Summer may be perfect time to play in the Rocky Mountains, but there’s so much happening that time of year that I sometimes have a hard time getting out of town. So while I did some camping and hiking 14ers in July and August, when fall officially arrived, I suddenly panicked that I didn’t get out there enough. I was overcome by a need to be in the mountains as much as possible before the snow. But sometimes the snow comes sooner than you hope. The weekend of the 6th & 7th brought snow to the mountains and the weekend of the 13th & 14th brought snow to the Front Range. And if it’s snowing down here, you know it’s really dumping up there.
So, while I was hoping to double my 14er count for the season or maybe go for a triple play in October, I only managed to get in one more on September 29th. I’ve been watching the weather and route reports for Huron Peak and Mt. Massive daily since then, and the snow just keeps piling up, so I’m officially calling the end of my 14er season. But what an experience Mt. Princeton was to end it on!
This was the most luxurious 14er trip I’ve had to date and also the most intense. We chose Mt. Princeton because it was short enough and had a low enough elevation gain for Trotsky to manage. He barely managed to finish La Plata early this summer—I mean, he is 77 in human years—so a 6.5 mile trail is the limit now. We thought that between that short distance and starting the hike around 11,000 ft, this would be a breeze. Well, there was breeze. Knock-you-on-your-ass-gusts, more like it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the luxury.
Usually, when hiking a 14er, your sleeping options are to camp near the trail head the night before, which is fun but not really conducive to a solid night of sleep, or to wake up in Boulder at 2:30 am to make it out to the trail head for a safe, 6am start time, also not conducive to getting a lot of rest. So, either way, you’re always a bit groggy when you hike a 14er. But this time, we had a vacation home to stay in for free. A friend of a friend owns a place minutes from the Mt. Princeton trailhead and he graciously let us use it. We, sometimes not being the brightest people, took advantage of having a warm, comfortable place to stay and a full kitchen by staying up until 1am drinking. So, yeah, still pretty groggy when we started the hike.
Now, the intensity. To make the Mt. Princeton hike short, you have to go up a three-mile long four-wheel drive road. When a guidebook says “4WD road,” you never really know what you’re getting. Sometimes, that means it’s a bit rocky with maybe one intense dip into a stream, like the road to Mt. Elbert. Sometimes, it means you’ll be scared for your life. This was the latter situation. The road was terrifying! The entire way was a maze of ruts and waves and wash outs and massive rocks to navigate. A few times the car was tilted at such an angle that I was certain we would go rolling down the mountain. Me being slightly hungover did not help. Fortunately, my two companions were calm and cool and helpful.
Then the hike. Hello, talus field! This hike included at least a mile of talus each direction, which is hard to walk on. You have to find the right place to set your feet so you don’t twist an ankle or knee. Sometimes you step on a rock and it moves. That’s never a happy feeling. Your toes twist uncomfortably inside your boots from not having a flat surface to land on. The unusual angles wear on you after a while.
And the incline. The first two miles had very little elevation gain. But since the hike was only about 3.25 miles each way, that meant a lot of elevation gain in the last mile. Too much. This was easily the steepest summit I’ve gone up. The last quarter mile or so we were only able to take ten steps or so in between stops to catch our breath. I’ve never hiked with poles but I really wished I had them for this hike because the difficulty was exacerbated by the deep gravel that was sending us sliding down a half step for every step forward. And the difficulty was exacerbated by the wind.
The wind. My god, the wind! Around 12,800 feet, gusts of winds kicked up that stopped us in our tracks, forcing us to squat and brace our bodies against it, remaining immobile until the air calmed. Above 13,500 feet, the wind was so strong that it literally knocked us over several times. Not a great situation when losing your balance could mean rolling head over heels several thousand feet down. At some points, we had to bear crawl up for safety. And this on a mountain that is only rated Class 2!
But we made it! Another one checked off the list. I can’t say it was the most beautiful 14er I’ve done. Far from it. But it was unique and nothing can take away the feeling of accomplishment you get at the summit. And then we got to end in luxury back at the vacation house. Generally, after a 14er, you’ve got to drive three hours back home right after. We went and laid out on the back deck of the house for a few hours, enjoying Thai food leftovers, beer, and sunshine. Trotsky especially appreciated the opportunity for a nap before heading home.
There are three more 14ers that are short enough for my little old sidekick to handle. At least, he could have handled them this year. I don’t know how his old man hips will be doing next year, but I have a mission to keep him in shape. While 14er season may be done, there are plenty of snowy hikes at lower elevations we can tackle. And there we were, out in the 20 degree weather last weekend at 7,000 feet, almost entirely alone on a six mile trail near Golden. Trotsky may be 11, but the snow turns him into the perkiest, happiest puppy ever. His opinion is clearly “Mission, accepted!” so be prepared. You just might see a 12 year old Finnish Lapphund on the top of Colorado next summer.