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.)
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!)
|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.
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)
|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
|Swiss cheese boulder
|Almost back to the trailhead