Thursday, June 22, 2017

Finding Ourselves In Memory

TRIP REPORT: Or How I Learned How to Mess Up a Perfectly Good Summit Hike
 January 02, 2009   
Yesterday as the first dawn of the new year was breaking I crossed over Kenosha Pass into South Park and saw the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen in my life. I drove on toward Jefferson, CO with snow blowing in a straight line across the road. That made me nervous since my objective was the summit of Bison Peak, which was a few thousand feet higher than the windscoured flats of South Park.
I drove down Tarryall Creek, past the frozen Tarryall Reservoir and marveled at the alien landscape.
At the Ute Creek Trailhead I anticipated bonechilling temps higher up because it was very cold as I wrangled my gear around. My hands were numb by the time I got my car door locked and was on my way. Fortunately it got much warmer as the day grew. Unfortunately I had overpacked and ended up stashing my snowshoes halfway up the trail. I continued on with my skis (bonehead!) and after much labor, depleting all my water (2 liters plus a liter on the drive over!) and slogging through steep but shallow snow I finally reached the surreal summit plateau of Bison around 12:25pm. I had been hiking for four hours and forty minutes and had traveled about 4.25 miles.
I had read a lot about Bison the past few weeks. It sounded like an absolutely amazing hike. And it was…but it took too much out of me. Remember my epic 28 mile round trip in 24 hours summit attempt on Clingman's Dome over Christmas Break of '05? No, well, yesterday was my next most epic hike ever. I did about 10 miles in 8 hours and 45 minutes with about 3,600' in elevation gain. I had returned to Colorado only two days prior and I have a feeling my lack of acclimatization and my overall unfitness contributed heavily to my failure on Bison as well as my poor choice to take my skis, snowshoes and crampons along.
Failure? Yeah, I made it to within 100' vertical feet of the summit. Why not all the way? I dropped my pack by the distinct spire just south of the summit and pushed on with only the clothes on my back. I was ragged, headaching, sucking wind, legs watery…I was in no shape to go on. I really should have turned back long before. But once I reached the vast open summit plateau I could see my goal. So I went for it.
But once in the summit complex of blobby Lost Creek granite I couldn't figure out which was the true summit and all options looked like they were going to lead to 5th class climbing, of which I was most definitely not up to. I tried to get up on one less difficult looking hump but gave up after the wind gusts had battered me to the point of cursing. My mind was less than clear and my body was shutting down. I turned back.
I hated to have walked away after having put so much effort into going so far. But I didn't want to risk climbing myself into a situation I couldn't get out of, or of falling up there.
The trip down went faster, but drained me beyond what most outdoor efforts would. The whole day I ate a cinnamon roll, a Clif Bar, a Milky Way and a couple handfuls of almonds. My best calculation says I burned over 5,000 calories. I was absolutely spent by the time I staggered up to my car just after sunset.


June 22, 2017
I’ve been thinking about this trip all week.  For whatever reason, earlier in the week I pondered what was the most amazing place I had ever been.  I’ve been to some pretty cool places.  I thought of peaks I had summited, ambitious bike rides I had done, and when it came down to it from an aesthetic and spiritual point of view I had to put Bison Peak in the Lost Creek Wilderness and Tarryall Mountains just to the east of South Park, Colorado at the top. 
From the summit plateau of Bison looking over South Park
The other two trips which are contenders for the coolest position I’ve gotten myself into is the summit of Father Dyer Peak in the Tenmile Range and the summit of Squaretop Mountain after riding to Guanella Pass from the plains and hiking to the summit.  All three trips I did solo and while Mandy and the kids were visiting Kentucky, but the cool thing about Bison is I went back with Mandy later and we summited.
What was significant about my failed attempt on Bison on New Year’s Day of 2009 was the sheer distance I was able to put between myself and my mundane every day life.  The trailhead is 80+ miles from Denver, 40 miles from Bailey which is the nearest decent sized town, and 20 miles from Jefferson which is little more than a ghost town in the middle of desolate South Park.  South Park is one of those places that really make you feel like you’re on the moon.  And to get to the Ute Creek Trailhead you drive down into South Park from Kenosha Pass (one of my favorite places on earth) and make a hard left at Jefferson and then drive past nothing.  And more nothing.  And then a little bit of almost something.
Along Tarryall Creek
The summit is six miles from the trailhead and on 1.1.09 as I began getting my gear out of the car I couple came off the trail to get in their own car.  They looked at me shouldering my heavy pack with my skis strapped to the back and with sternly concerned looks on their faces asked me where I was going.  They became more stern when I told them I was headed for Bison Peak. 
I assure them I knew what I was getting into and bade them farewell.  As they drove slowly up Tarryall Creek I had the moment of realization that I was completely dependent upon modern technology for my continued survival at that point.  If Forester Gump decided not to start—dead battery or something more innocuous—or I were to sprain my ankle somewhere out on the trail I would be up a creek of the crap kind.
When I reached my high point on that hike I was as far from “civilization” as I had been in my entire life.  And I don’t think I’ve been so alone or isolated any time before or since.  I have to admit it was an intoxicating feeling, though terrifying in its own way.  There was only one other time in my life I felt as tenuously attached to the world as I did that day.  But that’s a story for another time.
Here's the account of the backpacking trip Mandy and I took which put us on the summit of Bison Peak:
Summit Day: Success on Bison Peak
I wasn't sure if I should start thinking about going down or not. But even if I decided we needed to go down I wasn't sure how we would manage. Mandy sat on the opposite side of the trail, elbows on knees and head bobbing as she nodded off again.

