Your morning vert: Grizzly Peak D from Loveland Pass

Grizzly Peak D, near Loveland Pass, Colorado.

My first trip up to Loveland Pass was two-fold in purpose. First, I wanted to see what the hiking was like. Second, I wanted easily accessible mountains close to Denver where I could get a little altitude.

I checked both boxes with a short hike to Mount Sniktau three years ago, a good training exercise just days before a more difficult outing far to the southwest in the San Juan Range redoubt of Chicago Basin.

But as a bonus, I got to see a more extensive trail system that led to a number of other peaks nearby. A year later I was back, but adverse weather conditions cut my trip short, with just a quick jaunt up Cupid, a 13,000-foot bump near Sniktau, as my sole summit. Still, that hike allowed me to get a closer look at its taller neighbor, Grizzly Peak D, and a couple of 14ers in the distance, Grays Peak and Torreys Peak.

A wise retreat that day left me hoping to return and go a little farther down the trail to get my next Loveland Pass summit.

Another two years passed before I got my shot. Following a great three days in New Mexico, I was hoping to build on my altitude training by coming back up the pass to explore more of the area.

Grizzly Peak D is, in its neighborhood, a relatively minor summit along the Continental Divide. At 13,427 feet above sea level, it’s overshadowed by its 14er neighbors, and doesn’t have the dramatic profile of some of the other 13ers nearby like Lenawee and the Citadel. But for my purposes, it was perfect.

I hiked this one solo. Which is to say, in the Front Range during the summer months, hiking solo doesn’t mean you’re alone. A half-dozen other people were on the route that day, with two couples sporting dogs.

Front Range morning views.

The entire route is above treeline, with the trailhead at the top of the pass – 11,990 feet above sea level. You get a few dozen yards of easygoing strolling before the route steepens dramatically. It’s a shock to the system, especially for a flatlander like me. But unlike the past couple of times I was here, it didn’t feel as rough as normal. Plenty of hard breathing to be sure, but I made good time to a turnoff away from the Sniktau route and toward Cupid.

That piece of trail is pleasant hiking, being relatively flat. A quarter-mile later, a series of switchbacks starts the vert in earnest to gain the ridge connecting Cupid with Point 12,915. Soon after, I was atop Cupid – just as scenic as I remembered it, but this time with clear, blue skies and none of the threatening weather that was present a couple of years earlier.

Going up Cupid, looking toward Mount Sniktau.

It also gave me a good view of the connecting ridge between Cupid and Grizzly D.

My memory failed me a bit, seeing that I thought I remembered only one bump on the ridge between the two mountains. Inspecting the route now, I saw plenty of up-and-down between me and my goal – a series of small high points on the ridge that signaled a surprising amount of vert to be gained on what is just a 5.5-mile round trip.

Coming down Cupid, looking at Grizzly Peak D and the connecting ridge.

Grizzly D, with Torreys Peak and Grays Peak seen to the left and in the distance.

On the way up Cupid, I passed the first couple I met, two Colorado natives and their dog who were repeating the Grizzly D climb. They weren’t in a rush and were happy to chat. I envied them a bit, as it seemed like they lived close enough to make hikes like this a regular part of what they do. No such opportunity at home for me, deep in the Southern Plains. Grizzly D was a bigger deal to me than them. Still, outpacing a Colorado pair gave me a little confidence boost. Maybe my conditioning was a little better than I thought.

Heading down Cupid, the scale of these “bumps” became clearer. The hiking up and around them was steeper than they seemed at first glance, but again, I was feeling pretty good and plowed through. Going over the last one, I got a good look at the path up Grizzly D: It looked steep, and ahead of me, a couple of other hikers were picking their way up.

In the middle of the ridge, looking back on Cupid and a high spot on the ridge.

Still in the middle of the ridge, looking toward another high spot, with Grizzly D in the background.

I figured it would be a lung-buster, but the final ascent was only about 500 feet or so. I could grind this out and reach the summit without eating too much time.

The hike up Grizzly’s summit pitch was as tough as it looked. Already, I was dreading the downclimb, as the path was steep and, in spots, sandier than I would have preferred. My pace slowed some, but I could tell that I was closing in on the pair I spied a few minutes earlier. I had no plans to catch them – I mean, what would that actually prove? – but it was useful observing them and the time it was taking them to negotiate sections of the climb that were still ahead of me.

Starting up Grizzly D. looking back toward Cupid. Not bad at this point, but it was getting ready to get steeper.

