Friday, March 23, 2018

A Colorado Winter and Culebra Peak

Hmmm...what's missing from this photo 
(hint: my eyes are burning!)

This past January I was presented with an opportunity to experience one of my favorite places, during a new time of year. For as many times as I've been out to Colorado both for research and for fun, I have never actually been during the Winter months. Back in 2013, I did manage to get out to the Ice Core lab in early November for a short stint, but this was a close as I ever got to experiencing a true Winter in the Colorado mountains.

Sometime in December, I had been having conversations with a fellow researcher about possibly sampling and imaging some ice from a couple of very unique cores drilled in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Her idea was to cut and prepare both bubble and thin sections of these samples in order to analyze both the bubble properties and distribution, as well as the ice crystal trends and overall fabric. Ice fabric is simply a fancy way of saying how the individual ice crystals are generally oriented within the entire bulk ice. Ice fabric (or bulk ice orientation) is influenced greatly by the the stresses and overall deformation that the ice experiences. Looking at how the fabric evolves through depth can act as a proxy (or indirect measure) of how the ice behaved throughout a particular period of time in the past. Why would ice flow different? Well, this is ultimately what we're after. Did the climate warm, did accumulation trends change, did ice-flow direction or catchment divide change? All important questions worth deconvolving.

At any rate...what this all meant, was that my colleague asked me to join her at the USGS Ice Core lab in Denver, to assist with her ice-core sampling. I was thrilled to be asked to be involved in her project, not only because I think the field site is fascinating, and because ostensibly I'd get to play in Colorado for what would be my first Winter....but also simply because it would be the first time I'd be approached as an early-career researcher/scientist because of my specific expertise and skill set. In other words, it was the first time someone asked me to join a project because I am a known "expert" with these types of analyses. I gotta say, after 7+ years in graduate school, and now almost 3 years at my research job, it feels pretty good to be accosted by someone because of what I've studied and/or published. As anyone that has worked through a dissertation will tell you, it often can feel like your area of research has become so specialized, that ultimately no one will ever care or actually be interested in any part of your tiny sliver of research focus. Being asked to join this project was certainly validating. Our lab work and analyses ended up being incredibly successful, and we were able to image over 15 samples, producing a wealth of valuable data for later analyses. Hopefully, this will all keep an eager graduate student busy for weeks!

Thin-section of ice imaged from the Dry Valleys of Antarctica

In total I only spent about 18 days in Colorado, but it was enough to absorb a true Winter experience. I will say, that for 2018, the January in the Front Range was incredibly mild. I was expecting brutal temperatures and impassably snowy trails, but both were not the case. I ran along dirt trails in 60+ degree weather, and enjoyed evening runs around our AirBnB in shorts and t-shirts. I'm not sure if it was an unseasonably warm January, or if it was typical for that time of year, but either way, I didn't mind. I suppose there was a small part of me that was hoping for some more extreme weather, but I was definitely smiling while out on the nice trails.

The big mountains were certainly snowier than I'm used to seeing in the Summers.  I'd catch glimpses of the high peaks of the Front Range on my drive into work and it definitely brought a smile to my face to see them so incredibly snow covered. Honestly though, when I go back now and look at pictures from my 2008 CT thru-hike, there really wasn't that much more snow this January then there was back then during the early Summer.

Snow in June of 2008 (Near Mt. Evans)

On CT Hike (2008) near Searle Pass

On CT Hike (2008) along Ten Mile Range

During the first two weeks of the trip, one of the first things I did, was find a good neighborhood running route. I was again participating in the January Streak Challenge, and had to make sure I had a solid route to keep up my daily runs. We stayed in Lakewood (of course the ever fitting city name for me), and I found a nice loop park (Crown Hill) just 1/2 mile up the road. I used this lovely little park nearly every night to log my daily miles. It would out quite well.

Crown Hill Park

The very first weekend in Denver, I decided to run what would be my 5th annual "CJ's 3hr Resolution Run". I've participated in this event since my grad school days at Penn State, although for the past few years I've had to run in "virtually" on a loop of my own design (with 2016 actually occurring at South Pole Station during the marathon). I talked a long bit about this event in my 2017 year-end post...and my 2017 running around my Boston neighborhood "Dolan Loop". This year though, I'd be tackling the challenge at over 6000 feet of elevation. Quite a challenge for a flat-lander. Last year on the Dolan Loop (a 1.03 mile loop), I managed to run about 21.6 miles. I was hoping to better that this year even if by only a small fraction. The Crown Hill Loop presented me with a perfect 1.1 mile loop to tackle the challenge on. I figured if I could do 20 loops, that it would equate to 22 miles. The only rule of the official race (which actually occurs on a 1.58 mile loop in central Pennsylvania) is that you have to start your last loop before the 3-hour mark (you can finish that last loop after 3 hours though). 

