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The Monarch Crest Gift Shop is a common stop to pick up resupply packages and recharge power units for thru-hikers. It’s right on Highway 50 as part of the Collegiate West route on the Colorado Trail.  I took this route and stopped there when I hiked that trail.

The portable charging unit I carried was an Anker PowerCore II 10000. (It's around $30 on Amazon) It’s light weight (6.8 oz) and can fully recharge my phone at least two times allowing me 5-7 days without having to find a power outlet. I had decided prior to my hike that I would not be a heavy power user, and so this choice fit my style perfectly, almost.

The downside of this unit is that it takes 4-6 hours to fully recharge. This works fine if a person is staying overnight somewhere. But for temporary stops, like Monarch Crest, be prepared to wait… and wait… and wait… for a good portion of the day. It definitely won’t be a quick stop.

It turns out the safety features in the Anker protect the battery from overcharging and manage the charge cycle in such a way that it helps preserve battery life and keeps it from overheating, which would be dangerous. The downside of this feature is the charge cycle goes into a type of trickle charge as it gets fuller. Thus, that last 25% or so of charging will take nearly as long as the first 75%.

Five hours later: I became impatient. I unplugged and got back on the trail before it was fully recharged. It was just one tiny little light short of a full charge. How bad could that be?

By the time I arrived in Lake City 7 days later I was dangerously low on power. Both my emergency GPS unit and my phone were on the last few hours of use, even though I had been very stingy with conserving power.

Applying standard risk management methods, if anything would have happened to delay me or if I had needed to use my devices more, I probably would not have had the power to send out an SOS signal or handle additional communications with search and rescue if needed. The backup plan was to flag down a fellow hiker, that is, if I was able to do that and the other hiker had an emergency device with more remaining power than I did. All the elements that had to be in place to mitigate this risk reduced the likelihood of that plan being successful.

Admittedly, the chance of an experienced and cautious hiker needing search and rescue is very low, but the impact could have been very high if such an incident occurred. A person can plan and prepare, but even the best laid plans can be spoiled by the most freakish happenings.

Most people play the odds. I can’t blame them. It’s reasonable. This thru-hiking thing is best done with a free spirit, which is not one to be held back or burdened by such obscure possibilities. Live in the moment. Be emboldened by a little risk taking. I get it.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if just a small change would bring even more surety to this freedom on the trail.

I began wondering about the benefits of carrying a charging unit that uses solar energy as a power recharge source. My house is mostly powered by solar energy, why shouldn’t I apply the same principles on the trail?

Of course, I could have just been more patient at Monarch Crest to allow my Anker to fully charge. This would have given me a little more power reserve. But aside from this specific situation there are many other circumstances where power availability could quite literally be the difference between life and death. Having a healthy power reserve continues to be an important safety measure for me on future long hikes or even more remote day hikes. And so I began researching solar power units.

There are essentially two types of solar chargers you’ll see on the market for backpackers: panels without power banks and panels with power banks. There will be more detail to follow on the difference between these two.

What’s up with Photons?

Before we get into reviewing some currently available models, let’s first understand a little about the technology. The sun produces radiation which we see in part as light and is made up of an elementary particle called a photon. These photons oscillate and form an electromagnetic wave at many frequencies within a broad spectrum of infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. For those who like to measure things, it’s within the range from 100 nanometer to 1 millimeter in wavelength – or 100 billionth of a meter to one thousandth of a meter. The shorter the wavelength the higher the frequency and more powerful the radiation. It’s all a very scientific kind of stuff, quantum mechanics, to be specific. But we don’t need to understand all that for the sake of this article. Just know that photons are powerful elements from the sun that form an oscillating electromagnetic wave.

How Solar Panels Work

Now that we understand the relative characteristics of a photon, let’s talk about solar panels and how they work. Solar panels contain photovoltaic cells. These cells have two really tiny layers, one positively charged and the other negatively charged, creating an electronic field between them. This field will either attract or repel other charged particles. But without introducing any other charged particles in the field, it’s mostly a buzz kill – nothing’s happening. Enter photons.

When photons from the sun are introduced to a photovoltaic cell, the oscillations from the photons excite that field between the two layers and forces electrons from the negative layer to move to the positive layer, thus forming a flow of electricity. These electrons are then collected on a metal plate and are transferred via wires that may go to a battery for storage or to a circuit that charges your cell phone, for instance.

Note that volume matters. Increasing the number of photovoltaic cells (the larger the solar panel) the greater the power generating capacity. This is important for backpackers and hikers, as you will soon see.

Tell Me What Matters

Recall I mentioned there are two types of solar charges: panels with and panels without power banks. The most significant difference between them is that a panel without a power bank only generates electricity but doesn’t have a means of storing it, whereas panels with a power bank include a battery to store the electricity generated by the panel.

However, most panels with power banks have small panels. And most panels without power banks typically have larger panels.

Other than the different types, what else matters when deciding on what to buy for backpacking? Several factors hit the top of my list:

Intended Use.  If I only intend to use my electronic devices while the sun is out, I only need a panel without a power bank. But if I want to charge a power bank while the sun is out and recharge my devices later, then a panel with a power bank may suit me best.

Charging Time. I want to make sure the power from the panel is strong enough to charge my devices within a reasonable time. Or if I have a panel with a power bank, I want to make sure the solar panel can quickly charge the power bank AND that the power bank can charge my devices within a decent time frame.

Weight. I don’t like to carry weight that has little value to me. If I carry a solar charger, I want it to be the lightest weight model that serves my needs best.

Capacity. How much power can the unit deliver? For power banks, this is typically measured in milliamps per hour (mAh). Higher mAh numbers mean more power availability but typically longer charging times and heavier. Panel outputs are typically measured in watts per hour (Wh).  Also, if I have a need to power many devices, I may want to consider something with larger panels, because larger panels produce more capacity faster.

Lesser Factors. I would also consider features like the number of USB connections, auto-stop feature when fully charged, a built-in LED light, method of attaching to my pack, durability, bulk, adaptability to my pack, customer reviews, and customer service.

Reviews

There are over 50 manufactures of these devices on Amazon alone with new models coming out often. With so many to choose from I’m not going to do an extensive review in this one article. But I recently picked up a few panels with power banks that represent what is available on the market today.

This article does not have any reviews for panels without power banks. However, this is a viable option for backpackers. I may explore a review of these types of units in a future blog post.

Re-Fuel by Digipower 15000 mAh Solar Power Bank

I purchased this off a recommendation from a fellow thru hiker. Digipower had sponsored his Pacific Crest Trail hike by supplying this unit and other power units for his phone and Go-Pro camera. So, with a generous promotional discount code from him I ordered this unit. I immediately charged the unit via a USB power source and re-charged my phone a couple times until the power was nearly exhausted. Then I put it in the sun for 5 days; it didn’t charge at all. When I asked about the issue, they simply sent me a new unit without question – great customer service! The subsequent unit charged as advertised.

Pros:

  • Sturdy and durable with a well-designed waterproof case.
  • “Waterproof” doesn’t mean you can take it swimming with you, but it easily withstands some rain if the power plugs covers are properly sealed.
  • The LED light is handy to light up the tent at night.
  • The power output is descent.
  • Rubber seals that cover each cable connector fit securely to provide protection from the elements.
  • No-worries carabiner handle.

