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Three State Highpoints and a Fourteener

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  • Three State Highpoints and a Fourteener

    Sept 30, I arrived in Denver, the start of a six day trip to commemorate/forget about my recent 50th birthday. I had a rental car and camping gear, but no fixed itinerary or reserved campsites. I guess I had lots of itineraries, but wanted the flexibility for spontaneity. By the time I landed though, the flight, the border-crossing and my freewheeling non-plan was freaking me out more than a little, so I picked my smallest goal to focus on: the high point of Kansas. It’s maybe three hours of driving from the Denver airport, and the wide open road did me some good. At my first gas station, I got out of the car and wondered why that guy was just standing there holding the store door open. Then I remembered I wasn’t in Canada anymore, and the door was for me, princess. (I’ve missed you, Americans.) Slightly disappointed they don’t carry paper road maps at the gas station, though. I had limited data on my phone, but tried to check quick and remember the sequence. Mount Sunflower, high point of Kansas, is many miles down dirt roads, but the "summit" is easy to find once you get close, even in the dark. The ranch owners leave it open to public, and it seemed well maintained. I was encouraged to have reached my first objective so efficiently! Who knew following driving directions on a clear, calm evening would get you to your destination? The display has some nice metal sunflower sculptures and signposts and a big metal Mount Sunflower sign. Off to the side, there is a shelter with a picnic table and a little free library. Selection was limited, although I was tempted by a copy of “Flatearther Poetry” by Amy something or other (if I remember what the jacket said) a “Christian Mother who lives and writes in Syracuse, NY”. (shoutout Orange!) But I left it for the next desperate reader. I was interested in tall pointy earth, not flat earth (no offence, Kansas) My favourite moment was when I turned off the headlights and stood there in the absolute darkness and silence (in between coyote yips) looking at the incredible stars.

    Made my way southwest from there in the dark, stopping near the Sand Creek Massacre site for a moment of reflection. Spent an uncomfortable night in my car in some wildlife refuge area outside Lamar, CO. Next stop, Oklahoma! (I grew up thinking Oklahoma! is always spelled with an exclamation mark, thank you Rodgers and Hammerstein) More gravel roads as the high plains turned into rocky canyons and scrub. Black Mesa would prove a solid hike, 8 miles round trip. Leaned my backpack up against a shrub while I signed the trail register, as you do; and when I reached down to pick it up, I punctured myself because of course the shrub was a big cactus. Then immediately did it again. Wake up! This scenery was amazing and alien to me, full of very strange, spooky cactus and other flora. Went half a mile and ran into fauna too, a large one, completely blocking the trail. Then the cow moved slowly off to the side and I carried on. The trail is along a flat dirt road for two miles, then climbs steeply up the mesa for a mile. It took some vigorous effort, and there is a welcoming bench near the top. Then another flat wandering mile to reach the summit obelisk. One other person was there and I recruited him to take my summit pictures from a far enough distance that you couldn’t tell I had slept in my car the night before. (Again, the princess.) Enjoyed the quiet area by myself for a little while. I ran into the same hiker on the return stretch; didn’t want to intrude, but he seemed to welcome some company, and he told me about all the points in Oklahoma(!) that I might enjoy seeing if I came back again, including a hike right next to the artillery range at his former training base, if you like hikes next to busy highways but they're not noisy enough for you. He also unfortunately drew my attention to the many tarantulas in the area, god forbid that I should have gone on blissfully unaware of *those* - and he dismissed each one we saw as “just a little one”. BRRRR. I saw at least six more crossing the road near the trailhead, and when I can identify what kind of spider I'm seeing on the road - from the driver’s seat…? that state is not big enough for both me and their arachnids. Truly, though, I was glad to at least see a little of Oklahoma!™, my grandma was born there, which technically makes me a full quarter Sooner, and thank you for asking. Bye, furry spider state.

