Sunday, July 05, 2015

Bagging Cool Peaks

On the summit of West Spanish Peak
This trip was motivated by my new desire to climb state high points. I'm not in a big rush here, but made a goal of climbing two new ones this year. On my Yosemite trip with Derek we climbed Boundary Peak, the highest in Nevada. This trip was focused around Wheeler Peak - the highest in New Mexico. When I mentioned this idea to Sheri, she tacked on the Spanish Peaks, since we'd admired them whenever we've driven down to Walsenberg. Indeed, this is a proud pair of peaks that sit apart and easy of the Culebra range. West Spanish Peak is only the 184th highest peak (13,626) in Colorado but it has the 12th most prominence at  3,686 feet. East Spanish Peak, despite being a thousand feet lower, is twice as hard to climb by the easiest route.

Friday, July 3rd - West Spanish Peak

By quite a coincidence, my buddy and partner for the LPP, Charlie Nuttelman, had just climbed this peak. For him, it was part of his quest to climb the top two hundred peaks in the state. For us, it was just because these are cool peaks. This peak went really smooth from start to finish.

We left town around 4:15 p.m. on Thursday and drove straight to Cordova Pass, which is six miles of easy dirt roads from Chuchara Pass. Cordova Pass is the trailhead for this peak and there is also a three-site campground right here as well. Only one site was taken and we were set. This was nice, as we didn't have to take down the tent before the climb and it had time to dry from the morning dew.
Heading out towards West Spanish Peak
After my standard performance breakfast, coffee and donuts (hey, if it's good enough for law enforcement officers...), we were off a little past 7 a.m. The first mile and a half roll and actually lose some elevation, but then the trail turns up. The trail is nice dirt until it breaks above tree line, which is at the amazingly high altitude of 11,800 feet on this peak. Once out of the trees, the trail is very steep and quite loose.

We climbed at a steady pace and topped out under beautiful skies, albeit a bit breezy. To our south the clouds completely covered everything, but they were a thousand feet below us. The view of East Spanish Peak was impressive and I traced a ridge-line descent to link the peaks in my mind.
The Spanish Peaks have these very interesting and distinctive igneous fins of rock that extend radially outward. 
We spent 25 minutes on top, in the lee of some boulders and ate our snacks. On the way down we passed a few other parties headed up. We ambled back to our camp and broke it down. We drove down the pass and into Fort Garland before we stopped to make some sandwiches for lunch. We were headed to New Mexico, but not directly to Wheeler Peak just yet.

Friday, July 3rd - Tres Piedras
Derek doing his best climber pose at Tres Piedras

Just to add some variety to the trip, I researched climbing areas around Taos and it seemed Tres Piedras was the best choice. It was pretty much on the way to Taos, had an approach of about a hundred yards, and had a good variety of routes in our range. Despite telling Derek three times to pack his gear, he did not and we arrived at the climbing down one harness and one pair of shoes. But I had my scrambling shoes, as well, and jury-rigged a harness from a couple of slings, so we were set.

As soon as we pulled up we heard non-stop screeching from falcons. A sign at the trailhead notified us that they were nesting on South Rock (not our destination) and that we should refrain from climbing on that rock, though there didn't seem to be an official closure. Coming from Colorado, this seemed strange and I wasn't even sure it was going to be okay to climb on the next rock back - Mosaic Rock - but we hiked into attempt it.
Derek following Five Years After
A short scramble approach and the constant shrieking of the raptors turned Sheri back, but Derek and I continued to the base of the rock and the birds went completely silent for the rest of our stay. The rock was wet in many places, due to a recent rain, but we located Chicken Shit (5.7) and geared up. I led in the climbing shoes and Derek followed in my approach shoes. This climb was really short (forty feet) and really easy, save for about three feet where I didn't have any handholds. I belayed on a huge ledge and Derek followed.

I then led Five Years After (5.9), which was another short pitch, protected by just two bolts and ended at a two-bolt anchor with chains. This was fun, but also felt really easy. I'd have guessed 5.7. But the grade didn't matter. We were just out to have a bit of fun.
This is me headed to the top of Mosaic Rock on my nice chicken heads
Derek lowered me off and we switched shoes and Derek easily cruised it as well. I lowered him off and pulled the rope. We switched shoes again, just in case, since I was leading and I led a 200-foot pitch to the top of the rock. This was either Chicken Heads (5.7) or Fried Chicken (5.8). I meant to climb the former, but mistakenly climbed a bit too far to the right. It was fun and protected reasonable well with cams. We hiked back down and headed back to the car, worried that Sheri would get bored.

We had thought of going into Taos for dinner, but instead drove clear up to the trailhead for Wheeler Peak to check it out. This trailhead is a thousand feet above the base of the Taos Valley Ski area. By now it was dinner time, so we just cooked up some soup and ate some sandwiches for dinner.

