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Sunset from Mt. Democrat

Sunset from Mt.Democrat, Mosquito Range, Colorado

Sunset from Mt.Democrat, Mosquito Range, Colorado

By October 16, 2009, the first fall storms had already coated Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks with snow. The weather forecast that morning, however, called for a strong ridge of high pressure to move in that day, and I began wondering if I could bag another Fourteener or two before all the access roads were closed by snow. Climbing Fourteeners in true winter conditions is much more difficult than in summer for many reasons, but one of the biggest is difficult access. Summer trailheads usually lie between 10,000 and 11,000 feet; in winter, the roads leading to the summer trailheads are blocked by snow, adding many miles and thousands of feet of elevation gain to the approach.

My first thought was a quick overnight trip to Grays Peak, but a check of the map showed that 13,850-foot Mt. Edwards would shadow most of my main subject, Torreys Peak, at the moment of sunrise. I decided to postpone a sunrise shoot on Grays until spring, when much more of the east face of Torreys would get beautiful light, and began considering alternatives. I had never done Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Democrat, in the Mosquito Range just south of Hoosier Pass. Kite Lake, the summer trailhead, lies at 12,000 feet ‒ very high for a Fourteener trailhead. Suddenly it occurred to me that if the road was still open all the way to Kite Lake, and if I hurried, I might be able to pack up that morning, drive to the trailhead, climb Mt. Democrat that afternoon and shoot sunset from the summit, descend in the dark to Kite Lake, sleep in my truck for a few hours, then climb Mt. Lincoln in the dark and shoot sunrise from the summit.

I called the Forest Service and was told that the recent storms had probably made it very difficult to drive to Kite Lake. The ranger hadn't checked the road in person, however, so I decided to see for myself. I packed hastily and hit the road just before noon. As I crested the first major hill on I-70 and got my first view of the Continental Divide, I was taken aback. Much more snow coated the peaks than I had expected, even extending down into the trees. It seemed highly unlikely that I could still drive to 12,000 feet. If I had to park several miles down from the summer trailhead, it would be impossible to carry out my plan. Feeling resigned, I drove to Alma and started up the six-mile dirt road toward Kite Lake. To my delight, the road was almost dry all the way to the trailhead. As I started hiking up the mountain around 3 pm, I encountered two climbers who had arrived the day before and been forced to park several miles down the road by snow. In one day, enough snow had melted to reopen the road. By pure luck, my timing had been perfect.

A well-defined trail leads to the summit of Mt. Democrat, so the climb presented no technical challenges. Snow on the trail made the footing slippery, but the biggest problem was the wind, which at one point gusted to 50 mph and nearly knocked me down. Fortunately, the wind had eased by the time I summited an hour before sunset. My favorite view proved to be this one, looking north towards Wheeler and Fletcher mountains on the left and Quandary Peak on the right. Although nervous about descending in the dark, I forced myself to keep shooting until the last pink light had faded from the sky, then stowed my gear in haste and bolted for the truck over 2,000 feet below. Wind-drifted snow had already covered my tracks just below the summit, but I was able to spot the trail again lower down and stay on route.

By the time I reached my truck an hour and a quarter later, I had developed a headache and a rather queasy stomach. I knew I needed to eat to refuel for my effort on Mt. Lincoln just a few hours away, but I couldn't force down any food. Finally I went to sleep with the alarm set for 2:30 am, hoping some sleep would make me feel better. I thought it quite likely, however, that I would wake up at 2:30 still feeling sick, turn off the alarm and go back to sleep. My luck, it seemed, might have run out.

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