Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Powder Day at Monarch Mountain

Before I moved to Colorado, I never knew much about Monarch Mountain.  It gets overshadowed by the big resorts.  Most of the skiers at Monarch are locals.  While it's not a huge resort, most people speak highly of it.  It also happens to be the closest ski area to where I live.

When I originally saw the stats for Monarch I wasn't too impressed.  There is less than 1200 lift served vertical feet and only 53 trails.  For Colorado standards, these aren't impressive figures.  All the locals seem to like Monarch though so I thought I'd give it a try.  There were some nice qualities about the mountain.  It sits along the Continental Divide with a summit elevation just shy of 12000 feet with ample natural snow.  It doesn't get too crowded like the big resorts.  The prices are downright cheap compared to the big resorts.  The mountain is only 40 minutes or so from my house.

On Monday I had my first opportunity to ski Monarch.  I just heard about a free day of skiing on Monday with the donation of two canned goods to support a local food bank.  I couldn't pass up that opportunity.

At the time I heard of the promotion, all of Monarch's lift served terrain was open.  Conditions improved greatly before I arrived.  A storm came through on the weekend.  By Monday morning, more than a foot of fresh dry powder arrived.  As I headed to the slopes Monday morning under bluebird skies, I expected a nice day of skiing.  Things got better.  As I approached Monarch and started climbing the pass it started snowing.  The snow would continue the rest of the day at the ski area and drop another 6 or so inches through the day.  A total of 20 inches of fresh snow the past two days.  It never got warmer than the mid teens, keeping the snow quite powdery.  This was my first time skiing in Colorado for many years and a great reintroduction to skiing in the state.

I was in line when the lifts started turning and continued skiing nonstop until about 2PM.  This was my first time on the slopes this year.  I started out on an easy run and went down a groomed trail.  Even the groomer had about a half foot of fresh snow on it.  My last time on the slopes, last March, at Owl's Head, Quebec, I skied on the hardest glaze ice where it was nearly impossible to grab an edge.  It took me a few runs to adapt to this dry powder.  To add a little more challenge to the powder, a fairly heavy snow was falling causing flat light and a little difficulty reading the terrain, even with my goggles.  The last time I skied this much real snow was a couple years ago at Jay Peak, Vermont where a storm dumped 14 inches over the course of the day.  That snow was somewhat heavy though, this was fluffy and dry.

Heavy snow on the trees on
an early ride up the lift
Low visibility as it snows
It took me a handful of runs to adapt to the powder using my fairly narrow East Coast skis.  After my first five or so runs I started to explore Monarch's trails.  I worked my way from lift to lift and hit nearly every open black run and majority of the blues.  Despite being small, Monarch has respectable terrain.  There was decent pitch to many of the black diamonds.   My favorite runs were High Anxiety, a fairly steep black diamond with tons of powder and Sheer-Rocko, a narrow and fairly steep black trail running under the Panorama Lift.  By afternoon I worked my way to the black terrain around the Pioneer Chair.  By this time of the day my thighs were burning on every run from playing in the deep powder.  This area had some nice terrain with plenty of deep snow covering it.  The trails were relatively short, but by this time in the day, I couldn't handle a prolonged steep powder run.  Even though the snow was skied through later in the day, it never got bumpy.  Even where the snow got pushed around you could ski right through it because it was so light and fluffy.

Looking up Sheer-Rocko from the lift, it's steeper
than it looks
Looking down High Anxiety
A look back up High Anxiety
A section of trees.  I'm not sure if this is Ajax or the bottom of Examiner
Upper Noname I believe
Even with the free skiing and fresh powder, the mountain never seemed crowded even though I  heard a few people comment about the amount of people skiing.  I never had to wait more than 2 minutes at the most to get on a lift.  I only shared a chair a few times the entire day and usually I could ski right onto a chair.

