I've been cooped up for over a month with little outdoor activity to speak of and it's been nearly two months since we summitted anything. The weather in Boulder has been balmy and unseasonably warm which has gotten me even more frustrated and restless. Thus, Amy and I made plans to climb another early-season 14er on Easter Sunday--fitting given that our last mountain was on Valentine's Day. Quandary Peak (14,265') is one of the most popular 14ers because it is relatively easy and is a safe early-season climb. Plans were well underway when the weather suddenly became more seasonable with a week worth of rain and 10" of snow. Still, the weather forcast for Sunday was acceptable if not ideal, and we headed out the door before 6am with high optimism.
Everything went well until we crossed the divide and emerged at the western end of the Eisenhower Tunnel. The Frisco/Dillon valley was completely socked-in with low-level clouds. Occasional peaks could be seen projecting through the clouds, but down in the lowlands it was snowing softly under leaden skies. We headed south on Rt 9 and noticed that the clouds seemed to be staying an even 1000' from the ground such that the valley was full of clouds, but the mountain slopes and the skies above them were mostly clear. Things looked good, but the weather forcast called for storms in the mid to late afternoon. We arrived at the trailhead and booted up in light snow showers. Significant snow had fallen in the area the day before and the mountains were brilliantly white.
Quandary is a huge, monolithic mountain rising above valleys on all sides impressively. From the trailhead we could see the obvious east-ridge route we would take rising all the way to the summit at the edges of two bowls. However, the route to treeline is somewhat in doubt; the old trail at which we had parked is now closed and the new trails head off a mile to the east on the unplowed McCulough Gulch road.
We dutifully hiked east away from the peak and picked our way up an inobvious trail on the side of the road. This quickly gave way to bushwhacking through the forest headed generally upward and westward on a series of potential paths. At one point we came upon a small cabin which seemed like a good sign. Later, we picked up a set of ski tracks which we followed until they ended. Continuing onward, we eventually got to a clearing where the peak was visible. Various mining roads continued and, after climbing a steep, snow-covered and brilliantly white hill, we achieved the east ridge.
From here on the going was obvious, if not easy. There are three humps on the ridge with the third being the summit. Each is about a thousand feet high and has a beautiful, shallow bowl facing east just below it. We snowshoed up the steep remainder of the first hump and arrived on top for a short break. The snow had been deep so far, but we could see the rest of the ridge looking windswept with patches of rocks poking through. I was eager to ditch my heavy snowshoes and, judging from our experience on Bierstadt, we wouldn't need them the rest of the way. We chose a likely bush and stashed the footgear. This, as it would turn out, was a serious mistake.
For a while, the going was quite easy. We stayed on the left edge of the ridge near the stupendous drop-off to the valley below as we climbed the second hump. There was a light cover of snow over tundra and rocks and we made good time. Another set of tracks lead upward and we soon met the responsible couple striding down in good spirits. They had snowshoes slung on their packs, so we felt justified in leaving ours down below. We followed their tracks upward toward the top of bump 2 (13,100').
Going became much harder. The snow was getting towards knee-deep and we postholed with every third step. Hiking uphill is hard enough in the summer. Snowshoes help, but it's probably still 50% harder than summer hiking. Postholing is easily twice as hard as that.A party of skiers passed us quite quickly and we envied their fitness. By the time we reached the second hump, we could see the skiers half-way up to the summit on the edge of the huge upper bowl. Scales are always hard to judge above treeline and they seemed simultaneously near and far.
Both of us were pretty exhausted, but to come this far only to turn back seemed like a bad option. It was 2pm (awfully late for summitting), but the weather was holding and the summit was less than a mile away. We started across the wind-swept ridge slogging through the snow and up the gradual slope. It was one of the hardest physical things I've ever done just to keep putting one foot in front of the next. By the time we reached the steeper slopes of the bowl (25 degrees), I'd found a harder patch of snow to the south and was walking amongst rocks whenever I could.
Amy surveys the scene (and gasps for breath) on the ridge near 14,000'. To give you an idea of scale, look carefully at the full-size version. There are ski tracks in the snow bowl at the left side. Those tiny dots are skiers.
We switched to axe and crampons and continued upward in 20-step bursts with long rests in between. The skiers had reached the summit and now came whooshing down the vast, powdery bowl. Despite the agony of leg muscles and burning lungs, the view was undeniably spectacular. To the south loomed several more 14ers and beyond them the vast flatness of South Park. The Front Range stretched across the horizon to the east and the nearby peaks of the Tenmile range were visible to the north. The weather was still okay, but looming clouds were blowing in from the north and pluming snow from the summit above us. The summit looked just close enough to touch. We climbed onward setting intermediate goals; "no more rests until that clump of rocks!"
This is what the Brits mean when they say 'shattered'.
Self-portrait at our turn-around spot. It looks like the summit is right there. Apparently, it actually was right there.
The time was 2:30 and the weather was definitely turning. The ridge looked like it was topping out, but every fifty feet of progress moved the horizon another fifty feet further away above us. We turned the trip and sat to remove crampons and gird our stomaches for the trip down. I took bearings on a couple of nearby peaks to determine our final location and with mixed feelings, we started for home.
Amy heading back down the ridge at 13,200'. The wind was up a this point and you can see the snow blowing off the cornice in the distance. The beautiful Hoosier Ridge dominates the eastern side of the valley.
Epilogue: Having now plotted my compass bearings on a good map, I've determined that we were easily above the 14,000' contour when we turned around! Aaarrrrgggghhh! If we'd only known, we certainly could have managed the last 200' to the summit. Prudence is better than valor, I suppose, but it is still heartbreaking to have struggled so hard to get so close only to turn back short of the goal. Quandary Peak is appropriately named after all. Still, it was good to get out to the wilderness and a welcome break from the rigors of wedding planning.
The Wilderness Journal