Arriving at zero dark hundred, we pull into the barren parking lot, our headlights illuminating the one other car already there. That in itself is an atypical start to a summit hike up one of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot peaks. But it is a Tuesday in September, and it did rain most of the day yesterday.
As we pull on our jackets, and don our headlamps, hundreds of stars sparkle over our heads. Orion’s belt appears, signalling the start of winter. We strap on our packs and head up the trail.
Though I’ve hiked up this trail just a couple of months ago on our way to Hartenstein Lake, it feels totally different. In the dark, it’s hard to get my bearings of the where the trail is and where it twists and turn. I stare at the ground, being mindful to not trip over a rock.
Before we know it, we come to a stream with the crude log bridges. Four logs of varying width are laid side by side, providing a rudimentary bridge across the creek. The logs are still wet from yesterday’s rain storm, making them slippery as we edge onto them. I make like a duck, turning my feet outward to gain a more stable stance, jabbing my trekking poles into the water for balance.
Coming upon the junction, my headlamp illuminates the wooden sign “Mt Yale” with an arrow to the right. Onward we go, passing through groves of silent Aspen, as the first rays of light begin to seep through the woods.
And then the switchbacks begin. Most trails are built with switchbacks to make the grade less steep. But these switchbacks incorporate lots of climbing in between each one, until we have finally broken out above the trees.
The winds pick up and though I am sweating from all this climbing, I feel chilled. We don our Nanopuff jackets, and I even put on my winter hat and gloves. It’s around 7 a.m. by now, and the temperatures are probably in the 30s.
We continue our ascent towards granite peaks to our north and east. It’s wide open now, and my thoughts are interrupted only by the sounds of the scurrying pikas — meep! meep!
Trying to spot the trail, Bryon gestures to our right. Yep, it’s heading up what looks like a very steep pitch to a saddle. Mt. Yale is off to the saddle’s right. We gauge that we are going to climb about 900 feet over the next half-mile to reach the saddle.
This final climb up yet more switchbacks are the worst yet. We are now above 13,000 feet and I am feeling the altitude. Yet, I feel it’s important to keep moving, so I adopt the heel-to-toe slow plod, trying only to focus on making it to the next switchback. The description in our Fourteeners.com app calls this the final grind, an apt use of words. Why is it they always make the steepest part of the trail at the end?
My heart is pounding as I tap my poles and silently shuffle along. Finally, the saddle appears, and having summoned all my energy reserves to keep moving, I stop to catch my breath and survey the scene.
We have 300 feet to go, and a scramble through the boulders to attain the summit. Our task is made a bit more daunting by the fact the rocks have an icy glaze to them, courtesy of the moisture from yesterday freezing overnight. I decide to go with four points of contact, abandoning the poles, opting to crawl more like a cat, using hands and feet. Finally, after taking a haphazard route following various cairns, there is no more climbing left to do.
The vistas are breathtaking. Our app says you can see 30 Fourteeners, and I believe it — as wave after wave of massive peaks encircle us. It feels like we are on top of the world as we survey the beauty of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
Mt. Yale, you are ours!