Thursday, September 15, 2016

Thursday Adventure: Uncompahgre Peak At Last (or, A Tale of Two 14ers)

One of the rewards I offered in my Labyrinth of Flame kickstarter was a peak climb--and one of the folks taking me up on that was a friend whom I first met when we were both undergrads at Caltech. Catherine and I bonded over our shared love of SFF books and TV shows, and she was such a good friend that when I finally got a car in my senior year, she let me drag her along on various wilderness adventures. In those days my enthusiasm far exceeded my knowledge, which often led to rather traumatic experiences for my hiking partners.

Like the time I decided to do my first 14K peak: White Mountain, the third-highest peak in California at 14,252 feet, and the highest in the Inyo-White Mountains, which face the mighty Sierra Nevada across the sagebrush desert of the Owens Valley. (In other words, they're the Bolthole Mountains in the setting of the Shattered Sigil books.) Now, White Mountain is about as easy as 14K peaks get--far, far easier than any of the Sierra's jagged 14ers. The trailhead is way up at 12,000 feet, and all you do is hike an old 4WD road to the summit. No problem, right?

14,252-ft White Mountain, taken near the start of the 4WD trail. (No cars allowed on the trail; it's there because an old research station sits at the summit of the peak.)
No problem except for that little issue of altitude. Bright-eyed, naive 19-year-old me was vaguely aware that altitude could be a problem for hikers. So, I reasoned, the best bet would be to camp as high as we could the night before, to give us time to get accustomed to the thin air before we started hiking the next day. We drove straight from sea level to the 12,000-foot trailhead and camped nearby.

Any experienced hikers reading this are cringing. The correct way to acclimatize to altitude is by sleeping low and doing a series of gradually higher hikes. For most unacclimatized people, attempting to sleep at 12K feet is a recipe for disaster.

And so it proved. The next day, one friend, Jason, had such bad nausea and headache he wisely didn't even attempt to hike the peak. Catherine and another friend (whose nickname was "Dangermouse", or Danger for short) felt pretty miserable but gamely decided to give it a go. I, meanwhile, was ready to perkily skip my way up the peak--I didn't know this at the time, but I'm one of the genetically lucky few who feel no negative effects at altitudes up to 14K. In fact, I felt GREAT. (Hypoxia for the win!)

The White Mountain hiking crew: me, Danger, Catherine. Picture actually taken by Jason a day later when the four of us were about to backpack into Cottonwood Basin. Nobody wanted me to take their picture at the start of the actual White Mountain hike because they all felt grumpy and awful after their sleepless night at 12K feet.
So we hiked, and Catherine and Danger felt progressively more miserable, while idiot me brightly encouraged them to keep going. Danger finally hit the wall about a mile short of the peak and stopped, saying she'd wait for us. Catherine was the only one to make it to the top with me, and she was not having a good time. When I brightly suggested that perhaps the stunning views made the misery worth it, she looked across the Owens Valley at the massive, snowcapped wall of the eastern Sierra, and announced grimly, "I could have seen this out of a plane." (Looking back, it's proof of how good a friend she is that she said that instead of punching me.)

View of Owens Valley and the high Sierra from summit of White Mtn. 
Catherine on the summit. Because she's just that tough, she did summon up a smile.
As we went downhill, so did my friends' health. By the time we rejoined Danger, she was so altitude sick & exhausted she was irrational ("I don't want to move. Why don't we just spend the night here?" Me & Catherine: "Um, we don't have any more food or warm clothes and it's well below freezing at night. We will DIE OF HYPOTHERMIA.") It wasn't until Catherine and I started seriously discussing the best way we could carry Danger off the peak that she finally, reluctantly, started stumbling downward. We didn't make it back until after dark. Thankfully nobody got seriously hurt--although Catherine ended up needing physical therapy for her knees, which she strained on the descent--but it was far from my finest moment as a trip leader. (Danger said the next day, "I think I prefer nature walks.")

I've learned a hell of a lot in the 22 years since then, for which my friends are devoutly thankful. Catherine, too, is a far more experienced hiker, although she had never again attempted a 14K peak. Until now! Last year when she signed up for my peak climb reward, we discussed options, and settled on 14,308-ft Uncompahgre, the tallest peak in the San Juan range in southwestern Colorado. Uncompahgre isn't killer steep and has a good trail for most of the way, barring one short section of class 2+ scrambling up some loose rock. If you have a 4WD (a true 4WD, not a Subaru), you can muscle up a narrow, rocky road to reach the Nellie Creek trailhead, from which the peak's summit is a mere 3.75 miles and 3,000 feet. Catherine and I originally planned to do Uncompahgre together last fall, but the timing didn't work out, so we decided to wait for this fall instead.

This past Thursday, we climbed the peak at last, and it was an absolutely spectacular hike. Gorgeous weather--not a single cloud in the sky, which is quite rare in Colorado!--plus a hint of fall colors visible in aspens and tundra, and we saw hardly anyone else on the trail (an even greater rarity on a 14er). Best of all, Catherine felt a million times better than she did on White Mountain all those years ago, thanks to training and acclimatization. No such thing as a bad day in the mountains for me, but the best days of all are spent enjoying beautiful views with good friends, and this hike was one of my favorites of this year. Just check out these pics:

Our campspot the night before the hike. 

Evening light on a ridge above our campsite

Catherine at the trailhead. Since thunderstorm danger isn't that bad in September, we were able to start at the more reasonable hour of 7am instead of the more typical pre-dawn wake-up

Our destination awaits: Uncompahgre's massive summit block
The trail starts off nice and gentle
We strolled through a broad basin
Catherine heading for the ridge (at lefthand side in pic). Just look at that sky!
Gold and scarlet colors in the tundra as we pass a side peak 
The views started to open out as we gained the ridge
Ridgewalking ever higher
Terrific views of surrounding peaks: Wetterhorn and Matterhorn at left, Coxcomb on right
Snack break before we tackle the climb through the summit cliffs
Nothing like scrabbling up a pile of loose rocks (the route goes straight up here, no trail)
Catherine ascends (in shadow) while another climber eases down (the trick is not to knock rocks down onto anyone else). We only saw a few other groups on the trail, which made for a nice change from most of my other 14er jaunts. We did still cover the spectrum of Colorado hiking stereotypes, though, as we saw: 1) young couple with their golden lab, 2) solo young stud striding along in sneakers and carrying rope, having just ascended a far more sporty route than ours, 3) trio of nimble senior citizens that kicked our asses in hiking speed, 4) solo badass woman with her pack-wearing dog
Getting a little easier again
Now we're home free! Summit just ahead.
Catherine on the summit of her first 14K peak since White Mountain. 
Me having a truly excellent day
Peering over the edge of the summit cliffs: holy hell, that's a long way down
Looking west, toward Wetterhorn (foreground) and Sneffels (distant high point in background)
With the sky so clear, we could see forever across the San Juans
Looking down below the peak. 

We spent about an hour on the summit, and had the gorgeous views all to ourselves

The hard part is always going back down
The views make up for it, though
A secret waterfall
Tundra colors
Swiss cheese boulder
Almost back to the trailhead

Why climb mountains? As a famous mountaineer once said, because it feels so good when you stop.