About three-quarters of the way up, it seemed the route relented a bit and before long I was on top. A younger couple, also from Colorado, and their dog were resting and taking in the views when I got there.

“You were making good time,” the man told me.

“Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good today,” I replied, letting my head swell a little bit at the idea of being close to passing two – count em, two! – pairs of Colorado natives with my flatlander legs and lungs.

On the Grizzly D summit, looking toward Torreys Peak (left) and Grays Peak.

Summit view looking west.

We all looked toward Torreys Peak, and what would have been a ridge traverse very similar to what we just did, just much longer and bigger. It wasn’t in the cards time-wise for me, and really, I wasn’t here to blow myself out just for some hiking bragging rights. I still had a couple days of mountain ascents ahead of me. I snacked a bit, drank up and headed back down the mountain.

The downclimb turned out to be easier than I thought. Part of the reason is I spent my winter and spring pounding my legs in the weight room. It’s amazing how much that made a difference, both going up and down the hill. I also descended at my own pace, which is pretty slow. But I felt good when I got to the bottom.

Looking at Cupid on the way down.

It was there that I ran into my last pair of hikers on the route. Two fellas were on their way up, and we talked for a bit about the mountain and what they were up to.

These guys were 69 and 70 years old. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to see people at that age still slaying summits. Even better, the older of the two was doing his last training hike before heading up to Washington state to climb Mount Rainier, a mountain he’d already climbed years ago. They passed along some tips on breathing technique, and you can bet your butt that I listened.

Now down from Grizzly’s summit ridge, I looked at the work ahead. Unlike most mountains, this one wasn’t a lengthy downhill to the trailhead. Instead, it means going up and over all the stuff I’d already done just to get here. The sneaky fact about this hike is even though the elevation distance between the trailhead and the Grizzly D summit is a tad over 1,500 feet, the actual elevation change you experience is closer to 3,000 feet. Regaining all those bumps on the ridge as well as the Cupid summit proved a bit tougher on the way back. Ordinarily, the trip down is much quicker than the ascent, but not so this time. My pace got a little more leisurely as the morning wore on, and the sandy surface of the trail on the last half mile or so was a nuisance, threatening to upend me and land me on my butt more than a few times.

Pleasant singletrack hiking back to the car.

When it was done, I got exactly what I wanted: a few miles at elevation, a new summit, and a look at a more ambitious hike for the future, maybe with a partner. I envision an earlier start, parking one car at the pass, another at Stevens Gulch, and hiking from the pass to Grizzly D, then on to Torreys Peak and Grays Peak before heading to the second car waiting below. That would be a big day, but possible.

And that’s what I like about Loveland Pass. It’s close enough to Denver to avoid the commitment of climbs farther west, but it’s also filled with possibilities for future efforts. There’s still plenty left for me to do.

I dig the colors of the alpine.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west until you get to the U.S. 6 west exit, which takes you to Loveland Pass. At the top of the pass is parking on both sides of the road.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, hike up some stairs, then toward the hillside leading to a high point between Mount Sniktau and Cupid. Instead of hiking to the top of the high point, turn right at a side trail that takes you toward Cupid. This will be easy hiking for about a quarter mile before reaching some switchbacks that gain the ridge leading to Cupid. The trail can take you to Cupid’s rocky summit, or you can bypass it just below the top before getting a look at the remainder of the route. Descend Cupid along the ridge and you will encounter four bumps between Cupid and Grizzly D. Some of the hiking is somewhat steep. Upon passing the last bump in the ridge, the rest of the route leads to Grizzly D’s summit. This is the steepest part of the hike, but does not exceed Class 2. The route eases somewhat close to the top before putting you at Grizzly D’s summit.

EXTRA CREDIT: Tackle Torreys Peak by hiking the ridge between it and Grizzly D. And if you’re really feeling yourself, continue on to Grays Peak, This would best be done with a two-car strategy, with one left at the Stevens Gulch trailhead and the other at Loveland Pass.

Bob Doucette

13er Thursday: A gallery of some great peaks that don’t hit 14,000 feet

On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.

On the slopes of Cupid, a Colorado 13er that was remarkably free of people when I was there.

If you’re into the Colorado hiking and climbing scene, you know all about the  14ers, the peaks that rise to elevations of more than 14,000 feet. Colorado has more of those than any state in the country, 58 high points that hit that magic number.

