November 9, 2008 - Mt. Audubon Trail
I think the real climbing season starts not with the last of the winter mantle of snow melting from the peaks but instead at the first serious snow of the winter. The mountains are cleansed . . . of the cotton clad climbers, the plethora of "greenies" clumping along the roadside like algae on the edge of a pond, name brand gear, mostly new, and a pageant of folks most of whom are virtual stand ins for the front cover of an REI catalog. No, the real climbing season starts when they close the gate on the approach road and drag the skid mounted fee collection station down the road a mile or two and stash it at the back of the campground.
We left Cheyenne at the dubious but welcome hour of 6 a.m. knowing that we were only going to the Brainard Lake trail head to the Indian Peaks area of the Front Range. I'd been to this trail head only once before, during the summer, and it was packed, cars parked all along the road, the lots jammed to overflowing, and . . . well you read my introduction. Not so once the cold arrives, the snow starts to stay on the ground and the lakes are frozen over . . . for the duration. We were one of three cars in the small lot at the winter closure and a pair of ice fishermen had just left the lot on bikes towing their gear on up the two mile road to the campground and summer parking zones.
We packed our gear for the day, knowing that it was all of 25 degrees and not even a touch of wind, but that there would be plenty of wind to go around once we broke tree line and climbed the long trail to the summit of Mount Audubon. We were not looking for a marathon day, just a six to seven hour day on a mountain, some mountain, where we could start the winter long process of getting back into shape for the spring skiing and climbing season. We had not put much thought into which peak to climb but settled on something with a class 1 trail to the top. We figured on snow but for an early season climb I was not looking for an orienteering course. Audubon topped 13k, would afford us a good view of its more challenging neighbors, and provide a nice day out.
We hefted the packs and quickly walked the blacktop road for two miles to the Mitchell Lake parking lot. From there it was onto the Mt Audubon Trail for what the sign promised would be an eight mile round trip to the summit. The first half mile was a trek through the woods with about 8 inches of fresh snow on the trial. A pair of climbers were a bit ahead of us so there were no route finding issues given their fresh tracks and the clear trail cut through the trees. We made it to a section of switchbacks that took us up the first mellow flank of the peak and onto the large sloping shoulder of the mountain. Most of the trail for the next mile was windblown, but still, that wind was not doing its blowing as we climbed. When would it start, we asked, as a wide open slope like this just seemed to call for a howling gale to chill us to the bone. But . . . not yet.
The trail climbed steadily and was clearly well beaten path by the hordes of Cottoneers who make their way to this summit during the summer months. We saw none this morning as we climbed another set of switchbacks to the next bench that lies below the summit hummock proper. This is no small peak and as we climbed we came into deeper snow, actually not snow, but 3 inches of rime ice formed on every surface. I've never seen rime like this, making for solid footing as every piece of talus was solidly connected to its neighbor while the surface almost grabbed and clung to the vibram soles of our boots as we moved rock to rock.
I was feeling the climb as we looked at our last five hundred feet of climb, the zone where I usually gain my second wind . . . but not this trip as I stopped to rest here and there before beginning again with a concerted rest step. Each step moved me closer to the summit and well, yes closer to another brief rest every fifty or so feet of elevation gained. We both gained the summit and looked north to the Longs Peak massif, south to Pikes Peak but most impressively to the west and the sheer and rugged country of the Indian Peaks located along the Continental Divide, perhaps one half mile beyond. I'd thought about a Paiute Peak traverse, but I was a bit tired, the day was growing long, and the scattered clouds were starting to take on dark undersides in preparation for the 30% chance of snow called for that day.
We made a cautious descent as the rime was a bit warmer and a rock or two, here and there, was loose enough to move, bringing the hiking poles into constant play. We made our way down to the wind blown train. down through the rees and back onto the paved road for the two mile hike out. We arrived back at the truck just about four p.m., the sky now colored an ashen grey over the peaks but we cred not for the weather at this hour . . . for we were walking with another summit under our belt on a truly wind free November day.