RT Length: 9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3500’
My hiking days got switched this week due to mandatory Friday dentist appointments. (Side note: anyone know of a great dentist in Colorado Springs that’s open nights and weekends? I love my dentist office but their hours stink!!!). I was willing to give up my hiking day this week for dental hygiene but when I asked my kids what they wanted to do this weekend one was gone and the other wanted to sleep until 4pm (she’s a teenager, this is doable for her) but she wanted me to take her to see the school play at 7pm. Woohoo! This gave me a Saturday hiking day, and I could drive further since I didn’t need to be home by 3pm.
So I changed my schedule and took a nap Friday night and woke up at 11:45pm and drove the 6 hours to the Eddiesville Trailhead in the San Juans. The weather wasn’t supposed to be spectacular (0-29* at the summit, with wind chill making it 0 to 10*) but as I was driving down the dirt road my heart sank as the temperature dropped to -5* and held there for a bit. I got excited when it rose to 7* (I know, crazy to be happy about 7* weather) and disappointed again when it went back down to 0* and then held steady again at -5*. With my Raynaud’s I was seriously worried a hike wasn’t going to happen today: I’ve never hiked in such cold weather and had my doubts.
I’d seen a report from earlier this week stating the trailhead was still open (woohoo!) but that it was icy. Let me tell you, they weren’t kidding! I’ve never experienced this kind of ice before. Granted it was -5* outside, but the dirt road was covered in 2-4 inches of ice and there was no way to gain traction on the road. This is the very first time I’ve ever experienced my 4WD Tundra slip in the 6+ years I’ve been driving it on ice and snow. It caught me off guard, but I straightened it out and kept it under 5mph until I reached the trailhead. Those steep hills with tight curves were a killer! I could tell by tire tracks several other vehicles had slid into the drainage on the side of the road in the past few days. There was a pretty good rut going for tires which was nice, but would have made passing another vehicle a nightmare. Here are pics from my drive out. The creek crossing(s) were fun, especially the second one that had a thick layer of ice at 5am I got to break through with my truck: My truck was happy!
There were tons of animal tracks along and through the road. Very cool! Hopefully I’d see some wildlife today. I saw some of the biggest white rabbits I’ve ever seen. Seriously. They reminded me of the jackrabbits we had in Arizona, the ones the size of racoons. I arrived at the trailhead at 5:30am to -5* weather and snow everywhere and a gate preventing me from driving further.
I’m still learning about winter condition hiking and where my limits are, so I’d decided before even arriving to give it a try and turn back if needed. I’d driven all this way, hadn’t I? I might as well use this as a learning experience, -5* weather or not.
So I put my snowshoes on in the truck and bundled up for the cold weather with multiple pairs of gloves, my balaclava, knit hat, etc. I opened the door and was greeted with intensely cold air, but luckily no wind. I took a deep breath: I could do this! (Probably).
The trail actually had signs, which was an unexpected treat.
I followed the trail through a gate and to the left (southeast) for about 150 yards
until I saw this post and turned right. There was supposed to be a trail here, but it was invisible in the snow.
My fingers were burning. Seriously burning from the cold. I stopped and took off my felt gloves that were under my mittens and just wore my mittens. My hands were instantly warmer, but I was giving up finger flexibility: I would no longer be able to take off my mittens to actually do stuff (like adjust my snowshoes, take photos, look at my phone/gps, etc). (Another side note: Someone seriously needs to invent better gloves. I need actual gloves with finger casings for dexterity, but unfortunately they don’t keep my hands warm enough. I need mittens that have small fingertip holes made with thin weatherproof fabric that retract inside the mitten but you can poke your fingertips through when necessary. Someone please invent these. But I digress…
Now that my hands were warm my hike instantly looked more promising, despite the cold weather. The lack of wind below treeline helped too. The trail varied from large amounts of snow to just a little on the trail. It was easier to just keep my snowshoes on, so I did, even when they weren’t necessary.
As the sun started to rise I got my first good look at Organ Mountain (this isn’t the summit).
Did I mention the animal tracks? It was obvious no one had been on this trail for quite a while. Well, no one but our 4 legged friends. I saw tiny prints from mice, fox prints, and the biggest rabbit prints I’d ever seen. Oh, and the deer and elk and moose prints were everywhere. This is how I knew they were moose tracks…
The animal tracks were super helpful for finding the actual trail. There was a trail here, but it was invisible with all the snow. Luckily the animals knew where it was (mostly). When the animal tracks obviously veered off the trail I just followed the creek. This trail follows the Hondo Creek all the way to treeline, so as long as you parallel the creek you’re fine.