Despite improvements to the lodge recently, Monarch is a bare bones mountain for those looking to ski and not for luxury.  There are only four lifts serving the upper parts of the mountain.  3 of the 4 were doubles, without safety bars and the only quad wasn't high speed.  I didn't linger in the lodge but it seemed like basic cafeteria style food.
Riding up Pioneer Lift
Despite the low vertical, the terrain was enough to entertain me for the day, especially with the deep, fresh powder.  The powder was consistently knee-deep with powder hitting me above the waist on some trails as I turned.  I would have liked to explored more but the mountain had enough to tire me out.  The only area I truly can't suggest is the Gunbarrel  Trail.  This is the trail that descends to the parking lot.  It is fairly steep trail but there is an uphill traverse that requires hiking to reach it.  Save it for the last run only when you want to get to the parking lot.

Looking up Gunbarrel
One aspect of Monarch  that I would like to visit is the Mirkwood Basin.  This is an area of inbounds, hike-to sidecountry terrain with open bowls and trees.  There wasn't enough snow to open it however when I was there.  I'll be sure to check it out another time.

For an advanced skier, Monarch seems like a worthwhile trip.  I didn't explore the green terrain but what I saw seemed to have a few flat spots and for blues, there didn't seem to be a lot of cruiser trails.  The lack of cruiser trails may have been hidden by the powder however.  Although short, the black diamond terrain seemed to be fun and worth checking out.  For anyone that has skied in the east, the place had somewhat of a Mad River Glen vibe to it.  There's not a ton of grooming, it has an old school feel, and it's a no frills ski area focused on the skiing.

Trail Map Click this link for the trail map
Monarch Click on this link to find out more about Monarch

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Climbing Mt Princeton with Tigger Peak

The weather has been beautiful here in this part of Colorado for early December.  Generally it has been sunny with temperatures in the 50s in the day and it hasn't snowed for a couple weeks.  This weather has allowed me to get in some quality trips to the mountains.  Even though it has been cooler and snowier in the mountains, the conditions are still pretty good for December.

The lower Sawatch Range between Salida and Buena Vista is relatively free of snow.  The 14ers in this area and their surrounding peaks are mostly bare on the summits.  The only 14er in this area that I haven't climbed was Mt Princeton.  Taking advantage of sunny and warm weather Monday, I headed to Mt Princeton. 

Mt. Princeton has one main trail that accesses the summit from the east side.  There is a four wheel drive road that travels to over 11000 feet.  When the road is free of snow and dry, people with higher clearance vehicles often will park above 11000 feet to start the hike.  Another common starting point is at the 10800 foot mark where there is a few spots to park at a communication tower site.  Both of these options cut miles off the trip.  For those with low clearance cars or if the road is snowy, the starting point is at a parking area at 8900 feet, making for a 5400 vertical foot climb and over 13 miles round trip.  Because the road is narrow, there aren't many places to park between the lower lot and the radio towers.  With some snow on the road, I didn't want to take chances in my Outback, so I parked in the lower lot.

Nearly full moon above Tigger Peak  from near the trailhead
I started my hike a few minutes before 7AM just before sunrise and started my trudge up the road.  The road didn't have too much snow on it and I made fast time traveling on the road.  With a vehicle, there was a few sketchy sections of ice but on foot it was avoidable.  Above the radio towers, most of the road was snow covered but it could be avoided by walking on the downhill edge of the road that was mostly still dirt or shallow snow. 

Early view of Tigger Peak
Traveling along the road.  Most of the way the snow could be avoided.
View over Buena Vista toward the Buffalo Peaks from the road
The trail finally splits from the road around treeline.  The first couple hundred feet I traveled through packed snow before reaching clear trail on the tundra.  The trail passed over a small ridge before turning east toward Mt Princeton.  Passing over this ridge, I was hit with a steady wind and put on my shell.  The trail travels along the slope of Princeton's neighboring peak Tigger Peak.  I could see the route ahead of me with the trail visible nearly all the way to the saddle below Princeton.

Near the start of the trail
Mt Princeton coming into view
The dirt trail ended quickly.  The trail ahead was covered in packed snow the rest of the way.  There wasn't much snow around the trail however.  The snow seemed to have drifted right onto the trail bed.  The snowy trail made for amazing travel however.  The snow was very firm and covered any rocks that may have been on the trail.  It was like walking on pavement and I made excellent time.  The snow was never too slick and I never did put on any traction. The wind from earlier quickly died down.

