Mt. Evans is unique in many aspects, mostly because one can drive on a paved road to a 14,150' elevation visitor's center. This leads to a well-maintained and relatively short walkway to the 14,264' summit. We chose a more challenging route.
Mt. Evans is also the rockiest of the Rockies with which I've gotten up close and personal. The top 1,000' consists of a pile of unimaginably large boulders. Near the summit one could behold a boulder the size and shape of a small office building cantilevered into space. We wondered with amazement at the geological magic that made this possible. At lower elevations we passed rocks resembling windswept sculptures, almost as if they were cast out of bronze. One boulder formed a perfectly shaped rock bridge about ten feet long and two feet wide. Slipping off the uphill side would take you down a few feet into a darkened cavern. A misstep towards the downhill slope would have required a helicopter rescue or recovery.
We chose Mt. Evans thinking it would be the 'easiest' of those not yet hiked by our group of four. The 14ers.com website describes a route with a relatively modest 2,000' ascent, a 5.5 mile roundtrip, and an exposure (to danger) rating of 2 (on a scale of 4). The trailhead was nearly 500' above the tree line eliminating the often, soggy slog through the tundra. A cakewalk, I unwisely thought, although wisely concealing any hint of hubris. Mt. Elbert, in contrast, features a 4,100' ascent and an 8.5-mile roundtrip from trailhead to summit. But we were younger then.
We left our motel in Georgetown at 5:15 am and drove the 30 miles to the trailhead, arriving in time to see the city lights of Denver give way to the rising sun. The headlights provided a narrow view of the road, cloaking the surrounding terrors of hairpin turns on shelf roads giving way to steep drops. Like other roads to 14er trailheads, there were no guardrails. On the return trip I tried to comfort myself by silently calculating how many times our Ford Explorer would roll before hitting a boulder or reaching the bottom.
Three veterans and one rookie formed this year's climbing team. With seven 14ers under my belt, most of the anxiety associated with the unknown had dissipated. My worries were confined to the questions of training, body parts, and weather. Had I prepared sufficiently? Will the weather hold?"
We followed the forecasts and radar closely, which indicated there would a window from sunrise to 1 pm before the rains began, providing sufficient time for the round trip, absent any misfortune. The sky was regrettably red, as we were all familiar with the sailors' ditty, "red sky in the morning, sailors take warning." Rain squalls showered Denver and the plains to the east, and dark clouds dominated the western horizon. It was windy and cold, 30 mph winds and temps in the high 30's. We assembled our gear and departed.
The views were possibly the most majestic of those I've experienced. We hiked through a pea soup mindful of the movie The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the misting clouds opened periodically yielding sightings of the nearby craggy peaks and verdant valleys below.
Early in the climb we began to express doubts about the '2' rating assigned to Mt. Evans on the 14ers.com website. We encountered a succession of rock walls requiring us to secure our hiking poles to our packs and climb hand over hand. Shannon, a fit veteran of nine 14ers and the strongest in the team, proclaimed, "This is real mountaineering. I love it."
During the periodic breaks in the clouds, we would garner a glimpse of Mt. Spalding, elevation 13,842', over which we would pass en route to Mt. Evans. Somewhere around 13,000' the trail disappeared, and we subsequently relied exclusively on cairns. They varied from a few fist-sized rocks to those resembling a mini-temple. They were not always easy to spot, so we spread out and called to one another when we identified the path.
We crossed several false summits before finally reaching the top of Mt. Spalding. It was unusual to actually ascend the summit of Spalding, rather than passing by a shoulder. The reason quickly became apparent, as there were no shoulders. We then hiked down about 1,000' to the saddle between the two peaks, and made a mental adjustment to the website notation of a 2,000' ascent. It started to mist, and I put on my rain pants. The wind was ferocious with periodic gusts that would push you off your feet. Everyone's hands and feet were cold, in spite of the high level of exertion. I was fortunate to be wearing heavy-duty ski gloves and three layers of clothing. I never once broke into a sweat.
We encountered a young man returning to the trailhead after his trip to the summit. He had to have started several hours before daylight. We learned he was a firefighter at Ft. Sill, OK, and he looked the part. We were two hours into the hike and figured we had to be covering ground at 1 mph putting us close to the end. "You're about half way,' he said, and our hearts sank.
So we marched on. Shannon was hiking in the lead a few paces ahead of me when we reached the first of several false summits. I heard her exclaim, "Holy crap!" When I joined her, we beheld an intimidating view of a boulder field knifing skyward into the clouds. A large cairn was visible leading directly towards the edge of the knife. I entertained thoughts of retreat, as this route appeared to be beyond my abilities, and I was worried about the increasing likelihood of an unwelcomed rainstorm. We were comforted somewhat as we climbed down to the cairn, and viewed a second marking revealing a less dangerous passageway along the steep shoulder of the boulder field. Fortunately, we had crossed to the lee side of the mountain providing relief from the constant assault of the wind.
On the few occasions when the clouds would break, we garnered a view of Mt. Bierstadt to the west and a large mountain lake several thousand feet below. Because of our relatively slow pace, we were now being passed by a handful of younger climbers. They greeted us warmly before speeding ahead.
It took a little over 4 hours to reach the summit. Oddly, we descended several hundred feet into the Mt. Evan's parking lot, and walked a few hundred yards to a well-maintained path leading to the final 100' ascent to the summit. The enjoyment of the view and feeling of accomplishment was in no way diminished by sharing the moment with motorists. While taking pictures of the panorama we conspicuously avoided the incongruous green pump truck parked near the highest public toilets in North America.
We visited with a park ranger, who told us that sleet and snow were fast approaching. He recommended that we hitch a ride down. Needing little encouragement, we did.
Trip captain Fred, now a veteran of 18 such climbs, is six weeks shy of his 75th birthday. His wife, Linda, 72, successfully completed her first 14er. Shannon and I were the relative youngsters. Fred later summarized, "I thought I selected a relatively less difficult 14er, Mt. Evans, for Linda's first. Wrong! The weather was cold, extremely windy, and foggy. The trail was rated a class 2, but it was really a significantly more difficult 3 as the last half-mile crossed a steep boulder field. We were often on all fours getting up and around the big rocks. Fortunately, she handled it well."
The ride down the mountain was predictably horrifying, and again Shannon said it best, "I feel very good about myself after doing this." All agreed, and amazingly, we started planning our 2016 climb. Lord willing.
p.s. The hike was undertaken on August 27. Aspen leaves and ferns were already losing their color. Surprisingly, wildflowers were still in bloom at the higher elevations. The picture below of a living bouquet was taken in a cranny of granite at 14,050'.
I recently read a letter from a friend about the daughter of an acquaintance whose book has now sold 2 million copies. NNAOPP is only 1.9985 million shy of her staggering achievement, and if the current pace of sales continues, I should reach that level well before the next ice age.
That's it for now.
Charles A. Wells, Jr.
3317 W. 68th Street
Shawnee Mission, KS 66208
Author of: Nude Nuns and Other Peculiar People
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