RT Length: 14.65 miles
Elevation Gain: 3169’
I drove through the night and arrived at St Elmo at 4am. I love driving, especially at this time of year: once the summer campers are gone I don’t see another vehicle from the time I hit HWY 24 until I make it to my destination (besides the predictable police officers, stationed on the side of the road in their usual places – It’s gotta be tough for them this time of year, and cold. Thank you for your service). The 2WD road in was a bit slick so I took it slow.
The usual place I like to park (on the east side of town) had vehicles and trailers parked erratically in most of the spaces. It looked like they’d been parked there for quite a long time, so I drove through town, looking for a place to park closer to where I wanted to start. I figured I could always turn back if needed and squeeze-in. There were dozens of ‘no parking’ signs all through town, leading up to 267, but I was able to find a 20 foot space right near the start of the trail that didn’t have a ‘no parking’ sign (there were signs on the opposite side of the road, but not here, so I took pictures and crossed my fingers this was a ‘legal’ place to park). I decided to take my chances and park, mainly because it was cold, and I wasn’t entirely sure I was hiking for very long this morning (I would most likely be back by 8am at this point, before anyone would question my questionable parking situation). I was having a really hard time motivating myself to hike today. As I drove to the trailhead the temperature outside plummeted, and was a balmy 7 degrees outside when I arrived. The forecast said a low of 30.
I know myself pretty well, so I have a rule that says I at least attempt a hike (except for that one time when the temperature was -36 degrees at the South Mt Elbert trailhead. I turned around that time… after sitting for 30 minutes at the trailhead waiting for the temperature to increase. When it didn’t, I was more worried about re-starting my vehicle after turning it off than I was about my own personal safety and left. Otherwise, I always attempt). Usually, once I start hiking I don’t want to stop. Hiking always makes me feel better, and I never regret a hike, even if I need to turn back. Also, the further I go the less likely I am to turn back. So, I went through the act of putting on my essential cold weather gear, telling myself I’d work at it and only turn back if I was worried about frostbite (etc). Don’t we all love a balaclava?
I was on the trail (in all my winter gear) at 4:30am. The trail starts out following Trail/Road 267 west
This road goes all the way to Tincup Pass, and by the looks of it, a 4WD vehicle had driven the entire way recently. High five to this individual, as they have some serious chutzpah. I was glad I’d parked below however, as I wasn’t sure how my truck would have done on the ice.
This trail parallels North Fork Chalk Creek. As I was hiking my feet were frozen. My fingers were frozen. I couldn’t feel my nose. I kept telling myself I should turn back. But I also kept telling myself I wanted to get a good hike in today, as the alternative was to drive home and hit the treadmill: I’d just make sure I got in at least 5 miles out and back. Ok, 10 if possible? And how could I get as much elevation gain as possible while avoiding those torrential winds? If mileage/elevation isn’t possible while hiking I hit the treadmill when I get home, but I’d much rather make my miles/elevation in the mountains. It was supposed to be very windy above treeline today, but if I kept moving I could keep my toes ‘warm’. They had to warm up eventually, right? So, I kept going. I jumped a few times in the dark at the sound of running water (water running over trailside waterfalls). I know that sounds weird, but it was always unexpected, specially today as otherwise it was very quite this morning.
I followed the road for 5.15 miles, staying right here to stay on the road. As I hiked I saw quite a few moose tracks. It looked like a mama and baby were in the area, so I was on the lookout. I saw tire tracks, but no human footprints.
From here the incline started as I followed the road up the mountainside
After hiking for 5.15 miles I was in the basin. My spirits had lifted, and I was now excited to be out hiking today. The winds had put drifts onto the 4WD road, so I decided to put on my snowshoes and head towards Tincup pass on foot.
As I hiked I changed today’s hiking plans. Originally I’d planned to hike Emma Burr, but I could see by looking at the clouds the winds were intense above treeline, and the snow was coming in much earlier than predicted (4pm was when they were slated to start, but by the looks of it, it would be snowing before noon). I had several options today, and chose instead to summit Fitzpatrick Peak. I believe this is traditionally done by gaining Tincup pass and following the ridge (thus getting in a 12er as well), but my visual of the winds told me my Raynaud’s would balk at a windy and cold ridge hike today. So, instead I decided to make this a visual hike and hike up the west side of Fitzpatrick Peak, staying below the ridge and thus avoiding the brunt of the wind. Here’s my overall route. In red I’ve circled an obvious trail, but it led to a cornice I didn’t feel comfortable attempting today.