Saturday, July 4th - Wheeler Peak
Derek (close) and Sheri (back on the false summit) approach the top of Wheeler Peak

We slept right at the trailhead again, despite the signs forbidding it. We weren't the only ones at least two others were doing it inside of their trucks. Well, one of those trucks had a tent on top of it! I'd never seen anything like it before. It was pretty cool. I should have taken a photo but it was like this.
We got up early, partly due to fear of being caught and partly because we got into the bags around 8 p.m.! I was up at 4:30 packing up my stuff and didn't roust Derek and Sheri until five.

Our packs were ready to go and after some breakfast and stowing of the sleeping gear, we were off by 6 a.m. The first part of the trail followed dirt roads around the Bavarian restaurant and lodge area. After a half mile or so, we were directed onto a really nice singletrack trail and we followed this towards Williams Lake. Before we got the lake, though, we turned off on the summit trail.

The summit trail is beautiful. It switchbacks up a very steep, grass-covered slope. Incredible views of Williams Lake and the surrounding peaks enchanted us as we climbed steadily up into the clouds and the wind. Once we hit the summit ridge the wind was really whipping. I learned a new word from the summit plaque indicating that the mountain was named for Major George Montague Wheeler: planimetric. I thought it was related to planning, but I should have known it was related to geometric planes on maps. We had some nice views, but it wasn't a place we wanted to hang out, so after five minutes we started down.

We had been the first to summit and, besides passing a party of four,  we had the mountain entirely to ourselves...on the way up. On the way down, we stopped counting when we got to sixty other hikers and five dogs. When we got down to the Williams Lake trail junction, we turned left and headed to the lake, where we found many other hikes and each one seemed to have a dog. Sheri commented that this place was like Boulder without all the rules. Most of the dogs were very well behaved, except for one, that acted like the Tasmanian Devil, but was rightfully on a lease. I speculated that if set free this tiny dog would destroy the entire area in just a few seconds, like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.

We ate lunch here, though it was only 9:30 a.m. Derek iced his legs in the lake and then we headed back to the car.

Derek and Sheri at Williams Lake

Saturday, July 4th - East Spanish Peak
Sheri high on East Spanish Peak with West Spanish Peak in the background

Starting up this peak at 2:40 p.m., after already climbing Wheeler Peak in a different state and driving three hours, wasn't the original plan. It was an impulse summit, prompted mainly by the ugly conditions at the trailhead. We had hoped to find a nice camping spot out at the trailhead, heck, we'd already done this on our last two summits, but all we found was a terrible, sloping turnout, tremendous heat, and countless flies. It was miserable. I couldn't hang out here until the next morning. We could have driven into La Veta or even Walsenburg, but it was even hotter there. When thoughts ran to just bagging it and heading home, I suggested, "Why don't we just climb it now?"

Derek jumped at this suggestion. Sheri did not. She was tired from the first peak. I mentioned that we were only climbing this peak because she wanted to do it. She responded, "Yes, I did, but not today!" She had point, but we had nothing else to do right then so decided to just check out the start of the trail. But...I figured we might as well bring our little summit packs, just in case. So, we packed them up with our shells, food, and water and were off. We'd just see how things went. A little ways up the trail Sheri asked, "Did we bring the headlamps?" This would prove prophetic. No, we did not.

We headed up the 4WD drive and were immediately happy with our decision not to drive Tiggy up this road. You need a real 4WD for this road, not a wannabe all-wheel-drive yuppie mobile. It was two miles to the singletrack trailhead and Sheri was dragging right from the start. Derek and I would hike along, chatting and sometimes listening to my latest book ("What is Life?") and then stop frequently to regroup with Sheri.

Before we had left the car, Derek confirmed that the distance stated on was 11 miles and 4300 vertical feet from the 2WD parking. A ways up the road we met a family coming down. They had just hiked out to the saddle. We mentioned where we were headed and the man groaned. "That's a LONG way. I did that once. Never again." We mentioned that we thought it was 11 miles roundtrip and he said, "No, I think it's more like 14 miles." I figured he must be exaggerating and trusted SummitPost. I was wrong, as was SummitPost.
Singletrack through a dense forest

At the upper trailhead a sign Sheri saw that the length of the Wahatoya Trail was 14 miles long and said, "See, it is super long." She wanted to turn around. The skies were threatening and we'd been hearing regular blasts of thunder. It would have been reasonable to turn around, but Derek and I were still game to continue. We were in a dense forest and felt very safe from lightning and the storm was a bit to our south still. I pointed out that the mileage on the trail sign was for the entire Wahatoya Trail which went to some far-off destination. We'd only be following it for two miles before turning off onto the climber's trail for the peak. Sheri reluctantly agreed to continue.