To say that the 14ers are popular is an understatement. Many of these peaks get crowded in the summer, with packed trails and clogged trailhead parking lots. Looking for a moment of solitude in the mountains? That’s not likely among the 14ers during the peak season of summer hiking. You’ll need to hit ’em up in less friendly conditions that surround winter for that.

But there are plenty of other mountains in Colorado. Believe it or not, most of them don’t top 14,000 feet. And because of that, they’ve become the forgotten mountains of the peak bagger realm.

Fine by me. I like the 13ers. They’re wild, beautiful and largely absent of people. My experience in the 13ers is a little limited, but memorable just the same.

Enough words. Just take a look and you’ll see what I mean.

Grizzly Peal D is in there somewhere...

Grizzly Peak D is in there somewhere…

You can hike this one and many others just up the road from Denver, and chances are, you will see few people.

Iowa Peak (left) and Emerald Peak.

Iowa Peak (right) and Emerald Peak.

Just south of Missouri Mountain are these beauties.

Gilpin Peak. Rugged stuff near Telluride.

Gilpin Peak (left). Rugged stuff near Telluride.

Yankee Boy Basin is home to some seriously amazing 13er scenery.

Kismet and Potosi.

Kismet (right) and Potosi.

See what I mean?

Campsite view of Peak 18.

Campsite view of Peak 18.

The 13ers can be quite dramatic, even if their names are not.

Pigeon and Turret peaks.

Turret and Pigeon peaks.

One word. Wow.

13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.

13ers everywhere. In the distance, Vestal and Arrow peaks.

Did I say wow? Yes. Yes I did.

Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice peaks.

Coxcomb, Redcliff and somewhere over there, Precipice.

They look good in snow, too.

Matterhorn Peak.

Matterhorn Peak.

A knockout, right?

Precipice Peak.

Precipice Peak.

Indeed, they are. In all seasons.

So there ya go. It doesn’t have to be 14,000 feet to be awesome. There are more than 600 of these amazing 13,000-foot rockpiles out there. Plenty to explore away from crowds.

Scenic Mount Sniktau's summit ridge.

Scenic Mount Sniktau’s summit ridge.

Bob Doucette

Quick adventures: Hiking Cupid and the Loveland Pass peaks

Some of the scenery of Loveland Pass. Cupid is on the left, and many more amazing mountains are close by.

Some of the scenery of Loveland Pass. Cupid is on the left, and many more amazing mountains are close by.

Something I’ve learned lately is you don’t have to trek to the middle of nowhere to have a good outdoor experience. I’ve learned that in my hometown of Tulsa, where I can go from a downtown apartment to a network of wild, wooded trails in 15 minutes.  Don’t get me wrong, my best outdoor memories have been made deep in the backcountry. But there is something to be said for more local escapes.

Last year, in an attempt to get ready for some time at altitude, I did some research on peaks near Denver that had quick access. It led me to Loveland Pass and Mount Sniktau. It’s an easy drive from the Mile High City, and a short hike that might not be the wildest or most radical outdoor experience I’ve ever had, and the route was pretty short. But it was big on scenery and training value (the trailhead is just short of 12,000 feet, and starts out steep). Sniktau made for a nice morning alpine hike.

As it turns out, there are a lot of peaks accessible from Loveland Pass. An ambitious and stout hiker could link up three 13ers and two 14ers in a day, should the weather cooperate. And even then, you’d still have plenty of summits left to bag.

Back in July, I was faced with similar needs to acclimatize and get some altitude quickly. The weather had been wonky all week, and finding paydirt was going to be tough unless I could find a place I could get to quickly and get out.  Loveland Pass proved to be just the ticket. Just past Idaho Springs, I could check out the conditions and not be forced to lose an entire day if Mother Nature rained me out.

My plan was to hike to Cupid, and if things looked good, continue on to Grizzly Peak D. The route had plenty of up-and-down, so despite the limited miles, you’ll get a workout.

Like I said before, I had fits with the weather all week – I’d been chased off Mount Morrison, had to scuttle plans for the Kite Lake peaks, and wondered if Longs Peak later in the week would pan out (it didn’t). My morning at Loveland Pass would be no different.

One might think this view says "go home." Start of the trail toward Sniktau and Cupid.

One might think this view says “go home.” Start of the trail toward Sniktau and Cupid.

Rains hit the Front Range and Denver much of the morning, and clouds swirled around the mountains when it was dry. It would be touch-and-go.