Cons:

  • Long solar charge time (not unexpected with such a small panel).

Cost: $49.99  ($68.55 on Amazon)

Weight: 13.5oz

Output: 2 USB outputs: one 2.1A (10.5W) and one 1A; 55.5 Wh

Charge time: Solar takes approximately 56 hours of bright, direct sunlight; via USB 2A source takes approximately 6 hours (using a 39W Anker Quick Charge PowerPort)

Capacity: 15,000 mAh

Wireless Lit 20000 mAh Solar PowerBank

I saw this unit in an online ad, then I spent some time on their website. The marketing on it was impressive, almost too good to be true. They proudly announced the unit could recharge completely via solar or USB in an hour; it weighed a quarter of a pound (4 oz); and it had a wireless phone charging feature.

I'm not one to put a lot of confidence in marketing copy. But I thought… maybe, they had some newer technology that allowed for faster solar charge times and lighter weight materials. So, I ordered it.

After receiving my unit, I discovered much of what they advertised that attracted me to the unit was not true (gasp!). It did wirelessly charge my phone – that was good. But it was larger and much heavier than advertised, and the charge times were grossly misrepresented (both solar charging and USB charging).

So, being a guy who believes in second chances, I contacted them to ask for an explanation and/or for them to make the appropriate corrections on their website. Crickets.

Zero response to something as blatant as these claims is unsettling. Based on this alone I would caution against any dealings with this company. I don’t like outright dishonesty. I can't explain this any other way.

Pros:

  • It’s capable of wireless charging for supported devices. This is convenient and it saves the need to carry a phone charging cable.
  • It also has overcharge protection, meaning it senses when your device is charged and stops the charging process, thereby saving power.
  • The ability to charge three devices at one time is nice for power users or for those who are sharing one power unit among several people.

Cons:

  • The carabiner loop is wimpy compared to other units. I would not trust the thin nylon material to hang it on my backpack.
  • It’s far weightier than advertised.
  • It’s pricey if bought directly from them.
  • No response to customer inquiries.
  • Grossly misrepresented the solar and USB advertised charge times on their web site.

Cost: $79.99 ($54.99 on Amazon)

Weight: 18.7oz

Output: 3 USB (one 1A and two 2.1A)

Charge time: full sun takes 85 hours; nearly 24 hours via USB 2A source (using a 39W Anker Quick Charge PowerPort)

Capacity: 20,000 mAh

Solar Charger 25000mAh, Hiluckey Outdoor Portable Power Bank

This unit has 4 times the panel surface area of the single panel unit. Its weight is comparable to the Lit Mobile unit I tested, which puts it in a heavy weight category for me. But it does come closer to an attractive solar charge time. It’s a 25K mAh unit, which is attractive for longer periods between USB power sources. If they made this unit in a 10K mAh capacity it would weigh less and make for even faster charge times; this might be more attractive to carry on a long hike. So I asked Hiluckey if they had any plans on making a lighter model. It turns out they have a 10K mAh unit, but it’s out of stock.

Pros:

  • 4 times the voltaic cell surface area compared to the single panel units
  • Dust, shock, and waterproof.
  • LED light with SOS mode
  • Significant power storage and power output

Cons:

  • I did not experience this - but, some reviews cautioned against charging a device when the power source is low; some have experienced the unit consuming power from the device (instead of charging it) in these situations. Strange.
  • When needing a USB charge on a long hike this unit requires a zero day to fully charge. Although an overnight charge (8-10 hours) would charge the unit between 50-75%.

Cost: $42.99 ($46.99 on Amazon)

Weight: 18.9oz

Output: 2 USB (2.1A) 92.5 Wh

Charge time: via sun it takes 25 hours of bright sunlight, 14 hours via a USB charger (using a 39W Anker Quick Charge PowerPort)

Capacity: 25,000 mAh

Conclusion

It’s a stretch to say I could rely on this type of unit to supply a substantial and sustainable power source while backpacking for an extended period (7+ days). There would have to be full sun exposure for many consecutive days. This means absolutely no clouds all day and no hiking in shaded or partly shaded areas. Rarely has this ever been the case for me.

At this point I would say that carrying one of these single small panel units on a long trail would not be worth the weight.

I instead continue to recommend a portable non-solar charger such as an Anker PowerCore (10K mAh for shorter segments between recharging or the 26.8K mAh for longer segments). This option provides power at a lower weight.

Sadly, it appears my search for a solar charger power bank to take with me on long hikes has been a bust. But the good news is that this technology is rapidly advancing. Some smart manufacturer out there is bound to come up with the perfect solution soon.

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Spring Inspiration

It’s spring time. The birds are boisterous. Early blossoms are raging. Tones in the air are changing to something more earthy and sweat. All things brown are being overcome by a green invasion. The world is in motion again. And best of all, everyone is getting more excited about breaking in new trail shoes, budgeting for new gear, and planning their summer adventures. 

To commemorate the season, I headed out to a local favorite, a meandering among the granite scramble along Catamount Creek, exploring the hills near and around Green Mountain Falls. It’s where one can find an aggressive landscape, bold rock formations, forests that house generations of ponderosa pines and gatherings of young sapling willows. Water features here are worthy of admiration. And the views of the local landscape are signature Pikes Peak foothills.

I’ve written about this area in past posts, but today I set out for a different purpose. I wanted to capture this early season in images more obscure and less obvious but still wonderous.

As a bonus I ended up on a path I had never taken, more treacherous than the land might first reveal. The descent of Catamount Creek from the Garden of Eden to the trailhead at Catamount Falls starts off as a well-established trail but quickly turns into anyone’s guess as to the best way down through steep and slippery rocks, all things covered in a bed of pine needles, and traversing around large ice patches. Super fun! But I didn't put any pictures of that segment of my hike in this blog, because I wanted to keep focused on spring inspirations.

In my book about my Colorado Trail hike last year (Purpose on the Colorado Trail), I observed that the beauty of this land is an accumulation of micro beauty – an exercise of recognizing the wonder of smaller things. Vincent Van Gogh said it more astutely than I can: “Great things are… a series of small things brought together.” Nature’s beauty is just like that, millions of small things brought together to make something great.

I’ve always been intrigued by nature. How is it that amazing, vibrant, living things come from what was a seemingly lifeless environment? It is life coming from a dry dead seed. It is abused and neglected dirt bringing forth an abundance of flora. Who gives hope to this hopelessness? Who makes awesome from aweless? What inspires a flurry of summer activity from the stillness of winter? Spring is the beginning of this journey of seasons. Spring offers insight to the power of nature and creation. This is what I hoped to capture today.

I observed a wide variety of newly sprouting plants, trees budding, early flowers, young fish in the creek, and even some deer grazing near the trail. I hope you enjoy my photo journey from today.

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Catamount – Thomas – Kirkpatrick - Crystal Trails Loop

Green Mountain Falls, Colorado is described as a statutory town eleven miles west of Colorado Springs off of Highway 24.  It’s a cool place, literally, because the sun shines here only in the early morning.  It’s surrounded on three sides by Pikes National Forest, shadowed by the sharply rising foot hills of Pikes Peak. The average temperature is 10 degrees less than Colorado Springs just a few miles to the east.  So, that’s cool.

