hike blog

Titanium 14er

No matter what kind of challenges or difficulties or painful situations you go through in your life, we all have something deep within us that we can reach down and find the inner strength to get through them.

Alana Stewart
A selfie with a left over sign atop one of Colorado’s famous 14ers.

It was a blissfully balmy bluebird day last Friday when Richard and I snowshoed up the flanks of a Colorado “fourteener,” one of the state’s nearly sixty mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. We’d driven out from Saint Paul to check out this magnificent playground of a state, mostly just taking in the snow-covered ranges from the vantage point of our car. But when our host Karen suggested we take a walk up McCullough Gulch as far as it would take us, we skipped the gulch for a lapis-blue sky and huffed our way to a whole new experience.

Quandary Peak is the highest summit in the Tenmile Range of the Rocky Mountains and towers over the ski village of Breckenridge. With its proximity to Denver and I-70, it’s one of the most accessible 14ers as well as one of the most straightforward. Peak-baggers usually start their quest with Quandary and its 3,500-foot gain in 3 1/2 miles. Steep, but basically a ramp. A gut-busting, altitude-sickness-inducing ramp, but one requiring only spunk and good weather.

And we had both, including a light dusting of snow creating a white path to the top. The clincher for me was reading that Quandary is one of the easiest and safest winter summits. I had no idea people actually walked to the top of 14ers in the winter, none-the-less we’d wisely packed our fantastic MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes, giant boats with a built-in heel lift that clicks into place and saves your calves on the uphills.

The peak received its name from miners in a quandary over what mineral they were digging up on the peak’s slopes.

We needed those lifts right from the start out of the lightly filled parking lot, a good sign that a trail to the top would be obvious and packed down.

According to legend Quandary was named by miners unable to identify a mineral sample they’d collected on its slopes, in a “quandary” over its nature. Though I like to imagine a more romantic reason for the origin of its name, some perplexing situation that caused great consternation like the one the two of us were experiencing ourselves during our week in Colorado, namely what to do with the rest of our lives.

But as we started our day drinking extra amounts of water and loading up on carbs, we made a conscious decision not to push things and to just let the day unfold, a piece of advice I easily dispense but don’t always follow. I wore only an Ibex wool top and hoodie, a pair of hiking slacks I bought for $5 in Leadville, a baseball cap and sunglasses and stayed plenty warm through the forest, the trees freshly flocked and opening up to portholes looking towards the bright white of the Front Range across the valley.

Richard at the end of the deep snow tunnel.

Two skiers shushing up the trail passed us on skinned skis, turning around to warn us to avoid avalanche terrain. The beauty of Quandary is that the hiker can pretty much avoid getting into trouble by staying high on the ridge, but that means dispensing with the summer route’s switchbacks which are designed to lessen the grade.

Low avalanche danger doesn’t mean no danger, and as we walked higher and higher I did a mental checklist of all I had in my pack:

  • layers of warm clothes
  • water and snacks
  • a headlamp
  • lip balm and sunscreen
  • warm mitts, hat and balaklava

To be honest, the brilliant sunshine lulled me into feeling like it was just a summer’s walk with all the time in the world. Unwisely, we got a late start and were moving slowly, especially when we reached an open patch of deep snow up to our hips, the “trail” a series of postholes in a long trench. Both of us got stuck with an audible “whumph.” My biggest fear was that my foot would go one way and my leg the other and rip my new titanium prosthetic right out of its socket.

I made up for causing this snowboarder to fall by offering up some of our chocolate.

It only turned out to be a short delay before we reached a long flat stretch, the trees disappearing and a rounded snowy summit coming into view. A woman only a few years older approached all smiles. “I was the second one on top today!” she said, assuring me the flanks of the mountain were wind-scoured and easy walking.

The wind, too, was calm as skiers, people training for Everest and a “speed rider” – a sport that combines skiing with paragliding – all joined her on the mountain earlier today, as well as a couple of snowboarders, one flying right towards me unable to stop and crashing into the deep snow next to the trail.

As we cleared the trees, Richard and I spoke up almost at once suggesting I should go on and try for the peak. He made the treeline his goal and I was feeling strong if I went slow. But the morning was waning and a little quick calculation determined that 2:00 was the time I’d need to turn around to avoid being out in the dark – and the bitter cold.

So I put it in low gear and marched on towards the first false summit, blinding white of a vertiginous sweep to nothingness off to my right. I stabbed the ground with my Lekis, my shoes crunching and slapping as I slowly ascended towards rocks all in one gesture, a gesture that only led to more steep whiteness on a sea of cobalt.

A sassy summiter explained the hump I could see was a false summit.