As previously mentioned, the route starts steep. You walk up a staircase, plod along a wide trail for a couple hundred feet, then start the steep ascent toward the top of hump that is just short of 13,000 feet. The gain is almost 1,000 feet in less than a mile.

There's a ski resort over there somewhere. And a lot of other cool stuff.

There’s a ski resort over there somewhere. And a lot of other cool stuff.

For Cupid, however, you can take a bypass. A fork in the trail gives you the option of continuing up, or by turning right, you can follow below a ridgeline connecting the main route to Cupid. I took the latter.

I crossed a couple of snowfields on mellow hiking, then climbed up to the ridge. From there, it was a steady uphill pitch straight to Cupid’s summit at 13,117 feet. Simple enough, right?

More moody weather, but it looked like it was getting ready to clear up.

More moody weather, but it looked like it was getting ready to clear up.

Looking toward U.S. 6 as it goes through the pass. Clouding up again.

Looking toward U.S. 6 as it goes through the pass. Clouding up again.

But what made an impression on me were a couple other things.

First, I saw a dude running the trails. He passed me a couple of times, first early on the route, churning up the hill while I was trudging upward. Then later, going the other way off the top of Cupid, he was headed down. We chatted a bit on that second meeting before he took off again, apparently pressed to meet his wife at the trailhead. He was dressed like he was running a 5K, despite cool temps (in the 40s) and plenty of wind. I guess the body heat from, oh, RUNNING at 13,000 feet made his wardrobe choice OK. Inspired by his pluck, I’d later attempt to run some of the mellower pitches as well, but got light-headed. I reverted to hiking in short order. That’s what being a flatlander gets ya.

The good trail at the half-mile junction. Cupid is straight ahead.

The good trail at the half-mile junction. Cupid is straight ahead.

A little snow was on the route. Just one crossing here, but considerably more looking toward Mount Sniktau, which is obscured by thickening clouds.

A little snow was on the route. Just one crossing here, but considerably more looking toward Mount Sniktau, which is obscured by thickening clouds.

The next thing that hit me was the weather, The atmospherics of the day – a delightfully moody mix of colors from the snow, grasses, wildflowers, the rock and the cloudcover – made this one of the most scenic jaunts I’ve had in some time. None of these peaks have the wildness of, say, the San Juans, but when you combine all of the visual elements present that day, it made for quite a visual payoff.

After runner dude left me in the dust, there was maybe a quarter-mile left to Cupid’s summit and some decision-making in the offing. There were times when the cloudcover would appear to thin, then immediately get thicker and darker. Just when it looked like rains were imminent, a break would appear in the form of a sliver of blue sky. Reading the skies is an acquired skill. Not every cloud bank is the same. You balance what you see with the time it takes to accomplish the next task, then weigh the risks. Cold rain would be one thing, but a real storm is quite another. All I had to go by was what had occurred earlier in the day (steady rains), what I was seeing now (lots of moisture in the air, but a lack of anything electrical) and what the forecasts said (a high probability of more rain and possible storms as temperatures rose).

Getting closer to the top.

Getting closer to the top.

In the business, we call this trail porn. Sweet trail, awesome mountains, wildflowers in bloom. Inspiring lust for hikers everywhere.

In the business, we call this trail porn. Sweet trail, awesome mountains, wildflowers in bloom. Inspiring lust for hikers everywhere.

When I got to Cupid’s broad, rocky summit, I decided that Grizzly would have to wait. It would be another couple of miles round-trip, and slow going at that, with plenty of rocky, steep up-and-down hiking ahead. Who knows if the weather would have turned. So I paused at the summit, took a few pics and drank in the scenery. Not getting Grizzly would give me a reason to come back and explore more.

On the summit. Grizzly D and Torreys Peak are around there somewhere.

On the summit. Grizzly D and Torreys Peak are around there somewhere.

Looking toward Sniktau,still hiding in the clouds.

Looking toward Sniktau,still hiding in the clouds.

Dark, ominous and maybe a tad inviting? I say yes, but I'm weird like that.

Dark, ominous and maybe a tad inviting? I say yes, but I’m weird like that.

Heading back down, I had one of those moments where the virtual world met the real one. You might remember last year when, at the Durango train station, I met Kay, a gal I knew as halfpint22 on Instagram. It turned out she was on the same Chicago Basin trip I was, and it was cool getting to know her a little. This time, I saw a gal I knew through the 14ers.com Facebook page named Elissa, working her way up Cupid as I was heading down. Elissa was working nights as a nurse, and this morning solo jaunt for her was an after-work escape. It’s always good to see people take advantage of having great hiking right by your doorstep and not mailing it in after work.