Statutory sounds like, and is, a legal thing. The State of Colorado has defined how towns and cities will be governed and are protected under the state constitution.  I was curious enough to read about it, but it’s not worth another keystroke for this article.

What is worth talking about are all the great trails that explore the surrounding foothills.  Let’s go on a (mostly) loop trail I recently enjoyed.

See the map below.  I started at a gravel parking lot next to the creek at the intersection of Hondo and Ute Pass Avenues, connected four trails and a few short road walks, and then ended up back at the parking lot.  

One side note: Please respect the town’s enforced rules on parking. As much as road walking is disliked by hikers, hikers parking on private property is equally disliked by the locals. Make a friend, be civil, follow the rules.

From the parking lot hike up Hondo Avenue. It’s about a 500 foot gain to reach the end of the road. Along the way it is common to catch a glimpse of mule deer grazing or to hear the greeting of a Steller’s Jay. 

From the end of the road, continue through the gate to a small bridge over Catamount Creek where the trail begins to climb.  Note the sign that instructs blue markers for the Catamount Trail and yellow markers for the Thomas Trail to Crystal Falls. (note, this picture was taken on one of my winter hikes here)

It is only a short distance on the Catamount Trail before the Thomas Trail splits to the left and over Catamount Creek.  There are several opportunities to enjoy the rush of cascading mountain fresh waters. The creeks are definitely one of the highlights of hiking these foothills. 

The Thomas Trail slowly descents to meet up with Crystal Creek.  A plaque along the way gives a little insight to the trail origins.  The trail was first created by Harold Felton and Lester Griswald in the 1940’s.  But the 45-acre land mass for the trail was a gift to the town by C.Y. Thomas to be used as an open space.  Volunteers restored the trail between 1987-1990 and is now maintained by the Green Mountain Falls Trails Committee. (this website has noted the parking areas for hikers)

Crystal Falls or (historically) Cable Falls is another pleasant stop, the next noteworthy attraction.  Just before the falls are markers that indicate several different options.  On the way back we will follow the trail to Boulder Street.

For now, continue a little further up the hill until reaching the creek crossing at Cable Falls.  A sign on the east bank of the creek tells the history of how the falls was named after Ransom Reek Cable, the person who brought the first railroad to Colorado Springs.

After this crossing, for a short distance, follow Kirkpatrick Trail (green), then exit to the right onto Crystal Trail (blue).

At the beginning, the trail is a well-marked moderate incline. There are many switchbacks.  In some places the trail is not strongly distinguishable.

A group of Lucy’s Warblers joined me, darting across the trail, chirping and keeping perfect company.

As the trail begins to top, the rock formations and the creek compete for attention.  

The terrain begins to change from steep and rugged to slow, willow-filled meadows surrounded by these craggy granite formations.

Seemingly the trail ends at a service road.  The path forward is not very clear from here.  The pictures below illustrate the way.  Take a left at the road, then after a short distance, turn off the road to the right where it looks like some construction has blocked the path.

The target destination is Crystal Reservoir, just a few hundred yards away.  There are several ways of getting to the same place. You could follow the road (longest path), you could make your own way (there are some steep loose granite obstacles), or you could follow the path I’ve laid out (shortest and least troublesome). 

After getting around the construction you will see the way forward.  Follow what looks like an old path in a gully.  A spillway will eventually be on the right just before reaching the guardrails of Pikes Peak Highway.  Cross the highway to reach the rest/recreation area for the reservoir.  You’ve essentially arrived at the termination point of this Crystal Trail.  From here, I found a path that circles the reservoir and rested on a rock to enjoy a snack with a spectacular view of Pikes Peak.

The return trip is to follow the same Crystal Trail back to the trail markers below Cable Falls.  Instead of taking Thomas Trail, follow the Boulder Street sign.  Below the sign but before reaching Boulder Street is a very nice falls that shoots over the through some boulders.  One could also enjoy the falls from a small walk bridge that crosses the creek.

The Boulder Street trailhead is marked with a Thomas Trail sign.

Follow Boulder Street, turn left onto Park Avenue, and turn left onto Ute Pass Avenue.  Enjoy the attractive and cozy mountain homes along the way.  Say hi to the locals and strike up a conversation about how much you enjoyed your day and appreciate their trail system.  Then just past the pond and shops will be where we parked at the beginning of our day.

This is a very cool loop trail near a very cool town along some nice cool creeks.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Stats (I didn’t have my GPS to take good measurements – these are all approximate)

Mileage: ~7 miles

Elevation Gain: ~2000 feet

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Make Your Own Energy Bars

I like to make my own energy bars. Not necessarily because I have a disposition against pre-packaged energy bars. Many of them are good food, not much more processed than what I make. But what they don't always offer is the option of choice ingredients, at least not to the degree that I prefer. I like to hand-select my own ingredients to ensure I'm getting the best quality and the ingredients I enjoy.

One great benefit is the cost savings of making my own. I cut my food costs approximately in half by making my own. This includes my own dehydrated meals, which is a blog for another day.

Today I'd like to take you through the process of making my energy bars. 

Here are my ingredients:

  • Steel cut oats
  • Rolled oats
  • Puffed millet
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Mixed unsalted nuts
  • Unsweetened coconut
  • Raisins
  • Dried cranberries
  • Semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • Unfiltered honey
  • Organic light corn syrup
  • Course salt

You can include whatever ingredients you like. For instance, you may like other types of dried fruit; you may like only peanuts; you may want M&Ms instead of chocolate chips; you may prefer pine nuts instead of sunflower seeds. If you look at the ingredients of the energy bars you like, pick out the ingredients you like and substitute as you wish. The point is to make something you will enjoy eating. Essentially you will have grains, nuts, and fruit. 

The binder (what holds it all together) is the honey and organic corn syrup. You may want to pick up some local honey to help support your community. The organic corn syrup is not clear, it's unfiltered and slightly darker. 

Why unsalted nuts? I prefer to control the amount of sodium. Processed foods typically have gross amounts of sodium. However, you want some salt because sodium is important to replace electrolytes while on the trail. The course salt I use is natural Himalayan kosher certified salt.  

I pick up most of my ingredients at my local natural food store.

What are the proportions? I start with an equal portion (one cup) of steel cut oats, rolled oats, puffed millet, nuts, sunflower seeds, coconut, raisins, cranberries, and chocolate chips. I put in a half portion (half-cup) of chia seeds.  If you want a double batch or half batch, proportion the amounts accordingly.  Mix all these together until evenly mixed. Dried fruit tends to clump, you may spend some time breaking them apart. Also, you may want to chop the nuts into smaller pieces with a knife or in your food processor. If you do it in your food processor, use the pulse button as you probably don't want it to be chopped into dust.

Then add equal amounts of honey and corn syrup, a couple squirts at a time while you stir with a wooden spoon. Add until the mixture starts holding together. Too much or too little and it won't hold together quite right. This will be sticky.

Then I line a cookie sheet with parchment paper (up the sides too) and press down the mixture in the sheet until it is firm, about the depth of the sheet (or whatever thickness you like). Sprinkle the course salt over the top. Put the cookie sheet in the oven at 250 degrees for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and let stand until room temperature, then refrigerate for at least 30 min before cutting into bar shapes.

