It’s been three years since I climbed a fourteener – a fourteen thousand foot mountain, and since I felt pretty good this summer, I decided to try one again. I’ve been trying to get ready for the last two months: walking the dog – I can’t run anymore because of my knees, and hiking in the mountains every week or two, at altitude, to get myself in shape and acclimated.
Climbing a fourteener is a challenge, especially as you get older. I’ve failed two out of my last four attempts, either out of sheer exhaustion or from muscle cramps, which have bothered me since I’ve gotten older, and then hiking all day at altitude is just a grueling experience, even if you prepare for it. Your pack straps cut into your shoulders; your joints ache, and most of the time it’s boring – nothing but rocks and trees for hour after hour. But there’s something about climbing a big mountain that makes it all worthwhile. The sense of accomplishment is part of it, but more than that, there’s just nothing like sitting up there on top, higher than anything else around, able to see for fifty, a hundred miles in any direction. No picture or narrative can do justice to the experience.
I had trouble deciding which fourteener to try - there are 54 to choose from in Colorado. I’ve climbed most of the ones near Denver, and I didn’t want to go too far away, because I don’t like spending the night away from home. Still there are several I haven’t climbed within a four or five hour drive: La Plata, near Buena Vista was at the top of my list, because I’ve tried it three times and failed each time. Sherman, over by Leadville, is pretty easy, they say, and it’s in a new area for me. I was still debating the issue in my mind the last week in August when I heard on the weather report that it was snowing in the mountains. I had almost waited too long.
I don’t like to hike in the winter. It’s cold; the rocks are slippery, and it’s painfully slow slogging through the snow, even with snow shoes, so I decided to go the next day, before the weather got any worse, and I picked the closest fourteener that I hadn’t climbed, Torrey’s Peak.
Torrey’s is just an hour and a half from Denver. Most people climb it and Gray’s Peak – another fourteener – together, since the peaks are just a half a mile apart, but, although I’ve climbed Grays three times before, I’ve never had enough energy left to get to the top of Torrey’s too. Half a mile doesn’t seem like a lot, but getting from one peak to the other also involves going down about 500 feet – that’s like a 35 story building – and then back up again, so Torrey’s it was. I set out my pack, filled my water bladder up to three liters, made my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and set my alarm for 3 AM.
Usually I’m like a zombie at 3 AM - that’s when I wake up to pee, but this morning I was bright eyed and bushy tailed. I didn’t take the dog. Penny gets upset when the weather turns bad, and I didn’t want to have to carry her in addition to my pack. It’s happened before. At 5 AM I was the first to arrive at the trail head, but before I got my gear on and set my GPS, there were two more cars with more brave souls anxious to tackle a fourteener. I spoke briefly with the two guys parked next to me. They said they had been planning the hike all summer and hoped to summit both Gray’s and Torrey’s. I wished them well, and then we both hit the trail, lighting our way with headlamps.
Gray’s / Torrey’s Peak Trail about 6 AM, August 26, 2016
Everything was covered with snow, and it became deeper as we climbed higher. I was prepared for the cold, but I didn’t anticipate deep snow, so I hadn’t brought my gators to keep the snow out of my boots. Snow quickly melts inside boots, and you don’t want to hike all day on wet feet, so I began to worry a little.
The other hikers were younger than me of course, so all morning I watched as they passed me. I take my time. I can walk all day if I pace myself, but if I try and push it, my legs soon start to ache. Also, you see more when you stop occasionally. It’s hard to take in much scenery when you’re concentrating on picking your way between the rocks. I look at the flowers, and the wild life, and I take a lot of pictures. I figure the more you take, the more keepers you’ll get. There weren’t many flowers poking their heads through the snow this morning, but the vistas were spectacular all the way.
The trail head for Gray’s and Torrey’s is right at the tree line, 11250 feet according to my GPS, so once it became light enough, I could plainly see snow covered slopes on one side of the trail, and steep cliffs in the other. The clouds were too low to see the peaks though until I was almost at the top.
After two or three hours I noticed that some of the hikers ahead of me had stopped. Then I met a couple who had passed me earlier, coming back down the trail. The guy was wearing shorts, so I had wondered how far he’d get. They said the snow on the trail was getting deeper, up to their knees in spots, so they were giving up for the day. I was still worried about not having gators, but my pant legs come down pretty far over my boots so I decided I could handle some snow, and I kept going.
As I continued up the trail more people passed me going the other way. “The wind is really strong up ahead,” they reported, “and it’s getting colder.” I had worn a long sleeved undershirt and long handled underwear, but I began to feel cold too, so I put on my quilted jacket and got out my face mask and goggles. I had on glove liners, which I had brought mainly for climbing on the rocks, but I began to wish I had brought insulated gloves as well.
It wasn’t long after putting on my coat that I came to the place where the trail to Torrey’s Peak branches off. It was a little hazy up ahead, but I could see that the hikers who had taken the Gray’s Peak trail were having trouble. Those in front had slowed or stopped, and some were coming back. No one else had taken the Torrey’s trail so it was a little hard to see, but I had come to climb Torrey’s so I figured, why not? It looked steeper than the Gray’s trail so maybe the snow wouldn’t be as deep.