Heading toward Mt Princeton
Below Tigger Peak.  The white ribbon heading
toward Princeton is the trail
The trail never seemed to gain much elevation.  As I neared the saddle below Princeton, the trail was less visible.  I picked my own path to the ridge.  The path to the ridge was rockier with the snow mostly between the rocks.  I chose a good route and rock hopped up the ridge on pretty solid rock.  Once on the ridge, there were only spotty paths visible.  The final trudge up the summit ridge gained about 1000 feet pretty quickly.

Climbing toward the ridge
Looking toward Princeton from the ridge
I made it to the summit just after 10AM.  It took me just over 3 hours to travel over 6.5 miles and climb 5400 vertical feet.  It was a very clear day and like any 14000 foot summit, the views were spectacular.  Once again, I had the summit to myself.  While there was a steady wind on the north side of the summit, I sat on the east side in nearly calm conditions eating my lunch and taking in the scenery.  The temperature had to be above 40F.  Quite a change from Mt Yale's summit last week where I was dealing with gusty conditions and it was quite uncomfortable.  Click on the link to see that trip to Mt Yale.  A Snowy Climb of Mt Yale

Sign on the summit
Never ending summit views
Looking down Princeton's east ridge
Looking toward Mt Harvard, Mt Columbia, and Mt Yale
More mountains
Pikes Peak in the distance
Looking toward Mt Antero
While I sat on my perch looking at the scenery, I was eyeing up Tigger Peak which is connected to Princeton by a ridge.  Tigger was only a mile or so away and looked like a pretty easy ridge walk.  At 13300 feet or so, I wouldn't have any substantial elevation gain from the saddle between the two peaks.  I decided to travel to Tigger Peak and I was glad that I did.  The saddle between the peaks stays above 13000 feet.  From the saddle to Tigger, there are a couple of bumps along the way and a couple of more jagged ridges but they can be avoided.  None of the bumps ever gain too much elevation.  Even the final climb to the high point which is marked with a cairn is an easy climb.  The summit of Tigger Peak is about 240 feet higher than the saddle, 60 feet shy of making it a ranked 13er.

Looking down the ridge toward Tigger Peak.  The white ribbon
is the trail running below Tigger.
The ridge walk to Tigger Peak was a nice addition to the hike.  From 13000 plus feet the entire way, you get to enjoy the views, especially toward Mt. Antero which loom ahead.  There was patchy snow along the ridge but generally not too deep and usually avoidable.  There appeared to be sections of trail occasionally visible along the way as well.

Cliff band between Princeton and Tigger
Tigger Peak from the saddle
Looking back at the ridge toward Princeton
Another look back toward Princeton
Along Tigger's Ridge, the distant bump is the highest and
marked with a cairn
I continued down the ridge of Tigger Peak to connect back up to the road.  The route was a pretty straightforward descent down the rocky ridge.  There was very little snow along the ridge and the rocks were stable.  The ridge never exceeded more than class two in difficulty and route finding was easy.  From the ridge, most of the trail to Princeton was visible as well as the road.  I picked my way down the rocks on the ridge and met the road right by its junction with the trail.

Chalk Cliffs from the descent of Tigger 
Descending Tigger, the trail is visible below
Looking back up Tigger's ridge
The rest of the route was back down the road.  I made quick time and was back to my car about 115PM, just over 6 hours roundtrip.  The entire trip was over 13 miles and gained at least 5700 vertical feet.  The travel on the road was part of the reason for the quick travel.  The packed snow on the trail also made for quick travel.  This was quite the change from my Mt Yale hike last week that took 8.5 hours for nearly 10 miles over the mixed snow conditions.

Where I met the road right by the trail junction
with Tigger in the distance
Close up of Chalk Cliffs while hiking down the road
The addition of Tigger Peak made this a much nicer hike.  It made the trip more interesting and added to the scenery.  And for anyone that's interested, from what I understand, Tigger Peak got its name because the Tiger is the mascot for Princeton University and since the two peaks share a ridge and Tigger Peak is considered a sub-peak of Mt Princeton.  I'm not sure why they call it Tigger Peak instead of Tiger.  I highly recommend adding Tigger Peak to a Mt Princeton climb to make a loop.  The route finding is very straightforward and to me it added greatly to the trip.  Because the route parallels the main trail, the distance isn't much different.

