Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chief, Squaw, and Square Top 2011-09-28

While on a business trip to Denver last year, I had a free afternoon and drove to the summit of Mount Evans (> 14 265 feet). The experience piqued my interest to return and hike to the summit of a Thirteener or Fourteener (> 13,000 and 14,000 feet, respectively). In September of 2011, the opportunity arose to return to Denver. This time I brought my hiking gear and extended my stay by two days.

On Mount Evans, I hiked the last 100', from the parking lot to the summit, and it didn't take much effort to elevate my heart-rate. Small wonder given that the lower pressure at 14,000 feet translates into substantially less oxygen in each breath. Lower air pressure also means that fluids can leak from one's tissues and pool where they shouldn't, like in one's lungs and brain. I had no idea if I was susceptible to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and its serious complications: pulmonary and/or cerebral edema (HAPE and HACE). I thought it'd be prudent, at least for my first hike, to stay below 12000 feet and close to a trailhead. 

Aside from reading a few trip reports, I didn't spend much time researching hikes prior to my departure. Upon my arrival in Denver, on a Sunday, I spent a few hours driving along route 119 and taking in the sights. Afterwards, I purchased a pocket-sized hiking guide ('The Best Denver Hikes' published by The Colorado Mountain Club) and selected two hikes, one rated easy (Chief and Squaw) and the other moderate-difficult (Square Top). If I fared well on the easy hike, and suffered no ill effects, then on the following day I'd try something more challenging.

On Wednesday morning I dropped off my colleague at Denver's airport and took the I-70 west towards Bergen Park. My destination was Chief and Squaw mountains (11,709 and 11,486 feet, respectively). The guidebook characterized it as an easy hike (1800' ascent; 4.8 miles; 3 hours) and where a Coloradan should bring visiting flatlanders. Being a neophyte Front Range hiker, it sounded perfect.

The trailhead is located along Squaw Pass Road (route 103) at an elevation of 10,600 feet, or about twice as high as Mount Marcy. The trail was unlike anything I've seen in the Adirondacks. A bed of dry pebbles and sandy soil led all the way to Chief's summit. However, whereas my eyes said 'Easy trail!' my heart said 'Slow down!'. I settled on a pace that seemed very leisurely, compared to hiking in the Adirondacks, yet my heart-rate chugged at 135 bpm.

Perfect path to Chief.
The forest of pines gave way to an open summit and unobstructed views of the surrounding mountains. Being early fall, the aspens had turned to brilliant gold and provided spectacular contrast to the sea of emerald green pines. On Chief's summit I met an elderly Coloradan couple. The woman had recently recovered from chemotherapy and her presence there put a sobering perspective on my lack of acclimatization. We spent a few minutes discussing Colorado's beauty and then they departed. I spent some time on the summit, taking photos and admiring the landscape on a picture-perfect day. 

Coloradan blue and gold.
After descending Chief, I headed to nearby Squaw. The route follows a broad dirt road that winds its way to the very top of Squaw. Squaw's summit bristles with communication antennae and related gear. The guidebook indicated its views were worthwhile and one should not discount it due to its less-than-attractive summit. Frankly, the views were great but not that much better than from nearby Chief. 

Squaw features a stone fire tower (closed), a stone outhouse (also closed), and a picnic table. I made use of the picnic table and stopped to eat lunch, watch smoke billow from a distant forest fire, and listen to nearby gunshots. A pika scurried by, froze, and then dove in between some rocks. I concluded the rapid gunfire was target practice and not hunting.

As I descended the road, I met the first group of ‘shootists’ practising with their handguns. We joked about needing a 'head on a swivel'. Around the next bend in the road, another group was firing rifles and something without a gunstock that sounded like a shotgun. They seemed less interested in small-talk so I simply waved and walked by. I hoped no one was bushwhacking through the woods and in the path of errant bullets.

As I walked along the road, about a half-dozen ravens were performing aerial acrobatics. A pair would swoop down, side-by-side, appear to touch wings and then break off. If I hadn't read 'Mind of the Raven' I probably wouldn't have paused to admire their stunts. I waited to see barrel-rolls and they didn't disappoint me. The theory is that play is a sign of higher intelligence and their swooping, soaring, pair-flying and rolling, serves no survival purpose so it must be that they are playing. 

After I returned to my car, I decided to add one more hike to my day and headed to Echo Lake State Park. The drive along route 103 is exceptionally scenic and I stopped frequently to admire the views. The trailhead to Chicago Lakes begins at the Echo Lake's south-western side and descends into a valley. Before the descent, the open trail offers spectacular views down the length of the valley.

