Great Western Loop: Day 54-57: Leadville to Silverthorne (Grays Peak)
Day 54: Overload... (30miles)
I left Leadville early on a Sunday morning. This meant that all Post Offices were closed and that I had to carry 4 additional Melanzana Hoodies to Breckenridge. That added a total of 3lbs (1.3kg) to my overall weight. Even more annoying was, that I couldn't fit those hoodies into my backpack and so I had to carry an additional bag on top of my backpack.
Starting in Leadville I took Highway 91 towards Copper Mountain. The roadwalk was rather uneventful, besides a car wreck, that I found next to the road. That car was way off the main highway and completely destroyed, I wonder if the driver actually survived that crash...
(I'm standing on the highway, the car is some 20-30 yards below)
After a sunny morning the weather continously changed. Rain, snow and sunshine changed every 30mins.
I made it to Copper Mt. before noon and immediately started climbing up to some unnamed Peaks on the opposing side. Within minutes I was back in the snow and postholing.
(You can see Highway 91 in the valley)
Without a visible trail, I again oftentimes chose my own route up to the mountain ridge. Up here the wind got quite extrem and started pushing me around and it got bitter cold.
From the western side of the ridge I had great views on the Mt. Cooper Ski Resort, but the views got even better, upon crossing to the eastern side with views on Breckenridge.
Up here, the snow conditions were much better and my snowshoes kept me afloat. After a short distance on the very exposed ridge, I started descending on the eastern side towards Breckenridge.
(View on Breckenridge, far left corner)
The descent was easy and safe. The snow was slightly thawed and provided a lot of traction, while the slope remained gentle. Only once did I pull out my ice-axe for an additional layer of security.
That night I camped some 5 miles from Highway 9 in a burned area.
Day 55: Beautiful Breckenridge (21miles)
The night had been extremely cold. Even though I had my wet shoes in a plastic bag at the bottom end of my tent, my shoes were completely frozen as I woke up. I had to use my stove to de-freeze my shoes, before I was able to put them on.
Just minutes after starting my hike I came to a trail junction that offered a nice 6mile trail directly into town. Instead of hiking another 5 miles to the highway, to get a ride into town, I decided to walk the 6 mile trail.
Breckenridge turned out to be a very beautiful town. I wish I had more time to hang out here, but I only wanted to get some food and drop off my 4 hoodies at the Post Office.
(The previous pictures were shot from the mountains in the background)
The trail out of Breckenridge was nice and easy and lead through some nice meadows and open areas, before climbing up into the mountains again. My goal for today was, getting close to Glacier and Whale Peak (both ~13,000ft / 3900m). Here a long and exhausting ridge walk would begin.
(These sections are by far the worst. Snowy forests usually have very mushy snow that is hard to cross, especially in the afternoon)
Day 56: Endless Ridge (23miles)
From my campsite at Middle Fork Swan River it was some 7miles to Glacier Peak. The initial climb was tough, but the snow carried me and my snowshoes for most of the time.
As always, once upon the ridge, the situation improved and hiking got easier.
For the rest of the day I would stay up here and follow the ridgeline north. The views were amazing and the weather absolutely fantastic. I even saw two people on snowmobiles, but they were to far away to see me.
(steep section coming from Geneva Peak)
The day had been fantastic, but there was still a concern on my mind. For the very first time, my app showed a warning symbol. Pointing out a "steep traverse", that was yet to come. Comments from other hikers increased my concerns and indicated, that I might get into some trouble (see next picture)
On the above picture you can see a snow-covered road (left side of the mountain) that leads down towards Montezuma. The actual trail however goes off the right just some 100m north of that junction. As you can see, there's a massive cornice (Wechte). Probably 2-3m high, followed by a very steep slope. That cornice was a major obstacle. I could have taken the road to Montezuma and bypass the mountain, but I found a better solution.
