Sunday, March 27, 2011

Redcloud Peak in Colorado's San Juan Mountains

         On a chilly September morning in Lake City, Colorado my husband and I prepared for our day’s hike to the 14,034’ summit of RedCloud Peak.  We downed protein shakes and pumpkin bread, shook off the sleep, grabbed daypacks and left our cabin at 6:00 a.m. as the sky lightened.  Clouds loomed on the horizon; hopefully they’ll burn off and we’ll have another blue-sky autumn day. 

We arrived at the Silver Creek Trailhead at 7:00 and started on the trail through a stately spruce, fir and aspen forest.  The sun rose over the peaks behind us and we turned around to glimpse snow-capped and red-tinted peaks glowing in dawn’s first light.  The trail exited the forest and climbed along Silver Creek, named for the strange silvery/white shimmer of its water.  The creek looks inviting but the tint indicates a creek filled with minerals and devoid of life.
It seemed the trail would never emerge from this valley but finally we broke away from the creek and into patches of sunshine.   9:00 a.m.—a good time for a break.  We stopped directly across from RedCloud Peak, still two miles and 2000 vertical feet above us.  After our short break we soldiered on through an open meadow to a saddle between ridges.  Sweeping views from the saddle and across the valley to the north revealed smaller mountains and aspen covered hills.

Looking back toward the trailhead
on a cold September morning.

          From this saddle at 13,000 feet it's another 1034 vertical feet and a mile to the summit.  We began a steep climb and discovered the trail now covered with snow and ice—not too bad going up but it could be troublesome coming down.  The sun that had warmed us during our break was now obscured by high, thin clouds.  Winds howled and temperatures dropped.  My pace slowed and I labored with each breath until I stopped—halfway up the steep trail and 500 vertical feet shy of the summit.  With conditions on the mountain now brutally cold and windy, I decided to go no further.

Picking my way
along the snow and ice-covered rocks
above 13,000 feet.

Climb Every Mountain

         I told Tim to go for the summit anyway, that I’d wait here, on the edge of this switchback in the trail. I donned windpants and sat on Tim’s poncho; I zipped into my down vest and used Tim’s down vest to cover my legs.  I was still cold.  Tim continued on and left his pack by my side, taking only a windbreaker, a granola bar and his camera.
I settled in, enjoying the 360 degree views but shivering persistently.  Ten minutes later Tim came back.  He was worried about me and with dark clouds building, winds blowing, and snow covering the trail, he wasn’t too keen on summiting by himself.  Tim sat down with me, we ate part of our lunch, then turned around for the descent. 

         Downclimbing proved treacherous, worse than coming up.  Picking our way down over ice and snow, with sore knees and feet, was more difficult than not being able to breathe on the way up.  We spent an hour traversing that half mile stretch to reach the saddle, then sat down to take a break and finish our lunch.  Tim changed his socks and shook the gravel out of his shoes.  The cold is relentless; neither of us could feel our fingers when we took our gloves off to eat.  I had a hard time with my zippers and buckles too.  Tim said this is the coldest he cares to be when hiking.  Actually I think I could have withstood the cold if not for the wind.  Temperatures on the mountain are 25 degrees - not too hard to take—but with the wind it felt much colder.

Tim on the trail; this lower elevation section of the hike
(12,000-13,000 feet) is free of snow.

        We continued our descent.  I felt pretty good except for sore shoulders from my pack and a sore right knee.  Tim had sore feet, and a sore back from wrenching it during a fall on the ice above the saddle.  But otherwise we were doing OK.  Every time we descend one of these mountains going down, down, down I’m amazed that we managed to climb so high in the first place.

         As we entered the spruce forest the sun peaked from behind the clouds.  Perhaps the weather would have held for a summit bid after all.  Ah well, Redcloud Peak will still be here next September and we’ll have to climb this peak another time - when temperatures are warmer, when the trail harbors no snow and ice.  Until then.....

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