And check these tracks out! I instantly knew these were mountain lion tracks and got excited!
They followed the trail for over a mile and were headed in the same direction I was. I found it fun the lion didn’t always stick to the trail, but sometimes hopped onto logs and traversed them seemingly for ‘fun’ and then jumped back along the trail again.
Then all at once the tracks veered off in another direction. I decided to follow them for a bit to see if they paralleled the trail I was on or went another way. While these tracks were hours old (I could tell by traces of elements left by the wind) I still felt it prudent to see which direction the lion had taken so I knew whether or not to be on the lookout. Imagine my surprise when the tracks led me to its den no more than 50 feet off the route I was on! With no tracks leading back out I quickly retraced my steps and continued my hike (sorry, no pictures: I want to keep the kitty safe!).
I continued following Hondo Creek until treeline and got a great view of the route before me.
My research said to take a route to the right, but to me the left side of the mountain looked easier: Give me quick elevation gain over the long way any day! So, despite my map and trail directions I decided to go up the left (south) face of the mountain. It just seemed safer, especially since avalanche danger is more prominent on the north/east faces right now. Not that there was much snow to worry about. I was worried about the wind.
This was a steep climb and would have been easier without the traces of snow, but the rocks were semi stable and I didn’t need to worry about causing an avalanche/rockslide below me. I kept my snowshoes on for stability. I was able to gain the ridge in about half an hour and could see the rest of the route before me. This is where the wind picked up (25mph) and took the 0* temperatures to new negative levels. But I was dressed well, and as long as I didn’t take off my gloves I was ok.
This is the route I took.
And looking back down from the ridge at the route from my truck to this point
There are several false summits on this mountain. After gaining the ridge I was on a small plateau that gave me a break from elevation gain (here’s looking back at the plateau)
But there were still two other points to gain
I stuck to the drier areas and just followed the ridge up to 13,400’ where there was a small rock wall and a lot of wind. It wasn’t too steep and as long as I didn’t stop I didn’t get too cold.
From here I dipped down and climbed the approx. 400’ to the summit or Organ Mountain. Sorry, but I don’t have many pictures from the summit. I couldn’t take off my gloves and my DSLR camera was doing that fun thing where it takes 50 seconds to take a picture, and I was, well, FREEZING! That wind was brutal! I got out my cell phone to take a video and it went from 40% battery to 9% and turned itself off before I could even start videoing, let alone take off my gloves to start the process. Great. I’d made it, but my camera(s) hadn’t. Here’s the one terrible picture I got from the summit before my cameras failed. I summited at 9:28am.
I didn’t stay long because I was cold and on a mission to get home before 6pm so I could take my daughter to a play tonight, so I turned and booked it back down. When I made it to point 13,400 again the wind died down for a bit and I was able to plug my phone into the solar powered battery charger I’d brought. The phone turned on again, but my route had been lost.
I made it to the ridge and had a great view of the way I was supposed to gain the ridge to the plateau but hadn’t. No regrets!
Time to head back down! (Those tracks aren’t mine… I’m guessing Mountain Sheep/Goat)
Here’s the route I took. I just headed for the basin. Yes, it’s steeper than it looks, but the rocks are relatively stable, especially with snowshoes on.
I made it back to the basin and followed it back to Hondo Creek. At the top I found the remains of what’s most likely an elk/moose, and probably the source of a few of the mountain lions’ meals (or had been this past spring/summer: the carcass had been picked pretty dry by this point). It was the right distance away from the lion den to be its food source, and it had been buried at one point. There weren’t any tracks here, but I didn’t stop to investigate much either.
Now I was racing against the clock. Luckily, I had my previous tracks to guide me back down the mountain. Knowing I just needed to follow the creek I took a more expeditious route and stayed to the north of the creek, instead of dropping down into the creek as I had on the way up. This made the trek much faster.
As I descended the temperature warmed up and I was much more comfortable. I made it back down to my truck at 12:15pm, still the only vehicle in the lot. This was a 9 mile hike with 3500’ of elevation gain completed in approximately 6.5 hours.
I immediately changed out of my gear and switched my snow boots to sandals for the drive home.
The drive out was much easier than the drive in, but I was more careful as well. There weren’t any vehicles parked at any of the trailheads. I passed a truck with a trailer full of wood who didn’t seem to mind driving on the snow to get around me, and a large tractor with the biggest tires I’d ever seen wearing chains crunching down the road. And I didn’t die from exposure! Woot!