RT Length: 11 miles
Elevation Gain: 3961’
Colorado had it’s first measurable snow Thursday and Fridays are my hiking days. Of course I paid extra close attention to the weather and it looked like the San Juans were going to be cold and windy but the snow would be negligible. I had a few other peaks in mind closer to home, but I’ve learned the hard way while the trail may be snow free, it’s unlikely the roads/highways would’ve been snow plowed at the early times I like to hike.
I’d thought about sticking closer to home but didn’t want to waste a full free day when I could be above treeline, summit or no. Also, I had some new winter gear I wanted to test out and the area with the best forecast for the entire state was near the Eddiesville Trailhead in the San Juans. I made it a late start because (at the trailhead) it was supposed to be 1* until 7am, when it jumped to 7*. It was going to be cold, and I figured sunlight would help.
I left my house at 1:30am and arrived at the Nutras Creek Trailhead at 6:30am, surprised to see a tent set up near the trail but no vehicle. It’s a 24 mile drive on a dirt road to this point, and I wondered how they made it here? My dashboard said it was 14* and I already considered today a win (to be fair, it went all the way down to 0* on my drive in and back up to 14*, so the forecast was in the correct range). The creek crossings were negligible, just a trickle at the first and completely dry at the second.
Not knowing how much snow had actually fallen here yesterday I’d brought both my summer and winter hiking boots. It was icy on the way in and there was a sprinkling of snow on the peaks nearby so I opted for the winter hiking boots, just to err on the side of caution. The last time I was here to summit Stewart Peak it had rained and my feet had been soaked in the first 10 minutes and were solid blocks of ice on the peak. I didn’t want that to happen again. The winter boots were overkill but also the correct choice.
I’ve needed new gear for a while, and this year saved up money to purchase better winter equipment. All of the centennials I hiked in cold conditions I did so wearing a snow bib I’d bought for $2 at a garage sale in 1998. After an intense winter/spring hiking season this year the bottom half were ripped to shreds thanks to my wonderful microspikes and snowshoes. The jacket I’ve been wearing was a great jacket from a great brand, but I’ve sewn up over two dozen holes and it no longer keeps me warm/waterproof. I need to wear compression socks when I hike (and basically for any activity that requires shoes) and I wear wool socks over them but the ones I’ve been wearing haven’t been keeping my feet warm. My goal this winter season is “no blue toes” so I was trying out a new pair of socks (over my compression socks). Also, gloves. By far my most expensive purchase was when I splurged on a new pair of Alti Mitts last month: I’m super excited to try them out. These would be cumbersome but could be game changers.
So, I bought new socks, gloves, and ski pants (woot! No more taking off half my layers to use the restroom!). Roxy makes a pair of outdoor snow pants that almost fit me. The smallest size they make is one size too big for me, but I found they fit better if I wear yoga/moisture wicking pants underneath them. Bonus: They’re not from the kids section and they kind of make it look like I have a figure instead of looking like the Michelin Man.
Finally, a new jacket. I’ve been in the market for a long time for a new winter mountaineering jacket but I’m frugal and don’t want to spend $500+. I’ve gone to REI, Sierra Trading Post, and several other outfitters looking for something that would keep me warm without breaking the bank and came up empty. I was in an online forum for people with Raynaud’s and someone very highly recommended a simple mountaineering jacket. I was exceedingly suspicious due to the (very low) price and because it was synthetic and made in China, but I purchased it on Amazon and figured I’d give it a go early in the season. When it arrived I was doubly skeptical: It came in a small 12x12X4 inch plastic case and didn’t look robust enough to keep me warm. I left the tags on it in case it didn’t perform as advertised so I could return it and try again.
Fancied out in all my new gear I hit the trail at 7am, being careful to be quiet since the campers were not yet awake.
The first 2 miles of this trail follow Nutras Creek southwest on an easily identifiable trail. I could see a light dusting of snow on the nearby peaks.
