Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pain and Suffering on Mt. Spalding

As I indicated in my previous post I wanted to write this on Saturday night but I was just too tired to do it. I started writing it and then my computer locked up and I lost everything that I had written – which is a major downer! Saturday morning dawned early for Zack and me. The alarm went off at 6:30AM and I was quickly out of bed getting Zack out of his room as I went. After getting dressed, eating a quick breakfast and stowing our gear we were on our way out of the house by 7:15AM. We headed north on I-25 as we were taking my friend Janel with us on our attempt to summit both Mt. Spalding and Gray Wolf Mountain. After meeting up with Janel we headed due west on I-70 into the mountains. Idaho Springs was our initial destination; as we would exit from I-70 there and then take the Mt. Evans Highway further into the mountains. The Mount Evans Highway is the highest paved road on the entire North American continent. It starts about 15 miles to the south of Idaho Springs and then winds it way up Mount Evans until it reaches an elevation of approximately 14,100 feet. (To reach the top of Mount Evans you have to walk the last ¼ mile to gain the summit at 14,264.) We would not be driving the whole way to the top parking lot at 14,100 feet. Instead we would be stopping at Summit Lake at approximate 12,700 feet. From Summit Lake you have easy access to many of the peaks and highpoints of the entire Mount Evan Massif. We arrived at the Summit Lake parking area around 9:15AM and the morning was off to a beautiful start. As soon as we arrived in the parking area, I noticed something very different. At first I thought I was seeing two very large dogs hanging out by a stone shelter near the lake. A closer looked revealed that they weren’t large dogs but were instead mountain goats. For whatever reason there was something in the stone shelter that was very appealing to them. I don’t know if they were licking salt off the concrete floor or what, but they were very determined to hang out in that shelter! They didn’t mind if we stopped and took pictures of them as long as we didn’t get to close. The goats provided a fun diversion from contemplating the mountain that we were going to hike. As we stood there in the parking lot at Summit Lake, Mt. Spalding dominated the sky. We knew we had a tough hike a head of us. As soon as we got all our gear in our backpacks, turned on the GPS and adjusted our backpacks we were off. The trail we were to follow started there in the parking and went around the side of the lake. After 1/3 of a mile we came to a trail juncture where this trail met up with the Mt. Evans trail that appeared to be coming up from the Chicago Lakes Basin. A short distance over the ridge from the trail juncture, there was an entire herd of mountain goats hanging out, grazing and just having an enjoyable day. They were so interesting to watch as they ate, played and jumped around. We must have stood there for 15 minutes or more watching them. Once we wore out our welcome with the mountain goats we began to act like mountain goats ourselves – climbing higher and higher. The first part of our hike had been relatively flat as we walked along the shoreline of Summit Lake. After the trail juncture, the trail began a long run up the side ridge of Mt. Spalding. It was a very interesting trail as it was built between massive boulders and rocks and constantly switched back and forth. Most of the time there was a pretty significant drop off on our one side as we quickly rose higher and higher on the flank of Mt. Spalding. After ½ mile or so of constantly being on the edge of the ridge with a steep drop off beside us, the trail finally mounted the top of the ridge. From there things began to level out a bit and we didn’t constantly have a shear drop off beside us. Once we were on top of the ridge we entered a very large boulder field that went on as far as the eye could see. Each time we thought we were going to finally reach the summit of the peak it turned out that we just had made the top of another false summit. There were at least 4 or 5 different false summits that we reached before we could finally see the real summit in the distance. To reach the real summit we had a fair amount of scrambling and climbing to do to make it over some of the largest boulders. At one point along the way my right leg “post holed” through a large snow drift and I found myself up to my hips in snow. I really had to struggle to pull myself out of the drift. Unfortunately my right leg was ripped and scratched by the glass-like shards of ice. This was a harbinger of things to come on the second part of our hike! At last we finally reached the real summit. The summit of this mountain is flat and is surrounded by a massive circle of boulders. We reached the inside of this circle of boulder and we found the high point of the entire summit and stood upon it. We had made it – reach the top of a mountain that was 13,864 feet tall – at least according to my GPS. Given the amount of effort we had put into reaching this point we were not going to just jump up and start on our way to Gray Wolf Mountain. This was a moment to savor the beauty of the landscape around us. There was no one else up on this summit so we definitely wanted to enjoy the view and hang out for a while. I had packed lunches for us so we all spent some time eating some of the snacks in our lunches and just looking around. After taking a whole bunch of photos we turned our attention to Gray Wolf Mountain and making it to that summit. As we started down the backside of Mt. Spalding a very beautiful but not well traveled landscape appeared in front of us. Unlike the hike up Mt. Spalding there is no trail that leads to Gray Wolf Mountain. To reach that peak we were going to have to bushwhack our way over 1.5 miles of high alpine tundra. Shortly after we started down the backside of Mt. Spalding Zack began to complain that he did not feel very good and didn’t want to go further. This was very unusual for Zack as he doesn’t complain on our hikes that much. But given we were at such I high attitude I really didn’t give it