    After long drive across gorgeous New Mexico plains culminating in a sunset drive through Cimarron Canyon, I needed to find a tent site. Considered and dismissed a few forest service roads and went with a random quirky private campground. Owner: that'll be $35 Me: ok but do you have any of those $25 tent sites, like it says on the sign? Him: Sure I can help you out $25 is ok. Me: well if that's ok Him: I own the place, I can do whatever I want. Ha! Sierra Gardens RV and Tent Camp needs a whole separate writeup, suffice to say it was not for the fussy, but I had hiked for four hours and driven for nine... anyway, I like staying in interesting places.

    The next day was Saturday and I planned to spend it looking around Taos and do some medium hikes to get a bit more acclimated, then try Wheeler Peak, the high point of New Mexico, on Sunday. But after coffee, breakfast, farmer’s market in Taos, it was still only 8:30 am, and I was twiddling my thumbs... and the mountain was Right There. I decided to drive up to the trailhead and you know, just look at it. I got the last parking spot that sunny morning, everyone loading up for a fun day. You know where this is going. I packed for the whole day "just in case" I accidentally summited - even then I knew I wouldn't be able to help myself. 9:30 am wasn’t a bad time to start an 8 mile hike on a nice day - how bad will the altitude be? Let's find out.
    I drew heavily on my Adirondack experiences today. ADK rule #1 - if there might be snow, take your traction! I put mine on by the end of mile 2, I had arrived at the turnoff to Williams Lake where many hikers were heading. I kept on to the left, past the treeline and started into the switchbacks. Beautiful views but I battled with fatigue, and was starting to meet descenders who had abandoned their summit plans. Got me wondering if I should as well. Most of them didn't have poles or micro spikes though. One group of women my age were nonplussed about turning around, and in great spirits. The second one told me that the snow was pretty bad going up and they weren’t ready for that. The third one drawled “but we don’t have what you have” which I thought was a nice thing to say although I'm still not sure what she meant. I thought they might be Texan, and I loved that they had put on what was maybe for them just everyday going-for-a-walk makeup, but it impressed the heck out of me, since I was only glowing with zinc, chapstick, and summit fever. Next person I met said she stepped into snow up to her thigh, but then the next few people reported a team of guys went all the way up, encouraging me to try it. ADK rule #2: Start late after a big snowfall, someone else might break the trail for you!

    That altitude, though. It was a strange feeling, like my limbs and my lungs were suddenly completely mismatched hiking buddies.
    Lungs: Oh hey *laughs nervously* just gotta stop for a sec, oh look at the beautiful views!
    Legs: (looking at each other then back to lungs) ummmm… again? I mean, we *just* stopped 30 steps ago, we can still… ah, sure, we have all day, no problem. Rest up, buddies!
    Legs, whispering amongst themselves: We are never taking those guys hiking again

    I was a little concerned about some dark clouds coming and going, but I had to quit looking up at the sky. The narrow snowy trail hugged the steep mountainside, I was starting to feel a bit woozy, and every time I looked up at the slowly drifting clouds, it triggered the spins a little. I wouldn't have fallen far, but it wouldn't have been pretty. It took a very long time to get to the top but I kept focusing on one tiny section at a time. And at 13k feet, the last stretch to the ridge eases up, and I started to feel better right away. A joyous arrival at the Wheeler Peak summit cairn, and I was relieved to hear some guys much younger than me announce they were "completely dead" and didn’t think they’d make it. I choked down what nourishment I could manage: two pretzels and gatorade. The sun was beating down now in between cloudy stretches, and it was enough heat to turn the trail mushy. Twice as glad for my traction on the way down. I wasn't hurting - the very slow hike in snow meant my joints and muscles felt barely taxed - but I was getting some headache and nausea action. I hadn't paid much attention to the first mile of trail on the way up, it was so obvious and I was distracted with my excitement. So it didn't look very familiar to me, that last mile, and I kept doubting my map and which dotted line I was currently on. ADK rule #3 - just, I don't know. Pay attention and take your time. There was only one big obvious trail to the parking lot, but it still was harder to figure out than it should have been. I hate that feeling. Felt amazing to see my car again.

