When you look at the ranges of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, what you find are some pretty distinct personalities.
The San Juans are wild. The Elks are described as “red, rugged and rotten.” The Sangre de Cristos are vertical and challenging. And so forth.
When describing the Sawatch Range, other terms come to mind – some positive, others negative. A lot of climbers dismiss the Sawatch as being a collection of long slogs with little in the way of challenge except in terms of hiking endurance. Author Gerry Roach, in his respected guidebook “Colorado’s Fourteeners,” laments that the one somewhat technical climbing route among the Sawatch 14ers (Missouri Mountain’s east ridge) is so rotten that he relegates it to his nightmares. If you didn’t catch it, that’s a double-edge critique – one dealing with the specific route up Missouri Mountain, the other being the lack of more engaging climbs in the range.
But there is another word I would use to describe the peaks of the Sawatch.
They’re big. Really big, by Colorado standards. And though they’re more mild in terms of risk, they can humble those who aren’t ready for the challenges of altitude. I can attest to that personally in my own unique and somewhat spooky way.
Many mountain hikes and climbs in Colorado can be accomplished with elevation gain between 2,500 and 4,000 feet. Among the Sawatch, it’s not uncommon to see elevation gains of 5,000 feet or more.
What this translates into is a series of high altitude hikes and scrambles that go for miles.
Visually speaking, the size of the peaks can be judged well from the Arkansas River valley near Buena Vista. Mount Princeton, Mount Yale, Mount Antero and Mount Shavano rise abruptly from the valley floor, the big beasts of the Collegiate Peaks that mark the heart of the Sawatch.
Of these Mount Yale personifies all the good and the bad of the Sawatch. It’s big, standing 14,196 feet above sea level and rising to a beautiful profile when seen from the east. From the Denney Creek trailhead, you get an elevation gain of 4,300 feet, but much of that gain is realized above treeline, making the hardest part of the journey at all the wrong places. The payoff comes at the end with a fun bit of boulder hopping and incredible views of Yale’s massive neighbors towering over the valley to the east.
I should start by saying that ascending Mount Yale (or any other mountain in the Rockies) with an undiagnosed and relatively hidden case of pneumonia is not a good idea. More on that later.
I went with a game group of guys, many of whom had come with me on mountain trips before, but others who had never been. We hiked up from the Denny Creek trailhead to a campsite somewhere around 10,500 feet, with plans to go up the mountain the next day. The campsites in the area were excellent, close to water sources, flat and easy to mark out. It’s rare that I find campsites as good as that one was, roomy enough to accommodate a large group of us and flat enough to help me get a pretty decent night’s sleep. I’d hiked with a loaded pack further up the trail, but went back down to this site as it was just too good to pass up. I slept well, considering the altitude and cool temps, getting four hours of unbroken slumber before arising to eat a little breakfast and get going. I’d hoped to go up the mountain early and fast, then take pictures of my friends as they ascended the rocky summit ridge near the top.
I did get going pretty early, but was in for a bit of a surprise as the hike wore on. My energy levels started to taper once I got to about 12,000 feet, just when the trail began to get much steeper. By this time, some of my friends who started later but seemed much stronger had long passed me on the way to the top. So those plans of photographing everyone’s summit push? Yeah, they were out the window.
Aside from being steep, the trail up Yale is pretty sandy. It’s easy to slip going up or down. It’s not really dangerous – the route is mostly unexposed until you reach the summit ridge, and then only mildly so – it’s just a nuisance. Two steps forward, one step back going up is super annoying. Slipping and falling on your butt going down is even more so.
Slogging my way through that, I got a small break at a flatter portion just before starting up a series of switchbacks that led to a saddle at the base of the summit ridge. I ran into a young woman who was just about to pass me. We chatted for a bit when she told me this was the second 14er she’d done in as many days. Given my fatigue (which was a lot more serious than I was aware of), I grumbled in my mind some sort of envious thought. I was going to be glad just to bag this one and be done with it.
Fortunately, morning cloudcover kept the temperatures cool enough that I wasn’t drowning in my own sweat, and it wasn’t terribly windy. So up the switchbacks I went.
By now, my group was scattered all over the mountain. About half had seen enough and decided to head back down somewhere around 13,000 feet. I have to say, knowing when to say when, swallowing your pride and calling it a day is an underappreciated trait. Too many people let pride get in the way when it comes to chasing summits, heading up despite their deteriorating physical condition or the onset of bad weather, me included.
If you do enough research, you can find several stories of people who tried to top out on a 14er when they shouldn’t, stopped by a heart attack or a stroke, lightning, or perhaps the onset of an unexpected snow storm. Some people ignore the signs. Some people miss them entirely.
I fit into that latter category, and it made the ascent that much more difficult. The descent would even get a little scary.
Through great effort, I finally made the saddle, somewhere just above 13,000 feet. Ahead of me was the summit ridge, a rocky boulder-hop of a stretch that would under normal circumstances be the most interesting part of the trip. Picking your route, scrambling over and around the rocks and other interesting aspects of the ridge take your mind off the fatigue that comes with a high altitude hike.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for me. I started developing a cramp on my right side, something I attributed to a lack of conditioning that was manifesting itself now at the hardest part of the climb. What I didn’t realize is that it was actually an increasingly serious situation directly tied to a near-drowning incident I survived a few weeks earlier.