Glancing up I saw towers on a far peak and I realized I might possibly use the cell phone. I got it out of the pack, turned on the cellular data and saw a bar and a half. Hallelujah!

It took a couple of minutes of moving around on the slope looking for a clear line of sight to the distant towers, but I finally managed three bars and as soon as I had connectivity I googled "altitude sickness symptoms."

We've both been affected by altitude before. Mandy has never had trouble between 11-12,000'. We were just shy of 10,000' when she started nodding and being lethargic. As I perused the interweb she snoozed and I tried not to worry. But when I saw "fatigue" as a major symptom I let out a sigh of relief. I was concerned that something else was going on.

She finally stirred and I laid it out: "You're being affected by altitude. We need to decide if we're going to head down now, or if we're going to go on. If we go down, we need to go down NOW. It's after four o'clock. If we decide to go on we're committed and if you don't start feeling better we're going to have to stick it out for the night."

Mandy assured me she could make it to Bison Pass, a half mile distant and only a few hundred feet higher. We could see the pass above and I knew from my previous attempt on Bison Peak in the Tarryall Mountains in the Lost Creek Wilderness of Colorado that the pass is relatively flat and many good campsites exist there.

I knew all of this because on New Year's Day 2009 I drove from Denver to the Ute Creek Trailhead, arriving just after dawn, and I made my solo winter attempt on Bison.

I failed, mainly because of the effects of altitude, but partly because I carried too much crap. We had just bought cross country skis and I had not had a chance to use them, so I took them along hoping an opportunity would arise. I also took my snow shoes because I figured if I needed to slog through deep snow the skis wouldn't do me much good since I knew nothing about using them. Yeah, I know how that sounds.

I was barred from the true summit that cold day by the devious false summit which lured me into it's 5th class western side. I gave up as my head throbbed in the thin atmosphere. I bailed within a few hundred yards of the true summit. I discovered my folly when I returned home and checked out the area in Google Earth.

I had not returned to attempt Bison in the intervening months because it was a long drive and a full day on the trail: 12.2 miles as listed on Summit Post. Our kids have been visiting family for the month of June and this weekend would be our last alone together before the kids return. We opted for backpacking, and Bison popped to the front of my mind and the top of my short list.

We threw it all together Thursday night. I had Friday off and the plan was to get up early and head out. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the trailhead, despite gas stops, traffic in the metro area and construction on Tarryall Creek Road.

We struck out from the trailhead about 11:30am. It was around three o'clock when Mandy started to feel the acute effects of altitude. Not without irony, the trail steepened around the same time. Our pace slowed to a crawl, almost literally. I began to fear another failed attempt on Bison. A second failure wouldn't bother me if it meant we were bailing so Mandy could feel better. I was okay with the idea of descending to alleviate her altitude sickness. I was miserable on my solo attempt on Bison. I took too little water and bit off more than I could chew. It's amazing to me, even now, that I didn't get stuck descending from Bison in the dark.

On this recent trip we took quite a bit of water, but it was still spare in context. After the second mile of the hike in there was no water source. I was hoping we'd find patches of snow or pools of water leftover from the snowmelt up high.

We struggled to Bison Pass and found a
suitable campsite. We dropped the packs and then set about putting up the tent, stringing a line for a bear bag and fixing dinner
. Mandy's spirits seemed to rise as we rested in camp. We talked about the next day and our plans. Water was going to be a concern. We had about two and a quarter liters. Altitude sickness was a related, but more pressing issue. Mandy felt better in camp and we agreed if she felt okay in the morning we'd make an attempt on the summit.

Camp was relaxing. We rested in the tent
with the rain fly off
as the sky darkened and the air cooled. At sunset the temperature was about 60°F and the forecasted low in Jefferson, about 2,000' lower in elevation, was 40°F. The temperature had dropped about ten degrees when the sun went down so I got out and put the fly on, but left the door unzipped.

Around ten o'clock I was tired enough so I shut the phone down, zipped up the fly door and turned in.

As usual, I didn't sleep well in the great out-of-doors. It was TOO quiet. It was a calm night, very little wind, and nothing was stirring. I'm used to sleeping with the white noise of a fan, so the stillness, while soothing in its own right made it difficult to sleep.

