| 3 Musketeers: Stayin' solid on Lindsey
We knew enough about Mt. Lindsey to not be fooled by its class 2 rating. Trip reports and one first-hand account warned us that this was not to be considered an "easy" 14er – as if there is such a thing anyway.
But our Flatlander family group was committed to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for this year's chapter of what has become our annual 14er trip. Having summitted Humboldt last year, we picked Lindsey as the first destination in our late-August trip. We flew into Denver Friday night with a plan of acclimating on Saturday by hiking up to near tree line and camping on a ridge overlooking Lindsey's summit. Summit day would be Sunday, Aug. 29. We were equipped with a supply of Diamox and a customized map to the camping location courtesy of 14ers.com member Cruiser.
Dear Daughter continues a tradition - climbing in hot pink nail polish
It had sounded like a good plan when we were sitting by the pool back in Illinois. "It's only this far on the map," we would joke, holding thumb and forefinger a couple inches apart. But in our more sober moments, we recalled the two things we've learned for certain about Colorado 14ers: one, the mountain is bigger than you think; and two, the hike, especially the first one, is harder than you expect.
We learned this year that those two principles hold true even when your day's destination is a campsite at 11,900 feet. The first mile or so of the trail went quickly and easily, as it drops in elevation from the Lily Lake Trailhead and follows the picturesque Huerfano River. Spectacular views of first Blanca, from a meadow near the trailhead, and then Ellingwood Point, from just beyond the river, give you a hint of what's ahead, even though they weren't our destination.
Huerfano River crossing, complete with courtesy poles left at the site
After crossing the river, the trail rises gently through the woods until it skirts an impressive talus field. Here we took our first break and deceived ourselves into thinking we were nearing our camping destination. As the primary route planner, I guess I should have paid more attention to the number and proximity of all those little elevation lines on the topo map. The trail turns decidedly more rugged and steep beyond that talus field, at least for Flatlanders lugging heavy camping loads.
Beautiful, and somewhat challenging, hiking
We plodded upward along the east bank of an apparently unnamed tributary creek to the Huerfano River, too fatigued to fully appreciate a very beautiful hike. We knew the trail would cross that creek bed eventually, and that somewhere beyond that crossing lay our camp site.
A lot of elevation gain just to reach tree line, but so picturesque!
We were pretty spent by the time we reached the crossing, and began to search longingly for the alleged campsites, wavering in our faith that they even existed. Fortunately, several parties coming down the trail had answered our inquiries with assurances that they were real and "not much further." After about the third such reply, however, we realized the definition of "not much further" was: further than you think.
Dear Daughter manages to remain in style for this first day. Note the lack of a load - somehow the guys always end up with that stuff.
When we finally reached our destination, it was worth the effort. Just below the crest of a ridge, bordered on the west by the Huerfano River and on the east by the tributary creek, lies a small meadow dotted with rock outcroppings and small evergreens.
At our camping location, a pause for a photo before the storm blew in
Beyond us to the south, the ridge climbed maybe another 50 feet in elevation before dropping slightly into a 12,000-foot basin. We were higher than our immediate surrounding terrain, but beyond the basins, towering mountains on three sides of us formed a huge amphitheater. In "front" of us, so to speak, stood the mammoth northwest face of the Blanca-Ellingwood Massif. To our right (northwest) was California Peak, and from it, a ridge running seemingly forever northward. To our left, the terrain dropped into a treeless basin, with a ridge climbing out of it toward Blanca's summit; and beyond the basin to the southeast towered Lindsey. Further left, north of Lindsey, Iron Nipple and two 12,000-foot points completed the amphitheater.
Seeking out a suitable tent location
All set up. This is looking northwest, with the Huerfano River valley in the background
Our gawking was cut short by a storm was blowing in from the southwest, over the Blanca-Ellingwood ridge. As we scrambled to set up our tents, we noted what appeared to be a solitary climber coming down from Blanca's peak, hustling down the ridge into the teeth of the storm. He must have made it safely down, but he had to have gotten soaked and, by our estimation, should have been pretty alarmed at that point.
Blanca-Ellingwood, with storm clouds gathering
As we took shelter from the storm, I began to doubt the wisdom of our location. We were technically below tree line, but the few trees around were maybe eight feet tall at the most. We weren't quite on the highest point of the ridge, but it wasn't far away, and the rest of the way around us, the terrain dropped away. Mercifully, the storm produced "only" three rumbles of thunder, none of which sounded alarmingly close.
Later, exploring the ridge, I came across the charred remains of a tree struck by lightening some time ago. It was on the west side of the ridge, considerably lower than our campsite. I was thankful that I hadn't seen it before the storm.
After the rain relented, we enjoyed an enchanting mountain evening, catching a few rays of sunshine before it set beyond Ellingwood Point.
Storm clouds clearing over Blanca
We turned our attention to Lindsey, its summit now enveloped in clouds. We hadn't expected Lindsey to be the most intimidating-looking mountain we'd attempted, but that's exactly what it was. The peak's northwest ridge came straight at us, and the north face gully route was visible just to the left of the ridge. Both looked unclimbably steep from our vantage point, at least for our group – way steeper than it had appeared in photos.
Lindsey from our campsite - sure doesn't look like class 2!
Recalling a photo caption from the 14ers.com route description, I tried to put up a brave front. "This lighting makes it look harder than it is," I said. "When the sun shines directly on the ridge, it won't look as steep."