Another view from Princeton's summit

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Snowy Climb of Mt Yale

It has been a while since I stood on the summit of a mountain.  I hiked a couple of shorter trips since I hiked Mt Antero in late September but nothing too lofty.  In the past few weeks, two hikes resulted in turning around because of poor conditions.  Just last week I chose to turn around on 13er Bushnell Peak in the Sangre de Cristos because of socked in summits and violent winds that were knocking me off balance when I reached treeline.  I was solo and didn't want to take the chance with zero visibility on the high ridges and probably more than 65 MPH wind gusts over potentially icy terrain.

The weather this week was relatively warm and the winds calmed down a little bit since the weekend.  I set my sights on Mt Yale, a 14er in the Collegiate Peaks reaching 14196 feet in elevation just outside of Buena Vista.  I started my hike about 645AM from the Denny Creek trailhead.  Although it was light, the sun still didn't hit the trailhead.  The trailhead which can be quite busy in the summer, had only two other cars.  I quickly passed the first hiker less than a mile from the trailhead.  He was planning on hiking to Hartenstein Lake or Brown's Pass.  

Just over a mile from the trailhead, there is a signed trail junction.  I turned at the junction and followed the Mt Yale Trail.  The trail had been broken and was easy to follow with a clear swath through the trees despite being completely snow covered.  The trail was packed down enough from previous hikers that I didn't need snowshoes.  After a little more than a mile, the trail crossed a small stream on a log bridge before emerging in a clearing.  From the clearing the trail was no longer clear.  There was a route packed down in the snow that appeared to travel the appropriate direction. Even though it didn't follow the trail any longer, it was packed down enough that I could continue without snowshoes and I didn't have to break trail.

Hiking in the trees
A look back in the clearing after the log bridge
Another look back 
The broken trail emerged from the trees in a basin.  At this point the tracks vanished from blowing snow.  I was hit by a stiff wind at this point that was previously blocked by the trees.  While trying to determine the best route from here I added my shell to protect myself from the wind.  At this point I still couldn't see Mt Yale.  The snow was thigh deep or higher at this point.  I hugged the trees along the rim of the basin where the snow was not quite as deep and climbed above the basin wall.  Although the going was a little rough at the start I soon broke out of the deep drifts and found thin wind blown patches of snow and sections of mostly bare tundra.  At no point could I see the actual trail that was buried under snow.

View leaving the trees
View across the tundra to the west
Another view across the tundra to the southeast
I could see Mt Yale looming ahead.   With no trail, I followed a direct route toward Mt Yale avoiding the switchbacks the trail follows as it works its way up the mountain. I took the path of least resistance traveling over the snowy route.  The route had a fairly gradual pitch most of the way to the main rise of the mountain.  I would occasionally pass around a more rugged terrain feature with rock but generally it was easy going up the gentle tundra slope.  Only an occasional rock poked through the snow.  The snow was generally wind packed crust that I could traverse without snowshoes.  Occasionally I would hit a soft drift and sink above knee, but the drifts were definitely not the norm.  The wind was more constant as I climbed.  I was getting hit with blowing snow and switched to goggles.

The summit comes into sight
The summit on the right
The views were better as I climbed
I'm not positive but I think this is the Three Apostles and Ice Mountain
As I reached the base of the summit block, the route became steeper and rockier.  The rock was loose and difficult to travel with snow on top of it.  I picked my way around the rock and stuck to the steep snowy sections.  The snow wasn't more than a couple inches deep but it was encrusted by the wind.  I could easily kick steps into the snow that covered the scree and it made for easier travel.  Occasionally I would hit a this spot of thin snow and was greeted with very loose scree but generally I had no problem traveling on the snow.

Start of the steep climb to the summit
I followed the snowy stretches to avoid rock
View while nearing the ridge
As I made my way to Yale's ridge, I chose a direct route scrambling over solid rock.  This brought me to the ridge probably no more than a quarter mile from the summit.  The last bit of the route to the summit was a little tricky.  Much of the snow was not packed making footing a little difficult with postholing and I would guess the wind gusts were over 40MPH.  I reached the summit after five hours.  The mixed snow conditions left me averaging roughly one mile an hour to reach the summit. I had the summit to myself.