I followed the cornice northbound and hiked around the first peak of the mountain until the cornice finally ended. Here the slope of the mountain was accessible and I glissaded down some 50 yards. Another 3-4 glissades later, I had passed a small forest and was back at the trail again. From here on I hiked to the road, where I had planned to camp.
Day 57: Grays Peak; 14,254ft / 4,352m (17.5miles)
Grays Peak is the highest point on the Continental Divide Trail and today I was about to climb it. I had planned the previous day and my nights campsite for this challenge. Before climbing Grays Peak, northbound hikers have to climb Mt. Edwards (13,817ft / 4,218m) and than cross the "Knife's Edge", a somehow sketchy and slightly dangerous traverse, with limited room for mistakes.
(Grays Peak, far left corner)
The initial climb to Mt. Edwards looked rather simple from the valley. The trail was clearly visible and it was only 5 miles from my campsite to the first summit. I made good progress, but than got stuck. Some 2 miles from Mt. Edwards the trail was blocked by snow. I had already crossed several of such snowfields, but this one was incredibly steep and had a cornice on the northern end, that I couldn't cross.
This however, I realised as I was already on the slope. Even with my micro-spikes and my ice-axe I could barely hold myself on the slope, that dropped right down into the valley, some 2000ft / 600m below. I was afraid of using my ice-axe to cut steps into the ice for a better footing, as I needed the axe securely rammed into the ice in case I might slip. Simply going backwards also wasn't an option, as I couldn't place my feet well enough that way. I knew I had to move, as my current stance was very fragile and exhausting and so I slowly turned around, while holding on to my ice-axe for my dear life. I managed the turnaround and went back onto a gravel section, where I rested for a few minutes.
(Yepp...that's steep, and it looked much scarier in real life)
Now I had to decide how to move on. I could have obviously returned to the road where I had camped, but that would mean skipping Grays Peak and I wasn't yet up for that. So I looked around and thought that I might be able to scramble straight up the mountain until reaching its ridge. Scrambling up over gravel and ice was scary. Every now and than rocks slipped away under my feet and started a long journey down into the valley and I imagined myself being such a rock. Nevertheless, I was confident in my abilities as a hiker and rock climber. I focused on the tasks ahead, just looking up and never down and after some 400-500 yards I had actually made it to the ridge, where the situation improved immediately. I was out of the woods and could relax...for maybe 2miles.
(Mt. Edwards; middle of the pic above)
Reaching Mt. Edwards meant preparing for the "Knife's Edge".
Comments on my navigation app for this section were all over the place. Some people calling it absolutely insane and dangerous, while others were quite relaxed.
After my dangerous and rough climb just an hour earlier, I knew it couldn't get worse. So I relaxed, focused and started my way to other side step by step.
(Knife's Edge; 1.5 miles from Mt. Edwards to Grays Peak (left peak)
(1/3 of Knife's Edge done)
At times the edge was so narrow, that i had less than 7 inches / 20cm on either side. Whenever the wind picked up, I hunkered down and waited for it to blow over, so that I wouldn't know me off balance. It took almost 2 hours to make this traverse. There were certainly some sketchy and dangerous sections, but overall it was much safer, than what I had done before. Interestingly enough I found footprints on both sides of the Knife's Edge, but no footprints on the Edge itself. Guess most people didn't yet dare to cross it.
(Knife's Edge from Grays Peak; Mt. Edwards in the middle of the picture)
(Here you can see how narrow some parts of the Knife's Edge are, Mt. Edwards in the middle of the picture)
Grays Peak itself was a cakewalk. After the Knife's Edge the trail widened and provided no real challenge.
(The trail went down from Grays Peak into the valley between Mt. Edwards (right) and Kelso Mt. (isolated Mt. in the middle of the picture)
From here I just had to follow the trail down into the valley and to Interstate 70 for a ride into Silverthorne. On the way down, I met a few skiers and day hikers, that wanted to climb Grays Peak.
(Marmots!!! Cutest animal on planet earth)