    My drive the next day from Taos into Colorado was leisurely and very fun, since by hiking Wheeler Peak a day earlier, I had basically freed up this whole day to travel. It would have been fun to have my boys with me - Colorado gets a little wacky in the middle and I saw many strange things they would've got a kick out of. I resisted the alligator sanctuary and the UFO Watchtower, but hit the brakes when I saw Joyful Journey Hot Springs. A tidy wellness/spiritual-ish complex with an affordable day rate for getting out of your filthy car and into their hot spring tubs. Take my money! I wasn’t in the soaking tub for five minutes before a pair of local Colorado 14er enthusiasts climbed in too - they told me lots of hiking stories and reassured me that my final goal, Mt. Bierstadt, was not going to be as long, steep or difficult as Wheeler Peak. This was news to me, and a major mood boost. Trail beta delivered on a silver platter. Definitely the highlight of my day (for at least an hour, and then I had my first green chile cheeseburger and the angels sang). I made it past Fairplay and found a state campground that was still open (most seem to close end of September). Except for a couple of RVs, I had the place to myself. Isolated, no cell service, maybe bears? but after a year and a half of rotating lockdowns and "stayathomes" in Toronto, I was not going to let a few lonely jitters ruin what was a pristine camping spot. I woke up cold and alive. I then had to drive an hour into Denver to get a very expensive q-tip up my nose so I could pass my Canada entrance covid-test, then made a loop to the village of Georgetown and came down Guanella Pass to see the trailhead for Mt. Bierstadt. It’s even possible I could have hiked it there and then, but I wanted an early start to see the changing light on the mountains as the sun rose. I planned to go back to last night's campground, about a half hour away, but not far from the trailhead, I saw tent signs pointing down an extremely bad dirt road. I tried to steer around the worst of the massive potholes and ridges. (In fact, I went so slowly that my health app thought I was walking, and credited me with about 5000 extra steps). Thank god for a rental car for whom I had no emotional attachment. Road opened up onto a big clearing with public corrals and marked but dispersed campsite wonderland among the ponderosas. A reassuring number of trucks, campers and horse trailers were around. One rugged fellow in a cowboy hat was setting up his massive camper trailer and then added his solar panels and satellite dish, maybe he was going to sous-vide a can of beans next, not sure. I cleared my tent area of old horse road-apples, set up next to the creek and took a blissful nap. Read my book and explored the area until dark, then made dinner, a big pot of instant mashed potatoes. Slept in my hiking layers until 4 am, and when I got to the Bierstadt trailhead, the temperature was a perfect 32 degrees. Just a few cars there in the dark, with head-lit people gearing up and setting off. So exciting!! I was nearly ready to go when a car parked near me and a younger woman got out. She introduced herself and it was her first time in Colorado too. I had been thinking about hiking Mt. Bierstadt for weeks if not months; but she had taken a notion to do it after seeing the reviews on AllTrails last night. She shyly asked if she could tag along, and I was happy for some trail company. Details emerged as we went. She was from Florida, had bought a few hiking things at 9:30 last night at Walmart, and was wearing Nikes. A motherly and judgy tsk-tsking was welling up in me and yet… I don't know. Something made me keep my concerns to myself. Who was I to say she was ill-equipped and probably wouldn’t make it to the top? I hadn’t done this peak either. (I would’ve expressed concerns forcefully if she was overnighting or doing a remote hike; but this one is popular and you can pretty much see all of the trail all the time. So, shut up, Cathy, wait and see.) As we chatted, I learned more about her. She worked night shifts as an ER nurse in Jacksonville (which in my book gives her more tough-hombre points than most people I know), she had done sections of the AT, and she was not far out of high school where she did a ton of running (stamina) and dance (balance) - at any rate, a mile or so in, I encouraged her to go on ahead as I was starting to lag well behind and felt no shame about it either.