Me at the Start of the Torrey’s Peak Trail
Well the snow was pretty deep, knee deep in spots, so I tried to stay on the outer rim of the trail, which was closer to the surface. This only worked part of the time, so I still had to deal with some deep snow. That’s when I learned how to “post hole.” I had heard that climbers use it in deep snow, but I’d never really tried it.
What you do is stick your pole into the snow in front of you to test the depth before you take a step. It’s slow going but it’s better than falling up to your waist in snow. I’ve done that before. And then there were times when there was no choice but to step out into deep snow. Then I would stamp my boot down over and over to press the snow down in a larger area so that when I stepped out it wouldn’t leak into my boots. That was even slower going, but my feet didn’t get wet.
So I made slow headway, and getting through the snow was not the only problem. I kept losing the trail, and then had to climb up or down to get back to it, but that’s one nice thing about starting at 5 AM. You’ve got plenty of time to piddle around.
After I had got pretty far up the Torrey’s Peak trail, I looked back and saw a strange sight. There was a person, tumbling over and over down the mountain. I thought he might be hurt, so I started to go back to him, but pretty soon he stood up and walked to where I was. He explained that he was coming down from the Gray’s Peak trail, and had decided that rolling down the snow drifts would be easier than walking. He and his partner had turned back because the Gray’s trail was too rough, and since I seemed to be making headway on the Torrey’s trail – I was still the only one on it – he thought he’d try it too.
“My name’s Keith,” he said.
“I’m Robin,” I replied, and off we went.
I couldn’t keep up with Keith, of course, but before he left me, I found out that it was he and his partner who had parked next to me the first thing that morning.
There was one more hurdle to pass before getting to the “saddle” between Gray’s and Torrey’s, and that was a cornice of snow along the rim of the slope. It was much deeper there than it had been anywhere along the trail, maybe four feet. Keith dived in and rolled right through it, but when I tried his technique my pack got in the way and I ended up tunneling through the snow on my hands and knees.
When I got past the cornice, I was able to brush the snow off my clothes pretty well, but I had to take my boots off to clean the snow out of them before it melted into my socks. By the way, I do carry an extra pair of socks, just in case.
After that the going got harder. The saddle was broad, and the snow wasn’t as deep, but the slope was getting steeper and the air was getting thinner. That’s a frustrating thing about climbing a big mountain, the higher you are, the harder it gets. I’m always singing to myself when I hike, and the song that was going through my head at the time – I didn’t have enough wind to actually sing – was “Somewhere, Over the Rainbow,” and it was really slow: “Somewhere” – step. “over the rainbow” – step. “Way up high” – step. On the way down, I remember that my song was “When the red, red, Robin comes bob, bob, bobbing along.” Going down is a lot easier than climbing up.
From the saddle to the top was a climb of about 500 feet, and it took me a good 30 minutes. I would watch Keith up ahead of me climbing up towards the cloud - the peak was still hidden in a cloud, and just as he was about to disappear, the cloud would rise a little higher. He finally did disappear, and was actually on his way down before I could see the top of the mountain. When he passed me I dropped my pack. Why carry that stuff all the rest of the way up? All I needed was my peanut butter sandwich anyway, and it was in my fanny pack, so I took one last drag off my water straw, and climbed the rest of the way to the top.
Keith Climbing up Towards Torrey’s Peak
It was 11:30 AM when I got to the top of Torrey’s Peak, still before noon. They always tell you to be off the peak before noon because of storms and lightening. I was lucky in that the sky cleared up for me at the top of the mountain. I could see the mountains all around. I could see Gray’s. It was wonderful!
Triumph on Torrey’s Peak, Gray’s Peak in Background
Keith and I weren’t the only ones to summit Torrey’s that day. Just behind me was a man from Littleton, Co. and his two sons. They had actually climbed Gray’s and then come over the saddle to climb Torrey’s. Pretty good for a cold snowy day. I’m pretty sure they were the last ones though, because everyone was starting down about that time and I didn’t meet anyone else coming up the trail.
Coming down is the least enjoyable part of climbing a mountain, and my journey down Torrey’s was no exception. It is easier, but I haven’t found a way to step down a two or three foot trail step without jarring my knees and back. After three or four hours of that pounding – it took me four hours to get down, you can get pretty sore. What made it worse on this hike was the snow, which had turned to slush and was really slippery. And the weather kept changing. The sun would come out and it would get hot. There’s something about the thin mountain air that allows the temperature to change really quickly. Then I’d have to unstrap my pack, take off my coat, secure it in the pack, and then lift it back onto my shoulders. Then, thirty minutes later, it would get cold again, snow – it snowed about half the time on my way down, and I’d have to repeat the procedure, in reverse. That happened two or three times.
I usually take more time looking for flowers and critters on the way down, but there was none of that this trip, except for the ravens. They were everywhere for some reason. They must have been able to see critters to eat better as the snow melted. I tried to photograph them, but they were too far away to get a clear picture.
I was one of the last ones back to the car as usual, but I was happy. I managed to summit my tenth fourteener, and in winter conditions. What an adventure!
Torrey’s Peak, 14,267 Feet