And that brings me back to why I like Loveland Pass so much. If you’re looking for a summit, a good hike at high altitude, or some time in nature alone, this is the perfect fit. You can find a little adventure an hour from home and be back in the city in time for lunch.

I can’t wait to go back.

Kicking back. Fatigues by the U.S. Air Force via my brother Steve; shoes courtesy Salomon. And yes, I did some running here. "Some" running.

Kicking back. Fatigues by the U.S. Air Force via my brother Steve; shoes courtesy Salomon. And yes, I did some running here. “Some” running.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west past Idaho Springs, then exit south on U.S. 6 (the Loveland Pass exit) Drive to the top of the pass and park at the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead will be on your left as you park.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the parking lot, hike a sandy, steep trail on the route toward Mount Sniktau. About a half mile up, the trail has a fork. Continue straight to the top of a point that stands around 12,800 feet; the trail will split there to take you to either Cupid or Sniktau. Go right for Cupid. Your second option at the half-mile trail junction is to turn right and follow the ridgeline straight toward Cupid. This is the easier and shorter option.

Following this trail, it will hit a steeper portion to gain the ridge proper. The trail then follows the ridge to Cupid’s summit. Round-trip, it’s about three miles. Most of the route is Class 1 hiking, with some of the steeper and rockier portions rated Class 2.

EXTRA CREDIT: Continue from Cupid’s summit to Grizzly Peak D. And if you hit that point, Grizzly D connects to 14er Torreys Peak, and ultimately, Grays Peak, the highest point in the Front Range and on the Continental Divide.

Bob Doucette

Places I like: Chicago Basin, Colorado

chi1

You know how wild a place is going to be based on how difficult it is to get to. While not a foolproof axiom, it generally holds up.

And that describes Chicago Basin, Colorado, very well. You can either hike in from some 20 miles out or hop a train and get dropped off in the middle of nowhere to start your journey to this slice of alpine heaven.

It’s a lot different than most of Colorado. The state is pretty dry by nature, but the San Juans tend to accumulate more rain and snow than neighboring ranges. And compared to the rest of the San Juans, Chicago Basin gets even more. The end result is a place so lush, so green, that is practically drips with foliage.

At times, the clouds and mists obscure the real rock stars of the basin – its peaks. But invariably, these beauties refuse to remain veiled for very long. Four summits towering more than 14,000 feet crown the upper reaches of the basin and even more 13,000-foot peaks join the show. Like the wilderness itself, all these mountains are wild. No gentle, grassy slopes for these crags. Instead, you’re greeted by sheer cliffs, tall spires and rocky ramparts that create an imposing – and inspiring – skyline.

In some ways, it’s too bad you can see these scenes from the road. But like a lot of things in life, with great effort comes great rewards. You’re going to have to do more than take a long drive to see Chicago Basin. But if you’re willing and don’t mind the toil, you’re going to see real wilderness on its terms, and in its full glory.

chi2

Bob Doucette

Colorado’s Mount Sniktau: A gateway to alpine hiking

Scenic Mount Sniktau's summit ridge.

Scenic Mount Sniktau’s summit ridge.

This one goes out to the people who need an altitude fix and need it fast.

Or those who are unsure about this whole alpine hiking thing but want to at least give it a try.

If you live in the Denver area or you are traveling there and have a little time to kill, let me introduce you to your new best friend: Mount Sniktau.

You might remember that thing I wrote about the road trip/train ride/rainy hike/mountain climbing thing in southwestern Colorado’s Chicago Basin. But before I stepped foot on the trail leading up to that little wilderness paradise, there was another ascent that was supposed to gear me up for the challenges to come.

My friend Matt and I were in Denver, but still a couple of days away from meeting up with our merry band of backpackers in Durango. Denver is a fine town, and the mile high city is substantially higher than my hometown. But you’re not going to acclimate for 14,000 feet by hanging out in a city 9,000 feet lower than that.

So the prescription was to find an alpine hike that was close to Denver, but one that we could get to in a passenger car with low clearance.

After looking at my options, I eventually settled on Sniktau. Mount Evans would have been a solid choice, too, but I’d kinda been there and done that the year before. Similar deal with Mount Bierstadt and Quandary Peak. Grays Peak and Torreys Peak? The road to the trailhead was too much for our car. Castle Peak was pretty far, and a longer day than we wanted.