On the way in I went through the willows, and don’t recommend this. I followed moose tracks, winding in and out as they did to find the best path. On my way back I stayed higher and found more solid ground (dotted line). I’d recommend staying high.
This is a very visual, not a technical hike. Here are some close up pictures (once again, one of the summer routes is circled, and you can see why I chose to stay low, as there’s a cornice at the end of the route, and cliffs above the exit point around the cornice).
I gained the ridge at the last possible point. Here I encountered fierce winds and sastrugi. It had been a good idea to stay low for so long.
I summited Fitzpatrick Peak at 8:35am. Note: I recently bought a stylus (well, 5 for $3, gotta love Amazon) and it’s changed my life! I no longer need to take off my gloves to take a picture with my cell phone. This is a major bonus when your camera battery dies due to cold, but your phone still works. The only downside? It’s still selfies at summits (trust me, I hate these more than you do).
Time to head back. The winds were seriously intense, and, even though I missed out on a 12er and several other 13ers, I still believed I’d made a good choice in the peak I hiked today and my approach in doing so. Here’s a look at the way back, with a look at Emma Burr, as well as the 12er, Tincup Pass, and alternate routes/4WD roads. My route is solid orange, alternates are dotted.
The winds were intense and I could see the snow coming in (early), so I didn’t stay long on the summit. Here’s the route down, one of the alternate routes I’d avoided circled in red. I stayed higher this time, mostly because I really wanted a picture of me at Tincup Pass with all this snow, but as I hiked on the weather quickly deteriorated. The clouds came in faster, and it started to snow. So I decided to just aim for the trail I’d hiked in on and get out before the storm hit.
As I was hiking out I saw two moose! They weren’t right along the trail, but I was confident I’d been following their tracts earlier.
They were both males (not a mama and baby), one that looked mature, and the other probably a 2-3 year old (his antlers were lacking, but present) and while they didn’t run away (which is usually what happens when I see moose) they did stare at me, and turn their bodies as I walked by. To avoid conflict I didn’t make eye contact, and tried to be as respectable as possible. These photos are terrible because I wasn’t aiming/zooming in, etc., but snapping as I hiked past…. and they were on my cell phone (my good camera had a frozen battery and wasn’t functional). It’s been quite a banner year for me for moose sightings. I think I’m up to 7 or 8, when it’s usually around 3 or 4.
I think it’s interesting the males seems to join together. I’ve never seen two females together (unless mother and baby). I’ve seen males and females alone, a male and female together, and up to 3 males together at a time, but never two females.
I was now back at the 4WD road. Here I took off my snowshoes, as they were no longer needed (they were a bit overkill towards the summit, but it hadn’t been worth it to take them off for such a short trek)
It was now snowing. Not a lot, but enough to tell me to book it back to the truck. The weather had certainly come in much quicker today than anticipated. I was pleased with my choice of Fitzpatrick Peak as an alternate today: the weather on Emma Burr looked menacing at this point. I followed the 4WD road back
This time, appreciating the streams whose noise had startled me in the dark, and doubly appreciating the lack of snowmobiles: Last time I was here they zoomed by every 5 minutes or so, and it was obvious they were on a tour and didn’t know how to navigate their vehicles: I did a lot of jumping out of the way. Today it was a nice, peaceful hike, and I didn’t see another person all day.
I made it back to my truck at 11:30am, making this a 14.65 mile hike with 3169’ of elevation gain in 7 hours.
It was now 36 degrees, and while my hike hadn’t turned out as I’d intended (Emma Burr was my initial goal) I was so glad I’d decided to get out of my truck in 7 degree weather and hike! Added bonus: Apparently I’d parked legally: no ticket on my dashboard and my truck was still there when I got back, so I’m assuming it was a legal place to park (with so many ‘illegal’ places, a nice ‘you CAN park here’ sign would be nice…)