A winter hike in the Sawatch Range
Story and photos by Kim Fenske
In winter, tracks in the snow tell a clear story on hiking trails. After a snowstorm, the trail is nonexistent. As days of clear, sunny weather go by, a road of footprints, ski, and snowshoe tracks form a road on the most popular trails.
As I recently hiked up the trail to Mount Yale from Cottonwood Pass, west of Buena Vista, I was on busy pavement for the first 1.25 miles to the junction with the Hartstein Lake Trail. Dog-walkers is my term for these hikers, strolling up a trail for a half-hour to an hour before retreating from the forest.
When I once told a physician I was a hiker, he declared that hiking is not an aerobic activity. These are the hikers he must have constructed into his stereotype. Fewer than a dozen hikers had continued beyond the junction during the previous week.
I was now at 10,770 feet, about 800 feet above the trailhead, with a few thousand vertical feet to reach the summit at 14,196 feet. I made a note that I had nine hours to sunset, with my rule in mind that I always try to reach a trail at tree-line before dark.
I was no Ueli Steck, who takes a couple hours to ascend the Eiger, Matterhorn, or Grandes Jorasses. However, I expected to be back at the trailhead by sunset on the easy climb up Mount Yale.
Heading east, I followed well-packed trail into the upper Denny Creek Valley. The only sign of wildlife were the tracks of snowshoe hare floating across the sea of powder covering the slopes. The elusive, black-tipped bunnies stared at me from the thickets of willow and spruce. While my pace of ascent through the snow was about one-half mile an hour, the hares could travel about twenty times my pace, easily floating on the surface with their over-sized paws.
Crossing Denny Creek, two miles into my hike, I climbed to about 11,600 feet. Now, there were three sets of tracks, offering little support in the deep powder. Two pair of snowshoe tracks continued north up Denny Creek. One set of footprints went straight up a steep gulley. I strapped into my snowshoes and chose the direct ascent.
I kicked firmly into the snow with each step. On the steepest sections of soft powder, my feet at times slipped back the full step. Beneath the surface, bits of willow emerged to indicate that I was going straight up a streambed. The snow among the adjacent firs and spruce seemed no less deep, so I continued up the gulch. A hundred vertical feet up, the only footprint in the snow disappeared.
I realized that I had chosen to follow the wrong hiker. I consoled myself on the thought that Ueli Steck did not ascend through waist-deep powder on his four-hour ascent of the Heckmair.
An hour and a half later, I emerged near tree-line on a ridge southwest of the saddle to the summit of Mount Yale. I removed my snowshoes and tied my crampons into place when I arrived at an exposed area in the gulch where the snow had blown and melted back to a reasonable depth. Then I scrambled over fallen trees and boulders to the clear tundra above. I had gained three hundred vertical feet over a tenth of a mile. Sunset was now only six hours away.
I sat down and drank a half liter of water with a brownie, my only meal of the day. I unstrapped my snowshoes from my backpack and set them upright in some snow blown against a boulder as a marker my trail through the gulch below for my return trip. I took visual references, taking photographs of the mountains west at the sides of Cottonwood Pass and studying the upper ridge of Mount Yale to judge where the trail must lie to reach the saddle west of the summit.
I scrambled over a ridge of boulders to reach the wide, wind-cleared tundra above. A half-mile above the trees, at 12,550 feet, I stumbled on an old trail heading north toward the saddle. Following the trail in and out of shallow snowfields, I began scaling the face of Mount Yale.
I reached the saddle, 3.8 miles from the trailhead, and began scrambling over a narrow ridge of boulders to ascend the final couple of hundred feet to the summit. With two hours of sunlight remaining, I arrived at the summit of Mount Yale, 14,196 feet, and 3.9 miles above the Denny Creek Trailhead.
On a hasty descent, I decided to follow the newly improved trail from the saddle. Once I was down on the flat tundra meadow, I realized that I had drifted north of my intended descent through the trees. With the sun rapidly turning red as it rested on the ridge west of me, I scanned for the rocky outcropping that had brought me up from the forest.
No bump of rock seemed familiar as I hiked south, below the elevation of the old trail that I had followed up. I hiked out to the most distant ripple of rock and did not find my snowshoes or any footprints across the drifts of snow above the trees. With the light in the sky quickly fading, I decided that my priority was finding any footprints in the snow to follow down through the trees.
Since I knew that there were two sets of snowshoe tracks north of mine, I crossed a small hollow and found the next tracks entering the forest. In the black of night, I followed the tracks down through the dense tree cover, sliding at times, falling through drifts to my thighs, side-stepping down through scattered willows until I reached the valley below. Five hours after reaching the summit, I finished my trek and arrived at the trailhead beneath a beautiful dark and star-filled sky.
Kim Fenske is a former wilderness ranger, firefighter who has hiked thousands of miles in the Colorado mountains. He has served on the board of directors of Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
Fenske has authored several hiking books filled with hundreds of photographs of Colorado wildlife, wildflowers, and scenery. His books are enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts. His current electronic book titles are published on Amazon for Kindle, as well as Barnes and Noble for Nook. Search for these titles: “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado,” “Holy Cross Wilderness Area,” and “Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.”
More stories by Kim Fenske:
- Explore Whitney Peak in the Holy Cross Wilderness
- Colorado: Climb San Luis Peak with Kim Fenske
- Morning photo: The Deer Creek trail, a Summit crossroads
- Travel: Explore Colorado’s spectacular Gore Creek trail
- Colorado: Explore Pikes Peak with Kim Fenske
- A hike to Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mount Eolus
- Colorado: A fall hike on Castle Peak