But then there was Mount Sniktau, elevation 13,234 feet.

Midway up Sniktau's grassy slopes.

Midway up Sniktau’s grassy slopes.

Just past Idaho Springs with easy access from Interstate 70, this seemed to be the ticket. The route was short but high, giving us some flexibility on start times and hiking speed.

My only worry was that it would be lame.

The thing is Matt has been to some pretty awesome places. He hiked New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak, a few years ago. Did the Maroon Bells loop. And last fall he hiked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. I might be easily amused, but I wasn’t so sure about Matt.

But he was also battling a bum ankle he’d sprained a couple of weeks earlier while burning up the trails at Turkey Mountain on a trail run.

That’s a lot of considerations going into what would be a big week in the Rockies.

Looking west toward Loveland Ski Area.

Looking west toward Loveland Ski Area.

Hiking it on a weekday was a good choice. The trail is popular, mostly because of its proximity to the Denver area and its relatively short length (3.5 miles round trip). I can only imagine how busy it would be on a weekend.

As you drive west on I-70, Sniktau is the first big mountain you see to your south. When I was less familiar with the area, I wondered if it was a 14er (maybe Grays Peak). I know better now, but that’s how big it looks compared to the surrounding mountains just before you hit the Eisenhower Tunnel. Those high, green, grassy slopes just seem to rise forever when you look at them from the road.

Eventually we wound our way up Loveland Pass, where a small parking lot is carved out at the top. A stone staircase leads up from there and took us to the trail that followed Sniktau’s steadily rising ridgeline.

The route takes a break before heading up to Point 13,152, a false summit on Mount Sniktau.

The route takes a break before heading up to Point 13,152, a false summit on Mount Sniktau.

A whole mix of people was out that day. A group of kids wearing way too much clothing. More seasoned hikers with their trekking poles and hydration packs. An old dude with a butterfly net.

The pass is near 12,000 feet, so the total elevation gain is not that much. But you pick up about 1,000 feet of it right off the bat. The trail is decent, though pretty sandy.

At the false summit and a rocky windbreak, looking toward Sniktau's true summit.

At the false summit and a rocky windbreak, looking toward Sniktau’s true summit.

Another thing about Sniktau: It’s windy. Breezes sweep over its ridgeline constantly, and they can get pretty strong at times. Higher up on the mountain, it’s no surprise that people had constructed a few windbreaks to take shelter from those gusts.

Hiking up the ridge, you don’t get to see the real summit until you top out on the false summit, Point 13,152. From here, you drop into a saddle, then begin the final ascent to the top. Somewhere just short of the  false summit, and then most of the way to the top the trail goes from sandy BBs to scree and talus. But the rocks are pretty solid, a relief to Matt, who was constantly minding that wonky ankle.

Torreys Peak as seen from Mount Sniktau.

Torreys Peak as seen from Mount Sniktau.

By the time we topped out, the winds died down. An older couple and their adult daughter were there, snapping pics and checking out the views and the marmots who were, in turn, watching us.

Sniktau gives you some pretty good views of nearby mountains – Torreys Peak is the closest “big” mountain in view, and Quandary Peak further away, to name a couple.

Matt hanging out near the summit, taking in the views.

Matt hanging out taking in the views, I-70 far below.

What we weren’t expecting: A C-130 darting between the peaks, having fun as only pilots can. We’re more accustomed to seeing planes of that size flying over the mountains, not flirting with mountaintops and ridgelines.

Clouds began to roll in, and it was time to go. Those sandy parts of the trail nailed me on the way down, causing a slip where I banged my hand pretty hard on the rocks and got a nice cut in the process. Hey, if that’s the worst thing that will happen, I’m fine with it. But it’s a good lesson – I was wearing worn-out running shoes instead of something more fit for hiking, so my trail grip wasn’t the best. I’ll know better than to be so casual next time.

What surprises me, though, is how often I see people heading up the mountain late, in the face of incoming bad weather. It was true again that day.

I was pleased at how scenic the hike actually was. Naturally, I assumed a peak so close to Denver and so heavily traveled would be less than inspiring. But that view of the summit from high on the ridge packs a lot of punch.

So go ahead. Bypass the busy 14ers. Get your elevation fix, get it fast, and savor it on Sniktau.

GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west past Idaho Springs, then exit south on U.S. 6 (the Loveland Pass exit) Drive to the top of the pass and park at the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead will be on your left as you park.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the parking lot, go up the staircase to the trail and continue hiking up the ridge to Point 13,152. The trail gets a little rougher from here, and earlier in the summer, there might be snow on the route. Continue hiking down the saddle and then up the final pitch to the top. The route is 3.5 miles round trip, with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Class 2 hiking.

EXTRA CREDIT: Many people cut their teeth on winter hiking on Sniktau. And for those who want give ski mountaineering a try often do it on Sniktau’s slopes, which is pretty convenient for skiers at nearby Loveland Ski Area. Lastly, you can link up Sniktau and nearby Grizzly Peak and Torreys Peak if you want a bigger day. And if you’re particularly stout of heart, the trail would make a great ridge run.

Bob Doucette

Remembering the man behind the tragedy, Rob Jansen

Rob Jansen. (14ers.com photo)

Accidents in the mountains happen. Some of those mishaps end people’s lives. But to most of the public, it’s more about the incident than the person.

People want to know what happened. They speculate. Or pass off mountaineering and climbing as being too risky.

For Rob Jansen, it was unforeseeable tragedy. Rockfall killed him and injured a member of his climbing party Saturday on Colorado’s Hagerman Peak.

The area on Hagerman Peak where Saturday’s rockfall occurred. (Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office photo)

In this case, it was a matter of time, erosion, gravity and unfortunate timing. Author and climber Gerry Roach described things like rockfall thusly: “Geologic time is now.”

Meaning, that boulder at the foot of a mountain you saw could have fallen there thousands of years ago. Or 10 minutes ago.

What people sometimes forget is the person behind the accident. The message board on 14ers.com is filled with stories about Jansen, what an accomplished climber he was, and most importantly, what a great guy he was. He was 24.

But Jansen’s own words are particularly revealing. And they back up all the great things people said about him upon learning of his passing. You can read one of his trip reports here, about his ascent of Mount of the Holy Cross with his best climbing partner, the guy who also happened to be his father.

Something to remember in all of these stories: Behind the tragedy is a person, a person who will be missed. I didn’t know Jansen, but from what I can tell, I wish I did.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Colorado hiking and climbing: Solitude on Matterhorn Peak

A morning view of Matterhorn Peak.

Some of the best times I’ve had with friends are when a group of us hits the road, finds a mountain trail and hikes, backpacks and climbs together. No TV, no cars, no sounds of anything except the babblings of the natural world and the racket that a group of buddies inevitably makes.

Apparently I’m not alone. There’s a growing tribe of people who relish in the same thing. They like the same activities – and the same mountains – I happen to like.

I wrote a story about hiking and climbing Colorado’s 14ers a few years back and talked to a woman who said Longs Peak – one of that state’s more popular mountains – had more than 30,000 people a year climbing it.

Near treeline is this ancient dome. Possibly an example of primordial volcanic activity?

Given the length of that mountain’s routes and their difficulty, you know there are some who stay away from Longs and head to more accessible, easier peaks. So you might guess that those mountains might receive even more visitors.

And therein lies the problem: What happens when you and your buddies are joined by scores of other people just like you and your buddies? Or hundreds? Suddenly that good time outside looks a lot like a day at the city park, but with altitude and people dressed in North Face gear.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – I’m all for as many people enjoying the outdoors as possible. But if your reason for being outside is to have some solitude (even if it is with friends), then joining the conga lines that form on the trails to a summit can definitely subtract from the experience.

Another look at Matterhorn and its eastern slopes. When I look at that, all I can think of is what it would be like to pick a line and ski down that mountain. Unbroken S turns, anyone?

You can avoid the holidays, the weekends or whatever, but sometimes you just need to pick a place that gets overlooked. I found such a place, sandwiched between two popular Rocky Mountain destinations. It even has a famous name.

Matterhorn Peak.

The mountain itself lacks the bells and whistles that drive many weekend warriors to the high country. For one, it doesn’t have that magic number in terms of elevation. In Colorado, that’s 14,000 feet. Instead, Matterhorn tops out at 13,590 feet, playing little brother to loftier neighbors Wetterhorn (14,015) and Uncompahgre (14,309). For some, if it doesn’t top 14,000 feet, it doesn’t show up on their radar.

Going up the slope. It’s steeper than it looks. In the background is the summit tower.

It’s mostly a hike, straight up a somewhat steep, grassy slope until you reach a rocky, jumbled summit tower that goes more vertical. It’s rated Class 3 scrambling, with a variety of ways to reach the top. None are too exposed, and none are very long – maybe a couple hundred feet of climbing and you’re done.