These will be chewy bars.  If you like crunchy bars, don't add chocolate and keep in the oven for 30 minutes (or longer), or make them thinner.  

To store the bars, cut squares of parchment paper to place between stacked bars in a plastic bag or plastic container. Refrigerate or freeze until needed. 

That's my simple recipe. If I take one or two bars with me on each hike, one batch will usually last me all year. Sometimes I'll make smaller batches to keep the bars more fresh.

I'd like to hear about how you modified this recipe, or one of your own.  Please comment. 

Enjoy!

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Winter Hiking – My Almost Favorite Time of Year to Get Out

I enjoy winter hiking maybe more than I do any other time of year, except in the fall. Yes, fall hiking is my favorite. But today I’ll muse about my second favorite time of the year to hike. Winter.

With respect to solitude on the trail, winter has the edge over any other time of year in the Rockies. If you’ve been reading these scribbles of mine, it will come as no surprise that I’m not a big fan of hiking in crowds. And this is one reason winter hiking ranks high for me. Winter definitely thins the conga lines on the most popular hiking routes. And not surprisingly this season offers even greater solitude on the lesser traveled routes – bonus! But, in the winter I am more apt to hike with at least one partner for safety reasons, but not usually a big crowd.

Fairer seasons have more tolerable weather. Most people will reason that between rain or snow, walking about in a blizzard is less attractive. I’m not one of those. Shocking, right? I do not subscribe to the idea that rain is more tolerable. In fact, I think snow is mostly enjoyable and even calming. This might be because I spent my childhood in a winter wonderland in Upper Michigan near the shores of Lake Superior. Think: lake effect snow… lots of it! And now that I live in a place that doesn’t get as much snowfall (except in the high country) I miss and appreciate it all that much more. Granted, if I still lived there and had to shovel snow every day for months each year, I may have a different perspective. As for living on the east slope of the Front Range in Colorado, my winter months are mild and I have the option of driving an hour or two to take in all the blissfulness of winter I can stand… and then head back down the hill to my normal mild winter life. It’s near perfection.

Winter hiking demands a different set of gear: snowshoes, ice axe, crampons, more layers, winter jackets and pants, warmer boots, mittens, goggles, face mask, beacon, shovel, etc. This can be a financial detractor. But it doesn’t have to be. Second-hand stores and used gear consignment shops are good places to look for gently used good quality gear that cost considerably less than retail. Watching for sales, of course, is highly recommended. A person could go online to buy used gear, but I personally find that to be a little risky with returns if the purchase is disappointing. And if you can’t or won’t afford all this gear, get whatever you can that will allow you to get out and take in the beauty. There are usually plenty of local and low risk places, maybe even in your neighborhood.

Winter also attracts the most dedicated to this activity. This is encouraging to me because I get to learn from some of the most experienced among us. The less dedicated find the hibernation hut more attractive. This is natural and comfortable for most people. But comfortable doesn’t always mean healthy or satisfying; it could actually mean the opposite. So, be good to yourself – get out.

Safety is always a worthy topic and especially so for winter backcountry trekking. The most obvious risks are the extreme cold and avalanche danger if the destination is the mountains.

With regard to the cold, hypothermia is the quiet killer. Hypothermia is essentially caused by being in an environment (weather or water) that is colder than the body to the degree that the body is unable to sustain normal temperatures. Enter: winter.

While out in the elements during winter we obviously need proper clothing, the kind that reduces radiated heat loss and the transference of heat away from the body.  Winter wind is the enemy, a heat sucker; it is a multiplier of ambient air temps. The National Weather Service has a nice wind chill calculator. For instance: 10 degrees F with a 10 mph wind is the same as 4 degrees below zero F.  An insulated wind and water proof shell over several moister absorbing layers will help combat the effect of the wind.  I could write several articles on winter clothing.  I’ll save that for another day. For now, I’ll suggest taking a little time to research; it’ll go a long way in being prepared.

Avalanche risk is another topic that deserves much more than I can write about in this article.  One of the best sources for understanding this risk is the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.  Because I am not a real big fan of surrendering my soul to an avalanche debris field I choose low risk areas for my winter hiking.  There are plenty of places even within high risk areas that are low risk for hiking.  At the very least, know what avalanche risk looks like and stay clear of any high angled slopes.

So, with all this risk, why venture out? The thing is, these risks are very easily mitigated and there is so much out there to enjoy. The scenery, beauty, fresh air, mental and physical health benefits, comradery, and the just plain goodness that comes with being in the great outdoors far outweighs any reason to stay indoors. I talk about all this in nearly every one of my articles. At the core, there is no real difference for me from season to season. Hiking is a rewarding pastime anytime, except in winter there is a white covering that makes it extra special. For me, it’s simple: winter hiking is part of the good stuff that makes living my life as good as it can be!

In the coming months I’ll be posting a few articles of my winter hiking experiences. I hope you enjoy these scribbles and that I can in some way encourage you to get out and enjoy this great time of year no matter where you are! (even if it’s not your most favorite time of year)

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Frenchman to Columbia

I am of French descent.  And so how fitting is it that I would take the Frenchman Creek route on this adventure to summit Mount Columbia? Frenchman to Columbia... it only makes sense.

This is not the standard route. The standard route is plagued with very loose and steep scree of which many have cursed and scorned. This route is trail for the first half, then the rest is finding your own way to the summit. I've done some work here with describing and illustrating the route in my photos. Enjoy! And for those who want to climb this route, I hope these notes are helpful.  

I’m a little humbled.  This adventure was a milestone day for me. Mount Columbia is in the Colorado Sawatch Range. There are 15 named peaks in this range that are in excess of 14,000 feet elevation. This effort marked the day I finished climbing to the top of all 15. People in the Colorado “14er” community would say that it was my Sawatch Finisher. It’s not the highest acolyte for Colorado mountain climbers, but it’s a noteworthy accomplishment for me.  

During this same month 12 years ago I was scheduling my open heart surgery, which by now I can conclusively say was an astounding success. In retrospect, I could not have imagined going from that operating room to this benchmark accomplishment. But here I am, and it is an amazing feeling!

Here's how it all went down:

Again, it starts with a Friday after work drive to a camp site.  I drove from Denver and turned west onto Chaffee County Road 386, 7.5 miles north of Buena Vista off of Highway 24.  Just .3 miles up this road I turned right onto Forest Service road 386 and went another 1.4 miles to a split in the road at 9,300'.  The split (straight/left) marks the beginning of the 4WD road to the trail head at the boundary of the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area.  Google surprisingly does not map this road.  I set up camp where the road splits. 

Those who know me well would say that I can be slow to adopt. With regard to camping, it took me a while to figure it out, in spite of being told and having studied the most effective tips of how to get a good night’s sleep in the woods. The puzzle for me was how I would go about keeping my cold feet warm.   Even in my 10-degree down bag with a 25-degree liner my little piggies would often get so cold it would be painful. I've tried a lot of different things. The trick ended up being, not surprisingly, a combination of several ideas. In addition to my Western Mountaineering sleeping bag, I went barefoot (socks can constrict blood flow and retain moisture) and put on down booties (also from Western Mountaineering) which are airy and light.  But the clincher was to put hot water into a Nalgene water bottle, slip the bottle into a double layer of wool socks, and place it at the foot of my bag.  The double sock layer helps slowly dissipate the heat.  The water stayed warm for 8 hours.

