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Sunset from Mt. Antero

Sunset from Mt. Antero, San Isabel National Forest, Colorado

Sunset from Mt. Antero, San Isabel National Forest, Colorado

The difference between climbing a Fourteener in the summer and tackling the same peak in winter is like the difference between a Hawaiian vacation and an expedition to the South Pole. Mt. Antero, a Fourteener near Buena Vista, is no exception. In summer, you can actually drive a tough 4x4 vehicle to 13,800 feet. In winter you must park at the base of the Baldwin Gulch jeep road at 9,400 feet. I knew I wasn't strong enough to shoot sunset from Mt. Antero in a one-day blitz, so I packed three days of food, winter camping gear, and camera gear into my sled and headed up the snow-covered jeep road on March 12. It had been an exceptionally dry winter, and the snowpack alongside the road was completely bottomless sugar. I could push a ski pole to the ground in most areas without difficulty, and if I stepped off the beaten track, I plunged in a foot even on snowshoes. Fortunately, the track itself was well-consolidated, easing the task of hauling my 80-pound sled. By late afternoon I had pitched my tent in the highest mature timber at about 11,600 feet.

In the morning I followed the well-packed track to timberline. Here the normal summer route follows a jeep road that criss-crosses two gullies as it switchbacks up the west flank of Antero. The packed winter trail led up into the right-hand of those two gullies. This gully would be deadly in a heavy snow year. It is threatened both by avalanches coming down the two main branches of the gully and by slides coming off the steep gully walls. In short, it is a perfect terrain trap. On this day, however, the gully walls were almost completely snow-free, with only small, shallow, crusty patches of snow that posed no threat. The snow in the trough of the gully was heavily wind-scoured and stable. I followed the broken track until it ended where the gully steepened and forked at about 12,600 feet. After caching my snowshoes, I hiked up the rib that separates the two forks of the gully. I crossed the jeep road at about 12,900 feet and angled up and right to the south ridge of Mt. Antero.

A rising wind began battering me as I climbed the final stretch of the south ridge. I reached the summit around 2 p.m., five hours before sunset. It was going to be a long, cold wait before the light got interesting. As the wind grew stronger, lenticular clouds began emerging over the high peaks to the north and south. Lenticular clouds form at the crest of high mountains as strong winds are forced by the terrain into a wave-shaped pattern. As the flowing air rises toward the crest of the wave, it cools and forms a cloud. As the air descends again towards the trough, it warms and the clouds dissipate. Lenticular clouds appear to be stationary, but they are actually forming as fast on the upwind side as they are dissipating on the downwind side. If these clouds lingered until sunset, they would add a lot of life to the sky in my photographs.

The wind blew harder and harder as the afternoon slowly wore on. By sunset the gusts forced me to brace hard to stay upright. On the climb up I had cursed the weight of my heavy tripod (a Gitzo 300-series carbon-fiber model with an Arca-Swiss ballhead). Now I was glad I had such a rigid setup. I was becoming increasingly nervous about the descent in the dark on a moonless night, but I forced myself to stay until the last colorful light faded from the western sky. "Calm down," I told myself. "You're going to be fine so long as you don't sprain a knee or break an ankle." Three hundred feet below the summit my foot slipped off a sloping rock hidden beneath the snow. I staggered heavily, stabbed my ice axe into the snow in a vain effort to keep my balance, planted my left leg precisely wrong, and collapsed in the snow, writhing in pain. I had sprained my left knee. I was at 14,000 feet at night in winter in a slashing gale. Rescue was not possible.

After recovering for a few minutes, I stood up gingerly. To my great relief I discovered that the knee, while sore and unstable, would still bear my weight. I continued descending very cautiously and was glad to reach the ski poles I had cached at the base of the summit ridge. Becoming a quadruped once again would certainly reduce the risk of further injury. The wind gradually eased as I worked my way back down to my snowshoes. I finally reached my tent again about three hours after leaving the summit. The wind soon returned, and I spent a near-sleepless night wondering if a nearby tree was going to fall on my tent. In the morning my knee was slightly swollen but still serviceable. I hauled my sled back down the Baldwin Gulch jeep road slowly and thoughtfully. One simple mistake at precisely the wrong time had jeopardized my safety. Once the knee healed, I added three sets of leg-press exercises to my three-days-a-week weight-room routine. I was determined to strengthen my knee to reduce the risk of such a dangerous incident happening again.

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