May 30, 2011
A 2:15 a.m. wake-up had me at Doug's house and on the road by 3 a.m. The early wake up was rough, but we really wanted to be on the route early as the weatherman was calling for a warm day and we wanted to minimize the effects of melting snow. Besides I like being on routes early, if not to be the first person of the day on the route. If I want to hike with dozens of my closest strangers I'll head in to Rocky Mountain National Park. Three hours later we were at the Leavick Mine site. We might have been able to make it another 200 yards or so on the road, but the snow bank just past the mine looked like might give us problems once it warmed up later in the day, so we deiced the mine was far enough.
A forty to fifty minute hike along the snow packed road had us at the start of our route. On the hike in we had to keep our eyes open for old post holes that had been covered over in a layer of snow. One misstep into one of these holes and our day could be over, before it even really began. Once to the start of the route, we put on snowshoes to help us move over the terrain more easily.
We left the road about 400 yard before the gates of the Dauntless Mine, and headed north over a series of small rolling rises. We aimed towards the west side of the saddle between Sherman and White Ridge. The route looked pretty straight forward and we felt reassured as we followed two pairs of tracks towards Sherman's summit. On the lower flats and rises I was feeling pretty good. Once we got to the base of the headwall below Sherman's summit I began to tire. I felt that my tiredness was due more to the terrain rather than the elevation. I had not been eating on my way up as I usually do, so this probably also contributed to my tiredness.
The route described in the book was actually to the east of where we were, but the tracks we were following went straight up the headwall. From a distance the headwall did not look to steep so we continued to follow the tracks. (Famous last thoughts.) As the route steepened, I found myself counting off steps to keep me going. 30 steps... rest... 40 steps... rest... 30 steps... rest. About a third of the way up the headwall Doug was 40 yards or so ahead of me and 15 yards to the east, when he stopped to trade out his hiking poles for his ice axe. Gaining a rock band below Doug's position I also traded poles for an ice axe that Doug had lent me. At this point I think I should mention that I -have NEVER used an ice axe before. I've read a good amount about their use, but had no actual practical application/use of one.
By the time I was ready for my lesson on ice axe use from Doug he was already 20 yards away, and with the wind blowing I could not of heard him even if he was shouting at me. So I watched and tried to mimic what he was doing. Plunge the ice axe deep into the snow above you. Move one foot up. Move the other foot up. Repeat. It looked easy enough. It probably would have even been fun if we would of had crampons instead of snowshoes.
(Purple route = actual route. Blue route = our route)
We needed the cleats on the snowshoes to give us purchase on the steep slope, but they were so bulky that moving them up easily and efficiently was very difficult. I slowly made my way up the face. Often resting after each plant, step, step. I must confess that I was uncomfortable on the steep slope. Eventually I hit the point of no return, where I knew there was no way I was going to make it down the way I came up, so I kept going upwards. Whenever I got really nervous, I used the adze side of the axe to cut steps in the slope to give my snowshoes a better platform to step onto. I finally made it up to Doug who was resting above the headwall, on the gentler slope leading up Sherman's summit. My first words to Doug were "I should have mentioned that I have never used an ice axe before?" He said I did well.
At this point we were only an easy 100 - 150 yards below Sherman's summit ridge, which we quickly made it up to. Once on top of the ridge the wind greatly picked up. The pleasant temperatures that we had been experiences all day, quickly disappeared. An ungloved hand quickly went numb. We followed the ridge 100 yards or so to the north to Sherman's true summit. To the west of the ridge was a significant drop off, while the eastern side was a gentle slope leading to the saddle between Sherman and White Ridge. From the summit we easily saw the route we should have taken on our way up. We decided that would be the better way to descend. After a couple of quick summit photos we dropped of the east side of the ridge. Immediately off the ridge the wind died down and the temperature quickly rose.
With gentle downward slope Doug decided it was time I learned to glissade and gave me a quick lesson on how to use the ice axe as a break. He also showed me how to self arrest if I got going too fast (it was just like I had read about, by the way). With the quick lesson Doug dropped to his butt and headed downhill. I tried glissading but I did not feel I could control my speed very well, so quickly gave it up, and plodded downhill on my snowshoes. I don't think I was leveraging the ice axe correctly to get the control I needed. I did try it several more times as we descended on gentler slopes, and gained confidence. With more practice I think I can get the hang of it.
The lower we descended the higher the temperature rose, as the sun reflected off the snow on all sides of us. By the time we reached the road again, we had taken off the snowshoes as well as all but our base layers. The road walk back to the vehicle was a little trickier as the heat of the day had softened up the snow to a point where post holing was a major concern. Once you plunged a leg into a hole your body's momentum kept you moving forward. I would of hated to make it up and down the peak only to get a tib-fib break from posting holing.
Round trip the hike took us just over 6 hours. Not too bad for my first 14er of the year. Not sure when I will be able to get my next one in, with the high snowpack.