I also took a couple of Advil PM, which didn’t do much for my toes but it sure helped me get some uninterrupted sleep.  And let’s not forget about ear plugs.  

All this sounds like a lot of trouble but a well-rested David has much more will power to finish a summit. 

Back to the story: I had arranged for my hiking partners to meet me at camp in the morning. There are several ways I go about finding hiking partners if my usual hiking partners are not available.  I solicit interest from groups on Facebook (14ers.com and Adventure Addicts: Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking in the Rockies) and via the message board on 14ers.com.  This can turn out to be a bit of a crapshoot in terms of compatibility with speed and endurance, temperament, and general like-mindedness. Women have other concerns about meeting and spending the day with strangers in the woods… because some guys just can’t help but be [insert your favorite expletive]. Today turned out great for me - Geoff from Colorado Springs and Boris from Leadville met me at just before 7am.  

From camp we drove up the 4WD road 1.8 miles to near the trailhead in my Wrangler.  I recommend a vehicle with good clearance on this road. It’s rough in several places and narrow.  Also, toward the end of the road there are a couple of trees that have fallen into other trees low across the road, which makes it risky for taller vehicles to pass under – in fact, too risky for my Wrangler. I parked the Jeep in a pull off about a quarter mile from the trailhead.  (pic taken from previous hike)

The only time we cross Frenchman Creek along this route is .6 miles from the trailhead.  It’s an easily passible log bridge.  (pic taken from previous hike)

The trail to tree line is a mild ascent, generally following the direction of the creek on the north side of the trail for 2.8 miles with a 1600’ gain. 

The trail intersects with the Colorado Trail at 1.35 miles, half way to tree line.

Near a small tributary at approximately 1.6 miles up the trail is a nice flat, open space commonly used as a campsite. Take note of where you enter into this space as it is easy to lose the trail on the return trip. The trail is slightly to the left as it continues across the tributary, hopping a couple rocks and crossing a few small logs.    

Probably the most coveted campsite is the meadow camp site at 2.4 miles up the trail.  It's at an old log cabin site next to the creek. (pic taken from previous hike)

Tree line is a quarter mile up the trail where you will see another nice campsite above the creek. 

Then we take our first steps into alpine territory.

It's just another quarter mile before the established trail ends and we begin the alpine tundra ascent.

From here a faint trail can be found that will lead through a small willow patch and then closely follow the edge of the willows with a building talus field on the left.  If you can’t find the trail, simply follow the edge of the willows and try not to get too far into the talus. You will cross a small section of the talus before heading up to the left and eventually gaining the ridge. 

After gaining the ridge this image shows our ascent path along the ridge.

Portions of the ridge had more rock than other portions.  This shot was taken near 12,700’. 


Other portions of the ridge are nice alpine tundra.  The higher you go the more exposed rock will be encountered.  This was taken near 13,200’. 

The approach to navigating the 13750’ point on the ridge should be weighed carefully.  Dropping too far on the NW side looks like less gain and easy to navigate.  Neither are true.  The gain difference is negligible compared to the upper route.  And there is a short 50-foot section that is very steep with very loose scree. One of my partners was desperately praying as he tried navigating through this. Our feet were slipping nearly uncontrollably. It would have taken only one poorly placed step to slide a couple hundred feet down the embankment.  My other partner took the higher route, the smarter choice.  

This is a view from the summit showing the path along the 13750’ point on the ridge with a helpful hint about the area to avoid. 

Here’s a pic of our return with a line to show the way. 

This is what the descent from the far side of the high point looked like on our return.

We met a few other people on the trail.  Chris and his son Luke had contacted me on Friday morning letting me know they were going to be on the trail and would meet up with us at some point.  We met them just below the final pitch. They were coming down; we were heading up.  Chris hiked the Colorado Trail this summer.  His son Luke had climbed several 14ers; he is 14 years old. What a great father-son bonding experience!

The ridge approach to the final pitch can be negotiated left, right, or center. On our ascent two of us chose the right side to help block some of the wind; I don’t think it mattered much.  On the decent we chose to go down the center. Both ways were without much challenge.  This was taken near 13,600’. 

The final pitch to the summit is a nice scramble on mostly stable small boulders.

The views from the summit are, of course, spectacular.

Boris was a walking, talking mountain navigator who was quite good at naming all the summits from the foreground to the horizon in any direction.

Evidence of yours truly on the summit.

We also met a guy on the summit who had climbed Harvard and the traverse.  He was about to finish the last few miles of his 15-mile day.  That’s a long trek in this territory! He admitted as much. I may be up for it next year. 

And then we begin the descent.  The view from this side of the traverse between Harvard on the right and Columbia on the left is worth a long look.  The debris below the traverse takes on the appearance of rock glaciers. 

It is equally attractive from a little lower.

The return hike through the forest is pleasant as we make our way back to camp.

It’s always a great hike when arriving safely back at camp, but this one was extra special.  Stay humble, friends.  Do good and hike on!

Extra stuff:

I have not been able to find a good GPX file for this route.  And since my GPS navigator app doesn’t export GPX files I created this map that lays out the general path we took.  It could be a little off, but it should offer a workable guide for getting you there safely.  

Link to route on Google Maps

KML file

GPX file

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An October Trek up Mount Harvard - the 370th Tallest Peak in the World

Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada of California, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, is 85 feet higher than Mount Harvard in Colorado (14,420 ft). To put this in perspective, if the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center was on top of Mount Harvard, it would be the same height as Mount Whitney. It’s a good thing us mountain goats don’t think much about this stuff when we’re scrambling to the top of these summits. We're just generally happy to have made the summit to celebrate in our own way the experience with the spirit of mountain. 

I’ve been trying to finish up the 15 highest peaks of the Sawatch Range. I had only Mounts Harvard and Columbia to go.  Although October is a getting late in the season, I wanted today to be the day I finished the Sawatch. 

Several friends had to back out of my invitation to attempt with me these summits via Frenchman Creek.  So, I decided to attempt a solo hike via the standard route. There are distance and elevation gain advantages for choosing Frenchman Creek over the standard route.  The standard route is 15 miles for both peaks; via Frenchman Creek it’s 11.  The standard route is 6100 feet elevation gain, while the Frenchman Creek route is 4700. Fate would have me on the standard route with Mount Harvard as my first destination. I would take on Columbia if the conditions and timing were good. 

Once again I drove up to Buena Vista after work in Denver on Friday afternoon. North Cottonwood Creek trailhead is 8 miles west of town. This was my destination for the day. I set up camp and prepared for an early rise.  

Since the trailhead is in a national forest, dispersed camping is allowed.  There are plenty of camping spots along the road and near the trailhead. In October it is not crowded and I had arrived 90 minutes before sunset.  So I took the time to talk with the few hikers that were hiking the next day and a few that had just came down the mountain. We talked about trail conditions.  We talked about our great adventures of the season.  We even talked about plans for next season.  It’s always a friendly bunch.  

I would set my alarm for 5:30, but in spite of my ear plugs I was awoken by several hikers that were up at 3 a.m.  I rolled out of my hammock by 3:45, cooked up some oatmeal, and was on the trail by 4:30. 