For that section things simplified – there was no more “staying under my breath” by walking slow enough to keep from tiring. Any movement up took my breath away completely. So I got systematic. I walked 100 steps, then took a break. One, two, three, four…by the time I got to fifty, my thighs were burning, and my forced breathing heavier and louder…ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, STOP!

My MSR’s hung to the side like champs, but resting was not really resting. My calves fired up as I held myself in place on the steep terrain. I’d look up to where I needed to be which was slightly demoralizing, but looking down was surprisingly uplifting since you can get pretty far in just 100 steps.

I saw a man below me at the rocks just starting, moving slow but steady, clearly a local unaffected by the altitude. How far along am I? I wondered. To my left I could see the little hump above Hoosier Pass where Richard and I hiked a few days ago and tested out these new legs of mine in snowshoes. I was just above it, so 12,000 feet or so.

That left me with another 2,000 feet to go.

Wind-carved terrain on the sharp edge looking out towards the Sawatch Range.

Oh hell, get on with it and up I went in my stubborn determination, 100 steps, break, 100 steps, break.

Bit by bit a pyramid of mountain poked out over my snowy hill; the “real” summit ahead. Why I felt elated seeing that distant bit of effort I can’t explain, except that maybe I knew that would be the last of it. Just then, three hikers approached on their return. Dressed much like me but wearing only microspikes, they moved well and fast down the slope. Still, they took time to encourage me along.

“Will I make it?” I asked a bit nervous.

“Of course!” And as if a reward, I reached a flat section brushed clean to the rock. I didn’t bother taking off my shoes as I picked my way from one snow patch to the next along a sheer cliff. Ski tracks directly at its sharp edge were evidence of a solution to the rock problem, though I gladly scratched my shoes to steer clear of a 1,000 foot fall. The man from below passed me, both of us thrilled by our luck with such a day.

I was certain my 100 step method would take me right up the precipitous and rocky ridge, but no such luck as I slowed to 50 paces before breathing hard. Several hikers passed me coming down in mountaineering boots and crampons, awkwardly clomping, heel-toe, heel-toe.

The final ridge was packed hard and easy walking. Skiers got fresh powder in the bowl under the summit.

I saw the skiers from earlier in the day neatly carving S’s in the bowl as my steps shortened yet again. Here it was less a false summit than simply impossible to see the summit being so close and directly beneath it. Alone with my thoughts, my breath, my fear that maybe I was getting out of my comfort zone only two months away from my second hip replacement, I slowed my steps yet again to 10.

Ten steps. Ten breathes, Repeat.

I pulled out my phone to check the time. 1:47. Can I do this thing? I did the mental check again:

  • I’m right on time
  • I’m warm enough
  • I’ve had enough to eat and drink
  • I’m tired, but don’t feel any symptoms of altitude sickness

But where the heck is the summit? It just seems to keep going on and on. Just then, the man that passed me on the ridge section appeared above. In an optical illusion, he looked giant compared to what my eye expected to see above me. If he’s coming down from the top, it’s not that far!

Two snowboarders work their way up the final stretch before launching themselves into the bowl below the summit.

He stopped to talk to me asking, as if I’m a local, if I come here often. Well, no. He then exclaims he’s never seen such a day – crystal clear, warm and no wind. But should I go to the top? Nonchalant in his ski boots ready to fly off this mountain on a glorious day, he tells me just like the others, “Of course! It’s right there!”

As skier man disappeared down the rocks to grab his skis, I headed up now just five steps on and five off. But just as he said, it was right there, the summit flattening off and leading to stone windbreaks, frozen and covered in snow. My breathing never relaxed but I no longer had to count my steps. If there’s a peak logbook, I never found it, but someone did leave a cardboard sign for my selfie.

I didn’t linger long as the time ticks past 2:00. I really had no idea how my snowshoes would grab hold heading down and I was surprised they clung tightly. I placed the handle of my Lekis tightly under my palms and assured the tips grab in front of me as I crawled down the mountain, my quads on fire and the treeline looking a long way away.

The heavy breathing tells it all.

Two snowboarders reached me as well as two more hikers heading up, making me feel less panicky that I was the only one left out there as the sun began to make long shadows in the snow. Down and down and down I went, thinking I really should have rested for a moment, but instead I just kept going, feeling kind of bad I left Richard waiting.

After the false summit, the snow thickened having gotten soft in the sun. It was hard going but I saw someone below in the rocks holding his arms up in a V. Richard! He climbed up one of the steep sections to a dry patch. How many steps will it take me to get to him? 500? I counted as I went, sinking deep and struggling to stay upright. I fell at one point with a thump into deep snow. After all these months afraid of falling, I just went and did it and it was no big deal.

