Try, and try again …
Story and photos by Kim Fenske
When I woke up after a night with temperatures in the teens, the sun was not yet in sight. Despite giving myself the comfort of two down sleeping bags, I still needed a significant boost to generate enough heat for the trail. After boiling a liter of water for a giant chocolate mocha coffee, I ground my legs into low gear and hiked up the road from the mining ghost town of Winfield toward the Huron Peak trailhead two miles from my camp. After the first mile, my leg muscles were loose and sweat began to seep through my base layer. An hour later, I arrived at the trailhead.
A lesson in patience, this was my fourth attempt to reach Huron Peak, 14,003 feet, in winter. From Clear Creek Reservoir, Chaffee County Road 390 is maintained only eight miles to the abandoned mining community of Vicksburg, across from the trailhead to Mount Oxford, Mount Belford, and Missouri Peak.
On my first attempt, in mid-March, I parked at Vicksburg and hiked on the snow-covered road for five miles to Winfield, then busted trail through powder that was sometimes waist-deep for a mile toward the trailhead before turning back. The twelve-mile hike was primarily a scouting mission to determine how easily I could approach the trailhead with a four-foot base of snow in the forest.
Two weeks later, I made other approaches. On the first, I found the road drifted shut near Winfield, at 10,200 feet. Arriving at the trailhead, I was hit by a blinding snowstorm and retreated, knowing that the weather would create life-threatening conditions above tree-line.
Beginning another approach a couple of days later in late morning, I knew that I could not reach the summit. However, I wanted to refresh my memory on the approach through the forest, since I knew that the trail was buried under several feet of snow. I took a risk by attempting to ram the diminished snowdrift blocking the last few hundred feet to Winfield.
I lost the challenge to the snowdrift only a half-car length from sunbaked gravel. My tires spun on a layer of smooth ice that had formed from puddles in the night. After a half-hour of hapless struggle and spinning, another hiker arrived and nudged me forward onto the dry road in Winfield. Leaving him behind while he established his camp for the night, I pressed into the unmarked drifts of snow in the forest. At the third mile, I remained 1,000 feet below tree-line, 1,000 feet above Winfield, at a pace of one mile in an hour and a half. Although only mid-afternoon, I estimated that if I continued up to the summit, I would probably arrive in the alpenglow to descend the full distance after dark.
When attacking a Fourteener, I assess the challenges presented by changing weather conditions, bewildering orientation, geographic features, and personal endurance. With experience gained from attempts to complete many hikes, I know when to quit.
Now, a third of the way through April, I decided to make the 10-mile trip to the summit and back from a base camp on the meadow south of Winfield, above the shoreline of Clear Creek.
As I surveyed the mountain near the trailhead, I decided to climb straight up the ridge where the summer trail winds with dozens of switchbacks to reach the tundra, 2,000 feet below the summit of Huron Peak. A half-mile along the vague and gently rising Huron Peak Trail, I pointed myself straight up the mountain.
After another half-mile of climbing and breaking through to my knees in a coating of granular snow, I reached the tundra at 11,960 feet. Four hours and two thousand vertical feet into the hike, I paused to carefully imprint the landscape in my mind to ensure that I could find my way back down to the trailhead. I recall the accounts of hikers on Fourteeners who often become lost, disoriented, and call for rescue because they fail to adequately observe their position during the approach to a summit.
As I looked toward the high ridge east of my position, I searched for signs of a trail that rose out of the vast glacier that I was about to cross in order to arrive on the summit to the southeast. paused to press symbols into the snow with my boots to direct me back to the passageway in the forest. Then, I unfurled a staggering line across the blinding white snowfield, where I hoped to find switchbacks to the summit. My hunches were correct and led me to a gentle ascent north of several rock outcroppings and a broad avalanche chute below the summit.
In mid-afternoon, seven hours into my hike, I reached the summit of Huron Peak across a deep cornice of snow and enjoyed my first broad views of the surrounding mountains. The Three Apostles were the nearest features across the valley south of the summit. In the distance to the southeast, the Collegiate Peaks rose above the plains near Buena Vista. East of the summit, Missouri Peak presented the great gravel slide on its western face, with Mount Belford and Mount Oxford beyond.
On my descent, the snowfield presented a softer surface than on the way up. I hiked slowly across the mashed potato surface, trying to keep my feet close together when I broke through the surface to prevent injuries to my ligaments. When I reached the tree-line, I needed to make a decision. Being alone, I was cautious about deviating from the standard route down the mountain. A serious injury, remote from a trail, could mean that I would never be found.
However, I did not savor the thought of post-holing in deep mashed potatoes on the route through the forest that I had broken in firmer snow during the morning. Therefore, I deviated from my ascent and picked my way across an exposed slope north of the ridge that I climbed earlier in the day.
Although my new path was only .6 miles long, it was almost entirely bare ground. Despite a bit of anxiety that I could be cliff-out on some rock outcropping below me, I dropped quickly down a thousand feet. At that point, I had no alternative to busting through snowdrifts in dense forest. Concerned, I checked my altimeter to verify that I was at most a couple hundred vertical feet from the trail that wound around the base of the mountain below me.
I intercepted the trail at 10,760 feet, only .2 miles south of the trailhead. From tree-line, the descent only took two hours to my base camp at Winfield. The sun dipped below the mountains bordering the Clear Creek Valley while I began packing my gear for the two-hour trip home.
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.”
Kim’s winter 14er series:
- Colorado: Snowy tracks on Mt. Yale
- Colorado: A winter climb of Quandary Peak
- Colorado: Winter hiking in the Collegiate Range
- Colorado: Scary moments on Mt. Elbert
- Colorado: A winter hike up Grays and Torreys
- Colorado: Exploring Mt. Massive
- Colorado: Around the Wetterhorn
- Colorado: Hiking Mount Harvard
- Colorado: Summiting Sneffels
- Colorado: A fall hike on Castle Peak
- A hike to Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mount Eolus
- A Colorado classic: Longs Peak