Yesterday morning I started working my way up to the quadfecta of Mt. Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln, Bross. Cameron isn’t technically considered it’s own mountain because it lies on the slopes of Lincoln but it is still a 14er peak. Because of the brutal winter temps and snow the past couple weeks the road up to the summer trailhead at Kite Lake was closed about 3 miles down the road at an old abandoned mining hub called Paris Mill. A few days earlier I had tried to navigate my way up to Kite Lake with my city slick tires and was stuck within a half mile. So the past couple days I had settled for a start at Paris Mill and accepted the easy 3 miles out and 3 miles back of road walking.
On Wednesday I woke up ready for an attempt on the mountains but was feeling a little rough and uninspired, and with looming snow and clouds I decided better of working my way up for a full day exposed above treeline. But on Thursday I felt strong and ready and worse conditions rolled in with persistent snow and white out above 12,000 feet. I decided to have a go and bundled up for the grueling sub-zero temps ahead.
The road walk was easy and beautiful and on the way up I saw a couple hikers who had gotten an earlier start and decided to turn around when they reached Kite Lake and frankly I can’t blame them. It was ugly up there. Within 30 minutes my beard and face were frozen. I stopped in the privy at Kite Lake for a few minutes to thaw and grab a snack and considered heading back down. But I knew I was more than capable of navigating this loop in those conditions so I continued on. And besides I could always turn around at any point. There were plenty of bail out options.
I had practically memorized the summer route from guides online and had pictures of nearly every turn along the way. But in the winter wonderland of low visibility and no landmarks I simply had a direction, toward the summit. I headed directly up the slopes of Democrat without regard for the summer trail and within a half mile caught myself on uncomfortably loose scree hidden by powdery snow. If I slipped, which I was doing often on the unstable terrain, it could be catastrophic. So I worked my way back over to the saddle between Lincoln and Cameron and back onto safe terrain. It was stable and straight-forward to the top of Democrat but the weather worsened while I was heading up there. It turned from brutal winds to brutal winds, heavy snow, and white out conditions. With visibility of maybe 100 yards the only way I could tell I was on the summit was from pictures I had seen and my altimeter.
I took some time to compose myself and thaw my freezing face which had been exposed to the wind for the last hour. I craved to drop down below the ridge and head back into sheltered terrain but when I reach the saddle where the slopes toward Cameron pick up I decided to keep going. I was managing the weather well despite the cold and figured it’d be a good test on a relatively safe mountain. The scale up to Cameron was amazing and smooth when windswept snow allowing me to keep my snowshoes on but not requiring too much effort from postholing. Eventually the rocks beneath were exposed by the bitter wind. I decided to keep my snowshoes on despite knowing they would be battered. The ridge was covered in enough snow drifts that it was worth it to keep the snowshoes on rather than stall to take them off.
I summited the gentle peak on Cameron and worked my way over to the not so gentle point on Lincoln. But up on Lincoln there was shelter leeward behind an outcropping and I peeled off my shell to put on a fleece underneath. I am adamant about keeping layers to a minimum and staying dry but with a wool shirt and shell, I was starting to get a little chilly. I put on a 100g weight fleece, took a summit photo, replaced my empty bottle of Powerade, grabbed a snack, and began working my way down to Bross. The summit of Bross is officially off limits but it seems that is only a liability issue and not an actual rule. I summited the broad slope and checked my phone to help piece together the route back down to Kite Lake. There is a winter route down a steep gully which I knew would probably be more a late winter route because of the denser snow coverage.
The snow in the gully wasn’t deep enough to avoid the hidden rocks below now was it firm enough to glissade (ass-sled) down so I accepted a stumbling stride for the next 1500ft. The snow blew upward from the valley as if it had forgotten something on the summit and my glasses were caked with snow within minutes. I had forgotten my goggles and my balaclava so I simply had to shove my face as deep into my jacket as possible to protect it from the biting wind. My beard continually froze to my jacket and then yanked hair out when I’d pick my head up. You’d think I’d take these stupid discomforts as a sign of stopping these nonsensical adventures. But it just makes the warmth and the sunshine and the comfort that much more enjoyable.
Back down at Kite Lake I knew I was in the clear and worked my way through the deep snow back to the road. I began the gentle downhill back out and started thinking about some of my errors and accomplishments on this day hike. I was thrilled to have navigated a loop without the aid of other tracks or a visible trail for nearly the entirety of the climb. But I was pretty bummed with myself for leaving the balaclava in the car. I decided to always bring it and conditionally bring the goggles over the glasses to keep snow crystals from abrading my corneas. I was also pretty stoked about my timing. I once again showed that it was possible to complete a solid hike casually in a little over 7 hours. I learned that white-out conditions make depth perception pretty much non-existent and sort of frames things all in the same plane. This made for a lot of stumbling and tripping over drifts but my biggest fear from this is the difficulty of making out cornices.
On the way down I stopped for a minute to eat some frozen solid Sour Patch Kids and looked to my right to see two white-tailed ptarmigans chilling in the snow. It had been one of my goals upon coming out here to see these beautiful birds. They are brown and blend well with the alpine soil in the summer and then turn white for winter. They live their entire lives at or above treeline and rarely fly in the winter because their camouflage works so well in the snow. I stopped to take a couple pictures and started up hiking again.
Within a quarter mile of my car I came upon a truck stuck in the snow with a young guy digging at its wheels with a shovel. I immediately began unstrapping my pack and when within talking distance asked if I could help. He sounded frustrated so I picked up his extra shovel and started working out the rear wheels. After a little while we had a solid track for the wheels to back out of and we started pushing with his girlfriend gassing it. No luck. So we kept digging and eventually decided to give it another go. With the two of us pushing she backed it out with some force and they were back onto solid snowpack. With a tremendous grin on his face he came running back to me shouting, “Ahh you’re the man! Give me a hug!” He came running at me and nearly knocked me over in his excitement. We introduced ourselves and I caught his name Cameron but have forgotten his girlfriend’s name.
Residents of the town of Alma, the highest incorporated town in North America, just down the hill, they knew the cost for a tow would be at minimum $250 so he was elated that we were able to get it unstuck. Having been in the same situation a few days earlier I knew the feeling. You’re thinking the worst and then within seconds everything turns around when the tires get traction again. A couple of hikers who were on their way back down from an attempt on Democrat when I was stuck had helped push me out and I was jumping up and down thanking them for the help. But the reciprocation and paying it forward of the winter in Colorado is becoming and incredibly beautiful and simultaneously casual thing for me. After helping Cole off Quandary in December, jump starting a family’s car in Breckenridge, and having similar favors repaid to me, it is obviously a community effort in such harsh conditions.
As he backed his car down to Paris Mill I hiked behind making sure he didn’t drift off the narrow tracks. When he reached my car I saw him get out and go over to my windshield and then get back in his car. I couldn’t imagine what he was doing but when I got down he shouted out his open window, “I’m buying you dinner!”
I immediately said “No, no, no! You don’t have to do that!”
He cut me off and said “I knew you’d say that so I dropped a 20 on your windshield. Enjoy man.”
It was an awesome gesture to end a phenomenal but brutal day. He was an incredibly thankful guy and I was happy to have helped them. But his gesture really made me feel great to know how happy he was and how important what I had done meant to him. The kind of guy you wish you hadn’t simply met in passing.
After an exhausting day yesterday and early bedtime I missed my chance to get dinner. So tonight I’m going to get out of this Starbucks where I’m mooching Wifi and go get dinner on Cameron. After a few days snacking on poptarts, clif bars, and donuts, I’m extremely excited for a warm meal.