We now followed a narrow singletrack trail through a beautiful forest, across a couple of streams. We were traversing the northern slopes of entire massif, below the saddle between the peaks, which is where we were headed. We followed this for two miles and didn't gain much elevation. We did get occasional glimpses of our peak and I knew it was far away. I started to doubt our 11-mile roundtrip. At each regrouping Sheri was more fatigued than before. I didn't realize how empty she was at the start. But each time she agreed to go a bit further.
Columbine along the trail
At the junction with the climber's trail I thought we might turn back. The thunder was rolling louder now, but the storm stayed to the south, miraculously. Again, we continued, descending a hundred feet or so to the true low-point between the peaks. Then we started up. Steeply. Very steeply. We had read about the nasty, steep talus above tree-line so I was thankful for any elevation we gained while still in the trees, no matter how crazy the angle. There were sections here that were probably a 45% grade. If you fell off this trail, you'd tumble down through the woods for awhile.
An unusual trail marker

We now regrouped every five hundred vertical feet. At the first break once starting up I told Sheri we were at 10,500 feet. This almost broke her. We still had over 2100 feet to climb and had been going for well over two hours and five miles. She was fading fast and concerned about the weather. We promised her that if things were still threatening at tree-line, we'd turn around.  We continued upwards. Derek and I enjoying it. Sheri hating it. With 1100 feet to go and Sheri almost completely broken, I told her that we'd turn around and descend. Derek could continue and tag the summit, as I knew he was excited to do, especially after such effort. Sheri didn't want Derek to go alone, but wasn't going to leave her. So, she was faced with a real dilemma. If she had turned around, I'd have gone with her...and so would have Derek. She knew up she went.

The final summit ridge of East Spanish Peak
It was at this point that she finally, completely, committed to the summit and it made a big difference. While the going was still very difficult, we were soon out of the trees and it was tantalizingly close. Yet, we had to ascend the toughest section yet - 800 vertical feet of trail-less, loose, steep, tricky talus. And after that, it was a long, exposed ridge of talus to a final 200-foot climb to the summit. By the time we hit the summit, my watch read 6.7 miles.

It had taken us three hours and fifty minutes to make the top and it was now 6:30 p.m. The skies were dark and, though I knew it couldn't be true, it appeared as if the sun had already set and that we'd lose the light soon and when that happened our only source of illumination would be my phone. I was concerned and pushed Sheri pretty hard on the descent. I knew we all had to be careful descending the talus back to tree-line, but then we were going to have to run. The race was on.
Sheri on the summit
We got down the talus and onto the steep trail. Sheri was able to trot but not too fast. Her Achilles tendon was starting to bug her and this would get steadily worse. I've been stuck on trails without a light before and it's very difficult to move. I didn't think we'd make it at the pace we were going. I talked to Derek about going ahead and to come back with the headlamps. Sheri reluctantly agreed and Derek took off. He wasn't going to be going a lot faster than we were, but he wouldn't be stopping. He had to go fast enough to make the car before it got dark, because he had no light at all. If he got caught in the darkness, he'd have to just stop and wait for us.

Derek on the summit with West Spanish Peak behind him. You can see how little light we have and such a long way to go.
Sheri and I descended the steep trail faster than I expected, but it had now started to rain. It wasn't coming down very hard, though, so we didn't pull out our shells. We got to the Wahatoya Trail and I pushed Sheri some more. I really wanted to make the 4WD road before it got dark, as it would make using the phone as our one light easier, since we'd be able to hike side-by-side. The first mile of this trail was very runnable and it passed pretty quickly, but it was now raining hard enough that we finally put on our shells. Of course, the rain stopped almost immediately after.

We pushed onwards, running when we could, hiking otherwise, across the streams, and finally to the 4WD trailhead. I knew we'd be fine now. We still had a bit of light. It was 8:12 p.m. when I signed us out of the trail registry. We tried to keep running, but soon Sheri could run no longer. We hiked. I wanted to get as far down as possible so that Derek wouldn't have to come up so far. I figure Derek was probably twenty minutes ahead of us by the time he got to the car. He'd need five minutes to unlock the car, maybe load his pack with some extra supplies, and find the headlamps. Then he'd hike up 7.5 minutes while we hiked down 7.5 minutes, where we'd meet. And it turned out almost exactly like this. We met Derek just as it got really dark. He had headlamps for us and we hiked less than ten minutes down to the car. Hooray for Derek, coming to our rescue!

We drove to Walsenburg and gorged ourselves at Carl's Junior before heading to a nearby campground and pitching our tents. We'd head back home in the morning, a bit early, but with all our goals accomplished. The vertical I did on this day was more mileage and the same vertical feet that I'll have to do this Saturday, when I pace my buddy Mark Oveson at the Hard Rock 100. At least I know I can do it now. What a huge day...


Gayla Wright said...

What an accomplishment!!! Yeah for Sheri for hanging in there. Do think you may have bitten off more then you can chew, but you proved me wrong. Congratulations to all three of you. Congrats to Derek for dashing off to get headlamps. Redeeming himself for forgetting some gear. You are quite a threesomes!!! Can see that you are meeting many goals this summer. Good luck next weekend in that big venture. Move you all, Nana

Charlie said...

Nice trip! Haha, Tasmanian devil dog, nice little clip there.