I have fond memories of this event, and actually managed to pull out a victory (tie) the first year I ran back in 2014. Great memories finishing alongside Jeff Smucker. That year, I clocked 14 loops, for a an official total of 22.12 miles, although my Garmin clocked 22.8 (still my PR for CJ's Challenge). 

This year, I essentially managed to tie that mark by successfully completing all 20 laps, clocking 22.11 miles on my GPS. Considering the altitude, I was quite content with this result as a first shakeout of my Boston Marathon base fitness.

Finishing 21+ miles in 2014 with Jeff

CJ's Resolution Loops....What a fun day!

Something else that I was able to experience for the first time, despite all of my trips to the area, were the Table Mountains near Golden. For all the days and nights I have spent in or around Golden, I have never actually spent any time on the trails on either of the Table Mountains. This year, I decided to remedy that obvious hole in my Colorado experiential resume. I hiked up and around both mountains, and even found time one day to do the full loop around North Table. What a fantastic place to play...and so easily accessible. Of course I had to make sure to hit the respective High Points of each of the two Table Moutains.....Obviously.

Looking down at Golden

On top of South Table

A lonely tree on South Table

View North from North Table

Another view from North Table

North Table Summit Benchmark

Despite an enormous success at the lab, some fantastic neighborhood runs, and a few good romps around the Table Mountains, the capstone adventure during my Colorado trip was a rather whimsical and somewhat unorthodox 14er summit.

As I've written about many times throughout this journal, I have been hiking the Colorado 14ers for several years now, slowing ticking off my 58-peak total checklist. As of the start of this trip to Colorado, I was sitting at 38 of 58 total peaks. As most who are after this same goal of completing them all will tell you, there is one peak in particular that is rather contentious within the community. The oft-discussed, Culebra Peak. For those of you that don't know, Culebra is the only 14er peak of the 58 in Colorado that sits on privately-owned land. Because of this, hikers are only allowed to officially summit by way of a pre-arranged permission, and a rather hefty fee ($150.00). There are some very strong opinions regarding this....but as of right now, it simply is what it is. If you want to summit Culebra, legally, you have to pay the $150 and get permission.

Last summer while in Colorado, I had decided I was going to go ahead and sign up for a summit permit. Unfortunately, the property owner only allowed access during a single month (July) and all of the allowable permits sold on the first day they were made available. I missed my opportunity and simply decided I'd try to do it on another visit. 

Now there are certainly those out there that find "alternate" ways to summit Culebra, some rather clever I might add. Personally,  I wanted to do it legally (despite having to cough up the rather unpleasant fee).

I had completely forgotten about Culebra after leaving Colorado last Summer, but at some point around Thanksgiving had randomly recalled a conversation I had during Hardrock with a fellow hiker and peak-bagger. She had told me that she did a Winter Ascent of Culebra and that the property owner does allow limited access during the Winter if you just reach out and ask them. 

Once I remember this, I figured it couldn't hurt to ask. So I sent a half-hearted email to the property owner asking if I could summit in Mid-January. After a few weeks with no response, I figured the answer was "No".

But then, randomly, about a week before I would be heading out, I got an email from Carlos (the property manager), telling me I was good to go if I just paid the fee. I asked if I would need any extreme winter gear (crampons, ice axe, etc) and he said not at all. He did recommend snow shoes though. I figured I'd bring my micro-spikes and warm weather gear at the very least.

So, just like that, I was signed up to ascend Culebra on Sunday January 14th. I grabbed my 14er map, and studied the route. What makes Culebra a little different, is that there is no established trail. The ascent is just a "route"...meant to reduce trail erosion and impact. Of course with snow on the mountain, this was a moot point. The only real question was whether or not Carlos would be able to ski-doo me up to the upper trail head or not, or if I'd be starting at the lower trailhead.

Also, I had to decide if I was going to attempt to pop over to Red Mountain as well (something that a good portion of Culebra climbers do as it is a high 13er that is also on the same private property).

Culebra standard route

I left my AirBNB in Lakewood at about 2 am so that I'd get to the ranch by 6 am (the required check-in time). This mean a very long drive in the wee hours of the morning. Thankfully, I had an extra large coffee to get me there.  I arrived around 5:15 and spent a solid 30 minutes sorting my gear and making sure I had all the necessary warm gear for any contingency. In addition, I carried my SPOT tracker. I rented snow shoes from REI for 20 bucks the day before to help get me up the trail as well.