Anywhere there was water or where water accumulated there was ice
After 2.2 miles of hiking on an established trail I came to an area where I was close to the creek and it looked easily crossable. I’d need to be on the other side to summit Baldy Alto. I chose to summit Baldy Alto first today because I’ve already summited Stewart Peak and I wasn’t entirely confident my new gear would allow me to summit more than one peak today. The creek looked frozen solid until you stepped on it and then you plunged into the water, realizing it wasn’t more than an inch or two thick. At its lowest point about 5 feet across. My little legs weren’t going to be able to make that jump so I walked up and down the creekbed looking for a better way to cross (a log, large rocks, etc.). When I couldn’t find one I added a few medium sized rocks to the creek and made my way across.
There was loose talus on the other side. My goal was to make it to the trees and then up to treeline.
There was no trail, and once again the talus was very loose and would slide out from underneath me when I took a step. Once in the trees I just kept aiming southwest, looking for treeline
Just before treeline I came across an area where it was obvious elk frequently bedded down for the night. It felt special just to be hiking through the place. Treeline actually came fast and I aimed for the ridge, knowing most of this hike would be above treeline. Here I passed willows through game trails and some lose rocks (all class 2)
I was about halfway up the slope when I heard what sounded like a flock of seagulls conversing with a group of horses. Curious, I turned and noticed a herd of elk coming down the slope of Stewart peak. So cool! They were making trails through the willows like nobodies’ business. I followed them with my eyes, watching where they were headed. I’d half expected them to make their way to the bedding area I’d just passed, but they turned and headed west, following the drainage. I kept an eye (and ear) out for them as I made my way up the ridgeline.
Last time I was here I hadn’t been able to see the summit due to clouds, so I wasn’t sure where the actual summit was. That ridge was long. It felt like it took forever to climb, and every time I thought I was at the summit I realized it was a false summit and it was over the next hill.
The worst part? The wind. Those 20-30mph winds never stopped. The wind never got below 20mph, and several times I was knocked down by a gust. I’m assuming the gust would have to be over 50mph to make that happen, so the forecast had been a bit off. Wind chill with 30mph winds was forecasted today at -20, so it was cold, cold, cold.
The best part? My winter gear was working fabulously! There was no way I’d still be hiking in these conditions if I was wearing my old jacket/gloves. No way. I could tell the wind was frigid but it was tolerable. Snot was freezing to my balaclava and the top of my jacket which was a little annoying but I wasn’t miserable. I’ve found a lot of hiking is about being in a constant state of some sort of discomfort and getting past it to obtain your goal. Cold, yes. Miserable, no. Woot! I have found gear that works!
Finally, after 3 or 4 false summits I made it to a cairn and I could tell I was almost to the actual summit of Baldy Alto
I’m not sure when I summited (I feared taking off my gloves for any reason due to the cold/wind to check my phone/time/etc), but I found with my new camera if I had a tool I could manipulate the buttons to take timed photo without taking off my gloves like I’d needed to with my last one. I found a pointy rock and made it happen (those buttons are small!). It took about 15 minutes, but it worked! High-Five to my new gear for making this possible! Not sure how to take a video yet in these conditions (but I’m working on it). There was no summit register.
Despite the unrelenting winds I wasn’t unbearably cold and due to the minimal elevation gain/trail length I wasn’t tired yet at all, so I decided to take the ridge over to Stewart Peak. This is the route I took. The elk are in the red circle at this point. I could see but not hear them (the wind drowned out all other noises except its own howls).
I aimed for the saddle. I’d been watching the elk for about 3 hours and thus far they hadn’t noticed me because I was downwind from them, but as soon as I hit the saddle that changed. They could smell me now (if it hadn’t been for the intense wind headed their way the fact I’d been sweating for the past few hours meant I’d be hard to miss at this point even in lesser winds). Their heads picked up and then each one looked at me and quickly fell into a procession. They started moving together as one up the basin and onto the ridge I’d just crossed. I found it intriguing a herd of elk would be intimidated by a single person. They were all eyeing me, trying to sneak past me like a freight train. I stood in awe for a moment, and then fumbled for my camera in the -10-20* weather (maybe colder with the higher than anticipated winds?). Knowing pictures would never do the experience justice I held the camera at my chest and just kept shooting, leaving my eyes free to take it all in. It was magnificent, like something you’d see watching a documentary on National Geographic but on a much grander scale because I was in the middle of it and the reason behind their behavior. I saw their eyes staring at me, their hooves stomping the dirt to dust, their heads moving up and down, the warm breath puffing from their noses into the cold air, and the muscles in their legs charging them forward. They each looked at me individually but moved as one, up and over and down the hillside. Wow. Just… wow. I didn’t want the experience to end, but they’d moved on and it was time for me to do so as well. The pictures really don’t do justice to the occasion.
