Climbing the highest mountains in Colorado has been a running dream of mine. I love the mountains here in my home state. They’re beautiful, remote, challenging, and most of all they’re inspiring. I’ve been itching to get out. When I looked at my spreadsheet (Nerd alert), of all of the mountains I wish to climb, I noticed that I hadn’t gotten to the summit of any since 2013. In 2013, I climbed 49 centennials in Colorado (the 100 highest peaks in the state). In 2014, I attempted one, Antero, before I left for the PCT. And as I wrote about here, I ended up turning around at 13,800 feet, just 460 feet shy of the true summit. Its been a goal of mine ever since, to have a winter 14er ascent in Colorado. I’ve kept my eye on the few that I have that are good snow climbs, and this weekend, I saw a window of opportunity at work, and in the weather, to try and tackle the one that I most looked forward to on my list: Humboldt Peak.
Humboldt Peak is smack in the middle of the Sangre De Cristo mountain range in Colorado. This has been one of my favorite ranges in Colorado, as the range is a long, narrow spine of tall peaks, surrounded on each side by the San Luis Valley, and the Wet Mountain Valley. The peaks here are jagged, and remote, as no major city is anywhere near them. It’s a beautiful Mountain Chain that I’ve had a lot of fun climbing around in.
In August of 2013, I climbed Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle, which sit directly West of Humboldt Peak by just a mile or two; Very close. My friends who I climbed those peaks with told me that though it is a gentler mountain, the views from the summit, looking at the Crestone’s, is unbelievable. Since hearing that, Humboldt Peak has been on the top of my list, despite its mild appearance from the Crestone’s.
This past week, when I saw that the weather looked great for this weekend, I decided to attempt a climb of Humboldt Peak. I chose the East Ridge Route, as it is the safest and easiest winter route, with extremely low avalanche danger. It’s roughly 15 miles, with nearly 5,700 feet of elevation gain. It’s no walk in the park! However, it is only a 2nd class climb, which means that it’s pretty mild, with little exposure/scrambling involved. Again, a safe winter route.
I called my good friend Jenny, to see if she would be game to join me, and without hesitation she was aboard. We packed up and left Denver Saturday morning to make the 3.5 hour drive to the trailhead. It was a beautiful day, and a beautiful ride. When we arrived in Westcliffe, the nearest town of some 500 people, we were afforded great views of the Sangre De Cristo’s. Yes! Mountains!
We loaded up our packs, and hiked 2.5 miles from the winter closure to the summer trailhead with the Rainbow Trail. Here we set up camp, watched the sunset, and ate dinner before retreating to bed. I recently purchased the Hayduke Trail Guide Book, and spent much of the night geeking out about the prospect of hiking this route one day. It was a bit cold, even with a 5 degree sleeping bag, but I slept pretty well, dreaming of mountains high vistas.
At 0630 the alarm went off, and we packed our bags for a summit attempt. It was 4.25 miles from our camp, with an elevation gain of 4,300 feet. We took the Rainbow trail roughly .5 miles, before cutting off and bushwhacking up to the East Ridge. The ground was snow covered, and there was no trail. Instead, Cairns marked the way, and the path was easy to follow, as I knew we needed to stay on the ridge the entire way up.
“Are you sure you’re going the right way?” Jenny asked, after not seeing a cairn for some time.
“If we keep going up, we’ll get there.” I responded, “It’s literally that easy.”
After a few steep miles under the trees through ankle deep snow, with drifts up to our knees at points, we reached tree line at 12,000 feet. From here, we were able to see the first false summit at 13,200 feet. I got really excited above tree line, as the views of the mountains and surrounding valleys came into view. I could see the Spanish Peaks to our south, which I’ve always loved for their Prominence. They’re just two giant peaks, Far East of any real mountains. They’re pretty spectacular! I got a bit too excited, and just started booking it up the slope, yearning to gain the ridge and get the first view of the true summit. Eventually I stopped to realize how far behind my partner Jenny was, and decided I should take it easy. Climbing mountains is different than thru hiking in many ways, and one of them is that you should never leave your partner behind due to the danger of what you’re doing. It’s hard to switch gears sometimes!
The climb was steep, and a big of a slog to gain the false summit, but there was little snow, and it was easily avoidable. Once at the false summit, views of Humboldt Peak finally came into view. I checked the watch, and saw that we we’re quite off the pace that I was expecting. We needed to pick it up a notch if we were going to make the peak with enough time to get back down to camp before dark.
The rest of the climb was on a nice ridge, fairly narrow with a steep drop off to our right (North), and a gentler slope to the South. There was some fun, light scrambling which kept things interesting. As we ascended, the views began to really open up. Snowcapped peaks surrounded us on either side. Jagged rocks shooting out from the earth’s surface, reaching for the sky. Why haven’t I gotten up here more often? I think to myself. I need to make it a priority to get high in the mountains. I love it here.
As I gain the summit crest, the wind dies down, and everything is silent. All I can hear is the shallow breaths I take as I make my last steps to the top. A flood of emotion hits me out of nowhere, and I begin to tear up. I can’t help but feel like the luckiest person, so grateful to be here, on this mountain, at this exact time. Maybe it’s this article that got me feeling so grateful (I cried reading it nearly the entire time). Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve recently become and uncle this month (Congrats Josh and Michelle); I’m not sure. I’ve never felt this emotional reaching a summit before. But it’s been a long time, and it feels so good to be where I’m at.
Jenny and I snap some pictures, laugh a bit at our mishaps on the climb up, and eat some sandwiches to refuel for the long descent back to the car. We make it back just to the car just as the sun is setting over the mountains. It felt great getting a little weekend ‘epic’ in. A weekend Warrior! Can’t complain about that, even if we as thru-hikers sometimes poke fun at the label. Being a weekend warrior is great, and the reward/effort ratio highly exceeds that of thru-hiking, at least from a scenic standpoint, if you choose your hikes wisely.
After the climb, and reading the article about the PCT hiker with terminal cancer, I can’t help but feel so fortunate for where I’m at. I live a dream life. Sure, I work long hours, and sometimes I dwell a bit too hard on it. But really, my life is so easy compared to many others. The wilderness is where I feel most alive, most at home, and most excitable. I’ll be forever grateful that I have not only the time and money to afford to get out and pursue my goals and dreams, but also that I have a body that is capable. I need to keep reminding myself how lucky I am, how privileged I am, and focus on those things. It’s easy to focus on the things in your life that aren’t exactly how you want them. Most of the time, for me, I need to put it in perspective, and realize just how fortunate I am. Sometimes it takes an inspiring story about someone who did so much in such terrible circumstances. Other times it takes reaching a summit to give you that perspective; to keep you focusing on the positive.