But it was a slippery, messy 500 steps to the rocks and Richard’s congratulations. I did stop for a snack and water, though it was hard to eat with my breathing still heavy, even going down. The next section was even deeper and messier, but we pushed past and soon met our trail through the forest.

Yes, the summit is only half-way there and we all have a tendency to underestimate the strength it will take to get us safely off a mountain. But I was in the home stretch with only the one deep trench section to go, one I managed to bypass by doing a switchback to the far left.

I was afraid getting down would be difficult, but it was only near the treeline that I had trouble walking.

All the way down we talked about our day, the slow but methodical steps I took to the top and Richard’s meeting everyone coming down, most telling him they remember meeting me after he described me as “the hiker smiling from ear-to-ear!” It seemed even without going all the way, he enjoyed the sunshine and the view – and I’m amazed I managed the top, not so much the being in shape and stubborn part, but that my new titanium hips could carry me that far.

I also managed to get down fast enough so we could drive back over Hoosier Pass and reach Fairplay in time to pick up a few items at the store for dinner.

As we cooked in the waning light, Pikes Peak glowing pink from the sunset, I realized I did follow my own advice and let the day unfold. I had no agenda to reach the top and only decided to go when the going looked like a good idea. I also put myself in a position throughout to change my mind and turn around, no regrets. But it would seem people kept appearing in my path to encourage me to go on. Of course you should go!

The other surprising thing was that not once during the entire day did I think about my own quandary and what I direction my life was going to take. Simply putting one foot in front of the other and making progress bit by bit was enough.

Seeing snow-covered mountain upon mountain like waves disappearing into the horizon calmed my worry for the future as well as assuaging my fear of the unknown, that just like the tiny summit crown it will reveal itself when the time comes.

A heart carved in an Aspen in the forest section of the Quandary Peak Trail. I would say the place stole my heart.

Colorado Trail

The Colorado Trail, or CT, passes through 567 miles of the Rockies from Denver to Durango and shares half of its length with the Continental Divide Trail. Through the Sawatch Range, there are ample opportunities to bag 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet.)

become a patron!
A perfect summit day for Mount Princeton, 14,197 feet.

going backwards

I wanted to walk another long trail, but I didn’t have quite the time for 500 miles. So, I decided to give the Colorado Trail a try, but start at the end and tick off as much as I could of the most spectacular scenery first before having to head back home and back on air.

My hiking friend from England, Ted, joined my husband and me in Denver and we drove to Durango for the start. We had a little joke about our crew; as the trail heads above 11,000 feet in the first 20 miles, we knew we’d need to go slow to acclimate. But that was mainly for my benefit as I take longer than average to settle down in the mountains. Richard has asthma and Ted is 17 years older than us, so in some ways, we were all at a disadvantage and a moderate pace wouldn’t crush anyone’s spirit.

Sadly, the altitude wasn’t our only problem. That August, a monsoon settled over the Rockies and wouldn’t let us out of her grip. We had days on end nearly completely socked in by constant precipitation, both rain and mist. Some days, there were no views at all, so when they finally opened up, we were on our knees with gratitude.

Wild flowers proliferated, including the state flower of columbine, which grew in huge bushes as we came off Blackhawk Pass. We camped below the pass the night before, with all of it to ourselves in dry conditions. The previous night at Taylor Lake was also deserted and filled with flowers as the storm clouds moved away, but someone left us a gift of their poop under a rock right at the campsite. Nice work!

A lotta rain = a lotta flowers.
Richard and Ted gossip during a break in the ever-present rain

showers bring flowers

It seemed every time we were certain the rain was moving on and we had clear sailing, clouds would develop and quickly turn ominous. We did all we could to avoid ridges and mountaintops in the afternoon, but the pattern was confusing even in the light – but thoroughly soaking – rain.

And that brought up the issue of how to stay dry when backpacking. Sure, we had rain pants and raincoats, but inevitably we’d sweat inside the coats and feel clammy and damp. We came across people wearing umbrellas as hats and they seemed to be doing fairly well, but only in the woods. Once out in the wind, the hats lost some of their covering power. I have yet to give umbrellas a try and I welcome your feedback on that. My Kavu hat was brilliant with its wide brim keeping at least my face totally dry.

One particularly long day of lots of rain and no views, we met a couple wearing giant mittens. They were all smiles, happy to be walking in whatever weather came their way – or just too much in love to notice much else. They told me they picked up these mitts made of eVent fabric from Mountain Laurel. I am now a proud owner and swear by these miraculous pieces of gear.

