A Tornado Rips Through the Rockies

By: Paco Garza

Printed in the Texas Runner & Triathlete News October 2012

For most of us living in the Houston/Upper Gulf Coast Area, summer is the most dreadful time of the year. The combination of high heat and humidity makes for a miserable time in the outdoors, putting a damper on the spirits of even the most dedicated athletes and sports enthusiasts.

Most of us are forced to limit or modify our training as we look for ways to stay cool. Running on shaded trails, running before sunrise or late in the evening  are a few of the options. My favorite one is climbing the high Colorado Mountains; it`s a great way to stay cool, keep my activity level high and have a great time while enjoying the great scenery. People that have run the Leadville 100, Hardrock 100 or the Pikes Peak marathon know what I`m talking about.

My friends know how much I like climbing mountains but few know that this was the reason I took up running 12 years ago. After climbing extensively in the Sierras and high volcanoes of northern and central Mexico I fell in love with the mountains of Colorado; this state offers endless opportunities since it has the highest concentration of peaks above 14K feet (14ers) in the lower 48, with 56, besides hundreds in the 13K` and 12K` range.

My family and I enjoy relaxing in the Leadville – Buena Vista corridor and also the Estes Park area where the high temperatures rarely reach above our low temperatures levels in Houston. Typically I use the mornings to climb peaks provided a pre-dawn start, then we all go out during the afternoons.

Thanks to careful planning this year`s trip yielded some of my best adventures yet. It all started as soon as we crossed the Colorado State border, A Tornado Warning was issued. Like most 14ers fanatics I aim for the highest peaks, so the first stop was 14,042` Mt. Lindsey on day one, 7-15-12. Good weather allowed me to summit dead last after a very late morning start; I had great views of the Sierra Blanca during this 5 hour round trip.

On day 2 we had fun in Salida`s swimming pool then finished traveling to our cabin in Leadville.

On day 3 I returned to my very first 14er, 14,433` Mt. Elbert (highest in CO.). Using the lightly traveled and steep Black Cloud trail, I went over 14,134` South Elbert en route to the crowded summit on that 7 ½ hr. hike. Had fantastic views from the summit but never saw anyone else on that trail.

Day 4 took me to the summit of 14,265` Quandary Peak near Breckenridge; a few mountain goats were vigilant along the trail of this popular peak. I had great views of the Sawatch and Front Range mountains on that 5 hr. hike.

On day 5 I traveled south of Aspen to get my first taste of the poor rock that dominates this area`s peaks by climbing the King of the Elk Range, 14,265` Castle Peak along with
14,060` Conundrum Peak. The scramble to these crumbling summits was very interesting to say the least and the views of the Maroon Bells and surrounding wild 14ers were spectacular. The descent was fast down the loose scree filled saddle to the frozen Montezuma Basin where the sounds of rockfall kept me on my toes. Hike time was nearly 7 ½ hr.

On day 6 I climbed 13,933` Mt. Hope, the prominent rounded peak just south of Twin Lakes using half of the Hope pass trail, which is part of the Leadville 100 course, then scrambled up the rough ridge to the broad summit. It might be a 13er but the elevation gain is equal or better than many 14ers. Surrounded by many 14ers I spotted a big herd of mountain goats up the slopes during this 5 ½ hr. climb.

Day 7 was a memorable one. I drove to Minturn to climb the only Sawatch Range 14er still unchecked on my list, 14,005` Mt. of the Holy Cross in combination with 13,831` Holy Cross Ridge Peak. I took the longer but more scenic approach to these craggy peaks by ascending via the Halo Ridge route; a tedious and rough 7 mile false summit ridden ridge around the Bowl of Tears and descending via the normal Halfmoon Pass route. This so called “Tour de Holy Cross” is one of the top 10 hikes in the country, with dramatic views of peaks and glacial lakes all around. It was a long and strenuous 9 ¼ hr. hike that left me satisfied but tired.

I used day 8 to recover and have family fun at the Glenwood Springs Adventure Park and the Hot Springs after leaving Leadville.

I drove from Georgetown to Guanella Pass on day 9, from where after a moose  sighting, I reached the summits of 14,060` Mt. Bierdstadt and later 14,264` Mt. Evans via the infamous Sawtooth; a steep and broken ridge that connects both peaks where route finding and some class 4 moves are required. After previewing Longs Peak from Evans I descended via a steep gully, where two big horn sheep watched me from above, then navigated the sea of pesky willows and the long and nasty marshy basin before reaching the trailhead. Hike time: 7 ½ hr. We traveled north and through Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) to Estes Park later that day.

Day 10: At 4:00 A.M.  I drove to Longs` trailhead with a plan in mind but unsure of the final outcome. It would be a very long day of climbing, first up the steep and tricky not so popular Loft route to the connecting saddle, then turning south to summit 13,911` Mt. Meeker from where I had a close up view of Longs Peak summit then returning to the saddle, (where I teamed up with to young locals who had lost the trail) and down climbing (class 4) to enter Keplinger`s couloir and up to reach the homestretch and the summit of 14,255` Longs Peak. After some awesome shots of the entire RMNP  mountains we got down via the crowded Keyhole route, which is no walk in the park. Even after running the last 2 ½ miles down, it ended up being a 10 ½ hr. journey climbing the two tallest peaks in RMNP making a complete loop around Longs in the process.

Day 11: I took the day off to give my tired legs a break and explore Estes Park with the family.

Day 12: We traveled south to the small town of Crestone where I had left some unfinished business last year, grabbed my big backpack and hiked for nearly 4 hours to beautiful Willow Lake, where I joined other climbers and camped overnight.

I woke up early on day 13 after sleeping poorly and headed up the nasty slopes above the lake at 5:15 A.M., it was tough going; the accumulated lack of sleep was killing me, my legs were dead. I battled against a few demons but slowly scrambled up to the top of 14,081` Challenger Point, regained momentum then pushed on along the ledges and steep ramps to the summit of 14,165` Kit Carson Peak, the last stop of my itinerary. Views of jaw dropping cliffs and sweeping valleys were topped off by the imposing presence of neighboring Crestone Peak, the monarch of the central Sangre de Cristo
Range. After feeding my soul with pure mountain energy for a good while I returned to the lake, broke camp, packed everything and hiked down quickly to the trailhead where my family was waiting for me by 2:30 P.M. for an 8 ¼ hr. day. Unlike me up the mountains, they spotted a big bear the previous night right outside the hotel.

After a heavenly meal we made one last stop at the Sand Dunes Hot Springs pool, the best place to soothe my aching bones after having logged 100 miles on mountainous terrain and gained a total of 42,600` of elevation on my endeavor in an accumulated time of 69 hours and 20 minutes. It wasn`t until then that the tornado warning over the Rockies was finally allowed to expire.

(Though extremely rare, an actual tornado was spotted near the summit of Mt. Evans just five days after I`d been there)

Run far, climb high…

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