RT Length: 8.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 2540’
I knew I wasn’t going to summit from the time I made it to the trailhead. It was still dark, but through the moonlight I could see an outline of the mountains covered in clouds. So much for those sunny skies and that 20% chance of snow today. Yes, I knew I wasn’t going to summit from the time I made it to the trailhead, but there wasn’t really another hike with better weather anywhere in the state so I made the decision I was going to get in a good hike anyway and just turn around when I felt it was necessary.
It’s been too long since I’ve done a serious hike. Over a month in fact. And by serious I mean something above treeline (Guadalupe Peak had the mileage and elevation gain but topping out below 9K didn’t count). I was beginning to feel like I was out of shape.
I arrived at the Lower South Colony Lakes trailhead at 5am to cars parked in front of the 2WD road in, blocking my drive any further. I immediately questioned their choice of parking spots but soon realized the road was impassable, so it didn’t really matter anyway. And here’s a shock: there was a couple sleeping UNDER their truck. I’m afraid I woke them up on my drive in (sorry guys! I turned off my headlights as soon as I realized you were sleeping!). They rolled over in their sleeping bags and went back to sleep as I gathered my gear and set out, thinking “Boy, were they brave!” It was frigid out here this morning, but you couldn’t beat the view of the stars and full moon.
I started out at about 5:20am carrying my gear, but quickly stopped to put on my snowshoes. Parking at the South Colony Lakes trailhead would add over 4 miles to the hike, but they would be an easy 4 miles along a dirt road.
Well, a dirt road covered in 2-3 feet of snow. Luckily there was a trench already in place.
I followed the trench up to the Rainbow Trail Trailhead, where the trench immediately stopped.
From here on out I was trenching the trail myself. This was my view as I navigated my way around the mountainside
This part was a bit sketchy: I’ve never trenched along a hillside before. Up a hill sure, but never straight across. Here’s a view looking back at some of my fancy footwork (it’s steeper than it looks)
I rounded the corner, hiked a bit up a hill, and found myself at an obvious juncture to turn right and follow the ridge. Well, maybe not obvious (there weren’t any signs or anything) but I could tell this was the ridge and to follow it I must turn right.
This is where the wind started picking up. I was in the trees, yet the wind was howling all around me. I’ve never experienced such wind while still below treeline. There was also quite a bit more snow along the ridgeline than I’d expected. It was at a minimum 4 feet deep, with drifts that went over 10 feet.
No maps or special navigation tools were needed: I just kept following the ridge. The fun part was hiking up and down the drifts, checking for stability as I went.
I kept trudging along and the wind kept increasing. The blustery weather was coming from Humboldt, kicking up snow and flinging it around like little chards of glass. I knew the wind was forecasted to be 20-25mph today, but the forecast didn’t mention sustained winds that didn’t let up. This would have been useful information. Also, I’m pretty sure the winds were higher than 25mph above treeline.
Video: Marble Ridge
The entire hike along the ridge I kept thinking of Sir Edmund Hillary’s quote: It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. That was indeed true. Pushing and overcoming our limits is what makes the experience worthwhile. However, I’ve learned to be a little more cautions when it comes to wind and weather. My fingers are still recovering from Sherman over a month ago, and I didn’t want to reinjure them too soon. Yes, I knew I wasn’t summiting today, but I wanted to at least make it to treeline. On the positive side I wasn’t cold and I could still feel my fingers and toes.
When I got to treeline the views were terrible! There was only a 20% chance of snow today, but the high winds were developing their own weather above treeline, flinging snow and creating clouds as they went. Despite predictions snow was indeed falling on the summit. The wind here knocked me down. I stood back up again and was knocked down again. It was like I was living a Chumbawamba song.
I was close to the summit (I’m guessing about a mile) but from experience knew in these types of winds are too much for my body to bear for the hour or more it would take to summit and make it back down to treeline. I would have turned into a popsicle. The winds were also supposed to increase in the afternoon, so I took a picture in my mind of the route for next time and headed back through the trees the way I’d come.
What’s this? My tracks were completely gone! I’d just hiked through this area no more than 15 minutes ago, yet my snowshoe tracks had been filled in from blowing snow. Wow!
I tried to get a picture of Humboldt, but ended up getting a shadowselfie instead and a peak covered in blowing snow.
Hiking back down the ridge was much easier than hiking up the ridge, even with my tracks gone. Eventually I came back to the trail junction and the wind stopped. Here my tracks were in place, and alongside them another set of tracks. Hmm. That was curious? They just seemed to stop. It looked like an animal had walked out into the open just to use the restroom. Then I looked closer and noticed that wasn’t the story at all: Something had been caught by a large bird and became breakfast!
After crossing the hillside and following my tracks I made it back down to the Rainbow Trail trailhead. Behind the sign is the parking lot I would have used if the road were clear. This parking area is currently covered in a few feet of snow.
As I reached the sign I looked back up at Marble Mountain and was a bit miffed to notice the wind had apparently stopped on the summit. The summit looked calm, clear, and was mocking me at my current position. I started second guessing my decision to turn back.
Just then a big gust of wind began again from the Humboldt side and both mountains (and the Crestones) were clouded in ice again. They remained that way even after I’d made it to my truck and was driving back home.
The 2+ miles back to the Lower South Colony Lakes trailhead was peaceful and quiet in the early afternoon, and getting warmer by the minute. My left pinky toe was hurting something awful, but by now I’m used to this. I saw some fox tracks that I hadn’t earlier
I made it back to my truck at about 9:45am, surprised to notice the ground was now muddy at the trailhead.
I looked at my tracker(s) and saw I’d only hiked a little over 2500’ in elevation. It had seemed like so much more, but I had been breaking trail, which takes quite a bit of energy.
On my drive home I had the opportunity to race a horse drawn carriage. Yes, I’m sure the horse knew we were racing.
I also came along a herd of bighorn sheep in the exact area that has signs indicating they were there. It’s one of the first times I’ve seen such an accurate sign. Only one of the Bighorn Sheep seemed interested in my presence.
OK, so in the end this had been a worthwhile day. No, I didn’t summit, but I did get in a good hike. I saw some wildlife and practiced my “trenching on a slope” skills, so I’m considering today a win. Oh, and also I didn’t get frostbite. Well, at least not on my fingers. I did reignite the frostnip on my pinky toe that had recently healed, but it isn’t as bad as before. I’m sure it will heal faster this time!