Scenic route to the Chicago Creek valley.
I didn't want to wear myself out so I hiked only as far as the Idaho Springs reservoir. Upon my return, I chose to drive back to Denver via route 74 which passes through Bear Creek Canyon. Along the way I stopped to watch a herd of elk grazing in a meadow by a large pond. The male was calling out to stragglers who were feasting on the lawn of a nearby home. There are simply no boring roads in the Front Range.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The following day, Denver was clouded over. However, the weather map indicated the clouds did not extend as far west as my destination. Assured of clear skies, I drove west along route 285 to the town of Grant and then north along route 62 to Guanella Pass. As per the weather map, everything west of Grant was aglow in sunshine. I turned north onto route 62 and headed for the top of Guanella Pass.

For the first few miles, the road was a dirt washboard that forced me to drive below 15 mph otherwise I ran the risk of shaking the fillings out of my teeth. A few hummocks and potholes kept the drive interesting. Crawling along, I thought it might take nearly an hour to travel a mere 13 miles but, fortunately, the wavy dirt transformed into brand-new blacktop near Duck Lake. Nearing the top of the pass, I passed a Mini Cooper heading south and wondered how its passengers would fare on the unpaved section! I would learn that route 62 was recently rebuilt and was in perfect condition from Georgetown (northern terminus, near I-70) to shortly before Duck Lake in the south; the remainder of the road to Grant is plain old dirt. Good luck, Mini Cooper!

Guanella Pass is a destination in itself. Well above tree-line at 11,600 feet, it is carpeted in alpine grasses and offers a sweeping vista of nearby Fourteeners, Bierstadt and Evans. Aside from a few patches of willow bushes, there is a notable lack of natural protection from the elements. Although the sky was cloudless and the temperature was mild (low 60's), I brought cold-weather gear. At 10:50 AM, I headed out along a well-defined path leading to Square Top Lakes.

The route to Square Top mountain.
I was attracted to this hike because it offered a loop trip to a Thirteener, namely Square Top Mountain (13,794 feet). Square Top Lakes are nestled in a bowl, 1500 feet below the summit of Square Top mountain, created by an unnamed ridge and a shoulder of Square Top. Situated on the north side of the lakes, the 'northern ridge' is 12,700 feet tall and about a mile long. The guidebook suggested a 7 mile counter-clockwise loop that begins by ascending the ridge, following it to Square Top's summit, descending Square Top's southern shoulder to Square Top Lakes and then back to the trailhead (2100' ascent; 5-6 hours). Naturally, my assessment of a 'simple hike' was based upon preconceptions that would prove to be completely wrong.

Compared to major trailheads in the Adirondacks, the Guanella Pass trailhead has no register or significant signage. A small, simple sign marks the start of the trail to Square Top Lakes but it does not mention Square Top Mountain. The trail was well-defined and seemed more like a narrow dirt road. With virtually no vegetation higher than a yard tall, and a clear blue sky, you could see for miles. I headed out at a very reserved pace and consciously breathed deeply and regularly. 

I missed the intersecting trail that led to the top of the unnamed ridge. I did find a 'Trail Closed' sign but the guidebook had mentioned its presence and indicated the true intersection was nearby. I failed to find it so I simply proceeded to hike the loop in a clockwise direction.

Square Top comes into view.
As soon as the trail began to rise, I noticed the extra effort my body expended to 'stay oxygenated'. Compared to hiking in the Adirondacks, my heart-rate was unusually high given the gentle trail conditions and my conservative ascent rate. When I stopped to sip water, the moment after extracting the bite-valve from my mouth I needed to inhale deeply. It was like I had been holding my breath for too long and now needed a huge gulp of air. It felt like my fitness level had taken a quantum plunge! It was an odd sensation and I coped with it by simply moving at a steady pace and being watchful of any unusual symptoms.

Just past lower Square Top lake, all traces of the trail disappeared. I followed what seemed like a herd-path but it petered out quickly. Several hundred yards ahead of me were two figures that appeared to be ascending to Square Top. Given the open, treeless terrain, you could follow whatever route you desired. I wondered if this was part of a strategy to preserve visual aesthetics. When viewed from a distance, trails look like scars and Square Top was free of any evidence of human passage. Nevertheless, being steeped in Adirondack hiking etiquette, it felt wrong to be trampling alpine grasses.

