Friday, February 17, 2012

Thursday Adventure: Quandary Peak (Colorado)

As usual I'm busy, busy, busy writing on The Tainted City, but I thought I'd take a few moments away to share a couple pics from another 14K peak nice and close to Denver: 14,265 ft Quandary Peak, in the Tenmile Range outside Breckenridge.  Quandary is a lovely summer hike, only 6.75 mi round trip with 3,450 ft elevation gain.

Me hiking the trail up Quandary, in late June
Of course, on a peak so easy and close to Denver, there's no such thing as solitude on the trail in the summer.  But there's a nice little side benefit to that: Quandary is home to quite a few mountain goats, and they've gotten so used to the crowds that they'll practically come right up to you.  Hiking in early summer, you even get to see adorably fuzzy babies scampering up the rocks with their mamas.
Mountain goat on the trail
Baby goat playing near Quandary's summit
If you hike the peak in the early season, you can even spice up the trip a bit by glissading down the Cristo Couloir instead of hiking back down the trail.  Glissading, for those not in the know, involves sliding down a steep snow slope on your butt, using an ice axe as a combination rudder and brake.  Quandary's Cristo Couloir is a classic - you can zoom down to the base of the peak in 5 minutes flat, instead of 2 hours' hike on the trail. But the steeper the slope, the more mandatory the ice axe - you must know how to self-arrest safely, or risk slamming into rocks at the snowfield's bottom.  (You don't want to miss the arrest & flail like this guy.) An unfortunate number of people in CO have gotten badly hurt or even died while glissading because they don't take it seriously enough.  

I speak from quasi-experience here, having had my own "dumbass glissade" moment on Quandary, many years ago when my husband-to-be and I were first hiking together.  He'd never glissaded anything steep and was dying to try the Cristo Couloir.  We'd spent a day practicing self-arrest techniques on a much less steep snowfield, and I'd dutifully checked the avalanche conditions for Cristo and found the danger was low, so I thought we were set.  At Quandary's summit, I gave Robert a last set of safety instructions, speaking from my oh-so-vast experience (a couple years of peak climbing + having completed the Colorado Mountain Club's mountaineering school).  He zoomed off down the slope, whooping all the way, until he passed out of sight.

I followed, a bit more cautiously.  The top section of the couloir is quite steep and you need to avoid some rocks poking through the snow.  I dug my heels into the snow a bit as I slid, thinking to help keep my speed under control.  Big mistake!  One foot promptly plunged deep into the snow, and momentum kept me sliding right past it.  I spun and ended up dangling upside down on the slope on my back.  The snow around my trapped foot had set like cement, and I couldn't get my leg free, even chopping at the snow around it with my ice axe.  (Nothing like doing a vertical sit-up while wearing a heavy pack and waving an ice axe.)

I wasn't in any serious danger, but talk about embarrassing.  There I was, the so-called experienced one, stuck like a bug in a flytrap.  Thankfully, after some twenty minutes, another glissader came by and dug me out - and then braced me on the mountainside while my newly-freed leg cramped up with the mother of all agonizing charley horses.  I finally got down to the base to find a very anxious Robert about to start snow-climbing back up to look for me.  Moral of the story: when glissading, NEVER dig your heels in - bend your knees and skate your feet on top of the snow!  And don't get cocky. ;)


  1. Great glissading story - reminds me of one of my own dumbass moves when skiing. Total beginner, my brother accidentally put me on an expert trail, and I tried to stop by the most sensible way I knew - shoving my pole in the snow in front of me. Ski pole met my chin, and the rest was all blurry sky and snow.

    P.S. Awesome goat photos. I'd be so scared for that baby, but looks like mother's cool with it.

  2. Ah, ski deceptively helpful looking, while in reality they are STABBY SWORDS OF DEATH. (My husband broke both his thumbs thanks to his, when he accidentally skied onto a talus field only thinly covered by powder. His skis stopped dead, he catapulted out of bindings with hands extended, the ski pole straps were around his wrists so the ski pole handles were still in his hands, and the impact onto them broke both thumbs. The doc said it's one of the most common ski injuries they see. Ever since then, neither of us use the straps - I'd rather lose a pole & hike way back up the hill to get it, than endure weeks of double-thumb casts as my poor husband did. (Sucks when that happens & all your jeans are button-fly!)

    And yeah, the mountain goat mommy was totally blase, as baby hopped about on the cliff. I do have to wonder how many of them fall...but thankfully, this one didn't!

  3. Wow, skiing poles are dangerous, aren't they? My other brother broke his thumb, too, but thankfully he didn't wear button-fly. :-)

    And someone should definitely write a fantasy called STABBY SWORDS OF DEATH.

  4. I love the mountain goats.

    Mountain animals like bighorn sheep are a particular favorite of mine...seen many of them in Yellowstone. Even babies.