The mitt fits over your hand – plus any glove you might want to wear for warmth – and cinches tight around your jacket. If you have your hand up in front of you on walking sticks all day, you stay absolutely dry. I highly recommend them.

They also gave us beta on a snowmobilers hut ahead that might make a nice place to stay rather than set up the tents. We found it and claimed the little log cabin for ourselves, never quite figuring out how to start a fire in the stove, likely because the flue was stuck closed. We also noticed the rattraps around, so put one crumb in and set it just in case. Sadly, it was a matter of minutes before it sprung on a poor little beast.

Storms build in the distance as we descend Mount Shavano.
Snowmobiler’s cabin near Marshall Pass Road.

gear for staying dry

But this was days away, below Monarch Pass and after Ted and I bid farewell to Richard who finds a week’s hiking – and shitting in the woods – enough for him. We made a good team that first week, acclimating together and passing the time all crammed into our Big Agnes talking up a storm while I cooked in the vestibule and the rain lashed down.

I was always on the lookout for a site with a view but the boys won out when they convinced me not only would we have no view in non-stop mist, but also, out in the open, we’d be soaked through and through. The tent worked well, as did packing the things that needed to stay dry – like clothes and my sleeping bag – in separate Granite Gear eVent stuff sacks. (Noticing a pattern here?)

I have never been a big fan of pack covers, which tend to blow off, rip apart, or cover only part of the rucksack. I also find simply lining the bag inconvenient, because you might want to remove contents and set them in the elements until you’re ready for them.

Things I did not do on this trip that have now become part of my routine is to wear trail runners rather than boots. If the sole is rugged and the toe box protected, mesh shoes dry faster than boots and are close to the same in protection. Gators help to keep water out of the shoe, but in constant rain, an ankle-covering boot will take in water just as easily.

We had an actual river form on the trail one day, rushing, pulling sticks and muck with it and creating its own powerful force to sweep us off your feet. Fortunately, the maintenance crew created exits for the rushing deluge and it plunged down a ravine off-trail.

While the rain was our nearly constant companion, there were plenty of sparkling clear days of long views, fields blanketed in wildflowers and superb walking. The three of us found decent sites near water and with terrific views (if clear) for six nights as we worked our way towards Molas Lake Campground, where Richard would take the historic Silverton narrow gauge rail back to Durango and the car and Ted and I would push on as far as we could get in two weeks.

All smiles when the sun came out.
For several days, the CT stays close to or above 12,000 feet.

Rocky Mountain high

I was disappointed that swimming was prohibited in Molas Lake, but delighted with the little store that we cleared out of its junk food. It’s rare when planning a hike that I remember how famished I am on the trail – or that I sometimes lose my appetite entirely and only want salt and sugar. Sated and rested, Ted and I left earlier than Richard to get a good start on a day that took us down massive switchbacks to 8900 feet and right back up to 12,000.

Richard tells us that all he needed to do was stand on or near the tracks and wave down the train. He reports it was a blast to ride back, though tourists gave him a funny look kitted out in backpacking gear and reeking after a week on the trail.

Ted and I had smashing weather all the way to Mine Camp, where we looked out on an approaching storm that thankfully fizzled while I made dinner and promptly spilled it all over the ground. Like good hikers, we just took our sporks and grabbed the clean bits.

The next days were the most spectacular, keeping us above 12,000 feet for a few days with wild, expansive views. We found great sites close enough to water and with plenty of solitude. It was spooky to cross a bowl and pump water from a trickle of creek, the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

Columbine, Colorado’s state flower was in massive clumps all over the high mountains.
The CT has wildly changing landscapes.

zero day in Creede

The CT high point at 13, 271 was totally shrouded in cloud, but that didn’t keep me from snapping a picture. Likewise, Snow Mesa was completely obliterated, but as an exposed ridge that oftentimes attracts some of the most savage lightning storms, we felt safe in rain, if not a little cranky and cold.

The trail meandered on and on, and up and up. As we got closer to the cut off for Creede and our resupply, I saw cairns marching up the mountain and out of sight into the clouds. “I can’t go up that!” But Ted urged me along and we popped up and over and into a long valley on a rutted rocky road.

Five miles to town, but this isn’t such bad walking, I thought, just as it started to really piss down. Conversation stopped and it was as if each of sucked our necks back into our shells to press on. We saw a car, but it was parked with a sun screen on the windshield, likely a hiker far away now.

Then rounding a bend, I spotted a truck – and the doors were open. I began running. “Wait! Hello! Wait!” I yelled. I must have looked like a crazy person. Two fellows were loading in some gear and gave me a languorously long look. “Who are you?” they asked.