This produced hearty guffaws from the rest of the group. For the rest of the trip, whenever we faced in intimidating obstacle, someone would crack, "it's just the lighting."
The night was blustery and cold, as we learned the hard way which components of our gear were and were not suitable for high elevation camping. As we set out in the morning, the threat of rain seemed minimal, but the wind was incredible. We marveled once again this year at the hostility of the mountain environment. It's invigorating, intimidating, disorienting, and, for all of those reasons, irresistible.
Not a bad view to rise to in the morning
As we started climbing out of the high basin west of Lindsey, Maryjane lagged behind with nausea. Between that and the wind, even reaching the Lindsey-Iron Nipple saddle looked daunting, and the summit seemed a distant dream. But Maryjane perked up after a rest and some medicinal help, and the wind on our backs turned out to be more ally than enemy for the next stretch, practically blowing us up the rocky slope.
Once at the saddle we hunkered down on the lee side to assess our situation.
"Shoe view" to the east from the saddle
For the first time in our 14er climbing experience, I thought we may have to turn back without summiting. Between our sick climber, the disorientation of the howling wind, and the intimidating look of the climb, all three guys had our doubts about going on. Maryjane wanted to press on, essentially saying she wasn't about to turn back after suffering through the climb to that point. I had doubts about her judgment given the condition she was in, but eventually she prevailed with a simple tactic. She just got up and started up the trail toward the peak, and Mark and I followed.
Pano from the Lindsey-Iron Nipple saddle.
We had planned to take the ridge route, but ended up heading up the standard north face gully. I didn't argue; with the wind and my concerns for Maryjane's condition, it seemed safer to me. It turned out that the saddle was the worst spot for the wind. The gully was protected, and the upper reaches of the mountain proved to be above the strongest winds. We had learned of that tendency on our first mountain, Longs Peak, but had to re-learn it again this year.
The big knock on Lindsey's standard route is the steep, loose gully. Knowing this, we made an effort right from the start of it to seek out solid ground. Staying to climber's right for the most part, we found solid, fun climbing pretty much all the way up.
This shows part of the higher route which we took to avoid the loose gully, visible down to the left.
We crossed to climber's left for a little bit at the narrowest point of the gully, but returned to the right above that. Trail segments along the way showed clearly that we weren't the first ones to take this route.
Nice view of much of the terrain from the saddle up the north face
Similar to the last photo, except a smug-looking guy is blocking much of the view
Our route brought a few spots of exposure, and some class 3 scrambling, but nothing difficult. As I recall, loose sections were few, and short. I think I remember accurately, because every time we encountered one, Maryjane would mutter, "I hate this sh#t." Overall, we thought it was a great way to climb the mountain.
A fun climb with some air
Another spot where the higher route is more solid than the lower, more-traveled route, visible down to the right.
Above the gully, a trail re-emerged, and with it expansive views.
Pan to north from at or near the summit. Iron Nipple to the left, Huerfano Peak dead center.
We gained the ridge, with the sub-peak of "Northwest Lindsey" to our right and what appeared to be Lindsey's peak to our left. I knew Lindsey has a false summit, but I guess I didn't do my homework well enough, because I assumed "Northwest Lindsey" was the false summit. So we charged toward the crown to our left thinking it was the summit, only to learn when we got there that we weren't "there" yet. No problem, the short jaunt to the true summit was all fun and the weather was now great.
A well-earned rest at the summit
We had the summit to ourselves. We celebrated by sharing our traditional Three Musketeers bar and enjoying a view that was literally above the clouds.
Three Musketeers on top!
Above the clouds
As we started down, I had thoughts of heading over to "West Lindsey" and going down the northwest ridge, but was easily persuaded that it wouldn't be wise to go down that route without first having come up it. We were well satisfied to have summited, given how daunting the mountain had seemed an hour earlier.
So our descent followed the same route as the ascent, again avoiding the loose gully. We started encountering quite a few other climbers on their way up, and encouraged any who asked for input to take the higher, solid route.
Most of the comments we heard from other climbers at that point were along the lines of, "this doesn't look like class two." I had thought the same thing – maybe some people can climb that mountain with minimal use of their hands, but I sure couldn't. One person even told us the mountain had been upgraded. (A kind of reverse Pluto treatment, I suppose.) "Didn't you hear?" he said, "they decided to change it to class three." I didn't ask him who "they" were. I thought Bill Middlebrook just decided all that stuff himself.
Coming down through the rubble
We soon encountered the fourth member of our party, Garrett, who had stayed behind earlier on the windy saddle. He had eventually come partway up the mountain from there, getting about halfway up the gully, making good headway against a hard-wired fear of exposure. A well-meaning climber helped talk him into turning back at that point, and he waited for us at the base of the gully.
We felt some remorse at the way that had played out. It seemed that a little encouragement earlier may have been all it would have taken for Garrett to summit. But in the surreal winds of the saddle, none of the rest of us had been confident enough to encourage him. That regret, however, would dissipate two days later when Garrett summited Crestone Needle.
Feelin pretty darn good back at the saddle
For this day, we had what seemed like a long hike back to our campsite, followed by a short rest, the tedious process of breaking down camp, and a long but beautiful hike out. Lindsey was the eighth summit for Mark and me, one of the most difficult in our experience, regardless of rating – and deeply satisfying.
Pan to the east, with Blanca & Friends. Maybe next year ... ?
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):