Mt. Yale - 14,196 feet
|Mount Yale- Standard Route, Rainy Saturday|
It all started in a parking lot in Ouray on Friday evening. A group of six washed up, exhausted thirty-somethings from the Midwest had summited the (relatively) tame San Juan peaks of Handies (from the East), Redcloud, and Sunshine over the previous two days. Looking forward to the shorter, yet more challenging climb up Sneffels on Saturday, we took the opportunity in town to grab a quick forecast. Opensummit.com is a site that was recommended to me once and, upon inputting our next day’s destination, my heart sank. Sneffels was slated for high probabilities of rain beginning Friday evening which stretched the entire morning, day, and night Saturday. Lightning risk was rated at “medium” almost the entire day as well. Not being a local, I have always clung to the tidbits of advice I have picked up from hikers and climbers I’ve come across on the trail or in forums such as this. I have been a religious follower of the “up and down by noon” rule since I began traveling to Colorado for backcountry hiking and 14er trips many years ago. I had never really had an issue with this practice until, on Wednesday, we received a drenching above the tree line (sans lightning, thankfully) on our way down Handies at about 10am. Recognizing the serious lack of experience in our group (only two of us had made a single class 3 summit before) and without having gathered too much decisive information in Ouray, we packed up shop and headed for a slightly better forecast and (presumably) more forgiving environment in the Sawatch. It seemed prudent in the moment. We were not sure even what the road conditions would be under sustained downpours, let alone our capacity to find our way up and down the mountain. This was a serious disappointment, though, because we had a rental Jeep that we knew could get us to the restroom parking lot at Sneffels. Most years, we aren’t so fortunate with our vehicle situation. We had been so stoked to try our hand at summiting a notoriously beautiful mountain that might also challenge us a little more than our previous endeavours. In the end, we chose safety and greater certainty of success, however we weren’t sure if we made the best choice.
Waking up at 4:30 at our Buena Vista campsite, I checked current weather and forecasts for both Ouray and Buena Vista. It was raining hard with heavy rains forecast throughout the day in Ouray, whereas we had partly cloudy skies above us and no precipitation yet in BV. This appeared to provide some justification, at least, for our last minute change. We looked forward to our day on Yale, but I think all of us wondered if we were being overly cautious in not at least attempting the peak we had all originally wanted to make. There was still rain forecast in the area and another “medium” lightning risk later in the morning for Yale, however, so we planned to start early and turn around if storms threatened at any point. Rolling into the paved lot on the side of a paved highway, I struck my palm to my forehead. “What a waste of a rental Jeep”. Nothing left to do now but walk up the mountain now, though. Due to the unavoidable slowness of large groups (at least in my experience), we did not actually hit the trail until 5:25am.
As the skies began to brighten, we were still below the tree line. There was already significant cloud cover and we discussed how far we would go and how bad it would look before we turned around. I have to stress that we are super unfamiliar with weather and associated risks (or lack thereof) under various observed conditions.
The parking lot had already been pretty full, but there were several large groups still lingering at the trailhead when we left. We also passed a very large group early on, so we knew there were only a handful of folks ahead of us. Clouds were persistently thick, but winds were calm as we moved out of the trees. At this point, I have to give a huge shout out to the Fourteeners Initiative. As the trail photo on this site mentions, the trail up to 13,900’ is a work of art. Given the steep, inconsistent nature of the terrain, such a clearly laid out and well-maintained trail was very much appreciated. Excellent work. This area gains a good amount of elevation very quickly. It represents the biggest physical challenge of the trip but is as comfortable as could possibly be expected.
As we neared the summit, the clouds were no longer above us but around us and a slight mist began to fall. We had a good bit of fun picking lines across the large rocks approaching the peak. The easiest path is a quite simple, Class II hike, however all lines are pretty forgiving and require no serious commitment from what I saw. I have been in the clouds on a summit before only on Yale and Kit Carson Peak. It’s a surreal experience, actually fun, but a tad disconcerting. After the customary photos and shots of cheap liqueur all around, we did not waste time freezing our butts off and waiting for storms to roll in. A handful of hikers had awaited us at the top and another handful had crossed our path heading down before us, perhaps a dozen in all. Five of us had made it all the way up by the time we moved off the summit at 8:25. Our sixth we found on the shoulder just below the big rocks on our descent. He was almost there but was suffering some blisters and a bum quad. We figured it was not worth it to coax him up the last few hundred yards, especially not knowing whether the skies would hold much longer. At this point, it was somewhat cold with very low visibility and we imagined it was best to get below the treeline and back to the cars. However, around 13,500’ visibility increased just enough for us to notice the throngs of weekend hikers making their bid for the top. We estimated about 60-70 people moving up the switchbacked trail towards us. There were folks of all ages and speeds, and even a very shirtless, very fast older gentleman running up. The way down was slow going simply because we had to move off the trail every several steps to make way for the upward-bound. Hikers from above us moved down more quickly. I was very disappointed at the number who cut switchbacks all the way off the mountain. As stated earlier, this is an exceptionally well-built trail. However, the upper portions are beginning to show signs of short-cutting. Poor etiquette is probably more prevalent on weekends (hopefully that explains what we saw) but I know it makes life more difficult for everyone, especially those who have built and maintained this wonderful route.
Back in the trees, I remembered how gorgeous the forests of Colorado— and the Sawatch range in particular— are. The trail up from Denny Creek almost reminds me of the Pacific Northwest in how lush and vibrant it is. Though I couldn’t stop asking myself if we should have just gone ahead and done Sneffels (after all, it didn’t end up ever looking all that threatening for us), I realized I have never seen a trail or a peak I didn’t like in the Colorado Rockies. The more spectacular climbs will always be there for another trip but the experiences and memories keep piling up, providing invaluable joy and motivation throughout the year. As the group’s descending straggler, I returned to the car at 10:55am. This was the last full day of our trip. After a stop in Arvada for a traditional Beau Jo’s Pizza, we headed back to the humid hills of Missouri. Yale represented the eighteenth Fourteener for two of us, the tenth for one among us, and the fourth for the other two who reached the top. We are already looking forward to the next ones. Bierstadt and Evans via the Sawtooth, Uncompahgre, and obviously Sneffels loom large in my mind.
Final shout out the the Fourteeners Initiative and to Mr. Middlebrook and his endlessly helpful site. We would almost certainly not have these experiences without you all doing what you do. Now if anyone actually read this, I would greatly appreciate some insight on Colorado summer weather. Obviously, we now very much know what a monsoon season is and hope to avoid if at all possible in the future. Do actual outdoors enthusiasts in CO site sources like opensummit.com when making plans? Or are there better alternatives? How useful are summit forecasts generally? We and about 80 of our closest friends pushed through light morning rains on Yale, with some not summiting until later on. Is that dumb? Or am I being overly prudent in worrying over early morning weather vs. just moving fast and getting off before the traditionally accepted early morning/noonish deadline? As far as we know, no storms ever materialized on Yale Saturday. Certainly not before noon. Not so sure about the San Juans. The more wilderness (and crowded Saturday trails) I experience, the more clueless I realize I am.
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