Spring Break on Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks
How to Earn Your Degree in Six Grueling Hoursby Josh Rhea
A donut-hole of precipitation throughout most of the year, the Upper Arkansas encompasses the rafting and kayaking mecca of Buena Vista. April into early June finds the valley dry, warm and lush with spring growth, and the surrounding Collegiate Peaks, many of them over 14,000-feet high, still covered in a perfect cloak of corn snow. While boaters play in the high-water runoff, my companions and I are here to extend the ski season as long as we possibly can.
Photos courtesy of FourteenerNet.com
Colorado is plagued with a predictably unstable snowpack throughout most of the winter months. Its consistently cold climate, high winds, and low-density snow contribute to deep instabilities that result in high avalanche danger. This holds especially true for the state’s most famous peaks—all 54 “Fourteeners.” Often climbed late in the summer by tourists with a penchant for tackling high altitudes and returning to sea level with a T-shirt proclaiming “Been there, done that,” the Collegiate Peaks provide some of the state’s best late-season turns on skis or a board.
With spring comes the freeze-thaw cycle of cold nights and warm, sunny days—all the ingredients needed for perfect spring corn. This cycle consolidates the snowpack, making late spring and early summer the safest time for accessing the Colorado backcountry—especially its highest summits.
We’ve camped just outside Buena Vista at about 8,000 feet in elevation, but the warm temperature, smoldering remains of the previous night’s campfire, and lightweight fleeces we’re wearing have little to do with winter camping. This is spring car camping at its finest. The only drawback is the 4 A.M. wake-up call necessary to attain our summit before the afternoon danger of wet avalanches becomes too high.
The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness contains 40 miles of the Continental Divide and eight fourteeners, with seven more scattered along its boundaries in the Sawatch Range. Easily visible from our campsite, Mount Harvard, Columbia, and Yale rise over 6,000 feet from the valley floor. Their hulking shapes are stunning in the pre-dawn light. From our vantage point, most of the visible peaks are accessed by a less than 20-mile drive to their respective trailheads. At first light however, it’s apparent that the immediate peaks are experiencing a dry spring—their flanks are less than desirable for a ski descent, so we decide to forage deeper into the Sawatch in search of more snow.
Forty minutes and a few missed turns later find our entourage at the Huron Peak trailhead, and at a rather tardy 7 A.M., we begin the hike. Unfortunately, due to a swollen, raging ‘creek’ completely washing out the jeep road, our approach instantly gains an additional two miles and 1,000 feet of vertical, bringing us to a challenging 4,700-foot, 5-mile climb. Ouch.
Like most climbs in this area, the long approach leaves our touring group looking absolutely ridiculous saddled with ski gear—it is summer where we leave the truck, without a patch of snow in sight. Two hours later, however, the narrowing, switchbacked trail disappears beneath growing patches of punchy white. The ensuing hour-long scramble through deadfall and rotten snow to reach treeline leaves the group drained and demoralized.
Emerging from the darkness of the forest, we are suddenly engulfed in the blazing white of a true high-alpine environment. Our eyes wander the myriad ridges, bowls, and couloirs hanging seemingly within such easy reach. The clarity of the air at altitude brings everything closer. Before discussion of turning back turns into action, we inhale lunch, strap on skins, and set a track for the 14,003-foot summit of Huron.
While not every approach to one of these peaks is as long and challenging as our 6-hour ordeal of a climb, many are long and require careful planning (indeed some are longer). Widely-available guide books to climbing Colorado’s fourteeners along with detailed topo maps are mandatory navigational aids. Dawson's Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners, Volume 2, the Southern Peaks provides largely accurate—and most importantly—four season accounts of how to approach and descend many of Colorado’s biggest peaks.
Simply put, the combination of perfect corn turns, summer-style camping, and the ability to tackle some of our nation’s highest peaks only occurs during a small window each year—and that window is open right now. Git some!