It's been a short, rainy summer occupied with wedding planning and not much time for climbing mountains. But now all that's over and we have some free time. The weather is fine but winter is coming on fast. Better climb something soon!
Amy and I picked up Nathan at 7am and headed west for the popular Brainard Lake area of the Indian Peaks. There is a gate on the access road about 3 miles from the trailheads and it's always a little nebulous whether or not it will be open. Since we suspected it wouldn't be, we brought along our bikes to make quick work of the pavement and carve 6 miles off an otherwise unweildy round trip. Fortunately, the gate was open and no toll-takers were in evidence so we arrived at the sunny, cool and uncharacteristically sparse parking lot at 8am.
Our goal was Mount Audubon (13,224'), one of the higher and easier of the Indian Peaks. It's a very popular mountain for this reason and an easy trail winds up the vast eastern slopes to the summit. But we can't do anything the easy way! Our goal was the shorter, sturdier south east ridge, a 3rd class scramble along a mildly exposed ridge which separates the small eastern cirque from the rest of the Blue Lake drainage to the south. There had already been a sizable snowstorm even this early in the season, and the mountains had spotty snow cover.
The initial mile of the route followed the easy, flat Blue Lake Trail one mile to the far shore of Mitchell Lake. From there, we left the trail and hiked across the snowy meadows near the lake. The ridge was obvious above, but a steep talus climb awaited us first. Nathan and I took off across the talus. Amy hates talus and moves slowly over it. Never-the-less, we all gained the ridge after a half hour of climbing.
From here, the ridge was a broad, rocky slope ascending steadily to the west. As we went, it steadily narrowed and the views improved from great to stunning. The weather was still perfect and small patches of snow didn't impair us for long. Finally, the ridge had narrowed to about 5 feet and the dropoffs were substantial. The shattered rock proved challenging enough and the snow just made it worse. Amy and I struggled carefully up the ridge bit by bit. From ahead of us, Nathan yelled out, "Uh, guys? We have a problem!" Nathan is typically fearless and ridiculously strong. If he was worried, I was definitely worried!
To our amazement, the ridge just ends in the middle of the air. Below us was a 100' drop beyond steep with steep drops on either side as well. What's more (we discovered later), the final rocks on the ridge are dramatically undercut and balanced over significant air. Retreat was an unpleasant option for many reasons and we could see that, just beyond this Notch, we would be on the broad southeast slopes of the upper mountain.
A bit of scouting showed that we could definitely get down the first part of the notch by downclimbing a bit to the north and circling in under the parapet at the end of the ridge. What happened from there was an unknown, but Nathan boldly ventured forth. Various grunting sounds ensued and he eventually appeared down below at the bottom of the notch. Amy and I followed finding the snow a hinderance, but there were plenty of great hand holds to be had, albeit on large, loose blocks of rock balanced seemingly precariously over our heads. A short dihedral, a stoop under a large block, straddle another rather personally sharp rock, another slither and I was on easier ground. Looking back up at the notch from below we were doubly impressed!
The notch downclimb. It helps to visualize this when you realize that this photo was aimed taken upward at about a 60 degree angle.
Nathan tackles the ascent on the other side of the notch.
Looking back at the notch and ridge from the upper slopes of Audubon.
But the fun was not over yet! The climb out of the notch appeared to be straight forward up shelves and terraces of rock. However, they were a bit steeper than they appeared and presented some challenges. Fortunately, the broad cliff band provided many options and we threaded our way up about two thirds of it before running into a signficant band of snow. Nathan is not fond of snow climbing and performed various gyrations on steep rock to avoid it culminating in a very bold mantle onto the final slopes. I duplicated the bold mantle (very bold indeed), but there was no way anyone less than six feet tall was going to do it. Amy planned to traverse south along a sloping, snowy ledge and come up that way, but it looked like it had serious fall potential. Fortunately, I carry a short bit of climbing rope for just these occasions! She tied in and I bellayed her across the traverse. She came up smartly and never weighted the rope, but it gave her a welcome mental edge.
|Once on the upper slopes, the going got easier.||The spectacular Blue Lake viewed from above. Pawnee Peak is the rounded knob on the right side of the horizon. North and South Arapaho are the large, rounded peaks in the distance just left of center.|
|Nathan victorious with Mount Toll and the Divide in the background.||Upper Coney Lake from the summit.|
Amy starts the descent along the summit ridge.
Some of the deeper snow on the descent near the summit.
A fantastic hike with a round-trip of about 7 miles and 2800 vertical feet of climb (mostly in under 2 miles). It was also the first perfect loop hike I've done in a long time; we never backtracked and returned to the car via a different side of the parking lot than we'd left. Extra bonus points for us! I'm glad we didn't ascend the long east slopes route and equally glad we didn't have to descend the ridge.
The Wilderness Journal