    Boy that hike was beautiful! The peaks around me were turning pink and orange; and the shadow of the range I was on was outlined on face of the next range west, if I'm describing that correctly. Every time I stopped for a break, the view was different and equally stunning. I felt better than on Wheeler Peak, and my hot springs friends were correct that this was overall a kinder summit. The last section is a very fun rock scramble with very low stakes in terms of exposure. My new Florida friend was at the summit and I cheered! Great job, you crushed it! “It doesn’t feel like I crushed it” she said, “I had to stop so many times. I've only been here a couple of minutes” I pointed out it was an amazing accomplishment, our first fourteener! I was very happy to be there, and she cheered up too. We had our summit picnic and this time I felt well enough to actually eat, and enjoy my can of coffee too. Took lots of photos, some of her in her Dallas Cowboys jersey, to send her dad. (Must also profoundly respect the toughness it takes to be a Cowboys fan). I knew going down could be tricky for her without traction, but we left before the snow got mushy. Her balance was still way better than mine on the downhill, but after a few slips, she accepted one of my trekking poles and became a convert. It was an equal trade, I thought, for I had eaten most of her cheese crackers at the summit. I don’t believe we have Hot and Spicy Cheez-its in Canada, and they are beyond tasty, you should definitely try some if you don’t believe me. The air was crisp and warm at the same time, and downhill was delightful. Lots of people heading up now, and we drew shameless schadenfreude power from the “how much further” sufferers, as is one's right, being a successful climber of one fourteener since 30 minutes ago.

    I have missed the Adirondacks (and its people) very much this last year and a half. If driving over the border was a possibility, I would be there right now. But since I had to fly or nothing, thought I should go see those peaks when I had the opportunity. I’m glad to have done these hikes, and will never forget this trip. But as soon as the chance presents itself, I still have the highpoint of New York State to add to my collection. See you all soon.

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  • #2
    Congrats on your fırst 14er! I miss the Adirondacks too.

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    • #3
      Nice write as is usual. Thanks and congratulations on the high points and Mt Bierstadt.

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      • #4
        Thanks for the great write-up. I've done Wheeler a few times, never with that much snow. I had to turn back this summer because of the altitude (and/or age). There are great campgrounds on the road up to Taos Ski Valley.

        How much snow on Bierstadt? More than Wheeler? Thinking about next summer.

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        • #5
          Wheeler Peak was tough! So steep, even with the switchbacks. There was more snow than on Bierstadt, I think it is really just the luck of the draw and weather systems in Sept/Oct up there, at least that is what everyone says. Both of those peaks are quite popular, though. Likely if you have time to wait a bit after a snowfall, someone will go out and break the trail for you! Early in the season, you don't have the layers of snow buildup that you do in the spring, so that's a factor that makes it more friendly I think.

          Here's what it looked like on Wheeler near the summit:
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          And here's what Bierstadt looked like. My new friend proved one could do it in running shoes but I was still grateful for my traction, thanks!

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          I saw those nice campgrounds that I drove past - some were closed for the season, but lots of good stealth camping around there too.

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          • #6
            How were the skies in the fall? Most of CO had bad skies this summer due to smoke from states to the west.

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            • stone611
              stone611 commented
              Editing a comment
              The skies were very clear; the morning of my last day was hazy in Denver; but pretty beautiful fall weather. I wonder if summers are generally going to be smoky in the Rockies and west from now on, I surely hope not.

          • #7
            stone611, have you already completed Texas and Colorado high points?
            Why Bierstadt instead of Elbert?

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            • stone611
              stone611 commented
              Editing a comment
              I did consider going down to add Guadalupe Peak, I think it must be beautiful down there. Then I counted up it would be 14+ more hours in the car, plus all the interesting areas and cities I would have had to drive straight through and ignore. (Actually my initial timeline said I would be driving through Roswell, NM late at night by myself haha nooooo!) Good question about Elbert though - it's only a few hundred feet higher than Bierstadt, and less than a mile further round trip - but over 1000 feet more elevation gain. Truth is, I really didn't know how I'd manage and I felt better aiming for a goal that most people say is one of the friendliest introductions to the 14ers. Bierstadt seemed easy to get to, clear trail, great views, lots of people around in case I had trouble I didn't foresee, and a good chance of being fun. Elbert I think is much the same? but just a little less so in all categories, enough to tip the scales for me. I'm usually solo, and scared of anything like hubris, so I overthink. I hope to go back some time, and now I know a bit better how long it takes to acclimate and how much time to allow, etc.
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