I traveled over rock the last stretch to the summit ridge
Final stretch to the summit
Looking to the east from the summit
I enjoyed the fine views in every direction from the summit.  To the east, the valley was free of snow and the southern Mosquito Range was relatively bare on the southern slopes.  The endless mountains in every other direction looked like the height of winter and were completely snow covered.  I haven't been on a Rocky Mountain summit in winter for years and forgot how beautiful the views are this time of year.   I sat on the north side of the ridge out of the wind and ate lunch while enjoying the views.

Looking toward Mt Harvard and Columbia
Close up of Harvard and Columbia
Looking west
Endless peaks in the Sawatch Range
Looking toward Mt Princeton
The San Juan's in the distance with Uncompahgre (I think) visible
as the bump standing out on the horizon
More mountains
The last alpine summit I climbed in winter conditions was Katahdin in Maine last March.  The views in the east in winter just aren't the same.  Most of the surrounding mountains are tree covered in the east and you don't see the endless snow covered peaks like I saw from Mt Yale.  You can click on this link to see that post  Winter Ascent of Katahdin

I left the summit on the same route that I climbed.  I made much quicker time with the aid of gravity and easier breathing.  While on the steep slope descending from the ridge I managed to slip to my butt and get a pants load full of snow at one point.  The dry snow luckily didn't have much moisture to it and melted and dried quickly.  Just before I reached the more gradual terrain of the tundra I passed a woman following my route up the mountain, the only other person that I saw since first few minutes of my hike.

Heading back down the ridge

Looking back down at my route
Getting lower on the tundra
Looking ahead, I could see the woman's and my footprints and followed them back toward treeline.  As I got lower however the snow drifted over the footprints.  I continued downhill in the general direction I climbed.  As I neared treeline I headed toward the basin where I emerged from the trees.  Because of the terrain I couldn't see into the basin until I was immediately above it.  When I finally got to a point where I could see into the basin, I realized I was looking into the wrong basin.  Looking at my map and the surrounding terrain, I realized I overshot my intended target.  I had to climb back up a little bit and traverse over to the proper basin.  My reroute got me back to the proper basin but caused me to trudge through some thigh-deep drifts of snow and cost me at least a half hour of time.  Luckily I wasn't more than a couple tenths of a mile off course.

Back on course, I found my way into the proper basin.  I quickly found myself back into the trees and on the packed trail to the trailhead.  I passed one other hiker, the partner of the woman I saw near the summit that wasn't feeling up to the summit on this day.  I updated him on his partners progress before finishing  my hike.  I made pretty good time on the packed trail and made it back to the trailhead in just over 3 hours since leaving the summit.  Including time on the summit, the round trip took just over 8.5 hours to travel nearly 10 miles.

Despite traveling over snow the entire trip, I was able to cover the entire route bare boot.  The snow was packed out below treeline and generally firm enough to travel without snowshoes above treeline. On the last hump to the summit I could kick steps and never needed crampons or light traction although microspikes or something similar would have probably been the best choice for added traction.

Despite the wind, it was relatively warm for a December day in the mountains.  I was able to use my Camelbak without freezing issues until I left the summit.  After I left the summit the hose froze but I did have a bottle for back up.  I don't think the summit temperature was much colder than 25F despite a much colder windchill but not too bad for 14000 feet in December.

I had never climbed Mt Yale before.  I heard it can be a fairly busy hike during the summer season.  I don't have much interest in crowded summits so I was happy to see very little traffic and have its summit to myself.  I think the winter views are much more scenic so I'm glad that I waited to climb Mt Yale in the off season.

I only had one serious issue with the hike.  I usually hike in low cut shoes.  In the winter I switch back to higher boots for warmth and support.  This trip was the first time I hiked in higher boots since the spring.   My feet were not ready for the boots and I got some serious blisters.  I noticed hot spots but didn't realize the seriousness of the rubbing until I got home.

Blister two days later