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



  1. Thanks Troy- I'm headed up there tomorrow (Fri). Appreciate the beta. Like your blog. We're neighbors, I'm in Salida.-Drew

  2. Um, I mean Princeton, posted on the wrong report.

  3. Well if you're hitting Princeton tomorrow I can say without a doubt leave the snow shoes and ice axe behind Bring your microspikes if you have them for insurance. If you have a higher clearance four wheel drive you should be able to get to the towers, just take it easy on the couple of icy sections.. Have fun

  4. Thanks, will do, left my snowshoes behind on Quandary Sunday too. I always walk the road, even in summer. Suzuki sx4, gutless driver. Headed out for some midday Mt. Peck action right now, dial-a-12er on Monarch. Cheers!