It's well known that July is the traditional month for bagging a whole lot of peaks. Last year I set out with four like-minded idiots and hiked the Tenmile Range from Frisco to Breckenridge netting an even dozen peaks along the way. We also did a long "Uber" Run on the gentle portion of the Continental Divide between James Peak and Rollins Pass.
Assorted camp revelry (photo by Eric)
Logistically, this one was a bear. Berthoud Pass is 90 minutes away and Rollins Pass, while closer, is only accessible by car from the west side, a three hour drive from home. Mike, Marella, and I caravanned over to Winter Park on Saturday afternoon and found our way up 13 miles of dirt road to Rollins Pass. We stashed their car and drove back down in mine to a campsite which Peter and Terry (who made it clear he was along for camping only this time) had acquired. Chris and Eric arrived a short time later on their way back from running the Maroon Bells Four-Pass Loop and we had a very festive group dinner before hitting the sack.
At 6am on Sunday, we were up at Berthoud Pass gearing up for the "run". Everyone was feeling groggy and the consensus was for hiking rather than running. I'd hoped to go hard on this one, but I'd much rather hike with friends than run by myself, so I didn't put up much of a fight. The first mile or two was gradual road winding up the side of Colorado Mines Peak. It was surprisingly chilly and I was feeling a good deal less than 100%. The summit arrived and we paused amidst the microwave horns and assorted communication gear for a quick break.
The basic traverse nets six peaks (Mines, Flora, Eva, Parry, Bancroft, James), but short side-excursions add two more to the total (Breckenridge Peak south of Flora, and Witter Peak between Flora and Eva). The weather was fine, so we decided to get ambitious and bag all eight. With the big climb up Colorado Mines Peak over, we were left with more modest climbs and drops along the gentle ridge. We ran little bits here and there but mostly set a leisurely pace enjoying the warm sun, cool breeze, and green alpine meadows. This is clearly not a popular hiking destination as the trails are often nonexistant and we saw no one else all morning. By noon, we summitted Parry Peak, our sixth of the day and highest at 13,391'.
Morning on the Divide headed for our second peak of the day.
Mike "runs" the CDT with Colorado Mines Peak in the distance.
I was feeling pretty strong at this point and had vanquished my earlier lethargy, pushing the uphills hard. But the group was getting a little strung out and we were moving slower than I'd hoped. Furthermore, clouds were gathering east of the Divide and we still had another mandatory two peaks before any good escape options presented themselves. Regrouped on Parry, we hiked the easy ridge over to Mt. Bancroft where we'd been last spring after a climb of the fabulous East Ridge. The weather wasn't improving, so we hustled across the false northern summit to confront the deep notch between Bancroft and James Peak to the north.
Had the weather not been so ominous, this would have been a great place to hang out and enjoy. A wicked-steep grass slope dropped down to a narrow 3rd-class ridge above a partially frozen lake. Peter and I were in the lead at this point and we scampered across quite quickly enjoying easy moves on solid rock, then climbed steep talus to the plateau below James' summit. That was when we heard the first thunder. Wisps of cloud were blowing through and we could see thunderheads boiling up behind us. Time to move, now!
Headed back to Mt. Flora from Breckenridge Peak (photo by Marella)
Eric reaches the summit ridge on Parry Peak.
I went back to consult with the rest of the crew and a plan was quickly formulated. Peter and I were feeling quite strong and would sprint up over James and down to Rogers Pass on the far side while the rest followed as quickly as possible. From there, we would reassess; if the weather was good, we'd regroup at Rogers Pass and enjoy the last five miles of Divide hiking. If not, we'd bail off down the jeep road to the west which intersects the Rollins Pass Road about 3.5 miles below the Divide. Someone would then hike up the road to get the car and pick everyone else up along the road.
Peter and I set out at full speed and were soon joined by a revitalized Eric. The three of us scambled across rough terrain in growing fog and crossed the summit of James Peak at a dead run searching feverishly for cairns marking the trail down. We soon found them and set off at a quick pace. One switch-back took us to the edge of James' impressive eastern face at the top of what I assume to be the Superstar Couloir. Despite the weather, I couldn't help myself and spent a few seconds marvelling at how steep and gnarly it looked from above. That's definitely a challenge for another season when I'm more focussed on mountaineering and less on running!
Peter contemplates the weather building over James Peak.
Peter and I descend toward Ice Lake and the James/Bancroft saddle (photo by Marella)
After descending at a breakneck pace for another ten minutes, we could see that the clouds on this side of the peak weren't nearly as ominous as they were to the south and east. Nor had we heard thunder for a while. We stopped to breath for a bit and Chris caught up. We saw Mike and Marella high above emerging from the cloud deck, then set off for more descent, this time at a more reasonable pace, along a really cool trail slabbing across the western face of a sharp ridge.
Running the amazing trail north of James Peak. This is what trail running is all about! It's not all as rough as it looks in this picture (photo by Eric).
We got to the road at 11,100' and rested in the shade of a tall spruce (the weather was now, of course, perfectly sunny and clear). Eric caught up in a few minutes and we started up the road to retreive the car. I was still feeling good and decided to, as Eric says, "finish strong", so I took off at a slow jog. The road once held a train track, so the grade is something less than 2%; totally runnable, even at high altitude and in my current tired state. After 3.5 miles, I reached the car, and set off for an extracurricular jaunt out to the junction above King Lake where Peter and I left the Divide last week, partly for closure, partly because my GPS said 19.5 miles and I thought it would be nice if it ticked over to 20-something before the day was done. By the time I finished, Chris, Peter, and Eric had arrived. We gratefully changed shoes, and drove down to pick up Mike and Marella. Back to down to Winter Park and up to Berthoud Pass where we went our separate ways.
It was a long and much anticipated trip. The 14 mile, six peak, and 5000' gain trip morphed into 21+ miles, eight peaks, and 6200' of up (and 5850' of down) in 8.5 hours. Somehow these things always happen. While none of the peaks are what I'd call real mountaineering attractions in and of themselves, the whole package of peaks, saddles, tundra, and so forth was very nice. Despite my initial misgivings about not getting in a much-needed workout, everyone got worked as hard as he or she wanted. Better yet, we "suffered" in the mountains among friends, and that my friends, is the best kind of suffering!
The Wilderness Journal