This makes the mountain rather undistinguished compared to the sweeping verticality of Wetterhorn or the startling bulk of Uncompahgre. This is not to mention how amazing, difficult and wild much of the rest of the San Juan Range of southwestern Colorado is.

But I’ll tell you what Matterhorn is. It’s beautiful. Its jagged west ridge is a stark contrast to its graceful east slopes, culminating in a spiky summit. It blends in with its neighbors like the second in a row of shark’s teeth that look pretty impressive in a panoramic view. And because it’s seldom climbed on its own merits, Matterhorn is a rather lonely place.

The summit tower. The easiest route to the top is to pick a line to the climber’s right. It steeper and more fun to just go straight up.

If you’ve read this blog much, you know that I often share my outdoors travels with a good friend of mine named Johnny Hunter. The two of us did this peak together on a mild autumn day at a time when the aspens were turning gold and orange, and the skies were as clear and blue as you could possibly imagine. In the distance, you could see snowpack clinging to the walls of shadowed ridges to the south near American Basin.

We had a good time on that mountain. The slog up the slopes was OK, but there was some fun to be had on the summit tower, picking routes, testing handholds and footholds and then relishing one of the best summit views I think I’ve ever seen.

Johnny Hunter at the base of the Matterhorn summit tower with Uncompahgre Peak in the background.

I’ve bragged about the views atop Huron Peak on the Sawatch Range, and indeed, they’re awesome. But we’re talking about the San Juans here, and where Matterhorn stands is in a neighborhood with some of the wildest peaks around. I’ve mentioned Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn. But to the north are more amazing mountains, formed by the three powerful geologic forces of uplift, volcanism and glacial carving. Coxcomb and Redcliff peaks loom in the distance, and further away, the sharp profile of Precipice Peak appears.  Like Matterhorn, these are rarely climbed, although their allure is strong among trad climbers/alpinists looking for more than a walk-up or a scramble.

But what was most remarkable is what Matterhorn lacked that day. Aside from Johnny and I, there was no one on that mountain.

Not a soul.

We could see, from miles away, the flea-like profiles of people dotting Wetterhorn’s summit. And surely there were hikers on Uncompahgre. But we had Matterhorn to ourselves. Had we decided to just sit and not speak, all we would hear were marmots, pikas, birds and the wind.

Looking down a somewhat exposed section on the final pitch.

There has only been one other time in my life that I’ve had that much solitude on a mountain (Oklahoma’s Mount Mitchell), and it’s never happened in Colorado, with this one exception. It made me realize that a peak like Matterhorn is worth climbing on its own merits, not just because of the route or its views, but also because it’s one of the rare high country places that is so accessible and yet feels so remote.

A look at the rugged connecting ridge between Wetterhorn and Matterhorn as seen from Matterhorn’s summit.

GETTING THERE: From Lake City, turn west on Second Street, then a quick left on Henson Creek Road (also marked as the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway). Follow a decent dirt road for another 11 miles (you’ll pass Nellie Creek Road and arrive at the Matterhorn Creek trailhead). From here, a car with good clearance can drive higher up the trail.

Coxcomb Peak (left) and Redcliff Peak. Coxcomb is considered one of the more challenging 13er climbs in Colorado.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the trailhead, hike north up a well-maintained trail for about a mile until you get to a split in the trail. Going left will take you to the trail leading up Wetterhorn Peak’s slopes. Going right will take you toward Matterhorn Peak and, further east, Uncompahgre Peak. At near 12,000 feet, you will arrive at a junction in which you can continue north or go east toward Uncompahgre. Instead, start hiking west up the grassy slopes of Matterhorn Peak. All the hiking to this point is Class 1.

Precipice Peak. Sheer, rugged San Juan goodness.

At around 13,300 feet, the grassy slope ends and the rocky summit tower begins. Much of the mountain at this point is a steep jumble of boulders. By veering to the climber’s right, you can take an easier Class 3 scramble to the top. Going straight up the tower is slightly more exposed and steeper, but still Class 3. Ascend the remaining 200+ feet to the summit. Be sure to test your handholds and footholds, and know that if you choose a line further to the climber’s left you will encounter higher exposure and looser rock.

Aspens turning, cottonball clouds and brilliant blue skies along the Matterhorn Creek Trail. This is the Colorado high country in the fall.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088