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Climbing in the Rockies

Saturday I got up a little earlier than usual.  In fact there have been times when I have gone to bed later that that, but this particular Saturday I had plans that required such a sacrifice. There are several reasons for that, but none so important as simple safety.

Having prepared in advance with driving directions that seemed solid, I packed up and took off at a little after 3 AM. The roads are surprisingly clear at this time of day.  Mostly because the drunks have already crashed (literally or figuratively), and the average person would have sense enough to be asleep.

The drive took me through the mountains into Leadville, Colorado, the highest town in the USA.  At over 10,000 feet, even the ice cream pops out of the containers due to air expansion.

As I consulted my directions on my way out of town I took a turn on County Road 300 and stopped.  Ihad a hunch that the turn of the highway was important for something, but I looked again at my directions and found I had a few miles to go further.

A few miles down I found the road, turned, made a couple of u-turns because it was very dark and signage was hard to read, but eventually I made it down the long dirt road that my directions indicated was right. But something was bothering me.  Some little voice was trying to be heard.  Yet I was resolved to get to the end of the road.

I can be really hard-headed sometimes.

Eventually I found the end of the road in the form of a locked gate that was completely unlike the description I had read of the large parking area at the base of the mountain.  Okay, I said to myself, consult the web page that had the written directions.

And that’s when I became a little annoyed at myself.  “From US-24 past Leadville, take County Road 300 to the right.”  Right.  Is that a voice laughing in my head?

And so, I backtracked, and watched the dawn breaking as I thought to myself for an hour that I could have already been on the trail.  When I finally did get to the parking area it was 6:30, more than 3 hours after leaving home for what should have been a 2 hour drive.  I guess I won’t need that headlamp I thought to myself.

I had wanted to be on the trail before first light for a couple of reasons.  The first was that I wanted to be up above the treeline at dawn if possible to get some pictures of the mountains in that light.  The second reason was that I was hoping to be the first to the summit that day. Oh well.

It was a balmy 36 degrees (2 C) at 10,040 feet when I started up the trail but soon despite not wearing gloves or a jacket I was plenty warm and even starting to sweat a bit.  One of the rules of hiking in the cold is to not overdress.  It is good to be able to keep warm, but if one sweats because of all the layers, it will lead to hypothermia, so it is better to be a little on the cool side.

The climb led up through the trees at 11,900 feet and from there the false peak could be seen.  If you ever get a chance, go there: it is an impressive sight.  The crystal blue skies behind it and the sunlight on the face was inspiring in the morning.

Continuing up the trail over the next couple of hours my progress was easily marked.  This was the first time that I climbed by myself, and so although there were other people about, I had no one with me to either push me or slow me down.  It was nice but at times I think I pushed myself too hard.

In the end it was no matter because at 5 minutes to 10 AM I reached the peak.

I spent a good 40 minutes there, eating, taking a few pictures, and chatting with other climbers about the experience.  Then I noticed something that was a little disconcerting.  The skies were no longer crystal clear, they were filling up with (to quote a guy I spoke with a little later) “puffy bunny clouds.”  It was time to go.

It was still mostly sunny when I left the top at 10:40, and of course I passed probably 50-75 people who were going up as I was going down.  I talked to many of them, and to all of them I suggested that they consider the clouds that were building.

Which brings me to reason #3 for getting up early and climbing.  Summer storms in the Rockies occur quite often on days that begin just like that one did.  And lighting tends to strike high on the mountain, above treeline, where there is no cover.  Hence my early exit.

It took well over an hour to get to treeline, and I was still passing people on the way up.  It was nearly noon!  By this time the clouds were no longer puffy bunny clouds- they had joined forces and looked rather like a large grey blanket.

Within a few minutes of stopping for a brief rest, I noticed a few little white droplets falling every couple of seconds.  Five minutes later it was really coming down- I got my jacket out and picked up the pace.  It became rain soon after that, and at 12:20 I heard thunder.  I was happy that I was far from the top.   The rain continued to some degree until I was within 100 yards of the parking area at 1 PM.  Safe and sound.

Here’s a pictorial to illustrate some of this.  Enjoy!

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Time: 6 December, 2008, 11:05 am

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