptarmigan Peak, which is just shy of 14,000 feet.

Ginette went for a walk with the dogs and I spent the next hour servicing my bike and resupplying myself from the bin of food, fuel, toiletries, etc. that I packed before leaving Denver. This was one of the highest campsites I’ve been at and the altitude was affecting me: a little queasiness, spaciness, and grouchiness seem to kick in for me around 10 or 11 thousand feet. Before sunset, we took a walk up a dirt road and the light was goregous. Back at our campsite, the wind started to really whip up and the skies over the surrounding peaks darkened. The weather up here changes before your eyes. We both got a little cold, made dinner, and sought shelter in the tent, along with the pups.

Sunday morning dawned perfectly clear, surprisingly warm, and with barely a breeze. The last time we’d camped up Weston Pass, in September I think, we made the mistake of camping down in the valley, beside a creek, where all the cold air from the watershed above sank overnight and froze our water bottles. We headed down the mountain and toward the town of Buena Vista (pronounced “BEW-na Vista” for some reason). We picked up sandwiches and headed west up Cottonwood Pass, into the Sawatch Range, home of the Collegiate Peaks, a collection of five mountains that rise above 14,000 feet. Besides mounts Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Oxford, there are another five 14ers in the Sawatch range, home to the highest wilderness area in the US.

I’ve decided to take a little detour from the Great Divide route to spend some time in the Sawatch Range this week before reconnecting with the ACA’s route in Salida on Friday. On Sunday, Ginette and I hiked up about 3 miles to Hartenstein Lake in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. On Monday, I’ll set off from the same trailhead to climb Mount Yale, a 10-mile round trip. I’m now camped about a mile down the road and will probably bike up to the trailhead super-early tomorrow morning.

It was tough saying goodbye to Ginette this afternoon, even though I’ll see her again on Saturday in Salida. I was actually kinda sad about it all day and kept thinking back to what it was like on parents’ visiting day during summer camp: a great thrill to see someone you love that all too quickly turns to loneliness when they leave.

I’ll hop back on the bike Tuesday and head south down the base of the range. I’d like to try climbing another 14er or two near Salida on Thursday or Friday. All told, I’ll probably only bikepack with my trailer around 40 miles between here and Salida on Friday. I’ll be spending more time hiking and maybe riding some singletrack sans trailer on the Colorado Trail.

This l ttle detour was something I was thinking of doing all along, depending on how the first week went. I’m not really wedded to following the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route mile for mile and have wanted to explore the Sawatch Range ever since my first glimpse of it while driving on Highway 285. The Colorado Trail and the Continental Divide hiking trail are one and the same in these parts and run along the eastern slopes of the Sawatch Range. I’ve heard the mountain biking is great and hope to a explore some of the trail that’s not in federal wilderness areas.

Although there would be some amazing mountain biking possible in wilderness areas, I’m basically down with the prevailing policy that keeps bikes out of such places. During our hike this afternoon, I really felt a deeper appreciation for wilderness because I haven’t set foot in it since I started this trip more than a week and several hundred miles ago. The Great Divide route follows roads, and wilderness means no roads, so never the twain shall meet. I’ve wanted part of this summer to spent in the wilderness, hence this week’s detour. Although much of my route has passed through remote, unpopulated terrain, there have been signs of civilization everywhere, starting with the road underneath my feet. I might go a couple of hours between seeing vehicles, but I never feel totally alone. No wilderness areas are “pristine” or “untrammeled,” especially in the age of climate change, but in the West these are the places where the human footprint is least noticeable.

To climb Yale I have to wake up early, like 5 am. I cringe just writing that. I’m not exactly a morning person, but the key to hiking 14ers is starting early because afternoon thunderstorms are so common in summer. To get an early start, I needed to find a campsite close to the trailhead and the only option around here is a Forest Service campground. I haven’t stayed in one of these in years, mostly because you can usually find someplace much prettier and free on surrounding public lands. But this campground is actually quite nice and not too crowded on a Sunday evening. My campsite is right by a creek, there’s a picnic table, a flat spot for my tent, and I’ve got two cans of beer chilling in the stream: this place has everything!

Day 11: Climbing Mount Yale

It was tough extracting myself from my sleeping bag in the dark this morning, but I managed to pry myself out of my cocoon at around 5am so I could climb Mount Yale, 14,196′. It was chilly as I made oatmeal and coffee for breakfast and thermoregulation would be a challenge for the rest of the day. I hopped on my bike and pedaled about a mile up Cottonwood Pass to the trailhead, which got my heart pumping and warmed me up. The sunrise briefly turned the clouds above pink and it was a nice time to be setting off on the trail. There were actually a couple other parties of hikers in the parking lot at 6am. People know you have to get done with these climbs early in the day.
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The first 2 or 3 miles of the trail aren’t too bad. You’re definitely going up almost the whole time, but the grade isn’t terrible and the trail is pretty solid. But the last couple of miles definitely get steeper and harder. For the last hour or two, it felt like I was walking up a staircase. I was hiking on the west face of the mountain, which blocked the sun, so it was kinda cool during most of the hike. But eventually the sun started peeking over the ridge. Depending on whether I was in sun or shade, I had to adjust my clothing. Climbing made me sweat, but if I stopped I got cold, so there was a lot of rearranging of garments.

Above treeline, the trail switchbacks through giant boulder and talus fields and I saw both marmots and pikas. Also a snowshoe hare. Like many 14ers, the top of Yale is an enormous pile of rocks where the only plants growing are lichen attached to stone. The last 700 or 800 feet of climbing were a little tricky in terms of route finding, but overall it’s a pretty manageable summit and it’s only rated a class 2 out of 5.

I summited at about 10am and it was totally clear above the peak. The views were tremendous and I think there were at least a dozen other 14ers visible since Yale is situated right in the heart of the Colorado Rockies. To the east, I could see Pikes Peak and South Park, the huge high alpine valley where the Great Divide Route goes. A little closer to me was the Arkansas River valley, where I’ll be pedaling the rest of the week. To the south and north were a huge number of high peaks, including many 13ers and 14ers in the Sawatch Range. To the West were the Hunter-Fryingpan and Fossil Ridge wilderness areas, and way off in the distance were the mountains around Aspen and Snowmass.

Cumulus clouds started to form over the summit of Yale and other nearby peaks, and within minutes it seemed like half the sky was cloudy. I had spent 45 minutes at the summit since there was so little wind and the altitude wasn’t bothering me too much, but as the weather started to change I headed downhill. I felt pretty good on the climb, but the descent was a little tough on my knees and toes, which kept jamming into the fronts of my hiking shoes. Although my legs are in good shape from all this bicycling, you definitely use different muscles while hiking so I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m sore from this hike.

I got back to my campsite in the early afternoon, ate some lunch, and then crawled into my tent. I woke up 2.5 hours later, so I guess the hike took a lot out of me. But I’m really glad I took this detour and have been getting in some wilderness hiking. Although 14ers are notoriously crowded, this one was pretty empty on a Monday. On some of these peaks during the weekends it can feel like you’re in a parade.