|Do all great adventures start out modestly or are they planned? This one started as a casual day hike but ended up being a full-out alpine adventure complete with hairy traverses, glacier travel and entirely too much bushwhacking....
Nathan Smith picked me up at 8am and we headed west for the Indian Peaks Wilderness. An hour of driving took us through Eldora and up roughly four miles of rough road to the 4th of July trailhead. The weather was gorgeous and not too hot. Despite the early hour, the parking area was crowded and we had to squeeze into a spot between an SUV and a boulder.
The route we took on Mt. Neva. Click above for a readable version. The route through the valley is somewhat uncertain. Click here for a version without the route.
Our first view of the mountains, in this case, the multiple peaks of Mt. Jasper.
The view of Mt. Neva from the 4th of July Mine.
We broke out of the last clumps of evergreens after two miles and came to the ruins of the 4th of July mine. Several heaps of gravel and mysterious pits occupies a small plateau below South Arapahoe Peak an the valley to the south. At this point, we could see across the valley to the craggy walls of Mount Neva and Jasper Peak and all the subsidiary peaks and buttresses. Some of these had glaciers on their lower flanks. I'd never seen glaciers up close either.
Another mile of walking brought us to Arapahoe Pass and the spectacular views west across the Divide. Long's, Apache, and North Arapahoe Peaks loomed jagged and forbidding to the north. We descended slightly to the gorgeous Lake Dorothy and I realized that I was now above 12,000'. Still no obvious altitude effects besides a shortness of breath and the chill in the air. Lack of appetite doesn't seem to be one of my altitude symptoms and lunch was devoured with gusto by the side of the lake.
The lake was that deep blue-green color you get from glacial runoff and, a brief finger-probe revealed, bitterly cold. Small glaciers ran from the cliffs down to the lake on the far side. Across the lake was the spectacular Mt. Neva. The southern face was a steep cliff but the northern side looked more gradual and flat. Binoculars revealed grass growing on the northern slope. However the ridge to the northern slopes was guarded by a formidable-looking knife-edge with several deep chasms and dire pinnacles. The time was 11:30 and we had lots of daylight left. Besides, the summit was right there; how hard could it be? A couple people could be seen up on the north end of the ridge so we figured it couldn't be impossible.
Following the faulty logic of the valiantly underprepared, we headed north around the lake and up the surprisingly steep slope of the northern end of the ridge. When we crested the ridge, we saw that, indeed, the western slope was considerably gentler than the eastern precipice as I had expected all along... for about a hundred feet! Soon we were scrambling among rocks on the top of the ridge in full four-limb-drive mode. We happened upon the people we'd seen from below headed back the other direction. "You can get about 50' farther before it gets impossible," they warned.
We took this as a further challenge and discovered that, 50' farther on, we came to one of the deep clefts that split the ridge line. But it wasn't impassable. If you scrambled down to the east, crossed over the ridge, and then scrambled up the equally steep western side you could pass this notch.
The going got gradually more extreme without any sudden changes to make us think better. After passing two more notches, I found myself climbing up a 50' tall dihedral which can only be described as serious fourth-class climbing. It was not a hard climb by any means, and my big boots are pretty good at edging on small features. The view--which was, of course, spectacular--didn't help. Looking down to the lake 600' below, I could clearly make out huge boulders sitting on the snow field at the ends of long tracks scoured into the ice; clearly they were recent and violent arrivals. Could the chunk I was holding onto suffer the same fate in the next few minutes? It seemed extremely probable. I was deeply and profoundly unhappy as only an involuntarily free-soloing climber can be. Nathan, through non-climber ignorance or simply a heftier set of brass balls than I, was seemingly undisturbed by any of this.
To make matters more exciting, the altitude was finally getting to me. I was feeling very tired, a little dizzy, and disturbingly. None of these symptoms was helping very much. After the terrible dihedral climb, the going became a bit easier, but retreat was not something I was looking forward to.