It never got terribly cold. I checked the thermo-meter early in the morning before dawn and it was about 40°F in the tent.

We were both awake by 5:50am. We dressed and ate a cold breakfast and were on the trail headed toward the summit plateau of Bison by 7:00am.

Hiking slow, we took in the expanding view as we climbed toward treeline. We were first rewarded by a
clear view of the Puma Hills, then very soon after we found an overlook where we saw a good portion of the Continental Divide as well as the lower peaks of the Tarryalls

At our first stop we discussed out options. We'd talked about the potential side trip to McCurdy Peak the night before. McCurdy would be an additional 4 miles total for the day. We decided we'd give McCurdy a go first, and then bag Bison on the return trip since it was a shorter detour than McCurdy from the main trail.

Continuing our slow and steady pace we soon rose above treeline and the breathtaking views did not help our bodies acclimate any faster. The sun blazed over the ridge just as we reached the summit plateau.

We paused to survey Bison's summit area and then followed cairns across the tundra toward McCurdy.

We reached a point where it was obvious that an ascent of McCurdy from our current location was going to involve crossing a deep saddle. We could see the entire route and it looked straightforward, but neither of us had the gumption to make that crossing. We decided Bison would be enough for us for this trip.

When I had reached the summit plateau on my solo push the first day of 2009 I topped out on the plateau after slogging through deep snow from Bison Pass up through the trees to treeline. I had stashed my snowshoes and skis far below just before the Ute Creek Trail steepened. Wallowing in hip deep snow on a steep slope will take a lot out of you and magnify the effects of altitude whilst increasing your dehydration.

I staggered across the plateau toward the looming false summit full of determination that I would push through my pain and discomfort and summit. But I failed. My addled brain made some poor choices. I got sucked into a deep gully between the towering fins and domes of the false summit massif and tried to ascend some 5th class terrain. Finally I gave up. I was beaten. I was spent.

My long descent is foggy in my memory. I made it to the car before sunset, water bottles dry as my lips.

I drove home in darkness, dejected at my failure, but reveling in the experience.

Mandy and I strolled happily across the expansive summit plateau. I planned out a route as we looked up at the piles of huge stones around the summit.

Moving slowly we made steady time. Each time we tried to pick up the pace the thin air smacked us down. The last two or three hundred feet were steep and our path wound through boulders and slabs up through the tundra to the backside of the true summit.

At 9:30am we finally we sat at the top with an absolutely amazing panorama wrapped around us.
Mount Evans to the north, The Divide to the northwest and west. Silverheels to the west above South Park and snowy peaks continuing south. Pikes Peak dominated the south with the southern summit plateau of Bison and McCurdy in the foreground. To the east jutted Buffalo Peak and Windy Peak
as a backdrop for the rugged landscape of Lost Creek.

We signed the summit register "Found ourselves in Lost Creek Wilderness" and took the obligatory self portrait and began the long trek back. We left the pinnacle at ten o'clock.

Of course as we started down we both began to feel better. We were not pushing ourselves away from the earth any longer. We were letting gravity do the work. Recognizing that gravity would beat our feet and legs all to pieces over the next 6 miles as we would lose 3,500' in elevation., we took things slowly.

At noon we were at the Ute Creek and Brookside-McCurdy Trail junction on the west end of Bison Pass talking to a nice middle-aged couple who were headed for the summit of Bison Peak from the Lost Creek Trailhead. We had lunch in our bellies and all our gear packed up and on our backs.

Bidding the couple success on Bison and giving them a couple of pointers on finding the true summit we turned south and began the steep descent down the Ute Creek Trail.

We knew it was going to be rough. We knew it was going to be painful on our soft toes and unconditioned knees. We were right.

The water was gone. The sun was high and beating down on us. The trail was steep and gravelly and four miles long from Bison Pass back to the car.

Not far from the wilderness boundary we reached the highest source of water. Of course we were only about a mile and a half from the car at that point. We were just thirsty enough that it was worth getting the filter out and pumping a couple of liters of cold water.

Down. Down. Down. We continued as blisters formed. We continued as out feet ached more and more. Mandy's legs jellied. When she stopped and picked up a foot it shook like crazy. We talked about dinner. We sucked down the water as we hiked out.

Finally. Finally we reached the valley alongside Tarryall Creek. We could see the road across the valley and the stand of trees where the trailhead is located. The home stretch.

Mosquitoes drove us out of the parking area before we could stretch our legs at all. And then we were flying northwest on Tarryall Creek Road toward Jefferson.

At Jefferson we turned right on US 285 and were soon climbing over Kenosha Pass. I fought off sleepy as I pushed Forester Gump toward home.

It was a good trip. Mandy's first backpacking trip. It was my second attempt on Bison and her first. We found ourselves in Lost Creek Wilderness.

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