Upon climbing out of the basin, and onto Square Top's south-eastern ridge, I passed a large patch of snow. I later learned that the area had received its first snowfall three weeks earlier. On the exposed ridge, the cooling breezes became a cold, constant wind. I stopped for a break and put on another layer of microfleece, a shell, hat, and mittens. I don't know if a lack of altitude acclimatization causes one to be less cold-tolerant but I was certainly wearing as much clothing on this ascent as on a winter hike in the Adirondacks.

Alpine flora.
I was gaining ground on the hikers ahead of me. They were two women from Colorado who decided to hike in the direction of Square Top but had no firm plans as to the exact destination. I mentioned to them that I was finding the altitude to be a challenge. They replied that, even as Coloradans, it took them at least a half-hour to get used to hiking at this elevation. I envied their ability to acclimatize so quickly!

I might have misunderstood them but they didn't seem to be familiar with the route to Square Top nor with the option of looping around the northern side of the lakes. I parroted the guidebook's description of the route and explained we'd soon reach an intersection where one could veer right, around the head of the cliffs plunging down to upper Square Top lake, and towards the unnamed ridge. Dark clouds were moving towards Square Top's summit and we received a brief snow shower. I hoped that was the last of it. If the clouds rolled in I'd lose the great views and the simplicity of visual navigation. 

Based on their progress, and the weather, the Coloradan ladies opted to forego the summit and head north at the intersection. As I should've expected, my idea of an intersection, namely a visible crossroads marked with a sign, never materialized. We reached a height of approximately 13,300 feet and, based on the lay of the land, they deemed it to be a safe point to skirt the cliffs and begin a northerly descent. Before departing, they indicated they would not hike to the northern ridge but would descend to the lakes and return via the trail. We said our goodbyes and I continued to Square Top.

As I neared the first false-summit, I could see another dark cloud over nearby Argentine peak (13,738 feet). It had a haze below it indicating some form of precipitation. I set a turnaround time for myself and pushed on. I noticed that my hands had become slightly swollen and numb. I flexed them repeatedly as I hiked and it helped to alleviate the numbness. Square Top's summit has a half-mile long ridge and once I was on it my energy was renewed. Twenty minutes later I was standing next to Square Top's summit cairn. My first Thirteener; it was exhilarating!

My first Thirteener!
The wind was brisk; a dropped hat or mitten would've been blown off the summit. I took several photos of nearby peaks (Decatur, Argentine, Wilcox) and lakes (Silver Dollar, Naylor). Except for a few patches of snow, Square Top's summit was wind-scoured and barren. I don't believe I've ever felt so exposed to the elements; I paid close attention to the oncoming clouds.

Descent route from Square Top.
I spent about 15 minutes atop Square Top and then, deciding I shouldn't push my luck any further, began my descent. From such a high vantage point, and no trees for miles, it was easy to trace a suitable route to the northern ridge. Within minutes of beginning my descent, I encountered, directly in my path, another Coloradan heading to the summit. This one was definitely a local because he was four-legged, horned, and wore a shaggy white coat. Although I had seen mountain goats up close on Mount Evans' auto road, this encounter was different.

He (she?) and I were solitary wanderers and both us seemed equally surprised to encounter one another. We stopped in our tracks, less than a hundred feet apart, and studied one another. I felt a combination of wonderment and trepidation. I hoped he felt similarly about me. If he saw me as a threat, I could not out-run or out-maneuver him. As I walked forward, so did he. I realized that it'd be best for me to yield the route and I veered to my right. Each time I stopped to take a photo, he would stop as well and look at me. We passed, he stopped to look back one last time, and then we lost sight of one another. 

Another lone hiker.
The rugged, eroded trails of the Adirondacks serve as an excellent training ground for rock-hopping. The experience served me well as I hopped from stone to stone in a rapid descent to the northern ridge. It would've been handy to have brought my hiking poles to Colorado but they were too bulky to stow in my suitcase. Fortunately, my knees were up to the task and I traversed the slope quickly. In the distance, about a mile away, I could make out the forms of the two hikers as they made their way to the lakes. My chosen descent route was uneventful and featured only one short cliff that I easily circumvented.

The northern ridge features broad and rolling terrain that makes for easy hiking. I reached the ridge, looked back, saw Square Top engulfed in a dark cloud, and decided to head down to the lakes. I dropped about 50 feet of elevation, looked back at the cloud, looked at the sunlit ridge, and paused to reconsider. It'd be a shame to miss out on the views offered by the ridge. The cloud might just stay pinned to Square Top's summit. I took a chance and headed back up to the sunlit ridge. It was a good choice because the views were exceptional, especially looking back at Square Top's eastern cirque that plummets a thousand feet to the lakes below.