This requires a little backstory. At that time, I was nearly done in by a heavy undertow while trying to swim to shore on Railay Beach in Thailand. I made it back to shore, but I’d also inhaled some seawater. Any doctor will tell you that seawater in your lungs is really bad news, as it’s difficult for the body to get rid of it and primes your respiratory system for infection. I had a bout with that when I got back, but my initial hospital visit ended with the doctor giving me some antibiotics that I’d take over the next five days. The medicine did the trick, or so I thought. The truth is that the infection, which was actually pneumonia, had only been knocked down but wasn’t out. It was just subdued.
Keep in mind, in the two weeks leading up to the Mount Yale trip, I’d been able to resume training, including rigorous cardio workouts. I’d told the guys I was traveling with that I might not be able to go, but as the trip date neared, I felt strong again. For all I knew, I was fine.
Sometimes, ignorance is not bliss.
I managed to finally get to the summit just as the clouds began to thicken. I was beat, cold, and not really relishing the idea of lingering on the summit for too long. I snapped a few photos and then began to head down.
Surely those cramps were going to go away. Surely the trip down would not leave me as breathless as the ascent. Surely I’d be wrong.
I came into a situation where I was out of breath and cramping as I moved down, but really cold and shivering if I stopped. If I kept moving, the cold wasn’t an issue. Everything else was. When I stopped, the shivering would start.
When I finally got off the summit ridge and hit the trail, the steep, annoyingly sandy path began to have its way with me. I slipped and fell on my butt a lot. It was probably pretty humorous to watch, but personally exhausting. And painfully slow.
I was going so slow that I was afraid the rest of my group would get worried about my tardiness. The weather also seemed to be ready to take a bad turn. What I needed to do was stop, drink and eat, but I felt I needed to push on and get below treeline first.
And then there was the hallucination. Yes, I thought I saw one of the guys from my group reclining behind a boulder, backpack tossed off to the side. As I approached him, I was disappointed to find out that what I really saw were just a couple of rocks.
That freaked me out a little bit, so I decided to bite the bullet, stop and eat. I just about barfed up the food I tried to eat, but choked it down anyway. I then spent the next hour stumbling down to treeline.
By now I was out of water, something that had never happened to me before. A group of hikers was gracious enough to give me some of theirs.
I stopped, rested and drank. By now, I’d dropped 3,000 feet in elevation. I felt safer. But I still didn’t know what had really happened.
What really happened is that the pneumonia came back with a vengeance. The sluggishness, shivering and weakness was caused by my right lung filling up with fluid, compromising my ability to get oxygen from the already thin air. The side cramp was caused by fluid forming around the lung, a condition called pleurisy. I had no idea about any of this. I thought I was just out of shape.
Dragging myself back down toward camp, one of my friends had gotten a little worried and came up the trail looking for me (I’m a notoriously slow downclimber, so me being late and behind everyone else is not really a cause for alarm with my friends). We hiked back down, packed up our stuff and went back to the lodge where we’d stayed before setting out for camp.
The epilogue here is that I felt tired but OK until I went to sleep that night. It was a miserable evening of little sleep, pain in my side and growing discomfort. The condition would worsen until I got home and went into the hospital again. This time, a much more worried doctor (the same one who missed the initial diagnosis) got it right and informed me of my real condition. Over the next three weeks, I lost 18 pounds. A pulmonologist showed me images from a CT scan that showed my right lung had been 75 percent filled with fluid. And not only had there been fluid outside my lung, but even more outside my heart.
I realize now that I dodged a bullet. All those conditions together could have been deadly. It took a couple of months for all the fluid to go away, and about three months to recover my strength and get past the night sweats.
To this day, no mountain has proven to be tougher on me. On its own merits, Mount Yale would have been a hard slog to the top. Given my condition, it was so much more.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever do Mount Yale again. I call it Mount Death. If I do, however, you can bet that I will respect its size, steepness and ability to humble those who aren’t prepared for the physical rigors it offers. Like any mountain, it doesn’t care if you’re strong, weak, healthy or sick. It doesn’t care about your pride or ignorance, and it doesn’t care about your experience or lack thereof. It just is, so tackle it with that in mind.
ABOUT THE ROUTE: Take US 24 from Buena Vista, then turn west on County Road 306. You’ll drive about 12 miles to the Denny Creek trailhead parking lot.
There are many good places to camp along the trail below treeline, complete with water sources.
The hike is pretty mellow class 1 stuff until your break through treeline. This is where it gets steeper and sandier, making footing a bit slippery. Hike up the shoulder of the mountain until you reach a flatter portion, then take the trail to the base of a series of steeper switchbacks heading up to a saddle below the summit ridge.
From here, you’ll pick your way through rocks as you ascend the ridge. There is one false summit, then a mellower section just before your final push to the top. Stay to the climber’s right. From the base of the switchbacks to the summit, it’s class 2 stuff with mild exposure. Round trip, it’s about 9.5 miles with 4,300 feet of elevation gain.
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