At check in, I learned quickly that there were actually 10 of us hiking and that there was a big group that went up the previous day, blazing a nice trail in the snow for us. The word from both Carlos and from the other hikers was that snow shoes were not necessary and would only hinder our climb.  The bad news was that we would be starting from the lower trailhead....meaning it would be a very long day, with about 15 miles round trip climbing in the cold and snow. I packed a few hundred extra calories after learning this news. I left the snow shoes, but did still bring my spikes just in case.

The hike up the approach road from the lower trailhead was long and very cold. I wore my Sportiva Crossover winter shoes, and the did an adequate job at keeping my feet warm. These are the same shoes I wore for the South Pole Marathon, and so I figured I'd be ok. I had forgotten just how long it would be for the sun to fully rise above the ridgelines, especially considering I was climbing on the west face. I had been hiking in the cold/dark or shade for over 2 hours. Before hitting the first difficult climb, I was definitely starting to feel the temps. Thankfully, once I began the icy, steep ascent  around 12,000 feet (mile ~5), my heart-rate increased significantly....and I warmed up just nicely. Right as I crested the lower ridge at about 13,200', the sun beamed brightly over the ridge and across the snow. 

It was at that exact moment that I had realized I made a monumental rookie mistake. I forgot my sunglasses. Shit. Bright sun, lots of snow and ice, several hours from my car....ugh. There would be lots of squinting.  The hike from the lower ridgeline over to the summit wasn't too difficult and most of the snow along the ridge had been blown it made for easy hiking. There were still random patches of ice though, so I had to stay vigilant. Even with these factors, I was amazed at how seamless and relatively easy the entire climb had been. I only had to use my spikes a few times. I reached the summit about 4 hours after starting (including all of my breaks)...covering about 7.5 miles.

I sat down at the summit, trying to drink my partially frozen water, and wolf down some much needed calories and was struck by just how beautiful the view was. Sitting atop a snow summit in Colorado truly is a poignant and unique experience. I stared for quite some time over at Red Mountain and despite a few moments of temptation, I ultimately decided that I was perfectly content to not press my luck, and instead just make the long 7.5 mile hike back to my car. I may come to regret that decision one day, but at the time, I just felt no need to hike Red.

After a 15 minute respite on the summit, I eventually began the trek down...which took considerably less time (Less than 3 hours total from summit to car). With all of my breaks, the adventure took over 7 hours...putting me back at my car at about 2 pm. Knowing I still had a 4 hour drive back to Denver, I was glad that I had decided to skip Red Mountain.

Of all of the 39 14er peaks I have now completed, Culebra was definitely one of my most memorable. I really found the Southern part of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to be especially unique and full of their own special character. Even if you don't summit Culebra, I highly recommend visiting this part of Colorado right along the New Mexico border.

I did make it back to Denver by late evening and slept incredibly well that night....until about 3:00am.
It was at that point that I woke up with one of the worst headaches I've had in years. I realized after a few hours that I was suffering the oh-so-wonderful experience of snow-blindness. Let me tell's not fun. With all of my experiences in Antarctica and my over 700 miles of trekking along the snowy Sierras, you'd think I wouldn't be such an idiot when it comes to eye protection in snowy/sunny environments. Well, there's a first for everything. Thankfully, within 36 hours, my eyes and head felt much better...but I do worry about long-term damage now. Please please remember to wear your sunblock and eye protection people. Sunburn and snow blindness (and skin cancer for that matter) are all real, and all really bad.

At the Trailhead/Start (6 am)

Just after sunrise...still in the cold shade though.

More early morning views

Nicely blazed trail in the snow

No show shoes necessary

About to start the first big climb

Looking down from the big climb...the sun still obscured

Headed up the big climb

Come on sun....warm me up dammit!

Yay sun!.....Oh sunglasses.

Along the lower ridgeline

Headed over to the final climb up to the summit

Wind-scoured ridgeline

Snowy ridgeline

Approaching final summit (Red Mountain over to right)

Summit Tag!

Looking back at final route from the Summit

Summit Photo (looking West)

Summit Photo (looking East)

Summit Selfie (sans sunglasses----cause I'm an idiot)

Another summit selfie

Ahhh...too much sun!

Summit Benchmark

#39/58 Completed

Beautiful Summit Scenery

Steep drop-off near summit

More scenic views

Culebra Summit as seen from last saddle

On descent a few miles from car

Culebra Summit as seen from Road a few miles away

Culebra Summit as seen from about 15 miles away

Despite its brevity, I can honestly say that this short trip to Colorado this past January was one of my favorite....A trip providing memories that I will cherish greatly. It only solidifies in my mind my ultimate desire to eventually end up out west in view of bigger mountains.

Hike on my friends,