Sunset from Mt. Yale
Sunset from Mt. Yale, Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
Mt. Yale, solo, in winter ‒ what was I thinking?!? The project started innocently enough. When the 2010 Christmas rush ended, I began scouring guidebooks, looking for Fourteeners with routes that would be safe from avalanche danger in winter. I decided to try the east ridge of Mt. Yale, since I could gain the ridge crest while still down in the timber and thus avoid climbing any wide-open avalanche slopes above timberline. Now all I needed was a weather window.
Ever since my first battle with sciatica five years ago, I've realized I could no longer carry the 80 pounds of gear I need for a multi-day winter shoot on my back. Instead, it has to go into a mountaineering sled designed for hauling loads. But hauling a sled is really only feasible on a snow-covered 4WD road, or, in a pinch, on a wide, gentle, well-traveled horse trail. The trail leading to the east ridge of Mt. Yale is neither. In my cursory map study, I did see that it was 5,000 feet of elevation gain from the Avalanche Creek trailhead to the summit, but I didn't really notice that the first mile or so was on a trail that switch-backed up a tree-less, south-facing slope. I thought naively, "Oh, looks like good ski terrain after that first little bit. Maybe the locals in Buena Vista will have broken a trail."
After waiting for good weather for nearly a month, I packed, drove to the trailhead and finally realized what I was up against. For the first 1,100 feet of gain, the trail was snow-free. That meant that the only way to get all my gear to sled-able snow was to make two trips, each with half my gear. I debated choosing a different objective, perhaps nearby Mt. Princeton, but ultimately decided to give Mt. Yale a try.
Four hours later, I finally finished hauling 80 pounds of gear to the beginning of continuous snow. I set up the sled and headed upward, feeling like Scott of the Antarctic sledging toward the South Pole. The heavily drifted tracks quickly petered out. Judging from the map, it had looked easy to follow the summer trail ‒ just head straight north up the drainage. But the terrain proved more complex than I had envisioned. Buried in deep woods, it was hard to tell exactly where I was. The double carry had already taxed my legs, and it took an hour and a half to gain just 400 additional feet. Still confused about my location, I parked the sled at about 10,800 feet and went scouting. After another hour of breaking trail, I reached a meadow and knew for sure where I was. I was one drainage too far west. Although that drainage also led to the east ridge of Mt. Yale, the last 200 vertical feet were too steep and avalanche-prone for my taste. Discouraged, I descended to my sled by headlamp, set up camp and ate. I was off-route, had just wasted two hours breaking trail in the wrong valley and was camped over 1,000 feet lower than I had hoped. My splendid little adventure was starting to look like a fiasco.
Before going to sleep, I studied the map intensely, and realized that I probably didn't need to backtrack very far to get back on route. In the morning, after backtracking just 200 yards, I took a climbing traverse up a 100-foot high bench and emerged into the correct drainage. My heavy pack and the strenuous trail-breaking forced me to gear down, and I could only gain about 400 feet per hour. At 10:30 am, three hours after leaving camp, I reached the top of a 12,120-foot knoll at timberline and got my first clear view of the impressive east ridge. The summit still looked very far away. I cached my snowshoes and began working my way up the snow-covered talus and scree of the east ridge, weaving in and out of the various cliff bands that occasionally blocked the ridge crest. Three hours later I was on the summit.
The day was cloudless except for a few standing lenticular clouds 100 miles to the north over the Front Range. Almost no wind blew. At times it was so calm you could have lit a candle. For four hours I worked on a variety of images. As sunset drew near, a coyote started yipping in the valley below. The sound carried to me clearly in the still air. When the last colorful light had faded from the sky and a deep dusk had fallen, I headed down. The moonless night was oppressively dark, and it took two nerve-wracking hours to find my way back down the east ridge to my snowshoes. I finally reached camp an hour later. In my eagerness to do another Fourteener in winter, I had forgotten to bring the chest harness for my camera bag, and decided against bringing a GPS unit and an ice axe ‒ all important tools I should have had. Most importantly, however, I had neglected to study the map critically and forgotten to bring a more realistic assessment of my capabilities.