Square Top from the northern ridge.
I could not find evidence of a marked trail and that baffled me. It seemed odd that a herd-path would fail to form in an area that I assumed would be very popular. Nevertheless, it made for a unique experience to head in any desired direction without bushwhacking. However, it still felt wrong to walk on the alpine grasses! The eastern end of the ridge has one final gentle rise and it reminded me that I was far from being fully acclimatized. I thought I saw a trail sign on the rise but it turned out to be a signless post. I gave up looking for trails and signs. Once atop the final rise, I had a clear view of Bierstadt, Evans, and the distant trailhead. It was now time to decide how to descend the ridge to the valley below.

Square Top; mountain and lake.

Having hiked the route opposite to the suggested direction, I didn't precisely know how to 'close the loop'. The eastern end of the ridge drops precipitously to the meadow, several hundred feet below, and features cliffs and other hazards. I suppose if I bothered to pull out the guidebook I would've noticed that the suggested route swung northwards before descending a long shoulder to the meadows. A light rain shower had begun and I now felt pressed to exit the ridge at the earliest opportunity.

I studied my options and selected a long broad gully about 200 yards wide. Looking down the slope I selected a distinct exit point, a featureless gray area among thickets of willows, and cautiously began my descent. The chute drops about 400 feet in a quarter mile and represents a 30 degree slope. However, in practice it felt a good deal steeper.

With a loose base of grass and rubble, and no vegetation for handholds, it presented an interesting challenge. Any stone I dislodged merrily rolled down the slope and served as an example of what could easily happen to me. It was not possible to face forward and I descended sideways, all the while tacking across the face of the chute. The experience reminded me of an event many years ago.

In the 80's, I spent a few weeks working in Mexico. My employer manufactured telecommunications equipment and I had the opportunity to inspect a 40 meter tower (~130 feet). It had an exterior-mounted ladder without a safety cage (i.e. if you fell off, nothing would stop your fall). I had begun rock-climbing a few years earlier so climbing a ladder didn't seem like much of a challenge. The higher I went, the more I realized that one misstep, due to sweaty palms, a sneeze, swatting a fly or an errant bird, could make you lose your cadence and fail to grab a rung properly. Without a safety cage, there's no second chance and you fall to your death.

One of the engineers I was with was reluctant to descend and required encouragement. In fact, the descent proved to be worse than the ascent because, being superficially easier, there's a natural desire to move quickly. You had to focus on being slow and methodical and resist the urge to move fast. You had to guard against being lulled into moving routinely and automatically, without thought of hand and foot placement. The experience taught me that, if the stakes are high, a seemingly routine task can become a serious challenge. Never underestimate the task when the consequences are dire. 

Screwing up during the descent of the chute did not have fatal consequences but you had to guard against moving too quickly or without thought. Rolling down tens of yards along a rock-strewn chute will not leave you in better shape. To stay focused, I selected a target about forty feet away, counted my steps and then paused for a quick breather. All the while, a light shower urged me not to dawdle because the slope would get much worse in a rainstorm. As I approached my chosen exit, I discovered it was a dry pond bed. I looked back at the slope and felt a great sense of accomplishment and relief. 

As I stood there, taking photos of my descent route, I was startled by the sound of a snarl. Naturally, I perceived it as a threat and turned to face its direction. Less than 400 feet away, I caught a glimpse of an animal leaping down a rocky slope. Its tail was about the length of its torso and its fur was medium brown with lighter patches. It moved too quickly, and the sighting was too brief, for me to get a clear view of its face or any distinctive markings. However, it had a spinal hump at its rear-end and moved with the supple and undulating gait common to members of the weasel family (mustelidae). However, this thing was large for a mustelid because it was easily spotted from over 300 feet away (i.e. medium-sized dog). Given its size, movement, general appearance, and loud snarl, I am convinced I saw a wolverine which is a rare beast in Colorado. I described the encounter on the 14ers web-site and several people concurred I had seen a wolverine (and not 'Wolverine' or 'Red Dawn' Wolverines). That sighting is my favourite memento of Colorado.

I covered the remaining trail back with little effort. I arrived at the trailhead at 4:15 PM, elated that I had just safely completed my first Thirteener. I chose to drive north, to Georgetown, rather than return south to Grant. The road north through Guanella Pass is in immaculate condition and passes by some of the finest scenery imaginable. Upon returning to my hotel, I wished I had extended my stay for a week! With 54 Fourteeners and over 600 Thirteeners, Colorado is rich with sky-scraping peaks and awe-inspiring scenery. I hope to return next year and discover more of its natural beauty. 


See all photos.