|From the summit plateau of Bison looking over South Park|
|Along Tarryall Creek|
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.