At the trailhead I met up with a 73-year-young lady who had been hiking this trail for many years.  She was the perfect trail companion for a person like me who had never been on this trail and especially since we were finding our way by headlamps. We had a nice talk about our experiences and love of the trail.  We parted ways about 3 miles up the trail at an intersection marked only by cairns. One trail leads to Mount Columbia, which was her objective. I continued on the trail to Harvard. I hope when I’m 73 I will have the same positive and adventurous way about me.

A half-mile or so further, not far from tree line, I met another lady who I had talked with in the parking lot the night before when she needed some batteries for her emergency beacon.  I couldn’t help her.  She had camped up the trail and had plans similar to my own.  We would hike most of the day together, leap-frogging each other as I had a stronger pace but stopped on occasion for my photography.  It was her 33rd birthday. 

It occurred to me that the mountains attract people of all ages.  In just a few miles I experienced a 50-year age span.  Later on I would meet someone of Asian descent.  Another lady on the summit had a British accent.  There was a young couple who carried their small dog in a pack; they left the Carolinas to live in Colorado. They would later help me find the bottom portion of my trekking pole that had accidently fallen off. One young hefty Spanish man stayed behind as the rest of his group continued up the mountain; he was nursing a bad back.

About the time I met the birthday girl the sun began showing itself on the peaks that surrounded us in this beautiful basin.  Looking back was a nice sunrise on Mount Yale.

Looking forward was our first view of Mount Harvard.

The ridge traverse between Harvard and Columbia holds a noted land mark called the rabbits.  

To our right was Mount Columbia and to our left was a series of smaller unnamed mountains. To be surrounded by such a setting was another truly spectacular Colorado moment.  (Later on in the article I will have more pictures of this view) 

Up the trail a little further and looking back again one can see Mount Princeton off to the left.

The basin holds several small lakes, the largest is Bear Lake.  Just above Bear Lake is an unranked 13,580-foot summit.  I stopped to change lenses so I could steal a closer look at the chimney rock formations that make up the peak.

Just above Bear Lake the trail flattens at near 13,000 feet.  The summit from this perspective could have been any one of the rock outcroppings that form the traverse.  It’s unbecoming and not obvious from this trail.  I’ve marked it in the picture below:

Mount Columbia also has a summit that is deceptive from this angle.  I’ve marked it in this picture too:

Near 13,600 feet we begin following the right side of the south ridge.  Looking back at the ridge the rock formations are so inviting.  But by now, over six miles into the climb, all I’m considering is reaching the summit; I had no energy to play on the rocks.

Horn Fork Basin and Columbia are nice from up here too.

We have one more small outcropping to maneuver before reaching the final pitch.  I would classify the route shown below as a Class 3 route.

A person could also choose to go a little east along the bottom side of the ridge and then circle around to the summit; that’s the route I took.  I know my capabilities.  When I’m fatigued and there’s a chance for ice up a hard vertical pitch I’ll investigate other options.  Either way, the summit was incredible.

It was noon by the time we decided to head back down.  The option of also taking on a Columbia climb had vanished with our late arrival. The traverse is nearly 3 miles and it's rugged with patches of snow and ice.  The time it would have taken to reach the summit and return would bring us back to the trailhead after dark. Since I was quite satisfied with the day and I wanted the option of taking my time on the way down I opted to save Columbia for another day.

Along the descent I took this picture of the Frenchman Creek route.  The relative ease of this route shows what was mentioned earlier about the differences between these two routes.

I stopped before leaving the summit ridge to take in a full view of the southern Sawatch.  Off to the far left is a plume of smoke from a fire that broke out earlier that day.  By 6 pm the smoke had filled the foothill valleys all along the range.

This is Bear Lake.  I was thinking it could have just as easily been called Miss Piggy Lake, but I suppose that wouldn’t be as attractive to the outdoor enthusiast.  

The sun treats the basin differently in the afternoon.  Here are a few pics of the return trip through Horn Fork:

The trail conditions are nice.  It’s a well-groomed path.

There are also several creek crossings.  This one had vibrant green moss on the rocks. 

There is another intersection further down from where the trial splits between Harvard and Columbia.  This is a mile and a half from the trailhead.

And lest we forget, this is a Wilderness Area with all its afforded rights and privileges.

There are several creek crossings along this trail.  Some of them are easily crossed without bridges.  There are two places where a bridge had been built.  One shortly after the trail begins and the other near the Brown Pass/Horn Fork Basin intersection.

If a person were to take the traverse between Harvard and Columbia it would add another 1500 feet elevation and 1 mile distance to the day.  But, for me, Columbia would need to be another day.  This route was just under 14 miles and 5100 feet in elevation gain.  That was enough for me. And it was good.

Incidentally, for the numbers people, Harvard is lower than 369 other peaks in the world. So on the world’s stage Harvard is probably not worth the trouble of comparing it to another of similar prominence.  I say enjoy them all!  Hike on!

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Buffalo Peaks Will Have to Wait

I am now fairly confident that when faced with the option of running or getting out of the way, it is best to get out of the way of a charging moose.  More on this later.  First, let’s talk about creeks.

This year I found creek routes in the Colorado mountains are great for backpacking-summit combinations.  Since I wanted to do more backpacking this year but didn’t want to give up too many mountain summit climbs, creek paths seemed to be the way to do that.  

Creeks offer access to water. Without access to water, backpacks get weighty because of the need to carry more water - then add camping and sleeping gear. Of course, lighter packs allow for quicker and less strenuous treks. Creeks also provide soothing white noise which helps mask those things you think you hear when sleeping in the woods.  And with surrounding trees, creeks are a cool place to relax on hot summer days. Creeks in gulches lead to saddles between mountains, which connects to a summit.  

It’s a good thing Colorado has hundreds of creeks to explore.  The hard part is deciding which one.  I chose another sparsely populated Wilderness Area this time. Surprised?  

East of the Sawatch Range is the Mosquito Range.  Contained in its southern region is the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area which is shared by San Isabel National Forest and Pike National Forest. Buena Vista rests in the Arkansas River Valley between the two ranges.  It’s from here we head north on highway 371 for a short distance until reaching highway 375.  The last mile and a half of this road becomes a 4WD road before reaching the Fourmile trailhead.

Let the adventure begin!  The destination is East and West Buffalo Peaks, twin 13,000 foot mountains joined by a saddle of interesting and rugged rock formations. 

I was at the trailhead by 4pm. The trail straddles the Buffalo Peak Wilderness Area boundary for a short distance with Fourmile Creek rushing below. Reaching the creek marks a more direct path into the Wilderness Area. 

The trail closely follows the creek on your right until crossing it just before it branches off to the east.  You’ll rise above this east branch (now on your left) through a mature pine forest before crossing it.  After this crossing you will again enter a pine forest where the trail will twist and become faint at times.  The trail will soon track above the west branch (on your left) and rejoin it before crossing again.  The creek will now stay on your right for the rest of journey up the pass.

 I set up camp shortly before the last crossing. It was just over 2 miles up the trail.

The creek winds through thick willows but with plenty of access points.  It is peppered with beaver ponds.  The beavers have harvested many of the soft aspen trees in areas of their most recent work.  In areas where they have not been busy the aspens grow with aggression.  

