As I’m still learning (and maybe still slightly in denial of), the arrival of October here in Colorado means that possibly any day could mark the end of the 2014 hiking season. Last week a storm came through that left the mountains above 9,000 ft with their first white winter coat of the season. From my view from Denver, it seems like a decent amount of snow has melted (or evaporated, as it tends to do here) – but the 13ers and 14ers that I can see from the city appear to have a decent amount snow still remaining – which is leading me to think that my summit of James Peak last weekend might be my last summit of 2014.
Yet, despite this, my friend and I decided to try giving Mt. Audubon (13,223′) a shot (coincidentally, a peak we had both been wanting to hike all year).
The sun rises so much later than I’m used to, so it felt sinfully late when we left Denver at 5:30 am. We got to Brainard Lake Recreation Area just in time to catch the pink dawn alpenglow on the mountains….and as we jumped out of the car to snag a couple photos, we also surprised to find that the wind was blowing hard and cold. Clouds hanging low over Mt Audubon’s summit that looked mildly ominous, and I started to feel that the sunny blue day the NWS forecasted might not be so pleasant afterall.
The Mitchell Lake Trailhead parking lot was essentially empty, a stark contrast to summer mornings where you’re lucky to still find a spot at 5:45 am. We bundled up in all available layers and set out on the trail and passed into the Indian Peaks Wilderness in the cold and wind. The first .75 mile of the trail is below the treeline and though it shielded us from some winds, it wasn’t enough to truly make a sincere difference. We were also very aware of the threat of falling trees and the creaking noises coming from the forest around us. The snow wasn’t as bad as I feared and the patches we ran into were small and already well traveled. Around 11,000 ft. we came out above the treeline and ran into a guy coming down that was unable to summit due to no visibility. The winds also picked up dramatically, and the wind chill dropped even lower. Though we were moving at a good pace that should have allowed me to shed some of my layers, I was definitely still cold.
Around the time we hit the intersection with the Beaver Creek Trail we ran into another guy coming the opposite direction that warned us that the winds further up the ridge were twice as bad as what we were currently experiencing. Needless to say, he turned around. I started to think that summiting today was likely not in the cards, I was also starting to lose sensation in my gloved fingers, and I was beginning to think the whole experience was becoming quite miserable and likely unsafe. It was also about this time that we both experienced a phenomenon we never have before. Now, I’ve had a cold face before – I’ve been in cold weather where my nose and face go fairly numb. But, have you ever experienced temperatures that cause your face to stop functioning? This was all new to both of us – half entertaining, and half scary. Essentially the muscles around my mouth and cheeks just stopped wanting to move – almost as if I had just gotten shots of Novocain.
About 2 miles up, the cold was becoming (literally) bone chilling and was penetrating most layers of my clothing, and the wind had become relentlessly strong. I can’t say for sure, but my best guess is that the wind was blowing at near 70 mph, much stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced in the wilderness. It was difficult to stand, and it caused me to be extremely unstable when moving. We decided to turn back – it was stupid to go any further.
We stopped and took some photos and videos, and then a little defeated (and craving warm coffee), we made our way back down to trail to the car. Mt. Audubon – we’ll be seeing you in 2015 when you’re all dressed up in your finest wildflowers and green grasses..until next time.
On the way back we washed down our adventurous morning with warm almond milk lattes from The Cup in Boulder, and then headed to City O’ City in Denver for a tasty vegan breakfast to make up for it all!