We achieved the slopes of a subordinate summit and managed to bypass it to the west across large, loose blocks of talus. The only obstacle left was a last bit of narrow ridge and then the gradual summit pyramid itself. Nathan dropped down to the east onto a small hanging glacier attempting to bypass a small horn. His route took him up a fairly steep rock ramp and a frightening array of falling stones marked his progress. After some rather coarse language, he returned around the horn looking quite a bit paler and gingerly made his way back across the snow. We bypassed the horn to the west instead and I saw the slope he'd been trying to climb. It was about 45 degrees of head-sized loose, tan rock poised over several hundred feet of air! Maybe with a rope and a good anchor....
With these warm thoughts, we finally attained the summit meadow and climbed wearily to the actual summit. The view was fabulous, as expected and the weather surprisingly warm. A storm was brewing to the north above Arapahoe Peak, but the weather to windward was clear and calm. I fretted about descent routes, eager to avoid (by almost any means) going back the way we came. I had originally hoped to tackle the east ridge on the descent, but from above, it looked formidable and bad. To the west, the mountain sloped off in a friendly manner, but that lead away from the car and our intened direction of travel. North was a known and unpopular option.
Looks a little hairier from up here! This is where it was still easy and we had an interest in photography. The crux is imediately to the right of the vertical face behind me.
Finally on the summit (12,814'). The north ridge can be seen behind Nathan.
Looking south into the cirque and the north face of Mt. Jasper. Our descent route went between these two lakes.
Another view south from the summit.
Just then, I spied a pair of figures hiking up from the southwest. Neither one was carrying a huge pack or technical gear, nor did they look as testosterone-laden and common sense-deprived as we did. It gave me great hope. I asked eagerly how they'd come and they pointed out a reasonably steep coloir at the south-western end of the cliffs which make up the southern face of Neva. A tongue of snow stretched from half-way down the coloir to a pair of gorgeous blue lakes a thousand feet below. From there, one of the hikers mentions, was a nice trail that lead back the way we wanted to go and intersected the main trail at the abandoned mine. Great!
We set off down the mountain considerably relieved. It wasn't exactly easy, but it was certainly better than the alternatives! We reached to top of the coloir and I was pleased to find the scree slope not particularly steep at all. We got to the snowfield and had a great deal of fun glissading down it (another first for me). I found that I could essentially ski on my boot soles. Great fun! We descended to the lakes in short order.
Descending via the SW ridge was much easier than the ascent.
My first glissade. Skiing down the vestiges of last winter's snow.
From here the going became much less obvious. We were in a terrain of alternating snowfields and refrigerator sized rocks. The promissed trail was ellusive at first and absent after that. Footsore, we descended a final glacier to the valley floor and set off across gorgeous alpine meadows full of unexpected streams and fens. After interminable slogging through the bogs (trying to step on rocks as much as possible to minimize impact), we achieved a rocky ridge. But beyond that lay more bogs and more ridges. Despite the pain and tedium, it was probably the most beautiful place I've ever been. Mt. Neva behind us looked even more formidable from down here in the valley. Certainly bigger than it had looked up at the lake! But the trail (clearly visible on the slope to the north) wasn't getting any closer! Another half hour (though it seemed much longer) and we finally ascended to the trail.
Finally back on the main trail, we can appreciate the wilderness of fens and tundra we just traversed.
A bold marmot who joined us for afternoon tea.
From here on the going was easy. We collapsed on a rock next to a marmot and consumed some calories and water. Pleased to be back in known territory, we set off for home. Two miles of downhill, feet singing their woes, brought us to the car. Back to the lowlands and dinner.
Great hike and a great (in retrospect) time. I look forward to getting up to this area again.
Epilogue: It turns out that the North Ridge of Mt. Neva is a classic Class 4 traverse, or so sayeth Gerry Roach in his Indian Peaks book. Other reports I've seen make light of it and perhaps these folks are better aclimatized or simply better prepared than I was. It was a gripping and exhilarating (especially in retrospect) introduction for me to the world above 10,000'. Next time I'll bring a helmet and chunk of climbing rope. Still haven't figured out where the trail in the valley is...
The Wilderness Journal