I may have mentioned in previous blogs that the weather is mostly unpredictable in the mountains. What was forecasted to be mostly clear turned out to be a night of off-and-on thunder and light rain. It was actually quite pleasant in my hammock. 

The next morning wasn’t much better, but I was hoping the day would clear up.  So I made some breakfast and headed out.

The trail splits just before the last creek crossing. Salt Creek Trail (#618) to the right.  Stay to the left (#617).  The National Geographic Trail Illustrated map (149) will label this trail as the Tumble Creek Trail.  The sign says "Four Mile Creek Trail".  If one were to follow this trail over the pass, beyond the scope of this hike, it would lead through beautiful mountain meadows and eventually meet up with the Rough and Tumbling Creek.  But, that's for another day.

The trail so far has been relatively flat; only 600 feet of altitude gain in the first two miles.  Shortly after this last creek crossing is a 1000 foot gain with a few switchbacks to the top of the pass where you will see a sign post without a sign.

This post marks our turn off point.  We turn right.  But, notice there really isn’t a trail.  That’s right folks, we’re bushwhacking now!  This was my first real solo bushwhacking experience in the Rockies.  I had a GPS map to follow.  I also had my map and compass.  But, truth be told, this is a very short stent through the pines to timber line; it’s maybe a couple hundred yards and it would be hard to get lost. The directions are simple – just go straight up.  I suppose a person could get lost if they ventured too far to the left or right, but it would need to be intentional. Regardless, it’s a comfortable way to learn about navigating.

Soon I was out of the trees and into the steep tundra.  I needed to get above 12,000 feet so I could see the remaining slope and the condition of the summit.  It wasn’t the best climbing conditions.  In fact, slightly above me was shrouded in clouds; wet and cold winds. If I continued, it would be 1200 more feet in elevation – colder, windier, increasing chance of hypothermia.  And the great views of the Sawatch I was looking forward to were not clear.

If I were with a climbing partner I may have continued.  The checks and balances that come with a climbing partner allow for greater risk taking.  But today I was content with resting on this 12,000-foot peak, relatively sheltered from the cold, wind, and rain, and just enjoying the scenery.  

There were small rainbows toward Mount Massive.  The sun broke through occasionally against the foothills and valleys below.  It was nice.  But between the sunbeams were not so friendly looking clouds that were releasing rain and building on a growing potential for lightening.  I don’t mind rain.  It’s the wind, cold, and lightening potential that are the unpleasant elements. 

I made a decision to make a slow descent and head back down to camp.  Some climbers have a more aggressive nature with higher risk tolerances; they have a greater need to summit.  Not this guy.  I simply enjoy where I am, content with the gift of now.  And, with this retreat I have a reason to come back.

Along the trail I see tracks – foot prints, horseshoe tracks, elk tracks, and something else that was less defined I couldn’t identify.  It occurred to me as I was looking over the marshy areas that this is a great habitat for moose.  I’ve always wanted to see one in the wild.  But I also knew that I would rather not see one close up because moose are large beasts that should be avoided as to stay clear of being trampled in its path.  

I like to – no, I need to stay aware of my surroundings every time I am in the wilderness.  Although I’ve never seen a predator, I know they are out here and likely watching me and being evasive, the way I prefer them to be.  So, I’m constantly scanning around me and listening for anything unusual.  For instance, a grunt, an unmistakable grunt of a bull moose. 

As I had just entered the edge of the first marshy area coming down the pass I heard it, the grunt, several of them. I looked toward the sound to see a young bull grunting with every step of his quickening trot.  He was walking parallel to me and 100 feet away.  We caught sight of each other at the same time.  I raised my camera to get off one shot before he went off to the opposite side of the creek with the same sense of urgency as he entered the clearing. I was glad for his good judgement.  At least in my mind I was not a threat.  I was just walking down this trail, minding my own business, not wanting any trouble from a bull moose.  I was thrilled to had seen such a majestic beast in the wild.  (this one had already shed one of its antlers) So far, this was the thrill of the day.

It wasn’t five minutes later I was a few feet from crossing the creek thinking about the awesome day I was having and that I would eat some lunch at camp before packing up and heading home.  Just then I heard another unusual sound, like someone had just kicked up a rock, right behind me.  I turned to see the moose within arm’s length on a full run and now grunting again.  

I may have spoken an expletive as he passed me and turned his head as he galloped away as if to affirm my choice of expression.  What a thrill!  In his approach he had crossed the creek and continued along the side of the creek I was crossing from.  As exciting as that was, I preferred the creek as a barrier between us as I would have a two second head start should we meet like this again.

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful, just a pleasant hike through the pine forests and along the moose-less creek (I checked) on the way back to the trailhead.  I couldn’t wait to get back to tell of this great adventure and to proclaim my confirmation that running is futile while in the path of a charging moose.  Step aside and enjoy the thrill of the experience.  Hike on!

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Little Brown Creek – The Great Mount Antero Experience

I met a young couple at the intersection of the Colorado Trail and the Browns Creek Trail in the southern Sawatch Range.  They had full packs and were taking a short rest at the end of their first trail segment. While talking briefly, like hikers do, we discovered we both had made the same choice for the same reasons about our destination for the weekend.  Instantly and simultaneously we realized we were part of a small fraternity of people who possess wondrous and wise decision making powers... well, at least in regard to how we spend our weekends. Below is the backstory of what occurred in those early seconds of this brief encounter. 

Mount Antero, at 14,269 feet in elevation, boasts the claim of having the highest gem fields in North America. In that this is an active mining area, there are rough 4WD roads on nearly every summit in the area, including Antero. The road up the west ridge of the mountain is the standard hiking route.  Road walking, in the opinion of the young couple and this author, is a regretful and avoidable experience while in pursuit of Colorado wilderness hiking.  Humbly speaking, those who choose a route other than the road are among a great order of those who know and pursue all that is good about this place.

What is so precious in these hills that one would seek a mining claim? Aquamarine crystals and the associated smoky quartz, colorless quartz, sherry and orange topaz, and even the rare beryllium mineral bertrandite have all been collected from here.  In the picture here is a matrix specimen of beryl, aquamarine, and smoky quartz.

Pretty nice, but enough of the rock talk, we’re on an adventure here.

After a hasty retreat from the work-a-day life I was at the Brown Creek trailhead at 4pm Friday afternoon and eager to set up camp somewhere along Little Brown Creek.  From reading the maps and a few trip reports from previous hikers I had intended to reach 11,000 feet or more on this evening.  That kind of elevation would be at least two hours on the trail for me, not leaving a whole lot of daylight to select a campsite, set up camp and cook up a meal before settling in for the night.

The trail starts as the Browns Creek Trail and intersects with the Colorado Trail for a short distance before actually reaching the trailhead of the Little Brown Creek Trail.  

This trail essentially follows the creek up the mountain to the point of its headwaters, a marshy area just below the saddle between White Mountain and Antero.  This is not a super-highway like many other trails to 14ers have become.  The trail is faint at times as it blends with the forest. I like this type of trail.  It’s established enough to find the way and not too faint as to get lost.  Although, one should pay close attention.