This next part of the hike was class 2, up and over the ridge on large, loose talus.
I continued along the ridgeline to this point. I’d thought this was Column Ridge and the point beyond was Point 13,795, but apparently the point beyond is the only one that’s a 13er (it’s not ranked).
Oh well, that’s what I get for not taking out my map. There was a marker here though…
Time to head over to Stewart Peak. This was an easy trek
The last part looked like it might be tricky, but it wasn’t. I just continued up and over class 2 terrain
And then walked the rest of the way to the summit.
No videos today of the summit(s) due to cold/wind. I was able to get another summit photo again using a pointy rock. I had a pencil and stylus in my pack, I just didn’t want to take off my pack to get them out because my gloves are cumbersome. I’m thinking I’ll keep them a little more handy next time, and this week I’m going to attach longer strings to the zippers of my pack so it’s easier to open/close with my bulky gloves. Also, I’m smiling in this picture.
There was a summit marker here too… but no summit register
The hike today had seemed too easy. The most difficult part was dealing with the insane wind. I hadn’t thought about it before starting out, but I didn’t know how to tighten the strings around the hood of my new jacket to make it fit my face, and once out there hiking I wasn’t able to figure it out without taking my jacket off. Since I wasn’t about to take my jacket off in these conditions I resorted to placing my hand on top of my head to keep the hood from blowing off when hiking into the wind. Not ideal, but it worked.
The trek down from Stewart Peak was actually kind of fun. I decided to just “wing it” since I’d been here before, and I didn’t take out my topo/etc. I just followed the ridge to the end and aimed for the creek, knowing it would lead me eventually to the trail.
I’m not recommending this approach unless you have good route finding abilities and you like to rock climb because I made it to a section I’d label as class 4. I love to boulder so I went through this area with vigor instead of looking for another way around, but if this not your cup of tea follow the standard approach down Stewart Peak to the creek.
Also, there are tons of game trails here that look like actual trails but lead nowhere. It’s a bit… misleading.
By keeping the creek in sight I was easily able to link up again with the trail out.
The entire time down I was thinking of how much easier this hike had been taking Baldy Alto first instead of Stewart Peak: the elevation gain had been more gradual and if I were to do this loop again I’d start with Baldy Alto. Once I made it to treeline the wind stopped and I could hear elk conversing with each other through the area I’d hiked that morning. That got me wondering if there’s more than one herd up there, or if it was split up?
I made it back down to the trailhead and there was more gear at the campsite than when I’d passed it this morning. There was a young gentleman of about 25 years sitting in a camp chair, dressed head to toe in camo. There were guns and archery equipment propped against the trees and a second tent set up. He stood up when he saw me and said hello and asked me where I’d been. I could tell by his accent he was from the south and my heart melted a little bit. Apparently the check engine light had gone on in their vehicle so the rest of his party had gone to Gunnison to get it checked out. They were here hunting elk and had spent last week in Wyoming hunting antelope. He dripped of congeniality. I’m a sucker for a well bred southern man and if he’d been around 40 years old and single I would have prolonged the conversation by telling him where he could find those elk. Instead I wished him good luck and went back to my truck to clean up and head home.
I started at 7am and finished at 2pm, making this an 11 mile hike with 3961’ of elevation gain in 7 hours.
Please don’t judge me (too harshly) and know no one is paying me to say this, but the jacket I got was the Wantdo Waterproof Ski jacket (I’m not yet sure if it’s actually waterproof but others tell me it is). It worked so well and exceeded my expectations, especially for such a low cost jacket (under $100). I’m not sending it back and look forward to an awesome winter adventure season! The gloves and socks and pants were phenomenal as well.