too much thought. We just pushed on to Gray Wolf Mountain. The hike down the backside of Mt. Spalding was to put it bluntly – pure and unadulterated hell! What looked like a beautiful gradually sloping alpine tundra was in fact a death trap. There were many patches of snow that covered this area. The snow in most cases was entirely “rotten” and would not support our weight. As we stepped on to the snow from the surrounding rocks and grassy areas, it would collapse under our weight sending at least one of our legs plunging downward through the glass-like shards of ice. Each time I extracted my leg from this painful mess it would come out more bloody and beaten than the last time. In one instance I nearly broke my leg as when I plunged down through the snow, my foot became wedged under a rock. The pain I felt was excruciating! I honestly thought I had broken my leg. I didn’t break it but the damage to the skin and bruise I acquired by were major. After what seemed like hours we finally made it out of the patches of snow and entered the flat area between Mt. Spalding and Gray Wolf Mountain. Unfortunately this flat area was a massive marsh. We could not move without stepping into water that was so deep it would swamp our boots. Zack’s complaints as his boots became soaked became even more profound. He was constantly complaining of a massive headache and stomach ache. As we floundered through this marshy, wet hell we could clearly see the route we wanted to take to reach the top of Gray Wolf Mountain. But by the time we finally reached solid “dry” land on the flank of Gray Wolf Mountain, I realized that we had to turn back because of Zack. He was doing so poorly that I was almost dragging him. We started to believe that he was suffering from a nasty case of attitude sickness. With our goal clearly in sight we made the right call and decided to turn back. Had we continued we would have had at least another mile of hiking before reaching the summit of Gray Wolf Mountain. Then we would have had to turn around and hike out another 3 or more miles before we reached Summit Lake. Looking at the terrain we found ourselves in, we realized that no matter what we did we were going to have to climb back up to Mt. Spalding’s summit ridge. The question was how to do that without having to climb the whole way back to the summit itself. We found the best possible route that we thought we could find and then we started slogging through the water and “rotten” snow. Zack quickly lost his battle to prevent himself from puking and threw up all over the place. But he was a total and complete trooper. He didn’t let it bother him and kept moving as best as he could. To keep him motivated and focused on moving forward, I set all these little goals for him. “Zack just walk to that triangle shaped boulder and then you can rest of 5 minutes”. He didn’t grumble that much and I stayed right beside him, letting Janel blaze the path for us. Our hike to the summit ridge was very long and very laborious. We had to re-gain so much elevation that we had lost as we had tried to make it to Gray Wolf Mountain. At last the summit ridge was in sight! Now the question was, could we actually pick up the trail down to Summit Lake? If we couldn’t find the trail we would be in one major amount of trouble – as we could have found ourselves in a position where we might not have been able to get down. Thankfully once we reached the summit ridge it only took us about 3 minutes to locate the real trail. We were tickled pink as soon as we found it and knew we would be able to get down. As we began the downward trek on the trail Zack began to perk up. We didn’t have to stop and let him rest every couple hundred yards. He had a long more strength and determination. We quickly made our way down the ridge and soon we were in sight of the trail junction where we had seen the mountain goats several hours before. Once we reached the trail junction we heard something odd – a siren from an emergency vehicle. We thought it was very odd to hear one of those this high in the mountains. About 5 minutes after the siren went off a helicopter came roaring up over one of the lower ridges. Obviously having a helicopter at this elevation is NOT a good thing as for most helicopters 13,000 – 14,000 feet is their max operational ceiling. Looking closely at the helicopter we realized it was a life-flight helicopter and it was trying to land on the Mt. Evans Highway! After circling around for a long time, the helicopter finally put down on the road. From the distance that we were watching this from we really couldn’t see much of what was going on. However, we later learned that the helicopter had been brought in to life-flight a bicyclist to a Denver area hospital. Apparently the bicyclist had been coming down from the top of the Mt. Evans Highway and had gotten going so fast that they lost control, flipped over and then plunged down one of the drop offs at the edge of the road. (We learned this from a Park Service employee who was directing traffic around the section of road that was closed because of the accident.) We have no idea if that person was OK or not, but we certainly hope they are doing OK. After watching the helicopter situation for a good long time we got everything into the car and took off down the mountain. (The accident had happened further up the mountain so we could at least go down.) Our drive home was uneventful. We dropped off Janel and then continued home. We were both exhausted and very glad to get home! I am so very proud of how Zack handled himself on the hike. Though he was sick as a dog he knew he had to hike his way out of the situation. He did a great job showing his determination and capability! I am so very proud of him!! Today – Sunday has been a busy day. We both slept in this morning as we were tired from yesterday’s exploits. I had a memorial service to go to in Longmont this afternoon for Ramon Owens who passed away in late May. After that I came home and then Zack and I went out to dinner and did some shopping. All-in-all it was not a bad day. We hope everyone has had a great weekend! Thanks and peace to all! – J.

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