I told them we had been hiking and needed a ride into Creede. What they were loading in their truck turned out to be gold mining equipment, but when it became obvious we had zero interest in their claim, they were all smiles and gave us a lift down, even helping us find a place for the night at the height of tourist season.

Of course, the weather cleared and we had a lovely night of food, showers and laundry. But we were up right when the post office opened the next day and back on the trail, the sky, of course, clouding back up.

Storm approaching at Mine Camp high above the Silverton-Durango narrow gauge railway.
A trail angel left several cases of soft drinks for weary hikers on this lonely stretch of the CT.

thirsty hikers

Things changed after Creede, with long stretches on high plateaus. The big mountains were behind – and ahead – but for now it was a new world. I liked it, but I imagine if you were really limited on time, you might want to avoid the flat parts – and the parts where you briefly walk on road. But as a thru-hiker, I love taking it all in, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Crossing Seargent’s Mesa was a favorite as it opened out with views to the peaks far in the distance, the ground crowded with fancifully weathered logs. We camped below at Tank Seven Creek when the wildest storm seemingly came out of nowhere. I raced to bring in my drying clothes before diving into the tent, a bolt striking far too close for comfort.

Later, on one long lonely section, a trail angel parked a horse trailer and filled it with sodas. Ted and I grabbed a couple of Fantas and he poured grape pop right into his water bottle. Of course it exploded a few minutes later as the pressure built up, a cause for much teasing.

As we approached Monarch Pass, we were delighted with views opening up of the spectacular Sawatch Range, one huge humping 14er after another in an elegant line. It was here that we met mountain bikers – and a group with special mountain motorcycles. I was impressed with their consideration. Signs on the trail tell wheels to yield to two legs – and wheels and two legs to yield to four-legs. From what we saw, everyone was accommodating. Nice work, Colorado!

Tunnel of trees in mist on the Colorado Trail.
Big Agnes after a storm.

peak baggers

By the time we crossed US-50 – where a motorcyclist’s chick took my picture crossing the highway and I gave her a one-fingered wave for the scrapbook – we knew peak bagging was in our future. There were a few days left before Richard would return to pick us up. So we thought why not hit two at once and the first ones on the trail, Shavano and Tabeguache. Our supplies were dwindling and we were pretty wrecked by that point, but we pushed our bodies to the trailhead, a spur off the CT, and planned to get an early start.

I’d like to mention one thing here about the map we used. The Colorado Trail Datebook put out by the CT Foundation coupled with Eric the Black’s CT Pocket Atlas. Combined, they provided all the information needed including the estimated state of the water supply, whether a trusted creek was full all season or only partially or – my most favorite – whether to expect only a “seasonal seep.” The areas where water was absolutely not available is, of course, critical. I am indebted to these people for creating such good resources.

But there was no definitive answer on water near the trailhead. We knew about a mile further was a good source and we also looked for steams along the way, but we saw nothing. And then, just as we passed the cut off for Shavano, running right across the trail was a little burbling spring! Praise the goddess, we were good to go. The tent went up in the woods and we prepared for our first day hike in three weeks. Ted even tried a bath right there on the trail. Thankfully, no one was walking by at that moment.

It’s tough work getting up a 14er. The trail junction is just under 10,000 feet so it was all up through bristle cone pines to an eroded saddle, then rock hopping in high winds. The place was packed and it only took a little coaxing to get Ted to continue on to bag two peaks in a day. But once we came down, we could see the storms raging over the distant peaks and so picked up the pace. When it hit us, it was ice pellets in the face all the way to the tree-line, then thunder as we descended through the woods.

CDT shares the trail

Having a little taste, we wanted more, so arranged a ride up Mount Princeton’s rutted road and took in another 14er before giving up the trail and awaiting Richard’s arrival. We then rounded up the trip with the little gem of Mt. Huron which the boys allowed me to run up as they kicked back at the meadow. It was there that Ted and I agreed next summer, let’s do ‘em all.

And one day, we might finish the CT. Or who knows, maybe go back and do it all over again and hope for clearer skies. NOTE: I’m hoping to repeat it all next season on the Continental Divide Trail, which splits off before Durango to head into New Mexico.

A quick shout out to Princeton Hot Springs resort. They offered to hold a resupply box for us for as long as we needed at no charge. They’re located directly on the trail and it’s worth a stop for at the very least a beer and a meal. You have a view in the shade of Mount Princeton and even though we were smelly and dusty, they let us hang as long as we wanted on their beautiful veranda.

Clowning around near Monarch Pass.