Last November I found myself with some free time all to myself. This is rare for me as I am married with “family” and there is almost always something going on. So with short notice, and the nagging weight of things I had not accomplished in 2009 getting heavier as the year ran down, I got the idea to go climb a mountain I’ve wanted to summit for about ten years. Not that being married with dogs keeps me from doing cool things like that, but it does make planning a bit more complicated. Our oldest dog was staying with my mother-in- law, and I decided to leave the other two home, as I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out it was a good decision. Rule of thumb: If the route isn’t a trail, don’t take your dog.
Spending time in the wilderness alone from time to time is good medicine, despite the dangers. My wife was out of town, and I needed this. I was long overdue. 12,870-foot Mount Logan is in the Mount Evans Wilderness Area. It’s the farthest south of the peaks in the area, five of which I had climbed in previous years. As with many peaks visible from the Denver Metro area, Logan is one of the more recognizable. My goal for years has been to climb all of such distinguishing peaks. Though this mountain is only about a 40 minute drive from my house, and bordering a highway, access to it is difficult. After consulting my mapping software I found a small area that wasn’t on private land. The next step was finding a place to park, which I eventually did.
The forecast was mostly cloudy, cold, with a slight chance of snow. I launched at 8AM and the weather was decent. Anytime you start up a mountain without any trail, you don’t know what you are in for. Such hikes usually begin very steep, and this one continued the trend. It doesn’t have a trail because no one would willingly hike from that point, I guess. After the initial steep thrust I was very winded and my screaming respiratory system made my chest ache. Being alone, I wanted to kick ass, even if that meant kicking my own ass, which I did quite effectively. The grade lessened soon after and I slowly picked up a good pace.
It’s hard to hike anywhere in Colorado without either running into people or seeing signs of their passage. Lucky for me, aside from evidence on the summit, I saw no signs the whole six mile round trip. The hike, which began steep, gradually leveled out and was nearly flat for a bit, before rising again. The trees (mostly ponderosa pine and aspen) had a comfortable distance between them, and the ground was grassy, with occasional boulders and bushes. As I climbed higher the forest became denser. I could catch a glimpse of a large grove of aspen making a path through the pines all the way up to the rocky top half of the mountain and decided to follow it. Since most single aspen are part of a connected larger organism, I basically followed the more sparse ones until they connected with the dense grove. I grow tired of hiking through the forest and prefer more desolate terrain, but I prefer the aspen to pines when I have to. An old-growth aspen grove is quite beautiful. A young grove can be a tangled mess, though. I experienced both.
I stopped at some point to change some of my clothing and have a snack and some water. I could tell from the moment I left my truck this was a prime area for wildlife. Patches of snow were full of deer, elk, and bighorn tracks and droppings. As I sat down on a rock and calmed my breath I allowed myself to experience the peace of being in the wilderness alone. Everything was still, with only the sound of birds and a distant jet in the sky (unavoidable anywhere I’ve hiked in the state). I knew that if I just sat there quietly and scanned the trees I might see something wandering around. Without much of a wait I saw movement below me. It was a handsome buck. I tried to be quiet getting my camera out, but he saw me. He was far away, so he just stared at me without moving until I left. I took some photos, but they were nothing special.
The going got a little tough at the higher portions of the forest as I had to navigate through deepening snow covering a ground littered with rocks, boulders, and dead fall. This can be treacherous with the snow obscuring what you are walking on. At one point I broke through between two boulders up to my waste in snow, slipping and twisting as I went down and raked my shin hard on a rock. I managed to pull myself out. My nerves were rattled, but I tried to press on to shake off the pain. The fall over-extended my muscles and tendons a bit, but other than my throbbing shin, I was all right.
Thankfully this type of terrain eventually ended as I approached what looked like a rock wall, beginning the final ascent of the mountain. Rarely do I see such a division between forest and rocky slope, but in this case it almost looked manufactured. There literally was a wall of rocks piled up at the end of the forest posing like it was holding back the rest of the mountain. I always love it when the mountain breaks out of the trees and a vast expanse of desolation lays ahead of me. This usually occurs at tree line, but noticing a few trees higher up just meant that the slope was too rocky and steep for forest.
Sometimes rock falls can be annoying when the rocks are too small and getting traction is difficult. In this case the rocks were mostly boulders entrenched in place. My friend Will gave me a book called Deep Survival, and it has given me a few memorable lines. One of my favorites was something about mountains being in a continual state of collapse. We don’t often realize it due to our short life spans and attention spans, but seeing the massive top half dome of Mt. Logan made of fallen and cracked slabs of granite illustrated that concept pretty well. Some of the boulders were sharpened through the centuries by wind and water, looking very similar to rock tools and weapons hand-chipped by pre-smelting cultures.
I always think of climbing stairs when I’m walking from boulder to boulder on the top half of mountains. Stairs aren’t usually my idea of a fun workout, but I love the boulder work. It was such a nice reprieve from what I was dealing with in the forest, as most of the snow was melted due to the mountain’s exposed, south-facing slope. This is the point in the hike where you see nothing but boulders ahead and it looks like the top of the mountain is close. Generally this is false and you should automatically double the time you are estimating to reach the summit. Almost every time you reach what you thought was the top, you see another summit ahead of you. These are called false summits, and unless you are a patient mountaineer, they can drive you nuts and drain your will. This false summiting continued for about an hour, but as the mountains behind Logan started coming into view, I knew the end was near. It was extremely cold and I was ready to get it over with so I could get back down to the tree line to get some cover from the wind and take a food and water break. The summit was very flat and expansive. Think of two football fields put together side by side, landscaped with large, lichen-covered granite blocks. There was an old rock shelter only a couple feet off the ground (providing no shelter at all) with a register laying in it (a hiking log you can sign usually encased in a piece of PVC pipe with screw-on caps). There was also some old wood structure that looked like an easel. I quickly took some photos and started heading down. Normally, in the warmer months, I would lie down and enjoy my success while munching on some snacks, but not at the end of November.
It was nice going down because I could see the whole mountain below me and this enabled me to pick a better exit point and avoid some of the crap I endured through the forest on my way up. I made excellent time, probably cutting my time in half. I had been looking at all the animal tracks the entire hike hoping to see some kind of predator tracks. About 2/3rds down I finally did. They were too small to be mountain lion, but after consulting my track identifying book later that night at home, I believe they were bobcat. Very cool. One of very few North American mammals I have yet to see in the wild.
I must have done a great job navigating because when I got to the steep edge of the bottom of the mountain with a clear view of the highway, there was my truck right below me. This made my 68th Colorado peak. So good to get another one under my belt that I can easily see from Denver on a clear day.