Tackling the San Juan and Sawatch Mountains
by Jenny Cole -- July 28th, 2015
These past few weeks I’ve had opportunities to do some AMAZING mountaineering. I’ve been climbing and hiking all summer, but the challenges that I undertook in recently have been more challenging, satisfying, and exhilarating than usual.
Two weeks ago, a few of the other RMI interns and I drove out to Telluride, a remote little ski town in southwestern Colorado. It was a 7 hour drive from Boulder and we camped there at 11,000 feet, at Alta Lakes campground in the Uncompahgre National Forest.
The purpose of the trip was to traverse the Telluride Via Ferrata. This is a 5 mile round-trip traverse on a ~400’ cliff that overlooks the valley of Telluride.
Via ferrata means “iron way;” the route consisted of a cable that we clipped our harnesses onto with a piece of via ferrata webbing, and iron rungs for our hands and feet, strategically placed where the rock did not provide sufficient grip. The path was constructed over a period of 10 years at night by a man named Chuck Kroger who was dying of lung cancer. He built the course as his legacy, and it used to be a local secret. When the Forest Service found out about it, they wanted to take it down, but locals protested. It’s now maintained by local guiding companies and many travel to Telluride to take on the challenge every year.
It was great fun! I thought I was going to be scared; I love climbing and hiking but I wasn’t sure I would enjoy something that involves little technical skill and a huge adrenaline rush from the height. I wasn’t scared at all though! That was the best feeling; to take on a challenge and feel a lot stronger completing it than I thought I would.
My next adventure was this past weekend! All summer I’ve been looking forward to climbing a 14er, which is a mountain above 14,000 feet. Colorado has between 53 and 58 fourteeners, depending on how you define “mountain”; a few peaks that reach over 14,000 aren’t separate enough from neighboring peaks to always be considered independent 14ers. Along with my brother, his girlfriend, and five other friends, I tackled Mount Yale this weekend.
Yale is the 21st highest 14er in the state, rising to 14,196 feet. It’s one of the Collegiate Peaks, in the Sawatch mountain range. My brother is somewhat of an intense mountaineer and has climbed 38 of the 58 fourteeners, including Yale. He didn’t want to repeat any route that he’d already done, so we opted to not follow a trail and instead hike up the northwest ridge to the peak.
We made our trip a two day expedition. On Saturday, we backpacked four miles from a trailhead up to Kroenke Lake at 11,500 feet, where we camped for the night.
The camping was beautiful. We got in around 6:15, set up camp, filtered some water from the lake, made dinner, and turned in before dark in preparation for an early start the next day.
I wanted to maximize our chances of summiting because I didn’t know if I’d have another chance to to climb a 14er before leaving Colorado. The earlier we started hiking, the less likely weather would force us to turn back before the top. So, the next morning we were up at 3:30 am.
We were off a little after 4 am! For the first 30 minutes or so, we followed a trail out of the campsite, and then turned south off the trail to make our way to the northwest ridge of the mountain, which we planned to follow all the way to the summit.
The climb was slow. Besides the fact that we had 3000 feet of elevation to climb at high altitude, we weren’t hiking on a maintained route. In mountaineering, hikes and climbs are sorted into classes that identify how difficult and technical they are. They range from Class 1, which is walking on a well-built path or trail, to Class 5, which is climbing with ropes up a vertical or near-vertical pitch. Our hike up Mount Yale was Class 2, which means that we had to look at our feet most of the time and occasionally use our hands. We were walking on rough rocks; definitely not a trail.
Two of our group decided to turn back when the climbing got a little more technical. In the photo below, you can see the most difficult section of the climb.
Finally, five and a half hours after leaving camp, we reached the summit! It was an amazing feeling. I was tired but felt incredibly accomplished. That was probably the most productive I’ve been before 9:30 am in a long time!
The amazing views and the feelings of satisfaction and pride made it an incredible experience.
The first two thirds of the way back down were the hardest part of the entire trip for me. I was weak from a combination of the altitude, having hiked up 3000 feet, and not eating enough yet that morning. Shortly after leaving the summit around 10:30 am, a pretty ugly-looking storm cloud started forming over our heads. We had to hurry; an exposed mountain ridge at 14,000 feet would be the worst place to get caught in a thunderstorm. I was miserable, tired, and scared. I fought to hold back my tears and keep walking through my utter exhaustion, willing myself to not think about how just a few weeks ago some Colorado hikers were struck by lighting and hospitalized, saved only by the fact that their dog took the brunt of the bolt.
I knew that I just had to keep walking, though; that was the only answer. There was no shelter on the mountain ridge and the only way to safety was down. Earlier that day, my brother had told me how he views climbing 14ers as an odds game. Past a certain point on the mountain, a storm could form more quickly than the amount of time it would take us to get back to safety. We knew the weather forecast, though, and we knew our hiking ability. All signs had pointed to a safe hike on the way up.
I found out later that just last week a woman was struck by lightning and killed on Mount Yale. I am so glad that I didn’t know that on Sunday; I would have been even more scared than I already was.
Luckily, we made it back down to about 12,000 feet and were below the mountain ridgeline by the time the rain started. We were all safe; we were lucky.
Recently I heard somewhere that climbing is about problem-solving, and the safety aspect is part of the problem. I keep rock climbing and climbing mountains because I love the mental and physical challenge. Nothing else in my life pushes me out of my comfort zone this much. I also simply love being in nature; I’m so lucky to have been able to spend every weekend this summer outside in such a beautiful place. Despite the challenge at the end, hiking Mount Yale was an amazing experience and I can’t wait until I climb my next 14er.