Thursday, November 30, 2017

Blasted by the Wind on Marble Mountain

Two and a half weeks have passed since my last outing in the mountains when my dog Choya had his misadventure and ended up spending the night somewhere in the high elevations near 14er Mt Bross.  He took about five days off from his daily outings after that.  On the fifth day he was eager to get back into his active routine and was walking and running daily like nothing ever happened.

The weather has been relatively warm for November and many areas in the mountains have minimal snow, including the Sangre de Cristos.  The weather was looking decent on Thursday, November 30th.  I was hoping to get in a trip above 13,000 feet to take advantage of the scarce snow cover.  Choya seemed like he was also ready to return the mountains.

My destination was 13,266' Marble Mountain.  As far as Sangre de Cristo summits go, Marble Mountain is supposed to be relatively tame, despite nearly a 12 mile roundtrip hike with more than 4500 vertical feet of climbing from the lower trailhead.  Marble is known for its excellent views of nearby peaks, including grandstand views of 14ers Crestone Needle, Kit Carson, and  Humboldt Peak.

I started my hike Thursday morning around 715AM from the lowest trailhead on South Colony Lakes Road at approximately 8800'.  With  higher clearance, there is another trailhead 2.5 miles closer, but I was hesitant to travel the sometimes rough four wheel drive road in my Outback.  The hike began with a trudge up the road to the Rainbow Trail.  It's never very exciting walking on a road and this one is no exception, although there are good views of Humboldt and Marble Mountain at the beginning.  You can even see the route up Marble from the trailhead.

Marble Mountain from the trailhead

The real hiking begins on the Rainbow Trail.  After just a few minutes on the Rainbow, there is a turnoff for the Marble Trail.  The Marble Trail isn't an official trail and is more of a herd path from hikers climbing Marble Mountain.  It isn't marked and can easily be overlooked if you don't know where to find it.  

I began making my way up the Marble Trail.  Although not marked, there is a decent tread.  I faced a thick section of blowdowns over the first mile of the trail.  Since it's not an official trail, it isn't maintained.  The trail becomes lost at times in the thick blowdowns.  Despite losing the trail a few times, I always managed to find it.  After the blowdowns, the trail mellows and is easier to follow.  A few trails lead to good views toward the Crestones, Humboldt Peak, Broken Hand Peak, and Marble's Northeast Ridge.


Crestone Needle and shoulder of Humboldt

Marble's Northeast Ridge visible early
with Broken Hand Peak and the Needle

The trail was a mix of packed snow and bare ground.  The trail was generally easy to follow.  A few places the snow hid the trail, but only for short stretches and it was easy to pick up again.  Occasional cairns marked the way as well.  The trail ended at treeline.

One of the snowier sections

Choya leading the way

I took a short break at treeline to put on my shell and get a drink for Choya and myself.  Once at treeline, the wind picked up.  There are a couple cairns just above treeline, but no tread.  I weaved my through some krummholz before reaching open tundra along the Northeast Ridge of Marble.


On the ridge, I  the wind pummeled me.  I checked two different forecasts before I hiked. gives the forecast for 14er Humboldt Peak's summit.  It forecasted 10-15MPH winds.  NOAA's spot forecast for Marble predicted gusts around 30MPH.  The sustained wind was at least 30 with stronger gusts when I broke treeline. Despite the wind, I was able to enjoy the spectacular views of the Crestones, just 3 miles away.  

Looking at the Northeast Ridge

Humboldt with the Crestones in the distance

The Crestones

There was surprisingly little snow for the last day of November.  Other than a few short patches, I stayed on grass and rock.  The ridge in general is mostly grass.  The ridge never gets too steep in its steady climb to the summit.

Choya on the tundra

This was the view most of the way
along the ridge

Choya enjoyed the view too

As I neared the summit, the wind became nearly unbearable.  With each step I was thrown off balance and pushed by the wind.  Even with poles I struggled.  I would stop to brace in the worst gusts, but it never relented.  Even on relatively mellow terrain, I nearly fell as the wind pushed nearly pushed me over. The wind was blowing across the ridge and I didn't get any reprieve, no matter the terrain.

Moving up the ridge

Even the wind couldn't distract me from the view
of the Crestones

I couldn't reach the summit soon enough.  When I did, I go the full force of the wind.  I took a few pictures.  While focusing on my camera, the wind actually knocked me over.  It shoved me where I lost my footing.  I was blown several feet into some rocks causing me to fall.  I sat to take a few more photos but quickly retreated to lower ground.  Somewhere along the way, the wind blew Choya's bandana into oblivion.  Choya seemed to handle the wind better than me since he has four feet to balance and is lower to the ground.  I'm just glad it wasn't brutally cold on top of the wind.

A good look at Kit Carson beyond the Crestones

Milwaukee Peak with Pico Aislado beyond

I've been hiking for more than 20 years and have been in some windy conditions.  This may have been the windiest conditions I have ever been in.  I remember when I crossed Mt. Washington on my AT thru hike.  The winds were steady in the low 50s with 72MPH gusts. (There is a weather station on the summit and that was the report when I was there)  That shoved me around, particularly as I crossed Mt Madison.  The wind on the summit of Marble seemed far worse.  I couldn't even brace myself with my poles.  Every step I took, I nearly fell as the wind blasted me.  I did not feel steady until I sat down.  As soon as I stood up, I had to fight to stay upright until I left the ridge.

The West Ridge of Marble

Despite the wind, the views are wonderful from the summit.  The Sangre de Cristos are a jagged range.  The most iconic peaks in the Sangres are the Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak.  From Marble, there is a wonderful unobstructed view of the Needle, less than 2.5 miles away.  Beyond the jumble of the Crestones is neighboring 14er Kit Carson.  Humboldt Peak's hulking mass dominates to the north, less than 2 miles to the summit.  Broken Hand Peak and Crestolita are just to the south of the Crestones.  To the south lies the Sand Creek Lakes Basin.  A jagged collection of 13ers surround the basin.

Upper Sand Creek Lake

Marble's Southeast Ridge toward Music Pass

As I descended, the wind shoved me down the mountain.  I narrowly avoided a hard fall as the wind caught me on a rocky section.  Somehow I managed to stay upright and not step on an unstable rock as I was propelled down the mountain.  I made quick time, partially because I wanted to get back to treeline quickly and my descent was wind assisted.

Looking down the Northeast Ridge with
the Wet Mountain Valley in the distance

Back at treeline, I took another short break since I couldn't at the summit.  Out of the wind I was able to take off my shell and it was much warmer.  The route retraced the Marble Trail back to the Rainbow Trail.  The blowdowns were just as frustrating on the descent.  I was back at the car by 1245PM.  The wind was nearly calm.  Starting at this lower trailhead, the hike is 11.5-12 miles.

A last look at the Crestones from lower on the Marble Trail

Back into the blowdowns

Choya relaxing after the hike
In less windy conditions, I highly recommend climbing Marble Mountain.  Starting at the Rainbow Trail trailhead with a high clearance vehicle, this hike is only 6.5-7 miles.  There aren't many hikes in this part of the Sangres only 7 miles long with views like Marble's.  I have climbed at least 25 peaks in the Sangre de Cristos and this was technically one of the easiest.

Another look at the Crestones from high on the ridge

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Looking up the South Colony Creek Basin

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