I found a nice place to hang my hammock near the creek at 11,400 ft around 7pm and at the foot of the north face of Mount White.  A 2600 foot gain with a full backpack after a day at work and a three-hour drive is enough for this guy.  I didn’t want to go much further, even if I felt I could, because the weather report suggested there could be a dusting of snow above 12,000 feet during the night.  As there were rumblings of thunder and a few short bursts of rain on the way up, I became convinced the weather predictions just might be true.  It turned out there was no fresh snow fall, but the conditions were favorable.

I don’t know if it was the altitude, the exhaustion from a long day, or some combination of elements that made me lose my appetite, but tonight I ate only half my meal before turning in.  

On Saturday morning I was in no hurry to get up, but by 6am I was fixing breakfast and watching the morning sun stretch across the granite peak.

After prepping camp to keep the critters from chewing on things while I was away and filling my water bottles, I was on the trail again by 7am, this time with a much lighter pack.

It’s not often I get to wake up above the clouds, but it’s gorgeous when I do.

The trail continues to follow the creek.  Tree line isn’t very far away.  Soon the saddle is near and the trail dissipates.  At this point it’s best just to make a line for the road.  Some routes are steeper but shorter.  Choose whichever is more appealing. 

Yes, there is some road walking but only a mile or less, switchbacking up the final stretch of this dreadful path.  For me it was barely tolerable, but soon the final pitch is in sight.  Antero awaits.

Just as I was beginning the final pitch, a couple of descending hikers had stirred up a small band of mountain goats that crossed maybe 50 feet from me on the trail I was about to enter.  What a treat!

Fun mountain goat facts:

  • Mountain goats are not really goats; they are actually members of the antelope family.
  • The males, known as a billies, are slightly larger than the females, called nannies. Baby mountain goats are called kids.
  • Billie goats rank the lowest in the goat social order.  Nannies rule.
  • A group of mountain goats is called a band.
  • Goat horns grow continuously and are never shed, unlike antlers.
  • Seasonal rings form on a goat's horns each year. The horns of a mountain goat will have one less ring than its age. The larger the horns the older the goat.
  • Goats have two layers of fur.  The base layer is insulation and the long thick outer hair, called guard hairs, protects against wind, rain, and snow. This is how a goat can handle the bitter cold mountain weather.  As the weather warms they shed their winter fur.
  • A goat's lifespan is about 11 years.

Conditions near the summit of Antero are not unlike many other 14ers with loose talus and a barely decipherable trail marked by an occasional cairn.   

And, of course, the summit views are amazing.  Close by peaks include Shavano, Tabeguache, Carbonate, Grizzly, Cronin, and White to the south;  Chrysolite, Mamma, and Boulder to the west; Princeton and the rest of the northern Sawatch to the north; and to the east is the Arkansas River Valley.

I didn’t stay long on the summit, just long enough to eat a quick snack and take a few pictures.  Then I set off for the final half of my weekend adventure.  

I love how the sun and the opposite direction presents photo opportunities that didn’t exist on the ascent. It’s like a whole new trail. Here are a few pics of the descent view:  

There is no replacement for a great experience.  The couple I met toward the end of my adventure understood this before we met, and our common experience confirmed what we believe to be true.  Not everyone is so fortunate to experience the mountains of Colorado.  But my advice to everyone, no matter your place in life: go have a great experience!

Here are my stats for this trip:

Traveled: 15.1 miles

Altitude Gain: 5,429 ft

Minimum Altitude: 8,858

Maximum Altitude: 14,269

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Missouri Lakes Trail - All the Best of Colorado

There are 15 national forests contained within Colorado and portions of two others that are shared with Wyoming and Utah.  This accounts for over 13 million square acres – 20% of the total land mass of the state. That’s a lot of land to explore and enjoy!

Among these national treasures is White River National Forest.  It is the most visited national forest in the U.S, mostly due to its 11 ski resorts, and it covers an area of 2.3 million acres.  This forest claims eight wilderness areas, 10 mountains over 14,000 feet, and 2,500 miles of trails.   

One of those trails is the spectacular Missouri Lakes Trail. It offers all the best you would expect of an outdoor Colorado experience: rushing creeks, waterfalls, alpine lakes, an easily achieved mountain pass, wild flowers, meadows, towering mountain peaks, and plenty of solitude.

On this trip I would go solo.  I half-heartedly tried to get others to come along, but for various reasons no one took the invitation. I was secretly hoping I would have a chance to spend the day alone with my camera, meandering as I pleased without constraints or expectations.

I left work at noon and headed west on I70 and then south along Highway 24 for 13 miles to county road 703 and then 704 to the trailhead.  By 3:30 I was out of cell range heading up the trail to any place I felt like hanging my hammock for the night. 

There are plenty of route descriptions on the Internet.  And so instead of echoing others, the rest of this post is a photo narrative.  Enjoy!

Now entering awesomeness!!  A hundred feet beyond this sign is a registration stand.  For those staying overnight, the Wilderness Area requires campers to register.  This is primarily for safety reasons.  No fees are required.  

It's a nice trail starting out wide and eventually narrowing as it goes up above a canyon.

The trail essentially follows Missouri Creek.  Not long after starting the trail you will see a waterfall and a small pond.

The creek rushes through a canyon.  At one point there is a creek crossing with this view.  This pic is available on this site for sale.

The trail is well marked and quite obvious. 

There are several plank bridges along the way. 

The creek opens up into marshy areas in a few places.  I didn't see any moose... bummer!

Getting closer to treeline the forest starts to thin.

Savage Peak comes into view.  This pic can be purchased on this site.

Right next to this lake seems like a perfect place to set up camp!  This pic is also available for sale on this site.

Hammocks are great!  This was my camp for the night.

I need to write a blog or two on hammock camping.  In this pic you can see I have a tarp over my hammock to keep the wind and rain out.  What you can't see is that I have a bug net; it's built into this model of Hennessy Hammock.  And then I have an under-quilt which helps keep my bottom side warm without the annoyance of a mat under a sleeping bag inside; mats don't stay in place very well in a hammock.

Is it comfortable?  Absolutely!  When sleeping on a diagonal you sleep flat and it forms to the natural curves of your body - unlike the rocky and often uneven hard surface of the ground.  Yes, it's comfy!  

After setting up camp and eating dinner I sat in my lightweight backpacking chair with a cup of chamomile tea and watched the sun set over the range.  Sun beams formed a sweet-dreams-canopy.  There's not a whole lot of other things in life more peaceful than this!  (pic available on this site)

And the morning view was spectacular too!  (see pic for sale)

After breakfast I headed toward Missouri Pass - this was one of the small lakes (pond, really) along the way, maybe a half mile from camp.

These run-off streams as I started climbing up the pass provided the perfect habitat for a bed of brilliant white mountain flowers.  (see pic for sale)

Reaching the top of the pass and looking back is a full-face reminder of why I came here.

The view here is looking over the pass onto Treasure Vault Lake.  In the distant left is Middle Mountain.  (pic for sale)

And now... the flowers.  Flowers in rugged terrain - for me, it's beauty in an unforgiving world - it's beating the odds - it's natures balancing act - it's the mountain saying, "you can do it!".  

 

Taking in a little more of the lake was all I needed before breaking camp.  Yes, the fishing is great here! 

I had hoped to stay another day.  There was lots more to explore.  But, there were some domestic things I needed to tend to before the weekend was over.  So, I packed up camp and took my time heading back down. This is one place I definitely need to come back to.  Happy trails!!

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